The Saphead (1920)

The Saphead 1920On the surface, Bertie Van Alstyne (Buster Keaton) might seem like your typical, rich, layabout. He stays out all night cavorting at nightclubs and casinos. His father, Wall Street magnate Nicholas Van Alstyne (William H. Crane) is completely dismayed by his son’s behavior and would much rather see him take his career seriously. What Nicholas doesn’t realize is that Bertie isn’t the kind of person he seems to be. Bertie had read a book that says modern women are attracted to men who behave like that and since he’s trying to get the attention of Agnes (Beulah Booker), decided to take the advice. He actually finds that kind of lifestyle kind of dull.

Instead, Nicholas is much more fond of Mark (Irving Cummings), his daughter Rose’s (Carol Holloway) husband. Mark is a very unsuccessful man who’s been carrying on an affair with a woman named Henrietta. One day, he receives a letter from Henrietta saying she was very ill and broke and needed help.

Fed up with his son’s behavior, Nicholas cuts Bertie off, giving him a million dollar severance check, but gives Bertie and Agnes his blessing to get married. On the day of their wedding, evidence of Mark’s affair with Henrietta comes to light and Nicholas tries to frame Bertie with it. This time, Nicholas is so furious he disowns him. Before long, Mark is in left in charge of handling the family’s finances and has a plan to take all of their money for himself and it’s Bertie who ends up saving the family.

The Saphead was Buster Keaton’s first starring role in a feature-length film. It’s not the best vehicle for Keaton’s talents; it doesn’t have as many opportunities to showcase what an absolutely brilliant physical comedian he was. There are certainly some good laughs in The Saphead and it’s not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. I actually did enjoy it, but I can see why a lot of people might not appreciate this one as much as they would The General or Steamboat Bill, Jr.  But if you’re a serious Buster Keaton fan, it’s well worth seeing if only for the chance to see something a little different than you might expect from one of his movies.

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One comment

  1. You wrote a nice piece for this movie, but the best I can say is that I’m glad this movie has its admirers, as I’m not among them. All I could see was Keaton being straitjacketed and multiple comic opportunities missed. Needless to say, Keaton did much better laugh- and story-wise when he was in control of his movies.

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