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With: Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Al St. John, Luke the Dog
Written by: Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle
Directed by: Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 34
Date: 03/19/2013

Dave Douglas: Keystone (2005)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Fatty City

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Dave Douglas: Keystone from Greenleaf

Here's a new item for Combustible Celluloid: a jazz CD. Though I love music, I've written very little about it and even less about jazz. Worse, as a listener I tend to avoid new jazz and stick with the classics (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, etc.). But when I heard that trumpeter Dave Douglas was releasing a new double album in tribute to silent comedian Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, I had to check it out.

Keystone comes with a CD of new music, all inspired by or in tribute to Arbuckle, and a new DVD, which contains an 30-minute Arbuckle short film, Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916), as well as a 4-minute music video made up of clips from a second Arbuckle film, Fatty's Tintype Tangle (1915). Both films are remarkable. Fatty and Mabel Adrift not only highlights Arbuckle's uncannily graceful comedy style -- flipping pancakes using his whole body or walking a tightwire act on telephone wires -- but also a unique, unabashedly lovely visual style nearly unheard of as early as 1915. Most of Hollywood was probably still reeling over the enormous artistic and financial success of Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, but Arbuckle had put this new deal into action. (He may have even seen some of the same Italian epics, such as Cabiria, that inspired Griffith.)

The music video, for the CD's second track, "Just Another Murder," cleverly compresses a two-reeler into a four-minute tribute without losing either the essence of the story, or the poetry of Arbuckle's clowning.

It's impossible to write about Arbuckle without mentioning his sorry fate. In 1921, a disreputable actress named Virginia Rappe attended a party in a San Francisco hotel where Arbuckle was staying. A few days later she died of a ruptured bladder. Arbuckle was accused of rape and was tried three times for manslaughter before a jury finally acquitted him. Most historians now believe that Arbuckle was innocent, but nevertheless, the scandal destroyed his career. He could only get work behind the camera, credited as "William B. Goodrich." (Douglas eloquently writes more about Arbuckle on the disc's liner notes.) If not for this incident, Arbuckle would today be considered alongside Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd as one of the great silent comedians.

As for the music, I loved it. It has a subtle mixture of classic, Davis-esque jazz, with elements of Davis's rock experimentation, but mixed with a few new twists, such as turntables (21st century) and a Wurlitzer (20th century). It ranges from out-and-out funky to sweet and soulful. I've found myself listening to the CD portion far longer than I ever anticipated I would.

Many silent films are appearing on new DVDs with new scores, some of them complex and detailed, but too many simply feature that droning, piano score that can put viewers to sleep. Kudos to Douglas for his passionate achievement.

(See also: The Forgotten Films of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.)

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