April 1, 2003
For silent film aficionados, the vanished Buster Keaton/Fatty Arbuckle comedy The Cook has long been one of cinema’s lost treasures. Now, thanks to the work of two European film archives and the people at Milestone Film and Video, this classic bit of slapstick comedy has been spectacularly brought back to life on DVD.
In 1918 when The Cook was made, both Keaton and Arbuckle were in the process of becoming huge stars, though each would find their fame severely diminished in just a few short years. Keaton would reach his greatest successes in the 1920’s, but later a combination of heavy drinking, a loss of control over his work to the studios and the transition to sound would lead to his decline. Arbuckle’s star, on the other hand, would at first rise to the point where he was second only to Chaplin in popularity among silent comedians. By 1920 he was making a million dollars a year to work at Adolph Zukor’s Paramount Pictures--but soon he was to become embroiled in one of Hollywood’s biggest scandals ever.
On September 5, 1921 there was a party thrown in Fatty Arbuckle’s suite at the Hotel St. Francis in San Francisco. Also attending was Virginia Rappe, a Chicago model with a shaky reputation whom Arbuckle had been eyeing for some time. In a haze of bootleg booze and jazz age abandon, the young woman stumbled into the bathroom of the suite and Arbuckle followed and shut the door. What exactly happened next has since been buried in blurred recollection and tabloid hype, but regardless the revelers at the party would shortly be shocked by harsh screams emanating from the room, and after Arbuckle emerged they found a semi-clothed Rappe there in great pain and she was eventually brought to the hospital. Shortly thereafter she slipped into a coma and subsequently died four days later. Arbuckle was arrested and tried for her rape and murder, and though he would eventually be acquitted after two mistrials, his contract was cancelled and his career was effectively over.
But prior to their ignominious falls, in 1918 these two comedians were at the very top of their form. They made a number of short films together in the teens, and The Cook was always regarded as one of their very best two-reelers. Unfortunately the film was thought to have disappeared completely, as some 75-80% of all silent films have due to neglect and deterioration. However, in 1998 at the Norsk Filminstitutt in Norway a partial copy was found in a collection of nitrate prints, and then in 2002 some more fragments were found in Amsterdam at the Nederlands Filmmuseum. What Milestone has done is to take these tattered remnants, clean them up as much as possible, and stitch them back together in a form approximating that of the original. For guidance they utilized an original press kit that was in the Library of Congress, and the reconstruction’s new intertitles are based on this material.
The Cook clocks in at about twenty-two minutes, and while there are some pieces missing it’s just wonderful to have this film available in any form. Fatty and Buster respectively play a cook and a waiter, and much of the film’s action centers on their antics at the restaurant where they work. Keaton displays his trademark deadpan grace, from the usual slapstick pratfalling to a hilarious imitation of a dancing girl’s exotic choreography. Arbuckle, for his part, shows the uncanny deftness and dexterity that marked his comic talent, an ability that seems almost unnatural for a man of his girth. Here he flings flapjacks, tosses knives, throws coffee cups, dances with salami and keeps up a barrage of surreal sight gags that emerge from his seemingly bottomless stew pot. The plot of The Cook also contains some of the regular members of the Arbuckle troop (Al St. John, Alice Lake and Luke the Dog) participating in madcap actions that culminate in a climax set at Long Beach’s Pike Amusement Park. While the film surely looks its age due to the odd frame and the sort of scratching that you’d expect a film lost for eighty years to have, the reconstruction is done so carefully that the material is rendered perfectly watchable. The movie has been lovingly restored to a quality that’s about as good as one can imagine, some scenes are tinted beautifully, and the new piano score that accompanies the visuals is fitting and sounds just fine.
While most of us who have been waiting to catch this film would have been satisfied simply with a DVD that contained only The Cook, Milestone has also gone out of their way to include two other shorts that make the package exceptional. One is another Arbuckle vehicle that was thought to be gone, the 1917 outing The Reckless Romeo. This two-reeler, which stars Fatty as a husband with a roving eye who is caught in the act when a newsreel cameraman films his amusement park philandering, was also rediscovered recently at the Norsk Filminstitutt. The other feature that is included on this disk is one that has been extant since the era of the silent film (and as such it’s the print that is in the best condition), Harold Lloyd’s 1920 short Number, Please? This hilarious Hal Roach directed piece gives us a great look at the neglected talent of Lloyd, who is less well-known than his contemporaries Chaplin and Keaton due mainly to decades of restrictions from the Lloyd estate which have reduced the availability of his material. This comedic piece also has the advantage of having been shot on location at Ocean Park, so in addition to their comedic value all three shorts on the disk also offer the opportunity to see the historic settings of some famous 1920’s entertainment attractions.
Though the three films would in their own right warrant the purchase price of this disk, there are a couple of additional supplements included that enhance the package’s worth even further. Milestone has given us the raw footage that they worked on from its Norwegian and Dutch sources, and they’ve also given the fan the ability to test one’s own skills as a film archivist. By utilizing the provided original press kit and some editing software that the purchase of the disc allows access to, the dedicated viewer can attempt to create their own restored version of The Cook. This is a novel feature that I have yet to really try out myself, but the concept is intriguing enough to warrant mention here.
Overall, then, this new release from Milestone is not only enjoyable in its own right for the high quality of the three films included, but is also important historically as it restores two classic films that might otherwise have disappeared into the wastebin of time. The tender care given to these previously lost films by the company helps demonstrate just how precious they really are, and film fans all over should be thankful that some commercial outfits continue to use new technologies to restore and enhance our appreciation for the past. For while there may be some disadvantages to living in a world where the onscreen projection of repertory film has more or less vanished from everywhere but college towns and major metropolitan areas, at least the advent of home video technology has paved the way for an environment where treasures like these can have the dust blown off them and be seen all over again. Perhaps somewhere out there Fatty Arbuckle smiles just to know that his star still burns, however dimly.