Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Buster Keaton

Neigbors (1920)

This 2-reel comedy from Buster Keaton has a very simple storyline – a romance involving a boy and the girl next door – but manages to be nicely coherent and demonstrate production value above what he did with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for Comique.

Buster Keaton and Virginia Fox play young lovers who live in tenements, the rear of which face each other, with backyards separated by a wooden fence and with their families constantly feuding over the lovers’ relationship. They pass love notes through a hole in the wood, only to be caught by her father (Joe Roberts) and his mother, each of whom successively gets in trouble with his/her own spouse for presumed cheating (Buster’s father is played by his real-life dad, Joe Keaton). Buster sneaks into Virginia’s bedroom window as the parents are arguing but he is caught by Virginia’s father who ties him to the washing lines and slowly sends him back over to his family’s house. Buster sets up a board on a pivot on the gate so that it spanks anyone who passes between the two yards, then uses this to chastise his pursuers as he athletically springs from one side to the other. Along the way, he accidentally hits a cop who wanders into the yard. As Keaton’s face is covered in oil at the time, the cop pursues him, but when he wipes off the oil, the cop is deceived and arrests a convenient African American instead. Later, Buster gets black paint on his face and the chase is on again. Eventually, he as well as both families end up in court. Buster demands the right to marry Virginia, and the judge insists that the two families not interfere in their plans.

On the day of the wedding, tensions remain high. Keaton is unable to get his suspenders on, and tries using clothes pins as a makeshift belt, but they keep falling down during the ceremony. He tries to remedy this by stealing the preacher’s belt, but this only delays the wedding further. When Roberts sees that the ring Buster intends to give to Virginia is a cheap 10-cent ring purchased from Woolworths, he angrily calls off the wedding and drags Virginia home. Buster now teams up with his friends, the Flying Escalantes, to rescue Virginia by running across the yard on their shoulders, retrieving her suitcase, and ultimately her as well, but they are pursued by Roberts, running down the street through scaffolding, and eventually dropping through a sidewalk cellar hatch into a boiler room where a preacher just happens to be stoking the fire. He pronounces them husband and wife.

This movie demonstrates Buster Keaton’s ability to get a lot out of a little, and reminds me in some ways of Chaplin’s “Easy Street,” in that so much of it is centered around a single set,, reproducing a location in a lower-class urban neighborhood. Not having full-scale riots or anarchist plots, it may seem less ambitious than that film, but the added element of a third dimension makes it physically quite impressive. Fox’s bedroom is on the third floor, and Keaton gets in there any way he can, except for the stairs. The most exciting part is when he rides the shoulders of the Flying Escalantes back and forth across that yard, with each of them entering the building on his floor, only to turn around and come out at the exact moment to catch each other (and Keaton, and eventually Fox) on his shoulders. These shots are done in long takes, so the timing had to be perfect for it to look right, though of course in a silent movie they could have been shouting instructions at each other as they went, making it a bit easier to know just when to step out of the window. It looks great, at any rate.

Joe abusing Buster – just like old times.

So far as I can recall, this is the biggest role Buster had yet given his father in a movie. Although Joe Roberts remains the main heavy, Joe Keaton gets a chance to reprise some of the work he and Buster did on the stage during their days in vaudeville. These usually involved Buster making dad angry, then getting used as a “human mop,” which resulted in some groups protesting the show on the grounds that Joe was abusing his child. Keaton was of course a trained physical comedian from a young age, and claimed he was never hurt by this, but at times you can see how people could get the wrong idea. By now, as an adult, his victimization is safe to laugh at. Unfortunately, there’s some rather unpleasant ethnic humor targeting African Americans that comes across as much less funny today – including Keaton’s blackface scrapes with the police and a scene in which he rises up from under a sheet, causing a black family to run away in superstitious terror. These bits of the film didn’t ruin it for me, but they certainly don’t add anything.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Joe Keaton, Edward F. Cline, Jack Duffy

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Scarecrow (1920)

Another of Buster Keaton’s early solo shorts, this one has a lot in common with the work he was doing a year earlier with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, including a cameo from one of the more recognizable Comique players. It’s probably more famous, though, for establishing Keaton’s fascination with gadgets.

