Monday, March 22, 2021

Buster Keaton's Silent Shorts -- Reel One -- March 22, 2021

Motion Picture News, 25-December-1920

This post is part of the Seventh Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, hosted by Lea at Silent-ology. For the first annual blogathon, I wrote about Buster Keaton's time in vaudeville: The 3-4-5 Keatons. For the second annual blogathon, I wrote about Buster Keaton and the Passing Show of 1917, the show he signed for after leaving vaudeville. For the third annual blogathon, I wrote about Buster's transition from vaudeville to the movies, Buster Keaton: From Stage to Screen.   For the fourth annual blogathon, I wrote about Buster Keaton's time in the US Army: Buster Keaton Goes to War. For the fifth annual blogathon, I wrote about Buster Keaton's time making short comedies with Roscoe Arbuckle, Comique: Roscoe, Buster, Al and Luke. For the sixth annual blogathon I wrote about Buster Keaton's First Feature: The Saphead.

Be sure to click on most images to see larger versions.

I first became interested in Buster Keaton when I watched The General with my grandfather and he told me how much he had always liked Buster Keaton.

When I discovered that the Anza Branch Library had a shelf of books about movies, I found two books about Buster Keaton, Buster's memoir My Wonderful World of Slapstick and Rudi Blesh's Keaton. I read both and I enjoyed learning about his career in vaudeville and his career in the movies.

After Buster Keaton's time making short comedies with Roscoe Arbuckle and serving in the US Army during World War One, Buster appeared in a feature that he did not help direct or write, The Saphead for Metro. 

After The Saphead, Buster started making a series of  nineteen two-reel comedies (actually, he made one before The Saphead, but it would be too complicated to explain). No one ever asks me, but I tell people that this series of comedies and Charlie Chaplin's series for Mutual are the two best series of silent comedy shorts ever made.  For the Seventh Annual Blogathon, I am writing about the Buster Keaton shorts produced for the first season, 1920-1921.

Motion Picture News, 02-October-1920

"One Week" was the first of the series to be released, but it was not the first one to be made. It is also one of my two favorites in the series. Buster wrote and directed, along with Eddie Cline. They wrote and directed all the movies released in this season, except for the last one released. Joe Schenk produced the whole series. 

The days of the week are marked by the leaves of a calendar. On the first day, Buster marries Sybil Seely. Their relationship is one of the nicest in his movies. "Handy Hank, the fellow she turned down" is the person who drives the bride and groom away from the wedding. No one has determined the name of the actor who played Hank. Hank hands them a letter. 

Buster's Uncle Mike has given them a wonderful wedding present: "a house and lot No. 99 Apple Street."

The house turns out to be a prefabricated structure that was delivered in crates and barrels. Buster and Sybil study the directions. 

On the second day, Buster is working on the house and Sybil is cooking breakfast. They kiss each other twice and look as if they mean it. 

Seeking revenge, Handy Hank alters the numbers on the crates.

On the third day, the sabotaged house is taking shape. Sadly, it is taking the shape of the droppings of a cubist dog. 

The house looks wrong to Buster, but Sybil paints two hearts with an arrow through them and Buster kisses her. Soon we have the famous scene of Sybil taking a bath. 

The print I watched may have been missing the transition from the third day to the fourth. 

On the fifth day, Friday the 13th, Sybil and Buster have a house warming party. Buster fights with Handy Hank. Buster is showing the guests a room upstairs when water starts coming though the ceiling. Buster opens an umbrella. In time, a mighty wind blows and makes the house start spinning. Buster can't get in. When Sybil and the guests are tossed out by centrifugal force, the guests leave and Sybil and Buster are left sitting on a box in the rain, which has grown into a biblical deluge. They kiss again.

On the morning of the sixth day, Buster and Sybil wake up sitting on the box. A man approaches them and says the sign was upside down. They were in lot 66. "You're on the wrong lot. Yours is across the railroad track." Sybil does not take this news well. They start preparing to move the house. 

Coincidentally, just a month ago, on 22-February-2021, a 139 year old Victorian house got moved several blocks in San Francisco. Lots of people watched in person or by live streams. People always enjoy watching a house move.

On the morning of the seventh day, the house is ready to move. It gets stuck on the railroad tracks. Buster took great pride in describing how he played with audience expectations in that gag. I won't spoil it for any poor soul who has not yet seen the movie.

