Silent-ology is pleased to present this exclusive interview with the prolific silent comedy historian Steve Massa, author of the new book Rediscovering Roscoe: The Films of “Fatty” Arbuckle. We talk about why a book on Roscoe’s films was overdue, about his considerable directorial skills, about his wonderful friendship with Buster and Al St. John, and just how many hours he would put into filming a single difficult gag…and more!
I must say, after the impressively hefty Slapstick Divas volume I was surprised (and delighted) to see another sizable book from you so soon! How long has Rediscovering Roscoe been in the works?
I have to say that I was a bit surprised too at how hefty Rediscovering Roscoe turned out to be. It was originally planned to be a smaller format book, like Lame Brains and Lunatics and Divas, but it grew too large. I got very lucky finding material and I wanted each film entry to be as thorough as possible. Every one would have credits, cast, working title, contemporary reviews, and archive sources, in addition to a commentary on surviving films and as much as I could find on missing ones. I have to admit that I “borrowed” the format of the book from Rob Stone’s excellent Laurel or Hardy, one of my favorite film books.
I started seriously researching and collecting material on Roscoe in 2006, the year that Ben Model, Ron Magliozzi, and I did his retro at the Museum of Modern Art. At that time I began writing up some of the films – starting with the Reel Comedy, Inc. shorts he directed after the scandal. His involvement in those films fascinated me and I thought that his work on them needed to better documented. From there I moved on to writing about some of the other shorts, and occasionally would do notes for one of his films I was showing in a program. When I started working on Lame Brains and Lunatics in 2010 I put the notes away (but continued to collect material). After finishing Divas I came across everything I had written on Roscoe’s films, and decided it was time to really do the book. It took two years to put it all together, but it was easier than Slapstick Divas.
What made you decide to write such a thorough book about Roscoe Arbuckle’s film career?
I felt it was very necessary – that no one had written a detailed book about his films and his work as a filmmaker. The focus on almost all of the previous books was the scandal and subsequent trials. They would often give some coverage to his early career, but once they were done with the trials they zipped through the rest of his life as if it were an afterthought. Only Robert Young’s Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood Press, 1994) focused more on the work. There is a big biography on him said to be coming out…someday – it’s been touted and talked about for practically twenty years. Mack Sennett, Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Langdon, Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, and even Larry Semon all have detailed books devoted to their films – so I thought it was way overdue on Roscoe.
Many people seem to think that Roscoe only specialized in crude slapstick, that his ideas for gags were very “of their time,” and that his famous protégé Buster Keaton was far superior and more “modern.” Would you say Rediscovering Roscoe helps counter this idea?
I hope so. Most of the critical coverage of the Comique shorts comes from people writing and focusing on Keaton – so they’re looking for Buster’s work and contributions. The worst of this kind of thing comes in Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns. Anything that he finds funny in the Comiques he says had to have come from Buster – even if its business performed by Roscoe, Keaton must have thought of it. By taking a thorough look at his films from the very beginning I tried to establish certain themes and types of routines he would return to and develop, so a through-line could be seen in the subsequent stages of his career. For instance he had a very “modern” sardonic take on marriage and relationships that you’ll see early in That Little Band of Gold and Fatty’s Tintype Tangle (both 1915) which continues through Camping Out (1919) and One Night It Rained (1924) and goes all the way to Honeymoon Trio (1931) and Bridge Wives (1932) in the sound era.
Can you give us a bit of insight into the research process? I was impressed to see so much detail even about Roscoe’s lost films, as well as all those rare photographs.
Well, I seriously started collecting anything I found about Roscoe and his films in 2006. Since I work at the New York Public for the Performing Arts I have access to the silent era trade magazines on microfilm, and have been delving through them for years. Whenever I would be going through them for any reason I’d always make copies of anything I came across concerning Roscoe. Also the library has extensive clipping files on him, so between the two I had amassed quite a bit. But then a few years ago came the Media History Digital Library and its Lantern search. This created an incredible boom, and I was able to find all kinds of new material on him and the individual films. It’s also a great source for images like exhibitor ads.
As far as rounding up the photographs I started with collector friends and got some amazing things. Early on I was concerned about being able to find photos for his missing Selig shorts, but the legendary Sam Gill had shots for four out of the six films. After seeing what I had from collectors I then went to the archives and got wonderful things from the Museum of Modern Art, Bison Archives, the NYPL, George Eastman Museum, and the Academy. Many great action frame scans came courtesy of the Library of Congress. My goal was to try and have a photo from every individual film, I didn’t quite make it but I got pretty close.
