One Week (1920)
Director: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts
Synopsis: A newly wedded couple attempt to build a house with a prefabricated kit, unaware that a rival sabotaged the kit’s component numbering.
Three years after Buster Keaton entered the movies as a sidekick to Roscoe Arbuckle, he decided to go it alone and it quickly became apparent that the apprentice had surpassed the master in every way imaginable. Dismissing Arbuckle’s ramshackle methods of movie-making — often making things up as he went along — Keaton planned every aspect of his films with precision and devotion. Watching One Week and the movies that would follow, we get the sense that Keaton has found himself, that he makes these films for the sheer love of it, for the thrill of hearing people laugh at his silent antics. With Arbuckle, no matter how nice a guy he was — and he undeniably played a major part in Keaton’s emergence as a screen comic — you get the impression he just did it for the money. Keaton cared, and it shows.
He’s a newlywed in One Week, recently married to cute Sybil Seely (Convict 13, The Scarecrow) much to the vexation of Hank, his rival in love. Much to their delight, the new bride and groom receive a house in a wedding present from his Uncle. Unfortunately, it arrives in numbered boxes, and Hank switches some of the numbers in order to get his own back on the man who stole the love of his life. The house that Keaton eventually builds from these mis-numbered boxes is a masterpiece that borders on the surreal. The roof barely spans half the length of the house, windows tilt at crazy angles, and the front door is where you’d expect to find a bedroom window. Buster and his bride are unperturbed, however, and promptly hold a housewarming party, only to have it broken up by a storm which has the house spinning on its axis. Then the couple learn that they’ve constructed their house on the wrong plot and must transport it to its correct location on the other side of a busy railway line.
One Week is the movie in which Keaton looks as if he’s about to be crushed when the entire side of his house falls to the ground, only to emerge unscathed because he happened to be standing exactly where the opening for the window fell. It was a stunt he reworked, more famously, in Steamboat Bill Jr eight years later, which illustrates just how advanced his ambitious stunts were this early in his solo career. While Chaplin took a few years to develop his Little Tramp persona, Keaton introduced himself as a solo actor with his screen persona — The Great Stone Face — already fully formed. He also wasn’t afraid to try off-the-wall ideas, such as breaking the fourth wall by having a hand cover the camera lens when it finds Sybil Seely taking a bath.
With the benefit of hindsight we know that Keaton was one of cinema’s greatest silent comedians, but those who were around to see the theatrical release of his solo debut must surely have known that they were witnessing the birth of a comic genius.
(Reviewed 11th September 2014)