Posted by David Kalat on March 19, 2016
DVR alert: there is a fabulous block of Roscoe Arbuckle comedies coming up on Sunday night, way past your bedtime. Roscoe appears onscreen in only a couple of them, but taken together this is an opportunity to see the great Roscoe Arbuckle working and collaborating with a wide variety of comic talents of the teens and twenties: Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Lloyd Hamilton, and Johnny Arthur. (Don’t worry if you didn’t recognize that last name—you’re not missing out on much. But hopefully the other names rang some bells, and if not, just keep reading and I’ll catch you up).
Seeing Arbuckle’s collaborations with some many disparate talents is important, because it can help settle some misunderstandings—but I won’t tell you just why, yet, because I want you to click the dashed line below and keep reading. So, if you can’t already guess why comparing Arbuckle’s work with different comedians might be revealing, or if you’re burning with curiosity to find out why “Lloyd Hamilton” is, then come on, click the fold, and let’s party on!
There are two historical events that have colored Roscoe Arbuckle’s reputation and legacy, generally for the worse. The first of course was that scandal. I don’t like mentioning it, because as I’ve written about here before (link) there’s a perverse irony involved: the mass audience has long ago forgotten who Arbuckle was. There is no longer any reason to argue over whether he should be called “Fatty Arbuckle” or “Roscoe Arbuckle.” His fans take umbrage at that term, since we know he hated being called “Fatty” (“I’ve got a name you know” he used to respond). But nowadays nobody other than us is talking about him at all. All we have do, as a community of film aficionados, is just keep calling him “Roscoe Arbuckle.” The rest of the world, having never heard of him, will have no reason to object, and we can quietly change his name back on his behalf without any fuss. The same thing applies to the scandal—most people have no idea that ever happened. So as long as we don’t talk about it, we can let it be buried and move on with honoring Arbuckle’s memory the way it should be—as a comedy genius.
The problem is, as far as that second hiccup in Arbuckle’s legacy, we really are the problem, not the solution.
I’m talking about the day he met Buster Keaton. From 1917 to 1919, Arbuckle’s movie career would be tied up with Keaton’s. And then, of course, Keaton went off to make his run of unfailingly superb solo shorts in 1920, while Arbuckle would be arrested a year later and his screen career was driven off a cliff.
So the first edge of this sword is that we have Arbuckle’s career seemingly coming to an end as Keaton’s begins, so there’s a natural tendency to view their collaborations as being more significant in terms of Keaton’s role, since he was the rising, as opposed to waning, star. The other edge is that Keaton has many, many more fans than Arbuckle does—so there are many people whose only exposure to Arbuckle is through, and in relation to, Keaton. Between those two aspects, it becomes habit to read Arbuckle’s films in connection with Keaton first and foremost.
Consider Backstage, one of the shorts TCM will be screening in this package. It’s a 1919 two-reeler co-starring Keaton and Arbuckle, one of their last collaborations before Keaton went solo. I have many books on Keaton that observe the similarity between this film and later Keaton works—such as the fact that it features an early version of the falling wall gag Keaton famously used in Steamboat Bill Jr. wherein he survives by standing miraculously where the window hole happens to be. Or that the opening scene in which one reality is torn apart and revealed to be a stage set being dismantled was also reused in Steamboat Bill Jr. Or that the overall tone and structure of the short prefigures Keaton’s Playhouse. And, according to my books, these similarities are evidence that Keaton was the primary creative influence at work in Backstage and that’s why there is that similarity.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it proceeds from a familiarity with Keaton’s films and a relative unfamiliarity with Arbuckle’s; where overlap is found between the aesthetics of Arbuckle/Keaton collaborations and later Keaton films the assumption is simply, “well that must mean Buster was the common denominator.” It seems churlish to me that critics routinely deny Arbuckle the credit for any great comedy ideas that surface in the films he made with Keaton.
