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The Best Arbuckle/Keaton Collection

Image Entertainment

Starring Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Buster Keaton,
Al St. John, Alice Lake, and Luke the Dog

Directed by Roscoe Arbuckle

DVD produced by Serge Bromberg, Eric Lange, and David Shepard

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

"I endeavor to cater to the masses as well as the classes, not forgetting the kids. Children like the purely physical comedy — the fall and the knockdown — and the more exaggerated the action, the more they laugh. The average person watching a comedy on the screen does not want to be compelled to think — to figure out a piece of business — so that there is always a little hesitancy in dealing with satire and the little subtleties that are enjoyed by the clever people."

— Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, while still working for
Mack Sennett at Keystone

"Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him... there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story which we all believe. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgement of fourteen men and women that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame."

— A written apology by Arbuckle's third trial jury, who
returned a not-guilty verdict after less than five
minutes of deliberation (before it became clear that
it didn't matter).

Part 1:
Who was Fatty Arbuckle? A recap some 80 years after

Some DVDs do more than simply repackage last summer's box office hits. Some restore and revitalize pieces of cinematic history. And occasionally, every now and then, one comes along that sets out to right a long-standing wrong.

From 1917 to 1920, veteran stage performer Joseph "Buster" Keaton learned the art and craft of movie-making by apprenticing himself to superstar screen comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. As displayed quite pleasurably in Image Entertainment's The Best Arbuckle/Keaton Collection, it didn't take long before the learner matched and advanced beyond the skills and inventiveness of the master. Today, when comparing Keaton's famous movies from the '20s — The General, Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, Seven Chances, and The Playhouse, just for starters — to Arbuckle's funny but less sophisticated shorts, it's easy to imagine Keaton paraphrasing Isaac Newton: "If I see further what movies can be, it is because I stand on the shoulders of a giant."

Keaton (top), Arbuckle (bottom), and gal pals For years, Fatty Arbuckle was the biggest funnyman in the movies. Literally, it's often pointed out. Nicknamed for his obvious girth, this nimble 300-pounder's boyish face was a full moon of expression, from wide, happy smiles that charmed audiences as if he'd just leaped from a Gerber's babyfood jar, to steam-from-the-ears anger that foretold butts-hit-floor mayhem. Before trying his hand as a slapstick comedian in a 1908 short film, he'd been an acrobat. That background proved itself again and again in his films. He could move his body with the agility of a ballet dancer, as if the laws of mass and inertia had been deleted from his studio contract.

As a beloved actor-director-comedian during the silent era, he rivaled Charlie Chaplin in popularity. If you think of Chaplin as being the Annie Hall-style Woody Allen of his time, an artisan-filmmaker who lifted screen comedy to a new level of expression, then Arbuckle might be the silent Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler — less artistic and sophisticated by miles, but nonetheless obviously skilled and unquestionably popular with his own characteristic wacky and raucous manner. Kids especially loved Arbuckle.

Arbuckle was talented, lovable, and above all funny. Like other comedic stars of the era, he learned how to make gag-filled, rowdy movies while working for Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios. He'd started there as a $40-a-week bit player and was one of Sennett's Keystone Kops. A few years and hundreds of shorts later, he'd become enough of a Big Name Star to break away on his own.

Like Sennett, Arbuckle's forte was the rough-and-tumble slapstick shenanigans of physical comedy and broad farce. Every component of a Sennett or Arbuckle film was subordinate to the gag. Anything that might be generously called a script was an excuse for the daisy-chain of farcical situations, funny faces, and pratfalls. The great Looney Tunes antics of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery owe a kinship debt to the pioneering silliness of Sennett and Arbuckle.

Managed by producer Joe Schenck with distribution handled by Paramount Pictures, his Comique Film Corporation could crank out an uproarious picture every two weeks with only a camera, his small stable of actors, and — because roughly 80 percent of their scenes used outdoor locations — good weather. In September 1917, with six films done and a New York winter approaching, Arbuckle moved his studio from New York City to sunny California and into Hollywood history.

