Sunday, January 19, 2014

Fatty Joins the Force (USA,1913)

American comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (1887 – 1933) started in films at Keystone studios in 1913. We can see he was already a skilled and mature comedian in his first year in films. Although he sometimes played the role of a grown-up baby who could not control his impulses, his roles and gags would only become more sophisticated and ellaborate as time passed, and the audience always laughed and rooted for his character. His potential was already evident at the very beginning of his screen career, as we can see in this cute little film. 

Fatty is in a park with his sweetheart. A cop passes them by and sits besides a woman and his little daugther on a bench. While her mother talks to the policeman, the girl goes to play too close to the park’s lake. She slips and falls in the lake. Fatty and his sweetheat see everything. Fatty’s sweetheat makes him jump in the lake to save the girl, although he is afraid of doing so. In fact, Fatty ends up falling in the lake accidentally. Anyway, it does not matter what made him fall in the lake, as he actually saved the girl from drowning in the long run and, as an intertitle says: “It turns out to be the police commissioner’s child”. The girl is brought back to her family and Fatty is acknowledged as the hero who saved her. Being now a respected and admired man, he is invited to become a policeman and “the whole force does him honor”.

Fatty has his own uniform and it is time to go to the streets and perform his duty. However, he soon finds out things will not be as easy as he thought they would be. He is talking to his sweetheart when he sees some boys figthing. He tries to stop it, but one of the boys ended up accidentaly punching him and runs away immediately afterwards, leaving a virtually unconscious Fatty behind. Fatty is helped by his sweetheart and they both sit on a bench. Then, a group of boys start teasing Fatty by throwing stuff on him. He runs after the boys, but falls on the ground, and consequently falling behind and getting dirty. His sweetheart comes back home and Fatty decides to have a bath in the lake, leaving his cop uniform on the ground while he swims. But the worst is about to happen: The boys see him in the lake, find his clothes and decide to leave them somewhere else. After a while, his uniform is found by another guy, who takes it straight to the police station. The police officers recognize the uniform as being Fatty’s and assume he drowned. 

Meanwhile, Fatty finds himself half naked and all alone. His situation worsens when two women see him and report to the cops they had seen a “wild man”, which make the cops chase Fatty. While the chase takes place, his sweetheat is leading a search in the lake with the purpose of finding Fatty or at least a clue to his whereabouts. Fatty tries to hide in vain and is caught and arrested by the cops. Fatty’s fellow policemen mourn his death. When the cops arrive in the police station bringing Fatty with them, it becomes obvious that Fatty is immediately recognized, even though he is dressed with rags. The other cops are not happy to see him again and throw Fatty in prison, probably because they thought he staged his own death on purpose.


The film finishes with Fatty crying in his cell. His experience as a policeman did not really leave good memories. We tend to feel sympathetic for Fatty; after all he was working in a job to which he had no previous formal training and ended up being a victim of unfavorable circumstances, rather than being a corrupt schemer. It is impossible not to compare the end of this film with the consequences of Virginia Rappe scandal that would engulf Fatty Arbuckle’s life in 1921. Therefore, this end is probably more disturbing and ironic now than it was for 1910s audiences. 

Further reading and materials: 

2. Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A One Night Stand (USA, 1915)

This is exactly what modern-day audiences would expect from a silent comedy: Broad and fast gestures, fake mustaches, people running and much more.
Starring Chester Conklin and Mae Busch, the film gives us a very interesting historic glimpse on how a dramatic production worked back in the 1910ies, whether on and off stage.

The manager of a theater production is not satisfied with some of his employees, who cannot focus on their jobs, keep on doing “a few home town tricks” and acting silly. The show is about to begin and the theater group are preparing everything to the upcoming play, or as an intertitle says: “Limbering up for the coming show”. Rather than working, the stagehands are playing some kind of game with a ball and they are caught playing by the manager. 

The misfits have the potential to ruin the whole production, so it is important to make them behave themselves properly. Anyway, despite all the problems, the play starts but things will not run smoothly for a long time. The actors will have problems with the scenery caused by the same incompetent stagehands, specially the one who picked up a fight while he was holding the scenery. Thus, what was supposed to be a beautiful melodrama production involuntarily becomes a slapstick in itself. Confusion arises off stage and many things are thrown, including bricks. Gags are quite funny.

The plot of some silent comedy shorts seem to be hard to understand for nowadays’ standards and there is a reason for that. Rather than being fixed to a script, the comedians had much room for improvisation grounded only in an overall idea of the story. What does it exactly mean? By its own nature, screen comedy moves faster than drama and this is even more evident when it comes to slapstick. However, this is not the only point to be considered.
In one-or two-reel slapstick comedies there is not a strict commitment to carefully-related situations. Unusual facts are a commonplace, most of them completely detached from reality and it can be seen even in the appearance of some characters that did not have any resemblance to real people at the time. Coincidences may happen and facts are not a usual result of previous ones. Logic and probability are forgotten. Characterization is not a priority and gags have more prominence.
As director Al Christie (1881-1951) said in his book The Elements of Situation Comedy:[1] “In a one reel subject it is almost impossible to develop details of personal inclinations and habits, yet even in a subject of this sort it is possible to analyze each character and keep each character withincertain bounds”. As there is no time for deeper characterization, the film usually shows the predominate traits of the characters, both the physical and emotional. Thus, in some slapstick films we can see “the romantic girl”, “the fat man”, “the jealous wife, “the coward soldier” and so on and so forth. The possibilities are endless.
As such sort of comedies, with frantic pace and lots of physical movement, finished being produced with the advent of talkies due to limitation of movements that the use of microphones and heavier equipment imposed, those films are not usually familiar to modern day audiences. Anyway, they continue to be funny and serve as a valuable historic witness to an era.

Further reading and materials:
2. Mack Sennett Classics, Volume 2: One Night Stand / Cursed By His Beauty / Fatty's Tintype Tangle / Plumber / Star Boarder (Silent)

[1] The Elements of Situation Comedy, Al E. Christie, University of California Libraries (January 1, 1920)