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Buzzin’ Around

We inevitably look at the 13 two-reel comedies starring Roscoe Arbuckle and co-starring Buster Keaton through the wrong end of the telescope—intent on finding evidence of Keaton’s nascent genius at the very beginning of his screen career, when he was only 21 years old. But the revelation of the new Kino Blu-ray set that packages all of Keaton’s starring shorts along with his apprentice work with Arbuckle is not Keaton, but Arbuckle.

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  • In 2015 I curated the programme ‘Italian Muscle in Germany’, on Italian strongmen and acrobats starring in German adventure films of the 1920s – a programme for the Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, Italy (October 2015). I also chaired a Collegium session attached to this, with Elif Rongen (EYE) and Oliver Hanley (Austrian Filmmuseum).

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Throughout the collaboration, Keaton functions as a high-end second banana, properly adjusting to the rhythms of the star. Compared to the wary solemnity of his later comic persona, Keaton is invariably enthusiastic, smiling and laughing.

He’s good, he’s a natural, but so is Al St. John, Arbuckle’s nephew, whose falls are every bit as bone-crushing as Keaton’s, and who was still doing them a quarter century later, as the comic foil for Buster Crabbe’s western hero at Producers Releasing Corporation—the lowest rung of Poverty Row. St. John had mad physical skills, but he was basically limited to playing rubes.

Oh, Doctor!

As for Arbuckle . . . Arbuckle was special. He’s heavy, but he’s solid—not flabby. His stock in trade is a boyishness that rarely tilts over into coyness and which compensates for the occasional crudity, as in Oh, Doctor! (1917), where Arbuckle plays Dr. Holepoke, while Keaton is his son, Junior Holepoke, in an obnoxious Buster Brown suit. (Trigger alert: the belittling darky humor that shows up in Keaton’s work, and for which he is invariably—and oddly—given a pass, is also frequently present in Arbuckle’s. Besides the blood-curdling racial attitudes endemic for people born in the 19th century, training in rough-and-ready venues such as medicine shows [Arbuckle] and vaudeville [Keaton] were not calculated to gentle those attitudes.)

Arbuckle is always extremely charming and likable and an interesting physical specimen—at one point in His Wedding Night (1917), Arbuckle picks up Al St. John as if he’s a medicine ball and heaves him a good eight feet out of the frame. St. John weighed at least 140 pounds.

Spaces

Besides his skills as a comedian, Arbuckle was an excellent director. The camera is usually in the right place, and 1918’s Out West expertly dissects every visual and behavioral cliché of the western on the books at that time, which is to say most of them.

The Garage

Arbuckle manages to do all this in spite of a predominantly manic comic rhythm. Mack Sennett, for whom Arbuckle worked for five years before he went out on his own in 1917, was a hard taskmaster, at least in terms of his expectations. Sennett expected a joke to pay off almost immediately—the plant and the visual punchline were separated by seconds, not minutes.

Until the advent of Hal Roach and Laurel & Hardy, who specialized in lengthy anticipation at least as important as the gag itself, speed was the sine qua non of silent comedy. The only notable exception to Sennett’s habitual rush would be Harry Langdon in the 1920s, whose character of an adult baby mandated a pace akin to senile dementia.

Sennett-style hurly-burly can become an oppressive blur. Arbuckle wasn’t working for Sennett anymore, but he was working for an audience that had been conditioned by Sennett, so these films still move at a sprint. But Arbuckle consistently finds space to intersperse grace notes. In The Butcher Boy (1917), he throws hunks of meat over his shoulder onto conveniently located hooks on the wall behind him, and he tosses knives in the air so that they consistently land in the butcher’s block point down.

The Rough House

The Blu-ray set also provides plenty of examples of the way different comics used set gags. In The Rough House (1917)—a good title for a book about Sennett—Arbuckle stabs a couple of forks into dinner rolls and does a quick rough draft of the routine Chaplin did in The Gold Rush (1925). The difference is that Arbuckle tosses the moment off in a few seconds, where Chaplin carefully builds an entire sequence around it.

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In the same film, Arbuckle sets his bed on fire after falling asleep while smoking. He gets up, plods into the dining room and fills a coffee cup with water. Plodding back into the bedroom, he tosses the minute amount of water onto the bed, which is now a major conflagration. The fire continues to rage. It’s a good gag, and Keaton would dust it off and recast it for The General (1926), when he instructs Marion Mack—another one of his slightly dim leading ladies—to feed the boiler of the locomotive with wood. She picks up a twig and tosses it in. He pauses a moment to take in the full extent of her stupidity, mock-strangles her, then kisses her. She may be an idiot, but she’s his idiot. Keaton expands the gag to encompass a touch of loving chivalry.

