|The Play House (1921)
Run time: 18 min
Genres: Short | Comedy | Fantasy
Director: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Writers: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
Stars: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline, Virginia Fox
The opening scene, a dream sequence prior to the vaudeville routines which follow, is what makes this film famous. In it Keaton plays everyone in a theatre simultaneously (through multiple exposures). He is the band leader, all its members, the dancers on the stage and everyone in the audience. Written by Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
Release Date: 6 October 1921 (USA)
Drawing from his experience in vaudeville during his youth, The Playhouse is one of Keaton’s most autobiographical shorts. Keaton displays his inventive genius for visual effects in a dream sequence by playing the role of all performers in a minstrel show and its audience as well. Each Buster, from drum player to a Grandma Buster, has its own distinctive personality and character. This is truly one of the great sequences of Keaton’s career.
Buster is awakened from his dream of grandiose, caught sleeping on the job. In the second part of the short, he plays a stagehand who gets into trouble both on and off the stage. From this point forward the short relies less on technical marvel, but remains equally entertaining. Keaton’s facial impressions when dressed up as a monkey are priceless.
As with most Keaton shorts, there are many unique details which enhance the overall film, but are not essential to the plot. Some of the funniest shots in the film don’t even involve Buster, specifically two hilarious Civil War veterans in the theater’s audience, each with only one arm.
Buster’s co-star in The Playhouse is Virginia Fox. She does a charming job in a dual role playing twins. It has been written that in his youth Buster had a fondness for twin performers and was known to pursue both sisters.
Long before we became John Malkovich, an entire playhouse became Buster Keaton… and it’s absolutely delightful. "The whole thing seems to be this Keaton fellow," says Keaton to Keaton dressed in drag (a much more attractive crossover than Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis!). Indeed.
Oh, but that’s not all! Nooo, why stop there when we have an antagonist to show? Because Malkovich is only in the head, and thus Keaton is but a dream. However, the real playhouse owner… he has a bone to pick with the little guy, in some of the most hilarious Keaton hijinks.
This is the consummate Buster Keaton short. From the magic and creativity of the beginning, to the chase scenes and guy-gets-girl later story, we follow him as he takes on and removes persona faster than the speed of a swinging chimp! Oh, and he gets to play that chimp too, and very very believably.
This is an unusual and extremely creative short comedy that shows off both Keaton’s technical and comic skills, and it’s loaded with clever visual details. Keaton’s main character in this one is a stage hand, but he plays 20 or more different roles, most of them in the fascinating and bizarre opening sequence. The craftsmanship is perfect – even when several images of Keaton appear in one shot – and when you realize what the sequence represents, it’s very suggestive as well. The main part of the film moves a little more slowly, but has some good laughs in it. There is a nice recurring joke about Keaton’s girl – she is one of a pair of twins, and Keaton can never keep them straight. While Keaton made other films that are more uproariously funny, "The Playhouse" is a gem of inventiveness, and is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys silent films.
For some odd reason, I find the Buster Keaton features such as "the General" and "Steamboat Bill Jr." to be well-made, yet lacking in the explosive laughter I would expect. His short films however, pack a punch with comedy. "The Playhouse" is his best work ever – a showcase of his versatility and unparalleled comedic techniques. Any musician watching his clarinet technique (gnawing on the mouthpiece) can’t help but hit the floor when they watch the opening orchestra scene. Likewise, the variety of audience members he plays, this is amazing. I can’t help but wonder… how long (given makeup and costumes) did this one scene take to film? There are also more Warner Brothers cartoon foreshadowing in this than most other films I’ve seen. For a true short film masterpiece, see this film.