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When film critics finally championed the great Buster Keaton, their focus was on the comedian as total filmmaker -- actor, writer, director and cinematic innovator. Research interest in every detail of the entertainer's career has been an ongoing project for more than half a century. Mostly excluded from the celebration of all things Keaton has been his first feature appearance and first starring role, 1920's The Saphead. Keaton neither wrote nor directed this show, which does not showcase his stunt work or any of the elaborate physical-mechanical jokes we expect from the Great Stone face. But it established Keaton as a leading player, aiding his career transition from comedy shorts to sustained comic features.
The movie is an adaptation of The Henrietta, a popular play first performed in 1887 and later updated with the title The New Henrietta. Sharing star status with Keaton is William H. Crane, who had starred in the original stage production. Crane recreates the same role he originated 22 years previously.
A prominent New York family is dominated by Nicholas Van Alstyne (William H. Crane), a wealthy investor known as The Wolf of Wall Street. But Nicholas has doubts about his heirs. His daughter Rose (Carol Holloway) has married Mark Turner (Irving Cummings), an unsuccessful stockbroker resentful that his father-in-law doesn't simply throw him all the family business. Nicholas' son Bertie Van Alstyne (Buster Keaton) is another problem altogether. Ridiculously sheltered, Bertie has a good heart but is considered a clueless fool. He misconstrues many situations and communicates poorly with others. He's in love with his father's ward Henrietta Reynolds (Helen Holte), and she with him, but the shy Bertie is convinced that he must first prove himself to her. To 'behave like a man' he carouses with his playboy friends. The lucky Bertie wins a fortune at a casino, without really understanding the value of money. When the cops throw a raid into the illegal operation, Bertie looks so innocent that they refuse to arrest him. Nevertheless, when Nicholas reads about his son's adventure in the papers, he's gravely disappointed in him. Then the devious Mark, caught fathering a baby out of wedlock, shifts the blame to Bertie. The whole family shuns him, save for the loyal Henrietta. Too confused to defend himself, Bertie moves out to start his own business despite having no idea how the Stock Market works -- when he visits the trading floor he keeps looking for the "seat" he bought. Mark Turner shows his true colors when Nicholas goes on a week's vacation and puts him in charge of the family finances. Mark immediately manipulates the stocks so that Nicholas will be ruined, with the intention of buying up his father's holdings at bargain rates and taking over everything. But it happens to be Bertie's first day on the trading floor. The other traders harass Bertie mercilessly, but he's just as lucky as ever ... and turns out to be a hero after all.
The description "no stunts" and "no cinematic tricks" at first makes The Saphead sound like low-priority Keaton, when the film is actually an entertaining and often hilarious comedy. Bertie Van Alstyne is a generic boob, a clueless fellow who wins the day out of sheer dumb luck. Keaton's later screen persona is a more practical fellow, a character who may be confused or misguided but never entirely stupid. Yet Bertie shares with Keaton's later characters the same set of confused deadpan responses to outrageous fortune.. and good news as well.
The play itself is cute and smart, especially considering its age. The characters around Bertie mostly play things straight, leaving Keaton to carry the comedy. As in a classic sitcom, everyone discounts Bertie, underestimates him or otherwise doesn't realize what a good egg he is. Bertie's confusion stems from being so pampered that he doesn't know how anything works in the real world. When rushes to the train station to meet Henrietta, things go wrong for no fault of his own. Bertie stands all day waiting for her arrival, not realizing that she's back at the house feeling despondent because he doesn't seem to care for her.
Bertie's cluelessness is endearing. He wins a fortune at the gaming tables but balks at collecting because taking the casino's money seems an impolite thing to do. When the treacherous Mark tries to ruin Nicholas in a single day's trading, the financially clueless Bertie foils his plan by sheer enthusiasm. Asked by his father's honest broker to buy up all the stock in the "Henrietta" mine, Bertie takes charge because he thinks that the traders are besmirching the name of his beloved, Henrietta. He's completely surprised when his actions save the family fortune from that dastard Mark.All of these qualities can be seen in Buster Keaton characters to come.
The Saphead has a sprightly pace and plenty of laughs. Keaton carries the feature beautifully, showing that his comic skills are not limited to one and two-reel shorts. Keaton fans now have another full-length show to enjoy.
The Saphead' reminds me somewhat of Elaine May's hilarious 1971 comedy A New Leaf with Walter Matthau. Although Matthau's character has a completely different temperament than Keaton's Bertie, the basic idea is similar -- ridiculously sheltered New York males must suddenly fend for themselves in the real world. A Blu-ray and DVD of A New Leaf are expected out in September of this year.
Kino Classics Blu-ray of The Saphead is a handsomely preserved feature presentation, especially considering the age of the picture. The HD encoding is sharp and has excellent contrast; few pictures of this vintage look anywhere near this good.
Disc producer Bret Wood has included two entirely different versions of The Saphead. The first has carefully researched and restored tints, a subject discussed in a featurette comparing the two versions of the film. The second copy was put together from an entire different set of takes and camera angles. As with most silent pictures, the inability to make dupe negatives compelled the filmmakers to run several cameras on every shot, to be later assembled into different versions for foreign use, etc.
Other extras are an audio recording from 1962 with Keaton reminiscing about his vaudeville years, and a gallery of photos from Keaton's childhood spent performing on the vaudeville stage. Robert Israel arranged and directed the lively score heard in stereo on the disc soundtrack.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Saphead Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.