John Fournier Quintet

at the Second City E.T.C., through April 7

By Carol Burbank

Just this morning I heard another high-minded editorial bemoaning President Clinton’s alleged sex with and lies about Monica Lewinsky (no videotape). And I’m sure I’ll hear another Clinton joke or three today, as the scandal’s oily slick of speculation continues to spread over the airwaves and the newspapers, smothering more important news.

The award for the most outrageous article of the week, however, must go to the Weekly World News, the supermarket tabloid known for its stories about a bat child and bigfoot. The headline read “First Fatty,” and the photo transposed Hillary Clinton’s head onto the body of a grossly overweight woman in a bathing suit. The article predicted that Hillary would gain 150 pounds, stuffing herself in rage at hubby’s cheating ways. However sensational and speculative, this exercise in public vengeance against the first lady merely reflects the bloated joking and gossip that inevitably accompany any U.S. sex scandal.

The headline wasn’t entirely accurate, however: according to John Fournier, comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was the first fatty to fall into a national scandal. And now, in the multimedia piece Fatty, Fournier and his jazz quartet, directed by Rob Mello, have staged the story of the great comedian’s Hollywood rise and fall.

Arbuckle’s destruction is indeed an instructive first. A brilliant slapstick comedian who went from childhood poverty to carnival performing to Keystone Kop to silent film star, Arbuckle was a master of pie throwing, stunt tripping, and innuendo. He worked with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and in 1917 he earned an extravagant $5,000 a week. But by 1921 he was the focus of one of the century’s most vehement yellow-journalism campaigns against the evils of Hollywood (which sold a record number of newspapers), just after he signed a million-dollar contract with Paramount.

Arbuckle was accused of raping and fatally injuring Virginia Rappe at a party celebrating his new contract. William Randolph Hearst’s presses declared Rappe to be a virginal young starlet violated by a champagne bottle and a piece of sharp ice–stories with no basis in fact. Indeed, there was no evidence of sexual assault, and Rappe was no virgin: she was reputedly a prostitute and had a history of venereal disease. In fact the perforated bladder and peritonitis that caused her death may have been the result of an abortion. Nonetheless the public loved the scandal, and Arbuckle became a national villain.

After three trials based almost entirely on hearsay, a jury finally found Arbuckle innocent, but it was too late for the comedian to reclaim his career. He’d become a symbol of the threat to America’s moral fiber that Hollywood represented, a monster whose gigantic presence and flirtatious winking no longer seemed innocent or amusing. Arbuckle made a wan comeback in the early 30s, but he died broke, an alcoholic, in 1933 at age 46.

There seems to be no end of object lessons in this story, no end of parallels to media excess today. (Ironically, the equally fat but far less talented Chris Farley, whose recent death mirrored Fatty’s end, was slated to play Arbuckle in a film about his life.) Probably the greatest weakness of Fournier’s otherwise powerful Fatty, in fact, is his constant playing on the theme that Americans are vultures for disaster–our bread and butter, he reminds us, is sex scandals, dissolute deaths, and moral outrage.

Narrating Fatty’s story with tightly edited film clips and video loops, accompanied by the quartet’s playing of the high-energy jazz-pop score, bandleader Fournier takes a sly, cynical approach to the whole story. He tells the tale, both in song and spoken word, with a world-weary omniscience, as if the audience’s pleasure in the story made us complicit in Arbuckle’s downfall. And maybe it does, but I didn’t want to be reminded of it so obviously; that’s the kind of insight that should settle in slowly, gradually creating an itchy, uncomfortable sense of moral responsibility.

But though Fournier’s judgmental cynicism sometimes put me off, ultimately I have to echo his musical tribute to Arbuckle: “The Fat Man Is a Miracle to Me!” Arbuckle is a fascinating figure, and Fournier’s consistently entertaining combination of visual and musical storytelling brings the corrupt world of Hollywood silent filmmaking to life. I loved discovering Arbuckle’s comedy, learning all the details of the stories behind this legendary scandal, and seeing glamorous news photos juxtaposed with brutally sensational headlines.

The show’s setup is so simple that nothing gets in the way of the story. The quartet shares the tiny Second City E.T.C. stage with a white projection screen, giving the music and Fatty’s films equal space. Fournier wanders back and forth, occasionally sharing a joke with the band or the audience and blasting out songs with the confidence of a seasoned performer. And despite his arch cynicism, in the end he lets the audience make their own judgments.

The truth behind the “rape”–the uncomfortable middle ground–is that it probably resulted from a complicated amalgam of circumstances: drunken Hollywood excess, political frame-up, and media moneymaking. In one song Fournier adds an element of class criticism, saying that the studio and the public conspired to bring Arbuckle down because he sought to exceed his station in life, providing a valuable twist to the public’s moral outrage and Paramount’s canceled contract. It’s a cliche to say that no one is innocent, but in the Arbuckle case I began to think that everyone was both innocent and guilty.

I wish we could see our current scandals with the clarity of the 20-20 hindsight Fournier brings to Fatty’s downfall. In the show’s concluding meditation, he speculates that we’re addicted to scandal, that we’re bored by anything less than transgression and betrayal. Certainly it’s possible we’re jaded by scandal, reacting very differently to Clinton’s indiscretions than to Arbuckle’s supposed crime, which was greeted with a burn-the-witch frenzy.

But maybe, if we can look at the gray areas between the black-and-white extremes of injured innocence and scandalous villainy, there are conclusions to be drawn beyond comforting moral platitudes. That’s the possibility Fournier offers with Fatty, a playful yet serious account that captures the complications of a scandal that seized the national imagination in the early days of our media-saturated century.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Fatty photo.