Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Country Hero (1917)

I'm excited to finish up the Buster Keaton Centennial Extravaganza in the same way that I started it back in March : with a big ol' research project!

Today I come to the last entry in my series of posts about Buster's start in cinema, with my thoughts on the release of A Country Hero! Here is a film that drops us on the doorstep of a major career and life transition for Keaton. And in true Keaton style, we are treated to a bit of a tease then get the rug pulled out from under us.

Motion Picture News v. 16, #23, 12/8/1917
We know the team had just left New York and headed West. But we don't get to see the first film they shot in California. We don't get to see this, the first film that Keaton's father appeared in (or that Keaton's soon to be wife appeared in). And we don't get to see Keaton's first film to feature a train! Instead what we get is Keaton's only lost film -- one with an intriguing and strange history that includes its denial by his early biographers.

In fact, why don't we just start there. One thing that makes A Country Hero odd is how much we seem to "know" about it, given that no one has seen it. Much has actually been written about this film, and much of what's been written has been based on inference and conjecture -- and much of that has been wrong!

I want to focus my thoughts on A Country Hero with the study of what we really know and why. Toward that end, I am going to uncharacteristically cite the heck out of things here. My personal Keaton library is unfortunately quite slim, but I've been able to supplement with books from the University Library near me and amazing internet archives that give me access to industry publications and old newspapers that have been invaluable.

So let's begin with Rudi Blesh's seminal if flawed 1966 biography of Keaton.  At the time of his writing, many Keaton/Arbuckle films were still considered lost, and it must have been a significant challenge to piece together facts about them while relying on memory and other tidbits available in the early 1960s. The Blesh biography does offer anecdotes on the filming -- including details on Joe Keaton's appearance in it. Blesh gives an involved discussion of how the elder Keaton plied his craft --- the skillful high kick -- which lands the other actors in a water trough and makes Alice Lake cry for real. The book includes a still photo from the film, seen below, showing Keaton, Fatty and Lake dunked in the trough. (Though his citation is unfortunately off by about two years).

Blesh erroneously classes this film as one of the last, if not the last, film Keaton made with Arbuckle before hanging out his own shingle and making releases for Buster Keaton Studios.

Because he was mistaken on the release date of A Country Hero, thinking it came much later, I guess its not surprising that Blesh didn't suspect the large photo adorning pages 106-107 of his book, which is labeled "Arbuckle's Comique company on location," to actually be an assemblage from the film A Country Hero.

Though Blesh doesn't cite it as such, I can tell that it is, not only by the background, but by Alice Lake's dress and other details. Tell me if you agree, but I even think that the woman in black who stands between Fatty Arbuckle and Alice Lake (wearing a pretty plaid dress with a sash) looks a good deal like Natalie Talmadge (who did appear in the film as well.)

Some of the early confusion with respect to A Country Hero can be traced to an odd occurrence with the date the film was copyrighted. It appears that that might not have happened until 1920. Blesh probably took the copyright date as some evidence of its release.

David Robinson's 1969 biography "Buster Keaton" repeats the error with respect to release date (suggesting 12/13/1920), and ponders whether A Country Hero was being confused and conflated with a different title (The Hayseed). Robinson speculates in this same manner with regard to other pairs of films (Oh Doctor and Goodnight Nurse as well as Out West and A Desert Hero). This is interesting, and not unlike something I might have been inclined to do myself given a diminished film catalog to work with. However, he is wrong on all counts about these films being confused. In particular, A Country Hero is its own film. And it was definitely the first made when the team got to California. And it was definitely released in December of 1917.  More about this in a moment.

By their 1977 book, "The Film Career of Buster Keaton," George Wead and George Lellis date the film correctly as the first made in California after the troop left New York and correctly state that it was made in Long Beach. The only hint of a reason for the earlier biographers' mistake about release date (of 1920) comes in their filmography where they note that A Country Hero was released on December 10 ['of 1917' is implied by the category heading] and was copyrighted on December 13 [year not given, though 1917 would also be implied by the heading of the entry].  So Wead and Lellis' error is in moving the copyright date forward to 'match' the timing of the release. But at least here we have an idea that the release date and copyright dates may have been different.

