Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Fatty Arbuckle

Good Night Nurse (1918)

This short comedy from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique Film Company was released in July, 1918 and co-stars Buster Keaton. Arbuckle is at the center of action, but as usual his collaborators get good opportunities to shine as well.

The movie begins on a rainy street corner, in front of a pharmacy. Arbuckle is standing in the downpour, futilely trying to light a cigarette, and occasionally getting chased off the stoop by the pharmacist. A woman with an umbrella (supposedly Keaton, but we never see her face) is blown down the street and Arbuckle attempts to help her against the storm. In the process, hr umbrella is destroyed and she does several pratfalls. Soon, she returns in the direction she originally came from. Now a drunk (Snitz Edwards) joins Arbuckle on the corner, sitting in the gutter. A policeman walks up, and Arbuckle realizes he should stand up and be nonchalant, trying to signal the drunk to do the same as he again tries to light a match to smoke a cigarette. The policeman sees this and laughs at his attempts. Now a gypsy organ grinder and his assistant walk up, and Fatty gives them a coin and asks for the national anthem. This makes the police officer take off his rain hat and stand at attention, and Arbuckle is able to use its protection to finally light up a cigarette.

Arbuckle takes the gypsies back to his house, where his wife has just read about a new surgical cure for alcoholism, at some place called “No Hope Sanitarium.” When the gypsies’ monkey sneaks into her room, she concludes that Fatty needs to take the cure. The rest of the movie takes place at the Sanitarium, at which point the film’s title finally begins to make sense. As Arbuckle is being taken in, he sees a man covered in bandages (apparently this is Joe Keaton, Buster’s dad) leaving on crutches. Arbuckle stops to sympathize with the man, who assures him he’s fine, now he’s been “cured.” This does little to build Arbuckle’s confidence, but his wife insists on bringing him in. Soon, he meets the doctor in charge of the place (Buster Keaton), who arrives in a smock covered in blood. He also meets the “crazy” girl (Alice Lake) who will serve as his illicit love interest, even while wifey is still around watching. When she jumps into his arms and kisses him, what can he do? After all, she’s crazy.

Arbuckle and Lake soon devise plans to escape, using a massive pillow fight amongst the patients as cover, but as soon as she’s outside, she wants to go back in. Arbuckle hides by jumping into a pond, then sets up a hose to blow air so that it looks like he’s still under when the orderlies come to “rescue” him. Then he spots a large nurse (Kate Bruce) going on her lunch break and decides to swipe her uniform to make an escape. He runs into Keaton in the hallway and the two of them flirt, Keaton obviously convinced that he is a large nurse. Then the real nurse returns and blows his cover. Arbuckle runs out into the countryside, winding up in the midst of a cross-country race, which he inadvertently wins. As he is accepting the prize money, the doctors and orderlies surround him, wrestling him down. Suddenly he wakes up back in the Sanitarium, where he has been given ether; all of his escapes are now revealed to be a dream.

This is yet another movie in which Arbuckle and/or Keaton dress in drag for laughs – both of them in this case, if online sources are right and Keaton is the woman with the umbrella. This scenario somewhat resembles their earlier collaboration, “The Butcher Boy,” where Arbuckle tried to rescue Lake from a boarding school by dressing in drag, but with a much heavier emphasis on Keaton’s character and abilities. The pillow fight sequence reminded me of earlier Edison comedies that relied on this gag for humor and titillation, but note that there was also one in “The Butcher Boy” as well. Keaton’s awkward “flirting” with Fatty has to be seen to be believed, it’s one of the funniest on-screen crushes this side of Elmer Fudd. An odd detail stuck out to me in this movie. In most of the silent comedies, especially the “Keystone Kops” movies, the policemen are funny-looking. The policeman in this film is quite handsome, at least pretty normal by comparison. I think he was probably cast for his height rather than his look. He needed to be tall enough that when he held his hat at his breast, Arbuckle could conveniently get under it to light a cigarette. It’s still remarkable that they didn’t give him a false mustache or bushy eyebrows or something. Maybe they would have fallen off in the rain.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Alice Lake, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Joe Bordeaux, Joe Keaton, Snitz Edwards, Kate Bruce

Run Time: 22 Min

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

Out West (1918)

This two-reel comedy from Comique is another collaboration between Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, and this time the two of them really work well together. As you might guess from the title, it’s a Western spoof, and the level of chaos easily rivals anything the Keystone Studios ever put out.

