Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Sybil Seely

The Boat (1921)

The title of this short by Buster Keaton says it all. This is a movie about a boat, and a man who brings his family to ruin because of his obsession with high seas living.

The movie begins with an effect – Keaton is inside of a boat that is rocking violently back and forth, apparently at sea. Much like the Méliès movie “Between Calais and Dover” what the audience sees is an apparently stable camera, with a set that is tilting along its axis. Unlike in that film, however, it does not appear that the camera is tilting; rather it seems that the set has been designed to genuinely rock back and forth in front of it. This allows objects to fall naturally in the right direction without help from the actors, and actors to be consistent in leaning the right way. We now see the outside of the boat, which is still in Keaton’s garage, but one of his small sons has jumped onto a rope that is holding it in place and is swinging on it, causing the rocking of the boat. Keaton emerges, removes the child from the rope, administers a quick spanking and goes on applying the finishing touches to his masterpiece. His wife (Sybil Seely) and other son join him and he has them get into the car outside, so that the family can go to the marina for the launching.

There is one small problem, however, as Keaton realizes that his garage door is too small for him to tow the boat out from it. He tries to fix this issue with a few strokes of his hammer, knocking some bricks out of the top to make room. He decides it’s close enough and starts up the car, but the boat is still too large and knocks out considerably more of the basement wall. This undermines the foundation and the entire front of the house collapses. Keaton inspects the damage, and finding that the life boat has been smashed, replaces it with a bathtub salvaged from the wreckage. He drives the family down to the dock.

At the dock, Keaton tries to have his wife christen the boat “Damfino” with a coke bottle. She can’t get it to break, so he uses a hammer. They begin to lower the boat into the water, using the car to tow it again, but Sybil sees the little boy playing on one of the planks supporting the boat that is about to be submerged, and calls out to Buster. He turns around and fails to notice the end of the dock, resulting in the loss of their car as it disappears into the drink. He and Sybil work valiantly to stop the descent of the boat, but eventually, he has to pull the child off the support and watch as the boat follows the car – it does not float, simply descends beneath the waves.

The boat is somehow recovered in time for the next scene, and seems to be floating ably with no leaks or difficulties, as Buster prepares for her maiden voyage. He places a smokestack in the middle of the deck, failing to notice that one of the children has been trapped under it. At first, he takes he child’s cries for help as a faulty ship’s whistle, but eventually he looks inside and sees him in there.  Now he lifts the smokestack again and drops the child overboard. he throws in a life saver, but this sinks. Before jumping in to save him, he drops a thermometer into the water to see how cold it is. Once he gets moving, though,  the smokestack seems to work very well. Buster has rigged it, and the ship’s mast, to lean backward as he goes under a low bridge. All he has to do is pull a handle. However, one such bridge comes along when his back is turned, and the chimney and mast crash down on him, knocking him once again off the boat, so that he must swim after it.

We see Buster and family having breakfast, down in the hull of the boat. At one point, the boat seems to go improbably up one side of a hill, then down the other – leaving open the question of who’s driving when Buster takes his meals. His wife cooks up pancakes and distributes them, but no one can bite into them, they are so hard. Buster hides his inside of his famous hat, and both boys follow suit with theirs. He gets the bright idea of hanging a picture on the wall, but the nail goes through and springs a leak. Buster covers it up with the pancake from his hat, which stops the leak.

After a long day at sea, the family is bedding down for the night when Buster’s bunk topples him onto the floor. He looks out and the sea is getting rough. He lights a candle and goes up on deck to see what there is to see, but mostly he just keeps getting toppled by waves. Eventually, he recognizes the danger and descends to the lower deck, putting his family into a closet for whatever safety that may provide while he uses the telegraph to call for help. A sailor receives his SOS and asks who’s calling. Buster identifies as “Damfino” and the sailor assumes it’s a joke, meaning “Damned if I know.” Now the boat is actually spinning in place, really putting his rigged set to the test, and Buster valiantly nails his shoes to the floor so he can keep signaling, but eventually the pancake comes loose and the leak begins to fill the room. Buster’s solution is to drill a hole in the floor so the water can get out, which of course results in an even bigger leak.

Now the boat is doomed, so he takes his family out to the deck and puts them into the bathtub he grabbed at the beginning for a lifeboat. He in unable to join them in time, and goes down with the ship, but as the family mourns his loss, his hat floats over to them and he turns out to be under it. He give one child a drink from his hat while another plays with the stopper, eventually loosing it and the bathtub sinks as the whole family desperately bails. Finally, Keaton kisses his wife and sons goodbye and prepares for the end, but the tub hits bottom and stops sinking. It turns out that they are only in a few feet of water! After a short walk through the water Buster and his family happen upon a deserted beach in dark of night. “Where are we?” asks his wife (via an intertitle), to which Buster replies, “Damn if I know” (mouthing the words to the camera, no intertitle is used).

Buster Keaton was undeniably a comedy genius, but not everything he made works for me today. Here, Keaton gives us a classic “little man” and his innocent family (his two small sons both wear pork pie hats) and instead of having them overcome insurmountable odds (as Harold Lloyd would have done) or at least poke fun at larger bullies (as Charlie Chaplin would have done), he proceeds to destroy all of their worldly possessions and put them in imminent danger of death for the sake of a few cheap gags. There is some impressive film-making here, including the eponymous vehicle, which is capable of spinning around so that Keaton can do some amazing pratfalls, but I find the movie frankly depressing. One can find similar dark currents in other Keaton movies, for example “One Week,” but there the obvious and at times enchanting affection of the two leads makes up for some of the difficulties they suffer. They may be starting out with nothing, but they still have one another. Here, Keaton’s family would frankly be better off without him.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Cast: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 24 Min

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

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)