The Play House (1921)
Director: Eddie Cline, Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline, Monte Collins
Synopsis: After waking up from his wacky dream, a theater stage hand inadvertently causes havoc everywhere he works.
It’s not the use of multiple exposure that amazes when viewing Buster Keaton’s 1921 comedy short The Play House — that was, after all, a trick that had been in use since the days of Melies (see L’homme orchestra) — but the way in which each Keaton interacts with the other. The set-up is that Keaton is dreaming that he’s not only the conductor at the eponymous play house, but also every member of the orchestra, the minstrel dance troupe and the audience. Each of these characters talks to one another with perfect timing so that person number two really looks as though they’ve just heard the words issued from person number one’s mouth. There are no unrealistic pauses between responses, no sense that one person isn’t really aware of the other person or people beside them; Keaton’s technique is way ahead of anything any other moviemaker would achieve until the advent of computer generated images around seventy years after this movie was made, and survives as a testimony to the comic and technical genius of the man.
The dream sequence occupies only a short portion of the movie, however, and it’s perhaps understandable that the rest of the running time falls short of the standard set in the first five minutes. There’s no plot as such, just a string of sight gags, some of which work better than others. Keaton’s impression of a chimpanzee grabs most of the laughs — the comic really captures the loose-limbed motions of the real thing — but the running gag in which he’s confused by a pair of pretty twins falls a little flat after an amusing initial joke. Overall, The Play House isn’t one of Keaton’s strongest shorts, and would not be as well-remembered as it is if it wasn’t for that dazzling first five minutes.
(Reviewed 29th September 2014)