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 Back 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 The 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.
The 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 answers.
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 film.
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 co-star.
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.