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.)
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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’s THE GOLD RUSH (1925) – The mother lode of Chaplin comedy

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The following is my entry in The Colours Blogathon, being hosted at the blog Thoughts All Sorts on Sept. 8 and 9, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ reviews of movies with very colorful titles and themes!

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

There’s not much praise that hasn’t already been bandied about for The Gold Rush, but I’ll add my two cents’ worth anyway.

If you want to introduce Charlie Chaplin to someone who has never seen his work, this one has it all. There’s, of course, Chaplin’s Tramp (here dubbed “The Lone Prospector,” trying to survive during gold- and cold-strikes in Alaska); a lovely heroine (Georgia [Georgia Hale], a dance-hall girl with whom Charlie becomes smitten), and villains big (Black Larsen [Tom Murray], one of those great, wordless silent-movie villains who exists just to be mean), medium (Jack [Malcolm Waite], who thinks he deserves Georgia more than Charlie does), and small, at least threat-wise (Big Jim McKay [the wonderful Mack Swain], who starts out tolerating Charlie and then takes him to heart).

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The movie also has set pieces that are now silent-film folklore (the boiling of the shoe in lieu of a Thanksgiving turkey, Charlie entertaining his guests with a “roll” dance) and a roll-call of memorable gags (gotta love Chaplin doing the chicken). And the pathos is perfect here, never done to excess (Who couldn’t feel for Charlie, all alone on New Year’s Eve when Georgia had half-heartedly promised she’d visit him?).

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Countless critics have complained about Chaplin’s cheapness, how he often spared a buck to do a realistic special effect. Have you ever noticed that nobody complains about cheapness for The Gold Rush? There’s probably little of this movie that couldn’t be done just as effectively on stage as a play. But when Charlie and Big Jim are about to go over the cliff inside their cabin in the movie’s climax, I don’t care if that cabin is a model or not, you feel every inch of that potential fall. (My favorite moment in the entire movie is when Big Jim, having made his way safely out of the tottering cabin and found his lost gold stake, suddenly breaks out of his reverie when Charlie yells for help. Cut to a wide-eyed Charlie, beckoning a single finger to Big Jim, as if he was just asking for help cleaning up the cabin.)

Some movies go straight past the logical side of your brain and head for that primal spot where the kid in you still resides and responds. When such a movie fails or goes over-the-top, you find yourself embarrassed to look at the screen; when the movie is operating on all cylinders, it’s something like The Gold Rush.

Charlie Chaplin in PAY DAY (1922) – A comedy that hits pay dirt

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Pay Day is Chaplin’s truly worthy finale to the genre that first brought him fame, the short subject. Although he obviously had bigger things on his mind at this point than simply “riffing” on a series of gags a la Mack Sennett, Chaplin nevertheless proved he still had it in him to do so.

The movie is mostly a series of vignettes on a day in the life of construction worker Charlie. The movie is basically divided into thirds: his day on the job, confounding his boss (Mack Swain) and his co-workers; drinking his troubles away in the evening; and trying to avoid his sleeping wife once he gets home at 5 a.m.

Edna Purviance makes a token appearance her as the boss’ daughter, but seen in retrospect, Chaplin already saw the writing on the wall as far as Purviance getting too old for this sort of role, as she is used most minimally here. Sadly, the major female presence is Phyllis Allen as Charlie’s harridan wife. Even in his time, Chaplin’s critics complained about how idealized his movie women usually were, but they were certainly preferable to this battle-ax stereotype (whose big, screaming mouth and hair-in-curls hideously fills the movie’s final shot).

As always, the best gags involve transposition. When Charlie and his drunken friends hold an outside serenade, and a woman two floors above dumps water on them, Charlie naturally assumes it’s a downfall and opens up his umbrella. Continually trying and failing to catch nearby streetcars, Charlie happens upon an open lunch wagon and, in his drunken state, hopefully boards it for a ride home.

Pay Day isn’t Chaplin’s greatest comedy by any means, but compared to the two opening shorts he did for First National (Sunnyside and A Day’s Pleasure), it comes as a welcome relief for his finale in the short-subject arena.

Charlie Chaplin in THE BOND (1918) – Buy bonds today!

