Thursday, August 25, 2011

Buster Keaton in ONE WEEK (1920)

On his second try as a star and co-director, Buster Keaton made a short subject he deemed fit to stand as his debut as a lead comic after years of apprenticeship under Fatty Arbuckle. His first try, The High Sign, seemed too generic or too like Arbuckle's films to really satisfy him. One Week seemed more of a defining work, and it proved a hit. What about it defines Keaton as his own man artistically?

The story proceeds day by day through the first week together for two newlyweds, played by Keaton and Sibyl Seely. Instead of honeymooning, they build a house on property and materials provided by a wealthy uncle. The inexperienced couple, with some malicious assistance from Buster's disgruntled yet dissembling romantic rival, turn their DIY house kit into a quasi-cubist nightmare. Their housewarming party ends disastrously when a storm turns the unstable structure into a whirligig hurling guests into the yard. Finally, the young marrieds learn that they built their home on the wrong tract of land, and have to move it to the other side of the tracks, just as a train bears down on the crossing....

My shorthand memory of the film gives the spurned suitor more credit for Buster's week of woe, but his sabotage -- he misnumbers some of the boxes of the by-the-numbers house kit -- isn't as decisive as I remembered. Before he shows up to make trouble, we already get the impression that Buster's an incompetent carpenter. We see him saw off a plank he's sitting on, from the wrong side, tumble to the ground and bounce upward in one of Keaton's many spectacular falls. For all we know, the only real consequence of the rival's mischief is that the house looks funny; we can't tell if he's to blame for its peculiar rotary foundation. But more than his malice or Buster's ineptitude, the real subversive element here is pure bad luck. Keaton and co-director Eddie Cline give us signals throughout. Buster's wedding car (driven by the rival) has a sign from well-wishers reading, "Good Luck You'll Need It." After the storm, Buster recovers a good-luck horseshoe that has clearly proven useless. The week itself includes Friday the 13th. The odds are against Buster and Sibyl regardless of the rival's pranks.

The opening title card itself warns us that sweetness often turns sour. It could be argued that One Week is a metaphor for the disappointments and disillusions of the honeymoon the couple never enjoys -- with its one hopeful note being their clear resolution to stick together at the end.

In that context it's appropriate to note the extent, unique in Keaton's work, to which the leading lady is made a sex object. Sibyl Seely gets a bathtub scene in which she is clearly topless, setting up one of Keaton's fourth-wall breaking gags when his directorial hand covers the camera lens as Sibyl reaches to grab the soap she'd dropped on the floor. Seely is also unusual among Keaton's actresses for the amount of physical business Keaton gives her. She stomps her foot on an uneven floor in one scene and gets to hop out of the frame in playful pain. Later, she sprays herself in the face opening an oldschool milk bottle. She tumbles about inside the spinning house and takes a dive like the rest when it spits her out. Working in tandem, Seely and Keaton establish an attractive conjugal symmetry. When they see how their house has mutated after the storm, they fall sideways into each other, so that each is propping the other up. Later, they react to the film's famous climactic sight gag by flinging themselves in opposite directions. She's not even close to Keaton's equal in physical comedy -- who was? -- but the fact that she and he tried so hard to make the pairing work makes you regret that she didn't stick with him longer. The Kino supplemental materials relate that Seely had to bow out because working with Keaton had worn her out. That's too bad, and maybe the way she wore out convinced Keaton to give his actresses more passive roles later. Of course, most of his later films have him courting a girl, not marrying her.

So if One Week is atypical Keaton in that respect, what marks it as the arrival of a distinct cinematic talent? Contrary to what Keaton himself might have believed, it wasn't just the spectacle of the monstrous house and its spectacular demise, though that is a prophecy of the massive destruction of The General and Steamboat Bill Jr.

Comparing Keaton to his contemporaries, you can get spectacular destruction from many comics. What Keaton provides is extraordinary timing and an inspired sense of space that makes the climactic misdirection with the trains possible. The symmetry Keaton and Seely create is just a part of the overall effect. Other comics offer more mayhem, but without any sense of pace or any real momentum. Watch two reels of Larry Semon, for instance, and you usually get people pummeling each other and destroying things until an arbitrary halt. Keaton's seven-day structure gives One Week a satisfying sense of structure and completeness. He'd become known for his character's troubles with machines, but with his second two-reeler Keaton's studio has itself become a well-oiled machine. But it still required real inspiration to run so smoothly, and the next couple of Keatons will prove somewhat less inspired. Yet if One Week revealed Keaton as someone worth watching, the next shorts -- Convict 13 and The Scarecrow -- will be worth examining in the weeks to come.


Real Queen of Horror said...
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Real Queen of Horror said...

I had no idea that film even existed but ti does sounds like it'll be an interesting watch.