Silent DVD Archive
The Forgotten Films of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
There hasn't been many new titles announced in the last month, but there is still a wealth of silent titles being released. This month is turning out to be one of the biggest months in recent memory. Before we get to the current and upcoming releases and new disc reviews though, it's time to eat a little crow. Last month I cast some doubt as to whether Milestone would be able to release all three Mary Pickford DVDs that they had scheduled for April 3rd on time. Much to my surprise, they did! I have reviews of two in this month's column, Suds and Through the Back Door, and will review the last title, Heart 'o the Hills in the next column.
The exciting news this month is that one of the most anticipated releases for this year has almost arrived: Laughsmith's four disc set of The Forgotten films Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. I have an early review of this collection, and it has been worth the wait. Some wonderfully funny shorts as well as the last feature Arbuckle made for Paramount before he was banned from movies are included in this collection. This set is a very good representation of this talented comic's career, and a DVD Talk Collector Series disc that you won’t want to miss.
This time around I also have a review of Milestone's The Olive Thomas Collection, as well as a look at the second volume of Slap Happy, one I missed last time around. Read all of this month's review's here.
In addition to those discs, one other DVD that may be of interest to silent film fans is Prisoner of Paradise, a documentary on German silent film star and director Kurt Gerron. He had a successful career in Germany both in front and behind the camera (he appeared in The Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich) until the Nazis took power. Being a Jew, he was barred from working and fled to Paris, and then Amsterdam. Though he raised the money to send his friend Peter Lorre to America, he didn't go himself. When Amsterdam was taken by the Nazi's he was sent to a concentration camp. There something unusual happened. He was ordered to make a movie for the German state; one which would make the concentration camp in which he was imprisoned look like a paradise. You can read the full review here.
Lastly, here's a peek at what's coming up in the next installment, which should be up in two weeks time.
(click on the title to read the full review)
The documentary, Olive Thomas: Everybody's Sweetheart, gives a nice overview of the screen star's life. Olive Thomas’ story was the classic rags to riches tale that every young starlet dreams about. Born into a working class family in the coal mining town of Charleroi Pennsylvania, Olive was married at 16 and worked behind the counter at a local department store. Then, at the age of 18 she decided to change her life. She divorced her, by some accounts abusive, husband and moved to New York City.
There she found herself behind another department store counter, but she wouldn't stay there for long. A local paper was running a contest to find the most beautiful girl in New York. Olive called in sick to work and went to the contest. She won, and was suddenly the toast of the town. Her rise to fame was meteoric. She started modeling full time, was soon noticed by Florenz Ziegfeld who put her in his follies, and also had an affair with her. Olive was courted by several eligible bachelors of course, but 1916 she ended up marring Jack Pickford, and actor and younger son of the superstar Mary Pickford. This is when she made the jump to movies where she would become one of the biggest actresses in Hollywood. Over the next three and a half years, Olive would make 21 movies, most of which are now lost. Working constantly, and rarely seeing her husband with whom she had a stormy relationship, she and Jack took a second honeymoon and went to Paris after production of her last movie wrapped up. There one night she had trouble sleeping and went to the bathroom for a sleeping draught. In the dark she accidentally grabbed the wrong bottle and poisoned herself. She was 25 years old.
Told through interviews with scholars and some of Olives living relatives along with clips from her films and publicity photos, this documentary paints a vivid picture of the actress. It neither whitewashes over her flaws nor emphasizes them. They mention that she had affairs with married men, and was extravagant in her lifestyle, but they also showed how hard she worked at her craft. A nicely balanced view of a star who was cut down in her prime.
The movie included with this collection is The Flapper (1920). In this film Olive plays Ginger King, the 16 year old daughter of a Senator from Florida. He sends her off to a finishing school in New York state, and gets more than he bargained for. While she’s there she falls for a much older man, Richard Channing (William Carleton). In order to impress him and prove to the world that she’s no ‘sap-headed’ kid, Ginger desides to dress as a flapper. Things take a turn for the worse though when Ginger finds that the clothes she's borrowed have stolen jewels in them.
