Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Paramount Pictures

The Conquest of Canaan (1921)

This feature-length interpretation of one of the works of Booth Tarkington was screened last weekend as part of the Cinecon online film festival. As is usually the case with the rare movies I can see through Cinecon, I’ve only been able to watch it once, so this review should be read with that limited exposure in mind.

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The Town of Canaan, Indiana, is dominated by Judge Pike, who owns a crusading newspaper that celebrates lynchings. He is opposed by Joe, a local street hood (Thomas Meighan) who loves Ariel (Doris Kenyon), daughter of an impoverished artist from a wealthy family. Pike’s daughter is the lovely Diana Allen, who is having a coming-out party to which almost everyone in town is coming. Joe is not welcome, but he goes to keep an eye on Ariel. This only enrages the judge further, who begins a campaign to keep Joe out of honest work, which drives him to the criminal underworld of the city, an area known as “Beaver Beach.” Meanwhile, Ariel’s rich uncle has died, making it possible for her father to finance their move to Paris. On the way out, she encourages Joe to study law and make something of himself.

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Joe moves to New York, and working at a shipyard by day, goes to night school and does just that. He decides to move back to Canaan to set up a practice, only to find that the judge and everyone else still stigmatizes him as an enemy of decency. When Ariel comes back, however, she is a famous socialite, and the town forgets that it used to treat her the same as Joe, crowding the train station to welcome her back while Joe gets drunk on bootleg whisky to forget his trouble. She calls on him, which causes a split between her and Pike, while the gossips of town say things like, “That’s what living in Paris will do to a girl.”

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Meanwhile, a new sub-plot develops about a Beaver Beach girl and her husband, who suspects her of cheating on him with a local hood. The husband sees the two of them together in a dive, and he shoots him. Of course, they go to Joe for a defense lawyer. Meanwhile, in a sort of metaphor, Judge Pike and his minions get the idea that Joe’s dog is rabid and chase him through the streets until Joe shows up and shames them. Then the husband shows up and they decide that lynching him sounds like a good idea, although he surrenders willingly to the police, who manage to get him to jail. The movie turns into a courtroom drama as Joe tries to defend him, but meanwhile Pike is inciting a mob outside the courthouse. They burst in just as the Beaver Beach bar owner is about to give critical evidence, and it looks like the husband will hang, but the barkeep reveals that Pike is the true owner and somehow this results in acquittal. The husband goes free and Joe and Ariel are able to marry. The end.

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This movie, while set in Indiana, was in fact shot in the town of Asheville, North Carolina, today a kind of liberal artistic enclave in the largely conservative South. It probably served well enough for an Anytown, USA, at the time, and at least had the advantage of not being recognizably Los Angeles or filled with palm trees and Mexican-influenced architecture. Booth Tarkington, the author, was a tremendously popular author and associated with “Midwesterner” literature that romanticized the center of the country and the salt-of-the-Earth people who dwelt there. This fits pretty well with trends in popular cinema, that produced down-homey characterizations such as we saw in “Way Down East” and “Tol’able David.” Tarkington would continue to be drawn from for “wholesome entertainment” in movies for years to come.

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The big problem with the plot of the film is that the denouement makes little sense. How does the identity of the owner of a tavern alter the question of whether another man is a murderer? It might take some of the wind out of his crusading sails, if published in a newspaper, but it’s unlikely to calm a raging mob in the moment of passion before they haul out a man to be lynched. It certainly has no bearing whatsoever from a legal standpoint, and should have no effect on the verdict of the jury (indeed, the judge should have it stricken from the record as irrelevant). According to the introduction given at Cinecon, this was just as nonsensical in the book, so we can’t accuse Director Roy William Neill of garbling Tarkington’s message. Apparently both felt that it made for good drama, or just found themselves written into a corner with no other clear resolution.

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Another interesting aspect of this movie is that it is critical of lynching and vigilantism, both of which were scourges of that Middle America which Tarkington so famously celebrated – the rise of a new KKK would see its largest membership success in his home State of Indiana. This version avoids any discussion of the issue in terms of race, however, unlike Oscar Micheaux in “Within Our Gates.” If I recall correctly from my single viewing, the first instance of the judge’s newspaper celebrating a lynching mentions that the victim was Black, but no Black people are seen in this movie, we only read about him in an insert shot. On the one hand, by making the potential lynching focus on a white man, we could argue that the director is trying to universalize the experience and make his mostly white audience see the horror more clearly, the more effectively to drive home his lesson that it is always a bad thing. On the other hand, by failing to clearly condemn lynchings of African Americans (which were by far more common), the movie leaves its audience a moral “out” that perhaps it doesn’t apply equally; maybe lynching is truly only objectionable when it is done to “us” not “them.”

