Buster Keaton Short Films Collection Volume 1
US (1917-1918) Dir. Roscoe Arbuckle
This is a slightly different review in that it is based on just one disc from a four disc set compiling the short films of the legendary Buster Keaton. This disc takes us right back to the very beginning with his on-screen debut from 1917 while working as a foil for the ill-fated Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
Arbuckle was a huge star by this point, having made his name in the Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops and in a partnership with the first lady of film comedy Mabel Normand. He was also instrumental in giving starts to Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, his own nephew Al St. John and in these films, his greatest discovery, Buster Keaton. The films featured here were directed by Arbuckle and made by his own studio Comique, distributed by Paramount and it is fair to say that while Arbuckle was front and centre at all times, I think we all know who the real star was.
The first film in this set The Butcher Boy features Keaton’s debut, playing a customer in the store in which Fatty is the titular butcher, hoping to buy some molasses (a form of treacle for any youngsters reading). There is no real plot as such (a common trait in Arbuckle’s films around this time) turning into a cross dressing comedy in the second half as Fatty disguises himself as a woman to enter a boarding school where his lady love is. To the surprise of no-one Buster spends most of his screen time falling over and being hit.
The Rough House sees Fatty as proprietor of a small boarding house and Buster is the delivery boy. Things gets thrown, set on fire, and people fall over a lot – Arbuckle for all his dexterity and comic timing was not much of a story man as these films demonstrate. Case in point is His Wedding Night which has practically nothing to do with a wedding aside from a wedding dress which Buster delivers to Fatty’s fiancée, played by regular collaborator Alice Mann. Most of the action takes place in a store which Fatty runs (yes, again) and involves people falling over and throwing things.
This film also has a particularly unsavoury racist scene in which Fatty recoils from accidentally coming on to a black woman then has trouble understanding her when she tries to make a purchase. Karma is working in the most unfortunate and ironic of ways however as one of the uncredited extras in this film was Virginia Rappe, whose accidental death at one of Fatty’s parties ended his career.
Buster plays Arbuckle’s son in Oh Doctor! and we get to see him smile, laugh and cry something Keaston never did once he established his Stone Face persona. Arbuckle’s charter is moral dubious and rather unlikeable, taking his family to the races then openly flirts with another woman while thinks nothing of giving his son a slap – and he’s the hero?
Similarly in the rather entertaining and eventful Coney Island, Fatty again ditches his wife while on a trip to the famed recreational haven, to pursue Alice, the girlfriend of Buster who has already run off with Al St. John – clearly Fatty isn’t the only amoral person around if she can jump from man to man on a whim! This film sees Buster get to do more and he makes the most of it, stealing the show from his much larger boss, displaying more than just the ability to fall head over heels and giving us a taster of what was to come once he stepped out on his own.
Buster gets two more chances to outshine Fatty in Out West – which contains another appalling racist scenario in which a black man is shot at en masse for entertainment purposes – in which Buster plays a Sheriff, but it is The Bell Boy where the Buster we all know and love really makes his first appearance in a series of gravity defying stunts and comic set pieces of great invention. There are too many to mention yet the story is all about Fatty getting the girl but really this was Keaton’s film.
The last film in this collection is what is left of a short called Moonshine which doesn’t show much of what both men had to offer, aside from a very early example of the many people out of one small space gag – in this case a taxi cab. Only six minute remains from this film so this was presumably included for historical purposes but what we have is all action in those six minutes.
While this set is released under Keaton’s name we really have to discuss Arbuckle since he was the director and creative mastermind of all the films featured here. If you’ve never seen Arbuckle’s works before, as yours truly hadn’t, they take a while to get used as plots are very thin to non-existent and there is no real sense of structure or narrative in most of what is on offer on this disc.
As a performer Fatty was very dexterous, light on his feet for a big guy and able to take great prat falls to boot. His skill in throwing a knife in the air and have it land in a safe place and right side up is extraordinary, and his bartender juggling skills predate Tom Cruise’s by some 70 years!
For first time viewers to Arbuckle’s works, his appeal and huge popularity may seem a mystery while even if this nascent stage of his career, Keaton’s potential was palpably evident. Maybe not the best representation of either man but this set is an important historical document for Keaton fans and movie buffs nonetheless.