Today seems a propitious time to celebrate the long line of plus-sized cinematic comedians. I have long observed that filmdom has always had at least one at any given time, as though we NEED the type somehow, our cinematic pantheon is somehow incomplete without at least one. This post takes the uncharacteristic (for me) form of a listicle, and please note that it is pretty narrowly focused on slapstick film (as opposed to other styles and media). Just click on the link at the comedian’s name below for more complete essays on each one:
John Bunny (years active: 1909-1915)
Not just America’s first large comedy star, but also by many measures our first comedy star period. Heart-breakingly few samples of his work survive — just enough to make us crazy and want more. I’ve never encountered anybody who’s seen Bunny’s handful of surviving films and didn’t love him to pieces. His personality transcends time and the distancing elements of silence and BxW. Like W.C. Fields, whom he is sometimes compared to, he was an older man, sort of Falstaffian, and that’s what made him lovable. He was like a naughty English uncle. (We’re leaving Fields off this list, btw. He was indeed a stout man, but his size was several notches down the list of attributes that defined him. That is far less the case with other folks on this list. For similar reasons we also omit Curly Howard — a big guy, but that’s hardly his primary attribute as a comedian by any stretch of the imagination.)
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (years active as screen comedian: 1909-1921; 1933)
I will be a happy scribe (and Arbuckle a happy ghost) when the world stops talking about him in terms of the friggin’ scandal that halted his career. He was one of our great screen comedians, and a top comedy director, for decades. And he remains one of the best remembered and loved — and accessible — silent screen comedians to this day. Much is made of the fact that he didn’t like to be called “Fatty”. I always use it despite the fact that many of my colleagues don’t. I do so for the simple fact that that’s the name audiences and readers have always known him by. If Arbuckle were, say, my personal friend and alive I might respect his wish. Since he is not, I see no sensible reason to.
Frank “Fatty” Voss (years active: 1914-1917)
Fatty Voss was the in-house comedy fat man at Henry Lehrman’s L-KO studio. (In the photo above he is depicted with Alice Howell, with whom he appeared in many comedies). Sadly, Voss died at age 30 after less than four years in films.
Hughie Mack (years active 1915-1927)
A non-actor hired to replace John Bunny as Vitagraph’s funny fat man, with the assistance of Larry Semon who began his career directing Mack’s comedies. But as we say Mack wasn’t really a professional comedian, so he never made the sort of mark in the world as did Arbuckle.
Tons of Fun (years active: 1925-1927)
And besides, if you think it is disrespectful to call Roscoe Arbuckle “Fatty”, you ain’t seen nothing yet. For the most part, oddly enough, the concept of the “funny fat man” in movies isn’t done in a hurtful spirit. The operative word, foremost, is funny, even before fat. These are simply great comedians. They incorporate their body into their art, often in a brave way, but they are also sympathetic. We love them; we don’t laugh at them. One of the rare examples of that line being crossed, and where the size of the comedians was use exploitively was the comedy team called Tons of Fun (Frank “Fatty” Alexander, Hilliard “Fat” Karr, and Kewpie Ross). The whole concept of this short-lived team was that three fat men were three times as funny, especially when they did things like break the floor with their combined weight. Of the three, Alexander had the most substantial career. You see him in many comedy films (particularly those of Larry Semon) between 1915 and 1933. (Sidebar: In watching the documentary Love, Gilda I was touched and intrigued to hear Gilda Radner refer to a childhood love for this long-forgotten comedy team. It piqued my interest that she should even know about them. My mind immediately made the leap between this fact, and, forgive me, the elephant in the room, her eating disorder. Was she made aware of the team by being teased and called “Tons of Fun” as a kid? Did she discover them on her own and form a special attachment? And what if she had let herself go and become a plus-sized comedienne herself? I know she would have been just as great though in a different way.)
Oliver Hardy (years active: 1914-1951)
I almost hesitate to list Hardy here. Though he did have close to a decade and a half as a screen heavy without Stan Laurel as his partner, I most often think about his size in relation to Laurel’s skinniness (which was actually an illusion). It’s a bit different from being a solo bull-in-a-china-closet. But we couldn’t very well leave him off this list, could we?
Gene “Fatty” Laymon (years active, circa 1920-1934)
Gene Laymon (sometimes rendered “Layman”) was in a vaudeville two-act with Little Jerry Austin in the early ’20s, and then starred in comedy shorts from 1926 to 1928, notably in a series based on the comic strip “Keeping Up with the Joneses”.
Lou Costello (years active: 1940-1959)
Costello is more “dumpy” or “pudgy” than rotund, but, as with Hardy, people usually think of him in terms of his body type. “Child like” would be the first word that springs to my mind in describing him. He has “baby fat” and cheeks you wanna pinch.
Jackie Gleason (years active: 1941-1987)
The Great One definitely sets the longevity record for plus sized screen comedian and this despite the smoking, drinking, rich food, late hours and dying at the age of only 71. Usually thought of as a tv comedian, he was actually the American comedy cinema’s reigning large man during the 1960s.
John Belushi (years active: 1975-1982)
We now enter this heart breaking stretch where we were given three young Comedy Gods who were big guys, all of whom died way too young. Belushi wasn’t so large that you thought of him as a “fat man”. It was more like he was tubby and heedlessly unhealthy — part of the very reason he was a hero! But it was that very attribute that took him from us.
John Candy (years active: 1973-1994)
Candy was the first true heir to Arbuckle to come along in half a century, because he was a true Everyman. You could cast him as any kind of character; he was an actor as much as a comedian. It was a sad day for comedy when he was felled by a heart attack at such a young age. There would have been roles for him as long as he wanted them.
Chris Farley (years active: 1990-1997)
I wasn’t crazy about wild man Chris Farley at first, but as he grew comfortable then bold then kamikazi in his performing I became an enthusiastic convert. Something about him was very much in tune with his times
Melissa McCarthy (ca. 2000 – present)
I am also overdue to write more about this lady! But it will have to be more than a single tribute. She is my favorite contemporary screen comedian. I love everything about her. She is groundbreaking in being the first female comedian to bring this kind of violent abandon to comedy performance and she possesses the lack of vanity you have to have to be this kind of comedian. She’s not just funny, she can act, she can write, she’s an improviser of genius. (It’s true that Sophie Tucker, Totie Fields, and Roseanne Barr paved the way for plus-sized comediennes …but again this is a post about slapstick on the big screen.) But, as I say, much more on McCarthy to come.
For much more on slapstick comedy please see my 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