Buster Keaton

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The Bell Boy

The Bell Boy was Buster's eighth short with Roscoe Arbuckle, released about five months after Coney Island. The plot is a bit more complex, including a faked bank robbery crossing paths with a real bank robbery. It contains passing topical references to the European war: Fatty as barber remakes a Rasputin-like customer to Grant to Lincoln to the Kaiser (5:30), whom he then splatters with soapsuds; a restaurant sign reads "French and German Cooking" with "and German" crossed out (8:45). Fatty mugs directly into the camera at his first appearance (0:35), but otherwise the fourth wall is not broken as blatently as in the earlier short. Buster and Fatty wear bellboy caps, no porkpie hat here, and Buster's later deadpan is not yet in evidence (he smiles at 3:00, for example). The obvious comedic potential of the hotel lobby stairs (0:45) amazingly remains untapped, but several mechanical gags suggest later Keaton: a basket suspended on a wire transports hot towels from kitchen to barber shop (5:30), a horse-powered elevator is reliable at first (7:15), later balky (10:30). Buster carefully polishes a telephone booth window that proves to be imaginary (1:30).

The Bell Boy features more spectacular acrobatics by Buster and Al St. John, as well as a great fall by Fatty (7:30). Buster twice does a 360 degree turn while falling (3:15, 17:45), and Al somersaults over a table to land seated in a chair (9:30). A static shot in the bank looks into two rooms with partitions between (16:00); Buster enters left with a somersault through the teller's window, then climbs and flips over each of two dividing walls to exit right. Shortly after, Al St. John does the same, but crashing through each partition's window rather than flipping over it.

The funniest gags use the classic repeated gag pattern (if it's funny the first time, it will be funnier the second or third time, especially if unexpected): the suspended basket thrice knocks the hat off of a guest (played by Buster's father Joe Keaton) who punches the innocent Buster (9:00, then again seconds later) and Al (at 9:30), Fatty takes an urn to the face twice during the bank robbery (17:20). Where Coney Island has a brief Keystone Kops chase, The Bell Boy has a less successful chase involving a horse-drawn tram (18:30); it's not very funny.

The TCM print runs much shorter than the length given by Wikipedia (20:30 vs. 33:00). The print is tinted starting from the bank robbery (15:45); blue tinting is common to suggest nighttime, but the sepia tinting for the bank interior serves no useful purpose, it's just irritating. Wikipedia says much The Bell Boy material as reused in the 1939 film Love Nest on Wheels, which I have not seen.


Coney Island

Coney Island was Buster's fifth short with Roscoe Arbuckle. It's mostly Fatty's show, with plenty of shameless mugging and cross-dressing. The opening establishing shot shows Luna Park at night in time-lapse, and several later scenes are staged on entertaining Coney Island attractions. The film breaches the fourth wall many times: Fatty winks directly to the camera when he gets a bright idea (2:15, 19:15), and most notably he instructs the cameraman to pan upwards before he removes his pants (12:30).

There's little plot and still less subtlety of character. Except for mild cross-dressing jokes, the comedy is pure slapstick. Still, many of the pratfalls are amazing, showing off the dexterity of vaudevillians Keaton and Al St. John. They take a spectacular tumble together when two cars on The Witching Waves ride collide (6:30). Later, St. John balances upside-down and flays his legs while falling over backwards (8:15, 21:15). Buster throws in a standing backflip for no particular reason (18:00). Fatty takes his share of falls too, but they are less dramatically acrobatic than those of Keaton and St. John.

Buster wears a flat hat like his later porkpie from his first appearance (0:30). Otherwise, his later character traits are not yet in evidence. He's far from deadpan: like Fatty and St. John, he mugs shamelessly, crying when he's broke and a rival pays for his girl's ticket (4:45), later laughing when he unknowingly hits Fatty with a huge test-of-strength hammer at the Dial Striker (9:15) and again when he outs Fatty's drag disguise to Fatty's wife (19:30). As usual, Buster gets his girl in the end (with a kiss at 22:15). Keaton does double duty, playing the fourth mustachioed cop (most recognizable between Arbuckle and St. John at 22:45) in addition to his main character. He also stands in as stunt double for the girl when Fatty and the girl get catapulted out of their boat at the bottom of the water slide (6:30), with Buster shooting dramatically out of the top of the frame.


