In 1920, comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle made a movie that was banned in the United States, and wasn’t shown to an American audience until 1981.
It wasn’t the subject matter of the movie that brought about the ban. It was Arbuckle’s unfortunate circumstance; he was arrested for murder shortly after filming wrapped. Because of the arrest, all of Arbuckle’s films were banned by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA).
The case went to trial three times without a conviction. Arbuckle himself was spared, but his career was not. The MPPDA ban and unfavourable popular opinion meant he was never able to star in a film again.
(We’re not covering the details of the murder, and all that went with it, but you can read more about it here. It is juicy stuff.)
This last movie Arbuckle starred in was Leap Year, a farce about a well-meaning and wealthy young man who keeps giving women the impression he wants to marry them.
We can guess what you’re thinking: Arbuckle does not have the traditional leading-man looks or physique. But as you watch the film, you see he is funny and charming, and you can understand why so many women fall for him.
The one woman, though, who has stolen Arbuckle’s heart is Mary Thurman, a nurse who cared for Arbuckle’s ailing uncle and was fired by said uncle because he didn’t like her haircut.
Arbuckle truly is the star here, and he makes acting look effortless. He is surprisingly agile and appears to be very strong. In one scene, he is golfing – with a club that resembles a hockey stick – and, when he is finished, he shoves his giant clubs and his junior caddy in his golf bag, and carries them with one hand as he strides off the course.
Everything about Leap Year is cheeky. The title cards include playful commentary and very witty lines. There are, of course, lots of great sight gags. For example, several of Arbuckle’s would-be fiancés move into his large house, each unaware of the others’ presence; these poor women keep entering rooms just as another is exiting. This is a premise we have seen many times in movies, but it would still be fresh material in the early 1920s.
Leap Year is so much fun, you’ll forget that you’re watching a silent picture. It pokes fun at infatuation, misplaced loyalties and the way many of us behave in a relationship.
It’s a film that everyone can enjoy after an unnecessary 60-year absence.
Leap Year: starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mary Thurman. Directed by James Cruze. Written by Walter Woods (adaptation) and Sarah Y. Mason (story). Paramount Pictures, 1921, B&W, 60 mins.