Arbuckle and Keaton Flip Their Vaudeville Experience on Its Head in Back Stage

BACK STAGE (1919) — Roscoe Arbuckle

Note: This is the hundred-and-fifth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fifth favorite 1919 film, BACK STAGE, directed by Roscoe Arbuckle.

The penultimate penultimate film (that is, the third to last) that Buster Keaton made with his patron/mentor/partner Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, BACK STAGE provides phenomenal insight into the pair’s respective vaudeville and stage experience. Playing inept stagehands suddenly put on the spot to perform for a big crowd, Arbuckle, Keaton, and the erstwhile Al St. John give a master class on vaudeville gags, heightened by the possibilities of film, through the lens of a metafictional vaudeville show.

From the jump, you know you’re in hallowed ground (BACK STAGE may very well be the best Arbuckle-Keaton short) when the first gag leads to a door covering up the bill poster, which now appears to read “MISS SKINNY WILL UNDRESS HERE AT 2 P.M.” and entices a man to come to the show. It actually said “YOU MUST NOT MISS GERTRUDE MCSKINNY FAMOUS STAR WHO WILL PLAY THE LITTLE LAUNDRESS FIRST TIME HERE TOMORROW AT 2 P.M.” before. And then Keaton doing the “walks down stairs that aren’t there behind some kind of obstacle” gag? Timeless. The jokes are among the best from this era of comedy, just shot out of a comedic cannon crafted by Arbuckle and Keaton. A play on an effeminate character is initially unsettling, until it turns the butt of the joke onto the two-left-footed Arbuckle and Keaton.

I suppose I shouldn’t just explain every gag in BACK STAGE, but if my enthusiasm to parrot its best moments doesn’t make it clear, it’s because they’re all so good and memorable. Keaton plays an incredible wriggling wimp underneath a barbell, Arbuckle and Keaton do a routine in drag, and Arbuckle stands perfectly in the window of the falling frame of a house, a la Keaton’s ONE WEEK (1920) and STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (1928). But in a twist on those more famous renditions of the gag (a “twist” before they even came to pass, I guess), Arbuckle is standing perfectly in the crosshairs of the closed window, as opposed to the open one.

BACK STAGE is simultaneously an elevation and reduction of everything Arbuckle and Keaton did for three years. There aren’t complex love triangles or situations with too-long payoffs. This short is just about three hapless workers falling into hilarious situations over and over again, going a mile a minute. It’s not as if the other shorts that were born from this partnership were devoid of jokes, but BACK STAGE is a different animal.

Unfortunately for Arbuckle, Keaton would spin off into his own directing/starring/writing/producing enterprise in 1920, although it doesn’t seem there was to be any bad blood. And it’s not as if Arbuckle didn’t have a career without Keaton. He was a top comedy star before Buster, and he was set to continue that career path, agreeing to make 18 feature films over three years for Paramount, earning $3 million (nearly $54 million today) in the process. His first feature, THE ROUND-UP (1920), was an unconventional western drama-comedy. He was entering the feature film space three years before Keaton would do the same, just as Arbuckle really broke into the comedy short world three years before Keaton.

It’s probably fruitless to compare the two men’s careers at that point, because Keaton was clearly going to make the films he was to make regardless. Buster would probably still be revered today for the same films and for the same reasons. But it’s striking to compare it to the subsequent life of Arbuckle, who was accused of raping actress Virginia Rappe and killing her in the process in 1921. Across three trials, Arbuckle was convicted and finally acquitted. But by April 12, 1922, it was too late. Will H. Hays (later to factor into the apocryphally named Hays Code) and the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) censor board banned Arbuckle from the American film industry. The ban was lifted in December, but Arbuckle could not find work as an actor due to the stink of the scandal.

Roscoe and his wife Minta Durfee finally divorced in 1924 (he remarried twice). Keaton was one of the few stars who publicly defended Arbuckle, and the latter allegedly wrote some scenes for Keaton’s short DAYDREAMS (1922) and directed some scenes in SHERLOCK, JR. (1924). Roscoe worked as a director under the pseudonym William Goodrich, making films like the admirable Marion Davies comedy THE RED MILL (1927), and returned to the screen for six Warner Bros. comedy shorts in 1932 and ‘33. Arbuckle’s next project was a feature film for the studio. He celebrated with his friends on the day he signed the contract, and died of a heart attack after allegedly saying “This is the best day of my life.” Arbuckle was 46-years-old, and 12 years removed from the scandal that nearly completely wrecked his career.

Virginia Rappe

But of course, Rappe’s life was ended somehow. The court of law eventually found Arbuckle guiltless, but as we know, the American justice system can sometimes get things wrong. But perhaps his initial conviction was the wrongdoing. With decades removed and the mythmaking that surrounds the scandal (surrounded as it was by other Hollywood scandals that drew governmental ire), the situation is murky.

Karina Longworth dives into the subject in incredible detail for her phenomenal podcast “You Must Remember This.” This episode, part of a larger, brilliantly conceived season dedicated to fact-checking Kenneth Anger’s HOLLYWOOD BABLYON (1959), is perhaps the most digestible yet thorough exploration of the subject.

Full film

As for Keaton: Buster benefited greatly from Arbuckle’s comedic and business direction, but as we know, his greatest years were still ahead of him. I’ll be covering them soon. In the meantime, enjoy the vaudevillian exploits of two of silent comedy’s greatest performers to close out my film essays on the 1910s.

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.