In Coney Island (1917), a pleasing location knockabout, Arbuckle is changing into a bathing suit when he notices the camera and urges it to move. It is only after the camera obediently pans up that he proceeds to change his pants. Keaton repeated the joke with his leading lady in a bathtub scene in One Week (1920).

Coney Island

Silent comedians understood that gags that worked in silence were finite—a deck of cards, if you will. The level of skill in deploying those cards, the inflection provided by differing characterization and comic variations constituted the difference between major and minor talents.

In 1918, Keaton left Arbuckle to go into the Army. When his hitch was up, he returned to his friend, who was about to be promoted to features. Joe Schenck, the Godfather of the early movie industry, tapped Keaton to step in and star in the shorts that Schenck—Keaton’s future brother-in-law—had been producing for Arbuckle. Keaton quickly came into his comic personality: observant, analytic, but flummoxed by a world with which he seemed unfamiliar.

Arbuckle’s features are a regressive come-down from his two-reelers, relying mostly on his charm. The roughness is toned down, as is the racism, but so is the zest, the authenticity. Paramount was becoming an increasingly homogenized company, and Arbuckle features like The Round-Up (1920), Life of the Party (1920), or Leap Year (1924) could just as well have been adapted for the studio’s stock leading men such as Thomas Meighan. Besides that, the directors Paramount assigned to the features (George Melford, James Cruze) were markedly inferior to Arbuckle.

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Leap Year

Speaking of the wrong end of the telescope: we look at Arbuckle through our knowledge of his dismal fate—the manslaughter charge that dragged him through two hung juries before he was finally acquitted in his third trial. After that, he was blacklisted; to survive he pseudonymously directed films that lacked his characteristic energy. A brief comeback starring in sound shorts at Warner Bros. ended when he died in June 1933 of a fatal heart attack in his room at the Park Central Hotel, across the street from Carnegie Hall. Keaton always regarded Arbuckle as a close friend and kept a portrait of him in the den of his home in Woodland Hills until his own death in 1966.

But these lusty, invariably clever films attest to the fact that Roscoe Arbuckle didn’t know he was a tragedy waiting to happen. This man was large in ways beyond his waistline. The truth is that Roscoe Arbuckle didn’t need Buster Keaton; rather, Buster Keaton needed Arbuckle—certainly for mentoring in the disciplines of staging and camera placement, but also for Arbuckle’s emphasis on stylish dexterity and comic characterization.

There are half a dozen books about Arbuckle’s trials—legal and psychological— but there is no serious biography. Somebody needs to step up.

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Scott Eyman has written 13 books about the movies, including John Wayne: The Life and Legend. He teaches film history at the University of Miami.

About

  • Lecturer Department of Arts & Culture, Faculty of Humanities, Vrije Universiteit (VU University), Amsterdam. Office hours: mostly Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, not on Fridays. The office is closed flex-working space, so use email to make an appointment. November-December is my research term. For my university home page, look here.
  • Programme director of the Master Comparative Arts & Media Studies.
  • Member of research schools and research networks Research Institute for Culture, History and Heritage (CLUE+), Research School for Media Studies (RMeS), Dutch research school Huizinga Instituut, International Society for Intermedial Studies (ISIS), Vereniging Geschiedenis Beeld & Geluid (Association for Image & Sound), Network for European Cinema Studies (NECS), Association for the Study of Early Cinema (Domitor), American Association for Italian Studies (AAIS), and the Associazione Italiana per le Ricerche di Storia del Cinema (AIRSC).
  • Formerly, member of WAR (scientific board of the Royal Dutch Institute in Rome) on behalf of VU University (2008-2012/2012-2016)

Research interests: film history, film theory, intermediality, comparative arts & media studies, film & art, film & architecture, film & graphic design, museum studies, exhibition studies, film distribution & exhibition, early cinema, cinema & Antiquity, Italian cinema

Research
My research often deals with intervisual relationships between cinema and other arts. Current research deals with early Italian cinema and its ties with visual arts and popular culture (see e.g. my articles in Sinisi et. al. 2010, Bertellini 2013, Acta 2013 , Askari et.al. 2014, Pordenone 2015, Prettejohn/Trippi 2016), and with Antiquity and cinema ((Quaresima et.al. 2001, Gagetti et.al. 2017). This is partly because of my co-curatorship of the exhibition Alma-Tadema: Classic Imagination, which opened Fall 2016 at the Fries Museum (Leeuwarden), before moving on to Belvedere (Vienna, Spring 2017) and Leighton House (London, Summer 2017) (for more info, see below, Exhibitions). Exhibition and book were extremely well received (see Reviews and Interviews). Related to this is also my involvement in the LABEX/ ARTEC research project Le cinéma italien muet à la croisée des arts européens (1896-1930), run by prof. Céline Gailleurd (Paris 8), for which I given papers in Rome, Amsterdam and Paris, and co-organised a workshop in Amsterdam (see Organisation), the results of which I will publish on a website.

