Reclaiming Roscoe

“Keystone used Roscoe’s name and photograph in its newspaper ads and press releases, though many actors were still not given credit in the films or on the posters displayed in the theaters. One of the first publicity interviews with Roscoe, published in July of 1913, offers an idea of how the comedian was being promoted. It gave Arbuckle’s weight at 300 pounds (he actually weighed 275 at this time) and claimed he scarfed down three steaks and all the trimmings, from baked potatoes to two loaves of bread, at one sitting. (The truth is that Roscoe usually nibbled at meals and rarely ate more than the average man. No matter how he ate, his weight usually hovered between 250 and 275 pounds.) It labeled him a prime athlete, the most capable athlete on the Keystone lot, which was probably true. In fact, he was the only member of the Keystone Cops who was never injured performing any stunts.”

Edmonds, Andy. Frame-Up!: The Untold Story of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991. Print. p. 71-2.

One of my projects for my diss this summer is to add to my research on fat male stars, so of course it makes sense to include studies of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Unfortunately, what I’m finding is that there aren’t that many studies on fat males stars generally, and few on Arbuckle specifically. Most writing on Arbuckle from the past few decades seems to be popular histories–like Frame-Up!, quoted above–that restate what’s become common knowledge: that Arbuckle was completely innocent in the death of Virginia Rappé, the incident that led to his downfall. However, the fact that these works rehash the case before declaring his innocence still seems to keep the focus on the scandal.

These popular writings fit into a project of reclamation for Arbuckle also undertaken in archival and academic circles. Over the past ten years there have been DVD releases of Arbuckle’s work, retrospectives at the American Museum of the Moving Image and the Museum of Modern Art, even the publication of a fictionalized autobiography, I, Fatty, by Jerry Stahl. There are at least two dissertations that seem to have some analysis of Arbuckle, and at least two essays from edited collections, Neda Ulaby’s “Roscoe Arbuckle and the Scandal of Fatness” and Joanna Rapf’s “Both Sides of the Camera: Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s Evolution at Keystone.”

Ulaby and Rapf both emphasize the multifaceted nature of Arbuckle’s work, Ulaby focusing on performance and Rapf on production. Ulaby’s argument is that Arbuckle’s “ambivalent performance of corpulence” challenged conventional identity categories, while Rapf argues that the number of roles Arbuckle played at Keystone, from actor to director to mentor, show how he made his mark in multiple ways in early cinema. The fact that both arguments emphasize that there’s more than “one side” to Arbuckle suggests the desire to reclaim his legacy from the scandalous side most remembered. However, this desire to move Arbuckle’s image away from contemptible sometimes seems to go farther than warranted in the direction of commendable.

I gleaned this by a closer look at two of Ulaby’s primary sources. For her piece she examines several films and some publicity info, along with a variety of popular histories. With her argument focused on ambivalence, Ulaby emphasizes what she sees as progressive elements of Arbuckle’s performances, stating that he “undermined conventional polarities (male/female, beautiful/ugly, good/bad), revolted against homogeneity, and challenged cultural norms” (p. 154). Much of this comes from the fact that he played multiple characters as part of his “Fatty” persona, including women and children, a trait Rapf notes as well. While Rapf is circumspect about the results of this versatility, Ulaby sees it as much more revolutionary. In the passage below, she describes Arbuckle’s performance in the short Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition(I have to admit my favorite part is at 4:33 when Mabel Normand mouths “Roscoe”; one of my readings claims she insisted on not calling him “Fatty.”)

“Fatty is searching for Mabel Normand on a busy thoroughfare when his attention is caught by a sign announcing a performance by the Royal Hawaiian Hula Dancers…. He is entranced by the spectacle of authentic native women shimmying before him. Although other members of the audience respond somewhat apathetically to the dancers, who do not conform to Western hegemonic standards of beauty, Fatty applauds them wildly and salaciously. These women are not what American society wants to look at or look like; heavy, dark-skinned, and exotic, they present what the ‘correct’ beauty ideal is defined against. Yet Mabel, a former Gibson Girl, must veil herself and mimic the dancers’ routine–performing otherness–to recapture Fatty’s attention. The hierarchy of the look is determined by Fatty: he insists not only on creating his own socially transgressive standards but on sharing them with the audience.

