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A Comedy Pioneer's Vindication

Extraordinary work of Fatty Arbuckle was clouded by scandal.

April 12, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Unfortunately, silent film clown extraordinaire Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle is best known for the the scandal that destroyed his career.

In 1921, Arbuckle was accused of causing the death of a young actress, Virginia Rappe, at a raucous party. Though he was acquitted of all charges after a third trial, Arbuckle was still considered guilty in the eyes of the tabloid press and his former adoring fans. Blacklisted from appearing on screen, he continued directing comedies under the name of William Goodrich but didn't return to acting until 1932, when he appeared in a series of short comedies for Warner Bros. He had been signed to do a feature when he died in his sleep in 1933 at the age of 46.

A new two-volume set from Kino on Video, "Arbuckle & Keaton," gives the rotund comic his just due in film history. It features 10 of the 14 films Arbuckle starred in and directed between 1917 and 1920 for Paramount's Comique under the auspices of producer Joseph Schenck. Joining Arbuckle in these comedies were a very young Buster Keaton and Arbuckle's lanky nephew, Al St. John.

Each volume can be purchased separately ($25 on VHS; $30 on DVD).

The first volume features "The Bell Boy," "The Butcher Boy" (which marks Keaton's film debut), "Out West," "Moonshine" and "Hayseed." The second volume consists of "Back Stage," "Goodnight Nurse!," "Coney Island," "The Roughhouse" and "The Garage."

Film historian and Arbuckle expert David Pearson says it's about time for Arbuckle's renaissance: "Arbuckle is considered one of the great pioneers in comedy. He's really been erased in the history books because of all the scandals."

Keaton learned everything about filmmaking from Arbuckle, says Pearson. "Keaton is considered to be the comedy surrealist--a contemporary of Dali or Bunuel. In that context, Arbuckle is the comedy dadaist. He is doing wild and crazy things. Keaton is also doing wild and crazy things, but they were deliberate, with purpose."

Bret Wood, the producer of the set, digitally mastered the shorts from 35-millimeter fine-grain masters, though in the case of "Moonshine," Wood only was able to find 16-millimeter materials. The comedies also are at the correct projection speed--18 frames per second--are color-tinted and have new inter-titles (the cards with dialogue and plot descriptions). The Alloy Orchestra has composed clever, peppy new music.

The films, says Wood, are still very funny because the 300-pound Arbuckle "very much plays up his cuteness in spite of his size. In these films, he was almost an adolescent boy--very playful and charming."

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Cuba Gooding Jr. gives a strong performance as Carl Brashear, the first African American master Navy diver, in the drama "Men of Honor," which debuts on DVD in a special edition (Fox, $30). Robert De Niro also stars in the film in a fictional role as Brashear's racist trainer who eventually becomes the young diver's friend.

The digital edition includes the wide-screen edition of the inspiring story, a passable HBO "First Look" featurette and an interesting mini-documentary, which features an interview with the real Brashear, who overcame blatant prejudice and the loss of a leg in a naval accident.

The disc also includes 11 deleted scenes with commentary from director George Tillman Jr. The best of the excised sequences is the moving alternate ending, which finds De Niro's character dying while attempting to save a life. Tillman, Gooding, screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith and producer Robert Teitel offer intelligent commentary.

*

"Bounce" is a moderately entertaining romantic drama that is definitely given a bounce by the chemistry of its stars, Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow. But does this film, written and directed by Don Roos ("The Opposite of Sex"), really deserve a two-set DVD (Miramax, $30)? Of course not.

But that being said, a lot of the extras are fun. The first disc includes a wide-screen edition of the drama plus commentary from Roos. The second disc features a music video, deleted scenes with commentary from Roos and a funny gag reel that features Paltrow cracking up during her love scenes with her real-life on-again-off-again beau, Affleck. The cute "Ben and Gwyneth Go Behind-the-Scenes" finds the two stars interviewing everyone on the set from Roos to the sound mixer.

Rounding out the second disc is commentary from Roos, Paltrow and Affleck on selected scenes from the movie. Though occasionally the trio gets serious, most of the time they are goofing around.

*

Karyn Kusama's gritty and touching "Girlfight" (Columbia TriStar, $25) won the Grand Jury Prize (tying with "You Can Count on Me") and Directors Award last year at the Sundance Film Festival. Michelle Rodriguez received a lot of kudos for her performance in this unique drama as an angry high school student who, because of her violent tendencies, decides to train as a boxer.

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