Rightwing Film Geek

Going through a silent star’s work

A couple of years ago, I bought a 4-DVD set at Slapsticon (coming soon in 2007!!), a major restored-print collection of the work of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, under the leadership of Paul Gierucki and others whom I meet most years at Slapsticon (coming soon in 2007!!).

One thing I plan to do for the next few weeks (and I will deliberately not put this post at the top of my site) is go through the Arbuckle DVDs, almost all shorts, an item or two per day, and update this post with short reactions accordingly as I go through the discs. The films themselves are in chronological order, so this is a good way to see how a film-maker/star develops over the years. And it will get better as it goes on, because Arbuckle’s career spans the period when the movie-medium learned its own craft and its very self.¹

I can’t say I have no preconceptions. There is no silent-film comic of or near Arbuckle’s importance whose work has turned me on less. This is in part no doubt, I acknowledge, because so much of his work is lost or very difficult to see, in large part as a consequence of the scandal that he’s now better known for. The very first words from Gierucki in the DVD set’s booklet are “The films of Roscoe Arbuckle are in a horrible state of preservation.” Much of what I have seen is his films from the late-10s with Buster Keaton as second banana, but which I watched for Keaton. Early Mack Sennett doesn’t generally float my boat. And “big fat guy jumps around, trying to be funny” didn’t even interest me when Chris Farley was doing it contemporaneously.

Still, if you’re a driven obsessive, you’re a driven obsessive. There’s no way a comedian of Arbuckle’s prominence doesn’t deserve my best shot. I’ve enjoyed quite a bit of Arbuckle’s post-scandal work as a pseudonymous director. I think CURSES! one of the greatest shorts of the late silents — look at what tops it in the 1925 list. And at last year’s Slapsticon (have I mentioned that it’s coming soon in 2007!!), I saw HIS WIFE’S MISTAKE, which was the first Fatty-as-star film that really made me laugh often (the elevator, the barber shop … mmmm … ice cream) and was fully satisfactory as entertainment.

So here we go …

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FATTY JOINS THE FORCE (George Nichols / Fatty Arbuckle, USA, 1913, 4)
A FLIRT’S MISTAKE (George Nichols / Fatty Arbuckle, USA, 1914, 3)

I can’t hate these films because they are clearly so primitive that you adjust your critical lenses, like watching 4-year-old children play T-ball versus a major-league game. But I can’t pretend to find them of much entertainment value while watching them, though their historical interest (in several senses) and critical-intellectual worth are beyond dispute.

I actually spent most of these two films, thinking mostly about why I resist these and other early Mack Sennett shorts. Several things I noticed, some related to the general state of the art at the time. First of all, they have very few title cards, which makes it hard to develop a situation. FLIRT involves Fatty mistaking a long-bearded raja with a sword and a temper for a woman he can flirt with. Chase ensues (that’s it, more or less). Second, Sennett had a tendency to piece together his physical humor between shots — in other words have a character throw a bucket of water offscreen stage right and then cut to a shot of people being splashed from offscreen stage left. It’s not funny, particularly when so broadly acted. Third, the closeup exists (see the still above from FORCE and there’s an even bigger one in the middle of the film, where Fatty’s face, surrounded by bushes, practically fills the screen) but its use for comic framing, emotional flow or comic timing really doesn’t, this still being the pre-BIRTH OF A NATION era.

As for Arbuckle, both these shorts surprised me some in that in neither of him does he either play a particularly sympathetic character, nor do they end “happily” for him — in the first he’s in jail, the second ends with him being beaten on by his wife.

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THE KNOCKOUT (Charles Avery / Fatty Arbuckle, USA, 1914, 5)

It gets a bit better here, partly because it’s a two-reel-long film versus the one-reelers above, which gives more time to develop a situation — Fatty defends his girl’s honor from unwanted attention from mashers and does it so brilliantly that he decides to take on the champ at an old-time boxing booth.

The second half of the film features a famous scene of the boxing match, with four of the silent screen’s biggest stars sharing the screen. There was Charlie Chaplin as the referee, the two fighters played by Fatty and Edgar Kennedy (“King of the Slow Burn” character actor and a real-life ex-boxer), and Mack Swain as a spectator (one of the great silent-comic heavies, particularly in THE GOLD RUSH and other Chaplins). It’s amusing but it’s all chaos because it basically all takes place in the framing that’s above. (There are some cutaways to the audience, with Minta Durfee, the real-life Mrs. Arbuckle, in male drag.) Swain is off to the side, distractingly mugging up a storm, Fatty and Charlie are each trying to steal the show (Charlie mostly wins that one, seemingly doing three things at one time) while Edgar and Fatty are trying to choreograph a believable comic fight.

