Reel Brooklyn is a biweekly column chronicling the definitive history of Brooklyn on-screen, one film—and neighborhood—at a time.
Movies as archaeology: when the medium was invented, that’s what a lot of people saw, a way finally to freeze history in its tracks. Documents of prewar Brooklyn neighborhoods are not common, as most film production migrated to the predictable sunshine of southern California by the mid-20s. But check out Buzzin’ Around (1933), an early-talkie short starring Fatty Arbuckle, shot just months before he died of a heart attack at 46. A popular but now-barely-remembered rotund silent-screen clown, Arbuckle had a life like a series of natural disasters (manslaughter, scandal, blacklisting, alcoholism, heroin), and this inauspicious two-reeler was among a handful of shorts he made at Vitagraph Studios as the beginning of his sound-era comeback. But Vitagraph itself is the attraction here—a thriving production studio, occupying a plot of Midwood bordered by East 14th Street and Avenue M, right next to Dorman Square.
One of American film’s first full-time studio operations, Vitagraph was a versatile, all-purpose venue, producing eight films a week at its peak, from comedies to newsreels to animations. (Presently undergoing an interior demolition and conversion, the studio space is essentially gone, but the famous smokestack, with VITAGRAPH imbued in its brick, can still be seen from the B and Q trains, near the Ave. M station.) Occasionally, the filmmakers went outside and exploited the neighborhood, which looks in Buzzin’ Around to be both a world apart and in some ways very familiar. The plot’s purposefully asinine story trails after Arbuckle going “to the city” in a ramshackle car to sell a concoction that prevents chinaware from breaking; after the jar is accidentally switched with sidekick Al St. John’s hard cider, St. John and Petey (Our Gang’s preternaturally wise mutt) follow tout suite. An angry bee’s nest intervenes, and so on, which is all fine until Arbuckle’s first bumper scuffle, shot on mostly on Avenue M in all of its shopfront glory. The mediocre resolution of the film leaves many questions dangling, beginning with the corner drug store, which may have been at the corner of East 19th Street, where M&M Pharmacy still resides, and continuing west on M, using the studio’s brick exterior, and eventually for the traveling-shot bike-&-bathtub climax, a full-on view of M motoring westward and looking back east at the elevated M station on the Brighton line, which looks more or less unchanged today.
Other, older residents may scan the film’s exteriors and find telling details amid the neglectful bad-archiving fuzziness of the print you can find online. Even so, you get a Midwood from the first year of the first FDR administration, of ubiquitous Ex-Lax signs, mom-&-pop groceries and beauty salons, late-model Model Ts and suburban roofs, when the Vitagraph buildings themselves might well have been the largest “city” structures around. Buzzin’ Around isn’t special onto itself; amidst only Arbuckle’s filmography, it pales in ingenuity and wit besides the two-reelers he made with Buster Keaton and Mabel Normand prior to 1921. But within it, a lost Midwood still hums.