The Saphead Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of The Saphead

This DVD is part of Kino’s The Art of Buster Keaton, a series of ten DVDs (available separately or as a box set with a bonus DVD) covering the complete output of Buster Keaton from 1920 to 1928, by far his most fertile and creative period. Each DVD contains between two and four films, so the rating for picture quality applies only to the main feature. All Keaton’s silent films were originally shot in 4:3, so you wouldn’t expect an anamorphic image, and the DVDs have been transferred at the correct frame rate. The rating for sound refers to the quality and appropriateness of the musical score – in all cases, the recording itself is in perfectly serviceable digital stereo. There are no extras apart from the supporting shorts.

The Saphead

The Saphead (1920) wasn’t Buster Keaton’s first feature as such – it was merely the first feature film that happened to star Buster Keaton. And that’s an important distinction, since Keaton’s own features are stamped with the personality of its creator at every stage as writer,director and gagman as well as star, while The Saphead is merely a filmed play (Bronson Howard’s then-popular ‘The Henrietta’) that would work just as well had any of the other stars of the period been cast (indeed, it was originally intended as a vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks). Keaton does a reasonable job in material that, to put it mildly, doesn’t exactly stretch him – but you’d have to be psychic to guess that this was one of the twentieth century’s supreme comic geniuses on the basis of what’s on offer here!

Keaton plays Bertie Van Alstyne, the son of a wealthy Wall Street financier. Cushioned from the perils of the outside world, he has unsurprisingly grown up to become a truly useless human being – even his visit to a roulette den ends in disaster when he completely fails to grasp the basic principles of the game, and when his evil brother-in-law passes on the blame for fathering an illegitimate child, Bertie is only too happy to accept it, despite the fact that he’s an obvious virgin.

The film creaks along at a pretty leaden pace for the first two-thirds, but comes to life at the climax, when Bertie averts financial disaster for his family during a visit to the Stock Exchange, though it hardly needs saying that this is due to a series of accidents and unlikely coincidences rather than any brilliant financial wizardry on his part. This scene at least gives some hint of what Keaton was capable of, acting as a showcase for his formidable acrobatic skills as he leaps and backflips across the floor from trader to trader.

It’s instructive to compare Herbert Blaché’s bland, stagey direction (you can almost see the proscenium arch over every single shot) with Keaton’s in his own films, where an amazingly fluid, mobile camera finds cinematic gold in the most unlikely places. For the most part, the pacing of The Saphead is that of an arthritic snail, and the lack of most of the play’s original dialogue is a painfully obvious drawback – which certainly isn’t true of any of Keaton’s own films. It’s certainly not without interest, though this is mostly of the academic and historical variety – I can’t imagine too many people wanting to watch it more than once for pleasure!

Visually, it’s a mixed bag. Considering that the film was thought lost for many decades, the surviving print is for the most part in very good condition – there are plenty of spots and scratches (unsurprisingly, given its age), but the images are also crisp and clear and boast a satisfyingly wide dynamic range.

The problem, though, is that they’ve been tinted sepia, and the tinting has had a bizarre side-effect in that it’s created an almost solarised effect that dominates the right-hand fifth of the screen (it’s particularly noticeable in vignetted close-ups), and sometimes is even more obtrusive – one shot in particular looks as though the legendary avant-garde photographer Man Ray had popped across the Atlantic to do a guest stint as camera operator (and given that there’s nothing else remotely avant-garde about the film, it’s safe to assume that this wasn’t intentional!).

Rather more sucessful is the music score by Robert Israel, which supplies a discreet and sympathetic accompaniment (mostly string and piano-based) that while never especially outstanding from a musical point of view certainly does a very good job of underscoring the action. There are fifteen chapter stops, very generous in view of the film’s relatively brief running time.

One Week

The two supporting shorts have been chosen well, as they also contain Keaton debuts – the 21-minute The High Sign (1920) was the first film that credits him as director as well as star, and the 19-minute One Week (1920) was the first of his own films to get a theatrical release. Keaton deliberately held his first few shorts back, because he wanted to kick-start his independent career with an indisputable masterpiece – and the sublime One Week certainly delivers on all cylinders, being both hilarious and heartbreakingly poignant in a way that Keaton very much made his own.

As the title suggests, it depicts one week in the life of a newly married couple. Given a plot of land and a build-it-yourself house, things start to go wrong when Keaton’s love rival mischievously changes the numbers on the packing cases, resulting in a house that looks more like one of Heath Robinson’s anarchic contraptions than anything remotely resembling domestic contentment. Worse, it transpires that Keaton built the house on the wrong patch of land, and so he and his wife have to literally drag it on rollers across the railway tracks… which leads to one of the most painfully funny gags in Keaton’s entire output (and I’m not about to spoil it here, though it’s been ripped off by lesser talents so many times you’ll probably recognise it).

The print is a bit on the contrasty side, though there’s still a fair amount of detail, and apart from a few isolated patches it’s generally in reasonable condition: there are a few spots and scratches and some faint tramlines, but nothing that seriously affects viewing pleasure. The music is by Gaylord Carter and scored for what sounds like organ and pianola, but despite the limited resources it does a very effective job of accompaniment, switching from poignancy to pathos to suspense in time with the picture. There are four chapter stops.

The High Sign

The High Sign (1920) was shelved for a year because Keaton apparently disliked it intensely, though it’s hard to see just why. True, it’s rather more ramshackle and slapsticky than the perfectly-structured One Week, and it certainly doesn’t pack anything like the same emotional punch, but it’s still a great collection of sight gags, some of which fall flat but many of which are truly inspired.

Keaton starts off as an aimless drifter in a resort town who ends up working in a shooting gallery – a job that, inevitably, means that he’s expected to double as a hired assassin whenever his moustachioed boss feels like getting rid of someone the notorious Blinking Buzzards gang disapproves of. But will Keaton go through with the deal, or will he tip the victim off and join forces to set up an elaborate series of booby-traps to trap the Buzzards at their own game? I can’t imagine…

The print starts off in alarmingly poor condition, and retains severe scratches and tramlining right across the image for much of its length – but it’s surprisingly easy to filter this out, and what’s underneath the surface damage is a very watchable print indeed, with a nicely varied dynamic range and at least enough detail to pass muster. The soundtrack is standard generic oompah silent-film fare, augmented with sound effects (particularly gunshots). There are four chapter stops.

All in all, this DVD is more for Keaton completists than general audiences or comedy fans – though I’ve been generous with the overall rating because One Week is a comic masterpiece by any standard. But beginners would be far better off with one of the more established classics like Sherlock Jr, The Navigator or The General, which do a far better job of showcasing Keaton’s astonishing gifts.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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