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The Electric House (1922)
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The Electric House (1920)

Sunday Oct. 2 3:15 am ET

Many of Keaton's films involve crazy houses--One Week (1920), The Haunted House (1921), The Scarecrow (1920)--but Keaton's Rube Goldbergian innovations reach their peak in The Electric House. The premise kicks off with a confusion of identities: when his diploma gets accidentally swapped with a fellow graduate's, the botanist Buster Keaton is mistaken for an electrical engineer, and hired by a millionaire to wire his house. "I want to be amazed," the rich man commands.

"I want to be amazed" is perhaps the wrong thing to say to Buster Keaton, who sets out to do just that. The result is genuinely amazing, and utterly singular in conception. Other comedies had riffed on the idea of modern marvels--and fifteen years later, Charlie Chaplin would stuff some similar jokes into his Modern Times (1936), but the gimmick here is that the absurd electrical contraptions are not the malevolent machinations of a heartless society bent on dehumanizing efficiency. Buster is a whimsical Frankenstein, whose well-intentioned genius goes awry only when sabotage is brought into the equation. That angry colleague, whose misplaced diploma cost him a job that was rightfully his, tracks Buster down and sets out to rewire the house to expose Buster's incompetence.

The thing is, botany-student Buster really wasn't incompetent. The set-up in The Electric House resembles that of One Week, but with the punch line reversed: both films find Buster unwittingly constructing a surrealistic homestead after mistakenly swapping documents with a rival. The difference here is that without the mean-spirited interference of his rival, Buster's Electric House might actually have worked. Of course, installing a super-powered indoor escalator that deposits passengers at a second floor balcony overlooking a swimming pool is just asking for trouble.

That electric staircase leads to the film's best, and most Keatonish, gag: Buster is doubled over, carrying a heavy trunk that, unbeknownst to him, contains a person, but he makes only Sisyphean progress up the stairs because they are running the opposite direction, at exactly the same pace. In one image, Buster is performing an impressive physical stunt, involving imaginative mechanical design, with a metaphysical fatalism. Who needs to make two-reel shorts when you can express everything you want to say in just one frame?

Producer: Joseph M. Schenck (uncredited)
Director: Eddie Cline, Buster Keaton
Screenplay: Buster Keaton, Eddie Cline; Jeffrey Vance (titles, 1995 edition)
Cinematography: Elgin Lessley (uncredited)
Music: Robert Israel (1995 New Score)
Cast: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox (Girl, uncredited), Joe Keaton (Extra, uncredited), Louise Keaton (Extra, uncredited), Myra Keaton (Extra, uncredited), Steve Murphy (Real Electrical Engineer, uncredited), Joe Roberts (Homeowner, uncredited).
BW-19m.

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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