Elmer Gantry (Buster Keaton) is devoted to the actress Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian), but she barely knows he exists, merely noticing in passing this dapper fellow who attends every performance on the stage she gives, and occasionally sees him out and about, for example today she saw him on horseback while she was out riding with her actor boyfriend Lionel Benmore (Edward Earle). But Elmer is not as well to do as he would like to appear, for he is actually a worker in a laundry who operates the trouser press. Nevertheless, he still holds the small, shining hope in his heart that someday Trilby will speak to him, and maybe he'll get to know her - but all this is a fantasy of a fan, isn't it?
Spite Marriage is generally identified as the film where it all started to go wrong for silent comedian Buster Keaton. His previous film, The Cameraman, had been the first of his deal with MGM, which though it gave him financial security began to erode his creative control; nevertheless, it remained a popular comedy and his magic was there to see. Yet with this item, the studio were exerting more of their influence, and Keaton realised he had shot himself in the foot for changing from an independent filmmaker to one cog in the studio system's machine, and would go on to call his contract with them "the biggest mistake of my life". However, since it was a Keaton silent, it does have its aficionados.
After all, it wasn't as if he had zero input into the content on Spite Marriage, it's more that his big ideas were not being listened to and his trademark stunts were dialled down, relegated to a smattering of physical comedy, most notably when he is on the ship in the final act. Every so often you would catch a glimpse of his talent in a bit he would perform, but overall much of this was material any second division comedian could have pulled off, and in that vein disappointing to compare with his classics where he had been one of the true geniuses of his art. He should have taken a leaf out of his old rival Charlie Chaplin's book and stuck to his guns as to what he was willing to do on the screen, the lengths he could go to for a laugh, but Chaplin was always stronger-willed, and as a result was about the only of the silent greats who endured into the talkies.
Keaton was paired with Jimmy Durante by MGM who made a success of some decidedly low rent vehicles, but you can look at Spite Marriage and feel sorry that it represented the last gasp of his unique stylings. Of course, it is possible to get too sentimental about his decline, he did continue to find work, but once you have seen his highs of the nineteen-twenties, his lows seem all the less impressive. The plot here had him by contrived coincidence marrying Trilby, her idea so she could spite Benmore who has become engaged to another woman (popular Pre-Code starlet Leila Hyams), but in a rather unbelievable turn of events he manages to win her over for real, involving a series of accidents that saw Elmer chased by robbers, become a sailor, and partly re-enact The Navigator. Dorothy Sebastian was a tabloid fixture of her day, and the scene where she is passed out drunk and Elmer tries to get her to bed to sleep it off was regarded as a dig at the actress for her real-life drunken habits, but it had been a vaudeville bit Keaton would be familiar with. Also: why is he named after Elmer Gantry, the fictional, shady preacher?
[This is available on The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of Keaton's The Cameraman.]