In his reference book The Great Movie Comedians, film historian Leonard Maltin writes of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: “It seems tragic that Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle should be remembered today for a scandal in his private life and barely recognized for his contribution to screen comedy. To be sure, Arbuckle was never one of the comic giants, except in a physical sense, but his career was more significant than people realize.”
Maltin’s book was first published in 1978, so it’s understandable that the above passage may seem a little out-of-date. I do agree with his observation that “his career was more significant than people realize”; when the topic of silent comedy is discussed, “The Big Three” generally refers to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd…but the identity of the fourth member in that pantheon is usually subject to furious debate. Many silent comedy fans assign that slot to Harry Langdon, and while I bow to no one in my love for Harry I think Arbuckle—in terms of his creativity and talent both in front and behind the camera—is a far worthier candidate for that slot.
Helping to bolster the case for Arbuckle is a brand-new book by author/silent film historian Steve Massa, Rediscovering Roscoe: The Films of “Fatty” Arbuckle, published by BearManor Media this past December. Massa is also the author of two additional books on silent comedy reviewed here on the blog, Slaptstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy and Lame Brains and Lunatics: The Good, The Bad, and the Forgotten of Silent Comedy, and to address the issue of full disclosure is a Facebook chum of mine (he sent me a copy of Rediscovering to review). It’s a book I knew that I was going to devour with absolute relish (except we forgot to buy relish this week), confidently secure that Steve’s expertise in his field would not disappoint. Slightly off-topic: Steve and I belong to several of the same film groups on Facebook, and I always enjoy when someone posts an obscure film still in the hopes of gleaning additional information:
FIRST POSTER: There’s an individual in this photo I don’t recognize—the guy in the background, wearing the dress while standing in the water barrel and smoking a pipe. Any ideas?
SECOND POSTER: Steve Massa will know.
And most of the time, Massa not only has the answer to the person’s identity but the title of the film represented in that still photo. (Okay, I’m exaggerating slightly here for comic effect…but not by much.)
Rediscovering Roscoe features an introduction by Massa’s longtime collaborator Ben Model and a foreword from film critic Dave Kehr, whose take on Roscoe wonderfully prefaces the contents that follow. “Arbuckle’s ambiguity—the ease with which he moved between infantile appetite and grown-up desire, between feminine coquetry and masculine aggression—made him one of the most subversive figures in a subversive genre…One look from Arbuckle was enough to undermine all the pieties that the church groups and social reform societies were attempting to impose on our unruly society in the early years of the 20th Century: he was a one-man anti-temperance league, a pleasure principal on two stout legs.”
Slapstick Divas is a fuller extension of several chapters discussed in Lame Brains and Lunatics and so is Rediscovering Roscoe, to some degree. Simply put, Rediscovering examines in meticulous detail every film on Arbuckle’s c.v.—both the silent and sound films he appeared in (starring and cameo roles) and those he directed after the infamous Virginia Rappe scandal momentarily put the kibosh on his career. (Despite his exoneration after three trials, Arbuckle was kept from appearing onscreen by the evil Will Hays, first president of what eventually became the Motion Picture Association of America.) Rediscovering Roscoe is profusely illustrated with over 500 photos and stills, and each movie entry documents release dates along with the production company, director, cinematographer, and supporting cast (all of whom are also presented with additional background information, depending on the entry). Many of these films did not survive the ravages of time and neglect, but missing description gaps in the lost flicks are supplemented by trade reviews of the era…and if a title does exist, Massa lets you know the archive (like the Museum of Modern Art or Library of Congress) where it’s presently taking up residence.
Additional appendices document which Arbuckle titles can be found on home video (I’d highly recommend—if you can track it down—Laughsmith Entertainment’s The Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle) and a brief look at the careers of other funny fat men (the title of this chapter is ”The Screen Must Have a Fat Comedian”), covering everyone from John Bunny to Oliver Hardy. The comedian who collaborated with Chaplin and taught Keaton gets a worthy reference book in Rediscovering Roscoe—it’s an absolute necessity for your film bookshelf, so make room and then make haste in purchasing a copy.