He Did and He Didn’t (1916)
A lot has been made of this “dark” comedy by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, which definitely has a more sophisticated tone than most of the work he did for Keystone Studios. However, it does manage to remain silly and even resort to slapstick for laughs, even as it plumbs the depths of spousal jealousy in a far more serious way than the usual “park comedy.”
In this movie, Fatty and Mabel Normand are once again a couple, as they were often in the teens. This time, however, they are wealthy enough to have servants, and we are introduced to them as they struggle into their evening clothes. Fatty has a good deal of trouble with his collar and tie, and Mabel needs help with her zipper. Despite what has been written about the somber tone of the movie, this sequence establishes it as a comedy, with people confronted by day-to-day problems, but making it worse by getting more frustrated as they go. Next, we meet Jack (William Jefferson), who apparently grew up with Mabel. He produces a picture from “when they were sweethearts” – apparently when Mabel was in her tweens. Fatty is obviously uncomfortable with the newcomer, and he becomes so disturbed that he rips the photograph when Jack is not present. He then realizes what he’s done and apologizes to Mabel, but we know the issue is far from settled.
As it happens, a pair of burglars (Al St. John and Joe Bordeaux) are casing the place for potential robbery. Joe even comes in and goes through the motions of having a checkup, in order to get a chance to see where the safe is kept. Fatty catches him snooping and throws him out. Then it’s time for dinner. The dinner consists of lobster, and an Intertitle reminds us that eating bad lobster may have unfortunate effects, while the camera shows Fatty becoming increasingly concerned about Jack and Mabel. The thieves make a phone call to the house, calling Fatty across town for a housecall, believing that will leave the loot undefended. He is suspicious, and not at all eager to leave his wife alone with Jack, but nevertheless goes. Bordeaux and St. John enter the house unobserved. Now the action follows Jack, who is no dummy, and plans to stay away from Mabel while Fatty is away to keep the peace. To his surprise, Mabel comes to him in her nightclothes, and leans in close, seeming to intend to initiate romance. She whispers in his ear that there’s someone in her room, and he goes to investigate, finding a robber. Now the classic slapstick Keystone chase begins in earnest, with St. John showing off his athletic talents and his rubbery lanky body to the fullest as Jefferson chases him, firing a revolver wildly around the house. By the time Fatty returns, he has chased the robbers out, dropped his revolver, and tucked an unconscious Mabel in bed. Of course, that last is what Fatty finds on return from a phony address, and he shoots Jack and strangles his wife…
Or does he? We now see Jack and Fatty, waking up each alone in his room, suffering the effects of eating bad lobster.
There’s no denying that the subject matter here is not as light as most slapstick comedies, but I do think a bit too much is sometimes read into that. Possibly Arbuckle wanted to make a dark film, or at least a genuine melodrama, but his bosses at Keystone wouldn’t allow it. The ending obviously undermines the horror of seeing him kill innocent people, but more than that we have considerable high-energy slapstick and deliberate humor. The dinner is the sequence that is “darkest” to me, with the fewest interruptions for laughs, and it displays the competence of Elgin Lessley, who I believe was working with Arbuckle for the first time, in placing strategic shadows to enhance the mood. Another Lessley shot I appreciated was one in which the burglar comes into a dark room, with the only lighting source being the hallway behind him – usually Keystone houses are floodlit throughout. The DVD I watched had two versions, one with color tinting used to heighten the mood, based on the original release instructions. The color also added to the sense of artistry and deliberation of the film. We also see more close-ups in this movie, particularly of the brooding Fatty as he watches his wife with her old friend.
This is interesting stuff, but it winds up being anomalous in a movie that can’t quite decide if it’s dark or light. “Silent Volume” has an interpretation of this film that suggests Fatty was demonstrating the horror of an abusive relationship, but this seems to me to be a very modern interpretation, not something that a comedian would have invented then. If anything, Fatty may be showing his real nature accidentally, not acting, in this movie. In previous cases, what he does here largely came off as cute, and his baby face still undermines the sense of him as a bad guy. It’s important to remember that spouses hitting one another and being controlling is a staple of slapstick, and we’ve seen it between this couple many times. Normally, this doesn’t extend to strangulation, but up to that point the movie only strays slightly off the established patterns of previous shorts. I’m inclined to read it as an experiment that failed, though perhaps your mileage will vary.
Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
Camera: Elgin Lessley
Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, William Jefferson, Joe Bordeaux, Al St. John
Run Time: 20 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music, b&w) or here (with music and tinting).
I totally agree that He Did and He Didn’t isn’t quite as dark as is assumed. It seems like Arbuckle’s experimenting with the possibilities of fusing adult drama with his style of comedy, probably because Keystone wouldn’t let him do straight drama, as you speculated.
According to one historian that’s studied his work for many years, when Arbuckle started starring in those light comedy features around 1920, he actually was excited to do less slapstick and more acting. This short shows signs of his desire to do more than just be a “funny fat man” (as much as he did love slapstick).
Thank you for the comment and your insight. I haven’t really read as much about Arbuckle as I should, but I find him a fascinating comedian. I’ll be interested to watch him develop over the next few years of this project.
I’ll look forwarding to reading what you have to say!
There aren’t a lot of solid books on Arbuckle’s life right now, sadly, but that’s supposed to change soon. I’ve heard through the grapevine that a detailed, impeccably-sourced biography has been in the works for awhile and should be finished in the next year or two!