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Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life

Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life(1915)

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teaser Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life (1915)

During the 1910s -- the years in which the distinctive style of comedy known as slapstick evolved -- one dynamic duo dominated the form: Mabel Normand and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Appearing in more than 50 films together over the course of three years (mostly one- and two-reel shorts, produced by Mack Sennett), they bore a profound influence on the industry and the innovative artists who would follow in their wake.

Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life (1915) shows that comic anarchy can erupt on even the most "poor but honest" farm. Fatty and Mabel are playful sweethearts, but their relationship is threatened by the attentions of the Squire's son (Al St. John), who offers to relieve a debt if he can have Mabel's hand in marriage. Mabel's father (Josef Swickard) considers the indecent proposal but the young lovers thwart the plot by attempting to elope -- a plan that goes hilariously awry as soon as the ladder hits the windowsill. The foursome chase each other through the house, until the comedy spills outside in a madcap automobile/bicycle chase. The two-reeler is capped off with an elaborate physical-comedy sequence centered around an uncovered well.

A more sophisticated side of Fatty and Mabel is seen in He Did and He Didn't (1916). Arbuckle and Normand star as a prosperous couple dressing for dinner -- a dinner that is complicated by the last-minute arrival of Mabel's old schoolmate, Jack (William Jefferson). After a heavy meal of lobster, the comic stakes grow increasingly higher as burglars (Al St. John and Joe Bordeaux) invade the home while Dr. Fatty is sent on a house call. He returns to find Mabel and Jack in a compromising position, and the knockabout comedy reaches a shockingly grim climax... or does it?

In Mabel and Fatty's Wash Day (1915), Mabel works her fingers to the bone while her ne'er-do-well husband (Harry McCoy) wallows in bed. Nearby, a portly house-husband (Arbuckle) also tends the washing, while being henpecked by a nagging wife (Alice Davenport). Eventually the suffering spouses realize their common plight and form a friendship. When the couples' paths cross during a morning stroll, Mabel and Fatty escape their balls-and-chains and enjoy a peaceful moment at a small cafe. The quietude is short-lived when the spurned spouses turn vengeful -- a situation further complicated by a case of mistaken purse-snatching -- causing the tranquil morning to end in slapstick chaos.

There are numerous conflicting accounts of how Arbuckle was discovered by pioneer producer Sennett, but the only undeniable facts are that he was already a seasoned vaudevillian, and that Normand was ensconced as the female star of the troupe (as well as Sennett's girlfriend). It took a while for Arbuckle to modify his comic style of performance to suit the screen, and for this reason Sennett doubted the comedian's filmic potential. Normand, however, recognized his promise and wielded enough power on the set to school Arbuckle in the subtleties of slapstick.

According to Arbuckle biographer Andy Edmonds, "Mabel never lost faith in her rotund co-star and coached him. She taught him when to ignore the camera and when to play to it to win audience sympathy or set up an 'inside' joke with the audience. She also gave him a nicer name, 'Big Otto,' because he looked 'German' like 'someone named Otto would look.' she joked. By this time others on the set had already started calling him 'Fatty.'"

Arbuckle always detested the monicker "Fatty" and no doubt appreciated Normand's more considerate nature. However, it was a standard practice that every comedy troupe have a so-called "fat laugh" and Arbuckle had begun his career filling that bill.

As Normand and Sennett's relationship cooled, the actress and Arbuckle began to have an "on-again off-again love affair" (Edmonds), even though the actor was married. On camera, a different sort of relationship was blossoming, one that was even more harmonic. They learned to play off each other's strengths and find a balance of comedy that allowed them equal status as movie stars (as a sign of their box-office equality, their names were often reversed in billing). It is believed that the pie-in-the-face gag (from which innumerable pie fights sprang) was innovated by Arbuckle and Normand in 1913, as a bit of on-the-set improvisation.

Sometimes Arbuckle was credited as director, sometimes Normand. Often no one received on-screen credit. In every case, evidence indicates that the Fatty and Mabel films were created in close collaboration.

