Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Comique comedy Back Stage (1919) starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, with Buster Keaton and Al St. John.
By now, the backstage comedy was a well established silent comedy subgenre, almost obligatory. Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd had all done comedies with similar settings. This one (like most) rambles muchly, the comedy mostly suggested by available props and routine tasks rather than anything so high-falutin as a plot.
The very first image sets the tone. We think we are looking at a room, but it instantly dissolves as its component pieces of scenery are taken apart by stage-hands revealing a bare stage. This is followed by a short segment in which Arbuckle is splashing some whitewash or paste onto a fence. When a kid won’t stop pestering him, Arbuckle hangs him on the fence and coats him in the goo, which they both discover tastes delicious.
Back in the theatre, a thespian (William Collier, Sr.) arrives and demands the star’s dressing room. Buster shows him the way, then uses a wire to move the pre-rigged star to another door. Then comes a famous bit where it looks like Buster is going down some stairs, until the flat he’s behind is moved and we see he is just going down on his knees to nail something. An eccentric dancer comes (Jack Coogan, Sr, father of Jackie Coogan) and rehearses his act, and keeps accidentally kicking people in the head. Arbuckle does his own humorous dance and falls down. Buster does his own dance with the same result. Then an enormous strongman Charles A. Post), a total jerk, comes in, with a girl (Molly Malone) carrying his luggage, which turns out to include his barbells. He goes to the room with the star, but Arbuckle uses the trick wire to movethe star to the girl’s room. He then attempts to punch the strongman, but chickens out. Keaton bonks him with an axe repteadly. No result. “Quit ticklin”, says the strongman. So, they electrify the guy’s barbells, knocking him out. Then they throw him in his room and throw suitcases on top of him.
Third act: all the vaudeville performers go out on strike, so Buster and Fatty perform all their acts. First an Asian themed opera. A romantic melodrama (featuring a serenade in the snow). Buster knocks all the scenery over. Then Fatty kisses the girl. The strong man, who has been watching, gets jealous and shoots the girl with a gun! Buster swings up to the balcony from the stage on a rope, grabs the guy and drags him down. Fatty and Buster keep jumping on the strongman but he keeps brushing them off. Finally they drop a trunk on his head and he’s out. In an epilogue, Fatty visits the girl in the hospital. He brings her an apple – then eats it himself.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.