Spite Marriage

Spite Marriage is a 1929 American silent comedy film co-directed by Buster Keaton and Edward Sedgwick and starring Keaton and Dorothy Sebastian. It is the second film Keaton made for MGM and his last silent film, although he had wanted it to be a "talkie" or full sound film. While the production has no recorded dialogue, it does feature an accompanying synchronized score as well as recorded laughter, applause, and other sound effects in some scenes.[1] Keaton later wrote gags for some up-and-coming MGM stars like Red Skelton and from this film recycled many gags, some shot-for-shot, for Skelton's 1943 film I Dood It.

Spite Marriage
Theatrical poster
Directed byEdward Sedgwick
Buster Keaton
Produced byJoseph M. Schenck Productions[1]
Written byRobert Hopkins (titles)
Story byLew Lipton
Ernest Pagano (adaption)
StarringBuster Keaton
Dorothy Sebastian
CinematographyReggie Lanning
Edited byFrank Sullivan
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • March 25, 1929 (1929-03-25)
(premiere in New York City)[1]
Running time
74-80 minutes[2]
CountryUnited States
LanguageSilent (English intertitles)


Elmer, a humble worker in a dry cleaning establishment, idolizes stage actress Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian). She, in turn, is carrying a torch for fellow actor Lionel Benmore (Edward Earle). When Lionel spurns her for the younger Ethyl Norcrosse (Leila Hyams), she impulsively asks Elmer to marry her, only to regret it almost immediately. Her handlers extricate her from the marriage, and when Elmer finds himself first in the hands of criminals and then at sea, he is more than happy for the opportunity to forget her. But a series of coincidences throw Elmer and Trilby back together again, and she will have cause to re-evaluate her opinion of him.



In its September 12, 1928 issue, the widely read entertainment paper Variety announced, "Buster Keaton's next, 'Spite Marriage', will also have dialog", while Exhibitors Daily Review also reported the same day that "Buster Keaton will do his initial speaking in 'Spite Marriage'".[3][4] Despite those announcements by popular, well-connected trade publications, the film was destined from pre-production to be a silent offering from MGM, at least one without any recorded dialogue.[1] The studio's head of production, Irving Thalberg, opposed Keaton's plans to make the film his first "talkie".[5] Thalberg had both financial and technical reasons for rejecting any proposals by Keaton or others to apply full-sound to the planned comedy. For one, in the fall of 1928, during that transition period into sound, MGM had at its disposal only one set of recording equipment.[5] Secondly, but more importantly, MGM's executive believed that adding the complications and expense of such a new technology to Keaton's film would significantly increase overall production costs, especially for a performer like Buster whose creativity thrived on "time-consuming improvisations" and a high degree of flexibility while shooting.[5] Thalberg therefore insisted on technical simplicity and close script and set supervision of Keaton's second project for the studio to reduce delays and to increase potential profits for the final product.[5]

According to the American Film Institute's catalog, production work on the film started on November 14, 1928, a date generally consistent with a November 27 report in Exhibitors Herald and Motion Picture World, which announces that Keaton began work on the film "last week".[6]

News updates about the film in 1928 trade publications indicate that casting was still being finalized in the latter half of November. Exhibitors Daily Review announced on November 16, "Dorothy Sebastian has been given the feminine lead opposite Buster Keaton"; and on November 23, "Edward [E]arle is playing the heavy in Buster Keaton's picture, 'Spite Marriage.'"[7][8] A week later, The Distributor, a paper published by MGM's sales department, confirmed that the studio had assigned Leila Hyams a "big part" in "the forthcoming Buster Keaton vehicle" in part due to her "distinct success" as a lead in the studio's recent crime drama Alias Jimmy Valentine, which had been released just two weeks earlier.[9] The studio publication in the same news item also confirmed that Sydney Jarvis and Hank Mann had joined the cast, although their roles would be uncredited on the screen.


