Buster Keaton in The Saphead (1920) from Kino Classics
The Blu-ray release of Herbert Blaché’s The Saphead (1920) is the latest addition to Kino’s extensive catalog of Buster Keaton films. The Saphead holds the distinction of being Keaton’s first feature length motion picture. Prior to this movie, he starred in a number of two-reel shorts with dear friend and mentor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. The Saphead is adapted from Winchell Smith’s stage play The New Henrietta, which starred Douglas Fairbanks. When Metro Studios began casting for the film, Fairbanks was asked to recreate his role as the dim-witted, well-meaning Bertie Van Alstyne. He declined and suggested Keaton for the part.
Nicholas “Old Nick” Van Alstyne (William H. Crane) is a wealthy investor and businessman in New York City. Old Nick’s most recent acquisition is the Henrietta Mine, making him the richest man in town. Despite his prominence in the stock market and New York society, Old Nick struggles with the perpetual thorn in his side, son Bertie (Buster Keaton). Each night Bertie stays out late gambling and carousing, usually sleeping until late afternoon. Adding insult to Old Nick’s injury, Bertie is rather dense. Truth is, Bertie is actually feigning his wild behavior to win the heart of Agnes (Beulah Booker), who happens to be his adopted sister. Bertie’s biological sister Rose (Carol Holloway) knows that he loves Agnes, but must keep it a secret from their father. Upon returning home from college, Agnes informs Rose that she is in love with Bertie. Relieved that he no longer has to live the life of a playboy, Bertie proposes marriage to Agnes. Fearful of Old Nick’s reaction to their engagement, the couple asks Rose to break the news. Old Nick immediately condemns their engagement, citing Bertie’s n’er-do-well tendencies. Nick reluctantly agrees to bless their union on the condition Bertie establishes independence so to provide for Agnes. Despite the best of intentions, Bertie struggles to win his father’s favor. Stepping into the “ideal son” role is Rose’s husband, Mark (Irving Cummings). Although Old Nick respects and trusts him, Mark is a failure. Rose urges her father to help Mark steady his feet in the business world so he can be successful. The family doesn’t realize that Mark is dishonest and hiding a dark secret. Through a series of terrible events, Old Nick is on the verge financial ruin, but is rescued by a most unlikely hero.
Although this is Keaton’s first feature-length motion picture, it is certainly not a Buster Keaton film. He did not have any creative control over the writing, production, and direction as he did in later films like The General, Our Hospitality, and Sherlock Jr. The Saphead is merely a mediocre film with a restrained, underused Keaton. There is one brief sequence near the end of the film allowing Keaton to show a glimpse of his physical comedy genius, but the scene feels disjointed from the rest of the movie.
Kino Classics has a tremendous reputation for providing high quality, extras-laden DVDs and Blu-rays. The Saphead is no exception. The video and audio are both exceptional, especially for a 92 year old film. The Blu-ray edition features two versions of the movie, one being the standard American release and the other an alternate version intended for international audiences. The disc includes a brief featurette comparing the two versions. Also included are two different scores: one by Robert Israel and the other by Ben Model. One of the most enjoyable extras is an audio recording from 1962 entitled Buster Keaton: Life of the Party. Although The Saphead is not a great movie, Kino’s release is a nice addition to your Buster Keaton collection.
The Saphead (Ultimate Edition)
Starring: Buster Keaton, Carol Holloway, Edward Connelly, William H. Crane
Composers: Ben Model & Robert Israel
Jill Blake is the owner of the classic film website Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. She is also a co-founder and editor of the film site The Black Maria and film editor at CC2K. In 2012, she was interviewed on-air by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. In 2013, she was a featured guest on the TCM podcast. In her spare time Jill is a stay-at-home mom, wife, fried okra connoisseur, and the neighborhood’s own L.B. Jeffries.