100 Years Ago Today: Buster Keaton in “The Saphead”

Released October 18, 1920: The Saphead.

The Saphead is a bit of an anomaly in the career of Buster Keaton — though a major release and a big step in his career, most of his fans don’t consider it a Keaton film at all. This is because it was what was known as a “straight” comedy and not an excercise in slapstick, which was Keaton’s genius. Straight comedies were essentially like what we know today as rom-coms, mildly funny boy-meets-girl stories, ironically often dialogue-driven (with intertitles) and not much physical comedy. Douglas Fairbanks was the biggest star of this kind of comedy before he made swashbucklers. In fact, the Saphead was a remake of Fairbanks’ first such vehicle The Lamb (1915), itself an adaptation of Bronson Howard’s 1913 Broadway play The New Henrietta. It was produced by Metro Pictures (not yet merged into MGM) and directed by Herbert Blache (husband of Alice Guy-Blache) and William Smith.

Keaton had just begin directing his own slapstick shorts at Comique, but didn’t yet have the juice to be the creative boss on The Saphead, Later, when Broadway hits like Seven Chances (1925) and Battling Butler (1926) were purchased for him to star in, he found ways to put his slapstick stamp on them. Not yet the case with The Saphead. Consquently it is in many ways more like his later MGM talkie vehicles, like Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931); and The Passionate Plumber (1932). Keaton is IN them, without being the man BEHIND them.

But The Saphead did influence Keaton’s oeuvre in one way though, I think. In his previous films with Roscoe Arbuckle, he typically played farmhands, store clerks, and the like — the more typical kind of character in the low-brow universe of slapstick. In The Saphead, he plays Bertie “The Lamb”, a Poor Little Rich Boy, and going forward this would be one of his frequent comic personas in features: dudes in spats and tuxedoes, who lacked basic common sense or basic practical skills.

At any rate, The Saphead proved an interesting experiment. After its release, Keaton returned to the trenches, cranking out slapstick comedies. His next feature would be The Three Ages (1923), over which he would have infinitely more control.

To learn more about comedy film history, including Buster Keaton comedies like “The Saphead” please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube