Monday, February 16, 2015

Arbuckle and Keaton, Vol. 1 (1917-19)

Director: Roscoe Arbuckle                             Writer: Roscoe Arbuckle
Music: Neil Brand (2001)                               Cinematography: Elgin Lessley
Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John and Alice Lake

As absolutely dreadful as Buster Keaton’s enforced partnership was with Jimmy Durante later in his career, that’s how terrific his work was with Fatty Arbuckle at the beginning. What is so impressive right from the beginning is Arbuckle’s willingness to give Keaton so much screen time in his films, to perform many of his gags on his own. In addition, with Arbuckle writing and directing his own films it inspired Keaton to do the same later on, which made him arguably the greatest silent comedian of all time. At this point, however, at the end of World War One, it was Arbuckle who was the biggest name in comedy, even ahead of Chaplin. Kino Video has gathered all but one of the Arbuckle and Keaton shorts into two volumes that demonstrate amply why not only Keaton, but Fatty Arbuckle, was such a huge star. Of course, the incident that ended the partnership was the spurious murder charge against Arbuckle that killed his career. And while it was a real blow to Keaton at the time, it may have been the best thing for The Great Stone Face, as it forced him into his own spectacular career rather than continuing to play wingman to Arbuckle.

The Bell Boy, from 1918, makes no pretension to story. It is simply a series of gags set around the lobby of a hotel. Fatty is the elevator operator while Buster is the bellhop, but they both perform multiple duties. Sight gags and slapstick are present in equal measure, one of the finest of the former is Buster’s cleaning of the glass in the phone booth, while the later is the acrobatics of the three leads when the towel warmer keeps knocking the hat off of Charles Dudley, as well as the anarchic finale at the bank. But the centerpiece of sight gags is Arbuckle’s barber service for a customer first though to be Rasputin. Even the throwaways are funny, like the sign on a building exterior that reads, “Last National Bank.” Then next film is The Butcher Boy from 1917. Set in a grocery store, it is notable for being Keaton’s first onscreen performance. While Arbuckle does some nice work in the butcher shop, Keaton doesn’t enter until halfway through the film, but he has a couple of very nice gags, the first is when Fatty pours molasses into Buster’s had, and the second is when he throws the sack of flour and puts Buster’s head where his feet were, a scene that ends, again, in complete anarchy. As always, however, Fatty ends up getting the girl.

From 1918 comes Out West, with Fatty as hobo riding the rails, and Keaton as a combination sheriff and saloon owner. After Fatty is dumped off in the desert, he is chased by three Indians who treat it like a buffalo hunt. Later, Al St. John comes into the saloon with his gang to rob it prompting the classic sight gag of the hands on the clock raising up to eleven and one. But Fatty stumbles in and foils the robbery, and so Buster hires him tend the bar. In one scene that seems to begin as an unconscious racial slur, the men are firing at Ernie Morrison Sr.’s feet to get him to tap dance, but fortunately Alice Lake comes in from the Salvation Army and shames them for doing it. This film seems to suffer from being incomplete as there are several jump cuts and no real ending. Next is Moonshine from the same year. It is the story of bootleggers from Virginia, but Arbuckle plays the whole thing as a joke, writing title cards that reference the film itself throughout. It’s a unique touch that, while robbing it of any suspension of disbelief, nevertheless entertains, especially when Alice Lake jumps into Fatty’s arms and when her father objects, Fatty says “Look, this is only a two reeler. We don’t have time to build up to love scenes.” Where the last film had pieces missing, this film is the most washed out of the collection and it’s difficult to see faces at all at times.

The final film of this volume is The Hayseed from 1919, the second to last film the two would make together. Fatty plays the clerk in a general store while Buster mans the garage. Jackie Coogan Sr. plays Fatty’s rival for the affections of Molly Malone, culminating at one of the Saturday dances held at the store. The highlight is the talent competition when Fatty sings after eating onions. Throughout, one is not only impressed by the two leads, but the work of Al St. John is particularly good, and Alice Lake is clearly the best of Arbuckle’s leading ladies. Overall, the set is quite good. If there’s a weakness, however, it is one that occurs on many of the Kino reissues, and that’s the use of the Alloy Orchestra on the soundtrack. For my taste it is just wrong. The dissonance and the repetition are incredibly annoying, and I find myself looking for something else to go with the films. This time I wound up listening to Carl Davis’s music for Chaplin’s Mutual comedies and even without synchronization it was infinitely better. As for the visuals, Arbuckle certainly had a gift, and his decision to use Buster Keaton was inspired, as each of them made the other better. Arbuckle and Keaton are classic comedians, and their power to entertain never seems to diminish with time.

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