Monday, June 2, 2008

The Bell Boy (Comicque/Paramount, 1918)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I joined my partner Charles and watched the 1918 film The Bellboy complete. This was one of the films Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle made in New York for Joseph Schenck’s company (to make them — and woo Arbuckle away from Mack Sennett at a time when Arbuckle was second only to Chaplin in popularity among male comedians — Schenck organized an independent studio called Comicque Film Corporation and released through Paramount) and in which his sidekicks were Al St. John (a Sennett veteran who’d frequently starred with Arbuckle and Mabel Normand there) and Buster Keaton — a vaudevillian who’d had no particular interest in movies but who just happened to be curious enough to visit Arbuckle on the set of his first Comicque film, The Butcher Boy, and to be put to work improvising a gag with Arbuckle and a barrel of molasses.

Suddenly Keaton was a movie actor, and in The Bell Boy ( spelled the title as two words even though the print we were watching, copied from the Kino DVD release but with the soundtrack erased to avoid infringing on Kino’s copyright on the score) — which follows a quite similar formula, with Arbuckle and Keaton as bellboys and St. John as a desk clerk who’s also responsible for operating the hotel’s horse-drawn elevator. Yes, you heard that right: the elevator is connected by a long rope to a horse outside the hotel, and every time a guest wants to use the elevator St. John goes outside and signals to the horse to pull the rope and thereby make the elevator car go up. (Keaton is trapped inside the contraption, which nearly crushes his head, in the film’s most wince-inducing gag.) We’re told in a title that this hotel offers “third-rate service at first-rate prices” and from what we see of it, that sounds about right; there are the usual slapstick mix-ups (including one with a mop bucket on the lobby floor that predictably spills) and the efforts of the three males in the cast to ingratiate themselves with the new manicurist, “Miss Cutie Cuticle” (Alice Lake).

To impress her with his derring-do, Arbuckle has Keaton and St. John pose as bank robbers sticking up the “Last National Bank,” and of course — as any reasonably seasoned moviegoer even in 1918 could have guessed — a band of real bank robbers happens in at the same time (and their cavalier treatment of the money they’re presumably there to steal, which they allow to accumulate willy-nilly on the floor of the bank and make only a few desultory efforts to pick up, adds an unintentional sort of humor to a film that achieves most of the laughs the makers were trying to evoke) and the film ends in a weirdly modern sequence with Arbuckle coupled with Miss Cutie Cuticle and Keaton and St. John apparently consoling themselves with each other. Charles noticed that the hotel lobby set was merely a redressed version of the grocery-store set in which the opening reel of The Butcher Boy had taken place, though it was interesting that Arbuckle already seemed to have feature-film ambitions — this one ran over half an hour and was clearly originally released as a three-reeler instead of a two-reeler — and it does overstay its welcome a bit, but it’s still terrifically funny and a testament to Arbuckle’s all-around skills as a filmmaker.

He not only starred but was credited with the writing (though no doubt there were gag men who contributed) and direction, and his directing is considerably in advance of Chaplin’s technically, with a lot of quick-cutting to heighten the pace and keep the film moving from gag to gag. The horrible scandal that cut short Arbuckle’s career has made it almost impossible to view him objectively, but he’s an impressive performer — not as versatile as Chaplin or Keaton, but amazing in his physical dexterity and coordination, surprising in such a large man. Frank Capra recalled that Arbuckle not only invented the thrown pie, but he was ambidextrous and could throw two pies at once in two different directions.