As the movie begins, Arbuckle is riding the rails, bumming a ride on a freight train. He’s chosen an unusual way to do this, however, he’s in a tanker car three-quarters full of water. Roscoe takes a moment to peek out the hatch, but when he does so, the train comes to a stop and a railroad worker comes across the top of the car, so he ducks back down. The worker now opens the hatch and connects it to the pipe from a water tower, filling the car the rest of the way while Arbuckle sputters and nearly drowns. Once the worker’s gone, he climbs out and looks for somewhere better to ride. He finds the caboose, where the workers are having a breakfast of coffee, ham, and bread. He waits until they’re distracted from reading the paper, then uses a hook to grab their breakfast and haul it up to where he’s sitting, on top of the car. The workers first accuse one another of stealing the food, but then discover Roscoe, since his bottom is still hanging over the windowsill. The chase is on! Arbuckle and the railroad men run across the roof of the moving train, and the silliness escalates until Arbuckle has disengaged several cars in order to escape. The train backs up to reconnect, but he’s able to slip away in the confusion.

We are now introduced to the town of Mad Dog Gulch, which is clearly a wretched hive of scum and villainy. As the owner of the saloon and local sheriff, Buster Keaton keeps order with his sixguns. Spotting a man cheating at cards, Keaton watches from the bar until the confrontation reaches a climax, then cuts it short by gunning the cheater down from behind. He picks up the dead man’s hand and tells his opponent, “you would have lost, anyway.” Then he kicks the corpse into a handy trapdoor to the basement, after briefly removing his hat in respect. We also meet “Wild Bill Hiccup” (Al St. John) who apparently lives in Mad Dog Gulch and is even a meaner hombre than the rest of the town. He plans to rob the saloon with a bunch of his buddies, all of them wearing masks so as not to be recognized by the sheriff.

Meanwhile, Arbuckle is wandering the desert, and winds up being chased by a group of cannibalistic Indians who have decided to eat him. He runs for the nearest sign of civilization, which, for better or worse, is Mad Dog Gulch and the Last Chance Saloon. He runs in just as the robbery is taking place, and just after the bartender has been shot (Keaton rapidly deploys a “bartender wanted” sign, even while the robbery is in progress), and knocks Al over with the saloon doors. He grabs the dropped guns and amazes everyone with trick shooting, managing to roust the robbers, shoot the Indians at an enormous distance, and shoot Buster’s hat off his head several times in a row. Once the smoke has cleared, Keaton dumps the body of the bartender through the trap door as well, and offers Arbuckle the job. He accepts, but Keaton won’t let him permanently remove the “bartender wanted” sign – he knows how long his bartenders usually last.

The next scene of the film is a pretty ugly racist bullying sequence in which a group of men with guns terrorize an African American man  and make him “dance” by shooting at his feet. Arbuckle joins in, and the man is even briefly dumped into the basement with the bodies before “Salvation Sue” (Alice Lake) comes in and puts everyone to shame for the goings-on. She now becomes Arbuckle’s love interest, as the two shyly introduce themselves. Al St John and his gang return, this time without masks, just looking to raise a little Hell instead of robbing the joint. He takes an interest in Sue, despite her lack of reciprocation, and Buster tries to throw him out, getting thrown clear across the room for his efforts. Arbuckle tries to put an end to the “mashing” by breaking a bottle over Al’s head, but he doesn’t seem to notice, so Arbuckle tries another. And another. Soon both Al and Alice are drenched in spirits from all the broken bottles, but Al is in no way slowing down, so Arbuckle tries his gun, also without effect. Finally, it dawns on Arbuckle to try tickling Al with a feather, and this proves to be the one thing Al can’t resist. He’s reduced to helpless laughter and Alice is able to get away. Buster joins in the tickle-fest and they kick Wild Bill Hiccup out, but Buster falls into his own trap door in the process.

