June 15, 2010

Buster & The Saphead

With Roscoe Arbuckle moving on to star in his own feature films, Buster Keaton was out of a job--albeit, very temporarily. He immediately started hounding his boss, producer Joseph Schenck, to make features. Schenck refused. In 1919, neither Chaplin nor Lloyd had started making feature-length films and Keaton's star power was unproven as of yet. Instead, Schenck decided to test the waters, loaning Buster out to Marcus Loew, head of Metro Pictures (later to become the the first M in MGM). Schenck and Loew, business partners since the early years of the century, had already decided that Metro would distribute Buster's contractual two two-reel pictures a year. But first, Buster would headline a seven-reel picture based on the great Broadway splash "The New Henrietta." The film was a safe bet, a slight comedic melodrama starring veteran stage actors like William H. Crane who would reprise his role from the 1913 stage production. It had already been filmed once, in 1915 as The Lamb. Douglas Fairbanks had played the lead role. It was an easy fit for Buster. Schenck wanted to see if he could drum up interest in his future comedy superstar and Loew wanted to class up Metro. When Fairbanks declined to revisit the role for the third time, The King of Hollywood suggested Keaton for the part himself. 

Buster plays Bertie Van Alstyne, the simple son of Nicholas Van Alstyne, the imposing Wall Street titan nicknamed "The Old Nick of The Street." Bertie is a gentle dope who accidentally saves his father's fortune from the designs of his ne'er-do-well brother-in-law. The story is a pat melodrama of scandalous affairs, a broken engagement, high stakes financial trading and the absurdly wealthy but irrepressibly likable hero--Buster. And although the film handsomely mounted, well shot and features some very beautiful title cards, Keaton's performance is assuredly the best thing about it. The film is pleasantly diverting but Buster plays Bertie with such a genteel passivity, it's hard not to become captivated by his character's emptiness. It's a screen style unusually restrained for the era, like all things Keaton, decades ahead of its time.

We're first introduced to Bertie at breakfast one day, well into the afternoon. He's a pampered little wisp of a man. He's seated on a chaise in bathrobe, munching on egg, toast, and tea, in that order. Servants surround him--Who sir like the light suit or the dark suit? Would sir like the rose or the tulip for his lapel? And although we start out laughing at him, poor Bertie becomes a victim of his cruel brother-in-law Mark and we're soon back on his side, rooting the weakling on. His stiff, stunted gait conveys a young man not frightened of a world he doesn't understand, but merely hesitant, like a young fawn, curious but cautious. Buster plays sadness magnificently throughout, the way his head lulls slightly on stooped shoulders, as if the weight of it were pulling him down and propelling him forward. 

One particular scene portends the kind of hard luck characters Buster would make famous. One night, Bertie goes out gambling with some chucklehead chums. At the roulette table, he's quietly fascinated by the spinning wheel, following the ball with his head, around and around. He wanders off between spins, perhaps in a daze, perhaps just admiring the gaming room's decor. His friends pull him back to the action. Somehow, and without even trying, Bertie manages to win thirty-eight thousand dollars. Just then, cops raid the club. Spotting an opportunity to enact some advice he'd read in a dating guide, Bertie bribes the policeman to arrest him so as to increase his playboy cred (afterall, what woman can resist a badboy?). The copper looks him up and down, pockets the bribe, and shows Bertie the door. Bertie's father is too powerful a figure to get him arrested. Stymied and rejected, Bertie sits on the curb in his tophat and tails, watching the paddy wagon drive off with all his friends inside. It's a classic Keaton pose that will become something of a trademark, seen here for the first time.

The climax, which takes place on the floor of the stock exchange, features Buster's only stunts of the picture. In the trading melee, Buster is tossed head over heels by the crowd, flipping several times before hitting up against a wall. His hat's been punched in. His nicely tailored suit is in tatters. Somehow, the gentle Lamb has managed to become a heroic lion, although not without some personal injury. 

Although not a terrific picture, The Saphead isn't terrible, either. And at a time when Metro's longest feature was five reels (about 50 minutes), The Saphead's seven reel length was quite an achievement. Buster's notices were terrific. He was immediately christened a brilliant comic action, which may explain why his later shorts and features (especially the early shorts) were so critically well-regarded. In fact, the production was going so well that Schenck decided to give Buster double-duty: he began filming his first two-reelers during the latter half of The Saphead. Keaton was well on his way to becoming a comedy legend.


  1. Finally wandered over here to your site--and I should've done so much earlier! It's nice to see someone devoted to such a broad range of film. I enjoyed "The Saphead" when I first saw it--being dutiful as I watched silent films for my own blog, "The Constant Viewer." I've always loved film, but, like many, my silent movie viewing was woefully low. Making my way through so many of them was not only an education but a pleasure--as it is to read your entries. Thanks for "Following" me--and I'm going to return the favor--although the pleasure's all mine--right now.

  2. Thanks for such a kind comment, Paul! I enjoyed reading your Keaton entries, too. Thanks for the Follow :)