The Butcher Boy (1917)

[Originally posted to WWBKD on April 23, 2017]

 

Audience matters so much, doesn’t it?

I mean, this is true for filmmakers; this is true for bloggers.

As I set fingertips to keyboard and begin to think about my post on Buster Keaton’s first screen appearance, the main thing on my mind is “who is going to read this?”  The easy answer is, “so few people, that it probably really doesn’t matter.”  haha. I’m not going to fight with the positive truth of that. . . however. . .

Generally speaking I still write to an imagined reader anyway. I know that the folks who do find their way here will mostly be those with a driving interest in the thing I am writing about. But I am also aware that another potential reader may stumble upon my blog: the person who is just starting an interest in Buster Keaton, maybe who has heard about him from a friend of a friend, or maybe saw an image I’m sharing and clicked on it and found themselves here. I keep that second category of potential reader in my mind, as much as I do the first. If I can help kindle a fledgling interest in this really cool guy from the early days of cinema past, I really want to do it.

Audience matters because I might be writing to someone who is a bigger aficionado of silent film than I am (in fact, probably so). But I might also be writing to someone who has never “endured” a silent film in their life. (And that would be their word, not mine.) Imagine the 21st Century kid who hears about Keaton and wants to see what the fuss is about then cues up The Butcher Boy on Youtube. What would they think? – this modern person with little background in classic cinema – this person for whom “classic” might evoke thoughts of Back to the Future (1985), 1977’s Star Wars or maybe even that great original from 1968: Planet of the Apes.

It’s not our fault that we are the product of our times. People nowadays are used to being entertained through onslaught of sophisticated lights, sounds, and actions; we as a people like being hit over the head – but only figuratively. (We are not well-versed in the literal slapstick comedy of people being ‘hit over the head’; but I’m getting ahead of myself.) What I mean to say is that to reach back deep into the past and find joy in the contemporary entertainments of 1917 is not likely to be easy or immediate for most modern people.

While I admit that I’ve often expressed the opinion that Buster Keaton’s work is timeless, I am not so naive to think that that is actually and directly true for most people. There is a learning curve for watching 100-year-old cinema. Those who do cross the divide and discover the roots of cinema to which Keaton belonged have managed something incredible.

And I have to say that I think the easier path to that place of fun is probably through another vehicle, maybe Cops or Steamboat Bill, Jr rather than through Fatty Arbuckle’s brainchild The Butcher Boy. The style Keaton developed for these and other (later) films over which he had creative control is uniquely light, clever, ironic and athletic. And these are qualities that have held up extremely well and to which modern audiences would be more naturally drawn. Keaton also had a masterful eye for technology and cinematography.  As a result, his films often feel beautiful still, and present a visual treat. . . . Which is important when the visual experience is pretty much the whole experience.

But an Arbuckle comedy is different.

Well for starters, watching an Arbuckle movie from 1917 feels like entering a historic world. (Which of course it is.) Women in this world have their hair in buns and wear long dresses with corsets and bustles; men are toothless, have long beards or maybe smoke corn cob pipes; people buy foodstuffs in bulk and may even still ride horses for transportation. But that’s not the half of it. Comedy in Arbuckle’s world is . . . well distinctly different from what we are used to. It is juvenile, unsophisticated. Fatty’s work is silly and a bit chaotic. It involves lots of jumping, throwing and not a whole lot of larger purpose. Think ‘grade school kids creating and writing their own play’, and you’ll get the right sense for pacing, dialog, stage setting and props — not to mention the plots that make some sense but not total sense. On the surface Arbuckle films are marked by these basic features, but on closer inspection, a modern audience should still be able to discern the great comedic talent at play throughout the performances. So, while it takes some getting used to the silly, slapstick, driftless fun, it is worth it, because the reward is seeing comedic talent that is profoundly good — in a style we are just not used to.

Lets cue up The Butcher Boy and let me show you.

