Keaton in Context: Silent Comedies by and with Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle, and Bert Williams
Dana Stevens—Slate’s film critic since 2006 and a cohost of the magazine’s weekly cultural podcast, Slate Culture Gabfest—is the author of Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century.
In 1917 Buster Keaton joined Roscoe Arbuckle in his studio. From day one, recalled Arbuckle, Keaton “lived in the camera.” Back Stage includes routines Keaton continued to develop in his later films, including a falling wall, a dream sequence, and appearing in drag. One of Arbuckle’s gender-bending moments on screen can be seen in Good Night, Nurse!, in a scene Dana Stevens characterizes as “perhaps the best example on film of Roscoe and Buster’s riffing off each other in real time.” In the 1910s, as Stevens describes, positions such as cinematographer, director, and actor were fluid, and Keaton and Arbuckle—as well as Mabel Normand, who is wonderfully paired with Arbuckle in Fatty and Mabel Adrift, and Bert Williams—could be found on both sides of the camera. But as Normand learned while making Mabel at the Wheel, they could also be replaced. The Bahamian-born Williams, primarily known as stage performer and singer, directed three Black productions: A Natural Born Gambler closes with a beautiful poker routine he perfected on stage.
Films in this Screening
Mabel at the Wheel
Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, United States, 1914
Fatty and Mabel Adrift
Roscoe Arbuckle, United States, 1916
A Natural Born Gambler
Bert Williams, United States, 1916
Good Night, Nurse!
Roscoe Arbuckle, United States, 1918
Roscoe Arbuckle, United States, 1919