Buster Keaton in The Haunted House (1921)
Of the five Buster Keaton two-reelers I’ve watched this week, “The Haunted House” is certainly the most ambitious in terms of narrative. Buster is an honest, if hapless, bank teller who is falsely accused for a bank robbery/counterfeiting scheme. Joe Roberts, also a bank teller, is the ring leader of the counterfeiters and has rigged a house to appear haunted to throw of the police. “The Haunted House” features more plot points and more ancillary characters than all of the other four shorts combined. Maybe a few too many and”The Haunted House” breaks down into two separate segments that don’t have a lot to do with one another. But it is full of inventive sight gags, amazing Keaton acrobatics, and that staircase.
For the first half of the film, Buster is at his banking window. The bulk of the humor revolves around a pot of glue and a pile of money, with various characters wandering in and out, becoming stuck to various things in various ways. The best moment in this sequence, the most Keatonesque moment, comes when another clerk glues his seat to the floor. Buster offers a solution – a pot of boiling water to dissolve the glue. Of course, the clerk find the scalding uncomfortable. In pure creative problem solving mode, Keaton whacks the man on the head with a gavel and knocks him out. With the clerk rendered thoroughly unconscious and feeling no pain, Buster is free to pour the boiling water on him and free his bum from the floor. It is a quintessential moment for a Keaton character. He chooses a path and sticks with it. Given that Keaton takes the universe as it comes, knocking the man unconscious is the most sane way to proceed.
In the second half of the film, Buster finds himself in the ostensibly haunted house amidst a gang of thugs and counterfeiters and an opera troupe. There are ghosts,walking skeletons, headless men and any number of juvenile “spooky” tricks, all of which are ripe for moments of hilarity. But, keeping in mind that the whole haunted ruse, is to protect a band of counterfeiters, there’s also a trick staircase. Put on foot on it and all of the stairs collapse, leaving you to slide to the bottom and land in a heap. In the hands of a lesser comic, that staircase would be a one trick wonder. The Kops would chase a thief up and come tumbling down. In the hands of Buster Keaton the staircase becomes the centerpiece of an entire 10 minutes of movies. He doesn’t fall down once. He approaches the stairs many times, at first innocently, then warily as he knows the trick. But in Buster’s world, just because you know what’s going to happen, doesn’t mean you can prevent it. He’s challenged again and again to solve this problem. In this case it’s not even a misfocused obsession on a red-herring problem. It’s the staircase and you have to deal with it to get from one floor to the other. And it is a pure joy to watch Buster confront the problem of the staircase.
And what a problem it eventually becomes! In perhaps the most well known scene in “The Haunted House,” an unconscious Buster dies and begins the ascent to Heaven. Berobed and be-boater-ed, be climbs a long white staircase to the very top. Of course, after being denied entry to the sweet ever-after, the stairway to Heaven collapses beneath his feet and Buster shoots straight to Hades. His admission is accepted. I guess there are some problems that can’t be solved no matter how focused or creative you are.