When MGM and Hollywood pulled the rug out from under Buster Keaton in the early ‘30s, it was not a pretty sight. Toppled from his lofty perch as one of the movies’ greatest comedians at the end of the silent era, The Great Stone Face was first miscast as straight man to Jimmy Durante for a brief stint, then ended up on the scrap heap as a supporting player and largely anonymous gag writer for other comics like Red Skelton.
Keaton did some of his best work in the post-silent period in a series of low budget quickies for Educational Pictures, rarely seen in decades. While personal and professional setbacks were beginning to take their toll, Kino International’s two-DVD set “Lost Keaton: Sixteen Comedy Shorts 1934-37” reveals the comedian was still physically and mentally agile, and still capable of turning out some pretty funny stuff despite Educational’s less than stellar reputation.
Keaton’s dialogue was wisely kept to a minimum in these long forgotten films. Give him a prop—a fire hose, a lit cigar, a broom—and he was off to the races. “Grand Slam Opera” (1936) is a masterpiece of visual comedy in which Buster parodies Fred Astaire, reprises a tit-for-tat vaudeville routine he once performed with his father, and demolishes a radio studio. A gallery of stills and a musical montage of stunts and pratfalls nicely rounds out the package.
Keaton’s then-underappreciated talents are also on display on a recently released DVD of “Route 66” episodes. “Journey to Nineveh” features Buster as a jinx named Jonah opposite Joe E. Brown as an affectionate grandfather; Keaton gets more laughs in a one-minute hitchhiking routine than you’ll find in entire seasons of today’s sitcoms.
Elsewhere on “Route 66: Complete Third Season” (available from Infinity Entertainment Group), Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff deadpan their way through “Lizard’s Leg and Owl’s Wing” while Lon Chaney Jr. camps it up in various dimestore Halloween make-ups. There are lots of other guests on these 1962-63 episodes but if you’re star-gazing, you’ll have to consult an online guide, since no episode index is provided. What George Maharis lacks in personality Martin Milner makes up for with rakish charm in the series’ leading roles.
More from Jordan:
‘American Slapstick’ DVD sets rescue silent clowns from obscurity
Silent comedy recall: Mack Sennett, Lloyd Hamilton, Glenn Tryon
Show biz bookshelf: The good, the bad and the ugly side of movies
Anaheim’s Muzeo sings the blues; jazz icons come alive on DVD
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