When Buster Keaton was first discovering the magic of the movie business, it was under the guidance and instruction of the great Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and his comedy partner, Al St. John. Nowadays, in an act of historical revisionism, Keaton fans credit these films as the “Arbuckle-Keaton” shorts, despite Keaton being a supporting player of the established duo. I often wonder, during those last few years of the 1910s, when the trailblazing Arbuckle clan were having the time of their lives on the lot, if anyone had any idea of what Keaton could, or would, achieve. I also wonder if any of them, particularly Arbuckle, sensed that those halcyon days were not to last. Not for much longer at all.
Good Night, Nurse! is, in many ways, quintessential Arbuckle. In it, he is a heavy-footed drunk, unhappily married, and forcibly incarcerated into a mental institution. It is rather dark subject matter for a mindless slapstick, but at closer inspection, so many films of its kind portray similarly bleak situations, dealing with life’s extremes by presenting them in a cinematic context and laughing at them. While some claim that Arbuckle’s brand of comedy hasn’t aged well, it is under-discussed how important his work was to the future of comedy. Arbuckle and his colleagues were pioneers. These films are always worth a closer look.
The two-reeler opens with a classic silent comedy bucketing-down-with-rain sequence, where Arbuckle battles against a seemingly impossible wind. Drenched, he attempts to light a cigarette. He then attempts to post a fellow drunk by hoisting him up onto the postbox. It’s broad, but not mindless.
Arbuckle’s long-suffering wife trope is never too far away. It does strike me, though, how the women in Arbuckle’s pictures tend to have their own power, proving a fair match for the wits and antics of their bumbling, scheming husbands. Some of that impression may be thanks to the fact that the dashing Mabel Normand often fulfils this role opposite Arbuckle, and she is never without her power on or off screen. In Good Night, Nurse!, Arbuckle’s wife reads about a possible alcoholism cure at the “No Hope Sanitarium” – “Doctor Hampton’s simple operation cures you of drinking for good”! At a time when American society was attempting to cure alcoholism by outlawing it, this mysterious Doctor was attempting to cure it through medical science. I have a hunch it won’t be quite so “simple”.
Inside the sanitarium, Arbuckle and his wife meet Keaton’s deranged Doctor Hampton as he walks in sharpening a hilariously big knife, the front of his scrubs and apron covered in bloodstains. His sensitive face and petite demeanour perfectly contrasts withe the gore of this character. It’s the closest Keaton got to bloody body horror. With rubber gloves and an evil glint in his eye, he’s a 1910s Dr Heiter.
After a half-hearted attempt at escape, Hampton and his assistant, Al St. John, examine Arbuckle. When he accidentally ingests the mercury-filled thermometer, they all fall over each other trying to move him onto a bed on wheels. The situation itself isn’t what’s funny, but the silliness that it facilitates is such a riot – the pile-up of fumbling doctors is a prime example of an early slapstick scene. The fun is tangible and contagious, even as it reaches across a century. He is apprehended and put under anaesthetic.
A haunting POV shot fades into a blur as Arbuckle is put under against his will…
what will these anonymous figures do!?
Arbuckle fades into consciousness, peeks under his bedsheet to check that his genitals are still intact, and smiles in relief that no damage was done while he was at the mercy of the unpredictable doctors.
Another patient has taken a liking to Arbuckle. She is depicted as an erratic woman – her piercing spaced-out eyes are definitely unsettling (it’s not anywhere near a sensitive depiction of the mentally ill, but that would be a miracle in this context). As soon has he wakes up, she invites Arbuckle to conspire an escape, professing her sanity: “I’m not crazy – get me out of here!” When their escape attempt is initially thwarted, a pillow fight quickly ensues, and the two dart outside, undetected (I wish the camera had lingered just a while longer on that pillow fight – or, more to the point, I kind of wish I was on set, right in the middle of it). The pair don’t prove to be a savvy team – the girl immediately pines for the safety of her padded cell, and Arbuckle dives into a nearby pond to fake his own suicide.
Arbuckle then adopts the perfect disguise. Cross-dressing was a silent slapstick staple, and it’s not out of the ordinary to see a male comedian donning female garb for comedic purpose. However, I think this may be the only time Arbuckle dressed as a nurse – and it oddly suits him. He could have definitely fit in at any medical institution of the day, an unassuming matronly nurse plodding through her daily rounds.
Keaton, now out of his lab coat and medical attire, spots the newly feminine Fatty, and they begin shyly flirting. It is a bizarrely funny scene that you just know the two had a great load of fun workshopping and filming. His disguise is compromised, and in an unexpected act of athleticism, Arbuckle sprints away in only his underwear, chased by Keaton, St. John, and the other doctors. Yet another trope of slapstick comedy ensues (to be mirrored the following year by Harold Lloyd in The Marathon): an undressed man being pursued in a chase accidentally finishes first in a marathon he did not intend to be a part of. Fatty is awarded first prize.
As he is wrestled to the ground by his pursuers at the finishing line, another shot fades in – Fatty is on the slab once again, surrounded by doctors in their bloody coats and masks, restraining him. He wakes up and realises that everything after his involuntary anaesthesia has been a dream. Yes, that’s right (I won’t even get into discussing that trope). He sits up, scratches his head and smiles. It is safe to assume that he will still have to undergo the experimental surgery, so what is he so happy about? Is he relieved he didn’t actually have to run a marathon? Oh well, slapstick shorts weren’t known for their amazingly satisfying endings – it’s the journey, not the destination that matters – or perhaps some further closing shots have been lost to time. It’s somewhat of a bleak ending for Arbuckle’s character, left open to interpretation. It seems his characters were as doomed, however unjustly, as he.
Being forced to undergo a surgery against one’s will is a horror-worthy scenario. The concept of experimental brain surgery to fix psychological problems is extremely uncomfortable – particularly nowadays, in a post-lobotomy world. In a way, Good Night, Nurse! eerily predicts the lobotomy craze of the 1940s and 1950s, adding an extra layer of discomfort to the film. As a slapstick comedy, this is a typical example of a fun Arbuckle-St. John-Keaton short. As a medical horror-comedy, elements of Good Night, Nurse! may be a bit ahead of its time. All in all, the whole film leaves you wondering who’s crazier – the patients or the doctors?