100 Years Ago Today: Buster Keaton’s First Comedy Short is Released

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Today is the 100th anniversary of the release date of the Buster Keaton short One Week (1920), co-directed by Eddie Cline.

Most folks know that Keaton was the comedy auteur behind such feature-length classics as The Navigator (1924) and The General (1927). Fewer know that between 1920 and 1923 he created 19 PERFECT comedy shorts equal to or better than (depending how you argue) his better known features. Keaton had been a supporting player for Fatty Arbuckle since 1917. 1920 was when he hung out his own shingle. He had directed The High Sign prior to One Week, but it got released at a later date.  One Week was thus the first of Keaton’s solo shorts to see public distribution.

One Week was based on Home Made, an actual promotional film for do-it-yourself house construction released by the Ford Motor Company. In Buster’s version, just before his character starts to build his pre-fab dream house for himself and his bride (Sybil Seeley), his rival sabotages the effort by switching the numbers on the constituent pieces. The result is a make-work monstrosity out of a cubist nightmare: doors, walls, roofs, and windows all mismatched and not a single right angle in the construction. Later, when a storm strikes, the whole dealybob spins around and around on its foundation like a crank-fueled carousel. (Twisters are a frequent bête noir in Keaton’s Kansas-bred consciousness.)

When Buster learns that he has built his house on the wrong lot, he has to tow it to the correct spot. Unfortunately on the way, his car stalls on some railroad tracks. Seeing an onrushing train, we brace for disaster, then breathe a sigh of relief when it turns out that the locomotive is on an adjoining track. It passes, leaving the couple unharmed. A beat—and then the money shot: a train heading in the other direction comes from out of nowhere and smashes the house to splinters.

What sets Keaton apart is his famously tight story telling and the attention to character. Despite all the craziness, he never lets us forget this is about a couple of newlyweds working toward a very specific goal. We’re rooting for them to finish this house so they can begin their life together, even as comical events keep intruding to impede them.

NOTE: I’ll be giving an online talk on Buster Keaton’s comedy shorts on Saturday, September 26. For information on how to get access go here.  Meantime read all about all of Keaton’s other silent shorts, as well as his features (both silent and sound) in the Buster Keaton section of this blog (50 posts at this writing). For info on his pre-cinematic vaudeville beginnings go here.

To learn more about silent and slapstick comedy history, including Buster Keaton classics like “One Week”,  please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

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