by Silent Film Quarterly contributor Lewis Walker
In 1920 Roscoe Arbuckle made his first feature film for Paramount. Making the move from two-reel comedies to feature length pictures preceded any of his contemporaries—Chaplin and Lloyd did it in 1921 and Keaton in 1923—but for Roscoe this was more than elongating his twenty odd minute films. He also made the switch from comedy to drama, and in particular the western. Cinemuseum has recently released Arbuckle’s The Round-Up on Blu-ray for the first time ever, and hopefully offers the start of a re-evaluation of Roscoe’s career.
The film tells the story of “Slim” Hooper (Arbuckle), who is the sheriff of a small town which has recently lost one of its residents, Dick Lane (Irving Cummings). Lane is said to be murdered by Indians by “half breed” Buck McKee (Wallace Beery), who actually believes he killed Dick but is trying to cover his tracks. On hearing this news Dick’s fiancé Echo (Mabel Julienne Scott) starts afresh with Jack Payson (Tom Forman), but when Dick returns it falls on Hooper to solve the mystery and understand what is going on.
As I mentioned before this is not a comedy, and thankfully I was prepared going in and was genuinely excited to see Roscoe in a more dramatic role (having only seen him as a pie-throwing, cross-dressing big man who lets us, the audience, in on the joke). The dramatic element of the film did not disappoint, and unsurprisingly the best parts of the film were when Roscoe was on screen (which wasn’t nearly enough). In one particular scene, when Echo learns about the supposed death of her fiancé, Roscoe’s acting is very touching and he reaches out for her hand to act as a support. From this one scene alone I knew that Arbuckle could act dramatically, and it really is interesting to watch.
I was expecting that, as the first feature-length film for an incredibly popular comedian, he would be the main character—but in reality he plays a supporting player to the dramatic elements of the story. It seems that they had trouble fitting Roscoe into the story at all, and in parts it appears as if he had been inserted just for the sake of it. The rest of the story is entraining enough, and on a second viewing I enjoyed it much more (as I wasn’t waiting for Roscoe to enter stage left and take over). The supporting cast are all very entertaining and Beery plays the villain extremely well—again I just wished he had more to do.
The plot was at times jumbled and I feel like an executive decision was made to focus on the love story instead of the classic sheriff-versus-outsider that we have seen many times (which might have been a more entertaining direction for the film to head in). This isn’t to say that the love story is boring, as it isn’t, and while it is entertaining it leaves little for the characters on the outside to do.
However, the actors play everything wonderfully, and I could not point to a weak link within the cast. Each character seemed well rounded, even if some motivations were a little wayward. Running at just 70 minutes it zips past and never gets boring or repetitive; to be honest I could have taken another 10 or 20 minutes with Beery or Roscoe to better understand them as characters. The ending, however, is a bit too crazy, and the resolutions for some of the characters are questionable.
The restoration itself is phenomenal; it looks pristine and the tints used are wonderful and sparse. The soundtrack composed by Donald Sosin is perfect for the film, adding depth and character. The presentation in general by Cinemuseum is fantastic, and the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack comes with a booklet with some promotional art and specs for the release. Also included are two restored Arbuckle shorts and a commentary by Richard M. Roberts, which is slightly too informal for my liking but adds some background on the film and the actors.
While the film is not exactly the greatest of cinematic masterpieces, it is certainly worth the purchase—both for the hard work shown by the people at Cinemuseum, and for Arbuckle proving that he was no longer simply “Fatty,” but instead Roscoe Arbuckle.
To purchase The Round-Up, visit Cinemuseum’s website here.