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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

THE SAPHEAD (1920)

Just as Buster Keaton was taking on full creative control with his own two-reel comic shorts (1920-23), he found himself co-starring in this innocuous feature-length comedy, very much without any control at all. A remake of Douglas Fairbanks’ THE LAMB/’15, from Doug’s own B’way hit THE NEW HENRIETTA, it’s awfully tame stuff that finds little use for Buster’s great gifts. He plays a clueless scion not far off the rich dopes he’d play in THE NAVIGATOR/’24 and BATTLING BUTLER/’26, but without the turn-around that lets him triumph over his adversaries & himself; and with precious little of the Keaton physicality called upon. Not that it’s anything but a pleasant little nothing. The plot consists of Buster’s disappointed dad giving right-of-attorney to his dastardly son-in-law until Buster saves the day & wins his girl largely thru happenstance. Not much for the non-completist here, though there’s some nifty frame masking and a bit of fun when Buster visits the expensive ‘seat’ he’s bought on the Wall Street Trading Floor. The latest KINO edition, from 2012, contains an Alternate Cut taken from a very clean second negative that comes up with a bit more visual detail (less color tinting, too) and features a good piano score from Ben Model. Both versions capture a rare near-smile from Buster just a bit past the 20 minute mark; the only surprise in the whole movie.* NOTE: Where’s Buster on this original poster? (see above) Look down here to see one for a (much) later foreign release that features ONLY Buster.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *Louise Brooks, in her unmatchable, unconventional memoir, LULU IN HOLLYWOOD, notes how effective that Keaton smile could be on ladies who’d never seen it on screen.

DOUBLE-BILL: Douglas Fairbanks’ early comedies pair up nicely with Keaton’s early work. Try the remarkable WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY/’19, Victor Fleming’s assured helming debut. With its natural disasters & gravity-defying rotation walks, it looks forward to Keaton’s STEAMBOAT BILL, JR./’28 and Fred Astaire in Stanley Donen’s ROYAL WEDDING/’51.

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