The Rough House (1917)
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle directs and the new talent of Buster Keaton gets a shot at a bigger role in this 2-reel slapstick comedy from Comique. While it builds on older gags and situations, it shows a definite development in the comedy troupe’s abilities and cinematic imagination.
The movie begins with a typical Arbuckle situation. He plays “Mr. Rough” (hence the multi-tiered pun of the title), a married man whose mother in law (Agnes Neilson) has come to visit. He is hiding in the bedroom while wife (Alice Lake) and mother take their breakfast. He dozes off with a cigarette in his hand, starting a fire on the bed. When he comes to, he stares blankly at the fire for a while, then walks out to the kitchen to fill a teacup with some water, which he then leisurely brings back to the bedroom and tosses on the raging flames. He goes to repeat this, but is distracted by the pretty maid (I think it’s Josephine Stevens), who he tries to kiss, and then he ends up drinking the water! By this point, wife and mother have become alerted to the situation, and they raise the alarm, causing a nearby gardener (Buster Keaton in a beard) to supply Fatty with a hose. He sprays everyone but the fire, eventually drenching the bedroom so much that fire simply cannot continue.
While all of this has been going on, and inter-cut with it, the help have been engaged in slapstick shenanigans. Apparently the cook (Al St. John) also has an interest in the maid, but she isn’t interested in him, and kicks him into a pan of white goo, possibly a future cake that is now spoiled. At table, Fatty entertains the maid with a little bread roll fork-dance that Charlie Chaplin fans will find familiar. Then, her real love interest shows up in the form of Buster Keaton in his primary role as a delivery boy. He does several impressive pratfalls to introduce himself and starts throwing things at Al, resulting in more chaos in the house. This soon escalates to Buster chasing Al through the house with a knife, and Fatty become involved in throwing household objects at both of them. Mr. Rough eventually throws both of them out and they are arrested by a passing policeman when their fight spills into the yard.
Mr. Rough consoles the maid, tending to her injured ankle – until the wife and mother-in-law return. They immediately show their wrath, mother-in-law choking Fatty, and wife firing the maid. Now Fatty has to take on the domestic tasks of the household, preparing for dinner company – a pair of “Dukes” (who are actually robbers) are coming over. Meanwhile, Buster and Al are offered jobs on the police force because the cells are all full. Fatty now does several of the “funny cook” gags we’ve seen in “The Waiters Ball” and elsewhere. He chops bread with a fan, puts out the table settings by carrying it all in the tablecloth, and pours gasoline all over the steak. Soon, the dinner degenerates into chaos, which gives one of the thieves a chance to sneak into the bedroom and steal a string of beads. Unfortunately for him, he is observed in this act by a plainclothes detective who has been following the phony aristocrats. He calls the station and Buster and Al are (of course!) called in to apprehend the miscreants. They now do their best tribute to the Keystone Kops, especially Buster, whose oversize helmet keeps falling off as he tumbles over fences and down slopes to rush to the scene of the crime.
Meanwhile, the detective has recruited Fatty, and tries to hold the “Dukes” at gunpoint, but instead they make a break for it and he and Fatty shoot wildly at them (and at pretty much anything) while they run madly around the house. The thieves run out into the street with the detective and Fatty not far behind, and they hide in a cellar while Fatty shoots at the detective accidentally. After their journey to the house is delayed when the delivery boy gets stuck on a fence, the new police recruits eventually arrive at the house just in time to unintentionally stop the fleeing thieves by bumping into them. Mr. Rough takes back the necklace and the thieves are taken to jail.
Arbuckle often structured his 2-reelers as 2-part stories, as in this case, where the first part of the story is the fire and the fight among Fatty and his help and the second part is the dinner and the chase after the thieves. The two parts are only loosely connected: Having Al and Buster become cops in the middle defies logic, but it keeps the best clowns available for more gags in the second part. Other comedy directors of the time did similar things (think of Chaplin and “The Immigrant,” with part one on the boat and part two in the restaurant), but it seems to me as though Arbuckle was especially devoted to the structure, sometimes at the expense of coherent narrative. This was a fairly early entry in Arbuckle’s series of films with Comique, his own film company, with distribution through Paramount Pictures, and only the second time he had worked with Buster Keaton. Keaton, who had an extensive stage career as a slapstick clown from childhood, is clearly comfortable in front of the camera and working well with the team. His rivalry with Al St. John works especially well in the first half. Interestingly, unlike “Oh Doctor” and “Coney Island,” both of which came out later in 1917, he’s not particularly expressive here, even if he hasn’t quite become “Old Stone Face” yet.
Although the movie, and especially the final chase, is clearly built on older work from Keystone, it also shows cinematic advancement. The scene with the bed fire is pretty much lifted straight from “Fatty’s Plucky Pup,” but here the cross-cutting with another comic storyline makes it funnier and more effective. I’ve mentioned the parallel between the second part of the film and the Keystone Kops, but again there’s improvement, both in terms of the comic timing and the use of camera angles. We get close-ups on the ridiculous-looking station sergeant that Keystone would never have taken the time to do, and one sequence of pratfalls is shot in long shot, with the actors appearing as silhouettes, which is lovely. There’s also a contribution to future movies, in the form of the “bread roll dance” Fatty does for the maid. He’s not really as amusingly sympathetic as Chaplin will be eight years later, but it does show how all of the comedy masters freely borrowed from one another. I think this is the funniest of the Comiques I’ve reviewed so far, and the most readily re-watchable.
Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
Camera: Frank D. Williams
Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Alice Lake, Agnes Neilson, Glen Cavender, Josephine Stevens
Run Time: 22 Min
You can watch it for free: here.