July 6, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1922--The Electric House

The Electric House fuses plot points from One WeekThe High SignThe Scarecrow and The Haunted House and yet doesn't manage to entertain as well as any of those shorts. The premise is this: Buster plays a botanist on his graduation day who, through a mix-up of diplomas, is mistaken for an electrical engineer and hired to electrify a rich man's house while he's away on vacation. Simple enough. But even from the first scene, there are signs of trouble. The opening scene, with Buster in graduation gown, runs an agonizing three minutes. The only information conveyed in this scene is that Buster is a botanist, the woman next to him is a manicurist and the man next to her is the electrical engineer. They mix up their diplomas and Buster is hired by the man whose pretty daughter (Virginia Fox) helps convince Buster he's the right man for the job despite his lack of qualifications. Easy. It should have run one minute tops. Instead, because of the scene's prolonged length, the entire film runs long and similar pacing problems plague The Electric House throughout.

The film is also structured rather strangely. Instead of watching Buster electrify the house while Roberts and Fox are on vacation, we cut immediately to their return and Buster tours the new improvements for them, as well as us. In the beginning everything runs smoothly. The scene is pure show-and-tell. We're treated to a myriad of ingenious devices like an electrical bookshelf that dispenses the books on its own, a bathtub that moves on a track from bathroom to bedroom, and a retractable bed. The centerpiece of the house is the electrical staircase: an escalator. In a strange coincidence, 1922 would also mark the year "escalate" became a proper English verb, although the escalator had been in use since the turn of the century.

One of the key features of the new house is the automatic swimming pool, which drains and fills simply by pulling a lever. Buster also shows off an electrified billiard room complete with automatic pool table where the balls rack themselves. For discreet refreshment, a hideaway beverage consul emerges from the floor. At the dinner table, the chairs push themselves in and the food is serves on a train set that runs around the table and back to the kitchen (this device Keaton would later use in his own life). In the kitchen, Buster had created a dishwasher that deposited the clean crockery on a conveyor belt for the servant to dry.

Then, of course, everything goes wrong. The family invites guests over to celebrate the newly electric house and the real engineer (the one with Buster's botany degree) slips in and spends the evening crossing the wires and wreaking havoc. In an inspired bit of business, Buster begins to think the house is haunted. Like a reverse The Haunted House, the mechanical mishaps fool Buster into seeing "ghosts" (actually, the maid in a sheet) and ghastly disembodied hands (belonging to the house guests).

The final straw comes when Joe Roberts chases the rival engineer up the stairs and is thrown out the window and into the swimming pool. Buster soon follows suit. Virginia Fox helps her father up. Buster is left to struggle out alone. Rejected and dejected, Buster picks up a nearby rock and rope, fashions a noose and dramatically falls in the pool. Fox pities him and throws the lever to drain the pool. Her father, however, has other ideas and fills the pool back up. Buster is caught in the middle of this, flopping around the bottom of the pool like a floundering fish. The water is drained once more but this time, Buster is no where to be seen! He's been washed away down a giant sink plug and ends up on an embankment right next to the real electrical engineer. Abruptly, the film ends.

In addition to cribbing from the superior Keaton shorts already listed, the tacked on suicide gag recalls Hard Luck. However disappointing a film it may be, the behind the scenes history of The Electric House is fascinating. Keaton originally meant to release the picture a year earlier but early in filming, his oversized slapshoe (size 11.5 for his 7.5 size feet) got caught on the escalator and snapped his ankle. A devastating injury. He was out for five months. The original footage of The Electric House would be destroyed, never to be seen. In the meantime, Buster released the long-shelved The High Sign. Unable to work, he decided to get married. The title house is actually Buster and Natalie's own house, one of the more modest they would own in the course of their marriage. The interiors, of course, were shot on set but the shot of Buster sitting on the curb in front of the house gives a good idea of their comfortable, Spanish-style home. The behind the scenes trouble no doubt contributed to the lesser quality of this short. We're left to speculate on the nature of Keaton's original vision, perhaps a more daring and inventive film that was scrapped in favor of safety.

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