Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: The Rough House (1917)

The Rough House (1917)
Directed by: Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle & Buster Keaton.
Written by: Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle & Buster Keaton & Joseph Anthony Roach.
Starring: Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle (Mr Rough), Al St. John (Cook), Buster Keaton (Gardener / Delivery Boy / Cop), Alice Lake (Mrs Rough), Agnes Neilson (Mother-in-Law).

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was already a star in 1917, when he met the young Keaton – then a hit in vaudeville – and offered Keaton a job. Keaton was skeptical at first, but after spending time with a camera, he decided to give up his higher paying job on stage to work with Arbuckle in films. In total, the pair made 14 “two reelers” (twenty minutes, give or take) together from 1917-1920 when Keaton got to make his own movies. During that time, according to Keaton, he became Arbuckle’s “second director” and his entire gag department – although strangely, only this film – their second together – did Keaton receive a co-director and co-writer credit along with Arbuckle (and even then it’s not “official” – but it’s the only one IMDB and Wikipedia list as Keaton as co-directing, so it’s the only one that will be in this series). The two were well suited for each other – Keaton more downbeat to Arbuckle’s more manic style – and Keaton remained loyal to Arbuckle even after the scandal that ruined his career.

Like most two reel comedies, there isn’t much of a plot to The Rough House – just a series of gags. The film opens with Arbuckle waking up, and accidentally starting a fire in his bedroom by dropping a lit cigarette on some newspapers. He tries, unsuccessfully, to put it out by bringing one teacup at a time full of water – before Keaton, as the gardener, eventually puts it out. In the next scene, Keaton is a different character – a delivery boy – who comes to the house, falls down a lot, gets into a fight in the cook (frequent Arbuckle co-star Al St. John) and is eventually arrested – but instead of going to jail, the police give the pair the option of becoming cops themselves – which they agree to. Eventually, Keaton will find his way back to Arbuckle’s house, when a fire starts, and a pair of dukes try to steal some jewelry.

The first half of this film is the best – with Arbuckle hilarious as he tries to put out the fire with the teacups, and doing a routine with a couple of rolls that Chaplin is more famous for – albeit a few years after this film. The comic highlight is the fight between Keaton and St. John – which Arbuckle becomes embroiled in – as St. John looks truly, homicidally maniacal – and Keaton being (slightly) more expressive than normal. The trio pretty much destroys the house, and it is hilarious.

The second half drags a little bit – the scenes of Arbuckle preparing dinner for the Dukes are nearly as funny as what came before, and there is an absurdly long (for a 20 minute short) sequence of Keaton, St. John and another cop running to Arbuckle’s house (which does have a few good pratfalls). Basically, the first half of the movie works, the second doesn’t.

Does the movie show much of the promise of what Keaton would become in just a few years? A little – but Arbuckle is clearly in charge here – he’s the star, and the driving creative force in the narrative. Keaton is clearly playing second fiddle (third, actually, as St. John has more to do) to Arbuckle – but considering this is only his second credit, that’s probably a good thing. Keaton learned a lot from Arbuckle – and eventually the student would surpass the teacher – but for now, he’s content to let Arbuckle shine – which he does in the first half of the film. If for no other reason than to see where Keaton started, The Rough House is worth watching.

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