Thoughts On “The Cook,” A Buster Hiatus, And “Back Stage”

The Cook (1918)

Title cards the cook

One of the cherries on top of the Comique sundae, The Cook is a giddy, determinedly free-spirited short that features Roscoe being an impromptu Salome, Buster Egyptian-dancing with careless abandon, and Luke the dog saving the day. It also features Goatland, and lemme tellya, more amusement parks could stand to have a Goatland. We’re missing out, my friends.

Image result for the cook 1918

You’ve also been missing out on this lobby card.

After the big custom sets and experimentation of shorts like Out West, The Bell Boy and Moonshine, The Cook goes back to Arbuckle basics like the kitchen–always a fertile ground for gags–and freewheeling location shooting. It begins with Roscoe working as a cook in a nice restaurant, with Buster as a flirty waiter (pretty funny to see when we’re so used to his stoic persona!). There are surrealist touches like Roscoe having a huge pot that magically contains every kind of food he needs, and Buster effortlessly catching bowls of soup and cups of coffee that Roscoe throws from across the kitchen.

The Cook Buster egyptian

When an “exotic” (as in, Middle Eastern-inspired) dancer performs for the guests, Buster gets carried away by the music and starting dancing too. Roscoe gets dance fever from Buster and starts recreating the story of Salome with a John the Baptist cabbage “head” on a platter. Villainous Al shows up and starts annoying the pretty hostess, and after a skirmish Luke the Dog Himself vanquishes him from the restaurant. After trying to eat spaghetti the gang all goes to the amusement park, where they ride cute little carts pulled by goats. Did I mention that The Cook has a slight air of improvisation? Also, what is a “plot”?

For decades The Cook was thought to be a lost film, until a print was found in 1998 and another fragment in 2002. Together, the restored prints gave unto the world Buster Keaton dancing like an Egyptian. They also gave us one of Roscoe’s best, most expertly-timed pancake flipping routines and memorable location shots like Al and Luke running up and down a real rollercoaster.

The Cook al on coaster

Arbuckle fans like myself might be reminded of  his 1916 short The Waiter’s Ball (a classic if you’ve never seen it). It also features an ineptly-run restaurant where Roscoe is the cook, and Al St. John plays a waiter. Even the sets are vaguely similar. In fact, I bet you could stick The Waiter’s Ball and The Cook together and make a mini-movie. All you’d need to do is add a title card when villainous Al arrives in The Cook (something like “The disgruntled former waiter, for no good purpose”) and boom! You got yourself a feature.

I can see it all now: The Cook and the Waiter’s Ball (1918)

The Cook takes on extra significance when we recall that it was Buster’s last short prior to his service in WWI. While he was lucky to serve in France at the tail end of the war, missing the fighting, he did have at least one close shave. In his autobiography he recalled:

…I had become almost stone deaf due to my being exposed to floor drafts each night. Before I was overseas a month my superiors had to shout orders at me. Late one night I had a narrow escape while coming back from a card game. A sentry challenged me, and I didn’t hear his demand for the password or the two warnings he gave me after that. Then he pulled back the breech of his gun, prepared to shoot. My life was saved by my sixth sense which enabled me to hear that gun click–and stopped me dead in my tracks.

Had he not had what he described as a “sixth sense” that night, The Cook would’ve been Buster Keaton’s last film. There would’ve been no One Week, no Sherlock Jr., no The General. Buster Keaton would’ve been merely an obscure young performer in some of the “Fatty” Arbuckle films who could do a heck of pratfall. And who knows how many of the Comiques would’ve survived without the association of a famous Keaton name.

Those are some pretty dark thoughts. Let’s end with this:

