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The Play House (1922)
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The Play House (1921)

The opening reel of The Play House is as sustained a sequence of comic innovation and cinematic craftsmanship as anything ever filmed.

There is not one Buster Keaton cavorting here, but many. The double- and triple-exposures were challenging enough, but familiar. Keaton was not the first comedian to play two roles on screen at once. By the time he appears ninefold in the same frame, though, we know we're in the presence of something extraordinary.

Georges Melies had done such a thing, back at the dawn of movies, in works like The Melomaniac (1903), but no one before Keaton had attempted something so audacious yet achieved results so seamlessly perfect. Fellow slapstick comedian Charley Chase tried his hand at something similar, playing four versions of himself at once in the Hal Roach talkie short Four Parts (1934), but his duplicates shimmered and vanished at the edges of their overlapping domains. Miraculously, Keaton and his cameraman Elgin Lessley achieved superior results, despite working more than ten years before Chase, in a substantially more primitive environment, with hand-cranked cameras and custom-made equipment designed by Buster himself and given life by newly hired technical wizard Fred Gabourie.

No wonder he told his crew, "Keep this quiet, you lugs!" No point sharing your secrets.

The project had its roots in an accident and an in-joke. The accident: Buster had broken his ankle on the set of The Electric House (1922), and had to suspend production on that short while he healed. Worried about falling behind schedule with his monthly releases, he realized he needed to make a film that found its laughs in something other than his typical pratfalls and physical stunts.

Which brings us to the in-joke: Silent era dramatist Thomas Ince was fabled for taking excessive credits for himself ("Thomas H. Ince presents a Thomas H. Ince production, supervised by Thomas H. Ince"). Keaton poked fun at this egotism by filling the screen with himself, and chuckling "This fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show!"

The result was a mesmerizing surrealism. While that first reel tends to get all the glory and attention, it is in the second reel that things become more personal.

The concept of duplicates follows Buster out of his dreamscape and into a waking dream, where one woman appears to be two, and two men act as one. Mirrors abound, and identity seems to melt like salt in the rain. Buster turns into a monkey--even his humanity is subject to transformation. The monkey is an homage to one of Buster's onetime vaudeville peers, a performing chimp named Peter the Great. Throughout The Play House, Buster makes little nods to his vaudeville past--recreating a few of his old routines in a new medium for a new audience.

But the deepest tribute is not in any single gag, but the concept overall: Buster made his vaudeville debut as a toddler. His parents had an established act, but no babysitter, so they let their baby boy join them on stage, where he proceeded to do what all children do: create havoc. This became the new act for the Three Keatons--Papa Keaton would gamely try to perform some given act, and Buster would unwittingly undermine it. This idea wormed its way deep into Keaton's comic imagination, and throughout his life he returned to it. The Play House is one of the better expressions of that idea, already hashed out once before in Backstage (1919). Time and again Buster would find ways to disrupt someone else's show and bring his unique brand of chaos to the stage: Free and Easy (1930), Speak Easily (1932), The King of the Champs-Elysees (1934), The Silent Partner (1955), Hollywood Cavalcade (1939), even to 2 Marines and a General, one of his last feature appearances in 1966.

The Play House was the fulfillment of Buster's original 8-picture contract. It was such a hit that he was hastily and enthusiastically signed for another dozen.

Producer: Joseph M. Schenck (uncredited)
Director: Buster Keaton; Edward F. Cline (uncredited)
Screenplay: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Cinematography: Elgin Lessley (uncredited)
Music: Robert Israel (1995)
Film Editing: Buster Keaton (uncredited)
Cast: Buster Keaton (Audience/Orchestra/Mr. Brown, First Minstrel/Second Minstrel/Interctors/Stagehand), Edward F. Cline (Orangutan trainer, uncredited), Virginia Fox (Twin, uncredited), Joe Murphy (One of the Zouaves, uncredited), Joe Roberts (Actor-Stage Manager, uncredited).
BW-22m.

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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