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The Bond is a half-reel short created by Chaplin at his own expense for the Liberty Loan Committee, to aid in the World War I effort. As you can guess, its purpose was to promote the sale of U.S. savings bonds.

The short’s sketches depict various kinds of bonds:

* friendship (Albert Austin plays an old acquaintance who greets Charlie on the street, ostensibly to have some laughs and discuss old times, but eventually to hit him up for cash);

* love (Edna Purviance, at her most lush, woos Charlie on a park bench, with a little help from a cute cherub playing Cupid from behind a cardboard moon);

* marriage (Edna has now wooed Charlie to the point of matrimony, but he doesn’t look very happy about it — perhaps a portent of Chaplin’s future, real-life marriages); and finally,

* the Liberty Bond (Chaplin’s real-life brother Sydney plays The Kaiser, whom Charlie knocks cold with an oversized mallet labeled “Liberty Bonds,” just in case we haven’t gotten the message by now).

Among The Bond‘s many interests is its stylized look, with its actors and tiny settings glowing against black backgrounds — it’s like the sunny version of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Also a delight is Chaplin’s genuine laughter in the final shot, giving evidence that he enjoyed making this out-of-the-norm bauble.

Obviously the movie’s message has dated, but its considerable charms have not.

Charlie Chaplin in THE MASQUERADER (1914) – Baby, look at you now

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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.

Charlie Chaplin in THE STAR BOARDER (1914) – Always burn the photos

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Chaplin plays the title role, a lodger of whom his landlady (Minta Durfee) is inordinately fond, much to the detriment of her husband (Edgar Kennedy). One night after dinner, their son puts on a “magic lantern” show that includes some photos of Charlie and the landlady in (relatively) compromising positions. The husband goes ballistic, and the landlady gives the brat a well-deserved spanking.

Cute and funny enough, though as always, some of the best moments are Chaplin doing nothing in particular (as when he bounces a tennis ball and gets “attacked” by it). You also find yourself wondering what the landlady sees in this guy that nobody else does.

Buster Keaton in THE BALLOONATIC (1923) – Free-floating comedy

 

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As Buster Keaton’s penultimate short subject for his own studio, The Balloonatic — more even than The High Sign or many shorts that Keaton demeaned — seems more “gaggy” than most of his shorts.

The story begins with Buster happening into a carnival’s Tunnel of Love ride into which he rides a boat with a total stranger (Phyllis Haver). The movie doesn’t show Buster trying to put moves on the woman, but we guess what has transpired when the boat emerges: the woman is tight-lipped and smug, and Buster sports an upturned hat and a black eye.

Later, Buster happens on to a hot-air balloon that is about to be launched. Buster wants to be involved, so he is given a banner to hang from the top of the balloon. The balloon is launched before Buster has a chance to dismount, and the balloon takes him to a secluded area of forest, where he runs into the same girl, who is camping in the wilderness.

As always, the set-up yields its fair share of funny gags. The problem with most of the gags is that most of them don’t seem individually “Buster.” Keaton’s best comedy results from his persona’s personal reaction to the crazy world around him. But there’s not a whole lot of material in The Balloonatic that any anonymous comedian couldn’t do. (One example is when Buster paddles a canoe and then “walks” it to shore via a hole in the canoe where he has placed his feet, rather like “The Flintstones'” primitive automobile.)

Another problem is the obvious fakery of some of the gags. Keaton often expressed the view that if a gag looked as though it was faked, it was better off not being done at all. There is one scene with Buster and a real-looking, menacing bear that is quite startling in its lack of fakery. On the other hand, when Buster is atop the floating balloon or is about to ride his canoe over a deadly waterfall, the editing makes it perfectly obvious that Keaton is not in any real danger. That sounds sadistic, I know, and I wouldn’t have wished upon Keaton any more physical peril than he himself wrought. It’s just that, from the beginning, Keaton set the bar so high for such authenticity that when he really does fake something, the viewer feels let down.

One would like to attribute this situation-comedy ordinariness to the fact that Keaton was winding up his short-subject work. But his final independent short, The Love Nest, is as inventive and physically perilous as anything he ever did. In the career of most other comics, The Balloonatic would probably be a high point; coming from Keaton, it seems decidedly earthbound.