Having been involved in a Keystone-related project recently, I noticed that Arbuckle seemed to be one of Sennett busiest directors. (An awful lot of the shorts featuring the Keystone Kops seemed to be directed by him too, interestingly enough.) I’m starting to think that the Keystone Film Company might not have been the same without Arbuckle – what do you think?
During 1913 to 1915 at Keystone Roscoe would put out 2 to 4 releases a month – usually 3. The only gap was in 1915 with four months between Fatty’s Tintype Tangle and Fickle Fatty’s Fall because Sennett was moving from distribution by Mutual to Triangle. When he was on the East Coast in 1916 Roscoe slowed down his pace a bit but was still turning two-reelers non-stop. Roscoe was very important in keeping the Keystone “product” moving. I also found trade magazine items as early as 1914 that say that whenever Sennett was away from the studio on business Roscoe would act as director-general in his place.
Did going through all these films give you any fresh insights into Arbuckle’s skills as a performer?
Yes. As a rule we think of Roscoe only in his usual fun-loving fat boy persona, but going film by film, and watching as many of them again as possible, I was struck by the variations he had on his basic “Fatty” character. One I refer to as “Fatty the tough,” where he shows up in shorts such as When Dreams Come True (1913), Twixt Love and Fire, The Knockout (both 1914), and Fatty’s Faithful Fido (1915) as a sort of Bowery street type with a long-sleeved sweater, tilted derby, and a loping walk. Another variation is “middle class Fatty” where is more well-to-do and married in shorts like That Little Band of Gold (1915), He Did and He Didn’t (1916), and Oh! Doctor (1917). As this character he’s self-absorbed, brusque, and impatient, usually taking his wife for granted, etc. He plays these variations well and with subtle differences from his standard “Fatty”. Actually in his first year at Keystone he turned up in occasional character roles. Films such as Prof. Bean’s Removal, His Sister’s Kids, Wine, A Small Town Act, The Riot, and He Would A Hunting Go (all 1913) had him playing older and sporting beards, thick eyebrows, and a variety of mustaches. But by the beginning of 1914 his boyish “Fatty” persona had become such a popular screen icon that the extreme variations ended.
How about as a director? I was struck by Ben Model’s introduction where he mentioned that Arbuckle’s early ‘30s comedies seemed very fast paced and snappy compared to a lot of his peers’ early ‘30s work.
Roscoe was a great comedy director, and right from the beginning when he starting helming his comedies in 1914 he showed an easy mastery of setting up and shooting physical action in a clean and precise manner. As his directing skills developed he would always unerringly put the camera in just the right place to capture the physical action, and the films go about their business crisply and efficiently. A restrained and low-key approach to his material allows for the slapstick to grow logically out of the situations. The addition of sound didn’t faze him in the least – he avoided the usual early talkie static quality with frequent and very fluid camera moves, and briskly paces the dialogue to keep things moving along at a nice clip.
He made it all look so easy – one thing that impressed me while doing my research was finding items that illustrated how hard he worked on these films. They’re so much fun, and on screen he effortlessly throws knives into the air and they land on point or flips flapjacks or eggs and catches them behind his back, etc., etc. For the flipping scenes in Fatty’s Tintype Tangle (1915) I found an item where he describes it taking 7 ½ hours to get one perfect take. It was also arduous rolling off roofs into water troughs, being drug from carriages, doing thirty foot dives off piers, or being chased by bears. Tough to do and tough to shoot.
Did you get to watch any forgotten gems that you think deserve to be given a DVD (or Blu-ray) treatment in the future?
Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to see some really wonderful hard to see items. The Gangsters and A Noise from the Deep (both 1913) exist and are seminal examples of his first work for Keystone. Camping Out (1919) is a little gem that was restored a few years ago, and I wish the sound films Honeymoon Trio (1931) and Mother’s Holiday (1932) were readily available. But my all-time favorite hard to see Arbuckle short is 1916’s His Wife’s Mistake. This is one of the Keystone’s he shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey and follows Roscoe as he riffs and fools around as a janitor of a shopping arcade. There’s great physical business with Fatty mopping floors and trying to pick up a slippery bar of soap that he’s dropped. He also mans a barber shop and an ice cream parlor for their slapstick potential, and does an extended routine with a revolving door that predates Chaplin’s The Cure (1917) by a year. All of this is done in a leisurely and playful manner, without a trace of being frenetic which demonstrated Roscoe’s confidence and mastery of physical comedy. There’s a number of great Arbuckle titles around that have never been on DVD or home video, but of course the trick is being able to gather them all up for a set.
Are there any particular lost Arbuckle comedies in that you’d love to see turn up one day? Personally, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for A Country Hero (1917).
