Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Dream Lobsters

He Did and He Didn't (1916) is a dark little film directed by and starring Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and the fabulous Miss Mabel Normand. Films like this draw me to the more grotesque comedies of the silent era, representing, as they seem to do, a sub-genre fraught with unconscious dream symbolism and unspeakable violence (Keaton's Convict 13 is another).

He Did and He Didn't showcases Arbuckle the director at his best. He was less a slapstick/physical comedy genius (though he can gracefully wiggle his butt to great comic effect) and more of a director who made excellent use of his sets, framing and staging the action beautifully. In addition to really working the mise-en-scene, he continuously elicits some of Mabel's best performances, showcasing her cuteness to beat the band.

The plot unfolds thusly: Fatty, a prosperous physician, is married to pretty Mabel. One night, Mabel's old school-friend Jack comes to dinner. Fatty becomes consumed with jealousy as Jack and Mabel flirt and reminisce. Fatty becomes frustrated:

After a rich lobster dinner, Fatty and Jack both have dark and violent dreams about Mabel, sex, strangulation and gunplay. They awake simultaneously and run to Mabel's room, where she is fast asleep safe and sound. Jack retreats to bed while Fatty creeps into Mabel's room and closes the door, after flashing a devilish grin at the audience.

Considered unusual comedy fare then as now, I'm sure, there's something uniquely disturbing about the imagery of this film (in addition to the obviously disturbing nature of the violent sequences that are played for uncomfortable laughs, such as the scene where Fatty physically abuses his butler, or menaces Mabel, or, well, strangles Mabel). The version I watched also has multi-hued toning (alternating, mostly, between twilight purple and mustard yellow) which adds to the overall disorienting effect. And yet, it's completely marvelous, and I enjoyed it a lot more than the usual Keystone romps-in-a-park. There are some great moments where one absolutely has to appreciate Arbuckle's use of the medium, such as a dissolve in which the two lobsters the men ate for dinner are super-imposed over them as they wake from their nightmares and discover the cause.

Why is it that Fatty is much funnier strangling people and grinning evilly than he is falling into ponds? Perhaps I don't want to answer that. In any case, it's definitely one of the more memorable Keystones, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who likes their slapstick comedy rough, and indeed, anyone interested in some of the better uses of the medium in early comedy. Really -- the image of the dream lobsters is quite indelible.

5 comments:

Ed said...

Oh Spinster Aunt, have you seen "Carefree"? Someone should write a book on the secret history of how food affects dreams....

http://www.villagevoice.com/books/0416,park,52826,10.html

Spinster Aunt said...

How's this for a post or a book:
"Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend" (both the comic strip and the Edwin S. Porter movie from 1906, which was based on the comic strip) + Cornell Woolrich's "You Bet Your Life" + "Carefree" + John Kendrick Bangs's "The Dreamers" + an excerpt from L.M. Montgomery's "The Story Girl" (in which little kids re-create "The Dreamers" with disastrous/hilarious results)?
A book with recipes and illustrations!

Ed said...

Let's do it!

Campaspe said...

What an absolutely fascinating-sounding movie, especially considering the fate of poor Fatty -- and Mabel too. I have only seen him in clips and in those he was always a rather lovable fellow.

Spinster Aunt said...

Ha, ha, Ed, you're on sucka!