Monday, September 2, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #54: "Fatty Arbuckle Festival" (1913-1915)

An unintentionally creepy promotional poster for Fatty Joins the Force

Fatty Arbuckle & Mabel Normand
NOTE: This program consists of four brief silent films comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle made for producer Mack Sennett at the landmark Keystone Film Company between 1913 and 1915. Born in 1887 in Smith Center, Kansas, Arbuckle (surprisingly agile for his size) enjoyed a successful vaudeville career before becoming one of comedy's first major screen stars with a series of well-received short films. He was poised to become the greatest comedy star of the 1920s when he signed a lucrative contract with Paramount, the very studio where the Marx Brothers would one day make their greatest films. But Fatty's career was derailed in 1921 by a scandal which has since vastly overshadowed all of his screen work and inspired any number of documentaries. In a grim coincidence, the comic's downfall occurred over a Labor Day weekend that fateful year, when he attended a party whose guests also included obscure actress Virginia Rappe. Four days after the infamous party, Rappe died in a sanitarium after having been raped. Arbuckle was falsely accused of the crime, and his films were banned. 
After three heavily-publicized manslaughter trials, the rotund comic was eventually acquitted and received a letter of apology from the jury, and his films again went into circulation. His career never really recovered, though, and the former comedic great died at the young age of 46 from a heart attack, on the verge of a comeback attempt. Today, his sad life is frequently used as a cautionary tale about the power of the media to destroy the careers and reputations of public figures. The four films I'm reviewing today, however, were made before all of Arbuckle's troubles. His frequent costar during these years was Mabel Normand, a brunette comedienne whose life was also short and scandal-plagued. Popular in the 1910s, Mabel was vaguely involved, though never an actual suspect, in two prominent murder cases of the 1920s. Her career in decline, Mabel died of tuberculosis in 1930 at the age of 37.

The first flick: Fatty Joins the Force (Mutual Film release of a Keystone Film Company production, 1913) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.3

Director: George Nichols (Broken Blossoms or the Yellow Man and the Girl; The Merry Widow; one of Mack Sennett's top directors in the 1910s; died in 1927)

Actors of note: Fatty Arbuckle (Go West, Coney Island, The Rounders, etc.), Dot Farley (Cat People, The Women, Hail the Conquering Hero), Edgar Kennedy (Peck's Bad Boy with the Circus, Money Means Nothing) George Jeske (directed Oranges and Lemons), George Nichols (this film's director), Charles Avery (prolific actor-director of the 1900s and 1910s; an original Keystone cop; was with Mack Sennett even before the Keystone days)

The gist of it: Fatty and his best gal (Farley) are strolling through the park when a little girl falls into the lake. Fatty clumsily saves her and becomes a public hero, since the girl was the daughter of the Police Commissioner (Nichols). After meeting with the Commissioner, it is decided by all that Fatty himself should join the police. He does so, immediately gaining the admiration of all his fellow officers.

During his first day on the job, Fatty -- now attired in his spiffy new uniform -- goes for a stroll with his girlfriend and witnesses a fight. Attempting to break it up, he is knocked to the ground. Later, he is taunted by a group of young hooligans who throw food at him and then run away. Unable to catch them, Fatty strips down to a bathing costume worn under his uniform and goes for a swim. The hooligans, of course, take his uniform and shred it. A passerby takes the tattered uniform back to the station house, where the cops assume Fatty has drowned and go into mourning for him. Meanwhile, the very-much-alive Fatty is spotted by two women who are shocked to see a man dressed so informally in public. Fatty is beaten, arrested, and taken to the police station, ironically interrupting his own memorial service. Enraged by the new recruit's utter incompetence, the cops throw Fatty into a cell, while Fatty's girl romances the desk sergeant (Avery).

A fashion icon?
My take: Think Paul Blart: Mall Cop, only regressed back to the Woodrow Wilson era. That's what this movie is like. Today, Fatty Joins the Force plays like a rudimentary collection of comedy cliches, orchestrated without much ingenuity or originality. But that's a 2013 perspective. A century ago, this material was probably very cutting edge. Or maybe Mack Sennett just didn't have a lot of competition back then.

