Thoughts On: Keaton’s “The Haunted House” (1921)

Not only was yesterday Buster’s birthday, but this weekend I’ll be heading to Muskegon, Michigan for the official Damfino convention! This will be my very first time at this event (I’m giving a presentation too, so wish me luck!). Thus, it only seemed fitting to start out this Halloween month with one of Buster’s more well-known shorts.

There seemed to be certain plots and tropes that all silent comedians tried out in turn. Everyone did food preparation gags, everyone went to the beach, everyone (everyone) from Harry Langdon to Chaplin himself showed up as a white-clad street cleaner at some point. In 1921, it was Buster Keaton’s turn to try his hand at the familiar gag-rich setting of The Spooky Haunted House.

It starts, not too surprisingly, in the opposite sort of location–a bank, where Buster works as a teller. This gives him opportunities to work in some of his delightful nonsensical gags, such as the one where he turns his cane into a hook for his hat by magically sticking it to the wall. And we also get to enjoy the classic “glue pot” scene, where Buster accidentally gets glue all over the money he’s counting and it ends up practically carpeting the bank.

Image result for buster keaton the haunted house

When he’s quite literally caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Buster gets accused of being a bank robber. Fleeing the scene, he hides in a spooky nearby house. He doesn’t know that it’s being used by counterfeiters as a hideout, and really doesn’t know that they dress up as ghosts and goblins to convince people the place is haunted (quite a creative way of keeping a place private, I must say). To make matters more complicated, the Daredevil Theatrical Troupe flees a theater of angry patrons after their disastrous version of Faust, and hide out in the same house. So aside from the counterfeiter ghosts and goblins, we also have a Mephistopheles on the scene to scare our unfortunate Buster.

Not only is that glue pot sequence one of the most memorable Buster ever filmed, the haunted house itself is an ideal setting for his busy imagination. The best part is the running gag of a staircase that can turn into a slide to keep interlopers from reaching the second floor. Buster has repeated run-ins with the aggravating staircase, and rather than growing stale, the gag becomes more and more layered as Buster begins to anticipate the staircase’s behavior and makes split-second strategies to evade it (some more successful than others).

It’s also fun to see 1921’s idea of creepy ghouls, which isn’t too different from ours today. There are the usual white-sheeted ghosts, a bat costume, an old bearded man who’s maybe supposed to be Father Time, and two of the coolest freakin’ skeleton costumes I’ve ever seen, bar none.

Image result for buster keaton the haunted house

want one of these costumes.

In spite of its popularity, The Haunted House is sometimes cited as one of Buster’s weaker shorts. I might agree, and would probably rank it a little above Hard Luck and The Love Nest–often agreed to be “minor” Keatons, if there is such a thing (by the way, I like The Blacksmith quite a bit more than most folks). This isn’t because of the usual criticism of the “two-part structure,” although I’m never sure why this is automatically considered a flaw (the first half sets the stage for everything in the second, after all!). Both the story behind the “haunted” house and the way the theatrical troupe is shoehorned into the plot always seems to confuse people who’ve watched this short with me.

However, the saving grace of The Haunted House is certainly its ending, one of Buster’s most creative. Getting knocked out, Buster dreams that he’s wearing an angel robe and must trot up a long, long staircase up to heaven.

Photo credit: stendec8

But even in a dream sequence involving gentle angels and the pearly gates, Buster can’t escape the curse of the staircase. It turns out that he was actually expected in the Other Place. (This is a fairly elaborate setting for such a brief shot–did Buster have it designed, or did his studio “borrow” an existing set?)

Photo credit: stendec8

Buster’s adventure in a haunted house is a favorite among Keaton fans, and I like to save it especially for October (which in my house is Halloween Month). It’s not a bad film to introduce to Keaton newbies, either. People of all ages are bound to get a kick out of his run-ins with flapping ghosts, and those super cool skeletons too, of course. Seriously, where can I get one of those costumes?


18 thoughts on “Thoughts On: Keaton’s “The Haunted House” (1921)

  1. I agree with you about those skeleton costumes. Those blew my mind when I first saw them! Never thought to add this one to my Halloween list, so thanks for the idea!
    Saw the bit about you on the Keaton website. Super cool, “Historian Lea”! =) Hope you’ll tell us all about it at some point- it looks like it was fixin’ to be a pretty great weekend!

    • Oh Silent-ology will definitely be covering that fabulous convention! Either later this month or early next month.

      I know, “historian”! People keep calling me that lately. 😀 😉

  2. Pingback: A Halloween Post Roundup! | Silent-ology

  3. Until a month ago i did not know this short film of Buster. I do not think it is a minor work, but one of his films more magical than humorous. There is a lot of visual magic in his pictures; when he can not make me laugh, he amazes me. So he never disappoints me, there’s always “something” in Buster’s films that keeps me believing in magic. On this film on particular i highlight many unforgettable images: The theatrical actors who are thrown into cabbages and the chase them, will lynch them for their bad performance and then… i guess the public intends to lynch them. Also all the confusion caused by Buster with the glue. And the pretty woman who seduces Buster at the beginning; Buster’s face in all the sequence is wonderful, i have never been able to understand that there was in the eyes of the people who baptized him “Stone’s face”.
    Ah! and above all i must point out the horrible attire of the banker’s daughter. In these old movies you can see very different styles of clothing, some really beautiful, but others… well, i do not think i’ve seen anything more ugly than that girl’s dress, and it is assumed that she is a young woman of a certain category… well, his dress scares me more than the supposed ghost of the house (which by the way is a very nice house, i really like its interior design and decoration.
    I writte this with the help of the Google traslator, i hope it is understood, i can not resist commenting when i read something that interest me : )

  4. Pingback: Thoughts On: “Haunted Spooks” (1920) | Silent-ology

  5. Great article! I love this two-reeler, and I THINK that the cartoon Futurama ‘borrowed’ the general layout of Buster’s own private Underworld.

  6. Thanks to you, I watched this film on Youtube. The first half – in the bank – had me roaring with laughter. The Opera scene of Faust – not what you’d expect to see at the NY Metropolitan Opera House – was hilarious. The haunted house spooks and actions seemed mechanical, rather than inspired. Buster is a hoot to watch. In many of the closeups, his “stone face” is rather handsome. The supporting players, particularly Joe Roberts as the head crook, are fun too.

    • Yay, glad you liked it! It sure goes well with Halloween, doesn’t it? It must’ve been fun to come up with different “spooky” gags and creatures, Buster’s “haunted” house crams in a lot more than, say, Harold Lloyd’s house in HAUNTED SPOOKS.

  7. I watched ‘Haunted Spooks’ when I was on a Lloyd kick. It was definitely and positively one of Lloyd’s least funny shorts. Buster’s film was SOOOO much better.

  8. Reblogged this on Silent-ology and commented:

    Happy Buster Keaton’s Birthday!! In his honor I’m reposting this piece I wrote on one of his classic shorts. It also makes me nostalgic since I headed to my first Damfino convention shortly after writing it. Ah, memories!

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