One Week (1920)

Buster Keaton | 19min

The wedding bells that open One Week have a “sweet sound but a sour echo”, and those reverberations continue to ring out through the following struggles between Buster Keaton’s deadpan groom and his wife. Together they aspire to build a new house and life for themselves from scratch, though the instructions they are given have been tampered with. One of the bride’s old, rejected suitors interferes, changing the numbers on the packing crates so that the finished product turns out more like a bizarre carnival attraction than a liveable home. As it turns out, marriage is not a one-size-fits-all package. It is only when this absurd monstrosity is razed to the ground that these young lovers can discover the sweet, simple authenticity in their relationship.

With such an eccentric piece of architecture to bounce his bold stunts and physical gags off, Buster Keaton constructs a brilliantly creative silent comedy in 19 minutes that would set a standard for his feature films to follow. Corners stick out at peculiar angles, walls flip and rotate, floors sag, and doors open up into thin air, creating a funhouse of sorts that sends Keaton his co-star, Sybil Seely, flying across great distances at dangerously high speeds and odd trajectories.

Keaton milks this architectural oddity for all its comedic value, flipping this wall and then letting it topple over directly on top of him.

In the toppling wall that lands a window perfectly around Keaton and the hurricane that complicates his ordeal, One Week often looks to be a rehearsal for his work in Steamboat Bill Jr., though the genius in his execution remains inventively singular all the same. Traces of formal experimentation even manifest in one scene in which he playfully covers the lens with his hand to conceal Seely’s nudity, recognising the unique comedic potential of cinematic form by pushing it beyond the vaudeville stage and directly inviting the audience into its world.

Hilariously inventive in the early days of film, creating visual gags unique to the form of cinema.

It is just as much the framing of his gags as it is his staging that is integral to Keaton’s comedy, as his neutral wide shots maintain the same deadpan demeanour as his stoic facial expressions. This is the visual foundation for many of his set pieces, though it is in the tension of his final scene which sees the house wind up on the path of an oncoming train that the impact of his intelligent camera placement is fully revealed. Keaton recognises that in the precise moment the train misses, his audience is doubting his commitment to the magnificent gag – it would be a level of ambitious destruction on a different level to anything else he has done up until now. And then, just as we let our guard down, a train from the other side of the tracks suddenly appears and demolishes the house in one swift motion. It is the power of this perfectly placed wide shot that makes all the difference between suspense and surprise, keeping the second train outside the frame until it delivers its crushing blow. A short film it may be, but with its architectural inventiveness, creative framing, and dedication to boundary-pushing gags, One Week possesses the same comedic genius as any of Keaton’s features.

One of the great stunts of the silent era, immaculately executed by the camera angle and Keaton’s wild dedication to the spectacle.

One Week is in the public domain, and available to watch on many free video sharing sites including YouTube.