My Wife’s Relations is pure anarchy, with the raw, violent force of the Fatty Arbuckle shorts Keaton worked on before he created his own, clockwork-precise though seemingly freewheeling films. This is just 24 minutes of people socking each other and, though it’s often funny, it feels primitive, unrefined. All the punching gets dull without the counterbalancing grace, timing, and wit of, say, Neighbors or One Week.
Like Neighbors, this one’s about marriage in the tenements, lower-class immigrants of all sorts mashed together in tight space and making do (and making love, of a sort). But there the similarities end. Buster ends up married by accident to a stereotypical battle-ax (Kate Price), and forced to contend with her mean father and bullying brothers. Actually, the whole movie’s pretty mean. Buster and his bride hate each other from the first moment—a Polish judge married them under false pretenses; they thought they were court to settle a dispute; yes, it’s as senseless as it sounds. The family’s hateful, and Buster’s just trying to survive. The brothers throw him around like dead weight. Price clobbers him in his sleep. But, hey, Buster started it by punching her in the shoulder. The only way he gets to eat meat at the dinner table is by convincing the Irish Catholic family that it’s Friday, and that they’d better get that steak outta their mouths. Then they get fooled into thinking he’s rich, and so pretend to be nice to him, until his subterfuge is revealed. And Buster’s so foolish that it’s not even an intentional ruse; he thinks he inherited a fortune from his uncle, too.
So, no one comes off well in My Wife’s Relations. Everyone’s duplicitous, spiteful, putting on airs, and willing to sell out their relatives for a quick buck. There’s marriage but no love, slapstick but little sense, punches but no poetry.
Well, almost no poetry. As in so many Keaton films, the smallest bits shine the brightest. My Wife’s Relations features three glimmers of greatness. The first is that dinner table scene, in which Buster never gets to eat because he keeps getting interrupted and bossed around. Here, the sequence goes on too long, and would be improved upon in Go West but it’s a classic slow burn all the same. The second occurs after the family gets “rich,” and invites a photographer over to take its portrait. Buster breaks the tripod by accident, and the cameraman tries to shoot the image after Buster’s messing-about, which leads to this:
The third is a grace note amidst the final slambang chaos. Buster makes his final escape, and has to bull his way past one final oversized brother. He knocks the guy out with a brick but then, just for a moment, returns to the practical sweetness that makes me swoon for Mr. Keaton, even when he makes a mediocre entry, as My Wife’s Relations surely is:
That’s poetry, and this film needed more of it.