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THE FORGOTTEN FILMS OF ROSCOE "FATTY" ARBUCKLE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Al St. John, Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin
Restoration Director:  Paul E. Gierucki
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Laughsmith Entertainment
Features:  See Review
Length:  10.5 Hours
Release Date:  May 25, 2005

"(Arbuckle) died of a broken heart." - Will Rogers

Film ****

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was one of the true comic geniuses of the early cinema...at one point in his career, he was considered second only to Charles Chaplin in world popularity.  Yet today, he is more remembered for the unjust scandal that defamed and destroyed him.  That's partly owing to our society's gleeful appetite for celebrity scandal, which arguably began with Arbuckle, but also because unlike the films of Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, relatively few of Arbuckle's great works survived the ages.

Not much can be done about the first point, but the second point has been addressed most nicely with the release of the four disc set The Forgotten Films of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.  It took painstaking research and a willingness to seek out bits of film around the globe, from archives to private collectors, but the producers of this set managed to compile a near definitive filmography of the great comedian.

Arbuckle first achieved notoriety in cinema as one of Mack Sennett's Keystone Cops, but his mischievous face, rotund figure and surprising knack for hardcore slapstick despite his size made him an easy man for audiences to identify.  It wouldn't be long before Fatty made a name for himself and became a headlining star in one and two reel comedies.  "Fatty Joins the Force" from 1914 is the short that kicks off this collection, and it's the oldest known film to still exist with Arbuckle as the main star.

At the Keystone Studios, Arbuckle would continue to put out a large body (no pun intended) of work and eventually go into directing his own shorts.  As the movies in this set progress, one can sense the improvement of the comedy and the characterizations as he took more and more control of his own films.  The quality of the gags got better and more story-driven, and the true charm of Arbuckle and his co-stars began shining through the flickering images on the screen.  Check out the marked difference between the more crude slapstick of the early Keystone days to "Love", which Fatty made for Joseph Schenk, and you'll see how much more elaborate and complex (and funny) the gags had become.  Plus, there are few sights funnier than Arbuckle in drag!

Many of those wonderful co-stars are on parade with this DVD, including the sweet-faced Mabel Normand, the lanky Al St. John, and legends like Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton.  Two pairings with Chaplin are included:  the raucous "The Knockout", where Arbuckle attempts to fight a champion boxer but ends up scrapping with Chaplin as the referee a whole lot more, and "The Rounders", where the comics play well-to-do drunkards out for a lark and avoiding their unamused wives.

Arbuckle's teamings with Buster Keaton produced some of the silent cinema's most classic comic gems, many of which are available on other DVD collections.  One of their best is here, the hilarious "Coney Island"...also one of the few times you'll see Buster break his stone face character and laugh.  With Fatty at his side, who could blame him?

Arbuckle, like most other silent comics, got his start on the Vaudeville stage, and he was never quite as adventurous as his contemporaries when it came to exploring movie magic.  While Keaton would frequently introduce tricks like double exposure of the film to create the image of dozens of people emerging from a small auto, Fatty preferred comedy without illusion.  His shorts remain much more slapstick in nature for a much longer time than did Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, but there was always a purity to his comedy that was winning and charming.  Check out my favorite of the lot, "Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life", and you'll see most everything you need to know about the kind of artist Arbuckle was.

Like Keaton's stone face and Chaplin's tramp, Arbuckle perfected a kind of character unto himself...his screen persona was more mischievous and delightfully single-minded, usually taking the most direct route to get what he wanted.  His flirtations with Mabel were at the heart of many of his comedies, as well as the tribulations he frequently had to go through to get her.  Arbuckle was also comfortable occasionally playing directly to the camera, letting the audience in on the jokes.  One terrific bit has him changing into some shorts...he notes the camera, and waves it off while he dresses, then waves it back when he's decent again.  Funny stuff!

Then came the scandal of 1921.  Fueled by William Randolph Hearst's insatiable press, Arbuckle's image in the public mind went from that of a jolly round clown to a fiendish lecher.  Even though he was acquitted and received a full public apology, he was still banned from the motion picture screen, and anyone who employed him was in danger of receiving the same penalty.  His feature "Leap Year" was never screened in the United States, and the man who brought laughter to millions would spend the remaining years of his life as a tragic figure.

The fourth disc of this set contains some real treats in compiling some of Arbuckle's post-scandal work.  One was an appearance in an amusing short "Character Studies", where actor Carter DeHaven pretended to transform himself into Arbuckle, Keaton, Lloyd, Rudolph Valentino and others (a bit of cinematic sleight of hand allowed the real stars to emerge as themselves).

Five films from Arbuckle directing under a pseudonym are also here, including one popular sound film "Bridge Wives".  But the work was very slow and hard to come by for the man who once spun out two-reelers like dealing cards.  He returned to the stage and performed when he could, but the remaining few years of his life wouldn't see nearly the output of laughter of his prime.  To this day, people still bring up the Arbuckle scandal as though he were guilty, despite having his name cleared to the satisfaction of all who took the time to look at the facts.

This collection is a treasure trove for fans of silent comedy...for some, it will be the chance to remember the great comic genius of Fatty Arbuckle, and for some, it will be an opportunity to discover it new.  Whichever camp you fall into, you'll find hours of entertainment at your disposal here, as well as a fitting tribute to a man whose life ended sadly, but who lived it only with the passion to make people laugh.

Video **

As you might expect, given the age of the films at play, this won't be the best looking DVD you own.  I hate to even give ratings to silent film collections' video quality, because as a classic film lover, I'm thankful they exist in any condition.  Yes, there are scratches, marks, spots and a bad cut here and there, but these movies are true cinematic antiques...and the comedy still shines through despite the limitations.

Audio **

I enjoyed the music for these shorts very much...the spirited stereo recordings for most of the silents include orchestral, organ and piano pieces.  The piano work by Donald Sosin was particularly impressive.  Some shorts offer a choice between two scores.  The jaunty music, which was so important in the days of silent cinema, really add a kick to Arbuckle's visions.

Features ***

A number of the shorts include optional commentary tracks by comedy historians including Paul Gierucki, Bruce Lawton, Steve Massa and Richard M. Roberts.  These guys know their stuff...they point out and identify by name many of the co-stars and extras (anybody walking by on a Keystone short, even the stars, would often get grabbed and put into a shot).  There is also a funny gallery of artwork based on Fatty's character as penned by animation guru Tom Bertino.  A new music video short "The Arbuckle Shuffle" closes out the last disc.  The menu screens are cool...you select the films by perusing recreations of their movie posters.

The 36 page booklet that's included is a wonderful companion piece, filled with essays and information, including pieces on Arbuckle's later works and the scandal that forever changed his career.  Many of the films mentioned are not to be found in the set...a sad testimony to how much of Arbuckle's work didn't survive the passage of time.

Summary:

What an absolute gem of a DVD...The Forgotten Films of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle is a true chest of wonders and a hysterical look back at the early days of motion pictures.  Most of all, it's a tribute to the man once thought of as one of the four giants of silent comedy.  The 32 films in this set will no doubt aid in restoring him to that worthy status.

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