As the movie opens, Keaton is sharing a one-room house with frequent foil, Joe Roberts. Buster has a toothache, and Roberts tries to help by tying the tooth to the door with a piece of string, then suddenly opening it to yank out the tooth. It opens the wrong way, though, and all Roberts succeeds in doing is hitting Buster in the nose with the door. This causes the angry Keaton to slam it shut, inadvertently pulling the tooth. Keaton fixes breakfast for the pair, while Roberts “sets” the table by pulling a string that lowers what they need from the ceiling. After the meal, they carry the tabletop, with all of the plates affixed to it, to the wall and spray it down with a hose. They drop the table leavings into a trapdoor that leads to the pigs’ slop-trough. Keaton’s bed folds up, Murphy-style, to become a piano, and the tub, when emptied, dumps water through a hole in the wall to create a pond for ducks, itself folding into a little bench.

The second reel deals with the rivalry of the two men for the heart of Sybil Seely, the classic girl-next-door. As soon as she appears, the two start running and pushing each other, quickly getting into a fight. When Sybil tries out some dance moves from a magazine, Roberts joins her, resulting in Keaton thinking he has lost, but soon he is pursued by Luke the Dog, who has just eaten a cream pie, making it look like he is rabid. He does his old trick of climbing a ladder to chase Keaton around the roof of a crumbling abandoned farmhouse. Roberts, meanwhile, has bought various medical supplies in anticipation of Buster’s needs, but ends up getting run down by a car and using them n himself. Buster falls into a hay thresher, which rips off most of his clothes, effectively ending the chase. It also results in him “exposing” himself (well, his underthings) to Sybil, resulting in her father (Joe Keaton) chasing him and knocking over Roberts, who now tries to propose to Seely.

Good Dog!

Unbeknownst to them, Buster has “borrowed” the clothes of a scarecrow in the field and now, posing as the scarecrow manages to prevent the proposal and start a fight between Roberts and the farmer. Buster then trips into a kneeling position while tying his shoes, and Sybil believes he is proposing marriage to her. Next the couple speeds off on a motorcycle with Roberts and the farmer in hot pursuit. Scooping up a minister during the chase, they are married on the speeding motorcycle and splash into a stream at the climax of the ceremony and the film.

This movie seems like a throwback to the earlier Comique movies, helped by the presence of Luke the Dog. Joe Roberts seems, especially in the early part of the film, to be playing the Arbuckle role, although he develops into a more generic heavyset antagonist as the movie goes along. There’s nowhere near as much of a story as we got in “One Week” or “Convict 13,” in fact it’s so loose it feels more like “The Butcher Boy” than “The Garage.” It’s mostly a series of unconnected gags and chase sequences. The beginning, though, is built around the many bizarre labor-saving devices of Keaton’s and Robert’s home, which is a treat for Keaton fans. I’ll admit that I generally don’t find this all that funny, but it is interesting to see what Keaton comes up with. The best part is when Luke chases Keaton back to the house and he tries to evade the dog by using the various trapdoors and hidden exits. This is the biggest role I’ve yet seen Keaton give to his father, which also lends to the feeling that this is a smaller, more last-minute production than the others we’ve seen so far.

Director: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Sybil Seely, Luke the Dog, Joe Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 19 Min

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

Convict 13 (1920)

Buster Keaton tries on a striped suit along with his stony expression in this early two-reeler from Metro. Dealing as it does with execution, prison riots, and police brutality, it is of course a gold mine for comic pratfalls.

The movie begins with Keaton on a golf course, in his typical get-up, trying to impress a girl and generally failing as a golfer. At one point, having knocked his ball into a water trap, it is swallowed by a fish, and Buster has to catch fish with his bare hands, inspect their insides, and find a way to retrieve his ball when he does find it. Meanwhile, a fellow about Keaton’s height escapes from a nearby prison. He find his way to the golf course and comes across Buster, lying unconscious as a result of beaning himself with his own ball. The escapee swaps clothing and walks away free. As Keaton wakes up and attempts to continue golfing, several prison guards surround him and he slowly becomes aware of his new uniform. He distracts them with his ball and takes off running, but pretty soon there are more guards and Keaton falls into line marching with them. For a moment it looks like he may escape when he tricks them into marching the other way, but it only gives him a brief reprieve – he winds up trying to hitch a ride from the warden before getting finally running ahead of the guards into the prison and locking himself in when he tries to lock them out.

