The Playhouse (1921)
Buster Keaton shows off technical wizardry in this two-reel short from First National, but also finds time for laughs in between the effects. Twins and doppelgangers abound as he make fun of his professional roots.
The movie begins by showing Buster looking at a sign for a variety show in front of a theater. He decides to pay and go in, pulling out a long accordion-style wallet and carefully choosing the right coin from its many folds. The clerk gives him a ticket and he enters. An edit shows him entering the inside of the theater – by way of the orchestra pit. It appears that he is the conductor, in spite of his unauspicious entrance, and he begins warming up the musicians. Edits show us several of the musicians, in a series of two-shots. Each of them is identical – they are all Buster! So are the audience (some in drag). One of the Busters looks at his program, finding that every role and crew position is held by “BUSTER KEATON.” He remarks to his mannish-looking wife, “this fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show.” The various Keatons interact and engage in minor gags for a while, including some unfortunate blackface humor.
This ends as Keaton is woken up in bed by Joe Roberts, in a small sparsely furnished room. It seems that the previous sequence was a dream, and Roberts brings some flunkies in to remove the furniture after briefly remonstrating with Keaton. The audience is set up to believe that Keaton is late with the rent and is being evicted, but after getting Keaton off the bed and moving that, Roberts pushes the walls down, revealing that this too is a stage set. Keaton picks up a broom and gets down to his real job – sweeping up back stage. Soon, he meets some real twins, a pair of girls that will be performing in the variety show. There are various gags and situations based on his confusion over how many of them are and the fact that one likes him and the other does not.
Meanwhile, the show starts to go on. Edward Cline instructs Keaton to dress the monkey for his act, but the little critter bolts, so Buster puts on his clothes and performs as a monkey himself. Although he’s probably funnier than the original, he keeps making mistakes, which makes the trainer increasingly angry. At another point, a group of “Zouaves” quits because Keaton has tricked Roberts into punching one of their members, so he goes out and hires a work crew to replace them and leads them through a series of silly stunts and military-style maneuvers. For the final act, one of the twins is put into a tank and holds her breath in a “mermaid” act, but she gets stuck and can’t get out. Buster shatters the glass, causing water to flood the theater and all of the audience is washed out with the tide. He grabs the girl, drags her to a Justice of the Peace before she hits him and he realizes he has the wrong one again. He goes back for the right girl, this time drawing an “x” on her back to avoid future errors before taking her in to get married.
Much has been made of Keaton’s use of a matte box to perform the twinning effect in the first part of the movie, but for the most part Georges Méliès had anticipated him in “The One-Man Band” (1900). At one point, Keaton does have more images on the screen than Méliès managed, but it doesn’t look very good. His best bits are when there are just two of him on the screen, in perfect focus and apparently responding to one another. The female twins are played by two different women, one of whom was Virginia Fox, but I couldn’t tell if she was the one who hit him or the one who married him.
As with most of Keaton’s movies at this time, a thin plot is the basis for a series of gags and routines that add up to a lot of laughs. There’s a bit of an inside joke in the multiple-Keatons sequence, since he got his start as part of a family act called “The Three Keatons.”It struck me as funny when “this fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show,” because in fact Keaton was more of a collaborator than the other famous silent clowns of the time, consistently working with a co-director instead of insisting on being in complete control of everything. He may have been the whole show by now so far as audiences were concerned, but he was only a part of it behind the camera.
Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
Camera: Elgin Lessley
Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Edward F. Cline
Run Time: 22 Min
You can watch it for free: Here (no music) or Here (with music).