Review of Buster Keaton Shorts – Convict 13, The High Sign, Daydreams and The Balloonatic

I immediately brought the box-set consisting four of the earliest Buster Keaton shorts when I traced it at Chennai’s video library. It was to be my first trip to Keaton-land and so I found it best to begin with his shorts. I only knew of Keaton then through film-related books and by listening to an online lecture on the comedic wizard by David Thornburn of MIT University on my IPad 2.

There was no other mention of Buster, at least in India where the only name that people are familiar with is his contemporary Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin’s feature-length film City Lights is the work of a genius, but I was not impressed with his earlier attempts at comedy, especially a terrible work of his that was made in 1910s and had about a hundred-and-fifty repeated shots of butt-kicking. So before inserting the DVD of Keaton shorts into my Sony DVD system, I just prayed that I wouldn’t get to see any butt-kicking in these films because the gag isn’t really funny. In Chaplin, it was offensive at times to see the woman being kicked mostly.

Thankfully, Buster Keaton’s shorts leave out butt-kicking altogether although physical comedy is wholly retained. The CD includes four shorts: Convict 13, The High Sign, Daydreams and The Balloonatic and with the exception of Daydreams, the other three shorts have been completely retained. Daydreams sadly couldn’t escape wear and tear and so is repaired with three still images that lend continuity to the plot, but we are only left to wonder what madness Buster stored for us in the missing scenes.

  1.  Convict 13 

    English: Movie poster for the 1920 film Convic...

    English: Movie poster for the 1920 film Convict 13 staring Buster Keaton. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

GRADE: A / 80%

Convict 13 has an interesting concept; here, our Buster is totally hell-bent on getting his ball to its hole and literally fishes out the golf ball from a fish’s little mouth when his ball drops into the lake. His game is interrupted when a convict escaping death row finds Buster unconscious (after one of his attempts at golf gone awry) and swaps clothes with him to make it seem as if Buster’s the real convict. There’s a sparkling sequence where Buster, unaware that he is wearing prisoner’s uniform, readies himself to hit the ball as two cops stand to his left and right looking incredulously at him.

On realizing the change in his appearance, he gives them a slip and does manage to evade the not-so-bright cops until he finds shelter… in a prison! Then begins the prison saga, beginning with Buster meeting the love of his life – the socialite daughter of the prison guard – who tries to save Buster from death by switching the hanging noose with exercise rope. Another unforeseeable circumstance – a heavyset prisoner creating chaos in prison – leads to further mayhem. We wait and watch how Buster wriggles his way through each problem only to land into another until the film finds a fitting resolution to his tale.

Along with The High Sign, Convict 13 is probably one of my favorite Keaton shorts. It’s like a harmless firecracker that sets off a chain of bombs, missiles and then the nuclear weapon itself! What was especially marvelous about watching Keaton was that while his character always had a smart solution for his problem, he never anticipated the possibility of a worse problem to occur. Consider the scene where he tries to escape from the army of cops; Buster walks in front of them as they follow him like a marching army, so when Buster turns in the opposite direction the cops stupidly follow turn along with him. That’s when Buster sneakily escapes and finally hides behind a gate. Before he can take a sigh of relief, he turns to see where he is and finds out that he has reached right into a prison.

Later, when there’s a riot in the prison and all the guards have been beaten unconscious by the burly cop, our Buster, again in dark about the riot, tries escaping the cops by knocking out one and wearing his uniform. He confidently enters the section wearing prison guard uniform, where the burly prisoner’s waiting to knock him down thinking he’s a cop. But Buster’s not a prisoner and neither is he a cop; he is no professional golf player either so what is he?

This is answered in the next short: The High Sign. He’s a man going nowhere, you’ll find him anywhere and he’ll land up somewhere. In a way, he’s a wandering gypsy living probably the most adventurous life you can imagine. He’s very unlucky, as evident by the number 13 given to his prisoner, but he never loses hope that he’ll find a way out… almost. The High Sign

       2. The High Sign 

GRADE: A / 80%

The High Sign

The High Sign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In The High Sign, our intelligent halfwit Buster trying his luck at shooting when he reads a newspaper ad wanting shooters at an amusement park shooting gallery. Our gypsy-like wandering hero lands up in a town, with an inter-title introducing him as a man going nowhere who’s found anywhere and will land up somewhere. He steals a newspaper from the pocket of a guy and finds this ad; the guy later approaches Keaton and buys the same newspaper from him, not knowing that it was his own paper which Buster had stolen.

