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Remind Me

Comedy Shorts Directed by William Goodrich aka Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle

In spite of being acquitted of manslaughter in the 1921 death of actress Virginia Rappe, in spite of the fact that the jury issued him a formal apology, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's name was ruined in Hollywood. Fortunately, names can be changed, so it was not the absolute end of Arbuckle's career, but bouncing back from the "trial of the century" was not a simple task.

In 1922, Arbuckle was officially banned from filmmaking by the Hays Office (the MPPDA). Though this dictum was retracted in December the same year, the major studios were still unwilling to give the notorious actor/director a second chance.

Though he might adopt a new name, his face and trademark rotundity were not so easily disguised. Therefore his acting career was essentially shut down. Since he had directed many of his own comedies (as early as 1914), the most logical position for him to resume was the helm. So, in 1924, Arbuckle re-christened himself William Goodrich and began directing movies again.

Not welcomed by the major studios, Arbuckle turned to an independent company, Earle W. Hammons's Educational Pictures which, a few years earlier, had branched out from documentaries to produce low-budget slapstick shorts. There, Arbuckle was reunited with a number of third-tier comedians with whom he had worked during the salad days.

The films "Goodrich" directed between 1924 and 1932 function within the traditional framework of slapstick. Though not especially innovative, they disprove the perception that Arbuckle was a has-been. They are as lively, playful and clever as anything he had made during his "prime," maybe more so. The quartet of shorts presented by TCM all deal with established, almost hackneyed genres, yet they manage to twist these comic conventions into something fresh.

Curses! (1925) stars Al St. John, who had been Arbuckle's recurring co-star (along with Buster Keaton) in the Comique Film Series of the late 1910s. A parody of the barnstorming melodrama, it features St. John as a "cold-blooded villain" named Buttonshoe Bill, so named because he literally has two left feet. This "freak-footed" felon terrorizes the beautiful Nell (Bartine Burkett) in order to steal her father's valuable papers. At first the film seems like a routine spoof, until -- seven minutes in -- the film abruptly ends, as if it were a cliffhanger serial. A moment later, "Chapter Two" begins. A few minutes later there is another episode break, then another. In the end, the 18-minute film is comprised of five episodic chapters, which mock the conventions of the serial while poking fun at the hero's ability to continually foil the antagonist.

In Curses!'s funniest jab at melodrama cliché, the damsel is strapped to a log and placed on the conveyor belt of a sawmill. The villain and the hero, Rodney Hemingway (no actor credited), vie for control of the sawmill, causing the girl to shuttle back and forth, perilously close to the teeth of the spinning blade. "Now we're going to see what little girls are really made of," cackles Buttonshoe Bill. In another spoof at the potboiler, the villain tries to kill the hero by binding him within a preposterous Rube Goldberg contraption that employs a bellows, rope, a boulder, and a can of snuff to send him to his doom. Many films had parodied the Victorian melodrama, and the spoofs would continue for years to come, yet Curses! is especially notable because it not only plays with the simplistic idea of heroic good vs. dastardly evil, but also toys with the cinematic techniques employed by these white hat/bad hat dramas.

Fool's Luck (1926) is not as ambitious as the oddball Curses!, but is no less funny. London-born Lupino Lane stars as the pampered Percy, whose wealthy uncle suddenly withdraws his monetary support for the young dude. Percy seeks to restore his financial security by wooing a girl (Virginia Vance) with a wealthy father (Jack Lloyd). Less important than plot are a series of slapstick setpieces, such as a piano-moving routine in which Percy is dangled outside a skyscraper on a grand piano, tenuously held by a single rope. Afterward, the piano is loaded atop a truckload of furniture, which hurtles through the streets of Los Angeles, with Percy perched at the top and no one in the driver's seat. The hair-raising thrills reach a climax when the truckload of possessions finally comes to a stop... on a set of railroad tracks. The comic payoff is an almost shot-by-shot reenactment of the climax of Buster Keaton's One Week (1920). One can assume that Arbuckle borrowed the scene with Keaton's blessing not only because that's how slapstick comedy evolved, but also because Arbuckle gave Keaton his start in the movie business in 1917. During Arbuckle's trial (and in the decades that followed), Keaton remained one of the beleaguered actor's most loyal supporters.

