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|Index||19 reviews in total|
Though not of the quality of "The General," an almost perfect movie,
"Spite Marriage" is worth watching both for the fun and for the
historical value of its being Keaton's last silent.
Co-star Dorothy Sebastian deserves a medal both for her performance and for putting up with being knocked about so.
So many of Keaton's leading ladies get treated very physically, surely part of the auditions was a test of their good-natured sportsmanship -- and probably their physical conditioning, too.
Dorothy Sebastian's character is not very sympathetic at first, but she learns, and when she has to assist in her own rescue, she is adorable, cute as the proverbial button.
Keaton, though, is the real reason to watch, this or almost everything else he is in.
He ranks among the top of the certifiable geniuses of motion picture making, with an unfailing sense of timing, with uncanny physical control, and with an understanding of what was (and is) funny that the studio bosses of his latter career should have paid attention to.
Even with the worst material, with which he was saddled in so many of his talkies, Keaton and his abilities and talents still stand out, are still memorable.
Buster Keaton will deserve our awe forever.
Yes, this was the last film Keaton made without dialogue, but in
reality, it wasn't silent at all. It was a sound film, utilizing a full
orchestral score with many many sound effects (applause, audience
laughter, horse gallops ala coconuts, crowd noises, cash register
rings, steam whistles, ambient voices, cheers, etc.) Calling it
Keaton's last silent is rather a misnomer - dialogueless, yes, but not
released without a soundtrack.
It is a gentle work. Lovestruck Buster marries a woman who is on the rebound from a spurned lover, but through Buster's bravery in defending her, she learns to love him, so a happy ending is ensured.
We miss the usual Buster outfit, especially with the pork pie hat. Also closeups reveal Buster's face rather lined - he's getting too old either to play a young leading man or a love interest at all - which works against the plausibility of the plot line. There are only six main characters. Actually there are only six gag routine set ups:
1. The hat-raising competition which occurs three times; 2. Buster's attempt to attach a fake beard with spirit gum; 3. Buster's clumsy onstage movements which wreck the sets; 4. Dorothy Sebastian's luring thugs down a ship's corridor to be coshed by a hiding Buster; 5. Climactic fight on deck with rigging prop. 6. Putting the rubbery drunken wife to bed.
Very few for a Keaton feature (77 minutes). The most memorable is the putting the wife to bed scene, which runs under five minutes. Seen once or twice though, it is not one to return to over and over again as in most Keaton films. It occurs exactly halfway in the film.
It is a shame that the MGM/UA Turner VHS (released in 1990) is out of print. The copy used is perfection itself - crystal sharp and clear and with a pristine soundtrack (no hiss from worn Vitaphone discs transferred to film stock). It's as if the sound had been recorded directly onto the film track, and indeed by 1929, when it was released, perhaps the industry had already discarded the disc method. Hopes are that this will be reissued on DVD as it is important to have ALL of Buster's silent work available to the public, even the small pieces like this one.
Certainly worth seeing as a fine comedy and by the mere fact that it is Buster performing.
The story isn't much, but Buster packs every scene with so many gags
that you don't mind. It's easy to see why he was so successful, until
MGM stuck him with stories that were totally unsuitable.
The original score is fantastic, here - it includes a great deal of popular music and makes commentary on the situations, but the meaning will be lost on most modern viewers (I collect records from that period, so I recognize most all of it); even so, it moves the action right along and gives us a rare chance to experience a silent film just as it was presented to contemporary audiences. No cheesy piano accompaniment, here! The sound effects are well done, and used sparingly.
The shipboard scenes could have been trimmed a bit; they seem to drag. Otherwise, time flies during this movie - you won't regret watching it! Just compare it with the average sound 'comedy' which Hollywood produced until 1932 or so, and you'll realize how they lost the art of making good films for a while. It's a crime that Keaton wasn't given the chance to produce his own talkies, because he might have changed the whole concept of what made a good SOUND comedy! It's a wonder that audiences didn't rebel against the boring, static, yawnful talk-fests that early sound comedies became; maybe the novelty of Talkies really WAS enough to bring them into the theaters.
I'd haven given this a 10, except for the draggy ship scenes - but the ending is satisfyingly Keatonesque!
Although it is not a masterpiece in a league with "The General" or "The Navigator", "Spite Marriage" does contains several of the funniest moments Buster Keaton ever committed to film. I find that this picture serves as an ideal introduction to Keaton for my friends who are not fans of silent pictures. One such friend commented after viewing it, that it was "the most consistently hilarious movie he had ever seen." Buster Keaton's final silent picture, it contains a vintage Vitaphone musical setting.
