Tuesday, February 20, 2018

"Roscoe" vs "Fatty" : A Fan's Thoughts on What's in a Name

Roscoe Arbuckle must be an interesting figure to any serious Keaton fan.

How can one have an informed love of the later without a bit of respect for the former? Assuming that the modern fan does (respect Arbuckle, that is), the question is what to call the guy.

Here is the one who gave our hero his start, who mentored him, who offered him a connection, friendship, a sounding board, a job. Here is a fellow without whom we might not have ever been able to indulge in the cinematic talents of Keaton! Arbuckle is a grand figure in the story of Keaton.

The more I read about Keaton, the more I learn about Arbuckle, and the more I feel the need to talk about him  . . . leading inevitably to the crisis that comes when one must refer to him as something other than a last name or a pronoun.

For me, up till this point, the moniker has always been "Fatty."

How I got to that name was straightforward enough. After discovering Keaton, back in 2012, my interest became insatiable. It wasn't enough to watch Keaton's films; I had to learn about his life including his early work. I had to watch the early shorts. Of course that lead directly to Arbuckle.

When I first encountered the connection, I admit that Arbuckle's name held a certain cache. He was a shadowy figure. I do remember him from my childhood. No, I'm not THAT old! but back in the 70s and 80s, silent films did play on TV and I have vague memories of hearing about him and, of course, the scandal. It wasn't the kind of thing anyone learned in school, but I'm sure it came up through my viewings and readings about early cinema. In fact, I vaguely remember a childhood friend telling me that Arbuckle had killed a girl. In any case, the name "Fatty Arbuckle" existed in my memory banks and probably held more associations for me than the name "Buster Keaton" did when I encountered each a few years ago.

All of this is to say that I didn't really question thinking of Fatty Arbuckle as "Fatty," any more than I questioned thinking of Buster Keaton as "Buster." (Or, I don't know, Curly of Three Stooges fame as "Curly.") It was just what he was called.

When one does stop to question this, of course, there is an obvious distinction - "Fatty" is clearly derogatory in a way the other names aren't.

Now I am not so insensitive to have failed to notice that in 2012, but there was a reason I stuck with the name "Fatty" when I referred to him in my writings. I read somewhere that "Roscoe" is what his friends called him and that "Fatty" was what his fans called him. That was good enough for me. I was going to class myself with the fans (which is what I was). I was not so pretentious to think that Arbuckle was my friend. So I went with "Fatty," but noticed there were others who called him "Roscoe." To me, that felt false - as if these folks were broadcasting an entitlement to a certain level of intimacy with the man. So I stuck with my choice.

But then, time passed. And I learned more.

During this past year, I started to do more reading about Arbuckle as I turned full attention to the Centennial year of Keaton's entrance into film. Because Arbuckle was such an essential player in the Keaton story at that juncture, I explored more and more Arbuckle-based materials. And I now realize  that there's a good reason for modern writers to call him "Roscoe."

Its goes beyond the idea that "friends called him 'Roscoe' and fans called him 'Fatty'" to the important reason why this was.  Arbuckle's friends called him "Roscoe" because he didn't like the nickname "Fatty." According to biographical accounts, Arbuckle didn't choose the nickname; and when people -- fans and the press -- started to call him by it, he at first tried to distance himself from the name. When he was unable to do so, he tolerated it for his career but continued to disdain it.

This alone might have been enough of a reason for me to switch horses and start using Roscoe, but a further consideration weighed even more heavily (pardon the pun). A new research project I'm working on (stay tuned) has given me reason to read a lot of media accounts of Arbuckle's activities in 1917. I have now read dozens of archival newspaper articles about the man, and in doing so have gotten a taste for the condescending way the media treated him, while ostensibly professing great admiration. This was long before the scandal that ended his career, back at a time everyone was charmed by him. By today's standards, newspapers were unfathomably impudent -- freely speculating about how much he weighed, peppering their accounts with reference to his size, speculating about damages he could cause or special equipment he might need. It's rather surreal. And honestly pretty offensive.

I have a newfound appreciation for the way not just the moniker, but the cottage industry of treating his size as an exhibit, must have grated on the man. In honor of that, I will refrain from it's unnecessary further use and call Arbuckle ROSCOE.

There's only so much one blogger can do when a century of history has established this nickname. But I'm ready to do my part.

So sad how much history this man's memory needs to live down!

No comments:

Post a Comment