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The Cook and Other Treasures

The contributions to Western civilization by the Norse aren't sufficiently appreciated these days. They've enriched us with Hans Christian Andersen. Henrik Ibsen. A body of legends that inspired Richard Wagner and Chuck Jones. Those horned Viking hats are still pretty cool. But what have they done lately? A ready answer to that is The Cook and Other Treasures, a DVD that delivers not one but two heretofore lost silent slapstick shorts, and the headliner is from American silent comedy's most influential team-up.

When comic film star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle took young vaudevillian Buster Keaton under his wing, it was the beginning of one of those beautiful friendships that seem to happen only in the movies. As chronicled in Image Entertainment's terrific The Best Arbuckle/Keaton Collection, their collaboration shaped screen comedy in ways we still enjoy today. What helped keep "The Best" from being "The Complete" was the absence of "The Cook," which the duo made in 1918 and which has been utterly and tragically missing for generations, save for frustrating, tantalizing reports that it was one of their best short films. Then in 1998, in a cache of unidentified nitrate prints discovered in Norway's Norsk Filminstitutt, a fragmented version of this little lost masterpiece was uncovered. In 2002, while preparing those fragments for a DVD release, Milestone Films was told that even more footage from "The Cook" had been found at the Netherlands' Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. Both sets of brittle, damaged footage were cleaned, repaired, and then assembled. New English intertitles were based on an original press kit found in the Library of Congress.

Now, with help from George Eastman House and distributed by Image, "The Cook" is finally back where it belongs — in our DVD players. It's a reconstruction, not a full restoration, still marred by wear and tear. Nonetheless, film historians and Arbuckle-Keaton fans have plenty to be thankful for.

"The Cook" is one of Arbuckle's two-reelers, just shy of 22 minutes long, made with his Comique repertory company. Fatty is the eponymous chef at the Bull Pup, a seaside cafe that also sports Buster as "the Pest Waiter." With his trademark blasé grace, Fatty's dexterous stunts when flipping, flinging, and juggling knives, eggs, flapjacks, milk, coffee cups, and ice cream are an astounding comic ballet. (Arbuckle buffs will see similarities to his work in 1917's "The Butcher Boy.") Intercut with Fatty's kitchen finesse is Buster pestering the imperiled patrons and shouting their orders in period hash-slinger lingo ("Oinker slabs, two sunny sides and cow juice!"). The delight Fatty and Buster had in working together is clear, and it leads to such highlights as Buster's exotic belly dance and Fatty's Salome/Cleopatra shimmy (a spoof of Theda Bara's Salome from that year?) while clad in kitchen utensils and suffering the fatal bite of filmdom's only asp-salami. Keaton's nascent genius is still gestating, though a routine runaround plot provides an excuse for his amazing pratfalls and some Keatonesque gags staged at Long Beach's Pike Amusement Park, including daredevil maneuvers at the roller-coaster's pinnacle. Filling the co-starring slots are two of Arbuckle's other regulars: nephew Al St. John as the heavy and Alice Lake as the girl the boys must rescue from St. John's dastardly clutches. Assisting them is another Comique player, Luke the dog, whose brisk climb up a long ladder in one uncut shot makes us wonder what became of all the great animal actors who did their own stunts.

Although "The Cook" is not (yet) in fully restored condition, this reconstruction is impressive. The scratches, missing frames, and other remaining signs of neglect and age are forgivable and not unexpected. There's some good color tinting, and a new Dolby 2.0 monaural piano score by Philip Carli reminds us that he's one of the best at bouncy and appropriate silent film accompaniment.

On The Cook and Other Treasures, the other treasures are two more comedy shorts. The first is another lost ark rediscovered at the Norwegian Film Institute. It's Arbuckle's "A Reckless Romeo." In this two-reeler from 1917, Fatty is a philandering husband whose flirtations at Palisades Amusement Park are captured on film by a newsreel cameraman and shown at the local movie house — to an audience of Fatty, his wife, his mother-in-law, and the other girl's boyfriend. This rediscovery is a dandy example of Arbuckle's work without Keaton, though until it was unearthed it too was thought to display Keaton, who had joined Arbuckle's company a few months before. (Might he be the old woman who nips the cash?) Philip Carli provides another good musical score.

The second, described as a "bonus feature," is the most sophisticated of these three films set in amusement parks. It's Harold Lloyd's 1920 short, "Number, Please?" (24 mins.), directed by Hal Roach and co-starring Mildred Davis. Heartbroken Harold hopes to find solace and forget the girl who dumped him. So he goes to Ocean Park, California. Instead he finds her there with her new guy. Harold's attempts to win her heart again set up clever gags that build to the climactic chase. His interaction with three funhouse mirrors is a gem. "Number, Please?" was never a lost film, so of the three it's in the best condition and comes with its original English intertitles intact. Because draconian constrictions from the Lloyd estate have kept his films mostly out of circulation for decades, this contemporary of Keaton and Chaplin doesn't get the attention he deserves as a member of silent comedy's crowned triumvirate, so any chance to add him to the home collection is welcome.

*          *          *

Image Entertainment's DVD supplements are both the Norwegian and Dutch raw footage from "The Cook." The box also boasts of DVD-ROM supplements, chiefly a "do-it-yourself restoration kit" that gives access to film-editing software and the original press kit with which you "test your skills as a film archivist" by assembling your own version of "The Cook" from the raw footage. This reviewer was unable to make this feature work, though whether that's a fault of the DVD or the reviewer is open for debate. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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