June 3, 2010

Buster & Fatty: The Rough House (1917)

The Rough House (1917)

Keaton's next feature with Arbuckle is unfortunately, not a stellar installment. The Rough House, like most of these two-reelers, revolves around a single setting that's chosen for its comic potential. In this case, it's an inn run by Fatty, his wife (Alice Lake) and his nag of a mother-in-law (Agnes Nielsen). Buster plays the grocer's boy who makes a delivery to the inn. He has a flirtation with the girl working which predictably ignites the ire of the cook, played byAl St. John. St. John, Arbuckle's lanky blonde nephew, was Fatty's number one before Buster showed up and in the Arbuckle-Keaton shorts, usually played some combination of romantic rival/villain for Fatty, Buster or both. The cook has a heck of a jealous temperament and in short order, he and Buster are fighting all over the inn, ruining everything. The two men are finally confronted by the cops who give them an ultimatum: go to jail or join the force. Of course, Buster and Al choose the latter.

The Rough House is not particularly inventive either in its setting (a living room doesn't offer many comic possibilities and the kitchen is used better in later shorts, notably The Cook) or its gags. There are some bright spots in the picture, though, namely some cute in-jokes about film itself. Arbuckle is constantly winking at the camera and letting the audience in on the artifice. In the film, the police chief calls for the new recruits, who appear in front of him via a cut. The chief can't believe his eyes! Another cut and the recruits vanish from the frame. The chief faints.

The film is also noticeable for a little bit of controversy. Arbuckle seated at breakfast spears two rolls with his forks and makes them do a little dance. If that sounds familiar to you, it's probably because the gag was made famous (you might say super famous) by Charlie Chaplin a full seven years later in The Gold Rush. Fatty's version is modest compared to Chaplin's, just a few high steps without musical accompaniment, but until The Rough House was re-discovered Chaplin had been credited with inventing the bit. Now Arbuckle gets that credit.

It's not unique to this short, but it might be useful to pause for a bit and dissect some of Keaton's stunts. He was called on often (okay, more than often) to perform numerous pratfalls, donkey kicks, spins, jumps, twirls and some moves that I don't think even have names. In any case, Keaton usually spent a good amount of these films in mid-air, followed shortly by some quality time between his backside and the hard ground.

In this example, he does a reverse donkey kick-cum-backflip. He manages to throw his weight backwards, taking his feet off the ground, kicks the man in the face, puts his hands out to brace himself (a crucial safety guard) while simultaneously using the force of his hands to propel his legs up higher and out further (this is for dramatic effect--the more the legs flair, the more the audience won't look at Keaton breaking his fall), and then land right on his backside. This is a the basis formula, perfected by a lifetime on the vaudeville stage, that Keaton will use for his pratfalls in all the Arbuckle shorts.

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