Monday, January 13, 2014

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: Six More Comedies (Keystone, 1915)

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

Last night Charles and I watched the second leg of Turner Classic Movies’ interesting tribute to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, consisting of six of the many one- and two-reelers he directed as well as starred in for Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio in 1915. I enjoyed this round much more than I had the ones shown the week before, though I’m not sure whether they were simply better movies or it was because Charles was in the room this time (he’d been working last Sunday night when the first part of the TCM Arbuckle tribute was on) and comedies are generally funnier when the laughter can be shared. (This is why virtually all TV sitcoms are afflicted with horrible laugh tracks — though on quite a few of them the gags and dialogue are so lame that without the laugh track you would have no idea what was supposed to be funny about them.) The six films aired last night were Fatty’s Faithful Fido, Fatty’s New Role, Fatty’s Plucky Pup, Fatty’s Tintype Tangle, Mabel and Fatty’s Married Life and Mabel and Fatty’s Wash Day, and as the titles of at least two of them suggest, they featured prominent roles for a mutt that became so popular that within a year Sennett was billing him as Teddy the Keystone Dog. (And yes, he was male; at least one shot made his anatomy quite obvious.) Teddy was in fact the first canine film star — predating Rin Tin Tin and his predecessor, Strongheart — and some of the scenes shot with him in these films, including one in which he’s biting down on the coattails of Arbuckle’s rival in love and thereby restraining him on a rooftop and another in which Arbuckle is bathing him in the family’s washtub (and, unlike his off-screen counterparts, Teddy seems just fine with the idea), show off how well-trained he was and what an infectious personality he had.

Aside from Mabel Normand — billed with Arbuckle in the last two films and, I suspect, doing an incognito cameo in drag in one of the others (she — if indeed it is she — does a great trajectory gag leaping onto a moving streetcar) — there’s no one else in these movies (at least no other humans) with major talent on their own (last week’s entries had featured a film called The Knockout in which the movie was totally stolen out from Arbuckle by Charlie Chaplin, playing the referee of the boxing match Arbuckle has been tricked into signing up for), but nonetheless there’s quite a lot to enjoy about them, including at least two that challenged and extended the usual Keystone formulae. In Fatty’s New Role Arbuckle plays a disheveled man who lives on a farm and mooches free lunches at bars — instead of his usual appearance, which was clearly as a working-class person but as well turned-out, dressed and groomed as he could afford to be, this time he’s wearing several days’ worth of beard and has his hair disheveled in an early version of Moe Howard’s “do” with the Three Stooges. He looks more like a bulkier version of Red Skelton’s Freddie the Freeloader character than like the Arbuckle we know from most of his films, and the plot of this one — as a joke, the employees of the saloon Arbuckle hit most recently write a fake note to their boss saying that the mysterious “Hungry Hank” is going to blow the place up, and Arbuckle enters with a cheese he’s purchased legitimately and the saloon owner thinks it’s a bomb (and by coincidence a crew working on a nearby street is using explosives, so things are really blowing up in the neighborhood, adding to the owner’s fright) — is stronger than most of the Keystones. At least some of these films betray the technical crudities of the film business this early; in one scene, a three-way chase between Arbuckle and Teddy (who’s leading him to the house where villains have taken his girlfriend and rigged up a gun to fire automatically and kill her at 3 p.m.), the baddies and the Keystone Kops, much of the scene is taking place in front of a painted backdrop mounted on a carousel and revolved behind the actors, while other parts were shot on actual locations — and the jarring quality of the cuts only adds to the quirky devil-may-care appeal of the film.

The other film that was different from the Keystone norm is Mabel and Fatty’s Wash Day, in which for once Normand and Arbuckle aren’t playing a couple (sometimes they were just dating, sometimes they were married, and in one film excerpted in Robert Youngson’s The Golden Age of Comedy they had just got married and Al St. John, playing the man Mabel had jilted to marry Fatty, got his revenge by pulling their house off its foundations and getting it literally to float — and sink — in a lake). He’s married to a nagging wife, she’s married to a layabout husband, they’re neighbors and they meet innocently while both of them are outside their homes doing the family wash. What makes the Keystones hold up as well as they do is not only the fast, precise slapstick but the situations, which have a sort of primal simplicity about them: these films deal with the most basic of human emotions — love, sex, jealousy — in a refreshingly direct and simple way that works for modern audiences because people’s basic natures haven’t changed all that much since 1914 (or since 1600, for that matter, which is why Shakespeare’s plays still work). Indeed, it’s also true that many of the gags themselves have been transmitted, almost like an oral tradition, from 1914 to 2014; in a sequence from one of these films, Fatty hides from a jealous husband in a shower — and the shower gets turned on while he’s in it, fully drenched, and soaks him. How many times have we seen that since? As I noted on the last TCM tribute to Arbuckle, despite the scandal that wrecked his career he still made more money during the silent era than any other comic except Chaplin — and it occurred to me this time around that, in an era in which the major comics occupied specific class statuses (Chaplin the lower-class “Tramp,” Keaton the upper-class twit, Lloyd the middle-class striver), Arbuckle was the working-class comedian, an ordinary guy neither struggling to survive nor in the middle-class rat race but simply trying to get along and stay where he was. This may be why he seems to have been less interested in character consistency than his rivals, but it also probably had a lot to do with his popularity in his own time — and why his career was done in by scandal (the ordinary guy revealed — or at least portrayed in the popular media — as a grinning, amoral sex fiend) whereas Chaplin’s survived his controversial marriage and even more controversial divorce of Lita Grey in the 1920’s.