Elmer (Buster Keaton) is the biggest fan actress Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian) could ask for. He never misses one of her stage performances and if he knows where she’ll be throughout the day, he tries to be there so he can see her. His presence hasn’t gone unnoticed by Trillby or her entourage. Whenever they see him, Elmer is always dressed in a very nice looking outfit, so they all assume he’s a very wealthy admirer. In reality, he works in a laundry and borrows the nice clothes.
However, Trillby is in love with fellow actor Lionel Benmore (Edward Earle). One night, an actor in the show is unable to go on at the last minute and since Elmer has seen the show so many times, he fills in. Of course, the show ends up being a complete disaster, but since Elmer was very heavily costumed on stage, he was able to sneak backstage and get back into his nice clothes without anyone being the wiser. As if the show wasn’t disastrous enough, after the performance is over, Trillby finds out Lionel is engaged to another woman. When she runs into Elmer backstage, she decides to marry him purely out of spite.
It isn’t long before Trillby realizes what a terrible idea this all was. Elmer isn’t the wealthy man she thought he was, Lionel is off with another woman, and she’s so unhappy that she spends her entire wedding night completely drunk. The next day, Trillby’s managers come to help her out of the marriage and convince Elmer to go away for a while so she can get a divorce for desertion. He leaves and accidentally ends up working on a boat with some bootleggers. Eventually, he ends up making his way to being a sailor on a private yacht, which just happens to include Trillby and Lionel as passengers. When a fire breaks out on the ship, it surprisingly ends up being the opportunity he needed to prove to Trillby just how much he loves her.
Spite Marriage was the last silent film by the great Buster Keaton and although it isn’t quite the masterpiece that some of his other movies are, it’s still a darn good movie with some really great laughs in it, particularly when Elmer is trying to put Trillby to bed when she was black-out drunk and when Elmer’s filling in for the stage actor and putting on his costume. Buster’s good in it and the movie also greatly benefits from Dorothy Sebastian’s performance; she does a wonderful job of holding her own alongside Keaton.
The overall execution of the movie just isn’t quite up to par with some of Keaton’s earlier work primarily because Keaton wasn’t allowed as much creative control over the project. Spite Marriage is widely noted for being the turning point in his career when it started going downhill. This was the second project he made while under contract at MGM and was the last project he made there where he’d have any creative control over during his time there. But even with that lack of control, it was still a very enjoyable swan song for a silent film legend.