I will say that this film is not as stagy or stiff as I feared it might be, with the camera simply planted in one place for long, long takes. While the camera does not move much (or at all), the shots themselves do not last long. The framing, too, is decent. The relatively nimble use of editing improves the film's sense of pace and offers the viewer a bit of visual variety so that things don't become too stale. But, otherwise, this is a museum piece with more historical than comedic value. I was inordinately amused, for instance, by the fact that Fatty's sweetheart dresses a lot like the Sun-Maid Raisin girl. Why a cop would take his girlfriend on patrol with him is beyond me, but maybe it's to illustrate (as if we hadn't already guessed) that Fatty is kind of an idiot.

Is it funny: Occasionally, I guess. Fatty does one heck of a good pratfall. That's for sure. His screen character is naive, clumsy, and imbecilic, but he doesn't engender much audience sympathy because he's basically a cipher with no subtlety or depth. There's not much to this film beyond "a big, dumb fat guy falls down a lot." Sorry to be so blunt, but that's the heart of this movie. I guess the one sequence which really made me laugh is when the two prudish women report Fatty to the other police officers patrolling the area. The intertitle card says: "THERE'S A WILD MAN AT LARGE." Apparently, they've mistaken him for some kind of deranged savage. And I guess it's always kind of satisfying to see an authority figure, like a cop, being totally outwitted and outmaneuvered by small children. The ending, however, seems a little harsh with Fatty weeping from his cell while another cop steals his gal. Some reward for saving the Commissioner's daughter!

My grade: B-

P.S. - Nothing even close to a racial stereotype here, folks.

Will Fatty Arbuckle defy his community's barbaric anti-spooning laws?

The second flick: Fatty's Spooning Days* (Mutual/Keystone, 1915) [buy the set]

*also known as Mabel, Fatty, and the Law or Fatty, Mabel, and the Law

Current IMDb rating: 5.1

Director: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (directed The Red Mill, The Butcher Boy, Back Stage, etc.)

Actors of note: Fatty Arbuckle (see acting credits above), Mabel Normand (Tillie's Punctured Romance and many other comedic short films of the 1910s), Harry Gribbon (Ghost Parade), Minta Durfee (An Affair to Remember, Around the World in Eighty Days; married to Fatty Arbuckle from 1908-1925), Josef Swickard (You Can't Take it With You)

The gist of it: A woman (Normand) overhears her hubby (Arbuckle) playing the piano and is delighted... until she finds he's playing music for the entertainment of a flirtatious chambermaid. Fatty's wife clobbers him in anger as he tries to explain himself. Elsewhere, another husband (Gribbon) is getting too cozy with his maid, angering his wife (Durfee) in a similar, though less violent, fashion. The two couples, both in the process of making up, decide to head to the park. But once there, the two couples split up. Hubby #1 starts flirting with Wife #2, and their counterparts do likewise. But there are cops hiding everywhere in this park, vigilantly enforcing the "no spooning" rules. They descend upon Hubby #1 and Wife #2, who are hauled off to jail and must either pay $30 or spend 30 days in a detention cell. They call their respective spouses to bail them out, and in the end all four go their separate ways once outside the police station.

An overzealous officer in Spooning Days.
My take: First, to understand this film at all, you must know that "spooning" meant "to kiss or cuddle" back in 1915. Apparently, the police had very little tolerance for public displays of affection back then. What's being ever so gently implied in this story is that Harry Gribbon and Fatty Arbuckle are swapping wives. Both men are also apparently having affairs with the hired help, but this too can only be hinted in a very vague way. Without this background knowledge, Fatty's Spooning Days is an almost incomprehensible series of images, a baffling quasi-narrative only made more elusive by the fact that the two wives -- Normand and Durfee -- look almost identical, apart from their hats. Even with the proper perspective, this film is tough sledding for the modern viewer. It was made two years after Fatty Joins the Force but seems somehow even more rudimentary and primitive, as if it were made ten years earlier.

