In light of Chaplin‘s absence, Sennett paired Mabel and Roscoe Arbuckle for a new series of “Fatty and Mabel” comedies. Though the two had appeared together previously in several of Keystones (some of them, like Mabel’s New Hero and Those Country Kids being quite good), the “Fatty and Mabel” series proper began shooting in January 1915.
As with Chaplin, Sennett, it is said, had had misgivings about Arbuckle‘s future in films when the hefty, yet light on his feet, newcomer (who just prior been singing in traveling stage shows) appeared at Keystone in early 1913. As well again also, it was only when Mabel persuaded him differently that Sennett changed his attitude. Whether this kind of intervention on her part was actually so decisive as to save Chaplin‘s and Arbuckle‘s careers at Keystone as asserted may perhaps be open to question. Yet it was, nevertheless, certainly significant in providing them more latitude and encouragement than they otherwise would have had received from Sennett. Arbuckle was then given a lead part in one of the Keystones and, in no time, went on to become one of the most instantly recognizable, if also ill-fated, of silent film directors and comedians.
The “Fatty and Mabel” comedies are whimsical and charming, if zany little films; which in many ways are among the very best Keystone shorts. By 1915, the production quality of the Keystone films had improved considerably. While the slapstick and satirical edge were made use of in all their riotous glory, the general pace and tenor of the shorts, even so, was less chaotic and rowdy, and instead became somewhat more structured and sentimental. More frames were devoted to facial improvisation and character development: just what was needed to do proper justice to Mabel and Arbuckle’s screen personalities. Perhaps best of all, it was now Arbuckle who was overseeing production rather then Sennett.
Having become celebrated stars by this time, Roscoe and Mabel seem more self-confident and assured, generally speaking, than in their earlier films. Together, they poke fun at the fortunes and foibles of a comically absurd couple: the petite pretty girl and her rotund, rumbustious boyfriend. Whether as innocent sweethearts, a confounded couple, or “spooning” spouses, Roscoe and Mabel made for a perfect comedic pair.
In Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life, a melodrama parody, the two play a couple of country kids whose childhood love is threatened by the greed of “Mabel’s” father. One especially good moment worth noting here occurs when, in the course of eloping, she lets fall an enormous trunk filled with her belongings. It comes tumbling down on Arbuckle, who, ascending the ladder to her room, is sent crashing through a living room window.
Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition, another short deserving particular note, is one of those comedies where Sennett took his players and crew to a public event, in this case the San Diego Exposition of 1915, and improvised a comedy. What little of a scenario there is involves “Fatty’s” flirting with Minta Durfee and some chubby Hawaiian hula-girls, while “Mabel,” jealously enraged, pursues him about the exposition grounds. The film is perhaps most remarkable for its overlapping of reality and fiction. On the one hand, the short is a vehicle to promote the exposition, and on the other a set piece Keystone comedy. She plays both her actual self and her character “Mabel,” while similarly Arbuckle plays both himself and “Fatty” – both interacting with the live crowd while portraying the otherwise usual characters in a typical Keystone farce.
Other films of the 1915 Fatty and Mabel series that merit mention include: Mabel, Fatty and the Law, Mabel’s Wilful Way, Wished on Mabel, and Fatty and Mabel’s Married Life. Lastly, we should note, is That Little Band of Gold. In it, there is a very brief, yet touching scene where “Fatty” and “Mabel” embrace at their wedding. Besides being sensitively played, the scene has a particularly sad and poignant quality when one reflects on the tragedies which were to later separately befall them.