I enjoyed seeing Olive Thomas in this movie, although it wasn’t a great film. Thomas is certainly pretty, but that’s not enough to carry the movie. The plot drags at the beginning, with not much happening for the first half. The movie really shifts into high gear in the last half hour though, when the young girl decides to become a flapper. This is where most of the laughs are, and the way they dress Olive up for the role is great. The ending makes up the the slow start.
The package that Milestone has put together for this release is spectacular. In addition to an excellent print for The Flapper, and the complete and even handed documentary, there is a reproduction of an interview with Olive’s first husband, songs written about the actress, and a pair of anecdotes concerning Olive that are reenacted. While the feature itself is not outstanding, it is a good film that shows Olive's beauty and acting ablility. A very nice collection and well worth checking out. A high Recommendation.
Mary Pickford had made a career out of playing adorable plucky little girls, but by 1920 was 28 years old and wanted to broaden her roles. She couldn’t keep playing 12 year old girls forever after all. So she bought the rights to a one act play, Op O’ Me Thumb, and adapted it for the screen. Having changed the name to Suds, she stars in this film, not as a beautiful young lady, but as a grungy and not too bright scrub maid.
Amanda Afflick has a hard life. She works long, hard, hours scrubbing clothes for a living, but worse than that, she has no one who loves her. She’s not too bright, and often makes mistakes at the laundry where she works, which makes her the butt of jokes for the other washer women. When a man that Amanda finds handsome (though he isn’t really) brings a shirt in to be cleaned, she falls in love with him. More than eight months have passed when the movie opens, and he still hasn’t picked up his shirt. Amanda washes it twice a week, to the scorn of her colleges, keeping it clean for his return. When the teasing of the other women gets to be too much for her, Amanda escapes into fantasy, spinning a tale of her royal ancestors and the man who gave her his shirt as a sign of his love.
This movie is a comedy/drama, and while it is enjoyable to watch, it doesn’t really succeed as either. Light humor is sprinkled throughout the film, but a lot of it doesn’t work. When Amanda is forced to work all night washing clothes, for example, she puts too much soap in the water, making the barrel overflow with suds. The humor of this scene is ruined by the other wash maids laughing at Amanda while she cries into her work. Another scene has Amanda delivering some clean clothes, but ending up standing on a wagon that is running out of control down a hill. She ends up crashing, and flinging all of her clean laundry in the mud. While this would have been funny in other films, it’s already been established that Amanda messes up a lot, and you know that she’ll be in a lot of trouble. Instead of laughing, you feel sorry for the girl.
The drama aspect of the film isn’t that strong either. While viewers grow to feel for Amanda, they also realize that most of her problems are her own doing. Telling unbelievable tales about her past isn’t going to make the other women like her, and goofing around just gets her in trouble. The movie also dipped into melodrama a couple of times, like when Amanda runs to save a horse, Lavender, from being killed and made into glue. The scene was a little too sappy and Pickford over acts a bit, something she rarely does. She climbs up a gate and throws her arms through the bars screaming for them not to shoot the horse. It was just a bit much.
There were also some very funny moments in the film though. The scene where Amanda takes the horse Lavender into her flat and curls its mane, is precious. It was unexpected and gave a good laugh. I also laughed through Amanda’s made up story about her past. It was very amusing to see her father “the dook” talk with a Cockney accent. “You, Sir ‘Orace, like all the rest, loves ‘er for ‘er jools ‘nd title!”
I was a little disappointed in the video quality to this film. It isn’t as clean as most of the other Milestone discs in this series. They used a 16mm reduction print that has been run through a projector a few times and it shows. There are faint scratches through the whole film as well as a bit of dirt. The image itself is rather soft and a little blurry, and the contrast isn’t spectacular. It isn’t a horrible print, there are a lot worse looking DVDs out there, but it isn’t spectacular either.
