“Who would not wish to live a hundred years in a world where there are so many people who remember with gratitude and affection a little man with a frozen face who made them laugh a bit long years ago when they and I were both young?” So ponders Buster Keaton in his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick. It’s a rhetorical question, one he poses not to bask in his own prominence or popularity, but rather to revel in heartfelt fondness for a character that endures and continues to make audiences smile.

A lot can happen in a hundred years. Societies can change. Cultures can evolve. Technology can transform beyond the likes of what was previously only dreamt of. Cinema, a still new medium a century ago, has come along leaps and bounds—at least as far as the technology behind it is concerned. Gone are the days when film prints were painted by hand to be shown in colour. Now we have mind-blowing special effects (have you seen Tenet yet?), not to mention 3D, IMAX, and even 4DX cinema experiences to immerse all the senses.

Simply put, 1920 feels like it might as well be a world away. That said, there are films—characters, as Keaton describes—that endure, with comedic stylings that continue to make us laugh no matter how much time has passed. The filmmaker himself is one of them. The first time audiences saw that? A hundred years ago, with the release of his debut directorial production, One Week, on September 1, 1920.

While it’s actually the second film Keaton made with his own production company (The High Sign was the first to be filmed but it was shelved until 1921), One Week was the first to see release. The two-reel silent short sees a 24-year-old Keaton playing alongside an 18-year-old Sybil Seely as a newly married couple during their first week of marital so-called bliss. From the stone steps of the church where they’re wed, through their sabotaged attempts to settle into the house they (literally) assemble themselves, the film is a characteristically comedic romp that’s as spectacular in its endearing sense of heart as it is for its seemingly death-defying stunt work.

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Inspired by Home Made—an educational short telling “a story of ready-made house building” produced by Ford Motor Company in 1919—the main chunk of the film focuses on the prefabricated home the newlyweds construct. It’s what you might imagine it’d be like if IKEA made housing. After a rejected suitor of the bride named Handy Hank renumbers the packing crates, the resulting building and the process that build it are so distinctive in their off-kilter structure that the house feels like a character in its own right.

Reflecting on the production, Keaton described the building as “the craziest-looking house you ever saw,” and stated that “every part of it was in the wrong place.” The front door is on the top floor—with no steps leading up to or away from it. It’s got slanted windows, tilted walls, a too-small open-ended roof, and a porch railing that doubles as a ladder (and all that’s before we get to the sequence where the whole thing starts spinning like some kind of twisted fun-house-carousel mashup, but we’ll come back to that later)—what more could a couple want from their first home?

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The inspiration for this short might have started out as a parody, but One Week is more than a lesson in how not to build a house. It was the first time audiences saw Keaton with full creative control. Simply put, watching One Week is to watch genius at the moment of its dawning. This film paved the way for the sensational work that would follow: from That Famous Falling Wall Gag, through breaking the fourth wall, to history-making stunts, it all started here.

It’s the first time Keaton performed his most iconic stunt. The celebrated gag shows Keaton stood in front of a (partially-constructed) house when the wall collapses down over him. The man himself doesn’t so much as flinch, completely unscathed by the event that sees his body framed by an open window as the façade passes over him. This gag, and the stunt that makes it (which he repeated more famously in 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. with a window so small he only had two inches of clearance on either side), is perhaps the most enduring image of Keaton.

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It’s fitting, really, that one of the gags that started his independent filmmaking career also marked an end to it (Steamboat Bill, Jr. was the last film he made with his own production company before moving to MGM). Speaking of the stunt later, Keaton commented that “I was mad at the time, or I would never have done the thing.” It’s since been recreated by Jackie Chan in Project A Part II (1987), by “Weird” Al Yankovic in his music video for ‘Amish Paradise’ (1996), by Steve McQueen in his film short Deadpan (1997), by Tony Hale while portraying Buster Bluth in Arrested Development, and more besides. What Keaton called one of his “greatest thrills” is a movie moment that lives throughout history, continuing to resonate time after time after time.

