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Mackinac Media presents

The Forgotten Films of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (1913-1932)

"I'll be back in a minute. Your father fell in the well and if I don't get him out he might drink it all."- Fatty (Roscoe Arbuckle) in Love

Stars: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, Mabel Normand, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton
Other Stars: Charley Chase, Edgar Kennedy, Ford Sterling, Monty Banks, Lucien Littlefield, Jackie Coogan, Rudolph Valentino, Harold Lloyd, Lloyd Hamilton, Johnny Arthur, Lupino Lane, Billy Bletcher
Director: George Nichols, Charles Avery, Charles Chaplin, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, James Cruze

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (comic violence)
Run Time: 08h:50m:39s
Release Date: 2005-05-24
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
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DVD Review

When Roscoe Arbuckle is remembered at all any more, it's in connection with the scandalous death of Virginia Rappe in 1921, which destroyed his career and reputation as one of America's leading comedians. Never mind that he was not only acquitted, but that the jury took the unimaginable step of telling the district attorney that he should apologize for what he had done to Arbuckle. It was the salacious newspaper articles, however, that stuck in the memories of America, and that's what Arbuckle's legacy has primarily consisted of for over eighty years, thanks to the Hays Office's blacklist and the failure of anyone to preserve his work except incidentally as a result of co-starring with Chaplin or Keaton. But this four-disc set from Laughsmith Entertainment, released through Mackinac Media, may go a long way toward altering that public perception somewhat.

The hefty Arbuckle (who hated the nickname "Fatty" that was stuck onto him; in this review it will be used only to refer to the character thus named) had a career as a vaudeville performer for some years before joining Mack Sennett's flourishing Keystone comedies in 1913. The first two discs of this set emphasize the formative years of Arbuckle's comedy, first under Sennett's wing and then growing to character comedy that would inevitably cause him to part ways with Sennett, much as did Chaplin in the same time period. Fatty Joins the Force (1913) is one of the earliest extant films that prominently stars Arbuckle as the undisputed lead character, and it's quite hilarious and simultaneously touching. Fatty becomes a policeman (Arbuckle had spent time as an anonymous Keystone Kop, so the uniform was already there for the budget-minded Sennett) after rescuing the police commissioner's daughter. But fortune will not smile on Fatty as one embarrassment after another falls on his head, until he's finally himself arrested by the Kops. In The Rounders, we see Arbuckle as a complete equal to Chaplin (who directed), both of them doing their best drunk act to very good effect. Their styles are very different, but both are quite credible and undeniably amusing as they try to outdo one another. We also get a fine sampling of films co-starring Mabel Normand; together they did quite a few "Fatty and Mabel" comedies though the characters weren't always recognizably the same from one to the next. One of the better ones on this set is Fatty and Mabel's Wash Day, as they commiserate over their respective spouses as wash day goes awry. There's also some fun footage in Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition (1915), one of the many examples of Sennett getting production value on the cheap. Normand and Arbuckle play well off one another, but frankly I prefer the earlier films with Arbuckle and his real-life wife Minta Durfee, who has a fine sense of comic timing herself.

Although Arbuckle frequently played the country bumpkin or bourgeois husband in his films, he stretched somewhat in Fatty's New Role (1915) to portray a down-on-his-luck hobo, capturing a lot of the pathos that Chaplin generated with the evolution of the Little Tramp. But for whatever reason, Arbuckle saw this interesting attempt as a dead end and he went back to his more typical roles in Fatty's Reckless Fling (1915), where he was once again a henpecked husband trying to get into an illicit poker game only to be subject to a raid. A Murphy bed gag seen in countless other farces makes an extended appearance here to very good effect. Farces set in public parks, with mashers and pickpockets, were a staple at Keystone in part because they were cheap settings and in part because there were a lot of variations possible. Quite a few of the shorts here use the setting, but they are different enough not to be tiresome, such as Fatty's Chance Acquaintance, Wished on Mabel and Mabel's Wifull Way (all 1915). Arbuckle's dog Luke stars in a pair of shorts, Fatty's Faithful Fido and Fatty's Plucky Pup (also both 1915), where he performs some amazing stunts including climbing ladders and rooftops in pursuit of Al St. John.

The third disc is devoted to the prime of Arbuckle's career, as he began moving into independence. In late 1915, he moved to the east coast operations of Triangle and Keystone, out from under Sennett's thumb so directly, and in 1917 began making the Comique shorts for Paramount. Three of the Triangle-Keystones are included here. Fatty's Tintype Tangle is a violent comedy that takes Arbuckle's philandering husband character into a somewhat new direction when he messes with the wife of a wild man from Alaska and spends two reels facing his wrath. He Did and He Didn't (1916) features Arbuckle as a doctor who is himself homicidally jealous of the visit of his wife Mabel's childhood sweetheart. This picture is rather uncomfortable to watch, in light of Arbuckle's later legal difficulties. For some undisclosed reason this short is presented both in "full tints" (actually toning) and a version that is only tinted blue for night scenes. The Waiter's Ball makes good use of Arbuckle's dexterity and agility, as well as his penchant for cross-dressing characters. He actually makes a very convincing female in the Divine mold.

Since the epochal films with Buster Keaton are already available on DVD from Image, Kino and Milestone, the producers of the disc wisely avoid excessive duplication and give just one sample of their work, Coney Island (1917). It's frankly one of the weaker efforts in that grouping, but for those who like cross-dressing Arbuckle there's plenty of it here. The real gem of the set is a previously lost film, Love (1919), co-starring Monty Banks, Winifred Westover, and Al St. John. Various fragments of the picture are scattered throughout archives across the globe, and they are here assembled into what is a virtually complete film for the first time in many decades. And it is a terrific picture, which broad strokes and recurring gags involving falls into a well and beating rugs. As usual there is a romantic triangle between Fatty, Al, and the girl, and this outing includes an incredibly screwed-up attempt at elopement. There is some sharp wit on display as well; when Fatty (cross-dressing again) returns to the house disguised as the family's new cook, his recommendation is for "Miss Lucrezia Borgia" and is signed by Elizabeth Borden! It's hilarious from start to finish and is a very deft piece of comedy.

Disc 4 charts the years after the Rappe incident, beginning with Leap Year (1921). One of only three Arbuckle features known to survive, it was shot before the infamous Labor Day weekend of 1921, and as a result of that exercise in yellow journalism was never released in the United States. Here we see Arbuckle moving to character-driven comedy, as his character, Stanley Piper must deal with three women determined to marry him, while hiding them from his disapproving uncle. It's more low-key but highly charming work that's still quite funny. The highlight is a series of increasingly violent fake fits that Arbuckle uses to try to dissuade the women. A 1925 novelty prepared by Douglas Fairbanks features a quite thin Arbuckle in a 1925 cameo, along with Keaton, Valentino, Harold Lloyd, and Jackie Coogan. The balance of the last disc is devoted to the pictures that Arbuckle directed under the name "William Goodrich" (his father's first and middle names) for Educational Films. Al St. John, Arbuckle's nephew stars as the villain in the 1925 satire of serials, Curses. It's a delightful piece of absurdism that uses alliteration and bizarre characters to excellent effect. Johnny Arthur, Lloyd Hamilton and Lupino Lane star in three shorts from 1925 and 1926, all of which have a movie-craze touch to them, most notably My Stars, in which Arthur must adopt the personae of various screen actors that his girl idolizes. Finally, a 1932 sound short featuring Al St. John, Bridge Wives, lets him go completely over the top as he's driven to a frenzy by his wife's addiction to bridge. Arbuckle uses sound extremely well here, tying a bridge game play-by-play over the radio to the household action. It's quite a hoot and a fine sendoff to a first-rate package.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: As one would anticipate from films of this age, the full-frame picture frequently shows wear, speckles and scratches. But it's quite attractive overall, with windowboxed titles. In particular, the restored films that are described in the accompanying booklet as unprojectable (such as The Movies) look quite fine indeed. The Keystone films, which were printed and run to death, are in much better shape than one usually sees; many are apparently from the Library of Congress paper prints and these look very nice. When one makes the necessary allowances for age there's nothing to be disappointed about here. The running speed is slightly faster than normal movement speed, which is appropriate for silent comedy. Most of the title cards appear to have been re-created, however.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(music only)yes

Audio Transfer Review: The one sound film has the hiss, crackle and noise one expects from a short dating from 1932. The other films have modern musical scores from a wide selection of luminaries, including Philip Carli, Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, David Drazin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra. But the real standouts are the scores provided by Donald Sosin, which are indescribably marvelous and very well-suited to the Arbuckle comedies, with a melding of barrelhouse, boogie-woogie, and Zez Confreyesque styling, all performed with a fluid grace that parallels the star's surprising agility. These are some of the finest silent film scores I've had the pleasure to hear, and the audio quality is quite excellent throughout, except some of the Carli scores sound recorded in a gigantic hall with excessive reverb.

Audio Transfer Grade: A- 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
7 Feature/Episode commentaries by DVD producers Paul Gierucki and Bruce Lawton, film historians Steve Massa and Richard Roberts
Packaging: M-Lock
Picture Disc
4 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. 36-page booklet
  2. Slideshow
  3. Music video
Extras Review: A splendid 36-page booklet accompanies the four-disc set, with plenty of illustrations and a variety of interesting background essays on Arbuckle and the various phases of his career. It's quite worthwhile, but I would have liked to see a thorough discussion of each of the films on the set. Seven films sport an optional commentary. Richard Roberts weighs in on Character Studies to determine the date and circumstances of its creation. The disc producers and Steve Massa hold forth on the other films. For most of them, the short running time precludes much discussion beyond identifying the background actors. But the commentary for the feature Leap Year allows for a more expansive treatment of Arbuckle's career and the influences he had on others, and it's quite worth listening to. Disc 1 also features a slide show of linework caricatures by Tom Bertino, while Disc 4 has a "music video" of Arbuckle clips set to music.

Extras Grade: A-

Final Comments

An essential retrospective of Arbuckle's career that contains hundreds of laughs, and some lovely restorations. Very highly recommended.

Mark Zimmer 2005-05-23