The Saphead (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)
June 22, 2012 by Dennis Amith
“The Saphead” is Buster Keaton’s first feature film and while not his best, it’s a delightful, fun silent comedy on Blu-ray that Buster Keaton fans will surely enjoy!
TITLE: The Saphead
FILM RELEASE: 1920
DURATION: 77 Minutes
BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: Color-tinted, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo
COMPANY: Kino Classics/Kino Lorber
RATED: Not Rated
Release Date: July 10, 2012
Directed by Herbert Blache, Winchell Smith
Based on the original play “The Henrietta” by Bronson Howard, “The New Henrietta” play by Victor Mapes and Winchell Smith, Scenario by June Mathis
Produced by John Golden, Marcus Loew, Winchell Smith
Music by Robert Israel
Cinematography by Harold Wenstrom
Art Direction by F.H. Webster
Edward Jobson as Reverend Murray Hilton
Beulah Booker as Agnes Gates
Edward Connelly as Mr. Musgrave
Edward Alexander as Watson Flint
Irving Cummings as Mark Turner
Odette Taylor as Mrs. Cornelia Opdyke
Carol Holloway as Rose Turner
Jack Livingston as Dr. George Wainright
William H. Crane as Nicholas Van Alstyne
Buster Keaton as Bertie Van Alstyne
Keaton stars in The Saphead as Bertie Van Alstyne, the spoiled son of a powerful Wall Street financier. Unable to escape the wealth and comfort that are foisted upon him, he pursues individuality in a series of comic misadventures in the speakeasies of New York, at the altar of matrimony, and even on the floor of the American stock exchange. The Saphead was instrumental in establishing Keaton as a bona fide star and greatly influenced his formulation of the Buster persona: a lonely, stone-faced soul thwarted by circumstance yet undauntedly resourceful and indefatigable in his struggle for love and survial within a chaotic world.
Prior to 1920, Buster Keaton was best known for his shorts with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Both under contract with Joseph M. Schenck, Keaton’s feature film debut was actually started by a recommendation by popular swashbuckling silent action star Douglas Fairbanks.
Fairbanks who starred in the film “The Lamb”, a 1915 action silent film based on the play “The New Henrietta” by Victor Mapes and Winchell Smith was being remade. And because of Keaton’s popular physical comedy and the fact that the comedy remake which would be based on “The New Henrietta” and Bronson Howard’s play “The Henrietta”, Fairbanks recommended that Buster Keaton play the part. And sure enough, Joseph M. Schenk gave his OK for Keaton to be loaned out and headline his first feature-film, “The Saphead” would create recognition for Buster Keaton acting and physical comedy but also giving him the chance to show that he can be a headliner .
While “The Saphead” was Keaton’s first film, he would go on to create primarily shorts for the next three years until 1923 in which he would star and co-direct the films “Our Hospitality” and “Three Ages”. Considered as “the big start” in Keaton’s film career, the film continues to entertain Buster Keaton fans and now, “The Saphead” will be released on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber.
The Blu-ray release will feature the original film featuring music by Robert Israel plus a complete alternate version. The alternate version featuring the same story, but featuring variant takes and different camera angles. So, same story but different takes, so essentially a different film. This alternative version would feature a 2.0 stereo solo piano score by Ben Model.
“The Saphead” begins with introductions to the powerful Van Alstyne family. Nicholas Van Alstyne (as portrayed by William H. Crane) is a man who is wealthy and knows how to invest in the stock market. Meanwhile, his daughter Rose (as portrayed by Carol Holloway) is married to a broker, Mark Turner (as portrayed by Irving Cummings). Mark’s law business is not doing well and he worries about making money. Meanwhile, he receives a message from a woman named Henrietta to see her.
Henrietta happens to be his mistress and he has an illegitimate child with her, but has kept it a secret from Rose. Henrietta is very sick and wants Mark to see her before she dies, but Mark has no intention of seeing her or his child.
Meanwhile, at the Van Alstyne’s home, Nicholas Van Alstyne’s son Bertie “The Lamb” (as portrayed by Buster Keaton) is awaiting for his adopted sister, Agnes Gates (As portrayed by Beulah Booker) to come home. Nicholas pretty much raised Agnes like his own daughter and has taken care of her, but for Bertie and Agnes, both have liked each other since they were kids, but now as they are young adults, Bertie feels he must prove his love to her and become a man.
As for Bertie, his father Nicholas thinks he is a “saphead”, a “lamb” and pretty much a weak person who is living off his father and has no initiative in becoming a businessman or anything. And it frustrates Nicholas that his son is like this.
Despite how his father feels about him, for Bernie… all that matters is Agnes.
Bertie has been reading books of how “bad boys” attract women, so he decides to try and be a tough guy. While showing up late to pick up Agnes at the train station, Bertie decides to hang out with a few of his guy friends and these guys take him out for a night of gambling. But Bertie doesn’t know that the location is an underground gambling club and the police end up busting the club. For Bertie, he sees this as an opportunity to get the police to take him to jail or the media to print something bad about him, so Agnes will think he is a”bad boy”.
But he is quick to realize that Agnes is in love with him because he is not a bad boy and both Bertie and Agnes decide to get married. But because of the negative publicity of the underground gambling and Bertie being featured on the front page of the newspaper, his father Van Alstyne wants Bertie to move out of the house, no longer receiving an allowance from his father and for him to mature and get a job.
So, his father cuts a $1 million check to Bertie and now, Bertie must find ways to become a man and find work. But also to prepare for his upcoming marriage with Agnes.
But when Henrietta’s message to Bertie’s brother-in-law, Mark not being answered. Before Henrietta’s death, she asks her friend to reveal the affair that she had with Agnes.
