Cast & Crew
William H. Crane
Bertie "the Saphead," son of millionaire Nicholas Van Alstyne, is in love with Agnes Gates and tries to act like a sport, haunting cabarets and gambling dens, in order to win her interest. Despite his antics, he succeeds in winning Agnes, but he disgusts his father, who gives him a million dollars, turns him out of the house, and says that he cannot marry Agnes until he makes something of himself. Finally, their wedding is set, but the ceremony is interrupted when a woman presents letters implicating Mark Turner, who is married to Bertie's sister Rose, in an affair with Henrietta Reynolds which produced a child. Mark, however, quickly makes Bertie appear to be the guilty one, and the marriage is called off. Eventually, the truth comes out, Bertie saves his father's fortune, and he marries Agnes.
William H. Crane
The Saphead (1920) - The Saphead
You'll never catch Keaton winking at the camera or playing a scene "big," because he knew comedy, as well as cinema itself, is a walk on a razor's edge, and it's terribly easy to take too large a step in the wrong direction and fall into the abyss. As a cinematic artist (he rarely took a director credit on his features, but he was the auteur nevertheless), Keaton's dead-on, dry-eyed strategy remains a model for brisk, unpatronizing, eloquent moviemaking. As an actor, he's famous as cinema's first great realist; his characters react to trauma and catastrophe as if he doesn't have time for reaction at all, and as if the social situations he's in could not tolerate an outburst. More to the point, Keaton acts as if unleashing emotional reactions in his stories would be, for him, too embarrassing - his performance minimalism is actually a resonant character trait, a sign of his heroes' modesty and tentative egos. Was Keaton the first to integrate such a Method Actor narrative idea into the very texture of his performing style? Who else before 1920 realized this sophisticated idea?
It's a surprise, then, to confront his first feature, The Saphead (1920), and find how distinctly unKeatonesque it actually is. This is because it's not truly a Keaton film - after years of making knockabout two-reelers with Fatty Arbuckle, Keaton cut his own deal for shorts with producer Joseph Schenk, who then asked his new contractee to star in this adaptation of a play, which on Broadway had starred... Douglas Fairbanks. Keaton had no hand in writing or directing the film, which is otherwise shot and assembled (the directors were Winchell Smith and Herbert Blache, ex-husband to famous pioneering cinematrix/first-woman-director-ever Alice Guy Blache) in a manner typical of '20s studio productions: stately paced establishing shots and medium shots, and a story largely dependent upon title-card dialogue. (Keaton eschewed those as much as possible in his later films, which fairly bounded and leaped with visual energy.)
The title role in The Saphead must've been a slightly different matter in Fairbanks's incarnation, but that seemed to have been no worry for anyone; Fairbanks himself recommended Keaton. Certainly, the concept is one any comic actor could handle: a wealthy, clueless dimwit, ostentatiously named Bertie (and quite obviously a lift from P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster stories, which debuted in 1915), whose awkward romantic plans are ruined by his evil brother-in-law, who tries to pass off his illegitimate child on Bertie, and who attempts to ruin the family business. All in all, it's a lot of melodramatic machinations for a comedy to sustain, and the promise offered at first of a wicked satire on the privileged rich fades eventually, as the romance is treated seriously, and the plot requires so much exposition and confrontation. It's a problem mainstream comedies still have - too much plotwork, too lavish an expectation of empathic involvement - and it's why today comedies almost always end with that insufferably cliched scene in which the main character must, to their humiliation, proclaim their apologies or devotion or whatever has gotten them into trouble, in front of a crowd of relative strangers.
The Saphead takes another route, and rest assured Keaton's Bertie, after stumbling through the tale obliviously, rises to a heroic pitch and, though he doesn't quite know what he's doing, saves the day. This last act is the film's saving grace, because it's the most Keatonian - needing to prove himself a businessman in order to marry, and having bought himself a seat on the New York Stock Exchange (thinking it was an actual chair), Bertie is first subject to a rough & tumble hazing by the broker brotherhood (the apparently legendary "introduction to the floor"), and then, as he needs to buy up shares of his father's silver stock in order to squelch the plot to devalue them, leaps about the exchange floor like a flying squirrel, tackling brokers and creating havoc. Here the film must've been jerryrigged to accommodate Keaton's particular abilities, and the result is a breath of fresh air, and a sign of things to come.
Mostly today, The Saphead is a feature introduction to the greatest deadpan, sleep-eyed, unaffected moon face in cinema history - Keaton's natural and unstrained rapport with the camera makes his contemporaries, including Chaplin, seem desperate by comparison. In fact, his most appropriate parallel is Greta Garbo. The movie is also, like so many silents, a historical touchstone, with ample shots of bustling 1920 New York, and a startling simulacrum (if not actual on-location shooting) of the Exchange, where one month prior to the film's release a bomb was ignited, killing 33 people. (Some of the extant Wall Street buildings still display signs of the blast.) Of course, the film's financial skullduggery plotline, which requires a modicum of trading know-how to grasp, reverberates with today's recent bottomfeeder manipulations, more so even than with the impending collapse of Black Tuesday, nine years in the future (in 1929).
Producer: John Golden, Marcus Loew, Winchell Smith
Director: Herbert Blaché, Winchell Smith
Screenplay: June Mathis (scenario); Bronson Howard, Victor Mapes, Winchell Smith (play)
Cinematography: Harold Wenstrom
Art Direction: F.H. Webster
Music: Robert Israel (1995)
Cast: Edward Jobson (Reverend Murray Hilton), Beulah Booker (Agnes Gates), Edward Connelly (Mr. Musgrave), Edward Alexander (Watson Flint), Irving Cummings (Mark Turner), Odette Taylor (Mrs. Cornelia Opdyke), Carol Holloway (Rose Turner), Jack Livingston (Dr. George Wainright), William H. Crane (Nicholas Van Alstyne), Buster Keaton (Bertie Van Alstyne).
by Michael Atkinson
The Saphead (1920) - The Saphead
All they do here is knock off hats, but I enjoy it. It occupies the mind.- Bertie
Do all these seats cost 100,000 dollars?- Bertie
The Saphead was Buster Keaton's first feature film.