There is one moment I will never forget because it was so unexpected in the midst of the usual Sennettic frenetics in stage-proscenium framing. Fatty is gonna take off his pants to change into boxing trunks. His eye catches the camera, he smiles at it, gestures with his hands, then the camera tilts up until Fatty is cut off at the shoulder. Change gear. Tilt back down. We see breaking the fourth-wall and an onscreen character “direct” the frame to do something then-unusual. This is in 1914. Before Griffith had finished BIRTH OF A NATION, the movies had pomo foregrounding of the text — self-referentiality when the medium hardly had a self to refer to.

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THE ROUNDERS (Charles Chaplin / Fatty Arbuckle, USA, 1914, 8)

Now we’re cooking. First film on the disc I’d unhesitatingly recommend to anyone, it’s a very simple premise that indicate that Fatty and Charlie could have made a great Laurel & Hardy team (not that they didn’t do rather well anyway). The two are clearly well off, in top hats and tails; this is just before Charlie becomes “the Little Tramp” and his character has a rougher, meaner edge — striking matches on bald man’s head, say.

The two men go home drunk, to opposite sides of a hotel hallway. Charlie is dominated by his battleax wife (incredibly funny as he tries to maintain his dignity while having the crap kicked out of him). Fatty is more indulgent toward his petite flower, but each couple hears the other quarreling, and the pratfalls begin. But the thing present here that’s absent from most Keystones is a few touches (only a few, but they go a long way) of character chemistry, strong image framing and believable reactions to all the hijinks. There’s a quick moment where Fatty and Charlie, having stolen some money from the ladies (a subtler gag than usual) go off to drink, walk around each other, lock arms and gallivant off. Chaplin’s grace and Fatty’s athleticism play off against each other well. And the basic situation is believable — the two want one thing, to get drunk and pass out, and spend the movie pursuing it.

There is a great scene where the two go to a swanky restaurant and decide that those tablecloths look … yawn … inviting. ROUNDERS also is that Sennett rarity that doesn’t end in a chase (not really, not when you think about it). Instead it ends on a boat, as shown above in the first image of Arbuckle I ever saw as a little boy,² with another of those surprising and rather ambiguous endings.

LEADING LIZZIE ASTRAY (Fatty Arbuckle, USA, 1914, 4)

In this short, Fatty plays an early version of his Country Boy Bumpkin character whose girl Lizzie gets fascinated by the city slicker who drives through the village. She runs off with a young Charley Chase, gets appalled by the vice there (dancing and drinking, y’know) and Fatty goes to the city to take her back and gets in a bar brawl.

Contrary to the commentary track, someone picking up a piano and throwing it into a wall or picking up a car by the bumper is not funny per se. But one of the magical things about silent films, and which rewards immersion in them, is that even when they’re aesthetically trivial, they can often retain interest as historical documents: in this case, of the values of the time.

First of all, you see America on the eve of Prohibition and the appalled reaction of Lizzie to the saloon, unremarked upon and taken as normal, tells you the psychology of how this social-policy mistake could have happened. There’s a similar “moment of non-recognition” in THE KNOCKOUT where, as I noted above, “Fatty’s girl” has to don male clothes to attend a fight, as if she were an Iranian soccer fan. Second, Fatty and Lizzie are engaged at the start, but you can piece together that they are living in the same home, though with the girl’s parents. LEADING LIZZIE ASTRAY doesn’t construct this “shack up” arrangement as leading Lizzie astray, in fact considers it completely unremarkable. Was this in fact a common arrangement at the time, I’m curious to know, from anybody with the requisite knowledge who may read this?

Also, in the Things You Knew About Film History That Aren’t True Department: Arbuckle the director cross-cuts between two simultaneous events to generate a kind of suspense, and to raise the moral stakes of the film — Fatty finding and reading the “I have run away to the city” note and assuring the in-laws-to-be that he’ll rescue her, while Lizzie and her new beau explore the fleshpots. He does this, again, before Griffith made BIRTH OF A NATION, usually credited with introducing this technique.

Next: Fatty and Mabel Normand team up
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¹ I consider the late-silent period, once the new medium had been fully developed, (1924-28 with some bleedover) to be maybe the greatest “wave” in film history.
² It was in a “true crime” magazine, an odd passion I had at age 9, to illustrate an article about the Arbuckle scandal and trial.

