From the mid-1910s until 1921, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the most popular of film comedians. However, at the height of his fame, he was tried for the rape and manslaughter of actress Virginia Rappe. After three trials (the first two of which resulted in a hung jury), Arbuckle was acquitted, and received a written apology from the jury. However, it was too late. He was made a scapegoat for the so-called lack of morals in Hollywood and the current ban on his films stayed in place until 1923. The jury verdict seemed unimportant; he had been one of the first victims of “trial by media” and he was unable to get work in front of the camera, although he directed a number of films during the remainder of the 1920s. An on-screen comeback took place in the early 1930s, but just as his career was taking off once more, Arbuckle died of a heart attack, aged 46.
The following article is from a happier time in Arbuckle’s career, and he comes across in the interview as a warm, gentle man who was totally dedicated to his craft. Written in 1916, the article also indicates just how quickly film was changing and becoming ever more sophisticated during this period, with Arbuckle commenting on the way comedy was progressing from the pure slapstick of Mack Sennett. It’s a wonderful historical document and a lovely portrait of this much-loved comedian.
Fatty Off Guard
Author: Elizabeth Sears
(Film Fun, March 1916. Source: Media History Digital Library)
“Let’s go ‘round to the office,” said Roscoe Arbuckle. “We are not rehearsing today, so there is nothing doing here.”
He had been standing in the huge studio, with its roof of glass, watching workmen make a set and rapidly paper two walls with a vivid pink hanging. At the end entrance there was bunched an eager group of men and women, hoping against hope that they would have an opportunity to speak to him and get in the cast.
When you see his jolly grin facing you from a picture or the covers of a magazine, you are minded to say, “Hey, there’s Fatty!” Somehow you have no inclination to call him “Fatty” when you come face to face with him in the flesh. True, if he were not fat, he might not be so funny; but there are brains there as well as bulk. And Arbuckle has not been idle all these years that he has been in motion pictures. He has been thinking out his plans and dreaming his dreams, and not he has an opportunity to put them on the screen and see how they pan out. He has passed the acrobatic stage and the business of flapping his hands against his sides, as the symbols of fun.
“Of course we have to keep up a little of that stuff,” he explained. “The public has associated it with the Keystone Comedy, and it would not think it a Keystone without a little rough stuff. Wait a minute, until I call the projectionist room. I want you to see the first showing of the first picture we did back in New York – and you will see what I mean. We have tried to get some fine photographic effects here. I have always though there was room for beautiful scenic achievements in comedy as well as the kick and the custard pie.”
“The motion picture world has turned over several times in the past two or three years,” I suggested, which we waited for the man who was to show us the picture. “What is the outlook?”
“Outlook!” repeated the comedy star. “It’s as wide as the blue sky. Film standards change so fast and film styles come in so often that the director whose ideas were heralded as the climax of brilliancy six months ago is old-fashioned now. And if he fails to discard his old ideas and keep at least two laps ahead of the procession – you know what’s going to happen to him.”
The director-author-actor paused long enough to courteously assure a would-be actor that the rehearsals would not begin for a day or two and that there were no good positions open as yet. He bows out his applicants in such a pleasant and friendly fashion that they forget they were turned down and remember only that they have met “Fatty” and found him most delightful in his manner to them.
“I hate to turn ‘em down,” he apologized, “but I haven’t a thing for them just now.”
“Just a word about your scenarios,” I begged. “Where do you get them, who writes them, and how do you direct them?”
Mr. Arbuckle paused long enough to bid a courteous good-morning to three or four young women employes (sic) who passed through the office and who spoke to him shyly. He held open the door for one of them who wore her black hair low and held fast to her forehead with a blue silk garter.
“Not a scrap of scenario paper in my studio,” he admitted. “I wouldn’t know what to do with a manuscript in my hand. I plan out the pictures, and we rehearse them – that’s all.”
Easy enough, isn’t it? And Arbuckle has discovered a grand bit of audience psychology that some of the other stars might well copy. He allows a bit of the picture to film along without him once in a while. He gives the rest of the company a chance. He says he’d rather the audience would wish he would come on back than to wish somebody would sweep him out of the picture.
