Comedy legend Buster Keaton began his career at the age of three, at the end of the nineteenth century, performing vaudeville acts with his parents. After a stint in France serving the U.S. Army during WWI, he made the move to Hollywood. In 1917, when he was twenty-one, Keaton met Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle (then one of Hollywood’s most famous silent stars), and worked with him as co-star and gag writer on over a dozen short films. After around three years with Arbuckle, Keaton began making his own films. The second of these to be made, and the first released, was 1920’s One Week. This ‘two-reeler’ comedy, co-written and directed by Keaton and Edward F. ‘Eddie’ Cline, is a slapstick classic, full of fabulous physical humour.
One Week tells the story of the first week of married life for generically-named characters ‘The Groom’ (Keaton) and ‘The Bride’ (Sybil Seely). After their wedding, the couple receive a letter informing them that the Groom’s Uncle Mike has bought them a pre-fab home and a plot of land. They have to contend with interference from the Bride’s ex (Handy Hank: what a great name!), as well as the forces of nature. Chaos ensues, and the situations the couple find themselves in are delightfully hilarious.
Seely’s work is nowhere near as well known than Keaton’s. She did, however, have a strong (but very brief) career. She was eighteen when she starred in One Week. It was one of over twenty films she worked on over a period of around three years. She retired at the age of twenty-one. Her role of the Bride was not one of the ‘token, submissive wife’, so often seen in Hollywood films – even today. Seely’s Bride was a problem-solver, who worked together with her (often-hapless) husband on some of the challenges they encountered.
There are so many delicious sequences in One Week, and I’ll highlight five in particular for special mention:
1. ON THE HIGHWAY
After the lead couple’s nuptials, they exit in the back seat of a honeymoon car – driven by Hank. The Groom makes several unsuccessful attempts to kiss his wife, but is continuously creeped out by Hank’s pervy glances towards the back seat.
The couple decide to hail another car, and as it pulls up close, The Bride hops into it. Just as The Groom attempts to follow, the two cars separate, and he is left with one leg on each car. As the cars separate further, his legs are pulled further apart, until he looks like some sort of overdressed starfish.
It’s a great comic moment, and one not without its dangers. Keaton was a fearless performer, and did all his own stunts on One Week.
[SIDE NOTE: I wonder if the Volvo ad featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme was influenced by this iconic Keaton stunt?]
2. THE CRATES
When the couple arrived at their new vacant lot, they encounter a delivery man (who, by the way, is a dead ringer for Liev Schreiber) who drops off a long, heavy crate. It’s from Uncle Mike, via the Portable House Company – and it comes with directions that say ‘to give this house a snappy appearance, put it up according to the numbers on the boxes’.
The problem is, Creepy (I mean Handy) Hank soon re-paints the numbers on the crates, messing with the construction order, and resulting in a freakishly lopsided version of the couple’s intended dream house.
Keaton’s genius is in full force here, as we see his physical and comic acting skills on display as he encounters problem after problem, thanks to Ikea-Demon Hank’s interference.
3. THE FALLING WALL
Perhaps the most impressive single physical feat in One Week is the one which involves both The Bride and The Groom spinning 180-degrees around a flipping wall. It’s a beautiful moment. Things start calmly, as she’s sitting in a window hole near the bottom half of the wall, and he’s straddling the top of the wall, preparing to hammer in a nail. Upon striking his hammer, the exterior wall falls forward and rotates: resulting in him ending down at the bottom of the ground and her ending up high on top of the building. As he looks shouts out for her, we see that she’s hanging on for her life. Then at the perfect moment, just as he’s standing in the ideal position: the whole wall falls down flat onto the ground, and just misses him. Conveniently, his location lined up directly with the window hole. It’s a glorious Keaton moment.
4. THE BATH SCENE
The cleverest moment in One Week is also its most risqué. In an early example of ‘breaking the fourth wall’ in film, The Bride is soaping herself up in the bath. She accidently drops the cake of soap on to the mat outside the bathtub. She then leans up and out a bit, with the intention of picking up the soap. Then she stops and stares directly into the camera with a look of mock shock. Next, a hand comes out in front of the camera and covers most of the screen, to give her ‘privacy’ while she leans out of the bath. The mystery hand then disappears just as she is leaning back into the bath, soap in hand. She gives the camera a sheepish smile, and continues soaping.
This is such a witty, inventive scene. It manages to be suggestive without really showing any flesh, and the breaking of the fourth wall connects directly with the audience, letting them feel like they’re ‘in on’ the joke.
5. THE STORM
One Week’s most impressive extended sequence is its storm scene, which takes place during the couple’s housewarming party. A massive wind and rain storm interrupts the festivities, the extent that the whole house spins around like some sort of deranged lazy Susan. The guests are drenched, then thrown across the house’s rooms, and finally spinning so fast that they end up being ejected (via the house’s windows and doors) onto the muddy ground outside. In a particularly hilarious section, wet papers and props fly through the house as the party guests try to cope with the chaos.
[SIDE NOTE: This reminds me of the moment, nearly twenty years later, when Judy Garland’s Dorothy is thrown about the flying house in the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz (1939)].
To achieve One Week’s spinning house effects, the whole house was actually built on a turntable, and wind and rain machines helped create the look of the storm. There’s a lovely moment at the end of the storm when one hapless (and clueless) guest tells The Groom ‘I’ve had a lovely afternoon on your merry-go-round. I’ll be better when you put in your hobby-horses’.
After the storm, the ill-fated house is in even worse shape than it was earlier. The final three minutes of the film are particularly terrific. I won’t spoil it for you, and encourage you to check out the entire film. It’s less than 25 minutes long, and is easy to find online – as it’s now in the public domain.
One Week is a little gem of a film, and nearly a century after it’s creation, it’s still an absolute hoot!
Lisa Malouf – follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf