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Silent Sunday Nights - January 2014
Remind Me

Fatty Arbuckle Shorts

Two men meet on the grounds of a movie studio, in 1913. One of the men is Mack Sennett, and the movie studio is his--a ramshackle venture of misfits and clowns who make short comedies known for unmitigated chaos. The other man is Roscoe Arbuckle, a minor vaudevillian touring with his actress wife Minta Durfee. The "meeting," if you want to call it that, is a fleeting moment of destiny, as absurd as anything Sennett ever cooked up on screen. Mack comes barreling along, a busy man in a swirl of cigar smoke, when he spies the portly Roscoe, a man he'd never seen before. Without skipping a beat, Mack points to Roscoe and hollers, "You! Be here tomorrow at eight o'clock! Whaddya know, you might be a star someday."

And sure enough, within the year, Roscoe Arbuckle was Mack Sennett's top moneymaker, and one of the most beloved comics in the world.

It was not, mind you, an overnight success. No, it took weeks. The Sennett factory, then called Keystone, cranked out short comedies at a frantic pace--over 140 shorts in just 1913 alone. Arbuckle appeared in a handful of supporting roles in numerous hastily made shorts before he found his footing as a leading man.

And just in case you were wondering--yes, Roscoe Arbuckle and "Fatty" Arbuckle were one and the same. The name "Fatty" first appeared in the 1913 short Fatty's Day Off. By 1915, it was official studio policy that he would forever be called by that name in all publicity and screen credits.

Privately, however, he was always and ever Roscoe. When fans called him by his insulting screen name, he scoffed, "I've got a name, you know." But even the name "Roscoe" had a hidden cruelty. He'd first been called "Fatty" in elementary school--he'd been born a healthy 16-pound baby, and weighed in at 180 pounds by age ten. But his parents were skinny people, and Father Arbuckle doubted this chubby child was his. He named the boy after "Roscoe Conkling," a philandering Republican Senator that Mr. Arbuckle hated, as his way of memorializing his doubts.

Roscoe hated the name "Fatty." It reduced him to a mere attribute, ignoring his extraordinary physical grace and acrobatic agility, his absurdist comic imagination, his cinematic proficiency, his Midwestern hardworking ethic, his loyalty. But that handle, cruel or no, made him a toplining movie star at a time when few screen actors were ever even identified.

At the beginning, Arbuckle was making $3 a day, and he made 22 shorts in just his first year. It was a breakneck pace for decidedly breakneck work. In a 1916 profile in Photoplay appropriately titled "Why Aren't We Killed?" he explained that all of his body-shattering stunts were carefully worked out ahead of time to minimize personal risks. "We figure it out on paper, and if it looks as if it will work we do it," Arbuckle wrote, "Naturally I figure pretty carefully, because I don't want to roll off a roof more than seven or eight times just for a foot or two of film."

As the article hinted, Arbuckle's comedy was ripe with pratfalls and comic havoc. Mind you, all of Keystone's output could be described that way. What distinguished Arbuckle's work was its acrobatic grace. He was surprisingly agile, and gifted with the precision timing of a Swiss watch. His twinkling smile charmed audiences and took the edge off the knockabout aggression. Arbuckle also had a dry wit, and used it to develop physical and visual comedy sequences that reached beyond mere slapstick. He was the quintessential silent clown.

Roscoe brought in his nephew Al St. John as a supporting player, benefiting greatly from skinny, bug-eyed Al's unusually physical looniness. Wife Minta Durfee also joined the team (beginning with Fatty's Day Off), even though it was a comedown for her--in their vaudeville days, she had been the top-billed item.

But the real magic happened when Arbuckle was paired with Keystone star Mabel Normand.

Normand was a rare talent. On-screen she played a pixelated slapstick sprite, and off-screen Normand was a pioneering female screenwriter, director, and producer. Like Arbuckle she had the natural charisma of a born movie star. Separately, they were stars of equal magnitude. But paired, they became a comedy duo of peerless ability and enormous popular appeal.

Mabel had been one of the founding stars of Sennett's Keystone studio, and she was also Sennett's on-again off-again love interest. Her first pairing with Arbuckle came in 1913's Passions, He Had Three. Before long, the two were co-starring in films that bore the names "Fatty and Mabel" in the title. Together, Mabel and Roscoe invented many of the iconic attributes of silent slapstick. In the 1913 short A Noise From the Deep, Arbuckle planted a pie in the face of co-star Nick Cogley--the first known instance of the pie-in-the-face gag.

In the years to come, Arbuckle would find himself supported by a Murderer's Row of up-and-coming talents: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charley Chase. In 1917, he left the miserly Mack Sennett to start his own studio with producer Joseph Schenck. As the saying went, "Start with Sennett and get rich somewhere else."

If History were just, Arbuckle would be celebrated alongside Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd, remembered for such classics as The Cook, Love, When Love Took Wings, and The Garage. But the world is not fair: Arbuckle is beloved by a coterie of insiders but unknown to the public at large, and too many of his films have been lost forever.

Consider this--Arbuckle had been making films for four years before Sennett "discovered" him. From the vaudeville stage, Arbuckle had migrated to screen roles at Selig Studios in 1909, and then to a company called Nestor where he worked with director Al Christie. Those early works are now believed lost.

Within a year of joining Keystone he was directing his own work--the first being Barnyard Flirtations. That film is not known to survive today either.

Arbuckle was the first silent comedian to make the transition from short films to features, yet many of his early features are also believed lost.

We evaluate Arbuckle's legacy only on the basis of shadows and remnants. And yet, that legacy still looms large. Just imagine how this man's memory would tower if we could see it all.

By David Kalat

Rob King, The Fun Factory
Simon Louvish, Keystone
Glenn Mitchell, The A-Z of Silent Film Comedy
James Robert Parish and William T. Leonard, The Funsters
Brent E. Walker, Mack Sennett's Fun Factory