Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward Sedgwick.
Written by: Lew Lipton & Ernest Pagano & Richard Schayer & Robert E. Hopkins.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Elmer), Dorothy Sebastian (Trilby Drew), Edward Earle (Lionel Benmore), Leila Hyams (Ethyl Norcrosse), William Bechtel (Nussbaum), Jack Byron (Scarzi).
The conventional wisdom holds that after signing with MGM, Keaton made one last great film in The Cameraman, and then his career as a great director was essentially over – as he never really got to make another great film. That is partly true, as the only other feature Keaton directed for MGM was Spite Marriage in 1929 – which isn’t really regarded as one of Keaton’s masterpieces. It isn’t as good as Keaton’s best work to be sure – but it’s still a damn good movie – far better than some of his previous features, and hilarious in many respects. Keaton had wanted to make this his first “talkie” – but MGM only had one stage setup for sound, and it was occupied, so Keaton had to make a final silent film. He does utilize sound effects in the film, but no dialogue. The result is a very good little film – the last truly must-see film of Keaton’s directing career.
In the film, Keaton stars as Elmer, a dry cleaner, who is in love with Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian) – a Broadway star. He comes to see her every performance in a new Civil War play, sitting down front, in a tuxedo he “borrows” from his dry cleaning business. Trilby doesn’t think much of her admirer – although she does think he’s a millionaire. She’s in love with her co-star Lionel (Edward Earle) – but when he announces his engagement to a pretty young woman, Trilby is furious – and asks Elmer to marry her. He gladly accepts – but when the truth of who he is becomes clear, she is angry. Her agent tells her it could ruin her career. But none of that can stop Elmer, who tries desperately to get her to love him.
The plot is rather thin and serviceable – as many Keaton plots are – and is really just an excuse to string together some hilarious sequences. The best, and most famous, has Keaton trying to put Sebastian to bed as she has passed out drunk. It is a virtuoso physical comedy sequence, requiring a lot from both Keaton and Sebastian – and it remains one of Keaton’s most well-known comedy (he would later perform it onstage with his then wife). There are other great moments though – an extended sequence where Keaton becomes an extra in Trilby’s melodramatic play, that he turns into an unintentionally hilarious slapstick play with his constant screw-ups (which is kind of a throw back to his screwing up Hamlet in his short, Daydreams). The thrilling climax is classic Keaton – as he finds himself on board a boat with both Sebastian and Earle – now reunited – and having to protect the woman he loves with her cowardly man leaves her there when they are attacked by rumrunners.
Spite Marriage is not one of Keaton’s best known films – and truth be told, it’s not one of his very best. But it is a very good one, and shows Keaton still trying different things – like the incorporation of sound into his silent features. It’s a very good movie, with a strange love story at its center. The film was a box office hit in 1929, so it also showed that right up until MGM took away Keaton’s freedom to make the films he wanted to make, he was still on the top of his game. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see anything else from him.