Slapstick Encyclopedia, Volume 5: Keaton, Arbuckle and St. John

Welcome to week five of our journey into the world of silent slapstick comedies! This week we’re taking a look at Volume 5 of the Slapstick Encyclopedia set, which focuses on the work of Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle and Al St. John through a selection of five shorts.

Cupid has shot the hearts of Mabel and Fatty! (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)
Cupid has shot the hearts of Mabel and Fatty! (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916)
Directed by: Fatty Arbuckle
Starring: Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and Al St. John
Run time: 34 minutes
Oh, I loved every minute of this film. It’s easy to see why Arbuckle, Normand and St. John have been considered greats of silent comedy (though Arbuckle’s legacy is now more scandal-based than those of his co-stars). I found myself laughing a lot throughout Fatty and Mabel Adrift‘s 34 fast-paced minutes. Also, there’s yet another CUTE PUPPY BONUS. (I’m noticing a trend here. Lots of pups in slapstick shorts.) According to Slapstick Encyclopedia’s introduction of this film, it was the last one that Arbuckle and Normand made together in California. After this film’s completion, they moved to New Jersey, where they eventually went their separate ways — Arbuckle working with Joseph Schenck, and Normand getting lured away by one Samuel Goldwyn.

Keaton, Arbuckle and the gang watch a horse race. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)
Keaton, Arbuckle and the gang watch a horse race. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

Oh, Doctor! (1917)
Directed by: Fatty Arbuckle
Starring: Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton and Al St. John
Run time: 23 minutes
Oh, Doctor! was once believed to be a lost film, but was luckily rediscovered. It is Arbuckle’s fifth Paramount picture, and the first scenario-writing credit for Jean Havez, according to the Encyclopedia’s introduction. I was really excited to watch this one because I love Buster Keaton, and he doesn’t disappoint. The style of comedy in this short is so different to that which later became his trademark. He acts quite childlike here — screaming and crying when Arbuckle pokes him, stomping his feet ferociously as he watches a horse race. I guess it’s fitting since he’s playing Arbuckle’s son, but he looks too old to be acting quite so childish, and as a result it’s hilarious to see. Keaton was my favorite part of watching Oh, Doctor!, but it’s an enjoyable short overall, and there are a couple of pretty great stunts as well.

Keaton's got to put out a fire! (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)
Keaton’s got to put out a fire! (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

The Garage (1920)
Directed by: Fatty Arbuckle
Starring: Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton
Run time: 25 minutes
Like Oh, Doctor!, The Garage is an interesting watch for fans of the usually stone-faced Keaton because his performance style was so different in these earlier films. The Slapstick Encyclopedia notes that he can be seen “laughing hysterically, crying uncontrollably and mugging shamelessly” in his turn-of-the-decade collaboration with Arbuckle. This short is full of brilliant gags, so it’s enjoyable for a wider audience than just those of us who are obsessed with Keaton. During one great scene, Keaton slides across the wet floor of the garage and hits his head on the tire of a car, which pushes the car out the door, where it is then caught by the foot of a man who is reading and smoking a pipe lazily. The Garage is such a ball of fun, full of falls and mishaps. Nice use of tints, too. One of my favorites in any volume of the set so far.

Buster has trouble getting his boat out of its home. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)
Buster has trouble getting his boat out of its home. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

The Boat (1921)
Directed by: Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton
Starring:  Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline and Sybil Seely
Run time: 26 minutes
Though he made great films with Arbuckle, Keaton eventually struck out on his own, and The Boat (which he wrote, directed and starred in, collaborating with Eddie Cline on the story and direction). I really enjoyed this one, like I have most of the films on this disc, but this time for a different reason. It’s all about a man and his boat, and as a native Michigander, I’ve grown up in a family of avid boaters. Seeing Buster Keaton tow, launch, sink and captain his boat made me think of all of the mistakes my dad would be pointing out if he watched this, and the few mishaps we’ve encountered on the water.

(Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)
(Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

The Iron Mule (1925)
Directed by: Fatty Arbuckle and Grover Jones
Starring: Al St. John
Run time: 19 minutes
Al St. John was the nephew of Fatty Arbuckle, and when Arbuckle could no longer appear on screen due to his personal scandals, he took to directing St. John and others in shorts and features. The Iron Mule is one of his directorial efforts starring St. John. Buster Keaton was still friends with Arbuckle at this time, and he makes a bit appearance here. He also allowed Arbuckle to use the train that was built for the film Our Hospitality. Unfortunately, my dear Keaton has betrayed me with his appearance in this film, for he portrays a Native American. According to the Encyclopedia’s introduction, the portion of the film that includes his appearance does not appear in most existing prints of the film and as a result has escaped harsh criticism.

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5 thoughts on “Slapstick Encyclopedia, Volume 5: Keaton, Arbuckle and St. John

    1. A real shame. I appreciate his talent so much more after watching this volume. I’d seen some of his work before but none of these films, and I was very impressed by them.

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      1. The whole thing is so hypocritical with Arbuckle. How many of his accusers were doing the same – if not much worse? He got caught up in a circumstance that was not of his own making. (I believe he was unjustly accused.)

        When you consider what people do now (I’m looking at you, Roman Polanski and Woody Allen), it’s incredible that his career should be ruined.

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