Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Arbuckle & Keaton, Vol. 2 (1917-20)

Director: Roscoe Arbuckle                           Writer: Roscoe Arbuckle
Music: Alloy Orchestra                                 Cinematography: Elgin Lessley
Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John and Alice Lake

The second of Kino Video’s two-volume set of Arbuckle & Keaton, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s shorts featuring Buster Keaton, picks right up where the first volume leaves off. Keaton’s apprenticeship with Arbuckle was a fortuitous one, as Fatty was perfectly willing to share the spotlight with his co-star as long as it made the films better. While Chaplin used his stock company as straight men, villains or fools, Keaton and Arbuckle worked as an unacknowledged team, and while at first the divergent styles of the two comedians would not seem to be a good fit on screen, the two of them make it work, with superior results. While Arbuckle had been working in screen comedies since 1909 and brought a wealth of film experience to bear, Keaton had just recently quit his family’s stage act and added a his voluminous vaudevillian set of gags to the mix, but now able to take them further and in more inventive ways through the use of film technology that wasn’t limited by the practical effects of the live stage. It really served to unleash Keaton’s creativity and prepare him for what he would be able to do in the future when he was forced to go on his own after Arbuckle’s framed-up murder trial ended his career.

Back Stage is from 1919, and begins with Arbuckle and the gang breaking down a bedroom set on a theater stage. Fatty has some great gags with a kid and a bucket of whitewash. Meanwhile Buster and Al St. John goof around with some of the eccentric performers at the theater, including abusive strong man Charles A. Post. Fatty makes it his business to take care of the man’s overworked assistant, Molly Malone, with an eye to winning her affections. In a wonderful sight gag, Malone lifts all of Post’s heavy weights out of a packing case by herself. When Post leaves in a huff, Malone stays behind and she and the gang put on the performance themselves, featuring some well-done routines by everyone in the cast. The most memorable of which is when the front of the house set is cut loose by Buster and the window frame falls on Fatty but doesn’t touch him. It’s a gag Keaton went on to repeat in Steamboat Bill Jr. but on a much larger scale. Good Night, Nurse, from a year earlier in 1918, begins with a drunk Fatty in a torrential downpour, and the driving wind and rain is something else Keaton used on Steamboat Bill Jr. as well. Arbuckle plays the first part of the film in the front of a drug store, with various characters coming along and interacting with him, a drunk, a lady with an umbrella--played by Keaton--a cop, a gypsy dancer, and all the while he’s trying to light a cigarette in the pouring rain. Back at home his wife wants to cure Fatty of his alcoholism and sends him to a sanitarium where he is put under the charge of Keaton as a scalpel-happy surgeon, and pursued by mad woman Alice Lake. The scene in which Buster flirts with Fatty in drag is the highlight.

Coney Island goes back two years earlier to 1917. The film opens with Buster and Alice Mann at a Marti Gras parade. Meanwhile Fatty is enduring the day at the beach with his overbearing wife Agnes Neilson, and finally manages to escape. The two couples intersect at the carnival, where Buster loses his girl to Al St. John, and it’s startling to see Buster cry. While the two men have it out, Fatty makes a play for Mann and he winds up in drag again, this time in a women’s spa, and eventually they wind up back at the beach where his wife spots him and Buster gets Mann back. The Rough House, from 1917 as well, is a family comedy that begins with man of the house Fatty lighting a cigarette and falling asleep, then surprised to find his bed on fire when he wakes up. Al St. John is the goofy kitchen helper, overreacting to everything from runaway bread dough to a wild garden hose. A real jolt of recognition comes at breakfast when Arbuckle puts a pair of rolls on forks and performs a little routine, a gag that Chaplin would steal for the Gold Rush. When Keaton appears it’s as a grocery delivery boy, and he grins mightily as he flirts with Josephine Stevens playing the maid. Eventually the whole thing devolves into mayhem as the group completely trashes the house. Straight up slapstick the whole way through.

The Garage is the latest of all the pair’s shorts, filmed in 1920. It opens with the same window cleaning gag from The Bell Boy two years earlier, this time with Fatty at the garage cleaning the rear window of a car. As if the team was running out of gas—pun intended—they seem to be recycling any number of gags and are content to let the story sink into slapstick right from the outset. And yet . . . it still manages to be pretty funny, maybe the best of the bunch. There are some great sight gags with the cars—something Keaton would use later—and even faux Chaplin imitator Charles Dorety. By far the best bit, though, is the ubiquitous black motor oil that winds up all over everyone, similar to what Dr. Seuss would do decades later in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. What’s interesting to see is Keaton’s evolution as the films progress. Unfortunately the Kino discs don’t have them in chronological order, and thus have the more pedestrian slapstick films come after the slightly more sophisticated comedies. Keaton begins in 1917 by laughing and goofing off with the rest of the cast in whatever costume is called for, but just a year later he takes on his straight-faced demeanor and flat hat as he becomes a far more distinct entity in the films than any of the others in the company. The change isn’t complete, and it doesn’t happen all at once, but trend is very distinct. It’s a curious evolution when compared to Arbuckle, who seemed content to coast along without any thought of maturing his character.

The earlier films suffer from age, many showing a lot of wear and artifacts, though that’s not nearly as bad as the frequent sections of missing film that tend to jolt the viewer along with numerous jump cuts between those missing frames, some of which even ruin the gags. As with the first volume, the Alloy Orchestra is horrible to listen to and the films are better off watched without it. The versions on the five-disc Buster Keaton Shorts Collection have either a jaunty but innocuous piano score by Antonio Coppola or a small traditional orchestra, both of which are much easier on the ears—with the obvious exception of the horribly intrusive vocals on Coney Island. It addition, this new set also forgoes the rather heavy-handed tinting of the Kino versions, and is probably the preferred way to get the collection overall, as the set incudes all of Keaton’s own shorts as well. The Kino discs are also missing four of the fourteen shorts the duo made in total, so that’s another reason to opt for the compete collection. Ultimately the Arbuckle films were just the beginning for Keaton, who would go on to far more well thought out comedies and stunning features later in the silent era. While the Kino Arbuckle & Keaton discs were all that was available for many years, they did not do the films justice the way newer collections have done. So while the films themselves come highly recommended, just try to find them in a newer form.

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