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Remind Me

The Love Nest (1923)

The Love Nest would be Buster Keaton's de facto swan song in silent shorts. He had not yet fulfilled his contract, and still owed the studio one remaining short. But in November of 1923, the board of directors of Buster Keaton Productions met in New York to discuss the fate of the man whose name adorned their company. His run of silent shorts had been modestly successful -- and while both Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin outstripped him at the box office it was nonetheless obvious his star was on the rise. Both Lloyd and Chaplin were making features--and the board was thinking that it was high time for Buster to join them. For the businessmen who were to make the final decision, one fact loomed above all others: features made more money. A dollar invested in a comedy feature returned a vastly higher profit than the same dollar invested in a short. The Board voted to leave Buster's twentieth and final short unmade and ordered Keaton to turn his attentions to his feature debut, Three Ages (1923), instead.

As a farewell to the format of two-reel silent shorts, The Love Nest would prove to be as bizarre and distinctive as anything he made. Somber, elegiac, and full of dark humor, it also had the narrative and thematic focus he would need in the world of feature films.

The Love Nest is the only of Keaton's shorts for which he took sole credit as writer and director. At least, this is how it has appeared to scholars. It is just one of the questions asked by the damaged state of the surviving materials--studio records indicate Eddie Cline co-directed this, as he did practically all of the shorts, and the existing titles may just be an inaccurate reconstruction.

Another such question concerns Virginia Fox, Buster's leading lady through many of these shorts. The Love Nest marked her final collaboration with Buster--and in the film as it stands today, that collaboration is nothing more than a fleeting glimpse in the opening shot, and her appearance in a photograph.

However it's hard to say what her contribution to the film originally constituted. For decades The Love Nest was considered a lost film, until Raymond Rohauer recompiled it in the 1970s from materials found overseas, primarily a print recovered from the then-Czechoslovakia. Since then, additional discoveries of material in France and the Netherlands have helped restore additional fragments, but it is safe to conclude that the original ending was not so abrupt, and the original beginning included more of Virginia Fox rejecting Buster.

That rejection propels Buster to sea--just as it would do later in the feature film The Navigator. Where The Navigator involves Buster's travails with a cantankerous ship, Buster's principal nemesis in The Love Nest is decidedly human. The tyrannical captain of the ship is burly Joe Roberts, Keaton's longstanding foil and a friend of the Keaton family. He played the heavy in sixteen of Buster's shorts, and continued alongside Keaton in Three Ages and Our Hospitality (1923). During production of Our Hospitality, he suffered complications from a stroke and died at the age of 52.

Death hangs heavy over The Love Nest, which is saying something, given Keaton's penchant for macabre humor.

Buster had always shown a mordant streak--yet few of his gags are as bitterly funny as the one where he sinks an entire ship, drowning its crew, in order to escape in a lifeboat. Brilliantly conceived and played with patient deadpan perfection, the joke is as close to the line as Buster would dare. The recurring gag of Captain Joe Roberts crossing the names of his mates off a list and tossing a wreath into the sea to commemorate their execution becomes almost a Lubitschean touch.

Speaking of running gags, some of them spill out beyond the boundaries of this film and invade his other works. The Love Nest joins Convict 13, The Play House, The Frozen North (1922), and later features like Sherlock Jr. (1924) in its dream-setting. In The Paleface (1922), Buster had a gag where a title card alleged that two years had elapsed, with no change in his position or behavior in the frame. In The Love Nest, he reverses the gag--we see time elapse by having him reappear with a ludicrously fake drawn-on beard. Buster ran a variation on this joke in his later talkie short Ditto (1937), in which the passing of time is conveyed to the audience by Buster's Brian Wilson-esque fake beard.

Buster copied himself because no one else could. Other comedians could do great stunts, or eye-popping special effects, but no one quite copied Buster's worldview. Here is a man of a mechanical mind and a quick wit, but also clumsy and naïve. Who but Buster Keaton could pull off an effortless yet wholly unintentional mutiny? And who but Buster Keaton would see that triumph unmade in an instant?

This is Buster Keaton in a nutshell: he needed the legendary Great Stone Face, because a man who openly expressed emotion could only face such reversals of Fate with endless tears, not stoic resolve.

Producer: Joseph M. Schenck
Director: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Screenplay: Buster Keaton (writer); Jeffrey Vance (titles, 1995 edition)
Cinematography: Elgin Lessley
Cast: Buster Keaton (Buster Keaton), Joe Roberts (Captain of the Whaler), Virginia Fox (The Girl).
BW-20m.

by David Kalat

Sources:
Buster Keaton and Charles Samuels, Buster Keaton: My Wonderful World of Slapstick.
Edward McPherson, Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat.
Gabriella Oldham, Keaton's Silent Shorts: Beyond the Laughter.
Joanna E. Rapf and Gary L. Green, Buster Keaton: A Bio-Bibliography.
David Robinson, Buster Keaton.
Imogen Sara Smith, Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy.
Kevin W. Sweeney, Buster Keaton Interviews.

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