We classic film fans typically own several “The Films of…” books that cover the careers of important stars or directors. Unavailable for our shelves has been a “films of” entry for one of the main comedians of the silent era who, like Chaplin and Keaton, was both star and director. This has now been corrected, thanks to Steve Massa.
Rediscovering Roscoe: The Films of “Fatty” Arbuckle, written by Steve Massa and published by BearManor Media in December 2019, is the exhaustively researched and lovingly detailed reference volume for Arbuckle we’ve needed to complete a royal flush of silent comedians. Maybe you’re unfamiliar with Arbuckle’s films and his place in the silent comedy pantheon at the moment.
When you’ve had a chance to see a bunch of Roscoe’s comedy shorts, and ideally with an audience, this book will be there for you to find out more about the movies he made. Because, until Steve’s book was published, all you’d have had as a resource is five or six books about Arbuckle’s life that pretty much center around the scandal that ended his onscreen career.
Rediscovering Roscoe is, at long last, a book about the motion pictures Roscoe made.
The takeaway for me from reading Steve’s book is that for a little more than twenty years, Arbuckle never stopped making comedy films. The scandal and the trials that followed ended his onscreen career, but he was directing for practically his entire career. He was a gifted comedy filmmaker from the dawn of what can be considered screen comedy through its rebirth in the medium of talking pictures, as he continued straight on into the sound era without a hitch.
I’d willingly give him uncredited co-directing credit on the shorts he starred in for Vitaphone. Creating physical comedy is a collaborative endeavor and while his name was not on the clapper slate for those six shorts as director, he was certainly part of the directorial process, such as it was for comedy shorts.
Arbuckle’s popularity rivaled Chaplin’s for the concurrent first seven years of their film outputs. Mr. Arbuckle joined Keystone, began directing, and moved into features before Mr. Chaplin did. Although not the comedy cinema innovator Chaplin was, Arbuckle was a nuanced performer and director, one who willingly shared screen time with his fellow performers and used the camera — or collaborated with his cameramen — more than his contemporaries. His protege Keaton couldn’t have had a more apt mentor to almost literally pluck him from vaudeville and homeschool him in comedy filmmaking.
Roscoe Arbuckle may not be on everyone’s Mt. Rushmore of silent comedy, but he certainly deserves a place there as a bookend on either side of whoever your Big 4 are.
The 688-page book’s 500+ illustrations include rarely- or never-before-seen images from the films, either as production stills, frame grabs from surviving prints, glass slides, and lobby cards. There is a detailed entry for every single one of Arbuckle’s films, from his earliest pre-Keystone efforts at Selig through his last talkie for Vitaphone.
The films’ credits are as complete as possible, with cast listings that — rather than list the three or four supporting players, as is usually done — include absolutely everyone in the frame whom Steve can identify (even the animals!). Descriptions of each film include thumbnail biographies of many of these ensemble performers and behind-the-camera personnel.
Arbuckle was one of a handful of comedians who just knew how to make comedy film when the genre was inventing itself, and with no precedent to guide its inventors. His body of work as one of the screen’s pioneering clowns has at last been chronicled in Rediscovering Roscoe: The Films of “Fatty” Arbuckle. It’s a hefty book, and if you organize your film books by author you may want to considering re-ordering them alphabetically by star so your “The Films Of…” shelf doesn’t sag. Arbuckle made a lot of movies, a lot more than you thought he did.
Full disclosure: I’m not only a big fan and proponent of Arbuckle’s films, but was also co-curator with Steve and with MoMA’s Ron Magliozzi of a 2-month 12-program Arbuckle retrospective that ran at MoMA in 2006. I also penned the somewhat overwritten introduction to Steve’s new Arbuckle book. Regardless, I think my opinion of Rediscovering Roscoe would be the same without any involvement or connection to it or to Steve.