Legends of Silent Film: Roscoe ”Fatty” Arbuckle – By James L. Neibaur

 It is unfortunate that so much attention has been paid to the scandal that ruined Roscoe Arbuckle’s career . His significance to screen comedy’s development is reasonably well appreciated, like that of Charley Chase or Raymond Griffith, but generally overshadowed by the 1921 death of Virginia Rappe, and rarely placed in its rightful spot alongside Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.

Arbuckle was an amazing performer and had a real understanding as to how he could most effectively present a character in the movies. Too often slapstick comedians are concentrated on simply for their ability to be acrobatic. While that is definitely part of their talent, the better slapstick comedians, such as Arbuckle and Keaton, offer much more.

Along with being adept at performing physical comedy, Arbuckle was able to convey a character that went beyond the most basic externals of bulging eyes and big reactions. There was a definite human element to his character, even early on, and he added greater nuance as he refined his directorial vision and presented more subtle touches of cleverness to his slapstick Keystone comedies.

In assessments of Arbuckle, it is easy to stumble into what is perhaps the greatest cliche in the analyses of slapstick comedy, and that is to state that an overweight performer shows a ballet-like grace and to marvel at his or her agility.

Any knowledge of slapstick comedy that attempts to be comprehensive would reveal that virtually every overweight performer who engages in slapstick, from Arbuckle, to Oliver Hardy, to the Ton of Fun trio, to Curly Howard, all the way to Chris Farley, had the necessary agility to perform physical comedy. If a heavier person who does comedy is merely capable of lumbering about slowly with a sweaty effort, he or she does not likely choose slapstick as their forte.

Arbuckle, however, is different. He is more than just a fat man with ballet-like grace. Arbuckle also offers a gentle dexterity to his movements the same as Oliver Hardy would some ten years later.

There is something else about the overweight comics that seems to be overlooked in most studies of screen comedy. They portray the fat man as an outcast, one who is innocent, well meaning, and endearing, but dismissed for being too large, too overbearing, too crowding, and too different from that which is considered the norm. They also have their particular traits that set them even further from the mainstream.

The consistently popular Jerome Howard of The Three Stooges is a good example. His Curly character’s bizarre little quirks, gestures, and noises have become very much a part of his character’s enduring popularity, even finding their way into the mainstream of popular culture, long after their creator’s passing. Through at least three generations, Curly has become embraced by fans who related to his being the perennial outcast, frequently saying the wrong thing, his reflexive outbursts of frustration, and his shrill expressions of delight.

But what the Curly character also appeared to have was a tangible self-esteem and the ability to persevere. He would frequently stand up to the abusive leader Moe, always fight back against the heavies in his movies, and exhibited no shyness around women (his cheerful "Hiya Babe!" was very much a part of his endearing persona). Curly did not hold in his frustrations, he let them out in a most uninhibited manner. He did not contain his happiness or amusement, but exhibited these positive emotions with a similar series of hoots and hollers. Audiences laughed then, and new generations continue to do so, giving his character the ultimate in collective positive attention. Fans have generally embraced him as the most popular of the Stooges.

Roscoe Arbuckle learned, long before Jerome Howard ever stepped onto a movie set, that presenting the fat man as an endearing character would mean more than merely performing knockabout gags with a ballet-like grace.

Arbuckle never used his size as the mere butt of a gag. He would not submit himself to gags where his character was stuck in a small opening, for instance. But he did realize his being much bigger than his diminutive supporting players added a visual contrast that could work for laughs. When Fatty enters a room, his presence is so large and imposing, it receives immediate attention. Often filmmakers used this situation to present the fat man as bombastic and intrusive. Arbuckle knew that his fat man character could have more substance and win over the audience with more than just rough slapstick. But first he had to acquaint himself with acting for the movies.

Although stage-trained, Arbuckle soon adapted his broad performance to feature the sort of precise nuance that could only be appreciated by the intimate motion picture experience. It made this large man appear very gentle, playful, innocent, and easily loved. Arbuckle, in fact, is second only to Chaplin in his ability to create so beloved a character.

Arbuckle entered films at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studios in 1912, after having spent years on stage as a singer and comedian. Arbuckle was a bit intimidated by the cinematic process, and at a loss as to how one could be funny with pantomime. As with most theater actors, Arbuckle had little respect for the infant cinematic medium. He had marginal interest in the idea of committing his performances to film, but as an actor on the stage, and like most performers from the theater, Roscoe was initially wary of the flickers.