Before entering the park, he tries his hand at shooting and evidently stinks at it. Yet, Keaton is happy that he took out the practice targets, always the one he wasn’t aiming at, and he accepts the job once he enters the gallery. Before leaving to his office in the next room, the tall owner instructs him that he wants to hear the bell go off every time Buster shoots. This puts our hero in trouble as we know he has little skill at shooting.

But Keaton is an intelligent halfwit, and so he devises an ingenious plan: he ties up a street dog to the bell and ties a meat bone close to the dog. Inside, when he steps on a lever kept hidden close to where he stands, the tied up meat will lower down. The tied up dog would try getting it and in its attempt cause the bell to ring each time the meat is lowered. This works very well until the dog sees a cat, a probability Buster never considered.

While this is going on in the gallery, we are also taken to the owner’s office in the next room where we realize that the owner is actually the leader of a murderous group of extortionists called Blinking Buzzards. The group is impressed with Buster’s ‘shooting skills’ after hearing the bell go off every time and assign him the task of killing an old man who refuses to pay him money. Our intelligent halfwit acquiesces.

Meanwhile, the target of this gang visits the shooting gallery along with his daughter and is impressed with Keaton’s shooting ability. He requests Buster to protect him from the gang and our intelligent halfwit Buster, unaware that it’s the same guy who’s to be shot, acquiesces. The rest of the action continues at the old man’s home.

I found out Donald O’Conner, the funnyman from Singin’ in the Rain considered Keaton as a major influence. The ‘Make Em Laugh’ number from the legendary musical reminds me of the Keaton sequence in The High Sign when Buster tries to evade the gang of Blinking Buzzards at the old man’s house by jumping from one room to the other, tearing up walls and sliding through connecting windows. I doubt any of Buster’s contemporaries could top him when it comes to nailing the excitement of physical comedy. Anything is possible in Buster’s world, like the scene when he slams the door into one of the gang members and we see his head popping out through the door.

Everyone including Buster himself considers him to be something he’s not. He’s not a shooter yet he’s hired as a shooting gallery shooter as well as assassin as well as a guardian angel. And Buster plays along the situations creating comedy and craziness on the way. He likes exploring the possibilities of cinema and creativity in an age where cinema was still developing as a medium, and so he creates his world as he pleases. Take for example where he simply paints a hook on the wall and hangs his hat on it and it really does hang like there’s  an actual hook. That’s how malleable and modifiable Keaton’s world is. And High Sign is a high sign of what Keaton brings to the world of cinema.

       3. Daydreams 

GRADE: BB / 60%

An incomplete film that sadly leaves up wondering about what Buster cooked up for us in  the missing scenes. Still photographs and additional intertitles have been added to give a feel of continuity, and yet many of the magical moments are probably lost. It’s like eating a tomato and capsicum pizza without tomatoes and capsicum; the cheese base is tasty yet you are left unsatisfied with the core ingredients missing.

Similar to his other shorts, our protagonist here assumes different identities through the course of the film; he’s a vet assistant, then a failed actor, then a janitor and lastly an escaped funny. What’s funny is that his love assumes him to be a doctor, a successful theater performer and a Wall Street cleaner from the letters he sends her.

The irony of this situation would’ve been highlighted so well had those lost sequences, mostly involving her visions of his life abroad, been preserved. But all we can do now is daydream about these lost moments.

        4.  The Balloonatic 

Cover of "Hot Air Balloon Adventure Film:...

The Balloonatic – Cover via Amazon

GRADE: BBB / 70%

The Balloonatic is always on a high when it comes to entertainment value present in Keaton shorts. For the first time, it begins with a close up shot of a spooked Keaton at The House of Trouble, a haunted house at an amusement park. As the camera zooms out of his face, we see him walk towards three different rooms, each time to be surprised by a spooky figure. Once he gets out of the house, he watches a stout lady enter the same place. She loves the haunted house so much she enters the second time.

Keaton however moves on to another thrill and soon finds himself on top of a hot air balloon. The balloon crashes and Keaton lands on a tree. While fixing the balloon, he also goes to a lake and tries fishing; in his Keaton-esque manner, he tries to block the flow of water by placing a barricade rocks at the shallow point, only for the water to collect on the other side and soon crash into the barricade and take Keaton along. He encounters a girl who attacks him at first for coming in her way when she dives into the lake, but later becomes close to him.

The ending takes you by surprise as you fully expect a disaster only to be baffled. That’s the high point of The Balloonatic, another triumph in the joyful Keaton shorts.



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