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After learning how to craft film comedy from Fatty Arbuckle as the big man's sidekick in a series of one-reelers, Buster Keaton launched his solo career in 1920 with One Week, a charming two-reeler that he also co-wrote and co-directed. Producer Joseph Schenck had given Keaton his own production unit, Buster Keaton Comedies, and One Week became the first of 19 shorts and several features that Keaton made for Schenck between 1920 and 1928. He enjoyed complete creative control on these films, while his reputation as Chaplin's only rival rests on this output.
In 1919, Keaton saw an industrial documentary titled Home Made, which became the inspiration for One Week. Produced by the Ford Motor Co., Home Made explained the concept of prefabricated homes, which buyers assembled themselves by following a set of instructions. Sears, Roebuck and Co. had begun selling prefab homes in 1908, with styles and sizes available for all tastes and budgets. By the 1920s, the prefab trend had reached a high point. One Week parodies Home Made, borrowing events from the plot and following the narrative structure that divides the action into days of the week marked by pages falling from a calendar. Over the next few years, Keaton continued to parody contemporary trends or fads in his films, as in Cops (1922) when he spoofed the controversial craze for goat-gland injections popularized by a quack doctor named John R. Brinkley, or in Sherlock, Jr. (1924), when he poked fun at detective stories, which were all the rage in the 1920s.
In One Week, Keaton plays the Groom to Sybil Seely's Bride. The couple receives as a wedding gift a prefabricated house, which is packed compactly in a wooden box along with the instructions. While Keaton is busy elsewhere, his new wife's jealous ex-beau changes the numbers on the pieces to the house. As a result, Keaton builds an asymmetrical house with doors that open into midair and walls that pivot like a seesaw. After surviving a ferocious storm, in which the lop-sided house spins around and around, Keaton is informed by a city official that his house has been built on the wrong lot. He and his wife attempt to move their unique abode across town, but the task proves more difficult than anticipated.
Unlike other silent comedians who worked out their screen personas by trial and error over a period of time, Keaton's comic character--an extension of his vaudeville act--was fully established by One Week. Keaton's screen persona was dubbed the Great Stone Face, because of his ability to survive the most difficult and outrageous misfortunes without registering emotion. During the course of a film, his face reveals only the subtlest of expressions as he assesses his bad luck or twists of fate, then adapts to the situation with ingenuity and energy. To this day, viewers can identify with Keaton, because we have all fallen victim to the pitfalls of life, but the character never asks for pity or solicits sympathy. Instead his ingenuity invokes our admiration.
One Week also features many of the characteristics that define Keaton's style and reflect his interests. His comedies are renowned for his large-scale stunts and physical gags that show off his years of experience on the vaudeville stage in acrobatic comedy. Keaton could climb, take a pratfall, jump on and off moving vehicles, and handle large props with breathtaking skill and graceful ease. In the opening sequence of One Week, the Groom and Bride are being driven away from the wedding when they become dissatisfied with their nosey driver. Another car drives up along side them, and the couple proceeds to move from one vehicle to the other. The Bride successfully completes the maneuver, but Keaton gets stuck between the two cars when one drifts toward the edge of the road. He straddles the two vehicles with his legs spread widely apart, balancing as the cars weave a bit in the road. A motorcycle drives between his legs, and Keaton drops onto the handle bars as he and the biker race away. Further down the road, the motorcycle wipes out, with Keaton and the biker hurled into the dusty street. Known as a trajectory gag, this bit of physical comedy consists of several impressive stunts in a row propelled forward by a cause-and-effect logic that concludes with a big finish.
Sometimes these gags were made more astounding and therefore funnier through comic misdirection. Audiences anticipated certain outcomes based on the set up of the scene, but Keaton sometimes took the gag in a completely different direction. While the Groom stands astride two moving cars, viewers expect him to tumble onto the road or be dragged along by his legs; instead, a completely different type of vehicle comes along and inadvertently "rescues" him by scooping him up. Keaton eventually does fall but not in the way that was expected.
In the sequence in which Keaton is incorrectly putting together the pieces of his prefab home, an entire side of the house suddenly falls to the ground, with the hapless Groom seemingly about to be crushed. But, because he is standing right in the middle of the opening for the window, the wall falls down around him, and he walks away unscathed. The scale of his physical gags dictated that Keaton had to pull his camera back in order to capture the action, so a characteristic of his visual style is a predominance of long takes in long shots.
Keaton reworked some of his more remarkable gags for later films, making them more complex and improving on the way they were shot. The stunt with the two cars and the motorcycle in which Keaton lands on the cycle's handlebars was altered and expanded for Sherlock, Jr., while the stunt with the house falling around him as he is saved by a strategically placed window frame was re-imagined for Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).
Along with stunts, Keaton's comedy featured gadgets and contraptions that revealed the comedian's own love of mechanical technology. Keaton could invent a whole series of jokes around a moving vehicle and rig doors, windows, and structures to spin, turn, and tilt on cue. Machines, gears, and tools were essential to his characters, who could jerry-rig, construct, and re-assemble anything to get out of a jam. In One Week, the build-it-yourself house serves as a giant contraption that the Groom finally gets together despite its lop-sided walls and doors that lead nowhere. For the storm sequence, Keaton attached the entire house to a giant turntable, so that the structure could rapidly spin, like a top on its axis.
In addition to exhibiting a command of filmmaking techniques, Keaton had a sophisticated awareness of the properties of cinema as a medium of expression. Some of his well-known films are famous for their self-reflexive gags--that is, jokes based on the nature and technology of cinema. Sherlock, Jr., about a projectionist who falls asleep and dreams himself to be the protagonist of a movie, is most often discussed as an example of this characteristic. However, as early as One Week, Keaton exhibited a talent for self-reflexive humor. In one scene, the Bride is taking a relaxing bath in the privacy of her new home when she drops the soap, which bounces across the floor. As she starts to step out of the tub, she gives a concerned look to the camera, which is suddenly covered by a large hand. The joke underscores the voyeuristic nature of cinema as it reminds the audience of the omnipresent camera.
In addition to exhibiting the characteristics of Keaton's films, One Week also established his informal working methods. Each film he made for Schenck began with the comedian, his co-director, the gagmen, and the other crew members hashing out the storyline and discussing how the gags would be worked into it. All crew members, from the prop men to the cinematographer, attended these meetings. After the basic plotline and the gag logistics were worked out, Keaton began shooting. He rarely worked with a formal script, because he didn't want every detail of his actors' performances to be rehearsed in advance. He wanted his stunts, gags, and character interactions to look fresh and spontaneous, not over-rehearsed. Sometimes, he improvised during a scene, particularly if a joke went wrong. He instructed his cameramen to always keep rolling if something didn't go as planned, because he claimed that his best improvisations occurred during those times.
Buster Keaton supervised every phase of filmmaking on his comedies for Schenck. However, his name is credited as co-director alongside those of Eddie Cline (Keaton's partner on One Week), Malcolm St. Clair, or Clyde Bruckman. The exact nature of the contributions of these men remains debated, but, given Keaton's creative control over his comic persona and his stunts, it is most likely that they served as assistant directors and gagmen more than co-directors.
One Week, an astonishing first effort for a novice filmmaker, established Keaton's working methods, solidified his onscreen comic persona, and prefigured his future films in style and structure.
Producer: Joseph M. Schenck (as presenter)
Directors: Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton
Screenplay: Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton
Cinematography: Elgin Lessley
Editor: Buster Keaton
Cast: The Groom (Buster Keaton), The Bride (Sybil Seely), Piano Mover (Joe Roberts).
by Susan Doll