Sunday, March 10, 2019

Convict 13 (2005 Lobster Films restoration with a Robert Israel score)

Photo: Wikipedia. Please do click to enlarge it.

Vanki numero 13 / Hirtehinen / Straffånge 13.
    US 1920. PC: Joseph M. Schenck Productions / Buster Keaton Productions. Original distributor: Metro Pictures Corporation. P: Joseph M. Schenck. D+SC: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton. Cin: Elgin Lessley. Technical director: Fred Gabourie. ED: Buster Keaton.
    C: Buster Keaton (golfer turned prisoner turned guard), Sybil Seely (socialite, warden's daughter), Joe Roberts (the crazed prisoner), Edward F. Cline (hangman), Joe Keaton (prisoner), Louise Keaton.
    Release date: 27 October, 1920.
    Finnish premiere: 1923, distributed by Adams Filmi – film control 12148 – S – 477 m.
    Lobster Films restoration (2005) with a Robert Israel score at 22 min.
    Screened at Kino Regina, Helsinki (Buster Keaton), 10 March 2019.

Buster Keaton's second released independent short, again starring the spirited Sybil Seely who also appears in One Week, The Scarecrow, and The Boat.

Buster and Sybil are sharing a game of golf, "the game that brings out the beast in men". Sybil is superior. Buster bungles everything. He has to retrieve his ball from inside a fish and from a runaway dog who has an impressive collection of golf balls.

A fugitive from prison stumbles upon Buster who has been knocked unconscious by his own golf ball. The fugitive instantly switches clothes with Buster who blithely continues his game in a striped prisoner's suit.

In a wild chase sequence, a platoon of prison wardens act mechanically in unison like the Keystone Kops. There are affinities with Charles Chaplin's The Adventurer in this sequence. Later Keaton developed aspects of this concept in Cops. The approach has a touch of surrealism.

Like later in Cops, Keaton mistakenly lands behind bars. His prisoner number 13 spells imminent death by hanging. In the prison gym Sybil discovers a bungee cord and replaces the hanging rope with it. The hanging, eagerly anticipated by fellow prisoners, turns into a clownish circus number. The audience is disappointed and resentful. Gallows humours indeed.

The prisoner's sentence involves hard labour. Breaking stones with a sledgehammer Buster accidentally knocks a warden unconscious and switches clothes with him. Simultaneously there is a riot. The prisoners knock all the wardens, until Buster is the last man standing wearing a warden's uniform and facing the giant riot leader. The scene has affinities with Eric Campbell scenes in Chaplin's films such as Easy Street.

Alone against all, Buster ties a punchbag to the bungee cord and knocks out all prisoners. When the riot leader has pierced the punchbag with his bayonet Buster replaces it with an iron ball. The prison riot sequence with gunfire, mass beatings and deaths is the most violent I remember having seen in the Buster Keaton oeuvre.

The prison story is a dream sequence in which Sybil is the prison warden's daughter. Buster wakes up in her arms.

Another amazing and alarming Buster Keaton short with affinities with the world of Franz Kafka. In his early shorts Keaton wore long pointed shoes like Little Tich had done 20 years earlier and like Leningrad Cowboys would do in the 1980s. The ill fitting shoes hamper Keaton's game of golf and are also a Chaplinesque detail.

The visual world is exceptionally stark and reduced for a Keaton film, especially in contrast with his bucolic and historical stories. The prison milieu, the scaffold and the striped clothes are conveyed in startlingly graphic images. One can compare them with the 1930s prison movies of Warner Bros.

An integral and consistent restoration from challenging sources. A wonderful Robert Israel score.


Buster, a particularly untalented golfer plays golf one morning with a group of friends. After a disastrous start he drives his ball into a nearby river but retrieves it after it is consumed by a fish.

Meanwhile a convict escapes from a nearby prison and makes his way towards the golf course as the prison guards give chase. Buster's ball is once again stolen, this time by a dog who takes it a long way from the court. Buster accidentally knocks himself after his ball ricochets off of an equipment shed and while he is unconscious, the prisoner switches clothes with him. The guards give chase and Buster attempts to escape by jumping into a passing car but it turns out to belong to the warden. Though he hastily jumps into another car, he ends up going into the jail himself.

Reading the prisoner number on Buster's clothes he deduces that he is convict 13 who is scheduled to be hanged that very morning. Luckily Buster's girlfriend replaces the hangman's noose with a long elastic rope from the gym so that Buster bounces several times after the trapdoor is opened and he survives. The other prisoners are livid that they will not get to see an execution but the warden promises to hang two prisoners in the morning to make up for today's botched execution.

Later that day Buster accidentally knocks out a prison guard whilst smashing rocks and steals his uniform in order to escape. At the same time a rowdy prisoner revolts in the prison yard and knocks out each of the guards one by one. Buster accidentally stumbles into the prisoner's path whilst escaping and the prisoner believes him to be another guard. Buster temporarily restrains the prisoner by closing the gate leading into the other yard but the prisoner quickly bends the bars of the gate and pursues Buster to the gallows where Buster restrains him by tying him up using the same elasticated noose used on him earlier.

Buster is "promoted" to Assistant Warden for his bravery but the now furious prisoner instigates a riot throughout the prison. The prisoner knocks out Buster, kidnaps his girlfriend and takes her out to the yard where the prisoners have completely overpowered the guards. Buster recovers and using a punching bag which he attaches to the elasticated rope, knocks out all of the rioting prisoners by swinging it around his head as they run around the yard.

Buster celebrates but he accidentally knocks himself out when he leans on a sledgehammer which propels up and hits him in the head. However the scene then cuts back to Buster lying outside the equipment shed where he first knocked himself out being woken up by his girlfriend, the events of the short are all revealed to have been nothing more than a dream.

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