Saturday, September 30, 2017

Oh Doctor! (1917)

Oh Doctor! is the next entry in the Keaton Centennial Blog Extravaganza. Ha, I just made that up now. I probably should have come up with a catchy title for what I'm doing a while ago. I guess I didn't properly plan it out. ... But unlike me, Oh Doctor! does have the feel of something that has been planned out.  I mean, shockingly well-planned ... for a Fatty Arbuckle film that is.

This film is remarkable in that . . . wait for it: it has an actual plot. A pretty decent one too. Another thing it has is intrigue and even a bit of complexity.

Unfortunately what it lacks is a good role for Buster Keaton.

Though in many ways it is clear that Keaton's influence has continued to grow at Comique and he is now a fully-integrated player taking on more and more. For instance, Keaton receives first billing after Arbuckle, and, for the first time ever, even enters the film in its first scene. Keaton's influence can be felt in a couple other ways that I'll get to.

I have no way of knowing whether we have Keaton or someone else to thank for the more developed story here, but there is no doubt that this film feels different from Comique films that have preceded it.

Maybe a change in location got the creative juices flowing in a different direction. After all, this was the first film the team made after departing the Colony Studio building on 48th Street in Manhattan, for new digs out in the Bronx.

The three prior films, which were made in Manhattan, followed a formula that went pretty much like this: Fatty is introduced as a proprietor of some type of business and given an opportunity to showcase some dexterous comedy skills; Fatty's love interest is then spotlighted; a love triangle is set up - with Al St John in the role as rival; a character played by Buster Keaton and ancillary to the action is given an opportunity to be a breath of fresh air; then chaos ensues, and finally Fatty ends up with the girl. It was a good enough formula and seemed to be working for the team.

But this movie doesn't follow it.

In Oh Doctor! Arbuckle is introduced to the viewer as both a family man and a doctor.  He seems to be reasonably wealthy and lives in a well-appointed house.  The action begins as he and his family go to the races, where a world of intrigue and ensnarement await them. As if that weren't different enough, the regular roles of the supporting players have morphed too. Instead of a rival in love, Al St John plays more of a rival in economics and the big kicker is that Buster plays Fatty Arbuckle's son.

I have to admit that this relationship did not work for me. It took quite a while for me to realize that Keaton was playing a young child (how young he's supposed to be I have no idea). Truth is, I found this role a bit irritating and it wasn't until I watched a second time -- and just kind of relaxed and went with it -- that I was able to get a bit more joy out of the performance. The first time around I found the broad gesticulation, the mouth open crying and other highly expressive actions distracting. Once I understood that Keaton was meant to be a CHILD, these choices were not only easier to forgive, but actually to find impressive. (Like his performance as a monkey in a film many years hence, we do get a feel for Keaton's great skills in mimicry).

Anyway. . . why don't I first just give this a bit of a recap. I am not ashamed to admit that I really did have to watch twice to understand what was going on. I'll see if I can spare anyone the trouble:

So, as I say, Fatty is a reasonably rich doctor in town. He, his wife and son go to the horse races one day. Fatty sees a very attractive vamp-type woman (Alice Mann) and intentionally makes his child cry so that his wife will attend to the boy and Fatty can sit near the vamp. The femme fatale and her boyfriend-gambler (Al St John), are in cahoots -- with Fatty as their mark. A bookie friend gives Al a tip on a horse called Lightening. Fatty listens in, thinks he can't lose, and bets all his money -- $1,000 -- on this horse.

[And here's where I really need to just pause and say: "$1,000!" Holy crud. That's a serious load of cash. Lets not forget this was a century ago. Yeah, I'd say Fatty is playing a different class of fellow here.]

The horse, of course, not only loses, but is so very inept he runs the wrong way -- a source of great joy for child-Keaton. The family goes home, completely broke, and the scene cuts to St John and the  vamp back at their apartment. Actually I'm not sure whether they were playing Fatty before, as they may have lost money on the horse too... I can't quite tell, but in any case, they're going to play him now. She calls him up with a fake ailment. En route to see her, Fatty tries to drum up some business for himself, as he is now desperate,  by allowing his car to roll into a crowd gathered to hear a health-tonic huckster. I guess that's one way to do it! He continues on to the home of the vamp and knocks -- on the door, then, when it opens, on the chest of the maid (played by Alice Lake).

[And I guess this is a good place to digress and talk about the bawdy nature of this pre-code film.  In addition to the maid's chest-knocking, there's also a bit at the races where Fatty grabs the legs of both the women next to him in a rhythmic way. It'a an Arbuckle film]

So no one can be surprised that at the apartment, Fatty makes the moves on the vamp - including entertainingly mixing drinks out of his medical bag - while St John steals away over to the Doctor's home... to steal the fancy necklace Fatty's wife was wearing. As Al flees with the necklace, Boy-Buster comes in, becomes suspicious and follows him.

