Fatty Arbuckle: The bittersweet story of one of Hollywood’s earliest funnymen

A century has passed since Keystone Studios opened its doors in the part of Echo Park once known as Edendale. But one of its enduring legacies is the movie career of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, one of the earliest kings of Hollywood comedy.

Fatty Arbuckle showed up at Keystone in 1913, causing comedienne Mabel Normand to remark that he was “the fattest thing” she’d ever seen. According to Betty Harper Fussell’s “Mabel: Hollywood’s First ‘I Don’t Care’ Girl,” Arbuckle was determined to show Keystone employees what he was capable of, plunging down stairs and then bouncing back up again to ask for a job. It didn’t take long for other silent film performers, including actress Minta Durfee, to take note. Fussell wrote:

When Roscoe came to Keystone, he was twenty-six, 5′ 10″ tall and weighed 260 pounds. “Not soggy fat” Minta said, “but hard as nails.” Like Mabel, Fatty was a skilled athlete — a swimmer, acrobat and tumbler — and as light on his feet as Zero Mostel. Dancing with Fatty, actress Louise Brooks remembered, was like dancing with a floating doughnut. With his blue eyes, blond hair and wide sunny grin, Fatty played the overgrown all-American boy that he was. For the first time, Mabel had a partner as young-looking and innocent as herself, and together they developed a style of kid comedy a decade before Laurel and Hardy or the real kids of Hal Roach’s Our Gang.

Normand and Arbuckle became a potent comedy duo, performing together in 36 comedies together between 1913 and 1916 — Fatty’s Wine Party, Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life, Fatty and Mabel Adrift and Passions, He Had Three. One of those comedy features literally made movie history, according to Fussell: In 1913’s A Noise From the Deep, Mabel Normand threw a pie into the face of Fatty Arbuckle, making movie history.

Arbuckle set the standard for the many overweight comedians who would follow in his footsteps. He brilliantly combined his physical comedy with expressions that were far more subtle than those made by many other Keystone performers, who tended to mug or exaggerate their expressions, said Simon Louvish, author of “Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett.” To Louvish, Arbuckle was the “first true pantomime genius” discovered by Sennett, Keystone’s impressario.

Like many others who sought salaries larger than Sennett was willing to pay, Arbuckle left Keystone. At the Comique Film Co. he helped nurture the budding talent of performer Buster Keaton. But in 1921, a scandal — and a run-in with an unscrupulous prosecutor — tragically cut his career short. 

Police arrested Arbuckle in San Francisco on suspicion of manslaughter in a case that produced three separate trials, two ending in hung juries and a third producing an acquittal. The defense pointed out instances of destroyed and fabricated evidence, witness intimidation and testimony that quickly fell apart under scrutiny. On the third go-round, the jury not only acquitted Arbuckle but went so far as to issue a formal apology for the way he had been treated.
By then, however, he was finished with the public and was unable to resuscitate his acting career. Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton all spoke out in his defense, without success.

Arbuckle died at age 46 in 1933, just as he was attempting a comeback.

Even by Hollywood standards, Arbuckle’s story is an especially bittersweet one.