Sybil and Buster give up on the house, but not on each other. They walk away hand-in-hand.

Moving Picture World, 09-October-1920

Motion Picture News, 20-November-1920

The series was a hit with exhibitors and their customers.

The next release in Buster's series was "Convict 13." The pace is not as good as it was in "One Week." Incidents with fish and a dog seem unnecessary. 

Motion Picture News, 09-Septmber-1920

Golf comedies were always popular.

"His best attempt to win her heart." Buster Keaton and Sybil Seely are golfing. She is good at it.  He is not. She watches him from what appears to be the terrace of a country club. It seems strange to watch Buster not be proficient at anything that involves physical skill. Buster is knocked cold when his ball ricochets off of a shed. 

A death row convict escapes a nearby penitentiary and he exchanges clothes with Buster, who is still unconscious. The warden plans to hang Buster right away. Sybil is the warden's daughter and she saves Buster. He knocks out a guard and takes his uniform. He locks up a powerful inmate, played by huge Joe Roberts, and becomes deputy warden. Buster saves Sybil from the powerful inmate and  knocks himself out. Then he wakes up and learns it was all a dream. 

Co-director Eddie Cline played the hangman. 

Moving Picture World, 09-October-1920

Virginia Fox followed Sybil Seely as Buster's leading lady. 

Moving Picture World, 23-October-1920

Buster's next release was shot under the title "The Backyard."

Motion Picture News, 25-December-1920

Buster's next release was released under the title "Neighbors." It tells the tale of two lovers, Buster Keaton and Virginia Fox, who are separated by a back fence and their families. Buster's father is played by Buster's father, Joe. Giant Joe Roberts played Virginia's father. 

"Neighbors" does not hold up as well as some of Buster's other comedies. Buster winds up in blackface twice, or perhaps one and a half times, and a stereotypical scene has an African-American family scared by a ghost.

Motion Picture News, 25-December-1920

Co-director Eddie Cline played one of the cops chasing Buster.

Motion Picture News, 05-March-1921

Many of Buster's co-workers on the series of shorts also worked on his feature films. 

Motion Picture News, 01-January-1921

After finishing "Neighbors," Buster's crew won the baseball championship of Hollywood. 

Motion Picture News, 05-February-1921

"The Scarecrow" was one film in the series that I did not see until I bought the Kino set. Buster and Joe Roberts are farmhands who share a room filled with labor-saving gadgets. The phonograph is a stove. The bookshelf is a refrigerator. Their breakfast is a wonderful scene. 

Both men are in love with the farmer's daughter, Sybil Seely. The farmer is Buster's father, Joe. 

Buster interrupts Luke the Dog, who was Roscoe Arbuckle's dog in real life, who is licking up the filling of a cream pie. Luke chases Buster, who thinks that Luke is rabid.  Luke chases Buster in and out of the windows and around the tops of the walls of a derelict adobe house.

Buster loses most of his clothes getting away from Luke. Buster meets Sybil and her father and runs from them. He pretends to be a scarecrow in the field. Buster and Sybil run away on a horse and then a motorcycle. They scoop up a minister, who marries them on the motorcycle. 

Co-director Eddie Cline plays a truck driver who runs into Joe Roberts. 

Motion Picture News, 08-January-1921

Buster may have been the first comic to appear on both ends of a bill, The Saphead as the feature and "The Scarecrow" as the short comedy.

"The Haunted House" follows a common story in comedy, a group of criminals makes a house appear to be appointed to keep outsiders away. A highlight is a stairway that turns into a slide with the throw of a lever. Buster broke his ankle on the stairway. "The Haunted House" also throws in a low-rent opera company that has been performing Faust

Motion Picture News, 17-March-1920

Buster plays a bank clerk. Virginia Fox is the daughter of the bank president. Joe Roberts is a bank clerk and the leader of the criminals.  Buster has a mishap with some glue. The bank robbers also have trouble with the glue. Buster gets accused of the robbery and flees. The opera company runs away from its unhappy audience. They all wind up in the haunted house. 

The president's daughter follows the evil clerk to the house. After much running around and waving of arms, Buster captures the crooks and rescues Virginia, her dad and a couple of sheriffs. 

Co-director Eddie Cline plays a bank customer.

Motion Picture News, 01-January-1921

Keep in mind that Buster broke his ankle mading "The Haunted House." This must have messed with their schedule.

