Buster Keaton #2: The Saphead (1920) and Convict #13 (1920)

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Sandwiched between Buster Keaton’s first two shorts, One Week and Convict #13, there’s his first feature film: The Saphead. The only problem is that The Saphead isn’t really his. Directed by Herbert Blache, from a screenplay by June Mathis, who was adapting a mediocre Broadway hit starring Douglas Fairbanks, who suggested Keaton replace him for the film adaptation, there’s a lot of threads we must untangle before we can get to Keaton’s performance.

One of those threads, unfortunately, is an over-reliance on dialogue. For a silent comedy, there’s a lot of talk, which means a lot of dialogue cards and closeups to written letters and still portraits. These pauses disrupt what little momentum the movie has, which is mostly when Keaton is onscreen, and especially mess up the timing. Timing is crucial for humor, especially physical humor. So, the jokes are off. It’s telling that most of the best laughs are word-driven, coming from dialogue cards…

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…and that Buster doesn’t take his first pratfall until almost thirty minutes into the movie.

The best Buster Keaton movies are feats of technical wizardry driving straightforward narratives that rarely need much explanation, verbally or otherwise. In short, they have simple plots but complex forms. The Saphead is the opposite. The plot machinations lap over each other; too many characters change their minds and motives, for reasons poorly processed; and the screenplay is an ungainly mishmash of Wall Street stock-exchange drama, refined chamber comedy, and sentimental romance. Visually, though, it’s fairly static, and it only allows its supremely physical star to tumble around at the very end.

Indeed, it’s probably the final five minutes—in which Keaton destroys the floor of the New York Stock Exchange—that made Keaton a star. Mad as hell and deeply misunderstanding the circumstances, Keaton tackles every stockbroker in sight, and takes their bids for the Henrietta Mine. It’s too convoluted to go into, and not worth it, anyway. The gag’s funny for the first minute but loses steam quickly as it descends into repetition. It doesn’t help that the rough-and-tumble on the NYSE floor is a more exaggerated version of a funnier sequence—involving hats, and the knocking-off thereof—that occurred earlier in the film. Yes, Buster moves beautifully but it’s all a combination of too-little-too-late and too-much-too-much.

Besides, Buster moves superbly throughout the movie, even when not crashing through suits. As a spoiled but fundamentally decent heir to a Wall Street tycoon, he spends most of his life immobile. He doesn’t work. He gets up at the crack of noon. He lounges about in ridiculous clothes. And it’s probably best that he doesn’t do much, because he fucks things up when he does. He’s so dim that, at one point, he spends $100,000 (in 1919 dollars!) on a chair of the NYSE, because “furniture’s gone up these days.” He does nothing right but he means well, and he’s such a softie that he can’t even get himself arrested when he tries. So, he’s a dolt but he’s a lovable one.

Keaton gets across the character’s good but dumb nature with minute gestures and facial tics. No, he doesn’t smile here, either—that mannerism was already in place from his years working on Fatty Arbuckle pictures—but he conveys a wide range of emotions, even though Blache binds him to a narrative that’s much too genteel for Keaton’s gifts.

Indeed, given that Keaton had a cult following because of his slapstick shorts, it’s not clear why Blache wanted him in this drawing-room comedy to begin with. But The Saphead works as a star vehicle, anyway, because Keaton’s jumpy energy enlivens what is otherwise a contrived, dull film. The movie at least fizzles when Keaton is onscreen; you can almost literally feel the deflation when he’s not there.

* * * *

Convict #13, released nine days after The Saphead, doesn’t really jell, either. And it suffers from comparison to One Week, Keaton’s debut as director, which was released the previous month. But at least it feels like it belongs to Keaton.

At the golf course, Buster tries to impress his lady friend. This goes predictably awry. (This is not a man who should be let within ten yards of a golf club.) Meanwhile, somewhere nearby, a hardened criminal has just escaped from prison. He needs a change of identity, and fast. But what sucker would trade places with a man in stripes? Ah, yes, an unconscious one.

Convict #13 (golf ball)

(As far as I can tell, there’s no strings here. Buster Keaton hits a golf ball so perfectly that it ricocheted off a wall and hit his forehead. I wonder how many takes it took to get that right.)

From this point on, Buster’s running from the police, prison guards, prisoners, you name it. About ten minutes in, a multitude of cops chase Buster in a sequence that he would later perfect in Cops, a 1922 short that’s essentially nothing but a police force chasing the comedian around. Here, the gag gets repetitive quickly. Buster ends up in prison, where he discovers that he’s about to be put to death. Escaping from that, he finds himself in the middle of a prison riot—this is the least secure jail ever—and, turning the tables, he knocks a guard out and takes his uniform.

As with The Saphead, Convict #13 features great, non-slapstick acting by Keaton. He keeps trying on facades—as the golf pro he clearly isn’t, as a tough guy prisoner, as an in-command prison warden. His slow burns, nervous twitches, and wide eyes of fear let us see the strain of putting on roles, even as he keeps going on so daringly. The climax is overdone, with a surprisingly large number of deaths—cops and criminals alike—and a matchup against Big Joe Roberts that Buster wins, ahem, implausibly. The denouement is a cop-out, a gag so shopworn that even a secondhand store wouldn’t take it.

Still, this 20-minute short moves briskly and builds on itself continually, as if trying to top itself with each new gag. It doesn’t but, unlike The Saphead, at least it tries.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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