The Cook (1918)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 Sheriff, Camping 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.
In the late spring of 1919 Buster would finally get back to the business of making films. Starting with…
Back Stage (1919)
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.
“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!
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Keaton, Buster, with Charles Samuels. My Wonderful World of Slapstick. New York: Doubeday, 1960.