“Like Rudolph Valentino, whose ethnic/exotic otherness informed conceptions of his masculinity, when Arbuckle enters the discourse he binds pleasure and power with his own set of polymorphous perversities. (Valentino’s) relation to female viewers, (Miriam) Hansen points out (in Babel and Babylon), can also be understood as suggesting ‘an alternate organization of erotic relation as well as relations of cinematic representation and reception’ (294). Through his ability to invite the on-screen gaze of both male and female actors, whose appreciative attention to Fatty provides a model for the audience, Arbuckle not only relaxed the roles imposed on the spectators but also rendered the traditional, scopophilic male gaze as ultimately grotesque–or, at the very least, inefficacious. Fatty’s adoration by his female fans was no hysteric worship of the Valentino variety, but rather was organized around a certain intimacy. Like his female viewers, whose bodies were scrutinized because of their gender, Fatty attracted attention because of his body…. He used his fatness to align himself with the feminine as well as the grotesque, ironicizing their perceived intersection and creating what Michael Moon calls (in “Divinity”) an ‘alternative body-identity fantasy’ (293) or, more precisely, a number of different body-identity fantasies” (Ulaby, p. 159-60).

I think the comparison to Valentino is really interesting, considering that his star was rising just as Arbuckle’s was falling. However, since Ulaby’s main argument is based on the role of ambivalence in Arbuckle’s work, it’s hard to overlook how much ambivalence is involved in the possible interpretations of the piece. The short is clearly playing off difference in size, gender, and race for humor, but the intention and meaning of that difference is not so clear. Does the humor in Fatty’s applause for the dancers come from his overenthusiasm, or the fact that he doesn’t “know better” than to show appreciation for these particular women? Is Mabel trying to entice Fatty through the hula or is she parodying the dance, with the veil revealing a broad stroke of Orientalism?

Although Rapf cites Peter Krämer in noting that subversion can be read in slapstick even when unintended (76), it’s important to mention the historical and industrial context that may challenge that subversion. As many sources noted, this piece was event-based, shot on location because of the opportunity to incorporate the Exposition. One source claims that this was an extension of an ad campaign for the Exposition involving Normand; that links to a post by the same author claiming Arbuckle may have toured East Asia and the Pacific islands before joining Keystone, experiencing the hula in Hawaii along the way. The fact that there may be an economic imperative or a touristic nostalgia (however appreciative) behind the short doesn’t necessarily remove the transgressive elements, but should at least temper them.

However, an article Ulaby cites places Arbuckle more squarely into conventions of race and gender for his time. In September 1921, the same month as Rappé’s death, Photoplay published “Love Confessions of a Fat Man.”

The article is a tongue-in-cheek interview, with fatuous relationship advice that seems to be meant satirically. Ulaby focuses on Arbuckle’s repeated predictions that “the fat man is about to have his day.” However, aside from the continuous assertion of conventional gender roles and relationships, there are two other issues to note, both related to race: one is that Arbuckle has a black butler tending to him, and another is that Arbuckle jokes that most women stay with men to avoid “race suicide.” While these items fit conventions of the time, they’re also enough to draw some question about claims to Arbuckle’s role as a revolutionary, progressive figure. The rediscovery of Arbuckle’s work is important, but overstating his contributions risks simply adding to the distortions that have already marred his legacy.

Obviously, more studies on Arbuckle are needed. Both Ulaby’s article and the Photoplay piece mention fan letters, especially female fans. It doesn’t seem like much is extant from Arbuckle’s estate (or maybe Keystone) but tracking down fan letters or articles in magazines would be a great way to examine his contemporaneous reception and celebrity. Being that my diss is focused on more contemporary figures, I don’t know that I can be the one to do that work, but I sure hope someone else is. In terms of my own work though, this made me want to track down more on the meaning of Hawaiian bodies in Western culture, hence repeated viewings and jottings on Lilo and Stitch, among other things. Hopefully I can get them into some coherent form on here before the end of the summer.


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