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Overall, this is a well-made drama that takes advantage of good acting and camera work, and a location that gives it more authenticity than it would have if made in Hollywood. We don’t often get to see 100-year-old images of North Carolina streets and architecture, so it’s historically interesting from that point of view. It suffers somewhat from its source material and the usual blindness of privilege, but was still good to see.

Director: Roy William Neill

Camera: Harry Perry

Starring: Thomas Meighan, Doris Kenyon, Diana Allen, Henry Hallam

Run Time: 1 hr, 10 Min

I have not found this available for free online, however, you may watch a trailer for free: here.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

October’s over, but wait! We still have one more centennial to add to our history of horror. This is my contribution to the “Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon,” hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please check back there in the coming week for more of the entries.

This version of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson tale stars John Barrymore, whose reputation as an actor was already well-established, both on the stage and screen at this point, though some of his greatest triumphs in cinema were yet to come. This movie begins by introducing Dr. Henry Jekyll hard at work over his microscope, boasting to a skeptical colleague (Charles Lane as Dr. Lanyon) that science can conquer any mystery. The insert shots of micro-organisms may have been the first that many 1920s audiences had seen. Dr. Lanyon accuses him of meddling with the supernatural, and his butler Poole (George Stevens) comes in to remind him of his shift at the clinic and a later dinner date. We see the “human repair shop” which the charitable Jekyll runs to treat the poor of London. Interestingly, his home and the clinic appear to be on the same crowded London street, suggesting that a sumptuous home could be shouldered up against poverty in that time and place (the movie appears to be set, as the story is, in the late 19th Century).

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Blue Blazes Rawden (1918)

William S. Hart stars in this somewhat somber morality tale set in the Pacific Northwest. With less action than his usual Westerns, this movie asks more of him as an actor and director in terms of emotion and conviction.

The movie begins, with rather flowery intertitles that have a distinctly Jack London influence, by introducing “Blue Blazes” Rawden – a hellraising timber man far from civilization (played by Hart), surrounded by his admirers on pay day. He leads them to the town of Timber Cove with the full intention of blowing all their pay in a wild debauch. They quickly locate the Far North Hotel, a place with a saloon suited to separate them from their money, and once there, Blazes is soon in a dispute with the owner, “Ladyfingers” Hilgard (Robert McKim), over his girl Babette du Fresne (Maude George). Blazes and Hilgard try to settle things with cards, but as Blazes winnings pile up and Hilgard is about to lose his hotel, he challenges Blazes to a gunfight, even going so far as to have one of his cronies sabotage Blazes’ ammunition, but Blazes is too tough for him, and ends up shooting Hilgard with his own gun.

Rawden has won the respect of the town, the hotel, and the woman in one fell swoop, but there’s a catch. As he’s dying, Hilgard gives Rawden the letter he just received from his aging mother (Gertrude Clair) – she’s coming out to visit, along with Eric, his innocent younger brother (Robert Gordon), and they expect to find a decent, respectable man, not a ruffian card sharp. When they arrive, apparently Rawden’s heart grows three sizes that day, because he can’t bring himself to tell the truth about Hilgard or himself. He admits that Hilgard is dead, but insists they were fast friends and that Hilgard was a pillar of the community. He threatens everyone at the bar not to contradict him or they’ll get what Ladyfingers got, and so they all go along with him as he puts up a gravestone that calls Hilgard  a good man and generally carries off a huge deception, reforming himself along the way. Eventually, Babette becomes annoyed by the “new” Blazes and tells the younger brother that Blazes killed Hilgard, which so enrages him that he shoots Blazes – who refuses to defend himself because that would mean killing two sons of the woman who he so respects. After saving Eric from a lynch mob, Blue Blazes makes him promise never to tell Mrs. Hilgard what he knows and leaves town a reformed man, though it seems likely he’ll die in the wilderness of his wounds.

