Moonshine (1918)

by popegrutch

This is a review of a fragment, rather than a complete movie. The fragment was preserved in the Cineteca Nazionale in Italy and presented by Kino on DVD, which is the version I have seen. I’m not certain, but I think a more complete copy may have since been discovered; if I ever get a chance to see that version, I will post a complete review.

The movie is directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for his Comique Film Company and stars him and Buster Keaton as treasury agents investigating a moonshine-operation in the hills of Kentucky. Al St. John is one of the moonshiners. We see the hillbillies operate a complicated camouflage device by pushing a stone with their feet, and a side of a hill opens up to reveal a still. Arbuckle drives up in a car at another location, and takes in the lay of the land from a rather precarious-looking rock outcropping. He orders Keaton to call for reinforcements, and in what I believe is the longest-surviving scene, we see dozens of armed men emerge from the back of the car, clown-car style. It looks to me as if this effect was accomplished through masking one side of the car and having the men run through it, not by editing. There is one jump cut towards the end, but the rest of the action is smooth. Once about forty men are assembled, Keaton leads them in a group off screen. Arbuckle tells him to have them hide, and they rush off into the woods. Then Keaton joins Arbuckle on the rock, and shenanigans ensue as they struggle not to fall off in a series of pratfalls. Eventually, they both slide down what seems a rather less-dangerous rock face, Keaton with Arbuckle’s pants now in his possession.

A very brief clip introduces “Alice, the Bootlegger’s Daughter” (Alice Lake), the love interest. Al St. John is “a tenacious suitor” in whom she has no real interest. An intertitle tells us that her father is upset at her for spurning the suitor, and we see a wild-eyed man rush around a little, then grab her and beat her with a stick. A rather long intertitle describes the first meeting of “Fatty” and Alice – apparently he sides with the father and she falls for his “authoritarian charm.” We see Alice plunged backwards into a stream and then a scene with her kissing Arbuckle, that cuts off very suddenly. The next title tells us that “Fatty” discovers the bootleggers’ den, but is quickly captured. What we see is Arbuckle drinking from a tin cup, standing in a dark cave-like room, and a bunch of armed hillbillies rushing in to surround him. Keaton runs out of a door in the hill and observes Arbuckle being led away. Then he notices that Al St. John has got the drop on him. Keaton accidentally sneezes some tobacco in Al’s eye, and carefully gives Al back his gun, which he had dropped, making sure to keep it pointed at himself while Al clears out his eye.

Fatty’s imprisonment, we are told, is in “a comfortable room being looked after by Alice.” We see a glimpse of him looking around and putting his feet up in a surprisingly well-appointed home, which then cuts to the bootleggers in a more appropriately shack-like environment, evidently the ground-level part of the same house (Arbuckle is in the basement). They are all wearing tuxedos when they sit down to dinner. Arbuckle has a tray wheeled in by Alice, who is in an evening dress, and who then goes to join the bootleggers. Arbuckle conceives a plan to escape: he pours ketchup over his face and fires a gun to simulate his own suicide. The bootleggers carry him out to the river, apparently without noticing that he’s still alive, and dump him in. Alice seems very upset. There’s a scene of Arbuckle and Keaton meeting up, but quickly running away when Al St. John drops from a tree with a rifle and starts shooting. We see Keaton do one last pratfall and “The End” comes up.

It’s hard to comment much further on this movie, based on what we have. I think the intertitles make up at least a third of the running time, so you’re mostly reading a silent movie here. Arbuckle, St. John, and Keaton are all in good form, but we don’t get a real sense of how much time each one gets to develop their characters. I’m not even 100% sure that St. John is really one of the bad guys here, he may be sort of a loose cannon (isn’t he always?). Anyway, there are some amusing moments, especially in the longer scenes near the beginning, and a lot of good location work.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Alice Lake, Al St John, Joe Bordeaux, Charles Dudley

Run Time: 6 min, 30 secs (fragment of a two-reel movie)

You can watch it for free: here.

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