You’re the One for Me, Fatty
We inevitably look at the 13 two-reel comedies starring Roscoe Arbuckle and co-starring Buster Keaton through the wrong end of the telescope—intent on finding evidence of Keaton’s nascent genius at the very beginning of his screen career, when he was only 21 years old. But the revelation of the new Kino Blu-ray set that packages all of Keaton’s starring shorts along with his apprentice work with Arbuckle is not Keaton, but Arbuckle.
Throughout the collaboration, Keaton functions as a high-end second banana, properly adjusting to the rhythms of the star. Compared to the wary solemnity of his later comic persona, Keaton is invariably enthusiastic, smiling and laughing.
He’s good, he’s a natural, but so is Al St. John, Arbuckle’s nephew, whose falls are every bit as bone-crushing as Keaton’s, and who was still doing them a quarter century later, as the comic foil for Buster Crabbe’s western hero at Producers Releasing Corporation—the lowest rung of Poverty Row. St. John had mad physical skills, but he was basically limited to playing rubes.
As for Arbuckle . . . Arbuckle was special. He’s heavy, but he’s solid—not flabby. His stock in trade is a boyishness that rarely tilts over into coyness and which compensates for the occasional crudity, as in Oh, Doctor! (1917), where Arbuckle plays Dr. Holepoke, while Keaton is his son, Junior Holepoke, in an obnoxious Buster Brown suit. (Trigger alert: the belittling darky humor that shows up in Keaton’s work, and for which he is invariably—and oddly—given a pass, is also frequently present in Arbuckle’s. Besides the blood-curdling racial attitudes endemic for people born in the 19th century, training in rough-and-ready venues such as medicine shows [Arbuckle] and vaudeville [Keaton] were not calculated to gentle those attitudes.)
Arbuckle is always extremely charming and likable and an interesting physical specimen—at one point in His Wedding Night (1917), Arbuckle picks up Al St. John as if he’s a medicine ball and heaves him a good eight feet out of the frame. St. John weighed at least 140 pounds.
Besides his skills as a comedian, Arbuckle was an excellent director. The camera is usually in the right place, and 1918’s Out West expertly dissects every visual and behavioral cliché of the western on the books at that time, which is to say most of them.
Arbuckle manages to do all this in spite of a predominantly manic comic rhythm. Mack Sennett, for whom Arbuckle worked for five years before he went out on his own in 1917, was a hard taskmaster, at least in terms of his expectations. Sennett expected a joke to pay off almost immediately—the plant and the visual punchline were separated by seconds, not minutes.
Until the advent of Hal Roach and Laurel & Hardy, who specialized in lengthy anticipation at least as important as the gag itself, speed was the sine qua non of silent comedy. The only notable exception to Sennett’s habitual rush would be Harry Langdon in the 1920s, whose character of an adult baby mandated a pace akin to senile dementia.
Sennett-style hurly-burly can become an oppressive blur. Arbuckle wasn’t working for Sennett anymore, but he was working for an audience that had been conditioned by Sennett, so these films still move at a sprint. But Arbuckle consistently finds space to intersperse grace notes. In The Butcher Boy (1917), he throws hunks of meat over his shoulder onto conveniently located hooks on the wall behind him, and he tosses knives in the air so that they consistently land in the butcher’s block point down.
The Rough House
The Blu-ray set also provides plenty of examples of the way different comics used set gags. In The Rough House (1917)—a good title for a book about Sennett—Arbuckle stabs a couple of forks into dinner rolls and does a quick rough draft of the routine Chaplin did in The Gold Rush (1925). The difference is that Arbuckle tosses the moment off in a few seconds, where Chaplin carefully builds an entire sequence around it.
In the same film, Arbuckle sets his bed on fire after falling asleep while smoking. He gets up, plods into the dining room and fills a coffee cup with water. Plodding back into the bedroom, he tosses the minute amount of water onto the bed, which is now a major conflagration. The fire continues to rage. It’s a good gag, and Keaton would dust it off and recast it for The General (1926), when he instructs Marion Mack—another one of his slightly dim leading ladies—to feed the boiler of the locomotive with wood. She picks up a twig and tosses it in. He pauses a moment to take in the full extent of her stupidity, mock-strangles her, then kisses her. She may be an idiot, but she’s his idiot. Keaton expands the gag to encompass a touch of loving chivalry.
In Coney Island (1917), a pleasing location knockabout, Arbuckle is changing into a bathing suit when he notices the camera and urges it to move. It is only after the camera obediently pans up that he proceeds to change his pants. Keaton repeated the joke with his leading lady in a bathtub scene in One Week (1920).
Silent comedians understood that gags that worked in silence were finite—a deck of cards, if you will. The level of skill in deploying those cards, the inflection provided by differing characterization and comic variations constituted the difference between major and minor talents.
In 1918, Keaton left Arbuckle to go into the Army. When his hitch was up, he returned to his friend, who was about to be promoted to features. Joe Schenck, the Godfather of the early movie industry, tapped Keaton to step in and star in the shorts that Schenck—Keaton’s future brother-in-law—had been producing for Arbuckle. Keaton quickly came into his comic personality: observant, analytic, but flummoxed by a world with which he seemed unfamiliar.
Arbuckle’s features are a regressive come-down from his two-reelers, relying mostly on his charm. The roughness is toned down, as is the racism, but so is the zest, the authenticity. Paramount was becoming an increasingly homogenized company, and Arbuckle features like The Round-Up (1920), Life of the Party (1920), or Leap Year (1924) could just as well have been adapted for the studio’s stock leading men such as Thomas Meighan. Besides that, the directors Paramount assigned to the features (George Melford, James Cruze) were markedly inferior to Arbuckle.
Speaking of the wrong end of the telescope: we look at Arbuckle through our knowledge of his dismal fate—the manslaughter charge that dragged him through two hung juries before he was finally acquitted in his third trial. After that, he was blacklisted; to survive he pseudonymously directed films that lacked his characteristic energy. A brief comeback starring in sound shorts at Warner Bros. ended when he died in June 1933 of a fatal heart attack in his room at the Park Central Hotel, across the street from Carnegie Hall. Keaton always regarded Arbuckle as a close friend and kept a portrait of him in the den of his home in Woodland Hills until his own death in 1966.
But these lusty, invariably clever films attest to the fact that Roscoe Arbuckle didn’t know he was a tragedy waiting to happen. This man was large in ways beyond his waistline. The truth is that Roscoe Arbuckle didn’t need Buster Keaton; rather, Buster Keaton needed Arbuckle—certainly for mentoring in the disciplines of staging and camera placement, but also for Arbuckle’s emphasis on stylish dexterity and comic characterization.
There are half a dozen books about Arbuckle’s trials—legal and psychological— but there is no serious biography. Somebody needs to step up.
Scott Eyman has written 13 books about the movies, including John Wayne: The Life and Legend. He teaches film history at the University of Miami.