As “TBB” opens, we are treated to a wide (square) shot of a dry goods store. That alone might feel bizarre to a modern viewer unless she is rooted in history. The store is actually a pretty cool place, double level, with a great hanging ladder around the perimeter, an open center, a cashier’s counter on the far side, and a variety of barrels and packages adorning the walls. Men are hanging around playing checkers. It’s hard to say what the modern equivalent to such a place would be that sells food and life basics but also serves as the people’s gathering ground. I’m not sure we really have one. The opening shot might feel momentarily jarring, for while we are still getting used to the rather grainy and fuzzy picture, a woman walks up and starts shoving her husband around, kicking him for no apparent reason. We quickly get the sense that the humor here is going to be broad and bawdy.  We start meeting the cast of characters, one by one.

In quick succession we get St. John’s impressive physicality, Fatty Arbuckle’s knife skills and boyish charm, Luke the Dog running on a treadmill to grind pepper and a general feeling of light chaotic fun.  Yes, it might seem strange to modern eyes that all the customers seem slightly ticked off and that so many people are beating – poking kicking pulling etc – each other for no particular reason. “Why?” you might ask. “Because its funny!” is the only answer you’re going to get. As that is the rule of the day, its best to relax and just go with it.

But hush . . . here comes the reason we are watching.  About a quarter of the way in to this 24 minute film, a young man walks into the shop wearing overalls. We see only his back. He is slim and graceful. He stops, picks up a broom from a barrel and inspects it. He pulls out a few bristles and tosses it on the ground then grabs another. After playing with the second broom for a moment, he shows us that he’s one to watch when he lightly lets that broom just sail gently back into the barrel. Its hard to describe why this is so cool. But the modern viewer will do well to remember that there is no cgi, no special effects happening. Whether it is Fatty tossing a knife elegantly over his shoulder so that it comes to rest in the counter, St. John spinning on his bottom on a counter or this new young man somehow getting that broom to sail into the barrel effortlessly in real time, these are just comedians with incredible skills honed from years and years of practice. There is no modern equivalent to this type of work. (Yes, I know, Jackie Chan. I won’t take anything away from Jackie, who is incredible physically talented and a great comedian; but, his style is very different.) No one is doing this so elegantly in the middle of a light silly passel of pointless shenanigans).

But back to the film . . . seconds later our young man does something far more impressive. By simply prodding the broom on the ground with his foot, he invites it into his hand where he then casually tosses it into the barrel, as lightly and effortlessly as you can imagine. From his first few seconds on screen, Buster Keaton has broadcast his talent. He is as good as anything we’ve just seen and he commands our interest and eye as if he weren’t even trying. One can see why Arbuckle signed him on immediately.

For the next several minutes on film, Keaton shines as the focal point of the story. The classic ‘molasses skit’ unfolds with Keaton and Arbuckle showing a natural chemistry that makes it seem as if they already knew each other well — Arbuckle manhandling Keaton and Keaton making that look easy — though they’d just met when this scene filmed. Everything here is childish and fast-paced with physical comedy bits that aren’t meant to leave a lasting impression – but simply to appeal to our inner 12 year old. (A task which Arbuckle intentionally courted).

Its good to pause here and think about how these very old silent film comedies came together. I don’t actually know. . . . I am prepared to speculate though.

Keaton’s role in this section of the film is interesting. The history/narratives tell us that Fatty had started filming TBB, when a chance meeting brought him in contact with Keaton. (For more on this, see my posts here, and here.) Keaton was invited to watch the filming but was promptly solicited to join in with it.  Think about that happening today and your mind will boggle. Especially given that Keaton owns about 4 minutes of screen time (roughly 1/6th of the total run time) with the scenes I described briefly above. I mean, Arbuckle is actively shooting this film, when a brand new acquaintance walks in, and his stylings are instantly included as a major player in the film. Mind blown.

