I am pleased to be a part of the Shorts! Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently. Thank you so much for stopping by, blogathon readers–make yourself comfortable and be sure to check out all of the other great posts this weekend too!
Hold onto your too-small derbies, folks! It’s time to turn your attention to one of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s most overlooked short comedies–a two-reel gem. (Although, in fairness, Roscoe could’ve turned any film into a comedy gem just by wandering into it by accident.) The film is His Wife’s Mistake (1916), and why no one ever seems to discuss it is beyond me.
If you’re unfamiliar with cheerful, pancake-flipping Arbuckle, just know that by 1916 he had become one of the most popular comedians in films–second only to Charlie Chaplin. His stardom came soon after joining the Keystone studio in 1912, where he would also start directing films two years later. Not only was Arbuckle mindbogglingly quick with improvising gags, but his shorts are fast, crisply directed and funny as all get-out. Only Laurel and Hardy make me laugh harder than Roscoe.
In His Wife’s Mistake Arbuckle gets a job as a janitor in a busy city office building. Hijinks ensue, including a sequence where Arbuckle fills in for a barber and gives a customer an alarmingly close shave. Meanwhile, an executive in the building (named I. Steele) tells his wife to entertain an important client (named R. U. Stout) until he is able to meet with him. Naturally Arbuckle ends up wandering into the office with broom and bucket in hand, and she mistakes him for the client, asking, “Are you Stout?” Arbuckle glances down at his ample stomach and cheerfully agrees.
She takes the supposed Stout out to lunch at the fancy “Oriental cafe” downstairs. Also in the cafe is, err, the most effeminate of what was then called a “nance” character, named Percy Dovewing. (This is the part of the film where you realize that certain stereotypes haven’t evolved much over the years.)
A borderline trippy Edwardian era show begins, complete with confetti, streamers and groovy fairies on wires. Arbuckle mischievously throws a water balloon at prissy Percy, and then an honest-to-gosh pie. When Percy rushes up to him all incensed, Arbuckle happily chucks him into the nearby water fountain, much to the horror of I. Steele’s wife.
I. Steele arrives at his office and the office boy (Al St. John) tells him his wife had totally gone out with the janitor. Naturally, Steele grabs a pistol and enters the cafe in a fury (somehow, angry cuckolded husbands going after their wives’ lovers in public areas with guns blazing doesn’t quite work in movies nowadays).
Sadly, much of the end footage has been lost (at least in the only print I’ve been to view), so we don’t know exactly how the film was resolved, which is a shame. After an increasingly choppy chase scene, we’re left with a single, abrupt shot of Roscoe and Al St. John running near the Washington Square Arch in New York City (His Wife’s Mistake was filmed in the Triangle Film Corporation’s East coast studio).
By the time of His Wife’s Mistake, Arbuckle was reaching the height of his creative powers–at least, within the framework of two-reel comedies. When he was given the opportunity to film for Sennett on the East coast, he delivered with the magnificent Fatty and Mabel Adrift, the daring He Did and He Didn’t, and the lost Bright Lights, all released before His Wife’s Mistake.
Some of the most impressive things about this short are definitely the sets. Two-reelers didn’t normally have the biggest budgets, but Triangle seemed more than willing to shell out for Arbuckle’s creative genius. The busy hotel lobby and the gloriously luxurious cafe are amazingly authentic-looking and a real treat for the eyes. And trust me on this: the cafe’s show with girls in fairy costumes swinging on wires amidst clouds of confetti must be seen to be believed. It had to have been based on a real show, too. (Man, if we’re looking for some exciting entertainment today most of us have to settle for bar Bingo at Applebee’s. Why so boring, 21st century?).
But even if the sets had been shabbier than anything dreamed up by Ed Wood, the short would still be a must–because it stars Roscoe. He can turn a gag as simple as dropping his hat by a revolving door into a classic comedy sequence. His Wife’s Mistake bubbles over with inspired, energetic gags, where half the fun is catching all the improvised details (such as Arbuckle, shaving a customer, swiftly wiping the razor on the customer’s pant leg, on his own shirt, and even on his own hair!). Unlike many other comedies from this period where the action stops dead for the sake of a contrived gag, these sequences get us thoroughly familiar with Arbuckle’s character and tie in well with the story.
Arbuckle’s man-child character is also at his most impish. In one scene, he sees a very wide-hipped female customer enter a corset shop. He plays the scene with surprising innocence, initially regarding the gal’s derriere with some confusion as to what this sizable object might be. Of course, he does topple over in a swoon when the woman leaves the shop five sizes smaller in an attractive little corset!
Aside from the fun of his comic performance, there’s another reason to appreciate His Wife’s Mistake: it clearly shows that Arbuckle was also an absolutely brilliant editor. He knew exactly where to cut a scene–in the middle of a character’s reaction, slightly after the action has started, etc.–so that the energy never lags. His films today are often in scratchy, blurry condition, but one aspect of them that’s never aged is the editing. They are as fresh today as they were when they were released around World War I.
Many viewers today will probably be taken by surprise–or even made uncomfortable–by the Percy Dovewing character and how he’s treated by Arbuckle. Politically correct, he is not. “Nance,” or homosexual, characters were one of the numerous stock characters that were spoofed in silent comedy, although maybe less often than blacks or Jewish pawn shop owners. At times, the characters were more on the “dandy” or “sissy male” side, but there’s no doubt about Percy being firmly homosexual–we even see him check out a classical statue of a muscular male before chastely averting his eyes! (If any educators reading this have an interest in teaching about old stereotypes in films, His Wife’s Mistake will certainly come in handy.)
This high-budget two-reeler is well worth watching. Are you someone who wants to get into more classic comedy? Do you enjoy the art of a good comic performance? Are you interested in studying film editing? Are you looking to examine the history of un-PC humor? Do you want to see fairies gambol amidst falling balloons? His Wife’s Mistake delivers all of these things, on a cream pie-splattered platter (with some added seltzer water). Check it out, and feel free to share what you think!
- His Wife’s Mistake was well-reviewed in the day, particularly because of Arbuckle’s performance. Moving Picture World raved: “He has caught the idea of what gets the laugh and has developed it to a fine art. Yet all that he does is so intelligently performed that there is no evidence of effort. To the contrary, it has the appearance of spontaneity so rare in comedy of any kind.”
- It’s often mistitled as His Wife’s Mistakes, but this is incorrect.
- A couple gags from this short turn up in films related to Buster Keaton–the gag where Arbuckle takes money from someone’s pocket turns up in The Bell Boy (1918), and the idea of messing with the elevator’s floor indicator dial becomes a prominent part of a sequence in Keaton’s The Goat (1921).
- Notice how Percy Dovewing is prominently wearing a wristwatch. At the time, wristwatches were brand new and it was considered very dandy-ish for a guy to wear one. Wristwatches became common once soldiers in WWI started wearing them for practical reasons, and by the ’20s many male movie stars were sporting them–although it still took awhile for the accessory to lose its effeminate connotations. Valentino, for instance, was sometimes mocked in the press for wearing one.
- I saw one user review mentioning how similar Percy Dovewing is to Ernie Kovacs’s character Percy Dovetonsils…a mighty interesting correlation!