Silent films and silent-film personnel always have an uphill fight when it comes to breaking through to modern-day audiences. Even in the best of circumstances, legend often gets in the way of direct experience. Roscoe Arbuckle presents perhaps the most extreme case. Few people now alive have seen him at work on screen. However, the most casual browser of film history knows that "Fatty" Arbuckle figured in one of the movies' early scandals: a 1921 wild party that resulted in the death of a bit player named Virginia Rappé, whom the famously oversized comedian is alleged to have raped (her very name reinforces the legend). Tried for murder, Arbuckle was acquitted; the jury even apologized to him for the ordeal he'd been subjected to by the overzealous prosecution and news media. Yet Arbuckle's reputation and career were ruined. His as-yet-unreleased films stayed that way, and prints of his earlier efforts fell into disuse; many were lost entirely. Arbuckle had been a director as well as a comedian, and over the next decade he occasionally worked in that capacity, under the name William Goodrich (his sardonic first suggestion for an alias was "Will B. Good"). He died, way too early, in 1934. And to this day, the casual assumption is that he was guilty.
Happily, neither the guilt nor innocence of Roscoe Arbuckle is our concern here. What matters is his legacy as star and filmmaker, something the 10-1/2 hours of this four-disc set makes a heroic effort at restoring. Included are 23 one- and two-reel starring or costarring vehicles from 1913 through 1919; a feature film, Leap Year (directed by James Cruze, 1921), released in Europe but not in America following the rape-murder trial; Character Studies, a recently rediscovered one-reel curio in which Arbuckle makes a cameo appearance (along with such fellow luminaries as Keaton, Valentino, and Fairbanks); four 1925-26 silent shorts directed by Goodrich; and a surreal 1932 sound short directed by Goodrich and featuring Arbuckle's nephew and frequent co-player, Al St. John.
Fatty first cast his considerable shadow in a slew of one-reelers for Mack Sennett's Keystone--lunatic fantasias that came popping off the assembly line as frequently as four days apart. Arbuckle's moon face--with an expression like a Buddha in sugar shock--and rolling bulk stand out unmissably, but in many respects he's just one element in a jittering field of Keystone zanies. What's remarkable is what happens when he's put up against a real partner. That was often Mabel Normand (and there are a lot of "Fatty and Mabel" titles in the set), a spirited but not always artful comedienne. But in The Rounders (1914) he finds himself doing a boozy ballet with newcomer Charlie Chaplin, and suddenly the fatboy exhibits amazing poise, timing, and precision. A choice moment: the two of them mutually deciding to go nighty-night on the floor of a swank restaurant while the surrounding socialites attempt to get on with their dining.
This is as good a place as any to mention that, whereas Fatty's 266 pounds eminently validated his soubriquet, there was nothing sloppy about Arbuckle's heft. A lot of that "fat" was solid muscle, and he was in graceful, comedic command of it. His instinct, as performer and as director, was to plant himself deceptively like a toad without a prayer of hopping, then fire one sort of missile or another at careless passers-by with uncanny accuracy. The same applied to his sudden lunges after targets of hedonistic opportunity, whether a comely female or a cream tart.
He was beautifully in control of his expression, his body language, his awesome possession of space. In a scene of inspired indolence in Fatty's Plucky Pup (1915), Fatty lolls abed smoking a cigarette. The cigarette falls and the mattress bursts into flame. After an eternity of nanoseconds, Fatty notices. Unhurriedly he rises, ambles out to his mom's kitchen, gets a teacup, fills it from the sink faucet, walks back to his room, confirms that the fire is still a fire, tosses the cup of water onto it, observes the continued burning, and shambles back to the kitchen to refill the cup. It is then that he notices a mirror over the sink and decides his hair needs combing. Then he walks back to the bedroom, pauses to sip some of the water, and effetely tosses the last few drops onto the fire, which, to his evident bemusement, persists in burning.
Speaking of that plucky pup, Arbuckle had a gravely frisky canine comrade named Luke whose own skills rivaled those of his master. Luke could run up a ladder, a very vertical ladder, and chase people over rooftops--as he does in Fatty's Faithful Fido and The Cook (a tour-de-force two-reeler not included in this collection). And in Fatty's Plucky Pup Luke even serves up a supremely fatuous look while submitting to a "pawdicure."
Another notable costar of Arbuckle's shorts was Buster Keaton, who appears here in Coney Island (1917). Yet arguably more important to Keaton's legacy were the instincts Arbuckle encouraged as a director. There is a moment in Mabel and Fatty's Married Life when Fatty starts running down an empty road, away from the camera, and his pal Al St. John runs the other way, toward the camera; it's an abstract frame, seem from a high angle, of hectic activity in a bleak and mysterious cosmos. No one is really getting anywhere. Similar visual intuitions of absurdity punctuate other Arbuckle films, and would, of course, bloom in Keaton's own early-'20s classics Cops, The Boat, and the great Sherlock Junior--a film on which William Goodrich may have lent a directorial hand.
He pioneered a very modern attitude toward the business of making films and watching them with self-awareness. In Coney Island Fatty, about to disrobe in a bathhouse to don a woman's bathing suit (don't ask), gestures to the cameraman to raise the frameline so that he can remove his pants with modesty. Clunked on the noggin in Love (a radiant restoration from two complementary nitrate prints), he merrily counts the special-effects stars swirling about his head. And in the Goodrich-directed The Movies, starring Lloyd Hamilton, he splits the screen so that rube Hollywood visitor Hamilton can find himself sitting next to the "real" Lloyd Hamilton in a restaurant.
Let's end by citing the two real gems of this four-disc set. He Did and He Didn't (1916) is an amazingly complex two-reeler featuring very artful and unsettling expressionistic lighting, terrifically subtle playing by Mabel Normand and Arbuckle, and a fully developed dramatic situation in which jealousy, the genuine possibility of adultery, and a robbery subplot worthy of Feuillade coalesce in a brilliantly ambiguous narrative. And in the 1932 Bridge Wives, Al St. John's playing and Goodrich's inventive tweaking of the comic possibilities of sound combine in a grand-Guignol account of a man driven insane by his wife's obsession with playing bridge. It's hilarious, and also macabre. Why was this remarkable talent destroyed? --Richard T. Jameson