From 1917 until 1921, Arbuckle directed, co-wrote, and starred in some of the most popular comedies of the day. An international sensation, he received red-carpet treatment in Paris as easily as in New York. For a time this gentle giant commanded the highest comedian's salary in the world and a level of creative control that Hollywood wouldn't match until Orson Welles signed with RKO in 1941. In 1919, Louella Parsons in the New York Telegraph wrote, "Everybody loves Roscoe Arbuckle.... Everything a comedian should be is present in 'Fatty.' He radiates good nature, cheerfulness and a pleasant day. He has a constant pleasant day. He has a constant rendezvous with happiness and not even a speaking acquaintance with gloom." In 1921, after signing a million dollar contract with Paramount, he celebrated by throwing a Labor Day weekend party at the St. Francis Hotel.

Fatty and Buster

Ever since he was a toddler, Buster Keaton had been a headlining star in his parents' touring vaudeville medicine show. In '17, Arbuckle saw Keaton in a Broadway revue called The Passing Show, and invited the apparently undentable 21-year-old comic/acrobat to his studio on East 48th Street in Manhattan. For Keaton it was love at first sight. Not with Arbuckle (though the two became lifelong friends), but with the motion picture camera. Its mechanism and potential captivated him. He became one of Arbuckle's repertory actors at one-sixth the salary he would have received on stage. It was an education that put him on his own fast track to riches and fame. In 1920, with Arbuckle beginning a new phase with feature-length films, Schenck offered Keaton total control as writer and director of his own movies. The Golden Age of Comedy had begun.

The shorts and features Keaton made after the Arbuckle years continue to amaze and make us laugh into the 21st century. Roger Ebert states that "...in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, he worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies." His mastery of the camera and its untapped potential took root during his years with Arbuckle.

Chaplin's protean genius gave us films that are among filmdom's most enduring classics. Keaton occupies a hairsbreadth second place to Chaplin in the respect and love he still earns today. Each in his own truly unique ways embodied the rare Great Leap Forward in movies. Comprehensive DVD retrospectives of their work have been released, with more on the way.

However, Arbuckle's presence in this new format has been (pardon the expression) slim. Today, when he's remembered at all, he's a seamy footnote in sordid Hollywood history. What went wrong?

Granted, as talented and adored as Arbuckle obviously was, he didn't possess the almost supernatural gifts of Chaplin and Keaton. Nonetheless, that he is so relatively little-known today is an historical injustice that points directly to that Labor Day party.

Man's laughter, manslaughter

It's 1921. At that wild Hollywood Labor Day weekend party hosted by Arbuckle, a pretty, young, and uninvited starlet, Virginia Rappe, was overcome by an agonizing bout of what her death certificate four days later called a "ruptured bladder" complicated by "acute peritonitis." Although the autopsy report revealed that she had syphilis, a likely contributor to the rupture of her bladder, the report was soon amended with the words "due to external force" and "manslaughter." No assault had been witnessed, but there was no stopping the scandalous rumors and courtroom conjecture asserting that Rappe had been anally raped by Arbuckle — possibly using a champagne (or was it a Coke?) bottle — or else she had died after a forced abortion gone wrong. No facts could douse the rumormongering that fueled the public's image of Hollywood as a Babylon awash in orgies and degradation. Arbuckle was indicted for first-degree murder.

After three grueling, painful trials during which no evidence condemned Arbuckle, he was acquitted, cleared of all charges. By then, though, it didn't matter. A publicity-seeking prosecutor and corrupted prosecution witnesses who lied under oath all fed a tabloid press even more vicious than today's. (Years later, Keaton said he had overheard newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst tell Schenck that "they sold more newspapers on the Arbuckle trials than they did on the sinking of the Lusitania!")

The trials had become about things bigger even than Fatty. The moviegoing public was in a prejudiced, witch-burning mood, and he was a large symbol easy to vilify from Sunday morning pulpits. The funny fat man was a whipping boy for all the sins — real or imagined — associated with the Hollywood "elite." As a direct result of the case, the infamous Hays Office of motion picture "moral and artistic standards" was created. After Arbuckle's acquittal, the Hays Office officially banned all his comedies, removed his existing films from circulation, and barred the comedian from ever acting again. The first actor to be blacklisted by Hollywood, Arbuckle was professionally ruined. The Hays Code cowed Hollywood filmmaking for a generation.

