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The Cook and Other Treasures B
Year Released: 1917-1920 (Collection: 2003)
"The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."
Next to explosions, silliness may be Hollywood's most valuable cash cow. One could write a history of American movies in terms of those eager to behave like ninnies, blockheads, yokels, weirdos, or just plain outsiders. While the rubbery Carrey and boorish Sandler are its current practitioners, consider the long, popular tradition of screen madness and its varieties: the slushy Chaplin, the blithering Laurel and oafish Hardy, the sour Fields, the surreal Groucho, the spineless Hope, the vicious Curly, Larry, and Moe, the klutzy Lewis, the phobic Allen. Despite their tonal differences, these personas all secured audience affection for their lunacy -- together they mirror America's complex, strangely contradictory national funny bone. Time has been kind to them, much kinder than to Fatty Arbuckle, a rotund Old Hollywood star who headlines a new collection of silent comedy shorts released by Milestone Film & Video called The Cook and Other Treasures, which fascinates partially as a historical document but mostly because it provokes interesting questions about the bond between screen jesters and the American public.
Few comics of the silent era were more beloved than Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, a 300-pound presence who used his pudgy, impassive face and unnatural agility to become a household name. His size was nearly incidental -- rarely did he rely on corpulence for bargain laughs -- except that it made his physical grace that much more startling. He first appeared in slapstick affairs for Keystone in 1909 and eventually became the studio's most important figure, at least until Chaplin's arrival in 1914. Three years later Arbuckle formed his own production company, and with the help of a young Buster Keaton and Al St. John, the Comique Film Corporation released a series of rambunctious shorts that were tremendously profitable.
One of their largest hits was the two-reeler The Cook (1918, 22 minutes), for which Arbuckle directed himself as a nonchalant chef at the Bull Pup Café, carelessly tossing flapjacks at Keaton, a bemused waiter. Service doesn't seem to be their goal, and neither does plot: Like most silent shorts, situation takes precedence over coherence. The gag construction, to my eyes, is merely so-so, although audiences in 1918 surely yowled at Arbuckle's grotesque, giddy spoof of Theda Bara's vamping in Salome, one of the year's most popular draws -- the chef inexplicably dances with salami while secluded in the kitchen, adorning himself with silverware rather than jewelry. The main reason to see the picture, though, is for the chemistry between Arbuckle and Keaton, two pioneers who match each other's athleticism and deadpan poise with beautiful precision. Some of their exchanges suggest the kind of stone-faced ballet that Keaton later perfected in his own solo career.
For silent film buffs -- and I certainly count myself among their ranks -- The Cook is less interesting as cinema than as history. Until now, most of us had only read about how Arbuckle sublimely juggles eggs and how Keaton impersonates a belly dancer, because The Cook, like most silent pictures, was believed lost forever. In fact, the story behind Milestone's unexpected release is better than the film itself. An incomplete nitrate print was found in 1998 at a film institute in Norway, while a second discovery four years later at an Amsterdam film museum enabled restorers to fill in the gaps, resurrecting the movie from the dead.
Milestone spruces up the DVD with another, equally energetic Arbuckle short titled A Reckless Romeo (1917, 23 minutes). While The Cook concludes at an amusement park, Romeo opens at one. Married but frisky, Arbuckle puts the moves on a young lady, never realizing that a newsreel crew has recorded his indiscretion -- until he attends a picture show with his wife and mother-in-law. Since jail is preferable to his mother-in-law's wrath, the short ends with Arbuckle flinging bricks through a storefront window and gratefully thanking the arresting officer.
That kind of playful family warfare served as frequent fodder for silent pictures, and helps explain why the plump prankster clicked with everyday filmgoers. Yet that fragile bond was soon broken: In 1921, Arbuckle helped organize a Labor Day blowout of bootleg booze and general debauchery at a San Francisco hotel -- not an uncommon event in those days -- and a model, Virginia Rappe, wound up dead. Initially accused of raping the model and killing her with his weight, Arbuckle was formally charged with manslaughter. After two juries failed to reach a verdict, a third quickly absolved him of all blame. Nevertheless, the American public, once so willing to forgive Fatty for his on-screen improprieties, never forgave him for being linked to one of Hollywood's most notorious scandals. He never acted in the movies again.
What makes the public anoint or reject a clown? In the case of Arbuckle, I would argue that his popularity always rested, precariously, on some degree of ambivalence, warmth mixed with enmity. For audiences conditioned to laugh at the fat man, surely it was natural to turn on the real fat man -- especially if they sensed that he somehow abused the public love afforded him. Sometimes disaffection is the flipside of devotion. I would also suggest that Arbuckle, despite his acquittal, was the unfortunate but inevitable victim of a nation fed up with the "foul dust" of the prosperous (to borrow a slogan from Fitzgerald). Egged on by William Randolph Hearst, the press pounced on the Rappe story, and tagged it a symbol for Hollywood's wanton excess. The public desired a scapegoat, and Arbuckle became the tangible face of an intangible Jazz Age malaise, the general resentment felt by many towards the leisure class. A contemporary example might help explain this arbitrary phenomenon: Think of how many Americans have grotesquely transmuted patriotism into hostility, and, frustrated by their inability to define their uneasiness, have displaced their rage onto, say, the Dixie Chicks -- who function as a tangible but simplified and utterly random emblem of what some are hostile towards.
What happened to Arbuckle later happened to Chaplin, of course, who was chased out of the country amid rumors of Communist leanings and barred re-entry during McCarthy's reign. More recently, Woody Allen endured trial-by-media. All three lost their favored-celebrity status, not for failing as celebrities but for failing as citizens, off-screen and behind doors. The Milestone disc, by preserving two of Arbuckle's memorable efforts, encourages us to learn from such mistakes, to separate the artist from the man. What might we have gained had Arbuckle been allowed to continue unimpeded? Actually, that's a loaded question. While Chaplin's merits have long since expunged all hints of notoriety, I'm not convinced Arbuckle's talent would have endured if his legacy wasn't stained by scandal. Is it possible that his long-term bond with audiences has been fortified by infamy? Would modern fans be interested in this new disc if it weren't for Virginia Rappe?
Incidentally, the Milestone disc also includes a short comedy by one of the kindest men of the silent era, Harold Lloyd. Number, Please? (1920, 23 minutes) is a Hal Roach-directed farce with two extended set pieces featuring Lloyd's impeccable gag assembly. The first involves Harold's foiled attempts to secure a public pay phone, and the second concerns his efforts to divest himself of an accidentally stolen purse. This perfectly paced and visually inventive two-reeler ranks, I think, among Lloyd's best. During the '20s Lloyd was more popular than either Chaplin or Keaton, and why his bond with audiences has gone slack is beyond me -- although the Harold Lloyd Trust would be wise to open the vaults and make this bespectacled master's work more readily available to the public.
Review published 05.14.2003.
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