The Movies (1925) revisits the familiar genre of the behind-the-scenes comedy, the best-known previous examples being The Extra Girl (1923, starring Arbuckle's former screen partner, Mabel Normand) and Charlie Chaplin's Behind the Screen (1916). In The Movies, Lloyd Hamilton plays a small-town boy who moves to the big city and runs afoul of a traffic cop and a bully before landing in the Café Montmontre, a Hollywood eatery patronized by costumed actors and extras. The film really comes alive when Arbuckle introduces a fresh wrinkle. While the Country Boy is dining in the restaurant, the actor Lloyd Hamilton comes in for lunch, along with his director. Through the use of an effective split-screen technique, the character played by Hamilton interacts with the character of Hamilton the actor. This is further complicated when Hamilton the actor is injured and the Country Boy is hired to take his place. Sometimes the funniest gags are the simplest of all, as when the Country Boy is trying to play a love scene with an Egyptian vamp. So excited about his dumb luck, he cannot stop smiling and giggling through the exotic love-making. It is sadly noted that while Hamilton played himself on screen, Arbuckle was not even allowed to make a cameo as Hamilton's director. Instead, the role is played by Frank Jonasson.

Hamilton spent much of his career in the comedy duo of "Ham and Bud" (opposite Bud Duncan), appearing in over 100 films between 1913 and 1917. After going solo as a screen comic, hard-drinking Hamilton suffered a scandal of his own in 1920, foreshadowing Arbuckle's career path. Taken into custody at a speakeasy on the night of a highly-publicized murder, Hamilton was banned from studio pictures. Although he was able to continue working under his own name, he was forced to leave First National (which later became Warner Bros.) and found a new home making low-budget films at Educational Pictures in 1921.

My Stars (1926) was a vehicle designed to capitalize on Johnny Arthur's penchant for mimicry. He plays a dressmaker's son in love with a girl who is movie mad. When the girl challenges him to make love like Milton Sills (Burning Sands [1922]), Arthur dons a sheik's robes and pours on the romantic charm. As the fickle girl sways in her stellar crushes, Arthur scrambles to play the various objects of her affection, offering clever parodies of Douglas Fairbanks's soaring agility and Harold Lloyd's irrepressible pep.

The Virginia Rappe trial did not leave Roscoe Arbuckle a defeated, artistically broken man. Nor was he just a blacklisted director trying to turn a buck. These films reveal him to have been an ostracized artist who remained attuned to the mechanics of cinema and continued to experiment in ways to mine its comic potential. It is just unfortunate that his experiments could not have been conducted under better conditions. Arbuckle (who was once paid $1 million per picture) was banished to a resource-poor studio. By working under an assumed name, he could no longer capitalize on his past accomplishments, and any success he might achieve was attributed to a person who didn't exist.

CURSES!
1925
Directed by William Goodrich (Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle)
Screenplay by William Goodrich
Music by David Drazin
Cast: Al St. John (Buttonshoe Bill), Bartine Burkett (Nell).

FOOL'S LUCK
1926
Directed by William Goodrich (Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle)
Screenplay by William Goodrich
Photographed by Bert Houck
Music by Philip C. Carli
Cast: Lupino Lane (The Dude), George Davis (His Valet), Virginia Vance (The Girl), Jack Lloyd (Her Father).

THE MOVIES
1925
Directed by William Goodrich (Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle)
Screenplay by William Goodrich
Photographed by Byron Houck
Music by Philip C. Carli
Cast: Lloyd Hamilton (The Country Boy), Marcella Daly (An Actress), Arthur Thalasso (The Villain), Frank Jonasson (The Director), Glen Cavender (A Traffic Officer).

MY STARS
1926
Directed by William Goodrich (Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle)
Screenplay by William Goodrich
Music by Philip C. Carli
Cast: Johnny Arthur (The Boy), Virginia Vance (The Girl), George Davis (The Butler).

by Bret Wood

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