Philip Concannon on a new Blu-ray edition of the complete Buster Keaton short films, on general release today.
“Have you ever been in a movie, Buster?” he asked.
When I told him I hadn’t, Roscoe said, “Why don’t you come over to the Colony Studios tomorrow morning? I’m starting a new picture there. You could try doing a bit in it. You might enjoy working in pictures.”
“I’d like to try it,” I told him.
– Buster Keaton: My Wonderful World of Slapstick
It didn’t take long for Buster Keaton to fall head over heels for the movies. He met Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle on the set of his two-reeler The Butcher Boy in 1916, and the next day he was making his debut in front of the cameras. He enters The Butcher Boy as a customer hoping to buy some molasses, an attempt that ends in a predictably sticky mess, and he later engages in flour-chucking fight and a chase around a school for girls (with Roscoe in drag). Keaton didn’t make much of an impact on audiences in this first appearance – in fact, Variety’s review neglected to mention him even as they found time to praise his canine co-star Luke – but many of the traits we associate with him were already in place. The dumbfounded expression, the astonishing athleticism, the porkpie hat. A star was born.
Buster Keaton’s movie star persona was not yet fully formed, though. The Great Stone Face had yet to harden. It’s startling to look back at a film like The Rough House and see Keaton convulsed with laughter as one of his co-stars takes a fall, or to see him wailing as Arbuckle’s infant son (!) in Oh Doctor!. While Keaton’s facility for physical comedy had been honed to perfection through his years on the stage, he was still finding his way into his most apt mode of screen expression throughout these films, but Keaton’s real interest lay elsewhere. When he first stepped onto Arbuckle’s set that day, he was transfixed not by the antics unfolding in front of the camera, which weren’t markedly different from the vaudeville comedy he was used to, but by the camera itself. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, he had taken one of the cameras back to his hotel and dismantled it, determined to figure out how it worked. This was a whole new world and Keaton was instantly thrilled by the possibilities of cinema. After they had made a couple of two-reelers together, Keaton took on an unofficial role as assistant director to Arbuckle, helping him develop gags and scenarios and getting to grips with filmmaking technique. By the time he launched his solo filmmaking career, Keaton would have developed a complete mastery of the medium.
Of the 32 films in Eureka’s Buster Keaton: The Complete Short Films 1917-1923 set, 13 were made with Arbuckle. While comics of the silent era like Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd have remained enduringly popular, or enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, Roscoe Arbuckle remains a largely forgotten figure. If he is remembered at all today, it is probably for his alleged role in the death of Virginia Rappe, an accusation he was acquitted of but which cast a long shadow over his public persona, effectively ending his career. Digging back into Buster Keaton’s nascent screen appearances provides us with an opportunity not only to see how Keaton’s cinema career developed, but to rediscover Arbuckle’s considerable talents.
He was a big man, reportedly weighing almost 300lbs, but he was astonishingly light on his feet, and the thing that stands out when watching him in action is how elegantly and swiftly he could move across the set. He had been a song-and-dance man onstage, and when asked about him in Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By, it is this aspect of him that Louise Brooks remembers. “Oh, I thought he was magnificent in films. He was a wonderful dancer, a wonderful ballroom dancer, in his heyday,” she said. “It was like floating in the arms of a huge doughnut – really delightful.” (His attempt at dancing in The Hayseed is a good deal clumsier than that.) Arbuckle was a deft comic performer, and slipped easily into girlishness during the many scenes in which his characters end up in drag, such as the scene in Goodnight Nurse! that has him and Keaton bashfully making eyes at each other across a corridor.
But the thing that sticks with me when watching Arbuckle is his hands. Look at the way he tosses around a blade and chunks of meat in The Butcher Boy; Arbuckle was famed as the most accurate pie-tosser in Hollywood, but he could apparently handle anything with dextrous brilliance and remarkable accuracy. The nonchalant way in which Arbuckle rolls a cigarette with one hand, lights it by striking a match against a passing freight train, and then disappears out of shot by grabbing the back of the train is a display of skill and athleticism that Keaton would have admired.
