Following Comique’s move to the sunny spaces of California, the hits just kept coming. Moonshine is another highlight in Arbuckle’s filmography, considered to be one of the cleverest fourth-wall-breaking satires in Edwardian cinema. It’s also a bit of an anomaly in Arbuckle’s work, so it’s not hard to guess that Buster had a big hand in its ideas.
Moonshine only used to exist in either a very fragmented, crisp print, or a more complete print that happened to be incredibly blurry. Its latest restoration pieces the two together, so we at least get to see the film in its entirety even if some of the details are tough to make out at times. And thank heavens for that, otherwise the world would be deprived of the scene where Al and Buster start imitating monkeys, among other things.
Roscoe and Buster are playing revenuers (teaming up again like in The Bell Boy), trying to bust bootleggers who are running a secret moonshine distillery. Al is a backwoodsman trying to woo country girl Alice Lake, who hates him. As per wise tradition, Roscoe becomes Al’s romantic rival.
The title cards set the tone almost immediately: “Rehearsal of the first scene, with the two bootleggers”…”One press on the pedal lefts a contraption–the director’s idea.” The characters in Moonshine break the fourth wall all throughout the short, poke fun at the cliches and shortcuts of filmmaking, and basically do everything to call our attention to the film being a film. When an extra jumps off a cliff, another actor applauds and says, “Great stunt. His paycheck is well-earned.” When Roscoe throws Alice into a river and she climbs out and proclaims “I love you!” Roscoe explains, “Our film is only a two-reel short. No time for preliminary love scenes!” It’s delightful.
Arbuckle puts more emphasis on story in Moonshine than in most Comiques, and includes plenty of closeups. Iris shots add a sophisticated touch. As a whole it’s very well-balanced, each main character having good amounts of screen time with each of the other main characters. Everyone had their share of memorable moments, from Buster summoning an endless line of recruits from a single car to Alice beating up Al with aplomb (and some folks think women were always dainty and meek in silent films!).
Some of the jokes have lost their context a bit. Roscoe and Buster arrive in the wilderness in a chauffeured car–humorous when paired with any non-fancy occupation, I guess. Roscoe has a monocle, for unclear reasons. The bootleggers are “nouveau-riche,” which not everyone today knows was a term for lower-class people trying to act like fancy society types after coming into some money (Buster would parody the idea in My Wife’s Relations).
You’ll notice that several gags revolve around a swift-flowing and rather dangerous looking river. According to reports from trade magazines, Arbuckle and company were actually stranded for ten days when the heavy rains caused the river running through their location to flood. It looks like the extra time gave them plenty of opportunities to think up gags, which might explain some of the offbeat scenes such as Roscoe washing dirt-covered Buster like a piece of laundry and hanging him to dry, and Buster taunting Al by imitating a monkey and having Al chase him up and down a large tree (you must watch this short, guys).
All in all, Moonshine is a smart, unpretentious two-reeler that’s a definite highlight in Roscoe Arbuckle’s filmography. We’re all extraordinarily lucky that we get to enjoy it today, blurry scenes and all.
Good Night, Nurse (1918)
A couple posts ago I said The Bell Boy was one of my favorite Comiques. Note that I didn’t come right out and say it was my favorite. That, my friends, is because Good Night, Nurse exists.
It begins with a very drunk Roscoe trying to stumble his way home in the pouring rain. (Watch for a cameo by Buster, playing a woman!) He encounters two street performers (one is an honest-to-gosh organ grinder with his honest-to-gosh monkey) and has them come to his house to play music, much to the consternation of his long-suffering wife. She sees a newspaper ad for the No Hope Sanitarium, which claims to be able to cure alcoholism, and gets Roscoe committed. Since the phrase “lunatics running the asylum” was probably coined just for this sanitarium, the loopiness escalates from there.
After the quasi-experiment that was Moonshine, Arbuckle is back in his regular groove in Good Night, Nurse!, initially concentrating more on gags before the plot kicks in. All the Comiques have quality production values, and this is especially clear in the early “rain” scenes, which are very well done for a comedy short. Since Arbuckle always insisted on retaking certain gags until they were perfect, it must’ve been a soggy shoot! Other scenes were shot at a popular health resort, Arrowhead Hot Springs.
Like Out West and parts of Moonshine (which featured bad guys being shot and falling like bowling ball pins), Good Night, Nurse has a generous dose of dark humor. When we first see Doctor Buster he comes out of an operating room with his smock covered in blood (which was considered in questionable taste at the time). When Roscoe’s brought into a room to start his alcohol cure, the door’s decorated with a funeral ribbon–Buster quickly tosses it aside and tries to act nonchalant.
While Roscoe is the indisputable star of Good Night, Nurse Buster gets a good amount of footage once the cameras enter the sanitarium. Al St. John, who had been in dozens and dozens of Keystone, must’ve been content to let this comparatively new film actor take some of the spotlight. Alice Lake makes a memorable impression as an insane patient, shrieking, running, and pinwheeling her arms with gusto. (There apparently used to be a title card where Dr. Buster explained that Alice “thinks she is a windmill.” If this is the case, then why this wasn’t added to the recent restoration is unclear.)
I’ve mentioned several times how well-paced the best Comiques are, and Good Night, Nurse is a perfect example. Not only is it consistently very funny–and enlivened with zany set pieces like the huge “pillowfight” scene–but its energy builds and builds right up until the final shots. I adore the Huge Coincidence of Roscoe accidentally blundering into a “200 lb men’s race” that just happens to be taking place as he’s fleeing from the sanitarium. (This description sounds too silly to be funny, but trust me, it totally works.)
The crowning glory of this short is undoubtedly the “flirting” scene between Buster and Roscoe disguised as a nurse. In fact, it’s so filled with wondrous glory that I already covered it in some detail in this post. I can only add that any Buster fan–or Roscoe fan, for that matter–who hasn’t seen it is being deprived of something that will significantly improve his or her life.
Good Night, Nurse proves that by this point Arbuckle was really on a roll (a roll that no doubt was started by A Country Hero, might I add, wistfully). Having the complete freedom of making any kind of short comedy he wanted, whether it was a straight slapstick farce or a quasi-drama, Arbuckle was not only creating hits but classic shorts that would feel fresh 100 years later. And there were still more Comique classics to come.
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.