Buster Keaton’s next three short films made with Roscoe Arbuckle were Oh Doctor!, Coney Island and A Country Hero, all made in 1917. The last is lost so I watched the next available movie, Out West, made in 1918. (My first post covered The Butcher Boy, The Rough House and The Wedding Night, Buster’s first three films.)
I love Coney Island and Out West so I’ll make quick work of Oh Doctor! first. Arbuckle plays the unscrupulous Dr. Fatty Holepoke at 31 Cemetery Way who careens his car into a crowd to get new clients and loses all his money at the racetrack. Keaton plays his son, Junior Holepoke, dressed like an overgrown Little Lord Fauntleroy. The plot, what there is of one, involves Alice Mann and Al St. John conning Arbuckle in order to steal his wife’s necklace. (I can’t find a credit for the wife so don’t know the actress’ name.) The action revolves around the wife, Buster and Arbuckle all doing their part to retrieve the necklace and catch the villains. What little screen time Buster has is spent cackling, getting smacked around by his father, and wailing uncontrollably. It’s not typical Keaton fare and wastes his talents, except his incredible talent for prat falls, and the only upside is there’s little of it. One reason I like Arbuckle, though, is he plays such unremitting schmucks in most of these shorts and Dr. Fatty Holepoke has to be one of his most unprincipled characters.
Another reason I like Arbuckle is the lack of pretension he brings to his comedies. He and his cast are like giant kids having fun. A good example is Coney Island, which is a blast from start to finish and has one of my most favorite Buster moments. Arbuckle plays a character simply named Fatty, an unhappy husband at the beach with his wife (Agnes Neilson). Arbuckle is looking to lose her and spend time with Alice Mann, Buster’s girlfriend, who takes off with St. John and leaves Buster behind when he can’t afford the amusement park ticket. Soon, Mann hooks up with Fatty after he feigns sympathy when she’s feeling sick from the go-cart ride (not sure what else to call it) she took with St. John.
Fatty spends half the movie in drag, in a turn-of-the-century woman’s bathing suit and Mary Pickford-curl wig, which leads to some good gags like St. John and Arbuckle flirting until they both stroke the other’s beard stubble. Buster becomes a life guard and in my favorite moment does a standing back flip for no reason except apparent pride over his new position. There’s some Keystone Cop-like police and a chase that ends in the ocean. Neilsen lands in jail, St. John and Arbuckle chase other women and Buster gets the girl. There’s even a kiss between them as they sit on the pier. If you’re curious to see Buster laugh or smile or show something more than his legendary deadpan, definitely check out some of these early shorts with Arbuckle.
Out West is a send up of silent westerns. Buster’s father, Joe Keaton, is in it and according to IMDb.com, plays Man on Train. That’s how it starts, with Arbuckle chased on top of the boxcars, jumping off, rolling a cigarette, lighting a match on the moving train and grabbing the caboose’s ladder to hop back on. It’s a great, seamless stunt from Arbuckle.
Eventually, Arbuckle runs into a saloon just as St. John and his bandits are robbing it. Arbuckle grabs two six-shooters and with guns blazing, chases everyone out in a flurry of gunfire. Arbuckle returns to find Buster and takes over as bartender. (St. John’s character killed the former barkeep and Buster quickly placed a “Bartender wanted” sign on the bar.) In a racist bit of comedy par for the time, a bunch of cowboys shoot at the feet of a black man to make him dance. A woman from the Salvation Army (Alice Lake) enters the bar and tells everyone they should be ashamed of themselves. St. John latches on to her, harassing her until Buster and Arbuckle intervene. Arbuckle first tries to knock him out, hitting St. John over the head with about 20 breakaway bottles in a lengthy gag. When none of that works Arbuckle grabs a feather – the intertitle announces “Achilles heel” – and caresses St. John’s face. Buster joins in, tickling St. John until the robber falls down in uncontrollable laughter. The gag is revived at the end when St. John kidnaps the woman and Fatty saves her, again tickling St. John long enough for her to escape. In between, there’s more gunfire and another stunt involving a drunken horse. All in all, a wonderful poke in the eye of melodramatic westerns of the day.
Next, I hope to watch The Bell Boy, Moonshine and Good Night, Nurse!, assuming all are available.
And, FYI, TCM is showing three Keaton films next month – The Navigator and Sherlock Jr., back-to-back on Nov. 9 and Seven Chances on Nov. 24, followed by a documentary, Buster Keaton: So Funny It Hurt!.