This is my own post for the Third Annual Busterthon–hope you enjoy!
It’s one of the most famous scenes in all of silent comedy–the “can of molasses” scene from the Roscoe Arbuckle short The Butcher Boy (1917). This had the honor of being former vaudevillian Buster Keaton’s very first scene ever committed to celluloid. He always spoke of it with fondness and in his later years he enjoyed reenacting it for TV shows. And significantly, he would say that it had been done in one take. He’s often quoted from his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick:
Incidentally, I’ve been told that my first scene in The Butcher Boy is still the only movie-comedy scene ever made with a newcomer that was photographed only once. In other words my film debut was made without a single retake. p. 93.
Having watched The Butcher Boy approximately 458 times, I now wonder: if we examined the gag frame-by-frame, could we discover how this seemingly simple scene was put together? And was the entire molasses scene done in one take? Can we spot any clues that would prove it? Clear your schedules, my friends, ’cause this is about to get detailed.
There are some silent comedy shorts that are so of-their-time silly that you aren’t sure if a newbie could handle them. They’d probably think to themselves, “This is what silent comedy was like? Lots of grimacing and flailing around? Humor was, like, so primitive back then. And look at those special effects–why did they even bother before CGI?”
Um, CGI could never improve on Al St. John, for one thing.
What this newbie doesn’t know is that there’s more to these “primitive” comedies than meets the eye. Well, a little more, anyways. If you chuck aside your “21st century cynicism” glasses for about 15 minutes, you can have a delightful time experiencing the supreme Awesomeness of a short like Shot in the Excitement (1914). Allow me to give you a tour. Continue reading →
If you’re already a big silent comedy fan, you might recognize The Knockout as being the one Keystone Walter Kerr used in his beloved book The Silent Clowns to illustrate how supposedly “unfunny” early Sennett films were. (And if you’re just starting to learn about silent comedy, I’m excited to be introducing you to The Knockout!) After describing the plot in some detail (“cowardice and belligerence alternate with indifferent logic through the balance of the twenty-minute film”), Kerr concludes with these observations: “It is probable that, except for an innovative detail here and there, the substance of this’plot’ doesn’t strike you as particularly funny. My point is that it isn’t, not through today’s eyes.”
So let it be written.
Walter Kerr, I love your book. The Silent Clowns is one of the most beautifully-written and thoughtful works of film criticism I’ve ever seen. You have inspired me, moved me, and made me think…but I think you’re wrong about The Knockout. Continue reading →
I am pleased to be a part of the Shorts! Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently. Thank you so much for stopping by, blogathon readers–make yourself comfortable and be sure to check out all of the other great posts this weekend too!
Hold onto your too-small derbies, folks! It’s time to turn your attention to one of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s most overlooked short comedies–a two-reel gem. (Although, in fairness, Roscoe could’ve turned any film into a comedy gem just by wandering into it by accident.) The film is His Wife’s Mistake (1916), and why no one ever seems to discuss it is beyond me.
This is my own post for the First Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, right here on Silent-ology!
One of most sought-after lost silent films–part of a list including Hats Off, Heart Trouble, and some flick called Midnight London or something like that–is a two-reel short directed by Roscoe Arbuckle, A Country Hero (1917). Fans are dying to find it not only because it’s part of Arbuckle’s excellent filmography but because it’s the only film of Buster Keaton’s silent career that’s missing. Everything else is available except this. One. Film. Continue reading →