In September of 1915, Mabel fell victim to a concussion that laid her up for weeks. Sennett’s publicity reported that the injury was the result of a thrown shoe (Mabel, in a magazine interview said Roscoe accidentally sat on her head) that during filming accidentally struck her. Adela Rogers St. Johns asserts that the injury was the result of a failed suicide attempt that involved her jumping off a pier. She attributes this desperate act to Mabel’s disillusionment and despair over the break up of her engagement to Sennett and whom Mabel had found in bed with Mae Busch, purportedly one of Sennett’s “finds.”21 Minta Durfee, on the other hand and probably the more trustworthy on this point, asserts that what actually happened was that when Mabel walked in on Sennett unannounced, Mae blindly hurled a vase at an unknown, unwelcome visitor who turned out to be Mabel. The vase struck her in the head and caused her to bleed profusely.22 Regardless of what actually took place, something very serious transpired which forever shattered her trust in Sennett -- at least as far as courtship and marriage were concerned. Much worse than this, of course, was Mabel’s receiving an injury that may have done permanent damage to her health.
Thereafter, all pleas for forgiveness on Sennett’s part fell on deaf ears. Though the incident was decisive in ending any hope of the two ever marrying, it would be unduly simplistic to view it as the sole reason for Mabel’s implacable disenchantment with him. Over time, other relevant factors became apparent, if not obvious. After all, he was almost twice her own age and the kind of activities they enjoyed and interests they pursued were often so noticeably dissimilar, indeed diverging, that Mabel’s subsequent refusals to reconcile and settle down with him seem only practical and sensible.23 And while much has been written about their romance, it is open to question how deeply Mabel actually felt toward him; for as much as has been said by contemporaries regarding their relationship, we have relatively little or no record of her own views on the subject.
Later that same year, in early December, it was reported again that she had suffered yet another accident, this time in an actual mishap on the set. Since the source of this information is Sennett publicity, it is hard to say whether the accident actually occurred or was simply a yarn concocted to explain the change that had taken place in Mabel. Whatever the case, the story stated that during the filming of a comedy with Chester Conklin, the airplane that she and Conklin were to fly in started taking off after Conklin inadvertently released the throttle. It crashed and exploded in flames. Fortunately, neither of the two comedians were seriously hurt; though both were laid up for several days.
Having suffered the break-up of her engagement, the concussion, and now this purported airplane misadventure, a drastic change came over Mabel; with the result that emotionally and physically she was never quite the same. Yet ironically and more tragically, these incidents were just the beginning of her troubles.
In a move to increase distribution and become more respectable, in July 1915 Keystone (as part of the New York Motion Picture Company and which also included Reliance Motion Picture Corporation, and Majestic Motion Picture Company), and along with D.W. Griffith and Thomas Ince, joined the newly formed Triangle Picture Corporation headed by Harry E. and Roy Aitken. Two of the first films to be produced by the company were My Valet, and Stolen Magic, a three and two reel comedy respectively which starred casual yet debonair stage actor and comedian Raymond Hitchcock, Sennett (who also directed) and Mabel. Released in Oct. and Nov. 1915, My Valet and Stolen Magic turned out to be small hits. Though Hitchcock was the intended main bill, movie audiences also came away pleased with Mabel, and public interest in her increased. That same year, Motion Picture Magazine took a poll and she was voted best Female Comedian, along with Chaplin, chosen as best Male Comedian, and Mary Pickford best Leading Woman. Probably at no other time did her career look so very promising in public eyes than it did at this time.
Before leaving Sennett, as she eventually did, Mabel made a few more two and three reelers with and directed by Arbuckle. Filming in Santa Monica and then later Fort Lee, New Jersey where they could be away from Sennett’s stultifying supervision, Roscoe and Mabel evinced how much even more effective as performers they could be if left to their own devices. Fatty and Mabel Adrift, He Did and He Didn’t, and The Bright Lights are unlike any of their previous efforts together in that these shorts are very well thought-out and carefully conceived, with more elaborate camera work and costlier production values than at any time earlier. In Fatty and Mabel Adrift as newlyweds spending their first night together, the two suffer the watery wrath of a jealous and vengeful Al St. John. With the help of some criminal associates and in the midst of a violent storm, he pushes their home -- with them in it -- into the sea! Once adrift, it’s up to Luke the dog24 and the Keystone water police to come to their rescue. Mabel is herself is not a little delightful as the simple minded bride whose home-made biscuits are hard as rock -- a gag repeated to good effect in films and television shows decades later.