His first independent production, One Week also set the template for Keaton’s knack for injury-defying (and injury-inducing) stunts. There’s a moment in the film when he walks out of the house’s front door (which is built into the bathroom on the top floor, because of course it is), steps into nothing, and promptly plummets into the yard below. It’s is one of the few instances in which the filmmaker truly hurt himself doing a stunt—not that he ever let that stop him. Most infamously, it wasn’t until many years after the event that a doctor’s appointment led to the revelation that a stunt-induced-injury on the set of Sherlock, Jr. (1924) had actually been a broken neck.

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Keaton’s co-star, Seely, matches him at every turn. As the married couple leave the church, they’re put off by their driver’s leering and decide to make their escape from the vehicle. Stepping from one moving car to another is an impressive feat by any standard (it’s an action Keaton’s character doesn’t quite manage to follow), but in a floor-length tiered wedding dress? Then there’s a scene in which she sits in a ground floor window while her husband works on construction from the top floor. The entire façade pivots, leaving her hanging from where the roof should be while he searches on the ground for his now-seemingly-missing wife.

But perhaps this film’s most iconic moment happens when Seely’s character takes a bath. She accidentally drops a bar of soap onto the floor, and when she reaches out of the bathtub to collect it she freezes, giving a shocked glance to the camera. In response, the hand of the cameraman reaches out and covers the lens. When the hand is removed, she’s back in the bathtub and the soap is in reach, her modesty preserved. Continuing to bathe she gives the camera a knowing smirk: she has the power here and we all know it.

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It’s not just the actors that seems to defy the laws of motion with their stunts in One Week, but the house the film is based around. Once the building is complete, albeit misshapenly, the married couple host a housewarming. Everything seems to be going well for once, until a storm hits. Pouring rain and tumultuous winds send the building spinning in circles where it stands, a feat made possible by the structure being built on a turntable. If you thought Christopher Nolan’s rotating corridor in Inception was impressive, wait until you see an entire building pirouetting on its axis.

It’s a truly spectacular piece of cinema: Keaton as The Groom trying (and failing) to time a jump through a moving door to get back inside, while Seely as The Wife (along with the couple’s guests) are sent reeling around the house’s rooms with increasing momentum until they’re eventually thrown to the yard outside. The landmark sequence is depicted through one of those long shots Keaton loved so much—loved, because they shattered any notion of illusion. In an age before CGI and special effects, what you see is what the filmmaker made happen.

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Then there’s the film’s final act: the newlyweds discover that they’ve built their home on the wrong lot, and as they attempt to move the building it gets caught on a train track with a train fast approaching. Unable to rescue the house they built, the couple cling to each other in relative safety and await the oncoming destruction… Only for the train to drive right by on the neighbouring track. The pair are shocked, and then relieved, quickly discussing what to do now. As they concoct their next scheme, another train (unseen until this moment) appears from the opposite direction, smashing their house to smithereens.

Picking themselves up off the floor to see their home in ruins, the couple don’t despair at losing everything they built, but instead put up a ‘For Sale’ sign, and leaving the building instructions behind them they walk hand-in-hand toward the horizon. Moments like this are what make One Week—what make all of Keaton’s films—so enduring. It’s not the death-defying stunts or the logic-defying mechanics around them, though these are sensational to witness. It’s the human reactions, the human emotions, that make this film such an engaging watch even a century after it was made.

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Courtesy of: Metro Pictures Corp

Keaton said as such himself, “the fact is that no picture ever became a smash hit because of its perfect lighting, wonderful sets, or exceptional camera work. The story was always the thing, with the star next in importance.” With One Week, Keaton tells a story of love, of laughable circumstances, and of making a house a home—only to find that home isn’t quite where the heart is, but rather with the person who holds your heart.

In his book The Silent Clowns, critic Walter Kerr offers the following reflection: “to sit through dozens and dozens of short comedies of the period and then to come upon One Week is to see the one thing no man ever sees: a garden at the moment of blooming.” A century on from the film’s release, that sentiment still holds true. Keaton was adamant that “no man can be a genius in slapshoes and a flat hat,” and while he doesn’t actually wear his iconic pork pie hat in this film the following remains true: with One Week Keaton came pretty damn close to genius—and this was only the beginning.