“To sit through dozens and dozens of short comedies of the period and then to come upon One Week is to see the one thing no man ever sees: a garden at the moment of blooming.” –Walter Kerr
Everyone has a soft spot in their hearts for certain things–certain songs, certain places, certain holidays or paintings or animals. In a spot in my heart I’m pretty sure there will always be a crazy little spinning house.
One Week. It was first film Keaton released, but not the first one he ever made–that would be The High Sign (1919). I adore The High Sign too. It’s probably in my top 5 list of Keaton shorts–it’s as brisk and delightful as you can get. Yet back in 1919, Keaton, fresh from his apprenticeship with Arbuckle, newly in charge of the Comique Film Corporation, with his anticipated first film all polished up and ready to go, firmly decided that there was only one thing to do: shelve The High Sign indefinitely.
This, of course, makes you speculate. Obviously he wanted his first release to be something special, something unique. The High Sign is a wonderful short–but perhaps, it wasn’t as big of a “standout” as Keaton wanted. Perhaps, it drew a little too much on the style of Arbuckle’s Comiques. Or perhaps Keaton had a gut feeling that a better idea would come along–an idea that no one had ever seen in a comedy before.
And along came the idea for One Week–courtesy of the Ford Motor Company. It released a short documentary in 1919 that promoted prefabricated houses–why, they could be built with ease in just one week! Consider getting your bride a prefabricated house! Keaton saw the film, and the wheels began turning.
And One Week, centering around the misfortunes of a young newlywed couple (played by Keaton and Sybil Seely) trying to build a prefabricated house, was a triumph when it was released. Perhaps no other comedy filmmaker had a more perfect debut.
And of course, it’s been discussed and analyzed countless times ever since. Sometimes elegantly–as in the discussion of its structure, the pacing, and the contrast with the accepted “Sennett” style of comedy (with a couple retained flourishes). And sometimes rather questionably–as in trying to show that Keaton was cynical about marriage by pointing to the dry title card: “The wedding bells have such a sweet sound but such a sour echo.” (Reader, all I can say is that when I showed this film to my grandparents, who have been beautifully married for over 60 years, they thought that title was a hoot.)
The more I’ve watched this short film, the more I feel that there’s one aspect of it that’s often touched upon but perhaps not looked at very closely. For all of his dry marriage jokes and cheerily unsentimental outlook (I can’t ever quite agree that it’s “dour”), Keaton’s first release succeeds at something in spite of himself: One Week contains, quite simply, one of the sweetest portraits of a young newlywed couple in all of film.
This was not a conscious goal. For the purposes of the story, the young couple had to be sympathetic; to be sympathetic their loving by-play had to be convincing. Much of the attention was certainly centered on the wonderful, elaborate set pieces–the twirling house, its pitiful state after the storm, the amazing gag at the end.
And yet what a likable, believable, and plucky couple they make. In one of the early scenes, Buster and Sybil try to get away from Buster’s rival by switching cars. Buster calmly thinks up a quick but (naturally) dangerous plan. And Sybil can follow it fearlessly, without even a second thought. The two succeed in eluding the rival, and in those brief scenes have shown that they are in step with each other, that they are a team.
Their relationship and characters are further established with quick, spare little scenes, like brushstrokes on a canvas. They discover the prefabricated house–“put it up according to the numbers on the boxes”–and after only a second of astonishment they immediately get to work (Sybil cheerfully pulls tools out from the back of their Model T). Buster falls from the wall he is building, sitting on the ground a moment in bewilderment, and anxious Sybil runs over and comforts him with a kiss. Buster discovers Sybil painting a pair of hearts on the wall of the house, kisses her, and runs away sheepishly like a little boy–she sighs from the sheer romance of it all.
Are these scenes perhaps supposed to be a little “gooey,” to make them part of the humor? Well, maybe they tried to be on the gooey side, but the chemistry of the co-stars made them look nothing more than adorably sincere.
Throughout the story, they are equal partners. As the week passes they work diligently, they encounter obstacles, they quarrel, all is right again, they persist. Together, they are doing the best they can. Something about their struggles, so simply and comically drawn, seem universal.
(Should I alert you to SPOILERS? I won’t be giving away too much, but I will just in case, because I strongly believe that this film, of all films, should never be spoiled. Trust me on that one. I’ll let you know when it’s safe again.)
They even weather a storm together–literally. And finally it seems that not only nature, and not only luck, but fate itself is against them. In one of the cleverest and most spectacular sight gags in comedy, the ramshackle house is smashed to smithereens.
Hand in hand, Buster and Sybil dejectedly walk away from the wreckage together. Their fragile little home gone, with what we can presume are all of their possessions (even their ill-fated model T), their marriage is all that ends up intact. The hand holding is reassuringly automatic.
(End of possible spoilers–come on, why haven’t you watched this film yet?)
There are many famous screen couples in movie history: Rhett and Scarlett, Rick and Ilsa, Han and Leia (you know it), Jack and Rose. There were many actors with wonderful onscreen chemistry: Gilbert and Garbo, Bogart and Bacall, to name some of the obvious. To that pantheon I would humbly suggest that we add the names of Buster and Sybil. They made us laugh, they earned our sympathy without asking for it, and perhaps they even inspired us, all in a film of twenty minutes’ length. They are one of film history’s earliest, and most winningly sincere, onscreen couples.