Today’s animators are incorporating the same type of slapstick and visual humor in their movies as silent screen stars used to thrill their audiences.
Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle were masters of visual humor. In today’s movies humor is often lost when translated solely into the spoken word, said Joanna Rapf, a film and video studies professor at Oklahoma University.
“I believe visual humor translates into a full range of emotions,” she said.
Rapf, a presenter at this year’s Buster Keaton Celebration at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center, will talk about Arbuckle — also a native Kansan — and his early films with his wife, Minta Durfee, and later films with Mabel Normand. Her talk begins at 1:40 p.m. Saturday.
Rapf became interested in the early silent comedians when she was a college student.
“I have the best job. I get to introduce hundreds of students to the comedic stylings of the early 20th century,” she said.
ARBUCKLE WAS born in 1887 in Smith Center at a hefty 13 pounds. When he was 12 his father would no longer support him financially forcing Arbuckle to work odds jobs in a hotel to eke out a meager living. He had a habit of singing while he was working and was overheard by a customer who encouraged him to perform in an amateur talent show. Arbuckle took his advice but his dancing, singing and clowning around on the stage didn’t impress the audience. To avoid the crook in the wings he somersaulted into the orchestra pit. The audience went wild and his career in vaudeville was launched.
Arbuckle joined Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Company in 1913 and worked there until he left California in 1916 to make comedies for Triangle-Keystone in Fort Lee, N.J.
The films Arbuckle made with his wife, Minta, were often laden with gags and seldom had happy endings while his films with Normand were more lighthearted with a happily ever after ending, Rapf said.
“What most people don’t realize is Arbuckle was also a very talented director and mentor to fellow actors including Charlie Chaplin,” Rapf said.
To flatter his mentor, Chaplin’s most famous character, “the Tramp,” was created after he adopted Arbuckle’s trademark balloon pants, boots and tiny hat.
ARBUCKLE WORKED only briefly during the 1920s, Rapf said.
In 1921, his career came to a halt after Virginia Rappe, a bit player, fell ill at his Labor Day weekend party and died a few days later. After three trials for manslaughter Arbuckle was finally acquitted.
It was a sad time for Arbuckle. His films were banned, his career was ruined and he was publicly ostracized, Rapf said.
After the ban on his films was lifted Arbuckle began a successful comeback in 1932 only to die in 1933 at the age of 46.
“I think Arbuckle could have had a long and successful career if it hadn’t have been for the scandal of the trials and a too-early death,” Rapf said.
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