Analyzing The Molasses Scene From “The Butcher Boy”

buster-blogathon-the-third-4-2

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.

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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.)

butcher-boy-opening-shot

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:

The Butcher Boy - Buster Keaton

(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:

butcher-boy-molasses-on-shoe

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:

The Butcher Boy - Buster Keaton

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:

butcher-boy-watching-checkers

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.

butcher-boy-molasses-in-hat

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:

The Butcher Boy - Buster Keaton

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.

butcher-boy-right-foot

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.)

butcher-boy-stepping-back

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.)

butcher-boy-bucket-moved-trio

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!)

butcher-boy-roscoe-buster-look-at-molasses

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:

butcher-boy-roscoe-has-teapot

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:

butcher-boy-trio-molasses-2

(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!

So while that shot of Roscoe kicking Buster out of the frame is a little puzzling, the “molasses scene” does appear to have been done pretty much in one take, not counting the cutaway shots.
The Butcher Boy - Buster Keaton

Here’s one last thing I want to point out about Buster’s first foray into the flickers:
The Butcher Boy - Buster Keaton

PIE THROWING!!!!!

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.

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36 thoughts on “Analyzing The Molasses Scene From “The Butcher Boy”

  1. Pingback: The Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon – Celebrating 100 Years of Buster! | Silent-ology

  2. “Unpretentious slapstick art” is a beautiful line.

    I took you at your word, cleared the schedule, made a pot of tea, muted the volume and enjoyed The Butcher Boy. Equally enjoyed the breakdown immensely. I don’t always take that time myself, but it does add to the experience.

    Thank you for another sterling blogathon.

    • You’re welcome, thanks for reading! (And making a little time for Buster, Roscoe and Al–I’m sure they appreciate it!) This is my first attempt at a “frame by frame” analysis, it’s certainly time-consuming and I’m not sure if it’s something I’d do regularly, but this famous scene was too good to resist!

  3. Great research and fun insight, Lea (as usual)! It might be worth noting that when W.C. Fields filmed his Paramount feature IT’S A GIFT 17 years after THE BUTCHER BOY, a number of the same gags and situations reappear in the Bissonette Grocery Store sequence: Fields puts on a raccoon coat to get meat out of the walk-in freezer; he leans his arm on the food scale when weighing some meat; the overhead baskets wreak havoc cross-crossing overhead; and — the spigot on the barrel of molasses is left opening, spilling over the floor. There are too many identical bits of business to write this off as coincidence. My hunch is that Fields saw THE BUTCHER BOY at least once after its 1917 debut (the short was reissued during 1920-21 as well) and made good mental notes — perhaps he even took notes!

    • Wow, that’s fascinating! That also goes to show how highly Fields must have regarded Arbuckle’s work, if he still remembered his gags all those years later. Thanks for reading, Ed. 🙂

  4. Love it! A great analysis. One thing I’ve wondered about this scene: how does Buster keep his foot “glued” so convincingly in one spot in the midst of all those contortions with Arbuckle? If his shoe was affixed in some way, that would tend to disprove the one take, right? So he must just have the strength and dexterity to pull it off from all his physical stuff on stage.

    And say, regarding the music, my copy (also from YT) has some piano music which is extremely good—I think it may be Ben Model—? However, the picture is not as sharp as the one above.

    • The Kino version of the Butcher Boy looks very nice, in spite of the ear-bleeding “music,” and the version on the brand new Buster Keaton shorts collection is TERRIFIC. It even has a minute of so of footage I’ve never seen! (The Flicker Alley set is what I formerly watched 458 times).

      Glad you enjoyed the analysis, Donnie! I also wondered about how he kept his shoe from slipping around. Short of making a slapshoe and pouring molasses on the floor to try it out we’ll have to assume molasses really is that sticky!

  5. Hi Lea. I enjoyed your deep analysis of the scene. People often say jokes aren’t funny if you have to explain them, but digging in like this can help us appreciate the way they work.

    • Absolutely! And when it comes to the great silent comedians, they never waste a moment onscreen, there’s always something going on in the frame. Take the shot where Roscoe’s tasting the molasses on Buster’s hat while Buster’s flailing around. I’ve watched this short dozens of times–DOZENS–and I literally just caught that last night. Had to do a quick edit before scheduling this post!

  6. What a thoroughly impressive post. I’ve love how you Columboed this short. It is all in the details. Thanks for another enjoyable and informative read…Every time I learn something new about Keaton, I am awed😊

  7. You would enjoy the new Blu-ray of the Arbuckle Keaton shorts. With a Blu-ray drive on your computer (I installed one on mine) and a simple capture program like Aiseesoft, you can get Blu-ray frame grabs. The Hayseed and The Garage both have scenes filmed in Palms and Culver City, BEFORE Laurel & Hardy, and even before Harold Lloyd, filmed there. The extra visual detail really helps.

