Buster Keaton in “One Week”
It’s difficult to watch these early Buster Keaton films without applying hindsight. Pretty much the only lens I can view them through is the one colored by what I know (and love) about Keaton’s later feature film work. I’ll start my week of Buster Keaton reviews by saying, yes, the films are funny. They often border on the very slapstick, Keystone kind of funny, but they are funny. Be forewarned though. I’m reading these early Keaton shorts like reading tea leaves, trying to catch glimpses of the great Silent Clown that I know Keaton becomes.
From that angle, the very title of this short is cause for alarm. We know “One Week” is a long time and a lot of opportunity for things to go sideways in Buster’s world. The film begins with Buster leaving the church just after marrying The Bride (played by Sybil Seely). What should be a happy occasion is somewhat marred by the presence of The Bride’s former suitor, Handy Hank, seething just outside. Fortunately for their nuptial bliss, a very generous Uncle Mike has gifted the young couple with a house and a lot.
But there’s a catch. After some acrobatic antics and car stunts to get there, Buster and The Bride arrive at the lot to find that the house is in a box. It’s a do-it-yourself jobby, with very simple instructions: “To give this house a snappy appearance put it up according to the numbers on the boxes.” And here lies the potential for some very classic, Keaton-esque humor. In his best work, Keaton’s characters are foiled (and eventually triumphant) by applying the same unswerving, unassailable logic to increasingly irrational situations. The potential for a single mis-step that will derail the entire project is great when Buster is building his house in a box and we know that no matter what, he will dutifully follow instructions. We see Handy Hank creep in, with evil in his heart, and renumber Buster’s house pieces, so it’s not surprising when we see the results.
There are many hints of the Buster Keaton that will be in “One Week.” Due to his own incompetence, one complete side of his lopsided house falls on him, though Buster remains unscathed because he’s standing precisely where the window cutout is, a gag that Keaton will revisit to far greater effect in Steamboat Bill Jr. And there is a fantastic bit of rug shenanigans that ranks right up there with any of Keaton’s creative problem solving gags. Keaton lays his coat on the floor and inconveniently nails an area rug down on top of it. When confronted with lump, he neatly cuts a square in the middle of the rug and retrieves the coat. When confronted with an area rug missing a chunk in the middle, Keaton quite logically covers it with a second rug. Then, realizing he has an “extra” rug, the piece he cut from the first. Of course, his new rug is upside down, so he paints “Welcome” upside down and backwards and neatly turns the rug about. Voila, a third rug! It’s a bit of obsessive, logic application that parallels any number of similar gags in Keaton’s later mature work.
Some elements of “One Week” are Keaton-ish, yet not fully realized. To be sure, there are some physical stunts but Keaton doesn’t deliver the acrobatics as fluidly as he eventually would. In “One Week” Keaton’s physical performance is still a little vaudevillian, a little too stagey. There’s a moment when he pokes his rear out of an open window the slide down a waiting ladder. The gag is that ladder rungs collapse beneath him in a domino effect. But Keaton takes a moment to position himself just so, and it’s a pause that calls attention to the stunt. It’s a beat to long, a beat too deliberate.
Perhaps most stunning is a bathtub scene at appearing at about the 13 minute mark. Somewhat scandalously we see The Bride having a bath. She drops the soap and, just before leaning out of the tub to retrieve, she looks directly at the camera. A hand appears from outside of the frame and politely covers the lens and saves her modesty. After she gets her soap back, she gives the camera a flirty look before resuming her bath. Wowza! Not only is the fourth wall not broken in 1920, film-makers not thinking of this invisible fourth wall just yet. Buster Keaton will take this meta-examination of the filmmaking process to an extreme late in Sherlock Jr. (1924), but here it is very early in his career. This scene proves not only hints at the brilliance to come from Keaton, but provides evidence that while he worked hard to hone a craft, the novice comic writer and director already possessed the innate talents.
I watched “One Week” on Netflix Instant, where it’s included as part of the Slapstick Masters set. It’s also conveniently available for viewing and download at www.archive.org. Steer clear of the terrible youtube version that was recorded from a movie theater seat.