The Buster Keaton Shorts--Part 2

Shorts from 1918-1920

This is part 2 of however-many of these I end up doing to cover all of Buster Keaton's short work that he did prior to his feature films. I wanted to mention that Lobster Films actually produced this collection. I had only mentioned Kino Lorber in the last post. You can find this collection here if you want to be disappointed in the lack of Fatty Arbuckle sex scenes.

Speaking of him, these six shorts will finish off the ones he and Buster Keaton did together while the latter learned some tricks of the trade, likely invented a lot of his own, and got himself a running start. Part 3 will be the first few of Keaton's 19 shorts that he did in the early part of the 1920s.

"The Bell Boy" 

This, like so many of these Arbuckle things, is very chaotic, but here, it's not necessarily a bad thing. It's good old-fashioned live-action cartoonish fun stuffed with so many ideas that there really isn't much room for plot.

There's a horse in this one that I assume is the same equine actor that played the inebriated horse in "Out West." Unfortunately, it's not a credited performance, something that the animal actors union just wouldn't put up with today.

The three regulars--Keaton, Arbuckle, and St. John--make a real mess of things. Buster and Al comically become bandits; Fatty gives a guy who looks a little like Satan a variety of haircuts, helping him impersonate Lincoln, Grant, and Kaiser Wilhelm; Buster battles a moose head trophy; and the trio obliterate a bank set and perform gymnastic feats with some wild fisticuffs. Oh, and there's nearly a decapitation with an elevator gimmick. In hindsight, it wasn't realistic at all, but as it was happening, I really thought Keaton was going to lose his head. None of it makes much sense, but it's a lot of fun.

Keaton's best moment is a classic--the cleaning of a window.


I suppose I can appreciate what they're trying to do here, but the clumsy meta just doesn't work at all and this short is more painful than it is funny. Making no sense whatsoever, with seemingly no remorse, this story stutters along while intertitles interrupt to remind us that the characters in this are making a movie. Most absurdly, one of those intertitles makes the claim that this short film is a "masterpiece."

Digging deep for something to enjoy, I guess I kind of enjoyed an effective bit of clown-car comedy when reinforcements are called in. Buster also impersonates a monkey. It's not nearly enough to save this mess, but it's something.

"Good Night, Nurse"

"Well, I'm out of ideas again! Somebody get me a large dress to put on!" --Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle

Not only does Arbuckle find another excuse to put on women's clothes again but he also finds it necessary to wink at the camera to let the audience know that it's still him. I was offended by the whole thing. Maybe audiences in 1918 were pretty stupid, but here in 2017, I can figure out that it's you, Fatty.

For an Arbuckle short, this one actually has a pretty cohesive plot. Things start with Arbuckle pretending to be drunk. He's not as good at it as Chaplin, but there's an insane rain and wind storm that makes that opening scene fun anyway. He helps a fellow drunk with an "umbrella" and getting home and hilariously tries to light a cigarette. He also shows off his dancing skills, and there's some organ grinder monkey mischief.

Organ Grinder Monkey Mischief would be a great name for a punk band.

I wrote that the plot was "pretty cohesive," but that's really only up to the moment where there's a ridiculous pillow fight. After that, it's clear that everybody had run out of ideas.

Buster's more of a straight man here as the doctor of this sanitarium where Fatty's wife sends him. Well, I should clarify. During the opening storm scene, he actually plays a straight woman. He's not really funny at all in this short at all until a scene where he starts flirting with another character. And it was fun to watch him get to chase somebody else around for once after years and years of watching him being chased by people in all his other movies.

"The Cook"

In a way, these shorts remind me of Will Ferrell movies where you find some random job for the star and then try to squeeze every ounce of humor you can from the thing. I wish Will Ferrell's movies were only 20-25 minutes long. I think he could be funny for that long.

Here, Arbuckle is, as you probably could predict, a cook. He and Keaton show great rapport as food is passed from one to the other, and Arbuckle shows off those great hands with what I'd describe as kitchen juggling. It's really a joy to watch the big guy when he's doing that kind of stuff.

Keaton shows off some exotic dance moves, and Arbuckle gets in on the dance action himself, adorned in a dustpan and a pair of strategically-positioned pots. I'm not sure if a Fatty Arbuckle short can actually jump the shark, but if it can, this was the moment when it happened. I had no idea what was going on with this dance sequence or why it was happening. It might be a parody of something. It might be a dirty joke that I didn't get. It was baffling, but I'm sure Will Ferrell fans would dig it.

I enjoyed scenes with Arbuckle's dog Luke. Man, that dog was good! The scenes with the dog in "The Cook" reminded me a little of the dog-chase scenes in Buster's later short, "The Scarecrow." Another scene I liked showed off different methods of spaghetti eating, but I'm sure that was filmed only because Arbuckle was hungry.

"Back Stage" 

I could probably work a little harder to find better posters for these things, but it's already taking entirely too long. I just don't have the stamina. That guy snarling on the poster is Charles A. Post, and he played a strongman in this short about three stagehands trying to hold things together at a vaudeville show. I thought it was another guy, but it wasn't. It was Charles A. Post.

Since those three stagehands are Arbuckle, Keaton, and St. John, you can probably guess how things turn out. Buster's in drag in this one, something that must have been very very funny in the early days of cinema. Although now that I think about it, I guess that's still a cheap gag that works today as well. Big Mama's House did have something like thirty sequels, right?

At one point, Keaton does this flipping dance thing, and I couldn't tell if it was him or a special effect. There's also a moment in this that I'm fairly positive must have inspired The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian." I'm so sure of it that I'm not even going to bother doing research on it. The stage show--which that triumvirate of stagehands have to pull off on their own--winds up as disastrous as you'd expect, and there's more of that gun violence I learned to expect with these Arbuckle movies and some great dummy tossing.

The best part of this one might have been Clarence the eccentric dancer played by Jack Coogan Sr., the father of the kid who played the kid in Chaplin's The Kid. Damn, that guy sure had some moves, something I'm going to duplicate the next time I chaperone a middle school dance.

Oh, and I also learned a new word from this one--paregorical. I forget what it means though.

This was the first short Keaton made after returning from World War I, a war that I assume he won singlehandedly. I don't know much about history.

"The Hayseed" 

Jack Coogan Sr. is in this one as well, and that makes exactly half of his movie appearances. He plays a sheriff and gets a chance to "show off his talents" in this one, too.

Fatty Arbuckle's dog Luke is also in this. He was in a lot more movies that Jack Coogan Sr.

There's not much to see here, especially if you're looking for a plot that makes any sense. Watching Fatty deliver the mail (he plays a mailman) is fun enough, and Buster pulls off a nifty ladder trick and shows off an interesting way of putting on a hat, but all the good feeling from any good scenes in this is erased with this stupid bit about Arbuckle eating some onions.

"The Garage" 

Yes, Luke the dog makes another appearance. I assume he was embarrassed by the whole thing.

The title is a bit misleading as this is actually more of a fire station than a garage. Well, in the first half, it's a garage. In the second half, it's a fire station. Maybe that's how it goes. It almost seemed like two guys carrying two separate films smacked into each other and somehow spliced their movies together.

A few funny moments here, including a scene featuring a ridiculous method of keeping a customer occupied. They repeat the window-cleaning gag, always a pleaser, and run around a lot.

Buster plays two characters in this one, thankfully the last one he did with his good buddy Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

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