I generally plug my own books during the holiday season, but occasionally there’s a new one out that’s so important or so interesting or by an author who matters to me such that I have to tell everybody. Rediscovering Roscoe: The Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle by Steve Massa hits the trifecta.
In addition to being an encyclopedic connoisseur of silent comedy, Massa has a feel for knowing where the holes are in the written record. His previous two books (Lamebrains and Lunatics: The Good, The Bad, and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy and Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy) fill niches and have thus become modern classics of their kind. The same goes for the new one. As most silent comedy fans know, Roscoe Arbuckle (better known to the broader masses by the name he hated, “Fatty”) is a figure more sinned against than sinning. He is normally written about either in terms of the scandal that hurt his career, or in relation to the careers of his co-stars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. But the fact that he was one of the few who worked closely with both men, and was so respected by both, should tell you something. As a comedy star, Arbuckle was in their class. Prior to the scandal, the public adored him. Before, during, and after his court case, his comedy colleagues never stopped respecting him. And so his body of work deserves to be looked at in focused isolation, in its own right. Massa has been preparing for the task since the 1980s, when he first began seeing Arbuckle’s body of work in depth, and with more vigor since the mid oughts, since he contributed to the production of the DVD set The Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and became one of the key curators of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. There is no one better prepared or suited for the job.
Rediscovering Rosco is valuable from its very first pages, providing details about Arbuckle’s theatrical career and his early, pre-Sennett days at Selig Polyscope and Nestor (1909-1913). This period is cloudy in the heads of most silent comedy films, including this correspondent. Massa includes them as part of his book-long survey of every single film in the Arbuckle canon. He’s seen every available, extant Arbuckle film and writes about each one with a critic’s eye, including also the views of contemporary critics (which is especially valuable where the films are lost). He provides all the data you’d want in a reference work: date of release, cast list, whether it survives, and which archives have copies. As the bulk of Arbuckle’s career consisted of film shorts, these entries are numerous, over 150 as performer, over 130 as director. His years of blacklisted banishment, which comprised almost the entirety of the 1920s and early 1930s, when he directed using pseudonyms, are given the same thorough treatment as his time as a marquee name. And the book continues all the way to Arbuckle’s heartbreakingly brief comeback in Vitaphone talkies in 1932-33.
In addition to all this, there is a foreword by Dave Kehr, a preface by Ben Model, and an introduction by Massa that sets the scene, followed by an appendix on how to see the films yourself, and another one, a kind of bonus essay about other plus-sized silent comedians. Then a bibliography. The whole thing comes in at close to 700 pages, none of it less than valuable to the hard-core silent film fan or historian, researcher or critic. Massa dedicated the book to the great Sam Gill (whom we had the honor of meeting a couple of months ago) and the association is appropriate. Massa’s books belong beside Gill’s in any complete silent comedy library. You now have 10 days to order your copy for the right person for Christmas. Or yourself! Do so here.