To see my awards for 1917, click here. To read about Mary Pickford, click here. And to read about the Chaplin Mutuals, click here.
The Short Comedies of Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton
Of all the developments that made 1917 such a landmark year in film—the industry-wide adoption of what is now known as "classical continuity editing," Mary Pickford's emergence as the most powerful woman in Hollywood history, Charlie Chaplin's maturation as an artist—perhaps the happiest for movie fans today was the big screen debut of arguably the greatest film comedian of all time, Buster Keaton.
That Buster Keaton is only now arriving on the scene may come as a bit of a surprise to those of us who naturally think of Keaton as a contemporary of Chaplin—certainly we frame the debate "Chaplin versus Keaton" in those terms—but the fact is, Chaplin was already an international star with sixty films to his credit (including forty he directed himself) before Keaton ever set foot in a film studio. And although Keaton would brilliantly subvert most of the rules of early film comedy in a brief but prolific run between 1920 and 1928, it was by and large Chaplin who had established those rules, a fact that Keaton himself later conceded.
Or to put it another way, Keaton was to Chaplin what the Beatles were to Elvis, building a cathedral on the foundation the other had laid.
Which is not to say Keaton was an amateur when he joined Roscoe Arbuckle during the filming of The Butcher Boy in early 1917. He had been performing on the vaudeville stage with his parents from the age of four as part of a rough and tumble "knockabout" comedy act.
"I'd just simply get in my father's way all the time," Keaton said, "and get kicked all over the stage. But we always managed to get around the [child labor] law," he added, "because the law read: No child under the age of sixteen shall do acrobatics, walk wire, play musical instruments, trapeze—and it named everything—but none of them said you couldn't kick him in the face."
Legend has it he was dubbed "Buster" when escape artist Harry Houdini saw the infant Keaton take a fall down a flight of stairs and bounce up unharmed. Whether he was born with it, or developed it doing routines with his father, if Keaton wasn't the most talented pratfall artist in movie history, I'd like to see the guy who survived long enough to be a better one. He did stunts that rivaled those of Douglas Fairbanks, and when he was done, he doubled for his co-stars and did their stunts, too.
"The secret," he once said, "is in landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand. It's a knack. I started so young that landing right is second nature with me. Several times I'd have been killed if I hadn't been able to land like a cat."
In early 1917, Keaton was booked into New York's Winter Garden for a series of shows when he bumped into Roscoe Arbuckle while strolling down Broadway.
For those of you who only know Arbuckle—"Fatty" to his audience, "Roscoe" to his friends—through the tabloid scandal and subsequent trial that (despite his acquittal) ended his career, you're missing out on one of the greatest comedic actor-directors of the silent era. Although I wouldn't put him in the same league as "the three geniuses"—Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd—Arbuckle was, in terms of his popularity and impact, the best of the rest, the very top of the second tier of comedians that included Mabel Normand, Charley Chase, Harry Langdon, Ford Sterling and even Laurel and Hardy and Max Linder.
Mark Bourne in his review of the Arbuckle/Keaton collection for The DVD Journal suggested that Arbuckle was to his biggest commercial rival, Charlie Chaplin, what Adam Sandler is these days to Woody Allen, "less artistic and sophisticated by miles, but nonetheless obviously skilled and unquestionably popular with his own characteristic wacky and raucous manner."
The collaboration between Keaton and Arbuckle was to prove pivotal for Buster.
"Arbuckle asked me if I'd ever been in a motion picture," Keaton told Kevin Brownlow in 1964. "I said I hadn't even been in a studio. He said, 'Come on down to the Norma Talmadge Studio on Forty-eighth Street on Monday. Get there early and do a scene with me and see how you like it.' Well, rehearsals [at the Winter Garden] hadn't started yet, so I said, 'all right.' I went down and we did it."
That first scene, in the Arbuckle short comedy The Butcher Boy, ends in one of the best of Keaton's early gags. At the 6:25 mark of the film, Keaton wanders into the country store where Arbuckle works as a butcher and by the end of the scene, Keaton's trademark porkpie hat is full of molasses and the store is a wreck.
"The first time I ever walked in front of a motion picture camera," he said, "that scene is in the finished motion picture and instead of doing just a bit [Arbuckle] carried me all the way through it."
