Colossus of Rhode Island

1929-Spite Marriage

September 25, 2010
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Buster Keaton from npr.org

Have you ever seen a star athlete, retiring at the end of a Hall-of-Fame career, get chosen for an All-Star Team despite the fact that his statistics that season don’t really impress as much as others?  That’s a little bit how I feel about this year’s entry, Buster Keaton’s Spite Marriage.  This isn’t meant to give the impression that it’s a bad movie, it just isn’t Keaton’s greatest.  My personal favorites of his full-length features are Sherlock, Jr. and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (which I touched upon in my last entry) and most critics agree that The General is his best.  I just don’t think I could have finished the 1920s without highlighting Keaton at least once, because he is a treasure of American cinema.

Spite Marriage is the story of a working-class guy named Elmer who dresses up in his customer’s finest clothes (he works at a dry-cleaners or whatever the early twentieth-century equivalent of a dry-cleaners was called) to see the woman of his dreams perform on stage.  She is in love with her leading man and, when rejected for another woman, marries Elmer out of spite (all the while thinking that he is rich because he comes to all her shows in such nice clothes.  The latter part of that last sentence is totally a line from a hip-hop song.  Go ahead, say it out loud, I’ll wait).  She leaves him when she finds out he isn’t wealthy and gets back together with the leading man.  Through a course of events that would be fairly confusing if written out, he ends up working on their yacht by accident and, when the yacht is in danger, he lover leaves her behind and Keaton must save the day.  The last 15 or 20 minutes are particularly enjoyable.

He is still a charming presence who commands the screen.  It is worth noting that Buster Keaton literally spent his entire life in show business (he claimed that his nickname “Buster” was given to him by his Vaudevillian parents’ friend and associate, Harry Houdini).  He was performing on stage from the time he was a toddler and had mastered the prat-fall practically before he could walk (being thrown around stage by his father).

Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd had their careers take vastly different turns after the 1920s.  Chaplin and Lloyd retained the rights to their old films and control of their new ones.  Lloyd mostly retired within five or six years after the decade ended.  Chaplin started making one or two movies a decade until the ’60s.  Keaton, however, signed on with a studio, losing the rights to his back-catalog and creative control of his films.  This disastrous decision, a particularly nasty divorce, and a drinking problem cost him dearly, both financially and emotionally.  Spite Marriage was the last movie he made with any creative control and it represents, to me, the end of the silent era in comedic filmmaking.

It is all the more poignant to watch when you realize that you are watching the end of an era, both for Buster Keaton and for cinema.  Aside from Chaplin, who would wait until the early ‘40s to make a completely sound film, and Garbo, who would make the transition to sound soon after, almost all actors had either converted to sound or had their careers ruined by it.  The sound era was beginning, the silent era was over, and the fortunes of one of it’s greatest stars would end with it.

Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1929 worth seeing):

The Marx Brothers make their first movie together with The Cocoanuts.  It is vintage Marx Brothers and an entertaining ride throughout.  Even though cowboy movies had been made since the dawn of cinema, I consider The Virginian, with Gary Cooper, to be the first modern Western (although most people might argue that it is Stagecoach, a decade later).  Woman in the Moon is wonderful science fiction by the always entertaining husband and wife pair of Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou.  Anyone that reads my blog regularly knows that I have a man-crush on Douglas Fairbanks.  The Iron Mask is his farewell to silent film and one of his last movies.  Pandora’s Box, starring Louise Brooks is considered one of the classics to come out of Germany during the Weimar era.  Queen Kelly, starring Gloria Swanson and directed by Erich Von Stroheim, was a delightful train wreck of the star and director’s egos.  They ended up firing the director, removing large chunks of the story, and letting the star direct a new ending.  A version cobbled together from many disparate bits is available from Kino.

Did you know?  (1929 Trivial knowledge)

  • Joseph Kennedy, father of future president John Kennedy, was the producer of Queen Kelly and allegedly had an affair with the lead actress.
  • Swanson famously played the lead in Sunset Boulevard and Von Stroheim played her butler/former director/former husband.  They watched some excerpts from Queen Kelly in that movie.
  • Orson Welles once famously stated that The General was both the greatest comedy and the greatest Civil War movie ever made.
  • Keaton was married to Natalie Talmadge, sister of movie stars Norma and Constance Talmadge.
  • The Virginian was Cooper’s first sound movie and the one that made him a star.

Favorite Quote:

Elmer (Keaton), after he has saved her:  “Good Bye, I’m awful glad to have seen you again.”

Trilby:  “You’re going to be seeing a lot of me from now on.”

Which Version did I watch?

The Version in the TCM Archives set

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I write things...this thing that I'm writing and you're reading is a series of posts, starting with 1920 and focusing on a movie from each year that I think you should see.

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