Buster Keaton in THE PLAYHOUSE (1921) – Multiple Busters


The following is my first of two contributions to the Dual Roles Blogathon, being held Sept. 30 through Oct. 2, 2016 by, appropriately enough, dual bloggers: Christina Wehner, and Ruth at Silver Screenings. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ critiques of movies where actors play more than one role!


Everyone remembers the first half of The Playhouse, and for darned good reason. But the second half is nothing to sneer at, either.

The movie’s first half is an astounding piece of special-effects wizardry that must have nearly shocked audiences in 1920 and is still great to watch in this CGI era. Buster buys a ticket and enters a live-show theatre with nothing but multiple Busters – including a shot of nine separate Busters dancing in sync. As one of the patrons (another Buster) tells his wife (also Buster), “This fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show.” (A shot of the play’s program confirms this, with Buster taking every credit possible. This was a lampoon of Thomas Ince, a contemporary of Buster’s and a credit-happy Western-maker, and the gag still works in these days of “A Film By…”)

How was the trick-shot done? Keaton literally invented a box with nine separate shutters that could be attached to the front of the camera to film just a strip at a time. So with eight-ninths of the camera lens covered up, Buster would do his routine, roll the film back, and do it all over again with the other eight-ninths of the lens. It’s no small feat, especially when two on-screen Busters react to each other as though they were really there. It’s terrific.

The whole sequence turns out to have been a dream of Buster the stagehand, who has his sleep rudely interrupted by a man (Joe Roberts) who appears to be evicting Buster from his apartment. Then the walls of the “apartment” come down, and we find that Buster was on-stage, sleeping on the job. After that, the viewer might as well give up trying to puzzle this thing out and just go along for the ride.

The ride includes twin actresses (one of whom is having an affair with Buster, but he can never tell which is which); Buster’s dead-on impersonation of a chimpanzee; and a wild climax in which everyone is swimming for his life in the orchestra pit. (Don’t ask, just watch.)

The Playhouse gives you more bang for the buck in every sense: two reels of priceless comedy, and two-dozen Busters for the price of one.

(If you enjoyed this blog entry, please click here to read my second contribution to the Dual Roles Blogathon: Laurel & Hardy in Our Relations.)


8 responses to “Buster Keaton in THE PLAYHOUSE (1921) – Multiple Busters

  1. I just watched this with my pre-teen cousin and he enjoyed it so much…it’s true, the sheer inventiveness of Keaton never seems to age.

    That ending with the orchestra pit was definitely unique – induced a kind of surprised laugh/gasp. 🙂

    Thanks so much for joining us and for this great review!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I love all the dualities in this film: the use of mirrors, the staging, the girlfriend with an identical twin, the two swimmers… The whole film is a treat, but the first few minutes are my absolute favourite. (The film Being John Malkovich borrowed heavily from this, no?)

    Thanks for joining the Dual Roles blogathon, and for bringing Mr Keaton to the party!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. He did NOT tape the camera. He literally invented a box with nine separate shutters that could be attached to the front of the camera to film just a strip at a time.

    Liked by 1 person

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