The Garage

The Garage was Buster's fourteenth and last short with Roscoe Arbuckle, released about four months after Back Stage. Like many of Arbuckle's two-reelers, it consists of two mostly disconnected halves. Fatty and Buster work in a garage owned by Rube (Daniel Crimmins) in the first half, and the garage is also a firehouse staffed by Fatty and Buster in the second half. Most of it is not particularly funny, but it has some wonderful physical comedy, mostly involving Buster. Fatty takes a nice fall too (2:10), but his character is undeveloped. The love interest, Rube's daughter Molly (Molly Malone), relates to neither Fatty nor Buster.

Borrowing a gag used by Buster in The Bell Boy, The Garage opens with Fatty polishing the window of a car, which Fatty then reaches through to show it does not exist (0:25). Soon he and Buster are throwing wet rags, buckets of water, pies, and tires at one another (2:00), resulting in predictable pratfalls. Their use of a large motorized turntable to wash and dry a car (4:00) is not particularly funny, but it establishes the prop for later. After Fatty walks on the rotating turntable (8:50), Buster performs a spectacular sequence on it: somersault, backflip, backflip/roll off turntable into wall, back onto turntable for another somersault and backflip, finally running on the turntable until Fatty tackles him (9:00).

Too much of The Garage is uninspired: a rented car falls apart as soon as it leaves the garage (4:30), oil from a car covers Molly and her beau (6:45), a fake mad dog is chased with large nets (10:00), a fire starts in the garage/firehouse (15:30) leading to silly business with a leaky hose (16:00), and Molly bounces atop telephone wires (17:30). Firemen Buster and Fatty set up an elaborate mechanical rope and pulley system to remove their bedclothes and nightshirts when a firebell rings (14:00), but the gag feels forced, less amusing than Buster moments earlier acrobatically pulling himself up the firepole upside down (13:40). One odd cinematic moment is reminiscent of the breaking of the fourth wall in Fatty's early shorts: when Fatty's face gets smeared with oil, Buster leads him right up to the camera before he wipes him off (6:15).

Buster gets stuck in a fence during the mad dog chase and the dog bites the seat of Buster's pants (10:45). Pantless Buster dons a barrel, but the barrel breaks, leaving a passing lady aghast, and she brings in a cop. Buster dons a paper kilt and tam cut from a poster to convince the cop he's a kilted scot, but then spins around to reveal no pants under his 2D kilt. Fatty rescues Buster from the persuing cop with their best joint moment: Buster walks very close behind Fatty in step with him (12:25), then Fatty performs a perfectly executed sidestep and spin to move behind Buster. Finally, Buster grabs a pair of pants while passing a store, and when Fatty lifts him as they walk he puts them on without pausing.


Good Night, Nurse

Good Night, Nurse was Buster's tenth short with Roscoe Arbuckle, released about four months after The Bell Boy. Buster plays a doctor (Dr. Hampton per Wikipedia, but simply The Doctor in the TCM print) at No Hope Sanitarium (8:00), but he has little to do beyond getting decked and thrown (15:30) and roped (16:40) by Fatty. Buster does double duty briefly as a windblown woman with umbrella in the opening scene (1:00), finishing with a nice high kick at Fatty (1:30).

Much more than either Coney Island or The Bell Boy, Good Night, Nurse is almost entirely Fatty's show, and little of it is very funny. It has neither the spectacular falls nor the inventive machinery of the earlier two reelers. Even Fatty's crossdressing is barely funny (14:00). The ending reveals most of the action (from 10:30 to 18:45) to have been a dream sequence, with Fatty under ether, but there's nothing particularly funny about that either.