The good news is that there is a spectacular looking version of this film on this disc. A 35 mm print of this film meant for foreign markets is available in the bonus section of the disc. This print is outstanding with fine detail and great contrast. See the full review for more information.
This disc also includes a lot of bonus material; an alternate ending, 2nd version of the film, and a half hour documentary. Overall this is a great package. Recommended.
Milestone Films continues their releases of Mary Pickford films with her rarely seen 1921 movie Through the Back Door. This film, released through United Artists, showcases Pickford at the top of her form; she energetic, funny, and above all lovable.
Hortense (Gertrude Astor) is young and a wealthy widow who marries a rich man, Elton Reeves (Wilfred Lucas.) The only problem is Hortense’s five year old daughter, Jeanne. Elton doesn’t really like children, so he convinces his soon-to-be wife to leave her in Belgium while they go on their honeymoon. But weeks turn into months and soon five years have passed with hardly a word from Hortense.
Jeanne (now played by Mary Pickford) has been raised this whole time by Marie (Helen Raymond), a friendly peasant woman and her husband. She’s grown into a charming child and inventive child who causes some trouble, but always has fun and brings joy to those around her. Marie has come to think of Jeanne as her own, so when she receives a letter from Hortense saying that she’s coming to pick up her daughter she doesn’t want to give her up. Sending Jeanne away for the day, Marie tells Hortense that her daughter has died. This news devastates the mother and she soon heads back to America where she now lives.
Jeanne, Marie and her husband make a happy family until 1914 when WW I breaks out. Fearing for the young girl’s safety, Marie writes a confession to Hortense and reluctantly sends her ward to America to live with her mother. When she arrives though, Jeanne finds her real mother different than she imagined. She’s very cold and aloof, and she won’t even talk to Jeanne. Instead she instructs her servant to make sure the child is fed. In the kitchen, the Belgian cook takes a liking to her and gives her a job as a maid. But even working in her own mother’s house as a servant, Jeanne finds it hard to let Hortense know who she really is.
The best Pickford films are ones where she plays a plucky young lady who overcomes adversity, and that describes this movie to a tee. This is a charming film, and Mary is able to ooze sweetness and purity, without making the film becoming saccharine or sappy. She is able to accomplish this by making her characters have good intentions, but still getting into trouble. A perfect example of this is when she has to clean a floor that she’s inadvertently gotten muddy. In the best scene in the movie, and one of the most comical bits in any Pickford film, Mary discovers that the brushes she’s using will just fit onto her shoes. So she dumps the buckets of water onto the floor, straps two brushes on her feet and ‘skates’ around, cleaning as she goes. And making a horrible mess.
Not only are the antics in the film humorous, but the intertitles are some of the funniest I’ve seen and add a lot to the charm of the movie. After Hortense has found her husband kissing another woman, this card notes the change of setting: “If it were not for New York Hotels, where would elopers, divorcees and red plush furniture go?”
This is a really fun film. Pickford is full of energy and vitality in this picture, not to mention being very gorgeous. Her antics are very amusing and they make the film really enjoyable. At the same time the film has enough drama so that you care about the characters without it becoming melodramatic. That would have been very easy to do given the subject matter, but the film doesn’t even come close to falling into that trap.
The DVD looks very good. The print has been restored by the Mary Pickford Institute and the image is very clear and bright with an excellent amount of contrast. Details are strong also. There is some print damage, a tear or two, a couple of missing frames and some lines and dirt, but these don’t mar the presentation and are to be expected in a film of this age. The only real complaint I have is that the image was enhanced digitally causing some lines and background details to be brighter than they should be.
This disc also includes some good bonus material. There is a 2½-minute reel of publicity stills, lobby cards, and postcards issued about the movie but the real treat is the second feature: Cinderella. This 1914 film stars Mary as the abused step daughter, and her real life husband at the time, Owen Moore, as Prince Charming. It’s a little ironic that Mary cast her husband in that role, since they had anything but an idyllic marriage.
