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

Shameless promotion of others, part 2

I have a good gift idea for any movie fans on your list, particularly fans of classic and silent movies. Some people at alt.movies.silent, a Usenet newsgroup where I have posted some (but mostly lurk), have put out the 2004 edition of their annual silent-films calendar, which you can order here.

The 2003 edition is peering over my workspace right now. This month is Mabel Normand; past months have included Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and the German cartoon THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED. All money beyond production costs goes to the UCLA Film and Television Archive for preserving silent films. The 2003 calendar raised almost $700 — not bad for the avocational project of a silent film orchestra.

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

DVD pricing strategies, part 2 (Laurel & Hardy)

dvdboxlh.jpgI suppose I should say to myself “what do you expect from a 2-DVD set you picked up for $6 in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart?” Well, some truth in advertising. That impulse pickup was of a Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy DVD set, put out by Platinum Disc Corp. under the “TV Classics” series. I’d be madder than I am if I weren’t enjoying some of what I’m seeing in the stead of what I expected.

On the box cover, you see the pair in their classic look — their familiar bowler hats, with Stan in his bowtie and dumb innocence and Ollie’s girth and moustache. Thing is though, that of the “14 episodes” advertised (actually two features and 12 shorts), only in the features and “as celebrities” in a Pete Smith short, do we see their familiar “Stan & Ollie” characters. And of the 10 other shorts I’ve now either seen or been able to trace the Internet Movie Database credit, only in one do they act together onscreen, and it’s not in their iconic roles … but more on that in a second. The others have one or the other acting or Stan directing. Before Hal Roach put the team together in 1926-27, Ollie had been played supporting “heavy” roles in shorts by the likes of Larry Semon, and Stan had played a more hyper (but equally clueless) character and directed some.

semon.jpgThe real discovery for me in the several shorts was Larry Semon, who starred in THE SAWMILL and KID SPEED, with Hardy playing the villain. In the early 1920s, Semon was sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, though he’s hardly known today. Unlike many of the silent comedians, his slide was not the result of sound — he died in 1928 and his career had been on the skids for a few years even before that. Still these two films, from 1922 and 1924 respectively, give a good sense of what Semon had going for him.

Of all the silent comedians, his style was the closest to that of a traditional circus clown — he played a child-like dynamo with a rubberlike face and large features exaggerated by a thorough face-blanching makeup job (KID SPEED has a couple of whiteface/blackface gags that I did laugh at). His clothes were even more ill-fitting than Chaplin’s: he wears a bowler hat with overalls that almost reach his armpit. That small body and delicate-looking hands make him an ideal “victim” for the massive Hardy. And Semon’s films feature some spectacular stunts amidst broad physical knockabout — of cars crashing off bridges and people falling several stories onto one another. There’s even space for the subtlety of Semon sitting on a log that gets sliced in half lengthwise, missing his back by inches.

Unfortunately, the pictorial quality of these prints is not very good (there are a lot of visual hiccoughs, even stepping on the punchlines) and the scores just have generic-sounding piano music seemingly played at random. Semon’s character doesn’t (for now) seem that deep, but he looks like a comedian who’d be worth a rediscovery and a proper restoration of his work, a surprising amount of which survives.

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The Laurel & Hardy “together” short that I saw was LUCKY DOG, their first appearance together. But it’s from 1921, several years before they became a permanent team. This film (only the first reel of which was on this DVD set, though) starred Stan as a naif dandy and Ollie plays a mugger who holds up Stan at gunpoint. It’s amazing in retrospect that nobody thought to team them up before Roach did several years later, realizing that their contrasting personalities and “Another Fine Mess” story lines could get you several laughs for the price of one — the gag itself; Stan’s vacuous, puzzled reaction; Ollie’s frustration with Stan; Ollie turning to us to plead for our sympathy for having to deal with this dolt; Stan’s solicitousness with regard to Ollie’s (often unjustified) exasperated superiority.

But LUCKY DOG doesn’t rely for its interest on a trivial bit of casting coincidence — that Stan-Ollie dynamic, what made the team tick, is amazingly present in this 1921 film. For example, when Ollie tells Stan at gunpoint to turn around, rather than go against the fence, Stan does a 360. When trying to fish out his wallet, Stan unthinkingly hands his dog to Ollie, who unthinkingly accepts it before bursting into rage. These are jokes that could easily have come from one of their 1930s Hal Roach features.

