THE SAPHEAD (1920) – Buster Keaton’s first (weighed-down) feature film

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The Saphead is another of American cinema’s Great Lost Films that lost its greatness once it was found.

This movie was based on The New Henrietta, a 1913 Broadway play that had been a hit for its star, Douglas Fairbanks. In the play, Fairbanks played “Bertie the Lamb,” the milquetoast son of Nicholas Van Alstyne, a shrewd and rich investor known as “The Wolf of Wall Street.” By the time the play’s producer, John Golden, got around to getting a filmed version of the play underway, Fairbanks was unavailable. Keaton spent the rest of his life claiming that Fairbanks personally recommended him for the part, but Keaton biographer Marion Meade theorizes that Golden probably got Keaton’s name from Joe Schenck, who saw this famous show as a way of ballyhooing Keaton as a star.

Although audiences can be grateful that all of Keaton’s silent films have come to light – this was not the case in the 1950’s and ’60s, when a few of Keaton’s films were thought to be lost or incomplete – The Saphead‘s interest is more historical than hysterical.

Besides its being notable as Buster Keaton’s first feature film, The Saphead is, if nothing else, interesting as a filmed record of what constituted a Broadway play in the 1920’s. Like The Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers (1930), The Saphead shows the pacing of a ’20s Broadway show was leisurely, bordering on glacial.

Keaton’s character Bertie goes through four main plot points in the movie. (1) Bertie stays out all hours of the night in order to act like a playboy because he thinks this is how to impress his girlfriend Agnes, when in fact Agnes would rather that Bertie be the homebody he really is. (2) This misunderstanding is cleared up, and Bertie and Agnes plan to get married. (3) In the middle of the wedding, Bertie is falsely accused of having had a scandalous affair, and Bertie’s father Nick throws him out. (4) Bertie goes to his new seat on Wall Street and unknowingly saves Nick from financial ruin, thus returning to Nick’s good graces.

If Keaton had been directing the movie, he probably would have either done away with many of the clingy subplots, or he would have zipped through the entire story in a two-reeler. But since Keaton was basically a hired hand in the movie of a proven hit play, he is simply put through his paces, while the story sputters in fits and starts.

One segment that Keaton surely would have cut down to size is the scene where Bertie first visits Wall Street. Still marveling at the fact that he had to invest $20,000 to get a “seat” on Wall Street, Bertie tries out a particular “seat” (actually, an ordinary chair), briefly wriggles around in it, and concludes that it’s certainly not worth twenty grand. This routine is brief, but charming and funny. But then it is protracted when some investors discover that Bertie is a naive first-timer on Wall Street, and they continually taunt and bully him as though he’s a freshman on his first day in high school – because we all know that big-money investors have nothing better to do with their spare time.

This is not to say that Keaton himself is bad in the movie; he acquits himself admirably as an actor (just as he did decades later when he was given “straight” dramatic roles by directors too unimaginative to use Keaton for comedy). (And is it my imagination, or does Keaton give us a near-smile in the scene where Bertie sees his name in the newspaper?) But the only part of the movie that looks truly “Keatonesque” is his climactic scene, where he unknowingly saves his father’s stock by running to anyone who yells the stock’s name and tells them, “I’ll take it!” His speed and physical polish in this scene are the first thing in the movie to warrant a belly laugh – which comes about five minutes before movie’s end.

The ending is a loss, too. It establishes that Bertie and Agnes have married and are having a baby a year later. We see Bertie pacing outside the delivery room and are primed for a closing gag. Then Bertie finds out he’s the father of twins, Bertie tells his dad the good news, and the movie’s over. Huh?? Not even a gag as elementary as naming one of the kids after the Henrietta stock? If this had truly been “his” film, Keaton would have puzzled over that ending for a month before he would have let it go out like that.

The Saphead is watchable enough, but a Keaton buff can plainly see that our hero has been strait-jacketed in a “straight” story. Keaton would depart on cinema’s finest flights of fancy once he was in charge of his own movies.

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