It's a terrific sequence, but it's as notable for what isn't in it as what is—Keaton does not wear an outrageous costume or wild facial hair, nor does he indulge in the over-the-top reactions and shameless mugging common to the era. He's just a thoroughly average American—albeit, one who can take a swipe at Al St. John, do a 360º spin in mid-air and wind up flat on his back—who has somehow wandered in off the street and found himself thrust into the insanity of a two-reel silent comedy.
Keaton's understatement was the antithesis of the Mack Sennett approach, and was so wholly original, it constituted something of a revolution. Audiences and critics alike instantly took note, if not always approvingly.
"The deadpan was a natural," Keaton said. "As I grew up on the stage, experience taught me that I was the type of comedian that if I laughed at what I did, the audience didn't. Well, by the time I went into pictures when I was twenty-one, working with a straight face, a sober face, was mechanical with me.
"I got the reputation immediately [of being] called 'frozen face,' 'blank pan' and things like that. We went into the projection room and ran our first two pictures to see if I'd smiled. I hadn't paid any attention to it. We found out I hadn't. It was just a natural way of acting."
But deadpan, as any Keaton fan can tell you, isn't synonymous with inert, and as film historian Gilberto Perez has noted, Keaton was able to show us a face, "by subtle inflections, so vividly expressive of inner life. His large deep eyes are the most eloquent feature; with merely a stare he can convey a wide range of emotions, from longing to mistrust, from puzzlement to sorrow."
Keaton's next film with Arbuckle, The Rough House, is one of their best. Not only does it feature some of the best gags of Arbuckle's career—the dancing dinner rolls, trying to douse a raging fire with a teacup, squeezing out a bowl of soup with a sponge—but many film historians also now list Keaton as its uncredited co-director.
"The first thing I did in the studio," he told Robert and Joan Franklin in 1958, "was to tear that camera to pieces. I had to know how that film got into the cutting-room, what you did to it in there, how you projected it, how you finally got the picture together, and how you made things match. The technical part of pictures is what interested me."
I confess, I'm not sure exactly which scenes Keaton is supposed to have directed, but my guess it's a sequence toward the end of the film, a location shot with Al St. John, Glen Cavender and himself—no Arbuckle in sight—containing three bits uncharacteristic of Arbuckle's previous work: a long shot of the silhouetted actors running, jumping and falling across the horizon; then the three of them running across the street toward the camera as a streetcar roars past behind them; and finally Keaton climbing over a fence only to wind up suspended by his coat on a post.
If Keaton did in fact make his directorial debut with this sequence, it's proof (to my mind at least) that his genius arrived with him fully formed. In any event, he would make his credited directing debut three years later with One Week and that one leaves no doubt of Keaton's gift for comedy.
Keaton and Arbuckle made three more comedies in 1917—His Wedding Night, Oh Doctor! and Coney Island—and each features an aspect of Keaton rarely seen after. In the first, Keaton plays a milliner's delivery boy and winds up in drag as he models a wedding dress. Mistaking him for the bride, Al St. John kidnaps Keaton and hauls him off to the preacher at gunpoint.
In Oh, Doctor!, he plays Arbuckle's little boy, a reprise of the sort of comedy Keaton and his father Joe had done for years on stage, and pulls off a stunt you have to see to believe—Arbuckle smacks him, Keaton tumbles backwards over a table, picks up a book as he falls, and lands upright in a chair, with the book on his lap as if he's been there all along, reading comfortably.
And while Coney Island is mostly an excuse to watch Arbuckle caper around Luna Park—its plot of men wooing women on park benches is a throwback to the Keystone comedies—the film is worth seeking out for two reasons: one, for its documentary footage of Coney Island nearly one hundred years ago, and two, a rare chance to see Buster Keaton smile.
The pertinent clip, fished from YouTube:
The smile notwithstanding, in terms of his look, his acting style, his fearless physical stunts and his fascination with technology, the basic Keaton was already on full display in these early two-reel comedies. He had only to add the context—that of a rational man enmeshed in the machinery of a universe that exists only to achieve absurd ends—for his unique brand of humor to reach its full flower.
Keaton and Arbuckle continued to make films together (some of which I'll talk about when we reach 1918) when Arbuckle left First National in 1920 for what seemed at the time to be greener pastures. Studio owner Joseph Schenck turned the keys to the kingdom over to Keaton who immediately began to direct two-reel comedies of his own. The rest is history.
But we're getting ahead of the story.