First, some brief background. Buster Keaton began working in vaudeville before he was four years old in an act with his parents called The Three Keatons. It was notoriously rough and tumble. (The act was investigated numerous times by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, also known as the Gerry Society, which eventually got The Three Keatons banned for two years in New York City, according to Keaton’s autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick.)
So Keaton had well-honed slapstick skills long before he made the jump to movies.
In 1917, Keaton ended the family act and went to find work in New York City, where he met Roscoe Arbuckle, the already well-known Mack Sennett star. Arbuckle invited Keaton to work on his next film, which was Arbuckle’s first movie after parting ways with Sennett and joining up with the producer Joseph Schenck. Keaton took Arbuckle up on the offer and made 14 short films with him, not all of which survive.
I’ve watched the first three films, all two-reelers made in in New York City in 1917. Keaton’s debut is in The Butcher Boy, starring Arbuckle as a butcher in love with store owner’s daughter. Al St. John, Arbuckle’s real life nephew and regular co-star, is a rival.
Keaton makes his entrance about seven minutes into the movie, back to the camera so the first glimpse an audience gets is not of his face but his famous pork-pie hat. (I still haven’t read when Keaton started wearing the hat or why and why it became his trademark.) Keaton plays a customer who decides to buy molasses. Arbuckle ends up pouring it into Buster’s hat, which then gets stuck to Keaton’s head. A flour fight ensues, including a bag thrown by Arbuckle at Keaton, who gets his feet knocked out from under him. Meanwhile, Arbuckle’s love interest gets sent to boarding school where Arbuckle, dressed in drag, goes to see her as does St. John, who plots to kidnap her. Buster gets involved, so does the store’s dog, Luke, and the headmistress shoots a gun at everyone. In the end, Arbuckle and Amanda sneak a peek at the camera and skip off to get married by the local justice of the peace.
Plots in Arbuckle movies seem to get recycled, but the next film is different and features an even more nonsensical story than The Butcher Boy. In The Rough House, it’s Keaton and St. John fighting over the girl, the cook in Arbuckle’s house. Keaton arrives as the bicycle-riding deliver boy, getting clotheslined by the, uh, clothes line. Once inside, he flirts with the cook, which incenses St. John and the pair fight throughout the house with Arbuckle becoming collateral damage. Two dukes arrive, the intertitle tells us, and sit down to a meal with the wife and mother-in-law of Arbuckle, who is now the cook. (Buster’s love object is banished when Arbuckle’s wife catches Arbuckle kissing the cook’s injured ankle.) One duke sneaks into a bedroom and steals a necklace. A detective, who just happens to be hanging around the house, sees him and calls the police station.
Meanwhile, Buster and St. John have been taken into custody and inexplicably enlisted as cops. They and a third fellow get sent to the house, run into the dukes and save the day. But not before Keaton gets hung up on a fence like a scarecrow and Arbuckle runs around the house shooting off a gun.
His Wedding Night, their third film, mixes elements from the first two films. Arbuckle plays a soda jerk who wields his ice cream scoop in much the same way Arbuckle’s butcher handles his knives, and Keaton again is a delivery boy, who goes head over handlebars when he drives into the soda fountain’s bike rack. Arbuckle is in love with the daughter of the shop’s owner, the pharmacist, with a malevolent St. John longing for her, too. Keaton delivers her wedding dress and models it for her, resulting in St. John and his gang mistakenly kidnapping Keaton. He and St. John nearly marry at the justice of the peace until Arbuckle arrives, steals St. John’s gun, shoots up the place and grabs Keaton for his own. When Arbuckle unveils the bride and sees she’s Keaton, he pitches Buster into the next room.
More goes on in all the films and describing the best moments doesn’t do them justice. Arbuckle’s dexterity and grace as well as his dirty looks and smug mug have to be seen to be appreciated as does Keaton’s physical stunts, which at this point are his main purpose in the Arbuckle shorts. Keaton kicks high, throwing himself in the air, falling flat on his back. He also lands on his head and twirls on it in a momentary headstand.
And there are also clever, witty, unexpected moments, such as when Keaton comes into the soda fountain with something in his eye making him wink. Arbuckle misinterprets and serves him a beer on the sly. Keaton drinks it and his foot starts to twitch. Arbuckle notices, pulls out a bar rail from behind the soda fountain and puts it under Keaton’s foot. Next, he puts out a spittoon, which Buster spits into, and then scatters some sawdust around the floor. Brilliant.
The funniest, though, comes later in His Wedding Night. Keaton is upstairs trying on the wedding dress and Arbuckle is downstairs chloroforming women (just go watch it) and St. John is off stealing a buggy to come kidnap the pharmacist’s daughter. When the buggy pulls up outside the store, the second-story window can be seen in the upper, right-hand corner of the frame. The action is focused on the buggy and gang of kidnappers so it may take a viewer a couple viewings to notice Keaton, in the wedding dress, dancing with abandon in the upstairs window.
Next: Oh Doctor!, Coney Island and Out West.