[14 April 2003]
In 1921, the career of silent film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle came to a crashing halt when he was falsely charged with manslaughter in the death of an aspiring actress. Twenty-six-year old Virginia Rappe died of peritonitis after allegedly being assaulted by Arbuckle during a wild Labor Day weekend party held in San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel (her death was most likely caused by a botched abortion). After three lengthy trials (the first two ended with hung juries), Arbuckle was acquitted. The “not guilty” verdict was accompanied by a statement signed by the jury, declaring that an “acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel a great injustice has been done to him.”
At the peak of his career, Arbuckle was as popular as the “Big Three” silent comedians (Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd), all with whom he either appeared and/or directed. Despite the verdict, the comedian was banned from the Hollywood film industry. Largely as a result of the Arbuckle scandal and the 1922 murder of Paramount director William Desmond Taylor, who was romantically linked to Mabel Norm, Mary Miles Minter, and America’s Sweetheart Mary Pickford, the film industry was pressured by religious groups and the press to show the ticket-buying American public they had cleaned up their act. The studios thus added a morality clause to their stars’ contracts and set up the Hays Office to regulate film content.
Thanks to the loyalty of friends like Keaton, Arbuckle eventually managed to resume his directing career under a pseudonym (“William B. Goodrich,” as in Arbuckle “Will B. Good”). But the trials and the scandal left the former box-office champ’s life in shambles. He suffered from alcoholism, several failed marriages, and severe financial problems. In the early 1930’s, he appeared once again in front of the camera when producer Jack Warner, prompted by the public support Arbuckle received from the film community, signed him to appear in six two-reel comedies. On 28 June 1933, Warner extended the comedian’s contract to direct a feature length film. The following day, Arbuckle died of heart failure at the age of 46. Upon his death, Keaton said that what his former costar really died of was a broken heart.
While the films of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd continue to endure (on 6 April 2003, Turner Classic Movies celebrated Lloyd’s 100th birthday with a seven-hour tribute), the name Arbuckle remains synonymous with scandal. Fortunately, Milestone Film and Video has taken the first serious step in giving the comedian, who wrote and/or directed over 170 comic shorts, the rescue and recognition he so rightfully deserves. The DVD release of Milestone’s preservation efforts, from Image Entertainment, The Cook and Other Treasures, includes two Arbuckle shorts presumed to be lost. The Cook, in which the comedian and costar Buster Keaton create chaos working in a café, and A Reckless Romeo, which stars Arbuckle as a flirtatious husband who is caught on film hitting on a woman in a park.
In addition, there’s the rarely seen 1920 comedy, Number, Please?, in which the comedian Harold Lloyd, donning his trademark pair of dark-framed glasses, is once again the hopeless romantic who can’t seem to get over his girl (played by Lloyd’s future wife, Mildred Davis), who has dumped him for another man. The story and the gags are a bit more formulaic than Arbuckle’s work, but there’s something charming and lovable about Lloyd, particularly watching the lengths he will go to win back the girl he loves.
In 1998, prints of The Cook and A Reckless Romeo were discovered in unmarked canisters in the Norwegian Film Institute. The Norwegian print of The Cook was incomplete, but just as Milestone, in collaboration with the Norsk Filminstitutt and the George Eastman House, was to release the film for DVD, they learned the Nederlands Filmmuseum had found a nitrate of the same film. The two versions were combined and the result is the most complete version to date. As a true sign of their dedication to the art of film preservation, Milestone includes the Norwegian and Dutch versions of the The Cook on the DVD as a “Special Feature,” along with an excerpt from the original Hollywood press kit.
For those who have never seen Arbuckle in action, both films showcase the portly comedian’s talents for physical comedy. In the opening of The Cook, he and costar Keaton, who started his film career in a series of Arbuckle comedies, are busy at work in a cafe. Arbuckle is in the kitchen preparing the food orders, which waiter Keaton is continuously shouting to him from the dining room. The actors display their juggling and acrobatic skills, with Arbuckle performing his popular knife-tossing routine in between flinging plates and cups across the kitchen to Keaton, who manages to catch each one without dropping a morsel.
Pandemonium eventually breaks out in the dining room when a man, introduced by an inter-title as the “toughest guy in the world,” tries to make a play for the cafe’s cashier. Fortunately, Arbuckle’s faithful dog and frequent costar, Luke, chases the so-called tough guy out of the cafe. However, the highlight of the sequence is Keaton and Arbuckle’s rendition of Salome’s dance. His large frame adorned with pots and pans, Arbuckle gets carried away and eventually bumps and grinds his way into the dining room, where he takes center stage with Keaton. It’s a hilarious moment that reveals a campy aspect of Arbuckle and Keaton’s humor than usually suspected.
By comparison, the second short, A Reckless Romeo, which was also discovered in the Norwegian Film Institute, is more plot-driven, displaying Arbuckle’s cruder side. Yet, his self-reflexivity, which predates Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. by seven years, is intriguing. While out for a walk one Sunday afternoon, a married Arbuckle sets his eyes on a pretty, young woman alone in the park. He starts flirting and surprises her with a kiss. Her boyfriend arrives and starts to brawl with Arbuckle.
A newsreel crew that happens to be standing nearby catches the incident on film. When Arbuckle later attends the picture show with his wife and mother-in-law, the newsreel is shown. The girl and her boyfriend are also in the audience and, in a matter of minutes, he and Arbuckle pick up where they left off in the park. Although the majority of the film is essentially setup for the final scene, the image of Arbuckle watching himself via the film-within-the-film inside a crowded movie theater reminds us how even in its infancy, it wasn’t uncommon for cinema, and comedy in particular, to deconstruct itself.
Milestone and its distributor Image Entertainment should be applauded for investing their time and money in this project. Let’s hope everyone involved in the restoration and preservation of these films will continue to resurrect these rarities, so a whole new generation of filmgoers can see the origins of American film comedy.