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Saturday, August 04, 2012

Greenbriar's Arbuckle Arc

Again I confess to Fatty Fixation. No silent tragi-comedy engages me half so much. What happened to Roscoe was uniquely awful --- a world's adulation one day, its anathema the next. Everyone here knows the story. Beloved comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle turns down a 1921 Labor Day boating invite from Buster Keaton in order to revel hearty with H'wood pals at Frisco's St. Francis Hotel over Labor Day. His suite is wide open and attracts fleas. Several among these frame a manslaughter rap for Roscoe after bit-actress Virginia Rappe dies under circumstances unrelated to him. From there comes three trials and career ruin. That's an extreme tab version of what happened. Writers have done books on it. I understand at least one more is forthcoming to further sift the ruins. Time travel capability would find many of us going back to warn Fatty --- Don't go! Stay home! Sail with Buster! --- imagine how often Keaton wished his best friend had done just that. Capricious fate turns on a moment's wrong decision and hardship takes charge from there.

What I'm about today is not dredging up familiar history. A chance find among scrapbooks did, however, reveal one town loosening its Arbuckle embrace as scandal's imprint spread across the land. Word traveled fast even in 1921. Roscoe saw fame evaporate within weeks of the incident, replaced by infamy to last longer. Louisville, Kentucky was far away from San Francisco, but news of Fatty's arrest got there and did its damage. What's here is ad-evidence of Louisville's Arbuckle abandonment, but it happened nationwide. Were there any showmen that stuck by him? Among best repository for film history is newspaper promotionals, and these four from Louisville's Rialto Theatre (that venue shown above, and in images at right and below) follow Roscoe from a peak to oblivion in the space of a month. How did parents explain all this to their children who loved Fatty?

The Rialto was deluxe, a million dollar edifice that opened in 1921 and seated 3,100. It boasted chandeliers of Bohemian crystal, "a great marble staircase," and an organ that cost (in '21 currency) 18K. They played the best and advertised heavily. Birth year for the Rialto was also a summit one for Roscoe Arbuckle. He was now a feature star for Paramount and popular to near-Chaplin levels. A half-dozen Fattys were in release and Para had a trio more they'd shot concurrently to spread over a 21/22 season. Could a future be rosier? The Rialto dressed fronts and got up display ads for The Traveling Salesman, a June release and manna for school's out patronage. The Rialto's "Programme" was loaded to capacity for daytime quarter and evening thirty cent admissions (with kids in for half that). "Snappy Shots Of Busy Louisville" allowed customers to see friends and maybe themselves on screen --- only a front-runner house offered treats like this. Organist Haden Read had been on roads demonstrating Wurlitzer's line ... now he sat before Rialto keys to give concerts at each show.  All this plus further live music and a Mack Sennett comedy --- such was a ticket's bargain in 1921.

Arbuckle, and his Paramount supervisors, were prolific. Perhaps too much so. But you didn't have to force-feed Arbuckle to a marketplace then. His was what theatres played lesser Paramounts in order to get. Gasoline Gus was out in August. Then came Crazy To Marry the same month, rubbing against fateful Labor Day where bottoms fell out. The Rialto booked Crazy To Marry just ahead of detonation. Like showmen across the country, they figured Fatty for happy days. Weren't each of his surpassing ones before? Crazy To Marry was down for four days. As with The Traveling Salesman, there was a Douglas MacLean comedy set to follow Roscoe's booking. What happened next makes clear that management got the memo. Fatty was through and respectable venues weren't going to play him.

Click and Enlarge to Read the Above "Important Notice"

It was that way everywhere. Towns large and small cancelled Arbuckle playdates. The Rialto advanced MacLean's Passing Thru' and passed Roscoe by, in keeping with our policy to maintain the high moral standard and dignity of the screen. Wonder how that went over in Louisville. Did fans say, Never mind the charges --- Let's see Fatty anyway? A movie public was admittedly sheep, then as now, but were they so ready to drop R"F"A down the coal chute? Whatever ... that's where he went. Paramount didn't toss any life preservers. They withdrew Crazy To Marry, and figured releasing the last two would, in light of vociferous press, amount to further craziness. Europe got these, The Fast Freight and Leap Year, or so it's said. I haven't gone looking, but word suggests Roscoe reels are archival-hid over there.

