Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Joe Roberts

The High Sign (1921)

Buster Keaton’s first starring short languished for over a year before being released – at his request. He later said he was embarrassed by it, but is it as bad as Keaton thought?

High_Sign_(1921)

The first reel of the film follows Keaton’s everyman as he tries to secure work at a shooting gallery. First, we see him clip an ad out of a ridiculously over-sized newspaper, then he gets himself a pistol by stealing one off a cop and replacing it with a banana. He takes that pistol to the beach and tries shooting some bottles, under the supervision of Al St. John, who is shot in the behind before the practice session is over. Soon it is apparent that his aim is never going to improve – when he aims left, shots go right, and when he aims straight ahead, he shoots a bird out of the sky. At the shooting gallery, he contrives to fool the manager (Ingram B. Pickett) by rigging up a system that will cause the bell to ring every time he takes a shot. Since he uses a little dog to pull the string, however, things get out of hand when the dog tries to chase a cat.

High Sign

Meanwhile, the audience learns that his boss is a member of “The Blinking Buzzards,” a secret order that meets in the back room of the shooting gallery. They use a hand sign that involves sticking both thumbs into the nose and holding the hands to look like a bird’s wings (“the high sign”). They are trying to extort money from one August Nickelnurser, but he has so far resisted paying off, and today is the day they will make good on their threat to kill him. August has filled his house with secret doors so that he can get out of any room in a hurry, but his lovely daughter (Bartine Burkett) doesn’t think that’s enough; he needs to hire a bodyguard. Both she and the manager are convinced that Buster is a dead shot, so they each hire him – one to kill August, the other to protect him.

High Sign1

After a few more superfluous gags at the shooting gallery, Buster heads over to Nickelnurser’s home, where we spend most of the second reel. It turns out that the butler is a plant of the Blinking Buzzards, who also lurk outside a window, so Buster is under constant pressure to kill August, even as he tries to woo his daughter and prove himself a brave bodyguard. He tries getting August to fake his death, but the Buzzards get wise. Pretty soon, August and Buster are running around the house, using the trapdoors to evade the Buzzards and leap from one room to another. At one point, Keaton uses a gag from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Adventurer” and traps a Buzzard’s head in a door. At another, he kicks Nickelnurser, thinking it’s a Buzzard hiding behind a curtain. Eventually, he is able to trap or knock out all of the Buzzards, and the girl embraces him as he gives the high sign one last time.

High Sign2

I’d agree with Keaton that this wasn’t the best or most original of his films, but it doesn’t seem to me he had anything to be deeply embarrassed about. Still, he led off his releases with the decidedly better “One Week,” and that probably was better for his reputation. By the time this came out, audiences were used to seeing Keaton as a starring player, and so the more middling material would have gone down easier, as it does for us today. I wonder also if his distaste for the movie has to do with the fact that his character isn’t above stealing the cop’s gun. Later he would claim in his autobiography that what differed him from Chaplin was that his character was always an honest working man, who would find a way to earn what he needed without stealing, and that’s demonstrably not the case here.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Bartine Burkett, Ingram B. Pickett, Al St. John, Joe Roberts, Charles Dorety

Run Time: 20 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

The Goat (1921)

Buster Keaton stars in and co-directs this two-reel short from his second year as a starring comedian. A simple premise once again leads to a lot of gags, and Keaton continues to demonstrate his developing abilities as a film maker.

The movie begins with an out-of-work Keaton getting into a bread line, but without noticing he stands behind two mannequins in front of a clothing store. The line moves up and all the bread is gone, but the two guys in front of him never move. When it threatens to rain, the proprietor moves his dummies inside, but Buster is too late to get any bread. Forlornly walking the streets, he looks into a barred window of one building, which happens to be a jail. The room he looks in upon is a mug shot room where the police are photographing one Dead Shot Dan (Malcolm St. Clair), a murderer. Seeing that the photographer is looking away, Dan moves his head to the side and snaps a picture of Buster without anybody noticing. Thus, when Dan escapes, the wanted posters all show Buster with his hands on the bars.

Shortly, and before anyone knows that Dan has escaped, Keaton gets himself in trouble with a patrolling policeman by throwing a horseshoe over his shoulder for luck, accidentally hitting the man in the face. Each time it looks as if he will get away, something happens, usually resulting in an additional officer getting knocked down and joining the chase. There are several clever gags in which Keaton jumps onto a vehicle, anticipating that it will pull away and save him, only to discover that he is being left behind somehow. At one point, he tries hiding behind a traffic cop, simulating his arm gestures until he walks away and Buster is exposed trying to direct traffic himself. He gets a brief reprieve when he lures the officers into the back of a truck and locks the door.

