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August 1, 2009


Silent Reflections – The Saphead (1920)


Buster Keaton had been working in short comedy films for several years when he made his first feature, The Saphead, in 1920. Aside from its place in Keaton’s filmography, the movie is a pleasant enough but unremarkable comedy. It’s a remake of an adaptation (titled The Lamb) of a successful Broadway show (titled The New Henrietta), both vehicles for Douglas Fairbanks. If The Saphead is a faithful adaptation, then presumably Fairbanks’ performance accounts for the success of the play and its first film version. The material is flimsy to say the least.

Keaton plays Bertie van Alstyne, an exceedingly foolish young man whose father is a Wall Street titan. Bertie’s sole ambition in life is to marry a sweet girl named Agnes, who is his father’s ward. As Agnes already returns Bertie’s affections when the story opens, the obstacles to their union are partly of his own making, partly external, and fortunately for their future happiness, not very formidable.

While the thrust of the story is farcical, the plot complications are fueled by an unappealing melodrama revolving around Bertie’s good for nothing brother-in-law. To put it kindly, it’s an uneasy mixture. I advise ignoring the story and concentrating on Keaton’s performance. Keaton by no means puts the material over to the extent that I can understand why the play should have had a successful stage run and inspired two film adaptations, but he does succeed in making The Saphead a watchable film for his admirers.

The domestic comedy between Bertie and Agnes, sometimes involving as well Bertie’s nice older sister and sometimes his gruffly lovable father, has a low-key charm. All of the family are nice people (always excepting the rotten brother-in-law, but including the help and family friends), and all but Bertie are sensible and intelligent. I liked the way everyone loved Bertie for his good heart while laughing in a good humored way at his foolishness.

There’s not a lot of physical comedy in the film. The highlight is a pratfall routine on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange that constitutes the finale. Also fun is an early scene that has Bertie trying unsuccessfully to get himself arrested in a raid of an illegal casino.

Some of the best jokes are made in dialogue titles. If the titles are taken from the play, it suggests another possible reason for the popularity of the stage show. The titles at least show considerably more cleverness and wit than the plot and characterization.

There’s a barebones Kino International DVD of The Saphead that’s still available; it has a small orchestra score arranged by Robert Israel. Included on the disc are two of Keaton’s short comedies, The High Sign (1921; filmed in 1920, it was the first short produced by Keaton’s own production company) and the superlative One Week (1920). Those looking for special features will find them on Kino’s “Ultimate Edition” release, out on DVD and Blu-ray. As well as the Israel score, there’s a second music track by Ben Model. The biggest extra is an alternate version of the film with different takes and camera set-ups, accompanied by a short feature comparing the two versions. The other features focus on Keaton’s childhood in vaudeville: a 1962 audio recording of Keaton reminiscences and a gallery of family photos.