Directed and Written by Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline
Produced by Joseph M. Schenck
Edited by Buster Keaton
Edward F. Cline
Buster Keaton is arguably the most known actor of the silent film era, along with Lon Chaney, Rudolph Valentino, and Fatty Arbuckle, of course. While Convict 13 is a tremendous early film, it’s not one of Keaton’s better-known roles. When a film buff falls in love with Buster Keaton and goes back through his film credits, they are more likely to come across The General, Sherlock, Jr., College, Seven Chances, or Steamboat Bill Jr. great Keaton movies. However, Convict 13 for sure deserves its place on this list.
Released in 1920, the silent film opens with a man (Buster Keaton) attempting to impress a woman with his golfing skills. It seems, however, that she is a much better player than he is. While trying to drive the ball downrange, Keaton displays some of the clever stunt work that he was most famous for. He tries to hit the ball and does an entire flip, falling on the ground, causing the ball to roll into a nearby river. He then climbs aboard a makeshift raft and paddles out to the middle of the river where the ball is floating. Just as he is about to hit the ball again, a fish comes up and eats it. Keaton falls into the river to retrieve the ball. He grabs the first fish he sees, but unfortunately, it is the wrong fish. He dives back in and grabs another, luckily this time, it is the right fish. Keaton retrieves the ball and gives the fish a little spanking before re-releasing it into the river.
Meanwhile, in a nearby prison, a “Jailbird” (also Keaton) is about to escape. The prisoner flees as the guards blow the “whistle” alarm to warn of the escape. The golfer hears the alarm, but he and his caddy just think it is the lunch break. Just as the golfer attempts to hit his ball again (now on the green), a dog runs up, snatches the ball, and runs away with it. The golfer chases the dog to a pile of older golf balls that the dog has stolen. The golfer grabs the one he thinks is his and returns to the caddy. While this is all going on, the prisoner is being chased by a dozen guards.
Once again, the golfer attempts to hit his ball, only this time to have it ricochet back and hit him in the head, knocking him out. Just as he falls to the ground, the escaped convict rounds the corner and finds the golfer knocked out on the ground. In some quick thinking, the prisoner switches clothes with the golfer and leaves him to deal with the prison guards alone.
When the golfer wakes up, he is now in the prisoner’s clothes, although he does not notice at first. The prisoner (now in the golfer’s clothes) walks by the guards and points to the golfer, informing them that he MUST be the man they are looking for. They make their way over to the golfer, and it is clear he is the prisoner; after all, he is wearing the stripes with the number 13 on his arm. The golfer, now noticing his clothes, hits the ball, causing the guards to look downrange. While they are distracted, he makes his get-a-way. He calmly walks down the street, and as he walks, all the guards fall in behind him. The march down the road in proper formation, so Keaton takes the opportunity to turn around, forcing the formation to “about-face.” He does this several times, and one of the times they are marching in the opposite direction, he turns and runs again.
As he is running, he jumps into a passing car. Unfortunately for him, however, the vehicle belongs to the prison warden. Noticing this, Keaton leaps from this car onto the back of a passing one. It is important to note that in all of his films, Keaton would do his own stunts. After jumping from the car, the golfer, now prisoner, stops picking some flowers and playing the old “they’ll catch me, they’ll catch me not” game. It seems that “they’ll catch me” wins, causing Keaton to lose. So, he continues to run and sees a painter painting a bench. He pushes the man onto the bench, so his white jumpsuit now has black stripes making him look like the prisoner from the back. The guards do not fall for it, however, and continue the chase. Keaton ducks into a nearby gate and locks it behind him, only to learn that the gate is the entrance to the prison.
Now in prison, Keaton runs back into the woman from the beginning of the story. She sees what he is wearing and asks if he did this to be close to her while laughing. It turns out she is the Warden’s daughter. She introduces him to her father and calls the golfer by his name for the first time Buster. The Warden says he is pleased to meet Buster but must inform him that convict 13 is due to be hanged that day. Buster is convict 13.
All the prisoners are excited to watch the hanging, but the Warden’s daughter has a better idea. She switches the rope for the noose out with a stretchy elastic cord from the gym. Buster then proposes to the daughter just in time for the guards to take him away. When they open the trap door, the rope stretches, allowing Buster to bounce up and down multiple times until the guard is forced to pull him back up and release him from the noose. The prisoners are furious, but the Warden promises to hang someone the next day.
Buster is forced to break rock with a hammer, and while doing so, he ends up knocking a guard out on accident. Buster switches clothes with the guard and attempts to flee again. However, a colossal prisoner goes on a rampage knocking out all of the guards. Buster gets caught in his path and is begins being chased by the massive inmate. Buster lures him to the noose, ties it around the inmate’s foot, and traps him there. This gets Buster a promotion to assistant Warden but causes the large convict to become angry and start a riot for everyone to break out. The prisoner runs into the room where Buster and the Wardens daughter are, and he kidnaps the woman. At this time, all the prisoners start to fight the guards and escape.
Buster uses a punching bag on the end of a rope to swing around like crazy and knock out all of the prisoners, leaving just him and the large convict. The inmate tries to shoot Buster, but the gun jams, and Buster once again starts swinging the punching bag around until he subdues the convict once and for all. As he does, however, Buster falls off the table he is on and knocks himself out. The Warden’s daughter begins shaking him to wake him up, and when he wakes up on the golf course showing that it was all just a dream.
It is interesting to go back now and watch these classic films play out. They were almost cartoonish in their style; however, I wonder if that is more because the cartoons borrowed aspects from these movies more, the chicken and the egg, if you will.
Written exclusively for TheLastPicture.Show by Jacob Ruble
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