“An actor doesn’t lose anything by effacing himself once in a while,” he said, as he swung himself comfortably aboard a chair to see the picture in the little projection room. “If he is a favourite, they are all the more certain to welcome him when he gets back in the picture.”
We viewed the opening of the picture in silent. Arbuckle, as the doctor in He Did and He Didn’t has struck a new note, although the film cutter has cut out a trifle too much footage here and there and leaves the picture a bit minus in continuity once in a while.
“You are breaking away from the slapstick stuff,” commented some one (sic) from the gloom of the room. “How’ll Mack Sennett like that, huh? Sennett’s idea of humor seems to be one garnd slam of kaleidoscopic action that tires the eye and leaves no one strong point in the memory.”
Mr. Arbuckle continued to watch himself on the screen diving under the bed for a collar button.
“Well,” he said calmly, “Mr Sennett trusted me to come to New York and put on these plays. He knows what my ideas are along the newer lines of screen comedy.”
It may be that Sennett has noted the trend and begun to moderate his inordinate frenzy of acrobatic falls and tumbles and violent and unnecessary smashes through breakfast rooms, with the unvarying accompaniment of broken china and ceilings.
“What’s the worst thing that can happen to an actor?” I asked, apropos of the remarkable tumble down the stairs of the doctor in search of the burglar. Mr. Arbuckle handed me the answer slap off the shoulder.
“To arrive,” he said promptly.
“I thought that was what they all desired more than anything else,” I said, in surprise.
“They do,” he replied, “but the trouble is, once they arrive, there isn’t much to do but leave again. When they are climbing up, the public applauds and says ‘That chap is coming right along – doing better every day.’ But once the actor is heralded as an absolute arrival, the public begins to criticise and pick flaws and expect him to better his own standard, and it is a tremendous strain. He simply is forced to keep ahead of the public’s opinion and to spring something newer and better every season. The man or woman who can survive an ‘arrival’ is a star of the greatest magnitude.”
There’s a bit of thought for you. We mulled it over and watched the picture silently, until Mr. Arbuckle began to chuckle over a scene.
“We had an awful scrap over that,” he said. “You see, sometimes some of us disagree on an essential point of the production, and we stop the picture and thrash it out right there. Miss Normand is a very charming little lady, but she has a mind of her own, all the same, and we had some argument over that. My idea was to mystify the audience right there – not let ‘em have an inkling of why Mabel gets her visitor into her room there, until they see the burglar hauled out from under the bed.”
I noticed that it was his part of the idea that got over, though.
“That’s a good bit,” some one (sic) commented in the group, when the screen flashed the picture of the armchair before the fireplace. Mr. Arbuckle smiled happily.
“That’s what I meant when I said that we need not rob the picture of scenic beauty to get humor into it. Clean comedy, with an artistic background, not merely hysterical laughter and situations.”
“Think the public wants that kind of comedy?” queries one of the visitors. “I don’t believe the public wants to get its laughs mixed up with its thoughts, do you?”
“I’m banking on it,” said Arbuckle confidently,” although older and more experience men that I am have failed to grasp the way of the public and what it will do at a given period. I believe in the comedy that makes you think, and I believe that the time has come to put it on – and that is what I am going to do.”
We stood a moment in the doorway, when the picture and the interview were over, and watched the little file of actors and actresses in the yard, who had been informed that there would be no use in waiting.
“I’d like to go out to the car with you,” said Mr. Arbuckle, nervously glancing out of the window at the group; “but if I go out there and they see me, they’ll ask me for a job – and I haven’t a thing to offer them.” His blue eyes looked concerned with a boyish sentiment as he bent them on us. “I – I sort of hate to turn them down,” he said deprecatingly.
You see, responsibility takes the laugh out of you sometimes. And although Roscoe Arbuckle loves to see his public laugh, it takes the smile off his own face when he much in any way distress even a small proportion of it.
“Miss Normand has a longing to play drama on the stage,” he said, as he bade us good-by (sic); “but I don’t believe there is any finer mission on earth than just to make people laugh, do you?”