David Robinson's Buster Keaton describes Al St. John (identified as Arbuckle's brother-in-law, though Wikipedia says he is Arbuckle's nephew) as "one of the least talented and least lovable slapstick comedians". But I love his acrobatic stunts in the earlier shorts, in spite of his terrible mugging and his repetitive overuse of a right-angle turn (8:40, 16:15 here). Here he is uninteresting as Keaton's assistant, though he does perform a nice forward one-and-a-half dive into a pool (13:15). On the other hand, Alice Lake, as the looney girl who kisses Fatty while his wife watches (8:10), has an opportunity to show some personality here, and she's much funnier than before.

Unrelated to the film, but interesting to me as a cultural artifact: the men in the Fat Man's Race are large, but few would qualify as fat in America almost a century later. Arbuckle is large but certainly not grotesquely obese; he would barely merit his nickname today.


Back Stage

Back Stage was Buster's 12th short with Roscoe Arbuckle. released over a year after Good Night, Nurse. (Buster spent almost a year in France after he was drafted.) It has a more developed plot than the earlier two reelers: the backstage hands (Fatty, Buster, and Al) at the theater ("opry house", per title card) put on a show when the featured acts walk out. This time around, Buster appears in drag rather than Fatty, playing a girl in their show.

Buster performs several wonderful bits. He appears to walk down and up a flight of stairs (2:15), but Fatty removes a plank to show he really does not. He bends over backwards imitating an eccentric dancer (Jack Coogan Sr., father of Jackie) and takes a nice fall when Fatty knocks his feet out from under him with a broom. As a girl in the stage show, he does a spectacular acrobatic series of butterfly kicks (10:00). And an iconic Keaton stunt makes its first appearance, later to reappear in One Week and most famously in Steamboat Bill Jr.: a stage flat depicting a building front falls toward ukulele-strumming Fatty after Buster kicks out its support, but Fatty stands untouched precisely where a window lands. Buster and Fatty milk the joke for more laughs when they try unsuccessfully to reerect the flat.


Back Stage

Back Stage was Buster's 12th short with Roscoe Arbuckle. released over a year after Good Night, Nurse. (Buster spent almost a year in France after he was drafted.) It has a more developed plot than the earlier two reelers: the backstage hands (Fatty, Buster, and Al) at the theater ("opry house", per title card) put on a show when the featured acts walk out. This time around, Buster appears in drag rather than Fatty, playing a girl in their show.

Buster performs several wonderful bits. He appears to walk down and up a flight of stairs (2:15), but Fatty removes a plank to show he really does not. He bends over backwards imitating an eccentric dancer (Jack Coogan Sr., father of Jackie) and takes a nice fall when Fatty knocks his feet out from under him with a broom. As a girl in the stage show, he does a spectacular acrobatic series of butterfly kicks (10:00). And an iconic Keaton stunt makes its first appearance, later to reappear in One Week and most famously in Steamboat Bill Jr.: a stage flat depicting a building front falls toward ukulele-strumming Fatty after Buster kicks out its support, but Fatty stands untouched precisely where a window lands. Buster and Fatty milk the joke for more laughs when they try unsuccessfully to reerect the flat.


The Bell Boy

The Bell Boy was Buster's eighth short with Roscoe Arbuckle, released about five months after Coney Island. The plot is a bit more complex, including a faked bank robbery crossing paths with a real bank robbery. It contains passing topical references to the European war: Fatty as barber remakes a Rasputin-like customer to Grant to Lincoln to the Kaiser (5:30), whom he then splatters with soapsuds; a restaurant sign reads "French and German Cooking" with "and German" crossed out (8:45). Fatty mugs directly into the camera at his first appearance (0:35), but otherwise the fourth wall is not broken as blatently as in the earlier short. Buster and Fatty wear bellboy caps, no porkpie hat here, and Buster's later deadpan is not yet in evidence (he smiles at 3:00, for example). The obvious comedic potential of the hotel lobby stairs (0:45) amazingly remains untapped, but several mechanical gags suggest later Keaton: a basket suspended on a wire transports hot towels from kitchen to barber shop (5:30), a horse-powered elevator is reliable at first (7:15), later balky (10:30). Buster carefully polishes a telephone booth window that proves to be imaginary (1:30).

