Tuesday 10 April 2007

Fatty Joins the Force (1913) George Nichols

From my experiences so far, the state of comedy in the first half of the teens seems really poor and the earlier I go the worse it gets. This short dates back as far as 1913 when Charlie Chaplin himself hadn't appeared on film yet, though his frequent early collaborator Mabel Normand had. Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle was one of the biggest stars in the world of comedy, along with other mainstays of the Keystone studio like the Keystone Cops. Bear in mind that even Chaplin, a comedic genius, made over half his output of films in his debut year of 1914 and he wasn't funny in most of them. The other silent comedians of note that we know today hadn't even arrived in Hollywood yet.

Here Fatty Arbuckle rescues the police commissioner's daughter from being drowned and is rewarded for his act by a job on the fore. Just as he's getting used to his shiny new uniform, he gets picked on by a bunch of kids who hit him in the face with a pie and then steal his clothes when he takes a dip to clean off. At this point Fatty gets mistaken for someone else and is arrested and locked up. Yes, film comedy wasn't particularly sophisticated at this point. It's still mostly falling over and being misidentified. Women are for standing around wringing their hands, and cops, especially in films made for Keystone, are for chasing people and hitting them with truncheons.

What surprised me most though, given what I know of the progression of comedy through Chaplin's debut year of 1914, is that this, one year earlier, demonstrates a solid understanding of storyline. As rough as it is, there's a discernable plot structure with a beginning, a middle and an end. It isn't great by any means but it's far better than I was expecting.

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