The Cook (1918)
The Cook was only recently discovered, having been thought lost forever, and it’s a great find. The film was the last short made before Keaton shipped off for World War I and it marks a turning point in the Arbuckle-Keaton relationship. In The Cook, Keaton really takes the lead; he commands the first half of the picture, which takes place at a beachfront café, the Bull Pup. Arbuckle is the titular cook but Keaton, billed as “pest waiter,” steals the show with his antics. He tries to seduce the customers and in the best scene in the picture, does an uncanny imitation of the floorshow belly dancer’s snake routine.
In fact, there’s a lot of dancing going on in The Cook. Buster and Fatty get into a dance competition in the kitchen, each ignoring their duties in an effort to top each other’s moves. It’s a charming scene that builds on the gentle comedic chemistry the two men have. The first half of the picture is really just a showcase for Buster and Fatty to riff off one another in a series of little bits of business. Buster will come in the café, shout a customer’s order and Fatty will stylishly flip a pancake or pour out the order from a keg that seemingly has an ability to dispense whatever is needed (coffee, milk, soup, ice cream, and even Fatty’s jacket); it’s a wonderfully subtle gag that gets funnier every time it’s used.
Adding to the hilarity is The Toughest Guy in the World (Al St. John), a pushy customer who raucously dances with Buster’s gal, the cashier (Alice Lake). When Buster objects and threatens Guy with a bottle, St. John takes the bottle, bashes it on Buster’s head, bites off the top of the bottle, drinks the liquid, spits it at Buster, and proceeds to eat the entire bottle as if it was candy (in reality, the prop was probably made of liquorice). Al St John is hilarious in this bit and if you look closely, you can see Buster trying not to laugh, a hint of a smile creeping onto his features before the scene cuts.
The film is divided in two parts, the second scene taking place on the café employees’ day off. Buster takes the cashier to a seaside amusement park, and Fatty takes his dog Luke (played by Arbuckle’s real-life pooch) fishing. Both men end up at the wonderfully named Goatland, an area where, as far as I can discern, couples pay to take romantic goat-drawn cart rides. It’s awesome. While Fatty trots off to fish, Buster and his girl encounter goofy evil incarnate: St. John as The Toughest Guy! In a beautifully framed and shot sequence, Guy chases the girl up the park’s rollercoaster. Threatened with imminent defilement, the girl has no choice but to jump off the coaster into the ocean.
Buster and Fatty scramble to find a rope with which to save her. In a spectacular stunt, Keaton grabs a rope that nailed into the ground, runs away and when the rope pulls taut, he launches his body 360 degrees in a mid-air in what martial artists call a butterfly kick and lands right on his butt.
Pffft, women!: romantic advances rebuffed
The Cook is one of the best Arbuckle-Keaton shorts and a real treasure to rediscover after all these years. It’s a nice combination of gentle, character-based comedy and the raucous, high-action chase sequences silent film does best. Great stuff.