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Friday, 1 August 2008

Leap Year (1921)

Piper Hall is where we find Jeremiah Piper, irascible and struck by plenty of ailments. He decides he's going to close up the house and head off to the hot springs to recover, sending his heir and nephew Stanley off somewhere where he can't cause any trouble, given that he falls in love with every girl he meets. Given Jeremiah's nurse's reaction to this, they return the favour, even though he's the size you'd expect Fatty Arbuckle to be and a chronic stutterer to boot. Then again he's heir to millions.

So off goes Stanley to Catalina Island where he gets himself into all sorts of trouble, because he has no clue how to tell anyone anything clearer. Trying to help out a young lady called Molly Morris, who is having an argument with her boyfriend on a golf course, she thinks he's proposing marriage. So he runs away and tries to find a way out of it by talking with Loris Keene, the lady companion of a married friend whose wife is about to arrive. She takes it the wrong way and thinks he's proposing to her. So off swims Stanley out to sea to get away from both of them, only to run into a boat where Irene Rutherford, thinks he swam over on purpose to propose to her.

You know this can't progress happily, as Fatty tries to avoid being married to three women at once and being arrested for 'trigamy'. Naturally every attempt to get rid of any of them backfires and makes the catastrophe even more certain. At least Arbuckle gets to show off his admirable and ever surprising talent for physical acrobatics in trying to persuade them each that he's afflicted with fits. At least it ends happily and a remake title would likely be Four Weddings and a Trip to the Asylum. Yes, it's contrived. No, we don't care.

However it all ended even more unhappily than you could imagine. This film was never released theatrically, given that in real life Arbuckle was embroiled in a scandal that would wreck his career. A young actress called Virginia Rappe died three days after a party with Arbuckle and a couple of other industry names at a San Francisco Hotel. Rappe died of peritonitis caused by a ruptured badder, probably because she wasn't hospitalised for two days, given that the hotel doctor thought she was merely drunk. However Rappe's companion at the time accused Arbuckle of rape, which through the actions of newspapers and prosecutors with agendas of their own, worked its way through three trials and became rape, sodomy with a coke bottle and manslaughter.

Arbuckle was acquitted each time but his career was over. It's easy to see what his critics and accusers would have made of this film, even though Fatty wasn't trying to acquire most of these lady friends. The scandal makes this a fascinating film, but it wouldn't have been a bad one without it. I'm still not an Arbuckle fan, but both he and his films improved over time, to my eyes. He's always better when he gets the opportunity to leap around because with the exception of Sammo Hung, he's probably the best example of someone who is amazingly agile without ever giving the impression that they could possibly be amazingly agile.

Backing him both as a screen uncle and in the amazingly agile stakes is Lucien Littlefield, and Clarence Geldart, Allen Dunell and John McKinnon back them up. The girls all impress: Mary Thurman as the nurse, Gertrude Short as Molly, Harriet Hammond as Loris and Maude Wayne as Irene. Thurman is trying to look like Louise Brooks; Short would be trying to be Una Merkel in sappy mode, if only Una Merkel had been around at this point in time to copy; and Hammond and Wayne both look familiar, though they shouldn't. I've seen Wayne a few times in bit parts in silent movies and Hammond not all.

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