The Butcher Boy (1917)
Director: Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle
Cast: Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John
Synopsis: Customers and clerks frolic in a general store. Roscoe walks out of the freezer wearing a fur coat, then does some clever cleaver tossing. In Buster’s film debut he buys a pail of molasses.
Other than the fact that he was making movies before the likes of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd became famous and thus had less competition than he would have experienced had his career survived the Virginia Rappe scandal in 1921, the massive popularity of Fatty Arbuckle in the late teens of the 20th Century is something of a mystery. Chaplin was already making movies when The Butcher Boy was released, and by 1917 the little tramp’s routines were a lot funnier and polished than Arbuckle’s. Watching Arbuckle’s movies now is like watching the class buffoon pull a tired old trick for the umpteenth time simply because it got a laugh the first time he did it. Cinema audiences of 1917 just couldn’t get enough of a fat man in a dress, it seems…
Arbuckle plays the title role, an employee in a cockeyed department store managed by Arthur Earle. He spends only a limited amount of time at the butcher’s counter before moving into the general store, however, where one of his customers is Buster Keaton (The Scarecrow, Go West), making his film debut. Keaton displays a level of comic finesse in his first scenes that Arbuckle could never hope to emulate and, to the big man’s credit, he was instrumental in promoting Keaton’s screen career, even though he must have had to overcome any fears he might have about being upstaged by his new protege. In the movie, Arbuckle has a thing going with the manager’s daughter, Almondine (Josephine Stevens), but has a jealous rival in Alum (Arbuckle regular Al St. John — Coney Island, Riders of Destiny). When Almondine is shipped off to the local boarding school, the lovestruck Fatty follows her. In order to gain entry into the building, he dresses as a girl and then, when he’s discovered by Miss Teachem (Agnes Neilson — Coney Island), the school’s tyrannical headmistress, enrols as a new pupil under the name of Saccharine. However, not-so-great minds think alike, and it’s not long before Alum, too, has sneaked into the school in the guise of a girl…
Although writing credits for The Butcher Boy go to Arbuckle and Joseph Anthony Roach, the plot and gags were pretty much made up as they went along. The trouble with improvising in this way is that, while some guy on the right of the screen might experience a sudden moment of inspiration, the two on the left are left treading water while he acts upon his light-bulb moment. Perhaps Arbuckle and his crew ran out of ideas on the set of the department store, because when the action is transplanted to the girl’s school for the second half of the movie it’s almost like watching an entirely different movie. Either way, both halves are fairly ordinary, with the jokes missing more often than they hit. Arbuckle makes a likable comic lead, but on the evidence of a movie like The Butcher Boy, it’s questionable how long his screen career would have lasted had it not come to a premature end..
(Reviewed 12th August 2014)