The most tragic figure of silent comedy, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle saw his brilliant career as an actor dramatically halted in 1921 when he became the center of one of Hollywood’s most notorious scandals. MOMA’s retro covers the complete arc of his oeuvre—his engaging performances, but also his neglected work behind the camera as gag writer and director during his exile. He was the first true master of the pantomime developed by Mack Sennett at Keystone, the silent screen’s foremost comedy mill. He weighed close to 300 pounds, but this jolly fat boy’s physical dexterity was startling. He was the greatest pie thrower in the business—the only one able to hurl two pies in different directions at once. Unlike most of the Keystone gang, he never mugged or relied on exaggerated gestures. He took very good falls. Louise Brooks said of him: “He was a wonderful dancer. It was like floating in the arms of a huge doughnut.”
After a rough childhood and an early life of poverty, Arbuckle went on the stage as an all-round entertainer. He entered films with Selig in 1909 but came into his own at Keystone, where he made over 30 slapstick comedies in 1913, his first year there, and was soon writing and directing his own films. He and Mabel Normand created the most popular Keystone comedy team.
He sought to broaden his character—in Fatty’s New Role (1915), he plays an unshaven vagrant mistaken for a mad bomber. In He Did and He Didn’t (1916), he’s a successful upper-class doctor who gets swept up in a night of wild, often violent events. It all turns out to be a bad dream occasioned by a copious seafood dinner. In 1917 Arbuckle invited Buster Keaton to work with him. When Keaton made the move from vaudeville to movies, he knew nothing about films, but learned quickly, mostly from Arbuckle. In the pictures they made together between 1917 and 1919, Keaton grows from bit player to full partner. One of the highlights of the series is the marvelously goofy Good Night, Nurse (1918). After a big night out, Fatty returns home sizzled, bringing with him an organ-grinder, a monkey, and a street dancer. His wife ejects his guests and packs him off to the No Hope Sanatorium, which claims to cure alcoholism by operation (Keaton plays the blood-splattered surgeon).
In 1921, Fatty and friends threw a party at which a bit player became ill and subsequently died. A few shady characters, apparently intent on blackmailing Arbuckle, invented a story of him having attacked the girl. He was arrested and charged with manslaughter. The Hearst press fueled the manufactured scandal; women’s clubs and organized religion condemned the actor. When he was acquitted (after three trials), the jury gave him an unprecedented apology: “Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel a grave injustice has been done him as there was not the slightest proof to connect him in any way with the commission of any crime.” His appearances on-screen screeched to a halt though. He was able to find work as a director under a pseudonym. The wronged heavyweight was just 46 when he died in 1933, the night after signing a contract with Warner Bros., which would have revived his career.