The Law Closing In On Roscoe in Crazy To Marry ---
 Soon Enough They'd Do So In Real Life

The Rialto had continued success and a roadshow future (The Sound Of Music played there a year) before wrecking balls blew them a kiss in 1969. Sic semper something or other. Roscoe got his demolishment sooner, of course ... over and out by 1933. By then, you'd not locate Crazy To Marry or any of his Para features with a Geiger counter, even if the lot was still radioactive. The last one, Leap Year, did miraculously turn up in the late sixties. I remember dealers crowing over an Arbuckle never released ever (at least in this country), but I didn't bite, preferring known quantities of Laurel/Hardy and Mutual Chaplins. Forty-five years later, I'm Arbuckle ardent and ripe to see his long gone features, so where are they? Besides The Round-Up (great character work by Roscoe) and Leap Year, it's a dry well. Experts at the always informative Silent Comedy Mafia say Life Of The Party is extant, and that The Traveling Salesman is at Eastman House. Then there's Gasoline Gus and Crazy To Marry allegedly stored in Russia. What a DVD set these would make. Come on archives --- tear down those walls!

More Roscoe Arbuckle at Greenbriar Archives: Fatty's Fate and Roscoe's Rescue and Windy Riley Goes Hollywood. 


Anonymous Paul E. Gierucki said...

John, watch for the new Arbuckle set next year. Production resumes following the release of CineMuseum's THE MACK SENNETT COLLECTION: 100 YEARS OF KEYSTONE COMEDY, part of which will be airing on TCM throughout the month of September.

12:25 PM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

Re today's photo: It's fun to imagine a bunch of intelligent adults sitting through "Master of the World" and thinking, "This is educational. And there's no sex!"

I am sort of fond of this one. You're never sure if it's a merely a cheap but clever knockoff of "20,000 Leagues" or a potentially excellent movie torpedoed by a too-tight budget and whimsical set design.

2:12 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer remembers a Roscoe Arbuckle encounter from fifty years ago ...

It was about 50 years ago when I first saw a movie starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. My Mom and Dad had driven back to Gary, Indiana from New Jersey with my sister and me to see their folks, and while we were there, we made a trip into Chicago to visit the great Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. One of the exhibits was the recreation of a turn of the century street, paved with cobblestones on which were parked several carriages, both horsed and horseless, and with various shops and stores lining either side of it. We could look through the windows of a general store to see a counter and shelves with canned goods and bolts of cloth piled on them, a drug store stocked with the patent remedies of the time, and a milliner’s shop, with a dummy in the window wearing the latest styles of 1916. There was also a nicklelodean, the one building in the exhibit we could actually enter, because an old-time movie was being shown there every hour, Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand starring in "Fatty and Mabel Adrift." I’m sure that it was intended as a quaint example of what our grandparents found entertaining, but I’d already fallen in love with silent films, having watched the Ernie Kovacs’ hosted television program, "Silents Please" the summer before, at least when it wasn’t preempted by some brohaha at the United Nations between the United States and the Soviet Union. There were no such interruptions at this show and I thought it was great fun, rickey-tickey piano and all. Fatty was an amazing balloon of a man, Mabel a petite and adorable counterpoint, the Keystone Kops hapless, and everyone was saved at the end by Luke the Dog. But that was just about the last time I saw Arbuckle on film. Of course, I caught glimpses of him from time to time, in Brownlow’s "Hollywood" series or excerpts from some of the two-reelers he made with Buster Keaton, but for the most part he was a literary figure for me. The scandal that ended his career seemed much bigger than the career itself, whether in David Yallop’s "The Day the Laughter Stopped" or one of the more grotesque episodes of Kenneth Anger’s "Hollywood Babylon." And yet I also read how the great comedians of the time loved and respected his work, Keaton especially. So of course, I’d very much want to see some of his movies, and since I’ve already become acquainted with the strange, strange universe of Harry Langdon, it seems inevitable that Fatty Arbuckle will be next. Perhaps there will be a certain resonance to watching "Fatty and Mabel Adrift" again, as though in the vividness of my memories I’ll find myself growing younger as I grow older, and Fatty will once more be the clown of my boyhood.