This movie follows the familiar story pretty well, with only a few minor alterations. Poor Cinderella is a virtual slave to her evil stepmother and two mean step sisters. One day an old lady comes knocking at their door, and Cinderella gives the lady a drink. The old lady is really a fairy in disguise, and promises to help Cinderella in payment for her kindness. When the King holds a ball so that his son can choose a bride, the fairy makes Cinderella look like a princess, but the effects will only last until midnight.
I was glad that Milestone included this rarely seen Pickford film as a bonus, but in truth, the movie is fairly lifeless. There are some good costumes, and Mary Pickford does a good job, but this movie just doesn’t have a spark to it. The problem is that Cinderella doesn’t really solve her own problems, she just reacts to what happens around her. That’s not the type of role that Pickford excelled at. While it was a nice try, in the end this film is a rather dull and uninspiring affair.
The print used for this transfer is below average. Some sections of this film have a faded or overly bright look to them. The part where Cinderella is gathering wood in the forest at the beginning is a good example. Many parts of this scene are washed out and suffer from having little contrast. The rest of the film is missing some frames, more than average, and there are a fair amount of scratches and other print damage. That isn’t to imply that this film is unwatchable, it isn’t, it just isn’t up to the standard that Milestone usually sets. I assume it is for that reason that this feature is included as a bonus item.
Through the Back Door is a great Pickford film. A funny movie with several touching moments, this is an enjoyable picture, even 80+ years after it was made. Even though there was a little too much digital enhancement for my tastes, this Milestone DVD looks very good. Including Pickford’s version of Cinderella on the disc is a great bonus too. The folks at Milestone have put out another great DVD. A very high Recommendation.
If you are interesting in slapstick comedy, you can’t find a better source of information than the Slap Happy series. The 30 episodes in the series are avalible on 10 DVD-R's directly from the producer. Volume two includes some great comedy scenes, as well as a good amount of information about some forgotten comics.
The disc starts off with The Hal Roach Studio. Some of the best comedy shorts ever made came out of the Roach lot, and this episode looks at the actors and directors who made these great films. Founded by Hal Roach in 1915 with a small inheritance that he received, the Roach Studio (originally called the Rolin Film Company) was home to several talented comedians.
Their first big success was with a Charlie Chaplin imitator called Lonesome Luke played by Harold Lloyd. These films did well and made Roach a lot of money, but Lloyd never liked the character since he was an imitation. He eventually put on a pair of hone-rimmed glasses and a pork pie hat, and created the character that would make him famous. There is an extended scene from an early Lloyd comedy Ask Father as well as some footage from his film Number, Please.
While Keystone was known for its chase scenes, Roach excelled at sight gags. One comedian who made many one reelers for Roach that incorporated innovative devices and odd inventions for comic effect was Snub Pollard. A long scene from It’s a Gift, where Pollard used as large magnet to pull his small car around town, shows how outrageous and entertaining these type of films can be.
Of course Roach also invented the Our Gang series, and a section from one of their early comedies is also included. This is a great introduction to an important film studio.
The next episode is The Comedy Chase: A staple of silent comedies, it often didn’t matter who was chasing whom, as long as the chase was fast and frantic. Early on in film it was recognized that a harried chase could get a lot of laughs. By 1907 it had already emerged as a genre itself in France. However no one took the chase to the extent that Mack Sennett did at Keystone. Sennett realized early on that the more destruction and mayhem, the larger the laughs. He also discovered that a chase was a good way to end a film, a tactic that his studio employed time and time again.
The volume ends up with Help Wanted; a look at comedy sketches that revolve around the workplace. While this instalment may have a weak premise, it is strong on entertainment.
There are several comics featured in this program. The Ton of Fun Trio was a comedy team that had a series of shorts produced by Joe Rock. The theory was that if one fat man such as Roscoe Arbuckle or Oliver Hardy was funny, then three would be a riot. A long clip from one of their films shows that there was some merit to that thinking.
A good clip from The Floorwalker, a Chaplin short he made at Mutual, is also shown. It features the first appearance of Eric Campbell, Chaplin’s large nemesis that he used throughout the films at Mutual. A funny clip, as all of Chaplin’s shorts are, this features the tramp clowning around on a department store escalator.
