Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Agnes Neilson

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.

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.

Whose kops are these? I think I know…

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

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).