The Cook roscoe dancing

Ah! Much better.

~~~~~ A Buster Hiatus ~~~~~

In the summer of 1918, Buster left Comique to serve in the army during WWI. He was assigned to the 40th Division and served for almost a year. In his absence, Arbuckle kept churning out two-reelers–six of them, in fact: The SheriffCamping Out, The Pullman Porter, Love, The Bank Clerk, and A Desert Hero. Plus a funny split-reel short called Scraps of Paper, made to help sell war bonds. Of these, only Camping Out, Love, and Scraps of Paper survive. I haven’t seen Camping Out, but Love is available on the “Forgotten Films of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle” set, and is a blast. It proves that even with one of his most creative cast members on leave, he was still creating high-quality, clever comedies.

Image result for roscoe arbuckle poster

In the late spring of 1919 Buster would finally get back to the business of making films. Starting with…

Back Stage (1919)

Title cards back stage

While The Bell Boy and Good Night, Nurse usually fight over which one gets to be my favorite Comique, I also have a deep fondness for Back Stage. It’s a film that impresses me a little more each time I watch it.

Related image

As does this magnificent lobby card.

“The gang,” as it seems appropriate to call them here, work at a vaudeville theater. A villainous strongman arrives with his pretty female assistant. Being a huge, black-mustachioed villain and all, he bullies the assistant. Seeing this, Roscoe, Buster and the other stagehands come up with a plan and get back at the strongman. Some footage is missing here (which explains why Al St. John’s part seems so tiny), but it appears that one thing lead to another and all the acts refused to be in the show. What to do? Why, put on the show themselves, of course!

Image result for roscoe arbuckle buster keaton

Naught could go wrong.

There’s a light, cartoony touch to the proceedings. The villain is an obvious caricature of black mustache-twirling baddies of Victorian melodramas, and when he bullies his assistant, we see her being forced to pull out weights marked “400 lbs” out of a trunk. After a snobby actor arrives at the theater and demands to be in the “star” dressing room, Buster pulls a rope-and-pulley system to neatly move the star to another dressing room door. There’s even some living cartoon characters, like John Coogan (father of famous little Jackie) playing a rubbery “eccentic dancer.”

Back Stage eccentric dancer

There’s other touches I loved, too. When the announcer first comes onstage to introduce the stagehand “acts” he’s bubbling with enthusiasm, but as the show goes on and everything goes wrong he visibly starts to deflate. When the strongman starts beating up people in the balcony, he throws out obvious dummies. Every time there’s a mishap onstage, the audience cheers wildly. This film is just a delight, folks.

The cohesive plot, with its clearly defined characters, conflict, and satisfying resolution, is so tidily rolled out that many critics feel Back Stage is the ultimate proof of Buster’s involvement. “See, until Buster Keaton came along, Arbuckle was just making super random slapstick farces! Thank heavens Buster established some order and sophistication.”

Back Stage strong man and Buster

Case in point.

I actually disagree with that assessment. For one thing, Hard Luck, The Haunted House, or The Balloonatic, anyone? Those films were pretty darn random, too. For another, Buster’s films centered around his character being more or less a loner. A plot involving “the gang” all working together to conquer a villain wasn’t his sort of thing. No, I say that Back Stage has Arbuckle’s fingerprints all over it–although vaudeville veteran Buster doubtless had a tidal wave of suggestions for gags.

Image result for backstage 1918 roscoe arbuckle

Such as a lost scene involving brooms, apparently. Oh for missing fragments!

In my opinion, Back Stage is a splendid little mini-movie paced to perfection. Buster himself would use gags from it years, even decades, later (and I bet you’ll recognize his most famous gag!). Folks of all ages will find something to enjoy in its timeless spoofing. If you haven’t seen it, I can almost guarantee it’ll become one of your Comique favorites.

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.

Other sources:

Keaton, Buster, with Charles Samuels. My Wonderful World of Slapstick. New York: Doubeday, 1960.

11 thoughts on “Thoughts On “The Cook,” A Buster Hiatus, And “Back Stage”

  1. Hi Lea. That was fun to read. I enjoy “The Cook” and “Back Stage.” Until you mentioned “Love,” I did not remember that I had seen one of the movies made while Buster was in the Army. It was a good one.

  2. I love the kitchen teamwork between Roscoe and Buster in The Cook. Roscoe’s “kitchen” type scenes are always favorites of mine. And Al not only moves like a cartoon character, but *looks* like a cartoon character in this one. 🙂 Although there’s not a plot, the events lead from one to another so organically that you don’t notice. The Waiter’s Ball is a top favorite of mine, and I do like your idea of putting these together—that would be a splendid spectacle!

    This is the first time I’ve seen Back Stage. This is a great one, all the way from the pasting scene at the beginning (hilarious!) to the sweet scene in the hospital at the end. Certainly one of the best Comiques!

  3. Ok, so I’ve gotta say that “The Cook” has become one of my favorite shorts of all time. I can’t tell you how much this one cracked me up! Roscoe and Luke going fishing with that “39 1/2 foot pole” was great. (That had to be the one they meant in the Grinch song!) “Goatland” has become a running joke between my brother and I- we’ve decided that if ever we find a good deal on a herd of goats, it’s happening. =) I could go on about this one forever. From them throwing and catching full plates of food around to Buster’s contagious dance fever to Luke climbing a flippin’ ladder (that dog was amazing), this short in particular has carved itself a special place in my heart. Thanks for all the tidbits about it. I was at a loss, at first, to know what the heck Roscoe was doing hanging the dustpan on himself but a quick visit to your sight cleared it up nicely. =)
    Oh and is it just me, or does Buster look like he’s about to crack up when Al is spewing that bottle in his face?
    Loved “Backstage” too. The bit with Roscoe and the kid eating the glue took me back to Kindergarten- I must’ve been stuck at the same art table with the paste eating kid or something because I can’t watch that scene without getting queasy. Lol.

    • The Cook is PRICELESS!! It’s one of my favorites, too. And Buster totally looks like he’s trying not to laugh in that one scene, always thought the same thing! In fact, whenever he’s being shoved around in his films I watch his face really closely–that’s when he seems to have the hardest time keeping a straight face!

      I approve of this Goatland plan, and may consider becoming an investor. 😉

  4. Pingback: 1918-1919 (1/2) – Fun and James?

  5. The Cook, and Backstage: two of my favorites! John Coogan’s eccentric dance is jaw-dropping, and yes, Buster does look like he’s about to crack up when Al spews the bottle (and can you blame him?). Plus, we must have sat next to the same glue-eater in school. Ick.

    *wonders how to reblog*

    • It’s so hard to choose a favorite Comique, but those are high on the list for me, too!

      p.s. There should be a “reblog” button visible at the end of the post. 😉

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