The following in my entry into The Fourth Annual BUSTER KEATON Blogathon, hosted by Lea over at Silent-ology, please check out all the goodies on offer!! And thank Lea for hosting while you are about it.
Buster Keaton's first film appearances were produced in 1917; with the first five in which he acted filmed in the New York area. They were all directed by that near genius comic director and actor Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who would later be more famous for the scandal that engulfed his life, rather than the groundbreaking director that he was--never mind any remembrance for being the man who could be credibly credited with "discovering" Buster Keaton. I had seen the films, like all lovers of slapstick, dozens of times over the years, but it wasn't until I hastily wrote up a piece on Al St. John to mark his birthday last year that I went back to them. It was the first time that I really watched these films looking specifically for St. John--these were Keaton/Arbuckle films after all! I viewed the lot--every single film through to The Garage (1920), and found myself basically "book-ending" the New York films for re-watch. When Keaton was persuaded, and persuaded he was, to join Arbuckle's new team in NYC, Arbuckle already had his nephew St. John in tow. It was no secret that St. John, a childhood acrobat, was no good at prat falls (Keaton makes mention of this in his book). He was prone to injury, yet he had filled a vital role in the films that Arbuckle directed for Mack Sennett--that of the skinny fall guy who takes almost endless punishment; so it was one hell of a stroke of good luck that Keaton turned up when he did in Arbuckle's directing career! Keaton was a veteran of vaudeville and knew how to stage stunts and take falls without injury. Keaton's obvious place in these films, at least at first, was in parts more or less as an add on--appearing in roles mostly unfamiliar to the other characters--such as a customer or a delivery man; but this would really only last a short time. I would like to zero in on some of these moments for a closer look at a dynamic that I had really been over looking all these years.
|Keaton with Al St. John and Josephine Stevens in The Rough House (1917), Keaton is the delivery boy--a character device for his entrance in a couple of the early films in which he appeared.|
The Arbuckle directed Keaton films have always been amongst my favorite slapstick performances, and Arbuckle's direction is such a pin-pointedly accurate approach to what for all the world looks like hilarious chaos. But, looking specifically for Al St. John within the films made me realize like I was viewing them basically with fresh eyes. What had started out as simple curiosity had turned into something more solid; a different, and rather unexpected, approach to re-watching these films. I found myself looking around for Buster constantly; noticing his parts in the films as more than a foil; seeing that his presence stood so well on it's own, right from the beginning. He had just his vaudevillian performance expertise to draw on and bring to film acting, and it is quite amazing how much of that managed to shine through from moment one. His interactions with the acting pair of "Fatty" and Al in no way seemed forced right from the very first scene.
|Buster about to let St. John have in The Butcher Boy (1917)|
|Fatty and Al from The Waiters Ball (1916)|
|Fatty and Al from His Wedding Night (1917)--both show St. John's rough and tumble role in the Arbuckle world of comedy.|
Buster Keaton's acting career started when he was just an infant as part of the the successful vaudevillian touring family that billed themselves as "The Three Keatons." In fact, when Keaton stumbled on the opportunity to act in films, he was set to appear in a well paid live act in New York, with no really good reasons for giving it up. Keaton wrote in his memoir My Wonderful World Of Slapstick that newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst had tried to lure the family act into pictures before this, with no luck at all. Buster's father Joe would have none of it, and regarded the "flickers" as a passing fad. The younger Keaton's film debut would have to wait several years and came (pretty famously) in The Butcher Boy in 1917--that crazy rample rousing 2-reeler in which Buster inadvertently made cinema history by virtue of accidentally becoming the first (and I think, to this date, only) actor to film his debut scene all in one take (it is worth mentioning that Joe Keaton did finally show up in films with his son, when Comique moved west). The story as to how this all came about is about as simple as it could have been, and equally as famous (so pardon my recounting of it). Roscoe Arbuckle had set up shop at the studios on east 48th, after having made a break from Mack Sennett and gone to work for Joe Schenck, the then husband of screen starlet of Norma Talmadge. The studio was set up for the newly formed company bearing her name and was the intended vehicle for the furtherance of her career--Arbuckle and company merely filled out the space and the "portfolio." Keaton had run into an old acquaintance (Lou Anger), who was then working for Schenck, just days before beginning rehearsals on a stage act that would have netted him $250 a week. He introduced Keaton to Arbuckle, who then suggested that he come round the studio the next day as a kind of screen test. Keaton knew who Arbuckle was, of course, from films. He knew "the Fat Man" to be a very competent comedian; but Keaton knew absolutely nothing about the film industry or how to actually shoot a movie. He needed little convincing, though, to agree to show up; the atmosphere that he encountered in the studio convinced him that he was in the right place for him at that point in time. He described it as follows in his book:
When I got there the whole place was humming with activity. Besides the Arbuckle company, Norma Talmadge's own company, her sister Constance's and a couple of others were making romantic dramas in other parts of the studio. This seemed wonderful to me. It was like being in a great entrainment factory where different shows were being manufactured at the same time. 91-92
Keaton getting a flour bag in the face thrown by Al St. John in The Butcher Boy at the beginning of his very first shoot.