Tom Dardis in 1979's "Buster Keaton, the Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down" is more precise. He cites articles from Moving Picture World dated November 24, 1917, December 1, 1917 and December 8, 1917 and declares A Country Hero to have been released on Dec. 10 1917.  Best of all, he clearly states that the film was copyrighted on December 13, 1920. (Though as far as I can tell, he does not establish how he knows that.) Dardis goes on to tell us that the Comique crew began working out of the "Horkheimer brothers' new studios in Long Beach" located at 6th and Alamitos streets. p. 46

After painstakingly figuring this all out for myself, I got a hold of "Buster Keaton : A Bio - Bibliography" by Joanna E. Rapf and Gary L Green and in reviewing their notes, see that their account is pretty much exactly like mine. haha. (Books. They're our friend. Wish I had more of them.)

In fact, the one I really wish I had is by James Neibaur, entitled "Arbuckle and Keaton: Their 14 Film Collaborations." According to the Damnfinos, this book is the definitive guide to these films, and according to my research, it contains a chapter on A Country Hero.  Thus, I am dying to know whether there is any more helpful material in the Neibaur volume such as additional interviews or contemporary notices. Until I can get my hands on that volume, I can't help but feel that this post is a work in progress.

But, as today is the day, and I need to post something, I will press on with what I (think I) know.

Motion Picture News Sep 1920
I keep asking myself 'why this film?' why is it lost? why did the others get found and not this? It seems that this film has its own special track. It is interesting that it was copyrighted two years after its release, for instance. But I got a hint as to why from an ad that ran in the trade journals in the fall of 1920. Apparently Fatty's films were being collectively re-issued at that time. Maybe the re-release allowed the company to learn that this one had missed being copyrighted. Because this was the first one produced upon getting to California, it would stand to figure that this detail could have fallen through the cracks. Maybe there was someone who handled that for the troupe back in NY but that the move to California shook things up? But, of course, this is all speculation. The film clearly still existed in 1920. When and how its path diverted is a story for the ages that may never be resolved.

What we can do is chip away at the details of the plot, characters, and gags the film contained using a variety of sources.

Unfortunately, there is not much about the filming found in direct interview accounts. We have, of course, the story about Joe Keaton's high kick that works its way through Buster into the Rudi Blesh biography. We also know that two Ford Automobiles were destroyed by a train while shooting this  film and that the stunt cost $20,000. We get this account directly from Fatty through a piece he authored in "Motion Picture Magazine," entitled Cost of a Laugh from March of 1918. This is presumably where David Yallop sourced the account in his 1976 biography of Arbuckle "The Day the Laughter Stopped."

Besides these two accounts, I am not aware of other direct descriptions of the filming from those present. Photographs from the film provide an additional valid source of first hand information. These corroborate certain elements (e.g. the train, the trough, the town name) and actors, and can also help us assess which roles the actors played.

The richest sources of material probably come from the trade and fan magazines of the day, as well as local reviews. I have used these to flesh out my understanding, as others before me have done. I'd like to acknowledge an excellent blog post by Silentology which goes into great depth imagining the plot of this film!

My source for the trade and fan mags was the excellent Media History Digital Library.  I scoured any publication with references to "Country Hero". It turned up a number of things in "Motion Picture  News" (which I will call MPN), "Variety", "Motography,"  "Moving Picture Wold" (which I will call MPW).

I cataloged every major reference in any magazine I could find and many of these are cited below. The most extensive with respect to describing the plot and other events are these. All from Moving Picture World :
December 1, 1917 . Arbuckle in 'A Country Hero:
"Four cameramen and two grafted machines were on the scene when a fiver, used by the weighty hero in pursuing the villain and the heroine, blew up unexpectedly in the main street of Jazzville." (The imaginary rural village). The piece states that Jazzville's blacksmith shop is in that main street and seen in the picture as are the Jazz Hotel, post office and other landmarks.  The plot is described as telling "of the rivalry between Fatty and Cy Klone, the garage owner, over the affections of a pretty school-teacher." (Alice Lake is named)  When a stranger (a city chap) comes to town and tries to "steal" the teacher, the two rivals unite against him. He takes her "to the city", followed by Fatty and Cy who "rescue her from the unscrupulous villain."

