Buster Keaton Short Films Collection Volume 2
US (1918-1920) Dirs. Roscoe Arbuckle / Buster Keaton
This is a continuation of a look through the four disc compilation set of Buster Keaton’s short films, the first review of which can be found HERE. On this second disc we have more of the work Keaton did with his mentor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, as well as three short films of his own creation.
As discussed in the review of the first volume, not all of the Arbuckle films presented here have really stood up to the test of time too well, with sparks of comic genius to be found to offset the absence of stories and cohesive narratives. But we persevere heading into this final selection for the purpose of evaluating Keaton in the incipient stages of his legendary film career.
The first film in this set is Good Night, Nurse in which Fatty’s wife decides he is drinking too much and sends him off the No Hope Sanitarium for a supposed guaranteed cure. But the sight of Buster in a blood stained apron puts Fatty off and he tries to run. A film of two halves, much like Fatty’s other works, it opens with our man in the pouring rain trying light a cigarette, which admittedly is amusing the first time but not the five or six others. The action in the clinic sees Fatty dressing up in drag again, a favourite gimmick of his.
Up next is The Cook which I have to admit is the best film of all the Arbuckle ones I have seen. There is no story but it is a dexterous tour de force full of great comic invention as Fatty, in the titular role, flips and juggles his knives and food ingredients about with astounding precision in the kitchen. The running gag is that Fatty produces much of the menu from one large metal urn with a tap – so if the order is coffee, soup, milk, stew or ice cream comes out it comes from the same urn! He then throws it – plate and all – to Buster who catches it without spilling a drop!
Backstage, a film about a stage troupe who quit after a visiting strongman causes trouble, leaving Fatty, Buster and the other long term collaborator Al St. John to put things right. This film is notable for what is presumably the genesis of Keaton’s most well known gag, the falling building front. It is Fatty who takes the spot and the building front is a cardboard prop but it clearly stayed with Keaton for him to use himself twice in his own films!
The Hayseed is another film set around a small store where Buster witnesses a love rival of Fatty’s steal some money then blames Fatty for it. A few inventive gags are found here and there in a disjointed tale which inexplicably ends with a talent show ruined by Fatty’s onion breath.
The run of Arbuckle films to feature Keaton comes to a close with The Garage. Al St John has already departed, replaced by Harry McCoy while Molly Malone returns as the token female love interest. The gimmick is that the garage doubles up as the local fire station and hilarity ensues. In fact, for once it actually does, chock full of fun and absurdly clever gags amid the usual falling over, ending the partnership on something of a high note.
Keaton’s first ever solo short was The High Sign made in 1920, although he wasn’t happy with it and shelved it, but when a broken leg slowed down his output a year later, it was belatedly released. Buster shouldn’t have been so down on this film as it is quite good actually. He plays a drifter who is inadvertently recruited into a criminal gang called the Blinking Buzzards and tasked with killing someone they are blackmailing. Meanwhile the target decides to hire a bodyguard and, after seeing his gimmicked shooting skills, hires Buster!
This was followed by One Week, a popular and inventive short in which Buster and his new bride Sybil Seely are given a house as a wedding present – except they have to build it themselves! Interference from Sybil’s ex means disaster but not as much as a rainstorm and a train do! There are so many fabulous scenes in this film to discuss that I can’t do them justice in one paragraph, but deserving a mention is the first attempt by Keaton of the aforementioned falling building gag.
Finally this set closes with Convict 13, a chaotic hit and miss farce that sees golfer Buster get knocked out and mistaken for an escaped prisoner who is about to be hanged. Somehow he ends up becoming a prison guard and has to quell a riot. Aside from a few fun golfing gags this isn’t as inspired as it may sound and is the closest to Arbuckle’s template than Keaton’s own.
Almost immediately the difference between Keaton’s and Arbuckle’s work is night and day, and while Buster has clearly learned from Fatty, he displays a much better understanding of both storytelling and the timing of his gags. In Fatty’s films people fell over because…well, it’s a cheap laugh; in Buster’s films they have a reason to tumble. Keaton also was keen to explore the medium of cinema as the great scene in The High Sign where Buster is chased through a house which is shot with all four rooms on display (like a dolls house) demonstrates.
Not wishing to sound cruel but Keaton leaving the auspices of Arbuckle was probably the best thing for his career both creatively and personally, as his name and works are still fondly remembered and revered today while Arbuckle sadly has become relegated to a footnote outside of the scandal that killed his career.
Again, this second disc is a mixed bag but it ends on a high as we finally enter into Keaton’s golden period where he made most his of greatest and fondly remembered short films.
MIB’s Instant Headache is proud to be part of the Shorts blogathon hosted by Movies Silently!