“This fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show.” So says Buster on a visit to the titular playhouse in a 1921 short where the stony-faced actor-director appears simultaneously as spectator, conductor, performer and musician on a programme with only one name – his own. Revelling in the union of cinematic invention and the inner workings of life on the stage, multiple exposures allow for jaw-dropping replications of his figure before an ingenious deployment of backstage mirrors achieves the same effect by more traditional means.
Actor-director collaborations are by no means a modern phenomenon and in The Butcher Boy and The Rough House (both 1917) Keaton plays second fiddle to his rotund superior but the supporting actor’s boyish charm shines through from the off. Without pausing for breath the visual tricks and knockabout comedy comes thick and fast and never lets up. All manner of objects are thrown, causing much hilarity, and frantic movement (drop kicks and smacks to the face by the dozen) and fantastically exaggerated reactions sees characters spend as much time on their backside as upright. Witnessing the birth of slapstick first hand, its many influences can be seen on all that has followed. A remarkable command of framing and editing keeps the havoc in check, and matches on action seamlessly paired, demonstrating just what master craftsmen Arbuckle and Keaton were as well as such gifted entertainers.
In His Wedding Night, Arbuckle’s nephew Al St. John again appears as a love rival and complicated triangles of affection are a recurring motif. It is a tale as old as time but the wooing of a girl is at the centre of most of these early pieces and would continue after Keaton and Arbuckle parted ways: the latter became involved in a scandal of rape and murder in 1921 for which he was latterly acquitted, long after his career had perished. Buster modelling a wedding dress in this short is a sign of things to come as both men will frequently appear in drag. Costume is a key element to mistaken identities, the interaction of male and female roles and a consequent portion of the humour – most particularly when Buster and Fatty rather fall for one another in Good Night Nurse. Ignorance is not bliss for Keaton but his deadpan expression and persistent bemusement aligns with truly hapless luck for our viewing delight. As was also the case for Chaplin, Buster is perennially penniless and must make his fortune to win the girl of this dreams or as in Coney Island, merely a few cents to take her onto the peer. Buster and Fatty are swiftly distracted by young ladies passing by.
While each short has a coherent narrative, it is often moments of utter brilliance that will stick in the memory: Buster breathing onto an invisible pane of glass from inside a telephone box before leaning out to clean the other side, and later oiling his horse’s joints, in The Bell Boy; “Our film is only a two reel short” says a self-aware text box in Moonshine before a cameraman’s hand conceals the bath time modesty of Buster’s wife in One Week; a lesson in spaghetti-eating in The Cook; casually replacing a policeman’s gun with a banana in The High Sign to show of his calamitous shooting skills; the absurdity of hundreds of policemen chasing one man in Cops. Though often waking from a dream, having witnessed his own demise, the evolution of expression and thought towards the more moribund marks a change in Keaton’s oeuvre – much undertaken with the assistance of co-writer-director Eddie Cline. It’s a testament to Keaton’s wicked sensibilities and peerless comic capability that death and suicide are unable to stunt our enjoyment of his work.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens