chapter  4
22 Pages

both sides of the camera: roscoe “fatty” arbuckle’s evolution at keystone joanna e. rapf

In the second decade of the twentieth century, during cinema’s adolescence, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a cherub-faced innocent with a very large body, created comedy on the silent screen that, for a time, rivaled Charlie Chaplin’s in popularity. Both men wet their film feet, literally and figuratively, at Keystone and became skilled behind the camera as well as in front, with their own studios and full artistic control of their films. But unlike Chaplin, Arbuckle is largely forgotten, remembered today, if he is remembered at all, for the infamous scandal that destroyed his career. Remarkably, there are no major critical studies of his work.1 His neglect is due to a number of factors, including the notorious scandal that effectively ended his stardom, helped to erase him from the annals of comic film history, and to dump him into the garbage heap of Hollywood’s sordid past. But other reasons include the fact that, until some recent DVD releases, his films have been hard to see; unlike Keaton, he had no Raymond Rohauer to “rediscover” him, nor did he have the inclination or foresight of a Lloyd or Chaplin to preserve his work. It has also

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been said that he never developed a distinct persona, such as Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd, a “failing” that is also occasionally applied to Harry Langdon, who has suffered similar critical neglect. Langdon and Arbuckle share some other interesting similarities, notably that their personae often embody a disturbing combination of childish behavior and adult drives. Arbuckle, like Langdon, could be an innocent country rube, a flirt, or a hen-pecked husband with a wandering eye. He could be a drunk, a bum, a swell-about-town, or a young lady in drag. His characters cover a range of social classes, unified only by the fact that they are played

Figure 4.1

Arbuckle at work behind the camera. Courtesy of the British Film Institute

bothsidesofthecam era

by a very fat man. This has led some to suggest that another reason we have almost erased him from our critical and cultural memory is that even his “[m]ultiple characters suggest how much like us he was, constantly testifying to a commonly shared nature or sameness.”2 Except for his size, he was not unique enough, and his size was usually not the center of his gags; he became “too much an undifferentiated type.”3 Yet that “sameness” was something for which he aimed in his work. In an interview with Robert F. Moore in Motion Picture Classic, he explained that he preferred comedy to drama because “it is a study of human nature”:

You put a character in a certain farcical situation, and then figure out what he will do. What he does must be typical. For the audience laughs not only at the screen comedy, but also, in some degree, because the same sort of incident has happened to them.4