6:21 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

If anyone at the Warner Archive is reading, please release the six Roscoe Arbuckle Vitaphone two-reelers on DVD. And if John is reading, I'd welcome your take on the Vitaphones.

11:40 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Scott, there isn't a group of shorts I'd rather see released on DVD than the Arbuckle Vitaphones. I'm told they are forthcoming ... it can't be soon enough.

4:10 PM  
Anonymous Nick said...

The last I heard about the Arbuckle Vitaphones, they're definitely planned for Warner Archive, but the company has been waiting to give the shorts new transfers rather than simply releasing their current "off the shelf" transfers, which were done at least a couple of decades ago when Turner was transferring everything in the vaults they could get their hands on.

7:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if many of the writers/commentators of Arbuckle's fall address this issue. Without exception they view this sad event through the eyes of our modern society:

Turn back the clock to 1920s American society. Back then the majority attended church every week, said grace at every meal, waited for marriage for physical intimacy and pretty much had carry-over values from America's founding fathers.

Based on the 1920s movie magazines I've read, Hollywood was considered (by the older adult population then) a den of vice, libertine women, cocaine fiends, and adulterers.

When this story broke, it just confirmed all these suspicions among "decent people" thus leading to the ostracism of this great comedian from the public eye.

It is indeed a sad commentary when we turn the pages over to the 60s, 70s and up to 2012 when a remnant of "decent people" (who own a restaurant chain) holding those same unchanging right-and-wrong Christian values can comment on gay marriage and receive the same demonization and public disdain that Fatty Arbuckle suffered in the 1920s.

How far lower will our society descend before, like Rome, it falls?

7:16 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Just as sad, if not sadder, is that a woman who was not only an actress, but also a respected model AND clothing designer - whose only "crime" was that she perhaps embraced sexual liberation none too wisely - had to be tarnished as a scheming larcenous whore by Arbuckle's defenders. She wasn't an angel, but Virginia Rappe deserved better... and let's not forget that SHE'S the one who died of a ruptured bladder.

An interview with Joan Myers, probably the one trustworthy expert on Ms. Rappe, is found here:

9:55 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

William Randolph Hearst said that while Arbuckle was a good friend whom he personally knew to be innocent of all charges the Hearst papers sold more papers over Arbuckle's scandal than over anything else.

Too bad some of the money earned was not put towards informing the American public the man they saw as a monster wasn't.

2:14 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Speaking of Hearst, was there not a private trust-fund set-up, to which all the major moguls of the time contributed, for Arbuckle?

10:10 PM  
Anonymous Ralph Schiller said...

My question for Michael Hayde is whatever happened to Joan Myers' book on the Fatty Arbuckle scandal?

I read the extensive, and outstanding interview with Joan Myers, who seems to have really done her homework.

I looked over at Amazon and can find no trace of her Arbuckle book which I would scarf up in a moment's notice.

I suspect Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle was not completely innocent or guilt-free in Virginia Rappe's death.

I remember reading an interview in an issue of Sam Rubin's "Classcic Film Collector" in the early 1970's with Minta Durfee Arbuckle (Roscoe's surviving divorced wife). She painted Fatty as a saintly fool and then went on to character assassinate the deceased Ms. Rappe in the most graphic terms possible!

I hope you all keep covering this Hollywood mystery and scandal!!!

10:13 AM  

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