Humiliated, Hiccup attempts to gain his revenge by kidnapping Sue and riding out of the town with her as his gang keep the bartender and the sheriff at bay. Arbuckle eventually breaks free and chases Hiccup back to his shack as Keaton holds off Hiccup’s men. After once again subduing Hiccup by tickling him, Arbuckle and Sue push his shack off a hill with him still inside, which is presumed to be enough to kill or at least subdue him. The end.

This movie is completely over the top, which is what it would take to effectively lampoon a Western at a time when so many of them were already silly to begin with. The structure of this film, at least from the time Arbuckle enters the bar, closely follows that of a William S. Hart movie. The stranger from out of town proves himself to be tougher than the tough guys, he gets hired (in a twist, he’s hired as the bartender by the sheriff, rather than the other way around), he meets the girl who makes him want to reform, and then the tough guys abuse her and he has to use his skills to rescue her. But, in this case, the story takes place amid a nonstop barrage of ridiculous gags. I only described maybe 25-30% of them in my rather lengthy synopsis above. The first part of the movie, aboard the train, includes some of the most death-defying stunts I’ve seen done on a train, and I kept thinking about the incredible risks Arbuckle and the other actors were taking. A train is hard to stop, once someone falls between two cars!

I can’t ignore the racist depictions of the Indians or the African American character, which does rather taint this movie for the modern viewer. It’s not a defense, but it is important to understand in the context of the “over the top” comedy that Arbuckle is here lampooning racist depictions that were presented seriously at the time, and he’s deliberately pushing them to an extreme. The idea that Indians would try to hunt down a “big fat paleface” for food was supposed to be ridiculous, and also a mockery of the generic “savage” presented in other films of the day. It can’t be seen as any kind of anti-racist critique, however, and watching it is a bit difficult, to say nothing of the use of the black man’s fear for his life to generate laughs. On the other hand, that man happens to be Ernie Morrison, Sr., a great comedian and the father of “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, a personal favorite of mine. This was the kind of work he had to take to show off his skills, and we should not underestimate the hard work and talent he put into his “dancing” and pratfalls.

With all of this in mind, however, there are other things at work which save the film if you can get past those parts. Buster and Roscoe are clearly collaborators in this movie: their roles are nearly equal. Arbuckle is definitely still the star, but Keaton is less of a minor character or inferior and more of a sidekick. He also does some great stunts, including hanging from a chandelier and various pratfalls, and it’s clear Arbuckle thought his work was part of the draw, although I don’t find his name on any contemporary posters, so I guess he wasn’t a star yet. I found watching the two of them work together very enjoyable in this movie.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Alice Lake, Ernie Morrison Sr

Run Time: 21 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

His Wedding Night (1917)

Another early collaboration between Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, this once again puts Arbuckle and Al St. John into roles as customer service flunkies competing for the same girl. This time, though, Keaton gets drunk and dresses as a girl. Fun times!

In this movie, “Fatty” (identified as such in the intertitles) runs a soda fountain. He arrives at work to find two nurses collecting for the Red Cross, and cleverly transfers a dollar from one’s plate to the other’s, making it look like he’s made a donation. Then, he goes in and uses Al St. John and his boss as coat racks while he gets ready for his shift. He starts cleaning up his station and serving out soda, using the same implements for both tasks. Then, a young lady comes into the shop to sample some perfume, doling out generous portions on herself. Fatty runs over with a sign reading, “$4 an oz,” and she goes away angry. Meanwhile, a large black woman has come in behind Fatty and she drinks some of the over-priced sample, as well as putting it on her neck. Fatty turns back around and hugs her, thinking that it’s still the other young woman. When she turns around we see that the paint has come off and she has “$4 an oz” on her behind (a troubling joke within living memory of slavery).

The intertitles now introduce the pharmacist’s daughter, played by Alice Mann. She is of course the love interest. Fatty coaxes her into some shy kisses, then gives her a ring. They share a soda together. Fatty has to go out to run the gas pumps, which leaves Alice alone with Al, who now shares some watermelon with her. Fatty charges 26 cents for gas to a poor man, then when a rich limousine pulls up, he switches the sign to say $1.00. Al asks for Alice’s hand, but she tells him she’s already engaged. Al starts crying and Alice hits him with the watermelon. Soon Al is choking Alice and they both have watermelon parts all over them. Fatty clocks Al on the head to break it up, then throws Al across the room onto a table of customers. The fight escalates and ice cream is thrown all around the store until the pharmacist comes in and gets hit in the face. He asks what it is all about and seems pleased with Alice’s choice. When Al tries to protest, he is booted in the pants and sent packing.

