Ever since the first time I started watching Buster Keaton films, he has been connected with Frank Woodley in my mind. It’s not just the fact that they are both masters of physical slapstick. It is also the way they use facial expressions, especially stony ones, as a punch line. They are both also excellent at constructing jokes over long periods of time. I am not saying that Woodley is the equal of Keaton who is one of the best few filmmakers of all time. But there are definite parallels to be drawn.
For this third entry in Woodley Week, I thought I would take a look at two of Buster’s short films, in memory of one of the greats who paved the way for so many who followed him, including Frank Woodley. Hope you guys enjoy these.
The Bell Boy
I thought I should include one of Buster’s films with Fatty Arbuckle, seeing as most of Frank Woodley’s career was spent in a comedic duo too. Plus I absolutely love Arbuckle, so much so that my beautiful pet bunny Arbie is named after him.
The Bell Boy (1918) sees Buster and Arbuckle working as bell boys at a hotel with “Third class service, first class prices.” Much of the deficiencies in the service levels can be attributed to our two heroes, as they spend most of the film chasing after a pretty woman rather than attending to any other guests. There is also a strange narrative aside with a bearded man in a top hat. Arbuckle, apparently a part time barber as well as a bell boy, takes him into the barbershop and ties him down. After that, he proceeds to craft his beard and hair into that of a succession of historical figures, most notably Abe Lincoln. As he shows off each creation, Arbuckle seemingly breaks the fourth wall too. It is all obscenely weird and makes no sense from a continuity point of view.
But, do not let this random sorta sub-plot put you off, because The Bell Boy is a truly hilarious short film. Despite being vastly different in proportions, Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle were an astoundingly in sync physical combo. They bound around the set in perfect harmony, like wonderful dancers or something. As well as their comedic excellence as a duo, this film features a fair bit of Buster doing is own thing onscreen by himself, a harbinger of things to come because within a few short years he would be out on his own making films sans his mentor Arbuckle. Right near the end of the film is a long set piece which caps the film off perfectly. It involves a bank robbery, a narrative turn that comes up quite suddenly. But it descends delightfully into the most wonderfully over the top brawl scene, almost like 1920s WWE, only more beautifully choreographed and intentionally hilarious. Arbuckle even takes out another dude with a chair shot.
This is a hilarious short from two masters. The part with the bearded dude is unfathomably weird, at least to me. But aside from that, this is a brilliant short comedy that you should definitely take the time to check out.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
I basically chose The Scarecrow (1920) because it is a Keaton short I had not seen and I heard that it was Luke the Dog heavy. Whilst Luke belonged to Arbuckle, he obviously continued to star alongside with Keaton once they split.
It turned out to be a good choice indeed, because this is one of the best Buster Keaton shorts I have watched. In the film, Buster shares a house with a farmhand friend of his. For the first part of the film, this house delivers much of its charm. It is a one room house with some exceedingly clever inventions to save space. A turntable that doubles as a gas hotplate, a bookcase/fridge (I want one!) and a very innovative table setting. The scene as the boys sit down to eat their breakfast is the most wonderfully intricate and mechanical piece of comedy. Marvellous.
The second half of the film once again sees Buster and his offsider (this time played by Joe Roberts) vying for the affections of a young lady. Sybil Seely plays the woman in question, and gives a really good performance, conveying a lot in her role and having a (little) more to do than the average woman in one of these films. After having his heart broken, the film lets fly with the greatest man chasing dog sequence in film history. One of the best chase sequences in film history full stop. It sees Luke the Dog haring after Buster, including through windows, up a ladder and on top of a building. It is extended brilliance and shows off the choreography skills of Keaton and the charisma of his (well Arbuckle’s) four legged offsider. The scene is made even more hilarious due to Joe Roberts’ character calmly taking himself off to the drug store, stocking up, and awaiting the seemingly inevitable injury.
This time, at the end of a succession of wonderful moments, Buster gets the girl – he’s the star now. The film closes with a wedding scene like none you have ever seen before, perfectly capping off one of my favourite Buster Keaton films.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
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