Tuesday, 15 March 2011

I, Fatty by Jerry Dahl

It's a funny business, celebrity. One minute you're loved around the world by millions of fans who think they know you personally. But if they think you've betrayed them, that love turns to hate pretty quickly.

These are the fictionalised memoirs of Roscoe Arbuckle (never Fatty to his face), one of the very first international superstars of the modern age. A hugely famous film comedian before the twenties - the first star to earn a million pounds a year - he started the careers of people like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. And he invented the throwing of custard pies.

But if you've heard of him know, it's probably about him raping a woman to death with a coke bottle. It's pretty clear he was innocent, and Arbuckle was eventually cleared after three trials. It didn't do his career much good though and he died ten years later a drunk and a junkie (though to be fair he'd been on booze and heroin for quite a while before that.)

This is a fascinating read, and clearly very well researched. I love learning about the early years of filmmaking, and this book shows how seat-of-your-pants it all was. Much of it was just filmed on the street using whatever came to hand. Doing a slapstick routine with a hose while firefighters were actually putting out a blaze may have been step too far, admittedly.

It's very sharp on what it's like to become so famous, and have that fame turn on you. It shows the power of tabloid demonisation. William Randolph Hearst made a fortune from Fatty the Demon, and it's a false image that survives to this day. And it outlines how the nascent Hollywood machine got a scapegoat to placate the moralising mob, and so save the whole industry. Lots here to reflect on in respect to today's celebrity meat grinder.

You should check out Roscoe Arbuckle on youtube - the movies are still funny, and he's surprisingly acrobatic for a big lad. Especially good are the ones he made with Buster Keaton, the only star to publicly support him through it all. A stand up, fall down guy.

Good god, got two more books I've already finished to review and I may also be done with Stone Junction and Freakonomics pretty soon. And I did run out of reading material on holiday and had to read a chick-lit book I found. Comfort Food, by the author of Friday Night Knitting Club. Actually wasn't too bad - got halfway through it, and I kind of want to know who Gus ends up with now.


bryce said...

I think Lindsay Lohan is going to rape herself to death with a coke bottle; but you know... ironically?

bryce said...

PS: I can't wait for your Stone Junction review.

*smiles knowingly*

Joe said...

It would have to be a keg before she'd even feel it.

Stone Junction I'm enjoying, but that sounds suspiciously like a terrible ending lying in wait. Never trust a hippy.