Released in 1920, The Saphead places the spotlight on Buster Keaton in his first feature-length starring role as Bertie Van Alstyne—of which we can thank Douglas Fairbanks for his recommendation. Without trying to spoil anything, the basic backbone of the plot simply goes as follows: Bertie is in love with Agnes (Beulah Booker) and does whatever he can to impress her, only to find out that he hardly had to do anything at all. However, it isn’t long before his brother-in-law steps in to ruin their marital plans. Keaton’s performance in The Saphead would also go on to earn him cinematic credibility in the wake of his upcoming short films.
Since Keaton had no part in writing or directing this film, it’s understandable why most fans don’t care very much for it. Still, I can’t help but think that it has a certain charm to it, and while it doesn’t hold to the level of Buster Keaton’s independent works, he has this untouchable way of making a character or film uniquely into his own.
I found the witty dialogue and comedic gags to be subtle, but plentiful. For instance, Bertie tries to get himself arrested at an illegal gambling spot in order to boost his reputation—just the sight of his wrists glued together as he follows a policeman around like a lost puppy, and you can’t help but want to laugh at the poor sap. Bertie also has some ring troubles, in which he opens one carefully wrapped box after another (a sort of nesting doll effect), only to discover that the engagement ring isn’t even inside the last one. Turns out he’d left it in the hands of his valet for safekeeping, but after retrieving it back, he visibly holds the ring up to Agnes’s hand and ends up putting it on the wrong finger. On the day of his wedding, Bertie then takes out multiple ring boxes from every single pocket he has to ensure that he doesn’t forget to have one ready. In an ironic twist, he leaves them all on a table.
The stock market scene is one where we get to see more of the Keatonesque style spring to life. Here we see Bertie get tossed and tumbled around in acrobatic splendor, seemingly evocative of Keaton’s early vaudeville days. He does incredible leaps over the frenzied crowd that still have me rewinding back to see it. And does anyone else get a giggle out of the part where Bertie thinks the seat he bought in the stock exchange is an actual chair? Cute.
In The Saphead, you also get that rare smile—more than once if you’re careful enough to catch ’em! Buster smiles are a sure indicator to know just where you’re at in the timeline of Keaton’s filmography. Answer: very, very early. You’re definitely not going to find them (easily) as you get further and further along. While they’re a little elusive to capture clearly in this film, I swear he shows those pearly whites at some point!
On a final note, when I came to re-watch the film in order to have my memory refreshed, I remembered there was an alternate take available in the extra features. Curious, I decided to watch it, and see if maybe that could be something to write about for this blog post. I could hardly spot any differences, except that it was entirely in black and white. I was beginning to question my sanity in thinking that maybe, just maybe, the camera placement seemed slightly off to the side…
Then I recalled learning about how two cameras were filmed side-by-side during the silent days, in which one negative would produce the final feature to be released domestically, while the other would be exported. This was covered in the brief documentary (also in the extra features), and even compared some scenes side by side. It was also explained that the original film was tinted and had different musical accompaniment, but in the alternate version, the shadows were much more detailed.
This is my contribution to the Silent Cinema Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Lauren Champkin. I’ve never participated in a blogathon before, and I’m happy to call this my first one! To view all posts, click here.