June 8, 2010

Buster & Fatty: The Bell Boy (1918)

The Bell Boy (1918)

The first intertitle informs us that the action takes place at the Elk's Head Hotel--third rate service, first rate prices. Buster and Fatty play layabout bell boys and St. John plays the desk clerk. When Cutie Cuticle, manicurist (Alice Lake) comes to stay at the hotel, all hell breaks loose as the boys fall all over themselves to accommodate her every whim. In my favorite gag, Fatty, doubling as a barber, shaves a customer with a very intimidating full beard. Ascribing to the comedy golden rule of threes, the first time Fatty shaves him, the man ends up looking like General Lee (Fatty adorns him with a cigar and a Union cap); shaving a little more, the man looks like Abraham Lincoln (Fatty places a stovepipe hat atop his head); the third time, Fatty shaves him, glues back some whiskers for a turned-up mustache, turns a basin over for a helmet and pins a paper cross to his chest--it's Kaiser Wilhelm! Anticipating the boos in the WWI-era audience, Fatty slathers the man with shaving cream and runs away. There's another anti-German gag in the film where the sign in the dining room, "French and German Cooking," the "and German" has been crossed out in pen.

The main comedy bit, however, comes from the elevator, which is powered by a mule pulling ropes outside the hotel. Buster becomes stuck in the elevator when St. John can't get the mule to budge. Fatty tries leveraging the elevator with a plank of wood, but to no avail. Suddenly, the mule runs forward, dropping Buster down to the ground and launching Cutie (who was standing on the plank of wood) onto the elk's head adorning the wall. Buster bravely volunteers to get Cutie down and in the process becomes stuck himself. It is a gag that Buster will repeat in a later sound film short.

In the second half of the film, Fatty hatches a plan: to get Cutie to think he's heroic, Buster and St. John will pretend to rob the nearby bank, Fatty will foil their plot and they'll get away. Unfortunately for them, real robbers decide to show up at the exact same time.

The fight between the two groups is epic, shot on a cut-away set so that Buster and St. John can get tossed from one room to another, through walls and onto tables, in one continuous motion. It's a well choreographed fight that demonstrates Buster and Al's agility (at one point, Buster does flips and jumps across three room sets, bounding across the frame like a gymnast on the floor exercise). Ultimately, The Bell Boy is about a mid-level Arbuckle-Keaton picture, with a conventional plot but an interesting enough setting to supply funny gag possibilities throughout.

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