Monday, January 6, 2014

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: Seven Films (Keystone, 1913-1915)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I want to comment on a quite interesting program Turner Classic Movies ran last night as part of their “Silent Sunday Showcase”: seven films from Mack Sennett’s Keystone studios from 1913 to 1915 featuring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Arbuckle was an ex-waiter who’d scored a modest success in vaudeville — where he met and married his first wife, Minta Durfee, and made her a partner in his act — until he was scouted by Sennett, offered a movie contract and became one of the first major comedy stars. Because of his large size, he was billed as “Fatty” — much to his dismay; address him as such and he’d throw back, “That’s not my name! It’s Roscoe!” — and though his earlier films were made with Durfee as his leading lady, Sennett soon decided to pair Arbuckle with Sennett’s own inamorata, Mabel Normand, for the popular “Mabel and Fatty” series. The two of them cranked out films at the usual rapid pace of the day — a one- or two-reeler every two weeks or so — and soon Arbuckle and Normand both started directing films as well as appearing in them. In 1917 Arbuckle bolted Sennett and started making films in New York for something called the Comicque Film Corporation, organized by him and producer Joseph Schenck, and for their first Comicque film, The Butcher Boy, Schenck and Arbuckle stumbled onto another player who’d become a major comedy star, a vaudevillian who had made his way to the set just to see what movies were all about and ended up cast in a featured supporting role in the movie: Buster Keaton. In 1919 Paramount, which distributed Comicque’s films, wooed Arbuckle away from Schenck with the promise of a feature-film contract, and Arbuckle’s star rose — and abruptly fell two years later when he took off one weekend to host a wild party in San Francisco.

A minor starlet named Virginia Rappé became seriously ill at the party and died four days later, and prosecutors became convinced that Arbuckle had raped her and caused her death. He was put through three trials and the newspaper coverage — particularly the Hearst press (Keaton, who regarded Arbuckle not only as a friend but as a filmmaking mentor, said Hearst once told him the Arbuckle case had sold more papers than any story since the sinking of the Lusitania) — was predictably scandalous. Paramount head Adolph Zukor dropped Arbuckle, no other studio would touch him, and while he was acquitted on his third trial (most modern writers who’ve studied the case believe that Rappé had had a botched abortion and her death was a delayed reaction from that) his career was ruined. In 1927 William Randolph Hearst, perhaps as a sort of atonement for having done so much to ruin Arbuckle, offered him a comeback opportunity to direct Marion Davies in the film The Red Mill — though Arbuckle had to use a pseudonym, “Will B. Goodrich” (some people have suggested this was a deliberate joke from a master comedian and the name was actually supposed to mean “will be good … and rich”), and he didn’t get to act again on screen until 1935, when Jack Warner signed him for a series of six two-reelers with the promise of a feature if the two-reelers did well. They did, but before Arbuckle could make his feature-film comeback he died suddenly. Despite the scandal that foreshortened his career, Arbuckle made more money for himself and his producers than any other silent comedian except Charlie Chaplin — who got his start at Keystone while Arbuckle was the star of the lot — more than Keaton, more than Harold Lloyd (who, unlike his contemporaries, married just once, led a quiet private life, kept his money and invested it in land — which meant he made more money from the Southern California real-estate boom in the late 1940’s than he had during his film career), more than Harry Langdon.

These seven films — Fatty Joins the Force (1913), A Flirt’s Mistake (1914), The Knockout (1914), Leading Lizzie Astray (1914), Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition (1915), Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life (1915), and Fatty’s Chance Acquaintance (1915) — are pretty typical Keystone fare, though they show that, contrary to the stereotype people have today of the Keystone comedies as exclusively slapstick, they have elements of what would now be called situation comedy as well. (Interestingly, they were advertised in their original credits as “farce comedy” even though one comic genre they did not encompass was what we would think of today as farce.) Quite a few of them feature Mack Sennett’s jaundiced (to say the least!) view of police officers — not only do the Keystone Kops appear in some but Fatty Joins the Force is about Arbuckle rescuing a girl from drowning and, because she’s the police commissioner’s daughter, is rewarded with a job on the police force. Only he loses it again when he goes for a swim in the same lake where he rescued the girl — and some pranksters steal his clothes and cut his fancy police pants to ribbons. Arbuckle dresses in his foreshortened uniform and is arrested as a vagrant. A Flirt’s Mistake entangles Arbuckle as a married man with a fiercely jealous potentate, referred to as a “Rajah” in the titles but actually looking more Middle Eastern than (East) Indian, who from the long robe he wears and the frilly parasol he carries looks like a woman until he turns around and you see his long beard. (Though it wasn’t made until two years later, he actually looks like one of the actors playing Babylonians in Intolerance got lost and ended up on the wrong location.) He already attracts the attentions of a masher, and swears death on all subsequent flirts … Leading Lizzie Astray is the usual story of the innocent young country girl (Minta Durfee again — she also played Arbuckle’s girlfriend in Fatty Joins the Force and his wife in A Flirt’s Mistake) lured to The City — the very words take on a sinister meaning in the titles — by a moustachioed seducer, with Arbuckle obliged to save her from the Fate Worse Than Death.

Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life shows them as boyfriend and girlfriend working on her father’s farm — until the villainous squire who holds the mortgage on dad’s land says he’ll tear it up if Mabel will marry his son (who’s actually a tall, handsome, slender young man who quite frankly looks like a much more appealing match for her than Arbuckle, especially since he’s not shown having a girlfriend on the side or some sinister design on Our Heroine), and of course Arbuckle is not pleased by this at all — especially when dad locks Mabel in her room until she says yes to the mortgage holder’s son and she and Arbuckle have to plot their escape (and keep quiet so they won’t be caught — in all seven of these films this is the only gag that would have been considerably funnier with sound). The Knockout is the most interesting of these seven films; directed by Arbuckle, it’s an all-star Keystone production in which he plays a young man who, to impress his girlfriend (Mabel Normand this time — and she was a much better actress and more appealing screen personality than Minta Durfee, even though one could readily imagine Durfee thinking of Normand the way Joan Crawford later thought of Norma Shearer: “How can I compete with her? She sleeps with the boss!”) agrees to appear in a boxing match with a thug who’s impersonating the champion Cyclone Flynn — although, in a typical film-plot complication, he ends up in the ring with the real Cyclone Flynn. After quite a lot of surprisingly dull exposition (though the sight of Arbuckle in his thrown-together boxing outfit is a hoot!), once the fight starts we’re treated to Charlie Chaplin, better dressed than he was as the “Tramp” but with the familiar tousled hair and toothbrush moustache, playing the referee. Once Chaplin appears the film takes off and flies; he easily upstages both Arbuckle and the actor playing Flynn with three minutes’ worth of relentless business, getting between the fighters, ducking under them as they’re in a clinch, playing up the whole homoeroticism of boxing as a sport and, quite frankly, throwing in our faces the difference between talent and genius. (There’s another nice bit of gender-bending as Mabel disguises herself as a man to get to see the fight; at the time women weren’t allowed to attend boxing matches.)

Arbuckle was a genuinely funny performer — as Frank Capra recalled, he was ambidextrous and was a favorite in pie-fight scenes because he could throw two pies simultaneously, one in each arm, and land them both on their intended targets — and, like Oliver Hardy, he was formidably athletic despite his jumbo size. What he didn’t do was create a comic character as memorable as Chaplin’s, Keaton’s, Langdon’s or Lloyd’s; in some sequences in these films Keystone’s writers (there were a number of them and they sat at a long table and bounced ideas off each other — in addition to his other innovations, Mack Sennett basically invented the “writers’ room”) make Arbuckle a milquetoast, in other scenes they make him super-strong. They basically had Arbuckle do whatever they thought would get audiences to laugh, character consistency be damned, and the roughhouse nature of the Keystone comedy didn’t help either. In his autobiography Chaplin recalled that his first clash with Sennett came when Sennett explained to him that all Keystone films ended in a chase. “Personally, I hated a chase,” Chaplin said. “It dissipates one’s personality; little as I knew about movies, I knew that nothing transcended personality.” A surprising number of Keystone comedies, including three or four in this sampling, ended not only with a chase, but with one of the characters pulling out two pistols and firing them at random at a crowd — never actually hitting anybody but scaring them senseless and forcing them to flee in ways that could be staged for laughs. (Remember that these films were made only a quarter-century after Frederick Jackson Turner announced “the closing of the West” in 1890, and it was likely the original audiences for them just accepted that people went about carrying guns wherever they went — a current fever dream of the NRA.) The next time Arbuckle and Chaplin appeared together, it was in The Rounders, a film written and directed by Chaplin based on a skit Chaplin had done with the Fred Karno troupe on stage in the British music halls — and together they created a comedy masterpiece that essentially set the template for Laurel and Hardy’s entire career and was considerably funnier than any of the seven films in this package.