Buster Keaton and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
From Laurel and Hardy to Abbott and Costello to Cheech and Chong (yeah, I said it) – duos make the comedy world go ’round. And why not? You’ve got the yin and the yang, the clown and the straight man, the graceful and the inept – and you’ve got the very large and the very small. Physical dichotomies are just really, really funny and never more so than in the era of silent slapstick,when the visual was paramount. Take away a comedy duos ability to verbally spar, insert a prima facie visual pun, and you’ve got yourself a great comedy team. And was ever there a pair as physically disparate as Buster Keaton and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle?
It would be awesome to say here that Keaton and Arbuckle rank as one of the great comedy duos of all time. Sadly, it’s an impossible statement. Not because they weren’t but because the scandal that ruined Arbcukle’s movie career rendered their future collaboration impossible. We do not get to know what would have happened. We do, however, get to know what did happen.
Arbuckle’s influence on Keaton may be incalculable for the simple fact that it was Arbuckle who introduced Buster to the very concept of movie-making. It was Arbuckle who dragged Buster into a studio and the importance of that moment, to those of us hold Keaton very dear, cannot be underestimated. As Keaton explained later in life, “The first thing I did in the studio was to want to tear that camera to pieces. I had to know how that film got into the cutting room, what you did to it in there, how your projected it, how you finally got the picture together, how you made things match. The technical part of pictures is what interested me.” (“Buster Keaton on Comedy and Making Movies,” Copyright 2000.2001 by the Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York.)
Thus Buster Keaton’s love affair with movie-making was born and so our love love affair with Keaton was born. Of course it wasn’t exactly Arbuckle’s scandal that ended this partnership. Buster moved on, Fatty moved on. As Keaton noted in a 1960 interview with Studs Terkel, “I was only with him a short time, and he says, ‘Here’s something you want to bear in mind, that the average mind of the motion picture audience is twelve years old. It’s a twelve-year-old mind that you’re entertaining.’ I was only with him about another couple of months or something like that, and I says, ‘Roscoe, something tells me that those who continue to make pictures for twelve-year-old minds ain’t going to be with us long.’” (reprinted in Kevin Sweeney’s Buster Keaton Interviews.)
So true (and not just because I consider myself beyond twelve-years-old developmentally). Buster Keaton went on to elevate the form of silent film comedy well beyond juvenility of the pre-teen mindset. So it’s hard to say if Keaton and Arbuckle would have collaborated again, if Keaton would have found a way to elevate the funny pairing of the very large man and the very small man. Maybe, but maybe not.
But today is Buster Keaton’s birthday and there’s an excited outpouring of Keaton appreciate on the interwebs and beyond. But let’s take a brief moment to tip our metaphorical hats to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, the very large man who casually suggested Buster Keaton might like “making pictures.” Remember, he’s responsible for the old molasses gag. “…The first time I ever walked in front of a camera was the scene when I came in to buy a bucketful of molasses. They’ve made me do that half a dozen times on television, since,” Keaton, in a 1958 interview of Robert and Joan Franklin (reprinted in Kevin Sweeney’s Buster Keaton Interviews).
So let’s celebrate Keaton’s birthday and the Keaton/Arbuckle comedy pairing with the short films they made together. This is Buster Keaton first dipping his toe into the medium he would eventually own. The films are gathered below in chronological order (I think), all freely available to watch right now. So tell the boss man you need the rest of the day off, prepare a snack maybe, kick up your feet, and enjoy!
The Butcher Boy, 1917
The Rough House, 1917
His Wedding Night, 1917
Oh Doctors! 1917
Coney Island, 1917
Out West, 1918
The Bell Boy, 1918
(sadly only a fragment survives)