One hundred years ago today, Buster Keaton was introduced to the moving picture camera. Considering what Keaton did with it, the day really ought to be an international holiday.
Monday, March 19, 1917 started out unremarkably for him. According to biographer Rudi Blesh, he got up early, restless and worried about his solo act. Twenty-one years old, he’d never worked onstage without his family, and he’d signed a contract to appear alone in The Passing Show, the Shubert’s Broadway variety show. It was the day before rehearsals were to begin. Unsettling news of the war in Europe filled the front page of the New York Times; three American boats had been sunk by German submarines, but Russia vowed to keep fighting alongside their allies, despite their revolution. Keaton went to a Childs Restaurant (it was a chain), ordered pancakes, but he couldn’t touch them. It was a cold morning (35 degrees) but dry and he went for a walk. He ran into Lou Anger, an old friend from vaudeville who was working for Roscoe Arbuckle. He talked Keaton into coming along for a visit to the studio. Anger introduced Arbuckle, who asked him to do a bit in the next scene of The Butcher Boy but Keaton turned him down. Arbuckle invited him to stay and see how they worked, then called for a twenty-minute break. He asked what he wanted to see first. The camera, Keaton replied. So they went over to the cameraman, Frank Williams.
Keaton and Arbuckle must have been persuasive, because most cameramen wouldn’t let a stranger (even worse, an actor) get anywhere near their equipment. Nevertheless, Williams let him, as Blesh put it, all but climb inside the camera, inspecting the gears, sprockets, and shutter. Then Keaton looked at the lights, the cutting room, and watched some dailies. Blesh continued, “This, he saw, was for him. As the last frame of the last rush faded on the screen, he stood up in the darkness. The twenty-minute break had been nearly an hour. ‘Let’s do that scene,’ he said.” And that’s how Buster Keaton became a filmmaker.
Grace Kingsley was busy working 3,000 miles away, so she had no idea that one of her soon -to-be favorite comics was getting his start in film. On this day she reported that theaters were going to stop using the American flag in advertising to restore some dignity to it “in the present grave crisis of national affairs” (Congress declared war on Germany just three weeks later, on April 6th) and she reviewed the week’s films, including Out of the Wreak (“another of those obvious stories, patched together out of the scenario barrel”) and The Barricade (“a new and refreezing twist on the defaulting broker theme”).
Two days later she mentioned that she’d gotten a letter from Arbuckle’s publicity man, Jimmie Tynan, who’d gone “east with Roscoe Arbuckle to try and get that man a little much-needed publicity.” He didn’t mention any clever recent hires, but he told her that while New York life was very exciting, they all missed California and “Mrs. Arbuckle’s sister had never seen snow before — and she hasn’t seen anything else since, in the way of climate, anyway.” No wonder the company moved back to Los Angeles in October. Minta Durfee Arbuckle’s sister Marie was born in Los Angeles in 1893, so the story might have even been true.
Unfortunately, when The Butcher Boy was released in Los Angeles in late April, Kingsley didn’t like it very much. She called it “pretty much the old jazz stuff as regards action and plot” but she conceded that Arbuckle in girls’ clothes is always funny. She didn’t mention the guy with the bucket at all.
[Of course I had to find out what Bulgarzoon on the Childs menu was. It was a yogurt drink like Kefir, according to Dining Chicago.]