This is my own post for the Third Annual Busterthon–hope you enjoy!
It’s one of the most famous scenes in all of silent comedy–the “can of molasses” scene from the Roscoe Arbuckle short The Butcher Boy (1917). This had the honor of being former vaudevillian Buster Keaton’s very first scene ever committed to celluloid. He always spoke of it with fondness and in his later years he enjoyed reenacting it for TV shows. And significantly, he would say that it had been done in one take. He’s often quoted from his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick:
Incidentally, I’ve been told that my first scene in The Butcher Boy is still the only movie-comedy scene ever made with a newcomer that was photographed only once. In other words my film debut was made without a single retake. p. 93.
Having watched The Butcher Boy approximately 458 times, I now wonder: if we examined the gag frame-by-frame, could we discover how this seemingly simple scene was put together? And was the entire molasses scene done in one take? Can we spot any clues that would prove it? Clear your schedules, my friends, ’cause this is about to get detailed.
I made the following screengrabs and GIFs from this YouTube copy of what I believe is the Kino version of The Butcher Boy, but I really recommend putting it on mute because the music is so horrific that I don’t want Silent-ology to be responsible for anyone’s eardrums exploding and bleeding down their necks. (Shockingly, I think the music actually comes from Kino’s DVD set. It was included ON PURPOSE.)
The gag itself is straightforward–or so it seems: Buster comes into Arbuckle’s store to buy a bucket of molasses, putting his coin in the bucket. Arbuckle fills up the bucket without seeing the money, and then, aggravated about having to fish out the coin, gets revenge by pouring molasses into Buster’s hat. The hat then gets stuck on Buster’s head. Further complications ensue when Buster’s shoe also gets stuck to the floor with the molasses.
In The Butcher Boy’s opening scene, there’s a throwaway gag where a mother scolds her son and we get a view of the entire store. (Easter egg: you can see the same silver bucket Buster later uses sitting on the floor under the molasses barrel.)
Arbuckle, Al St. John, and other characters are introduced. About 7 1/2 minutes into the short, in walks a slender young man in overalls and a flat hat–our own Buster Keaton, fresh off the vaudeville stage, strolling into the frame and into film history. He does a “bit of business” with brooms, staples of the famous Three Keatons act. Perhaps he requested them, so he could remind vaudeville fans who he was:
(Ever notice there seems to be a handkerchief or something sticking out of his back pocket?) He then uses his shoe to get a taste of the molasses, which is kinda gross:
Notice he’s holding the bucket by its handle–later on you’ll know why this is worth noting. When Buster asks for molasses he makes a point of taking the coin out of his pocket with a flourish and kissing it goodbye. As one Keaton historian I’ve seen has noted, this calls our attention to the coin, which is central to the whole bit:
Roscoe goes to the molasses barrel to fill up the bucket and Buster puts his hat on the counter. A few frames are missing here–maybe something was left on the editing room floor–but it looks like Buster was reaching for the handkerchief in his pocket. Maybe he wiped his forehead, a joke about how hard he’s “working” to get Roscoe to get him molasses? Pure speculation, of course. Buster then busies himself with crashing the checker game going on in the background:
When Roscoe comes back with the molasses, Buster informs him that the coin’s in the bucket and he wanders back to the checkers game. Annoyed, Roscoe pours the molasses in Buster’s hat so he can fish out the coin. Thus destroying the very first porkpie hat Buster Keaton ever wore on camera.
Roscoe tips his hat as Buster starts to leave, Buster tries to tip it back…and discovers it won’t come off his head. Now watch carefully–notice how Buster picks up the bucket by the rim instead of its handle, so he can toss it more accurately and ensure that the molasses will spill out toward him. He also looks back at Roscoe several times, to look confused and perhaps to also help judge his aim:
Buster then steps toward the counter with his right foot first. This is the foot that’ll stay stuck in the molasses throughout the rest of the gag. I will further note that for this short Buster is wearing the most XTreme!! slapshoes of all time.
Instead of laughing at him or anything like that, Roscoe stays pretty neutral throughout much of this sequence. This both both complements Buster’s acting style and allows the spotlight to stay on Buster’s reactions, which is great for him and gracious of Roscoe if you think about it. Roscoe tries to pull the hat off Buster’s head. It finally pops off, Buster falls back onto the floor, but his foot is still stuck in the ever-spreading molasses. (In the meantime, Roscoe helps himself to some of the molasses on Buster’s hat.)
We see a quick closeup of his XTreme!! slapshoe. It looks like the molasses either flowed out more or was spread around a little for this shot. Cutting back to the medium shot, we see that Roscoe seems to have stayed standing in the exact same spot while the closeup was taken. The bucket has moved slightly–or someone hit it while fussing with the molasses, maybe. (You can right-click the image and open it in a new tab to see it larger. I’m going to take some inspiration from John Bengtson’s blog and circle the relevant details.)
By the way, if you wanted to be truly crazy like I most certainly am you could watch the old guys playing checkers in the background. You can’t see the details, but you can tell that they’re certainly playing two or three real games of checkers and that they don’t seem to have moved from their seats at all during this scene. (Not bad work for those extras!)
Roscoe gets the bright idea to fetch a nearby kettle so he can pour hot water on the molasses. We cut to him grabbing the kettle off the stove and obliviously spilling hot water on a poor balding man’s head. (I’ve always felt for this unfortunate man.) Here’s where it gets interesting: in the next shot, the puddle of molasses is suddenly wider and is visibly smeared in more places across the floor. The bucket has also moved a little more:
Plus, if you examine the debris in the left side of the frame in the before-and-after-teapot scenes, the camera angle seems to have shifted very slightly. Some sort of horizontal object is now visible in the right side of the frame. Comparison:
(Man, this is some obsessive technical stuff, isn’t it?)
This could all be explained by, yes, having to do more than one take. If some hot water was spilled on the molasses more than once, that could account for all those weird smears. Another clue: notice that when Roscoe walks past the counter to the back of the store for the kettle, he just starts to take off his hat, but when we see Buster again Roscoe’s hat is sitting on the counter (he would’ve had to double back to put it there). Some sort of retake seems possible. Buster’s foot does seem to be in the same spot in both shots, although the cameraman could’ve measured where he was standing–or maybe he left a “print” in the molasses!
Now, throwing pies in comedies was a huge tired cliché at the time. Yep, it was a cliché by 1917. Heck, I’ve seen critics whine about it in movie magazines as early as 1915. So I’m willing to bet everything I own that Buster told Arbuckle he really, really wanted to actually throw a pie in a film comedy. “Why, I can’t appear in a slapstick comedy without throwing a few pies!” And so you did, Buster. And so you did. (You gotta wonder if Al St. John ever bragged about being the recipient of Buster’s first-ever filmed pie throw!)
I hope you enjoyed this in-depth look at one of most important comedy scenes of all time! It’s one of the many early comedy scenes that can appear deceptively simple, even crude, but upon closer examination reveal themselves to be carefully thought-out works of unpretentious slapstick art.