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Coney Island

Coney Island(1917)

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Although remembered most for the scandal surrounding the death of actress Virginia Rappe in 1921, Arbuckle was a major figure in the development of slapstick comedy. Rising to fame in Mack Sennett's Keystone comedies, he was among the first performers to assume creative control of his films. Arbuckle served triple-duty as actor/writer/director, and even formed his own production unit, the Comique Film Company. He is also credited with discovering Buster Keaton (who was previously a vaudeville performer), bringing him to the screen and offering him an apprenticeship in the art and politics of filmmaking.

Keaton wrote in his autobiography, "Roscoe -- none of us who knew him personally ever called him Fatty -- took the camera apart for me so I would understand how it worked and what it could do. He showed me how film was developed, cut and then spliced together." When he took the job as movie comedian, Keaton apparently didn't discuss wages with his new employer, and admitted being "quite surprised to find just forty dollars in my pay envelope at the end of the first week." But Keaton's stature in the industry quickly grew. "Six weeks later I was increased to $75 and not long after that to $125 a week."

Arbuckle and Keaton's regular co-star, comedian Al St. John, never achieved the solo success of his comrades, but had a prolific career as a comic sidekick, first in the Arbuckle comedies and later in a series of low-budget westerns (where he held the recurring role of "Fuzzy" Q. Jones).

The common formula for the Arbuckle/Keaton/St. John comedies was for the three principals to violently vie for the affection of a young woman, in this case Alice Mann. Coney Island (1917) begins with the lass on Keaton's arm. When her beau cannot afford entry into Luna Park, she waltzes away with St. John. Once Fatty escapes from his wife by burying himself in sand on the beach, he charms the girl away from St. John (then sprays the jilted suitor with a mouthful of ice cream). The competition grows comically violent and increasingly outrageous. When Fatty and the girl go for a swim, there are no bathing suits large enough to fit him, so he swipes the swimsuit of a woman, and spends most of the film's remainder in drag, delving into the women's dressing room and later using his girly charms (and sausage-curl wig) to seduce girl-hungry St. John. As if this were not enough for a two-reel short, Fatty and St. John wind up in jail and begin sparring in their cell, literally tearing the bars from the walls.

During the shooting of the bathhouse scene, one actress pulled a prank on the rotund actor/director. She entered Arbuckle's dressing room with a costume question. She held up two bathing suits to her body, asking his preference, then dropped both, revealing no clothes underneath. According to David Yallop's book The Day the Laughter Stopped, "Roscoe ran from the room and instructed [business manager] Lou Anger to fire her immediately, even though they had already shot two days of film with scenes including the ambitious girl. She was replaced, and the two days shot over again."

Beyond the comic talents of the seasoned slapstick cast, Coney Island is a fascinating historical snapshot as it offers glimpses of New York's famed Luna Park. The film includes a nighttime view of the park, fully illuminated with thousands of incandescent bulbs, the boat chute, a strange bumper-car ride on a floating track called "The Witching Waves," and, through the magic of stock footage, an extravagant Mardi Gras parade.

Arbuckle's ambitions were not limited to the silver screen. In 1919, he bought a baseball team: the Vernon Tigers (part of the Pacific Coast league). At the season opener, Arbuckle's pals came to support his new venture. "Fatty, Al St. John and Buster Keaton put on a side show," said the New York Telegraph. "Dressed in the garb of the Vernons they staged a game all their own, using a plaster of Paris bat and ball. The result when ball and bat met may be imagined." By the end of the season, the stress of running a baseball team and his own film studio was too much for Arbuckle. "It makes me too darn nervous," he told the Los Angeles Herald, "After two hours and a half of that, I can't do anything else I want to. The excitement makes my stomach feel bad." The Tigers won their second straight pennant that season, and Arbuckle sold out his interest in the team.

Director: Roscoe Arbuckle
Producer: Joseph M. Schenck
Screenplay: Roscoe Arbuckle and Herbert Warren
Cinematography: George Peters
Cast: Roscoe Arbuckle (Fatty), Buster Keaton (Buster), Al St. John (An Old Friend), Alice Mann (The Girl), Agnes Neilson (Fatty's Wife).

by Bret Wood

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