This is my own post for the First Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, right here on Silent-ology!
One of most sought-after lost silent films–part of a list including Hats Off, Heart Trouble, and some flick called Midnight London or something like that–is a two-reel short directed by Roscoe Arbuckle, A Country Hero (1917). Fans are dying to find it not only because it’s part of Arbuckle’s excellent filmography but because it’s the only film of Buster Keaton’s silent career that’s missing. Everything else is available except this. One. Film.
But until it hopefully turns up (hey, maybe you can find it!), we’ll have to content ourselves with finding as much info about it as we can, via trade papers, fan magazines, publicity materials, a bit of detective work, and our longing imaginations. And that is precisely what we’re going to do right now!
Roscoe Arbuckle was one of the biggest comedy names in the motion picture industry–second only to Charlie Chaplin. A former stage comedian, he had become one of the Keystone Film Company’s biggest draws and was allowed a lot of creative control in his starring films (such as Fatty and Mabel Adrift and He Did and He Didn’t). In 1916 he was offered his own East Coast studio by producer Joe Schenck. He accepted, and this was the start of the Comique Film Corporation.
Arbuckle took along several Keystone comedians–Al St. John and Alice Lake being the most prominent–and signed former vaudevillian Buster Keaton. His Comique comedies were hugely successful, and after a time the studio relocated to California. The first film they made there was A Country Hero, which spared no expense on a large outdoor set. It was a big hit. And unlike the other Comiques featuring Keaton, it apparently has been lost ever since.
What Do We Know Is In A Country Hero?
So how do we know what’s in this lost film? From 1910s reviews and publicity material we can glean quite a few things:
- It stars Roscoe, Al St. John, Buster Keaton, Buster’s father Joe Keaton, and Alice Lake;
- The setting is a small town called Jazzville (said to be a replica of the main street of Smith Center, Kansas, where Roscoe grew up);
- Roscoe’s character is a blacksmith (also described as a “man of all work”;)
- Alice is a school teacher whom Roscoe loves;
- Joe Keaton plays (of all things) Roscoe’s romantic rival Cy Klone, owner of the “Spark Plug Garage” (this was Joe‘s film debut);
- Buster is the “village pest;”
- Al plays a “city dude”;
- Gags revolve around trying to fix the “city dude’s” Ford;
- Several gags figure around a water trough, including Joe kicking in each of the main characters;
- Buster, in drag, performs his “Fatima snake dance” routine at an amateur vaudeville show at the “annual village ball.”
- Buster-as-Fatima charms a “snake” (really a woman’s stocking) out of a cigar box;
- At some point Roscoe appeared in drag as a Spanish dancer, Al appears in a Scottish Highlander outfit while Buster has some more screen time in Fatima drag;
- Al tries to kidnap Alice at some point, thus uniting Roscoe and Joe against him;
- Al takes Alice to the big city, pursued by Joe and Roscoe;
- There is a big automobile chase sequence;
- One or more cars are demolished by a train;
- Some sort of fight scene in a restaurant involves lots of break-away furniture, including a grand piano wielded by Roscoe;
- Roscoe emerges victorious, getting both the girl and a “package of money.”
So assuming that our Edwardian era reviewers were remembering everything correctly and that the publicity materials were being somewhat precise, the above covers what we know is in the film.
What Guesses Can We Make About The Plot?
So the bullet points I listed give us a vague idea of A Country Hero‘s plot. We also have general descriptions of it in old film reviews, but nothing as precise as we’d like. Here’s one of more detailed ones, from Moving Picture World, December 1917:
Based on numerous (embarrassingly numerous) Comique viewings, here are my thoughts on what it could be like to watch this two-reeler:
We can imagine that the beginning of the film introduces the characters in a similar way to Comiques like The Butcher Boy–a view of the sleepy village setting and the introduction of the country rube characters shown working and going about their business. You’ve got to wonder what Joe Keaton, who had despised films before Buster talked him into appearing in one, did with his first few moments of screen time. The relationships between the characters would have to be established, and we can assume there were scenes showing Roscoe and Joe vying for Alice’s affections–just imagine the elder Keaton acting the part of a lovestruck swain! (It’s worth noting that Rudi Blesh’s biography Keaton mentions Joe being asked to play Alice’s father, rather than a romantic rival. Personally this makes more sense to me–however, this doesn’t square with some of the publicity material, and since many of Blesh’s descriptions of Keaton films are inaccurate this story is probably inaccurate too.)
