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The Forgotten Films of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
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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
- Alternate commentary tracks from noted comedy historians Paul E. Gierucki, Bruce Lawton, Steve Massa and Richard M. Roberts
- 36 page full color booklet with rare photographs, restoration notes and essays from authors and film historians Steve Massa, David B. Pearson, Patricia Eliot Tobias, Brent Walker and Robert Young Jr.
- Original Arbuckle artwork from animation guru Tom Bertino
- "The Arbuckle Shuffle" a new music video from Robert Arkus
Top Customer Reviews
Of special interest are discs 3 and 4 devoted to Arbuckle after Keystone and to his directing efforts after the 1921 scandal which wrongly resulted in his being banned from the screen as a performer. This material is very rare and features comics Lloyd Hamilton and Lupino Lane as well as a special treat from Douglas Fairbanks called CHARACTER STUDIES which features Carter DeHaven and a surprise postscandal appearance by Arbuckle. There is also an over the top sound film with Al St John (before he became a B Western sidekick) called BRIDGE WIVES which must be seen to be believed.
This brings me to the three minor issues I have with this otherwise sterling set. It would have nice to have one of the late Arbuckle sound shorts included so that we could hear Roscoe talk as well as see one of his last onscreen appearances. Why are there two versions of HE DID AND HE DIDN'T (only the tinting differs) when there could have been one more comedy added? It would also have been nice to have more commentary to give background on these films as they unfold. Out of 30 films only 7 have this feature.
But these are minor complaints with one of the best packaged silent sets in recent memory. The film presentations are fine, the musical accompaniment ideal, the commentary good, and the choice of material is great (Fatty's only surviving feature film LEAP YEAR is especially valuable to have and see). This release also comes with a comprehensive 35 page booklet on Arbuckle and the restoration work that needed to be done. Anyone who has any interest in silent film comedy should acquire this collection as soon as possible to be put up on the shelf with their Chaplin and Keaton sets. At long last Roscoe Arbuckle is finally getting his due and it's about time.
Most of my favourites are on the fourth disc which features films of the 1920s, starting with a great 1-hour feature film "Leap Year", which was never released in the US. There is an entertaining segment featuring brief (ie a few seconds) appearances of other big stars: Keaton, Valentino, Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd and Jackie Coogan, and then five more comedies, each one quite different and all directed by Roscoe Arbuckle (some written by him as well) under the name of William Goodrich, and each one features other comedians. Particularly impressive is "My Stars" with Johnny Arthur, who does a great job of impersonating and making fun of stars like Harold Lloyd and Douglas Fairbanks - the latter dressed as Robin Hood, making flying leaps, bounds and gestures in an attempt to put Fairbanks to shame. I also got a kick out of the clever short sound comedy, "Bridge Wives", but with such variety on this disc and overall in the whole set, I'm sure there'll be something to satisfy everyone. Furthermore, careful attention to musical accompaniment means variety in performances and instruments (though most are piano scores) and there are also a few commentary tracks which add more insight into Arbuckle, his films and his many talented co-stars. Definitely a must for all silent comedy and slapstick fans!
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