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Character Studies

Character Studies(1923)

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In his influential 1949 Life Magazine article "Comedy's Greatest Era," James Agee pronounced the "four eminent masters" of slapstick: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon. Ever since, film enthusiasts have debated who else should be included in the pantheon of silent comedy. Conspicuously absent from the short list is Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who was a comedy superstar from 1914 to 1921.

The slight was due in part to the controversy surrounding the comedian, who was tried for manslaughter in the 1921 death of Virginia Rappe. He was acquitted in April 1922, but his reputation was irreversibly blackened and he was effectively banned from the American screen.

But this only partially explains why Arbuckle's name is largely absent from the film history books (except in regards to scandal, censorship and blacklisting). There is another reason, perhaps spawned by the first: his films have been allowed to scatter and decay because there were no caretakers of the Arbuckle legacy. Chaplin and Lloyd were astute businessmen who carefully preserved their original negatives and maintained copyright control of their films. Keaton and Langdon, less adept at converting their images into marketable commodities, were championed by legendary film collector Raymond Rohauer, who preserved and archived their films and made prints available for repertory theatrical screenings in the latter half of the 20th Century. The Rohauer estate has since licensed Keaton and Langdon's films to video and television.

Arbuckle had no such champion, no known personal vault of films. As a result, his films -- and his reputation -- have been allowed to dissipate in the 80 years since his career-crushing scandal (Arbuckle died in 1933 at age 46).

"Many key Arbuckle films are missing, presumed lost. Those titles which do exist are usually found in the form of battered release prints, heavily edited reissues, or duped out reduction copies, which are so far removed from the original material that it is difficult to make out any of the action." So explains Paul E. Gierucki, director of restorations of the monumental four-DVD collection The Forgotten Films of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (Laughsmith Entertainment/Mackinac Media). By working with "archives and private film collectors around the world," Gierucki, producer Bruce Lawton and company have amassed a broad sampling of Arbuckle's massive career. The collection consists of 28 shorts, a feature and a sprinkling of supplemental material.

Arbuckle's career as an actor spanned more than 150 films. As did most silent comedians, Arbuckle spent his early years assuming a variety of comic guises before defining the popular on-screen persona for which he would be remembered. Not surprisingly, Laughsmith concentrates most of its attention on those films in which Arbuckle is in the role of "Fatty," since these are the films responsible for his overwhelming fame throughout most of the 1910s.

Presented chronologically, the collection begins with "Fatty Joins the Force" (1913), in which he takes a turn as a Keystone Kop. This is the earliest surviving film in which Arbuckle is clearly the star, and the film could be considered a vehicle for the burly actor (who was already a four-year veteran of the movies).

Another notable entry is Love (1919). Carefully restored from two incomplete, but complementary, prints (one Italian, one Danish), it is punctuated with radical special effects and frenetic action, and is probably the best indicator of what Arbuckle's craft might have evolved into had his career been permitted to continue.

The collection allows viewers to sample Arbuckle's directorial talents -- not only in the popular Keystone and Comique films he directed anonymously, but also in the low-budget comedies he directed after the name Arbuckle had become mud. Adopting the moniker William Goodrich, he directed numerous short comedies for the low-rent Educational Pictures. Sometimes he recreated the thrills of his own glory days, but eventually he began to define his own directorial style. In the surprisingly funny talkie Bridge Wives (1932), Arbuckle's former sidekick, Al St. John, assumes centerstage as a man driven insane by his wife's obsession with bridge. In one remarkable moment, St. John, sitting, reading a newspaper, crosses his legs and "kicks" the shot across the room to focus on the Mrs. (Fern Emmett).

Arbuckle's acting career was drawing to a close just as comedians were making the transition from shorts to feature-length films. Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd had yet to make their own full-length vehicles when Arbuckle starred in Leap Year (1921). Never commercially released in the U.S. (due to the outbreak of the Rappe scandal), its appearance here constitutes something of a premiere, and a rare cinematic treasure indeed.

The print quality of the films varies, as one might expect considering their pedigree. However, Laughsmith has made the most of the surviving footage, handling it with extreme care and attempting to restore it to its original look and feel. Most of the title cards have been rendered in period-appropriate styles. The films are backed by musical scores from a variety of seasoned silent film accompanists, including Ben Model, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Donald Sosin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra. A handsome 36-page booklet accompanies the discs, with essays addressing various aspects of the Arbuckle legend (and a handy reference guide to the contents of the massive four-DVD set).

A standout among the collection's sparse supplemental features is Character Studies (circa 1921), a film of impressionist Carter De Haven mimicking the screen's greatest stars, Arbuckle, Keaton and Lloyd among them. The gimmick, however, is that De Haven isn't really assuming their identities. Through a clever bit of editorial chicanery, the actual stars stand in for themselves, making De Haven's skills seem extraordinary, until he transforms himself into a child (Jackie Coogan), thereby giving away the joke.

If the collection has a weakness, it would be the nature of the films themselves. Arbuckle's glory years occurred just before slapstick blossomed from the Pulcinella knockabout comedy for which it was named, into the quirky, visually innovative and frequently graceful stylings of Chaplin, Keaton, et al. Viewers attuned to the later, more sophisticated form of comedy may require time to adjust to the more traditional jesting of the 1910s. But Arbuckle ultimately wins the audience and reveals (for the first time in decades) just how important he was in the evolution of slapstick. Moments such as Arbuckle bouncing on a trampoline of telephone lines thirty feet above the ground in Fatty's Tintype Tangle (1915) or simply chasing a hat caught on a ceiling fan in The Waiter's Ball (1916) are all the evidence one needs to believe that the Arbuckle legacy has indeed gotten short shrift.

Judging from Arbuckle's films -- especially those in which he appears alongside Chaplin (The Knockout and The Rounders, 1914) and Keaton (Coney Island, 1917) -- he might have taken silent comedy to new levels of expression and earned the mantle of "eminent master." But circumstances caused that promise to remain unfulfilled. The Forgotten Films of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle is a wondrous achievement in preserving and celebrating Arbuckle's career, but it cannot help but expose an unfortunate void in the slapstick chronology and make us wonder what might have been.

For more information about The Forgotten Films of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, visit MacKinac Media. To order The Forgotten Films of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, go to TCM Shopping.

by Asa Kendall, Jr.