The Bell Boy features more spectacular acrobatics by Buster and Al St. John, as well as a great fall by Fatty (7:30). Buster twice does a 360 degree turn while falling (3:15, 17:45), and Al somersaults over a table to land seated in a chair (9:30). A static shot in the bank looks into two rooms with partitions between (16:00); Buster enters left with a somersault through the teller's window, then climbs and flips over each of two dividing walls to exit right. Shortly after, Al St. John does the same, but crashing through each partition's window rather than flipping over it.

The funniest gags use the classic repeated gag pattern (if it's funny the first time, it will be funnier the second or third time, especially if unexpected): the suspended basket thrice knocks the hat off of a guest (played by Buster's father Joe Keaton) who punches the innocent Buster (9:00, then again seconds later) and Al (at 9:30), Fatty takes an urn to the face twice during the bank robbery (17:20). Where Coney Island has a brief Keystone Kops chase, The Bell Boy has a less successful chase involving a horse-drawn tram (18:30); it's not very funny.

The TCM print runs much shorter than the length given by Wikipedia (20:30 vs. 33:00). The print is tinted starting from the bank robbery (15:45); blue tinting is common to suggest nighttime, but the sepia tinting for the bank interior serves no useful purpose, it's just irritating. Wikipedia says much The Bell Boy material as reused in the 1939 film Love Nest on Wheels, which I have not seen.


Coney Island

Coney Island was Buster's fifth short with Roscoe Arbuckle. It's mostly Fatty's show, with plenty of shameless mugging and cross-dressing. The opening establishing shot shows Luna Park at night in time-lapse, and several later scenes are staged on entertaining Coney Island attractions. The film breaches the fourth wall many times: Fatty winks directly to the camera when he gets a bright idea (2:15, 19:15), and most notably he instructs the cameraman to pan upwards before he removes his pants (12:30).

There's little plot and still less subtlety of character. Except for mild cross-dressing jokes, the comedy is pure slapstick. Still, many of the pratfalls are amazing, showing off the dexterity of vaudevillians Keaton and Al St. John. They take a spectacular tumble together when two cars on The Witching Waves ride collide (6:30). Later, St. John balances upside-down and flays his legs while falling over backwards (8:15, 21:15). Buster throws in a standing backflip for no particular reason (18:00). Fatty takes his share of falls too, but they are less dramatically acrobatic than those of Keaton and St. John.

Buster wears a flat hat like his later porkpie from his first appearance (0:30). Otherwise, his later character traits are not yet in evidence. He's far from deadpan: like Fatty and St. John, he mugs shamelessly, crying when he's broke and a rival pays for his girl's ticket (4:45), later laughing when he unknowingly hits Fatty with a huge test-of-strength hammer at the Dial Striker (9:15) and again when he outs Fatty's drag disguise to Fatty's wife (19:30). As usual, Buster gets his girl in the end (with a kiss at 22:15). Keaton does double duty, playing the fourth mustachioed cop (most recognizable between Arbuckle and St. John at 22:45) in addition to his main character. He also stands in as stunt double for the girl when Fatty and the girl get catapulted out of their boat at the bottom of the water slide (6:30), with Buster shooting dramatically out of the top of the frame.


The Garage

The Garage was Buster's fourteenth and last short with Roscoe Arbuckle, released about four months after Back Stage. Like many of Arbuckle's two-reelers, it consists of two mostly disconnected halves. Fatty and Buster work in a garage owned by Rube (Daniel Crimmins) in the first half, and the garage is also a firehouse staffed by Fatty and Buster in the second half. Most of it is not particularly funny, but it has some wonderful physical comedy, mostly involving Buster. Fatty takes a nice fall too (2:10), but his character is undeveloped. The love interest, Rube's daughter Molly (Molly Malone), relates to neither Fatty nor Buster.

