Saturday, November 28, 2015

Stubs – One Week

One Week (1920) Starring: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely Directed by Buster Keaton, Eddie Cline. Written by Buster Keaton, Eddie Cline. Produced by Joseph M. Schenck. Run Time: 22 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Comedy, Silent

As you may already know or have surmised, every Friday night my family and I watch a movie. One of my favorite experiences was the several Fridays we spent watching the Art of Buster Keaton, a collection of 11 features and 21 shorts that Keaton produced between 1920 and 1928. This is the period between his work with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and his going to work at MGM. During this time, he produced several of the best and funniest films of the silent era, including Sherlock Jr. (1924), The General (1927), and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928).

Joseph Keaton became known as Buster at the age of only eighteen months. The story is that he was nicknamed by the great illusionist Houdini, who was present when young Keaton took a long tumble down a stairway without injury. Houdini supposedly commented, “That’s a real buster!”, referring to the fall, but Keaton’s father began using it as his nickname. Buster began his career in earnest at the age of three, performing with his parents, as The Three Keatons. Joseph was regularly tossed around on stage by his father as part of the act.

After serving during World War I, Keaton met Arbuckle in 1917 and was soon offered a role in the film Butcher Boy (1917). Keaton worked with Arbuckle in 14 films until 1920, when Arbuckle signed a lucrative contract with Paramount Pictures.

The first film Keaton made as a solo act was The High Sign, but he was disappointed by the results and shelved the film, releasing it a year later in 1921, when injuries prevented him from completing work on The Haunter House (1921), forcing him to release the short.

For inspiration for his next film, Keaton used a Ford Motor Company documentary, Home Made (1919), an educational short about prefabricated housing. After watching the that film, Keaton decided to parody it. Since Home Made is not a well known film today, it is lost on modern audiences that Keaton used many of the same devices employed in that film, including the wedding, a Model T and the calendar as a way to show the progression of time.

The film opens on Monday the 9th (month unknown) with the wedding of the groom (Buster Keaton) and the bride (Sybil Seely) leaving their wedding. They have the traditional send off of good wishes, rice and old shoes, the latter of which Keaton looks through for a good pair.

The groom (Buster Keaton) finds a usable pair of shoes. The bride (Sybil Seely) is not amused.
Driving them away is a not so happy Handy Hank (actor’s name unknown) who hands the groom an envelope. As a wedding present, Uncle Mike has given the couple a house and a lot (99 Apple Street).

Away they go, but the groom is uncomfortable showing his new bride affection with her ex-boyfriend in the driver’s seat. So much so, that when a car pulls up next to them, Keaton escorts his bride into that car’s backseat. Keaton is straddling the two cars when a motorcylcist cuts between the two and knocks Keaton to the street. Keaton watches as Handy Hank abandons the car he’s driving and joins the bride in the other car’s backseat.

Handy Hank (actor unknown), the bride's ex-, drives the newlyweds away.

The motorcyclist gives Keaton a ride to where a traffic cop is directing traffic. Knocking the cop down, Keaton puts on his hat and has the car with his bride stop. Seely gets out, but so does Handy Hank. Keaton whacks the cop over the head with his baton and then gives it to Handy Hank. In the confusion, Keaton and Seely walk away to their honeymoon car, which is still running and get in.

Buster manages to stop the car and get Handy Hank implicated in hitting the traffic cop.

The newlyweds arrive at 99 just as the last of the boxes are being unloaded off the back of the delivery truck. “Here’s your house,” the workman calls out, just as the truck pulls away.

Unfazed at the disappointment, Keaton finds the instructions, the first of which is build the house by the numbers on the boxes.

By Tuesday, the 10th, the building project is underway. The first floor is mocked up and Buster is already working on the second. While Seely makes breakfast, Keaton tries to saw a board, finally deciding to nail it down and then gets on the wrong side of the board to cut it. When Seely calls out that breakfast is ready, Buster says he’ll be right down. Truer words have never been spoken.

Just then Handy Hank shows up on the scene and renumbers some of the boxes, making 1 a 4 and 3 an 8 while Buster is not looking.

Meanwhile, Buster is both graceful and incompetent as a builder. He is shown easily catching a hammer thrown up to him (actually a reversed shot), but his carpentry leaves something to be desired. Not only does the wall he’s working on swing 180 degrees, leaving Seely, who had been sitting in a window seal on the first floor hanging on for dear life, but it deposits Buster, who had been on the second floor back on the ground. Seconds later, the entire wall falls over, narrowly missing the groom, who is looking for his disappeared bride.