    • I love that set, never thought of taking screengrabs from it on my computer–thanks for the tip! We’re fortunate technology allows us to see these old films in such detail.

  8. Wonderful analysis, Lea! I too enjoy picking these bits apart and scrutinizing all of the minute details. They actually can be quite revealing. Even after repeated viewings, one can always spot something new and fascinating! And thanks to your drawing special attention to Buster’s pie-throwing segment in this film, I spotted something I hadn’t noticed before, even with repeated viewings: Buster’s pitch is left-handed here! I don’t recall ever before seeing him throw anything, whether pie, baseball, or whatever, with his left hand. Now we have to speculate about why he did that… Haha! All in all, thank you for an enjoyable read!

    • You’re welcome Trish! You know, we see so many folks who think these comedies were basically improvised all the way through, willy-nilly, no rhyme or reason to them, but in reality you can tell they required some planning. I agree, all the little details are way too much fun to spot and really deepen our appreciation of these films!

      It reminds me of how often I hear that the Comique films are too “disjointed” or that the two-part structure is somehow not…good filmmaking, or something. 😀 Which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Methinks some viewers don’t pay close enough attention when they’re watching them.

      I just noticed that lefthanded throw myself a couple days ago! (It took a GIF to make that noticeable, ha ha!) Presumably it looked better to face the camera while throwing a pie…?

      • Yep, I wondered if that may have been why he pitched it left-handed in that case.
        And I agree with you that those who dismiss the Comiques as too disjointed or unstructured are missing a lot of nuances! Ha!

  9. Really enjoyed your breakdown of this scene! It highlights all that goes into making great physical comedy. Comedy always seemed like dance to me, in that it is supposed to look effortless, but in reality requires extraordinary physical control, timing, imagination and work. Your analysis of this scene increases my appreciation of his work!

    • So glad you found it enlightening! It took many repeated viewings, that’s fore sure. 😀 Much agreed, making a fairly complicated scene look effortless really is the essence of great physical comedy!

  10. Firstly, thanks for embedding the short into your post. I hadn’t seen it before, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

    Secondly, those are some CRAZY shoes Keaton is wearing.

    Thirdly, you make a good point about Roscoe’s generosity during the molasses scene. He hands the whole thing to Keaton, which is what was needed in order for it to work.

    Lastly, thank you for breaking down the scene and illustrating how clever it is. Like a previous commenter said, you’ve given me a greater appreciation not only for this scene, but the whole film. Thanks!

    • It’s a classic, isn’t it? And it’s so fresh and funny that I never get tired of it. Thank you for reading!

      Yes, what is up with those slapshoes? Never have my eyes beheld such footwear, nor since. 😀

  11. Wow I really loved what I just read! I haven’t seen this film yet (and believe me, I will asap), but this didn’t prevent me from truly appreciated your brilliant analysis of this movie scene. This could have been a great entry for the …And Scene! Blogathon that was hosted one or 2 years ago.
    When I have so much pleasure reading about a film I haven’t seen it’s always a positive thing. You explain the scene well so we don’t get lost and notices important details. I loved it when you talked about the extras playing checkers hahah. Great stuff like that is among the reason why I love reading about Buster Keaton. Thanks again for hosting the blogahon!
    PS: I love Keaton’s face when he kisses that coin

    • So happy you enjoyed this post!! It took a lot of detective work but it was a lot of fun too–and even exciting (to nerd like me anyways, lol). As many times as I’ve seen this short, 4-5 brand new details suddenly popped out. One I spotted just after scheduling this post–had to go back and edit the post real quick! It was an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, folks!! 😀

      p.s. Me too! Those one-of-a-kind eyes. 🙂

  12. After having watched “The Butcher Boy” again for this blogathon, I really enjoyed reading this in-depth look at the molasses scene! It is certainly a scene that stands out and shows Keaton’s many, many skills as a comedian. Thanks again for hosting! I’m enjoying reading everyone’s contributions 🙂

  13. What a neat and fitting tribute for his centennial 🙂 Excellent detective work, too!! You certainly have an eye for detail.

    I also wonder what ever became of the numerous porkpies that Buster had made…

    • Right?? There were so many of them, too! His granddaughter has one of them, apparently. I’ve heard that fans would occasionally try and nab one as a souvenir, so you gotta wonder if a few are lurking in closets somewhere, guarded as secret family heirlooms… 🙂

  14. Thank you so much for the lovely look of all of Busters films during the blogathon! I’ve a recent fan (discovered him a month ago) and have been happily watching and rewatching his entire filmography, or, well, the ones I can find. Have you seen his “remake” of this scene with Ed Wynn on Ed’s show? It’s absolutely hilarious and, even though I love this scene, it feels funnier & more complete !

  15. Pingback: Happy Centennial Of Buster Entering Films!!! | Silent-ology

  16. Pingback: Thoughts On: “The Butcher Boy” And “The Rough House” | Silent-ology

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