Sennett’s comedy was very broad. He enjoyed poking fun at authority, and his most noted creation was a group of outrageous stunt performers acting as harried policemen, led by popular Sennett comedian Ford Sterling. This dig at law enforcement was borne out in a series of wild knockabout slapstick comedies in which the Keystone Cops offered far-from-helpful aid.

Arbuckle’s initial venture with Sennett was as a Keystone Cop. He was not familiar with the working method for movies. He didn’t understand retakes, expressing himself without dialog, or how to take proper direction for film acting. Naturally, no direction is issued during a performance in the theater, only during rehearsals. The movies were different, however. Sennett would direct as the cameras rolled, and film actors would be going about their business while listening to his instructions. The stage-trained Arbuckle kept turning to look at Sennett, thus spoiling the shot, causing extra retakes, taking extra time, and sending the budget-minded Sennett into fits of frustrated anger. These retakes were a financial hindrance to the studio. After one day on the job, Arbuckle was about to be fired.

 One of Keystone’s most beloved stars was Mabel Normand, whose talent with pantomime and acrobatics allowed her to be every bit as adept at knockabout slapstick as any male on the lot. Small, petite, and irresistibly cute, Normand was as beloved by her Keystone colleagues as she was by the moviegoing public.

Mabel was, and remains, one of the most significant female performers of early cinema, and one of its first comedy directors. Her understanding of screen comedy during cinema’s infancy has been given only a modicum of attention, despite the fact that she was at one time known as The Female Chaplin.

In Arbuckle, Mabel saw an unrefined raw talent that simply needed a bit of experience in front of the camera. Mack was skeptical, but Mabel had a keen eye that insisted pairing her diminutive frame opposite the enormous Arbuckle would be a fascinating study in contrasts, and great for the visuals of silent cinema. That Arbuckle was also agile and capable of good slapstick made the idea especially attractive.

It didn’t take long for Sennett to realize that Mabel’s assumption was correct. Not only did Arbuckle adapt to the motion picture very quickly, his films opposite Mabel were instant hits with moviegoers. Theater owners were writing to Sennett, asking for more product featuring Mabel and Fatty. For his part, Arbuckle soon became more involved, and it was not long before he was directing his own movies.

The first several of these were typically crude Keystone slapstick endeavors, interesting today only as curios. However as Arbuckle and Normand looked deeper into the possibilities of adding more character and substance to their comedies, the films gradually evolved into a more refined presentation of the rough slapstick that Sennett was noted for producing.

By 1916, Arbuckle was the most successful star on the Sennett lot. Chaplin had started there in 1914, quickly became the hottest attraction in films, and left for Essanay studios a year later in a quest for a larger salary and more creative control.

Sennett thought actors, even his best, were replaceable. Losing a Fred Mace or a Ford Sterling would net a Charlie Chaplin or a Roscoe Arbuckle. Losing Chaplin or Arbuckle would later net Harry Langdon or Ben Turpin. It was a bit shortsighted on Sennett’s part, but he did not believe any comedian was bigger than the business.

Realizing his success, and seeing how Chaplin’s emergence beyond the trappings at Keystone resulted in his being the screen’s highest paid actor in films, Arbuckle grew restless. Not wanting to lose another top drawer comedy star, Sennett tried to keep Arbuckle happy by giving him as much creative control as the budget-minded producer could allow. This was quite an extension for Sennett, who would often dismiss actors as merely working stiffs who were replaceable. This may be true for those who specialized in stunt work, but someone like Arbuckle, whose talents extended from in front of the camera to behind the scenes, such a loss would be noticeable.

With greater creative control, Arbuckle decided to explore some of his more excessive ideas, realizing that Sennett would have the final say.

Fatty and Mabel Adrift is an exceptionally fine achievement featuring Arbuckle and Normand as newly married lovebirds. Al St. John is the angry rival for Mabel’s affections. The film opens with a noted and clever bit where Fatty, Mabel, and Al’s faces are framed by hearts. Cupid shoots an arrow connecting Mabel and Fatty, while Al bursts into tears as his heart-frame shatters.

In an effort to get even, Al arranges with some henchmen to set Mabel and Fatty’s honeymoon cottage adrift in the waters. When the newlyweds awaken to find themselves floating out to sea, their faithful dog is sent, with a note, to swim for help. While waiting to be rescued, Fatty and Mabel battle the ever rising waters. They are saved just in time by a coast guard version of the Keystone Cops.

When Fatty and Mabel Adrift was compiled in Robert Youngson’s 1960 anthology When Comedy Was King, Youngson’s narrator made note of a bit where Arbuckle’s shadow bends over Mabel to kiss her good night, and instead kisses the dog. Arbuckle the director’s choice to shoot this by using his shadow on the wall is what makes this bit so successful.

