“Fatty And Mabel Adrift” (dir. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, 1916, 34:10)
Yesterday I wrote a review of Flicker Alley’s The Mack Sennett Collection Vol. One Blu-ray set, which contains 50 shorts and features that either star, were directed by, or were produced by Mack Sennett, the mastermind behind Keystone Studios. The films mostly have a higher historical value than entertainment value, but there are magnificent exceptions—such as this film, 1916’s “Fatty And Mabel Adrift,” directed by and starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
Arbuckle’s name is well-known even to a lot of people who know nothing about the silent-movie era, because his career was ruined by a horrific sex scandal that led to one of the first big campaigns to “clean up” Hollywood. Arbuckle was ultimately exonerated by the courts, but the damage done to his reputation and to his body of work was irreparable; his films fell out of circulation (permanently, in many cases). And that’s a tragedy, because watching Arbuckle on film now—his sheepish smile and baby face a striking contrast to his hefty frame—it’s clear that he should be better-remembered as one of early Hollywood’s greatest stars.
And watching “Fatty And Mabel Adrift,” it’s also clear that Arbuckle should be better-regarded as a director. The plot of the three-reeler has Arbuckle as a farmhand who marries his true love, Mabel (played by Mabel Normand, a Keystone star who was herself one of the best screen comedians of the 1910s), and then moves to a beachside bungalow, where they live happily until Fatty’s old romantic rival (played by Arbuckle’s real-life nephew, Al St. John) unmoors their house and sends them floating into the sea. Far lighter on slapstick gags than most Keystone comedies of the time, “Fatty And Mabel Adrift” is more focused on scenes of domestic bliss—some funny, such as Mabel baking plate-breakingly heavy biscuits, and some sweet, such as Fatty’s shadow leaning in to give a sleeping Mabel a “kiss.”
Arbuckle was grasping what Charlie Chaplin was also starting to learn at the time: That since the moviegoing public already loved him, he didn’t have to bowl them over with wild comedy every second, and could instead take time to build character and set the mood. But in 1916 at least, Arbuckle’s films were more visually inventive than Chaplin’s, and his performances more sympathetic. When Fatty gently consoles Mabel while their home fills with water, it’s a comical image—a big man, in the middle of a crisis, taking a moment to be gentle and compassionate—but it also compresses an entire relationship into a single gesture. That’s great storytelling.
[Note: The above video does not represent the version of “Fatty And Mabel Adrift” on Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray edition, which has a different score.]
Previous “Short Cuts” columns can be found here.