Now, Buster shows up as the man delivering the dress for the wedding. He arrives on a bike and does a classic pratfall for his entrance. Having poked his eye, he now has an uncontrollable wink. Fatty sees this and interprets it as a request for alcohol, so he clandestinely serves Buster a beer, also providing him with a bar for his foot a spittoon and sawdust, all of which Buster, apparently unknowingly, makes use of. Once he’s done with his beer he brings Alice her dress, and she brings the apparently still drunk young man up to her room. Once she sees the dress, she insists that she see it worn, and Buster starts to undress. She’s shocked and motions him to leave, but he goes behind a screen and changes into the dress! She appears thrilled, as crazy as the situation is, and has him model it, still winking, around the room.

Meanwhile, Fatty’s been getting up to no good himself downstairs. Having grown tired of people “sampling” the expensive perfume (the latest customer is a man, who acts flamboyantly effeminate), he now replaces it with chloroform. When a young woman knocks herself out by trying it, he decides to steal a kiss. Unfortunately, the pharmacist is nearby watching, so he sprays him as well so that he won’t see Fatty cheating on his daughter. Eventually, he gives her a sniff of some smelling salts to wake her up and send her on her way. When the next woman comes in, however, Fatty’s evil plans are thwarted. She apparently thrives on chloroform, applying it liberally to her neck, spraying it around herself, even drinking from the bottle! When she leaves, Fatty can’t resist trying some, and he quickly falls over.

Meanwhile, Al’s even more evil plans are now afoot. He and his cohorts plan to abduct Alice and force her into marriage. They arrive and are able to make off with a woman in a dress and a veil – which of course is Buster! When Fatty and the pharmacist hear about the raid, however, they assume Alice is taken and mount a rescue effort. This involves Fatty in one of the funniest sequences involving a determined man and a stubborn mule, which climaxes with the mule sitting right on Fatty! Eventually, Fatty shows up and uses his great strength to capture the captive, only to realize the mistaken identity and hurl Buster back into the den of thieves bodily. He and Alice of course end up together, and the minister apparently won’t marry Al and Buster, so all is well.

I feel like this takes a lot of the themes we saw in “The Butcher Boy” and improves on them, although there is some problematic (by today’s standards) humor – especially the racial humor involving the black woman and the joking about date rape drugs. This latter probably didn’t do Arbuckle any favors when the press was smearing his name after the death of Virginia Rappe, and it wouldn’t go over well with the #metoo movement either. Still, there are so many gags here, and so many of them are indisputably great gags, that nearly everyone will find a laugh somewhere. I was particularly impressed with Buster’s drunk drag sequence and with Arbuckle and the mule. The bit where Arbuckle essentially “builds a bar” around Keaton was also a charming bit, especially for someone who appreciates old-time bars. I saw the sawdust coming even before he pulled it out! This is just a few years before Prohibition was passed in the United States, and there were some areas where the sale of alcohol was already illegal or highly restricted, so the gag would make sense to most audiences of the day.

Director: Roscoe Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Cast: Roscoe Arbuckle, Alice Mann, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Josephine Stevens, Natalie Talmadge, Alice Lake

Run Time: 21 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Butcher Boy (1917)

The first movie to feature an appearance by Buster Keaton came out almost 101 years ago. It was also the first movie Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle made for his new Comique Film Corporation, with full creative control over his own productions, after many years working for Mack Sennett at Keystone.

