Roving thoughts and provocations

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Manhattan’s Forgotten Film Studio

mptv images
Buster Keaton (left), Fatty Arbuckle (center), and Al St. John, circa 1917

Here, briefly, is the story. In March, 1917, while walking on Broadway, Buster Keaton bumped into a friend from vaudeville who happened to know Fatty Arbuckle, the famous silent movie comedian and Chaplin’s rival. Asked if he had ever acted in motion pictures, Keaton said no, and was invited to drop by Arbuckle’s studio on 48th Street the following Monday. Keaton first declined, because Arbuckle had stolen one of his vaudeville routines in the past, but then changed his mind because his curiosity was piqued by the opportunity to see how movies are made and especially how the gags are filmed.

The Comique Film Studio was located in a warehouse at 318-320 East 48th Street, in the tough neighborhood west of the elevated subway tracks on First Avenue. On the first floor, the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation was in full swing filming Poppy. Near the precariously built sets, a violinist was attempting to put Norma in the proper mood for a love scene with her leading man. On the second floor, Norma’s sister Constance, who first gained attention in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, was making a new comedy. On the third floor Fatty Arbuckle, who was the first of the silent movie comics to also direct, was at work on a film called The Butcher Boy. There was no script. The director, the actors, and the crew talked over what they were going to do in the next scene and then did it. Keaton with his elegant, laid-back air improvised a routine with a broom and was instantly hired.

Keaton had grown up in show business. His father, Joe, worked in a traveling show with Harry Houdini called the “Mohawk Indian Medicine Company,” which in addition to entertaining rubes, sold patent medicine on the side. Keaton became a part of his parents’ comedy act when he was three. His mom played the saxophone while he goaded his father, who would respond by grabbing the boy by the suitcase handle they had sewn to the back of his jacket and throwing him against the scenery, into the orchestra pit, and at times even at the hecklers in the audience. So one might say he had a professional interest in seeing how Arbuckle dealt with the various acrobatic feats that were the staple of silent comedy.

On April 23, 1917, The Butcher Boy opened in two hundred theaters across the country, including the Strand in Times Square, and soon became a big box office success. Following that, Arbuckle and Keaton made, I believe, two other films in the same building—A Reckless Romeo and Rough House, the first of which no longer survives as far as I know. The company then moved to the Biograph Studio on East 175th Street where Coney Island, His Wedding Night, and a couple of others films were made before it relocated to Long Beach, California in October 1917. Roughly twenty to twenty-five minutes long, these shorts, which can be seen on YouTube, are still very funny. Along with Arbuckle and Keaton, they feature Al St. John, Arbuckle’s second banana (and nephew), a gangly, loose-limbed acrobat dressed like a scarecrow who played country bumpkins and various kinds of villains. Beyond the slapstick and roughhouse typical of the times, the number of thoroughly original and brilliant comic ideas found in these shorts is staggering. (See, for instance, the marvelous clip on YouTube of the boys eating spaghetti in the 1918 film The Cook.) Keaton once said that making funny pictures is like assembling a watch; you have to be sober or it won’t tick. He also said afterward that everything he knew about film comedy he learned from Fatty Arbuckle, who by the time they met had already been in some twenty films.

Jim in Times Square
Part of Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle’s 48th Street movie studio, now a parking garage

I know a bit about the subject because years ago, I read everything I could find on Buster Keaton, and collected his movies and those of other silent movie comedians. Still, if my son had not lived for a time on First Avenue and 48th Street and I had not started parking my car at the 20th Century PARKING GARAGE, which turned out to have been part of the old Comique Film studio, I would not have made the connection. Just recently I took a look at a documentary on Keaton made years ago, which to my shock placed Arbuckle’s studio in California, though it did not move there till the fall of 1917. Regardless, I was astonished that the building that held the studio run by Joseph Schenk was still there. It would be interesting to find out its history and that of the neighborhood over the decades. I love the idea that the garage was just three blocks from the United Nations and that over the years many world leaders and high diplomatic officials must have ridden past it in their bullet-proof limousines, throwing a casual glance at the entrance through which, almost a century earlier, Fatty, Keaton, and St. John went, if they were not already in the studio whacking each other over the heads with pillows, making feathers fly out of windows.

A few days ago, I took a stroll during the lunch hour past nail salons, stores selling cell phones, and pizza joints to take another look at the building, thinking the only familiar establishments in the neighborhood that the members of the Comique Film Corporation would still recognize are the Irish pub and the funeral parlor. The garage was still there, but to my surprise and horror I discovered that the wing of the old warehouse that contained the studio had recently been torn down and the government of Singapore was raising some kind of building in its place.

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