His Wedding Night (1917)
Comique number four, and number three in terms of Buster Keaton appearances, was the cheekily-titled His Wedding Night–which of course offers nothing salacious. While not usually considered one of Arbuckle’s more outstanding works, it offers loads of fun gags and some “I can’t believe I’m seeing this” Buster scenes.
Like The Butcher Boy it’s set in a small-town pharmacy called Koff & Kramp, where Roscoe is a kind of clerk-of-all-trades who works the front counter, acts as the soda jerk, and pumps gas for customers outside. Outgoing little Alice Mann plays Roscoe’s sweetheart, and is a welcome addition to the Comique troupe. She and Roscoe make an adorable pair. (I love the shot where they share an ice cream soda.)
Also like The Butcher Boy, His Wedding Night features Al St. John as Roscoe’s romantic rival, who decides to kidnap Alice and force her into marriage. In his usual Loony Tune villain mode, he both dishes out a bunch of abuse (chewing on characters’ faces in rage!) and receives it (by way of Roscoe and Alice throwing ice cream in his face). There’s a great throwaway gag where he eats watermelon slices with Alice and stops to pick watermelon seeds out of his ears–never fails to get a laugh out of me.
And Buster? His Wedding Night shows that he was definitely getting comfortable with appearing in films. Again he’s playing a delivery boy, dropping off a wedding dress for Alice. He makes his entrance by crashing into a bike rack and flipping over the handlebars (knocking over a “front porch sitter” gent). In a delightfully subtle bit of detail, Buster somehow pokes himself in the eye during the crash and can’t stop blinking it. Roscoe thinks he’s winking as a sly why of requesting a beer, which he then pours and which Buster then slams.
My gosh, Buster fans, if you’ve never seen this short then I am about to change your life. The most weirdly priceless scene is where Buster models the wedding dress for the excited Alice (it’s silent comedy logic, y’all, just roll with it). A folding screen falls to the ground to reveal him dramatically posing in the dress, lit by a spotlight. (I’m quite willing to believe the mechanics of this scene were all Buster’s idea.) He trips about in the pretty dress and it’s glorious. Towards the end Al mistakes him for Alice, throws a pillowcase over his head, and kidnaps him intending to force “her” into marriage. Just in the nick of time Roscoe discovers “Alice” is actually Buster, and in a goofy closeup Buster gives an embarrassed laugh and winks again–apparently he’s still sort of buzzed.
An interesting trait of His Wedding Night is that the entire premise of the kidnapping scenes depends on the film being silent, and knowing that it’s silent. In a sound film, of course, if Buster’s character got kidnapped all he would have to do is yell and Al would immediately realize he wasn’t Alice. Alice herself would hear the commotion as Buster was being kidnapped, too. This kind of logic can be safely deposited out the window in a silent short.
Now, if you’re looking to play Offensive Material Bingo, His Wedding Night will check off every square. Racially insensitive gags? Check! Awkward gags involving an unconscious woman? Also check! A gag about an effeminate man who just loves ladies’ perfume? You got it! Although some of them, if analyzed, are awkward but fairly harmless, I confess that I usually fast-forward through the gag where Roscoe mischievously kisses a woman who was accidentally knocked out with chloroform (long story). While he plays the scene innocently and we’re not meant to think that his character is on the fast track to becoming a felon, it still leaves me feeling a bit icky.
Despite this, there’s a relaxed feel to this short, with the majority of it simply revolving around Roscoe working at the pharmacy and interacting with the various quirky customers that come in. There’s some nice gags showing him mixing ice cream sodas (Roscoe loved scenes involving food preparation–a kitchen was an endless font of creativity for him) and his interactions with Alice are cute and convincing.
All and all, His Wedding Night is a generally enjoyable experience and a lot of people should get a kick out of it. The next short would take a decidedly different turn, as Roscoe, Al and Buster all take roles that are a little out of the Comique norm.
Oh Doctor! (1917)
Alright, I’ll be honest here–of all the Comiques, this is the one I’ve watched the least. It has fewer funny gags than many of the other shorts, fewer slapstick “set pieces,” and less likable characters. And then there’s Buster, who–well, let’s take a closer look at this short first.
Roscoe is well-to-do Dr. I. O. Dine who takes his wife and pampered son (played by Buster!) to see the horse races. Smartly-dressed Al shows up at the track with his vamp-ish, attractive wife. Roscoe secretly flirts with the attractive wife, leading to him saying this strange title card:
This oddly archaic-sounding card can vary slightly depending on what print you’re viewing, but the gist of it is always the same. I’m genuinely not sure what its purpose is–is Roscoe trying to act like a pompous intellectual? If so, why doesn’t he say other “intellectual” things too? Is it satirizing something? Did it get inserted later for some odd reason? Anyhoo, both Roscoe and Al lose all their money betting on a losing horse, and one thing leads to another and Al and his wife plot to steal jewelry from the wealthy Roscoe. And of course, their plans go awry.
Being more of a “light comedy” than the other Comiques, Oh Doctor! might also be his closest brush with drama since He Did and He Didn’t (1916). And much like the latter, Roscoe plays a jerky, well-dressed doctor. A really jerky doctor, one who deliberately sticks a pin in his son and who angrily kicks his legs off a table.
Okay, can we talk about Buster now? Because I need to talk about Buster now. If you think his performance in His Wedding Night was uninhibited, you should get a load of Oh Doctor! He doesn’t just smile or laugh, but straight-up bawls with his mouth open wide enough to fit in a tennis ball. It’s just plain disconcerting. I’m sorry, Buster, but you kind of freak me out here.
The “humor” in the scenes of Roscoe kicking and smacking his son (which hasn’t worn too well today) might be drawing on the popular trope of “bad boys” like comic strip character Buster Brown. (Fun fact: some say Brown was named after our Buster back when he was a vaudeville child star!) Films and comic strips had plenty of naughty boys who caused mischief and often “pulled one over” on the “old man.” Of course, Buster is supposed to be playing a crybaby brat, not a mischief-maker you’re necessarily supposed to root for. Still, the dysfunctional family of Oh Doctor! certainly fits in with that area of early 20th century pop culture.
Some say that Buster’s role seems more suited to Al St. John, which does seem true to a point. He sure imitates Al’s, err, enthusiastic acting style, and maybe he decided to experiment with different styles of performing. But I can see why Al stuck to the “straight” role (so to speak). Smooth-faced Buster can pull off a younger character fairly well, and if you think about it, Al was maybe too familiar to contemporary audiences to suddenly be playing a “little boy.”
Once you get past the Great Buster Distraction, Oh Doctor! offers a chase sequence where Roscoe dresses up as a cop, pursues Al, and busts an illegal gambling ring. The pace is surprisingly measured, perhaps because of the short’s light comedy aspirations. And Roscoe’s character is more likable in the second half–he’s still a cad, but the comedian himself still inserts plenty of funny touches.
Overall, Oh Doctor! is certainly one of the lesser Comiques, with a premise that’s maybe less interesting than the ones in other shorts and with few memorable gags. But it does have high production values, smooth editing, and proves that the ever-creative Arbuckle was willing to mix things up now and then.
My most important source for Comique Month is James Neibaur’s book Arbuckle and Keaton: Their 14 Film Collaborations, published by McFarland. I’ve also been benefiting from the excellent new Blu-ray set Buster Keaton: The Shorts Collection from Kino-Lorber, produced by Lobster Films.