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Buster Keaton

 
 
 
   
 
 

SPITE MARRIAGE

MGM, 1929. Directed by Edgar Sedgwick.  Camera:  Reggie Lanning.  With Buster Keaton, Dorothy Sebastian, Edward Earle, Leila Hyams, William Bechtel, John Byron, Theodore Lorch.

     
       
     
       

Talking films had taken over the film industry by the time Spite Marriage went into production in November 1928.  Buster had wanted to make the film with sound, using a minimum of dialogue and sound effects, but MGM refused, as they wanted to use the few sound stages they had available for musicals and dramas rather than comedies.  However, the film was released with a synchronized musical score and sound effects.

Buster plays Elmer, a trouser presser in a tailor's shop, who borrows his customer's fine clothes in order to impress the stage actress Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian).  He attends every performance of the Civil War melodrama in which she appears, and one night he gets the chance to act in the play as an extra.  Elmer ruins the performance, but Trilby takes notice of Elmer and asks him to marry her.  He fails to realize that she only wants to marry him in order to spite her rakish beau, leading man Lionel Delmore (Edward Earle).  On their wedding night, Trilby gets drunk and passes out on the floor of their hotel room, where Elmer struggles with the onerous task of putting her into bed.  She abandons Elmer the next morning, leaving him disconsolate.  The film's complicated second half has Elmer entangled with a group of bootleggers.  He manages to reunite with and save Trilby aboard an abandoned yacht on the high seas, which wins him her love, and the film ends with the couple happily reconciled.

As with The Cameraman, Buster worked from a prepared script from his own story idea.  Two of the main writers on The Cameraman, Richard Schayer and Lew Lipton, worked on the film with Ernest Pagano and Bob Hopkins.  However, Buster's key collaborators―Bruckman, Lessley, and Gabourie―had departed or were assigned to other projects before Spite Marriage began production.  Buster was beginning to feel restricted by MGM's insistence on a carefully prepared script and by the often complicated or inappropriate gags that the studio suggested he incorporate into the films.  He was losing more control at the studio, and the unhappiness of his marriage to Natalie was resulting in his drinking more heavily.  He was also beginning to lose faith in his own ideas.

Spite Marriage spurred a series of battles between Buster and the film's producer Larry Weingarten.  Buster fought against the complicated gangster plot of the second half of the film, preferring to eliminate it in favor of a simpler story, but to no avail.

Weingarten and Irving Thalberg were adamant about their own ideas for Buster's films.  Weingarten did not like the putting-the-bride-to-bed scene, feeling that kind of low comedy did not belong in the film.  Buster had to argue the scene's merit innumerable times with Weingarten in order to keep it in.  When Spite Marriage was released, Buster was vindicated; the sequence became the film's most memorable moment, and he used variations of it later in the films Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931), The Passionate Plumber (1932), What―No Beer? (1933), Nothing But Pleasure (1940), Taming of the Snood (1940), and Red Skelton's I Dood It (1943); onstage for the Cirque Medrano in 1952; and for television.  The routine was also reprised by director William Wyler in Roman Holiday (1953) with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn.

Buster's heroine in Spite Marriage was Dorothy Sebastian, who proved to be one of his best leading ladies.  A talented actress, her characterization of Trilby Drew is more believable than most of the women in Buster's earlier films.  During the making of Spite Marriage, Buster and Dorothy began an affair that would last two years.  Buster enjoyed her ability to have a good time.  They both shared a liking for practical jokes, bridge, dancing, and drinking (although she had a low tolerance for alcohol, and her propensity for passing out after a few drinks earned her the nickname "Slambastian").  She appears briefly in Free and Easy (1930), and the two worked together again in the Educational comedy Allez Oop (1934).

Buster Keaton Remembered,
by Eleanor Keaton and Jeffrey Vance
Harry N. Abrams (April 2001)

Additional photos courtesy of Gary