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Convict 13 (1920)
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Convict 13

The legend of Buster Keaton has been passed down from generation to generation, until he has become the film world's equivalent of Paul Bunyan--the mythic hero of tall tales.

They say a cyclone carried him out of his window when he was an infant. They say he got his name from Harry Houdini himself. They say he walked out of his place in one of vaudeville's top comedy acts to become a Broadway star--and then walked out of that contract to be a low-paid second banana to film comic Roscoe Arbuckle. They say the first thing he did on Arbuckle's set was to disassemble the camera to see how it worked.

None of these is strictly true, mind you, but neither are they wholly false. A myth always travels better when packaged with nuggets of truth.

What is indisputably true is that Buster Keaton was a visionary artist in two different media. He was at once a peerless physical comedian and a pioneering cineaste, who happened to reach the height of his powers in both of these forms at a propitious moment in history when audiences were hungry for both. Critics routinely compared his films to the works of Rene Magritte, Samuel Beckett, to James Joyce's Ulysses, and T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. He was a genius.

You wouldn't catch him agreeing with that statement. "You can't be a genius in slapshoes," was Buster's routine retort to such claims. But a look at any one of his 19 silent two-reel shorts made between 1920 and 1923 proves him wrong: here is proof that geniuses do come in slapshoes after all.

Each short is a miracle of comic invention, and while some are better remembered than others, there isn't a clinker in the bunch. Each one exemplifies in different ways what made Keaton the artist that he was.

Although Buster is remembered as an acrobatic comic who did his own stunts (Jackie Chan has openly acknowledged the debt he owes to Keaton), his films are even more a statement of metaphysical preoccupations. The world depicted in a Keaton movie is a deceptive landscape of surrealistic transformations, misunderstandings, and implacable tricks of Fate. In some of these films, Buster is caught in a dreamscape, in others he is living a waking nightmare. Throughout it all, he struggles to stay afloat.

Buster is spry, quick-witted, and adaptive--but the universe around him is inconstant, unpredictable and hostile. These are fables of Man vs. World, and the gamesmanship between Keaton's endlessly inventive mind against the machinations of the physical world are addictively entertaining.

Convict 13 (1920) was the second of Buster's shorts to reach theaters, but the third he made -- he was dissatisfied with The High Sign (1921) and shelved it for a later release, once his reputation was more firmly established and its defects would be of reduced consequence.

That we can enjoy Convict 13 today is something of a minor miracle--the ravages of time had eaten away at available copies until only fragments remained. Then, in the 1970s, Raymond Rohauer pieced together copies unearthed around the world to reassemble a nearly complete reconstruction.

Such an act of reconstitution befits a film that is itself about metamorphosis--and death. The transformations of the film begin from the very start, as Buster's game of golf starts to devolve into a fishing expedition. Buster's handicap is so extreme, he manages to ricochet a simple putt off a nearby barn and knock himself unconscious with the rebound (the stunt is an act of absolute magic, born of such unlikely precision it must have taken ages to shoot).

The sleeping Buster is then discovered by an escaped convict, who swaps clothes with him. When Buster awakes, he finds that literally the clothes make the man. He is now, for all intents and purposes, Convict 13 -- chased by swarms of angry prison guards for a crime committed by another. As a sign of the unlikely irony of his situation, Buster finds he can successfully elude his pursuers by ducking inside a nearby complex--the prison itself.

But Buster has absorbed an important lesson in all of this--if changing clothes is tantamount to identity theft, then a well-timed costume change can transform him from prisoner to warder, or back again. The trick will be to figure out when is the right time to change identities--because in the cruel logic of this film, the prison can change its rules faster than Buster can change clothes.

There are grim jokes aplenty here--one key sequence involves the intended execution of Buster Keaton. It takes an especially dark comic imagination to seek laughs in the hanging of an innocent man. Buster Keaton, though, finds a way to make that hangman's noose his ally.

Producer: Joseph M. Schenck
Director: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Screenplay: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Cinematography: Elgin Lessley
Cast: Buster Keaton (Golfer Turned Prisoner, Guard), Sybil Seely (Socialite, Warden's Daughter), Joe Roberts (The Crazed Prisoner), Edward F. Cline (Hangman), Joe Keaton (Prisoner), Louise Keaton, Harry Keaton (Little guard that Big Joe knocks out, uncredited).
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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