Eventually, Normand and Sennett's relationship imploded -- when Normand caught Sennett in flagrante delicto with actress Mae Busch. In the ensuing fracas, Normand was struck in the forehead by a thrown vase. Physical and emotional complications of the injury (such as an attempted suicide and alleged substance abuse) kept her off the Arbuckle/Normand set for three months. According to some observers, her mental faculties were never quite as sharp (she never directed again), and her career began its quick decline.

Arbuckle tarried alone in her absence, and became Keystone's top box-office attraction, before moving on to a stellar solo career at Paramount.

Although they were once considered the Cadillacs of silent comedy, the Fatty and Mabel shorts have lost some of their luster over time. This is partly due to the Virginia Rappe scandal of 1921, which effectively ended Arbuckle's career. And Normand was embroiled in the William Desmond Taylor murder case of 1922. These high-profile Hollywood scandals should have made Arbuckle and Normand's careers ripe for reappraisal by contemporary viewers... yet their films go largely unseen.

One reason is that the Fatty and Mabel films belong to a different era, and rarely transcend the Victorian values from which they arose. Though the films delve into grotesque comedy, and have moments of visual inventiveness, they maintain a tone of innocent fun that by the 1920s had become outmoded. Arbuckle and Normand were quickly overshadowed in the roaring twenties by actor/directors who broadened the boundaries of early comedy, introducing new layers of emotional depth (Charlie Chaplin), cinematic ingenuity (Buster Keaton) and a spirit of modernity (Harold Lloyd).

Normand biographer Betty Harper Russell accurately captures the spirit of the Fatty and Mabel films: "The appeal of Fatty and Mabel was their innocence... They were absurd and lovable cartoons of the small-town rural America drawn by Mark Twain, country kids fighting and courting over the milking pails...Their knock-about spooning, marriage, adultery, and divorce burlesqued the violence of real social change and restored sex to innocence. In Mabel and Fatty's Wash Day, they commit adultery in the park by running off to share a soda pop: one bottle, two straws. In Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916), they pretend to be newlyweds, but they sleep in separate beds in their little doll house...They portrayed puppy love for a public nostalgic for love without sex, and they did it so well that when Arbuckle was later charged with rape, the public felt betrayed."

To call these films symbols of Victorian innocence is not to discredit Arbuckle and Normand, but to situate their films in the appropriate context so that viewers can realize just how important they were at the time.

The Fatty and Mabel films defined comedy of the 1910s. Of these films (and Arbuckle's directorial style), Edmonds writes, "Arbuckle's comedies were not strictly slapstick; they were a mixture of low comedy and high drama with highly charged action and tender love scenes. Though they failed to evolve to the sophisticated level of the later Chaplin comedies, they had their own look and feel, and stood above and apart from the majority of comedies the studios were churning out in the early teens."

It should be noted that some of Chaplin's earliest films were Mabel Normand vehicles (Mabel's Busy Day [1914], Mabel at the Wheel [1914], and Mabel's Married Life [1914]). In his book The Day the Laughter Stopped, David Yallop claims that Chaplin's characterization of the Little Tramp was constructed from Arbuckle's cast-off wardrobe: "From Roscoe he borrowed a pair of balloon-like trousers, which he tied around his waist, a small hat (one of Arbuckle's trademarks), and a pair of outsize shoes... Amused, Arbuckle and the others watched, and Chaplin, encouraged, proceeded to put together the basic costume for what was to become one of the screen's greatest characters."

Chaplin wasn't the only innovator nurtured by Arbuckle and Normand. Once Arbuckle set up his own production company at Comique/Paramount, he hired stage comedian Buster Keaton and tutored him in screen comedy. Keaton's first fifteen films were made under Arbuckle's supervision, and when Keaton was given the opportunity to star in his own line of films, he did so with Arbuckle's blessing.

Had their careers not been derailed by scandal, perhaps Normand and Arbuckle might have kept pace with the other comedians who occupy the higher pedestals in slapstick's pantheon. Rather than speculate, one should instead savor the fruits of their labor, and appreciate the importance of these cornerstones of silent comedy, upon which other cinematic geniuses were allowed to build.

