The Cook (1918)
This short film from Comique brings Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle back to familiar territory as he plays a food-preparer in a restaurant which devolves into chaos. We saw something similar in “The Waiter’s Ball” (a movie he did at Keystone), and there are other examples, either lost or not-yet reviewed here. This is the first time he’s tackled the subject with his new apprentice, Buster Keaton, however, and this results in some new laughs.
The movie begins with a close-up on Arbuckle’s face, with tears streaming down from his eyes. It cuts back (a little too fast, I think, for the image to fully register), revealing the fact that he is seated with a bowl of onions on his knee, peeling one of them, which is why he’s crying. A quick series of establishing shots show us the dishwasher at work, Luke the Dog nearby, and Buster working as a waiter out in the front. Arbuckle finishes his task and starts chopping at a large leg of lamb or beef with a huge meat cleaver. Out front, Keaton is flirting with the cashier (Alice Lake), and the owner breaks it up, throwing Keaton into the kitchen where he is hit by Arbuckle’s wild cleaver. The two of them take some time to establish that his head is still attached, then the owner shows up and drags Keaton out to attend to customers. This tips off a routine in which Keaton takes an order and yells into the kitchen (the intertitles often give somewhat amusing takes on diner lingo). Arbuckle then draws something out of a faucet from the same pot (coffee, soup, gravy), and off-handedly tosses the result at the door. Keaton walks in at the precise moment and catches the order, flipping it around a couple of times, and then walking out the door to deliver it. Of course, the precision of his catches is established with editing, and the cups, bowls, and plates he flips are empty, but it’s still a fun bit.
After this has gone on for a while, the floor show begins, and a belly dancer performs. Not long after she starts, Keaton does a marvelous parody of her “Egyptian”-style dance, and when Arbuckle sees, it, he has to one-up him. He puts on pots and pans as bangles and does himself up as a belly dancer, then gives an utterly incompetent dance, which draws the attention of the whole restaurant to the kitchen. Amazingly, the owner seems to approve as well, even though Arbuckle breaks a great many cups and plates in his shenanigans.
This is interrupted when Al St. John comes in and forcibly dances with Lake, swinging her around in a kind of “Apache Dance.” He is in possibly his most clownish getup, and seems to be interested in disruption and mashing, though sources list his character as “holdup man” today. When Keaton tries to threaten him with a beer bottle and get him to leave, St John turns the tables from “Out West” (where he was hit on the head with multiple bottles) and hits Keaton, breaking the bottle, but drinking from it anyway, and chewing on the broken glass. When the owner tries to get tough with St. John using a knife from the kitchen, St. John takes it away from him and uses it to cut off the owner’s mustaches. Now Luke the Dog comes out and bites the seat of St. John’s pants, in a scene reminiscent of “Fatty’s Faithful Fido.” He hangs on no matter what Al does to shake him off. Arbuckle separates them and Al flees with Luke in pursuit. Luke chases him all the way out to a rural area and around a barn, ending by chasing him up a ladder.
The action now shifts back to the restaurant, where the staff are enjoying their dinner of spaghetti. The spaghetti scene goes on for a while, with several gags about lengths of spaghetti, people getting opposite ends of the same strand, Arbuckle getting his tie mixed up in his pasta, and people using sheers to cut up their spaghetti. After this goes on for a while, we see Al St. John running up a ladder with Luke in pursuit – only now it’s to the roof of the restaurant! He crashes through the skylight onto the table with the spaghetti, and the Al vs. The Staff War ends in his ignominious defeat.
The next scene shows the staff going on their day off. Everyone gets out of uniform, and Arbuckle (of course!) pulls his street clothes out of that same pot that earlier produced ice cream, milk, coffee, etc. He also takes a ridiculously long pole with him, for no clear reason. The gang is all now on a boardwalk in a location that looks like Coney Island. Buster and Alice are at “Goatland” where they rent a cart drawn by goats, but Buster falls out and mostly the ride is a series of pratfalls. Arbuckle has a similar cart, but when he rounds a corner, his pole knocks over two policemen and he is quickly in trouble. He and Luke head to the seashore, where he uses his pole to catch a large fish at sundown (very nice silhouette photography here), but despite his and Luke’s best efforts, that one gets away.
Alice Lake gets onto a roller coaster and suddenly Al St. John is again in pursuit. She makes a spectacular dive from the top of the tracks into the ocean, and is soon splashing around calling for rescue. Arbuckle witnesses this and runs over, as does Keaton. They fight over various bits of rope and chained-down life preservers, while Luke again pursues St. John on the tracks. Keaton and Arbuckle finally get their rope to the dock area, but both end up falling in rather than saving Lake. The End.
This is probably the most plotless of the Comique movies I’ve seen, but it’s also one of the funniest. There are dozens of gags I left out of the summary above – describing them wouldn’t do them justice anyway – and the whole thing just hangs together better than some of the more easy-to-follow storylines. I think it’s largely a question of timing. Keaton and Arbuckle (and the rest of the gang) don’t ever let up, and just when you think you just saw the funniest thing ever, they throw something new at you. All that zaniness just didn’t leave any time for a plot! I’ve mentioned several bits that were recycled from earlier movies, but they’re done better here, and serve mostly to demonstrate that Arbuckle kept refining his craft as he progressed.
There are bits that probably worked better at the time. Arbuckle and Keaton’s belly dances (especially Arbuckle’s) are deliberate parodies of the famous sexy dance Theda Bara did in “Salomé,” which is now a presumed-lost film that no one’s seen in living memory. You can see that Arbuckle’s pots-and-pans get-up is a takeoff on the one Bara wore in the posters, but it had to be more hilarious to an audience that had thrilled to it for real on the screen. The “Goatland” thing goes totally over my head, but I enjoyed it anyway. I think if I were going to recommend a “starting place” for someone new to Arbuckle/Keaton/Comique, I’d tell them to start with “The Cook” and then probably “The Bell Boy” and “Out West.” If those aren’t working, I’d say skip the rest, it doesn’t get any better.
Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
Camera: George Peters
Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Alice Lake, Glen Cavender, Luke the Dog
Run Time: 18 Min
You can watch it for free: here.