The first silent movies I ever viewed
were scratchy and faded shorts of the Keystone Cops and Laurel and Hardy.
A local pizza place used to show them in their dinning room back when I
was a kid. The film loop lasted about 30 minutes, and it was nearly
impossible to get me to eat anything until I had seen the entire reel at
least once through. Over the years I was able to search out other
silent movies; Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligary, and The
Last Laugh were all amazing discoveries. Though my tastes have
matured some what, I still like silent comedies the best.
The person who created the best silent comedies, for my money at least,
was Buster Keaton. Luckily many of his films have survived, and most
of his silent works are available on DVD. Periodically I'll examine
one of his DVDs for this column, more or less in chronological order, starting
with the earliest films he made with his good friend Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.
Fatty and Buster made a total of 15 two-reel short, of which eleven still
survive. Arbuckle and Keaton Volumes One and Two from Kino
contain ten of the surviving films, including two, Rough House and
Stage, which appear here for the first time on home video. This
is a great collection of shorts with some wonderful comedy.
Buster Keaton had been performing on vaudeville stages from the time
he was three years old. His parents, Joe and Myra Keaton incorporated him
into their act since they had no one to watch him while there were on stage.
Their act, comedy act, The Three Keaton's, was quite successful, and they
toured America and played in England. It was a very physical act, with
Joe throwing Buster around the stage and into backdrops.
But by 1917, things were not looking so good for the act. Joe Keaton
was drinking, and was prone to violent fits. When he was drunk, his timing
was off, which was hurting the act. Also, Buster, at age 21, was just too
old to play the upstart son, the role he had played in the act since he
was three years old. Added to that was the fact that vaudeville was dying.
Movies had arrived, and stolen much of its audience. Bookings in good vaudeville
houses were getting harder and harder to get.
So Buster decided to try to make it on his own. He went to New York,
were his agent immediately found him work on a new revue show, The Passing
Show, at $250 a week.
Roscoe Arbuckle arrived in Los Angeles in April of 1913. He had played
the vaudeville circuits on his own since he was 15 years old. Now, at age
26, he was ready to break into the movies. Bringing his portfolio of pictures
and reviews with him, he dressed up in his best white suit and set off
to the Keystone Studios. When Roscoe arrived at the lot, no one stopped
or questioned him, so he wandered around the open stages and buildings.
Someone opened a door and stepped out, turned to Arbuckle and spit chewing
tobacco juice on his new white pants. The man said "You, big boy, be here
tomorrow morning at eight." Then walked back in. That man had been Mack
Sennett, head of the studio, and Roscoe Arbuckle had just broken into pictures.
Of large build, yet surprisingly spry, Roscoe obtained the nickname
"Fatty" and was soon staring in one-reelers at Keystone. He made 29 films
in 1913, and 46 in 1914. In 1915 he graduated to two-reelers, and was a
full-fledged star, his shorts became nearly as popular as Charlie Chaplin's.
By 1916, Fatty who had started writing and directing his own films, and
was ready to leave Keystone. He was making an amazing $500 a week at Keystone,
but Chaplin was making $10,000 a week plus bonuses at that time. In the
spring of 1916, Arbuckle took a trip to New York, where he met producer
Joe Schenck (husband of silent movie star Norma Talmadge.) Schenck, who
produced his wives movies, was looking to expand his operation. In Arbuckle,
he was a good opportunity. Arbuckle was offered $365,000 a year plus 25%
of his movies profits. In addition, he would have his own production company,
the Comique Film Corporation, and, most importantly, complete creative
control. For this, he had to make 8 two-reelers a year. Fatty agreed, and
the two men shook hands. After the shake, Roscoe found himself holding
a small piece of metal, the key to a Rolls Royce, his signing bonus.
In March of 1917, Buster Keaton was waiting for rehearsal to start for
Passing Show, and Fatty had just started on his first short for Comique.
The two bumped into each other on the streets of New York. Arbuckle asked
Keaton if he'd like to be in a scene in his new film. Keaton, who had never
been in a movie studio before, agreed. The next day Keaton showed up at
the studio, and did a short bit where he bought some molasses from Fatty.
The next morning, he went to his agent, and asked if he could get out of
his contract for The Passing Show. His agent said, "Sure, we'll
just tear up the contract," and proceeded to do just that. Buster then
went back to where Fatty was shooting, and joined his group at $40 a week.
Altogether, Fatty and Buster made 15 two-reel short, of which thirteen
still survive. This wonderful set from Kino contains almost all of the
surviving films, ten shorts, including two, Rough House and Back
Stage, which were thought lost, and appear here for the first time
on home video. This review covers the first DVD. Click here
for a review of the second.
The Films: (in the order they
appear on the discs, not chronological)
The Bell Boy: An amusing, if minor
film. Fatty and Buster are bell boys at a hotel. Al St. John is their slave-driving
boss. Joe Keaton (Buster's father) makes an appearance as a hotel guest
who gets a haircut by Fatty. Joe would appear in several more of the Keaton/Arbuckle
shorts until Buster was drafted into WWI.
Butcher Boy: This was Fatty's first movie for Comique, and Buster
Keaton's first appearance on film. Fatty works as a butcher in a general
store along with Alum (Al St. John - Arbuckle's nephew in real life.) Both
are sweet on Almondine, the manager's daughter. Fatty has fun throwing
knives around, and tossing meat onto meat hooks behind his back. Buster
Keaton really steals the show though, trying to buy some molasses, and
getting it everywhere. Buster was always quite proud of the fact that his
scene was done in one take. The first half ends in a great food fight,
with copious quantities of flour and pies being thrown.
