22 February 2003 | wmorrow59
In which our hero, decked out in femme finery, becomes the Belle of the Ball
This Keystone two-reeler is a prime example of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's style of comedy when he was at the height of his fame, second only to Chaplin in popularity. It's an amusing piece of work -- if you enjoy rough 'n' tumble slapstick, that is -- which gives Roscoe the opportunity to demonstrate his dexterity at flipping pancakes and large knives. He also gets to fight with Al St. John (his nephew in real life), and to don women's clothing, something he did fairly often in his films. This short was one of the last Arbuckle made for producer Mack Sennett before leaving to set up his own studio, where he would be joined almost immediately by Buster Keaton. Buster would introduce subtler humor and a more deliberate tempo into the mix, but meanwhile in The Waiters' Ball you'll find pure, undiluted Arbuckle.
The opening sequence is set in the diner where cook Roscoe and waiter Al compete for the attention of the pretty cashier. Don't expect refined material, this ain't Noel Coward, this is Keystone: there are gags involving ethnic stereotypes, gags involving an old man's gouty foot repeatedly stepped on, and lots of gags involving food (eggs, pancakes, fragrant cheese), most spectacularly a fish that refuses to surrender without a fight. Roscoe and Al have an especially vigorous dust-up with brooms. I have to confess I find it hard to warm up to Al St. John as a performer. I know he's usually supposed to be unsympathetic, so much so that it's kind of a running gag from film to film that the ladies ALWAYS reject his advances. Here, however, Al performs the demanding physical stunts so well he commands our respect. There's a great moment when he executes a backward roll over a table, and lands smack in a sitting position as adeptly as Buster would, later on. Even so, when the cashier rejects his invitation to the dance he responds by choking her, so I guess he's still Al St. John.
The climax of the film takes place at the Waiters' Ball itself, where Roscoe shows up in drag. Somehow when Arbuckle performs a drag routine there's something strangely innocent about it. Roscoe puts on a dress and the results are ludicrous, but not really 'suggestive' of anything except a hefty comedian putting on a wig and a dress to get laughs. I believe The Waiters' Ball offers one of the best and funniest examples of drag humor from his surviving work.
Personally I think Arbuckle reached his peak in the wonderful Fatty and Mabel Adrift, and in the best of the 1917-1920 Comique series with Keaton, but The Waiters' Ball holds up as one of his most satisfying efforts for Keystone, and well worth a look.