Joshua Reviews Herbert Blache’s The Saphead [Blu-ray Review]

While many lean towards big, gaudy spectacle features ranging from something like the dreadful Transformers franchise or surely will the soon to be released on Blu-ray Avengers film, when showing off one’s home theater set-up, it’s silent cinema that proves to have some of the most awe-inspiring visual updates when hitting home video.

And yes, Criterion has been behind some of the best. Their Blu-ray of The Phantom Carriage is revelatory and People On Sunday is one of this still young decade’s most underrated releases. However, the company known as Kino has become synonymous with brilliant home video releases, and when it comes to their work putting the filmography of Buster Keaton onto Blu-ray, they are true giants within the business.

Now they are back with yet another Keaton Blu-ray release, this time for the first feature-length film he ever starred in, The Saphead, and their streak of greatness continues, while the film itself may not be one of Keaton’s most superb.

From 1920, The Saphead stars Keaton as a young, well-to-do chap who in all of his awkward, high society stumbling, is given $100,000 to buy a seat in the stock market by his father, William H. Crane. A comedy that is far more important with regards to the entirety of Keaton’s career than as one feature film, Kino has again done a stand up job giving us not only great context with regards to its star here, but also a beautiful release of a flawed but immensely important work in the filmography of silent comedy’s greatest star.

Directed by Herbert Blache, The Saphead is as important a part of Keaton’s canon as anything. Introducing the world not only to a star of the two-reel comedy in Buster Keaton, but also the character that he would later make iconic; the melancholic fool in love, The Saphead is a breathtaking comedy for Keaton. A hugely popular star of the two reel comedy and a series of films he was featured in alongside ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, this was Keaton’s first feature roll, and while he didn’t have much creative control over the film (something he and most of his fellow silent comedians would also have) his touches are all over this piece.

The film’s final major set piece is entirely Keaton-esque, almost cartoonishly so. Finding our lead in what he ultimately makes into a riot inside of the stock exchange, the entire feature is very subdued comically and visually, until this moment. A good five-minute chuck of footage is almost entirely a slapstick manifesto on-screen, giving us Keaton at his most frenetic and most comedic. It’s a fantastic set piece that seems ripped out of a far different, and truly far better, feature film.

As a film, it’s minor Keaton.   Visually far more subdued, especially compared to yet another recently released on Blu-ray Keaton film The Navigator (review coming soon as well), than anything Keaton had been involved with previously or after. A star in the eyes of surrealists as the movement arose, Keaton’s work on this film is far more passive and restrained here, conceptually fitting into his canon rather than intellectually and aesthetically. Giving us a great glimpse into character aspects that he’d touch on throughout his career, the film isn’t as inspired stylistically as some of Keaton’s directorial work, but it does hold a great emotional weight as well as a weight when taken into the career of Keaton as a whole.

However, this release is still absolutely breathtaking. Featuring one of the best transfers you’ll see, continuing the trend of Kino’s fantastic run pumping out brilliant after brilliant Blu-ray release of his filmography, the release also includes a complete alternate version of the film, made of alternate takes and camera angles. It’s really quite an interesting contrast, and both films are truly intriguing when paired up together. Taking a look at their differences, a featurette looking at the too different cuts is included here, as is a rare audio recording of Keaton in 1962 discussing his youth. Toss in some photographs and two separate, and fantastic, scores, and you have a release that is as much a must own as any Kino has put out. They are making an iconic filmography, Keaton’s, as important, vital and modern as these films have ever been, and this is as good a release as they come.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.

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