Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
DVD has been a real boon to silent film, with outfits from Kino to Image to All Day putting out
excellent versions of great silent shows, and not just the big titles. On laserdisc, silent films
could be a losing proposition; ace producer-restorer David Shepard would probably be embarassed
to reveal how few laser units were sold of things like Mary Pickford dramas.
Not so with DVD, a platform with sufficient saturation to justify two releases of things like
The Lost World. Most of Buster Keaton's
features are already out, and a second release swing through the Charlie Chaplin library is about to
This two-disc set of Keaton's first efforts in the movies is filled with revelations. Not only is
it surprising to see Buster burst onscreen with his persona almost formed, but we get
a good look at his development from third-banana sidekick to second-banana main foil. And then
there's the disc's full appreciation of Fatty Arbuckle, a fantastic talent who would have been
lodged with the greats, had it not been for a scandal that scapegoated him for the 'sins' of
The beginnings of Buster Keaton on film are traced through twelve 2-reelers he made
for Fatty Arbuckle between 1917 and 1919: The Butcher Boy, The Rough House, His Wedding Night,
Oh Doctor!, Coney Island, Out West, The Bell Boy, Moonshine (fragment), Good Night Nurse, Back Stage, The Hayseed,
Buster Keaton walks into his first scene in The Butcher Boy like he'd been performing this kind
of comedy all his life. Which is of course true; Keaton abandoned top billing in
Vaudeville to join Roscoe Arbucle's merry crew of jokesters. The only reason why Keaton would take a
pay cut from $250 to $40 is because he fell in love with the possibilities of the screen. The Arbuckle
unit would be his movie kindergarten.
Keaton's genius, combining the skills of an acrobat, with a keen understanding of mechanical reality
and an eye for the visually arresting, finally has a source point in this DVD set. Fatty made
engagingly simple plays built around settings - a country hospital, a store, a hotel - that
develop situations just enough to motivate ridiculous behavior and clever visual gags. The little movies
are nowhere near as simple as you might expect something from the era of the first World War to be.
Unlike many Sennett one and two-reelers, a physical reality is
maintained: the stories avoid impossible situations or magic for propulsion. About as
impossible as things get are reverse-motion tricks, as when Fatty lays out an entire formal feast by tossing a
bag of dishes and food on the table, and unfolding it so that everything falls right into perfect position.
Fatty had a knack for engineering physical gags requiring impressive construction, as in the wheeled
libarian's ladder that rolls around the entire perimeter of the general store. Some of the shorts
end in spectacular fashion - The Bell Boy winds up with a runaway streetcar crashing through a building.
Fatty also injects a very
Keaton-like amusement for illogical organization. A customer's order is delivered in a complicated
roundabout way, instead of just being handed to her. Fatty knows the meaning of underplayed gags -
in one sequence of slapstick pandemonium, a clutch of old gents playing checkers just a few feet away
never notices a thing.
Fatty also might have been Keaton's equal in physical slapstick. Big and fat where Keaton was lean and
trim, Arbuckle has considerable agility and flexibility, and can take a pratfall almost as good
as the great stone face. He tosses very real, very sharp knives around in a way that looks very
Fatty's personality was of course very different from Keaton - he served as his own straight man
(much like Keaton), staying impossibly calm as outrageous things
happen. Arbuckle did a great cutesy act, and projects a wonderful silliness when dressed up as woman -
he's convincing not because he looks like a woman, but by the way he acts. People are mildly prejudiced
against fat people, and the fact that Fatty charmed his audience by plumping us his cheeks into
a Tweedledum-like grin, shows the winning force of his personality. Most of the shows iris out on
Fatty escaped with his girl, with happy smiles on both of their silly faces.
Keaton and Arbuckle must have shared the same stage background, with each able to draw upon years and
years of wild gags developed on the stage. Adapting them to film must have been a keen process of
discovery for Buster; and when he got his hands on the camera, he saw what it could do beyond what was
possible on a stage. Keaton's imagination wouldn't be curbed until MGM, perfidious spouses and clueless
company tyranny clipped his wings ten years later. Together, Keaton and Arbuckle are a great team,
especially when left to themselves to play off each other's talent -
hanging off a cliff edge together, or mopping a hotel floor.
One expects to see a process wherein Arbuckle is slowly upstaged by his apprentice, yet Buster
loyally stays a spectacular but subordinate partner. His pratfalls, especially the ones where he
somehow vaults himself totally upside down before splattering in a heap, are there right from the
beginning, totally outclassing Arbuckle's previous foil, Al St. John. Also in place in the very first
film is Keaton's porkpie hat - which then doesn't return with any great frequency. Keaton was
definitely doing a variety of characters instead of honing his final developed persona - instead of
the stoic, slightly melancholy plodder of many of his features, here he tries wild gestures, facial
extremes and over-sold reaction takes. He's perfectly fine doing all of them; we're just accustomed to
seeing the Buster he settled into in his own short subjects, post-Fatty.
There's no denying that the two-reelers have their share of dated attitudes.
There are blackface actors and real blacks playing demeaning roles, and at least one show has a
bizarre character with a Fagin-like face, who prances around like a stock fairy. Such moments
are an exception - most of the time the crazy action on screen delivers big laughs
as funny now as they were 85 years ago.
Image presents Blackhawk's DVD of The Best Arbuckle Keaton Collection in a double disc
set that dispenses with fancy menus and lays out the eleven shows and one fragment in simple
choices. The set is produced by Serge Bromberg, Eric Lange and David Shepard, and is refreshingly
forthcoming about its sources. Because of Arbuckle's scandal woes, his features and short subjects
were ignored and discarded; all but two of the films here were sourced from surviving European
prints. A few were mastered directly from nitrate originals, the notes explain.
The quality varies, with some of the earlier titles on the dupey and scratchy side. The
basic quality perks up by the fourth or fifth show. Unlike many films of this vintage, the framing
never looks compromised. The main titles are usually freeze frames, and
all of the intertitles are replaced with plain text on black.
This is Savant guessing, but I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that it's possible that the
original negative splices on some of these shorts fell apart (more than once, possibly), requiring the
negatives to be re-spliced. When a 35mm frame is hot spliced, it uses up a frame, so to resplice a broken
splice would require losing a frame on each side of the cut. On some of the earlier short subjects, the otherwise
perfectly-timed action is abreviated at cut points. Example: Buster vaults toward a doorway to the kitchen. The
action cut goes directly from him flying through the doorway, to him already sitting on the kitchen
floor, as if a few frames of him landing were lost. This happens enough times to suggest that
something has to be responsible for frames being missing. It does no major harm to the shows.
Neil Brand is credited with the engaging, antique-sounding music tracks, and the informative insert liner
notes are by author Jeffrey Vance.
Each of these mini-movies quickly grabs our attention, and there's enough variety to sustain watching
four or five of them at a time. Arbuckle's whole production company moved to Sunny California not long after
the series started, and there are shows like Out West with elaborate location shooting.
Moonshine exists only as a fragment, but its gags start to build just like the other shorts.
When it ends abruptly, we feel a strong sense of loss.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Best Arbuckle Keaton Collection rates:
Packaging: Double keep case
Reviewed: November 4, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson