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Topical Budget 485-2: 'Fatty' Arbuckle (1920)


Main image of Topical Budget 485-2: 'Fatty' Arbuckle (1920)
35mm, black and white, 288 feet
Production CompanyTopical Film Company

American silent comedian Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle visits London.

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On the face of it, this is an unexceptional depiction of a few brief scenes from the visit to London by the renowned American silent comedian Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle (1887-1933) along very similar lines to other examples of Topical Budget celebrity-spotting. In this, he meets a few children, performs a slapstick routine involving multiple hats, and then drives through London in an open-topped car.

However, the release date of 13 December 1920 reveals that this was probably filmed less than a year before the scandal that would wreck his career. On 3 September 1921, he held a party at his hotel suite, and one of the guests, a bit-part actress named Virginia Rappe, died three days later, and Arbuckle was accused of her manslaughter as a by-product of rape.

Three trials followed. The first two resulted in a hung jury, and the third in outright acquittal, but by then Arbuckle's career was effectively over, destroyed by the publicity and being made one of the highest-profile scapegoats for the general concern over debauchery and licentiousness in Hollywood. Although some people, notably his close friend and former screen partner Buster Keaton, gave him pseudonymous work, he never recovered either professionally or personally, and died prematurely in 1933 at the age of just 46.

So when watched with this hindsight, the Topical Budget footage takes on a quite different aspect. Many of Arbuckle's comedies feature him blithely unaware of impending disaster, but the effects in these were intentional. Here, he's shown at the very top of his profession, genuinely oblivious of the devastation to come. The newsreel is supposed to be triumphant, but the ultimate effect is inescapably poignant.

Michael Brooke

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