Dave Douglas has a soft spot for the abused and forgotten. Couple that with the trumpeter’s passion for innovators and creative mavericks, and perhaps it was inevitable that he was drawn to Fatty Arbuckle, one of the greatest stars of the golden age of silent film. Unfortunately, Arbuckle is mostly remembered today not for his pioneering comedies but for the scandal that destroyed his career in 1921. For Keystone, the latest CD for his now-Internet-only Greanleaf label (greenleafmusic.com), Douglas wrote and recorded scores for several early films by Arbuckle, pieces commissioned by the Paramount Center for the Arts in Peekskill, N.Y., where he premiered the work on Oct. 1.
“Aside from liking the movies, one of the things that encouraged me to do this project was to vindicate Roscoe Arbuckle,” says Douglas, using the comedian’s given name instead of the appellation that the heavy actor disliked. “I think that he really ought to be considered with Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd as one of the masters of the genre. The films I’m doing are from 1915 to ’16-very early, so there’s a sense of technical exploration, where you can see them having fun making the gags and capturing them on film. There’s a guy running out of the right side of the frame and then he runs in the left side, and nobody had really done that. I love that, and it’s the way that I make music, trying to think of something new. Arbuckle’s films are not only fast-paced; he was a brilliant director in terms of getting the comic sense across in an innocent, stealthy, beautiful way. I started temping some of my music to his films, and it seemed to work right away; I was getting all kinds of musical ideas from watching the images.”
It’s hard to understate the injustice done to Arbuckle. The corpulent comedian was looking to celebrate his recent signing of an unprecedented $1-million contract with Paramount and the final wrap on three films when he arrived in San Francisco over Labor Day weekend in 1921. At a party fueled by Prohibition-era hooch, a young woman named Virginia Rappe took ill and soon died. Newspapers, led by William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner, ran with the story, speculating graphically that Arbuckle had crushed her with his weight during a sexual assault or raped her with a foreign object. But after two mistrials, Arbuckle was found not guilty, with the third jury sending him a note of abject apology. By that time, however, his career was in tatters, as the once-beloved star became a symbol of Hollywood decadence and his films were pulled from circulation.
In creating the scores for Arbuckle’s films, Douglas worked with guitarist/producer David Torn, building themes that he then presented to his Keystone band, featuring drummer Gene Lake, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, bassist Brad Jones and DJ Olive on turntables and samples. Jamie Saft plays Wurlitzer organ on the album, but on Keystone gigs Kneebody’s Adam Benjamin fills the keyboard chair. The pieces are beautifully textured, full of odd and unexpected bits of sound. The Keystone package includes a DVD of the film Fatty and Mabel Adrift, set to Douglas’ score, which perfectly captures a meeting of minds, separated by almost a century, that affectionately delight in the absurdity of the human condition.
“They’re narrative films, but there’s also something very experimental in the way that the narrative works,” Douglas says. “You sometimes watch one of these films, and in the end you’re like, ‘What just happened?’ That was really funny, but I have no idea what just happened in the plot. I like that.”