And on the wedding day of Bertie and Agnes, right before the two were to get married, Henrietta’s friend delivers the letters to the Van Alstyne family and out Mark Walters of having an affair with Henrietta. But shockingly, Mark lies and accuses Bertie of having an affair with Henrietta. And because Bertie is shy and never a guy to get into arguments, everyone believes Mark and Bertie is disowned by his father and also losing his love of his life, Agnes in the process.
As Bertie is now estranged from the family, he must now must make his own living and that is by working in “The Street” and getting involved in the Stock Exchange.. Meanwhile, Mark tries to scheme his way into taking care of Nicholas Van Alstyne’s investments and leaving Nicholas Van Alstyne in financial ruin.
Will Bertie be able to win his honor and the love of his life back?
“The Saphead” is presented in 1080p High Definition and is color-tinted. The good news is that fortunately “The Saphead” was restored and taken care of by film collector and archivist Raymond Rohauer. As for the film itself, I have watched the original Kino DVD many times (via “The Art of Buster Keaton DVD Box Set). And so I was anticipating the film to look great on Blur-ay as previous Buster Keaton films have been on Blu-ray.
But for anyone who has not seen a silent film on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, it’s important to note that Kino is not a company that spends a lot of money and dedicates many hours into restoration and clean-up. So, with that being said, don’t expect the film to look pristine. Especially since it is over 92-years-old. You will see scratches, white specks but fortunately, this film was restored earlier on before any nitrate damage could have made the film unwatchable or terrible looking.
The film looks good on Blu-ray with black levels looking good, whites and grays that are well-contrast but could it look better, definitely. Could it look even clear? Of course. But the reality is that restoration is expensive and not many companies can afford to continually do it for each release. Yes, Raymond Rohauer did restore the film but restoring films a decade ago or many decades ago can not compare to how films are restored today with newer and costly technology.
With that being said, “The Saphead” looks very good and no blurring or faint details as seen on the original DVD release. I’m sure Keaton fans will definitely appreciate the video quality on Blu-ray!
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
For the release of “The Saphead”, the original film features music by Robert Israel presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and in 2.0 Stereo. For the alternate version, Ben Model’s solo piano score is presented in 2.0 stereo.
I will say that hearing Israel’s music via lossless was amazing. I was testing the music back and forth from 5.1 to 2.0 and the overall music came alive in lossless. So, I do appreciate the lossless Robert Israel soundtrack being included on Blu-ray.
“The Saphead” comes with the following special features:
- Complete Alternate Version of “The Saphead” – The alternate version is the same story with variant takes and camera angles.
- “A Pair of Sapheads” – (7:31) A featurette comparing the two versions of the film and why an alternate version was made.
- “Buster Keaton: Life of the Party” – (30:34) A fascinating audio recording fro 1962 as Buster Keaton recalls memories of his youth and the songs of the past.
- Why They Call Him Buster – (1:11) The “Lost Keaton” promotional trailer.
- Gallery – Featuring a gallery of 16 images showcasing work from Buster Keaton’s career.
“The Saphead” comes with a slipcase.
“The Saphead” may not be the best film in Buster Keaton’s oeuvre, but what a delightful and fun film. I never grow tried of watching it!
Having seen this film multiple times, it was great to finally watch it on Blu-ray and also getting the opportunity to watch the alternative version included. But historically, “The Saphead” was a major film in Buster Keaton’s career as actor in Hollywood and Douglas Fairbanks really gave Keaton a major chance of being a movie star. While there are many shorts featuring Buster Keaton before and after “The Saphead” was released, it was the first film that would have a farther reach around the glove, but also would feature Keaton in his trademark, deadpan face. But also a chance to see him his physical comedy in action.
I enjoyed the film because of two things. One would be the film’s time capsule of capturing the feel of New York’s Stock Exchange. We see early footage of how packed “The Street” (Wall Street) was during 1920 but it also gives us a look at how investments were made in the Stock Exchange. And I always gravitate towards films that are time capsules of the past.
Also, I always found the film to be intriguing in how a man would try to be a “bad boy” in order to get a woman back then. It has its relevance today in the fact that many men try to read books on how to be a bad boy and date more women, so what the character of Bertie is no difference to how guys are today. Many single men are still reading “How to” pick up women type of books and as long as these men have difficulties, many will be like Bertie and end up doing stupid things in order to attract women.
But while “The Saphead” may not be a Keaton written or directed film, it’s a film that captures comedy, as Bertie is literally clueless. May it come to gambling or being part of the Stock Exchange, he has no clue but the way he goes about it, we can’t help but laugh.
In one scene, the men at the Stock Exchange go through their newbie ritual of hitting his hat or dropping his walking stick and just having fun with Bertie. And for Bertie, he doesn’t see these men as mocking him but his naivety lets him believe that this is the culture among men working at the Stock Exchange.
At 77 minutes long, “The Saphead” is a shorter feature film but fortunately with this Blu-ray release, you get the film in HD, you get an alternative version of the film (same story but slightly acted differently by the talent) plus special features including a half hour rare audio recording from 1962 as Keaton recalls memories and songs of his youth.
Overall, “The Saphead” is going to continue to entertain old and new Buster Keaton fans. And one should not come to this film thinking it to be on the same level as “The General” or “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”. It’s primarily Keaton’s first feature film but if anything, the film is delightful and funny and as a silent film fan, I love silent comedies and enjoy the work of Buster Keaton. The film succeeds because of Keaton, the film is hilarious because of Keaton. Any other silent actor, I can’t see anyone else pulling this film off. He was perfect for the role!
Is it worth watching? Definitely. Is it worth buying? If you have purchased many Buster Keaton films on Blu-ray thus far, then “The Saphead” is another feature film starring Buster Keaton that is worth having in your silent cinema collection.
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