“Fatty and Mabel Adrift”
Directed by Roscoe Arbuckle
Cast: Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Al St. John, Frank Hayes, May Wells, Wayland Trask, Luke The Dog. Released January 9, 1916 Running time: 31 minutes
CineMuseum has other plans for Mr. Roscoe Arbuckle’s films, thus only one of Fatty’s comedies appears on the Mack Sennett blu ray collection. “Fatty and Mabel Adrift” is a bonafide classic that is also a great example of the Keystone structure used most effectively. This three-reeler has a situation, a conflict, a series of gags, and ends with slapstick action featuring the Keystone Kops. It is also one of the most cleverly directed films in the entire Keystone oeuvre.
Fatty and Mabel are married. Al loves Mabel and considers himself Fatty’s rival. While the couple is asleep in their honeymoon cottage, Al and some fellow thugs dislodge the structure of the cottage and cause it to go out to sea with the tide. When the couple awakens, they discover they are at sea. Water fills the cottage and they are in grave danger, but are eventually rescued with the help of their dog, Mabel’s parents, and the Keystone Kops.
“Fatty and Mabel Adrift” stands out as one of the truly great silent comedies of its time, and for several reasons. Arbuckle is all boyish charm, subtle gestures, wild pratfalls, and remarkable agility. Mabel Normand has the sweetness of an ingénue and the comic prowess of a master. Al St. John is at his wicked, wily best, as he grimaces through his role with scenery-chewing gusto. They all play off of the Keystone structure with heartfelt abandon.
Along with some standard Keystone bombast, there is a great deal of subtlety to the performances of both Arbuckle and Normand. Fatty attempting to eat Mabel’s cooking (the rolls she baked are so hard, they break the plates when placed on them) is one of the film’s subtle comic highlights. Fatty tries in vain to cut a roll with a knife, breaks it with his hands using all his might, starts to eat it in order to please Mabel, and spits it out as she glances away. It is all performed quite deftly, mostly in a two-shot closeup with Fatty conveying his feelings with the subtlest of expression.
This is one of many films that show how brilliant Mabel Normand was as an actress. She exhibits all manner of playfulness, coyness, puzzlement, and apprehension throughout the proceedings. Her love for Fatty is genuine, as the two playfully romp on the farm before getting married and settling into their honeymoon cottage. The love is increased once in the cottage, with her soft expressions and fluttering eyelashes. Finally, when the water starts filling their cottage, Mabel jitters and jumps to avoid trouble, splashing into the water, and climbing onto the large, strong Fatty’s frame. Normand was the darling of the Keystone studios, and one of cinema’s earliest female directors. She had a thorough sense of comedy as well as a creative understanding of the filmmaking process, making her work especially important to the studio’s history and development.
Al St. John is the anchor to the narrative. It is he who creates the conflict. He is the villain who rubs his hands together and concocts nefarious schemes in response to losing the woman with whom he is smitten. His comic performance enhances each scene in which he appears.
Arbuckle’s direction shows that his vision extended far beyond the usual parameters for a Keystone comedy. While the narrative structure is typical for the studio, Arbuckle’s presentation offers the sort of visual beauty found in only the most ambitious projects. Medium shots, long shots, and close-ups are used with creative understanding as Arbuckle searches for the most effective way to frame each scene. Crosscutting from indoor to outdoor shots gives more scope to the proceedings. Arbuckle makes careful use of lighting, shadows, and camera angles to further enhance the visual presentation. Some night scenes are initially bathed in darkness, illuminated only by candlelight. His establishing shots of everything from a sunrise to a backlit visual of a shadow-like Fatty out fishing, with Luke the dog perched on a nearby rock, show a remarkable understanding of what the French call mise-en-scene. Perhaps the most iconic shot is the one of the next morning, after the storm, with the cottage out to see. After the sunrise is shown, the next frame shows Mabel and Fatty floating in their beds in a room of waist-deep water. The opening and closing of the film should also be mentioned, Arbuckle showing close-ups of him and Mabel each framed by a white heart shape. A cupid shoots an arrow and their hearts intertwine. When they are shown occupying one heart, Al is shown in another, crying, as the heart around him shatters. There is a discernible artistry to Arbuckle’s choices as a director, and it is no surprise that he moved on to bigger budgets and greater creative control at another studio before this year was up.
“Fatty and Mabel Adrift” is a consistently brilliant silent comedy, that is not only very funny, but beautifully performed and directed. It is one of many real highlights on the Mack Sennett Collection. For more about Sennett’s films, check out this book.