It’s anyone’s guess as to how Buster’s “village pest” character was introduced. Even though Joe had one of the main roles, Buster is the one who seems to be in most of the ads/gag photos for the film, alongside Al and Roscoe. Al is consistently described as a city dude or city chap in publicity materials, which might’ve been a fun opportunity for some “City vs. Country” lampooning. He presumably enters the film via his car breaking down in Jazzville. Does he start trying to romance Alice while his car is being repaired?
How the village ball fits into the story is less clear. Maybe there is more setup for the rivalry over Alice. Perhaps the “amateur vaudeville show” at the ball just provided a good excuse for creative gags and theatrical satire (the ball would later be re-used for Comique’s The Hayseed, which also includes an amateur talent show).
Whatever the case, at some point Al is given the opportunity to steal Alice and takes her to the big city. It sounds like Roscoe and Al have one of their customary furniture-throwing showdown battles in a restaurant (as seen in other Keystones)–one publicity story mentions that during the filming of this sequence Roscoe had to be treated for a lump after having a prop piano broken over his head! One wonders if the big car chase sequence described in some reviews happened before or after the restaurant scenes, since at one point Al’s car is destroyed by a train–a pretty spectacular gag.
What Else Can We Deduce About This Film?
A Country Hero definitely shares some similarities with Roscoe and Al’s Keystone comedies–very much in the spirit of Keystone, which reused and reworked plots like crazy. In fact, A Country Hero is an awful lot like Leading Lizzie Astray (1914), which also features a city slicker whose car breaks down in a small town, and who lures a country girl to the city where simple yet heroic country boy Roscoe comes to her rescue. Leading Lizzie Astray would be reworked another Roscoe film, The Bright Lights (1916) costarring Mabel Normand. A Country Hero may have been the definitive reworking of a plot that Roscoe obviously liked. The storyline of Al trying to literally steal someone’s girl was done at other times too, such as in The Grab Bag Bride (1917) and even in Comique short His Wedding Night (1917).
So we can imagine that first half of A Country Hero has plenty of good Roscoe gags revolving around blacksmithing and fixing cars. Hmm, gags revolving around blacksmithing and fixing cars…that’s a little familiar, isn’t it?
What if some of Roscoe’s gags turned up in Buster’s The Blacksmith? I’m thinking particularly of the one where Buster cooks breakfast on the same fire he‘s using to heat metal–that has the kind of innocent absurdity that Roscoe might come up with. And you can imagine some gags where Arbuckle and rube-ish Joe accidentally damage a car (presumably it would be Al’s car), remembered and extended for a rather controversial sequence with a Rolls Royce in Buster‘s own short. This wouldn’t be the first time Comique material was reworked in a Buster film–the opening of Back Stage (1918) turns up in the center of The Playhouse (1921), for instance. It’s an intriguing possibility.
Here’s another intriguing possibility–there was publicity material stating that Natalie Talmadge was supposedly going to be in the film. If she is, it’s probably as a bit part since Alice was chosen as the lead. What if she was in a scene opposite Buster? Just think, even she if had just a few seconds of screen time with him the amount of fan analysis, speculation and commentary would be through the roof. Just think of the message boards.
And speaking of Buster, one thing about A Country Hero definitely stood out to critics and audiences at the time. That was the scene that Buster stole as he performed his “Fatima snake dance.” One writer even called it: “one of the finest hits of burlesque ever filmed.” His appearances in the previous Comiques had always been well-received; he had been praised for his “excellent comedy falls” and mentioned readily along with the established star Al St. John. Could A Country Hero have been a turning point in Buster’s film career? Perhaps his “Fatima” was what made critics–and audiences- sit up in their seats and take some serious notice of this clever young man.
Buster himself certainly prized that routine. Not only did he use it to entertain soldiers in WWI the following year, but he used it in several other films throughout his long career–and apparently even let Roscoe borrow it in The Cook (1918)!
A Country Hero is a a vital piece of the Comique puzzle. It represents a bridge between the smaller-scale films Arbuckle made on the East Coast and the several outdoorsy ones that resulted after the move to the big sunny spaces of California. It contained an important highlight of Buster’s film career. And it just might hold a few clues to his choices in The Blacksmith. Not to mention that it’s probably a hilarious two-reeler that just might rank highly with Arbuckle’s finest comedies. So with all that in mind, my main feeling about A Country Hero is thus:
WE HAVE TO FIND THIS FILM!! Everyone, quick! Check the film archives, bug eccentric film collectors, put out non-sketchy ads on Craigslist, tear apart your grandpa’s barn! (Or maybe just walk through it.) This film has got to be out there somewhere, waiting for the day to come when it can make us laugh again.