Released on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK and Ireland, The Saphead was Buster Keaton's first feature film. As stated by the promotional material, it is also one of his most overlooked. After viewing it, it is easy to understand why. Part of Eureka Entertainment's Masters of Cinema collection, this 1920 comedy is tonally quite different to his classic work.
Set on New York's 5th Avenue and Wall Street during the 1920s, The Saphead tells the story of Keaton's Bertie Van Alstyne. Son of New York's richest man, Nicholas Van Alstyne (William H. Crane), he lives a life of carefree indolence while spending his nights gambling and partying, much to the chagrin of his father and worry of his sister Rose (Carol Holloway). When Bertie is confronted by Rose over his behaviour, he lets her into a secret. He's only doing this to win the affection of his adopted sister Agnes (Beulah Booker), making out that he is “sport and not a saint” after accidentally reading a Roaring Twenties equivalent of a pick-up artist guide. Unfortunately, all it achieves for Bertie in his naivete is to get disowned by his father. Adding to the story is Bertie's unscrupulous brother-in-law, Mark (Irving Cummings), as he plots to steal Nicholas's wealth.
At its heart, The Saphead is a farce in the strictest terms. The entertainment is found in the increasingly ridiculous series of actions Bertie finds himself in as he tries to woe the fair Agnes by adopting a fast lifestyle. Such as when he tries desperately to get into the back of a police wagon after an illegal casino is raided in the hopes it will get him a bad boy image. Despite his best efforts, Bertie can never land that roguish air; his innocence is helped by Keaton's puppy dog eyes and whimsy. It is the blessing and the curse of the film.
Keaton was the King of Deadpan in the silent era; it makes Bertie a loveable Arthur Bach for the Roaring Twenties. But, for a film more farce than slapstick, it lacks the comedic punch of Keaton's more famous work, ignoring his strengths. Keaton was not the creative force behind this film, which shows in its rhythm and style. The viewer only gets to witness the perfect comedy timings, stunts and reactions that Keaton was iconic for at the climax. Other films would come that saw him break out of his mould and hone his talents outside slapstick, but not here.
The film has a warm innocence, and a cosiness, despite elements of the story that deal with Mistresses and illegitimate children. This might strike the modern viewer as a more risqué topic for silent cinema, during a period when piano legs were still being covered, lest they scandal the family. But, this was pre-Hays Code, the industry regulation code, which allowed for more complex stories with more emotional and social depth. Even in what is essentially a light-hearted comedy.
As with most of the Masters of Cinema collection, the Blu-Ray comes with a smothering of extras. The disk includes an alternative version of The Saphead, composed of variant takes and shots with a shorter run time and A Pair of Sapheads, a featurette comparing both cuts. New audio commentary with film historian David Kalat and a video essay by David Cairns., along with audio interviews Buster Keaton in Conversation with Kevin Brownlow and Buster Keaton: Radio Interview. The disk includes a copy of The Scribe, the 1966 comedy short and Keaton's last film, and commentary with The Scribe director John Sebert.
The Saphead was Keaton's first foray into feature films. While lacking the strength of the film, he had creative input; it is still an excellent addition for lovers of silent comedy.
- Limited O-Card Slipcase [2000 copies]
- 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a restoration undertaken by the Cohen Film Collection from a first generation nitrate print
- Score by Andrew Earle Simpson (presented in uncompressed LPCM stereo)
- Brand new audio commentary with film historian and writer David Kalat
- Brand new video essay by David Cairns
- Complete alternate version of The Saphead, comprised entirely of variant takes and camera angles
- A Pair of Sapheads – featurette comparing the two versions of the film
- The Scribe (1966, dir. John Sebert) [29 mins] – In his last film role—produced to promote Construction site safety—Keaton plays a janitor who in his attempt to educate workers on safe practices, causes more accidents than he prevents
- Previously unheard audio commentary on The Scribe with director John Sebert (recorded before his death in 2015) and writer / silent cinema aficionado Chris Seguin
- Buster Keaton in conversation with Kevin Brownlow – a 2-hour audio interview with Keaton and film historian Kevin Brownlow from 1964
- 1958 Buster Keaton Interview [90 mins]
- Buster Keaton: Radio Interview [*runtime currently unconfirmed] – a rarely heard interview with Keaton
- A collector's booklet featuring new essays by journalist Philip Kemp and film writer Imogen Sara Smith, as well as an appreciation of The Saphead by film writer Eileen Whitfield
The Saphead is out now.