An unimpressive but well intending man is given the chance to marry a popular actress, of whom he has been a hopeless fan. But what he doesn't realize is that he is being used to make the actress' old flame jealous.
Elmer is a dry cleaner. He is madly in love with stage star Trilby Drew; for each of her 35 performances, he dons someone else's tuxedo and races to the theatre. When Trilby's co-star boyfriend gets engaged to a socialite, she marries Elmer to get even, assuming Elmer is a millionaire (since his clothes are so snazzy.) But she's clearly still in love with her scoundrelous co-star, and her manager makes her leave Elmer, trying to pay him off so the papers don't hear about her marriage to a "cheap pants presser." Can Elmer win her love? Maybe a sea voyage will help. Written by
In the dressing-room scene while attempting to trim the hair for his false beard, Elmer accidentally severs the left-hand shoulder strap of his vest and has no time to repair it. When we see him hurriedly changing back into his smart clothes after the performance, both straps are still whole. See more »
Well, it had to happen some time; in the course of a year's experience at MGM, Buster Keaton's features have finally left youth behind, and left it hard and fast. In "The Cameraman" his character was still the dreamy boy -- but that famous angular face has filled out into a sculpted adult mask, alabaster assuming the opaque authority of marble; no longer playing a college student but a nervy man in his thirties, this is the mature Keaton who will become familiar from the publicity material of the new decade.
He has abruptly grown into those strong bones at last. The alteration is not unbecoming, but it's undoubtedly somewhat marked.
As to why, precisely, I found myself speculating so extensively during the first half of the film on the changes in Keaton's personal appearance... I'm afraid it was because I didn't find it very funny.
The opening scenes have their moments, certainly. Dorothy Sebastian gets good material and can act, and so can Keaton -- when he's allowed. But too much of the humour I found simply to be farcical clowning: in an earlier film, the routine with the hats, for example, might have lasted a second or so for a throwaway laugh, but here it's milked far beyond what it can bear, and much of the other business I felt to be equally forced. There are moments that fly past with Keaton's old lightness of touch, such as the revelation of the true source of his elegant clothing, but there seems to be a general feeling that if a joke is worth doing once, it is worth labouring to death.
The sequence in which 'Elmer' disrupts the performance of the Civil War melodrama was, for me, more a matter of cringing than laughter; it's only fair to say that these sentiments were very definitely not shared by those in the seats nearby, and it may well just be a case of my aversion to the destructive nature of slapstick humour. But what I love about Keaton isn't his ability to fall over things and knock things down -- any comic worth his salt can do that -- it's the ingenuity and resourceful illogic of his invention at its best, and there's precious little of that on show here.
Fortunately, matters improve thereafter, as he is allowed a little more resource. Miss Sebastian shines during the restaurant scene, with Buster as second fiddle, and he is able to advance his relationship with his 'wife' during this section of the film into something a little more complex than fatuous knock-kneed idolatry. I have to confess that I didn't find the scene where he tries endlessly to put her to bed to be as classic as it's apparently held, although I did appreciate his typically Keatonesque solution to the chair problem, but the film definitely picks up from around this point.
The real enjoyment for me, however, only started when Elmer and the girl are left alone on the yacht together; it's almost as if a script that has been written to date by somebody else is taken over by an inspiration that's characteristically Keaton's, as both he and his character rise to the occasion. It occurs to me in passing to wonder if isolation of the filming crew aboard the yacht could possibly have helped foil studio interference..? But maybe it's simply that this is the Keaton we're used to, coming up with wonderfully complex schemes, disabling an entire crew of villains one by one or launching himself intrepidly into the unknown mysteries of the rigging. I was struck by the difference in tone between the sympathetic comedy of this section, where he tries to reduce sail with the help of the girl and the handicap of their joint ignorance, and the earlier, clumsy, 'varnishing' sequence, in which he is purely inept and we are expected to find it funny.
If the 'adrift alone' theme echoes "The Navigator", then the final knock-down fight inevitably recalls "Battling Butler"; as in that film, Keaton produces not only an athletic but a well-acted confrontation, as Elmer faces up to an opponent tall enough and strong enough to hold him ineffectual at arm's-length... armed only with bantam courage, and the luck and resolve that enable him to survive and keep coming back for more even as he visibly tires. And the payoff in the final line of this scene repaid, for me, all the clumsy physical clowning of the stage scenes earlier! (I must add that as a satire on overwrought drama, I actually find the depiction itself of the play "Carolina" quite funny; it's Buster's distinctly unsubtle involvement that grates on me so.)
At the start of "Spite Marriage", I'd have been hard put to rate it above a wavering 5 or 6, with the low comedy of scenes such as the riding encounter definitely toward the low end of that scale. I was pleasantly surprised to find it veering upwards as it went on, into the territory of 7 or above, and the ending I'd generally rate at an 8. (The return of the hat gag, I have to say, was not to my taste!) However, I cannot in all conscience give the film as a whole a ranking above about seven on my personal scale: worth watching, worth recommending to others, but not really worth going through discomfort or inconvenience to see.
Edit: re-watching this film with the original soundtrack (the love theme, "I'm Afraid of You", is certainly appropriate!), I'm impressed above all by Dorothy Sebastian's performance; now that I've seen his later work, Keaton's performance and material here actually reminds me more of his sound-era pictures. You may not be able to hear his voice, but you can certainly see a lot of the same mannerisms appearing...
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