During this interval, he meets Virginia Fox, who is being hassled by a man on the street. Keaton defends her, and throws the man to the ground in a rather clever backflip move. Before he can introduce himself to Virginia, the truck delivers the policemen to the corner they are at, and Buster runs away again. After a few more false starts, he escapes by hopping onto a train going to a nearby town. Unfortunately for Buster, the town has heard of Dan’s escape, and newspapers and wanted posters with Buster’s picture are everywhere. The townspeople run from him in terror wherever he goes. Soon, he encounters the local police chief (Joe Roberts), who is the one man not afraid to face down Dead Shot Dan. The real Dan makes an attempt on his life, but is able to plant the gun on Buster, increasing his suspicions. He is able to escape the chief only by dumping a load of coal on him.

After making that escape, Buster runs into Virginia, pretending to be a man of means by stepping out of a taxi as he sees her approach, then scaring away the irate taxi driver by showing him a newspaper with him on the front cover. Virginia invites him to dinner and he goes up to her apartment to meet the parents. Of course, her dad is Joe Roberts. A new chase begins, involving the elevator in their apartment building and several rather silly gags involving the floor indicator. Virginia sides with Buster and the two of them escape together. Buster observes a sign outside a furniture store that says “You furnish the Girl, we furnish the home!” He carries his date into the store.

For me, this movie is something of a turning point of Buster Keaton’s early movies. Something about the rhythm of the comedy speaks to later films and the undeniable genius of “The General” or “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” Not only does it not let up, it hits in just the right way each time. The theme of the poor slob who can’t seem to get a break has been a common one in Keaton’s movies up to this point, but there’s something wonderful in each revelation as we think for a moment that he’s gotten away, only to wind up on the run again. There is surprise after surprise as the movie progresses. Even the most illogical moments (like being able to eject an elevator through the roof of a building by moving the floor indicator) are funny because they are surprising, surreal, and internally consistent.

All of that said, it’s also really indicative of Keaton’s working method at the time. He had one good idea: his character would be mistaken for a killer because he looked in a jail window as he was photographed, and he started filming with nothing more than that as a script. In that sense, the plot is almost nonexistent (again), and the only thing holding the movie together is impromptu gags, many of which don’t even seem to belong in the same film together. Luckily he had a team of professionals who knew how to work with that, and they wound up putting together a really successful film. This is pretty much how he had learned to work at Comique with Roscoe Arbuckle, so it make sense, but it’s a very different approach to that developed by fellow clown-kings Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd at the time.

I’m always surprised when I see this movie that there’s no actual (animal) goat in it. Somehow I manage to forget that it isn’t about a lonely farm boy who takes his goat to the big city. That must be a story I made up myself.

This has been my contribution to the Buster Keaton Blogathon, hosted by Silentology. Don’t forget to head over and check out the other great blogs contributing this year! Many thanks to Lea for hosting, as always.

Director: Buster Keaton, Malcolm St. Clair

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Malcolm St. Clair, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 27 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

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.

Striking the set.

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).

The Haunted House (1921)

Buster Keaton rolls out another two-reel comedy short with lots of running around and gadgets. This time, he’s a bank clerk who winds up in a house full of bandits and ham actors who mistake each other for ghosts!

The movie begins by introducing Keaton, the “wizard of finance” as he arrives for work at the bank. For some reason, he’s in a chauffeured limousine, although it quickly becomes clear that he’s just a clerk. He pries a bottle cap off the lock of the door before opening it up, and when a pretty young girl (Dorothy Cassil) asks to make a withdrawal before banking hours, he tricks the time lock by moving up the hands of the clock. An extended comic sequence occurs when he gets some glue on his hands before starting to count out some cash, and soon there are clumps of glued money sticking everywhere, to people’s hands, bottoms, shoes, etc. We learn that one of Buster’s co-workers (Joe Roberts) is involved in a counterfeiting scheme, and he sets up Keaton to look guilty. He and his criminal partners are hiding in an old house which they have rigged up with booby traps and effects to make it appear to be haunted, and of course this is where Buster runs when he is chased by the police.