He Did and He Didn’t (1916) is another extraordinary Arbuckle short, because he chooses to play against type while examining the on screen Fatty and Mabel relationship. It isn’t boyish, innocent Fatty the rascal. Roscoe plays an impatient, disgruntled, angry married man. Mabel plays his wife as the long suffering victim of his harmless bluster. The conflict occurs when an old school beau of Mabel’s comes to visit, raising her husband’s jealous ire.

The opening scene is immediately telling. Roscoe is attempting to button his collar, which is fitting too tightly around his neck. And while Keystone Fatty the boyish clown would have made this scene amusing and endearing, Roscoe the stressed businessman is instead impatient and cursing. It isn’t amusing, it is unnerving, and Mabel effectively uses her beautiful doe eyes to display the long suffering wife character most effectively. This is an unhappy marriage, and the arrival of Mabel’s old beau only adds to the tension.

The extent to which Arbuckle challenges his and Mabel’s characters in He Did and He Didn’t can be presented by a chilling dream sequence in which Roscoe attempts to strangle Mabel, and she retaliates by shooting him dead.

He Did and He Didn’t is an example of Arbuckle the filmmaker experimenting to the point where he allows Arbuckle the actor to extend beyond his established range, while Mabel effectively plays against type as well. It is one of Roscoe’s most fascinating, and most courageous films as well as one of his most brilliant.

The Waiter’s Ball is one of Arbuckle’s funniest films for Sennett, offering some of his best gags, including the rhythmic broom fight between Fatty and Al St John, who is once again cast as his rival.

The opening sequence shows a busy Arbuckle as a cook in a seedy restaurant. While the sanitary conditions of the kitchen leave much to be desired, Arbuckle takes great care in preparing each dish. With the sure hands of an expert juggler, Arbuckle prepares dishes, tosses silverware about, and keeps a rhythmic pace with his myriad of duties. As he tosses a knife into the air, it lands on the counter behind him, point down. A bowl of soup is prepared and tossed to waiter Al St. John, who catches it without spilling a drop and places it on a table for the customer. It is not the first time Roscoe used food preparation as a backdrop for comic bits, and it would not be the last.

Soon the rivalry between Al and Fatty is established. Al sweeps papers from the floor into the kitchen area. Fatty sweeps them back out. Soon they are engaged in a back-and-forth battle of swatting each other’s backside with the brooms. When Al’s broom breaks on Fatty’s ample posterior, Fatty offers his broom and gets another from the kitchen for himself so that the battle can continue.

The film then moves into the reason for its title. Al wants to take his girl to the ball, but it is semiformal and he has no suit. He steal’s Fatty’s much larger clothes, forcing Fatty to steal a dress and go masquerading as a woman to catch Al. The result is a wild slapstick battle on the dance floor.

The Waiter’s Ball is a great example of what Arbuckle could accomplish with full creative control. Working within the framework of the usual Keystone structure that featured wild gags concluding with a slapstick melee, Arbuckle also offers intimate character nuance and slight-of-hand pantomime along with St. John’s thrilling acrobatic stunts. The gags are not simply a haphazard selection of unrelated bits.

 While history has not recorded which film was being done when Arbuckle was approached by Paramount representative Lou Anger, who had gotten past the studio guards and found his way to Roscoe’s set, it was certainly one of his very last Keystone efforts. Speculation leads us to believe it may have been one of the lost films, such as The Bright Lights or The Other Man. Lou Anger was interested in what Arbuckle had to offer, and sought to sign him to a comedy series for producer Joseph Schenck and Famous Players-Lasky, which released through Paramount Pictures. Anger offered the restless Arbuckle the opportunity to leave Sennett and venture to a major studio where Roscoe would be given his very own comedy company, over which he would be in full charge.

Arbuckle was flattered, but loyal. He longed to branch out as Chaplin had, but he had close friends on the Sennett lot, and already enjoyed a certain creative control. Anger not only offered Arbuckle a
higher salary and full creative control, he promised that if Roscoe’s short films were successful, he would eventually be starred in feature length pictures. Full creative control would mean that unlike at Keystone, Arbuckle would have final say. While Roscoe enjoyed free reign while creating his films at Keystone, it was still Mack Sennett who had the final word. But the mention of a feature film was especially enticing. That was the level of prestige every movie actor desired. Arbuckle made the decision to leave Sennett and sign with the Joseph Schenck productions at Paramount. He was given his own production company, Comique Film Productions, and was in full charge.