Buster stuck by his friend throughout the ordeal. "Certainly Fatty Arbuckle was wronged," he said. "He was no more guilty of that charge than I was." But Arbuckle was finished. Broke and in deep debt to lawyers, he never regained his star status.

Keaton was his own movie star now. He remained under contract to Comique until March 2, 1922, when Joe Schenck formed Buster Keaton Productions just as Arbuckle finished his third trial for manslaughter. It's possible that the name change was to distance Buster from any stigma attached to Comique, which was so closely associated with Arbuckle.

The two partners remained friends, and the unjust public pillorying Arbuckle received had a profound effect on Keaton both as a person and as a filmmaker. He often used his newfound mastery of the medium to document protagonists caught up in a world that seems to run less on virtue, merit, or talent than on luck: good, bad, or dumb.

When he could find under-the-table gag-writing or acting work (occasionally thanks to his nephew, Al St. John, or Keaton), Arbuckle's screen credit was a false name, "William B. Good." From 1925-32, he directed a couple dozen mostly forgettable films under the name "William Goodrich." After taking up heavy drinking, Arbuckle died in 1933, age 46.

Part 2:
About Image's The Best Arbuckle/Keaton Collection

Image Entertainment's The Best Arbuckle/Keaton Collection gives Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle a splendid opportunity for rediscovery. Plus, Keaton's fans who have been clamoring for films from his cinematic adolescence have much to be thankful for — twelve of them in this pair of discs that represent a fine rectification by Blackhawk's film preservationist David Shepard and associates.

Shepard has already justified the existence of DVD as a medium through his authoritative restorations of 1925's The Lost World, Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse, Murnau's Nosferatu, Valentino's The Sheik / Son of the Sheik, and, of particular interest here, a terrific series of Keaton shorts and features on DVD through Kino Video, and Image's Slapstick Encyclopedia, an enormous reliquary of early screen knockabout comedy. Now Shepard focuses our attention exclusively on the Comique years with films showcasing Arbuckle working alongside his pal and protégé.

The Best Arbuckle/Keaton Collection gathers a dozen of the fifteen Comique shorts that Arbuckle and Keaton made between 1917 and 1920, the height of Arbuckle's popularity. Totaling more than four hours and presented chronologically, they display his talents as a performer and skills as a director, plus chronicle Keaton's evolution from bit player to full partner as both men honed their comedic skills. The films themselves evolve as well, with Keaton's more disciplined gags and camera techniques shaping Arbuckle's sensibilities even while Keaton is in his own early working-through period.

So not only does Arbuckle's legacy get a chance to cavort in the sun again, but Keaton's fans can witness their hero trying out ideas that he would later expand to death-defying (I really mean that) degrees once he was captaining his own films. Because he had not yet fully established his Great Stone Face persona, we're struck by how often he laughs, cries, making goo-goo eyes, and otherwise surprises anyone today who thinks of him only in terms of the resolutely deadpan character he immortalized.

Most of these films co-star Al St. John. He had a face that could frighten small children, but he was Arbuckle's lanky nephew and a skilled comic performer whose wild-limbed, bug-eyed mugging made him a fine Keystone Kop in the Mack Sennett days. However, he didn't have his uncle's charisma, so after playing the "heavy" against the far superior Fatty and Buster, he found himself relegated to history's lower shelf set aside for cinema's lesser talents. Another recurring face is Alice Lake, one of Arbuckle's leading ladies at Keystone and now part of his repertory company. She was also Keaton's girlfriend before his marriage to Natalie Talmadge, Comique's script supervisor and secretary-treasurer. (Known as "The Laughing Lady," Lake was a sexually boisterous woman fond of traipsing about the studio sans top, and sometimes sans bottom.)

In the silent days, conventional wisdom was that the ideal length of a comedy was about twenty minutes, after which audiences got restless. It took roughly two reels of film to make a twenty-minute picture, so such a film was (and still is) called a "two-reeler." The twelve two-reelers on tap here offer some of the finest slapstick comedy created in the decade before sound technology:





How do these antiques look?