The movie is a two-reel slapstick comedy, and like a lot of  those by this time, it essentially consists of two separate but equally important “parts.” The first part concerns Arbuckle (whose character is named “Fatty.” so that’s what I’m going to call him for the rest of this review) at his job as a butcher’s assistant in a general store. The structure of this section reminds me a lot of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Pawnshop.” Various characters come into the shop and ask for things, and comic misadventures ensue, often due to the obliviousness, or deliberate laziness, of Fatty. Arbuckle demonstrates his agility by tossing knives into the air, which consistently land point-downward, lodged in the countertop. Once or twice he does this with another actor standing on the other side of the counter, which struck me as a bit dangerous, but he’s so casual about it that you’d think anyone could do it. Keaton’s part comes in this section and he is undeniably the most memorable of the various “customers.” He wants to buy a pail of molasses, and some very sticky comedy ensues. Among others, Lea over at Silentology has carefully analyzed this scene, and I can’t hope to add to what she says about it, so I’ll just say that for a first film appearance, Keaton has remarkable poise and confidence before the camera.

Shortly after Keaton’s bit, the plot starts to move forward. Fatty and Al St. John are both in competition for the one young woman that works at the store, played by Josephine Stevens. She’s the daughter of the owner, and she’s sweeter on Fatty than on “Slim,” but Slim can’t let it go. The two of them play pranks on each other that escalate into a full-scale war, with exploding bags of flour and other random store implements used to cause mayhem. The owner decides to send his daughter to a boarding school, to prevent any further such nonsense (presumably after firing Fatty and Slim both).

Thus begins the second part of the film, in which Fatty and Al both dress up as girls to sneak into the boarding school and see Josephine. Buster appears again as one of Al’s accomplices, but he has relatively little to do here. Fatty gets in first, and is able to charm the rest of the girls into at least tolerating him, but once Al is on the inside things rapidly escalate to a running pillow fight. Al’s cohorts, for some reason, also sneak into the school to help abduct Josephine, and before long they are caught and held at gunpoint by the schoolmarm. Once again, the scene devolves in chaos and Josephine and Fatty are able to escape. Still in girl’s clothes, he proposes to her in front of a minister’s house, and they go in, presumably to be married.

I’d rate this as a good, but not great, Arbuckle movie, and pretty much “of historical interest” for Keaton fans. This movie has the feel of someone trying things out, but perhaps being afraid of going too far at first. I was surprised how much was shot in long-shot, as if Arbuckle was afraid to move his camera too close to all the flying bags of flour and thrown knives. However, choreographing some of that chaos in long shot is still a feat to be proud of. Arbuckle did plenty of drag, before and after this, as well as many roles where he had some kind of customer service job but mostly abused his customers. In fact, he had combined the two before (in “Waiters Ball”). My favorite Arbuckle movies play more on his “big kid” likeability, his boyish charm, and his being the good guy who is wronged by his opponent, but in this one he’s no better than Al St. John, the girl just happens to like him better. At least he’s not forcing himself on her.

It’s interesting that Buster does maintain his “stone face” in this film, given that in “Oh Doctor” he would be expressive to a fault – maybe that was an Arbuckle suggestions that didn’t work out. In his autobiography, Keaton would claim he’d been told his was the first debut in film that didn’t require any re-takes, but that’s dubious in the extreme, considering that nobody was doing re-takes a little more than a decade earlier, and that some people’s debut scenes were literally walk-bys. He does demonstrate comic timing and physical prowess in the stunts Arbuckle demands of him, and if it was done in a single take, it was a good day’s work for sure.

Director: Roscoe Arbuckle

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Cast: Roscoe Arbuckle, Al St. John, Josephine Stevens, Buster Keaton, Joe Bordeaux, Luke the Dog

Run Time: 24 Min

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

October 1917

Time once again for a roundup of news headlines from one century ago. A huge amount of war news dominates this month’s Century News. Some may be surprised that there’s nothing about the Russian Revolution, especially in light of the movie “October” and references to the “Red October.” The explanation for this is simple: the Russians were on a different calendar, so their “October” actually extended into our November, which is when the revolution actually occurred. Since the rest of my Century News has been based on the standard Gregorian calendar, I’m waiting for next month for that news.

Morning After the First Battle of Passchendaele.

World War One:

Battle of Broodseinde near Ypres, October 4: British Imperial forces overpower the German 4th Army‘s defences.

First Battle of Passchendaele, October 12: Allies fail to take a German defensive position with the biggest loss of life in a single day for New Zealand, over 800 of whose men and 45 officers are killed, roughly 1 in 1000 of the nation’s population at this time.

Operation Albion, October 12-19: German forces land on and capture the West Estonian archipelago.

