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The Saphead (1920)

 -  Comedy  -  September 1920 (USA)
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Ratings: 6.2/10 from 960 users  
Reviews: 17 user | 17 critic

The simple-minded son of a rich financier must find his own way in the world.


(original play "The Henrietta"), (play), 2 more credits »
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Complete credited cast:
Edward Jobson ...
Reverend Murray Hilton
Beulah Booker ...
Agnes Gates
Edward Connelly ...
Mr. Musgrave
Edward Alexander ...
Watson Flint
Irving Cummings ...
Mark Turner
Odette Taylor ...
Mrs. Cornelia Opdyke
Carol Holloway ...
Rose Turner
Jack Livingston ...
Dr. George Wainright
William H. Crane ...
Nicholas Van Alstyne
Bertie Van Alstyne


Nick Van Alstyne owns the Henrietta silver mine and is very rich. His son Bertie is naive and spoiled. His daughter Rose is married to shady investor Mark. Mark wrecks Bertie's wedding plans by making him take the blame for Mark's illegitimate daughter. Mark also nearly ruins the family business by selling off Henrietta stock at too low a price. Bertie, of all people, must come to the rescue on the trading floor. Written by Ed Stephan <>

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Release Date:

September 1920 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

A mamlasz  »

Company Credits

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:



Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
See  »

Did You Know?


A rare Buster Keaton smile is visible in the scene in which Bertie reads the newspaper account on the raid of the gambling house. See more »


When Bertie's car pulls up to the house after the aborted wedding, the front gate is closed, but when he gets out of the car it is wide open. See more »


Bertie: I'm good. I've tried my best to get over it - but I can't - and I still kneel down and say my prayers every morning - before I go to bed.
See more »


Follows The Mollycoddle (1920) See more »

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User Reviews

A Sort Of Beginning
21 November 2009 | by (Greenwich, CT United States) – See all my reviews

He's rich, he's a bit lazy, he gets the girl in the first half-hour, he even smiles a bit. It's not the Buster Keaton you expect. But he's still Keaton, and even if his first feature film creaks a good deal, he keeps you entertained.

"The Saphead" presents the story of Bertie Van Alstyne (Keaton), son of Wall Street tycoon Nicholas Van Alstyne (William H. Crane). Bertie lives a life of Manhattan luxury but secretly pines for the beautiful Agnes (Beulah Booker), who secretly pines for Bertie in turn. Happiness appears at hand until a strange turn of events shatters their union.

A 1920 production of a hit stage play, "The Saphead" was designed to fit audience conventions of the day, not showcase Keaton's still-emerging comic persona. Sentiment and improbable coincidences run rampant here. Given that, it's impressive how well the Keaton we would come to know is presented. He is given many chances to present his clownish athleticism, as well as that expressionless-yet-not-emotionless manner that has beguiled film lovers for decades.

Was Herbert Blaché, the credited director, preternaturally wise to Keaton's style? Or did Keaton just know how to get his way even before he enjoyed full control of his features?

The problem with "The Saphead" is not Keaton, but its construction. In the first ten minutes, we are introduced to everyone in the film except Bertie, and given background about an adulterous affair that is then dropped for the Bertie story. Forty-five minutes in the two story lines come together, and in such a convoluted way as to beggar belief. Bertie is somehow pressed into taking the blame for the affair, even though it's obvious his brother-in-law is the guilty party.

Cue violins. A lot of "The Saphead" works toward this kind of sentimental dithering, even the Keaton parts, which get a bit strange. Bertie confesses his love to Agnes accidentally, when he tells his sister Rose about it. (Since Nicholas Van Alstyne adopted Agnes, doesn't that make her Bertie's sister, too?) Agnes is standing right there, though, and gives Bertie a bit of a shock before he recovers and takes her hand. This is strictly Buster for the old ladies.

The best way of watching "The Saphead" is as a couple of clever Keaton shorts with workmanlike connecting material. The first short would be Bertie's attempt to live a wastrel life, not because his heart is in it, but because he believes the modern woman "prefers sports to saints". To this end, in a great bit of physical comedy, Bertie tries to get arrested when his speakeasy is raided even though he successfully bribed a detective without knowing it. Every time he tries to enter the paddy wagon, someone pushes him back out.

The second short would be Bertie making his way on Wall Street in the last 20 minutes, overdressed in top hat, frock coat, and spats, being razzed by the other brokers. This culminates in a scene of wild physical comedy where Keaton runs around the trading floor, jumping on people and unknowingly buying up shares in his father's precious mine.

The Kino DVD I saw this on also has two shorts Keaton made at the same time, "The High Sign" and "One Week", which display Keaton as both director and star, and in much sharper form. "The Saphead" lacks the inventiveness of those shorts, but it works off-and-on as period entertainment thanks to Keaton and a good supporting cast. Booker is a typically shy Keaton-film beauty who delivers her scenes with grace. Crane has a fine comic moment sending his disgraced son off with a check for one million dollars "and not a penny more!"

It's not great cinema, but it's the start of great cinema, showing some the conventions of the time Keaton would do his part to break, and other conventions he would observe, en route to glory.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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