Coney Island (1917)
For decades, Coney Island was one of the most-watched Comiques, thanks to 16mm copies being in the public domain. Since few other Arbuckle films were available, it was sometimes cited as the “only” film where Buster actually smiled on camera–not true, as we’ve seen. Still, we’re lucky the lovable, crowd-pleasing Coney Island got to be one of those available few. It’s not only very funny, but treats us to all the period charm of an Edwardian afternoon at the famed amusement park.
While earlier films like The Butcher Boy or His Wedding Night revolved around Roscoe performing gags in a specific studio setting before the plot kicked in, Coney Island has a steady plot and is shot mainly on location. The colorful backdrop of 1917 Luna Park lends itself to a number of nicely-composed shots. Signs advertise 10 cent frankfurters, waterways are spanned by pretty bridges, and everything seems bright and clean. Even the ticket-taker booth has a surprisingly fancy design. It’s an ideal playground for our slapstick clowns–who wouldn’t love the sight of Al and Buster weaving their way along the “Witching Waves,” or Roscoe and Alice barreling down the “Shoot the Chutes”?
The plot is simple and unfolds like a jolly tune. Buster wants to take Alice to Coney Island, but doesn’t have enough money. Al St. John swoops in with money in hand and walks off with her. Buster decides to pursue them. At the same time, Roscoe, at the beach with his nagging wife and bored out of his mind, plots to sneak away and have a high time at the amusement park. One thing leads to another and soon Roscoe, Al and Buster are all rivals for the hand of fickle Alice Mann.
You’re quickly caught up in the interactions between the characters, thanks to the editing and easy pace. This is the sort of film where you can just kick back, relax, and enjoy yourself–which is probably exactly what Arbuckle was going for. It’s a smorgasbord of funny moments and inspired touches, from Al’s gravity-defying leap into the frame during a fight scene to Roscoe gleefully making the most of wearing a large lady’s bathing suit. Arbuckle seldom passed up the opportunity to have his character appear in women’s clothes–audiences always thought it was a scream. (And speaking of bathing suits, I love Alice Mann’s 1910s striped suit–with tights!)
Now, if Buster was thoroughly warmed up to appearing in films by about His Wedding Night, Coney Island is where he feels like an essential cog in the Comique machinery. In the previous shorts, although he’s given generous amounts of screen time his roles sometimes feel like they’ve been worked into the plot. He’s a delivery guy a couple times, a bratty boy once, etc. Here, however, he’s an essential part of the film. It even opens with a scene between him and Alice before we even see the main star, Roscoe. And gloriously, we get to see him laugh out loud several times.
In a nod to the Keystone tradition of yore, cops are called during a fight scene and three of them race to the rescue. Take notice: one of them is played by Buster in a mustache. At one point, the scene switches between the three bumbling cops to Buster and Alice sitting on a railing and back, which makes for a mighty surreal experience.
Coney Island is a fine example of Arbuckle at the top of his shorts-making game. It also shows that he and his writers were getting the hang of designing plots with three main comedians in mind, rather than just the usual duo of Roscoe and Al. And after you see it, you just might want to throw on a striped bathing suit, grab an ice cream cone, and spend an afternoon at the beach yourself.
~~~~~ A Country Hero (1917) ~~~~~
Let us now bow our heads in memory (so to speak) of A Country Hero, the only Comique short featuring Buster that is currently lost. It was also the first short the crew made in California, and apparently contained a gag involving a train wrecking a Ford (or two). This makes its absence an even bigger pity, since it’s very intriguing to know that a large-scale scene involving a train is involved, for obvious Buster-related reasons.
If you’re wondering what this tantalizing short was like, take a look at my detailed breakdown, “All About Arbuckle’s A Country Hero,” wherein I scraped together every bit of information that I could find. (It’s not like I really, really, really, really, really, really, really want this short to be found or anything.) Be forewarned that knowing what we’re missing will almost certainly drive you batty.
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.