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Spite Marriage (1929) was the final silent film from Buster Keaton, one ofthe true geniuses of American cinema. Keaton stars as Elmer, a lowly pantspresser who falls in love with a gorgeous actress named Trilby Drew (DorothySebastian). Elmer is so utterly taken with Trilby, he attends no less than35 of her stage performances. In a cruel attempt to inspire jealousy in herleading man (Edward Earle), Trilby marries Elmer. It's not long beforeElmer realizes he's been played for a fool. Heartbroken, he leaves Trilby,only to end up shanghaied and forced to work on a rum-runner's boat (inreality, Keaton's personal yacht). After a boisterous, very unlikelyadventure at sea, Elmer wins Trilby for himself.
Spite Marriage was an unqualified success at the time of its release,even though Keaton wasn't particularly thrilled to participate in itscreation. He originally approached MGM production head Irving Thalberg withthe idea of shooting a comic Western co-starring himself and Marie Dressler.But the creative autonomy Keaton received while writing, filming, and actingin such pre-MGM masterpieces as Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) and TheGeneral (1927) was now a thing of the past.
Thalberg was constantly aware of the bottom line. He felt that Keaton'sprior films, which were partly created out of time-consuming improvisations,were not as profitable as they could have been. Buster's first feature withMGM, The Cameraman (1928), was rather carefully supervised and didconsiderable business at the box office. Thalberg was convinced that Keaton -strictly adhering to a completed script - would benefit the studio.
It's ironic that Keaton - whose career would collapse partially due to theonset of talkies - wanted Spite Marriage to be his first soundpicture. Though his brilliance as a physical performer was undeniable, herealized the success of Warner Bros.' The Jazz Singer (1927) markedthe beginning of the end of the silent era. While interested in thepossibilities of sound, Keaton, much like his comic peer, Charles Chaplin,was concerned that the new technology would be embraced to the eventualdetriment of his art. He envisioned a type of comedy that would rely mostlyon humorous sound effects. "It needn't be one long yak-yak," he toldThalberg.
Nevertheless, Thalberg insisted that Spite Marriage would becompletely silent...especially since MGM had only one set of sound equipmentat its disposal. Keaton and his director, Edward Sedgwick, forged aheadwhile chafing under the supervision of both Thalberg and producer LarryWeingarten, who happened to be married to Thalberg's sister. Luckily, thisfriction threw off some memorable sparks; many of the better moments inSpite Marriage arose via head-butting with the executives. "I'mafraid," Keaton said years later, "that Larry Weingarten was plenty sore,especially when the putting-the-bride-to-bed (sic) was such asuccess."
The sequence Keaton refers to is a genuine classic, in which he drunkenlyattempts to get an equally inebriated Sebastian into bed without waking herup. It's a tour de force of comic timing, as he hauls his co-star around ina variety of ungainly positions. (Gregory Peck can be seen enacting thesame routine, to less inspired effect, with Audrey Hepburn in RomanHoliday, 1953. Keaton also returned to it in the 1950s, frequentlyperforming it on stage with his third wife, Eleanor Norris.) Though herwork in this scene is severely inhibited by definition, Sebastian was thestrongest actress to ever share the screen with Keaton. Their ease with oneanother can be traced to the fact that they were enjoying what would becomea lengthy love affair while filming Spite Marriage.
Keaton and Sedgwick would go on to make seven more films together, all ofwhich were talkies and far less rewarding than Spite Marriage. It'san often under-appreciated treasure, and the last fully realized display ofKeaton's towering gifts as a filmmaker.
Director: Edward Sedgwick and Buster Keaton (uncredited)
Screenplay: Robert E. Hopkins and Lew Lipton
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: Reggie Lanning
Editing: Frank Sullivan
Costume Design: David Cox
Principal Cast: Buster Keaton (Elmer), Dorothy Sebastian (Trilby Drew), Edward Earle (Lionel Benmore), Leila Hyams (Ethyl Norcrosse), William Bechtel (Nussbaum), John Byron (Scarzi).
by Paul Tatara