Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Joe 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.

The Bell Boy (1918)

This short comedy from Comique stars Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton at the height of their collaboration, giving them a new occupation to demolish – hotel management. The use of large indoor sets and outdoor locations gives them some good opportunities for creative chaos.

Arbuckle and Keaton are uniformed bell boys at the Elk’s Head Hotel, which is managed by Al St. John. We first see Arbuckle emerging from an elevator and looking around carefully, before he protrudes a cigarette from inside of his mouth and smokes it. Keaton is lazing on an easy chair when Al rings the bell and both men hasten to the front. They zip up the stairs to the two visible doors and come out carrying bags. They take them out, leading the two guests to a horse-drawn streetcar, but when Arbuckle tries to throw one of his suitcases on top of the vehicle, it misses and hits Buster, causing the first of many pratfalls. They load up the carriage, the guests get on board, and Al gets into the driver’s seat, driving the contraption down the street and past the “Last National Bank” (remember that one).

 

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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).