The Play House (1921) A Silent Film Review

Buster Keaton is the dogsbody at a small theater. In the course of a day, he must impersonate a monkey, obtain a set of Zouave guards, avoid mixing up a pair of identical twins (one of whom he is dating) and manage not to get killed by a strongman. Why doesn’t he quit? What, and leave show business?

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Blu-ray.

I just don’t feel like myself…

And Buster Keaton makes his entrance on Movies Silently! I got a lot of requests for Chaplin but Keaton was a close second. To be honest, Keaton is quite intimidating to write about. He is one of the most popular and studied comedians of all time.

I should note once more that I am not going to be dissecting the comedy piece-by-piece. For me, it tends to kill the humor of a film and I want to see and enjoy this motion picture again. I will just give you some background and then get down to brass tacks (or the metal of your preference).

Here goes nothing.

The Play House is considered to be one of Keaton’s finest short features. Before the review proper starts, let me give you a little context.

A lifetime in theater.
A lifetime in theater.

Buster Keaton had been a stunt comedian since childhood (his part in the family’s vaudeville act was to be thrown across the stage, he debuted at the age of three and became a regular participant at five) and during the silent era, he was one of the few stars to do all of his own stunts (and sometimes his co-star’s as well). This was, of course, risky since an injury to Buster would mean a delay for the whole picture.

Keaton broke his ankle on the set of The Electric House and found himself in a fix. He needed to put out a short feature but he couldn’t be his usual daredevil self. What to do? Get clever. Get really clever.

No leaping? What's to be done?
No leaping? What’s to be done?

Like the previously reviewed A Night in the Show, The Playhouse is a thinly plotted short feature, little more than a setup to hang the gags on. It has two distinct sections, both of which I will cover briefly.

The start of the short is one of the most famous sequences in Keaton’s career. He puts on a complete vaudeville show in which he plays everyone. The performers, the audience, everyone. Most famously, he plays a nine-member minstrel act with all nine Busters appearing in the same frame at the same time. Another fabulous example of camera virtuosity in the silent era!

Here are some of Buster’s many characters. Enjoy!

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Keaton took a dig at producer Thomas Ince’s shameless self-promotion and then had a ton of fun with his numerous (but all equally stone-faced) characters. When people talk about The Play House, this is usually the part that they mean. But it’s only the beginning of the picture.

Buster wakes up, you see, and it turns out that there is just one of him and he is the gofer at the play house. The rest of the film involves his misadventures as he tries to keep the show up and running. I know that the first part of the film is the more famous section and I greatly admire its technical accomplishment but to be honest, I like the second half better.

We begin again!
We begin again!

A low-stunt Buster proves to be a very funny Buster indeed. He rushes from one disaster to another, all the while trying to court one of a set of twins– and always managing to get the wrong one! Keaton continues his theme of duplication with his use of mirrors, impersonation and substitution.

The mirrors and twins are obvious but the substitutions and impersonations are great fun as well. Keaton is called upon to impersonate a monkey when he accidentally releases the creature. No sooner is that crisis over then he has to obtain a set of Zouave guards.

The famous Zouave guards! Well, ish.
The famous Zouave guards! Well, ish.

And if you just said “the who-ave guards?” then here is a teeny explanation from the 1920 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana:

A soldier in the French army. Zouaves were organized in 1831 and were originally mercenaries belonging to a Kabyle tribe. The Zouaves in the pay of the dey of Algiers were, when Algeria became a French possession, incorporated with the French army there, preserving their Arab dress. Ultimately the native element was eliminated, and the Zouaves became French soldiers in the picturesque Arab costume.

Buster finds some ditch diggers to pass as the Zouaves and participates himself. During this scene, there is a cute throwaway gag of two one-armed men who are able to join forces to applaud the acts. Things get tense, however, when they do not agree on which acts deserve applause.

Always mark your twin.
Always mark your twin.

Finally, one of the twins gets trapped in a watertank and Buster floods the whole theater in order to save her. But how is Buster ever going to figure out which twin is his?

Keaton stepped out of his comfort zone in The Play House and was richly rewarded. While he returned to his stunt-filled ways once he recovered, he also was able to absorb the lessons he learned from this film and put them to good use. Everybody wins with this film; Keaton got to grow as a performer and we get to enjoy watching that growth.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★

Where can I see it?

The Play House is available on the restored Buster Keaton Short Films Collection as either a DVD or a Blu-ray.