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June 8, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

SLAPSTICON – day 1

The grades are now up through Day 3 of this 4-day fest. Here’s thoughts on the first day of films.

THAT SPRINGTIME FEELING (F. Richard Jones / Syd Chaplin, USA, 1915) 4
THE MISSING LINK (Chuck Reisner / Syd Chaplin, USA, 1927) 7

These two films — a short and a feature respectively — were 12 years apart in time and light years apart in sensibility and the “character” played by the movies’ 3rd-most-famous Chaplin. In the earlier much-simpler film, Syd plays a character with some strong resemblances to the Little Tramp. Mack Sennett obviously sent the Keystone crew out to a nearby park to film a reel’s worth of pratfalls — broad types jumping up and down, running into each other, knocking each other over the head. It’s not my favorite style of comedy, and frankly my reaction to early Sennetts is based on whether there any sustained sequences, any gags allowed to build and develop. FEELING has one, but it’s very good — involving Syd trying to seduce a young maid on a park bench, while trying to keep modesty in front of the toddler she’s minding. Brilliant timing, especially with the 2-year-old (you do wonder “how are they getting the kid to hit his cue”). LINK came much later as part of a Syd comeback after he retired to look after his brother’s business affairs. Here, he plays someone more indebted to Charley Chase than Charlie Chaplin — a klutzy bourgeois coward who’s terrified of animals. So the plot requires him to go off to Africa posing as a legendary huntsman, trying to capture the missing link. The show is stolen by the animals though — an organgrinder’s monkey at the beginning, and a chimpanzee when they get to Africa — and like with the toddler, you’re amazed at these creatures’ timing. Not that Syd is worthless — he does well overseeing a fight among an African tribe’s warriors as if it were a boxing match (gesturing “no clubbing below the belt,” say), and he’s not bad at some of the pratfall humor. But he never have the amazement factor that Akka the chimpanzee can, who acts one scene, of messing with Syd and love interest Ruth Hiatt, with mechanical precision of gesture and timing that would do a Feydeau farce proud.

STUPID BUT BRAVE (Fatty Arbuckle / Al St. John, USA, 1924) 8

Another of the “finds” for me at Slapsticon is how much more I enjoy Fatty post-scandal, as a director of other actors, than an actor himself (although I’d see my favorite acting work of his to date on Day 3). The plot is a little more complicated than a lot of 10s stuff — it involves poor young lad Al St. John getting his dream job (a funny sequence in itself) and then having to travel to claim it. But the gags are brilliantly and ingeniously set up with both the precision plot logic and an eye for audience anticipation and underplay that I like — as in a lengthy sequence at a barber shop. Fatty also has a good visual sense of where to place the camera and how to fill the frame to set up the joke and make the impossible look possible, as during that barber shop sequence, when I saw for the first time ever, a human head (Al St. John’s) do a 720-degree twist. One bit player — the boss’s secretary — steals the movie despite basically performing just three gestures — holding a door, a yawn, and a line to the camera. The line is not hard to lip-read, and frankly my dear, it came 15 years before Clark Gable

PLAY SAFE (Joseph Henabery / Monty Banks, USA, 1927) 7

Actually released near-simultaneously with Buster Keaton’s famous THE GENERAL, PLAY SAFE ends with a two-reel looks-like-location-shot chase involving a train — and horses and tram cars and a racing car and a man being dragged by a horse, plus running on top of the train and playing with the tracks. The sequence is is often anthologized and is fully the equal of Keaton’s train chase in terms of kinetic energy, sustained suspense, athleticism and inventive gags. My favorite gags involved a water tower and the race car. And if you’ve ever wanted to see a man outrun a dog, unfaked, this movie is your chance. But the rest of the movie is not in THE GENERAL’s class. Monty Banks plays a nebbish who becomes a man — again, rather like Buster, and it invites an impossible standard of comparison. He’s not as sympathetic and he doesn’t have That Stone Face. And in fairness to PLAY SAFE, it was hard to judge the plot because the setup reels got scrambled. But that closing chase scene belongs with the greatest ever.

