Silent Comedy

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Arbuckle signed with independent producer Joseph Schenck in 1917 to star in a series of comedies at a small new studio, Comique. Arbuckle would direct them all. His nephew, an incorrigible mugger, Al St. John, followed him from Keystone as his sidekick, but St. John was rapidly displaced to third banana in the films, by a 21-year-old vaudeville veteran named Buster Keaton. Keaton made his film debut as a rube in Comique's first release, The Butcher Boy (1917), over the next three years advancing to virtual co-star with Arbuckle in such excellent short comedies as The Cook and The Bellboy (both 1918) and Back Stage (1919), trying out many bits of comic business he would later amplify in his own features. Arbuckle and Keaton worked so well together it's almost a shame they didn't continue as a team, the younger man's vigorous acrobatics and drier personality blending nicely with Arbuckle's jovial warmth.

In 1920 Schenck promoted Arbuckle to feature-length films (beating Chaplin to that level of stardom by a year), while Keaton was given Comique and his own line of starring shorts. Arbuckle made seven films in one year (1920-21), light comedies under the direction of others. But towards the end of that year, the mysterious death of a young woman at a hotel party held by Arbuckle led, by a bizarre sequence of events, to his arrest, three trials and a slough of lurid publicity. Arbuckle was eventually fully acquitted, but the damage was done: Hollywood banned Arbuckle from the screen. He continued to direct, as "William Goodrich," notably The Iron Mule, an Al St. John short from 1925, with a cameo in it by Keaton; and the Marion Davies feature The Red Mill. But for all intents and purposes his career had been ruined.

Buster Keaton

Having taken over Comique from his friend Arbuckle in 1920-1923, Buster Keaton produced 19 short films, co-directing all of them (usually with Eddie Cline). The shift in Keaton's screen character between Fatty's frequently laughing sidekick to the unsmiling young man he played in these shorts, was immediately clear from the first release -- the bitter honeymoon parable One Week (1920). This Buster wandered into hard luck situations, frequently never escaping them: his honeymoon cottage destroyed at the end of One Week; his craft sunk in The Boat (1921); his love deserting him, thus condemning him to death in Cops (1922). Balancing the melancholy was a seemingly bottomless flow of comic invention, reflected in both Keaton's marvelously spry performances, and in the cleverly staged gags. And while it must be said that many of the shorts are as gloomy as advertised (see also Convict 13, The Goat, Daydreams and the recently rediscovered Hard Luck), others simply dazzle with the evident joy Keaton took in comic creation (The Scarecrow, Neighbors, and in particular the vaudeville homage The Playhouse).

Buster Keaton

In 1923 Keaton moved on to feature length films, releasing ten of them between 1923 and 1928. Feature-length filmmaking carried new demands on filmmakers to create sympathetic characters audiences could relate to, but by and large Keaton, as director or co-director of most of these films, stubbornly refused to augment his character with charm or pathos, preferring to offer up his hardworking, fatalistic protagonists to audiences on their own merits. For the most part he was very successful. His Civil War epic The General (1927), a commercial failure at the time, is now widely regarded as his best film, for its scope of ambition and for its brilliant integration of gags and story. And to his fans, Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) - the first two of which were solid commercial hits -- are equally fine films along the same lines, depending for much of their effect on the contrast between the diminutive Keaton's scamperings in and around such massive mechanical props as an ocean liner (The Navigator), a steamboat, or various 19th century trains.


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