"I endeavor to cater to the masses as well as the classes, not forgetting the kids. Children like the purely physical comedy--the fall and the knockdown--and the more exaggerated the action, the more they laugh. The average person watching a comedy on the screen does not want to be compelled to think--to figure out a piece of business--so that there is always a little hesitancy in dealing with satire and the little subtleties that are enjoyed by the clever people."
When Arbuckle broke ranks with Sennett in 1917 to make comedies for producer Joseph M. Schenck, he finally had the opportunity to show the distance between the Sennett approach and his own. However, if anything, Arbuckle's own shorts are even more manic than Sennett's. They're a madhouse of commotion--which is surprising considering the presence of Buster Keaton. Arbucle had enlisted Keaton's support after seeing his stage act. He felt Keaton's amazing pratfalls and quiet presence would work well with his own predilection for physical comedy. Keaton dropped his stage career entirely for a stint with Arbuckle. Although new to film, Keaton took an immediate interest in the production process. One of his first actions was to completely dismantle a camera so that he could better understand how it operated.
Keaton's interest in the technical side of filmmaking would become important as the Arbuckle/Keaton partnership evolved. In "Moonshine," for example, he updated the old clowns-in-a-tiny-car trick by masking out part of the film frame so that a battalion of revenue officers could emerge from a sedan (and then the film was rewound, the mask reversed, and the film exposed again--leaving the impression that all 40 plus officers were packed inside the car). But in the early Arbuckle/Keaton collaborations, there was little time for anything but chaos (frequently of an inspired variety).
In "The Butcher Boy," Keaton makes his film debut. He drops by a general store to have his pail filled with molasses. Soon molasses is puddled on the floor with Keaton stuck in the mess as Arbuckle tries to pull him free (a classic bit of comedy that Keaton repeated several times throughout his career). Before long, complete chaos erupts as Arbuckle, Keaton, and Al St. John (a frequent Arbuckle foil) sling anything not nailed down. A thick cloud of debris nearly obscures the action.
For its first several minutes, "The Butcher Boy" is seemingly plotless. Arbuckle and St. John wait on customers at the general store where they work (featuring some nice moments as Arbuckle nonchalantly throws meat onto hooks and expertly tosses his butcher knives into the air), but finally a plot emerges: Arbuckle and St. John are in competition for the same woman. After her father sends her away to an all-girls school, Arbuckle dresses in drag to gain admittance. Soon St. John--also in drag--follows Arbuckle. Significantly, Keaton plays only a supporting role in this comedy while St. John plays opposite Arbuckle. But Keaton's moments on screen are among the short's highlights, as when he takes a spinning, tumbling, acrobatic fall down the front steps of the general store. While St. John was a goonish, hammy presence, Keaton had a more natural on-screen demeanor. Arbuckle likely realized what he had in Keaton and therefore allowed him to play a greater role in their subsequent comedies.
According to Keaton, by their third comedy, he become Arbuckle's sole writing staff. We'll never know how much truth there is in Keaton's claim, but many jokes are unmistakably Keatonesque. They set patterns than Keaton would frequently repeat in his solo career. For example, "The Rough House" begins with a wonderful sequence where Arbuckle awakes and finds his bed on fire. He calmly rises and patters to the kitchen for a teacup of water, returns and dumps the water on the bed, and deadpans as the water has little effect. He repeats this cycle with the same results. It's a strange sequence for Arbuckle, who usually preferred a more frenzied approach. But it's easy to imagine Keaton playing this scene. In spite of quiet scenes like this one, the Arbuckle/Keaton shorts are typically filled with brawling action. That's the Arbuckle influence. He set the tone and pace while Keaton devised many of the individual jokes. Occasionally, however, Arbuckle's style overwhelmed Keaton's on-screen demeanor, as in "Coney Island," where Buster completely sets aside his more subdued acting style in favor of mugging like Al St. John. Most of the Arbuckle/Keaton shorts feature at least one moment where "the Great Stoneface" laughs (or, as in "Coney Island," cries).
In general, the best Arbuckle/Keaton shorts come from their second and third years together. During their first year, the pacing of their comedies was so fast and furious that the results flirt with total chaos. "The Bell Boy" is one of their best comedies--and not coincidentally it's also the first short where Arbuckle and Keaton worked as a team in front of the camera. Previously, Arbuckle was the star and Keaton played only a supporting role. "The Bell Boy" is filled with Keaton gags--as when Keaton cleans a stubborn spot on a pane of glass: not until he pokes his head through the non-existent pane is the ruse revealed.
The very best Arbuckle/Keaton short is likely their last--"The Garage." Here, they operate a small garage/fire station, where they wreak havoc on the automobiles left in their care. Keaton splatters a car with grease, but thanks to a marvelous revolving platform upon which he places the car, Arbuckle is able to clean off the grease in only a matter of seconds. But the short's most inventive bit of comedy comes courtesy of an aggressive dog that rips off Buster's pants. Seeing the pantsless Keaton, a woman reacts in horror and runs for a policeman. Thinking quickly, Buster cuts a kilt out of a billboard advertisement for a Scottish performer, and then he wears the paper kilt. The ruse works until he turns around, exposing his underwear-only clad backside.
After making 14 shorts together over three years, Keaton had assumed much of the creative control. Not surprisingly, Arbuckle soon decided the time was ripe for a move to feature films. With Arbuckle gone, producer Schenck offered Keaton the opportunity to make his own comedies, and soon Keaton began making some of the most wildly inventive comedies in the history of cinema. Meanwhile, Arbuckle moved on to generic roles in Paramount features that under-utilized his unique talents. Unfortunately, today, Arbuckle's name is forever linked to a horrible incident where a woman died at a Hollywood party. Arbuckle was eventually cleared of any charges, but the stigma of blame remained. As a result, he found himself blacklisted in Hollywood. At the age of 34, his career was over.
Kino On Video has packaged ten of the Arbuckle/Keaton comedies on two separate DVDs. These shorts have been digitally mastered from 35mm archive materials (except for "Moonshine," which was mastered from 16mm). Most of the prints show some signs of deterioration and wear, but the imperfections don't take away from the comedy. These are wonderfully engaging comedies.
Purists might wince at the soundtracks, which feature The Alloy Orchestra performing scores composed for these DVDs. For the most part, I like the scores, especially in their softer passages, such as the gentle Western-tinged tones of "Out West." But I have to admit that as the action on the screen gets more frenzied, the clanks and bangs on the soundtrack become wearisome. I had to turn down the volume to a whisper (or risk a migraine). Kino might have followed the example of Image Entertainment's The Lost World DVD (which also features a score by The Alloy Orchestra) and provided an alternate soundtrack featuring a traditional organ score. But otherwise, these are wonderful DVDs.
Arbuckle and Keaton: The Original Comique/Paramount Shorts, 1917-1920 is now available from Kino On Video on DVD and VHS as a two volume set. Each volume is available separately. Suggested retail price: $29.95 each for DVD and $24.95 for VHS. The DVDs contain no extras features. For additonal information, check out the Kino International Web site.