US Release Date: 05-25-1917
Directed by: Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle
- Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, as
- Mr Rough
- Al St. John, as
- Buster Keaton, as
- Gardener/Delivery Boy/Cop
- Alice Lake, as
- Mrs Rough
- Agnes Neilson as
Buster Keaton in Rough House.
In just their second outing together, Arbuckle and Keaton, along with St. John, find themselves in familiar territory with The Rough House. Arbuckle, who obviously liked to eat, again does imaginative things with food for sight gags. This time Arbuckle is a rich, lazy mama's boy. He flirts with the maid, as does the cook and the delivery boy.
The movie opens with the funniest bit I have ever seen of Arbuckles. He wakes up to find that his bed is on fire after falling asleep with a lit cigarette. He acts completely bored and unfazed by it as he casually walks into the kitchen to get a tea cup of water to throw on the fire. It was the hardest I ever laughed at Arbuckle thus far.
Keaton again adds much to the film. It seems that these films really got going when he appeared on screen. When his character comes on you just know the pace of the film is going to pick up. He does his usual falls and antics as he and St. John fight over the maid.
They get arrested but are recruited to be policemen instead of thrown in jail. Meanwhile, back at the mansion, Mrs Rough and her Mom are throwing a dinner party for two gentleman. Arbuckle has to act as cook and waiter, since the cook was arrested. Arbuckle serves soup with a sponge. The two guests turn out to be jewel thieves and the physical comedy goes into full speed again as the two new cops race back to stop the thieves while Arbuckle is caught in the middle of everything.
At only 22 minutes long, there is not much to this movie, but it is worth it alone for the scene of Arbuckle attempting to put out the fire. It demonstrates that the success of these films were not due just to Keaton. Arbuckle was a comic master of his own making.
Fatty Arbuckle discovers a creative new use for butter in The Rough House
I too laughed at the bed on fire gag and the way Arbuckle calmly goes back and forth for one tiny cup of water at a time. Fatty Arbuckle was very inventive. Notice how he uses two forks stuck in two rolls like feet at the table. He makes them “walk” like Chaplin’s Little Tramp character then giggles at his own cleverness. Arbuckle had worked with him before Chaplin became world famous just as he was working with Keaton here before his success. Chaplin himself would expand on this same gag nearly ten years later in one of his most famous scenes from The Gold Rush.
As Eric said Buster Keaton was already a master of the prat fall in these early screen appearances opposite Arbuckle and St. John. Nobody ever took a fall like Keaton did. Every move he makes seems effortless. His sad sack persona was clearly not developed yet although his stone-faced expression was already in place.
It’s interesting to note that although Al St. John had all the outward trappings of a great silent screen comic (he moved well, had split-second timing and a rubbery face and was obviously as eager and enthusiastic as the other two men) he lacked the one indefinable ingredient understood the world over. He lacked Star Quality. Keaton, and to a lesser extent Arbuckle, radiate charisma whenever they come on screen. St. John simply does not and as a result has been long since forgotten.
I don’t know if this was the very first movie to actually show someone “seeing stars” after getting hit on the head but it must have been one of the first at any rate. Arbuckle counts them with a dazed expression on his face. It is an idea that would be copied many times, especially in Warner Brothers’ cartoons of the 1940’s and ‘50’s.
Yes, the bed on fire gag was funny, but I laughed harder when Arbuckle got caught fondling the maid’s shapely ankle and was throttled by the older woman. And his antics acting as a maitre d' in the scene Eric mentioned with the soup sponge are priceless. Watch what he does with the bald man’s toupee. As sublime as Buster Keaton’s physical comedy was The Rough House belongs entirely to Fatty Arbuckle.
Fatty Arbuckle was on fire in 1917.
Arbuckle is funny and inventive. Nobody takes a fall like Keaton. And St. John? He does jump well. What they needed though was a writer. This short very much feels like it was made up on the day. Far too much of it is simply people throwing things at each other and people falling down, again and again and again. Even for someone as adept at pratfalls as Keaton was this joke wears quickly thin.
The lack of a good script is also evident by the fact that I didn't realize until after the short and I was looking at the credits that Arbuckle was supposed to be related to the women of the house as evidenced by his last name. I thought he was another one of the servants.
There's no denying the inventiveness of certain gags though. As you mentioned Patrick, the Warner Bros. cartoons owe a lot to these early silent shorts. Not only would they reuse the seeing stars bit, Bugs Bunny also massaged salad dressing into a bald man's head on more than one occasion. It's hardly surprising given how these guys threw themselves around like living cartoons.
I was actually surprised by a couple of things. One is that, although you say his stone face was in place, Patrick, Keaton actually laughs and smiles a couple of times. The other thing that surprised me was when Keaton throws a knife and it sticks in St. John's face. Stabbing people just isn't something you expect in a comedy!
Patrick, you say that Arbuckle has less charisma than Keaton, but I would disagree. Keaton was incredibly talented, but Arbuckle had tremendous charisma. He was the prototype of future fat man comedians to come, like John Belushi, John Candy and Chris Farley among others. He might not have been as creative as Keaton, but he definitely had the star quality you mention.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1917)