At Vincennes outside Paris, Dutch dancer Mata Hari is executed on October 15 by firing squad for spying for Germany.

A Brazilian ship is destroyed by a German U-Boat on October 23, encouraging Brazil to enter World War I.

Brazilian President Venceslau Brás signs a declaration of war against the Central Powers.

Brazil declares war against the Central Powers on October 26.

Ottoman force attacks Desert Mounted Corps units garrisoning el Buqqar ridge on October 27 during the Battle of Buqqar Ridge fought in the last days of the Stalemate in Southern Palestine.

Battle of Beersheba, October 31: The British XX Corps and Desert Mounted Corps (Egyptian Expeditionary Force) attack and capture Beersheba ending the Stalemate in Southern Palestine.

Religion:

The Miracle of the Sun is reported on October 13 at Fátima, Portugal. Thousands of people gathered to see a prophecy fulfilled of miracles performed by the Blessed Virgin Mary. They reported to have witnessed extraordinary solar activity, such as the sun appearing to “dance” or zig-zag in the sky, careen towards the earth, or emit multicolored light and radiant colors. According to these reports, the event lasted approximately ten minutes.

Politics:

Carl Swartz leaves office as Prime Minister of Sweden on October 19 after dismal election results for the right-wing in the Riksdag elections in September. He is replaced by liberal leader and history professor Nils Edén.

Transportation:

Dallas Love Field airport is opened October 19.

Film:

Cleopatra,” starring Theda Bara released October 14. This (mostly) lost film is among the most iconic of 1917, and images of Bara from the film still circulate on the Internet.

Satan Triumphant” (Satana likuyushchiy) released October 21. One of the last movies of the pre-Soviet Russian Empire.

The Adventurer,” a Charlie Chaplin short is released on October 22. This was the last of the films Chaplin produced under his contract with Mutual Studios, and for the first time since he started making movies, it left him with no contractual obligations to fulfill. He would soon sign for a million dollars to First National.

Coney Island,” a ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle / Buster Keaton short is released October 29.

Births:

Helmut Dantine, actor (in “Mrs. Miniver” and “Casablanca”), born October 7.

June Allyson, actress (in the 1948 version of “The Three Musketeers” and “The Glenn Miller Story”), born October 7.

Alice Pearce, actress (in “On the Town” and TV’s “Bewitched”), born October 16

Marsha Hunt, U.S. actress (in 1940’s “Pride and Prejudice” and “Johnny Got His Gun”), born October 17. Apparently she’s still alive! Happy birthday Marsha!

Joan Fontaine, actress (in “Suspicion” and “Rebecca”), born October 22.

Florence La Badie

Deaths:

Movie star Florence La Badie dies on October 13, from septicemia as a result of injuries sustained from a car crash in August. Several of her movies have been reviewed on this blog.

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).

May 1917

The Century News roundup this week has some interesting trends, in addition to the expected war news and the militarization of the now officially belligerent USA. The Russian Revolution continues, but the big headlines for this month are about uprisings in France and Italy – reasons why people on both sides feared (or anticipated) a coming World Revolution. The Catholic Church has some major events, both at the top and the bottom of its hierarchical structure. And in a film world that is increasingly defined by major stars with huge salaries and unprecedented control of their work, we see important releases from Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and Roscoe Arbuckle.

Phillippe Pétain

World War One

The Nivelle Offensive, an attack on the Aisne Front that resulted in over 180,000 French casualties, is abandoned on May 9.

Robert Nivelle is replaced on May 15 as Commander-in-Chief of the French Army by Philippe Pétain. Seen as a hero at this stage of his career, he will later lead the collaborationist regime of Vichy France.

The Selective Service Act passes the United States Congress on May 18, giving the President the power of conscription.

During the Stalemate in Southern Palestine the Raid on the Beersheba to Hafir el Auja railway by Desert Column of British Empire troops, destroys large sections of the railway line linking Beersheba to the main Ottoman desert base on May 23.

Over 30,000 French troops refuse to go to the trenches at Missy-aux-Bois on May27. This is one of several mutinies by French soldiers during the year 1917, as conditions at the Front become increasingly inhuman and the sense that generals sacrifice lives without concern spreads among the common people.