Keaton was hooked and agreed to stay as a film actor for Arbuckle for just $40 a week. He writes that he so knew that he would love working in films that he didn't even bother to ask how much he would be paid, nor did he care. He also writes of that history making first take:
Roscoe had brown paper bags filled with flour, tied up and ready to use. He lost no time in putting me to work. "As you come in the store," he explained, "I will be throwing some of these bags at St. John. He will duck, and you will get one right in the face." It seemed like nothing at all after the punishment I'd been taking from Pop all these years... I found out that day that he [Arbuckle] could put his whole heart and every ounce of his weight into throwing a flour bag with devastating accuracy. There was enough force in that thing to upend me completely. It put my feet where my head had been, and with no cooperation from me whatever... Because I was new to the business, I was politely picked up and dusted off. But it was fifteen minutes before I could breathe freely again. --92
|The famous flour bag to the face in The Butcher Boy thrown by Fatty.|
The first half of The Butcher Boy is the part of the story that takes place in the general store--it includes all the parts written in for Keaton by Arbuckle as soon as he realized what a talented comic actor he had on his hands. These include that first flour to the face scene shot in one take, and all the craziness that ensues after wards with a full set food, flour & whatever fight. It also includes Buster's character showing up for the famous molasses purchase--complete with pork pie hat. The second half of the film, which takes place in a girl's boarding school, was clearly written before Keaton's appearance at the studio. It's a rather stark contrast to the first half, in that Buster really has little to do, save from play one of Slim's (St. John) co-horts. Still, when Slim calls in his buddies, Keaton's presence in the action is very noticeable, taking several prat falls to the head; one--when he falls through the window of the house--obviously thrown in by Keaton himself without direction. It was certainly more than a hint of what was to become of Buster Keaton before the camera.
|Being thrown for a loop in The Butcher Boy|
In The Rough House, we see the first of Buster's bicycle stunts--and his first appearance of the character device of the delivery man (which shows up as more fully formed in His Wedding Night). Of course, Keaton also plays the gardener at the beginning of the film, fumbling with the hose as Fatty realizes he's set his bedroom ablaze; but it is the grocery delivery boy that mixes it up in the Rough's cook (St. John). Here, several antics that Arbuckle employed in The Waiter's Ball (1916) show back up, but Keaton's presence in these acrobatic stunts elevates them to a whole new level....and they are twice a funny. It is precisely because Keaton is so good at what he does, and therefore makes the whole seemed so less staged. And, of course, it should be mentioned that history now tells us that Keaton not only contributed to the writing of the film, Arbuckle also allowed him to direct small portions as well. Keaton had apparently been so interested in how things worked in the making of films, he reportedly had Roscoe take a camera apart for him to understand it better. Indeed he said of Arbuckle, "I could not have found a better-natured man to teach me the movie business, or a more knowledgeable one." --95
|Our delivery boy has an accident...|
|Roundhouse in the Rough house.|
|Buster's wedding dress delivery in His Wedding Night|
The setting for His Wedding Night is basically the same as for The Butcher Boy. A general store, with Arbuckle working as a soda jerk, rather than a butcher, who is engaged to be married to Alice who also works at the store. St. John is again set up as the rival, but this time Keaton's character is more fully written into the film. He serves as the delivery man/fitter for the wedding gown. This eventually results in hilarity when Keaton, dressed in the gown for Alice to evaluate, is mistakenly kidnapped by St. John the rival and his gang of stumble-bums. The result is that Keaton's delivery boy is very nearly married not just to the rival, but also to Fatty. Now, I will acknowledge that there are elements in this film that are very off-putting, and not just by today's standards, but also by the standards of the time when these films saw re-release. They include (but not limited to): the kissing of the woman who is passed out from chloroform and the treatment of the African-American customer in the drugstore (who is, incidentally, played by the same actress that shows up in the very politically incorrect original, or full ending, of Coney Island--her name sadly not known as of this writing). Still the film shows, for the first time, a character played by Buster Keaton fully incorporated into a script. Oh, and I have failed to mention that in most of these films, the great "stone-face" is really nowhere to be found. Buster displays a full range of emotions, including--yes-some droll faces, but also: smiles, laughter, sour-faces, irony and screeches of pain. These show up even more so in the fourth New York film Oh Doctor.