MABEL AND FATTY'S WASH DAY 1915
Director: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
Music: Donald Sosin
Cast: Mabel Normand (Mabel), Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (Fatty), Alice Davenport (Fatty's Wife), Harry McCoy (Mabel's Husband), Luke the Dog
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HE DID AND HE DIDN'T 1916
Director: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
Producer: Mack Sennett
Screenplay: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
Music: Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Cast: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (The Doctor), Mabel Normand (The Doctor's Wife), William Jefferson (Jack), Al St. John (The Burglar), Joe Bordeaux (The Burglar's Accomplice)
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FATTY AND MABEL'S SIMPLE LIFE 1915
Director: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
Producer: Mack Sennett
Music: Donald Sosin
Cast: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (Roscoe), Mabel Normand (Mabel), Al St. John (The Squire's Son), Josef Swickard (Mabel's father), Joe Bordeaux (Farm Hand)
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by Bret Wood

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Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life (1915)

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was one of the greats of silent comedy, as popular in his day as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Unfortunately, a 1921 scandal, involving the death of a young starlet (Virginia Rappe) following one of Arbuckle's parties, abruptly ended his career and turned public opinion against him. Arbuckle was charged with rape and manslaughter and though he was eventually acquitted, his career was ruined.

Arbuckle got his start, like most performers of that time, in vaudeville. He went to work for Mack Sennett at Keystone Studios in 1913, where he appeared in countless short films. TCM is highlighting six of Arbuckle's Keystone comedies (both one and two reelers), all from 1915.

Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life (1915) - In this silent short, a farmhand defies his boss to court the man's daughter.

Producer: Mack Sennett
Director: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
Cast: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (Roscoe), Mabel Normand (Mabel), Al St. John (The Squire's son), Josef Swickard (Mabel's Father).
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Fatty's Chance Acquaintance (1915) co-stars Arbuckle's real life wife Minta Durfee but she doesn't play his wife in the film. Billie Bennett appears as Fatty's domineering wife, who becomes the target of a purse-snatcher. Durfee strikes Fatty's fancy as the girlfriend of the thief. Arbuckle and Durfee met in 1908 when they were both hired as summer performers at a Long Beach hotel. They would marry at the end of the season on August 6, 1908. When Arbuckle signed with Keystone in 1913, Durfee went with him. Her first film was Fatty's Day Off (1913); she and her husband would co-star in at least forty films over the next few years. Durfee also had a role in Chaplin's first film, 1914's Making a Living. She stuck by Arbuckle through the scandal, though the couple did separate and in 1925, their divorce was made official. Durfee virtually disappeared from Hollywood for twenty years. She turned up again in the forties and continued to play minor roles into the 1970s in films such as The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), How Green Was My Valley (1941), An Affair to Remember (1957) and The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). Minta Durfee lived to be 86 years old; she died September 9, 1975.

Producer: Mack Sennett
Director: Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle
Cast: Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle (Fatty), Billie Bennett (Fatty's wife), Harry McCoy (Pickpocket), Minta Durfee (Pickpocket's girlfriend), Frank Hayes (Cop), Glen Cavender (Man in park).
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by Stephanie Thames

Mabel's Wilful Way (1915) is a silent farce starring the great team-up of Mabel Normand and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Mabel is a girl trying to take a break from her overbearing, uncouth parents while on a jaunt at an amusement park. Two cash-strapped pals, played by Arbuckle and Edgar Kennedy (a veteran character actor who would later tussle with the likes of Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers), enter the picture and begin a romp through the park, annoying cops, vendors and Mabel's parents alike.

The comedy short was a Keystone Film Company production, distributed by Mutual Film Corporation and produced by Mack Sennett. A pioneer of quick, cheap and popular film comedies, Sennett was strictly a craftsman. He was certainly not an artist on the scale of a Buster Keaton or his former contract player, Charlie Chaplin. Sennett did have an eye for talent, however, and he was smart enough to nurture it, or at the very least, keep that talent in front of the camera until the public demanded more of him or her. The most important "her" in Sennett's earlier days was Mabel Normand.

