Buster Keaton #1: One Week (1920)

Among other things, One Week is a terrific knockabout romantic comedy, and a strange one, too. The newlyweds get knocked about—by a spurned suitor who tries to kidnap the bride, a do-it-yourself house project that goes horribly wrong, a freak storm, and finally by a train. Two trains, actually. The husband (Buster Keaton) and wife (Sybil Seely) knock each other about, too. No, not domestic abuse. Buster’s a lover, not a fighter, but we’ll see that he can stand his ground when necessary. But the couple gets into the customary arguments and misunderstandings, which are writ large by the slapstick.

But that strangeness is important, too. Unlike most American romantic comedies, this one starts with the wedding, instead of ending there. It’s a movie after the just-after the happily-ever-after, when the crazy kids realize that they love each other but they gotta figure out how to live together.

That struggle is perfectly symbolized by the plot: they have to build a house, left to them by their uncle. In short, they’ve got family baggage, and somehow have to make it their own, on their own. Uncle Mike left Buster and Sybil a plot of land, the raw materials for constructing their happy home, and the directions for building it. It’s a readymade home, only these two ain’t ready to make anything beyond scrambled eggs. Oh, they’re not stupid—over the course of the movie, both husband and wife show considerable resourcefulness and the ability to improvise. But they are naive, as all new couples are, as maybe all couples are. They plunge into the project, earnest and determined. Too bad Buster can’t decipher the instructions, and even worse that Sybil’s ex-suitor (actor unknown)deliberately fucks with the plans.

Everything about this prefabricated house represents the issues every new couple faces: How can we—two very different people—create a singular identity? How can we establish ourselves as a couple independent of our family’s baggage? How much of that baggage is worth keeping, and can we mold it to fit us? How can we work together at all? The house is a family gift but it seems almost designed to tear the couple apart, or at least to test it cruelly.

Things fall apart. Of course they do. After a day in which Murphy’s Law applies hilariously, much of which involves the installation of the wife’s piano, they receive the present of a piece of sheet music:


But they’re in better shape than you might think. They fight but, hey, couples fight. They’re also resolute, both determined to get this damn house built in one week. They’re also playful and openly affectionate, even clinging to each other when things go bad. (And boy howdy do things go bad.) They are committed to each other, working together through the craziest ideas—some of them their own—that they try to execute.

One Week (house flip)

The wife cooks and cleans, sure, but she’s also as ready to hammer a nail or to check on the house’s foundation as Buster is. She’s fetching but she’s feisty, too. Sybil does her fair share of high-risk, high-concept stunts here as well. Maybe they’ve both got screws loose—who doesn’t?—but at least his loose screw matches her rolling nut.

Yes, that’s a tortured sexual metaphor, but that’s because One Week is a surprisingly sexy movie. I find Seely nearly irresistible and Buster’s headlong derring-do exudes high masculinity without reeking of machismo. I wrote earlier that he’s not a fighter, and it becomes immediately clear that he’s neither the, um, stereotypical handyman nor the dashing swashbuckler. But he does all right on his own makeshift terms, and he refuses to let his wife’s ex bully him or her. That asshole is the quintessential man’s man, possessive of what he never had, violent, and chest-thumping. He shows his spurned “love” by messing with Sybil’s new life, and Buster’s having none of it. The dude tries to kidnap the bride MINUTES AFTER HER WEDDING—and Buster uses misdirection, a well-timed hit, and the even-better-timed placement of a billy club to put a stop to those shenanigans.

One Week (cop)

And when Buster and Wife invite the ingrate over for a housewarming, and the dude gets grabby with the food, Buster stops that shit, too.

One Week (chair)

So, Buster has swagger, even if sometimes little sense. The wife’s hardly more sensible, as she contributes to this cockamamie house going up without ever once saying, “Um, sweetie, are you sure the kitchen sink is supposed to go on the outside wall?” And Seely leads a great, erotic gag in which she’s taking a bath and drops the soap outside the tub. Even in a pre-Hays Code movie, she’s shy about leaning over to grab the bar, and thus expose herself to the camera. So, she looks directly at us, shrugs, and gets the movie to break the fourth wall:

One Week (bathtub)

One Week is conscious that it is cinema, and not just filmed theater. Though the movie is mostly long shots and medium shots, it’s not stagy. The shots allow us to see this nutty house in all its loopy technical splendor. Their large-scale gags couldn’t be done in a proscenium. Keaton and co-director Eddie Cline create jokes with their editing, as with that train bearing down on the house, or with the sly cuts to a calendar page blithely marking another bad day gone by. And the camera moves, swirling around during that thunderstorm, and making use of rear projection for a vehicular chase sequence early in the movie. They’re playing around with filmmaking’s conceits. Everyone’s having fun, and it shows.

Indeed, One Week is playful all the way through. In most of today’s romantic comedies, there’s always a swooning moment, a dip in energy as the lovers get serious for once, and usually the movie never recovers from its earnestness. But, by dismissing with the courtship altogether, One Week isn’t tied to those genre conventions. The last shot is one of the funniest in the movie. In fact, if anything, the movie gains speed as it progresses. One Week, like the screwball comedies that would come a decade later, moves at a breakneck pace.

How fast is it, exactly? Well, it might have taken you longer to read this essay than to watch the movie, for One Week is only nineteen minutes long.

Pretty good for a director’s debut, eh?

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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One Response to Buster Keaton #1: One Week (1920)

  1. Pingback: Buster Keaton #2: The Saphead (1920) and Convict #13 (1920) | Quiet Bubble

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