Convict 13 (1920)
Director: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts
Synopsis: A young golfer is mugged by an escaped convict and finds himself in a prison where he foils a jailbreak.
In convict 13, Buster Keaton plays a rather poor golfer who has the misfortune to have his clothes swapped with the uniform of an escaped convict when he accidentally knocks himself out. Mistaken for the actual convict by prison guards who identify prisoners only by the number stitched onto their sleeve, a frantic chase ensues as Buster first escapes his pursuers then accidentally locks himself in the prison to which they were trying to take him. This one is typical Keaton, albeit lacking the polish of his later classics. The slapstick is mostly violent, with characters being whacked over the head with mallets, smashed in the face with a medicine ball, etc. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but then it’s not supposed to, and the ending (which was a cliche even back in the 20s) excuses the film’s occasionally nonsensical elements. As so often with these silent comedies, it’s often the small, almost incidental gag that evokes the bigger laughs: Keaton, standing on a plank of wood on a lake, trying to use his golf club as a rudder, for example, or the look on his face when he realises he’s locked himself in prison. Other, more elaborate gags, come across as a little contrived, especially the substitution of elasticated rope for the noose. Because we know what’s going to happen, the gag’s execution (no pun intended) has to be extremely funny to work, and in this instance it just isn’t funny enough. For the most part, though, Convict 13 is decent knockabout fun that is nevertheless unlikely to make it to the top of any Keaton fan’s list of favourites.
(Reviewed 13th August 2005)