Normand was the most talented and unique of America's silent screen comediennes. The paying public adored her, and her colleagues loved working with her. She had that certain something that came to be known as star quality. She figured out early on that the power of film acting was not in the exaggerated movement of the body, but in the sublime subtlety of the eyes. Mabel's eyes are expressively mischievous in Mabel's Wilful Way. Watch her give a sly glance to the camera when she wrangles Arbuckle into paying for her ice cream cone, as if she's bringing the viewer in on the ruse. She wasn't the first to directly address the camera or break down that proverbial fourth wall, but what she did do was elevate the Mack Sennett brand of comedy from rambunctious knock-about shtick into a star-driven vehicle for the special talents of someone like Normand, Arbuckle and later Chaplin.

That's not to say that Mabel's Wilful Way is like an Ibsen play. There's plenty of physical slapstick in the film, mostly from the mirthful girth of Mabel's co-star, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Roscoe was a Sennett player who stood out from the crowd immediately because of two traits that in lesser men would be mutually exclusive: physical size and natural athleticism. Despite hovering between 250 and 275 pounds, Arbuckle was a prime acrobat, tumbler, sprinter, diver, and swimmer (he frequently took mile-long swims in the Pacific, often with Normand). He was the most capable athlete on the Keystone lot, and was the only member of the Keystone Cops who was never injured performing any of the numerous stunts throughout the years. He wasn't just strong and solid. Arbuckle was agile with amazing flexibility. He had to be, in order to move as gracefully as he did in front of the camera. (Much later, actress Louise Brooks remembered that dancing with Arbuckle was like dancing with a floating doughnut.) In Mabel's Wilful Way, this floating doughnut provides two massive pratfalls that require re-watching in slow motion, just to see how he pulled them off without injuring himself.

When Sennett teamed up Mabel and Roscoe, the partnership proved to be a durable success. Of the sixty-six films Mabel Normand shot from June 1913 to May 1916, thirty-six were with Arbuckle. It was a chemistry that spelled big money for Sennett. He said at the time, "There is perhaps not a superior combination on earth from the standpoint of good comedy to Miss Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle." But the professional coupling wasn't just a blessing for Sennett and delighted audiences. It became a strong and lasting friendship between Mabel and Arbuckle and his wife, another Sennett player, Minta Durfee. You can see this natural and sweet rapport between the two in Mabel's Wilful Way during the scene set next to the bear cages. When Normand fell on very hard times and her career ended, and even after he himself fell on even harder times, Arbuckle remained loyal to Normand until she died from tuberculosis in 1930.

During pre-production, Mabel's Wilful Way was referred to as an "Idora Park Story." Idora Park stood as the shooting location for the entire one-reel comedy. It is such a delightful location, that it is easy to glance away from the shenanigans going on for the camera and take in the sights of Idora Park. (In one scene, you can spot a spectator in a clump of thick trees, trying to get a close look at Arbuckle performing for the camera.) The park was a Victorian-era trolley park in North Oakland, California from the 1890's until 1929. What began as a pleasure ground in a rural setting for Sunday picnics and an opera house evolved over time into the finest amusement park in that part of the San Francisco Bay. It featured such novelties as a large roller-skating rink, a slide, a roller coaster, a scenic railway, a merry-go-round, an amphitheater, a movie house, a large restaurant, an auto racecourse, and several other midway attractions (including a bear pit, which Arbuckle and Normand stand next to during one scene). Vaudeville performers often used Idora Park stages, including a not-quite-ready-for-primetime-film-stardom, Roscoe Arbuckle.

Director: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett
Cast: Mabel Normand (Mabel), Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle (Fatty), Joe Bordeaux (Cop), Glen Cavender, Alice Davenport (Mabel's mother), Edgar Kennedy (Fatty's pal).
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by Scott McGee

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