By Brian Darr
Press Play Contributor
It was on Labor Day weekend in 1921, in the midst of Prohibition, that screen comedian Arbuckle found himself at a party on the 12th floor of the St. Francis Hotel in downtown San Francisco. By the end of the weekend, much alcohol had been consumed, a 30-year-old actress (Rappe) had died, and the rotund 34-year-old star (known to his fans as “Fatty,” a nickname he abhorred in his private life) was charged with manslaughter. His career was instantly in ruins.
Roscoe Arbuckle was a singer, dancer, acrobat and clown who had landed in Hollywood in 1913 and joined Mack Sennet’s Keystone troupe, where he soon rose to great fame playing opposite comedienne Mabel Normand in a very successful string of two-reel short films. Legend has it that fellow Keystoner Charlie Chaplin developed the baggy-clothed attire of his “Little Tramp” character after trying on one of Arbuckle’s plus-sized outfits. Later, working for Joe Schenck, Arbuckle gave the great Buster Keaton his start in pictures, casting and directing him as co-conspirator in a set of comedies beginning with The Butcher Boy (1917).
By the early 1920s, Arbuckle was, with Charlie Chaplin, one of the top two comedy stars in motion pictures. He made the jump to feature-length films with 1920’s The Round-Up, and made several more features for Paramount before his career was cut short. In the wake of scandal, Arbuckle’s films were withdrawn from circulation. Few of the films he made in the first 8 months of 1921 are even known to survive today, some of which never screened commercially in the United States. This is what made a recent screening of Leap Year at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum such a notable event.
Niles nestles against the hills of Fremont, California, 30 miles east of San Francisco and 350 miles north of Los Angeles. Filled with antique shops and humble residences, it’s a town steeped in motion picture history. The first cowboy movie star, G.A. “Bronco Billy” Anderson, and Charlie Chaplin were among those who encamped there to shoot pictures in the mid-1910s, before Hollywood became the go-to site for filmmaking in California.
Now, nearly a hundred years later, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum keeps the past alive with weekly Saturday evening screenings of silent movies backed by live musical accompaniments. It’s one of the few public venues where one can regularly see 16 mm and 35 mm prints of all kinds of American and occasionally European silents. Well-known classics (Theda Bara’s star-making A Fool There Was plays in late October, as well as The Man Who Laughs starring Conrad Veidt, whose character inspired Bob Kane’s design for The Joker) rub elbows with little-seen films with fewer than five IMDB votes (1923’s Let’s Go, featuring legendary stuntman Richard Talmadge, screens October 8th). Special attention is given to short subjects, which precede every feature shown (Arbuckle’s own brilliant two-reeler Fatty and Mabel Adrift plays before a Mary Pickford film on September 24th) and get a monthly showcase of their own. Niles is a grand place to see the silent-era examples of film artistry that continue to influence moviemaking to this day and to discover all-but-forgotten gems.
Leap Year, however, is neither an established classic nor a forgotten film. Rarely screened, it’s remembered as one of the ultimately shelved features Arbuckle completed before his fateful Labor Day. The industry was worried about how seeing their favorite star in a romantic comedy, filled with screwball twists and turns, might affect audiences while details of his scandal, as reported by newspapers, were fresh in mind.
The details reported were damning. Arbuckle was accused of raping Rappe and consequently killing her with his girth. No evidence of rape was found, the charge was reduced from murder to manslaughter, and after two hung juries a third wrote a letter of apology to Arbuckle above and beyond their acquittal. Nonetheless, the daily headlines of the case had already sold huge quantities of newspapers. (Buster Keaton later recalled William Randolph Hearst claiming that the Arbuckle scandal was more lucrative to his newspaper empire than the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.) Arbuckle’s public profile was now entirely entwined in this sordid tragedy, and with Hollywood scrambling to repair its own image by distancing itself from him, Arbuckle’s only subsequent work would be done behind the camera under the pseudonym William Goodrich. It would be decades until books by David Yallop and Andy Edmonds would promote a counter-myth, attempting to rehabilitate Arbuckle’s image by impugning Virginia Rappe’s. I eagerly await the publication of a new book being written by Joan Myers, who has researched Rappe’s own biography and gone back to original court documents that neither Yallop nor Edmonds accessed. Myers promises to get us closer to understanding the Arbuckle scandal than ever before, but even she says that what exactly happened on the 12th floor of the St. Francis Hotel is “something I don’t know and never will.”
Was a comedy masterpiece lost to cinema history when Leap Year was buried in 1921? No, but the film is well worth watching, especially with an audience primed by a masterfully improvised live score by pianist Judith Rosenberg. Directed by James Cruze (who later made The Covered Wagon and the long-lost satire Hollywood for Paramount) and photographed by Karl Brown (whose memoir Adventures with D.W. Griffith is one of the canonical books about the director), Leap Year is well-produced entertainment that begins rather calmly only to turn frantically funny in its final reels. Arbuckle plays Stanley Piper, a wealthy layabout with a nagging stutter who is constantly getting into girl trouble in defiance of his “grouchy, gouty & girl hating” uncle Jeremiah (Lucien Littlefield). At a Catalina Island resort, he tries to stay out of trouble by offering friendly advice to three women he encounters, but it backfires, as each one believes Stanley’s actually proposing to her. Though the laughs in this section of the film are sparse, the Niles audience reacted uproariously to one particular gag dependent on the position of the camera relative to a golf bag.
The three women follow Stanley to his uncle’s mansion, where the old man is being cared for by a nurse (Mary Thurman) with a bobbed haircut that makes her a dead ringer for Colleen Moore or Louise Brooks circa 1928. Stanley’s heart lies with this nurse, and together they devise a scheme for him to scare off his would-be wives, pancaking his face with sickly makeup as he feigns a series of fits. They fail to foresee that these women’s nurturing (or perhaps gold-digging?) instincts might make a stricken heir an even more attractive husband than a well one. By this point in the film, the audience was laughing almost continuously. Arbuckle’s graceful control of his own body is displayed all the better when his character is forced to give a performance layered atop the actor’s own. Stanley’s self-inflicted pratfalls intended to narrow his suitresses prove that Arbuckle was no less agile than Keaton, Chaplin or Harold Lloyd. He may never have found a feature-length film showcase to match the “big three” silent comics at their best, but we can assume this was only because his opportunities ended the same moment Virginia Rappe’s life did.
Brian Darr is a San Francisco native who works at a library but spends much of his free time watching, researching and writing about film. Since 2005 he has published a blog on local repertory and festival screenings, called Hell On Frisco Bay. He has contributed articles to Senses Of Cinema, GreenCine, and Keyframe, and is a regular writer for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the film editor for First Person Magazine. He’s even dabbled in programming 16mm film and video.