Pope Pius XII

Catholicism

The nuncio Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, is consecrated Archbishop by Pope Benedict XV on May 13.

Beginning May 13, 10-year-old Lúcia Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto report experiencing a series of Marian apparitions near Fátima, Portugal, which become known as Our Lady of Fátima. These visions continue until October.

Pope Benedict XV promulgates the 1917 Code of Canon Law on May 27.

Disasters

Over 300 acres (73 blocks) are destroyed in the Great Atlanta fire of 1917 on May 21 in the United States.

A tornado strikes Mattoon, Illinois on May 26, causing devastation and killing 101 people.

Transportation

A new Coast and Geodetic Survey Corps of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey is created on May 22, giving the Survey’s officers a commissioned status that protected them from treatment as spies if captured, as well as providing the United States armed forces with a ready source of officers skilled in surveying that could be rapidly assimilated for wartime support of the armed forces.

Crime

Eli Persons is lynched in Memphis on May 22 in connection with the rape and murder of 16-year-old Antoinette Rappal. Parsons was arrested on the evidence of authorities who claimed they could see his face frozen in the pupils of the victim. His death was a partial motivator for the foundation of the Memphis Chapter of the NAACP.

Civil Unrest

A month of civil violence in Milan, Italy, ends on May 23 after the Italian army forcibly takes over the city from anarchists and anti-war revolutionaries. Fifty people are killed and 800 arrested.

Film

Release of A Romance of the Redwoods, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, starring Mary Pickford on May 14.

Release of One Law for Both directed by Ivan Abramson on May 19.

Release of  Souls Triumphant, starring Lillian Gish on May 20

May 21 – A Reckless Romeo, a ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle short on May 21.

Release of Frank Hansen’s Fortune directed by Viggo Larsen – (Germany). Exact date unknown.

Births

May 1 – Danielle Darrieux, actress (in “5 Fingers” and “The Earrings of Madame de…”).

May 10 – Margo, actress (in “The Leopard Man” and “Lost Horizon”).

May 16 – George Gaynes, actor (in “Police Academy” and “Tootsie”).

May 21 – Raymond Burr, actor (known for “Perry Mason” TV series and also in the American release of “Godzilla”).

May 25 – Steve Cochran, actor (who was in “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Copacabana“).

Oh Doctor (1917)

This comedy directed by and starring Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle is also an early vehicle for Buster Keaton, who plays his spoiled and immature son. While a bit rough around the edges, there is some good physical and situational comedy here.

oh-doctorThe movie begins with Arbuckle and his family arriving at the racetrack in their car. Arbuckle puts down an anchor when he parks, and abuses Junior every time he tries to speak. Shortly thereafter, the Vamp (Alice Mann) drives up with her beau, Al St. John. Al gets his jacket caught in the door of the cab and is dragged through a mud puddle as a result. Meanwhile, Alice flirts with Arbuckle, who we now learn is a doctor who needs cash. He tricks his wife into letting him sit near the Vamp, and overhears Al getting a “hot tip” on a horse, so he bets all his money on it. Of course, the horse is a dud and runs the wrong way. His wife is very angry at him for losing their money, and they go home while Buster laughs about “the funny horse that ran the wrong way.”

oh-doctor2The Vamp and Al now formulate a plan to get the expensive necklace they saw Arbuckle’s wife wearing. She calls him and says she has swallowed  can of shoe polish, so Arbuckle agrees to make a house call. Along the way, he sees a man selling a “miracle soap” that will prevent all illness. Worried about losing business, Arbuckle sets his car on automatic and sends it plowing through the crowd, then hands out business cards to the injured spectators. He whistles and the car obediently returns like a dog. Then, he finally goes to the Vamp’s apartment, where he fixes martinis for both of them from the supplies in his doctor’s bag.

