Coney Island (1917)
This movie was the fifth collaboration between Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, coming out just a month after “Oh, Doctor!” To my mind, it makes better use of Keaton’s talents, although fans of the “Great Stone Face” may be surprised by his expressions at this time.
The movie starts with images of Luna Park at night that are reminiscent of earlier actualities. Images are run at high speed so that people move zip across the screen while our attention is focused on the beautiful lighting. We then see daylight shots at normal speed of the Mardi Gras parade. This serves to get the narrative started as Keaton and his girl (Alice Mann) appear as spectators. Buster does a minor (but impressive) stunt as he shimmies up a pole to get a better view, but comes crashing down on Alice when he gets excited and starts to applaud. We then cut to Fatty and his wife (Agnes Neilson) on the beach, in what seems to be an even less happy relationship. She reads from a magazine and scolds him while he scoops sand into a pail. He looks bored and tries to leave, but she grabs him back. Then his hat gets blown off by the wind, and he uses this as an excuse to move some distance from her, hitting upon the idea of “disappearing” by digging a hole in the sand and hiding in it. He uses a periscope to watch her leave when she misses him and begins to search for him. He now quickly scoots off to the amusement park. Meanwhile Agnes runs into her old friend Al St. John, who does a great tumble that knocks both of them over.
Arbuckle, Al, and Alice & Buster all arrive at the ticket counter. Buster is out of money, so Alice switches sides and goes in with Al. This produces a very demonstrative crying fit in Buster. Then he sneaks in by hiding in a barrel marked “rubbish” that is being brought into the park. Agnes refuses to pay when she gets there, clobbering the ticket-taker with her purse. Al and Alice get onto a go-cart at the “Witching Waves,” soon followed by Buster in another one (evidently you don’t need individual tickets for the rides, just one to get access to the park in general). Al crashes his car into an obstacle, and Alice starts to get seasick from the wave effect. An attendant gives them a push to get going again, and they soon crash into Buster. Al throttles Buster for a bit, then throws him aside, and Buster clings to a fake buoy for support. Alice is looking really ill now, and Al escorts her to a bench that is not rocking up and down. Al goes to get her some ice cream to settle her stomach, and that’s when Fatty moves in. She threatens to get sick in his hat, but manages to control herself, and then he happily accepts the ice cream cones from Al when he arrives, giving one to Alice and eating the other – until Al hits him for it and he spits it out on Al!
The fight now extends over to Keaton, who has been practicing pratfalls with a huge hammer at a “high striker.” Alice seems to enjoy having men fight over her, and cheers on the violence. Arbuckle manages to set up St. John by kicking a cop from behind and making it look like Al did it, so he winds up with Alice again. He and Buster exchange blows with the clown hammer and Fatty winds up winning a cigar. Then he and Alice go on the “Shoot the Chutes” ride. The ride proves to be rather unsafe, and both are dumped into the drink when it hits bottom. Buster sees this and dives in to save Alice. He tries to help Fatty out as well, but of course he winds up getting pulled back into the water. The Alice decides to go off with Fatty again, for reasons that escape Buster and bring on more tears.
Arbuckle and Alice now arrive at the bath house and decide to go for a swim while their clothes dry out. The bath house has no bathing suits in Fatty’s size, so he swipes one from a fat lady. In the changing room, Fatty breaks the “fourth wall” and instructs the camera to shoot above his chest while he’s changing. Meanwhile Keaton, who is also sopping wet, sees one of the workers put up a sign saying “Life Guard Wanted” at the bath house. Having just initiated himself into the profession, Buster decides to apply for the job. He gets it, and is given a suit with the words “Life Guard” emblazoned on it. He walks in on Fatty, and laughs to see him in the woman’s bathing suit, precipitating another slapstick fight. Alice, who looks quite fetching in her very tight bathing suit, manages to get a wig for Fatty to wear. Fatty goes into the men’s shower, which panics all of the men there. One of them directs him to the women’s room, which seems to be more of a powder room than a shower (the contrast is quite extreme). He hangs out there until Alice comes and drags him away.
