ARBUCKLE & KEATON, VOL. 1 (2001) – Comedy compilation more historical than hysterical

(To Lea at the delightful silent-film blog Silent-ology: Sorry for the following sacrilege.)
ArbuckleKeaton
Kino Video probably issued the Arbuckle and Keaton, Vol. 1 DVD based on the strength of Kino’s earlier, mostly flawless Buster Keaton compilations. And in spite of this DVD touting some short subjects of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle at the height of his fame, Keaton remains the DVD’s main draw — at least, for me.

The story goes that in the late 1910’s, Arbuckle was America’s second-most-popular comedian, bowing only to Charlie Chaplin. When Arbuckle met up with Buster Keaton, he recognized Keaton’s comedy strengths and debuted Keaton in his movies as an ever-reliable sidekick.

Yet based on the evidence shown here, Keaton in even secondary roles was someone to keep an eye on, while Arbuckle’s appeal has assuredly diminished over the years. Unlike Chaplin or the solo Keaton, Arbuckle has little of a persona to fall back on. One can imagine how Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Keaton’s Stone Face would react in a given situation. But Arbuckle seems to change his stripes whenever any gag, in or out of character, presents itself. About the only persona that emerges for Fatty is that he’s…well, fat.

And the plotlines, concocted mostly by Arbuckle, are just as arbitrary as his character. The short The Bellboy (1918) begins in a hotel and segues strangely to a bank that’s being robbed. The Butcher Boy (1917, and Keaton’s film debut) begins in a grocery store and switches to a girls’ boarding school.

But unlike Arbuckle, who all but winks at the audience in an attempt to win their love, Keaton plays straight no matter the situation and scores points all around. Out West (1918) presents Keaton as a barroom gunslinger, and just by force of personality, he makes you believe it. And heaven knows, nobody could take a fall or elaborate a simple gag better than Buster.

Arbuckle’s hoary stories are not helped by racist humor (in Out West, barroom bullies shoot at the feet of a frightened black man, and Arbuckle goes right along with the bullies) and by musical accompaniment (by “The Alloy Orchestra,” according to liner notes) that rates as Kino’s worst.

Anyone with an interest in Buster Keaton’s humble film origins might want to give this a look. Silent-film buffs might be drawn in initially but will most likely lose interest about halfway through.
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Charlie Chaplin in THE MASQUERADER (1914) – Baby, look at you now

masquerader

The Masquerader is clearly another attempt to show a comedy behind-the-scenes at the Keystone Studios (identified as such within the movie). Chaplin has brief scenes with his Keystone peers Roscoe Arbuckle (very funny) and Chester Conklin (middling).

This is also one of only three times in which Chaplin impersonated a woman on-screen. The premise is that Chaplin is fired from the studio by a director (Charles Murray) who dislikes him. So the next day, Chaplin returns to the studio in drag (a title identifies him in get-up as “a fairy”!).

There are some lovely comic opportunities here that go explored only about halfway. First off, Chaplin makes his initial appearance as Chaplin; he changes into his Tramp costume a few minutes into the film. So for once, we’re expected to accept Chaplin on the screen as Chaplin, even though he is put through the usual “Charlie-esque” paces.

Second, this movie is the second of Chaplin’s three on-screen female impersonations, and it certainly fits right in the middle. Unlike A Busy Day, where he hammed it up as a broad, and the later Essanay A Woman, where he’s a startlingly convincing female, here he does almost nothing with the gimmick, perhaps because of the one-reel time constriction. Pity that such a fertile idea wasn’t allowed to run its course, while an arse-kicking fest such as The Property Man was allowed two whole reels.