BUSTER’S BEGINNING: ‘The Butcher Boy’

In the first scene of his inaugural film, Buster Keaton casually flicks a broom from off the floor with his feet and back into its barrel, with a single motion, barely touching it with his hands.  A small but noteworthy start to a legendary career as filmmaker.  “The Butcher Boy,” (Triangle-Keystone, 1917), directed by Roscoe Arbuckle.

For The Three Keatons, I feel an almost family interest.  I have seen them off and on for several years.  ‘Buster’ is grown up now, or pretty nearly, but his mother and father do not look a day older — Mrs. Keaton the reverse, if anything, as she comes out in her natty scarlet suit and plays the saxophone.  How the Keatons ever managed to raise that boy I am sure I don’t know.  Beating a boy up and slinging him around the way Joe Keaton does twice daily would not be my method of raising, unless I wanted to plant the boy and raise him like a string bean.  But Buster enjoys it and gets his share back at ‘the old man,’ and the unique knockabout fun of the Keaton family is just as funny as ever.”  “The Keatons Again.” by “C. McK,” The Syracuse Herald, Tuesday Evening January 6, 1914. 

Vaudeville:  The performing career of Buster Keaton began in Vaudeville in sketch comedy, which was what his family act, “The Three Keatons,” was — the context within which Buster appeared brutally beaten and bounced up to three times a day all week long (except Sundays depending on where they were playing).  It quite naturally occurred to me that had “The Three Keatons” performed their act in the second half of the twentieth century, they would have been arrested for child abuse and Baby Buster would be removed and placed in the care of the local Children & Youth Services until the parents were dealt with and Buster could be placed in foster home.  As it turns out, my historical comparison and speculation was needless.  I learned that this came very close to happening on many occasions until Buster grew old enough for a stage manager to reply to a policeman who asked him, “How old is “Buster?”  “I don’t know, why don’t you ask his WIFE!”  There was no “Buster’s Wife” yet, just mom, Mrs. Keaton.  The authorities presumably ceased their efforts at enforcing early twentieth century family values on the Keatons at or around this time, with Buster in his late teens.

Arbuckle:  The film career of Buster Keaton begins here, as you probably already know if you have more than a casual interest in early film comedy.  Not so well-known — and really not all that surprising given the exposure “The Three Keatons” had as a Vaudeville act for the better part of two decades — is that Roscoe Arbuckle had almost certainly seen them perform, and is said to have liked the Keatons’ act and Buster, long before Buster’s film debut with Arbuckle in 1917.  How well did he know their act?  According to Buster, in the film, “The Waiters’ Ball” (1916), Arbuckle “borrowed” a Keaton gag, “The Anvil Chorus,” in which two performers beat each other rhythmically and mercilessly with broomsticks, like so:

While sweeping up the earlier mess they’d made of their restaurant floor, Al St. John and Roscoe Arbuckle take out their frustrations on each other.  Al gets in an amazing wallop that actually levitates Roscoe briefly — very briefly, . . .
and Roscoe gives back as good as he gets.  Not surprisingly, Roscoe’s behind has taken a toll on Al’s broom.  But being a gentleman, he offers Al the use of his . . .
. . . and fetches another for himself to resume the thwacking.  “The Waiters’ Ball” (Triangle-Keystone, June 1916), directed by Roscoe Arbuckle.

“The Butcher Boy:”  Perhaps it was only fitting that Buster’s first appearance in film, Arbuckle’s “The Butcher Boy,” (1917), was a scene that begins with something too small to be considered a gag in itself, just a bit of “business” with Buster and . . . a broom:

Buster carefully inspects the brooms as if he plans on buying, and has already discarded one, visible on the floor at left.  After deciding not to buy one, he strolls over to the one on the floor, picks it up between his feet . . .
. . . and in a single motion, he flicks it up into the air, and barely touching it with his hands, sends it back into the barrel.  This is one time where viewing still frames captures the event, with just a bit of blurring.  It is nearly invisible when viewed in motion at almost any speed.  “The Butcher Boy” (Schenck, Paramount, April 1917), directed by Roscoe Arbuckle.

In order to facilitate his being tossed around on stage by his father during their Vaudeville act, Buster had suitcase handles sewn into his clothing.  In “The Butcher Boy,” we get an idea of the technique.

Buster tries to walk out of the store without paying for his pail of molasses, Roscoe thinks not.

We can’t tell for certain if he’s had a handle sewn into the rear of his pants, but Arbuckle in one motion grabs on and yanks Buster back and onto the counter as if he were a puppy on a very short leash.

Buster tries to be smart and tells him the money was in the bottom of the pail before Roscoe filled it with the molasses.  Roscoe dumps the molasses out — and into Buster’s hat.
Roscoe gets (a taste of) his nickel . . . and Buster gets his hat stuck to his head.
And Buster Keaton gets his first cinematic pratfall.
But now, Buster finds that the spilled molasses has glued his foot to the floor . . .
. . . resulting in pratfall #2 . . .
One imagines that this was similar to the kinds of stunts Buster demonstrated in the family’s Vaudeville act, for which he earned his nickname, “Buster,” from fellow Vaudeville star, Harry Houdini.
Arbuckle, in drag (to gain entrance to the all-female school his girlfriend is attending), literally boots Buster out of her dorm room with an unbelievable (for a man his size) flying leg kick . . .
. . . and Buster responds with his best maneuver in the film, his patented “head-spin” . . .
. . . (a move that break-dancing would revive sixty years later).  Of course, Buster recovers from it like a bouncing ball, something he was constantly compared to during the years The Three Keatons performed on the Vaudeville circuit.

Buster’s stunts in his first film were nothing compared with thousands of falls on stage, and were elementary compared with the complicated and dangerous ones he would perform throughout his film career.  It was the simple beginning of Buster Keaton as “genius” or “legend.”  His Vaudeville act, with his family, The Three Keatons, would have lived in the memory of the generation that saw them live, then most likely would have faded into obscurity,  to be forgotten by succeeding generations — forgotten as have all but the most prominent stage performers of that era.  But this film was the beginning of a new life for Keaton, a cinematic life, and a very full one in the years ahead.  On October 4th, we mark the one hundred and sixteenth anniversary of his birth, and celebrate a life and body of work that we appreciate now more than at any time during his life.  Somehow, I think the famous “stoneface” would crack a smile at that.

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About Gene Zonarich

I'm the King of the silent pictures -- I'm hidin' out 'til talkies blow over . . .
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