Great Silent director-star Buster Keaton is revered by the likes of Jackie Chan and Johnny Depp, who channels him in “The Lone Ranger” and even borrows some of his train stunts from his 1927 classic “The General” (available in full on Hulu and below). Orson Welles once stated that “The General” is “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.”
One reason, ironically, that Keaton is remembered is that the remarkable string of features that he produced between 1920 and 1929–including other must-sees “The Navigator,” “Sherlock, Jr.” and “Our Hospitality”– was out of circulation for decades. When the films, accompanied by brilliant shorts, were suddenly freed from legal restraints and released by the collector Raymond Rohauer, critics were able to evaluate them all at once and delivered enthusiastic praise. Some of the essays compared Keaton favorably to director and rival Charlie Chaplin, who was a better businessman and was able to survive the sound era in a way that Keaton could not.
The Great Stone Face was a remarkable comedian with fearless athletic grace who had trained in the school of hard knocks on the vaudeville stage as part of a family act led by his alcoholic and arguably abusive father, Joseph. Buster’s comic timing was instinctive, honed and perfect. He was handsome. I fell in love with Buster in high school, when a series of his shorts and features was hitting theaters around the country after collecting dust on the shelf. I watched every single one, read the tragic Rudi Blesh biography, and when I went to college, slapped a Keaton poster on my wall and a pork pie hat on my big-eyed boyfriend Peter, who was perfect casting for my own super-8 Keaton short.
The Rohauer Library collection, which holds more than 700 archival film titles, was purchased by Charles S. Cohen’s Cohen Media Group in 2011. With the new renaming to the Cohen Film Collection: The Rohauer Library, a plan was annouced to restore and re-release all of the library’s holdings, including its formidable offerings of Keaton’s films.
The NYT DVD columnist Dave Kehr rhapsodized on Keaton here when a DVD of classic “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” was hitting stores, as well as the collection “Lost Keaton,” which includes sixteen Educational Pictures shorts he made in the ’30s.
Kino Classics has released a series of Keaton’s remastered classics on Blu-ray and DVD, including the great 1925 comedy “Seven Chances,” which boasts the unforgettable classic action sequence in which Keaton runs for his life, chased by hordes of women–and other dangerous objects.
See that sequence and a bunch of cool Keaton clips, including “The General,” below.