The warden, it turns out, is the father of Buster’s girl (Sybil Seely). She tries to plead for him, knowing that he was free just a few hours ago, but his number (#13) is on the roster for a hanging today and daddy insists on carrying it out. Thinking quickly, Sybil grabs some elasticated rope from the gym, and replaces the noose with it. When the hangman puts it around Buster’s neck, he bounces up and down, but does not hang. The warden assures the disappointed audience of convicts that he’ll hang two next week to make up for it. Keaton is put on rock-breaking, which he does by tapping lightly on the smallest bits of rock he can find, resulting in an extended slapstick battle with one of the guards, who happens to be about Keaton’s height. When he is knocked out, Buster changes clothes with him.

Now in a position of authority, Buster finds himself confronted by a hammer-wielding crazed convict (Joe Roberts), who has already knocked out all his other guards. Buster tries to frighten him, but soon they are also in a running battle, which extends to a riot as the other convicts catch the fever. Buster puts attaches a basketball to the elasticated rope and swings it around his head, knocking out all of the other convicts, and finally managing to take down Roberts as well. Just as it seems he will be able to claim victory and get the girl, he accidentally knocks himself out, finding himself back on the golf course, being shaken back to awareness by Sybil. It was all a dream.

In this movie, Keaton takes the concept of “the clothes make the man” to an extreme. Once he’s in the uniform or prisoner #13, that’s his life. Only Sybil can see through the clothes to recognize him, even Keaton seems resigned to his fate as a convict. This is particularly evident as he resolutely goes up the gallows steps because his number is due for execution – his character doesn’t even know that Sybil has acted to save him. He barely even protests, and does nothing to stop the executioner. Once he’s changed clothes with the guard, now he’s a guard (and presumably the other fellow just accepts being a convict on death row). He acts in his own interest in fighting the rioters, but he also makes no attempt to escape the prison now that he’s presumably a free man. He does his duty, stands his ground, and manages to prevail. Of course, the ending calls all of it into question. In a dream, we often accept conditions that wouldn’t logically make sense in waking life. It’s somewhat more funny to think of this as the reality of Keaton’s world, rather than a dream, but the ending kind of undoes that conceit.

The basketball-swinging stunt harks back to a gag that Buster and Joe Keaton did on stage, as described in Keaton’s autobiography. His father would be shaving himself on one end of the stage with a straight razor while Buster swung a basketball on a rope, getting closer to his dad with each swing, and timing the hit precisely to avoid injury and maximize laughs. Then his father would chase him and use him as a “human mop.” According to Keaton, a real razor was used, and no one was ever hurt with it. Still it shows the lengths he and his family would go for a laugh.

Director: Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts, Edward F. Cline, Joe Keaton

Run Time: 24 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

One Week (1920)

Buster Keaton’s first movie released after he and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle ended their partnership and started to work independently is parody of a Ford Motor Company promotional movie for prefab housing. While our ability to appreciate the source of the satire is limited today, it holds up as a comedy for the ages.

The movie begins with a wedding between Buster and his new bride, Sybil Seely. For some reason, their “just married” car is being driven by the Buster’s former rival, “Handy Hank,” who is played by an otherwise unknown and unidentified actor. Buster and Sybil receive a plot of land and a build-it-yourself house that comes in numbered boxes, with IKEA-sized directions in an envelope. Keaton sets to work putting the house together, doing things like sitting on a plank a story up as he saws it in half, causing him to drop to the ground when it separates. Meanwhile, Hank takes some paint and renumbers two of the boxes, adding to the confusion Buster’s already serious incompetence was causing. The end result looks like a German Expressionist worked with a cartoonist to design a house.