Spite Marriage in 1929 was generally very well received by critics in leading newspapers, by reviewers in the film industry's major trade journals and papers, as well as by moviegoers. The influential critic for The New York Times, Mordaunt Hall, comments about the audience's response to the comedy in his assessment of the film. He notes that Keaton created "a state of high glee" in the Capitol Theatre in Manhattan, where Hall attended the comedy's premiere on March 25, adding "there were waves of laughter from top to bottom of the house."[10] Abel Green, the editor and reviewer for Variety, characterizes Keaton's production as "replete with belly laffs" and also describes the Capitol's audience being in "hysterics" and "mirthful" while watching it.[11] While Green does express some reservations about what he viewed as several of the film's implausible situations and its "mechanized" structure, he predicts nothing but financial success for the "enjoyable low comedy glorified slapsticker."[11]

The trade paper The Film Daily rated the MGM feature as "the funniest film released in months".[12] In its March 31 review, the paper praises the film and draws special attention to Sebastian's performance:

Buster Keaton puts over one of the best he has ever done and has 'em fairly rocking in their seats. Dorothy Sebastian springs a big surprise as a comedienne who can only be compared to Marion Davies ... [The film] is a natural for real laughs that keep coming with practically no let-up right through the footage. There are three outstanding comedy sequences, all hitting the funny bone from a new angle. In one gag that Buster pulls, it is so original and screamingly funny that the audience at the Capitol broke out in spontaneous applause.[12]

After seeing a preview of Spite Marriage weeks before its premiere in New York, reviewer Walter R. Greene of the trade journal Motion Picture News, praised the feature even more than The Film Daily, judging Keaton's work to be not only his best film "since he graduated from the two reel ranks" but also "one of the best pieces of comedy business ever developed in a picture".[13] Comparing Spite Marriage to Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1925), Greene in his review states, "The picture is packed with laughs" and reports that the sequence in which Keaton puts his intoxicated wife to bed evoked from the audience "a continual roar for over half a reel."[13] Photoplay, the nation's leading movie-fan magazine of the period, only added to the accolades and endorsements that the film received in 1929. In its April issue, the magazine labels the film "hilarious", "intense", and "Chaplinesque".[14] Then, in May, Photoplay provides another, more succinct review to its large readership: "One of the best Buster Keaton has made, with Dorothy Sebastian excellent. Don't miss."[15]

References and notes

  1. "Spite Marriage (1929)", catalog, American Film Institute (AFI), Los Angeles, California. Retrieved September 23, 2019.
  2. According AFI, the original print of Spite Marriage was 7,047 feet in length with a running time of 74 minutes. Wide discrepancies in cited running times are not unusual, especially for films produced and presented in the silent and early sound eras. Inconsistent times noted in reviews and in film descriptions can often be attributed to slightly different operating speeds of projectors in various locations and to varying time counts by reviewers and others who originally viewed the film.
  3. "M-G-M's 18 Talkers; 'Dugan' All-Dialog", Variety (New York, N.Y.), September 12, 1928, p. 7. Internet Archive, San Francisco, California. Retrieved September 23, 2019.
  4. "All M-G-M Stars Talk", Exhibitors Daily Review, September 12, 1928, p. 4. Internet Archive. Retrieved September 23, 2019.
  5. Tatara, Paul. "ARTICLES: Spite Marriage (1928)", Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Atlanta, Georgia. Retrieved September 23, 2019.
  6. "14 Finished; 5 Are Talk Films; Warners on Last of '28-'29 List", Exhibitors Herald and Motion Picture World, December 1, 1928, p. 41. Internet Archive. Retrieved September 23, 2019.
  7. "Sebastian Gets Lead", Exhibitors Daily Review, November 16, p. 2. Internet Archive. Retrieved September 23, 2019.
  8. "Studio Gossip", Exhibitors Daily Review, November 23, p. 7. Internet Archive. Retrieved September 23, 2019.
  9. "Leila Hyams Assigned Big Part in 'Spite Marriage'", The Distributor (MGM), November 30, 1928, p. 4. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  10. Hall, Mordaunt (1929). "THE SCREEN", The New York Times, March 25, 1929, p. 32. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Retrieved September 22, 2019.
  11. Green, Abel (1929). "Spite Marriage", Variety, March 27, 1929, pp. 12, 24. Internet Archive. Retrieved September 22, 2019.
  12. "'Spite Marriage'", The Film Daily (New York, N.Y.), March 31, 1929, p. 28. Internet Archive. Retrieved September 22, 2019.
  13. Greene, Walter R. (1929). "Spite Marriage/Keaton's Best in Several Years", Motion Picture News, February 2, 1929, p. 368. Internet Archive. Retrieved September 23, 2019.
  14. "The Shadow Stage: Spite Marriage (M.-G.-M.)", Photoplay (Chicago, Illinois), April 1929, p. 54. Retrieved September 27, 2019.
  15. "Brief Reviews of Current Pictures: Spite Marriage", Photoplay, May 1929, p. 146. Retrieved September 27, 2019.

See also

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