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Slapstick comedy is known for its manic pace (further accelerated by "undercranking" the camera to achieve a faster speed, especially in chase scenes). But almost as fast as the on-screen antics was the rate at which two-reel comedies were produced. In the year 1919, for example, Arbuckle appeared in 45 films -- practically one per week -- 30 of which he directed.
There is precious little information about the process by which these filmmakers worked, as no one seemed to feel it worth reporting behind the scenes. Maybe they just didn't have the time. Considering the pace of production and volume of film they generated, the filmmakers themselves can be excused for not creating a written record of their methods.
One of the few bits of slapstick reportage appeared in the April, 1918, issue of Photoplay, and it, too, is lacking in detail: "'Writing' Comedy with Fatty Arbuckle." The anonymous author observes, "Comedy making is largely inspirational. Most of the 'gags' are evolved on the scene, so that the 'writing' of the vehicle is largely a matter of physical experimentation. Many times the screen comedian keeps his entire company on the set for hours, just to provide him with the atmosphere necessary to work out his 'gags.'
"'The gag's the thing' is the gospel of the makers of slapstick comedy. And very often when the 'gags' are coming good, the plot -- if there happens to be one -- is tossed into the scrap heap to make room for the 'gags.'
"Roscoe Arbuckle, like Charlie Chaplin, likes to dope out his funny stunts right in front of the camera, even if it is not in operation, but 'Fatty' is more generous with his footage so far as his colleagues are concerned -- he lets them 'get' the laugh if it improves the completed product."
Indeed, most slapstick shorts have only the merest tissue of a plot. Usually, they are comprised of two comic situations (one per reel), which are little more than springboards for improvised visual and physical humor.
The 1919 two-reel short Love certainly follows the formula. This rural comedy (a popular slapstick subgenre) follows the unfriendly rivalry between Fatty (Arbuckle) and Al (Al St. John) as they vie for the attentions of Winifred (Winifred Westover). So synonymous were actors with their personae that they generally carried the same first names -- a convention that endures to the present in star-driven TV sitcoms, the modern equivalent of the silent-era two-reeler.
The setpiece of Love's first reel is a water well, into which Winifred's father (Frank Hayes) tumbles. Numerous attempts are made to extract the angry farmer, who clings to a bucket suspended by rope and crank. The simple situation -- the man rising and plunging -- allows Arbuckle and company a suitable platform for extensive slapstick experimentation.
Once the father is removed from the well, Al successfully wins the father's endorsement by offering to give him a plot of land if Winifred is allowed to marry him.
In the second reel, Fatty takes desperate measures to counteract Al's plot. In one of Arbuckle's signature bits of female impersonation, Fatty dons drag and takes a job as the cook in the farmer's household. Fatty wreaks havoc by slicing soap into the family stew, then insinuates himself into Winifred and Al's wedding rehearsal, where he devises a clever ploy to reclaim his girl.
Love was made two years before Arbuckle's career was derailed by the Virginia Rappe scandal of September, 1921. In 1919, the actor/director was nearing the height of his fame, and was one of the key names at Adolph Zukor's Famous Players Studio (Paramount). To keep the ambitious filmmaker happy, Zukor was struggling to match offers coming in to Arbuckle from rival studios. According to Robert Young Jr.'s Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle: A Bio-Bibliography, Metro pictures (later to evolve into MGM) was offering $1.25 million per year. Zukor won Arbuckle's loyalty by adding a clause to his contract that carried greater weight than a cash raise.
"The change he had in mind was to feature-length films, a compliment not previously paid any comedian, including Charlie Chaplin," Young writes, "After talking with [producer] Joe Schenck and [business partner] Jesse Lasky, Zukor went to Arbuckle with an offer to purchase exclusive rights to his next twenty-two films, which, he said, would be features of five reels or more, not two-reel. Financially, the arrangement discussed with Schenck guaranteed Arbuckle what might well total $1 million a year for three years. This meant a weekly income of some $4,500 ($3,000 from Paramount, $1,500 from a contract with Schenck, plus twenty-five percent of the profits from Comique).
"By now, urged by Schenck, he moved to live in a style commensurate with his high earnings. Almost overnight, he became Hollywood's newest example of conspicuous consumption." He also became a conspicuous target for those who reviled the Hollywood elite's penchant for sin and excess. Ironically, it was Arbuckle's crowning success (the transition to high-profile feature filmmaker) that set the stage for his downfall.
This edition of Love was reconstructed from film elements preserved by the Danish Film Institute and La Cineteca Del Friuli.
Cast: Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle (Fatty), Al St. John (Al Clove - Fatty's rival), Winifred Westover (Winnie), Frank Hayes (Frank - Winnie's father), Mario Bianchi (Farmhand).
by Bret Wood