It’s Been One Century Since Buster Keaton Laughed at Me

ONE WEEK (1920) — Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton

Note: This is the hundred-and-ninth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite 1920 film, ONE WEEK, directed by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton.

I really don’t know if I’m using this word right, but Buster Keaton’s comedy may be described as pithy. His films are so forceful, so tight, so intricately designed and choreographed. The gags are dances, this comparison given more power by Keaton’s incredible athleticism. And his “solo” debut, coming right on the heels of a solid series of shorts made with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, is a phenomenal example of that. ONE WEEK just may be Keaton’s best short, an even more incredible feat since it’s (nearly) his directorial debut.

Keaton’s films certainly benefited from his control, but he bucks an auteur label in sheer accreditation. Most of his directorial credits are paired with another; his first was actually with Arbuckle, on THE ROUGH HOUSE (1917). And ONE WEEK was co-directed with Edward F. Cline (AKA Eddie Cline), one of Keaton’s principle gagmen in the early years and the future director of a number of W.C. Fields films. As mentioned, ONE WEEK is not literally Keaton’s first directorial effort, but considering its status as his first effort released outside of Arbuckle’s sphere of influence, it is not unreasonable to elevate it to the place of the beginning of his illustrious 1920s career. OK, well, he made THE HIGH SIGN before ONE WEEK, but it came out a year later. Whatever!

I’m mixing metaphors here, but ONE WEEK is as much a display of defined choreography as it is an example a beautiful comic edifice. The latter may be more fitting considering ONE WEEK’s central character is truly its fucked up house. The story is relatively simple. Keaton and his new wife, played by the effusive Sybil Seely (who only acted for a few years, and in a few Keaton shorts, before retiring from acting in 1922), receive a plot of land from his uncle. They also receive a bunch of boxes to build a prefabricated house, a novel concept in 1920; Keaton was parodying the trend with this film.

But Seely’s character has a jealous ex who messes with the numbers on the boxes, and Keaton ends up building an M.C. Escher-esque structure (at least, from the outside) that features all kinds of rotating walls and flimsy floors/ceilings and such. This is the central conceit of ONE WEEK. Every gag is based in how just explicitly terrible the house is. An earlier bit echoes BACK STAGE (1919), which Keaton made with Arbuckle, and foreshadows STEAMBOAT BILL JR. (1928). A wall of the house falls, not crushing Keaton only because of an open window. In fact, Seely knocked the wall down after Keaton’s work rotated the wall, and her, into the air.

Keaton and Seely play a cute little couple; the romance is never played up, but the pair are constantly giving each other little kisses as much as they’re getting (very mildly) frustrated with each other and their terrible situation. One moment in particular, in which Seely kisses Keaton and proceeds to push him over and over, illustrates the endearing chemistry perfectly. Seely alone is a great comic presence. In one scene, she’s bathing and drops a bar of soap outside the tub. Just before she’s about to get out and get it, exposing herself, she notices the camera and admonishes it, at which point a hand comes into view and blocks the compromising position we assume she is in. It’s a risque demolishing of the fourth wall (a fitting turn of phrase for this film), and incredibly clever.

But the stand out moment, one of the greatest comic moments of silent comedy, comes at the end. Keaton and Seely are told their house is on the wrong plot, and must move it across the train tracks. They ingeniously put together a makeshift rolling system and pull the house across, before getting stuck squarely on the tracks. A train approaches and the couple frantically try to move the house away, but to no avail. Just as they get away and shield each other from the danger, the train roars past; the camera’s perspective had not revealed the track the train was on curved away from the house.

There’s a beat of relief from the characters. And then another train, going the other way, plows into the house and demolishes it. Keaton and Seely shrug their shoulders and walk off into the sunset, perfectly encapsulating the goofy logic and positive sentimentalism of ONE WEEK.

Full film

With ONE WEEK, Keaton (and Cline) demonstrated his upcoming brand: death-defying comedic stunts and an evocation of Keaton’s vaudeville roots while working filmic possibilities into time-tested slapstick comedy. Comedy is redirection, and his visual feats, such as the train gag, shock and awe audiences into incredulous laughter. Keaton’s films weren’t cold by any means, but this style is also often contrasted against Charlie Chaplin’s empathetic productions. With ONE WEEK, Keaton also accomplished a convincing, if brief, look at a truly heartwarming romantic relationship. It helps that Seely is glowing with charisma. This is one of those short films that sit in my pocket, ready to come out to any nonbelievers in silent film, and silent comedy in particular. No one can escape appreciating ONE WEEK’s thoughtfulness.

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.