Back Stage (1919)
Their next feature, Back Stage, is one of their absolute best and maybe the most Keatonesque. Fatty, Buster, and St. John play stagehands at a vaudeville theater dealing with a whole lot of trouble in the form of a diva-ish leading man called Julius Hamlet Omlette, an “eccentric dancer” played by Buster’s father, Joe Keaton, and a surly strongman called Professor Onion. Prof. Onion has a pretty assistant (Molly Malone), whom he abuses terribly and one of the best aspects of the picture is how the boys rally together to protect her and sabotage Professor Onion. Perhaps because of the mens’ vaudeville backgrounds, Back Stage is infused with the warmth of nostalgia, and with Onion already in place as the villain, it frees up Buster, St. John and Fatty to work together as friends, a side rarely shown in the usual romantic rival plotline.
The diabolical Professor Onion
Having driven away the strongman and the actors, the boys (with the help of the assistant) have to put on the show themselves. Buster and Fatty suit up for an exotic, Middle Eastern-infused dance. Fatty plays the King…and Buster plays the Queen. They ham is up in magnificently straight-faced candor. In the next scene, Arbuckle and Keaton introduce a gag that Keaton would perfect a decade later in Steamboat Bill, Jr. Fatty is serenading the girl, she in a house window, he on the stage. Suddenly, the façade of the house falls down around Fatty, who’s saved because he’s standing right where the window is. The girl is revealed to be seated on a ladder. The illusion of theater is shattered. The vaudeville audience loves it, prompting us, the film audience to clap and laugh in turn.
Just then, Professor Onion returns to pull a John Wilkes Booth, shooting the assistant from the balcony! Buster grabs a rope and pulls a Douglas Fairbanks, swinging to the balcony, grabbing the Prof in a headlock and hauling him back to the stage. The boys work together to lift all the Professor’s weights into a trunk and then drop the trunk on Onion’s head. Crisis averted—and the show’s a hit!
Back Stage prefigures Keaton’s The Playhouse in the way it reveals the artifice of theater. The short also features strong characterization and an unique plot that distances itself from the normal romance and chase-heavy comedy two-reelers at the time. The film is lively, inventive and a lot of fun.