Meanwhile, a troupe of actors has been putting on a performance of “Faust” and they are booed off the stage and chased through the woods to the same house, leading Keaton and the gang of robbers to believe the house actually is haunted. There is a lot of running around as each side is frightened by the other, and a gag about a staircase that turns into a ramp whenever someone ascends to the top is used six times. Finally, Keaton figures out the scam and is able to get the police to arrest the real criminals. As Roberts is about to be taken away, he hits Keaton over the head and knocks him out before escaping. Keaton is now confronted by a seemingly endless stairway leading into the clouds, and he ascends to meet Saint Peter, who takes one look at him and pulls the lever that turns the stairs into a ramp and dumps Keaton in Hell, where a devil pokes his behind with a fiery pitchfork. Keaton awakes, still in the house, to discover that his pants are on fire.

Hope you guess my name.

Of all the Keaton shorts I’ve watched so far, I think this one got the most laughs from me. You see the laughs coming most of the time – it’s pretty obvious how things are going to go, especially once we’re actually in the house – but there’s a sense of surprise at how far Keaton will push it and the timing is perfect. It’s very much Keaton’s film, and he takes full advantage of his screen time. The romantic subplot, involving Virginia Fox as the president’s daughter, is pushed to the background so she winds up having little to do, and few of the other actors have any standout moments. The camerawork and editing are also very simplistic and functional, but the movie works because Keaton keeps it moving so you don’t have time to think about whether it makes sense or is “art” or whatever.

Directed by: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Virginia Fox, Dorothy Cassil, Edward F. Cline, Natalie Talmadge

Run Time: 21 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

Hard Luck (1921)

Buster Keaton claimed the biggest laugh of his career was from the finale of this movie, which was lost for many years, but can now be seen restored. It still has laughs, though that final scene may be a bit less comfortable for a modern audience.

Buster plays a down on his luck young man who decides to commit suicide after losing his job and his girl. He tries lying in front of a streetcar, but it stops in front of him, then changes direction and proceeds up the line. He tries cutting a rope to cause a safe being hauled up the side of a building to fall on him, but it misses. He tries hanging himself from a tree branch, but just falls out of the tree with the rope wrapped around him. Pursued by two cops for his antics, he tries jumping on a streetcar, but it again reaches the end of the line and returns him to the police. He jumps through an open window to avoid them, and in his new environs he finds a bottle marked “poison” which he rapidly consumes, however it really contains whiskey – the waiter who had marked it poison was just trying to keep his stash to himself. He joins a table of men discussing the need for an adventurer to bring in an armadillo for the zoo. Bolstered by the whiskey, he volunteers. Read the rest of this entry »

Neigbors (1920)

This 2-reel comedy from Buster Keaton has a very simple storyline – a romance involving a boy and the girl next door – but manages to be nicely coherent and demonstrate production value above what he did with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for Comique.

Buster Keaton and Virginia Fox play young lovers who live in tenements, the rear of which face each other, with backyards separated by a wooden fence and with their families constantly feuding over the lovers’ relationship. They pass love notes through a hole in the wood, only to be caught by her father (Joe Roberts) and his mother, each of whom successively gets in trouble with his/her own spouse for presumed cheating (Buster’s father is played by his real-life dad, Joe Keaton). Buster sneaks into Virginia’s bedroom window as the parents are arguing but he is caught by Virginia’s father who ties him to the washing lines and slowly sends him back over to his family’s house. Buster sets up a board on a pivot on the gate so that it spanks anyone who passes between the two yards, then uses this to chastise his pursuers as he athletically springs from one side to the other. Along the way, he accidentally hits a cop who wanders into the yard. As Keaton’s face is covered in oil at the time, the cop pursues him, but when he wipes off the oil, the cop is deceived and arrests a convenient African American instead. Later, Buster gets black paint on his face and the chase is on again. Eventually, he as well as both families end up in court. Buster demands the right to marry Virginia, and the judge insists that the two families not interfere in their plans.

On the day of the wedding, tensions remain high. Keaton is unable to get his suspenders on, and tries using clothes pins as a makeshift belt, but they keep falling down during the ceremony. He tries to remedy this by stealing the preacher’s belt, but this only delays the wedding further. When Roberts sees that the ring Buster intends to give to Virginia is a cheap 10-cent ring purchased from Woolworths, he angrily calls off the wedding and drags Virginia home. Buster now teams up with his friends, the Flying Escalantes, to rescue Virginia by running across the yard on their shoulders, retrieving her suitcase, and ultimately her as well, but they are pursued by Roberts, running down the street through scaffolding, and eventually dropping through a sidewalk cellar hatch into a boiler room where a preacher just happens to be stoking the fire. He pronounces them husband and wife.

