Posted by David Kalat on January 4, 2014
Tomorrow night, TCM is letting Roscoe Arbuckle loose to rampage across the prime time schedule in some seminal silent comedies produced by Mack Sennett. This is must-watch stuff, folks, even if you’ve seen it before, and I was given the joyous privilege of writing some contextual material for the TCM site to frame the screenings.
And I seized that opportunity to do something that had been on my to-do list for years—namely, to do nothing. But wait, I don’t mean I just slacked off. I wrote the essay—I just wrote it in a way that deliberately avoided any mention of certain events.
I had been given a similar opportunity many years ago, when I was asked to write the capsule biography of Arbuckle for the book 501 Movie Stars. I failed that time.
You see, in the 1920s, Arbuckle was the center of a scandal that had lasting consequences for his own career and for Hollywood at large. Any attempt to take stock of Arbuckle’s entire life and legacy would at some point have to grapple with that traumatic event, at the very least to explain why he went from an international movie star one day to a blacklisted pariah the next, why he worked under the pseudonym “William B. Goodrich” and eventually returned to movies only in reduced circumstances.
However, while grappling with the scandal would be a prerequisite to a thorough understanding of Arbuckle’s career, at the same time he was a wronged party in the proceedings, which had nothing to do with truth or justice. By continuing to talk about the scandal, its damaging effect on his reputation was perpetuated.
Because here is something that is really, really uncomfortable for fans of silent comedy to hear: people don’t know who Roscoe Arbuckle is anymore. There was a time, way back when, when the scandal still dogged Arbuckle’s reputation and continued to haunt his name. Back then, you could carve the world into two kinds of people, and you could distinguish between them by saying the name “Fatty Arbuckle.” One camp immediately thought of a dead flapper and a ruinous trial, while the other (smaller) camp was knowledgeable enough to know that Arbuckle was acquitted, the judge apologized to him from the bench, and that he started rebuilding his screen career as a beloved comic when he happened to die young.
Time passed, and now if you mention the name “Fatty Arbuckle” you get a different set of reactions. You still have the inner retinue of informed film buffs who know the full story and resent how the scandal has overshadowed Arbuckle’s memory—but here’s the thing: the other group simply goes, “Who?”
The general public has completely forgotten Arbuckle. (And you want to really feel the sting: they’ve forgotten Harold Lloyd, too. Outside of specialist audiences, the average American has maybe heard of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and that’s it. End of story. Forget all those Who’s the Fourth Genius debates—now there aren’t even Three Geniuses anymore).
Arbuckle’s fans haven’t changed, but the context around them did. Once upon a time, they were his defenders, fighting against the way history had sullied his reputation. But now they are the ones who sully his reputation, by keeping the memory of the scandal alive. That’s the irony I wanted to be able to exploit—by undertaking to tell the Arbuckle story without its most significant chapter.
(Of course here I went and undermined that effort by talking about the scandal anyway, but frankly I consider the audience for the TCM programming essays and the readership for this blog to be separate. There’s an overlap, but by and large I think they reach different kinds of readers)
Speaking of irony, if you really want to dig into what makes Arbuckle interesting as a pioneering screen comedian, it’s nothing to do with his trial. Arbuckle is one of the most important and influential screen comedians of the silent era because he worked in a post-modern ironic mode long before such a thing was in vogue.
The Arbuckle festival continues on TCM next weekend, too, and at midnight next Sunday, TCM will be running the 1915 silent two-reel comedy Fatty’s Plucky Pup, starring Roscoe Arbuckle. This short opens with a gag in which Arbuckle sets his bed on fire, and then lackadaisically tries to douse it, one glass of water at a time.
Fans of Arbuckle’s have likely seen this routine before—perhaps in the earlier film Mother’s Boy from 1913, or in its later appearance in 1917’s The Rough House.
It’s a good gag, and worth repeating. But part of what charges it with such comic energy is the context: Roscoe Arbuckle was one of the first stars to emerge out of the chaotic comedy of Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio. Sennett’s ethos was centered on mayhem and havoc. Sennett style slapstick was about “going big.” Small complications would lead to massive overreactions and violence. And in this world of excess, Arbuckle made his name by subverting the formula. His contemporaries would tear the world asunder for a joke—Arbuckle, faced with something as genuinely calamitous and demanding of immediate attention as a burning bed, took his time to daintily fill a demi-tasse of water, one splash at a time. No hurry. Nothing worth expending any real energy on.