"Hard Luck" was considered lost until 1986, when it was partly reconstructed. One major piece is missing. 

In "Hard Luck," Buster's character is suicidal. Harold Lloyd had attempted suicide in "Haunted Spooks." 

Buster has lost his job, his girl and his money. He tries to get hit by a streetcar and an auto and attempts to hang himself from a tree. He drinks whiskey from a bottle labelled "Poison." He volunteers for an expedition to capture an armadillo for the zoo. He recovers his confidence as he meets Virginia Fox at a country club fox hunt (!). Lizard Lip Luke, a bandit and train robber, appears with his gang. He is played by Joe Roberts. The gang invades the country club. Buster rescues Virginia from the clutches of Lizard Lip Luke. After a slight twist, we come to the missing ending. 

Motion Picture News, 26-March-1921

Motion Picture News, 16-April-1921

"The High Sign" was the first movie made in the series, but no one was happy with it, so they held it till almost the end of the first season before releasing it. It filled a slot while Buster recovered from his ankle, which had been broken in "The Haunted House." I remember when "The High Sign" was thought to be a lost film.

A high sign is a subtle hand signal, as we see in this example with Paul Newman in The Sting, used by members of a group to communicate secretly with each other. As you see in the example from "The High Sign," the high sign used by the Blinking Buzzards, a Black Hand-style gang of criminals, is a little less subtle.

Buster is thrown off of a train next to a beach-side amusement park. One of his greatest jokes follows, unfolding a never-ending newspaper which turns out to be a single sheet of paper. He finds a help wanted ad for a shooting gallery. Buster steals a policeman's pistol from his holster and substitutes a banana. 

Buster meets Al St John, his old friend and companion from the Roscoe Arbuckle movies.  Buster does some target practice, which doesn't go well.  The giant proprietor of the shooting gallery gives Buster the job. The proprietor is the leader of the Blinking Buzzards. Their next target is the town miser. They promise to kill him that day unless he pays a large amount of money.

The miser and his pretty daughter, played by Bartine Burkett, ask Buster to serve as his bodyguard. 

The proprietor has Buster join the gang, showing him the high sign and the secret knock. Buster is ordered to kill the town miser. There is a wild chase through secret passages in the miser's house. 

Motion Picture News, 26-February-1921

"The Goat" was the last movie of the first season. Buster and Mal St Clair co-directed this one. 

Buster is a poor guy who has to stand in a bread line. He gets mistaken for Dead Shot Dan, an escaped murderer. Buster gets chased by many policeman, including big Joe Roberts. My wife was walking by and she said "This must be 'Cops.'" I said no, it was just a bunch of cops.

Next year in Reel Two, I hope to write about the movies released in the second season, 1921-1922. 

This post is part of the Seventh Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, hosted by Lea at Silent-ology. Thank you to Lea for all the hard work. Thank you to everyone who visited and I encourage you to read and comment on as many posts as you can. Bloggers love comments. 


  1. Your post is phenomenal once again! You are truly a fount of Damfino wisdom and I love your Buster Posts! Thank you for such an amazing summary of amazing films!

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I had fun doing it and learned some things I didn't know before.

  2. Beautiful summary of Buster's first "season" in the movies. You had me at your review of ONE WEEK, one of my all-time favorite short subjects. Terrific post!

    1. Hi Steve. I'm glad you liked it. "One Week" is right up there with my favorite short comedies. Thanks for commenting.

  3. I always love your posts, Joe, especially since you find all those wonderful ads and clippings. This was one of Buster's most inspired periods, that's for sure. Thanks for another great contribution!

  4. Hi Lea. I'm very happy you enjoy my posts. I'm also happy and impressed that this is seventh year of your blogathon. That is pretty rare. I have been tied up all week with work issues, but I will read all the posts and comment on them over the weekend.

  5. I love your posts about Buster - and the newspaper clippings you add! These shorts are amazing and, even though One Week is my favorite, I have a soft spot in my heart for The Scarecrow and recently I watched The High Sign and loved it. I didn't know Buster had broken an ankle filming The Haunted House! Another proof that I learn something every time I visit your blog.

  6. Hi Lê. I'm happy you enjoyed it. One Week and The Boat are my two favorites fro this series. Thanks for the comment. I am looking forward to your post.


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