July 3, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1922--My Wife's Relations

My Wife's Relations

This short is, unfortunately, not great. Many biographers have singled out the marital strife and cynical view of in-laws in My Wife's Relations as a commentary on Keaton's own marriage troubles. Keaton, they say, substituted burly brothers for the tiny Talmadge sisters, transferring his frustration onto the silver screen. Perhaps?

Buster Keaton, engulfed by Talmadges.

Whatever the biographical implications, My Wife's Relations is still a middling Keaton outing. The whole plot is propagated on mistaken identities. Buster is working as a taffy puller in a Polish ghetto, and gets in an entanglement (literally) with the mail man, who accidentally breaks a glass window. Running away from the irate letter carrier, Buster runs into (literally) a giant middle-aged woman (played by saucy Irish character actress Kate Price), who thinks he's responsible for the broken window. Ms. Price marches Buster right up the steps of the building to pay for the window. The owner of the window, it turns out, is a Polish priest, and, not understanding Price's complaint, marries them. It's an absurd bit of farce, which Keaton always detested, preferring his comedies to unfold in a believable order. An accidental marriage is not too plausible, but a language barrier might be a legitimate hurdle, especially in the cramped quarters of a New York ghetto. But I'm probably over-thinking things.

Buster quickly acquiesces to married life. As intimidating as the bride is, her brothers are infinitely more terrible. They abuse poor Buster roundly, tossing him around the house like a ragdoll. In one inspired bit, Buster, tired and hungry, and with no chance to spear a steak for dinner before they're all eaten by his ravenous in-laws, devises a ruse. During the prayer, he switches the date on the calendar from Thursday to Friday, and when the prayer is finished, casually indicates the date. Price and her brothers, being good Irish Catholics, can't eat meat on Fridays. Buster is more than willing to gobble down the juicy steaks for them.

Buster's luck changes, however, when Price finds a letter in his pocket (having got there in his scuffle with the mail man). The letter informs him that he will inherit a large sum of money, which makes Buster's new family infinitely friendlier. They buy fancy clothes and a new house with butlers and opulent adornments. Buster, unaware of the letter, is still clueless. When the time comes for them to pay the bills, Price orders Buster to open the letter, which he does. But, checking the address, he notices the envelop is smudged with mud. He wipes of the mud and, of course, the letter isn't for him. His in-laws fume. Buster runs. 

He escapes into the safety of a train bound for Reno, Nevada--the divorce capital of the United States.

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