Most of this movie hinges on Hart convincing his audience that he is so remorseful after meeting the mother of his victim that he completely changes from the brutal hell raiser into a man of decency. What’s remarkable is that he pulls it off quite well. The two sides of this character seem perfectly suited to Hart – he was equally capable of being the devil-may-care brawler and the man with a simple code of honor who never wavers, once decided on his path. It’s strange to see them both evoked in a single story like this, but somehow it works. It helps that Clair is so good as the refined but sweet old lady who could never think ill of her son or his surroundings. When Babette tries to tell her about Hilgard, she invites her to tea and remarks how surprised she is that the other ladies (all of them evidently prostitutes) of the town have never paid her a call. As a director, Hart deserves credit also for building a believable environment of savage lumber jacks, taking advantage of the redwoods in northern California to show a primeval forest that separates men from their upbringing and civilized training. Given this theme in the early intertitles, I was surprised when something as simple as a mother’s love was enough to shatter this premise and change the title character from hellion to angel.

Director: William S. Hart

Camera: Joseph H. August

Starring: William S. Hart, Maude George, Robert McKim, Gertrude Claire, Robert Gordon, Jack Hoxie

Run Time: 51 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Terror Island (1920)

Having survived 15 death-defying situations in the previous year’s serial “The Master Mystery,” Harry Houdini is back in this feature-length adventure thriller which bills itself a “melodrama.”

Houdini stars as Harry Harper, a treasure-seeker with a heart of gold who hopes to recover a shipwreck full of diamonds using his newly invented submarine in order to take care of local waifs who sell newspapers. Wilton Taylor and Edwin Brady are greedy treasure hunters who are gunning for the same treasure, and they read about Harry’s plans in the newspaper. Lila Lee is Beverly West, the horseback riding love interest who happens to be related to the bad guys and also possesses the map to the wreck in question, sent by her father in a plea for his rescue from island natives who plan to sacrifice him unless she returns a skull-shaped pearl he sent her earlier. Got all that? Read the rest of this entry »

The Busher (1919)

This baseball film from Thomas H. Ince emphasizes small-town values and staying true to your roots as ideals, just as many films about “the Great American Pastime” would do in years to come. It features a young Colleen Moore as the love interest, still a few years away from becoming the national symbol of “flapper” fashion.

The movie begins by introducing us to Ben Harding (played by Charles Ray), a small-time pitcher from Brownville. He is already in his baseball uniform as the movie opens, and we get the idea that he’s pretty devoted, in part because he carries a baseball glove around in his pocket. He tries to sneak past his snoozing father on his way to the ball park, but he drops the chain that fastens the gate to the fence and has to go back and tell him where he’s off to. Dad looks stern, but we can see he’s secretly proud of his son’s talents. Read the rest of this entry »

M’Liss (1918)

Mary Pickford is a feral, bratty tomboy in this comedy-western from Artcraft. While in most of the movies I reviewed in 1917 she played a little girl of ten or eleven (taking advantage of her stature to seem younger than her co-stars), here she is a girl on the cusp of woman-hood, but the movie handles this somewhat awkwardly.

The movie opens, as many silent features did, with a kind of visual credit sequence in which each actor and character is introduced with an intertitle and a brief vignette that shows them in character. Pickford is shown in a raggedy dress, firing a slingshot at a bear in the woods, and we are told that her name means “limb of Satan” to the local populace. We also meet her pappy, “Bummer” Smith (Theodore Roberts), a  bearded man who trades eggs for booze, the local judge (Tully Marshall) who also enjoys a drink, and the villain, “Mexican” Joe (Monty Blue). Shortly thereafter, the new schoolteacher (Thomas Meighan) rides into town on a stagecoach that is robbed by M’Liss at slingshot-point, largely due to the winking cooperation of the stagecoach driver, Yuba Bill (Charles Ogle). We now learn that “Bummer” Smith has a rich brother in San Francisco who has willed “Bummer” all his money, but the evil nurse (Winifred Greenwood) and her husband (Val Paul) have plans to get it for themselves. Got all that? Good.

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The Blue Bird (1918)

Maurice Tourneur gets away from working with Mary Pickford in order to make the kind of ethereal fairy tale he felt was appropriate for children, adapting a famous stage play to the screen. We get plenty of fancy cinematography and effects, but it’s possible that the acting and writing don’t quite hold up.

The story begins by introducing the Tyl family, which consists of Mama Tyl, Papa Tyl, and two children: Tyltyl (Robin MacDougall) is the boy and Mytyl (Tula Belle) is the girl. Apprently, they are neighbors with “the house of rich children” and also an old hag named Berlingot (Edward Elkas) who has a sick little daughter. The little girl has heard of “the blue bird of happiness,” and she believes that if she possesses it, she will get well. Berlingot is apparently ready to try a placebo, and goes to ask the Tyls if she can have their caged bird to give to her daughter, to make her well again. Mytyl and Tyltyl are unwilling to give away their pet.

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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).