June 2, 2010

Buster & Fatty: The Butcher Boy (1917)

The Butcher Boy (1917)

[Click the link ^^--the entire film is up on YouTube]

Buster Keaton's auspicious film debut occurred by happenstance. He was in New York looking for work and had found it with a revue on Broadway. The gig paid very well, certainly well enough for him to send money home to his family (with his parents, Buster had formed one third of The Three Keatons, the popular vaudeville act he had performed in his whole life). Walking down the streets one day before beginning the Broadway show, who should Buster run into but Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. The two men had a passing acquaintance via performing channels and of course Buster knew Fatty; at the time, he was the second most popular film comedy star, second only to Chaplin, who he himself had mentored while the pair worked forMack Sennett. Arbuckle offered Keaton a job on the spot. Keaton agreed and the next day showed up at Fatty's New York-based Comique studios, unaware of what the day's work would entail. Buster was twenty-one years old.

In The Butcher Boy, Arbuckle is the title character working at a general store. Buster makes his entrance six and a half minutes in as a prospective customer looking to buy a pailful of molasses. He is already wearing his signature porkpie hat (like that scene in Attenborough'sChaplin where Charlie is destined, seemingly by magic, to pick out his bowler and cane--except in this case, it actually happened. Buster went to wardrobe, picked out the hat and wore it his entire career). Buster kisses his last quarter before putting it in the bottom of the bucket, passing it to Arbuckle and demanding the molasses. He takes off his hat and wanders around the store, stopping to interrupt a board game some men are playing in the corner, very intently. Fatty, as decreed by the gods of comedy logic, hasn't noticed the quarter in the bottom of the pail and fills it to the brim with the molasses. Buster reappears, takes the pail and is on his way when Fatty grabs him by the seat of the pants: "Hey, where's your money?" "In the bucket." Well, Fatty doesn't much care for this answer so when Buster's back is turned, he pours the molasses out of the pail and into the hat on the counter--Buster's porkpie. Fatty removes the coin, sucks off some of the molasses (always a sweet tooth, that Fatty), and pours the molasses back in the pail.

Buster takes the pail, the two men say goodbye and tip their hats...except Buster, whose porkpie is firmly stuck to his head. Frantic, he drops the pail, spilling the molasses on the floor, and tries in vain to dislodge his headgear. Fatty helps and the hat finally comes free. Only problem is now Buster's giant, slapshoed feet are stuck to the floor. After some unsuccessful attempts, Fatty tries pouring boiling water on the spill to loosen his shoe, but only manages to scald Buster's foot. Fatty kicks him square in the chest and Buster goes flying across the store, out the doors, and down the steps. His first scene is three and a half minutes long, a simple debut. The pratfalls are modest and the physical dexterity, while quite apparent, is modest compared to what came later. However, regard the circumstances: Buster met Fatty on the street, came in one day later to a film already in progress and nailed the scene--in one take. Arbuckle immediately recognized Buster's skill and potential as a screen partner. A legend was born.

Thirty-two years later, Buster would recreate (with some amendments), his debut scene on The Ed Wynn show. It's fascinating to watch back to back with the original. You might think that the 54-year old Keaton's skilled might have dulled, but if anything the opposite is true. His timing is sharper and comic instincts more well-honed by the confidence that comes with maturity. Watch for yourself:

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