The success and timeless longevity of Buster Keaton’s career probably owes much to his use of physical slapstick and his own intricate direction (Wes Anderson owes his career to the techniques Keaton established, by the way). Many film scholars suggest that the top billing Keaton received in Herbert Blaché’s The Saphead helped promote his career. After all, The Saphead is the first feature length film he ever appeared in and, for the part, Douglas Fairbanks picked him as his successor from the stage version. Is it enough then to suggest that Keaton – not the comedic version you’d expect - works his ass off to save this picture from itself?
Loosely based on a popular play by Bronson Howard, The Saphead isn’t so much a comedy of errors as one might expect. Nicholas Van Alstyne (William H. Crane), being the richest man in New York, wants his party-going son, Bertie (Keaton), to knock it off. Bertie, being misunderstood, simply wants to impress Agnes (Beulah Booker) but finds himself disowned instead. An unsuccessful lawyer named Mark (Irving Cummings) vies for Bertie’s spot in the family and convinces Van Alstyne that Bertie is a womanizer.
Soon enough, Mark is left in control of the family fortunes and plans to do nothing but invest them how he feels they should be and spends the money greedily. Bertie must prove to his father he is not the guilty one; Mark is. The Saphead is the story of how this all goes down and what Bertie must do – albeit inadvertently - to get back into his father’s good graces while the family still has their money.
The Saphead is notable for being one of the first pictures to capitalize on the dramatic possibilities that lie inside a Wall Street narrative. It’s a picture about the rich and their secrets; where the honest man is set to hang until the final act when he unknowingly saves the day. The end result – while it could be made much funnier if Keaton was behind the lens – is not typical of the classic Keaton material we’ve come to expect and it is more than obvious that Blaché isn’t using his star to his full potential when Keaton goes missing for more than half of the movie.
Dramatic scenes are strung together with more dramatic scenes and, while Blaché doesn’t blow it, Keaton is sidelined with repetitive images of trading-floor chaos and stock-ticker glances that are followed by dismayed looked by the newly bankrupt. Unfortunately, his duty to the dramatic underpinning of a narrative that never completely works is a bit off-putting for fans of ol’ Stone Face.
It is not until the very end (almost 70 minutes in) when audiences are finally treated to Keaton at his finest. Keaton launches into a physical tirade and hops, jumps, leaps about and slides under the legs of tycoons as he tries to buy back his family’s fortune. It’s an incredible action sequence of comedy and delight. But why did we have to wait so long to see Keaton do what Keaton does best? There’s no need to drag this sucker out. Let Keaton go, man! Let him do his thing. His presence alone saves this movie from being forgotten.
Yes, for fans of Buster Keaton, it seems The Saphead will forever remain a footnote.
MPAA Rating: This title has not been rated by the MPAA.
Director: Herbert Blaché; Winchell Smith
Writer: Bronson Howard
Cast: Buster Keaton; Edward Jobson; Beulah Booker; Edward Connelly; Edward Alexander
Genre: Classic | Silent | Comedy
Tagline: The Saphead
Memorable Movie Quote: "Do all these seats cost 100,000 dollars?"
Theatrical Distributor: Metro Pictures Corporation
Home Video Distributor: Kino International
Release Date: September 1920
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: July 10, 2012
Synopsis: In 1920, having served a slapstick apprenticeship in the shorts of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Buster Keaton had earned the opportunity to headline his own series of two-reel comedies. The very moment at which he emerged as a star of his own shorts, Keaton was recruited to appear in his first feature film, THE SAPHEAD, based on a popular stage play. Though Keaton was not the primary creative force behind THE SAPHEAD, as he was on his short films, it became hugely important in shaping the actor's on-screen persona: the lonely, stone-faced man thwarted by circumstance, inept at the art of romance, yet undaunted in his struggle for love within a chaotic world.
Keaton stars as Bertie Van Alstyne, the pampered son of a powerful Wall Street financier (William H. Crane). Having no other lifestyle but privilege, he wanders through a variety of misadventures - an attempt at courtship, a trip to an illegal gambling den, and a tumble onto the floor of the Stock Exchange - oblivious to the obstacles that stand before him. (theatrical)
English SDH, French, Spanish (less)
English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German SDH (less)
Available on Blu-ray - July 10, 2011
Screen Formats: 1.33:1
Language: English intertitles
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; English: LPCM 2.0; English: Dolby Digital 2.0
Discs: 50GB Blu-ray Disc Single disc (1 BD)
Length: 77 mins
Playback: Region A (reviewed)
No one does it like Kino. Their respect to early cinema is to be honored. The original materials for the print are imperfect and the wear is obvious throughout, but brilliantly transferred with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that shows great detail, vivid blacks and strong whites throughout. The scratches on the print are more evident (and so is the dirt) which leads me to suspect that The Saphead suffers from not being a true restoration. That being said, the print is doable and has great contrast throughout. Robert Israel's strong, well constructed, score is presented on a Dolby 2.0 track and a slightly fuller DTS-HD 5.1 track.
- It’s 92 years old and they can’t find someone to speak on its behalf? Shame.
Sharing the same features found on the “Ultimate Edition” released on DVD, The Saphead’s supplementals feature an alternative version of the movie. Composed of different takes and different camera angles, the alternative version has color tints and a piano composition performed by Ben Model. Don’t get too excited, this version is inferior to actual release in almost every way. Following that is a narration by film restoration Brett Wood which explains why there are two versions of the film floating about. Next up is an interesting audio recording made by Keaton in 1962. Here, in front of a group of friends, he explains his early career in vaudeville performing with his family. Rounding out the release is a promo and a gallery of sixteen pictures from Keaton’s vaudeville days.
- Alternate Version of The Saphead
- A Pair of Sapheads (8 min)
- Buster Keaton: Life of the Party (31 min)
- Why They Call Him Buster (1 min)
- Sixteen Stills