In the context of Buster Keaton’s cinema career, the footnote status of The Saphead, his feature debut, is rarely challenged. It ranks below Spite Marriage, but well above The Villain Still Pursued Her. He didn’t direct The Saphead—not even, as far as we know, in an uncredited capacity. He also figures into the story intermittently at best: Despite his prominent title card (last before the story proper begins, shaking hands with William H. Crane), he’s absent for long stretches, almost a supporting player in his own star vehicle. Finally, the performance that seems to have been expected of him, having inherited the role from Douglas Fairbanks in the stage version, inhabits a neither-nor zone between serious playacting and the sort of deadpan tomfoolery that really blows his cover to reveal that he’s, well, Buster Keaton.
All of which is to say, if you put on The Saphead, expecting Keaton slapstick (of which whole libraries of critical thought are dedicated), Keaton direction (with its intricate editing rhythms and proto-Wes Anderson framing), or something more than a few glimpses of the Great Stone Face, you might be a little disappointed, as if you sprinted to catch a train, only to discover that it’s being held in the station for the next 77 minutes. The director is Herbert Blaché, who’s better remembered as the husband of early cinema pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché. You could gather together all the people who’ve seen two Herbert Blaché pictures and have them dance on the head of a pin, so he’s almost invisible, in historical, film-buff terms. One of the viewer’s tasks in watching The Saphead, then, apart from remaining vigilant to any basic pleasures, and grading the competence of Blaché‘s screen storytelling, is to figure out if there’s any personality behind the camera, filtering the rudimentary concept of the stage piece through his own sensibility, i.e. protecting the viewer from the dreaded “filmed theater.”
The play itself is some claptrap with men of high standing concealing secrets, while good men are misunderstood until an 11th-hour reveal. It’s one of the early pictures to realize the dramatic potential of the Wall Street roller coaster, a trope that would get a good workout well into the 1930s, with its images of trading-floor bedlam, frantic stock-ticker looking-at, and the exasperated hair-pulling of newly insolvent titans. Blaché does a fair job stringing scenes together; he’s even a little low-key in his handling of a melodrama that doesn’t really need punching up. On the other hand, there’s something to be said about Blaché‘s failure to intuit the vast stores of genius he had at his disposal: The Saphead has the misfortune of preceding one of the most brilliant decades in any director’s career. Imagine if, just before Citizen Kane, Orson Welles took the third lead in a movie directed by Rowland V. Lee. Unfair as it might seem, you might be tempted to cast Blaché as the “guy who didn’t sign the Beatles” of the silent era.
Formally speaking, The Saphead is wall-to-wall Keaton antimatter: purposeless cutting, impersonal framing, and overall, dutiful obedience to the nonsensical story. Nevertheless, the film is far from unwatchable, largely because, in spite of being under orders to sell an uncharacteristically daft melodrama, the reverse-magnetism Keaton brings to the film carries its own fascination. He manages to act as a cooling counterweight, neutralizing almost everything the script can throw at him; Fairbanks was no slacker, to put it mildly, but it doesn’t seem correct that he would have been the one to have popularized the same role in the stage version. In short, to say that The Saphead is worthwhile for Keaton’s performance alone is an enormous understatement. While the sound era saw Keaton’s star being plucked from the sky and ground underfoot (often as a consequence of his own personal issues), it was rare to see him behaving so heroically, under such adversarial circumstances, as he did in The Saphead.
Few companies handle early cinema with Kino's respectful mastery. As we've come to expect from the company, the materials for The Saphead are imperfect (the wear is consistent though unobtrusive throughout), but brilliantly transferred, with impeccable grain and strong detail from start to finish. Robert Israel's strong, well constructed, if occasionally repetitive, score is presented in two, nearly identical versions: on a Dolby 2.0 track, and a slightly brighter, fuller DTS-HD 5.1 track. Ben Model also created a score for The Saphead that's categorically inferior to Israel's, and has justly been relegated to the alternate-takes version in the supplements section.
Of historical interest, Kino's Blu-ray for The Saphead contains a second cut of the movie, comprised entirely of alternate takes; everything that happens is the same, but there are countless, tiny differences in timing, blocking, and direction. Whether or not you want to sit through it will depend, of course, on how you responded to the main event. There's also a featurette comparing the two versions, with Kino's Bret Wood explaining in voiceover, correctly, that the differences would be nearly impossible to spot without a side-by-side demonstration. The one-disc Blu-ray also includes two other curios: "Buster Keaton: The Life of the Party," an audio recording of Keaton entertaining a small group of friends over dinner, and "Why They Call Him Buster," a promo reel of the comedian's more athletic and violent comic setups, from Kino's Lost Keaton.
The Great Stone Face's feature debut, now politely considered non-canon but worthwhile, is given a tidy high-definition release from Kino Lorber.