Take note silent film fans and devotees of comedy, silent or not. Milestone has released a sterling collection of short silent films featuring Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle in two of its three selections. Arbuckle had a brilliant and lucrative career as a top box office attraction that ended when he was tried for causing the death of a starlet in a way too lurid to go into here. Even an acquittal failed to revive Arbuckles career and the disrepute his name continued to conjure for decades afterward played no small part in his being forgotten as a screen comedian on par with Chaplin and Keaton, who got his start in films thanks to Arbuckle.
Speaking of whom, Keaton co-stars as an acrobatic waiter in the title feature, THE COOK. Said cook, played by Arbuckle, takes place at The Bull Pup Café, where serving food is an excuse to indulge feats of gravity-defying wonder, and the stock pot bubbling away on the back burner harbors everything from hot coffee to a change of clothes. Though still laconic, Keaton here is more animated than in his later, starring vehicles as the Great Stone Face. They both do a tidy riff on Theda Baras CLEOPATRA with Keaton joining the cafés Bara redux dancer for an impromptu pas de deux, and Arbuckle donning pie plates and a dustpan to perform his own zaftig version of a belly dance to complement Busters more stylish but no less irreverent take on 1918s obsession with the Queen of the Nile.
Weighing in at over 200 pounds, Arbuckles physical humor was surprisingly graceful, while his doughy face, disconcertingly that of a toddler affixed to the Michelin Man-type body insured that none of the pratfalls or pranks came across as mean-spirited. Hence, as the flirting husband of 1917s A RECKLESS ROMEO, a man who indulges in too much alcohol and the even-then politically incorrect harassment of women at an amusement park, Arbuckle has an innocent sweetness that assuages any guilty feelings that might crop up in us with the giggles he provokes. Albeit, nervous ones. And the sight of him splashing away in a bathtub after a night on the town has the joyful exuberance of a two-year-old discovering his rubber ducky.
NUMBER, PLEASE from 1920 features another silent star, Harold Lloyd, coping with the terrors of life in a world before cell phones. Thats just one part of the trials he endures during a trip to the local boardwalk as he fights to win back the woman he loves from a rival. An inspired extended sequence of Lloyd trying to unload a stolen purse that just keeps coming back while hes also eluding the police and trying to impress the object of his affection is rife with imagination and pratfalls as Lloyd bears it all with his patented cheerful exasperation.
While the times may have been simpler, as evidenced by the popularity of amusement parks as a big day out for the adults in all three shorts, the humor in each is very sophisticated. Not intellectually, maybe, but visually. Without what I like to term the distraction of spoken dialogue, the comedians could let their imaginations soar with one sight gag after another and rather than let the bounds of reality cramp their respective styles, surrealism was known to pop up in the service of mirth, if not of logic. It was and it magical.
The DVD release also features two other versions of THE COOK, one Norwegian, one Dutch, neither, alas, with musical accompaniment. They are interesting, nonetheless, for what they tell about the process of film restoration. It was from these fragments discovered in the late 1990s that Arbuckles short, which had been written off as lost, was reconstructed. You can always hum a little ditty as it plays. Theres also a press kit in PDP format with a whopping load of information about the restoration that shows how amazing it is to have these gems restored to us. The other great advantage of DVD is that each film is broken down into chapters, so if you want to re-watch the etiquette-bending but ergonomically innovative spaghetti-eating scene in THE COOK, all you have to do is click appropriately. Youll want to click a lot with this release.