The films = *****
The Blu-ray Disc = ****
First off- this is grade A+ Keaton material here. If there is just one Buster Keaton set you want to get, this is it! The king of physical technical humor is at his prime here, and houses are one of his main characters in many of these movies.
Kino claims "Newly Mastered in HD from 35mm archival elements" and four titles have been digitally enhanced, but the enhancement didn't go far enough in restoration. In THE BOAT you still see frame shifts (a basic video stabilization process would fix this), contrast flicker and nitrate deterioration. Kino does make the statement that too much restoration alters the original film too much. CONVICT 13 appears to be 50% 16mm film source.
With that said, i decided to cue up the old ART OF BUSTER KEATON DVD set from Kino to do a true comparison to this Blu-ray release and not rely on my memory. The first thing I noticed was how much softer the old DVDs were to this Blu-ray disc, the last time I had seen them was on an older CRT television. While they looked good then, comparing the DVDs now using a Blu-ray player to up-convert them to 1080p on a HD LCD TV they did not look as good. Window-boxing was common on the old DVDs because Kino assumed they would be seen on CRT TVs that often over-scan. Now the Blu-ray presents these in full frame as most HD TVs don't over-scan. IMPROVEMENT? YES!
The biggest improvement is with the short "COPS", which was "enhanced", this Blu-ray presentation is razor-sharp! To compare the quality, just try and read the sign on the front porch of the Police Officer's new house where he is waiting for Buster to arrive with the furniture. On the old soft DVD the sign is pretty much just a white square with possibly some lettering in it, on this new film transfer the letters are crystal clear and easy to read. The entire short is improved this much! One strange sequence in the new presentation of COPS is during the police parade scene, what might be stock footage of a police parade is presented here in LETTERBOX format! I compared these shots to the old DVDs, cued up on two machines to switch back & forth, the old DVDs have these shots in full frame but nothing is really missing in either version. The aspect ratio is just different, in some shots the old DVD looks squeezed while other shots the Blu-ray looks squished. None of these shots includes Buster Keaton, it is just marching policemen. I found no explanation from Kino about this change in aspect ratio.
I carefully checked THE BOAT as it is one of the "enhanced" presentations. The Nitrate Deterioration is still there, but the original DVD has film scratches that were cleaned with DNR. For those opposed to DNR processing, Kino has also included the original un-enhanced version in HD so that you can see the scratches and any small details that the DNR may have removed. Again, more improvements.
Other shorts I compared that did not get an "enhancement" from Kino obviously did not need it as they look great, much better than the old DVDs.
Some exceptions to this are on disc #1: CONVICT 13 seems to exist in only 3rd or 4th generation prints. The picture is grainy & the faces are washed out. The first 9 minutes & the last minute of CONVICT 13 appears to be from a 16mm print where the blacks are crushed (loss of details in dark areas) and the focus is softer. HARD LUCK is restored from many different prints of varying quality, and the last scene is missing (even though Kino included it on the KEATON PLUS DVD). However, we are lucky to have this film at all. One shot of Buster trying to get on a horse is presented in Letterbox here, I wonder what the framing problem was to require this masking. Maybe Kino had to stabilize the shot so much that the frame lines shifted up & down in a distracting manor.
On disc #3 DAY DREAMS, reported to be a three-reeler but exists only as two reels, is grainier than usual & missing some opening shots, the "Dream Sequences" and judge scene just before the cop chase, stills illustrate these. The contrast is also increased indicating possibly a 3rd generation print was used. THE ELECTRIC HOUSE also looks this way, and the print has more wear as well as missing some opening & middle scenes (described in text). At 23 minutes i don't think much is missing, but some missing key plot devices had to be explained.
THE HIGH SIGN (1920) 19 min
THE HIGH SIGN (enhanced) (1920) 19 min - The first produced Buster solo short about him protecting a business man from murderous extortionists. Buster shelved this, delaying its release, possibly because it resembled his Arbuckle teamed shorts.
ONE WEEK (1920) 24 min - The second produced, but released as his premier solo short. Buster builds his do-it-yourself dream-house! A true CLASSIC!
CONVICT 13 (1920) 18 min (half 16mm & half 35mm, 3rd generation quality) - Buster is an inept prison guard.
THE SCARECROW (1920) 18 min - While produced after One Week, this tells the story of how Buster get the girl he married.