Released in March 2018 with Sidestone Press is my major study on Luchino Visconti’s appropriation of visual arts and cinema, the outcome of a long-lasting project, and preceded by various articles (see e.g. The Italianist 2017, Blom 2006, Acta 2010, Bono et. al. 2013) and a symposium (Palazzo Visconti, Milan 2006). My monograph got several very positive reviews in The Burlington Magazine, Positif, Screen, Senses of Cinema, etc.

For the 2020 Cinefest ‘Kino, Krieg und Tulpen. Deutsch-niederländische Filmbeziehungen’ (13-22 November 2020) I was not only co-curator of the film program, but also co-author of the accompanying catalog (including a general introductory text, and texts on representation of the Netherlands in German film, star visits to the Netherlands, Dutch stars working in Germany, and animation cinema), and co-organizer of the accompanying academic conference, for which I gave the keynote, ‘Panorama, Academy, Archive. German-Dutch Film Relationships’. I also contributed to several filmed introductions to the films on show. Lastly, I will be co-editor and author of the published conference papers (2021).

From 1994 to 2000, I wrote my dissertation at the University of Amsterdam (2000), which was debated in 2000 and published in 2003 as Jean Desmet and the Early Dutch Film Trade. The research dealt with early film distribution and exhibition in the so-called transitional era of film history and was primarily based on the Desmet Collection of EYE (formerly Netherlands Filmmuseum), now recognized by Unesco as World Heritage. The 2003 book was extensively and positively reviewed (see Reviews and Interviews) and is often referred to. Between 2003 and 2005 I toured along a dozen European cities with Desmet’s films, promoting my book. From 1991, I regularly published in Dutch and foreign journals, volumes and encyclopedias on early cinema (various nationalities, genres, distribution, exhibition).

Publications: https://ivoblom.wordpress.com/publication. Many of my academic publications can be found online at www.academia.edu as well, some also at Researchgate.

Education
I (co-)teach undergraduates 2nd and 3rd-year courses in Film & Media History, Film Analysis & Theory, and Iconoclasm & Idolatry, while on a graduate level I lecture on Crossmedial Exhibitions. I also give individual undergraduate and graduate lectures in courses by others, on e.g. Rome as cinematic city and on the basics of film analysis. In the past I have also taught on cinematic cities, film & art, film posters, the professional field of film & graphic design, scriptwriting in film & new media, and cinema exhibition. For a list of tutored theses and internships, look here. From 1991 to 2001, I lectured at the University of Utrecht and the University of Amsterdam on film history and film theory. Since 1999 I teach at VU University. I have been a guest lecturer at the University of Siena (2006-2008) and guest researcher at the Royal Dutch Institute in Rome (KNIR) (2007), the latter after being awarded the Dr. Blok Stipendium. At KNIR, I organised the Bachelor seminar Film in Rome/ Rome in Film at the Royal Dutch Institute, in 2007, 2010, and 2012. In 2010, I also co-organised the Master course Romanità on the Italian ‘ventennio’, architecture and film, a collaboration between KNIR and my university.

Over the last years I have been experimenting with innovation in education, in particular, 1) the use of enriched knowledge clips for my 2012 Rome in Film course (better preparation for short-term excursions, thanks to the project REC:all), 2) use of iPads in both the 2012 Rome on film course and my master course The Cinematic City (2012-2014) enabling to view film clips ‘in situ’ and compare with real locations, 3) the use of GIS-related information by means of Geoplaza sites of film locations in Rome and Amsterdam cinemas in Amsterdam, 4) a pilot project with KPN and Surfnet in the use of 4G for the 2014 edition of The Cinematic City (enabling to consult and compare on location film clips and image databases online), and 5) use of concept maps to train students in acquiring historical knowledge for my course Film & Media History (2014-). All projects were done in collaboration with Sylvia Moes, education innovation manager at VU University. For an interview with me on the use of the enriched knowledge clips, the iPads, Geoplaza, and additional experiments in 2012-2013, look here.

