Back Stage (1919)
Buster Keaton and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle team up again for this short from Arbuckle’s Comique Film Corporation. Keaton has a very prominent co-starring role in this, although Arbuckle is still the center of attention.
Like a lot of these two-reel Comique shorts, this movie is divided into two very short story lines. True to the title, the first focuses on the backstage antics of a small theater troupe, while the second shows a performance, disrupted by hecklers. The movie begins by showing two men (Buster and Al St. John) re-arranging furniture in what seems to be a small bedroom. Suddenly, they grab hold of the flats that serve as the side walls and move them, then the backdrop is raised into the ceiling, showing that we have been looking at a set. Arbuckle is now seen, pulling the rope that lifts the backdrop. This sets the stage for the many sight-gags we’ll be seeing throughout. An intertitle informs us that Arbuckle is in charge of the theatrical company, and we see him outside the theater, trying to paste up a new poster for a coming attraction, but a small child takes an interest in his work and keeps getting in the way. Arbuckle finally pastes him to the wall to keep him out of trouble. He then tears him down and sends him on his way, pasting a bit of poster to his bottom to hide where his pants were torn in the process. When he’s done, the sign advertises a famous star, but the sliding door to the theater obscures half the message when left open, and the remaining text appears to promote a stripper. Inside, Keaton is dealing with a touchy star who insists on having a dressing room with a star over it. Once he’s inside, Keaton pulls the string that moves the star over another dressing room.
An extended audition now takes place in which “novelty dancer” John Coogan demonstrates his odd style to the crew. He hits people with his flying legs or knocks hats off, but once enough room has been cleared for him, Arbuckle and Keaton try to imitate his bizarre movements, hurting themselves repeatedly in the process. Keaton ends up bent over backward and apparently unable to straighten up until Arbuckle kicks his legs out from under him. Now the villain and the love interest appear, in the form of a strong man (Charles A. Post) and his assistant (Molly Malone). He makes her carry all his luggage and set out his heavy weights for him. Arbuckle sympathizes with her plight, but when he tries to shoulder some of her load, the strong man gives it all back to her. The bit with the star is repeated, but this time the star is moved to the upper dressing room from the ground floor, following the tired assistant. Watching his constant abuse of a lady, the crew decides to take a hand. First, Arbuckle tries to reason with him, but the strong man blows his hat off his head and makes a threatening gesture that scares him away. Keaton now tries hitting him with the blunt side of an axe, but the strong man accuses him of “tickling” him with it. Finally, they attach an electrical wire to one of his weights and connect to the house’s power, turning it on and giving him a shock that knocks him over. There’s a good deal of silliness over trying to get the weight off his body, with Keaton getting trapped under it, but finally the assistant comes and picks it up as if it were weightless.
As the second reel begins, the actors are staging a mutiny, led by the strong man. All of them walk off, but the assistant stays. She tells Arbuckle and Keaton to put on the show anyway, since they know all the lines. The rest of this reel demonstrates their opening night. The program is titled “The Falling Reign” and appears to take place in a Middle Eastern kingdom. Arbuckle is the king and Keaton, in drag, is the queen. They perform a dance that is heckled by Coogan (it is thoroughly ridiculous). Keaton gets really into his role and does several no-handed cartwheels in a row. The “couple” now sit together at their throne and Keaton pulls Arbuckle’s leg hairs out, one at a time. Arbuckle and Keaton finally have enough of the taunting from the “novelty dancer” and Arbuckle throws Keaton at him. Keaton pushes him out of the theater. Now Molly Malone comes in and creates a love triangle, as Arbuckle’s king is more interested in her. He embraces the new girl, but the queen objects. When Arbuckle take a long necklace off Keaton and gives it to Malone, Keaton pulls a long knife and simulates stabbing him by tucking it briefly under Arbuckle’s arm. Arbuckle gives a long and overdramatic death scene and the curtain falls.
The next act involves Arbuckle giving a serenade on a snowy night in front of a two story house. At the same time, the strong man forces his way in to the balcony and adds to the heckling. A St. John throws an inordinate amount of snowflakes from above, at times completely obscuring the scene. Keaton, wearing a chauffer’s uniform, “drives” Arbuckle onto the stage in a cardboard cut-out of a car. Arbuckle catches Keaton wiping sweat off from the heat of the lamps, and reminds him to “shiver” from the supposed cold weather. Keaton does a rather ridiculous shaking dance and Arbuckle tells him to “shiver…not shimmy!” When Keaton “drives” off the stage, he turns the car around so that the audience sees the unpainted side. Arbuckle takes out a ukulele and begins his song, and Malone appears at an upper window of the house. Then Keaton bumps into the flat from behind, and the façade falls over, exposing Malone on a ladder and narrowly missing Fatty, who stands in one of the fallen windows. They notice what ha happened, and Arbuckle and Keaton try to get the flat back up, with little success. The audience is increasingly amused at their antics as they cause further destruction to the set. Now the strong man gets angry and pulls out a gun, shooting Malone and then causing a panic as he throws one audience member after another from the balcony into the aisles. Keaton and Arbuckle quickly rig up a swing from the rigging and Keaton swings across the theater to grab the strong man with his legs and bring him onto the stage, where he, Arbuckle, and Al St. John all engage him in seemingly hopeless melee. Arbuckle stuffs a crate with the strong man’s weights and puts it on the rope, swinging it and a crew member over the strong man’s head and dropping it, knocking him cold.
The final shots of the movie show Fatty visiting Molly in the hospital, where she is recovering from her wound. He takes out an apple and starts to eat it, but she convinces him to spit it out and give her a kiss, instead.
The theme of a comedy based in a theater or film company is a pretty common one, and of course a natural one for a movie written by actors, so it’s no surprise that there are some familiar element here. Still, I was strongly reminded of several earlier Chaplin shorts, which Arbuckle and Keaton may have been deliberately responding to or riffing on, especially “The Property Man” for part one of the short, and “A Night in the Show” for part two. Arbuckle and Keaton take these familiar situations and give them a highly original treatment, however. The prevalence of sight gags, often to the point of minimizing slapstick, is a good example. Scenes like the poster-hanging are set up just to be a series of gags, any one of which might appear in a Charlie Chaplin movie, but not in rapid succession like this. There’s one good bit where Keaton goes behind a flat under a staircase, appearing to walk down stairs into a basement. Then Arbuckle moves the flat and we see that there are no stairs, Keaton has just been ducking his head to avoid the stairs above as he works on the floor.
Keaton and Arbuckle seem to have traded off doing drag in a lot of these movies. This time was Keaton’s turn, and he does a great job of making himself funny and just feminine enough to work as the queen. Each time we think he’s settled into the role, he suddenly does something to remind us he’s a man. Unlike a Keystone comedy, the strong man’s gun actually works like a gun. In a Chaplin movie, guns scare people, but they usually just seem to fire a powder that burns people’s backsides. This is definitely one of the more successful of the Comiques I’ve seen, and well worth a viewing or two.
Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
Camera: Elgin Lessley
Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, John Coogan, Molly Malone, Charles A. Post, Al St. John
Run Time: 26 Min
You can watch it for free: here.