|Someone has to get into drag...this is a Roscoe Arbuckle film! His Wedding Night|
In Oh, Doctor, Keaton plays, quite convincingly, the young son of Dr. Holepoke (Arbuckle), complete several "mama's boy" moments. In this role, he displays a whole range of emotions, but none so funny as his expressions of pain when his father physically harangues him with vaudevillian violence. Here the story is of Dr. Holepoke's various interactions with the Gambler and his girlfriend, in one form or another, until the conclusion of the sketch--with the Dr.'s son and wife making scant appearances throughout. What we don't get in Doctor is any real interaction between Keaton and St. John--which I miss greatly; though there is a funny bit where young Holepoke follows St. John's Gambler after he makes off with some jewels. One thing is certainly clear, by this time, Keaton had thoroughly replaced Al St. John in the role of "foil of Fatty;" and though he may have replaced him in a role that requires acrobatic know-how, we don't get nearly as much of Keaton in the film as we do in the previous two--a shame given his wide range of physical displays of emotion his character has. However, there is some wonderful stuff on a rooftop between Arbuckle (in a police get-up that again harkens back to Keystone Cops) and St. John's Gambler who is trying hard not to fall through a sky-light....
|Keaton with various expressions from Oh, Doctor.|
|For his part, Al St. John makes a pretty slick character in the film as well. This is a departure from his clueless idiot character that show up in most of his uncle's films in which he appeared.|
Another observation: that as these films progressed one to the other, there is less and less of a two act demarcation between the two reels, and more of a over-all coherent story throughout. It is first obvious in His Wedding Night, and becomes even more so in Doctor--progressing finally to Coney Island. Which, of course, bring me to Coney Island the last, rather famously so, film that the trio made in New York. The film might be as well known as The Butcher Boy to people who only have a passing knowledge of Arbuckle's comedies featuring Keaton. It is by far the most dynamic of the the early films and was shot almost entirely on location at the famous Luna Park on Coney Island itself. It showcases Luna Park at night, because, why not?? A great deal of the camera work, especially on the rides, is groundbreaking--breath taking actually--but that is a subject for another time. And, here it is worth mentioning, that a good deal of the plot and idea for the amusement park filming comes from an earlier film of Arbuckle's A Reckless Romeo (1917)--which, though released under the Comique name--was actually filmed in 1916 at the very end of Arbuckle's contract with Sennett. Coney Island, can be seen as a kind of re-working of that earlier film; it is however, a much more successful film in it's comic charm and cohesiveness.* The film has Buster's character bringing a date to the now all but forgotten Mardi Gras parades at Coney; but when it comes to paying for entrance to the park, he comes up short and his girl winds up with Al instead. This sets up his character as being rather solo for the rest of the film in one capacity or other, as he attempts to keep track of his girl with St. John, and later Fatty. It also provides with some Keaton's more well known antics in any of Arbuckle's films, including an out or nowhere back flip.
The film also features some of the most hilarious interactions between Fatty and Al--with Arbuckle's most well known and drop dead funny drag outfit in any of his films (not mention that famous breaking of the fourth wall in the changing room). I admit that of all Keaton's films with Comique, this is has always been my favorite; it's part of the reason that I had not really paid very close attention to films preceeding it. What I had not noticed prior to going back to them in the last year, was the progression of Keaton's presence in the films chronologically; how he went from more or less a walk on, to such integral part of Arbuckle's independent work as film crafter. I'm sure that Roscoe Arbuckle's comedies would have been quite entertaining without Buster Keaton, but I cannot imagine them being nearly so clever...or so funny.
|Buster was hell with that mallet!|
|Al and Fatty: Happy Couple....|
|Mayhem on the set in The Butcher Boy.|
*In regards to A Reckless Romeo, there is a bit of controversy over it's completion. While it would seem that it was merely edited after Arbuckle started his own company and Schenck signed with Paramount to distribute, there is some question as to whether a few scenes may have been added at that time as well. It is curiously listed as the second film that Keaton appeared in within the filmography compiled for the 1982 re-release of Keaton's memoir. The list was compiled by Raymond Rohauer and it was approved by Keaton's estate, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he actually appeared in the film. He is sometimes listed as being the not-so-blind organ grinder--though the fellow doesn't really look like Keaton to me, and the scene appears to be pre-Colony Studio material. It is equally possible that he may appear, fleetingly, in some other unnamed role. Or not... The film was lost until the mid 1990's...and it is now on YouTube and available on Internet Archive. So go watch and see if you can spot Buster--can't say I've had much luck myself.
Keaton, Buster & Charles Samuels. 1960 My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Da Capo Press.