This isn't bad at all, as long as you don't hold it up to the standard that
Keaton set in the features he made on his own. It has some very good
sequences that make up for the more routine stretches, and it shows enough
of Buster's comic genius to be worthwhile. Even when the gags are not
especially creative, he gets as much mileage out of them as anyone could
The premise of the "Spite Marriage" is rather flimsy at best, and in other hands it probably would not have been even this good. It actually starts out pretty well, as the first part moves at a good pace, and includes a very good sequence with Buster's hapless character trying to take part in a play. It begins to peter out in the middle, though, as the premise begins to wear thin. For some reason, the bedroom sequence from this portion seems to be the best-remembered portion of the movie, but it really isn't one of the better parts of the film at all. But things pick up again in the last part, when the story takes a couple of unexpected turns, and the comedy also improves.
To be sure, it is a shame that Keaton was forced into the studio mold in pictures like this. It worked for many, but not for a unique talent like Buster. Still, at least this time the result is a generally entertaining movie with more than enough laughs to make it worth watching for anyone who enjoys silent comedies.
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...
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It is true that by the time SPITE MARRIAGE was released in 1929, Buster
Keaton had already made just about all of his best work, and this film
may be said to mark the beginning of a fast decline, as the artist
Keaton was forced into the role of an ordinary, hired actor at MGM.
Even so, in this last silent film of his, he still managed to display
the material with enough of the former Keaton Magic that it stands out,
in retrospect, as a worthy swan song. The story is nothing spectacular:
Buster (here named "Elmer" for the first time) is in love with stage
actress Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian), and regards it as a truism to
see every single one of her appearances in an ongoing Civil War drama.
Several events, notably Buster's brief and utterly unsuccessful stint
as a stand-in actor, leads the two to marriage. Unbeknownst to our
hero, however, this is only Trilby's way of getting a revenge on her
boyfriend, who has suddenly become engaged to someone else. A "Spite
Marriage" if ever there was one. Expectedly, Trilby is soon forced by
her manager to leave Buster. Several more odd coincidences lead up to
Buster and Trilby being reunited alone on a yatch, however, where our
hero is finally given opportunity to demonstrate that he really is a
man, as he struggles to beat up a group of boot-leggers who take
command over the yatch.
Like his first film at MGM, THE CAMERAMAN, SPITE MARRIAGE was based on a carefully prepared script, written by employees at MGM who only vaguely, one would imagine, followed Keaton's original story synopsis. This must have been frustrating to the comedian, whose former films (including classics such as OUR HOSPITALITY and THE GENERAL) had never been "written" in a literal sense, but were the results of story conferences with trusted and experienced gag-men such as Clyde Bruckman, with Keaton always having the final say. As a result, SPITE MARRIAGE has a sort of "studio feel" to it, which is probably its most unfortunate aspect; it doesn't really feel spontaneously playful in the way Keaton's previous work had. One of the most pleasing aspects with films such as OUR HOSPITALITY is that the story appears to be well thought out, following traditional dramaturgy rules as much as required for in order to make an engaging story, but keeping enough open room for improvisation that it doesn't feel too revealingly organized. By contrast, SPITE MARRIAGE appears to follow an A-B-C-D-formula which seldom suits comedy well.
The good news is that Keaton at this point had still not given up. Although he sometimes had to fight hard for it, he convinced his producers to keep in some of the material which they felt was inappropriate. The best example of this is the sequence where newlyweds Buster and Trilby arrive at their hotel suit, the lady being dead drunk. Keaton is transformed into his former, imaginative self as he struggles to get the unconscious lady to bed. The bit was largely, if not completely improvised, and remains the most memorable part of the film. Keaton would return to the sequence many times later, including at least one time on TV in the 1950's with his wife Eleanor. Other highlights include the final part with Keaton outwitting the dangerous boot-leggers; I name that sequence with some hesitancy, as Keaton himself reportedly fought to have it omitted, feeling that a simpler ending would be more fitting. However, there's no way of getting around that he did the best he could out of the material.
As Keaton's swan song in silent films, SPITE MARRIAGE all in all remains a worthy finale. Notably, Keaton had in fact been eager to make it a talkie, but MGM refused (which, if we take a look at the majority of his soon-to-be talking films at said studio, we should probably be grateful for). For all the creative freedom he had now lost, what we tend to forget is that Keaton even in his heyday was never independent to the same degree which Chaplin and Harold Lloyd were. He occasionally had to appear in productions he didn't totally believe in himself even in those years, such as COLLEGE; I rank SPITE MARRIAGE to be somewhere on the same level as these. Finally, Dorothy Sebastian is definitely worthy of a mention as his leading lady in this film, being more believable and complex than most of Keaton's former leading ladies.
This was the last silent film starring Buster Keaton, though the film
does have sound effects and music--something MGM did to many film in
the period between the silents and the full conversion over to sound
films. While it is very watchable (particularly to Keaton fans), it is
a far cry from his earlier films mostly due to Keaton's ill-fated
decision to abandon an independent career (which had resulted in great
films such as THE GENERAL and STEAMBOAT BILL JUNIOR) to sign on with
MGM Studios. The resulting MGM films were at first pretty good (though
noticeably inferior to the independent films). However, as time passed,
the films became god-awful messes that are barely watchable and often
make Keaton fans cry.
