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ARBUCKLE & KEATON VOLS. 1 & 2

arbuckle1.jpg (7554 bytes)     arbuckle2.jpg (7281 bytes)

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Alice Lake
Directors:  Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, et al
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Kino
Features:  None
Length:  Vol. 1 125 Minutes, Vol. 2 121 Minutes
Release Date:  April 10, 2001

Film ****

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was a Mack Sennett comedy veteran who rose to fame as a Keystone Cop and became a screen star nearly as popular as Charlie Chaplin in the mid-teens with a series of two-reelers produced by Joseph Schenck.  Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton had been a Vaudeville star from the time he was barely old enough to crawl.  As a member of his family’s Three Keatons act, he was known for his amazing acrobatics and ability to withstand tremendous punishment at the hands of his father on stage.  A chance meeting between the two men in New York city would result in a friendship and a partnership that would alter both of their lives and the course of silent comedy history.

Arbuckle invited Keaton on to the set of his short film “The Butcher Boy”, and the rest, as they say, is history.   A gag involving a hatful of molasses became a comedy classic, as the two performers found an instant rapport and chemistry.  In Arbuckle, Keaton found the man who could throw him around like his father used to be able to do, and in Keaton, Arbuckle found an eager, inventive partner who could turn out gag after gag like no other.

Thanks to Kino, these rare jewels of comedy have been preserved on DVD for modern fans.  Arbuckle & Keaton are two volumes of the most spirited, unbridled and freely executed slapstick ever captured on celluloid.  It captured two legends at the height of their comic apex, before Buster springboarded into stardom and Fatty would be ruined by the first major Hollywood scandal.

Each film is a treasure, and certain to leave no 21st century viewer wondering what the big deal about these “old guys” were.  From one of their most celebrated pairings in “The Bell Boy” (featuring one of Fatty’s most famous cigarette tricks) to the aforementioned “Butcher Boy”, to Fatty’s self-parody in “Moonshine” or the hijinks with partner Al St. John in “Coney Island”, each film is a loosely structured laugh riot that doesn’t try too hard to weigh the comedy down with logistics, style or story.  In fact, “script” was usually a token credit on an Arbuckle film.  According to Keaton, each film began with a single idea:  “We’d say, ‘that’s a fine start, now how do we finish?’  Once we had an ending, we never worried about the middle.  We figured the middle would take care of itself.”

The two comics brought out the best in one another.  Arbuckle taught Keaton everything he knew about filmmaking, even going so far as to loaning Buster a camera so he could take it apart and put it back together again and learn everything about it.   Arbuckle taught Keaton about editing, matching scenes, and even a thing or two about physical comedy, including how to take a sack of flour in the face!  Recalls Keaton, “I said, ‘how am I gonna keep from flinching?’  He said, ‘Look away from me.  When I say turn, it’ll be there.’  He put my head where my feet were!”

Keaton also helped Arbuckle realize some of the camera’s potential for comedy.  In a classic gag from “Moonshine”, Keaton opens a car door to let his agents out.  They pile out, one after another after another, until some thirty men had emerged from the car!  This was achieved by a simple dual exposure trick, filming the right side of the car as the men entered from the left and exited through the right, then exposing the left half of the film to show a closed left side car door.  The innovation had audiences laughing and marveling at the same time.

In 1920, Joseph Schenck decided to split up the act and move Fatty into features, as Charlie Chaplin had successfully done, while giving Keaton top billing in his own two-reelers.  The 1920’s would be a fertile time for Keaton, producing a string of short film hits and the influential features The Navigator, Sherlock Jr., Steamboat Bill Jr., and of course, The General.

The years after would not prove so kind to Arbuckle.  A scandal involving a girl who died at one of his parties led to three humiliating trials and an eventual acquittal.  Hollywood would not care about his innocence.  He would never appear on screen again or receive credited work in film, though Keaton later confessed he hired Fatty from time to time and off the record as a gag writer and consultant, just to keep him working.  Keaton always blamed the sensationalism of the press for his friend’s downfall.  “I once heard (newspaper mogul) William Hearst say to Joe Schenck in front of me that they sold more newspapers on the Arbuckle trials than they did on the sinking of the Lusitania!”.

These surviving ten short films (five per disc) stand as a testament to both men’s comical geniuses, and maintain their ability to inspire laughs nearly a century after their initial releases.  For cinema students, silent buffs or fans of comedy in general, the Arbuckle & Keaton DVDs are a can’t miss sensation.

Video ***

Kino has long been one of the best presenters of silent film on home video.  After many of their early releases were distributed by Image Entertainment, they have taken over their own DVD releases.  The results?   Remarkable.  Although no silent era film is going to look pristine, Kino maintains their reputation of being one of the best sources for quality, and the Arbuckle & Keaton discs are no exception.  Apart from the unavoidable scratches and print problems, these transfers are top notch, with crisp clear images and the original color tinting intact.  Detail is good, though, given the span of films, a bit varied.  “Moonshine” is arguably the least successful of the bunch, with a rather washed and faded appearance, but given it’s a short thought to be lost for many years, having it in any form is a pleasure.  Overall, these films register a notch above the majority of silent film presentations on DVD, and should serve as a treat to fans.

Audio ***1/2

I don’t know who the Alloy Orchestra are, but they’ve produced by far the best modern scoring for a silent film preservation I’ve ever heard (and I’ve heard plenty, believe me).  The stereo soundtrack is a clean, clear, dynamic plus that really enhances the enjoyment of these two reelers.  The musicians seem to make sounds with anything and everything they can get their hands on, and even lend a few perfectly synchronized sound effects to the action that punctuate the laughs.  A delightful listening experience!

Features (zero stars)

No extras on either disc.

Summary:

Arbuckle & Keaton Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 are two treasure troves of vintage comedy by two of the genre’s most legendary geniuses during their span as a partnership.  This is a wild, funny, and thoroughly entertaining romp through early film history with laughs a plenty.  Welcome, Kino, to the world of DVD production…we can’t wait to see what else you have in store!