And in that simple gag we find the essence of Arbucklian comedy distilled. In a world dominated by slapstick, Arbuckle created his laughs out of comic irony. He was post-modern before anyone else had even gotten around to being modern.
Before going any further, it’s worth pausing to clarify exactly what is meant by comic irony. The word irony is prone to overuse and misuse. I’m using it to describe situations where what is differs from what should be, and the gap between the two is funny.
Unfortunately, that definition of irony is a tad useless, because it could too easily describe nearly all of comedy—what else is a joke other than the gap between what is expected and what happens? Like pornography, irony is one of those things where you know it when you see it—so let’s take a look at how these comedy shorts were working before Arbuckle came along.
Producer Mack Sennett got his start under D.W. Griffith, helping the great man make melodramatic pot-boilers for the Biograph Company. A typical Griffithian melodrama would have a damsel in distress, a villain, a hero… Sennett made farce comedies that used the exact same template but pushed everything to extremes. The characters in a Sennett short were grotesque exaggerations, outsized caricatures who raced through the familiar story beats like a bull in a china shop. The humor came from the mismatch between the outsize absurdity of the characters with the expectations set by the apparent genre. So, if you want to call that irony, I suppose you could—but now let’s see what happens when Arbuckle is added to the mix.
His bed is on fire. What will he do?
If this were any other Sennett star, you’d probably find him running around frantically, jumping up and down, waving his arms in an expression of panic. He might rush to get a garden hose, and spray himself in the face with it. Then he’d spray the hose all through the house, destroying furniture and furnishings as thoroughly as if he’d let the fire run its course.
This is not what Arbuckle does. Instead he moves deliberately, carefully, to get a single cup of water. Then another. He pauses to take a refreshing drink from the third.
Arbuckle’s irony wasn’t just defying the expectations of the underlying melodramatic genre—he defied the expectations of the comedy parody of the melodramatic genre. Arbuckle traded on an ironic detachment from what audiences expected from comedians. The very situation is rich in irony: Sennett made a comedy empire out of ridiculing Biograph’s melodramas, and then Arbuckle became a comedy superstar by undermining Sennett’s formula.
Consider the issue of his weight. Right from the start, Arbuckle’s size was emphasized. He was called “Fatty” throughout his run at Sennett, and to Arbuckle’s dismay that insulting nickname followed him even when he left the studio. Audiences knew what to expect from a fat comedian—jokes about his weight, of course. You know the kind: he sits down in a chair and it disintegrates beneath him; he sits on a park bench and turns it into a seesaw, flinging whoever was on the other side of the bench into the air; a gargantuan belly that doesn’t fit through doorways; an endless appetite…
These however are not the jokes you find with Fatty Arbuckle. Instead, in film after film, he is presented as agile and effortlessly strong. If anything, he seems improbably dainty and balletic. The cruel name is there to set up a fat joke that then never comes.
Similarly, Arbuckle’s silent comedies often cast him as a sexually desirable ladies’ man—or put him in drag, whereupon he is taken by the other characters as a convincing woman, despite the total lack of femininity. There are obvious jokes to be had by putting Fatty Arbuckle in a frilly dress, but his films decline to make those jokes—and instead establish an ironic distance from the usual comedy fare. His comedy starts to take on characteristics of meta-comedy, comedy about comedy.
Arbuckle’s comedy is always aware of the audience—not in the sense of Oliver Hardy looking straight down the camera lens at the viewer, or Groucho Marx breaking the Fourth Wall to talk directly to the crowd, but rather in the sense of choreographing everything with the implicit understanding that someone is watching.
In a gag he repeated at least as often as the burning bed routine, Arbuckle is about to change clothes when he turns to the camera, gets the attention of the cameraman, and directs him to pan up so as not to expose Roscoe’s nudity.
This kind of self-referential awareness is itself a form of irony—specifically “romantic irony,” defined by Wikipedia as “an attitude of detached skepticism adopted by an author towards his or her work, typically manifesting in literary self-consciousness and self-reflection.”
It is true, and sad, that this man’s career being abruptly ended just as it was gathering momentum. That’s a cruel irony of Fate. But Fate has always trafficked in irony—it’s when we find that powerful tool being used by artists that we should sit up and pay attention. TCM is giving us two weekends to indulge in Arbuckle’s art in its earliest, roughest form.
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