Buster Keaton #18: The Love Nest (1923)

Love Nest 1 (5)

The Love Nest was the last of Buster Keaton’s two-reelers, before his studio switched over to making features for the next decade. So, there’s an unintentional elegiac quality about the movie, even though it’s rollicking. It has crackerjack comic timing between Buster Keaton and his old antagonist Big Joe Roberts. Roberts, a mainstay of Keaton’s short films, would be dead of a stroke by the end of that year, only appearing further in Three Ages and the masterful Our Hospitality.

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Virginia Fox, another Keaton regular, stopped appearing in Keaton’s movies after The Love Nest, and we really only glimpse her here, briefly, in silhouette and in a snapshot.

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Loss is in the air, and The Love Nest knows it. There’s a lot of death in this short. A surly ship captain (Roberts) throws crew members overboard for minor infractions, tossing a wreath into the sea for each “lost” sailor. Buster stumbles onto the ship because he’s fleeing heartbreak—loss of a different sort—and spends the rest of the movie trying to avoid becoming one of those wreaths. The movie ends with Buster lost at sea, without food or water. He’s facing death, and how he avoids it is at once a hoary cliché (even in 1923) and a great final gag. I won’t spoil it.

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I’m perpetually amazed by how much Keaton and his crew can packed into so little space—The Love Nest is nineteen minutes, one of the shorter two-reelers—and with so few resources. The primary set is a small whaling ship. The primary conflict is between two people. The primary plot is a flimsy excuse for an extended chase sequence, on a small enclosed set. But the movie feels so full, of gags, action, and verve.

We owe some of this expansiveness to, under Keaton’s direction, Elgin Lessley’s graceful, open compositions. There’s so much white space and emptiness that, depending on the shot, we feel like there’s either a whole unexplored world to see or the limitless void.

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Either way, despite all the clutter or movement in the frame, The Love Nest feels airy, even dreamy. Dreams, though, can look into nightmares, as the movie—and Keaton himself—knew well.

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NOTE: This ends the first half (well, let’s call it two-thirds) of my Buster Keaton series. This feature will return in February 2016, to delve into his full-length films of the 1920s. Stay tuned.

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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