Film Reviews

The Saphead (1920) – Blu-ray Review

In a staggering statement of misguided over-optimism, US ambassador to Britain Robert ‘Woody’ Johnson proclaimed confidently in late 2019 that after the delivery of Brexit, the UK would enter a new era of golden opportunities, which he described as the “Roaring Twenties”.

Clearly seeking to draw parallels with the period which had garnered that nickname a century earlier, current evidence suggests that we seem to be skipping all of the fun partying and prosperity, and jumping straight to the huge economic crash and crisis which bookended it. So far, so bad. But at the start of that decade, before it had even had a chance to really get going, let alone begin to roar, a future legend of the silver screen was about to make his mark.

After honing his craft alongside Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle – a man who would later become a pariah in Hollywood – 1920 saw Buster Keaton progressing from making comedy shorts to appearing in longer movies. His feature film debut – The Saphead – presents us with a proto-Keaton, not yet fully formed, but showing many of the later hallmarks for which he would become known over his career. The Saphead is not in actuality the first Buster Keaton picture, but is rather the first picture which happens to feature Buster Keaton.

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Here, he is a hired hand, with little creative input, taking up a leading role in a production which is based on two plays, with Keaton’s role having originally been portrayed on the stage by Douglas Fairbanks Sr. It had originally been the intention for Fairbanks to reprise the part, but he was unavailable for the filming. However, it was Fairbanks who had actually put Keaton’s name forward as a replacement for him, giving the silent comic’s career a boost.

In The Saphead, Keaton plays Bertie Van Alstyne, son of the richest man in New York, Nicholas (William H. Crane), who is despairing of his son’s indolent, playboy lifestyle. However, Bertie’s behaviour is purely an act, as he wants to impress his true love, his adopted sister Agnes (Beulah Booker). He ends up in a series of escapades which culminate in his ending up on the floor of the Stock Exchange, unaware of just what fate has in store for the hapless, lovelorn saphead.

The film’s story is something of a vapid melodrama for the most part, with some wildly exaggerated performances on display, contrasting against the stillness and minimalism of Keaton. Although his trademark deadpan expression is in effect here throughout, it does come as a rather a surprise to see Keaton at times breaking into a smile, his resolute ‘Great Stone Face’ persona not quite in place. As such, The Saphead is not the knockabout comedy that you may perhaps expect, although Keaton does his utmost to make the most of every single bit of humour he can extract.

While having some lovely pieces of business earlier on in the movie, such as a delightful way of dismounting from a high window ledge, Keaton truly comes into his own during the big climax at the Stock Exchange, being hurled around the place with abandon, and taking knocks which you feel sure would floor anyone else. This is Keaton in his element, with creativity ablaze, and a clear demonstration of just what he was capable of achieving. Forget all the overwrought drama going on elsewhere, this is what we want.

As with the other entries in the Eureka! Masters Of Cinema range, we have an abundance of bonus content here, which for a film from more than 100 years ago still manages to put physical releases of modern blockbusters to shame. Here, a 1080p restoration by the Cohen Film Collection from a first generation nitrate print sits alongside an unexpected rarity: a complete, alternate cut of The Saphead, something which has survived against all the odds, and provides a fascinating comparison with the original edit.

A short featurette is on hand to help with guiding the viewer through the various key differences which exist between the two versions, highlighting the variant takes and angles. We also have a commentary track by film historian and writer David Kalat, giving us insights into Keaton’s breakthrough into longer features. The critic and filmmaker David Cairns delivers an interesting video essay, carrying on the sterling work which he has delivered on earlier Keaton releases from the Eureka! stable.

This release of The Saphead ends up being a real treasure trove, as we have a series of lengthy audio interviews with Keaton from the 1950s and 1960s. Once you get over that initial shock and novelty of hearing this silent comedian speak, you come to appreciate his love for the craft, as well as experiencing his rather cantankerous and curmudgeonly nature, with very few sacred cows left unslaughtered by his open candour. By his stage, he was already something of a relic of a bygone age, but he was still not yet done.

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Perhaps the major highlight of this set is the inclusion of The Scribe, Keaton’s last role from 1966, which – as unlikely as it sounds – was a health and safety awareness short. A perfect companion piece to The Railrodder, which was featured on Buster Keaton: 3 Films (Volume 3), The Scribe sees Keaton as inventive as he ever was, taking what could have so easily been a dry, dull film, and making it into something engaging and fun. The short film also has a commentary track by the director, who lets us know just what it was like to work with the senior – and, by then, sadly ailing – Keaton.

With an accompanying booklet with a range of essays on The Saphead, this Eureka! Blu-ray set has managed to serve up a release which elevates the main feature, and also provides a further worthy entry in the growing range of Keaton output under the Masters Of Cinema banner. A roaring success from the Twenties, getting a whole new lease of life in its current namesake, some 100 years hence.

The Saphead is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.

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