Trading Slapsticks for Six-Shooters: Week of February 21st, 1920

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One hundred years ago this week, Roscoe Arbuckle was hard at work on his first feature-length film, The Round Up, and Grace Kingsley got to visit the set.

‘Fatty’ Arbuckle has parked the pies and gone in for melodrama and a regular hissing hate for the villain! Afar from the soft swish of the sweet custard pie through the air, or the dull, sickening thud of the husky mince, out at the Lasky studio ‘Fatty’ is now busily engaged in gouging large chucks of art out of the silent drammer. He’d just come in from killing a coupla outlaws, the other day.

She asked him how the work was going, and he said “I don’t mind telling you riding a horse is distinctly my idea of a dud when it comes to the pleasure stuff. I’ll never do it for my own amusement, not yet for the horses, I’ll say.”

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The Sheriff (1918)

She didn’t remind him that he’d ridden horses in his two-reelers (he’d even played a sheriff before in a short she’d particularly liked, The Sheriff.) But the length of the film wasn’t the only departure for him:

But oh, my, yes, he does real soul stuff in the picture, like giving away the girl to the other fellow and then going away and killing the villain. No, he hasn’t killed him yet. Says he’s going to do that up in Death Valley so they won’t have to bury him.

Of course she asked him the most important question: why was he leaving slapstick comedy? He answered:

“Because,” says ‘Fatty,’ “comedy drama is twice as easy to do, doesn’t cost any more, and you get twice the credit. You can work your head off in comedy,” he says, “and people forget all about you the minute they’re out of the theater.”

She didn’t buy that, commenting “Forgotten! Ye gods! Some of us would like to be ‘forgotten’ the same way ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle is!”

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When she got to review the movie in September, she discovered that he didn’t really abandon physical comedy, it just gave him another tool as an actor:

Roscoe Arbuckle is still a comedian. But far from his jazz comedy experience spoiling him for stories like The Round-Up, it has, on the other hand, crystalized and quickened his comedy methods, has made of him a really brilliant player who never misses a trick…His drollery is of the really human sort, is natural and incidental more genuinely enjoyable than the old because more convincing.

She thought that the rest of the movies was good, too: “The Round-Up is a thriller from the top floor of the thrill factory.”

Roscoe Arbuckle was the second slapstick comic after Mabel Normand to move from two-reelers to features (Mack Sennett had produced a few, like Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), but didn’t quit making shorts). Arbuckle’s studio had good reason to make the change. Motion Picture News reported that Paramount-Artcraft did it because of “the insistent demands of exhibitors…During the last two seasons Arbuckle’s popularity has increased greatly. Indeed, the fat comedian is said to have become such a box-office attraction that an increasingly large number of exhibitors have advertised the Arbuckle comedies as features.” (March 27, 1920) Plus, as Steve Massa points out in Rediscovering Roscoe, features had prestige that ‘vulgar’ slapstick shorts lacked.

Still, it does seem odd that they didn’t put him in a comedy first, but the studio didn’t have a script ready, so they kept him busy with a supporting role in this Western. Nevertheless, his fans stuck with him, according to Kingsley’s report from the film’s opening day at Grauman’s theater: “All the Arbuckle fans—and who isn’t one, I ask you like your Sunday school teacher—have been waiting with their tongues hanging out for the first of these special features…The fans lined the sidewalk for two blocks all afternoon and evening yesterday, waiting to get in.” (September 6, 1920)

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Nevertheless, he didn’t stick with Westerns; his next film was a comedy/drama called The Life of the Party. He played a lawyer who gets mixed up with corrupt mayoral politics and an idealistic young woman.

The Round Up is available on DVD. Here’s a trailer for it:

 

 

 

Kingsley’s favorite film of the week was The Willow Tree, despite having some reservations about how the story had been modified:

The willow tree of Metro’s Willow Tree is not a weeping willow, as it was in the Benrimo-Rhodes play of the stage. In fact, Metro, June Mathis and Henry Otto have turned that near-tragedy into an almost-comedy. But they’ve given us a picture-perfect production, in a series of exquisite pictures, and a really delightful little play. So, if you can forget all the delicate whimsy, the wistful fancifulness and appeal of the stage play, why you’ll like this new Willow Tree. Ah, if it were only some dramas I’ve seen that were being turned into comedies.

It was transformed from a tragedy by removing one plot point: the heroine (Viola Dana) doesn’t have an “intimate relationship” with the foreign man who returns home to serve in the army. Kingsley suspected a fear of the censors caused the change. So she wasn’t nearly as upset as say, Cho-Cho-San in Madame Butterfly, and

she herself keeps right along tranquilly living at the old place after her lover has gone to war, serene apparently, in the faith that no picture company is going to let a perfectly good $1500-a-week heroine die an old maid in the last reel; and sure enough her lover does come back!

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The film has been preserved at the Eastman House and current audiences would probably have a different problem with it. Viola Dana was in yellow face, playing a Japanese woman, but it didn’t occur to people then to think that was cultural appropriation. Kingsley’s only comment about her performance was that Miss Dana managed to be both ingénueish and dramatic, and “really effective in the big moments.”

Just two months later, Picture Play Magazine ran an article about the recent “wave of Oriental pictures that have surged across the screen.” It pointed out that the trend began with Nazimova in The Red Lantern, then was continued by Richard Barthelmess in Broken Blossoms and Miss Dana in The Willow Tree. It concluded with an innovation: an actual Asian person starring in a story about Japan. Tsuru Aoki was the lead in The Breath of the Gods, which “easily holds its own among these pictures.” Of course one film didn’t change things and the practice still hasn’t stopped. This article is a snapshot of what actresses like Miss Aoki and later, Anna May Wong, were up against when they tried to have a career in Hollywood.

Kingsley also saw the new, action filled Tom Mix film, The Cyclone, and she noticed something really unusual:

Tom Mix is always worth going to see. Which leads me to wonder why yesterday’s audience was made up almost exclusively of men. Of course, it was partly accounted for by the weather*; but, while the house was almost full when I was there, the usherettes and myself were the only women in the audience. Can it be the women like only to see the ‘pretty’ heroes?

I don’t think that was it. Earlier in the review she mentioned that co-star Colleen Moore’s job was to look appealing and faint at the right time so the villain can more conveniently kidnap her. Kingsley pointed out “By the way, I never knew a western girl who would faint at danger; but there are so many heroines in pictures who do it that I think they must have imported a carload on purpose.”

I don’t know any frequent fainters either. Gee, maybe that’s why women didn’t want to go to that movie – they would rather see hardy and interesting women like themselves.

 

*The weather that might have kept filmgoers away was rain for most of the day, and a high temperature of only 63 degrees. Did she think there was a limit to western girl toughness?

 

Barbara Little, “To The Tune of Temple Bells,” Picture Play Magazine, April 1920.

Steve Massa, Rediscovering Roscoe, Orlando, FL: Bear Manor Press, 2019.

 

 

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