December 8, 1917 "Roscoe's Breakaway Didn't Break"
While filming a scene for The Country Hero "at the Balboa Studio in Long Beach," Fatty had two chairs and an upright piano broken over him during a stage fight with 5 men. The "breakaway" furniture "failed to break properly and Arbuckle was nearly knocked out."  This piece describes Arbuckle as the director (and "instigator") of the film and its gags, and since no one suspected any harm, the camera kept grinding. Later, he went to the studio's hospital with a hens-egg sized contusion on his head.

And in that same issue, a fairly detailed review of film: Fatty is in the role of the blacksmith whose "sweetheart is weaned away from him by a city dude." The film is "extremely funny and remarkable as it may seem ... has actually discovered one or two new [tricks]." The review cites the example of Keaton's snake charmer bit as follows: "a scene at the annual village ball in which amateur talent is doing its best in a series of vaudeville studies, Fatima, wriggling through a series of snake-like movements, mysteriously opens a cigar box and quiveringly pulls forth a bit of feminine hosiery which is expected to impersonate a venomous serpent." The review says that the bulk of the picture is slapstick but not tiresome. Citing "a water trough at the door of the blacksmith shop" which serves as a source for a dip at various critical points in the comedy. In one of the closing scenes in a restaurant (where pie-smashing has been tabooed), Fatty smashes furniture using an upright piano as a giant club. The girl is thrown (by city dude?) across the room into the arms of (his?) accomplice. Our hero is victorious and rides home with the girl and a ??package of money?? "Which has also mysteriously disappeared.”

This is a lot to process, but from these, and other accounts, we can glean or confirm.
A Country Hero is Arbuckle's first film in California. MPN v 16, no 22 Dec 1, 1917.
• It is a two reeler. MPW, Nov 24, 1917
• The name of the town it is set in is Jazzville. MPW Dec 1, 1917
• Arbuckle scouted for a great location to create the fictional town of "Jazzville", by driving around, but had no luck, so instead constructed the set at his Long Beach studio. MPN v 16, no 20 Nov 17, 1917, also MPW Nov 24, 1917.
• Natalie Talmadge appears in the film (Variety, November 1917). However, the extent the source is trustworthy might be questioned by the fact that this same short blurb declares that Lou Anger is directing the film ? Whereas MPW states that Arbuckle was the director. Dec 8, 1917
• Joe Keaton appears in the film according to several sources, notably Variety, Dec 1917
• There are some gags where people end up in a water trough that is in front of the blacksmith shop. MPW Dec 8. Probably via Joe Keaton's foot. Blesh book.
• The film involves a train. MPN v 16, no 23 and 24 Dec 8 and Dec 24 1917
• Two Ford automobiles were destroyed by a train during the production. The Day the Laughter Stopped, David Yallop, p. 75; this is also described in a feature in Motion Picture Magazine, "Cost of a laugh", Mar 1918
• there is a scene with "a cafe raid, in which Fatty hurls a player piano at a guest" MPN v 16, no 24 Dec 15, 1917 - &/OR - in which Fatty has a player piano broken over him. MPW Dec 1 - &/OR - in which Fatty uses the piano as a club to bash things. MPW Dec 8.
• Fatty plays the blacksmith. MPW Dec 8, 1917; also photos show him in a blacksmith apron
• Alice Lake plays the school teacher. MPW Dec 1 1917
• Joe Keaton plays a "storekeeper". Variety, Dec 1917
• a character called Cy Klone is the garage owner. MPW Dec 1, 1917
• a character named Fatima does a snake charmer bit. MPW 12/8/17. The character is played by Keaton. (Various sources and general Keaton knowledge :) as well as photos that this was his bit.
• a character variously called the chap / city stranger / city dude comes to town and attempts to steal away the teacher

With all this information, I was hoping to glean a definitive sense of who played Cy Klone the local rival and who played the city dude (true bad guy). But it really isn't clear.

I turned to the Library of Congress' Chronicling America newspaper database to see what kinds of local film reviews this might turn up. I actually found several hundred results that mentioned the film and did not wade through them all, but skimmed for occurrences that appeared to be inside the margins of regular newspaper print and not part of an ad for the film. Most of these blurbs were very brief (and tended to suggest that the film was excellent, or his best ever). I found just two that gave additional details or plot summaries and were more than a line or two that appeared to be written by a local person. 

