Good Night, Nurse (1918), The Cook (1918), and The Garage (1919)
Three shorts directed by and starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle with featured player Buster Keaton
One of the most consequential chance meetings in cinema history occurred on a rainy day in March 1917 in New York City. Or so goes the story Buster Keaton often told about walking down Broadway and bumping into an old friend, Lou Anger, who introduced his companion, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. A silent film comedian then at the peak of his popularity, Arbuckle invited Keaton, a twenty-one-year-old vaudeville veteran who had never set foot in a movie studio, to come by and do a scene in his latest two-reeler, The Butcher Boy. The thirty-year-old Arbuckle had recently been enticed away from Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio by producer Joseph Schenck, who offered him his own independent company. Keaton was at a turning point, too, having recently left his family’s knockabout comedy act, The Three Keatons—fed up with the act’s declining fortunes and his father’s increasingly heavy drinking—and gotten his first solo gig in a prestigious stage revue, The Passing Show of 1917. But everything changed when he stepped in front of the camera—a moment we can still watch, since, as Keaton loved to boast, his first scene in The Butcher Boy was done in a single take. Arbuckle, impressed with his comic inventiveness and peerless gifts as a punching bag, promptly offered him a job. Keaton tore up his lucrative theater contract and never looked back.
Whether Keaton’s Broadway encounter really was serendipitous (or whether, as some scholars have suggested, he was intentionally recruited), he was instantly smitten with filmmaking. Fascinated by the camera, he tore apart Arbuckle’s Bell and Howell and reassembled it, not satisfied until he understood how every last gear, sprocket, and shutter worked. Movies clicked with Keaton’s visual and mechanical genius and suited his innate perfectionism.
In the informal, rough-and-tumble freedom of Arbuckle’s Comique Film Corporation (called “Cumeeky” by its members), Keaton became a performer, gag writer, stunt man, and assistant director. “I just watched Arbuckle do it,” was his account of how he learned to make films. A deft and often elegant director, Arbuckle liked expansive backgrounds and self-referential jokes about cinema. He was also extraordinarily generous and ego-less, readily ceding space to his talented protégé. Over the course of their fourteen short comedies together, Keaton vaulted from third banana to equal partner, and the films themselves evolved from frenetic, Keystone-style anarchy to the cohesive plots, unhurried pacing, and elaborate, precisely-executed gags that became Keaton’s trademarks.
Arbuckle once said that Keaton “lived in the camera,” an insight that shows the deep understanding at the heart of their friendship. Roscoe and Buster were both gentle souls who loved practical jokes and making people laugh. They shared a birthplace (Kansas), a history as child performers, and difficult relationships with their fathers. Both emerged from vaudeville, the primordial soup of twentieth-century entertainment. A tough school in which survival depended on reliably making a hit with audiences, vaudeville honed its graduates into an invincible army of dancers, singers, actors, and comedians who went forth to conquer movies, radio, and television. Vaudeville, and its shameful cousin minstrelsy, also spawned a brand of humor that was surreal, absurdist, mined with irreverent spoofs and wild free-association, carried by the personalities and supercharged energy of the performers.
You can see this style at peak zaniness in Arbuckle-Keaton shorts like and The Cook and Good Night, Nurse (both 1918). Considered lost until a print was discovered in the attic of a Norwegian hospital in 1998, The Cook illustrates Arbuckle’s usual formula: pick a setting (here, a restaurant) and milk it for all the gags it is worth; once they are exhausted, move to a different setting (here, a seaside amusement park) and start over. There is little if any concern for plot or character definition; Arbuckle can range within the same film from childlike innocence to sly, amoral naughtiness. His signature on screen is the startling contrast between his huge bulk and his nimbleness and dexterity, which he demonstrates in his role as the titular cook, casually juggling knives and flapjacks. (Off screen he hated to be called “Fatty,” and Buster said his friend’s avoirdupois was mostly muscle. Louise Brooks compared dancing with Roscoe to “floating in the arms of a huge doughnut.”) The Cook’s high point comes when Roscoe and Buster—the latter playing a flirtatious waiter—are infected by an “Egyptian” dance craze, burlesquing what was already a burlesque (via Little Egypt and other midway “hoochie-coochie” performers) of belly dance. Roscoe dons a colander headdress and saucepan bra and proceeds to conflate Salome (with a head of cabbage) and Cleopatra (with a string of frankfurters as the asp). Keaton, who was drafted into the army after making The Cook, spent much of his World War I career performing a similar act for officers in France as “Princess Rajah,” dressed in a mess kit.
The Comique films resemble live-action cartoons, and the players—especially Keaton and Al St. John—fling their bodies around with such rubbery abandon that they look more like Looney Tunes than anything flesh and blood. St. John, who was Arbuckle’s cousin, played the troupe’s heavy (ironically, a skinny one), who typically incites a melee and winds up being chased off by Luke, Arbuckle’s indefatigable, ladder-climbing bull terrier. Even leading ladies get in on the action—especially the vivacious, free-spirited comedienne Alice Lake, who plays a charming lunatic in Good Night, Nurse. Now and then the mayhem lets up long enough to allow for a bit of subtle underplaying, or a close-up that reveals how shockingly good-looking the youthful Keaton was. Those eyes, those cheekbones, that profile! To throw a sack of flour at this face (as Arbuckle did in The Butcher Boy) is like vandalizing a work of art.
Keaton, of course, never saw himself this way, and in these films he is game for anything, appearing as a woman with an umbrella in the opening scene of Good Night, Nurse and turning up later in the same film as a doctor in a bloody smock wielding a giant machete. One of the wackiest, most delightful, and delirious of the Comique films, Good Night, Nurseopens with Roscoe pleasantly soused on a rainy evening and ends with him sprinting in his scanties down a road littered with fainting fat men. In between, there is a blizzard-like pillow fight to rival the one in Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite, an avant-garde operating-table point-of-view shot, and a bit where Keaton and Arbuckle, the latter in drag as a hefty nurse, start flirting and regress into an outrageous pantomime of cutesy-poo baby talk.
For Keaton fans, seeing Buster smile and laugh and mug in these shorts feels disconcerting, even vaguely taboo. But his joy is palpably genuine. Watching these guys horse around together, you can see how much fun they are having and how much they love each other. As soon as he started making his own independent films in 1920, Keaton imposed a far stricter artistic vision and unveiled his radical brand of serious comedy. In the last short he made with Arbuckle, The Garage (1919), many of the gags have his fingerprints all over them: the spontaneously disintegrating car; the Rube Goldberg device that whisks his and Roscoe’s blankets and nightshirts off when they are called to their duty as firemen; their perfectly choreographed lockstep march down the street with Roscoe shielding Buster’s exposed rear from a cop after he has lost his trousers. They make a fine team, but that was not their future. After The Garage, Arbuckle went to Paramount to star in feature films, while Keaton moved into his own studio, bankrolled by Schenck.
Both men suffered devastating falls from grace—Arbuckle in 1921, when he was accused of raping and causing the death of Virginia Rappe and subsequently shunned by Hollywood (despite his acquittal, after two mistrials, by a unanimous jury that issued him an apology); Keaton at the end of the 1920s when he lost control of his career at MGM and took to drink, putting skids on his personal and professional downslide. Knowing what lies ahead makes it precious to watch them romp through a primeval Eden, untroubled by rules or rationality, untouched by fatigue. They are young and free, and so are the movies, learning through play the way children do.
Presented at A Day of Silents 2019 with live music by Donald Sosin