The Playhouse is, in my estimation, a perfect film. It perfects the premise introduced in the Arbuckle-Keaton short Back Stage, and features some of the most spectacular photography of the silent era. The film is divided into two sequences, one a dream and the other reality. It's Keaton's first real foray into exploring dreams through photographic innovations. Previously, 'it was all a dream' gags were just that--cheap gags to fool an audience. In The Playhouse, there is a reason for the trickery; it's both rooted in Buster's character and his desires to create a theater where he has mastery and control of his surroundings, and it allows for Keaton and Lessley to stretch the filmic medium, creating in-camera special effects that remained unrivaled for decades.
The first section of the film, where Buster plays all the roles, is its most famous. It's seven minutes of pure cinema magic and rather clumsy to try to explain in words, so I've embedded the sequence above. The first thing that's interesting about The Playhouse is that it open with a "curtain up" effect instead of the traditional "iris in." Immediately, you get a sense of the totality of the theatrical setting; you're within the playhouse already, a show within a show. As Buster buys a ticket to enter the theater, you don't see the ticket seller. It's not a major detail but in the later feature Sherlock, Jr., you do see the ticket girl, which leads me to believe her absence here is significant--you don't see her because she doesn't exist, or if she does, she would be Buster. Either that, or we don't see anyone because it would distract from the magic taking place inside the theater and we need to focus all of our attention on the one-man show about to begin.
The film cuts directly from Buster outside the theater to Buster emerging from under the stage into the orchestra pit. Immediately, our assumptions are challenged and our viewing position shifts--Oh, we think, he must be the conductor. We cut to a wide shot and are confronted three Busters, one on bass, one on cello and one on violin--the entire string section. The conductor turns to his right--three more Busters: clarinet, trombone, and drums. Even the curtain puller is Buster. Now we're in weird, wonderful territory. The musician interact with each other, starting and stopping the music to get in sync. Each has a distinct personality: the clarinetist is having reed troubles, the bass player seems to to abusing his bow quite violently, the trombonist stops to oil his instrument and the conductor is using his baton to scratch his back. Each interaction is so natural (more proof, as if you needed it, that Keaton was a brilliant actor, as well as comedian) and the editing is so sharp that you quickly forget the technical wizardry needed to accomplish these feats and become engrossed in the story.
Now Keaton and Lessley up the stakes--higher than they'd have gone before. The curtain rises are we're treated to not one or three, but NINE minstrel performers, all played by Buster Keaton, on the stage at once. How is this possible? Keaton told the story years later of scores of cameramen and industry professional going to screenings of The Playhouse, trying desperately to decipher how they pulled off the effect. Keaton didn't divulge that information until the 1950s. The trick was multiple exposures, which is nothing new to the silent era. In an earlier Arbuckle-Keaton short Moonshine, they were able to achieve the seemingly impossible "clown car" gag (where in dozens of men exit from a single car in a single shot) by exposing the film twice. The difficulty in The Playhouse was doing it nine times, which, to my knowledge, had never been done before.
Here's how they did it: Buster would stand in one position, Lessley block off the rest of the camera lens and crank the camera at a specific speed. Buster would then move to the next position, Lessley would block off all the lens except that one exposed area, back crank the camera to the exact beginning spot and then painstakingly crank at exactly the same speed. They would then repeat seven more times. The resulting shot made it look as if nine Keatons were on stage at the same time. The level of technical specificity on both Keaton's and Lessley's part to accomplish this feat is astonishing. A single error from either men meant the process had to be repeated again from the beginning. And there was no instant playback in 1921; they had to wait until the end of the day's filming and play back the negatives to see if a mistake had been made. For his part, Buster used music and a metronome to choreograph his movements just so.