Borrowing a gag used by Buster in The Bell Boy, The Garage opens with Fatty polishing the window of a car, which Fatty then reaches through to show it does not exist (0:25). Soon he and Buster are throwing wet rags, buckets of water, pies, and tires at one another (2:00), resulting in predictable pratfalls. Their use of a large motorized turntable to wash and dry a car (4:00) is not particularly funny, but it establishes the prop for later. After Fatty walks on the rotating turntable (8:50), Buster performs a spectacular sequence on it: somersault, backflip, backflip/roll off turntable into wall, back onto turntable for another somersault and backflip, finally running on the turntable until Fatty tackles him (9:00).

Too much of The Garage is uninspired: a rented car falls apart as soon as it leaves the garage (4:30), oil from a car covers Molly and her beau (6:45), a fake mad dog is chased with large nets (10:00), a fire starts in the garage/firehouse (15:30) leading to silly business with a leaky hose (16:00), and Molly bounces atop telephone wires (17:30). Firemen Buster and Fatty set up an elaborate mechanical rope and pulley system to remove their bedclothes and nightshirts when a firebell rings (14:00), but the gag feels forced, less amusing than Buster moments earlier acrobatically pulling himself up the firepole upside down (13:40). One odd cinematic moment is reminiscent of the breaking of the fourth wall in Fatty's early shorts: when Fatty's face gets smeared with oil, Buster leads him right up to the camera before he wipes him off (6:15).

Buster gets stuck in a fence during the mad dog chase and the dog bites the seat of Buster's pants (10:45). Pantless Buster dons a barrel, but the barrel breaks, leaving a passing lady aghast, and she brings in a cop. Buster dons a paper kilt and tam cut from a poster to convince the cop he's a kilted scot, but then spins around to reveal no pants under his 2D kilt. Fatty rescues Buster from the persuing cop with their best joint moment: Buster walks very close behind Fatty in step with him (12:25), then Fatty performs a perfectly executed sidestep and spin to move behind Buster. Finally, Buster grabs a pair of pants while passing a store, and when Fatty lifts him as they walk he puts them on without pausing.


Good Night, Nurse

Good Night, Nurse was Buster's tenth short with Roscoe Arbuckle, released about four months after The Bell Boy. Buster plays a doctor (Dr. Hampton per Wikipedia, but simply The Doctor in the TCM print) at No Hope Sanitarium (8:00), but he has little to do beyond getting decked and thrown (15:30) and roped (16:40) by Fatty. Buster does double duty briefly as a windblown woman with umbrella in the opening scene (1:00), finishing with a nice high kick at Fatty (1:30).

Much more than either Coney Island or The Bell Boy, Good Night, Nurse is almost entirely Fatty's show, and little of it is very funny. It has neither the spectacular falls nor the inventive machinery of the earlier two reelers. Even Fatty's crossdressing is barely funny (14:00). The ending reveals most of the action (from 10:30 to 18:45) to have been a dream sequence, with Fatty under ether, but there's nothing particularly funny about that either.

David Robinson's Buster Keaton describes Al St. John (identified as Arbuckle's brother-in-law, though Wikipedia says he is Arbuckle's nephew) as "one of the least talented and least lovable slapstick comedians". But I love his acrobatic stunts in the earlier shorts, in spite of his terrible mugging and his repetitive overuse of a right-angle turn (8:40, 16:15 here). Here he is uninteresting as Keaton's assistant, though he does perform a nice forward one-and-a-half dive into a pool (13:15). On the other hand, Alice Lake, as the looney girl who kisses Fatty while his wife watches (8:10), has an opportunity to show some personality here, and she's much funnier than before.

Unrelated to the film, but interesting to me as a cultural artifact: the men in the Fat Man's Race are large, but few would qualify as fat in America almost a century later. Arbuckle is large but certainly not grotesquely obese; he would barely merit his nickname today.


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