Is it funny: Nope. The movie's one funny idea is that there are cops hidden everywhere in the public park, looking for smoochers they can bust. Do the cops in this town not have anything else to do? There's even one police officer in a tree, watching Arbuckle and Durfee through a telescope. For me, the only laugh-out-loud moment in Fatty's Spooning Days comes at about the 6:14 mark, when a cop comes up behind the immodest couple and blows his whistle, instantly summoning forth a swarm of police officers who surround Arbuckle on all sides. A couple even seem to drop into the frame from somewhere above, like ninjas. Arbuckle has an expressive face and a knack for physical comedy, but he's not too terribly inspired as a director here. Sorry, Roscoe.

My grade: C

P.S. - At least there are no stereotypes here.

The credits for Fatty's Suitless Day feature its awesome alternate title, Fatty's Magic Pants.

The third flick: Fatty's Suitless Day* (Mutual/Keystone, 1914) [buy the set]

*also known as Fatty's Magic Pants

Current IMDb rating: 5.5

Director: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (see above)

Actors of note: Fatty Arbuckle (above), Minta Durfee (above), Harry McCoy (Fury, Tillie's Punctured Romance), Alice Davenport (Tillie's Punctured Romance, Making a Living, Tango Tangles, etc.), Phyllis Allen (Tillie's Punctured Romance, The Pilgrim, Pay Day), Charley Chase (Laurel & Hardy's Sons of the Desert; considered one of the greats of silent comedy), Edward F. Cline (directed Peck's Bad Boy with the Circus and The Villain Still Pursued Her), Slim Summerville (Niagara Falls, I'm From Arkansas)

You couldn't tango without a tuxedo back in 1914.
The gist of it: It's the day of the Grand Benefit Dance, but Fatty doesn't have a formal suit of clothes for the occasion and is, thus, in danger of losing his sweetheart (Durfee) to his arrogant rival (McCoy). After asking his mother (Allen) for fifty cents to rent a tux for the night and being violently refused, Fatty simply steals his much-skinnier rival's suit from a very convenient clothesline. Somehow, the suit fits him perfectly, and Fatty and his gal go to the dance, wowing the crowd with their grace and skill. But the rival sneaks into the ritzy affair and sabotages Fatty, humiliating him and creating public mayhem in the process.

My take: Following two rather pokey and pedestrian efforts, Fatty's Suitless Day brought a much-needed dose of zaniness to this collection and proved to be a somewhat better showcase for Roscoe Arbuckle's comedic talents. It's the first of these short films to make an issue of Arbuckle's weight, but the viewer will likely be impressed with how nimble and fleet-footed he is, especially during the dance sequences. I've read in various places that the late Chris Farley wanted to star in a Fatty Arbuckle biopic, and watching Fatty's Suitless Day, I could definitely see Arbuckle as a precedent for some of Farley's famous SNL characters, including motivational speaker Matt Foley and would-be Chippendale Barney.

Other than that, this film gives us a glimpse into what life was like a century ago -- at least as far as fashion is concerned. The "casual" suits worn by Fatty Arbuckle and Harry McCoy would actually be pretty dressy by today's standards. And can you imagine renting a tuxedo for fifty cents? Even adjusting for inflation, that's only about $12. By far the film's most baffling sequence takes place at the dance, when McCoy manages to rip the stolen tuxedo right off Fatty's body and then chases him around while firing a pistol wildly into the air. Everyone freaks out at the sight of Fatty in his underwear, but people hardly seem to notice the insane man with a gun following him.

A comedy classic
Is it funny: Yes, rather. Storytelling is not a great strength for Fatty Arbuckle as a filmmaker, but there are plenty of individual gags which work quite well here. One particularly good moment occurs when Fatty fools his rival McCoy with the old "hey, look over there!" routine and then (in a very unsportsmanlike move) clobbers him over the head with what seems to be a blunt object hidden inside a newspaper -- only to be clobbered right back by an outraged Minta Durfee, who has witnessed the whole thing.

Come to think of it, Arbuckle gets a lot of physical abuse in this movie. He's a perennial loser in these short films, but his luck has never been worse than it is here. Even his own mother totally kicks his ass, in what is the movie's single-funniest sequence. I also enjoyed the film's finale in which a cop (Summerville) forces Fatty to cover himself up by wearing a wooden barrel around his midsection. You don't get too many good "guy wearing a barrel" jokes these days.

