Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand are newlyweds with a bungalow by the sea… Only to find themselves with a bungalow IN the sea. Despite the slapstick hijinks, this is a sweet celebration of matrimonial love.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.
With a foot planted in both the slapstick and marital comedy genres, Fatty and Mabel Adrift is one of the most popular Keystone shorts. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand teamed up once again to portray newlyweds who find their cozy little honeymoon cottage lost at sea.
This may seem odd coming from a devotee of silent film, but I am not a huge fan of pure slapstick. I can only take so many kicks in the rear end and frenetic car chases before I am bored stiff and longing for Lubitsch. That’s not to say I dislike physical comedy, I think the vindictive mass pantsing in You’re Darn Tootin’ is one of the funniest things ever committed to film. I just need a bit of something else in between dumping buckets of milk on people.
Critically acclaimed when it was first released and never really losing popularity since then, Fatty and Mabel Adrift proved to be one of the classic Keystone productions with some of that “something else.” Yes, one of the villains eats dynamite and washes it down with gasoline but there are also funny sequences with a purloined peach, a spoiled calf and, most importantly, a sweet romance between the leads.
The plot is simple enough: Boy loves girl, boy marries girl, jealous rival vows revenge. Normand and Arbuckle play the affectionate pair while Al St. John is on hand as the rival. However, his awful personality dooms his chances as both Mabel and her parents can’t stand him. Roscoe wins Mabel’s hand and her parents present them with a oceanfront cottage as a wedding gift. (The idea that a working class couple could buy beach property on a whim is surely the most jarring aspect of this film for modern viewers.)
The newlyweds are very happy, as is Luke the dog, and while Roscoe does make fun of Mabel’s bride’s biscuits, he apologizes and all is well. (These are, of course, biscuits in the American sense of soft quick breads made with baking powder. Inexperienced cooks tend to overmix them, resulting in biscuits that are tough. I experimented with a vintage biscuit recipe in an attempt to recreate Mabel’s biscuits and you can read about it here.)
Of course, St. John is still on the prowl and with the help of some hired muscle, he decides that he will tip the happy couple right into the ocean. That will teach her not to marry him!
Fatty and Mabel Adrift was billed as a special production due to its unusually generous length. There was an inherent risk in making the jump between comedy shorts and longer fare. Gags that land like clockwork in two reels can wear out their welcome at feature length and it takes smarts and a sharp comedic instinct to assure a successful transition.
At three reels, Fatty and Mabel Adrift in an in-betweener, not quite a short and not really a feature. However, it proves that Arbuckle was more than capable of handling longer material. The film uses its additional runtime to deepen the romance and warm affection between the leads, giving them time to giggle and flirt, which is helped along by Arbuckle and Normand’s natural chemistry rooted in their real-life friendship. Rather than slowing down the action, it deepens the story and makes the audience all the more ready to root for those crazy kids.
Arbuckle’s blend of whimsy and more realistic sequences was very much in keeping with the tastes of the time. Marshall Neilan won plaudits when he employed a similar mixture in classics like Daddy Long Legs and Stella Maris, two of Mary Pickford’s best films. The lyrical shots of Arbuckle fishing and St. John ranting before the shimmering sea are similarly typical of quality 1910s productions and would easily have been at home in a Maurice Tourneur picture.
The biggest draw, though, is the stars. You can see how far the Arbuckle-Normand team had come by comparing two pictures released almost exactly one year before, Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition and Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life. The San Diego picture was designed to showcase the elaborate exposition construction and Normand and Arbuckle playact as a battling couple almost torn apart by the husband’s wandering eye. Simple Life has many surface similarities to Fatty and Mabel Adrift (a farm setting, Al St. John as the obnoxious rival suitor) but follows the more traditional melodrama pattern complete with “Mortgage or matrimony!” threat.
While Fatty and Mabel Adrift still uses farcical interpretations of melodrama tropes, it centers on the Who rather than the What. The romance between Normand and Arbuckle is what glues everything together, not chases, the rescue at sea or the machinations of Al St. John. This is illustrated by the film being bookended by shots of Arbuckle and Normand in a heart-shaped frame.
Further, the story heads in more unexpected directions. Rather than being opposed to the marriage with Arbuckle, Normand’s parents are delighted and purchase the bungalow as a wedding present. They later lead the race to the rescue when their daughter and son-in-law are threatened with drowning. Al St. John’s characterization is extremely broad, as was expected in slapstick villains, but he is not defeated by the heroes but by his own greediness. His obnoxious grabby ways, showcased at the start of the film, cause his villainous confederates to turn on him later.
Fatty and Mabel Adrift is one of those “beloved for a reason” silent classics. It’s sweet, it’s funny, it showcases its stars to perfection and its sophisticated visual flourishes neatly demonstrate Arbuckle’s skills as a director. Definitely a must-see.
Where can I see it?
Widely available but if you want to see it in HD, you’ll want the Mack Sennett Collection Vol. 1 from Flicker Alley. It was also included in the classic Slapstick Encyclopedia DVD box set. If you wanted to know more about Arbuckle’s career, Steve Massa’s new book Rediscovering Roscoe is a really excellent film-by-film study.
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