Monday Editor’s Pick: “Spite Marriage” (1929)

by on June 27, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon June 27 at 7:00 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

*Live piano accompaniment. **Screening with Keaton’s 1920 two-reeler, “Convict 13”

 

Buster Mondays continue at Film Forum today through August 8th. Since every screening has so far sold out, we recommend you buy your tickets in advance and get in line early. Its worth it.

 

Our more general round-up of Buster Keaton criticism is here.

 

Time Out (London) on today’s feature Spite Marriage:

Keaton’s last silent feature takes the classic Keaton form: an incompetent discovers a growing sense of confidence and physical ingenuity, overcomes the villains, and wins the girl. Part of the plot harks back to The Navigator, but three of the sequences (a play ruined by Buster’s gaucheness, getting a drunk bride to bed, and an extraordinary shipboard fight) put the film up in Division One, crowning a decade of unparalleled creativity which was then stifled by studio inflexibility.

 

Some background from Keaton scholar Edward McPherson in Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat:

The plot of Spite Marriage was a doozy. Buster plays Elmer, a pants presser who goes gaga over an actress named Trilby Drew. The unblessed union of the title is theirs – she weds him to arouse the ire of her errant boyfriend. Add bootleggers and a daring sea rescue and eventually love emerges triumphant. Perhaps the film’s greatest significance was that it threw Buster in with a talented dark-haired Alabama divorcee named Dorothy Sebastian. The former showgirl, practical joker, and inveterate good-timer was known by a handful of variations on the nickname “Slam Bang Sebastian,” due to her tendency to topple a few cocktails. Warm, beautiful, and popular, she played Buster’s wife; offscreen, she became his mistress.

 

And Marion Meade in Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase:

When Keaton urged shooting Spite Marriage in sound, the front office refused. His biggest battle with [Keaton’s producer Lawrence] Weingarten erupted over a bedroom sequence in which Elmer is in a hotel room with his inebriated bride, who has passed out on the floor. Despite his efforts to pick her up and drag her into bed, she keeps slipping through his hands like a bar of soap that wants to go down the drain. The sequence, perhaps one of the funniest scenes ever seen on the screen, would become a famous Keaton routine repeated numerous times throughout his career. (In the fifties William Wyler borrowed it for Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday). But Weingarten failed to grasp the humor. He decided the scene was blue and ordered it cut.

 

Keaton’s typical response was to walk out. But now he hollered bloody murder. Against his best judgement, Weingarten capitulated. On opening day at the Capitol in New York, reported Variety, the scene in question for “a salvo from the Capitolites.”

 

John V. Brennan for The Age of Comedy blog:

Except  for the boat sequences of the film, the most interesting aspect of the film is how beautifully made it is.  The acting is more realistic than the usual “stage acting” of earlier films, the camerawork fluid, the action exciting and well-paced.  At the same time, the talkies were still finding their feet.  Cameras were stationary, rarely moving, performers went back to stage acting, and action was limited to wherever the hidden microphone was placed.  Things got a lot better very quickly in sound films, but Spite Marriage, despite being a minor Keaton comedy, is an excellent example of how sophisticated silent films had become by the time they were just about to become extinct.

 

 

Grant Tracey on the preceding short “Convict 13” for Images Journal:

Innocence being punished is also the theme of “Convict 13.” Here, Keaton’s larger target is capitol punishment. Keaton plays an unlucky golfer who is so obsessed with the game that he doesn’t sense the danger around him. Following a series of riotous sight gags with a golf-ball-swallowing fish, Keaton raps a ball off the side of a barn, gets whapped in the head by the ricochet, and does a patented Keaton pratfall. While conked, an escaped con, changes clothes with the prone golfer, and when Keaton awakes he’s oblivious of his new threads and plays on. The police, now believing him to be the escapee, chase and capture him and send him to prison — where he’s to be executed! There are no checks and balances in this nightmare landscape that Keaton has created: an innocent man may die at the hands of the state! And the state enjoys it. Convicts gather for the hanging, laughing with merriment, and the warden/hangman is proud of his craft! When the trap door falls, Keaton isn’t hanged, but bobs up and down seven times on the extended rope, before busting free. The dangling and jiggling Keaton is a moment of comic absurdity, but the trace meaning of the cruel possibility of a real hanging rises through the laughter to create a haunting echo.

 

Audiences at the time were greatly relieved to see Buster after a painful sound film, according to the original New York Times review:

Words can hardly tell of the relief it was to look at Mr. Keaton’s imaginative but silly silent antics in his latest farce, Spite Marriage. The theatre that had been filled with pain and gloom was aroused to a state of high glee, and whether Elmer (Mr. Keaton) endeavored to help a girl who had imbibed more champagne than was good for her, or be bailed out of the engine room of a yacht in a foolish but apparently successful manner, there were waves of laughter from top to bottom of the house.

 

Mr. Keaton’s Mohican-like visage stands him in good stead, for he can do crack-brained things and yet make people happy. It was cheery to perceive this actor making up as a Civil War soldier with a beard. The desire to do this seizes Elmer after he gazes from the front seat, which he had occupied thirty-five nights and matinees, at a fellow who kisses the gorgeous Trilby Drew. It is a sorry state of affairs that he causes behind the scenes and one could almost shake hands with the stage manager on his hope to be able to crush the life out of Elmer.

 

Silence Wins.

 

 

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