Oops, while I did watch them in correct order, I mentioned The Blacksmith before My Wife's Relations, which comes first. Sorry for any inconvenience I may have caused. Now, on with the show...
My Wife's Relations is often cited as Keaton's reflection on his unhappy marriage, but, frankly, I don't see it. It's another mistaken identity comedy, with Keaton inadvertently getting wed into a family of large, unmannered folks who only warm up to Buster when they think he's got a big inheritance coming. While it looks like a harbinger of things to come, Keaton had only been married a year and the film really pokes more fun at class rather than family. Really, not much to read into (for me, at least), and probably the weakest Keaton short. (It still has some good gags, though: my favorite being the brother-in-law who keeps adding cubes of sugar to his coffee. A gag done a hundred times, I know, but here Keaton stops the guy, grabs his coffee cup and simply pours the coffee into the sugar bowl.)
The Frozen North is another Keaton masterpiece, but one that should be avoided at all costs if the genial Keaton persona needs to be maintained. In the short, Keaton is a cold-blooded murderer, a philanderer, abuses his wife (poor Seeley) and horror-of-horrors (especially for Buster), he emotes all over the place, breaking out with huge tears and grand melodramatics. It's fabulously funny, filled with completely unexpected gags, and is probably the film that had me laughing the hardest (that is, when I could lift my jaw off of the floor.) What a risky film for Keaton to make. An out-an-out satire of William S. Hart, Keaton is merciless--and, apparently and understandably, Hart was none too pleased--but doggone is it ever funny.
By far the funniest gag is one of the most surreal bits in a Keaton film: Buster is trying to make moves on a woman. He's despicable in every way, and when we see Buster from the girl's point of view, Buster is now dressed as Erich von Stroheim! White military garb, boots, hat, long filtered cigarette, and oh, yes…the monocle. I nearly fell out of my chair. Great.
The Electric House is pretty much what the title suggests. Buster wires a house to do all kinds of things, which ends in chaos, of course.
Daydreams is the film where Buster's girl (Renée Adorée) and her father insist he make good before he can marry, with the proviso that if he doesn't make good, Buster will kill himself. Blackout gags follow, but it's pretty dark.
The Balloonatic is, as I'd mentioned, probably Keaton's most romantic film. It meanders a bit at the beginning (with some funny bits at an amusement park), but soon the surrealism kicks in and away we go….The conclusion, which looks to be a typical Keaton downer, is anything but, as Keaton plays with our expectations yet again.
The Love Nest is Keaton's final short and if you like surreal, then this is a good one to watch. Through various misadventures, Buster ends up on a fishing boat (that even goes after whales), and is captained by big Joe Roberts, who has no qualms throwing his crew members overboard when they do something wrong. (Nice guy, though, for he also tosses in a wreath of flowers. He's got lots of those and it's a great running gag.) Wacky things ensue and Buster actually ends up on a target for Navy ships. Close to a classic, and, again, very dark.
A few thoughts on Buster's shorts:
--I'd expected to see the "Buster" character gradually emerge, but he's pretty much fully formed by the second short, One Week.
--Already mentioned, but worth repeating, when they appeared, Keaton's women were generally his equal in his films (The Frozen North being a huge exception, of course).
--Keaton reveled in spoofing his fellow movie stars.
--Suicide and death permeate through his films. Chaplin and Lloyd sometimes used suicide and death gags, too, but in Keaton's case they are much more prevalent and considerably darker.
--Dreams also play a huge part in Keaton's films. Nightmares more accurately. Fits in with the surrealism.
--While Chaplin films are filled with hope and Lloyd's filled with optimism, even from the later Arbuckle/Keaton films, it's clear that Keaton was a fatalist.
--These are some of the funniest films ever made.
"Let's be independent together." Dr. Hermey DDS