Three Cheers for Buster Keaton

I’m sure you know by now that Buster Keaton started his movie career a century ago, in New York City in 1917. There have been – and probably will be – several projects commemorating this special anniversary given Keaton is one of the greatest talents to ever appear on screen. I want to give a shout out to one of those celebrations, The Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-Ology a few weeks ago. You’ll find terrific entries on all things Buster there so be sure to visit. I had all intentions of submitting this entry to that event, but life interfered.

When I learned about the Silent-Ology Buster Keaton celebration I decided to watch three of Buster’s short subjects, rather than a feature because I watch the shorts less often. I mean…not that I go around watching his shorts. Um…anyway, of all the possible entries to choose from – and Keaton made a lot of shorts – I went with two I’ve enjoyed immensely in the past and one I’d never seen in hopes of encouraging all of you to give them a look. So here goes…three cheers for our Buster!

 

The Cook (1918) – Roscoe Arbuckle, director

The first cheer goes to The Cook, the last film starring Buster Keaton released in 1918, his second year in movies. This is one of the many shorts Keaton made with friend and mentor, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle who’d began his own career in 1909. Arbuckle was the first star in America to systematically direct his own films from 1914 forward and in 1920 became the first actor to be paid $1 million a year with a contract he signed with Paramount Pictures. Needless to say, Roscoe played a big role in helping Keaton fully develop his own genius, a talent yet unequaled. Arbuckle was no slouch in the funny department, however, and it’s important people know that given the notoriety he is (sadly) best remembered for today.

In The Cook Roscoe Arbuckle plays the title character, a short order cook to Buster Keaton’s assistant chef/head waiter. Arbuckle directed, wrote and stars in this gem of a short, which was thought lost for decades until its discovery in 1998. Also in The Cook are Al St. John, Alice Lake, Glen Cavender and Luke the Dog.

the-cook
Arbuckle, Luke the Dog and Keaton in THE COOK

The premise of The Cook entails little more than I’ve already mentioned, but as far as a vehicle to spotlight the physical prowess of both Arbuckle and Keaton it’s tops. The two exhibit extraordinary juggling abilities as they maneuver the orders in the kitchen. Some of the magic comes by way of perfectly orchestrated camera trickery, but it’s supremely entertaining fare.

As the story progresses, the cook and the waiter are merrily doing their jobs with dancers’ precision when things start going awry. Distracted by the music the band’s playing all hell breaks loose as the cook and the waiter join in the festivities with full-blown dance routines that result in havoc throughout the restaurant.

There is a lot to enjoy in Arbuckle’s kitchen. I am particularly partial to a running gag where the same hot liquid serves as coffee, soup and dressing for all manner of dishes. Arbuckle also manages to pull all sorts of different food from the same vat. Buster in turn is enjoyable as a ladies man in several instances although his efforts are hilariously catastrophic. In other words, if you want 20 minutes of silent fun delivered by two masters you can’t go wrong with The Cook.

 

One Week (1920) – Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton, directors

The second cheer goes to 19 minutes of unadulterated fun, rather than 20. One Week is one of my favorite Buster Keaton shorts, his first effort after his work with Arbuckle concluded. This movie is testament to Buster’s extraordinary physical talent and the sweetness that accompanied it. Keaton co-wrote and co-directed One Week with Edward F. Cline, but it’s Buster’s brand of charm that you get from start to finish.

The premise of One Week is simple. A newly married couple is given a vacant lot and a house as wedding gifts from the groom’s uncle. The problem is that the house has to be built from scratch, by the numbers, if you will. It’s sort of like Ikea furniture would have been in 1920. Buster, who plays The Groom (Buster), is sure he’ll have no problem putting the pieces together given the straight forward directions available in the box. Except…that the jilted ex-boyfriend of The Bride (Sybil Seely) re-labels the pieces to get back at the couple for marrying. The outcome is pure silent bliss.