There is also a rare short staring Sidney Chaplin, Charlie’s older brother, as well as clips with Billy Bevin, Harry Langdon, and Stan Laurel. Overall a very funny volume.
Saving the best for last, we come to The Forgotten films Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.
Roscoe arrived in Los Angeles in April of 1913. He had played the vaudeville circuits on his own since he was 15 years old. Now, at age 26, he was ready to break into the movies. Bringing his portfolio of pictures and reviews with him, he dressed up in his best white suit and set off to the Keystone Studios. As the story goes, which is probably apocryphal, when Roscoe arrived at the lot, no one stopped or questioned him so he wandered around the open stages and buildings. Someone opened a door and stepped out, turned to Roscoe and spit chewing tobacco juice on his new white pants. The man said "You, big boy, be here tomorrow morning at eight." Then walked back in. The man was Mack Sennett, head of the studio. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle had just broken into the movies, and who would turn out to be one of the great silent comedians.
Though there was a time when Arbuckle's popularity rivaled that of Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe is hardly known today. That is due to the events of Labor Day 1921. Roscoe and some friends rented some rooms in San Francisco and held a big party. Sometime during the event, some women crashed it. One of them, an out of work actress named Virginia Rappe, went into a bedroom to lay down. Some people claimed that Arbuckle was in the room with her alone. In any case, the young girl died of a ruptured bladder. The Hearst newspapers had a field day with the story, painting Arbuckle as a rapist and a murderer.
This was Hollywood’s first major scandal. People were up in arms and Hollywood was scared. Arbuckle was tried three times, the first two juries ending up deadlocked. One April 8th, 1921, the third jury took only ten minutes to find Arbuckle innocent of all charges. The jury even apologized to Arbuckle. It was too little too late though, his career was in ruins. Many state censor boards banned the showing of Arbuckle’s films. William Hays, hired to lead a watch-dog group to police the ethics and morals of films coming out of the studios, banned Arbuckle from appearing in films. He did this ten days after the comedian was acquitted.
Because his films couldn’t even be shown legally in many places, no one thought that they were worth saving. While Chaplin, Pickford, and Lloyd all had the money to ensure that their movies would be preserved, Arbuckle had spent most of his money on attorneys. (He had to sell his home and collection of cars to pay the lawyer's bills.) Consequently, Arbuckle’s films were burned or thrown away when store rooms became too full. With his films rare and hard to see, his reputation was eclipsed by other silent comedians, and he was all but forgotten.
Thanks to a new collection of Arbuckle films from Laughsmith Entertainment and Mackinac Media, it is now much easier to evaluate this comedian’s legacy. The aptly named Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle is a wonderful four disc set that brings together 30 of this comedians films (with one film presented twice in different forms.) This set covers Arbuckle's complete career, from the early Keystone days, where Arbuckle was learning the craft of making comic films and proceeds through some of his early directorial efforts, to shorts he made with his own production company, Comique. A feature film he made at Paramount is also included. This remarkable set doesn’t stop there though. After his career ending scandal, Roscoe continued to work behind the camera directing under the pseudonym William B. Goodrich. Several of these rarely seen shorts are presented too.
The films are arranged in chronological order, so you can see how Arbuckle’s style and type of comedy evolve over time. It is also interesting to note that there were some traits that stayed the same. Roscoe didn’t have a single character that he used in all of his films like Chaplin’s Tramp, but there were some manners that just about all of his characters had. They all possessed a natural innocence, even when they were getting into trouble. The audience was always rooting for Roscoe, he had an ‘everyman’ quality that people could relate to. Its easy to laugh at Chaplin’s creativity, or worry for Lloyd’s safety, but viewers laughed with Arbuckle because they could relate to him. The hen-pecked husband or the man who lets his eye stray when an attractive woman walks by are things that most people could identify with. When Roscoe took things a step further than most people would, and ended up paying for it usually, the audience would laugh and say “oh yeah, that’s why I don’t act that way.” (It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to say that he was sort of a very early version of George Costanza from Seinfeld in a lot of ways.)
