This is the final Comique Month post. Man, it’s gone by fast! A great big THANK YOU to everyone who’s been following along. If you haven’t seen much of Arbuckle’s post-Keystone work before, I really hope these posts inspired you to check it out. And I hope it will bring you as much joy as it has brought me!
The Hayseed (1919)
The Hayseed revisits Arbuckle’s beloved rural setting, with yes, another quirky small-town store. It was one of Arbuckle’s most successful shorts, popular with small-town audiences and city slickers alike.
There’s more of a plot to The Hayseed than other Comiques. Roscoe works at a village general store and is also the mail carrier (he always seemed to be a jack-of-all-trades in his films). Buster also works in the same store. Roscoe loves Molly, a country girl, but she’s also being courted by the local sheriff, played by gangly John Coogan (father of famous little Jackie). Naturally they become romantic rivals. It turns out, though, that John is not such a nice guy as he seems.
By this point Al St. John had moved on to the green pastures of his own starring comedy series, which is why John Coogan has a prominent role. I gotta say, while Al sure had no qualms about looking like a crazed gremlin, he was actually quite good-looking out of makeup. Just enough of that came through to make him convincing enough as a romantic rival (in silent comedy land, anyways). John, on the other hand…
The plot is a flimsy coat hanger hung with some of Arbuckle’s most memorable gags. When a customer phones in an order for Swiss cheese “with lots of holes,” Roscoe helpfully drills in some extra ones. Buster acts as a sentry for the general store, an idea he no doubt got from his WWI service. Roscoe finds an empty whiskey bottle and gives it a mournful little funeral. At the end there’s a funny scene where all of Roscoe’s friends appear to turn away from him–he doesn’t realize it’s because he has bad onion breath. (Speaking of which, the “onion eating” scene cracks me up but puzzles me too–were onions thought to have “revitalizing” properties? Was there some sort of onion-eating health fad? Was this just plucked out of thin air? I’m really not sure.)
One part intrigues me–during the village dance, Roscoe and Buster dance with a tiny older woman who they whip around, accidentally tumble over, and otherwise fling around like a little doll. She’s perfectly fine, of course, and gives a little bow when the song is over. There are no credits anywhere for this gal, so I’m assuming she was some sort of vaudeville performer who specialized in tumbling/eccentric dancing routines.
By this point Roscoe’s character had grown more vivid and less child-like than he was in the earlier Comiques. Buster’s role is smaller, but he still gets in some funny moments. And it seems like The Hayseed is the short where he officially settled on the exact costume he’d wear in his own shorts–that specific style of vest and all.
While there’s still some lively slapstick, The Hayseed is a bit more “genteel” than, say, The Rough House or Good Night, Nurse, with sweetness added to the rural scenes (and who could resist the shots of Roscoe and Luke in a horse-drawn buggy, delivering the mail?). It’s maybe a little lower on my list of top Comiques, but it’s well worth watching and offers a lot of charm.
The Garage (1919)
And now we’ve arrived at the final film by Arbuckle’s Comique Film Corporation, The Garage. Henceforth the reins of Comique would be handed over to Buster Keaton, and Arbuckle would begin starring in feature-length comedies, an arrangement which would make him one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood. Joyously, his series went out on a heck of a high note.
Roscoe and Buster work at a garage which also doubles as the local fire station. The owner’s daughter, Molly, has a suitor named Jim who comes to call on her. Buster and Roscoe accidentally get everyone covered in grease. While Molly takes a bath to get off the grease, Jim hopes to apologize to her without running into her angry father. He pulls a fire alarm to get Roscoe, Buster and the father out of the building.
Finding himself locked in the garage, Jim uses a blowtorch to try and open the door and accidentally sets the whole building on fire. Yes, that means the fire station is, in fact, on fire, and Buster and Roscoe have to try and save the day. Evidently a couple of the sets were set quite thoroughly on fire, which must’ve been an exciting shoot!
In their final short together Buster and Arbuckle are very much a team, more consistently than in the other shorts. Interestingly, there aren’t any of the usual romantic rivalries. A young couple is added to the cast instead, played by Molly Malone and hardworking Keystone veteran Harry McCoy. Fellow Keystone regular Polly Moran also has a small role, as does comedian Charles Doherty–who would one day be a Keaton imitator for a brief time..
And Arbuckle, no doubt wanting to help out his pal before he took the next step of being a solo artist, generously let Buster have a lot of footage. He takes the lead in several sequences, and doubtless designed the funny gadgetry in the firemen’s sleeping quarters. (Speaking of which, I’ve tried and tried to identify some of the girls in the photos on the walls, but Mabel Normand’s the only one we get to see clearly!) The highlight is probably the sequence where he impersonates a Scotsman by cutting out a kilt and hat from an ad for famous actor Sir Harry Lauder. I won’t spoil it for you, but the timing in the end of this sequence makes it one of the best gags he ever filmed with Arbuckle.
The Garage is one of the early comedy greats. It has the pitch-perfect pacing that the best silent comedy directors excelled at, it’s gag-driven but there’s still a clear plot, and the cinematography is clean with “just right” camera placements (another sign of Buster’s involvement?). It’s a winner.
Along with Coney Island, The Garage was one of the most widely-available Arbuckle shorts. Now that all of them save A Country Hero are available, we can see the progression from the mayhem of The Rough House to the gentler pace of The Hayseed. But make no mistake, all the Comiques offer quality production values, clever ideas, and classic gags. And best of all, they offer priceless moments almost too numerous to count.
EDIT 8/1/17: Historian Steve Massa was kind enough to let me know that the actor I thought was Jack Cooper was actually Charles Doherty, wearing a costume similar to Jack’s. Doherty was a comedian who didn’t really have a character of his own, and who sometimes imitated other comic’s looks–including Keaton’s at one point. Fascinatingly, Doherty’s costar in one such Keaton-imitating short would be Sybil Seely!
I wanted to give a final shout-out to my sources for Comique Month! My most important one is James Neibaur’s book Arbuckle and Keaton: Their 14 Film Collaborations, published by McFarland. So far, this is the only book to focus exclusively on the Comiques. It includes the historical background behind each short, detailed information on all the main players, and a lot of thoughtful analysis to help us understand why these films are highlights of the silent comedy era.
I’ve also been benefiting from the excellent new Blu-ray set Buster Keaton: The Shorts Collection from Kino-Lorber, produced by Lobster Films. This set offers not only beautiful new restorations of the Comiques–some shorts are clearer than I’ve ever seen them, and a few even have new footage–but excellent soundtracks. If you don’t own this set yet, rush out and get it asap! (No, no one is paying me to say this–I really do recommend it that much!)