This movie demonstrates Buster Keaton’s ability to get a lot out of a little, and reminds me in some ways of Chaplin’s “Easy Street,” in that so much of it is centered around a single set,, reproducing a location in a lower-class urban neighborhood. Not having full-scale riots or anarchist plots, it may seem less ambitious than that film, but the added element of a third dimension makes it physically quite impressive. Fox’s bedroom is on the third floor, and Keaton gets in there any way he can, except for the stairs. The most exciting part is when he rides the shoulders of the Flying Escalantes back and forth across that yard, with each of them entering the building on his floor, only to turn around and come out at the exact moment to catch each other (and Keaton, and eventually Fox) on his shoulders. These shots are done in long takes, so the timing had to be perfect for it to look right, though of course in a silent movie they could have been shouting instructions at each other as they went, making it a bit easier to know just when to step out of the window. It looks great, at any rate.

Joe abusing Buster – just like old times.

So far as I can recall, this is the biggest role Buster had yet given his father in a movie. Although Joe Roberts remains the main heavy, Joe Keaton gets a chance to reprise some of the work he and Buster did on the stage during their days in vaudeville. These usually involved Buster making dad angry, then getting used as a “human mop,” which resulted in some groups protesting the show on the grounds that Joe was abusing his child. Keaton was of course a trained physical comedian from a young age, and claimed he was never hurt by this, but at times you can see how people could get the wrong idea. By now, as an adult, his victimization is safe to laugh at. Unfortunately, there’s some rather unpleasant ethnic humor targeting African Americans that comes across as much less funny today – including Keaton’s blackface scrapes with the police and a scene in which he rises up from under a sheet, causing a black family to run away in superstitious terror. These bits of the film didn’t ruin it for me, but they certainly don’t add anything.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Joe Keaton, Edward F. Cline, Jack Duffy

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Scarecrow (1920)

Another of Buster Keaton’s early solo shorts, this one has a lot in common with the work he was doing a year earlier with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, including a cameo from one of the more recognizable Comique players. It’s probably more famous, though, for establishing Keaton’s fascination with gadgets.

As the movie opens, Keaton is sharing a one-room house with frequent foil, Joe Roberts. Buster has a toothache, and Roberts tries to help by tying the tooth to the door with a piece of string, then suddenly opening it to yank out the tooth. It opens the wrong way, though, and all Roberts succeeds in doing is hitting Buster in the nose with the door. This causes the angry Keaton to slam it shut, inadvertently pulling the tooth. Keaton fixes breakfast for the pair, while Roberts “sets” the table by pulling a string that lowers what they need from the ceiling. After the meal, they carry the tabletop, with all of the plates affixed to it, to the wall and spray it down with a hose. They drop the table leavings into a trapdoor that leads to the pigs’ slop-trough. Keaton’s bed folds up, Murphy-style, to become a piano, and the tub, when emptied, dumps water through a hole in the wall to create a pond for ducks, itself folding into a little bench.

The second reel deals with the rivalry of the two men for the heart of Sybil Seely, the classic girl-next-door. As soon as she appears, the two start running and pushing each other, quickly getting into a fight. When Sybil tries out some dance moves from a magazine, Roberts joins her, resulting in Keaton thinking he has lost, but soon he is pursued by Luke the Dog, who has just eaten a cream pie, making it look like he is rabid. He does his old trick of climbing a ladder to chase Keaton around the roof of a crumbling abandoned farmhouse. Roberts, meanwhile, has bought various medical supplies in anticipation of Buster’s needs, but ends up getting run down by a car and using them n himself. Buster falls into a hay thresher, which rips off most of his clothes, effectively ending the chase. It also results in him “exposing” himself (well, his underthings) to Sybil, resulting in her father (Joe Keaton) chasing him and knocking over Roberts, who now tries to propose to Seely.

Good Dog!

Unbeknownst to them, Buster has “borrowed” the clothes of a scarecrow in the field and now, posing as the scarecrow manages to prevent the proposal and start a fight between Roberts and the farmer. Buster then trips into a kneeling position while tying his shoes, and Sybil believes he is proposing marriage to her. Next the couple speeds off on a motorcycle with Roberts and the farmer in hot pursuit. Scooping up a minister during the chase, they are married on the speeding motorcycle and splash into a stream at the climax of the ceremony and the film.

