Wednesday, April 1, 2015

100 Year Ago: Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle Visit San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park

From February 20 to December 4, 1915, San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition attracted an estimated 17 million visitors to the city. Among them was a small contingent of performers and crew from Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Company, who made the 400 mile trek north from Los Angeles during the fourth week in March to film what would be a one-reel (approximately 10-15 minute) film entitled Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco. The stars of the film were Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who were no strangers to the city by the bay. Weekend excursions to San Francisco were a regular part of the recreational activities of many of those in Los Angeles’ still-young movie colony. (And of course for Arbuckle, another San Francisco trip six years later would result in unwelcome infamy when he was accused of rape and murder in the death of Virginia Rappe—though acquitted in his third trial, after the first two trials resulted in hung juries, Arbuckle would be banned from the screen by Hollywood censorship czar Will Hays.)

Top: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in front of the Conservatory of Flowers, in Wished on Mabel (1915). Bottom: Author at the same spot in 2005. 
This 1915 trip by Arbuckle and Normand was not the first time Keystone director general Mack Sennett’s personnel had visited San Francisco on a professional basis. In 1913, director Henry Lehrman and a camera crew had filmed the events surrounding the Portola Festival, including the grand parade down Market Street on October 22, 1913. These events appeared in a one-reel film entitled San Francisco Celebration, which is not known to exist. Also filmed during Lehrman’s ten day trip was a general travelogue entitled San Francisco and Her Environs. Though this film is also believed lost, a third documentary film made by Lehrman during this same October 1913 period survives in the film archives of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and is a priceless historical document. The film, Protecting San Francisco from Fire, shows the extreme measures being taken to prevent a reoccurrence of the disaster that struck the city just seven years earlier in 1906. Included in the film are demonstrations of various then high-tech fire-fighting apparatus and alarms, as well as fire trucks driving up and down the hills of the city and scenes of a fireboat whose water cannons can reach many of the city’s buildings from its perch in San Francisco harbor. The Library of Congress also holds a print of a Keystone actuary film made in December 1914, called With the U.S. Army in San Francisco. This film shows various activities at the U.S. Army base in the Presidio.

Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel Normand made three films during their month-long visit to San Francisco and the Bay Area, which latest from at least March 25 until April 18, 1915. Besides the aforementioned Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco—which included a tour of the city, the exposition and meetings with luminaries such as Mayor James Rolph—Arbuckle and Normand also journeyed across the bay to Oakland for a comedy entitled Mabel’s Wilful Way. Filmed from April 11 to April 18, this one-reeler was made at Oakland’s long-gone Idora Park amusement facility (where Arbuckle had earlier appeared during his days in vaudeville).

Between those two still-surviving films, Arbuckle, Normand, and six other Keystone performers (including Monterey-native Edgar Kennedy) journeyed to Golden Gate Park to make a largely-improvised comedy entitled Wished on Mabel. Keystone records show that the film began production on Saturday, March 27, and concluded on Monday, April 5, 1915. However, some of that period overlaps the recorded dates for the filming of Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco, and it is doubtful that Wished on Mabel took many more than one or two days to shoot. Wished on Mabel captures some elements of the park that have changed, and some that remain remarkably the same.

Early in Wished on Mabel, Roscoe Arbuckle is seen standing on a bridge with the Victorian-era Conservatory of Flowers (located in the northeast corner of the park off John Kennedy Drive) in the background (See image at top of article). Built in 1878, the structure (the oldest building in Golden Gate Park, and the oldest municipal wooden conservatory remaining in the United States) looks unchanged today, as does the bridge where Arbuckle stood.

Mabel Normand (upper left), Joe Bordeaux and Frankie Dolan (upper right) at Rustic Bridge in Wished on Mabel (1915). Author's photo from 2005 below.
The action in Wished on Mabel later moves westward in Golden Gate Park to Stowe Lake, which surrounds a very large island called Strawberry Hill. Mabel Normand is viewed sitting on a park bench near Rustic Bridge, built in 1893, which crosses over to the island on the south side. Another view of the bridge is seen in a shot featuring Joe Bordeaux (running toward the camera) and Frankie Dolan (reading a paper on the park bench). Though the pathway has been paved, the bench long since replaced and the trees and foliage have grown considerably since 1915, the bridge looks very much the same.

Bordeaux is then seen on Strawberry Hill island, on a stone walkway beneath a waterfall. Due to the likely replacement of stones and landscaping changes, it is difficult to pinpoint whether this is the same location or a similar one, but it is very similar.
Left: Joe Bordeaux on Strawberry Hill island in Wished on Mabel (1915). Right: Author photo from 2005.
Now celebrating its 100th anniversary, Wished on Mabel offers a glimpse of Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel Normand in the days when they were two of best known film stars in the world, and Mack Sennett's Keystone Comedies were box office gold.