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Buster Keaton's Comedic Exploits Arrive on Video

THE year 1995 marks the centenary of Buster Keaton, that most sublimely unflappable and superbly agile of American silent comics. Among noteworthy events marking the occasion is the release on videocassette and laser disc of 30 Keaton classics from his peak period as an independent producer in the 1920s.

Those were the years of ''Cops'' (1922), ''Our Hospitality'' (1923), ''Sherlock, Jr.'' (1924), ''The Navigator'' (1925), ''The General'' (1926), and ''Steamboat Bill, Jr.'' (1928). Such masterpieces helped establish his reputation and ranked him with his closest rivals, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Even more welcome is the opportunity to see Keaton comedies that have never been available on video -- short comic gems such as ''The High Sign'' (1921) and ''Daydreams'' (1922), and hitherto neglected features like ''Go West'' (1925) and ''Battling Butler'' (also 1925).

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The restorations are the work of David Shepard, formerly special projects officer of the Directors Guild and now president of the Los Angeles-based Film Preservation Associates. Drawing upon a variety of sources, including the collections of entrepreneurs such as Raymond Rohauer and from several foreign archives (including that of the Czech Republic, where several ''lost'' films were located), Mr. Shepard has lovingly cleaned, washed, and hand-polished the 35-mm nitrate materials, correcting the many alterations in editing and titling that have accumulated over the years.

The film-to-video transfers were done by means of digital vision-noise reducers. New musical scores have been added, ranging from the organ artistry of Gaylord Carter to performances by the Robert Israel Ensemble and the Club Foot Orchestra.

With a few exceptions, the restorations are uniformly crisp and lovely. The world of Buster Keaton was, by turns, dangerous, bizarre, and surreal -- filled with cyclones, train wrecks, and spectacular tumbles and dives. Never did disaster look so good.

''Keaton brought pure physical comedy to its greatest heights,'' wrote American author and critic James Agee in 1949. Thanks to these restorations, a new generation can see for itself what all the excitement was about.

Videocassettes are available from Kino International at 800-562-3330. Volumes I and III (set of three cassettes) are $79.95 each, Vol. II (set of 4) is $109.95. For laser discs, call Image Entertainment at (818) 407-9100. Prices range from $99.95 to $125.

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