Arbuckle & Keaton.

13Dec11

I recently bought the Eureka boxset of Buster Keaton’s complete short films, from 1917 to 1923. It really is a marvellous collection, and anyone keen to explore this name that you’ve no doubt heard of, but have probably seen nothing by, these early shorts would be a great place to start for obvious, chronological reasons. It comes with a context-setting booklet to compliment the DVDs, ensuring you’ll be revering Buster as much as you do Chaplin in no time.

I’ll pick out my highlights as I plough through them this Christmas, but for now a word or two on the early members of this collection, in which Keaton is consistently a sidekick to the more prominent Fatty Arbuckle.

Yes, I thought that was just the name of minor restaurant chain to rival TGI Fridays that you see now and again in the UK too, but apparently old Arbuckle was the King of silent cinema. He was the first multimillion pound movie star (in real terms, his contract with Warner Bros would now be worth over $20m, which makes him undoubtedly a modern day A-Lister), the first comic genius that went on to teach both Keaton and Chaplin, and the only apparent reason why he’s less well known today is the career-destroying scandal in which he was accused (and later acquitted) of rape and involuntary manslaughter.

Either way, his diminished reputation is certainly not down to any lack of talent or staying power. For a man of his size, in all of these joint-efforts with Keaton he shows a remarkable aptitude for physical maneuvering, not to mention the presence in all of his films of the type of gags that have come synonymous with the silent short comedy genre.

He seems particularly keen on mess-based humour, at least when he’s not busy knife-spinning (this being back in the pre-CGI days; and, it seems, before health and safety). I don’t think any of the shorts I’ve watched so far have failed to have at least one incident involving exploding powder packets or a spilt gooey mixture covering someone, and before long these minor accidents are sure to transpire into manic scenes of pure pandemonium.

There’s also an odd but intriguing inclination to use cross-dressing as a source of laughter, one of the funniest moments coming in His Wedding Night when a head-covered Buster in a bride’s dress is, naturally, mistakenly married to a man. When his face is finally revealed Buster’s expression is that infamous deadpan that he’d evidently perfected this early on in his career on screen. The same goes for his stoical ability to be kicked, pushed and punched, before going flying on the floor and getting back up again without a care in the world.

There’s flashes of what’s to come in Keaton’s minor roles in these Arbuckle films, but their primary importance seems to be as sources of inspiration for his own later filmmaking and themes. The general narrative frame of an outsider having to wow a woman and secure her against a competitor is as omnipresent as always, no less so than in Coney Island

Writing about silent cinema – even in a manner as trivial as this – is so difficult to do. It’s a bit like diving into reviews of Bach after months of describing Dylan. To group both under the art form of ‘music’ is to bizarrely pretend they have anything but the faintest of resemblances. Similarly, cinema of the 1910s really is a century away from the films we see today. This is not just before sound and colour and computers; it’s before snazzy cinematography and editing. You won’t see any tracking shots or close-ups mixed with panoramic footage in these films. The camera is always a relatively uninvolved observer.

And this is why, in a sense, it’s right to refer to the period as ‘pure’ cinema. There are no concerns here but to create and convey the most devilishly funny sequences possible, and that’s the beginning and end of the artist’s job. It takes some time to adapt to. It’s an absolute must that these are watched back to back. Without getting ‘in the mood’ it will be nigh impossible to adjust one’s eyes and ears to the unconventionality of what you are seeing. Manage that, though, and you’ll discover why these films have been preserved. If only these men could know that their early contributions to film were still cherished and enjoyed to this day.

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One Response to “Arbuckle & Keaton.”

  1. I have still to see more Buster Keaton films. next up is Steamboat Bill Jr. Interesting post.


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