It is a well-known fact among movie fans that Buster Keaton is the Great Stoneface. The world could be falling to pieces all around him, comedy chaos ensuing, romance a-buzzing, and his face would remain stoic with an expression that says “to hell with it all.” And it is that very expression that makes us, as the audience, fall to pieces laughing. It is a component of his comedic genius that harkens back to his days on vaudeville as a child when he would perform his highly physical slapstick with a deadpan stare. He had mastered this look so well by such a young age that his father was even accused by some of child abuse for their family skits. But when Keaton entered the movies in 1917, he hadn’t yet established the Great Stoneface as his signature screen persona. In these shorts, he smiles, he laughs, and shows a wide variety of facial expressions. We see a Keaton that is just beginning to embark on one of the greatest comedy careers of the silent era. And it is that, along with the equally genius Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Al St. John, that makes the Keaton shorts of 1917 such a treat.
For the Keaton 100 celebration and Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, I am exploring the six short films in which he starred in 1917. But before I even begin, I’d like to share a personal anecdote about Keaton’s influence on me, my passion for silent film, and my career.
My introduction to silent films happened when I was still in elementary school. Silent Sunday nights on Turner Classic Movies opened my eyes to the world of silent cinema and the movies never failed to fascinate me as a kid. It would be a little while before I explored the genre on a deeper level and it was Buster Keaton who inspired me to really dig into the films of the silent era. Comedy has been one of my favorite genres since as far back as I can remember so it was only natural that I would find my way into the silent era through laughter. After Buster Keaton, I explored the famous comedians of the era and then started to discover other genres and stars and my interest and love for silent movies continued to grow. I went on to get a Masters in History with a focus on film history and early film history in particular. And for all of that, I owe Buster Keaton a thank you. With this year marking the 100th anniversary of Keaton’s entry into film, I figured what better way to honor the centennial than by writing on those very first films.
The Butcher Boy
In this short film, Fatty and Al are in competition for the affection of a girl that works with him at the butcher shop. The two end up fighting one another in a standard Keystone style rollick. Keaton innocently enters the store to buy molasses and becomes embroiled within the fight. All three end up at the boarding school where the girl lives with Fatty dressed in drag. The fight and chaos carry on as the others discover the true identity of Fatty.
One of the funniest scenes in this film is when Keaton comes in to order molasses. Fatty pours the molasses into Keaton’s hat while searching for his money. The hat ends up stuck on Keaton’s head. Then Keaton’s feet end up stuck in the molasses and the mess only continues to get worse.
The Rough House
The title is truly quite literal in the case of this short film. It opens with Fatty dropping a cigarette onto his bed and catching it on fire. Keaton first appears as the gardener who has to put the fire out with the garden hose. Chaos continues to ensue as Keaton arrives as the grocer and gets into a fight with Al, the cook of the house. Eventually, Keaton and Al get arrested and are forced into joining the police force.
This short is purely physical slapstick. If you blink, you’ll miss something! The three comedians flip, fly, and roll between the rooms of the shotgun house in a way that is sure to bring the laughs.
His Wedding Night
Once again, Al and Fatty are rivals for the love of the same girl. Roscoe wins the girl by proposing to her but Al is incessant and doesn’t give up quite so easily. Keaton arrives on the scene by bicycle as the milliner. When he arrives with the girl’s wedding dress she asks him to model it for her. At the same time, Al schemes to kidnap the girl but ends up kidnapping Keaton in the wedding dress instead.
For Keatonites, his dressing up in the wedding dress is definitely the highlight of this short film!
Fatty plays a doctor who falls for a woman who is the girlfriend of a crook. The girlfriend and the crook scheme against the doctor by pretending that she is sick and in need of his care. When Fatty goes to her, the crook goes to Fatty’s home and robs his wife of her jewels. Keaton plays Fatty’s whiny kid who ultimately saves the day by following the crook home.
I’ve always had a strong fascination for the Coney Island of the early twentieth-century so it should come as no surprise that Coney Island is one of my favorite of the early Keaton shorts. However, Coney Island is only the backdrop for the short which revolves around a man and his wife. Fatty plays a man whose wife runs away from him while he’s buried in the sand on the beach. When he realizes she’s run off, he takes the opportunity to run off himself. Comedy ensues as Arbuckle’s wife searches for him with the help of Al St. John, an “old friend.” Unfortunately for her, Al becomes enamored with a pretty girl who also happens to be on a date at the park with Keaton, referred to as “Rival.” Al and Keaton rival one another for her attention while she and Arbuckle disappear into the Bath House to disguise themselves. Arbuckle dresses up as a woman to hide from his wife and his plan works….for awhile. Eventually Keaton reveals Arbuckle to his wife and Keaton and the pretty girl run off together.
A Country Hero
Unfortunately, this short is still considered a lost film. From what I could gather through basic research, this was the first film that Buster’s father, Joe Keaton, starred in. The basic premise of the short revolves around two business owners, Fatty and Joe, who are in a rivalry over a schoolteacher. The two join together when a new guy, Al, arrives in town and falls for the schoolteacher as well. According to a review on IMDb, Buster Keaton is a performer at a village ball.
Here’s to hoping that this will one day be discovered!
What stands out most about these early shorts is that Buster Keaton shines in such a way that makes him stand out. His physical, acrobatic abilities are evident and his ability to steal a scene is already there. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since Keaton had been in showbiz since he was a child but it is still rather impressive. While he may be most remembered for his iconic features such as The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr., these early short films are well worth your time. They present an icon, on the edge of stardom, not yet using the deadpan stare he is most known for. And although he is not the lead actor, his friendship and partnership with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Al St. John allows him to shine in a way that is rare among comedy duos or trios. It is evident that they are having the time of their lives and you too as an audience member are guaranteed to have just as much fun.
***This piece was written for the Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silentology. Be sure to go read all the other wonderful posts! I am happy to participate in this blogathon for the second year in a row and you can read my post from last year HERE.