The Saphead (1920) / Lost Keaton: Sixteen Comedy Shorts 1934-1937 – By James L. Neibaur

KINO-LORBER continues its appreciation for film history with its release of several Buster Keaton films on blu-ray. Each of these is mastered from the greatest existing pre-print material.

In the case of THE SAPHEAD, the unusual, fascinating feature movie Keaton made in 1920, the print quality is superb. The movie itself is a pleasant trifle in which Keaton plays the pampered son of millionaires caught up in comically complicated romantic mishaps. It is not prime Buster Keaton, as he is only here as an actor. The film’s historical interest is due to its studio, Metro, having used Keaton in order to see that he could sustain a role alone and outside of his familiar slapstick trappings.

At the time this movie was made, Keaton had just been handed the Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle comedy unit to make films on his own, as Arbuckle was promoted to feature pictures. Prior to engaging in this creative endeavor, the studio wanted to make sure that Keaton was more than just a supporting player. Under contract with Joseph Schenck, who released through Metro at the time, a loan out was arranged. With his performance in THE SAPHEAD, Keaton proved his mettle as an actor, and the producers breathed a sigh of relief.

This writer, along with co-author Terri Niemi, is currently doing a book on Buster Keaton’s silent short films; those that he produced with full creative control upon making the Arbuckle unit his own and proving his solo acting prowess with THE SAPHEAD. The level of creativity Keaton immediately establishes in his short films is astounding, paving the way for such classic features SHERLOCK JR, THE GENERAL, and STEAMBOAT BILL JR. Thus, THE SAPHEAD is a real curio, showing Buster Keaton acting in a role written by others, directed by another, and with little room for any deep creativity other than successfully sustaining a character throughout a feature length production. Otherwise, it is a typically pleasant comedy from the period where the teens became the twenties and American cinema evolved into something more than just frantic knockabout and blatant melodrama.

LOST KEATON is a two disc blu ray set from a much later period. While THE SAPHEAD was produced before Buster Keaton’s tenure as an independent producer of brilliantly conceived comedy films, LOST KEATON features several short comedies he made after his independent control ended and he found himself struggling in low budget quickies. For years these early sound films of the mid 1930s have been given a bad rep, due to their not reaching the same level of genuis as Keaton’s classic silents. In fact THE GOLD GHOST, ALLEZ OOP, ONE RUN ELMER, and JAIL BAIT, etc, are very funny comedies, filled with interesting ideas. Despite the limitations of a low budget and limited input, Buster Keaton is able to rise above his surroundings and offer some very funny moments. He receives co-writing credit on a few of the films, while one of them is directed by the great Mack Sennett (the only time these two giants of comedy history worked together).

Extras on THE SAPHEAD include an alternate version of the film, featuring different takes and camera angles, an eight minute featurette comparing the two versions, and a rare audio recording where Buster Keaton recalls memories and songs from his use amid an intimate gathering of friends.

Extras on the LOST KEATON include notes by author David Macleod, a stills gallery, and a fun movie montage of pratfalls.

Link for The Saphead

Link for Lost Keaton