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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Roscoe Trods The Boards

 Back in the Arbuckle briar patch and still awaiting definitive bio's from better authorities than myself. Several are said to be in offing. Roscoe's Pierce-Arrow was auctioned recently, or attempt was made at same, I'm told. Someone had re-painted it a strange color, not unlike spray jobs done on RA's image since besmirch for all time by Frisco law way back in 1921. I'm for tracking Fatty movement from those dark days, his never-give-upping for work behind or in front of cameras. To that last, he'd been forbidden by edict of chief censor Will Hays, but a decade's exile came to clouds parting by 1932 and Warner approach to star in two-reelers shot at Brooklyn facilities. Here was the Roscoe rescue that would have sent him back up pic ladders, if not to height scaled before, at least to comfortable level of regained employment. But for death's intervention, a real comeback seemed likely. Until then was vaudeville, an art RA knew well as patrons thrilled to see such a big, if discredited, name trodding boards before them. Vaude boasted few who'd been so prominent in movies as Roscoe.

In the run-up to his Vitaphone comeback, Arbuckle filled live dates on both coasts, a number of these trade-reviewed with welcome, if spotty, detail of what his performances amounted to. Variety's coverage of a Hollywood Pantages appearance in March 1932 began by saying that Arbuckle was again hesitantly testing the duration of his ostracization, but that this stand, along with recent work with a Seattle stock company, had caused agitation against him to subside. The act was twenty minutes, Roscoe sparring with a gallery stooge plant, then doing a drum specialty with the house band. The stooge was Jack Shutta, who went back far as Fatty on stages, and worked with him besides on 1931's Windy Riley Goes Hollywood, a short Arbuckle directed. Variety advised the two to lay off on pungent humor, including a Moses and Pharaoh's daughter exchange that was feared to attract censure from forces otherwise disposed to aid Roscoe in his comeback.

The money was modest, certainly in comparison with what Arbuckle earned in halcyon Paramount days before the fall. The comedian got $450 for the week against a split over $15,000 in event that figure was reached, which according to Variety, it wasn't. Two months later, in May 1932, Roscoe was on a loaded bill at New York's Palace Theatre where his was one of ten acts stretching over three hours of show time. It wouldn't set fire to the red plush pastures at Seventh Avenue and Forty-seventh Street, said The New York Times, but would relieve sodden weight of a previous week's bill. Milton Berle was a so-called "unabashed" master of ceremonies who introduced the "twinkling feet" of Queenie Smith, a headliner who'd later be funny with W.C. Fields in his Paramount comedy, Mississippi. Corpulent clown Arbuckle, of an earlier cinematic day, did well enough with Shutta in repeat of his Pantages act, the stooge situated this time in an upstairs box.

Arbuckle's Series All Depends On 1st Short, said Variety's headline announcement (8/2/32) of a try-out RA comedy for WB-Vitaphone. It was called a "gamble" and product of an understanding reported to have been reached between the Warners and the Hays organization prior to the announcement of Arbuckle's return. Production was to begin August 24, Roscoe to direct himself (though he wouldn't be credited as such in completed Hey, Pop!). Turnover was reasonably quick, Hey, Pop! opening with The Match King on 12/7/32 at Warner's NY flagship, the Strand. Arbuckle was on hand to introduce his first onscreen appearance in a decade. Maybe the audience liked him, but the Times' Mordaunt Hall gave Hey, Pop! a cruel pan: It is a pathetic attempt at sympathetic farce, except possibly for those who like to laugh at Mr. Arbuckle juggling with wheat cakes and eggs or disguising himself in women's clothes, so that he may save a poor little boy from going to an orphanage (count me among "those," Mr. Hall).

The series, thank goodness, went forward, despite the critic's jibe. Roscoe knew best of anyone how tough a comeback could be, but at least he was well-glued to Gotham, where work on sound and live stages could easier be managed. Added to five further two-reelers was continuing vaudeville within a drive's distance. One such noteworthy was Brooklyn trouping at the Metropolitan Theatre, where Arbuckle supported Lee Tracy's latest, The Night Mayor. This was a first week of January in 1933, not a peak period for show houses, being just after holidays when crowds were more inclined to picturegoing, thus a "mild" $20,000 banked for the 3,500 seat house. What close-by did better? Well, there was Russ Columbo and Monte Blue appearing with If I Had A Million at the Brooklyn Paramount, good for $35,000, and The Mummy plus vaudeville got a "satisfactory" $22,000 at the Albee.

Company Roscoe kept on stages fascinates as well. He'd help a youngster in career need, to wit a beginning Bob Hope, who, according to the New York Times in a 10/9/32 profile, was spotted by Arbuckle during a night club dance act and invited to join the latter's tour, where several subsequent months were spent in a succession of vaudeville acts and the "tab" shows peculiar to the outlands, said the Times. I've heard that Hope credited Arbuckle for an early boost, but don't recall specific interviews to that effect. Does anyone know where Roscoe got a latter-day mention from Bob? Reportage after Arbuckle's death indicated three of the six Vitaphone comedies yet to be released, these being Close Relations, In The Dough, and Tomalio, a last completed only a few hours before his death (the Times also set Roscoe's estate at not more than $2,000). The Vitaphone Comedy Collection: Volume One from Warner Archive is culmination of long-held hope for the half-dozen Arbuckle shorts on DVD, and contrary to Mordaunt Hall's contrariness, they do not disappoint.


Blogger Dave K said...

Never heard of the Hope-Arbuckle connection before. Fascinating! Warner Archives not only has the great Vitaphone short connection, but also THE RED MILL, a delightful sample of Roscoe's gift as a director!

1:35 PM  

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