NEIGHBORS (1921) 19 min - The first appearance of Buster's real dad Joe, portraying Buster's on-screen father. Watch for the acrobatic team "The Flying Elephants".
THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1921) 20 min (Tinted) - The mob is haunting a house to keep outsiders away, but Buster just can't understand what is going on.
HARD LUCK (1921) 21 min (mix of 16mm & 35mm, last scene missing & shown with a production still, even though it is complete on the Keaton Plus DVD also released by Kino!)
THE GOAT (1921) 23min - A case of mistaken identity, Wanted Posters of Dead Shot Dan have Buster's face on them!
THE PLAY HOUSE (1921) 23 min - Buster is very where in the theater, playing almost all of the roles at one time.
THE BOAT (1921) 23 min (nitrate deterioration)
THE BOAT (enhanced) (1921) 23 min (nitrate deterioration) - Buster takes his family on a boat outing, considered one of his best shorts.
THE PALEFACE (1922) 20 min - Buster is a traveling salesman in indian territory, and he likes the women.
COPS (1922) 18 min
COPS (enhanced) (1922) 18 min - Through a series of misunderstandings Buster thinks he bought a horse & wagon & the Police Chief thinks Buster is the moving company wagon.
MY WIFE'S RELATIONS (1922) 17min - Thought to be produced as Buster's reflection on his failed marriage st the time.
THE BLACKSMITH (1922) 21 min (some nitrate deterioration) Watch Buster destroy a vintage Rolls Royce, not a popular gag at the time with audiences.
THE FORZEN NORTH (1922) 17 min (more than usual wear in original print) A very dark comedy as Buster spoofs William S. Hart as a killer cowboy. Hart hated this film.
DAY DREAMS (1922) 23 min (Reported to be a 3-reeler, only 2 reels exist. Opening footage,some brief day dream sequences & judge scene missing, shown with a still, grainier that usual)
THE ELECTRIC HOUSE (1922) 23 min (Tinted - opening & middle footage missing) Buster modernizes a house.
THE BALOONATIC (1923) 22 min
THE BALOONATIC (enhanced) (1923) 22 min - oddly titled short as most of it takes place in a canoe on a river.
THE LOVE NEST (1923) 20 min (Tinted- the beginning & end scenes seem way too abrupt & it is believed more was shot but disintegrated.) This has to be the most morbit & dark comedy that Buster produced since The Frozen North, death at sea is the basis of some of the humor.
SEEING STARS (excerpts) (1922) featuring cameos by Keaton, Charlie Chaplin & others.
CHARACTER STUDIES (1922) gag film starring Carter DeHaven with cameos by Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle & others.
A series of brief alternate/deleted shots from THE GOAT / THE BLACKSMITH / THE BALOONATIC. (Gee, at one time Buster thought his films were lost, now we even have alternate takes surviving!)
4 visual essays on the films locations by Silent Echo's author John Benglson
15 visual essays using clips & stills, written by Keaton historians.
A collection of clips from films influenced by Keaton's work (no big deal here).
Only Me (1929) Lupino Lane (complete 15 minute short)
Be Reasonable (1921) Billy Bevan
Hello Baby! (1925) Charley Chase
White Wings (1923) Stan Laurel
There is also a little booklet with descriptions of each film.
Some Keaton historians suggest watching these three shorts in this order to make a feature length movie:
Try it, you will be surprised! A 1949 Life magazine article suggests that these could be strung together, maybe even re-made as a sound feature. That never happened.
Final thought: I used to cherish the old ART OF BUSTER KEATON DVD set from Kino, but now it just looks like an old VHS tape compared to these new Hi-Definition transfers. It is nice to have the shorts collected together in chronological order. I always had trouble remembering which Keaton DVD feature the shorts were included on, and the old DVD menus were painful to get through to the shorts. Now the menus make it easy to cue up to what you want to see. However, I wish Kino did not use the word "Ultimate" for a set that has a few sub-standard prints as masters. We may never find a better master for these, but to me "Ultimate" would mean every short is in pristine condition with no need for an upgrade.
I was informed by Kino that they no longer have access to, nor the rights to, the missing footage used in the "Keaton Plus" DVD that they had released. That is why HARD LUCK is missing the ending, it is not lost.