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
Buster Keaton's final silent feature, as well as the final film in which MGM allowed him any creative control. See more »
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 »
"Spite Marriage" is a dividing line for Buster Keaton, the film where he began to lose control of his career. It's still a delightful movie with innovative comedy and a moving storyline, once you get past the odd and ill-fitting retooling of Buster's screen image in the first act.
Elmer Gantry (Keaton) runs a laundry, which allows him plenty of time and access to fine clothes for stalking in the guise of a rich suitor stage star Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian). Trilby attaches herself to fellow star player Lionel Benmore (Edward Earle), but when Benmore takes up with a society beauty, Trilby decides to marry Elmer to show him up, to her later regret.
"Spite Marriage" is Keaton's last silent comedy (except for a short called "The Railrodder" he made near the end of his career). It's better than several of the features he made before being picked up by MGM the year before, specifically "College," "Go West," "Three Ages," and "The Saphead." But it falls short of classic Buster, often because of the role played by Buster himself.
For almost all of the first 30 minutes, viewers have to adjust to the novel notion of Buster the idiot. After an abrupt opening, we see Buster fumbling around on horseback, wiggling lovelorn in his seat as Trilby performs on stage, and finally sneaking on stage to make a mess of the show. It is funny, but in a frustrating, jerky way.
Too often the film calls attention to Buster's fish-out-of-water character, particularly when he joins the cast and stumbles over assorted props, to the annoying amusement of the audience. In his earlier films, Buster was a stoic victim of mayhem, rather than producing it himself. This made the comedy work without lessening the character. Here, you can't help but emphasize with the theatrical agent who moans: "Shoot him! They'll think it's part of the act!"
There are also odd bits of sympathy trolling. We see him bring her a stuffed dog doll with a tear running down one eye. After he discovers Trilby has left him, the camera lingers on the doll one last time, as an overt nod to Elmer's pitiful state. It's like something out of Harry Langdon.
But there are compensations throughout the early part. Trilby's play, "Carolina," is a wonderful send-up of theatrical conventions. When Lionel makes his entrance as a wounded fugitive, he stops to acknowledge the applause. "A scratch is nothing to a Southern gentleman," he tells Trilby's character, a goofy line that gets a nifty callback late in the film.
Sebastian is a big part of why "Spite Marriage" works as well as it does. For the first time, I watched a Keaton feature not pining for Sybil Seely. Trilby is no gentle flower, but rather a scheming, petty character who uses Elmer's affection for her own ends. As an ex-spite boyfriend, I could relate to this. Most important, she is very funny, especially in a scene in a speakeasy where she gets drunk and loses her cool when she sees Lionel with his new babe. It's a great use of Buster's expressionless manner by director Edward Sedgwick and the MGM team, playing it off Sebastian's scowling and histrionics. She also takes a fall as well as Buster, which helps.
The movie's most famous scene uses her athleticism to splendid effect, where he tries to put his unconscious bride to bed. He tries to sit her on a chair, only to have her roll off. As other reviewers here note, it's easy to ignore the effort she must put forth, keeping Buster hopping without apparently moving a muscle.
The finale, aboard a yacht, is the film's best sequence. Ironically, as historians John Bengtson and Jeffrey Vance note in their helpful DVD commentary, this was one part of the movie Buster didn't want to do, probably concerned he was repeating "The Navigator." But "Spite Marriage" takes the same idea in different directions, and most importantly, ramps up the laughter while giving us Buster in take-charge form. A key bit of business involves his wearing a captain's hat, which seems to signal a sense of newfound authority for the performer.
Alas, it was not to be. Buster's subsequent work for MGM, while quite profitable, would run the gamut from weak to awful, with Buster himself anything but in charge. "Spite Marriage," with its misplaced emphasis on poor, stupid Elmer, would inaugurate this trend, but it's more of a piece with his days as silent comedy's master clown. Keep this in mind, and you will have a good time.
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