Professional (academic) activities
Lectures: I have given over 75 lectures at numerous universities and contributions to workshops and conferences in Western-Europe and the United States.
Ph.D. committees: I have been a member of Ph.D. juries at the Sorbonne, Paris3 (2009) and the universities of Ghent (2006; 2009), Antwerp (2015) and Utrecht (2016).
Scientific committee: Conference Vers une esthétique spectaculaire. Le cinéma muet italien au croisement des arts plastiques et décoratifs, 1896-1930, Villa Medici, Rome, 2017 (organizer Céline Gailleurd). Exhibition Vivement le cinéma!, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 2021 (guest curator Dominique Païni).
Advisor: I have been an advisor for NWO (the Dutch National Research Council) and FWO (Flemish Research Council).
Organisation: For the research project Le cinéma italien muet à la croisée des arts européens (1896-1930), I co-organised the international workshop A Dive into the Collections of EYE Film Museum (20-21 December 2018). June 2018 I helped in the organization of the NECS Conference when co-hosted by my university. For the 2017 Tadema conference see Exhibitions. In 2009, I co-organised the exploratory workshop Intermedialities: Theory, History, Practice of the European Science Foundation. I also co-organised the conferences The Artist’s Biography on Film (2004), Diva Dolorosa: la gestualità sofferta (2004) and Visconti & Visual Arts (2006).
Editorial work: Between 2003 and 2013 I have been a member of the editorial board of the peer-reviewed and since 2012 online magazine Tijdschrift voor Mediageschiedenis(Journal on Media History). Here I published on early Dutch cinema and co-edited the special issues Games & History (2004), Cinema in Context (2007), Madness & Media (2013) and one miscellanea issue (2010). Until 2007, I also was on the editorial board of Jong Holland, a journal on Art & Visual Culture, publishing on Jean-Léon Gérôme and the early epic Quo Vadis? (2001) and on Visconti, Hayez, and intermediality (2006).
Exhibitions: In 2004-2005, I was the initiator of the exhibition Blikvangers (Eyecatchers) on 60 years of Dutch film poster design. From 2014 to 2016 I have been involved with Peter Trippi, Elizabeth Prettejohn and others in the co-curating of the exhibition Alma-Tadema: Klassieke Verleiding [Classical Charm] (Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, 30 September 2016-7 February 2017). I also wrote an article for the accompanying book Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity, which appeared in English, German and Dutch, and curated the film programme for art house Slieker Film in Leeuwarden. The exhibition was a huge critical and public success and drew 158.000 visitors. It afterward travelled to Belvedere Museum (Vienna), and Leighton House (London). By September 2017, 2850 Dutch copies, c. 2000 English copies and c. 530 German copies of the book had been sold. Accompanying the Leighton House exhibition, I also initiated what became the conference Alma-Tadema: Antiquity at Home and on Screen (Paul Mellon Foundation/ Birkbeck University, 19-21 October 2017). organised by Maria Wyke, Ian Christie, Elizabeth Prettejohn, myself, and the hosting institutions (see above). Winter 2016-17 I was also film image researcher for the exhibition Mata Hari: Myth and the Maiden (Fries Museum 2017-18). See Scientific Committee for the 2021 upcoming exhibition at Musée d’Orsay.

Further activities
Juries: I have been a jury member of the Willy Haas-Preis 2014 for the best book and DVD on German cinema. I have also been an advisor for the Mediafonds.
DVD: I contributed to the Dutch DVD-box Luchino Visconti (Cinemien 2005) and the DVDs Ma l’amor mio non muore/Love Everlasting(Cineteca di Bologna 2013), starring Lyda Borelli, and Sangue bleu (Cineteca di Bologna 2014), starring Francesca Bertini.
Publications in popular scientific journals (Geschiedenis Magazine, Ons Amsterdam): look here.
Programming: for 2020 I programmed with Rommy Albers (EYE) and CineGraph Hamburg the 2020 Cinefest on Dutch-German film exchange all through the 20th and early 21st century. Because of COVID-19 an alternative online film program was organised, with the intention of showing the original program in Spring 2021. In 2015 I curated the programme ‘Italian Muscle in Germany’, on Italian strongmen and acrobats starring in German adventure films of the 1920s – a programme for the Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, Italy (October 2015). I also chaired a Collegium session attached to this, with Elif Rongen (EYE) and Oliver Hanley (Austrian Filmmuseum). The programme was well received in the Italian and foreign press and media. See above for the film programme on Tadema and film in Leeuwarden. This also included a showing of Quo vadis? (Guazzoni 1913), accompanied with live music, at EYE, Amsterdam.

Background
I studied art history in Utrecht (BA) and Leiden (MA) and wrote my master thesis (1986) on Luchino Visconti and painting. In 1988, I co-organised the Dutch retrospective Il primo cinema italiano 1905-1945 and co-edited the accompanying book Hartstocht en heldendom. From 1989 to 1994, I worked as archivist and restorer at EYE (formerly Netherlands Filmmuseum).

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