Back at the Vamp's, she gets a call to have Fatty? put money down on a horse with 500 to 1 odds, because  they've made a deal with the jockey. (I'm still a little confused on this.) But it's clear that there is now a team of con artists in on the sting and the team actually stages, for Fatty's benefit, a fake book-making operation. In fact, I exclaimed in delight when I realized that the scene here is just like one in the great film from the 1970s The Sting! If I remember to do it, it would be fun to look into any influence early films like this may have had on that period masterpiece.

But again, I digress. The point is that the fake bookmakers take Fatty's money, when this horse is bound to lose.

Cutting back to Buster, everything now comes to a head. The boy has tracked Al back home where his mother's stolen necklace is being presented to the vamp. Buster calls his mom and all hell breaks loose. (So.. I guess it's a bit like the old formula after all).  Everyone is at cross purposes - the wife to get her necklace back, Al to hide from Fatty, Fatty to hide from his wife (since he's romancing the vamp). The women tussle, knocking out Al in the process; Fatty, while hiding in the kitchen, grabs the police jacket of the maid's rotund boyfriend, and chases after Al (not quite sure why), wife makes a grab for her necklace but ends up locked in a closet!

Then everything resolves. (I said it had a plot. Not that it had a perfectly coherent plot!) For some reason, "Romeo," the 500 to 1 odds horse, wins! Fatty's rich. Except, the whole thing was faked. But Fatty doesn't know this, so he shows up to get his winnings (still in the cop suit) and the guys, thinking its a bust, all scram. Fatty enters, sees no one to pay him out but tons of money lying everywhere, and helps himself.

Even with so much money -- enough to toss some on the ground because it smells bad -- he still has a mixed bag of an ending, walking off and getting kicked by his still-angry wife.

There are many charming parts of this film, some of which are quite unexpected. Others that feel more typical. One in the unexpected camp is a cool title card.  I don't usually watch silent comedies to enjoy the words, but there's a wonderfully clever one at the beginning of this: 
Unquestionably the horse is superior to man. One hundred thousand men will go see a horse race but I bet not a single horse would go see one hundred thousand men run.
Whoever selected or wrote that one is a genius.  

The typical, would be the confusing chaos that we come to expect somewhere in an Arbuckle endeavor. It had to have suited audiences at the time and no doubt Fatty knew his market!

I mentioned early on that other parts of this film seem to show Keaton's influence. I'm always ready to attribute good ideas to my man, but I think it's only fair to attribute bad as well. Here, the choice to have Keaton play a child strikes me as probably Keaton's. It seems like his brainchild in that it bears such similarity to the type of knockabout act the Three Keatons were known to have done on Vaudeville. Here Buster calls Fatty "Pop" and Fatty manhandles the boy just like Joe Keaton must have done on stage. The thing is... the style of acting that probably worked great on stage doesn't work here. Its overdone. There I said it.

Further, while Keaton does evince great talent in terms of mimicking the spirit of a child, I have to say that his role is uneven and confusing. It's hard to know how old he's supposed to be 7? 10? 14? -- there is so much variability, from the crying jags, to the fairly grown up tracking of a bad guy and composed phone call. I expect Keaton to be attentive to details, precisely because he is always so attentive to details, that his performance in this film strikes me as really 'off' and is not going to go down as a favored Keaton performance for me. 

Although Buster, as child, plays a role that is mercifully fairly limited, I do think I see his presence in a number of falls and stunts for other players in the film. Particularly,  is that him in the background taking a fall underneath the runaway car? and I wonder if a moment later, in the scene where Fatty hops into said car, this is actually Keaton in a fat suit. Not that Arbuckle isn't physically talented and capable of the jump, but the camera is avoiding his face and the jump looks like Keaton. Also.. there's a bit near the end where the mom takes a fall that I am sure looks like Buster doing the stunt. My hunch is Keaton is taking a bigger and bigger role in planning the stunts, offering direction for the action and maybe even helping with story direction and plot??

I know what's coming next... and I know it a film that seems to build on some of these same elements, and one that bears even more of the distinctive Keaton stamp. In fact, it's my favorite of the Arbuckle collaborations. It's Coney Island. Can't wait to re-view it at the century mark and see how it feels in progression.  Coney Island is the last of the New York productions for these guys. The troupe is about to move to California.

In fact, I came across a number of notices in the trade journals from this time that suggest the team was leaving for California right now. I mean, right as this film (Oh Doctor!) was released. Obviously they must be in post-production for Coney Island already.

One last thing to note, from having perused the magazines, is that contemporary reviews did not seem too stellar for Oh Doctor! Oddly, it is the departure from formula that got cited as not feeling like an Arbuckle comedy. We'll see how, and to what extent, Coney Island keeps some of these newer elements and perhaps returns in other ways to the old Arbuckle style.  Looking forward to it already!

Until then, happy viewing ~