Vacationing couple Arbuckle and Normand take a jaunt down to San Diego for some sightseeing. After renting electric-powered couches, the pair zip around the expo but, would you believe it, chaos ensues.
This is my contribution to the Summer Movie Blogathon hosted by Blog of the Darned. Be sure to read the other posts!
While the Keystone comedy brand was one of the biggest of the 1910s, its business model remained firmly rooted in the previous decade. The star system was on the rise but Mack Sennett let some of the biggest names in comedy (most notably Charlie Chaplin) slip through his fingers. Why pay more in salaries and budgets? More comedians were always clamoring up the ranks.
Keeping salaries sensible was always a big concern for producers but this was generally balanced with the knowledge that big names could bring in big returns. With all the beloved figures of the early days gone (Mabel Normand, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Chester Conklin, Mack Swain, just to name a few) Sennett came to rely on swimsuits and auto accidents. There were successes, future superstars cycled through the studio and there was always good old Ben Turpin but Sennett just wasn’t one to make a body feel at home. To be frank, I find much of his later silent output to be unwatchable.
Sennett’s other quirk (a pretty common one) was his love for shipping his performers off to events, having them invent some kind of comedic situation against a real backdrop and making a film out of it. He famously constructed A Muddy Romance out of a real lake draining and Charlie Chaplin’s first (or not, it’s complicated) appearance as the Tramp was against the backdrop of the Kid Auto Races at Venice.
Normand and Arbuckle had recently been teamed up and audiences loved his goofy antics and her tomboyish charm. Sennett liked the handsome box office returns that the pair generated, especially welcome after Chaplin jumped ship for Essanay and continued to be a comedy phenomenon.
Sennett took his popular team and sent them off to San Diego, where the Panama-California Exposition celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal was about to open. The exposition was housed in a set of Spanish-style buildings in Balboa Park and many of them still stand.
Normand and Arbuckle play a pair of tourists taking in the sights. Unfortunately, the husband’s roving eye proves to be a problem and he pursues a “petite wife” (Minta Durfee, Arbuckle’s real-life wife and Normand’s good friend) all around the park in an Electriquette. (Basically, a wicker push chair with an electric motor installed.) Normand discovers her husband missing and finds him taking in a (gasp!) hula dancing show. It all ends with cops, a jealous husband, a Chaplin impersonator, a fall into a fountain and a tearful Arbuckle promising to behave.
Okay, so the story isn’t exactly strong. The biggest thing this picture is missing is a real villain. Arbuckle is obliged to perform double duty and I prefer him to be mischievous but more on the harmless side. Without a more villainous character for contrast, his antics come off as obnoxious and I have no idea why Normand would take him back at the end. A Ford Sterling or Al St. John would have been most welcome.
Normand fares better because her character is more sympathetic. She is pursued by her own Electriquette-driving masher and one rather gets the impression that this is not the first time her husband has strayed. She’s a flirty tomboy, exactly the sort of role she was made to play, and it’s enjoyable to watch her dash around Balboa Park in pursuit of her misbehaving spouse.
Balboa Park proved to be a popular location for films. Director Ruth Ann Baldwin, who helped market the exposition, used the arboretum as a backdrop for her dramedy ’49-’17. If you face the arboretum and then turn around 180 degrees, you will see the background for Rosita, the infamous Mary Pickford/Ernst Lubitsch collaboration set in Spain. (She hated the thing and wanted it gone but, fortunately, there is now a restoration underway.)
By the way, as of this writing, the park is also renting out reproduction Electriquettes. It’s pricey and touristy but who wouldn’t want a chance to play Mabel Normand for an afternoon? I had a total blast zipping around after a brief learning curve that had me driving not unlike Captain Kirk in A Piece of the Action. I highly recommend the activity to all silent movie fans who make it to San Diego. (The original Electriquettes were pretty spendy themselves. One dollar per hour, which is a little less than $25 in modern money.)
Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition was directed by Arbuckle but I can’t describe it as his finest hour. Some of the mugging is funny but it becomes a bit much near the end of the short and the editing lacks the smoothness that is so desirable in a fast-paced comedy. Basically, the entire film relies on chases and socks to the jaw and little else. The bones of a “sauce for the goose” marital comedy along the lines of The Merry Jail are present but the breakneck filming pace didn’t allow for it to be developed. (We must remember that this picture was one of four Fatty & Mabel comedies that were released in January of 1915.)
Sennett did make some effort to keep Arbuckle and offered him more creative control at a slower pace as an incentive for staying. One only has to view Fatty and Mabel Adrift to see that the gamble paid off. Adrift has a sweetness that San Diego Exposition lacks and the addition of Al St. John’s villain rebalances the plot and puts us in Arbuckle’s corner.
Both Arbuckle and Normand soon moved on to greener pastures and the real shame of it is that it broke up a charming screen team. While Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition is broad and simplistic, the film is saved by their chemistry and obvious affection for one another. Of course, Normand did well for herself in Goldwyn features and Arbuckle teamed with St. John and some stage acrobat named Buster Keaton but we can’t help but wonder what fun Normand would have had in that mix.
This film is an accidental time capsule and is quite enjoyable on those terms. It’s not the perfect showcase for the Normand Arbuckle team but their personalities do come through. Worth the view for fans.
To celebrate the friendship of Durfee, Arbuckle and Normand, friend of the site Marie Roget invented a delicious sandwich called the D.A.N. and she kindly granted permission to republish it for this review. Pack a couple of these in your hamper and you’ll be able to tramp all over the 1,000-plus acres of Balboa Park without skipping a beat!
Where can I see it?
Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition was released as part of the four-disc Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle box set. It features a wonderful theater organ score by Philip C. Carli, one of my favorite accompanists.
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