Based loosely on a popular play by Bronson Howard, 'The Saphead' is a delightful little comedy about a lovable dope's misadventures within high society, which is best remembered as the feature-length debut of Buster Keaton. I wouldn't go so far as to call this adaptation, which differs from the original 1887 story slightly by modernizing the setting, primo Keaton material. It simply doesn't compare to the virtuoso hilarity of 'Sherlock, Jr,' 'Steamboat Bill' or his masterpiece 'The General.' But after years of working the vaudeville circuit and acting as what amounted to a sidekick to Fatty Arbuckle in several silent shorts, this was the opportunity for the world to experience a small taste of the actor's brand of comedy as a leading man.
There isn't a whole lot within the plot to give Keaton the chance to truly shine and demonstrate his talent for physical slapstick — the sort which has made him into a beloved screen legend and an esteemed filmmaker by contemporary cinema enthusiasts. Audiences of that period wouldn't get a taste of what he was capable of until his following short 'One Week' and a couple years later with the much-cherished 'Cops.' Keaton plays the role of Bertie Van Alstyne, the son of a wealthy stock-exchange broker (William H. Crane), in a somewhat more straightforward approach. Of course, this being Keaton, doing the straight routine is actually part of the act, the essential element which makes up much of his brilliance and humor.
The only time we get to actually see Keaton's trademark physical comedy is near the end of the 77-minute film. During a boisterous selling-and-buying frenzy at the stock exchange when Bertie inadvertently saves the family fortune, the actor runs around the stage jumping and falling all over the place, tackling to the ground various brokers and sliding underneath the legs of others while yelling, "I'll take it!" It's a remarkable action sequence to behold and a real highlight of the entire short feature. For classic cinema lovers, the editing is a feast for the eyes, switching seamlessly between rapid cuts and slightly longer takes so that we can appreciate the size and scope of the room. And it's to the credit of directors Herbert Blaché and Winchell Smith for keeping the sequence fluid and visually comprehensible.
But again, audiences are made to wait until close to the end when we get a small indication of Keaton's eventual contribution to the world of cinema, which is not to say we don't see traces of his talent in other parts of the film. 'The Saphead' does showcase another of the actor's signature comedic styles — that of his deadpan expression which makes his characters into hilarious but endearing dolts. Bertie is a trusting, gullible doofus who tries to impress the love of his life (Beulah Booker) by inventing an image of himself as a swinging, troublemaking bachelor. Unfortunately, the sham only gets him disowned by his father, who disapproves of the couple's marriage plans, and makes him an easy target for covering up a lascivious affair that's damaging to the family's reputation.
It's this reserved, deliberately wooden expression of Keaton's which is most memorable and makes this silent classic such a winner, leading up to that wonderful moment inside the stock exchange. His clueless, poker-face reactions to the events around him and of the people taking advantage of him are basically what made him an obvious choice to play the role. (Reportedly Douglas Fairbanks recommended Keaton by name and made it possible for Joseph M. Schenck, with whom he was under contract at the time, to loan the actor to Metro Pictures.) His ability to keep a straight face is also what made him into a star soon after and in time a treasured comedian. Frankly, 'The Saphead' is not Buster Keaton's best work, but it's good nonetheless and displays the makings of a true screen legend.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'The Saphead' to Blu-ray under the distributor's "Kino Classics" label. Housed inside a normal blue keepcase with a sturdy slipcover, the Region Free, BD50 disc starts by going straight to the main menu with a still photo of Buster Keaton and music playing in the background. Owners can find an alternate version of the film in the "Extras" section of the main menu.
'The Saphead' stumbles unto Blu-ray with a fairly attractive but also somewhat disappointing 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. To phrase it another way, this high-def transfer may derive from a fresh master but shows no evidence of a full restoration. Meaning that this encode is more than likely faithful to the quality of the print — warts and all.
Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the picture comes with scratches and a great deal of white speck everywhere, which is what makes this somewhat of a disappointment. It would have been nice to see this classic receive a full digital restoration, but seeing as how that is a rather costly venture, I can also understand Kino's reluctance, providing fans at home with a copy of the film as is.
On the attractive side, the print appears to be in pretty good shape for being 92 years old. Definition and resolution are excellent for the most part with really great detailing around the smaller background objects in several scenes. Contrast is well-balanced although one or two sequences show some slight blooming in the highlights. Black levels are most impressive with lots of deep shadows and terrific gradation of the various shades. I found myself preferring the alternate version a bit better in terms of contrast and brightness, but overall, this transfer is still nice.
Best part of the entire Blu-ray is definitely the audio, offering fans the choice between a two-channel uncompressed PCM track and a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Both are the orchestral music arranged and directed by Robert Israel. The alternate version features the music of composer Ben Model in legacy Dolby Digital stereo.
Comparing between the two high-rez options, I found myself actually preferring the DTS-HD version over the PCM track. One isn't definitively better than the other. But there was something fuller and deeper about Israel's score when listening in DTS, filling the room with a wider and more engaging presence. Perhaps it has something to do with my enjoying live orchestration during silent films, and the 5.1 lossless mix definitely has that feel to it, very lightly bleeding into the surrounds as if you're sitting inside a large music hall. The mid-range is superb and fantastic, differentiation between each instrument and note without the slightest hint of distortion. And the bass is magnificent, providing depth and weight to the piano scenes with Mark Turner and the beautiful cello sequences with Bertie.
Whichever you choose, you can't go wrong, but the DTS-HD track is definitely my favorite.
Releasing on the same day as its DVD counterpart, dubbed the "Ultimate Edition," this Blu-ray edition appears to share the same set of special features.
Loosely based on the popular Broadway play by Bronson Howard, 'The Saphead' is a delightful comedy best remembered as the feature-length debut of Buster Keaton. While not his best work, which demonstrates him as the genius of physical comedy cherished today, it's a good film nonetheless with various hints of his signature trademarks which made him into a star and eventually, a screen legend. The Blu-ray comes with a good high-def presentation, likely faithful to the condition of the print used, but also doesn't compare to other classic films which benefitted greatly from an expensive restoration process. On the other hand, the lossless audio is excellent and supplemental material is generally satisfying, making the overall package a great purchase for Keaton fans and enthusiasts of silent cinema.