A Country Hero would be at the top of my list too, as well as the other missing Comiques The Sheriff (1918) and A Desert Hero (1919). The Sheriff has Sunshine Sammy Morrison as Roscoe’s sidekick so I’d particularly love to see that. Another that I wish would turn up is In the Clutches of a Gang (1914). This one has the famous iconic photo of police chief Ford Sterling on the phone while a line-up of cops that includes Roscoe, Rube Miller, Hank Mann, Al St John, George Jeske, Edgar Kennedy, and others stand by. This image is such an important piece of Keystone mythology that it would be really great to recover the film itself. Rebecca’s Wedding Day (1914) is also on my list. Roscoe plays a hefty Jewish girl who gets kidnapped on the way to her wedding, and the film came in for all kinds of censorship problems all over the country.
All of his pre-Sennett Selig and Nestor appearances are missing and any of these would be incredible to see. Even more obscure and unlikely to be found are the little films Roscoe made as openers for his live stage performances. These shorts would depict his misadventures back stage before the show, or show his difficulties getting to the theatre. From their descriptions in reviews we know that Buster Keaton and Al St John appeared in them. Since only one or two copies would have been made for use (and nitrate at that) the chance of these turning up seems like a lost cause. But they’d really be something to see.
I’m guessing many readers will be surprised to hear that Arbuckle didn’t quite “disappear” from the public eye after the 1921 scandal, that he actually kept working behind the scenes and even received press coverage now and then. Why do you think this is important to know?
It’s amazing just how much of an open secret it was that Roscoe was directing. I’ve come across multiple items in the trade publications that come right out and say that William Goodrich is “Fatty” Arbuckle. This is more in the mid to late 1920s than in the early sound era. I guess the film industry didn’t think that the average movie goer, or more importantly the civic or ladies groups, ever saw the trade magazines so it didn’t matter. I’ve also seen items about Harold Lloyd’s 1919 bomb accident that go into detail about his thumb and index finger being blown off – which surprised me more than letting the cat out of the bag about Roscoe.
I must say, it was touching to see just how often Arbuckle collaborated with Keaton and Al St John after the scandal. It seems like Arbuckle’s influence on their work extended well beyond the late 1910s Comique period.
It’s great to see how often they continued to work together, and it is very touching that Buster and Al made a point of getting him working again after his last trial. At that point Al began taking credit as director on his Fox shorts. Sadly almost all of them are lost but a couple that I’ve managed to see – Out of Place and All Wet (both 1922) – really look like Roscoe’s working behind the camera. The first reel of All Wet is a reworking of Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916) with the same locations and some of the same camera set-ups. Out of Place has Hilliard “Fatty” Karr as a supporting character and he’s dressed exactly like Roscoe, and even re-enacts gags from Roscoe’s second Keystone Passions – He Had Three (1913). It was pretty well known at the time that Roscoe was writing for Buster – shorts like The Frozen North (1922). He also contributed to many of the features like Sherlock Jr. (1924) and Go West (1925), but to exactly what extent we don’t know.
One of my favorites is The Iron Mule (1925) where they’re all three working together again. Roscoe is directing, Al is the star, and Buster turns up in a cameo as an Indian that’s picked up during the train journey (and it’s the train from 1923’s Our Hospitality). Also there are scenes where an old man and woman get left behind when the train takes off and chase after it. It’s pretty clear that in long shots it’s Buster and Al doubling for them when they stumble and fall all over each other. I always find it moving to see Roscoe and Al together for the last time in the talkie Buzzin’ Around (1933). That’s my favorite of the Vitaphones as it captures the feel of the Keystones and the Comiques, and the overdubbing of scenes shot silent even gives it a kind of Jacques Tati flavor.
Lastly – do you think there will ever be a time when we hear “Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle” and think “great comedian” rather than “1921 Labor Day scandal”?
As much as I might wish for it I don’t think that day will ever come. Next year will mark a hundred years since the scandal broke, and I think it’s just too branded in popular and cultural mythology. For people who don’t know or care about old films, or as far as the media is concerned, the name Fatty Arbuckle will always bring up the first celebrity scandal. I do think progress has been made though with people who do like old films. Having his films available on DVD and highlighted on TCM has raised awareness of his great talents as a clown and filmmaker. People seem to love him and are eager to see more of him. There’s the old debate about who should be considered the “fourth king” of silent comedy after Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, and there are many people who feel that Roscoe fits the bill. For me the most important thing is that his films are out there and being seen. My real purpose in writing the book was to bring as much focus as possible on his work and hopefully entice people who have never seen him to take a look.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about your book, Steve! This was all fascinating. By the way, I’m one of those who think Roscoe’s the #4 on the Big Four of Silent Comedy list. Without a doubt!