Buster and Fatty Vamp and Camp It Up in THE COOK
The fabulous Fritzi over at Movies Silently is hosting A Shorts Blogathon! You can find all the entries here.
I chose Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s The Cook, co-starring Buster Keaton, which was a dangerous assignment, as it meant I had to watch it again—running the risk of disappearing into the TV, hitting the Play button over and over as work went undone, meals went uneaten, calls went unanswered, and pages flew off the calendar…
If you first fell in love with Buster Keaton in the films he wrote and directed himself, seeing his early two-reelers with Fatty is a bit like stumbling across old home movies of your Dad as a teenager, goofing around in the basement with his friends. Before he had any real responsibilities. Before anyone was looking.
In his films with Fatty, Buster’s the same as ever, but… different. More relaxed and loosey-goosey—and even more rubbery, if that’s possible. He’s sharing the weight with Arbuckle and Al St. John instead of carrying it all on his own fabulous shoulders, and it shows. The Cook was the last film Buster made before shipping off for France with the Army during World War I, but you’d never know it watching these guys. It not only looks like the most fun anyone ever had making a movie; it pretty much looks like the most fun any humans had, ever.
The Cook was the eleventh short Buster and Fatty made in less than a year and a half, and even Rogers and Astaire would’ve killed for this kind of rhythm and chemistry. That day in 1917, when these two bumped into each other on a New York street, the movie gods were working overtime.
The setting of the film—like it matters—is a seaside café called The Bull Pup, where Buster is The Pest Waiter and Fatty is The Cook, pulling everything, including the ice cream, out of the same giant, steaming vat. (Honestly, between that and the way he chops food with the same cleaver he almost cuts Buster’s head off with, there’s some serious health-code stuff going on in this dump.)
While Fatty pirouettes around the kitchen, Buster shouts out the dinner orders when he’s not dusting off dowagers or sidling up, without success, to a lady diner. (I love how, in just about every Buster Keaton movie, there’s at least one obviously clinically insane woman who dismisses him with utter boredom, as opposed to, you know, giving him her house key, writing down her address and spelling out the fastest way to get there. But perhaps I’ve said too much.)
Later, inspired by the exotic dancer performing the floor show, Buster works some snake-dancing into his serving technique, and Fatty responds with riffs on Cleopatra, with sausage links standing in for the asp, and Salome, with a cabbage doubling for John the Baptist’s head. And they don’t do it as slapstick (well, unless you count Buster’s casual backflips); they writhe and slither and vamp like serious artistes. (The very dramatic Theda Bara, who’d just opened in Salome, was not amused…)
But alas, all great art must end. Soon, The Toughest Guy (St. John) swaggers in and tries to make off with Buster’s girl, The Cashier (Alice Lake). (Watch for the moment when St. John bites the neck off a beer bottle and spits the suds at Buster, who comes close to cracking up.) When all human efforts fail to stop the bully, Luke the Dog takes over, chasing him out the door, up ladders (!) and across rooftops.
Meanwhile back at the café, Buster, Fatty and two other staffers (Chaplin staple John Rand and Laurel & Hardy regular Bobby Dunn) are grappling with massive plates of spaghetti. Buster wrangles it into a teacup and scissors away the stray bits, Fatty gets his tie into the mix, and one long, elastic strand is strung into a clothesline for the linen napkins…
Happily fed and with his girl now safe, Buster rounds up Fatty and Alice and heads for Goatland—an amusement park where goats pull the carts carrying the patrons. But once again, The Toughest Guy turns up to menace Alice, sending Luke back into action. And at the fade-out, all is well…
The slapstick in The Cook is a bit gentler than in some of Buster and Fatty’s other shorts; most of the rough stuff is between St. John and the incredible Luke, who was owned by Fatty and his wife, Minta Durfee. After Minta pulled off an especially harrowing stunt in A Misplaced Foot—hanging by her fingernails from a 300-foot cliff—Mack Sennett told her to drop by director Wilfred Lucas’s house for a “bonus,” which turned out to be a six-week-old pit bull puppy. Feeling she was owed actual cash for putting her life on the line, the actress was annoyed at first—until the pup began teething tenderly on her finger, and the lovefest was on.
A year later, in 1915, Luke (named after Lucas) made his heroic debut in Fatty’s Plucky Pup, rescuing a kidnapped damsel in distress. From then on, he was pretty much a constant presence in Fatty’s films, eventually “signing” a Comique Films contract for $150 a week:
He later freelanced with Buster, doing a memorable turn as “Mad Dog!!” in The Scarecrow:
When Arbuckle and Durfee divorced, Minta got custody, but Fatty got generous visitation rights.
The Cook was considered lost for decades until 1998, when the Norwegian Film Archive found a damaged nitrate print in an unmarked canister along with Arbuckle’s A Reckless Romeo. More footage turned up in the Netherlands in 2002, but the finale has never been found, so the film just sort of abruptly ends. But you can always just hit the Play button over and over again.