Undaunted, Keaton and his wife move into the house. Their first major challenge is when the piano arrives. Keaton tries to attach a pulley to the ceiling to haul it in, but the ceiling droops down like a circus tent. So, Keaton props it up with a spare board. He brings the piano in, dangling from the ceiling, but it swings wildly and chases him around the room before crashing through the floor. His wife brings in a music score and he sets it on the piano. Buster also encounters problems when he nails down the carpet, forgetting that he left his jacket in the middle of the floor. The only way he can think of to get rid of the unsightly lump is to cut around it, remove the jacket, then put a small rug over the hole in the carpet. He uses the extra piece of carpet as a welcome mat. He tries to install the chimney, but winds up falling into the bathtub after his wife has just gotten out, then the door he chooses to leave the bathroom turns out to be a straight drop to the ground, due to the misnumbered boxes.

Buster and Sybil hold a housewarming party, trying to serve their guests despite an oddly-arranged kitchen, but when a storm kicks up outside, they discover that the house pivots in the wind, eventually spinning like a merry-go-round. All of the guests eventually are thrown clear by centripetal force, and Buster and Sibyl watch the house spin from their yard, in the rain. As if this were not enough, Keaton finds he has built his house on the wrong site and has to move it, attaching it to his car with ropes, and then simply nailing it to the back of the car. The movie reaches its climax when the house becomes stuck on railroad tracks. Keaton and Seely try to move it out the way of an oncoming train, which eventually passes on the neighboring track. As the couple look relieved, the house is immediately struck and demolished by another train coming the other way. Keaton stares at the scene, places a ‘For Sale’ sign with the heap (attaching the building instructions) and walks off with Seely.

Keaton showed considerable insight in choosing a simple subject that would make a coherent framework around which to build his many sight gags and pratfalls. The movie is essentially a series of vignettes, each prefaced by a shot of a calendar page being torn off to show us the passage of the week (a device borrowed from the Ford film). Setting it up that way actually makes it feel more coherent than, for example, “The Garage,” in which he and Arbuckle’s gags are tied together just by the sense that all of this could happen in an established workspace. Keaton did not hold back on his gags, using a full-sized house to great effect. One gag I didn’t mention above is an anticipation of one he used years later in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” where a wall of a house falls toward him, with his character fortuitously missing getting crushed due to standing in the spot where the open window hits. The house really does spin, really is dragged onto a railroad track, and really is smashed by a locomotive. The gag at the end reminded me of a story Keaton tells in his autobiography about a practical joke played on Marcus Loew, where he pretended his car had died on a cable car track, carefully positioning it so that the trams would zip past, barely missing the front and rear bumpers.

Keaton shared writing and directing credits with Edward F. Cline, a man who would continue working on most of Keaton’s short movies for the next few years. It seems that Keaton, who was used to collaborating with Arbuckle, worked better at this time having someone to bounce ideas off of, or even to let him take over sometimes. This is very different from Charlie Chaplin, who started directing his own work while still in his first year at Keystone, and never let anyone else share credit for his creative work afterward. I suspect these differences in work styles partially explains the different flavors of their short movies – Chaplin’s are largely the work of a single genius, while Keaton’s are less personal, more inclusive creations. I don’t entirely know which I prefer – I think I laugh more at Chaplin movies from this period, but there’s something about Keaton that keeps me coming back, partly just to see how he did what he did.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts

Run Time: 19 Min

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

The Garage (1920)

This is the last short film from the Comique Studios starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton. after this, Keaton would strike out on his own and Arbuckle would make a brief stab at feature films before being embroiled in scandal, but for now, we get to enjoy the duo in action for one last time.

Arbuckle and Keaton play automobile mechanics and firemen at a garage in a fire station. They work for an old man who seems to have high blood pressure (Dan Crimmins). Molly Malone plays the boss’ daughter who is being courted by a man named Jim (Harry McCoy), though she turns him down after the flowers he brings her end up accidentally soaked in motor oil thanks to Fatty and Buster. Livid, Jim raises the alarm in the fire station to make Fatty and Buster think there is a fire and forcing them to rush across town. However, Jim accidentally starts a real fire while trying to exit the station and the firemen return to put out the fire and rescue Mollie who is trapped inside. When Fatty, Buster and several of the townspeople try to rescue Molly using a life net, she bounces up into the telephone wires. Fatty and Buster eventually get Molly down but become trapped themselves; luckily Mollie moves a car beneath them just before they fall and all three ride off together.