Fortunately, while this IS an MGM-produced film, it is much better than most. The difference between the quality of this film and his next (FREE AND EASY) is dramatic--mostly because by the time FREE AND EASY came along, Keaton was only an actor and had no say in the creative process. This was insane, but the butt-heads at MGM wanted it this way. This was akin to hiring Picasso but only letting him do clown paintings!! SPITE MARRIAGE consists of three distinct sections and each are quite different in quality. The first consists of Keaton slavishly longing for a stage actress who has no idea that he even exists. While parts of this are very funny, the film oddly relies way too much on pathos compared to Keaton's other works--this was more Chaplin's style but now MGM was pushing Keaton this direction. I'd say this part of the movie would merit a score of 7. The second consists of when Keaton dates and then marries this selfish actress. The film grinds to a comedic halt and the highlight, so to speak, is when he spends what seems like an eternity to stick his drunk wife in bed. This was tedious and terribly unfunny--earning a score of 3. The final segment of the film was when Keaton oddly went out to sea. How this all was arranged was very silly and contrived, but once he was there the film finally showed the earlier Keaton magic--with amazing stunts like you'd expect in a Keaton film. How much of this was actually Keaton is debatable, as MGM was worried he'd get killed doing these dangerous stunts--even though Keaton was a master at this (as seen in STEAMBOAT BILL JUNIOR). Because the film's timing and laughs were impeccable, I'd give the final portion a score of 10--thus ending the movie on a very high note. Overall, averaging it all together, the film earns a 7.
Had Keaton continued to make movies of the quality of SPITE MARRIAGE, his career at MGM would have no-doubt flourished for many years, as the film comes very close to earning a score of 8 and is very watchable.
Buster Keaton's last silent comedy was a change of pace from his earlier, independent features, lacking many of his distinctive idiosyncrasies but adding a refreshingly modern love interest with determined, temperamental actress Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian), who unlike most silent film heroines gets angry, gets drunk, and throws a few well-timed temper tantrums. Because it's a corporate comedy from the MGM assembly line the film can be a bit plot-heavy at times, but even so allows room for some now classic routines: a Civil War stage melodrama sabotaged by Buster's accident-prone performance; Buster attempting to put his dead-drunk bride to bed; and a heroic chase and rescue aboard an underworld yacht. If Keaton was now performing gags that might have been suited to anyone (many seem Chaplin-inspired), at least he was doing so with his usual grace and deadpan precision, and the film highlighted a more confidant, aggressive side to his personality rarely seen in his earlier films.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
025: Spite Marriage (1929) - released 4/6/1929; viewed 9/17/05 The St.
Valentine's Day Massacre goes down in Chicago. Herbert Hoover succeeds
Calvin Coolidge as President of the United States.
BIRTHS: Vic Morrow.
KEVIN: In 1929, Buster Keaton churns out another fun studio movie, and his last silent film. One otherwise hilarious scene that kind of made me sick was when he sneaks into the Civil War stage play, especially when he's haplessly gluing on the fake beard and later when he's ruining every inch of the act before a live audience. Although The Cameraman was definitely better, I liked this one a little more because the funniest and most exciting moments are in the final act when Keaton is taking down the mobsters on the ship one by one and saving his girl Indiana Jones-style. We watched the final act more than once, the best stunt being when he's at last thrown from the boat and quickly climbs his way back on before clocking the bad guy.
DOUG: Keaton's style is starting to slow down, but Spite is still definitely worth watching with some very good sequences. I have to give props to Dorothy Sebastian, who plays Trilby, the one who marries Keaton's character Elmer out of spite. One memorable scene has her getting drunk and actually upstaging Keaton, something few people have ever managed to do (on the silent screen, anyway). Soon after, Elmer goes to great pains to try to get her limp and drunk body into the bed without waking her (she's out cold). Ms. Sebastian was clearly quite nimble and flexible to have pulled off such a scene. The movie actually starts off a little slow and boring, but picks up near the end, as Elmer must rescue Trilby from a nasty group of men who have taken over their yacht. Elmer and Trilby bring down the invaders one by one, until it all comes down to a thrilling knock-down, drag-out slugfest between Elmer and the evil captain, which rages all across the ship. Keaton shows again the impressive amount of business he can put on screen here, with a 20-second shot where Elmer is thrown from the front of the ship, swims along the side, and gets on the lifeboat being trailed behind; meanwhile, the wicked captain renews his attack on Trilby. One of Keaton's best scenes in one of his more routine films.
Last film viewed: The Cameraman (1928). Last film chronologically: The Broadway Melody of 1929 (1929). Next film: The Cocoanuts (1929).
The Movie Odyssey is an exhaustive, chronological project where we watch as many milestone films as possible, starting with D.W. Griffith's Intolerance in 1916 and working our way through, year by year, one film at a time. We also write a short review for each and every film. In this project, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of the time period, the films of the era, and each film in context, while at the same time just watching a lot of great movies, most of which we never would have watched otherwise.
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