Directed by Buster Keaton and Mal St. Claire
Release Date: October 6, 1921
Total Running Time: 22 minutes
After dreaming that he is the dancers, orchestra, crew and audience, Buster finds his real life in the theater to be no less hectic. He's got to imitate a monkey, lead a dance troupe, avoid kicks, punches, and a flood, and make sure he marries the correct twin.
Buster Keaton: The Whole Show; Assistant Stage Manager
Joe Roberts: Stage Manager, Zouave Guard
Virginia Fox: A Twin
This special effects short, full of duplicate images, was created because Keaton had suffered a broken ankle while making the original version of The Electric House and was not able to do his characteristic acrobatic stunts… so instead, he dances and runs as if there were nothing wrong with his ankle at all.
This fellow Keaton is nearly the whole show in Elgin Lessley's masterpiece, The Play House. Twenty-five of the world's greatest minstrels are appearing at the opera house, so Keaton unfolds his voluminous wallet, produces a ticket, and goes in. The conductor (Keaton) strikes up the all Keaton band. The drummer and trombonist converse about a tricky passage, while the cellist rosins his bow and attacks the music with vigor. The clarinetist tries so hard to keep his instrument from slipping that he chews his reed off. For better leverage, the bassist sticks his knee on his bridge and saws away. The trombonist oils his stuck slide and it flies off. The conductor's score scatters, but he manages to finish the piece.
Stagehand Keaton pulls the curtain up on the Keaton minstrel show. Nine Keatons dance in unison until the interlocotor asks them to be seated. They tell some jokes about the wind (dating from the Paleolithic era). In the audience, a respectable Keaton couple watch. As she fans herself, he reads the program and observes that Keaton seems to be the whole show. In another box, young Master Keaton puts his feet on the rail and aged Mother Keaton tells him to take them down. Elsewhere, the male half of an older couple snoozes while the female observes the show through her pince-nez. She wakes him and he applauds, but she tells him to stop. The boy drops his lollipop on the older woman and she puts it to her eye instead of her pince-nez. In retaliation for her angry remonstration, the mother dumps her soda on the woman's sleeping husband, who wakes and puts up his umbrella. Back on stage, the interlocutor orders the minstrels to stand and raise their hands. The stagehand lowers the curtain and raises it on two dancing Keatons who perform in perfect synchronicity. The first couple applauds: he wildly, she frostily.
Yet another Keaton applauds, in bed and asleep. A large angry man (Joe Roberts) shakes him awake. Two workers repossess his furniture, and Keaton leaves the room with an angry word for Roberts. The workers move the side flats as Keaton hoists the back one up, revealing backstage dressing rooms. Keaton punches the time clock with a right jab and sets to work sweeping. He attacks a black spot with the broom handle, but the broom slides right through the knothole and he falls flat. He gets up and sweeps the dust into the hole.
An actress (Virginia Fox) comes in and he shows her to a dressing room. When he turns around, she's there again, so he puts her in a different room. She comes out of the first room, startling him. He checks the second, but she isn't in there. He escorts her back to the first room. He turns around; she's standing outside of door two. Then she also comes out of door one. He runs to the property room and abandons his flask. On coming out, he sees four identical actresses. He returns to the prop room, smashes his flask, and writes "I resolve never to drink any more." Seeing himself in a three-way mirror gives him an idea, so he runs out. The twins complain to him as they admire themselves in a pair of mirrors. He runs back to his pledge and adds "but just as much."
The audience, which includes two civil war veterans (one missing his right arm, the other his left) has arrived.
Roberts orders Keaton to dress the monkey. The animal promptly escapes, leaving Keaton with only one solution: he puts on the monkey clothes and does a remarkable impersonation. The distracted trainer doesn't notice the substitution until they're about to go on. Keaton waddles on to the stage and eats, smokes, goes to bed, frightens the audience when he escapes, climbs the proscenium arch, and rides a bicycle all like a monkey. Finally the trainer gets mad and Keaton escapes by diving through the backdrop that's painted as the ocean. He sticks his head back out and spits water at the trainer. After the curtain comes down, he convinces the head Zouave (Roberts) to stick his head through the hole and he gets punched. Next, the theater owner comes on stage, looks through the hole and gets punched by Roberts. The owner fires the Zouaves.
Keaton strolls backstage and impetuously kisses a twin's hand. Unfortunately, it's the wrong twin.
Next, Roberts (now in his stage manager role) orders Keaton to find some more Zouaves. Outside he finds some ditch diggers with a sleeping supervisor, and he entices them on stage.
The curtain opens on the resting Zouave Guards. The mismatched crew line up and march in formation around Keaton, their leader. The civil war vets applaud as a team, each using their remaining hand. The Guards clumsily dismantle and re-assemble a cannon, fire it, and get knocked down. Then they temporarily disappear by lining up behind Big Joe Roberts (he's a member of the replacement Zouaves, too). Next they form an inverted pyramid; Roberts is the last man on and he collapses it. Finally they scale a wall, and it takes the whole team to lift Roberts to the top. When the wall falls down, Keaton slides up the theater aisle and out the front door. He buys a ticket and goes back in.
While Roberts glues on a beard, Keaton kisses a twin. Once again, it's the wrong one. Roberts accidentally lights the beard on fire and runs out of his dressing room. Keaton gets the fire ax, knocks him out with the flat side and shaves him with the sharp side. Roberts wakes up and chases after Keaton, across the stage where a large tank of water has been placed. Keaton runs up a catwalk with Roberts right behind him, jumps down, and gets walloped with the counterweight when he raises the ladder. Meanwhile, the twin's act has begun: one climbs into the tank to demonstrate how long she can hold her breath. Roberts continues to chase Keaton past the monkey cage and through dressing rooms one and two. Back by the cage, Keaton offers to punch him. Roberts swings, Keaton ducks, and Roberts falls into the cage, which Keaton promptly locks.
The twin in the tank has been there for four minutes when her sister realizes that she's caught. Keaton grabs a teacup and bails. He realizes that won't work, so he fetches a giant mallet and smashes the tank's front window. Water spews out and the audience flees.
Keaton looks for the girl in the flooded orchestra pit. After she's found, Roberts comes after him but Keaton escapes in the bass drum, using a violin as a paddle. He runs to the exit, grabs a twin, and goes straight to the justice of the peace. It's the wrong twin. He goes back and gets the right one. Borrowing a sign painter's brush, he marks an X on his twin. They run up the steps to the judge.
Though Keaton's performance is amazing, The Play House wouldn't have been possible without his cameraman, Elgin Lessley. To record multiple Keatons, Lessley masked part of the lens, shot one Keaton, rewound the film, masked another part of the lens, and shot another Keaton. As Keaton observed "if he were off the slightest fraction, no matter how carefully I timed my movements, the composite action could not have been synchronized. But Elgin was outstanding among all the studios. He was a human metronome" (quoted in Keaton by Rudi Blesh, p. 168). It was Lessley's finest hour. — Lisle Foote