Keaton, Arbuckle and St. John
Volume 5 of the "Slapstick Encyclopedia" features some of the best work of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. You'll find Arbuckle teaming with Buster Keaton in "Oh, Doctor!" (1917) and "The Garage" (1920), and co-starring with Mabel Normand and Al St. John in "Fatty and Mabel Adrift" (1916). "Oh, Doctor!" and "The Garage" allow us to see how Arbuckle and Keaton worked together. "Oh, Doctor!" was one of their first comedies. Arbuckle takes the lead, with Keaton in a supporting role, but by "The Garage" three years later, Keaton and Arbuckle share screen time equally. In "Oh, Doctor!" Arbuckle plays a doctor with less-than-ethical methods. At one point, he even runs his car into a crowd of people and then passes out his business cards to the victims. Keaton's role places him largely on the sidelines, as the doctor's son. As Arbuckle punches and smacks Keaton, the Great Stone Face uncharacteristically begins screaming and crying.
"The Garage" was Arbuckle and Keaton's last comedy together. Keaton's Stone Face still hadn't arrived yet; in "The Garage" he cries, laughs, and mugs. But the Keaton pratfalls are well in evidence here, especially those that involve a rotating platform in the garage. Keaton spins and crashes headfirst, bouncing off of his own noggin before twisting and tumbling on the ground. "The Garage" is a wildly inventive comedy, with loads of good sight gags. In one scene a dog attacks Keaton and rips off his pants; however, Keaton uses his knife to cut out a Scotish kilt for himself from a billboard. And in another scene, Keaton and Arbuckle (as firemen) get halfway to the fire when they realize they're wearing the wrong hats, so they return to the firehouse/garage to get the right ones.
However, the best of the Arbuckle comedies may well be "Fatty and Mabel Adrift" (1916). If Arbuckle has a masterpiece, this is it. Arbuckle plays a hired hand who falls for the farmer's daughter (Mabel Normand), but the son (Al St. John, Arbuckle's real-life nephew) of the neighboring farmer wants to marry her--so that the farm lands can be united. Arbuckle wins her, though, and they get married and move to a beach cottage. St. John pursues them and hires a band of robbers to help him push the house out to sea. Fatty and Mabel wake up as their beds are floating on the waist high water. As outlandish as the plot might be, some of the best moments in this short come from the quieter moments, such as the ingenious vignettes that appear at the beginning of the comedy: a heart-shaped vignette shows us the smiling Fatty, and another heart-shaped vignette shows us the demure Mabel. A well-placed arrow from Cupid brings the two hearts together, in a heart that swells, while Al. St. John watches and stews.
Al St. John moves to the forefront in "The Iron Mule" (1925), directed after Arbuckle had been banished from the movie screen as the result of an infamous scandal. Never mind that Arbuckle was acquitted of any wrongdoing, his career in front of the camera was ruined, but he continued making comedies, such as this one, which features the same quirky train built for Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality. Buster Keaton himself takes a starring role in "The Boat" (1921), one of his very finest shorts (in a remastered and orchestrally-scored version that improves on the version included with Kino's "The Art of Buster Keaton"). Keaton stars as husband who has built a huge boat in his basement. After nearly demolishing their house while getting the boat through the small basement door, Keaton takes his family on a watery outing.
Hal Roach's All-Star Comedians
Volumes 6 and 7 both focus on one of the great comedy studios of the silent era: Hal Roach Studios. While Mack Sennett's Keystone Studio is usually regarded as America's most proficient assembly line for slapstick comedy, Hal Roach Studios refined and perfected the form, providing more elaborate storytelling and sophisticated narratives (in contrast to the manic, knockabout comedy of Keystone). Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase, and Our Gang are all closely associated with their work for Hal Roach. These volumes are fairly similar in scope with Harold Lloyd and Charley Chase sharing duties in both volumes. The big difference is the inclusion of Laurel & Hardy in Volume 7. (More about them in the notes for Volume 7.)
Volume 6's main stair is Harold Lloyd, who stars in two shorts, "Get Out and Get Under" and "Haunted Spooks." Around the time that he made "Get Out and Get Under" (1920), Lloyd was beginning to perfect his American go-getter character. Here, his character is so absorbed in his own actions that he can't see how he's affecting others. When he accidentally runs his car through the wall of a garage and into his neighbor's garden, he looks at the car and says, "Didn't do a bit of damage!"--oblivious to the fact that the neighbor's garden has been devastated. Lloyd also supplies several good sight gags, as when his car breaks down and he literally crawls inside the hood while fixing it.
"Haunted Spooks" (1920) is the production where Lloyd became injured by a prop bomb that exploded, causing him to loose his thumb and forefinger (and making his subsequent acrobatics in movies such as Safety Last (1923) all the more remarkable. "Haunted Spooks" is a somewhat generic haunted house comedy that fails to take advantage of Lloyd's unique abilities, but it features at least one good sight gag: when Lloyd sees a ghost, his hair stands on end thanks to an apparent application of static electricity (making him look remarkably like the lead character in David Lynch's Eraserhead).
Will Rogers isn't normally thought of as a slapstick comedian, but in "Big Moments for Little Pictures" (1924) he imitates a Keystone Kops comedy, and in "Oranges and Lemons" (1923), Stan Laurel stars as a mischievous sprite who wreaks havoc in an orchard. His character is nothing like the one he would play when teamed with Oliver Hardy. One of the highlights of this hectic one-reeler is a wonderful, acrobatic maneuver that Laurel performs with a pair of swinging doors while hiding from the orchard foreman.
Charley Chase's "Mighty Like a Moose" (1926) is arguably the funniest short in this volume. Charley Chase and Vivian Oakland play a homely-looking husband and wife. He has huge buckteeth and she has a nose that hooks like an eagle's beak. Unknown to their mates, Chases sees an oral surgeon to fix his teeth and Oakland has a nose job. Afterwards, they don't recognize each other. Some of the funniest moments come courtesy of Gale Henry. She plays a gawky spinster who dogs Chase at a dance. She only knows one dance step--a polka!--which she launches into at the drop of a hat.
Volume 6 is one of the two new volumes created when Image Entertainment rearranged the contents of "Slapstick Encyclopedia."