I had the good fortune of watching One Week at Grauman’s Chinese Theater as part of the last night’s program when I attended my first Turner Classic Movie Film Festival in 2013One Week was followed by Buster’s The General and I couldn’t tell you which I enjoyed more. Although the short doesn’t have the powerhouse, signature Buster Keaton physical attributes the longer movie exhibits, the special effects are charming and quite impressive with plenty of pratfalls to go around. I call them “special effects,” but they’re really stunts, which were done with a full-house and sets, not miniatures as one would think. The precision it took to make a few of these stunts come off without a hitch is astounding to think about.

One Week is the one I usually recommend to people who have not seen a Buster Keaton movie before because it has heartwarming qualities as well as his special brand of comedy. The simplicity of the plot lets Buster newbies enjoy the magic while Keaton aficionados stare in wonder at the details that surface during repeated viewings. My mother laughed heartily when The Groom bolts his car to the house in hopes of pulling it over the train tracks and again when she saw a hand come over the camera when The Bride is bathing.

At least a few accolades for One Week must go to Sybil Seely who at 18 years of age (when she made the film) is a perfect match for our star. Seely starred in 18 movies in her short, 5-year career several of which she made with Buster. It’s really too bad she made so few films because hers was a substantial talent as well. Seely retired from films in 1922 after marrying and died in 1984 at the age of 84.

 

The Playhouse (1921) – Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton, directors

I chose to include The Playhouse in this post because I’d never seen it, but it turned out to be the loudest cheer I have to offer. Well, in the sense that I think it’s an astounding piece of filmmaking. In this vehicle Keaton plays multiple Keatons in a series of sketches in a playhouse. While The Playhouse falls short in the traditional, acrobatic Keaton stunts we know and love, there is a lot here that’s new as far as gags go. The concept of The Playhouse came about after Buster busted his ankle during the filming of another short. Worried about not missing his monthly release schedule, Keaton conceived of this movie in which the laughs come by several other means other than pratfalls. The result is as innovative a movie as I’ve ever seen.

Several Keatons can be seen on camera at once thanks to nifty trick photography. While this is perhaps a fairly routine gimmick, the fact that it is done so seamlessly in 1921 is a great accomplishment. Buster also plays a variety of characters in The Playhouse. He is every member of the orchestra, several members of the audience of all genders and ages, he is a monkey, the leading act and the stagehand to name a few. The Playhouse is essentially separated into two distinct stories after we find out the first half is but a dream. In short, this is a terrific vehicle for all to be reminded that Buster had quite the vast acting talent, which is often overlooked.

With the completion of The Playhouse Buster Keaton fulfilled his original 8-picture contract with Joseph Schenck. The movie was such a hit that he was immediately signed for another dozen movies.

Before I go, a little side note – My mother stayed with me for a month during which time we watched several silent movies together. Silents are perfect for people of all languages for obvious reasons and my mom enjoys them immensely. As you may know she doesn’t speak English and these vehicles allow me more time to actually watch the movies with less translating interruptions. In any case, my mom’s a big Charlie Chaplin fan having seen many of his movies in her youth in Cuba. I was quite surprised to learn, however, that she was not familiar with either Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. She’d never even heard of them. I find that so interesting. And sad. You can bet I’ll be doing a little research to find out why Keaton and Lloyd movies may not have made it to her small home town. If you know anything about the travels of Keaton and Lloyd movies versus the travels of Chaplin outings leave me a comment below. Thanks!

4 thoughts

  1. The Playhouse is a brilliant work, more so considering it was made over 90 years ago. I am also a fan of One Week, but have not seen the early Arbuckle/Keaton film. Will have to hunt for it. I always go back and forth on who I like more, Keaton or Chaplin and have never come to a definitive decision. End result is loving them both.

  2. Delightful article.

    I’ve seen One Week and The Playhouse at the theatre and I must say (and I’ve probably said this before), that I have never enjoyed so much communal laughter as I have when seeing Buster’s films with an audience. I will certainly catch up with The Cook soon. Sounds like a hoot.

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