Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline
Release Date: October 27, 1920
Total Running Time: 20 minutes
After a golfing Buster knocks himself unconscious, an escaped prisoner changes clothes with him; through a classic misunderstanding, Buster winds up going from the links to the clink.
Buster Keaton: Convict 13
Sybil Seely: The Warden's Daughter
Joe Roberts: The Prisoner Riot Leader
Eddie Cline: The Hangman
Joe Keaton: A Prisoner
In the film, Buster performs one of the most dangerous sight gags that he performed in vaudeville. In the words of Marie Dressler: Buster would "stand on a table in back of his father twirling a basketball tied to the end of a rope, while his father was trying to shave himself with a straight razor. And that ball kept getting closer and closer, all the sudden, BANG!"
In the version available from Kino, Convict 13 is a strange film. It begins with a golf game between Keaton and a young lady (Sybil Seely); she's a good player, winning applause from the clubhouse, while he spins completely around as he hits the ball into the creek, making the regulars laugh. After he rafts to the middle of the water, a fish eats his ball and he dives in after it. Eventually he finds the right fish, spanks it, and hits his ball to the green.
Meanwhile, a prisoner in a striped uniform escapes. A guard blows a whistle which sounds like the signal for lunch to the caddy. Just as Keaton is about to hit the ball, Luke the dog steals it. While guards continue to search for the escapee, Keaton recovers his ball from Luke's collection and hits it, bouncing it off of a barn and right into his head. The prisoner skulks along, and finding an inert Keaton, trades clothes with him and walks away. Keaton awakens, finds his ball, yells "fore" (the sight of a golfing prisoner frightens some female golfers), and hits dirt instead of the ball. Then the escapee helpfully points Keaton out to some guards, and they greet him. Keaton finally notices his prison garb, including the "13" patch on the sleeve. He calmly hits the ball and strolls away. The guards stroll after him. Other guards join them, falling into formation behind him. He leads the marchers in one direction, then runs in the other. That doesn't work for long; after they catch back up to him, he disappears in an oncoming car. However, his relief is short-lived: it's the warden's car. He jumps out and runs to a small cliff. As guards scale the cliff, Keaton plays "loves me, loves me not" with a flower. It's not. The guards chase him, and he runs to a painter who has just finished painting a park bench. Keaton pushes him into the bench, striping his white uniform, and runs away. The guards momentarily mistake the painter for Keaton.
Keaton runs into a yard, then closes and locks the gate. The guards invite him in: it's the prison yard.
He meets Seely, who is the warden's daughter. While they chat, the warden comes over and tells him that Convict 13 is to be hung today. He escorts Keaton to the scaffold and politely introduces him to the hangman (Eddie Cline), who inspects his neck.
Seely pleads Keaton's case to her father in the gym as he works out with a bungee cord. He is obdurate, but the elastic cord gives her an idea. She replaces the noose with the bungee cord.
Next, Keaton wheels his empty wheelbarrow in a line of prisoners hauling carts filled with rocks. He scoops up Seeley, lets her off in a quiet corner, and proposes. Before she can accept, guards take him to be hung. In front of a cheering crowd of prisoners, the hangman does his duty - but Keaton doesn't hang, he bounces. Guards take him away. The prisoners jeer, and the hangman promises two hangings the next day.
A guard takes Keaton to a rock pile, where he irks him with his delicate tapping. On being ordered to swing harder, Keaton does, knocking the guard out. The prisoner trades uniforms with the guard.
Concurrently, a big prisoner (Joe Roberts) takes a rest from breaking rocks. A guard orders him back to work. An angry Roberts whacks him with a hammer, then throws the tool at another, smacks another with his own shotgun, and swings yet another around by his feet. More guards arrive and are similarly dispatched. Bodies pile up. Keaton, in his new uniform, wanders in. After seeing another guard added to the pile, he kicks Roberts through the gate and throws away the key. Roberts soon bends the bars and joins him. Keaton's heart nearly jumps out of his chest, but he does a handstand, mule-kicks Roberts, and runs away.
Later, Roberts spreads the word: the riot starts at 3 o'clock. Roberts visits the warden's office, where Keaton is chatting with Seely. Roberts cuts in and chats her up, idly putting his hand in a press. Keaton closes the press, but Roberts uses it as a weapon to knock out another guard. He pulls his hand out, hits Keaton, and throws Seely over his shoulder.
Three o'clock arrives, and the prisoners attack the guards. Roberts wrestles with Seely as Keaton watches the riot from the gym, leaning on the speed bag. Inspired, he takes the bag and a bungee cord outside, ties them together, and swings it around, knocking out all of the prisoners except for Roberts. Roberts punctures the bag with a bayonet, then chases Keaton up the scaffolding. Keaton attaches the bungee noose to Robert's ankle and hangs him, bouncing, upside down. Keaton shows him to the warden, and gets rewarded with an Assistant Warden hat. Seely congratulates him.
According to both Wead and Oldham (see the introduction for the citations), Convict 13 has survived in an incomplete version. They both say that the golf scenes are a framing story. At the end, Keaton awakes on the golf course, having dreamt the prison scenes after hitting himself on the head with his ball. — Lisle Foote