The Buster Keaton Shorts--Part 1

1917-1918 short films

As I did with Charlie Chaplin's Mutual shorts, I'm going to write a bit about all of the short films Buster Keaton did prior to his work with feature films.

Here are the first six, all with Fatty Arbuckle. Before I start, I have to say that I've never been a big fan of big Arbuckle. It has nothing to do with allegations that he raped and killed people. He just never seemed all that versatile to me, really good at appearing pudgy but not really adding much else to the history of silent comedy. Of the 30+ films in this collection, the ones with Fatty are the ones I'm more likely to have not seen, however, and although a little Fatty Arbuckle goes a long way, I did end up appreciating some of his dance moves.

Anyway, here are the first six in this collection from the Kino International folks:

"The Butcher Boy"

Buster's first experience with films proved that he was a natural as he allegedly did all of his stuff in a single take. With giant shoes, he battles brooms and molasses, and he gets plenty of opportunities to do what he does best--fall down. His first film fall after years of on-stage falls would be out of the shop and down stone steps. Like other amazing spills in this one, it almost gave me a concussion watching the whole thing. He also break dances, likely the first time that was accomplished by anybody in cinema, and he also--uncharacteristically and disarmingly--smiles. The stoic stone face didn't happen as naturally as the falling, it seems.

There's not much of a plot to this one, not surprising since there's not really a plot to many of these Arbuckle comedies. Buster, with comically-giant shoes, plays a customer coming in to a general store to purchase molasses, and Fatty makes a trip to a boarding school. Kidnapping somehow fits into the narrative as well.

Fatty succeeds in being a bulbous guy with a tiny hat, always a crowd pleaser. For the first of countless times, he goes for big laughs by dressing up as a woman. I was totally aroused, naturally, but the little move where he flips the back of his dress up ad nauseam got tiresome. Arbuckle's nephew Al St. John shows off some moves of his own with some bicycle tricks. Also appearing is Arbuckle's dog, Luke, a Bull Terrier who steals a lot of scenes in a handful of these shorts.

The eating of soup is accompanied by a slide whistle. I'm not sure if it's modern composers who can't lay off the slide whistle or if comedy makers in the early days just couldn't get enough of the things.

"The Rough House"

Apparently, I'm not as intelligent as audiences from the late 19-teens as I completely lost the plot of this one. I wasn't clear what was happening unless "what was happening" could be described as "characters are fighting for reasons that are unclear and a house is destroyed." Then, I understood everything perfectly.

Nothing here is terribly funny although watching the athletic prowess of all three men--Arbuckle, Keaton, and St. John--is something. Keaton and St. John swing brooms at each other, humor enhanced by a special effect known as cranking the camera too slowly. There's a scene where a bed is on fire that seemed almost endless, and kicks to the butt--so funny, as you might recall, in all those Chaplin shorts--are replaced with gunshots to the butt in this one.

Buster plays a pair of characters here--a bearded gardener and a delivery boy who does some dangerous bicycle stunt work and later becomes a cop. In this short, he both smiles and frowns, and he's just not quite Buster Keaton yet. It's worth noting that this was his first directing credit (a co-directing credit), and I wonder if that explains why there were less painful intertitles than in "The Butcher Boy."

Oh, I should add that Arbuckle sticks a pair of forks in some rolls and performs a little dance with them. Sound familiar? Yeah, it's the same act Chaplin would do--a lot better, in my opinion--in The Gold Rush. I guess you could accuse Chaplin of ripping off Arbuckle here although you have to remember that they did work together and that was something the former did many times to entertain folk before Arbuckle put it on film. But Arbuckle did get it on film several years before Chaplin, so I don't really know what to think.

"His Wedding Night" 

No, you pervert, this isn't an opportunity for you to see Fatty Arbuckle consummating a marriage. There's actually not a Fatty Arbuckle sex scene in any of these shorts. This short is hopelessly dated and has about 529 laughs fewer than the above poster advertises. I counted them.