However, technical marvel aside, Keaton & co. were always about laughs, so the sequence continues. We're now introduced to the audience members: a wealthy man and his wife, a bratty kid with a lollipop and his caretaker, and an elderly couple. They're all Keaton. In the most famous joke of the film, the wealthy man is reading the program which lists all the cast and crew as "Buster Keaton." The man remarks to his wife,
The joke works on several satisfying levels. First, it's pleasingly meta and we all get a thrill out of Keaton the director acknowledging Keaton the actor(s), as well as the audience's knowledge of Keaton the movie star. Another in-joke reference that audience of the time were aware of, is a dig at super-hyphenate, mogul, Lothario and all-around big kahuna Thomas H. Ince who was found of numerous on-screen credits. Some biographers have suggested that this was also a dig at Chaplin, another performer perhaps overly-fond of on-screen credits. I don't quite buy that theory, though. In fact, the gag wouldn't be quite so funny if Keaton himself wasn't so credit shy. He was hesitant to put his name on writing and directing credits, which is why Buster almost always listed a co-writer/director like Eddie Cline. Collaborator Clyde Bruckman, however, expressed discomfort at receiving onscreen credits because he says Keaton almost always did all of the work himself. He was just a humble guy.
The theater shenanigans fade into a shot of Buster lying on a bed, being jostled awake by Big Joe Roberts. It was all a dream! Some men come in the room and start removing Buster's possession. Buster looks distraught. Repo men, we wonder? No! In a wide shot, we see the men take down the room's walls--it's a set, Joe is acting as stage manager and Buster is stage hand! It's a wonderful sleight of hand that comes totally unexpected. After being set up to believe the playhouse was all fantasy, we realize there is an element of truth. We're back in the exact same setting, only this time, with a singular Buster.
Back stage, two new ingenues come to set up their act, but Buster only seeing them one at a time, doesn't realize they're twins. With both ladies preening in front of mirror, there are now four of them. This, Buster can't believe. He resolves never to drink again. Catching a glance of himself in a three-part mirror, however, Buster begins to realize his error. He confronts the ladies, played by Virginia Fox and another unknown actress.
Now it's showtime. Buster is ordered to dress the orangutan actor. He opens the cage and the animal promptly escapes. An idea hatches; Buster begins undressing. Now in monkey makeup and a perfect, knuckle-dragging gait, Buster is still discovered by the animal's trainer (co-director Eddie Cline in a cameo.) But there's no time to change now, they're on! Monkey-Buster walks, eats and smokes like a human, but he misbehaves like a scamp, jumping up into the balconies and scaring the patrons. He brings part of the set down and rides a bicycle around the stage to the delight of the audience of the fury of his trainer. It's another tour-de-force performance by Keaton in a film that's already chock-full of amazing Buster moments. So far he's played twenty-five humans and an ape and we're only ten minutes into the movie!
In the next scene, Buster is on another assignment for Big Joe, enlists some nearby laborers to joins the next act, the "Zouave Guards," a misfit gang of soldiers led by Roberts and featuring Buster, a little person, and a lot of pratfalls. It's a scene that exists solely for the love of performance. We're watching an audience watch a performance and that's it. In a wonderfully bizarre (and bizarrely wonderful) gag, we're treated to the reactions of two men in the audience who each have only one arm. When they both like a certain bit of the act, they join hands to clap. They get into a disagreement, however, when only one man likes the joke but the other man doesn't find it funny and refuses to join hands! Talk about a weird joke--I love it!
In the last sequence of the film (and the last act on the bill), one of the twins is performing an underwater act when she gets caught in the tank. Buster runs to her rescue, but unable to think of anything else, grabs a teacup and starts emptying out the water one teacupful at a time. This is a variation on the same gag from Arbuckle's The Rough House. Finally getting a brainwave, Buster hauls out a giant mallet and bashes the tank, saving the girl, but the water gushes everywhere, flooding the orchestra pit and chasing the audience out of the theater. Big Joe chases Buster into the orchestra, which is now a swimming pool. Buster hides in the bass drum and uses a violin to paddle to safety (perhaps inspiring Chaplin's dive into the bass drum in Limelight, the only feature film in which Chaplin and Keaton both appear.) Making his escape, Buster grabs a twin and runs outside to a justice of the peace--hold on, buddy, you've got wrong twin! He races back for his gal, borrows a paint brush from a nearby painter, marks an X on the girl's back (for future reference) and trots her up to the justice. The curtain comes down on the camera. The End.