Saturday, November 14, 2015

Stubs – Fatty and Mabel Adrift

Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916) Starring: Roscoe Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Al St. John. Directed by Roscoe Arbuckle. Screenplay by Roscoe Arbuckle. Produced by Mack Sennett. Run Time: 34 minutes U.S. Black and White, Silent, Comedy.

Before there was United Artists, the studio owned by the stars, there was the Triangle Film Corporation. Founded by two brothers, Harry and Roy Aitken, in 1915, Triangle relied on three of cinema’s major producers: D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett. The studio once stood where Sony Pictures Entertainment now stands, which is also the historic home of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The studio was short-lived, ceasing operations in 1919 after Adolph Zucker had taken control and after both Ince and Sennett had left. However, in those four years, films starring the likes of Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Gloria Swanson, William Desmond and Douglas Fairbanks were distributed by the studio, not to mention D.W.Griffith’s silent epic Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916).

One of the approximately 240 films produced by Triangle was Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916), a comedy short produced by Sennett, starring two of silent comedy's heavyweights, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand. Like many of Sennett’s stars, Charlie Chaplin and Normand, Arbuckle not only starred in front of the camera, but also wrote and directed his own material. Arbuckle had been directing since Barnyard Flirtations (1914), a comedy short.

Mabel Normand and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

The films opens with heavy-handed allegory for love, as we see Fatty (Roscoe Arbuckle) and Mabel (Mabel Normand) outlined in cut out heart shapes being united by Cupid.

The Cupid who brings them together.

Fatty is a farm hand working for Mabel’s parents (Frank Hayes and May Wells). While Fatty and Mabel are in love, there is a rival for her affections, Hiram Perkins’ son (Al St. John); and yes, that is the character’s only given name in the film.

Fatty is a farm hand working for Mabel's parents.
One day, I. Landem’s (Glen Cavender) car has a flat tire in front of the farm. While Fatty goes to help Landem’s chauffer (Joe Bordeaux) change the tire, Mabel’s parents decide to purchase a house from Landem, a seaside realtor, for Fatty and Mabel as a wedding present.

I. Landem (Glen Cavender) sells a seaside house to Mabel's father (Frank Hayes).
After their marriage, Mabel and Fatty move into their new home along with their dog, Luke. But Hiram Perkins’ son isn’t going to give up without a fight.

Mabel makes dinner for Fatty while he’s out fishing. Her biscuits are so hard that they break plates if they fall on them. At dinner, Luke takes his place at the table, even getting a napkin from Fatty. Fatty tries to cut the biscuits with a knife, but they are too hard. Mabel pretends not to notice until Fatty makes fun of how hard they are. When she cries, he does his best to pretend he likes them.

Mabel bakes Fatty some rock hard biscuits.
Meanwhile, Hiram Perkins’ son lurks outside their home. When Fatty catches him, they fight, with Fatty, who is much stronger, prevailing.

Fatty finds Hiram Perkins' son (Al St. John) lurking outside the house.
That night, the two newlyweds go to sleep in different beds in different rooms. While Mabel kisses Fatty good night, only Luke the dog is invited to share her bed. Fatty doesn’t seem to mind, even going so far as to shadow kiss her while she’s in bed.

Outside, it is starting to rain and Hiram Perkins’ son is taken by two henchmen (Bordeaux and Jimmy Bryant) to meet their boss, Brutus Bombastic (Wayland Trask). Bombastic is so tough that he is shown eating dynamite and drinking gasoline. He uses a gun to light his cigar. Hiram Perkin’s son Is happy to make Bombastic’s acquaintance and hires him to help get revenge on Fatty and Mabel. Bombastic dispatches his two henchmen to help him.

Hiram Perkins' son is taken by Bombastic's henchmen to meet their boss.
The storm rages outside the cabin, which keeps Fatty up. He wakes up Mabel to show her the storm, which is so severe that rain is coming down horizontal. When Fatty opens the window it is like a firehose hits him and Mabel. Both soaked, they go back to their separate beds.

The water fills the house and sets Mabel and Fatty's beds adrift.
The henchmen help to dislodge the house from its foundation and the agitated waves pull it out to sea.

Bombastic's henchmen dislodge the house off its foundation.
When Hiram Perkins’ son goes to pay the henchmen off, they notice he has a wad of cash. They naturally think they can win it from him in cards and challenge him to a game of poker.

By the next morning, the house is out to sea and even though the water is at least a foot deep inside, it is still afloat. Mabel’s bed floats into Fatty’s and it’s not too long before they’re both in the water. Finding a pencil, Fatty writes a note, attaches it to Luke’s collar and sends him out to get her parents’ help.

Fatty and Mabel set adrift.
Meanwhile, Hiram Perkins’ son is luckier at cards than at love and has the winning hand.

Mabel's parents come to the rescue, riding bikes in the storm, still wearing their night clothes.
When Mabel’s parents get the note, they call for help and also follow Luke back to the seaside on a bicycle built for two, though they are still dressed in their night clothes. The police, with little to go on, rush in boats to the house to rescue the couple. Mabel’s parents are in such a hurry that they ride their bike off the deck into the water, where they run into Landem, who takes them in his boat out to where the cottage is adrift.

Fatty and Mabel are rescued by Landem in his boat.
Back at Bombastic’s cave headquarters, while his henchmen may have lost their money, they try to take all of his for themselves. Even Bombastic gets in on the action and takes the wad of cash for himself. But he is careless when discarding his cigar and sets off an explosion, knocking everyone out. But Hiram Perkins’ son is the first to regain consciousness and takes the money back, only to have a loose rock fall and knock him out again.

Brutus Bombastic (Wayland Trask) eats dynamite and drinks gasoline.
Meanwhile, Fatty and Mabel are rescued and love wins out. The film ends with Fatty and Mabel in a single cut out heart shape; a bookend to the allegory that opened the film.

Mabel and Fatty united in love.
Released on January 9, 1916, the short received good reviews and Fatty and Mabel Adrift is considered to be one of Arbuckle’s better films as a director.

We’ve already discussed Mabel Normand’s career in our review of Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), one of her earlier successes co-starring with Marie Dressler and a new up and comer named Charlie Chaplin.

Her co-star in this film, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, like Mabel, would have a shorter career than he should have had as a movie star. For a silent movie comedian, Arbuckle got his start as a singer. After returning from an overseas tour with the Morosco Burbank Stock vaudeville company, Arbuckle began his film career at the Selig Polyscope Company in July 1909. His first film appearance was in Ben’s Kid (1909) and he continued to appear in one-reelers for Selig until 1913. After briefly working at Universal Pictures, Arbuckle found success at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studios.

Called Fatty, because of his weight of over 300 pounds, Arbuckle didn’t want to use his heft for laughs, refusing, as an example, to get cheap laughs by getting stuck in a chair or a doorway.

Arbuckle was so popular that in 1916, Joseph Schenck offered Roscoe $1,000 a day, 25% of the profits and complete creative control of his films. Together, they founded Comique. It was Arbuckle who brought the then 21-year old Buster Keaton into films.

In 1920, Arbuckle signed with Paramount Pictures at $1 million a year, giving control of Comique to Keaton. At Paramount, Arbuckle lost creative control and Adolph Zukor, the studio’s head, worked his new star hard, producing 9 features in the space of 18 months. Exhausted after 18 months of work, Arbuckle took a three-day vacation in San Francisco in September 1921 and the rest is sadly history.

At a party Arbuckle was throwing, Virginia Rappe fell ill with stomach pain and died four days later from what doctors called peritonitis. Arbuckle was arrested on September 11th on the charge of manslaughter. While the evidence was flimsy at best, newspapers, led by William Randolph Hearts’ papers, smeared the comedian, claiming that he had raped Rappe and used a foreign object on her as well.

Arbuckle had to stand trial three times, twice the juries were hung and the third one acquitted him. Still, the damage was done and Arbuckle’s career took a nosedive afterward. Arbuckle would be blacklisted for 11 years by Hollywood and as a scapegoat who thought Hollywood needed to be brought under moral control.

While he could no longer star in front of a camera, Arbuckle did go back to directing at Paramount under the pseudonym of William Goodrich. With the passage of time, Arbuckle was seemingly forgiven by the public and signed by Warner Bros. in 1932 to make six two-reelers for the studio. They were such a success that on June 28, 1933, Warners signed him to a long term contract. But after a night of celebration, Arbuckle died of a heart attack on June 29, 1933.

Al St. John, Arbuckle’s nephew, would appear in over 350 films beginning in 1913. In addition to appearing in films at Keystone and Comique, he would also work with Keaton and direct his own comedies as well for Sunshine Comedies. With the coming of sound, St. John would develop a Western character, Fuzzy Q. Jones, and appear in 80 films as Jones until the end of his career in 1952.

One of the reasons I wanted to see this film was the iconic photo of Arbuckle and Normand on the water-soaked stage. And there is indeed water in the film. However, slapstick, which Arbuckle and Sennett were best known for, is kept to a minimum here. I’ll let you judge if that is a positive or a detriment to the film.

The film uses tints to differentiate shots, so the film is far from strictly black and white. As an example, a blue tint is used for exterior night shots and a yellow gold tint is used for interiors supposedly lit by candlelight. There are both photographic and physical special effects utilized. The photographic, used for the light from a lighthouse, is a little clunky. The other special effects, such as the rain and water, are fairly well done.

The iconic image of Fatty and Mabel up to their waists in flood water.
The story is both pretty straightforward but at the same time a little hard to follow. I’m not sure if it’s the print I saw or how it was originally released, but there is a definite lack of title cards. You can get the gist of what is going on, but there are no subtleties. This is true of “dialogue” as well as the acting. Arbuckle is always bigger than life and aside from the gesture of having his shadow kiss his newlywed bride good night, there is nothing small in Arbuckle’s acting. He is always presented as muscular, whether it is lifting the car at the beginning to change the tire to throwing Hiram Perkins’ son around like a ragdoll. And despite Mabel Normand’s presence, it is up to Arbuckle to carry the movie.

I came to the film wanting to like it, but I’m afraid that even though I think the film is well-made, I didn’t find it all that funny. There may be other factors that attribute to this. Perhaps I’ve already seen some of the sight gags used in other later films. Perhaps there is much missing from the print I saw. But maybe this film hasn’t aged as well as it could have. The theme of the jilted lover getting revenge on the newlywed couple, by ruining their honeymoon cottage, is handled better and to funnier end by Buster Keaton in his short One Week (1920), four years later.

I’m open to watching other Arbuckle films and would definitely say that he is someone who cannot and should not be ignored in film and comedic history. I just didn’t find Fatty and Mabel Adrift to be all that it was cracked up to be or at least all I hoped it would be.

For other silent films, check out our Review Hub for Silent Cinema: Here.

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