Today is the anniversary of the release date of the great Buster Keaton short The Playhouse (1921).
The Playhouse is most famous for its existential first half, in which Keaton plays everybody at a vaudeville house (by way of some camera tricks), including a ticket buyer, a conductor, a six man pit band, a nine man minstrel team**, both members of a dance duo, a stage manager, and a half dozen people in the audience, including three women and a bratty little boy.
We often forget (at least I do) that this sequence is just the first scene of this film. It turns out to have all been a dream. Buster is then rudely awakened by a guy who appears to be a repo man (Joe Roberts). Some assistants burst in and start hauling away his furniture. But this too is an illusion. They next take out the walls: for this is a stage set and Buster is a stagehand who’s been sleeping on the job.
We then move to a series of gags that have to do with his job at the theatre, but there isn’t much story. He punches a time clock—literally. He is told to dress an orangutan for a performance, but then the orang escapes, so Buster disguises himself as the ape and performs in the act in his stead. He is in love with one of a pair of twins (Virginia Fox), but keeps grabbing the wrong one. Then there is a routine with Civil War Zouave. Later, a guy’s fake beard catches fire. Buster takes a fire axe, clobbers the guy on the head with it and cuts off the beard with the axe. When a Houdini type girl has trouble and is drowning in her water tank, Buster first tries to empty it with a tea cup (a gag we saw Arbuckle do in The Rough House) , but then he finally smashes the glass. The orchestra fills up with water. Buster rows away in a drum. In the end, he marries the twin.
To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To learn about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.