Meanwhile, Agnes has gone to the police station in search of her miscreant husband, but instead finds that Al St. John is in a cell. She shows him a picture of Fatty, who Al recognizes as the chiseler who stole his girl (and his ice cream). They head back to the beach, which is where Alice and Fatty, each in their women’s bathing suits, have also headed. Alice plays with a dog, and Al spots Fatty, but apparently doesn’t recognize him, because he sits down and tries to flirt. Agnes sees the two of them together, but doesn’t recognize him either until Buster comes along and uses a hook on a long pole to remove Fatty’s hat and wig. Then the fight is back on, but Buster wisely gets out of sight, managing somehow to pick up Alice along the way. She seems happy that he has a job now, maybe he’ll be able to afford tickets in the future. Al and Fatty exchange slapstick kicks and shoves while Agnes nags at Fatty, seeming to scare him more than Al does. Finally, Agnes calls the police, who act very much like Keystone Kops (but this is Comique, so I guess they’re Comique Cops), pratfalling and saluting and then rushing to the rescue. When they arrive on the scene, Arbuckle and St. John are fighting in the water, so they swim out to arrest them.
Back at the station, Fatty requests to be jailed in the same cell with Al, and the cops, who apparently realize he’s a man, comply. They carry on their fight until an officer is sent in to break it up. Al distracts him while Fatty clobbers him with his own nightstick. This bit is repeated four or five times (you’d think they’d catch on), and eventually St John makes a break for it and Arbuckle winds up back in the hands of his wife. He shoves her into the cell and locks it, skipping merrily out the door where he meets Al. They swear a pact to avoid women which lasts less than five seconds.
This movie definitely was good for some chuckles, but I wouldn’t rate it as the best work of any of the three male stars. Keaton is much better here than in “Oh, Doctor!” but he’s still emoting too much and isn’t as central to the action as he could be. If you look at it as a boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back narrative, he’s arguably the star, but Arbuckle is still giving himself more screen time as director. Arbuckle is good, but he chooses to cast himself as the “heavy,” when he’s really more appealing as the lovable-but-strong dope. Al St. John is the only one who seems really on his game, using his gangly frame to heighten the humor of the various stunts he pulls in the various fight scenes and arrests. He’s nowhere near as psycho as he was in “The Waiters Ball” or “Fatty and Mabel Adrift,” though.
Probably the big draw for viewers at the time was seeing Roscoe Arbuckle in drag, which he had done before, but this time some of the possibilities (like his being in the women’s dressing room) are explored more thoroughly. Apparently this led to some censorship in some areas, particularly a shot in which one of the women reveals a bit more of her stocking than was acceptable. There’s a number of points where the men’s reactions to women’s bodies are played up, including one part where Keaton faints after seeing Alice in her swimsuit. Gender rules are thus both broken and reinforced, with the audience titillated along the way, all in the name of “earthy” humor. No doubt this was very successful at the time, but modern viewers will probably find it more interesting than hilarious.
The other piece that’s worth noting is the extensive location shooting. This is handled much more professionally than in “Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition,” with effective crowd control and no looky-loos visible on camera. Nevertheless, we get to see a good portion of the park and also get a sense of what kinds of amusements people went in for at the time. The Shoot-the-Chute ride, with no safety bars or seat belts, really does look like a pretty dangerous ride, and the stuntwork involved in that spill was probably pretty risky. The “Witching Waves” is just a weird idea – bumper cars on an oscillating surface? Or were they really not meant to hit each other? And then the bath house, with its very different men’s and women’s rooms, is an interesting insight into gender norms of another age. The movie is definitely worth checking out for its historical interest, and it does pay off with some laughs although each of the principles has better work on offer.
Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
Camera: George Peters
Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton,, Al St. John, Alice Mann, Agnes Neilson, Joe Bordeaux
Run Time: 25 Min