History has not been kind to silent film stars.
Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd have gotten a lot of recognition, and deservedly so. They’re still heralded as all time greats and there are plenty of DVD (and now Blu-Ray) releases of their films coming out. After that group, there’s Harry Langdon, who gets mentioned a lot less often but was still a major star in his day. And after that, it’s a major sliding scale down to guys like Ben Turpin, Lloyd Hamilton and many others who were huge stars but have faded as time has gone on.
And then there’s the awful story of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who’s reputation and legacy tanked while he was still active.
Arbuckle was, by the early and mid-teens, the silent comedy star. Not only did he precede both Chaplin and Keaton in terms of major fame, but he also worked with Chaplin early on and gave Keaton his start in films. That alone would make Arbuckle notable enough, but he was both hugely popular and talented. Despite being massively obese, Arbuckle was incredibly light on his feet and could pull off amazing fast movements and gags for a man his size. Physical comedy was always the chief weapon at a comedian’s disposal in those days, and Arbuckle was able to handle that in spades. For a period, he was as big of a star as possible and at was at the top of his game.
And then this happened.
Arbuckle found himself in the middle of a sensational scandal, accused of raping and murdering a girl at a party. In the years that followed, his career and reputation was ruined. The first two trials were declared mistrials after hung juries. By the time the third trial came around, nearly all of the evidence against him had fallen apart and it became clear that he was completely innocent. The third jury found him not guilty within minutes and apologized to him, but the damage had been done to his career by that point.
From that point on, he barely worked. Some work was done by him on Keaton projects (rumors persist that he directed part of Sherlock Jr. and he directed a few items under a pseudonym. Even worse, by the time a resurgence of sorts started up in the 30s, Arbuckle quickly died at a young age.
Further exposure to his work has been limited. Silent films in general have not survived well, but in his case it appears to be even worse due to such extreme measures as even burning some of his films at the height of his trials. Many prints that exist are in poor shape, and some went through extreme cases to become restored. One example is his short Love, which only fairly recently was pieced together through different foreign prints.
In an ideal world, more focus would be made on his legacy and abilities as a comic, instead of being largely undiscussed outside of his scandal.
There are still many ways to see Arbuckle’s work. Love is one of dozens of shorts included on the DVD set The Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, which also contains some of his later work as a director. Other collections such as The Best Arbuckle/Keaton Collection highlight some of his wonderful work with the comedy legend. It’s easy to see from watching just a few of these why he was a legend in his time, and why it is such a tragedy his career came crashing down.
Several of Arbuckle’s comedies air late Sunday night on TCM both this Sunday and next Sunday.