Kino Lorber // 1920 // 77 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // July 5th, 2012
I'm good...I've tried my best to get over it, but I can't.
By 1920, Buster Keaton (The General) had met great success as the regular sideman in Fatty Arbuckle's comic shorts, but had yet to be cast in a multi-reel feature film. Things started to change for him after Douglas Fairbanks had a stellar run on Broadway with The Henrietta. When Fairbanks turned down the chance to reprise his role in the film version, he recommended Keaton for the part. He didn't get top billing, but he stole the show and began one of the great film careers in Hollywood history.
Nicholas Van Alstyne (William H. Crane, True as Steel) runs the Henrietta silver mine and, with all his wealth, has spoiled his children rotten. His son, Bertie (Keaton), is a no good shirkaday who sponges off his father, while his daughter, Rose (Carol Holloway, Rich Men's Wives), isn't much better and has given her share of the fortune to her idiot husband, Mark Turner (Irving Cummings, Beautifully Trimmed). Bertie starts getting his life together and agrees to marry the lovely Agnes (Beulah Booker, The Boomerang, but Mark ruins it all by pinning his own illegitimate daughter onto Bertie. Agnes leaves and Mark reveals that he has squandered control of the mine, which will soon be auctioned away. In order to save the family and get Agnes back, Bertie travels to Wall Street himself to get their assets back.
Buster Keaton would go on to make plenty of pictures that were far superior to The Saphead, but it's easy to see how his popularity grew so quickly. No matter what he's doing, and here he isn't the most endearing of characters, he's completely likable and sympathetic. He's not even the main star of the movie, but he steals the show at every turn.
If you're familiar with Keaton's later work, it will quickly become clear that The Saphead is atypical for the actor. Unlike most of his work, he was on loan to Metro and had no creative control of the project, so outside of him and him alone, there's almost no comparison. Director Herbert Blaché (The Calgary Stampede) created something more akin to melodrama than the slapstick that Keaton was known for and, while Keaton does have a few good pratfalls (including one that looks like it must have broken his tailbone), he was mostly forced to play it straight. He's brilliant at whatever he does, though, so he charms audiences even without his usual shtick.
The rest of the performances are pretty mediocre and the story, while ambiguous and more sophisticated than many plots of the time, is a little hard to follow, especially the main plot point of the illegitimate daughter, a sequence I had to watch multiple time to understand what had occurred. There are a few choice sequences, including a grandly funny scene in an underground gambling house and the uncomfortable fact that Agnes, the love of Bertie's life, is also his adopted sister. Everything memorable about The Saphead involves Keaton, though, so I can gladly leave the rest of the movie behind.
Kino's Blu-ray of The Saphead is fantastic in every way. It was rare luck that the film was curated so carefully and it shows in every frame of the film. This is one of the best-preserved silent films out there and, though there's some understandable damage on the nine-decade-old print, it's almost completely free of problems. The contrast is solid, the color tinting is rich, and there's a surprising level of detail. The transfer isn't perfect; there are some bits of digital noise here and there, but it's otherwise solid. To listen to the score by Robert Israel, one of the better silent arrangers out there, viewers have the option of a 5.1 Master Audio track or a PCM stereo mix. They're more or less the same, though there's a bit more oomph in the surround mix.
The extras are the real value of the disc, though. It starts off with a complete alternate cut of the film (and a second piano score composed by Ben Model), which has undergone the same level of care as the main feature. As Brett Wood, who created these new masters, states in a short featurette comparing them, no two shots are the same at any point in the film. This alternate take, used for the international market, watched on its own, may not seem different at all, but scenes presented side by side show the multitude of differences in each shot. The best extra (and, really, one of the better extras I've experienced) is a half-hour reel-to-reel audio recording from 1962 of Buster Keaton at a dinner party regaling friends with songs and stories from his Vaudeville days. The audio quality isn't all that great, so it's a little hard to understand at times, but it's an invaluable piece of history. Finally, a gallery of photos from those old Vaudeville days is another nice historical document.
By the standard his fans have come to expect from Buster Keaton, The Saphead really doesn't measure up, but as his first feature, it's something that anyone who appreciates the silent should see. With such a high-quality Blu-ray on top of it, this becomes a must-own disc for them.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Silent, with music)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (Silent, with music)
* English (Intertitles)
Running Time: 77 Minutes
Release Year: 1920
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Alternate Version