Naturally, one can expect films that are just under ninety years old, and that had been removed from distribution in the U.S., to look their age and then some. Not at all unexpectedly, scratches and awkward splices and unfortunate skip-jumps from missing frames are evident from start to finish throughout these two discs. Because differing public domain prints have existed under wildly varying degrees of care for years, it's often difficult to know if a vintage silent film you're watching is the real deal or not. Is it complete? Is it from the best available source material? Never mind the fact that giving all of these a frame-by-frame digital cleaning and restoration would be a nearly impossible task. The good news is that David Shepard and his partners are fastidious about this sort of thing.

Once again, Shepard and Image can be proud of their achievement here. This set's title may be a cheeky nod to the 2001 release of Kino Video's two-volume Arbuckle and Keaton: The Original Comique/Paramount Shorts, 1917-1920. That DVD collection carried ten of the twelve films in this Image set, with some substantial differences in the source prints used, in the use (or not) of period tinting, the music tracks applied, and the intertitles recreated for each film. Aficionados who already possess the Kino discs will see more similarities than differences between the sets, and whether this Image release really is the "best" remains a matter of opinion, although one can make a strong case for this being the superior of the two.

The films in this collection were gathered from international archives and private collections. They've been digitally mastered from 35mm sources, some directly from the nitrate originals. "Out West," for instance, is the complete film struck from its nitrate master; the version released by Kino is missing significant amounts of the footage found here. "The Rough House" is also from nitrate and is two minutes longer than the Kino copy. Because this set's version of "The Garage" is from newly discovered tinted nitrate, it's in excellent condition and is a significant improvement on Image's Slapstick Encyclopedia version, which wasn't too shabby itself. Kino's "The Garage" was an even more inferior print from a 16mm blowup. "His Wedding Night" (from a Russian archive) is not on the Kino discs at all. Sometimes compromises must be made. Kino's "Moonshine" is the complete film, but the poor 16mm source was so damaged and dupey that's it's all but unwatchable. Image's is fragmentary, yet comes from a good 35mm nitrate master.

Both sets sport very different intertitles (the text cards used for dialogue and scene-setting). Image's new English intertitles read well, seem to be more authentic than Kino's, and have just enough of a period look to them. And both sets return the films to their original camera-cranking projection speed of 18-20 frames per second rather than the "sound speed" of 24 frames per second, thus avoiding the jerky, cartoonish rush that's often associated with the old-timey "flickers."

For collectors, film scholars, and ordinary fans of movie funny stuff, it's grand to see the Arbuckle-Keaton films dusted off and placed on a pedestal in two different DVD collections. The Kino and Image sets each have plenty to recommend them and some substantial overlap, but until someone comes out with The Very Best Final and Definitive Arbuckle/Keaton Collection, Really We Mean It, complete with the three "lost" shorts not included in either collection, it's Image's edition that leads by a (bulbous, pie-spattered) nose. Image's reputation for silent classics on DVD is beyond reproach, and although Kino's editions applied period tinting (always welcome when done well) to more of the films than Image did, the films on The Best Arbuckle/Keaton Collection tend to be more complete, authoritative, and visually pleasing.

How are the sounds of silence?

For nine of these films, new first-rate musical scoring is provided by Neil Brand, the pianist at London's National Film Theater. His style is supportive and absolutely period-perfect, and is often clever and witty without ever being intrusive. Coney Island's appropriately calliope-like score is by Eric Beheim and his electronic orchestra. Oh, Doctor!'s is by silent restoration stalwart Robert Israel at the Fotoplayer, and Out West's music is compiled from Columbia Photoplay Series 78 rpm records for a Preservation Jazz Hall feel. Each music track comes in clean, solid Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. Very nice all around.

Anything else?

An eight-page insert provides a fine essay on the films by Jeffry Vance, adapted from the book Buster Keaton Remembered by Vance and Eleanor Keaton.

"The End"

There are few things more serious than being funny. It's good to see that after all these years Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton are still really, really funny. And it's lovely to note that David Shepard and associates still take their work really, really seriously. This DVD set from Image goes a long way to bringing Fatty Arbuckle back into the spotlight where he belongs. It's all proof that when you're genuinely funny, you'll always be funny, no matter how hard the bastards try to slap you down.

—Mark Bourne

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