The Saphead [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (3rd September 2022).
The Film

Bertie Van Alstyne (Go West's Buster Keaton) would be the pride and joy of his father Nicholas (William H. Crane) – aka "Old Nick of Wall Street" – but he in love with his father's ward Agnes (Beulah Booker) to the point of distraction. Since Agnes has been away at school, Bertie has surmised that she is a "modern woman" who does not want a good man but a "gambling, drinking devil"; however, apart from hanging a photograph of showgirl Henrietta on his bedroom wall, he has been unsuccessful at anything other than earning the mockery of his elder sister Rose (Carol Holloway). Rose has problems of her own since her broker husband Mark Turner (Irving Cummings) has not been on the receiving end of any of the high value commissions that his father-in-law reserves for longtime associates; however, Rose convinces her father to let Mark run the firm while he takes a much-earned fishing trip.

The only person Bertie has been able to convince of his wild image is his father who disowns him when he is caught at a gambling den raid. When Agnes reveals that she still wants to marry Bertie, his father forbids the union until Bertie makes something of himself and he cuts his son off with only a check for a million dollars. Bertie takes up modest digs at The Ritz and attempts to buy his way onto the stock market floor with the help of his father's chief broker Watson Flint (Edward Alexander) but it is a tough initiation (especially once they learn who his father is). Bertie has planned to marry Agnes in secret, but Rose and Agnes eventually get Nicholas to see sense; that is, until a woman shows up with letters from a certain Henrietta who has died leaving behind a child out of wedlock with Mark. A quick-thinking Mark, however, manages to steer the guilt onto Bertie and his father is all too ready to think of him as a dishonorable wastrel and casts him out again. Knowing that it is only a matter of time before the truth comes out, Mark decides to clean up at the stock market even if it means ruining his father-in-law.

An adaptation of the Victor Mapes and Winchell Smith stage play "The New Henrietta" (itself an update of the earlier play "The Henrietta" by Bronson Howard) – previously adapted as The Lamb with Douglas Fairbanks in the lead – The Saphead was Keaton's first feature film but it has not enjoyed the reputation among fans as the star vehicles he also directed. Although Keaton is able to ring amusement out of acts as mundane as eating breakfast and being shaved by his valet (Henry Clauss), the problem is not so much that there are precious few opportunities for him demonstrate his athletic and sometimes dangerous style of pratfalls but that the scenario requires him to be more than comically oblivious as to be completely stupid to not say anything when his father does an about face and orders him to leave again after Mark's machinations or to endure the "initiation" of his fellow stockbrokers without realizing what is going on for the sake of repetitive sight gags. Even at the end, his Bertie does not win the upper hand so much as get manipulated into it without grasping the significance of the third "Henrietta". Keaton would refine some of what we see here – his foppish character anticipates the likes of The Navigator – and with the film's greater visibility, the perspective of the film being a "work for hire" footnote in Keaton's filmography seems to be starting to shift towards acknowledging the film as a learning experience for Keaton who himself would not undertake the jump to directing feature-length film for another three years; first with Three Ages as a trio of vignettes designed to be broken up into three two-reelers should it prove unsuccessful, and then with the masterful Our Hospitality.


Hard to see apart from bootlegs of Raymond Rohauer's materials, The Saphead received its first modern restoration in 1995 courtesy of David Shepard whose color-tinted master of Rohauer's 35mm materials premiered on Kino on Video's cassette and their Image Entertainment-produced first volume of The Art of Buster Keaton, a three disc set featuring eight shorts and features (with two more volumes to come). The same transfer arrived on DVD from Image and Kino with the shorts The High Sign and One Week. The Shepard restoration would receive an HD transfer for Kino Lorber's "Ultimate Edition" Blu-ray and DVD (the former also available in fourteen disc Buster Keaton Collection along with an HD transfer of an alternate version in the form of a print struck from a second negative of alternate takes shot for shipping overseas to make release prints.

Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 Blu-ray comes from a new 4K restoration of a first generation nitrate print that restores the missing main title (which was recreated on the earlier transfer as well as that of the alternate version) and most of the original intertitles apart from two that had to be recreated. For a hundred year old film, the best parts of the materials sport some surprisingly good sharpness and textural detail with the highlights swallowing up some facial lines and the creases of clothing. It is in the brighter shots that most of the damage is visible, but this has to do with brightness rather than shot-specific deterioration (for instance, the vertical black scratch that runs through the insert shot of the note from Henrietta that Mark has pieced back together is present in the surrounding shots but less visible). That the film runs about seven minutes longer (84:45 with forty-odd seconds of restoration text) than the Kino Lorber/Rohauer material (77:26) is a matter of framerate rather than additional footage (indeed, the Rohauer version had its own exclusive non-original footage as explained below).

