On Wednesday 1st September 1920, a significant piece of cinematic history was made. It may not have seemed it at the time, but when ‘One Week’ hit cinemas, the world got its first glimpse of Buster Keaton in a leading role.
Indeed, it wasn’t simply his first starring role. Keaton co-wrote and co-directed the two-reeler as well (with Eddie Cline). Gone was the youthful and playful Keaton viewers had made note of in the earlier Arbuckle comedies, where he was only ever a supporting role. The world was seeing for the first time The Great Stone Face taking centre stage. Deadpan, stoic and always hilarious.
The two-reel film centres around a newly-married couple attempting to setup home over the course of a week. This allowed Keaton and Cline to split the story into seven short segments, with the starts of each marked by the turn of a day calendar.
The feeling one gets when watching is that Keaton had been biding his time with Arbuckle, waiting to star in a film so he could really go to town with his abilities as a physical performer. His abilities are nothing short of acrobatic.
The falling wall gag makes an appearance, less than a year after Arbuckle had done it in ‘Back Stage’ but quite a while before it made a reappearance more famously in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). It’s one of those gasp-out-loud moments in cinema where you know that if something went wrong, he’d be in real trouble.
At one point the entire house is revolving 360 degrees, while a separate shot inside the house had the camera revolving on a turntable as a storm takes hold of the house and its inhabitants. This is Keaton innovating as a filmmaker with the team around him, elevating the film from a simple set of stunts to something more full of ambition, hinting at what cinephiles would enjoy over the next two decades.
A further use of his interest in the mechanical stunt props includes an entire side of the house rotating around a central pivot, with Keaton and Sybil Seely (The Bride) effectively swapping positions between the top and bottom of the house. It’s another gasp-inducing moment, again with little room for error. Keaton’s love for the mechanical stunt grew from his background in vaudeville performance, and viewers would continue to see more of the same in his next short ‘Convict 13’ with an elasticated hanging rope.
I still don’t get how they did all of the stunts, but I’m happy to suspend my disbelief and simply enjoy the film.
‘One Week’ serves as a brilliant starting point for those wanting to get into Keaton’s shorts and feels as fresh today as it must have done in 1920.
So why is it so significant? Well, it was the start of one of the most prolific decades of any one film creator in the history of cinema. It’s incredible to conceive just how much he achieved in what would prove to be the heyday for silent film: 12 feature films and 19 two-reel shorts, all written by, starring and directed by Keaton (albeit some with a co-directing or co-writing credit). It’s similar to the output of The Beatles between 1962 and 1970; prolific and world class. Keaton’s career may have taken a turn for the worse from the start of the 1930s, but by that point his legacy had been realised.
As Orson Welles put it, Buster Keaton was “the greatest of all the clowns in the history of the cinema… a supreme artist, and I think one of the most beautiful people who was ever photographed.” It’s hard to think of higher praise.