This movie seems like a throwback to the earlier Comique movies, helped by the presence of Luke the Dog. Joe Roberts seems, especially in the early part of the film, to be playing the Arbuckle role, although he develops into a more generic heavyset antagonist as the movie goes along. There’s nowhere near as much of a story as we got in “One Week” or “Convict 13,” in fact it’s so loose it feels more like “The Butcher Boy” than “The Garage.” It’s mostly a series of unconnected gags and chase sequences. The beginning, though, is built around the many bizarre labor-saving devices of Keaton’s and Robert’s home, which is a treat for Keaton fans. I’ll admit that I generally don’t find this all that funny, but it is interesting to see what Keaton comes up with. The best part is when Luke chases Keaton back to the house and he tries to evade the dog by using the various trapdoors and hidden exits. This is the biggest role I’ve yet seen Keaton give to his father, which also lends to the feeling that this is a smaller, more last-minute production than the others we’ve seen so far.

Director: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Sybil Seely, Luke the Dog, Joe Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 19 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

Convict 13 (1920)

Buster Keaton tries on a striped suit along with his stony expression in this early two-reeler from Metro. Dealing as it does with execution, prison riots, and police brutality, it is of course a gold mine for comic pratfalls.

The movie begins with Keaton on a golf course, in his typical get-up, trying to impress a girl and generally failing as a golfer. At one point, having knocked his ball into a water trap, it is swallowed by a fish, and Buster has to catch fish with his bare hands, inspect their insides, and find a way to retrieve his ball when he does find it. Meanwhile, a fellow about Keaton’s height escapes from a nearby prison. He find his way to the golf course and comes across Buster, lying unconscious as a result of beaning himself with his own ball. The escapee swaps clothing and walks away free. As Keaton wakes up and attempts to continue golfing, several prison guards surround him and he slowly becomes aware of his new uniform. He distracts them with his ball and takes off running, but pretty soon there are more guards and Keaton falls into line marching with them. For a moment it looks like he may escape when he tricks them into marching the other way, but it only gives him a brief reprieve – he winds up trying to hitch a ride from the warden before getting finally running ahead of the guards into the prison and locking himself in when he tries to lock them out.

The warden, it turns out, is the father of Buster’s girl (Sybil Seely). She tries to plead for him, knowing that he was free just a few hours ago, but his number (#13) is on the roster for a hanging today and daddy insists on carrying it out. Thinking quickly, Sybil grabs some elasticated rope from the gym, and replaces the noose with it. When the hangman puts it around Buster’s neck, he bounces up and down, but does not hang. The warden assures the disappointed audience of convicts that he’ll hang two next week to make up for it. Keaton is put on rock-breaking, which he does by tapping lightly on the smallest bits of rock he can find, resulting in an extended slapstick battle with one of the guards, who happens to be about Keaton’s height. When he is knocked out, Buster changes clothes with him.

Now in a position of authority, Buster finds himself confronted by a hammer-wielding crazed convict (Joe Roberts), who has already knocked out all his other guards. Buster tries to frighten him, but soon they are also in a running battle, which extends to a riot as the other convicts catch the fever. Buster puts attaches a basketball to the elasticated rope and swings it around his head, knocking out all of the other convicts, and finally managing to take down Roberts as well. Just as it seems he will be able to claim victory and get the girl, he accidentally knocks himself out, finding himself back on the golf course, being shaken back to awareness by Sybil. It was all a dream.

In this movie, Keaton takes the concept of “the clothes make the man” to an extreme. Once he’s in the uniform or prisoner #13, that’s his life. Only Sybil can see through the clothes to recognize him, even Keaton seems resigned to his fate as a convict. This is particularly evident as he resolutely goes up the gallows steps because his number is due for execution – his character doesn’t even know that Sybil has acted to save him. He barely even protests, and does nothing to stop the executioner. Once he’s changed clothes with the guard, now he’s a guard (and presumably the other fellow just accepts being a convict on death row). He acts in his own interest in fighting the rioters, but he also makes no attempt to escape the prison now that he’s presumably a free man. He does his duty, stands his ground, and manages to prevail. Of course, the ending calls all of it into question. In a dream, we often accept conditions that wouldn’t logically make sense in waking life. It’s somewhat more funny to think of this as the reality of Keaton’s world, rather than a dream, but the ending kind of undoes that conceit.

The basketball-swinging stunt harks back to a gag that Buster and Joe Keaton did on stage, as described in Keaton’s autobiography. His father would be shaving himself on one end of the stage with a straight razor while Buster swung a basketball on a rope, getting closer to his dad with each swing, and timing the hit precisely to avoid injury and maximize laughs. Then his father would chase him and use him as a “human mop.” According to Keaton, a real razor was used, and no one was ever hurt with it. Still it shows the lengths he and his family would go for a laugh.

