The Sunday Intertitle: Hope Floats

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Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle may not have raped and  manslaughtered anyone, but he does spank Teddy, “the Keystone dog,” in FATTY AND MABEL ADRIFT, a rather good comedy he directed in 1916. Mabel, of course, is Mabel Normand. I’ve been watching lots of her stuff recently and you can expect to read about more of it here.

The film opens with a slightly uncanny, Meliesian sequence of Fatty and Mabel in heart vignettes and a naked little boy as Cupid conjoining them with a well-aimed arrow from his quiver. My DVD added soupy saxophone music to this, giving it an inappropriate LAST TANGO IN PARIS vibe, so I muted that and randomly played a CD, which turned out to be the soundtrack to THOMAS by Amedeo Tomassi, which gave everything a giallo quality. This, strangely, was less problematic. Though it did make Al St. John seem like Max Cady.

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St John plays a jealous jilted type, interfering in newlyweds Fatty & Mabel’s domestic bliss in a way that seems to prefigure the triangle in Keaton’s ONE WEEK. Instead of sabotaging the couple’s made-from-a-kit new home as in the Keaton film, St John enlists the aid of some bandits to tow the cottage out to sea. The honeymoon has been a rather asexual affair, with Mabel bedding down with Teddy the dog while Fatty restrains himself to a kiss on the brow, delivered not in person but by his shadow. You can’t get safer sex than that.

So one could argue that St John hasn’t really interrupted anything.

This is one of the more structured Keystone films I’ve seen, though arguably it begins too early, before the marriage, to no major effect. But I enjoyed how it spent time on different aspects of the central relationship, with sitcom business about Mabel’s inedible rock cakes, which even Teddy won’t touch. When Mabel tested a rock cake by tapping it on her skull, Amedio Tomassi obligingly provided two perfectly synched percussion beats, despite the fact that he was on a separate disc playing at random.

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Arbuckle throws himself about frenetically, of course, and St John’s vigorous knockabout is impressive — he’s not a particularly charming clown, so the heavy role suits him well. Mabel is domesticated, which is a shame — she gets to spread her wings more in star vehicles like MICKEY, and the crude kick-up-the-arse stuff she did with Chaplin (eg THE FATAL MALLET) is also refreshing. You don’t expect to see women mixing it with men in the more violent skits, but Mabel was a game girl.

I think more gags could have been devised out of the promising situation of a house at sea, also, but the mere sight of Fatty, Mabel and a confused Teddy bobbing about in their respective beds in the waterlogged cottage cracked me up. They make that last quite a while without anything in particular happening, and it’s all good stuff.

Anyhow, the bandit chief (Wayland Trask) is a real tough guy, swigging gasoline and eating dynamite and living in a cave on the beach. Yet he has a business card.

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12 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Hope Floats”

  1. I remember much of this from “When Comedy Was King”, whose abridged version I’ve just watched again for the first time in decades on youtube, volume down, Arbuckle’s silhouette agains the sea accompanied by Steve Reich on the jingle bells (Drumming IV). It works. Normand’s kiss blown to camera is very Justus D. Barnes.

  2. I love also the introduction of Al St. John by means of his cap sliding back like a rock being slowly lifted.

  3. Fatty was entirely innocent. But the story was blown up by the press and his career was over.

    Teddy reminds me of Godard’s dog in Adieu au Langage — who is apparently that film’s leading player.

  4. I absolutely adore reading contemporaneous reviews of Sennett shorts where the critics spend 80 of their 100 allotted words complaining about Teddy or, sometimes, Pepper the cat.

  5. There seems to be room for confusion between Teddy the Wonder Dog, who starred alongside Gloria Swanson at Keystone (Teddy at the Throttle), and Teddy the Keystone Dog. I think it would have been worth the effort to choose a different name for pooch 2.

    The Godard bit in Secret Lives of the Great Filmmakers is hilarious. I may have to quote a chunk of it. The Karina marriage has elements of slapstick to it you wouldn’t expect. And there was also the moment at Cannes twenty-odd years ago when JLG was hit in the face with a custard pie delivered by a group specialising in deflating pomposity. It was delivered with solemnity and Godard received it quite graciously.

  6. I wouldn’t call it slapstick. They divorced right after Bande a Part but continued to work together and have a romantic relationship off and on. Finally they locked themselves in their apartment. When their friends broke in, as they hadn’t seen them in weeks, they discovered the place was a ruin and Godard and Karina were lying there exhausted. “It’s over,” she said.

    Jacques Rivette had Bulle Ogier and Jean-Pierre Kalfon re-enact this in the climax of L’Amour Fou.

  7. There’s more — friends once found Karina and Godard naked, at opposite sides of the room, all their clothing scissored to bits in a heap in the middle. Godard had his friend buy them raincoats so they could leave the apartment.

    L’Amour Fou, indeed!

  8. judydean Says:

    Teddy looks suspiciously like Luke, Roscoe’s own bull terrier, who turned in some memorable performances in several of the Arbuckle/Keaton collaborations, and later in some of Buster’s own shorts, e.g. The Scarecrow. Did he change his name when he became a star?

  9. It’s a a slippery slope — one minute you’re going walkies, the next, you’ve gone Hollywood.

  10. Really liked this. Amazing how few people recognise how great so many silent films were. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox.

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