June 14, 2010

Buster & Fatty: The Garage (1920)

The Garage (1920)

The Garage is the last and best of the Arbuckle-Keaton two-reel shorts. I say best, of course, from a Keatonian standpoint; perhaps diehard Arbuckle fans would disagree. In this short, Buster has reached the status as full partner to Arbuckle, the two men are working at a garage and doubling as volunteer firemen. Al St. John, recently given his own series of shorts to star in, is nowhere to be seen.

The setting provides manifold gag opportunities and is conspicuously Keatonian in its propensity with mechanical devices (there’s a giant turntable used by drying off cars). In one of the best jokes, a man comes in wanting to rent a car but when he drive away, it promptly and totally collapses—the tires pop off, the fender detaches, and the convertible roof accordians back. The man returns to the garage, stunned, and asks for another car, this time remembering to tip. He emerges with a shiny new vehicle, one that works perfectly.

Another excellent Keaton gag involves a giant billboard of the Scottish comic Harry Lauder. Buster, having recently lost his pants to a voracious dog (Luke, again) is walking around in a barrel, desperately searching for adequate clothing lest he be arrested. Enter Sir Harry, dressed in kilt and tam o’shanter. Using a pen knife, Buster cuts away the clothes like paper doll’s and when the cop approaches, Buster looks just like any ordinary Scotsman…that is until he turns around (poster are only one-dimensional, after all).

The film’s finale involves a fire and our two volunteers running after it, only they don’t know that the fire is at their own garage—they’ve been sent on a wild goose chase. With the garage owner’s daughter Molly trapped in the blaze, Buster and Fatty double back in time to witness her jump onto a trampoline being held some brave citizens…only to bounce off the trampoline and land splayed on the telephone wires above. D’oh! Our heroes to the rescue. They scale the telephone pole, gingerly climb out to the dangling girl, and using Buster as a human ladder, she’s able to scale down and land safely on the ground below. Buster has a mite more trouble with Fatty. But just as Arbuckle is beginning to slip out of grip, Molly comes around with the car where Fatty lands with Molly safely in the back seat and Buster lands in the driver’s seat. They drive away happily as the garage burns to the ground.

In silent cinema, film was often tinted red to connote fire.

A note on viewing practices: The best way to watch all the Buster & Fatty shorts in one place is The Best Arbuckle/Keaton Collection on DVD. This two-disc set includes all of the films above, except for The Cook which was re-discovered after the DVD came out. 

You can get The Cook by itself on DVD as well. The company that puts out the Arbuckle/Keaton Collection also has a YouTube channel where you can watch The Butcher Boy and The Rough House for free. In addition, archive.org has several Arbuckle-Keaton shorts and some have been uploaded to YouTube and Google video. The A-K Collection is in pretty good shape, the transfers coming from the 35mm negatives. Some are tinted sepia (The HayseedHis Wedding Night), which was the original coloring of the film upon its release.

Next time we'll delve into Buster Keaton as a solo artist. In the span of three short years, and at the age of twenty-four, Buster was head of a studio that bore his name and was contracted making two two-reel pictures a year. And lo, they were good. See ya for the next installment...

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