“Life of the Party”
Directed by Joseph Henabery. Starring Roscoe Arbuckle, Winifred Greenwood, Roscoe Karns, Julia Faye, Fran Campeau, Allen Connor, Fred Starr, Ben Lewis, Viora Daniel. Released November 21, 1920. Paramount Pictures.
Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle is one of the funniest and most tragic figures in screen comedy. A master comedian and visionary director, Arbuckle first scored at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studios, and later for his own Comique unit for Joseph Schenck at Paramount. His popularity was such that he graduated to feature films, leaving his unit to co-star Buster Keaton, who took his own brilliant cinematic journey from there.
After making his feature debut playing a quiet comic character in a western, Arbuckle was then given the leading role in a comedy. “Life of the Party” is far more situational and not at all slapstick film, but it gives us a good idea of how Arbuckle was branching out as an actor.
Arbuckle is cast Algernon Leary, as a successful businessman whose support of the milk lobby angers a group of unscrupulous local politicians. In order to more fully combat their nefarious efforts, Leary choses to run for Mayor against their man. His secretary, Millie, believes in him and works with him on his campaign. His opposition plans to frame him and destroy his image.
“Life of the Party” is a consistently brilliant comedy that is not only amusing throughout, but spotlights Arbuckle’s ability to use screen comedy training effectively in a much different context. Arbuckle once again relies on nuance to enhance his performance. His reactions, and his mannerisms, are the same as the ones he had used in his slapstick short comedies, only this time they are artfully subdued as befits the current context.
In one scene, Leary joins a pajama party where the invitees are all to wear children’s pajamas and cavort in a childlike manner. This scene is already interesting in how it depicts the sort of outrageous and uninhibited activities of the forthcoming Roaring Twenties. Dressed hilariously in boy’s rompers, Leary tries to crawl through a ring-around-the-rosy circle and get to the center. He can’t find an opening, so he just crawls through, knocking the partiers down. But this sort of slapstick is used to accent scenes, not control them.
Arbuckle’s talent for nuance is most effective as the party ends when he returns to his chauffeured car to be taken home. The chauffeur has spent the waiting time drinking from a concealed flask of liquor (the Volstead act had just passed the previous year) and, despite his attempt, is too drunk to drive Leary home. So, Leary covers his embarrassing rompers with his overcoat, realizing his political campaign would be harmed if he were seen dressed in such a ridiculous manner, and tries to make it on foot. He is mugged, the crook steals his overcoat, and so Leary is forced to shiver his way through the snowy streets. Desperate, he tries to take the coat from another man, but a cop catches him. He eludes the cop, and seeks refuge in an apartment building.
This is the best sequence in the film, and most effectively reveals how well Arbuckle can use his old slapstick training in a subtler context. Unlike the short comedies that were often improvised during filming, here have a story, a conflict, and established characters that have capably structured a solid feature film from a major studio. Arbuckle must use his gifts as a comic actor based on the script. As Leary realizes he must walk home, he hurriedly runs to a streetcar but cannot catch it. Then the chauffeur sobers up enough to start the car and drive off. Leary runs back to the car, but misses it as well. Wandering the streets, Arbuckle keeps his overcoat tightly over his silly manner of dress not only to conceal it, but also to protect him from the frigid weather. When he is mugged, the mugger opens his coat to search him and laughs uproariously at what he is wearing. Leary laughs too, and tries to walk away, but the crook stops laughing and shoves the gun deeper into his captive’s ribs. Since Leary has no money, he takes the coat. The scene where Leary sees the laughter as a possible distraction to get away is a beautiful piece of subtle nuance from Arbuckle; laughing along and then figuring the merriment has been effectively distracted from the robbery
Leary freezes in his rompers as he continues trying to make his way home on foot. His botched attempt to steal another’s overcoat and eventual refuge in an apartment while fleeing the cops is structured within the narrative so that it allows him to discover his rival in the vamp’s apartment. But Arbuckle uses the comedy of embarrassment, at which he is so adept; to instead sneak into an apartment while evading cops, where a woman is in bed and believes Leary is her husband arriving home. Leary tries to sneak back out, but sees the husband coming up the hall, so he grabs a seat cover, puts it over himself, and crouches down, posing as a chair. When he finally makes his way out of their room, he has to conceal himself the same way in the hallway to avoid cops. These comic sequences are fascinating in how they present Arbuckle transitioning from the more bombastic physical humor presented in his short films, to the subtler and more situational physical comedy in the more prestigious feature film. Arbuckle performs them brilliantly.
Leary triumphs when his running about from room to room attempting to elude police causes him to discover his opponent in a room with a vamp. She had originally been hired to be found in Leary’s home, but he never came home due to the chauffeur debacle. His opponent leaves the race to avoid shame, and Leary ends up winning. At the end of the movie, Leary has won the political race, has won Millie, but has caught a cold from cavorting in the wintery weather clad only in children’s rompers. When he attempts to kiss Millie in triumph, all he can do is sneeze. Arbuckle’s character is likeable; the film presents him in several hilarious situations that he performs brilliantly, he gratifyingly triumphs in the end, and the film closes on a gag. It is the perfect feature length comedy debut, after Arbuckle’s appearance in the western film. Moviegoers were pleased, and it looked, at this point, like Roscoe Arbuckle was going to have a wonderful career in feature films and only increase his already formidable Hollywood stardom.
A 1921 Labor Day scandal that destroyed Arbuckle’s career has made his feature-length films maddeningly elusive. One had to rely on various written accounts, many of which were inaccurate. So many accounts state that these films were not slapstick, and therefore were pleasant viewing but not as demonstratively funny as his earlier short comedies. In fact, “The Life of the Party” is as uproariously funny as anything Arbuckle had done. Perhaps had it been accessible over time, it might have already enjoyed the same reputation as Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” or Buster Keaton’s “The General,” two films that also have serious stories underlying excellent comedy. It only makes us wish to see more of Arbuckle’s elusive feature films.
The print of “Life of the Party” screened for this review was broadcast on Turner Classic Movies. Paul E. Gierucki and Brittany Jane Valente of CineMuseum carefully restored the film with the help of other archivists. “Life of the Party” was presented in a beautiful print that is planned for an upcoming DVD release