Sennett could not hang onto Arbuckle any more than he could Chaplin or Ford Sterling. Paramount would not only allow Arbuckle full control and supervision over his own comedy company, they could feasibly offer budgets that far exceeded Sennett’s. The further promise of eventually starring in features, something Chaplin had not yet accomplished on a regular basis, was also enticing.

Arbuckle said goodbye to his many friends at Keystone, and left for Joseph Schenck’s productions. He took both Al St. John and Alice Lake with him. It was where he would make the finest films of his career, featuring newcomer Buster Keaton among his cast. Keaton soon became Arbuckle’s apprentice, stepping behind the camera in the role of assistant director. It is Keaton’s contribution that elevates such films as The Bellboy, Good Night Nurse, and, especially, Moonshine far above virtually any other comedies being filmed at the time.

Moonshine is perhaps the standout. Its direction is keener, its satire is smarter, the chances it chooses to take are greater, the challenges to the idea of comedy in cinema are more impressive, and its gags are more clever. It is a film that can elicit an oddly respectful awestruck reaction as much as laughter. It really is an amazing two reeler.

With Moonshine, Arbuckle explored further into his own creative processes moreso than perhaps any other film since the brilliant Keystone two reeler He Did and He Didn’t. Slapstick is certainly not absent from Moonshine, but Arbuckle concentrates almost completely on satire here, not only using physical comedy but also the visual presentation of setting and set design to enhance the atmosphere of each segment. There simply appears to be more to Moonshine than the other Comiques.

Keaton, for his part, came up with some purely cinematic ideas here that were not only successfully incorporated, they are among this film’s highlights. One particular gag of several people leaving a small car, which will be discussed in detail later in this chapter, can be considered well ahead of its time.

Moonshine not only satirizes motion picture production, it also digs at popular melodrama, using a more sophisticated cinematic approach than Arbuckle may have been completely comfortable doing. Keaton had always insisted that cinema’s more sophisticated audience, the ones who appreciated something like D.W. Griffith’s epic achievement Intolerance (1916), should be considered when one made a comedy, and certainly Buster’s later solo films bear this out.

Shortly after filming The Garage Roscoe Arbuckle was promoted to starring in feature length movies for Paramount Pictures. It was a prestigious move that exemplified Arbuckle’s major star status. Buster Keaton was signed as the star of the Comique films.

Once Arbuckle was established in features, Paramount put him to work in one project after another, in rapid succession. These were very lucrative both for the studio and for Roscoe, so the films were made in rapid succession.

Unfortunately, as indicated, few of Arbuckle’s features survive, and those few that do are not immediately accessible to review. The most accessible one, Leap Year, gives us a good example of a successful Roscoe Arbuckle feature after his tenure in knockabout comedies had ended. In Leap Year, Arbuckle plays Stanley, whose girlfriend Phyllis is the nurse for Stanley’s gout ridden uncle. The uncle tells Phyllis that Stanley falls for every woman he meets, and must stay out of trouble. Stanley is committed to Phyllis, however, and feels that she is the one that will forever keep him uninterested in another.

On a trip to Catalina Island, Stanley is approached by several women, since he is wealthy and eligible. His response to these women is often misunderstood, because Stanley has a stuttering problem when he is nervous. When a woman with whom he is chatting misconstrues his conversation to mean a proposal, Stanley stutters too much to explain, and suddenly runs away with his golf clubs under one arm and his caddy under another.

This type of misunderstanding, and the stuttering result, continues to occur until there are three women who believe themselves to be Stanley’s fiancee. Stanley tries to get out of this mess by pretending to be subject to fits, but this just brings out the Florence Nightingale instinct from each of the women. He tries to then pretend he has a disease that is highly contagious, which results in each of the women resolving to be his nurse. Phyllis, a real nurse and the real girl friend, arrives just as this mess is happening.

While all is resolved in the end, Leap Year is a delightful feature that taps into less explored areas of Roscoe Arbuckle’s talent. Roscoe would often put the Fatty character in embarrassing situations, and while Roscoe is no longer playing Fatty and is not directing this feature (it was directed by James Cruze), he is certainly adept at playing the role. Stanley is a good natured fellow, like Fatty, but unlike Fatty he is a man of means whose behavior can result in the sort of scandal he cannot afford. Stanley has the same boyish innocence as Fatty, but it is played without the wild, knockabout slapstick. By this time, however, Arbuckle had established himself in features with a new audience of eager moviegoers. This more mature, more subtle approach may not be as exciting in the same fashion as a slapstick two reeler, but it is certainly, in its quaintness, a very pleasant, enjoyable feature.