This was the ideal environment for Keaton to work in and learn the filmmaking trade, but it’s easy to see why he wanted to move on and establish his own independent productions. Arbuckle was a skilled comic director capable of staging inventive sequences, but his films were also conventional and ramshackle in their construction, with the two halves of his shorts often seeming to be two different comic premises being strung together by the most tenuous of links, such as in The Bell Boy‘s hotel-based antics somehow segueing into a bank robbery. We can see Keaton’s influence emerging as we watch Arbuckle’s films, with more of the mechanical and intricate gags that so fascinated him, and more stunts and jokes that would be later repurposed by Keaton in his own pictures. He had bigger ambitions than he could realise under Arbuckle’s tutelage, and the first film released by Keaton as a solo venture feels like a statement of intent, crystallising so many of the themes, ideas and stylistic choices that would come to define his work.
One Week is a perfect two-reeler. It has one simple idea, unfolding over the course of seven days, and Keaton squeezes as much mileage out of it as possible. In Keaton’s films it often feels as if the entire environment is conspiring against him and that’s definitely true here, as the prefab house that he and his new bride construct from faulty plans defeats him at every turn. So many Keaton touchstones are present in this early short; from the alternately cynical and sweet view of married life to the star being buffeted by hurricane winds; from an open window landing right where he is standing to a threatening encounter with a train. That climactic train gag is a thing of beauty, brilliantly staged in a single shot, and shifting from danger into stunned laughter with breathtaking fluidity, but One Week is full of ingenious moments, the most notable involving his co-star Sybil Seely. We see her taking a bath and dropping the soap over the side, but just as she is about to reach for it she becomes aware of the audience watching her, and a hand appears from behind the camera to cover the lens. It’s a strikingly imaginative bit of fourth-wall-breaking, but might it be Keaton’s own homage to Arbuckle, who similarly asked the cameraman to tilt away in Coney Island so he could remove his trousers?
One Week may feel like an auspicious debut, but it wasn’t the first two-reeler he made. Keaton had already shot The High Sign but, displeased with the results, he left it on the shelf to focus on other projects. It was actually the seventh film he released, only emerging into public view when a broken leg sustained in a 12-foot fall while shooting The Electric House left the director with a gap in his production schedule. Keaton was unhappy with some aspects of his character, who steals a policeman’s gun early on before thumbing his nose at the audience later when avoiding a banana skin, and perhaps the film doesn’t flow as seamlessly as One Week, but it’s hard to see how Keaton could have been dissatisfied enough with this film to initially refuse to release it. The High Sign is rife with inspired moments, from surreal little asides (Buster painting a hook on a wall to hang his hat; a man getting his neck jammed in a closed door) to extraordinary large-scale set-pieces, with the chase around the escape-filled house at the end dividing the screen into quarters and filling it with frenetic action.
In fact, Keaton’s short films have a wild, experimental, anything-goes spirit that is quite distinct from his later feature films. “We had to stop doing impossible gags, what we called cartoon gags” he later said. “We lost all of that when we started doing feature pictures. They had to be believable.” A perfect example of this is his 1921 short The Playhouse, a film devised after Keaton’s The Electric House injury, when he was looking for a project that would be less physically demanding (what a fortuitous leg break that turned out to be). Instead, this film is spectacular for its visual trickery, with Keaton playing every character in the first half of the short, including the entire orchestra and all of the performers onstage. It’s a dazzling display of filmmaking technique by Keaton and his regular cameraman Elgin Lessley (nicknamed The Metronome for his precise hand-cranking skill), and even as The Playhouse develops into a series of more surreal and disjointed incidents in its second half, Keaton maintains a strong sense of thematic consistency through his use of mirrors, doubles, twins and even two one-armed men who sit next to each other in order to applaud.
Buster Keaton didn’t want to be making two-reelers in 1921, and had asked Joe Schenck to think bigger when he signed his contract with the producer. “I suggested that I only make features in the future but he wouldn’t agree. Schenck insisted I return to the two-reel field. I couldn’t convince him that comedy features were the coming thing,” he said. “If I’d won that argument it could have made a big difference in my career. Neither Chaplin nor Lloyd were making features at that time, and I would have had a head start on both of them.” Keaton might have resented losing that battle, but the treasures he left us with are priceless. He made masterpieces in a longer form later on, but to watch Buster Keaton’s short films is to see a genius exploring both his own boundaries and the boundaries of cinema itself, working with complete freedom, and doing things that nobody else has done before or since. As an audience member (played by Buster) observes in The Playhouse: “This fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show.”
Buster Keaton: The Complete Short Films 1917-1923 is released on Blu-ray today by Eureka.