Things get a little uncomfortable with a scene featuring Fatty and a mule. At least I think it was a mule. I suppose it could have been a horse. Al St. John plays his rival in a love-triangle plot that's never terribly interesting, and he not only chokes the poor woman but also bites her on the face. That woman's played by Alice Mann in her first appearance in one of these Arbuckle/Keaton shorts, and she's got terrific hair, possibly the highlight of this entire film. Characters throw a bunch of shit at each other, a seemingly easy way to fill a few minutes in these comedy shorts when they run out of ideas. Fatty Arbuckle does show off one of his gifts--terrific hands--as a soda jerk.

Keaton doesn't do anything particularly memorable here. There are more bicycle stunts as he delivers a wedding dress, and then, for reasons that I didn't quite understand, he ends up wearing the wedding dress. Instead of laughing, I just kind of felt sorry for everybody involved.

"Oh, Doctor!" 

Buster plays Fatty's child in this one, another with a narrative that doesn't quite make sense. He spends the entirety of this short being thrown around and bawling. Alice Mann, as well as Al St. John, are also in this one.

Although I did appreciate the work of Lightning the Horse, the very best thing about this dismally boring comedy short is an intertitle card reading "Pop, that horse went the wrong way was really funny."

If I remember anything else about this one later, I'll let you know.

"Coney Island"

Everybody but Fatty Arbuckle in this one--including Buster, Al St. John, and Alice Mann in her last of these--is uncredited for some reason. As with the rest of these, this one barely has any plot at all. It's a love triangle or maybe a love square with Fatty wanting to leave his wife for a pretty girl--Alice Mann--who also has the eye of Buster and St. John, the latter who is also an old friend of Fatty's wife. Whew. Really, none of that matters because this is just an excuse for a bunch of physical comedy, most which works well enough to make this one of the more effective of these Arbuckle shorts.

The main appeal might be getting a look at so much of Coney Island during this era. I love when these 100-year-old movies show off these lost times, making me feel nostalgic for periods of time long before I was even around. Fun rides--including a weird undulating track with what appeared to be wicker cars--and all the great color of that particular setting make it the ideal location for this sort of chaotic comedy.

Arbuckle relies a bit too much on fat jokes in this one. At first, I thought he was playing a large child, but that wasn't the case as he tries to escape a wife on the beach. I enjoyed a scene where he buries himself and uses a periscope to do that. He also breaks the fourth wall, probably a little too much, most notably in a scene that is nearly a strip scene until he motions to the cameraman to nudge the camera up, saving the world from discovering what Fatty Arbuckle's genitals looked like. Of course, watching him swim at one point was probably just as grotesque.

Buster's fun here, one of the few actors in motion picture history who is a pleasure to watch while his character is just trying to watch a parade. He takes quite a few spills, including ones on that wicker car ride, and one-ups Chaplin with a jumping double-footed butt kick that must have had Jackie Chan creaming his pants at a young age. He has some fun with one of those hammer/strongman games (as seen on the poster above), and gets a brief second role as a policeman. That's right, Buster. That mustache didn't fool me.

Al St. John really overdoes things in this one, almost to the point where he threatens to ruin the whole thing. It's almost forgiven, however, since this nearly ended with he and Fatty becoming lovers at the end of this.

"Out West"

This satire of Wild West movies is somewhat effective. Original camera work and a relentless pace keeps this interesting even when it's not all that funny. At the same time, it's completely incoherent and almost shockingly violent. Buster, holding a giant revolver, even kills a man in this one. Of course, during a lengthy shoot-out at the end of this, it turns out that bullets are just about as damaging as kicks to the ass. I guess I shouldn't complain about cartoon violence from nearly 100 years ago. It makes me seem curmudgeonly.

Buster is underutilized in this one although I think there is part of him that likes holding that gun. Fatty plays a drifter who rides into town and helps get rid of an outlaw named Wild Bill Hiccup. He shows off surprising agility with some train stunts.

I thought a bit with an inebriated horse was cute, but a terrible clock pun (knowing that it involves "Hands Up!" will help you write it yourself) and a scene where a bunch of bottles are smashed on Wild Bill Hiccup's head while somebody absolutely wears out a cymbal date this a bit. Also dating this are some politically incorrect scenes involving the mistreatment of a black character and the implication that Native Americans were cannibals.

"Look! Big fat paleface!"

And no, I'm not reading into things. They're really trying to eat him in this one.

I loved a cool shot of the silhouettes of three guys running on top of a train.

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