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Virginia Film Festival — part 2

These are the other films that I saw last weekend at the Charlottesville fest:

bigbusiness.jpgBIG BUSINESS (James W. Horne/Laurel & Hardy, USA, 1929, 7)

It’s marvelous just how simple and elemental some of the great silent comedies are. This short has Stan and Ollie as salesmen trying to sell Christmas trees door-to-door. It starts out as Simple Stan vs. Know-It-All Ollie and their not quite being on the same page, particularly vis-a-vis what went wrong last time. But then things change when they try to sell to an aggressively uninterested James Finlayson … now it’s Stan-and-Ollie united against Finlayson in a destructive game of one-upmanship. BIG BUSINESS quickly becomes very funny for two reasons: 1) the totally civilized nature of the destruction for a very long time — each party waits his turn to destroy something of the other’s; and then 2) the thorough, obsessive nature of the destruction when it becomes simultaneous — it’s not enough for Finlayson to put a dent in the boys’ car, no … he has to rip it apart piece by piece until it’s just a hunk of scrap. And he does. While Stan & Ollie are destroying his home. One thing though — a commercial DVD projected onto a big, auditorium-size screen looks like crap.

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SEVEN CHANCES (Buster Keaton, USA, 1925, 9)

I saw this silent masterpiece, about Buster’s efforts to get married by 7 pm lest he lose a million-dollar inheritance, for the first time in a theater. But, like with FOOLISH WIVES, it had a musical accompaniment about which I wasn’t crazy going in. The “avant-cabaret band” Anne Watts and Boister played some very anachronistic music (e.g. a rearrangement of the main hook from Pink Floyd’s “Money” when the will is discussed) and did quite a bit of sound effects. But again, like with FOOLISH WIVES, I found myself increasingly not caring as the film progressed. If a silent film is great, and SEVEN CHANCES is, it absorbs and recodes the score rather than being absorbed and recoded by it. I stopped hearing the anachronisms and heard only the band’s jaunty, lilting beat, underlining the film. Which is wonderful as ever. Keaton’s creative visual sense (the framing of the opening sequence of shots; the automobile dissolves); the way he shades gags as the plot moves along, like a musician developing variations on a theme (we get nearly every variation possible on the ‘impossible proposal’ theme); there’s the great chase scene (one of the most images in silent-film history is the Great Stoneface avoiding the boulders), but just as good is … uh, a football field; plus, there’s Snitz Edwards, one of the great silent-film supporting characters. Simply one of the greats.

reconstruction.jpgRECONSTRUCTION (Irene Lusztig, USA/Romania, 2003, 5)

A terrific premise squandered by self-indulgence. The director’s grandmother was one of a gang of about a half-dozen who committed the only bank robbery in Communist Romanian history. After catching the robbers, the dictatorship made a 1961 police procedural film called RECONSTRUCTION that forced the robbers to re-enact their crime for the benefit of the film. After the film was over, all the men were executed and the grandmother’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Now, Lusztig has the 1961 film, which begins this current movie of the same title, and returns to present-day Romania to discover all about the crime and her grandmother — an unspeakable subject in her Jewish family while she was being raised in the West. It’s a terrific premise, full of historical, personal, political and cinematic-critical places to go, but Lusztig concentrates on the least interesting angle — the relationship between her, her mother and her grandmother and other family issues. It’s not that the resulting film is actively or aggressively bad (it’s sometimes affecting, particularly involving the resentments the mother had toward the grandmother); it’s just so personal and hermetic that it’s hard to see why anyone outside Lusztig’s family should care about it. That’s what’s self-indulgent about RECONSTRUCTION — it’s not arty or rambling or bombastic (though there is way too much lumpy metaphor early on in the voiceover — try “our family was like Japan, an island fallen in upon itself” or “I must start this story from somewhere. But that ‘somewhere’ would have a background too” as a bar pickup line sometime). It’s like somebody inviting you over to see his home movies from his Paris trip and it’s all pictures of himself and his friends, and imprints of the Sylvia Plath poems he wrote in his journal. With subject matter this good, that’s not good enough.

