One of the most charming “Fatty and Mabel” comedies, Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life (1915) manages to hit a number of birds with one stone: it’s rural-themed, it riffs on the popular “evil mortgage collector threatens the farm” theme, it riffs on the equally popular “evil mortgage collector threatens the farm unless he can marry the pretty daughter” theme, adds a romantic triangle, has hijinks around a hand-cranked well, throws in a couple Keystone Kops, and finds time for some surrealism.
Right up my alley–and maybe yours, too!
At this point in 1915, not long after Charlie Chaplin had left Keystone, Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle were Mack Sennett’s biggest stars. And happily, the petite actress and heavyset comedian happened to make an irresistible pair onscreen, equally playful, mischievous, and willing to work “bits of business” off each other. While they sometimes dressed up for a “society” themed comedy like That Little Band of Gold (1915), their hijinks usually took place in simple, homey settings, as in Mabel and Fatty’s Wash Day (1915) and the well-known Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916).
In Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life (1915), the action takes place on a farm. Farmer’s daughter Mabel and hired hand Roscoe are shown in typical “bucolic” scenes, with funny twists, of course: Mabel plays with a calf that ends up dragging her around the barnyard, and Roscoe keeps getting bothered by calves trying to get into his milk bucket. (If the actors seem to be playing a little rough, keep in mind that the camera’s being undercranked!)
The local squire sends over his son (played by a clean-cut but still rubbery Al St. John) to give Mabel’s father a note: If Mabel marries Al, he’ll forgive their mortgage. The father’s delighted but Mabel is not, being already stuck on Roscoe. Deciding to make a break for it and elope, Mabel and Roscoe take off in an automobile and are chased by Al, the father, and a couple cops in particularly battered helmets (battered even for your typical Keystone Kop).
Mortgage plots were, shall we say, wildly common in the silent era. They were apparently wildly common in stage plays first (the 1915 book How To Write Photo Plays called it “that famous standby of writers dead and gone”) and the cliches were quickly carried over into films. Perhaps this was due to a large percentage of Americans living on family farms and sympathizing with the idea of trying to keep up with that darn payment. Usually a “shyster” lawyer went after a farm to demand a mortgage payment and only promised to relent if he could have the hand of the farmer’s daughter, or else a local landowner or landowner’s son made the unromantic offer. Comedy studios made endless spoofs of the mortgage plot, one being Jimmy Aubrey’s Mules and Mortgages (1919) whose ads proclaimed: “It’s Got the Kick of a Mule–and the Comedy is as Hard to Shake Off as a Mortgage on the Old Farm!” Sennett’s 1921 hit Down On the Farm was advertised as having numerous stars and “Turkeys, Ducks, Geese, Cows, and an array off Farm Essentials and Ornaments–not forgetting the well-known mortgage.”
Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life (1915) is a bit more than that durned mortgage plot, however, happily sliding into surrealism just because it can. When Roscoe and Mabel use an automobile to rush to a minister, the car turns out to have a mind of its own–apparently, the mind of a stubborn mule. It refuses to run properly, rolls into Roscoe and Mabel, zips crazily around a tree, and if it could’ve, it would’ve bucked. (Apparently this was done by having actor Joe Bordeaux hide in the car and work the pedals!) Later, an inexplicable explosion from its engine sends Mabel soaring high up in the air–a typical Keystone trick achieved with piano wires.
Ultimately, it’s the charisma of Normand and Arbuckle that give this short a special “something”–you can see why Sennett started putting their names in the film titles. In a couple scenes you can almost see those improvisation wheels turning, particularly where Roscoe kisses Mabel and then tries to do his signature move of “popping” the kiss in his mouth, only to realize a calf had licked his hand a moment earlier. The topper to all these fun scenes is the final shot, where the two actors break the fourth wall and say goodbye to the audience in a joking way–treating them like friends.
Here’s a public domain copy of this country comedy–a bit blurry, but still funny! You know actors are talented when they can still entertain us through blur, scratches, and wobbly film.