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THE COOK AND OTHER TREASURES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd
Directors:  Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Hal Roach
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Image Entertainment
Features:  Do-It-Yourself Restoration
Length:  70 Minutes (total)
Release Date:  February 11, 2003

Films ***1/2

Some 80 percent of all films from the silent era are believed lost forever…that’s a tragedy, and the utmost reason why film preservation is such a worthy cause.  But every once in awhile, sometimes in places you’d least expect, some vault somewhere is opened up, and one of those lost titles becomes reclaimed for all humanity.  That’s fantastic news when it happens…but when one of them is a classic early pairing of comedy stars Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, it’s like finding the Holy Grail.

With Buster Keaton being my favorite filmmaker and screen star, I’ve owned and read many books about him over the years, and every single one has lamented The Cook as long vanished.  How thrilling it is for a fan in the 21st century, however, to learn that it survived!  In 1998, a partial print was discovered in Norway, then in 2002, additional footage was uncovered in the Netherlands!

This DVD offering represents the best and most completely restored version of this comedy short possible created from the two existing prints.  A bit of the ending is still lost, but most of the best gags are intact, and showcase Arbuckle and Keaton’s unparalleled timing for physical comedy.

The plot of the picture, as typical, is sketchy, and mostly a clothesline for two master funnymen to hang their jokes upon.  Fatty plays the cook at a café, with Buster the hapless waiter.  The way the two pass plates and food back and forth seems physically impossible, or highly improbable, yet the veteran team’s juggling act is as precise as it is hysterical.  Al St. John, Arbuckle’s resident heavy, plays the tough guy who tries to make time with the café cashier, whom Buster secretly loves.  He’s no match for Al, but that’s okay, Luke the bouncer is!  And Luke happens to be a dog.

The whole picture climaxes at a carnival, where Arbuckle and company get all wet.  As mentioned, the ending is a little truncated, but the best parts of the film are intact, and Arbuckle and Keaton’s intuitive genius for gags and stunts shine through.

This disc also includes another Arbuckle short thought lost, A Reckless Romeo.  An equally funny and possibly better crafted film, it follows the misadventures of Fatty as a husband with a wandering eye, whose escapades at an amusement park get him into more and more trouble.  He THINKS he can explain it all away to his wife, but ends up in a newsreel for all to see!  Very good stuff.

Those two gems are enough to make for a collector’s edition DVD, but Image throws one more classic into the mix: the Hal Roach directed Harold Lloyd vehicle Number, Please?  Like the previous two films, this one puts a comic star in an amusement park setting for some hijinks.  This one isn’t as memorable as some of Lloyd’s later works and features, but it makes for a formidable companion piece nonetheless.

Sadly, “Fatty” Arbuckle seems either little remembered today, or only remembered for the wrong reason (the scandal he was eventually acquitted for that ruined his career).  At one point, he was considered the second most popular film comedian in the world, next to Charlie Chaplin.  He was a gifted artist who used his rotund form to full comic advantage, doing stunts and acrobats many men half his size could have never done!  His partnership with Keaton helped bring Buster into the movie business, which in turn gave the world one of its most indispensable stars. 

But like many great comic acts, the one-two punch of Arbuckle and Keaton didn’t last forever.  Yet one need look no further than one of their shorts to appreciate their fast and furious inventiveness and their genius for comedy and slapstick.  The arrival of the long lost picture The Cook should only add to that reputation and continue to win them new modern fans.

Video **

I hate having to grade silent films in this category, particularly when you have two that were long thought lost that have almost miraculously resurfaced…it’s plenty that they exist at all.  But I do have to point out, unfairly and unnecessarily, that the print quality isn’t the best in the world…they’re probably about what you’d expect for movies from the teens.  The color tinting on The Cook and A Restless Romeo are nice touches, but the Lloyd short seems to have weathered the ravages of time the best, with a much cleaner print and stronger contrast levels.  No real complaints, mind you…fans will be glad to have these ‘lost’ classics in their collection under any circumstances.

Audio **

All shorts are accompanied by a simple but appropriate piano score by Philip Carli, which accentuates the viewing experience nicely enough…no real punch needed or offered.

Features * 1/2

You can look at the original prints of The Cook from the Netherlands and Norway, and if you have DVD ROM access, you can use the original press kit to see how well you can use the pieces to create a restored version of your own!

Summary:

A pair of ‘lost’ films suddenly found and brought together onto a single disc is great…a bonus third short that puts “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd onto that same DVD is even better.  Image did a great service to silent comedy fans by bringing them their first must-have disc for the new millennium.