My Wife’s Relations (1922)
The movie begins with Buster pulling taffy for a living at a candy store in a large urban area. An intertitle emphasizes the many languages spoken in such places (relevant to the plot) and tells us he is a young artist (completely irrelevant). The scene cuts to a young Polish couple, calling a Justice of the Peace to request a wedding ceremony, to be performed in their native language. He concurs, saying, “I speak no other language.” Buster gets into a confrontation with a postman, accidentally hitting him with the taffy pull and provoking him to throw a bottle at him, which smashes a window. Buster runs away, but trips over a large woman (Kate Price). Kate grabs him and sees the window, and the Justice of the Peace inspecting it (turns out it was his window) and draws the conclusion that Buster is responsible, so hauls him back over to the scene of the crime. The Justice of the Peace assumes they are the couple who called and begins the wedding ceremony. Since neither side knows what the other is saying, soon Kate and Buster are hitched.
Having won the prize, she now drags him home to her all-male family, who we see are a group of ruffians living together in a squalid apartment. She introduces him and we can see how much smaller he is than all of the men he will be living with. The toughest of them (Keaton’s usual nemesis Joe Roberts) gives the assessment that Buster “won’t last a week in this family,” then they all settle in for dinner. The dinner seems to confirm Joe’s prediction, as Buster finds it difficult to compete for the food that is served as all of the others take huge portions and keep him busy passing food each time he tries to eat anything. He outsmarts them, however: when the meat is served he changes the calendar to indicate it is Friday, and so they all abstain, leaving it for him (presumably this is a Catholic family).
The next scene involves Buster trying to go to bed. He has an empty bed frame, to which he hauls in a box spring, mattress, and bedding, but there is a broom stuck in it, which he foolishly places so that it creates a pivot, causing his bed to effectively become a see saw. When he lies down, the box spring pivots and dumps him on his head, then he stands up and causes it to flip to the other side, knocking him down. Eventually, the bed is destroyed. His wife abuses him for causing so much noise. Next morning, Buster is slow to rise, so the family coaxes him with some pepper up the nose, until he sneezes himself awake. Soon, everyone is sneezing from the pepper, and, blaming him for the problem, they throw him to the ground.
A new plot development takes place when Joe Roberts finds a letter in Buster’s jacket, leftover from his run-in with the postman and not actually addressed to him. Roberts opens it and finds that the recipient has inherited $100,000. This changes the equation, as the family now sees a need to be kind to the young man. Their efforts to do so confuse him at first, then Kate hands him a wad of cash to rent a new home. Soon, they have moved into a posh apartment with servants. The family gathers for a group photograph, but all of the larger relatives keep pushing Buster into the background. When the photo is taken, the flash causes everyone to tumble to the ground, and the family attacks the photographer, throwing him across the large house, and kicking hm out the door. Kate instructs Buster to add a half-cake of yeast to her keg of homebrew, but he accidentally drops an entire box into it, leading to the climax of the film.
A party begins, with various society people arriving to see the newly “arrived” family. An older man asks Kate how they manage such sumptuous surroundings and she pulls out the letter, dusting off the dirt from the envelope. Only now does she discover that it is not addressed to her husband, and that all of their money has been blown for no reason. The family resolves to “murder him first, and then kill him.” Buster senses something amiss, and tries to make a break for it, winding up in the kitchen where the yeast has gone wild, filling the room with suds. They open the door and the suds tumble out with Buster inside, and soon everyone is covered with yeasty homebrew. The last minutes of the film are a riot of chasing and home destruction as various family members find heavy objects to throw and/or wield in their efforts to wreak revenge on Buster and as he defends himself or flees. He finally makes it out the door, only to encounter a policeman who immediately chases him back inside. He runs up several stairs and climbs out a window, finding himself hanging from an awning, which allows him to make his way down, from awning to awning until he lands in the street, to be grabbed by a police paddy wagon, which drag him along the street for a short distance before he drops off and runs in the opposite direction.
This is a very direct and bizarre comedy, with no real intention of making a coherent plot, and yet it draws on facts established early on to drive the chaotic and illogical narrative forward. In short, it establishes its own rules and plays within them scrupulously, however silly those rules might be. Although Buster’s character is described in an intertitle as an “artist,” there is no evidence of this in any part of the movie – he’s just a poor sap who wound up married into a family of muscular crazies. And yet, the logic of the phone call and the encounter with the postman drives the whole cockamamie situation. At least until police start chasing Buster, apparently just on general principles, and because we expect it. Although he occasionally uses his wits to get ahead, Buster’s character is never in control of any situation, and he is blown from one place to another by the force of fate.
The use of editing here is quite sophisticated, especially in comparison with Keaton’s early shorts with Roscoe Arbuckle at Comique. The speed of the movie is enhanced by the pace of the editing, where before the sense of chaos had to be carried more by the actors themselves and their antics. Keaton gets in quite a number of impressive stunts, including his descent along the side of the building, his rolling down a staircase rolled up in a carpet, and his various fights with the family, especially the old father-figure (Monte Collins). Keaton has progressed considerably as a filmmaker in a short period, and the shorts he released in 1922 are among the funniest comedies around.
Director: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Camera: Elgin Lessley
Starring: Buster Keaton, Kate Price, Joe Roberts, Monte Collins, Tom Wilson
Run Time: 26 Min
You can watch it for free: here.