Coney Island (1917)
Director: Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle
Cast: Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Joe Bordeaux
Synopsis: Roscoe tries to dump his wife so he can enjoy the beach attractions. Buster arrives with Alice who is taken away from him by Al who loses her to Roscoe. Bathing beauties and Keystone Kops abound.
Although he’s no longer remembered as fondly as Chaplin, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was one of the few silent screen comedians to be given full creative control over his movies before the 1920s. By 1921, his career was over, the result of spurious claims that he raped and murdered movie starlet Virginia Rappe at a drunken party in San Francisco. That Arbuckle was eventually found not guilty of the charges levelled against him was of no consequence. By the time of the verdict, the damage had already been done and no studio would touch him. To be honest, the loss to the movie world isn’t as great as it would have been had the same fate befallen Chaplin, Lloyd or Keaton, the three greats of silent comedy. Arbuckle was never their equal, as Coney Island demonstrates. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie — it’s not, and it has quite a few laughs, but as we watch we never believe we seeing the work of a cinematic genius, the way we do when those other three are on-screen.
As you’d expect, the action takes place on Coney Island, where Roscoe is ‘enjoying’ an afternoon by the sea with his shrewish battle-axe of a wife (Agnes Neilson), but before we meet him we’re first introduced to Buster Keaton (Battling Butler, The General), Arbuckle’s young protege, who was still learning his craft at this time. If we were in any doubt that Buster was not yet the finished article, those doubts would be blown away the first time we see ‘stoneface’ burst into frustrated tears in Coney Island. He was very much the master’s apprentice, although Arbuckle was generous enough to allow Keaton plenty of screen time in which to show his maturing talents. Keaton is there with his girlfriend (the gorgeous 17-year-old Alice Mann), but he doesn’t hang on to her for long when he can’t scrape together the price of admission to the fun fair. Much to his annoyance, his squeeze promptly brushes him off and marches into the fair on the arm of Al St. John (The General, Riders of Destiny), a man who might be ugly, but at least has folding on his hip.
Meanwhile, Arbuckle’s finding his enjoyment of the sea air seriously diminished by the constant nagging of his wife, and buries himself in the sand in order to escape her. When she wanders off in search of him, he hot-foots it to the fair, where he’s instantly besotted with Alice Mann. And who wouldn’t be? She’s gorgeous! Anyway, he succeeds in getting her second beau arrested for kicking a policeman in the butt, but his pursuit of her is hampered by the fact that Keaton has now found his way into the fair, and isn’t happy at yet another man muscling in on his girl.
Coney Island is a busy film, you have to give it that. The synopsis above covers barely half the picture, the second half of which Arbuckle spends in drag. This doesn’t discourage him from pursuing the ladies, however — or from discouraging the advances of St. John who, rather worryingly, is fooled by Arbuckle’s disguise. The comedy only works in fits and starts, though, and the outcome of many of the routines is predictable, although Arbuckle does surprise at one point by coyly breaking the fourth wall in order to shoo away the camera as he prepares to change into a purloined ladies bathing suit. There’s no doubt that Coney Island wouldn’t even reach the modest standards that it does if it was deprived of Keaton’s presence, and one can only wonder how much Arbuckle’s popularity was buoyed by Keaton’s presence in his movies. Check out that back flip out of nothing Keaton performs after becoming a lifeguard. It’s not only funny it’s a spectacular piece of athleticism. We can only wonder how much longer Arbuckle’s career would have survived after Keaton went his own way, and the big man finally moved into feature length movies.
(Reviewed 5th August 2014)