Buster Keaton in THE ELECTRIC HOUSE (1922) – Comedy with a charge

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The Electric House is most famous in Buster Keaton folklore for being the movie in which Keaton got his foot stuck in one of the movie’s sight gags – an in-home escalator – and broke his leg, putting him out of commission for several weeks. The movie is funny enough, but it also makes one feel that Keaton went through an inordinate amount of suffering for a slightly-better-than-average sitcom.

The premise is that on college graduation day, when Buster is slated to receive a diploma in botany, the dean (Joe Roberts) mistakenly believes that Buster is receiving a degree in electrical engineering and hires Buster to “electrify” his house while he and his family are on vacation.

The movie’s punchline comes in the second act, when the real engineer, whom the dean passed over on graduation day, comes to get his revenge on Buster by bollixing up the house. But one gets the impression that the dean wouldn’t or shouldn’t be terribly thrilled with Buster’s work to start with. The escalator is so enthusiastic that it pitches its users out of a second-story window into a pool, and the train-like device that moves food from the kitchen to the dining table eventually dumps its contents on the lap of one of the residents.

The trouble with the movie is that the house’s mechanical quality extends itself to the gags. The idea of such a mechanical house – which was probably novel in its time, and which obviously reflected Keaton’s love of gadgets – has been worn thin by generations of sitcoms such as “The Jetsons.” The anonymity of the gags doesn’t help, either. Other than some nicely extended bits with Buster trying to negotiate the escalator, just about any comic could do these gags – and indeed, when Laurel & Hardy and The Marx Brothers were done in by the studio system in the 1940’s, some very unimaginative gag-writers saddled these comic greats with just such ho-hum gadgetry.

That the comedy at all reaches a risible level is due to Keaton’s resourcefulness and force of personality. But Keaton’s legendary Sherlock Jr. would soon prove how much more gratifying the comedy was when Buster labored to transform the world around him, rather than vice versa.

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