The Saphead

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Buster Keaton’s first starring role in a feature film was playing Bertie Van Alstyne in The¬†Saphead. Saphead sure is a disparaging way to refer to someone. It refers to a weak-minded stupid person. Is Bertie Van Alstyne really a saphead? His tycoon father certainly thinks so, but Agnes, Bertie’s adopted sister disagrees. She’s smitten. When she returns home Bertie defies his wealthy father and tries to elope with Agnes. Their plans are comically foiled and Bertie shows his father that he’s no wimp or fool (well not completely either) so the wedding proceeds until Mark, Bertie’s lazy, crooked, philandering brother-in-law plants a letter from his dead mistress on Bertie.

Bertie is framed. His father stops the wedding so that sweet Agnes isn’t married to a philanderer with an illegitimate daughter. Crushed, but noble, Bertie goes to the cosy house he bought for his new bride. His solo dinner amidst the wedding decorations is a sad scene indeed.

The next day Bertie tries to lift his spirits by going to the Stock Exchange where he’s recently purchased a seat. Of course, the traders laugh at his expense and play him for a fool. Yet the tables get turned when Bertie, inadvertently saves the day when he foils his brother-in-laws plot to take over the family fortune.

The version I got from the library needs restoration. Many of the outdoor scenes looked green, while the indoor ones were black and white.

The Saphead charmed me with it’s innocence and simplicity. Keaton’s facial expressions and physical humor stole the show. The plot took turns I didn’t expect and other than forgetting all about Henrietta’s poor orphan child, the story was a delight.

Steamboat Bill, Jr.

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Finally I found time to watch a movie, albeit a short one that I watched in short stints as I ate lunch this past week.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. starred Buster Keaton as a long lost, disappointing son of a steamboat owner. Steamboat Bill. Sr. owns an old steamboat that gets condemned shortly after Mr. King, a local tycoon with a splendid new boat muscles into town. Bill’s son, whom he hasn’t seen in at least 20 years comes to town and the rough, salt-of-the-earth father is totally disappointed with his light-weight, citified son.

To make matters worse, coincidentally, the son’s sweetheart turns out to be the daughter of the tycoon, who so hates Bill.

Lots of slapstick ensues. While I could appreciate the acrobatics and the technical precision in the film, I wished for more–more like the social commentary Chaplin would have included. The DVD I had had a few extras, but I missed the audio commentary that many Criterion Collection films have. It wasn’t a bad film, but it could have been better.

Sherlock, Jr.

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This week’s old movie* is Sherlock, Jr. with Buster Keaton. Though I’d heard Keaton’s name, I’ve never seen any of his films. The story is simple, Keaton plays a shy, awkward man. As the movie opens, the hero is proposing to his sweetheart. It’s all very proper. The funniest part is when she needs a magnifying glass to see the diamond. Soon this woe-begone fellow is overshadowed by a slick guy who drops by and wants Keaton’s girl. This guy frames Keaton making it seem like he’s stolen the girl’s father’s watch to buy the ring.

Later at work as a movie projectionist, the hero starts daydreaming as he watches the film he’s showing about a couple having trouble with their relationship. The story is simple and it’s a silent film so the strength is Keaton’s physical humor. There were several preposterous, hilarious scenes that are timeless. It’s a short film that still entertains.