Friday, September 23, 2016

One Week (1920)

One Week (Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline, 1920) The first film to be written, directed by and starring Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton (after playing supporting parts for Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's comedies and designing gags for them), the film, is itself, its own movie, a film with a decided focus to tell is story. And, yet, it is tied to another.

The Ford Motor Company put out a documentary short in 1919 entitled Home Made * which follows a young couple as they exit their wedding and start their new life. They receive the gift of a manufactured "prefabricated" home and (miracle of miracles) build it in seven days and start their life together happy in their knowledge that they're self-reliant Americans thanks to their pioneer forebears and the guidance of The Ford Motor Company.

Keaton saw the film and imagined ample opportunity for comedy. He set up One Week as a parody of Home Made complete with the wedding opening, the seven day timeline, and the couple's efforts to build the house on their own.

Then he imagined everything that could go wrong.

The Groom (Keaton) and the Bride (Sybil Seeley) emerge from the wedding chapel in a deluge of rice and shoes (one of which Buster takes with him as it's in better shape than the right one he's wearing) and go off to the waiting Model T driven by Buster's rival for the Bride's affections, Handy Mike—probably not the best plan in the world. Mike grudgingly gives Buster an envelope saying that his Uncle has given him a site of land and a prefabricated house for the young couple to live in. "Handy" Mike drives them over there, but not before, first, trying to make some moves on the new bride (whatta creep!) that manages to separate Buster from her, leaving him stranded on a motorcycle and enlisting the aid of the motorcyclist in trying to catch up and take her back.
Despite this history, the Bride and Groom arrive to find the delivery truck dropping off the last of the wood and necessary pieces (all designated by number-coding to make it so easy to construct) and driving off to leave them, still in tux and wedding dress to construct their humble home. They immediately begin work with the occasional smooch-break. But, lurking nearby, seething with jealousy is "Handy" Mike who, despite demonstrating how untrustworthy he is, is helping with the construction. Early on, he sabotages the effort by re-numbering some of the boxes that have been delivered, ensuring that things will be as "on the level" as he is.
Which is, not very.

Appearances aside, the house is semi-functional, if you don't mind that the main entrance is on the second level, entrance is via floor-level window or one of the revolving side-panels—one of which, improbably, has a sink— and that the entire house has a tendency to revolve like a merry-go-'round in a stiff breeze.

Oh. And then there's the problem with the hole in the roof that occurs with the delivery of one of the staples of silent comedies, an upright piano. One has to watch in order to explain how (and the entire movie is provided below). That event is not without its satisfactions, however.

Keaton makes good use of every nook and cranny of the house, which was built life-size, and with many hidden features that surprise and, frequently, horrify (And even titillate, as there is some unexpected nudity in the film caught by accident that managed to escape the censors, even, at the same time it makes a joke of the situation and, simultaneously breaks "the fourth wall" between film and audience—hey, every other wall in the film is subject to destruction, why not imaginary ones?) The film is filled with gag after gag and if something doesn't serve a function initially, it will pay off eventually, compounding until, finally, the couple are beset by all forces in play, whether it's the mean-spirited nature of humans or the uncaring nature of Nature. Like so many of Keaton's films, it is a demonstration of the resiliency (and literal flexibility at times) of human beings to survive the vagaries of life and endure.

That's a lot for one film to convey—even one that only has a run-time of 22 minutes. That this is Keaton's first film for his new studio (one where he had full creative control for nine years) where he was allowed to command every aspect of the film as writer, director and star, is testament to his amazing wealth of talents, which far exceeded any studio's abilities to replicate or shoe-horn into a "formula" for audiences.

It is also the only film in my memory that was envisioned as a parody of another film and has endured far past the shelf-life and memory of the one that inspired it. 

* If you are interested in seeing the film and maybe investing in building a 1919 prefabricated house that isn't "up to code," the film is still available at this web-site.

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