CineMuseum releases first Arbuckle feature

The Round Up”

Directed by George Melford. Starring Roscoe Arbuckle, Wallace Beery, Mabel Julienne Scott, Irving Cummings Tom Forman, Jean Acker, Edward Sutherland, Guy Oliver, Jane Wolf, Fred Huntley, George Kuwa, Lucien Littlefield, Buster Keaton. Released October 10, 1920. A Paramount-Artclass special. Running time: 70 minutes

In one of the most important home video releases this year, CineMuseum offers “The Round Up,” which was the first feature film starring Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle under his new contract.

Arbuckle had been a star of short comedies since the early teens, soon writing and directing his own subjects. While he basically believed that bombastic slapstick was more effective than rigid subtlety, Arbuckle also had a keen understanding of comic nuance; his character was well drawn and resonated with moviegoers. When Arbuckle left short subjects to make more prestigious feature films, he left behind the knockabout comedy that established him. He was first cast in the western film “The Round Up.”

Based on the 1907 Broadway play that had starred the unrelated Macklyn Arbuckle, this is a straight western drama with George Melford’s direction using location scenery to frame the action. On this purely visual level, the film is already comfortably effective. However, if we approach this feature regarding its significance to Roscoe Arbuckle’s filmography, our perspective is somewhat more enhanced.

Being that this was Arbuckle’s first film away from slapstick shorts, audiences curiously attended in large numbers. Rather than be disappointed at seeing a subtler performance within the context of a serious western, moviegoers instead appreciated seeing Arbuckle in a much different role. While other write-ups have alluded to Roscoe playing a dramatic role with comic touches, his character of “Slim” is really a comic role, just not a bombastic one. The nuanced elements that enhanced Arbuckle’s performance in his brilliant series of short comedies are discernible here. There are several mannerisms and reactions that are vintage “Fatty.” That he is able to utilizes these traits in a more subdued character is a testament to his skill and versatility as an actor.

There is a great deal of historical interest in “The Round Up,” Along with being Arbuckle’s first feature after leaving his short comedy unit, it is also the first of many westerns to be shot at the Lone Pine studios. It offers one of the final performances of actress Jane Wolf, who would leave films that same year to join up with occultist Aleister Crowley. It also includes Wallace Beery in a villainous role. Beery, already a screen veteran by this time, would achieve even greater fame in sound films like “The Champ” (1931), “Grand Hotel” (1932) and “Treasure Island” (1934). George Kuwa, the screen’s first Charlie Chan, has a small role. Buster Keaton, who inherited Arbuckle’s short comedy unit as Roscoe moved to features, has an unbilled cameo.

“The Round Up” would likely be a rather average silent western if not for Arbuckle’s performance. He stands out among the cast, but perhaps this is at least partly because, at this point, we are specifically watching it for him. His comic subtlety is fascinating to see, as he comfortably blends into the proceedings while maintaining elements of the screen character he’d developed years earlier. Much as been made of his final line “nobody loves a fat man,” which his character says before the movie fades out at the end. This was in the original play, so it was not written for Roscoe. But since he plays a character who is smitten by women but never seems to connect (while others do easily), he adds a greater poignancy to the line. The more serious aspects of his performance are most effective in scenes where he conveys the realization that the woman he is with will be yet another that leaves him for another man; their relationship never progressing past the friendship level.

From this point in his career, Roscoe Arbuckle continued to explore the possibilities that feature films afforded him. It is unfortunate that we do not have access to many of his subsequent features. But this adds further significance to the fact that we do have “The Round Up,” and it belongs in any collection that intends to be at all comprehensive.

CineMuseum’s DVD and blu ray is a new 4K digital transfer and restoration of the 35mm archival master preserved by Paramount Pictures and the Library of Congress – Packard Campus of Audiovisual Conservation. It includes a score composed and performed by Donald Sosin, audio commentary by film historian Richard Roberts, and a gallery of stills, posters, lobby cards, glass slides, programs and memorabilia. There is also an accompanying booklet designed by David Pearson. Each package contains both a DVD and a blu ray. All of these welcome features enhance, and/or inform our experience.

Along with the feature film, the DVD and blu ray for “The Round Up” also contains two new restorations of the 1913 Arbuckle Keystone films “A Bandit” and “Peeping Pete,” which allows us to see the portent of some of what the more refined actor does in the feature film.

The importance of “The Round Up” to movie history, the aesthetic quality of the film as cinema, the entertainment value of the subject, and the many special features are all important qualities that make this release a must for libraries, research centers, schools and universities, fans of comedy, of silent movies, of film history.

“The Round Up” is available here.

James L. Neibaur