That Old Feeling: Fatty and Buster

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One is known for his deadpan genius as the star and auteur of such silent-film triumphs as "The Navigator," "Sherlock Jr." and "The General." The other is remembered, if at all, for a scandal that ended his career. But from 1917 to 1920, as the new medium of movies was sweeping the world, they were a deft comedy team: Buster Keaton, in his very first films, and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, at the height of his popularity.

Now Kino International, the company that released Keaton’s shorts and features to great acclaim in 1995, has made ten of the Fatty-and-Buster films available on videocassette and DVD. The two-volume "Arbuckle & Keaton: The Original Comique/Paramount Shorts" may not rank in comic inventiveness with Kino’s 1995 Keaton set — and, really, what could? That package preserved and displayed one of the great sustained effusions of movie brilliance. But the Arbuckle-Keaton tandem is a fabulous find for anyone who wants to know how the early masters went about their precise, anarchic, glorious business.

They were Kansas boys, born eight years and a 200 miles apart, but neither stayed long there. Arbuckle, who supposedly weighed 16 pounds at birth, moved with his family to California a year later and was on the stage at eight; in 1913, after playing the Mikado in Yokahama, he joined Mack Sennett’s movie comedy troupe. Keaton was part of his family’s vaudeville act almost from birth. At six months, he took a fall down a flight of steps and, as legend has it, earned his knockabout nickname from Harry Houdini, who at the time was performing with the Keatons.

By 1917, Arbuckle was second only to Charlie Chaplin among movie comics. With a face as soft and pat-able as a baby’s behind, he used his bulk with grace and reckless assurance. His screen character was babylike too: not so much innocent as pre-moral, and given to pranks performed so dexterously that he never lost the affection of his huge audience — at least, not until the 1921 scandal. "Oh, I thought he was magnificent in films," the actress Louise Brooks says of Arbuckle in Kevin Brownlow’s 1968 book "The Parade’s Gone By," an invaluable treasure of silent-film anecdote and evocation. "He was a wonderful dancer," Brooks adds, "a wonderful ballroom dancer, in his heyday. It was like floating in the arms of a huge doughnut — really delightful."

In 1917 producer Joseph Schenck set him up to write, direct and star in a series of two-reelers (films of between 18 and 29 min.), eight a year. Arbuckle met Keaton in New York, where the first batch of films were to be made before a move to Los Angeles the following year, and signed him up. In the troupe’s hierarchy, Keaton was officially the third banana. Fatty’s main stooge was his nephew Al St. John. As Walter Kerr writes in his wonderful book "The Silent Clowns," St. John was "a man of thyroid eyes whose ankles seemed to extend to his shoulder blades"; as Fuzzy Q. Jones, the comic foil to Buster Crabbe and Lash LaRue, he would work in westerns until the ’50s. He would soon be eclipsed by Keaton, partly because Arbuckle realized the comic equipoise in teaming himself, at 280 pounds, and Keaton, who was perhaps half that weight; partly because Al’s gawky rubberiness couldn’t hold a comic candle to Buster’s statuesque solemnity.

In his first movie scene, early in "The Butcher Boy" (1917), Buster is a customer in Fatty’s general store. Fatty paints the inside of Buster’s hat with molasses; then Buster gets his foot stuck in some goop on the floor. It’s an elaborate, if unhilarious set piece, but immediately you can see that this actor embodied something different and appealing in movies: the still, unblinking eye of the comedy hurricane. Keaton, typically, was pleased that he could so easily master the mechanics of movie motion. He later bragged that he was the only performer ever to get a complex comic scene right without needing a second take.

Keaton, later dubbed The Great Stone Face, had used his unsmiling demeanor to hilarious effect on stage since his infancy; his blank stare got more laughs than the most strenuous double-take. But he was also one of the most gifted physical actors, always giving more than required to sell the slapstick. As Kerr wrote, "Keaton’s sprawls have spine to them." The early shorts show off his great dervishing twirls and kicks. In "The Hayseed" he executes a nice fall off a two-story building and into Fatty’s moving car. As a lifeguard in "Luna Park," Keaton does a fabulous backflip — no reason, just because he can. During a bank robbery in "The Bell Boy" he vaults through a teller window and over a transom, effortlessly trapezing to kick the robbers. And in "The Garage," his last film with Arbuckle, Keaton slides down a flagpole; or rather he corkscrews down it, in a stunt worthy of a Peking acrobat.

"The Garage" also has the pair’s finest sustained sequence. The firehouse is burning while Molly Malone, oblivious, takes a bath. At the front second-story window, a man is standing, ready to jump into a canvas that Fatty. Buster and a few others are holding. Molly appears at another window as the man jumps but lands with a thud because the men with the canvas have moved a few feet to save Molly. She jumps from window onto the canvas, and when she lands she bounces so high that she gets caught in phone wires. Other men leave; the union says they must break at noon. So Fatty, on the street, holds Buster’s feet, as he depends from the wires, and Molly climbs down him to ground level. Now Fatty and Buster are up in the wires. Molly starts to drive away; as she does, Fatty and Buster fall smartly into back seat and front seat respectively. And Our Hero puts his arm around Molly as if she’d just picked him up from work.

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