The first time Keaton used this narrow miss.

By Wednesday, the 11th, Handy Hank’s handiwork is starting to show. The house is now lopsided, leaning in one direction and the entire roof is turned 90 degrees. Still, it’s home and Seely paints a couple of cupid hearts on the side. After kissing her, the ever shy groom runs around to the other side of the house, where the kitchen sink is on the outside. There is also an outside door on the second floor with nothing but air on the other side. Buster hammers at the pipes and then swivels the wall around as he goes inside.

The house doesn't look like it did in the instructions.

The piano mover (Joe Roberts) arrives carrying a stand up like a sack of potatoes. Buster, hearing the deliveryman, climbs out a window using a ladder, with each rung coming detatched as he goes until it’s all unattached wood pieces. The piano man hands the piano to Buster, who is crushed by the weight.

The piano man (Joe Roberts) delivers a new piano for the new house.

After the deliveryman rights everything, Seely shows up with ropes and Buster takes down a wall of the house to make room. Buster sets up a pulley in the middle of the livingroom. 

The harder he pulls, the more the ceiling bows.

Meanwhile, Handy Hank shows up to wallpaper an upstairs room and sits down in the middle of the room to calculate the work. The pulley on the ceiling of the floor below pulls the floor down with it and when Buster lets go of the rope, Handy Hank is catapulted through the roof, with his head sticking out.

The only thing long enough to reach up that high is the porch railing, which Buster disassembles and uses as a ladder. Buster tries to pry Handy Hank out, but when he bends the pole, he inadvertently uses it to propel Handy Hank down back into the house.

Buster tries to pry Handy Hank out of the roof.

Seely comes looking for Buster and won’t let him explain what happened, pushing him to finishing with the piano. Using a long board to bolster the ceiling, Buster manages, with some difficulty, to pull the unwieldy piano into the house. Placing it causes the floor to collapse under its weight. While Buster is trying to figure out what happened, Seely returns with sheet music, “The End of a Perfect Day,’ which Buster places on the still half in the floor piano.

On Thursday the 12th, the floor has been repaired and the piano has been moved, since Buster is ready to lay carpeting. He removes his coat and gets down to work.

Meanwhile, Seely in the kitchen has an accident and gets milk all over her.

Back in the living room, this isn’t wall to wall carpeting, but when Buster is done, there is a lump in the middle where he had left his coat. Rather than untack the carpet, he takes out a knife and cuts his coat out. To cover up the hole, he puts down a smaller rug. Stepping out into the foyer, Buster sees a can of paint and, using the carpet remnant, he paints, upside down and backwards, WELCOME, creating a welcome mat.

In order to get the milk out of her hair, Seely takes a bath.

Outside, Buster uses the the railing/ladder to try to place the chimney, which is one solid piece, on the roof.

Back inside, Seely accidentally drops the bar of soap on the floor. Her first inclination is to naturally get up and get it, but she is also aware that the camera is on so she doesn’t rise up. A hand covers the lens from behind to give her a chance to pick it up.

Discretion. A hand covers up Seely reaching for the soap.

Up on the roof, Buster wears the chimney as he places it in a pre-cut hole in the roof. Dropping down through the roof, Buster lands in the full, but empty bathtub. Seely, we see, is in the shower now. There is now water everywhere on the floor and Seely commands Buster to get a mop. Stepping through the door, Buster steps out into space and falls to ground, landing on his back with a big plume of dust.

Buster struggles with the chimney, which is one solid piece.

The next day is Friday the 13th and the house is ready for a house warming party. Handy Hank, along with several other guests, are there, waiting for Buster to serve them food. When a hungry Handy Hank takes food off someone else’s plate, Buster pulls out his chair before he sits back down. Handy Hank doesn’t like this treatment and chases after Buster. Buster runs upstairs and into the bathroom. Holding open the door, Hank runs through it and when he hits the ground, still running, he runs straight into a fence.

The calendar is used to show the passage of days.

Buster joins some guests who are taking a self-guided tour of the house when he realizes it is raining outside and the roof is leaking like a sieve. Nonchalantly, Buster picks up a nearby umbrella, but decides he needs to investigate.

Stepping outside, the wind takes the umbrella away from him. The wind blows so hard that the entire house starts to move; a little at first, but soon it is spinning like a top. Try as he might, Keaton can’t do anything to stop it.

The house starts to spin in the windy storm.