MANY SCRAPPY RETURNS (James Parrott / Charley Chase, USA, 1927) 8

It was a very good first day, as I think I also saw one of Charley Chase’s best (LIMOUSINE LOVE is the only one I’d rank ahead of it). Charley and his wife are happy, while his brother is unhappy in his quarrelsome marriage (My favorite exchange of the weekend: “Why did you ever get on you knees and propose? … If I was sober enough to stand up, I’d have known better.”) Charley and wife decide to fake a fight to embarrass them back. Of course, things go further than intended and lap over into other relationships — it’s like a merry-go-round that caroms off its supports, leaving Charley increasingly flustered and desperate and inventively scheming. Their initial quarrel has a couple of quick gestures — let’s just say they involve some currency notes — that go far toward demonstrating how even in a hurtling torrent of physical movement and “flow,” one quick moment of “ebb” can be the funniest thing in the movie.

CHICKEN FEATHERS (Walter Graham / Jack Duffy, USA, 1927) 6

Not bad at all for an unscheduled time-filler involving nobody I knew anything about. It’s the simplest of premises — not-all-there old grandpa hides $5,000 in a pillow that someone else in the house gives away to a charity sale, only to have one of the sale organizers salvage it, then give it to someone else, etc., like “THE PILLOW OF MADAME DE …” It wasn’t innovative or the first time I’d seen it at all (and even far more elaborately), but one neat small-things-around-the-edges feature of the Christie Comedies is how their titles cards use chalk stick-figure drawings (think Simon and the Land of Chalk Drawrings) to illustrate and better yet comment on the drama. Coming to my mind from CHICKEN FEATHERS, when we get the title card saying “I gave the pillow to so-and-so,” the drawing has someone throwing a pillow at someone else, as if in frustration (something which does not happen in the film). FEATHERS as a whole is consistently amusing and entertaining (if never exactly brilliant), and in a massive pillow fight near the end so covers one character with feathers that he has to deal with an inamorata from the local ostrich farm. “I’m just an old rooster,” he protests.

BRIDAL BAIL (George Stevens, USA, 1934) 5

Another unscheduled filler, expertly done though trading on a very thin premise. Girl and boy want to elope but then, after a complicated series of machinations, she marries her boy’s best friend as part of a ruse to allow her to marry her boyfriend (don’t ask). BRIDAL BAIL is fine when it sticks to the conventions of boudoir farce, misunderstandings, hair-breadth switcheroos and keeping up appearances. But I kept telling myself after the marriage, “why are they resorting to games THIS elaborate and desperate to keep knowledge of the marriage from the boyfriend.” And then to have him be so understanding sand have everything cleared up so quickly and simply when the script and the reel length requires the movie end. In other words, we have a specimen of the idiot plot.

CALLING ALL TARS (Lloyd French / Bob Hope, USA, 1935) 3
LET’S FACE IT (Sidney Lanfield / Bob Hope, USA, 1943) 4

Can’t say these films turned me into more of a Bob Hope movie fan. (True fact: I have never seen any of the Road pictures.) The short TARS has a couple of cute moments involving Hope and semifore (which is not followed up on) and co-star Johnny Berkes with gunpowder. But it’s completely disposable and is before Hope really shaped his standup persona. LET’S FACE IT is obviously not much better (4-vs.-3), Hope himself used it as fodder for “bad film” jokes and the film is also little-seen because of Copyright Limbo. But FACE at least has a couple of critical points worth making. There is a couple of wonderful Cole Porter songs — Betty Hutton’s performance of the debate-spread song “Let’s Not Talk About Love” is probably the film’s high point. And here, I finally saw what Woody Allen was getting at when saying he modeled his own persona in LOVE AND DEATH and other early films on Hope (something that made no sense to me from Hope’s standup). But I can truly say I will never forget this movie, and not for the best of reasons. The plot involves a scheming Hope as an Army soldier getting into debt and having to dig his way out of it, in order to marry and avoid the brig. So he gets a committment from a local dowager that he and two of his buddies will, for $300 (Hope also plans to bilk his buddies out of their share), “spend some time” with her and two of her elderly friends. Three girlfriends and three husbands with three young babes of their own complicate matters on the rendezvous time. Formally, it’s generally not very well handled; not as lickety-split as it needed to be. But this premise, which drives the movie’s whole second half, just felt so … weird. I’d be willing to bet there never was another studio-era American comic film premised on a basically sympathetic (if rascally) leading character turning himself and his best buds into prostitutes. If another such film exists, I’m unaware of it and frankly can’t even imagine its existence (FACE is also post-Hays-Code, keep in mind). It made the whole experience of the film … ill-fitting.

July 23, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment