In 1932, Roscoe Arbuckle returned to cinema screens after 11 long years in the wilderness. Since he was unfairly banished from the screen in 1921, a lot had changed. Talkies had arrived. The independent comedy studios had, for the most part, gone under or been absorbed into bigger concerns. Slapstick was passé. And yet, audiences greeted with open arms one of the pioneers of slapstick, an old friend who they had shared mud puddles and food fights with many years ago. Finally he was allowed the comeback that no-one, least of all he, thought could ever happen…
Let’s get the mention of the scandal over with right at the start and have done with it. There’s no need to recap the ins and outs of the trial, although it is always worth shouting from the rooftops “He was INNOCENT!” one more time. Of the whole sorry saga, the one redeeming feature is that Roscoe Arbuckle was, eventually, allowed to be rescued from his exile and return to doing what he loved best.
After being blacklisted, Arbuckle had made a living directing Lupino Lane, Al St John, Lloyd Hamilton, Johnny Arthur, Marion Davies and many others under the pseudonym ‘William Goodrich’. However, while this gave him some outlet for comedy creativity, he yearned to perform again. Gradually, as the social climate of the 1920s turned toward the more liberated jazz era, public opinion rebelled against the kind of draconian censorship that had unfairly banned him from the screen. Roscoe started to become less a symbol of scandalous debauchery and more of an emblem of the unfair suppression of fun.
Slowly, but surely, there were promising signs: he embarked on well-attended vaudeville tours, and opened his own nightclub, ‘Roscoe Arbuckle’s Plantation’. He even snuck in a cameo appearance in a film, ‘CHARACTER STUDIES’. This gag reel presents Carter De Haven as a quick change artist impersonating celebrities, the joke being that through trick photography, he changes into the actual stars. Made in 1925 as a private joke for the stars, the film saw release in 1928 by Educational Pictures, and happily Arbuckle’s brief appearance was not edited out.
The advent of talkies provided a new dawn, and producers showed an interest in showcasing Roscoe once again. There were abortive plans to make films in Germany, where there was no ban on his films, and Hal Roach even considered making a series of Spanish-language Arbuckle talkies for export. However, for one reason or another, all these projects fizzled out. In the USA, Arbuckle was just too much of a risk, even though the initial ban on his employment was subsequently lifted. Roscoe remained hopeful of making a comeback, but was becoming resigned to the fact that he probably wouldn’t. In an interview with Tom Ellis of ‘PHOTOPLAY’ in 1931, he said “The people who hate me have a right to their opinion and I have a right to mine, which is that I’ve suffered enough and I want to get back to work. If I do get back, then it will be grand. If not, then o.k..”
The ‘Picture Show’ article is, on the whole, very sympathetic towards his case and is indicative of the changing attitudes. Arbuckle was now recognised for the innocent scapegoat he had been made. The next issue of PHOTOPLAY saw a damning editorial stating that “Arbuckle’s treatment is unfair. The Mothers of America should exercise a little of the values they preach so glibly on a Sabbath morn”. Many letters poured in, all in favour of Roscoe. More articles began to appear, complaining of his plight, and there was even a song published, dedicated to him. In 1931, the Hollywood community signed a petition requesting that Arbuckle be returned to the screen. A year later, one cinema owner in Kansas defied the Mothers of America by screening an Arbuckle Keystone, with the star in attendance.
Finally, in late 1932, the go-ahead was given for our maligned star to make his comeback. Sam Sax of Warner Brothers signed him to make a pilot film for a potential series of two-reelers, “just like the old days”. In October of that year, Arbuckle once again dressed up in a plaid shirt, derby and ballooning pants, and walked before the cameras to begin filming ‘HEY POP’.
Despite all the changes of the last decade, ‘HEY POP’ retains an old-time atmosphere. We open with Roscoe in his frequent role of short-order cook. His very first appearance is a gag from the Arbuckle-Keaton short ’THE BELL BOY’ revisits gags from ‘THE WAITERS BALL’ (1916) AND ‘THE BUTCHER BOY’ , including the famous moment where he dons a fur coat to enter the walk-in freezer. Meanwhile, in the restaurant, a mother abandons her child, leaving a note to look after him. The restaurant owner will have none of it and threatens to send the boy to the orphanage. Arbuckle finds the distraught child and agrees to help him, hiding the boy in the freezer disguised as a sack of meat! Fired from his job, Roscoe struggles to make ends meet; when the authorities close in, he dons a female disguise and hides the boy in a pram. The two are caught up in a baby show and almost take the prize, until Roscoe’s wig slips and the chase is on again. The pair take refuge behind a locked gate, but it turns out to be the gate of the orphanage.
Although the ending is very abrupt, and it’s a shame that nobody thought to properly round out the story (a similar dilemma to that befalling Laurel & Hardy’s ‘THEIR FIRST MISTAKE’‘), there is much fun to be had in this short. There is a fun, freewheeling quality in the gags reminiscent of his silent work; Roscoe gets to try his hand at some dextrous food preparation gags a la ‘THE WAITERS’ BALL’ and revisit his knife-throwing speciality. He also gets to essay one of his famous ‘Miss Fatty’ drag roles, as well as some effective new gags. One fun sequence has the starving heroes goading a greengrocer into pelting them with food they can make into a stew.
‘HEY POP’ leads us on a merry chase, forever trying to sidestep the shadows of Arbuckle’s ordeal and, for the most part, it succeeds. Inevitably, though, there are a few overtones of what had happened. Most glaringly obvious is the lack of a real romantic interest for Roscoe, a pattern continued in all the subsequent films. Similarly calculated is the orphan subplot, as though the scriptwriters have said “how can we prove that this man is safe for family entertainment? Let’s have him rescuing an orphaned child..” Along the same theme, is the old-time atmosphere purely to fit in with Roscoe’s nostalgic appeal, or is it a conscious attempt to hark back to the more innocent, pre-scandal era?
With hindsight, it is easy to let such thoughts cloud our judgement when looking at Arbuckle’s work, but we must try to divorce the entertainment from the mundane real life and judge the films as comedies on their own merits. Happily, ‘HEY POP’ wins out as a very entertaining comedy and the considerations above do not hurt it. Arbuckle tackles dialogue confidently, his voice a warm, bouncing burr like pumpkin pie. His work as a director during the early sound era, and his vaudeville tours, enabled him to sidestep the hesitancy of many talkie debuts. Best of all, despite the years of depression, dashed hopes and alcoholism, he has retained his boyish charm, and puts plenty of verve into his performance. His delight to be back in front of the cameras is palpable in both the film itself and the stills taken on set, in which he is always beaming. With his comeback underway, and a new marriage to Addie MacPhail (who appears briefly in ‘HEY POP’) he was once again a happy man.
Although some of the reviews criticised the old-time slapstick style of the film, audiences greeted it with open arms, and Film Daily commented “mebbe you think Sam Sax is feeling chipper after the response awarded to the first of the shorts starring Roscoe Arbuckle last night. Mr Arbuckle is definitely back!”
With his popularity re-confirmed, more films went into production. The next film, ‘BUZZIN’ AROUND’, is perhaps the best, retaining a fun, freewheeling quality and again harking back to his silent years. After the initial eggshell-treading in engineering his return, now the fun could really begin, and this is reflected in the short. Country boy Roscoe goes to the city to demonstrate his formula for making china unbreakable. Unfortunately, his cousin Al St John has mixed up the jug with his potent home brew, with disastrous consequences for New York’s china merchants!
The slapstick is broad and predictable, but Arbuckle has lost none of his verve for pulling off such material with finesse. His misplaced confidence while breaking plate after plate is uproarious, as he doggedly tries to create a successful test. There is also a very funny sequence showing the aftermath of him swallowing a bee; every time he opens his mouth, stranger and stranger buzzing sounds emanate from deep within the Arbuckle anatomy! The humour is heightened by his panicked facial expressions. Arbuckle is confident in his new medium; this routine is visual humour played almost without dialogue, but with sound, providing a great update of his silent style. Speaking of the silent years, one of the joys of ‘BUZZIN’ AROUND’ is Roscoe’s reunion with nephew Al St John, frequent foil. Here Al is more benevolent, but has some funny moments. Sadly, it was to be the final time that the pair appeared together.
Another former collaborator seems to have been on Roscoe’s mind when he turned to making his third short, ‘HOW’VE YOU BEAN’. In the film, Roscoe is opening a grocery store with his partner, a little man with a flat hat and a stoic demeanour… yes, you’ve guessed it, it’s… Fritz Hubert. I know, disappointing, isn’t it? At the time ‘HOW’VE YOU BEAN’ was being filmed, Buster Keaton was in a sanatorium on the opposite coast of America, being treated for alcoholism and a nervous breakdown. Who knows, if the location or timing had been different, perhaps Keaton might have popped up in a cameo or supporting role, as he had all those years ago. I’d like to think that the ersatz-Buster is Roscoe’s tribute to his ailing friend. Whatever the truth, the Keaton similarity extends to a reworking of the famous Arbuckle-Keaton ‘can of molasses’ sequence from their first collaboration, ‘THE BUTCHER BOY’.
It’s a fine reworking, if inevitably not up to the standard of the original. In fact, the entire first reel of ‘HOW’VE YOU BEAN’ is good, vigorous slapstick, played for all its worth. The second half meanders somewhat, but still has some entertaining moments, as Roscoe and Fritz attend a wedding dinner dominated by some Mexican Jumping Beans. Hubert is no Keaton, for sure, but he proved a decent foil for Roscoe, and the two would be teamed again in the next short.
Sadly, the success of the first three films was not repeated in the short that resulted; ‘TOMALIO’ is an almost total misfire. Arbuckle and Hubert end up stranded in a strange Latin American republic, dominated by a tyrannical general (the scenery-chewing Charles Judels), who Roscoe ends up competing with in a cross-country race. The main problem is that Judels totally dominates the short with his overacting, which is often excruciatingly unfunny. There is actually precious little for Roscoe to do but stand around most of the time and wince at the histrionics. The climactic race is robbed of its humour by some bad undercranking, and, in hindsight, the physical strain that Arbuckle seems to be going through.
Warners evidently knew they had a dog on their hands; ‘TOMALIO’ would be swept under the carpet, only limping out into release after all the other Arbuckle shorts in the series had been distributed. What a shame that, to moviegoers at least, Arbuckle’s career would seem to end with such a damp squib.
‘CLOSE RELATIONS’ was a distinct improvement, and also showed something of a switch from slapstick to (admittedly broad) situation comedy. Roscoe is off to meet a distant uncle to discuss an inheritance but spends his journey there annoying a man who turns out to be his cousin. After an uncomfortable journey, the cousins arrive to find the Uncle, his nurse and their other cousin (future Third Stooge Shemp Howard) are all somewhat mad. Although this sort of depiction of mental illness is far from our more sensitive age, it’s all done without malice and contains some funny moments. Shemp Howard, in particular, gives a scene-stealing performance, wandering in and out of scenes while performing some surreal deed or another.
Shemp reappears in ‘IN THE DOUGH’, playing a comic sidekick to gangster Lionel Stander. The villains are targeting a bakery as part of their protection racket. Enter Roscoe in his frequent role of cook, to become the new head baker. There are some new gags in the great Arbuckle tradition of eccentric food preparation, my personal favourite being his method of icing a cake. After Roscoe randomly squirts vast quantities of icing at an off-camera cake, we cut to the result: a beautiful design, tastefully iced with roses and calligraphed writing. There is also some nicely timed slapstick with the kitchen doors, although some of the material is rather more basic slapstick (a dough fight with the gangsters seems rather forced.) On the whole, ‘IN THE DOUGH’ is a fun film, not quite up to the series’ best, but certainly worthwhile
The Warners executives were certainly pleased with how their gamble on the series had panned out, and, the day after ‘IN THE DOUGH’ wrapped, Roscoe was promoted to a contract for feature films. Even now though, fate ominously crept up to deal his career the final blow. After a night celebrating with friends, he returned home in good spirits. Two minutes after returning to his hotel room, he relaxed in his chair and peacefully suffered a fatal heart attack. Arbuckle biographer David Yallop rightly pointed out the bitter coincidence that Arbuckle’s life ended in a hotel room, just as his career had done 11 years earlier.
What happened to Arbuckle is almost too sad and unfair to bear contemplation by those of us who love and admire him. Tattered by persecution and disappointment, there’s an unavoidable tendency to view his life in terms of “What-if?”. What if he hadn’t died just on the verge of making a comeback? What if he’d been able to reunite with Buster Keaton? What if the scandal had never happened? What if he’d been able to equal Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd in the 20s?
Of course there is this sense of indignant loss for Arbuckle, but, difficult as it is, we must try not to view his career purely by the terms of this loss. Arbuckle may have died young and before he could fully re-establish himself, but he died knowing that he was on the way up, that he could be funny again, and that audiences loved him. His final 6 films are hardly the painful. last motions of a bitter has-been either. Although they are sometimes tentative, awkward and only sporadically equal to his silent peaks, they are fun and, more importantly, they were allowed to happen. The fact that they gave Arbuckle fulfilment is really the only justification needed for their existence. That they are frequently genuinely funny is a bonus. Watch them and forget your pity for Roscoe. Smile with him as he smiles, and enjoy his final works. There’s no need to laugh out of pity, he’s still charming and hilarious even after all his ordeal. Now there’s a positive story after all…
This article has been adapted from issue 5 of Movie Night Magazine .
And now… Mr A on DVD!
Happily, the Arbuckle shorts are now available on DVD, courtesy of Warner Archive. The 6 shorts have been paired with a bunch of Shemp Howard shorts, the link being Shemp’s appearances in 2 of the Arbuckles.
Here are the full contents…
ARBUCKLE: HEY POP/BUZZIN’ AROUND/HOW’VE YOU BEAN?/TOMALIO/CLOSE RELATIONS/IN THE DOUGH
SHEMP HOWARD: PAUL REVERE JR/MUSHROOMS/SALTWATER DAFFY/ART TROUBLE/HERE COMES FLOSSIE/I SCREAM/CORN ON THE COP/VERY CLOSE VEINS/RAMBLIN’ ROUND RADIO ROW/PURE FEUD/THE WRONG, WRONG TRAIL/PUGS AND KISSES/HOW D’YA LIKE THAT?