The guests inside the house also are spinning around like they are trapped inside a runaway merry-go-round. Keaton makes several attempts to get back into the house, but it’s difficult to hit a moving target. Finally, he manages to throw himself inside, but no sooner does he try to stand than he is thrown around the room. Catching himself on the front door knob, he is thrown out of the house. Meanwhile, Seely is spinning out of control on a piano stool, spun so hard that she, too, is thrown from the house, landing next to Buster on the ground.

Eventually, all the guests are also thrown from the spinning house. One guests comes forward to shake Buster’s hand, thanking him for “a lovely afternoon on your merry-go-round.” Adding, “It’ll be better when you put in your hobby-horses.”

Left alone, Buster and Seely ride out the storm on a box that gets thrown by the winds.

Buster and Seely wait out the storm outside.

Saturday the 14th. After the storm, the house, battered and torn, is still standing, but the Keatons’ problems are not over. The rightful owner of the land walks up with the address sign and informs them that they are not at 99 Apple, but 66 Apple. Their lot is across the railroad tracks.

Undeterred, Buster starts to move the house. Seely gets the jack from the car and they raise the house high enough to put barrels under it.

On Sunday, the 15th, the Keatons are finally ready to move their house. With barrels in place and a tow rope attached to their car, Buster starts to pull, while Seely tends to the barrels. They manage to limp along like this until they get to the railroad tracks. The barrels get caught up and the tow rope breaks.

Buster attempts to tow the house to its proper location.

Buster gets a bright idea. He backs the car into the house and then, using long nails, attaches the back seat to the outer wall. But when he attempts to gun the engine to pull the house, the car chassis and engine move forward, but the body of the car stays attached to the house.

Buster has the bright idea to nail the car to the house.

Buster goes back to the rear of the house, where Seely is still trying to push it forward and tells her what’s happened.

Meanwhile, a train is coming their way. It blows its horn, which gets the Keatons’ attentions.

They realize then, that they are standing on the track and try to run off in opposite directions, while pulling the other one with them. They try in vain to move the house off the tracks and when it is too late, Buster pulls Seely aside and they wait for the impact. But the train is on the next track over and misses the house.

Waiting for the impact that never comes.

They finally open their eyes and are relieved that their house is still standing. But they don’t see a train coming in the other direction on their track. The house gets the worse of the impact, splintering into pieces.

But their relief is short-lived.

The Keatons, who were thrown to the ground by the impact, get up and dust themselves off. Buster pulls out a For Sale sign and places it next to the pile of rubble. He then takes out the envelope marked Directions and leaves it on the sign. Buster and Seely hold hands and walk away and the film ends.

One Week is an example of the genius of Keaton. There is real physical humor as well as pathos. Keaton is stone faced throughout and never seems to give up. But eventually, you can’t make lemonade from lemons forever.

There are many essential elements of Buster’s future films found in this one. There is almost a math and science to his humor. He utilizes machines to full effect and not so much in this case the train, which does supply laughs as it smashes through their home. (Keaton would famously work with trains again in The General.)

In One Week, the machine is the turntable on which the house was built. Keaton did not use minatures and the effects were as real as the stunts. The side of the house, which narrowly misses him, is all based on exacting measurements that show real danger, but try to minimize the actual danger the actor puts himself in. This bit, as well as being thrown about by a windy storm would be used to greater effect in Steamboat Bill Jr., which would be Buster’s last film before signing away his freedom to MGM.

Keaton was not impervious to injury. During the scene in which Keaton falls flat on his back from the second story door, the impact with the ground caused his arms and back to swell.

Sybil Seely, who was only 18 years old at the time, had been in films for about a year and had already appeared in eight films (shorts) before she made One Week. She would appear in several more Keaton films, including Convict 13 (1920), The Scarecrow (1920), The Boat (1921) and The Frozen North (1922), which would also be her last film. After having married screenwriter Jules Furthman in 1920 and giving birth to their son, Jules Jr., in 1921, Seely retired from pictures in 1922 at the ripe old age of 20. Not only does she hold her own with one of comedy’s legends, but she seems to have a pleasant personality on screen and, like Keaton, wasn’t afraid to try her own stunts.

While One Week might show the potential to come, it is still a very funny movie. Clever and quick-paced, there are multiple laugh out loud moments throughout the 22-minute short. If you don’t find yourself laughing, then I suggest you check your pulse, because you’re probably dead.

One of the forgotten gems of the silent era, One Week showcases Buster Keaton’s talents to full effect. The film is clever, sophisticated and slapstick all mixed together by a master of comedy. And while there would be more to come, none would necessarily be funnier than this one. Spend 22 minutes with One Week and you should be a Keaton fan for life.

For reviews of other silent films, please see our silent film review hub here.

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