Buster Keaton and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle in The Bell BoyFrom 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

Moonshine, 1918

(sadly only a fragment survives)

Good Night, Nurse! 1918

The Cook, 1918

The Hayseed, 1919

Backstage, 1919

The Garage, 1919

About prettycleverfilmgal

Social media consultant, blogger for hire, and lover of classic movies and silent films. I often watch, consider, and write about movies when I should really be doing other things.

Posted on October 4, 2011, in Comedy, Genre, Online Movies, Silent Film and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I SWEAR I didn’t steal your idea for this post!!!

  2. Interesting to see the origins of some of Buster’s gags in Arbuckle’s films, such as the falling-housefront gag (that appeas in Steamboat Bill Jr and One Week). I think you can also see Buster’s ‘camera eye’ starting to develop also in the Arbuckle shorts (the way that the ending race of Good Night Nurse is shot looks pure Buster).

  3. Yes, for me the fun of watching these shorts is seeing which parts of Buster Keaton sprang almost fully formed, which parts required development, and which elements developed extraordinarily quickly. In general, looking at the history of silent film often feels like looking at some people who were milling about just waiting for the medium (F.W. Murnau, for example), and Buster Keaton is one of them for me. He often made the point that he was something of an “assistant” director to Arbuckle and I think you can watch him take to film-making like a duck to water over the course of these shorts.

    In interviews Keaton took pains to note that material was never an issue for him, and that it was the process of making movies that fascinated him from the start. His long, long history on the vaudeville stage perfectly prepared him for the being funny part of silent comedy. Not only do we see some of these early gags much later, I would hazard we would have seen them much earlier too, had we been in the audience of a performance by “The Three Keatons.” Gene goes into this much more deeply in his fantastic post Buster’s Beginnings: The Butcher Boy. Definitely check it out, if you haven’t already.

  4. Your observation, “looking at the history of silent film often feels like looking at some people who were milling about just waiting for the medium” is both evocative of the time and provides insight into those individuals involved. I hope I don’t sound as if I’m oversimplifying here, but I have always been fascinated by this aspect of the infancy of early movie making. The somewhat maverick mentality of the time and the town lead to mom and pop studios springing up on every corner. The silent era grew out of accessibility to new and constantly changing technology, but the medium grew into an art form based on these inventive individuals. I often watch Arbuckle, Keaton and Mabel Normand and think what a fascinating place and time to have lived.

  5. I don’t think you’re over simplifying at all. One of the great joys of silent movies (for me at least) is watching a medium being born. While watching Edison Studio’s 1917 version of Frankenstein last week, i was delighted to find one of those small aha! moments, where someone said, “Oh, I see how this could work.” Those moments are happily not rare but the norm in silent films.

    That said, the rarer surprise is to come across a film maker who almost seemed primed to use this medium that didn’t even exist yet and then ran off to the races with it, F.W. Murnau being the most prominent example that I have. And I think Buster Keaton was one of those guys, too. He had the pratfalls down from the get go, but he figured out how to use the medium of movie-making to the extraordinary advantage of those pratfalls in short order.

  6. What an awesome post about Buster Keaton! I have only been into silent films for about 2 years. Also, it is wonderful to meet another Keaton fan. Thank tou for stopping by.

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