The set starts out with some of Roscoe’s earliest starring roles at Keystone. These films, like most of Keystone’s product, are fast and furious, leaving little room for plot. Included in with these are several films in this set that Roscoe made with the Mabel Normand, another popular comic of the time who is now largely forgotten. Their Keystone pictures are also full of action but are a little more sophisticated, taking a little more time to set up the situations.
The more control Arbuckle had over the films he starred in, the better the were, generally. At Comique films, Arbuckles own production company that he formed after leaving Keystone, he had total control and made some wonderful films. Two of them are presented in this set including the ‘lost’ film Love. This film was painstakingly pieced together from two incomplete prints that were tracked down by restoration director Paul Gierucki. This is one of the best looking films of the set. A very funny movie, with a lot of nonsensical gags that just work really well, in addition to some funny slapstick. I loved Roscoe driving around in Ford’s “economy model.” A wonderful short that has been lovingly (no pun intended) restored.
The set doesn’t stop there though. Also included is a feature film Arbuckle did for Paramount, Leap Year. This nearly hour long film was made just before the Labor Day party that would ruin Arbuckle’s career, and was never released in the US. This light situational comedy is a drastic departure from the shorts Roscoe was doing five or six years earlier. The humor isn’t as crass, and it doesn’t rely on slapstick and chases to get laughs. The humor is more character driven and works very well. In a lot of ways it is reminiscent of Buster Keaton’s first feature film, The Saphead, which is more of a drawing room comedy than slapstick mayhem. It is a film that is very sophisticated for its age, it shows how versatile Arbuckle was. He wasn’t limited to only doing prat falls and slapstick gags. He was great at those, but he was also very good at other forms of comedy, as this film illustrates.
The set is rounded out by five films that Arbuckle directed after the scandal. These movies he made for Educational Films include films starring Al St. John, Lloyd Hamilton, and Lupino Lane among others. They are well crafted and executed works, and shows that Arbuckle knew how to present a joke. His contributions to these films were just as great as the comedians he was filming.
The quality of the video varies from film to film but overall these shorts look about average for silent movies. They are not crystal clear copies from pristine prints, but they are not faded, torn and blurry transfers either. As Paul Gierucki, the restoration director for this set notes in his written introduction, the Arbuckle films are really in a horrible state of preservation. The earliest films in this collection are over 90 years old, and they have all been neglected for decades. The fact that they exist at all in any state is a small miracle. Several of the movies included with this set came from reduction prints, some from multiple incomplete positive prints that had to be reconstructed and pieced together, paper prints located in the Library of Congress (these are strips of paper with each frame of the film reproduced as a positive image. They were used to secure copyrights without giving anyone the ability to duplicate the film.) were used, and occasionally the movies came from 35mm negatives.
This is a truly amazing collection. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was
a comedy giant in the early days of film, but is now almost forgotten.
Only a few of his films have previously been available in quality versions
on DVD, most notably his films with Buster Keaton, and this set fills a
gap that is long overdue. What is even more important is that these
films are just down right funny. Arbuckle, especially in his later
films, creates comic flourishes, flipping a knife behind his back and having
it land point first in a butcher block for example, and makes it look easy
and natural. This set presents a fantastic overview of this multi-talented
comedian. This collection should be in every silent movie fan’s DVD
collection. This set is assuredly belongs in the DVD Talk Collector
Series. (Be sure to check out the full
review of this set for more detailed information.)
Next Column: In the next column, which should be out in a couple of weeks, I'll have a look at the encore edition of Treasures from the American Film Archives, as well as the latest Mary Pickford release, Heart 'o the Hills. Dancer Josephine Baxter's first film, 1927's Siren of the Tropics, will be covered as well as more Slap Happy volumes and the latest news on upcoming silent movie releases.
Comments? Suggestions? Feel free to send me an e-mail.
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