There’s a signature Arbuckle gag that appeared several times in his filmography—1913’s Mother’s Boy, 1915’s Fatty’s Plucky Pup, and in 1917’s The Rough House. None of these are being screened this time, but I’m going to talk about them anyway. The bit involves Arbuckle discovering that his bed is on fire. What will he do?
If this were any other slapstick clown star, you’d probably find him running around frantically, jumping up and down, waving his arms in an expression of panic. He might rush to get a garden hose, and spray himself in the face with it. Then he’d spray the hose all through the house, destroying furniture and furnishings as thoroughly as if he’d let the fire run its course.
This is not what Arbuckle does. Instead he moves deliberately, carefully, to get a single cup of water. Then another. He pauses to take a refreshing drink from the third.
It’s a good gag, and worth repeating (and, it should be noted, appears to have originated with Max Linder around 1910). But part of what charges it with such comic energy is the context: Roscoe Arbuckle was one of the first stars to emerge out of the chaotic comedy of Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio. Sennett’s ethos was centered on mayhem and havoc. Sennett style slapstick was about “going big.” Small complications would lead to massive overreactions and violence. And in this world of excess, Arbuckle made his name by subverting the formula. His contemporaries would tear the world asunder for a joke—Arbuckle, faced with something as genuinely calamitous and demanding of immediate attention as a burning bed, took his time to daintily fill a demi-tasse of water, one splash at a time. No hurry. Nothing worth expending any real energy on.
And in that simple gag we find the essence of Arbucklian comedy distilled. In a world dominated by slapstick, Arbuckle created his laughs out of comic irony. He was post-modern before anyone else had even gotten around to being modern.
In a gag he repeated at least as often as the burning bed routine, Arbuckle is about to change clothes when he turns to the camera, gets the attention of the cameraman, and directs him to pan up so as not to expose Roscoe’s nudity.
Keaton repeated the gag in his first solo short One Week. It’s hard not to see that as a direct lift from Arbuckle—but it’s rarely commented on.
Part of the package of shorts being screened includes an oddity called Curses! Starring Arbuckle’s nephew Al St. John in a silly parody of cliffhanger-style serials. It’s the kind of gag-a-minute parody that Airplane! does for disaster movies.
Then there’s The Movies with Lloyd Hamilton. Although his career was cut short by alcoholism, during his heyday Lloyd Hamilton was a talented and funny slapstick clown with a persona not unlike that of Roscoe Arbuckle. They worked together in the 1920s when Arbuckle was forced into working as a pseudonymous director in the aftermath of his scandal, trial, and subsequent exoneration. Together, Arbuckle and Hamilton collaborated on three short comedies, of which only this one is known to survive.
Hamilton makes a great Arbuckle stand-in here, in a film whose absurdity and self-referentialism show Arbuckle’s distinctive hand at the wheel. The story involves a young hayseed (Hamilton) who is warned by his country folk family to stay away from the moving pictures—but no sooner does he arrive in the big city than he is recruited by talent scouts to join the picture business. The reason they want this inexperienced rube? Because he’s a dead ringer for—wait for it–Lloyd Hamilton, who wants his lookalike to handle his more dangerous stunts for him!
This is followed by My Stars, in which Virginia Vance plays a movie-struck gal, who can’t stop swooning over her movie mags and the pictures of her favorite stars. Hoping to get her attention back, Johnny Arthur takes to lavishly appointed impersonations of the various stars—but he can’t quite keep up with her fickle fixations. Finally, he hits on a well-timed Harold Lloyd impersonation, just in time to sweep her off her feet and into a Harold-Lloyd-esque stunt-addled chase climax.
Taken together, these are a disparate mix of films made over a spread of many years for a variety of corporate entities involving many different kinds of comedians and performance styles. Yet there is a common thread—theatrical and/or cinematic self-referentialism, and a preference for absurd sight gags over raw slapstick.
And since these are the dominant characteristics of something like Backstage, it starts to be more plausible that these are the comic characteristics of Arbuckle’s vision. Perhaps they recur in Keaton’s later work not because they were unique to him, but because Arbuckle was his friend and mentor and he was profoundly influenced by him?
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