The comedy trio of Arbuckle, Keaton and St. John take on the western genre and the macho films of William S. Hart in particular. Chaos ensues as Arbuckle and Keaton team up to take down St. John’s obnoxious and lecherous bandit. A raucous adventure comedy with some rather dark bits (Keaton gleefully hides corpses in the floorboards), the short boasts some of the best chemistry in the business.
Before you go west, try out west.
Westerns remained one of the most popular genres in American film for the first half of the twentieth century. Their popularity has ebbed and flowed but they were churned out by the dozen every month throughout the silent era. With such a hot genre, it was inevitable that comedians would have some fun at its expense.
In 1918, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was producing, directing and starring in a series of comedy short films under producer Joseph Schenck’s Comique Film Corporation banner. These pictures often featured or co-starred Arbuckle’s friend, Buster Keaton, who was still a relative newcomer to the movies, as well as Arbuckle’s nephew, Al St. John.
The Comique films show a polish and sparkle that set them a notch or two above much of the competition. Arbuckle retained some of the rough slapstick of his Keystone origins but he mixed in quirky gags and an occasional dose of what Stan Laurel would call white magic. That is, short scenes that defy physics and reality in an otherwise (somewhat) realistic comedy.
The biggest appeal of the Comique films, though, was the easy comradery between the cast members. While some comedy teams succeeded due to interpersonal rivalry, Arbuckle’s crew give the impression of very funny performers having a wonderful time.
Out West has a simple plot, the better to hang gags on. Keaton is the proprietor of a successful saloon. His way of dealing with cardsharps? Well, that’s what guns and loose floorboards are for. Arbuckle is the wandering hero, a bartender who is riding the rails. He’s a tough customer and he has mastered William S. Hart’s one-handed cigarette roll to prove it. Well, with a few alterations.
The original from The Bargain (1914):
Arbuckle gets a job in Keaton’s saloon, which is soon attacked by Al St. John’s bandit character. St. John is impervious to bottle broken over his head, bullets in the back, everything except tickling. Chaos ensues.
I have heard it remarked that Out West is bloody by Comique standards. This being primarily a sendup of William S. Hart’s dark and violent westerns, it is inevitable that the humor would take a dark and violent turn as well. It was probably not aimed at the kiddies. Then again, I’m not sure that Hart’s westerns were aimed at kids either and you really will get more of the gags if you have a few of his films under your belt.
Arbuckle, Keaton and St. John were all energetic young men and they were the exact target demographic for the western genre. Keaton particularly seems to be enjoying himself. While Arbuckle gets to do the one-handed cigarette roll, Keaton gets the higher body count. Is it any wonder that he returned to the Hart well for The Frozen North?
Those gags do come fast and furious. So do the stunts. The one fly in the zany ointment is the unfortunate racial humor at the lone black cast member’s expense. Unfunny and unnecessary. (Yes, I realize it was another time, context, blah blah blah. Still doesn’t make it funny or necessary.)
The final battle between St. John’s bandits and the combined forces of Arbuckle and Keaton is a mad romp with plenty of shootouts and zany humor. Its scale is impressive considering that this is just a two-reel short.
After the scandal that derailed his acting career, Arbuckle had to rely on directing to stay in the motion picture game. What often fails to be mentioned is just how good a director Arbuckle was in his prime. In fact, his skills as a director were more than a match for his talents as a performer.
Remove the silliness from the final battle and what you have is a very well-directed action scene. The pace is exciting, the screen is full of activity but it is still easy to follow the events as they unfold. In short, our director knew his stuff.
Oh, one quick side note. There seems to be a notion floating around that Arbuckle never made fat jokes. Of course, anyone seeing Arbuckle’s work will soon realize that this is not true. There are several weight jokes in Out West, most of which involve Arbuckle bending over or emerging bottom first, and this short was not unique. There are not a lot of these gags but they are there.
This claim of “no fat jokes” seems to be based at least somewhat on a 1917 interview with Arbuckle published in The Literary Digest. Arbuckle states that he does not get stuck in doors or windows or otherwise depend on hackneyed weight-based humor. He also declares, “If I didn’t do anything but weigh 320 pounds and wear queer clothes I might get six laughs. In a half-hour picture-play, I’ve got to get sixty or go out of business.”
It’s pretty obvious that Mr. Arbuckle objected to lazy fat jokes because they were unimaginative and simply could not carry a popular comedy short. This is very different from avoiding weight-based humor entirely. Whether jokes about weight are acceptable to individual viewers is one thing but pretending that they never, ever happened is a bit silly.
(For a thought-provoking take on Arbuckle’s weight, how it was viewed by contemporary audiences, how it related to his comedy and how it damaged his career, I highly recommend the essay Normalizing Stars: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Hollywood Consolation by Sam Stoloff found in the collection American Silent Film: Discovering Marginalized Voices.)
Another interesting background detail for Out West is that credit for the scenario is given to Natalie Talmadge, who would enter into a rocky marriage with Buster Keaton in 1921. (How rocky? People are still duking it out. Like, now. This minute. “It’s her fault! It’s his fault!” Seriously, stop.) As Natalie was Joseph Schenck’s sister-in-law (he was married to Norma, the beauty and tragedienne of the family) and since she never had another script attributed to her, I think it likely that the credit was a favor to the boss.
There are conflicting reports as to whether Keaton and Talmadge were dating at this point. I could have investigated further but, to be honest, I just don’t care. (This isn’t an invitation for you to share your Natalie/Buster timeline. Seriously. No sarcasm. I do not care one tiny bit.)
It’s not like it would make much of a difference in the making-of tale of this short. Talmadge dating Keaton would have been an additional reason to give her writing credit but there was already plenty of incentive. Whether she got the credit because she was the producer’s sister-in-law or because she was dating one of the supporting comedians AND was the producer’s sister-in-law, the point is that she had connections.
Out West is a detour into the rugged west for Arbuckle and his Comique co-workers but it pays off in real laughs and durable jokes. In fact, watch some of the films from the western comedy boom of the sixties and you will see some of the Arbuckle-Keaton-St. John gags show up again and again. This is a prime slice of slapstick with some skillful genre spoofing in the bargain.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
The best version of Out West is found in the Kino Lorber set Buster Keaton: The Shorts Collection. The short is also available on DVD from Flicker Alley in volume one of The Best Arbuckle/Keaton Collection. It is also found on the first volume of the out-of-print Arbuckle & Keaton: The Comique/Paramount Shorts (missing a snippet of footage), which is also available via streaming