March 3, 2018
Spite Marriage – US, 1929
In many ways, Edward Sedgwick’s Spite Marriage was the end of an era. Released two years after The Jazz Singer, it was the finale of “silent Keaton,” the actor who didn’t need dialogue to get across such complex emotions as love, befuddlement, courage, and determination. His expressions were anything but mere deadpan. To see him scurry across the screen is to see a man on a mission, and usually that mission was to save a beloved damsel in distress. Silent Keaton was a hopeless romantic, a guy who fought hard for the girl and for whom the term till death do us part was to be taken literally. He was a man to root for, even in roles in which his character is on the wrong side of history.
Spite Marriage finds Keaton in the role of Elmer Gantry, a love-struck admirer of a stage actress named Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian). In fact, he’s so taken by her that he’s begun inserting himself into as much of her daily life as possible. In a series of early scenes, we see him feigning horseback-riding skills, pretending to be part of the press, and wandering backstage before and after performances, each time dressed like a rather upstanding gentleman. In reality, he is anything but, and in a rather clever scene, we see just how he is able to get his hands on such impressive-looking clothing.
These early scenes allow Keaton to play up his romantic instincts. We see him gaze lovingly at Trilby from the front row, and his eyes follow her even when the action takes place away from her. We learn that Elmer has seen the play thirty-five times, and seeing his instinctive habit of mimicking Trilby’s movements, it seems clear that he has memorized every aspect of her blocking. These early scenes are a delight. In lesser hands, they might come across as unintentionally creepy, but Keaton gives them the innocence and sincerity they need to convince us of Elmer’s noble intentions.
The movie eventually finds Trilby and Elmer married, not because she has fallen hard for the guy, but because the true object of her affection, a co-star named Lionel Benmore (Edward Earle), turns out to have a compulsion for being unfaithful. Trilby reasons that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and, in a moment of utterly foolish logic, not only proposes to Elmer but also insists that they get married that very evening – hence, the spite in the title.
The first half of the film lags slightly, partly due to its inclusion of scenes from Trilby’s play, Carolina. There is of course a reason behind this decision, one which I will not reveal, yet it was a bit tedious sitting through it the first time. The only saving grace was the odd sight of movie actors pretending to be performing live onstage, yet using silent film acting techniques. The film really picks up after the wedding, when Elmer’s life takes a truly unexpected and fun turn.
Like many silent films from the slapstick era, Spite Marriage is built around a series of long physical gags. My favorites of these occurred in the second half of the film, yet comparing the scenes to similar ones in Keaton’s earlier films, I couldn’t help noticing how quickly they were over. It’s as if the studio was unsure that audiences would still sit through a long gag without sound. It reminded me of the brevity of many of the slapstick scenes in Laurel & Hardy’s later films, and I couldn’t help feeling this was a lost opportunity.
Viewers familiar with Keaton’s career will notice similarities between this film and some of his earlier ones. For example, Carolina has elements of The General in it, and the film’s second half includes homages to both The Navigator and College. There’s also a great scene in which ruffian after ruffian is fooled by the same ruse, one that likely would have been deemed too risqué just ten years later.
In other words, there’s a lot to like about Spite Marriage. Sure, the first half of the film drags a bit, but it does so for a purpose. You have to admire a film that isn’t afraid to slow things down and allow audiences to see for themselves just what would make the public adopt Miss Drew as their newest sweetheart. We get what Elmer sees in her, and by the end of the film, it’s crystal clear what she sees in him.
And perhaps it is that feature that makes Keaton such an indelible performer. Like Chaplin, possibly his most famous contemporary, he created a character that we can all see a little of ourselves in and perhaps even strive to be like. He was driven by both his heart and his strong sense of right and wrong, and when danger appeared, there was no greater champion of the vulnerable. Whether it was a deadly storm, a towering obstacle, and a brute twice his size and strength, he ran toward the fight, and when it was over, like all great superheroes, he wanted nothing in return. He was a hero in his time, and he remains one in ours. Spite Marriage may have been the last of its kind, but what a way to go out. (on DVD as part of the TCM Archives Buster Keaton Collection)