The 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 transfer of the alternate version (77:32) is identical to that of the Kino Lorber Blu-ray as it comes from the same HD master produced by Bret Wood. It has undergone less digital cleanup than the transfers of the original version and the intertitles have a dupey quality, but the night scenes in the this version have been tinted blue while the main presentation remains entirely in black and white (see below). Most of the alternate takes are similar enough that it is hard to determine the differences unless viewed side-by-side, but there are also some variances in footage with the final scene between Bertie and his father curtailed earlier by a fade than in the original version. It is a fascinating variant – particularly given the rarity of surviving materials where sometimes the foreign negative-sourced version might be all that survives – but the original version is the more cared-for presentation.


The David Shepard restoration on the Kino Lorber edition featured a Robert Israel score while the new Cohen/Eureka transfer features a new score by Andrew Earle Simpson in LPCM 2.0 stereo, and the score manages to be unintrusive while cleverly (and cheekily) underlining some of Keaton's more subtitle mannerisms and facial movements. The intertitles are mostly original and include some illustrated backgrounds and a few underlined by animation. The alternate version carries over the Kino Lorber Ben Model score in LPCM 2.0 stereo.


The original version is accompanied by an audio commentary by film historian David Kalat who attempts to rehabilitate the film from the perspective that it is a footnote in Keaton's career and a work-for-hire with Fairbanks set to reprise the role but then recommending Keaton since he himself was moving from a light comedy image to swashbuckling adventure. Rather than focusing on the limited creative input Keaton may have had on the project, Kalat looks at the influences on Keaton including the embryonic forms of gags that would appear in his later films, noting particularly the film's importance coming between the production of The High Sign – a film Keaton would have buried entirely because of his dissatisfaction with it if not for the need to release it when an injury on The Electric House stopped production – and One Week (which Kalat feels demonstrates the effect of The Saphead as a learning experience).

Ported over from the Kino Lorber edition is "A Pair of Sapheads" (7:29), a version comparison by Kino Lorber disc producer Bret Wood (with new prefatory text noting that Wood is referring to the Kino Lorber transfer of the original version when he speaks of the Rohauer version) in which he offers splitscreen comparisons between the two versions, discusses the controversy of Rohauer's tinting (which the collector claimed was based on a print but Wood believes was his own creation), the clues about tinting found in the alternate version source which had its reel of night scenes all cut together for tinting and subsequent reordering, and Rohauer's prefatory text mentioning the source play and the previous adaptation The Lamb.

"Bubbling Gravity" (21:49) is an invaluable video essay by film historian David Cairns who discusses the source story and play, the earlier Fairbanks version, and how Keaton wound up in the feature. More interesting is his discussion of the feature's behind the scenes personnel including credited screenwriter June Mathis who was not only one of the highest-paid studio executives in her day but was long blamed for being the one who cut down Eric Von Stroheim's ten-hour Greed and director Herbert Blaché who Cairns notes was in charge of directing the camera while playwright Smith handled the actors, and ponders the question as to whether the less stagey performances on display were an innovation of Smith or the actors playing off "Old Stoneface" Keaton.

While the previous Eureka Buster Keaton Limited Edition Three Film Box Set featured as an extra one of Keaton's final film roles in the National Film Board of Canada short subject The Railrodder, The Saphead's extras include Keaton's actual final film role in the 1966 educational short "The Scribe" (29:44) by John Sebert about construction site safety. This is accompanied by a little-heard audio commentary by director John Siebert, moderated by writer/silent film aficianado Chris Seguin recorded in 2015. The disc also includes a two-part 1964 audio interview with Keaton conducted by Kevin Brownlow featured on two separate alternate audio tracks accompanying the feature (running 59:14 and 52:40, respectively), along with a 1958 Eastman House radio interview on a fifth track over the full length of the film. The disc closes out with a shorter 1959 interview "Buster Keaton in Conversation with Torsten Jungstedt" (7:58).


Not provided for review were the collector’s booklet featuring new essays by journalist Philip Kemp and film writer Imogen Sara Smith, as well as an appreciation of The Saphead by film writer Eileen Whitfield, or the O-card slipcover (the latter limited to the first pressing of 2,000 copies).


Long written off as a work-for-hire footnote in Keaton's filmography, The Saphead is presented independently of the actor/director's better-known works for reassessment.


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