Today is the anniversary of the release date of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s first feature film The Round Up (1920).
Arbuckle was one of the first of the slapstick comedians to make it up from the rough and tumble world of comedy shorts to the headier world of features. To put that into perspective, when Arbuckle fell from grace with his scandal a year later he was still a much bigger star than his friend Buster Keaton, bigger than Lloyd, and even had the advantage in some ways on Chaplin.
The Round Up, a comedy western, was a very well thought out “next step” vehicle for Arbuckle. He plays a baby faced sheriff named Slim who is frequently ridiculed for his size. The idea of an overweight sheriff is natural fodder for comedy, but it also becomes an opportunity for pathos, and the film makes some attempt to touch the heart strings. “Nobody Loves a Fat Man” bemoans our lonely hero. Poor Roscoe has it bad for a girl named Echo (Mabel Julienne Scott) but alas she loves another. And Wallace Beery is the evil “half-breed” villain. So while Arbuckle splits his pants and falls down and breaks things a lot, he gets to be the hero and save the day. Has to! This is a feature and we need to care about the story, although the constant begging for sympathy tends to strike the modern sensibility as a bit nauseating.
Arbuckle managed to squeeze out an astounding number of features over the next several months. The Round Up remains one of the best of them.
To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To learn about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.