After the food fight, the manager decides to send Almondine to boarding
school. Fatty, missing his sweetheart dresses up as a Marry Pickford look-a-like,
with curls and a dress, and enrolls in the school. Also feeling lonely,
Alum dresses up in drag and enrolls in the school too, but he has a plan.
When night falls, he lets Buster Keaton and another friend into the school
with the hopes of kidnapping the girl he desires. A madcap chase starts,
with wigs flying and girls screaming. It will come as no surprise that
Fatty ends up with the girl, and the other men end up in custody.
Not a bad effort for a their first film together. Keaton seems very
relaxed in front of the camera, and his bit is definitely the funniest
part of the show, at least when viewed almost 85 years after it was made.
Out West: Writing credit for this
film goes to Natalie Talmadge, sister of silent screen actress Norma Talmadge,
and future wife of Buster Keaton. Natalie was a script girl/secretary for
Arbuckle at the time. It was the only writing credit of her career. The
thing that makes this short stand out from the others is the fact that
the story is so dark. It's also one of the least funny shorts on the collection.
The humor is thin, and by today's standards, fairly cruel. In one scene,
a terrified black man is forced to dance while the members of the bar,
including Buster and Fatty, shoot at his feet. Other scenes include Buster
shooting man in the back for cheating at cards, and Fatty being stranded
out in the desert with no water.
In the film, Buster is the owner of a bar, and Al St. John plays the
local bad man, Black Bart. After Bart shoots the bartender, Keaton hires
Arbuckle for the job. Alice Lake (Keaton's girlfriend at the time, who
played the female lead in many of these Comique shorts) is a Salvation
Army nurse. Black Bart forces himself upon her, and, when rebuffed, kidnaps
her. It's up to Fatty and Buster to save her.
Moonshine: One of the best shorts
on the first DVD, Moonshine was written and directed by Fatty Arbuckle.
Fatty and Buster are revenuers, hunting down a group of moonshiners in
the hills of Virginia. Along with several funny gags, this film contains
one of the earliest, if not the earliest example of breaking down the "4th
wall" and having the characters realize that they are in a movie for the
comedic effect. It happens throughout the film, but one of the better examples
is when Fatty first meets the moonshiner's daughter, played by Alice Lake.
Her father is beating her because of her refusal to marry a local man,
played by Al St. John. Fatty separates the two, and chastises Alice for
not obeying her father. Fatty and Alice have a quick fight, which ends
up with him throwing her into the lake. Alice runs out of the water, embraces
Fatty, and says, "I love you." While the two kiss, her father says "That
is crazy! You beat up my daughter and she jumps into your arms!" To which
Fatty replies "Look, this is only a two-reeler. We don't have time to build
up to love scenes." "In that case, go ahead. It's your movie," the father
Another great gag is achieved by the effective use of a matte to allow
fifty-four federal agents to climb out of a car. Keaton continued using
matte shots in his films for years, and he learned the technique here.
This short is great on so many levels, technically, and artistically, and
its funny to boot. Well worth the price of the whole disc.
The Hayseed: Another funny film.
Arbuckle, a mailman, and the local Constable, John Coogan (in one of only
two film appearances, the other being Back Stage) are rivals for the affections
of a rural girl, played by Molly Malone.
This DVD contains the best examples of these films in existence. They
vary in quality of course, and range between very good to astounding. The
best examples look just as they would if you were watching them in a theater
80 years ago. That is to say, there are a few nicks and scratches, and
an occasional frame missing. But the images are clear, crisp, and not faded.
At their worst (Out West) there are segments that are washed out,
and, in a couple of places, a second or so of film missing. This is disappointing,
but considering how many films made in the same period no longer EXIST,
losing a second here or there does not seem to bad at all.
On the down side, Kino has restored the title cards to the point that
they look almost new. Though the name of the movie and "Paramount Pictures"
captions in the lower corners look fuzzy, the captions themselves look
sharp and new. There are no imperfections in the black backgrounds. While
one would thing this to be a good thing, it is in sharp contrast to some
of the films, and keeps reminding the viewer that they are watching a restored
The musical score, composed and preformed by the Alloy Orchestra, is
very good. Their music is appropriate without being overpowering. It adds
a nice dimension to the films. There are a few assorted sound effects included,
but these are made with the instruments of the band. A snare drum rap for
a gun shot, for example. Of course, there were no written scores for these
shorts originally, but everything on the sound track is something that
you could have heard when these were originally released. (And probably
much, much better than what was played.)
A minor quibble is the fact that the episodes do not appear in chronological
order. It would have been nice to see the changes in Arbuckle's films as
Keaton became more and more integrated as time went on. At the beginning,
Buster played only bit parts, whereas at the end of the series, he was
The menus on the discs could also use some work. Each short has three
chapter stops. The main menu shows the chapter stops for the first film,
and a button to present the chapter stops for the next film. If you want
to see the last entry on a disc, you first have to cursor through the other
four films. This is needlessly complex and time consuming. A menu where
you can select any of the five shorts and then go to a sub menu with the
chapter stops would make navigation much easier.
Even with these flaws, this is an amazing group of films that should
be in the collection of every silent film or comedy aficianado.
There are no bonus materials included with this disc.
This is a great collection. The films are funny and the prints
look great, especially for films this old. This DVD belongs in every
silent movie collection. Highly Recommended. Be sure
to check out the review of the second volume here.