The "Bemidji Daily Pioneer," Saturday Dec 15, 1917 has a piece entitled "Elko Tonight" with the following: "Fatty Arbuckle in 'A Country Hero'. In the first place there is Fatty's encounter with a refractory automobile which exhibits all the obstinate tendencies of a balky mule as specified by the scenario. It runs up to 'Fatty's Garage", known as "The Spark Plug Garage." Finally, for some unexplained reason of its own, the machine starts with an explosion that could be heard from Long Beach to Los Angeles."

This piece confounds things in a few ways, suggesting that Fatty is the garage owner and tentatively calling the garage "Fatty's Garage" before allowing it to be "The Spark Plug". Though it confirms the explosion that is described in Moving Picture World, Dec 1.

The "Rock Island Argus" (Rock Island, IL), dated Dec 21, 1917, from a piece entitled "At Spencer Square" provided probably the best summary I have seen of the film anywhere. It states: "they are in a village of about five hundred inhabitants. There is the Jazzville hotel, the Jazzville dancing club and the Jazzville jazz band. There is the town pest, taken by Buster Keeton, he of the limber frame, while Fatty is the village blacksmith and Al St John is the town garage owner and dude all rolled in one. Miss Lake is the village belle and there is a fierce competition for her hand which is nearly broken up when the handsome city stranger puts in an appearance with his polished manners. He gets the girl away from the dance, throws her into an automobile and they race to the city, where chase is given by Fatty and Al. How the two clean out the guilded cafe and rescue the girl all forms part of one of the funniest films ever made."
Rock Island Argus 12/21/1917

This review is quite clear in naming Al St John as the garage owner. Of course it is possible to have mixed him up with Joe Keaton, though that doesn't seem very likely.

It is not clear who plays the romantic rival (Cy Klone). The conventional wisdom seems to be that Joe Keaton plays the local rival (see IMDB, Wikipedia).  However, the movie review from Rock Island Illinois states that Al St John played Cy Klone. Further, Joe Keaton's own account -- as filtered through his son and then Rudi Blesh -- is that Joe played the school teacher's father, not a would be suitor. (This later take would seem more believable given the elder Keaton's other turns as a dad to either Buster or a love interest in later films.

I am personally inclined to believe Joe Keaton would have played a small and random part in this, his first film. As a minor storekeeper, who could easily also be Alice Lake's father, he would have incentive to kick the others all into the trough.  And St John as the romantic local rival does make sense, given that this would be a typical role for him.

So who played the city dude?? Maybe St John doubled in that role? (There are photos from the film that have Al looking fairly dapper). Maybe Keaton doubled in that role? (Some of the film stills also have Keaton looking rather dapper).

One final little mystery I will leave you with involves the title of the flick. Modern sources are pretty consistent in calling this film A Country Hero. However, I turned up many many ads as well as industry material from the time referring to the film as The Country Hero. I'd like to believe that someone has checked the copyright and maybe that that would govern? But honestly, I don't know.

One thing does seem certain: this film sounds fantastic! It got strong reviews. While I was perusing all the hundreds of local paper ads and notices, they were almost all very positive. Of course it was their job to drum up business, but there were strikingly good things that kept coming out. Keaton's snake charmer bit seems to have been very well regarded and the other effects (the train crash, the explosion, the big fight) all seemed powerful and interesting. It seems clear that the California big sky was working its magic and Comique was now doing BIG things. They have come along way since March.

I'm optimistic enough to believe that someday this film might turn up. Maybe someone will find a cache of film in an attic and return this work to the adoring masses, while completing the Keaton collection!

Until then, I will chip away at these mysteries any chance I get and share with the blog whatever I learn.

It has been a fun -- if crazy -- year for me to have this self-imposed urgency to research, write, watch and think about Keaton. If nothing else, I've exposed big gaps in my understanding and blocked out research projects to keep me busy for years to come! Although, I won't continue to celebrate each release on its centenial, I will continue to update the blog with other material. So for now, I wish Keaton followers a Happy Centennial Year! and Happy Viewing!