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The Best Arbuckle Keaton Collection

The Best Arbuckle Keaton Collection
Image Entertainment / Blackhawk
1917-1919 / B&W / 1:33 / 248 min. / Street Date October 22, 2002 / $24.99
Starring Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John
Written by and
Produced by Joseph M. Schenck
Directed by Roscoe Arbuckle

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 start soon.

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 Hollywood.


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, The Garage.

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 dangerous.

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:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Double keep case
Reviewed: November 4, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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