oh-doctor1Meanwhile, Al has appeared at Arbuckle’s house pretending to be a patient, and is able to steal the necklace from around the wife’s neck without her noticing. Buster sees him getting away, though, and follows him back to the Vamp’s apartment, calling his mother and letting her know what has happened. Now, Al and the Vamp have to get Arbuckle out of the house, so they send him to a bookie with another hot tip. He puts in the bet, but then goes back. There is a series of comedic close-encounters as Al avoids Arbuckle, Arbuckle avoids his wife, and the wife tries to get back her necklace. Then Arbuckle finds a police uniform in the kitchen and puts on a false mustache, using it to intimidate Al and retrieve the necklace. At this point, Buster shows up with several more policemen, and Arbuckle bluffs his way past them by pretending to arrest his wife. Then he tries to collect his winnings from the bookie, but they all run away at the sight of his uniform. He takes his money anyway, but his wife gets the last word.

oh-doctor4Contrary to his “Old Stoney Face” standard of later years, Keaton in this movie emotes with powerful facial expressions, laughing uproariously and bawling at the slightest provocation. The comedy is a bit more “situational” than most of what we associate with Keaton and Arbuckle, but they both get in plenty of pratfalls as well. Keaton, in particular, does an impressive tumble backwards over a table to land comfortably in a chair. I suspect that Arbuckle (who directed) had told him to cry so frequently, thinking that it would be good comedy, but I found that it made the relationship seem more abusive and less funny. Overall, I wouldn’t rate this as the best work either actor has done: I spent a lot of it waiting to see what Keaton or Al St. John would come up with next. The biggest laugh Arbuckle got from me was when he started handing out business cards to the people he had injured.

oh-doctor3This year marks the 100th anniversary of Buster Keaton’s entry into film comedy, and this blog post marks my entry into the “Buster Keaton Blogathon,” which has been running now for three years. For the next few years, we’ll be able to track Keaton’s development, as we have with Chaplin over the past few. He definitely showed physical ability and screen presence right from the moment he got started, even if he honed and refined his talent as he gained experience. I’m looking forward to getting to know Buster as this project develops.

Now go  check out the other entries in the Blogathon!

buster-blogathon-the-third-1-copyDirector: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Alice Mann

Run Time: 21 Min

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

February 1917

Most of the headlines for this month relate to the First World War, and increasing international tensions that will bring the US into the war soon are becoming visible. At the end of the month, we see the first hints of what will be known as the “February Revolution” in Russia (because they were on a different calendar, most of this revolution occurs in March for our purposes).

Nekhl in the Sinai Peninsula

Nekhl in the Sinai Peninsula

World War One

Germany announces its U-boats will resume unrestricted submarine warfare, rescinding the ‘Sussex pledge‘ on February 1.

The United States severs diplomatic relations with Germany on February 3.

Beginning of the Raid on Nekhl on February 13 by units of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, to complete reoccupation of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula.

mata_hari_2Espionage

Mata Hari is arrested in Paris on February 13 for spying.

Politics

The new constitution of Mexico is adopted on February 5.

SS Mendi

SS Mendi

Disasters

British troopship SS Mendi is accidentally rammed and sunk off the Isle of Wight on February 21, killing 646, mainly members of the South African Native Labour Corps.

Diplomacy

United States ambassador to the United Kingdom, Walter Hines Page, is shown the intercepted Zimmermann Telegram on February 24, in which Germany offers to give the American Southwest back to Mexico if Mexico declares war on the United States.

nicholas_iiRevolution

On February 26, Mikhail Rodzianko sends Tsar Nicholas II a telegram with the following warning: “Serious situation in the capital, where anarchy reigns. General discontent increasing. In the streets, uninterrupted firing, and one part of the troops is firing on the other. It is necessary to nominate without delay a person possessing the confidence of the people and who would form a new Government. To wait is impossible.” The Tsar never replies.

buster-keatonFilm

Buster Keaton first meets Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in New York and is hired as a co-star and gag man.

February 2: The Marriage of Luise Rohrbach, directed by Rudolf Biebrach, starring Henny Porten, Emil Jannings – (Germany).

February 18: Release of “The Bad Boy” starring Robert Harron, Mildred Harris, and Colleen Moore.

Births: Zsa Zsa Gabor, actress (in “Queen of Outer Space” and “Moulin Rouge”), February 6; Lucille Bremer, actress (from “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Behind Locked Doors”), February 21.

Fred Mace

Fred Mace

Deaths: Fred Mace, actor (in “The Water Nymph” and “Bangville Police”), February 21, found dead in his hotel room, reportedly of a stroke at age 38.