Cast & Crew
Milly Hollister, the secretary for the Better Babies League, consults Judge Voris for advice in her fight against the milk trust, unaware that he is in collusion with the trust. The judge refers Milly to attorney Algernon Leary, whom he regards as an incompetent buffoon. The corpulent attorney is so smitten with Milly that, although impoverished, he tears up her check and accepts the case for nothing. When the case comes to trial under Judge Voris, he makes Leary appear ridiculous and throws him out of court. Angered, Leary denounces Voris, now a mayoral candidate, as a tool of the trust, and with the backing of Milly's organization decides to run for mayor himself. To discredit his opponent, Voris hires a notorious woman named French Kate to compromise Leary. The scandal alienates Milly who announces her betrothal to Voris. After a series of misadventures, Leary is vindicated and wins both Milly and the election.
The Life of the Party
After eight years in Hollywood, Arbuckle was enjoying the peak of his stardom when the scandal occurred. In 1913, he had moved out of burlesque and traveling troupes and into the movies via Mack Sennett's Keystone Studio, a kind of college for slapstick humor on the big screen. At Keystone, he not only developed his comic persona but also learned to direct. A bit player at first, Arbuckle eventually established himself as a bumpkin type, often paired with Mabel Normand. Ironically, the gags were not based around his weight or girth; instead, they showcased his acrobatic agility. He could dive, dart and duck with amazing dexterity and grace, and that became the essence of his star image.
In 1917, Arbuckle established his own production company, Comique, with producer Joseph Schenck. The films were distributed through Famous Players-Lasky, which had just merged with Paramount. While at Comique, Arbuckle had creative control over his work, directing and starring in 14 shorts. He hired two aspiring comics as costars, Buster Keaton and his nephew, Al St. John, and he moved away from Sennett's frenetic slapstick. His comic persona evolved into a mischief-maker who tends to undermine the key events of the narrative, but Arbuckle still relied on his acrobatic skills to be the core of the gags.
While the jokes and gags did not revolve around his weight or girth, his looks and size did have an impact on his persona. Round as a balloon, his face contained an extra- wide mouth, which could break into a sweet grin or a naughty leer. His characters spanned the connotations of those two expressions: He was either an overgrown boy or an adult who indulges in wine, women and song.
Because of the control he had over his work, the Comique shorts represent his creative zenith but when Paramount signed him to a contract in 1919, it was definitely a boon to his career. Adolph Zukor, who was president of Famous Players-Lasky, thought Arbuckle was ready for feature-length films and offered him $2 million. However, the price for this career opportunity was the loss of creative control and an accelerated pace of production. The scripts were taken from stories and plays purchased by the studio with little regard for Arbuckle's star image, and Zukor used an assembly-line approach to produce the features. The comedian was rushed from one film to another; at one point, he was making two films at the same time.
The Life of the Party is representative of Arbuckle's work at Paramount. The feature length warranted a complex narrative with a more developed character than the Fatty persona from his shorts. Instead of playing "Fatty," Arbuckle stars as Algernon Leary, a young lawyer who decides to run for office on the reform ticket. His goal is to break up the local milk trust. A group of society women convince him to join their efforts to bring milk to school children, which requires him to attend their charity ball. All of the guests are asked to dress as children, so Algernon wears a pair of oversized rompers with large buttons on the stomach. At the ball, a photographer snaps a picture of Algernon hugging a girl, which gets him into trouble. A dishonest judge is not only a rival for the girl's affections but is also in league with the milk producers. He sets up Algernon by sending a femme fatale to drag him into a compromising position in order to ruin his reputation, a scene that resonates with a different meaning in light of the Arbuckle scandal.
The narrative was based on a short story by Irvin S. Cobb, an established journalist and author. In the early 1900s, Cobb became the highest paid reporter in America while working for the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper. In 1911, he joined the staff of the Saturday Evening Post, eventually penning 300 short stories and 60 novels. Dozens of his stories were purchased by the studios and turned into films, including several of his Judge Priest stories. Considered a regionalist, the Kentucky-born Cobb specialized in stories that focused on small-town characters and customs, particularly those of the Midwest or Near South. Cobb's name was recognizable enough to be used in the marketing of The Life of the Party. Newspaper ads listed only two names--Fatty Arbuckle and Irvin S. Cobb. Announcements and feature articles about the film never failed to mention it was based on Cobb's story.
Cobb's name may have added prominence to The Life of the Party, but the devotion to story and the detailed characterization interfered with Arbuckle's comic persona. Most notably, his light-footed movements and agile stunts were stifled. Often his character was reduced to verbal confrontations in which he conversed back and forth with another character via intertitles. In one of the film's most notable sequences, Algernon is on his way home from the costume party when he is robbed by a thief. The thief demands he take off his coat, which reveals that Algernon is wearing that ridiculous giant romper. During the two-minute scene, Arbuckle barely moves; he merely stands there with his hands held clumsily in the air. The reveal of the costume is the gag, rather than any of the stunts, leaps, or tumbles that defined Arbuckle's comic style and persona.
Arbuckle made nine feature films for Famous Players-Lasky, or Paramount. Contrary to some sources, seven of them, including The Life of the Party, were released before the scandal. The final two were shelved. Eventually, all of Arbuckle's films were banned from the big screen by Will Hays, who was appointed head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) during the heat of the scandal.
By Susan Doll
Producer: Jesse L. Lasky for Famous Players-Lasky, or Paramount
Director: Joseph Henabery
Assistant Director: Richard Johnson
Screenplay: Walter Woods, based on the story "Life of the Party" by Irvin S. Cobb
Cinematography: Karl Brown
Cast: Algernon Leary (Roscoe Arbuckle), Mrs. Carraway (Winifred Greenwood), Judge Voris (Frank Campeau), Sam Perkins (Roscoe Karns), French Kate (Julia Faye), Jake (Allen Connor), Bolton (Frederick Starr), Clay (Ben Lewis ), Milly Hollister (Viora Daniel)
1920 B&W 5 reels, or about 50 mins.
The Life of the Party
Sources conflict concerning whether the film is five or six reels in length.