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THE KILLING (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1956, 8 )

First time I saw this film, the earliest film Stanley Kubrick owned up to (his third overall), on a big screen. Compared to the kind of visual wonders that Kubrick made late in his career — 2001, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE or EYES WIDE SHUT — THE KILLING doesn’t really gains very much on a theater screen over TV and video. It’s a clever heist film, set at a racetrack and shot cheaply with lots of voiceover, and works mostly as an intellectual puzzle (note: hint of later tendencies). Kubrick juggles the time sequence around, and used the same shots of the start of the seventh race in about five different places and shows the same scene (e.g. the fight at the bar) shot from a different character’s POV to enhance the film’s fated, ritualistic, incantatory quality (note: hint of later tendencies) and to comment on perspective (note: hint of later tendencies). Contributing to the terrible overlay of fate, the omniscient narrator explains or shows at several points how things might have worked out a difference of one minute here or a few steps there (note: hint of later tendencies). But things of course don’t work out because of a fluke (note: hint of later tendencies). The finest moment in THE KILLING though is all its own — the shot of the loot from the heist being blown to the wind, to the noise, as the camera holds obsessively on the money stack until the last bill blows away. Every. Last. One.

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HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE (Jean Negulesco, USA, 1953, 6)

Pleasurable comedy once it gets started after an unforgivably long orchestral overture, with shots of the orchestra filling up every damn inch of the “V i s t a V i s i o N” screen. I’ll leave it to the feminists to actively complain about a film about three models (Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall) setting themselves up in a fancy Manhattan pad they can’t afford in order to nab a millionaire for marriage, and soon. (Though when you think about it, it does play like a comic version of the radical feminist argument that marriage is a form of prostitution.) But this flaming reactionary will admit that he found the premise of blatant Material Girl-ism and men as prey to be kinda dumb and discomforting, like a distaff MAN SHOW. And the filmmakers know it; the plot plays out as if already rebutting charges of being an apologia for gold-digging — the only one to marry a millionaire does so unintentionally. Don’t even think about what Lubitsch could have done with this cast and story — you’ll only drive yourself to tears. Still the film has Marilyn’s face, Bacall’s legs and Grable’s voice. And Grable, rather than Marilyn plays the dumb role. And you see Marilyn wearing glasses. And you see Bacall flaunt her calves. And you get the 1950s-movie version of the maxim about what men don’t do to girls who wear glasses (and no … that’s NOT it).

tycoon.jpgTYCOON: A NEW RUSSIAN (Pavel Lounguine, Russia, 2003, 8 )

Before I actually say anything about this movie proper, let me to rant about the title the English-language distributors have given it. The film’s title in Russian is “OLIGARKH” according to both the IMDb and my viewing notes (I can read the Cyrillic alphabet, though I know the language not at all). So why translate that title into English as “TYCOON,” since the cognate “Oligarch” is a perfectly good English word that would have fitted this movie just fine? Plainly … to give Western art-house audiences a socialist warm fuzzy (“this is what a ‘tycoon’ is … boooooo”), despite the events in this movie having nothing to do with capitalism as practiced in the West (though it’s clearly how Russians see the system they have that goes by the name “capitalism”). And that is precisely what makes OLIGARKH interesting as a film. It invites comparison to CITIZEN KANE in terms of its structure (an investigator tries to learn about a newly dead man through his friends, which become flashbacks in the movie), and that’s not a good comparison to invite … Newsflash: This movie is *not* as good as CITIZEN KANE. OLIGARKH, a roman a clef supposedly based on the life of Kremlin power broker Boris Berezovsky, covers a lot of ground in 130 minutes, which is both its strength and its weakness. Its strength in the sense that it takes up the insane ambition of telling The Russian Story, trying to be the film that sums up its era, and OLIGARKH would be an important and interesting film almost for that reason alone. But it has some very funny scenes, my favorite being Viktor taking an economics oral in the days of Scientific Socialism, and Lounguine also has a knack for the iconic image (the yachting party and the Navy veterans being reduced to being a backing band for these Bright Young Things). However, the vice of this virtue is that the film feels rushed at times, as though it wants to tell us *everything,* and some of the Kremlin machinations late in the film left me a little confused. Maybe that was the point too.

November 3, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment