Buster Keaton in Convict 13
I hesitate to say it, oh I am loathe to say it, but… I don’t love Convict 13. For his second Comique Film Corp. release, Keaton reverts to standard, well trodden slapstick tropes. It’s not a terrible film, but it misuses his talents and does not display much of the film making bravura that we know Keaton possesses.
In Convict 13 our erstwhile hero finds himself assaulted by an escaped convict and wakes up wearing the cons prison stripes. Unfortunately for Buster, Convict 13 was scheduled to be hung that day. He escapes this fate with help from the Warden’s daughter, and, learning from experience, manages to switch his prison garb for a guard’s uniform.
Unlike the excellent One Week,Convict 13 relies heavily on physical comedy. The film is fast paced like a good Keystone Kops short, but doesn’t capitalize on Keaton’s dazzling acrobatic abilities. There’s a lot of chase and a lot of bops on the noggin, but the physical stunts here feel like vaudeville gags, transplanted directly from the stage.
What’s surprising about Convict 13 is the violence. Aside from the aforementioned execution, there’s a lot of hammer swinging, smashing fingers in vises, and shooting of guns. It might not be particularly violent for other straight slapstick movies of the day, but it’s an anomaly for Keaton. And the real problem with the violence is that it leaves no room for Keaton’s typical ingenious-via-obsession creative problem solving. Buster usually deals with the world as it comes, but in Convict 13 he smashes its face with a sledge hammer.
We do see a brief glimpse of the Keaton we know and love in the opening sequence of Convict 13. During a golf outing, he lands his ball in the water trap. Misidentifying what the problem really is, Keaton paddles out into the pond to retrieve his ball. Instead of taking the shot, he plucks fish out one by one, until he find the one that ate his ball. Ball is lost, ball must be found. It’s a classic Keaton formula.
Convict 13 concludes with Keaton waking up back on the golf course. It was all a concussion inspired hallucination. Typically, in Keaton’s hand this sort of denouement would be inspired, clever, and oh so meta. But here, perhaps due to the quality of the movie as a whole, it’s a false narrative construct. It just doesn’t make sense. In Keaton’s work, his solutions always follow a logical line of thought, no matter how misdirected or misfocused they may be. The ending of Convict 13 seems like nothing short of just… giving up on the narrative.
All of that said, give it a view if you have the time. If you believe, as I do, that when observing the evolution of a director’s craft, failures can tell you as much as successes, Convict 13 is worth the 20 minute run time.