Leap Year was never released in the United States due to a scandal that upset Arbuckle’s life and career in the Fall of 1921. This scandal is, sadly, what Arbuckle is best known for today. Often if he is known at all, it is for having been accused of raping and murdering actress Virginia Rappe. It is perhaps not completely necessary to recount every lurid detail surrounding the case, but it is unfortunately essential to discuss some of the information and how it affected Arbuckle’s later career.

Exhausted after filming several features, Roscoe believed himself well in need of a vacation after the completion of Freight Prepaid. He had completed seven feature films in eight months time and was eager to spend some time relaxing away from the studio. Buster Keaton, himself taking a break from filming, invited Roscoe to spend the weekend on his rented yacht and go to Catalina Island. Roscoe turned down the invitation as he already had made plans to go to San Francisco.

There was a party in Roscoe’s room on Monday September 5th. One of the attendees was Virginia Rappe, an actress who had crossed paths with Roscoe at Keystone some years before. At some point during the party, Virginia was found on the bathroom floor. Roscoe went in and shut the door. A few minutes later, they ended up in the bedroom where Virginia fell asleep, Roscoe changed clothes, and went back out to join the party. Virginia’s moans from the bedroom were audible, so Roscoe returned to the room to find Virginia lying on the floor in pain. She was taken back to her own room. After a few days, her condition not improving, Virginia was taken to Wakefield Sanatarium. She died on Friday, September 9th.

Conflicting stories abound as to what had happened to Virginia Rappe at Arbuckle’s party. Some believe that when he found her slumped on the bathroom floor, he took her to his bedroom to sleep, believing she was simply intoxicated. Others believe he raped her, and the force of his 300 pounds on her 100 pounds caused the injury that led to her death. Some say that Virginia was a woman of loose morals and she died of a botched abortion. There were people who believed Roscoe innocent, and those who thought him guilty.

 The three trials were sensational, with Arbuckle eventually acquitted by a hung jury. But in the early 1920s, the American public was not as quick to forgive. The press indicted Arbuckle during the trial, and the verdict subsequently fell on deaf ears. It was generally determined that Arbuckle’s films would no longer be welcomed by the majority of moviegoers. He received jobs directing films throughout the 1920s, under the pseudonym William Goodrich, featuring such performers as Lupino Lane, Poodles Hanneford, Johnny Arthur, and nephew Al St. John, who had been enjoying starring series for Fox and Educational Pictures since leaving Comique. Some of these films were credited to St. John as writer-director, but it was really Roscoe at the helm.

It was Jack Warner of Warner Brothers who took a chance on Arbuckle returning to films. Warner decided to try Roscoe in a two reel comedy for at the studio’s Vitaphone unit in Brooklyn. If the film was a success, more would be made. Shooting began on the short, Hey, Pop on August 25, 1932. Upon completion, the film was screened in test engagements. In its October 11th, 1932 issue, the critic for Film Daily stated:

And mebbe you think Sam Sax, manager of Warner Vitaphone stude, isn’t feeling chipper these days after the showing that the first Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle film scored when they ran it cold in two New Jersey theaters the other nite…. Fatty had the customers fairly rolling in their seats, so it looks as if the rotund comic has scored his comeback decisively.

Before the ink was dry on this review, and after an eleven year absence from the screen, having been directing movies under a pseudonym, Arbuckle signed a contract with East Coast Warner-Vitaphone studio manager Sam Sax to make a series of two-reel sound comedies under his own name.

During the filming of his fourth comedy, Tomalio, Arbuckle was featured running a foot race. The energy required for such a scene would have been much easier to handle in the Keystone days, but now Arbuckle found his energy spent far more rapidly. Arbuckle was breathing heavily and complained of chest pains, but refused medical attention. While filming In The Dough, the sixth and last short for which he’d been signed, with Shemp Howard and Lionel Stander, Arbuckle again was experiencing difficulty breathing and asked director Ray McCarey for a break in filming to catch his breath. After taking a leisurely walk around the studio, he returned to the set and completed his final scenes. Then that night, actually early the next morning at 2:30am on June 29, 1933, Arbuckle died in his sleep.

It is likely that had Arbuckle lived, he would indeed have succeeded in Warner-produced comedy features. Perhaps a film like Earthworm Tractors, which was filmed in 1936 with Joe E. Brown, would have been the type of vehicle in which Warners would have featured Roscoe Arbuckle. One can only speculate what turns Arbuckle’s career would have made had he lived into his seventies, which would have taken him into the 1950’s. Perhaps he would have found his way into independent production, maybe more directing, or even becoming involved in the sketch-oriented comedy-variety shows of early television, reenacting his vaudeville sketches for new generations. Alas, it is something we can only speculate.