The summary above focuses on the “plot,” but really misses most of the film. Like most of the Keaton/Arbuckle shorts, the story is just a thin skeleton on which to hang a series of gags, which come fast and thick here. Right off the bat, we see Arbuckle washing down a car at the opening, and he seems to work extra hard on a window, before leaning through the window to clean the outside of the car, demonstrating that it was open the whole time! Keaton has some beer with his lunch, but decides it’s a bit thin and adds some wood alcohol to the mix. Keaton and Arbuckle get into a fight, throwing pies, soapy rags, oil and everything else they can find at one another, making a huge mess of themselves and the car Arbuckle just finished washing down. Then they put it on a giant spinning plate and spray it with a hose while the manager does pratfalls to distract the customer. And all this is just the first few minutes of the movie! Probably one of the best-loved sequences is where Keaton, having been chased by Luke the Dog and losing his pants as a result, pretends to be a Scotsman by cutting a kilt off a poster for Scotch whiskey and does a ridiculous jig in front of a policeman. Then he hides by walking behind Arbuckle, then switching to the front when the cop is behind them. None of this has anything to do with the garage (though it is loosely tied in to Jim’s attempts to date Mollie), but it works because it doesn’t need to make sense to be funny.

Unlike some of their earlier work, this one seems to flow naturally from one scene into the next, despite the madcap pacing. There is sort of a divide between reel one, which is mostly about fixing cars, and reel two, which is mostly about fighting fires, but there isn’t quite as much sense of the film being two movies stitched together as in “The Butcher Boy” for example. Arbuckle and Keaton are clearly having fun every minute, and although the movie ends with Keaton acting as chauffeur while Mollie and Fatty snuggle in the back seat, there is very little sense of Arbuckle being the “lead” and Keaton being a “sidekick.” The two of them are fully a team now. It’s sort of sad to think that they never worked together again, but in fact Keaton was headed for bigger things. We’ll be seeing some of that in months and years to come.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Molly Malone, Harry McCoy, Daniel Crimmins, Luke the Dog

Run Time: 25 Min

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

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Hayseed (1919)

This small-town comedy from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique Film Company once again takes various elements from earlier Arbuckle movies, and puts them in a blender with a whole bunch of new and improved gags from him and Buster Keaton, now a fully-fledged sidekick in the company.

The movie starts off by showing us the town general store (which has a large sign: “Why Go to the City to Be Ripped Off? Buy Here Instead”). Keaton is the store’s clerk and Arbuckle is the postman, who also operates out of the store. In an opening gag, Arbuckle is carrying a huge stack of mail and packages out to the buggy he uses for delivery, and he and Keaton collide, sending parcels everywhere. Then they start hitting each other with the discarded mail, until the store owner runs out and breaks it up. Arbuckle jumps in his jalopy and takes off, but most of the mail has been left behind. On his run, Arbuckle throws letters into boxes from a moving cart with remarkable accuracy, but when one is too big to go in the slot, he has to stop. He tries folding it, but it’s still too big so he rips it into small pieces to get it into the box. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Um, why, exactly?

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.

Bara as Salome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Moonshine, take two

I predicted that I would probably find a longer version of this movie when I reviewed it last week and as it turned out, there was already one in my house at the time. I’m not really surprised, but I’m sort of glad I started with the shorter fragment first. This one has more of the story (still not quite everything, I suspect, based on the length), but is a much worse print. This version is from the “Buster Keaton Short Films” collection, also released by Kino, if anyone’s keeping score.

This one begins with a somewhat longer demonstration of the Bootleggers’ secret hideout and an intertitle that explains it was “the director’s idea” (one of many reflexive jokes in the titles). Next, we see “Jud Grew” (actually Charles Dudley) as the lead moonshiner, who guns down a “revenuer” at a distance and praises the stunt in the intertitles. Next is the scene introducing Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton as the chief revenuer and his lieutenant, respectively. It’s not much longer than the first one, but does include a shot of Buster getting pitched from the automobile and an intertitle comment about Arbuckle’s “dirty pants.” The extra footage also introduces Arbuckle’s monocle, which is something of a recurring gag in the rest of the movie. Once they’ve tumbled off the cliff, Arbuckle digs Keaton out from the sand, then take him over to the river to wash him out. He hangs him on a tree by his feet to dry, then goes off by himself.

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Moonshine (1918)

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.