My grade: B+

P.S. - As for stereotypes, I believe one character seen briefly in the film is meant to be a caricature of a Jewish tailor. But I'm going to declare this one mostly stereotype-free.

Auto racing comedy The Speed Kings again featured Mabel Normand alongside Fatty.

The fourth flick: The Speed Kings (Mutual/Keystone, 1913) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 4.8

Director: Wilfred Lucas (directing credits include The Sphinx and The Romance of Tarzan; as an actor, appeared in Chaplin's Modern Times, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and much more)

Ford Sterling
Actors of note: Ford Sterling (chief of the original Keystone Cops; appeared in He Who Gets Slapped, Alice in Wonderland, etc.; Harold Lloyd considered him the funniest man in Hollywood), Mabel Normand (see above), Fatty Arbuckle (see above), Teddy Tetzlaff (famous but notoriously reckless race car driver, one of the most famous of his time but never won the Indy 500), Earl Cooper (another famous race car driver of the early 20th century, though more "methodical" than Tetzlaff; never won at Indy either), Barney Oldfield (first driver to ever reach the incredible speed of 60 miles per hour; like his co-stars, failed to win the Indy 500)

The gist of it: Less a comedy than a showcase for the then-relatively-new sport of auto racing, The Speed Kings centers around a father (Sterling) and daughter (Normand) who are rooting for competing drivers in a big auto race. Daddy prefers "speed demon" Earl Cooper (himself), while his daughter only has eyes for "speed king" Teddy Tetzlaff (himself). The father even sabotages Tetzlaff's car to ensure that he doesn't win. After a dusty, action-packed race, Cooper is the victor and the scheming father offers the driver his daughter's hand in marriage, but she sneaks off to be with Tetzlaff instead. Meanwhile, the father gets into a physical altercation with a masher (Arbuckle) who had manhandled his daughter during the race.

"Terrible" Teddy Tetzlaff
My take: Despite being the finale of a collection called Fatty Arbuckle FestivalThe Speed Kings hardly features Fatty Arbuckle at all. In the first half, the most we really see of Fatty is a brief walk-on. Mabel Normand has more screen time, but much of that is spent sitting in the stands and cheering on her auto racing paramour, "Terrible" Teddy Tetzlaff (whose name is misspelled "Tetzlaft" here). The choicest role goes to Ford Sterling, who plays a goateed, black-hatted villain in the Snidely Whiplash mold. He gets to ham it up outrageously, and (eventually) he makes a good foil for Arbuckle because they're such polar opposites physically.

The plot, though, is an absolute mess. One gets the sense that the film barely even had a script. The motivations of the characters are never clear, and it's tough to differentiate between the various drivers.

This film's real historical value is not as a comedy but as a record of what auto racing was like a century ago. I honestly didn't know that the drivers worked in two-man teams back then, but that's how this film depicts the sport. Car nuts may be more intrigued by this film than I was. Two of the celebrity guest stars, Earl Cooper and Barney Oldfield, are in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. "Terrible" Teddy Tetzlaff, meanwhile, was quite a colorful character: a notorious, devil-may-care hellion whose only "strategy" during a race was to drive as fast as possible without falling off the track. If I gave a damn about the early days of high-speed auto racing, I might consider The Speed Kings quite a find. As it is, it merits little more than a shrug.

Is it funny: In the two brief sequences showing Ford Sterling and Fatty Arbuckle wrestling, The Speed Kings is momentarily amusing-ish. I laughed out loud exactly once during this film, and that was when Sterling angrily leapt off the ground and tenaciously attached himself to his much-taller opponent like a deranged barnacle clinging to the side of an ocean liner. Sterling and Arbuckle go through this routine twice -- once in the middle and again at the end. Other than that, this is an almost entirely laugh-free flm. This plays like a documentary about auto racing with a tiny bit of slapstick edited in.

My grade: C+


P.S. - Stereotype-free again. So there's that, at least.