The opening of Buster Keaton’s 1921 short “The Playhouse” is among the most startling and imaginative sequences in film comedy. Keaton arrives a vaudeville theater for a matinee performance. Once inside the venue, Keaton is literally everywhere: he is the conductor and the entire orchestra; he is the male, female, elderly and juvenile members of the audience; he is backstage pulling the scenery; and he is on stage as a dancing duo and as the nine-member minstrel show act.
This portion of “The Playhouse” is an extraordinary achievement in trick cinematography and precision physical acting – especially when Keaton performs a dance routine with himself. If one can overlook the badly dated aspects of the minstrel show act (where Keaton plays a pair of comics in blackface), the sequence stands out as one of the most progressive comic concepts of all time.
It is a shame that the rest of “The Playhouse” doesn’t quite meet the same standards. The opening is explained away as a dream that distracts the slumbering stagehand Keaton, who is employed at a vaudeville theater. His work is fairly stressful, and he keeps finding himself on-stage to supplement sketchy acts. There is also repetitive confusion with Keaton and twin sister performers – one loves him, one loathes him, and he can never tell them apart – and some rough chases with diminutive Keaton outrunning burly Joe Roberts (as the theater manager and perennial recipient of Keaton’s bumbling).
There are some inspired patches in this stretch of the film, particularly when Keaton has to fill in for an trained orangutan that escaped the theater. But extended bits including a slapstick Zouave military drill (with two dwarfs in the battalion!) and the flooding of the theater following a near-fatal underwater escape act are not among Keaton’s best moments. But, even so, second-tier Buster Keaton is better than no Keaton at all!
“The Playhouse” is part of a DVD anthology from Flicker Alley called “Wild and Weird,” which includes original music composed and performed by The Alloy Orchestra. This release offers the best quality version of “The Playhouse” available, so Keaton addicts may want to consider seeking out this release.