Thursday, 12 May 2011

The Making of Buster Keaton - Part Two

... in which we continue our journey through the early career of the silent screen's greatest comic. You can read Part One here.

The Rough House (Roscoe Arbuckle, 1917) was the second collaboration between endlessly-mugging slapstick peddler Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle - whose career was about to bottom out in gutting fashion - and Buster Keaton, a genius newly arrived in Hollywood and yet to premiere his legendary blank-faced persona. There's some funny stuff here - like Arbuckle trying to douse a raging fire by repeatedly filling a teacup with water - but little rhyme or reason as to how the hero behaves. He's essentially a sociopath: attacking people for no reason, jettisoning job opportunities by stroking the staff, and applying a thick coat of butter to a bald man's head. Intriguingly, he also does a very short "dance of the rolls". It lacks the joy and innocence of Chaplin's celebrated routine in The Gold Rush, particularly as there's no dramatic context, but it's interesting to note how silent comedy evolved and observe that some of the most famous set-pieces in cinema (the national anthem sing-off in Casablanca, familiar to anyone who's seen La grande illusion) are half-inched quite shamelessly from earlier works. Buster's contributions here include a few spectacular pratfalls and a bit where he gets stuck on top of a big pole, dressed as a policeman. Following the old "great big fight, barely-related second-reel" template, The Rough House isn't in the same league as Keaton's dizzyingly inventive solo shorts (we'll get to them in due course), but it has a few bright spots and spotlights the supreme physicality that was about to make him a superstar. (2)

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