The Electric House (1922)
The movie begins by showing a graduation ceremony from a college. In the front row are Buster, a girl, and a fellow with a pugilist’s face (Steve Murphy), who is really an electrical engineer. A mishap causes them to exchange diplomas accidentally, so when the President of the college (Joe Roberts) announces his need for an electrician to wire his house, the engineer hands him a degree in cosmetics and hairdressing. He is rejected, and Buster, whose degree was supposed to be in Botany, gets the job instead. Seeing the President’s attractive young daughter (Virginia Fox), Buster takes the job and departs with them before the engineer can figure out the mistake. The family quickly departs on vacation and leaves Buster to study a manual on electrical engineering and take care of the job.
When they return, Buster is happy to show them the many “surprises” he has prepared for them. For example, he has installed an escalator in their living room, replacing the old staircase. The bathtub is on a track and can be summoned from the bathroom into the bedroom at the push of a button. The bookshelf has an electric arm that can bring any book to a person sitting in the easy chair. Even the pool table has been rigged so that balls are automatically “racked” after being hit into the holes. One mishap occurs when he gets the speed of the escalator wrong and his employer is launched through the window into the outdoor pool, but this also gives Buster a chance to demonstrate the lever that drains it automatically. The real excitement is at dinner, where an electric train from the kitchen delivers plates of food and a lazy susan on the tabletop moves condiments from one side to another. Their chairs are also on tracks and move in and out from the table by remote control.
Of course, the seeming bliss of the situation is occasionally marred with pratfalls, mostly affecting Buster and his boss. However, the villain of the piece (the real electrical engineer) soon arrives to compound the difficulties with his knowledge of electricity, mostly by turning things up so that they run amok. When he breaks into the house, he so frightens the cook that she hides in a trunk, which Buster attempts to take up the escalator, to extreme comic effect. Ultimately, the trunk is thrown into the pool and the cook has to swim ashore. Buster eventually figures out the plot and electrocutes the engineer by throwing pots and pans on the floor of the room where he has been exposing the wires. This doesn’t resolve the situation, however, and his employer fires him, so he ties a rope to a stone and puts it around his neck and jumps into the pool. The girl tries to save him with the lever, but the father reverses it, and then when the pool is drained again, he has been flushed out a pipe to find the engineer at the other end.
Another Buster Keaton movie that ends in a mock suicide, but at least this time the girl takes an active role in trying to save him (against the wishes of her father, even). I don’t think any other silent comedian was quite so morbid about their endings. Anyway, what most people comment about with this one is the many clever gadgets, apparently a real-life interest of Keaton’s. We’ve seen a certain amount of this sort of thing before, for example in Doug Fairbanks’ movie “The Nut.” Most of the devices look awkward and not terribly “labor-saving,” although some of them make for good gags. For example, the electric pool table has to be constantly running a treadmill-like assembly in order to work (a waste of power) and extends a long and somewhat dangerous arm across the middle of the room in order to “rack” the balls each game. And why would anyone want their bath moved into their bedroom? In real life, Keaton reportedly broke a leg using the escalator, and production was stopped and then re-started over a year later. Still, escalators are generally safe enough when they aren’t designed to pitch people through windows for a laugh.
And in fact, at least for me, the biggest laughs of the movie came with that device, especially the sequence in which Buster tries to move the trunk with the maid inside while the engineer sabotages the electricity. Similar in some ways to the sliding-stairs gag from “The Haunted House,” you know right away that Buster is never going to get to the top with that trunk, and even how it has to end, but watching it unfold is a delight, because Buster drags out the comedy tension expertly, walking interminably towards the top, then stopping to rest periodically (just as the stairs stop moving). We also know perfectly well that the trunk he is carrying is really empty, but he pulls off pretending it is a huge burden by squatting down under it bending his whole body to demonstrate the weight. That one scene makes the whole movie worth it.
We’ve seen Buster’s dad, Joe Keaton, in a couple of films, but the Silent Era credits his mother Myra Keaton in this one as well. I generally trust the Silent Era to be among the most accurate of online sources. However, it claims we see them both as playing Buster’s in-movie parents in the prologue sequence, and I don’t recall seeing any “parents” in the version I watched at all, so I’m not sure.
Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
Camera: Elgin Lessley
Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Steve Murphy, Laura La Varnie, Joe Keaton (maybe), Myra Keaton (maybe)
Run Time: 22 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music).