The Saphead (1920) – By Duane L. Martin

You know, there are people out there who are film experts who are immensely knowledgeable about and immense amount of things relating classic films and the people who make and star in them. I’m not going to pretend to be one of those people. I have my little areas of knowledge, but I’m not one of those people. My knowledge comes from being a fan of these films, and includes a lot of incidentals and familiarities that I’ve picked up over the years from watching a multitude of these great old classics. For example, I absolutely love slapstick comedy. As such, I’m very familiar with the films of Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, etc…. There are a lot of others I’m far less familiar with or have virtually no experience with as well. I freely admit that I’m not an encyclopedia of film knowledge.

That said, this review isn’t going to be full of trivia and facts about Buster Keaton and his work. However, I have seen and experienced an immense amount of his works, as I own the Keaton DVD box set from Kino, and the Arbuckle and Keaton volumes, also from Kino. I’m a big Keaton fan, and I have been for a long time now, which is why I was so excited when I found out that Kino was releasing his film, The Saphead, on blu-ray. The film is included in the Buster Keaton DVD box set, but I’m always looking to upgrade to blu-ray versions of anything I can get my hands on, so this was an exciting prospect for me, and I jumped at the chance to review it.

This film was Keaton’s first starring role in a feature after his work in the Fatty Arbuckle shorts. The film is based on the popular stage play of the time, and is distinctly lacking in the slapstick style we’ve become accustomed to with Keaton films. It does contain some of these elements, but they’re not the main focus of the film, as they were in the shorts he produced that he had creative control over. This film is more character driven, but it did go a long way to establishing a persona that he used in future films. In this film, Keaton plays Bertie Van Alstyne, the son of a rich Wall St. mogul, Nicholas Can Alstyne, known on the street as Old Nick of The Street.

This film actually has several different storylines going on at the same time. Here’s a quick rundown of them.

Nicholas Van Alstyne invests heavily in the Henrietta mine on the word of an old friend of his that the mine is going to be a massive producer. Nicholas’ son-in-law Mark Turner is a broker, who after bemoaning the fact that Nicholas never gives him any commissions, convinces his wife Rose to talk to her father, after which, Nicholas starts entrusting his trades to Mark. Unfortunately, Mark was a bit of a Jack the Lad, and had a former relationship with a dancer named Henrietta. She was dying, and sent him a letter letting him know, and telling him that she wanted to see him, otherwise she was going to send all of his old letters to her to his wife.

Bertie was in love with his adopted sister Agnes, and they wanted to be married, but in Mark’s desperation to hide the truth about his past affair, he makes it appear as though Bertie was the one who’d had an affair with Henrietta, which ruins Berties marriage and leaves both he and Agness depressed and despondant, but Bertie kept his silence because he didn’t want to see his sister hurt.

Later, Mark turns on Nicholas, and after getting his power of attourney and convincing Nicholas to go off on a three day yacht trip, he hatches a plot to drive down the value of the Henrietta mine so he can buy up all the stocks for himself, thereby making himself rich while at the same time, ruining Nicholas. Unfortunately for him, the clueless Bertie, who had bought himself a seat on the stock exchange to try to curb his depression, was downstairs at the time and getting really upset that people kept shouting the name Henrietta. A broker friend of his named Watson Flint, who was ordered by Mark to devalue the mine stock, gets an idea to save both the mine and Nicholas from Mark’s machinations. He tells Bertie that the way he can make people stop yelling the name Henrietta on the floor is to go up to everyone who’s yelling the name and tell them very loudly, "I’ll take it!" Bertie doesn’t understand it, but it seems to work, and desperately runs around the floor shouting the phrase at everyone he can find who’s shouting the name Henrietta, unknowingly buying up all the Henrietta stock and saving Nicholas. The truth finally comes out about Mark in the end, and everyone ends up happy, but it’s a very tummultuous trip for the clueless Bertie, who had lived his life being pampered and didn’t really understand the workings of the real world.

I’ve seen some people complain about this film because it’s not Keaton’s typical slapstick style. It does contain some slapstick, mostly on the floor of the stock exchange, but this film isn’t really about that. It’s about characters. Keaton’s character is a very kind, but also very clueless, pampered son of a rich man who doesn’t really understand love or how things in the real world work. Nevertheless, with a distinct innocence and a good heart, he manages to muddle through whatever troubles he comes up against. Considering his background as a slapstick sidekick, the fact that he was given this role was actually a blessing, because it showed people he could be more than that, and it really propelled him forward in his career as a leading man. It’s a wonderful film with a good story, and Keaton’s innocence as the clueless Bertie really makes you feel for the character and makes you want to see him succeed.

This blu-ray edition of the film from Kino looks great. Sure there are scratches and such in the film, but remember, this film was made in 1920, so that’s to be expected. I highly doubt you’ll ever see a better, cleaner copy of the film than you’re presented with here. Not only does the film look great, but it’s presented in two versions! The second version is comprised entirely of alternate takes and variant camera angles. The disc also contains numerous special features, including:

"A Pair of Sapheads" – An eight minute featurette comparing the two versions of the film

Buster Keaton: Life of the Party – A rare audio recording from 1962 in which Keaton recalls the memories and songs of his vaudeville youth, amid an intimate gathering of friends.

Gallery of personal photographs from Keaton’s childhood in vaudeville.

Music arranged and directed by Robert Israel in 2.0 stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1.

Music composed and performed by Ben Model in 2.0 stereo.

For anyone who’s a fan of the films of Buster Keaton, you couldn’t ask for a better treat than having this wonderful old film on blu-ray. It’s another top quality release from Kino, a company known for it’s amazing releases, and definitely one you’ll want to have in your collection.

If you’d like to find out more about this release, you can check out its page on the Kino Lorber website here, and if you’d like to pick yourself up a copy, you can grab it from Amazon here, or from any of the other usual outlets.