REVIEW: The Butcher Boy (1917)
Although is Buster Keaton’s big screen debut, the real 'star' is 'Fatty' Arbuckle in his accustomed cross-dressing role
Fatty Arbuckle, who had met Buster Keaton on the street, asked him one day: "Have you ever been in [the] pictures?" "No", Keaton replied. "Come down and do a bit with me before rehearsals start", Arbuckle offered him. As 'fate' would have it, Keaton accepted the offer but instead of staying "a bit", he did it for the remaining of the production (about a week) of The Butcher Boy. "The first time I ever walked in front of a camera was the scene when I came in to buy a bucket full of molasses", he later recalled.1 And that, ladies and gentleman, was Keaton’s legendary entrance in the moving picture world. He was a novice but he certainly made his mark in the industry in the years to come. For the time being, he had to settle to a supporting role.
In The Butcher Boy, which takes place at a general store, we first meet Mr Grouch (Arthur Earle), the General Manager, alongside his daughter Amanda (Josephine Stevens).2 Slim (Al St. John) is the Sales Manager and a flirt who is trying to courtship Amanda (or so we are told). The butcher, played by Arbuckle, complements a love triangle and serves as our lead character. Amanda prefers Arbuckle, so she pushes a wedding date so she can get the man of her dreams as soon as possible. But although this butcher wants to get the girl, he doesn’t seem too fond (or respectful) of his future father-in-law—judging by a slap in the butt during work hours.
The first reel takes place within the boundaries of the store. We see customers come and go and we basically get three 'main attractions'.3 First, Arbuckle’s skills with the knife. Second, the display of objects to carry everyday tasks. And third, Buster Keaton’s molasses gag. Arbuckle’s skills can be reduced to a simple flip of the knife so it lands on its pointy edge (nothing fancy). His gag about the meat’s weight, where he absentmindedly leans on the scale, is not particularly amusing. The objects function just as a mechanical display. The true slapstick festival arrives when Keaton comes into the scene and eventually turns the store into a war zone with several bags of flour exploding in people’s faces.
For the second reel, following the destruction’s aftermath, Amanda is sent to a boarding school for girls to stay away from trouble—which in turn separates her from Arbuckle. But he’s resourceful and decides to cross-dress to get admitted in the institution and be reunited with his lover. Slim, on his part, does the same, but the movie explicitly tells us that he’s planning to kidnap Amanda. Once again, we basically get three 'main attractions'. First, a dinner scene. Second, a fight between Slim and Arbuckle. And third, the kidnapping attempt with the help of two side-kicks—one of them being Keaton.
Keaton is the highlight in both reels. When it comes to the 'comedic effect', he comes triumphant. He concentrates on pratfalls, but some of them are so talented that they include his head spinning before regaining physical composure. If you compare it to the flip of the knife of Arbuckle, it’s easy to pick a winner. For the rest, there is nothing much to underscore (maybe just how the characters break the 'fourth wall' at the end). The Butcher Boy is a simple story of how you separate two lovers and then get them back together. Thrown in the middle are some simple gags and slapstick comedy that shine because of Keaton’s physical expertise, although I want to highlight that the dog sequence inside the boarding school was delightful.
Thanks for reading 9takes! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
"Buster Keaton’s Memories", which is one of the texts in the official booklet that’s included in the Masters of Cinema set, p.52. The quotes come from an interview that took place in November 1958. It is part of the collection of the Columbia University Oral History Research Office.
In the IMDB page her character’s name is listed as Almondine. The intertitle on the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray disc (as well as some YouTube versions floating around) says Amanda. Link
For a lack of a better term at the time of writing, I use it as a way to describe the main gags or visual displays that are highlighted throughout the reel. While there are small bits here and there, these represent, in my view, the main attractions.