Buster Keaton #8: The Playhouse (1921)


From a technical standpoint, The Playhouse is Buster Keaton’s most formally inventive film before Sherlock Jr. Six decades before bluescreening or greenscreening, seventy years before we saw three Michael J. Foxes at once onscreen during Back to the Future II, there’s this:

Playhouse (couple 02) Playhouse (couple) Playhouse (mother & child) Playhouse (orchestra 01) Playhouse (orchestra 02)

For the movie’s first five minutes, everyone onscreen is Buster Keaton. More astonishingly, each of those Keatons is a different character, with distinct mannerisms and interactions with other characters. We’re at once awed by so many Busters at once and lulled into thinking it’s normal, because all the Busters are so different that it feels like we’re watching a company of actors. But, no, it’s all Buster—sixty years before Eddie Murphy popularized playing multiple roles in Coming to America and The Nutty Professor.

And Eddie Murphy had the benefit of different camera angles in Coming to America, and a combination of switching angles and CGI in The Nutty Professor. Buster had neither. Keaton’s duplications are done in single takes and without digital trickery. Murphy manages to embody a range of different voices and tonal registers in his characterizations, sure, but that’s because he had a technical advantage unavailable to Keaton—sound synchronization—to aid his performances. Keaton had to convey his roles through gesture alone, and chose to shoot in single takes instead of cheating with cuts and clever obscuring of faces. To perform in sync, Keaton used a special camera shutter—which he more or less invented so that he could create The Playhouse—and rewound the exposed film, so that he could record multiple Keatons on the same celluloid. The onstage blocking had to be exact. The film had to be hand-cranked at precisely the same speed each time they shot a “new” Keaton. (God bless Elgin Lessley, Keaton’s cameraman for the picture.) Buster’s movements had to be timed exactly so, and in such a way that his gestures wouldn’t overlap each other and spoil the effect. Offscreen metronomes were used to track the pacing. Mirrors were involved—they had to have been, because otherwise this is magic.

Being a magician—gosh, it sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? It would have been easier to do it the way Murphy did it, cutting from one character to the next while changing costumes between shots. But, then, we wouldn’t have gotten this:

Playhouse (double dancing)

Or the lovely double (um, quadruple) vision of Virginia Fox:

Playhouse (Virginia Fox)

And Keaton knew his way, hard as it was to achieve, was better.

The Playhouse shows narrative innovation, too, which is to say that it’s mostly meta and basically plotless, even more anarchic than most silent comedies. Essentially, The Playhouse recreates the experience of seeing a vaudeville show, the first part of which—with all the Busters—turns out to be a dream sequence of a stagehand, who then proceeds to help run… a vaudeville show. The multiple Keatons stop appearing after the first five minutes but not the duplication effect; either that or they found an uncredited actress who looks and gestures exactly like Fox. Even the duplication is a sly crack at Thomas Ince, a film producer who had a habit of crediting himself generously in his movies.

So, the 22-minute short is an anarchic dose of meta-commentary on film and stage conventions, and resigns itself to chaos early on. By the time Buster impersonates an orangutan, and goes bananas worse than the actual monkey would have dreamed of, mostly just because he doesn’t like the stage manager with whom he’s sharing a stage, The Playhouse has gone off the rails. Sure, there’s a romantic plot but it feels tacked on like a donkey’s tail. The movie’s production must have been exquisitely and meticulously constructed but it feels a monkey throwing his shit at the screen.

I mean that in the best way. It’s funny as hell.

It’s also occasionally discomforting, in ways that Keaton’s original audiences would not have foreseen, though it’s accurate in its way. A typical vaudeville variety show would have featured something exactly like this…

Playhouse (3 minstrels)

…which made me hold my breath for a sec, until I realized that the burnt cork faces, all Keaton, are the only things inherently demeaning about the brief sequence. There’s no shucking, shuffling, jiving, or even egregious black dialect. The trio tells a series of tall-tale jokes, each one more outlandish than the last, but the title cards don’t mimic southern Negro speech—or, rather, how white people customarily depicted such speech. Even when the nine black men rise to sing, they’re depicted as impeccably dressed—they’re more like a group of jubilee singers than a rowdy minstrel crew—and the conductor refers to them as “gentlemen” with no irony attached.

Playhouse (jubilee singers)

Don’t get me wrong. It’s still weird, and makes my eye twitch a little. But, as with the use of blackface in Neighbors, it’s more complicated than it is demeaning, and strange—from a 21st-century point-of-view—than anything. Fortunately, the entire movie still feels strange and dazzling and unsettling and restless, 94 years later. It still awes. It still makes me jumpy. It’s still a masterpiece.

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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