I think this tells us more about the infancy of comedy films then it does about Arbuckle or Keaton. It seems as if such films were more akin to what the loose structure of a music CD, with its agglomerations of songs that may be connected through theme and flow, rather than story continuity — than to a modern, plot-driven film. An Arbuckle comedy, as I’ve already said, is not likely to have a highly developed plot structure, so it feels almost normal that this entirely new act — probably developed on the spot — is simply dropped square into the center of the work.  I’ve often wondered whether Fatty knew his film was running short and needed another bit when Keaton popped into his life? Or whether Fatty had a place in the film for such a character to enter and just hadn’t decided who would do that section.  I tend to think the former? Fatty probably had a rough feel for what they were doing in the butcher shop but needed more customer interaction scenes (just like a group putting together a CD and realizing they could use another song or two, when a talented friend with fresh material shows up). So when Buster, a seasoned performer with a great creative mind, walked on set, I’m sure it was obvious and natural for something to develop organically right there.  In any case, knowing the bits we do about how this film came together allows it to serve as a great case study in early filmmaking.

But back to our viewing!

At the 10 minute mark, almost halfway into the film, we move past the opening fun and into the actual story a bit more. Fatty and the owner’s daughter, Amanda, it seems, want to be together, but a rival (“Slim”) is in the picture. The rivalry blossoms and that’s when sacks of flour and pies start flying, with random customers (like Keaton) getting pulled into the middle of the confrontation. Soon, there is a free for all and we’re back to a wide shot of the store in full chaos. The result, as the camera closes on the end of this “act” is that Amanda goes off to boarding school and Fatty wistfully watches.

The rest of the film is centered around the girls’ school. This is where it really helps to place oneself in the shoes of the viewer in 1917.  The scene, as it opens on the boarding house, might not strike us now as particularly ‘sexy’, but had to have been so for the contemporary audience. A passel of young women gather on an upstairs landing around their stern headmistress; the girls are dressed in a modern style with shorter skirts showing quite a bit of ankle and some with bobbed hair. They flit about seeming girlish and energetic and plop down on their beds to read their mail; we learn that Amanda is under absurd strictures like no letters from anyone but her parents! and no men on the premises! Yikes! What fresh horrors do we have to endure?

Enter Fatty in drag. He’s going to spring her from this jail.

Arbuckle is wonderful and really very pretty as a girl. You know he relishes this stuff, for as “Candy” he channels the spirit and energy of a schoolgirl perfectly — skipping, curtseying, flirting, dancing and showing his petticoat. Whenever possible he steals a kiss from his love. Its bawdy and maybe a bit shocking? This is the kind of stuff that makes watching pre-code movies fun – and full of unexpected delights.

St. John as Slim, next stages his own break-in, in drag, and for a reason that’s never been clear to me, Keaton’s character is now one of Slim’s henchmen/cohort. Slim makes a much uglier and more aggressive looking woman. (And, with glasses on, somehow manages to remind me in these scenes, of Harold Lloyd.)

The rest of the film is centered on playing up for laughs the absurdity of two guys in drag in a girl’s dorm. There is pulling, slapping, tongue sticking, and spanking. (Juvenile slapstick). Then our guys call in for reinforcements, so Keaton and Luke the dog get to enter the fray.  Just as with the end of the first half of this film, things break into great chaos at the end. By the way, speaking of great performance talent, take a look at the superb fall from Keaton at around the 22 minute mark. And, because there’s just not quite enough chaos, we throw in a pillow fight and the headmistress with a gun. As she calls the cops on Al and the gang — and while Luke stands guard — Fatty and Amanda slip off to get married.

This, my friends, is comedy circa 1917.

Despite some of its flaws, The Butcher Boy is truly one of the best Keaton/Arbuckle films, and is also one of my favorites.  It is neither seamless nor timeless – but it is fun and energetic and full of great moments that showcase the talents of an extraordinary team.

Those who are already fans of Keaton and have enjoyed his work but may not have dipped back this far into the catalog, should have a nice treat in store. Those who’ve never seen silent comedies may have a harder hurdle to scale to appreciate and value this one. But I’d still recommend it. I mean, it is just a 24 minute investment. Watch it right the right mindset and you will be impressed.

I look forward to the next release of a Keaton film, in approximately two months. Until then, I wish you happy viewing.

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