Wednesday, July 30, 2014
July 30, 2014: Uncles and Aunts: Uncle Buck
[As I’ve highlighted in this space before, August 2nd is my sister’s birthday. She’s been a great aunt to my boys throughout their young lives, and now is expecting a child of her own, meaning that I’ll soon have a chance to be an equally great uncle (I hope!). So in this week’s series, I’ll highlight and analyze some famous American uncles and aunts.]
On images and narratives of lovable but troubled plus-size American funny men.
Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the first Hollywood mega-stars—his 1921 $1 million contract with Paramount, signed after more than a decade of starring roles in early silent films, helped set the standard for such deals, and led to a number of directorial roles for Arbuckle in the next few years. But soon after Arbuckle was featured instead in one of the first Hollywood mega-scandals, the trio of trials for the rape and manslaughter of actress Virginia Rappe at one of Arbuckle’s notorious house parties—although Arbuckle was acquitted in the third trial (after hung juries in the first two), his repututation and career never recovered. When he died of a heart attack in 1933, only 46 years old, he cemented his legacy as a troubled larger-than-life comic performer, a narrative that has come to be associated with a number of other actors as well, including John Belushi and Chris Farley.
Although Canadian comic John Candy also died far too young, of a heart attack at the age of 43, I don’t think he’s generally connected to that overarching narrative—Candy’s life and career seem to have generally been free of the different kinds of shadows that plagued Arbuckle, Belushi, and Farley; Candy’s weight, while of course a lifelong health concern that certainly contributed to his death, is not to my mind in the same category as the troubles confronted by those other funny men. Yet on the other hand, many of Candy’s most famous characters were themselves troubled, lovable but frustratingly erratic goofballs whose lives never quite seemed in order: Dewey “Ox” Oxberger in Stripes (1981), Freddie Bauer in Splash (1984), Del Griffith in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), Harry Crumb in Who’s Harry Crumb? (1989), and, one of the most troubled and emblematic of all, the title character in Uncle Buck (1989).
Buck Russell is an unemployed gambler with a far more successful and stable brother; when Buck finds himself watching his nieces and nephew for a few days, he of course rises to the challenge, but does so in his own unique and chaotic, crazy uncle kind of ways (such as imprisoning the older niece’s philandering boyfriend in the trunk of his car). At the film’s conclusion, Buck has helped the family in multiple ways, but it seems clear that he himself will return to his own, largely unchanged troubled life. It’s a strangely abrupt and frustratingly unsatisying ending, particularly if we have come to care about the character at all (which is the film’s intent), but I would argue that it links Buck’s story quite nicely to these overarching American narratives of lovable but troubled funny men—all of whom, like Buck, we came to care about and embrace; and all of whose stories and lives likewise ended unsatisfyingly. The film is a comedy, and the lives were, too often, tragedies—but there’s a complex thematic connection between them all nonetheless.
Next uncle/aunt tomorrow,
BenPS. Thoughts on this uncle? Other uncle/aunt connections you’d highlight?