Director: Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts, Edward F. Cline, Joe Keaton

Run Time: 24 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

One Week (1920)

Buster Keaton’s first movie released after he and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle ended their partnership and started to work independently is parody of a Ford Motor Company promotional movie for prefab housing. While our ability to appreciate the source of the satire is limited today, it holds up as a comedy for the ages.

The movie begins with a wedding between Buster and his new bride, Sybil Seely. For some reason, their “just married” car is being driven by the Buster’s former rival, “Handy Hank,” who is played by an otherwise unknown and unidentified actor. Buster and Sybil receive a plot of land and a build-it-yourself house that comes in numbered boxes, with IKEA-sized directions in an envelope. Keaton sets to work putting the house together, doing things like sitting on a plank a story up as he saws it in half, causing him to drop to the ground when it separates. Meanwhile, Hank takes some paint and renumbers two of the boxes, adding to the confusion Buster’s already serious incompetence was causing. The end result looks like a German Expressionist worked with a cartoonist to design a house.

Undaunted, Keaton and his wife move into the house. Their first major challenge is when the piano arrives. Keaton tries to attach a pulley to the ceiling to haul it in, but the ceiling droops down like a circus tent. So, Keaton props it up with a spare board. He brings the piano in, dangling from the ceiling, but it swings wildly and chases him around the room before crashing through the floor. His wife brings in a music score and he sets it on the piano. Buster also encounters problems when he nails down the carpet, forgetting that he left his jacket in the middle of the floor. The only way he can think of to get rid of the unsightly lump is to cut around it, remove the jacket, then put a small rug over the hole in the carpet. He uses the extra piece of carpet as a welcome mat. He tries to install the chimney, but winds up falling into the bathtub after his wife has just gotten out, then the door he chooses to leave the bathroom turns out to be a straight drop to the ground, due to the misnumbered boxes.

Buster and Sybil hold a housewarming party, trying to serve their guests despite an oddly-arranged kitchen, but when a storm kicks up outside, they discover that the house pivots in the wind, eventually spinning like a merry-go-round. All of the guests eventually are thrown clear by centripetal force, and Buster and Sibyl watch the house spin from their yard, in the rain. As if this were not enough, Keaton finds he has built his house on the wrong site and has to move it, attaching it to his car with ropes, and then simply nailing it to the back of the car. The movie reaches its climax when the house becomes stuck on railroad tracks. Keaton and Seely try to move it out the way of an oncoming train, which eventually passes on the neighboring track. As the couple look relieved, the house is immediately struck and demolished by another train coming the other way. Keaton stares at the scene, places a ‘For Sale’ sign with the heap (attaching the building instructions) and walks off with Seely.

Keaton showed considerable insight in choosing a simple subject that would make a coherent framework around which to build his many sight gags and pratfalls. The movie is essentially a series of vignettes, each prefaced by a shot of a calendar page being torn off to show us the passage of the week (a device borrowed from the Ford film). Setting it up that way actually makes it feel more coherent than, for example, “The Garage,” in which he and Arbuckle’s gags are tied together just by the sense that all of this could happen in an established workspace. Keaton did not hold back on his gags, using a full-sized house to great effect. One gag I didn’t mention above is an anticipation of one he used years later in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” where a wall of a house falls toward him, with his character fortuitously missing getting crushed due to standing in the spot where the open window hits. The house really does spin, really is dragged onto a railroad track, and really is smashed by a locomotive. The gag at the end reminded me of a story Keaton tells in his autobiography about a practical joke played on Marcus Loew, where he pretended his car had died on a cable car track, carefully positioning it so that the trams would zip past, barely missing the front and rear bumpers.

Keaton shared writing and directing credits with Edward F. Cline, a man who would continue working on most of Keaton’s short movies for the next few years. It seems that Keaton, who was used to collaborating with Arbuckle, worked better at this time having someone to bounce ideas off of, or even to let him take over sometimes. This is very different from Charlie Chaplin, who started directing his own work while still in his first year at Keystone, and never let anyone else share credit for his creative work afterward. I suspect these differences in work styles partially explains the different flavors of their short movies – Chaplin’s are largely the work of a single genius, while Keaton’s are less personal, more inclusive creations. I don’t entirely know which I prefer – I think I laugh more at Chaplin movies from this period, but there’s something about Keaton that keeps me coming back, partly just to see how he did what he did.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts

Run Time: 19 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music)