character archetypes

Fat Guys Trying to Survive Horror Films: Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948, dir. Charles T. Barton); Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010, dir. Eli Craig)

“I shoulda known if a guy like me talked to a girl like you, somebody’d end up dead.”  –Dale, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

“It’s a little past sunset. And if Dracula’s here, he’s gonna want breakfast. And I’m fatter than you, and it ain’t gonna be me.”  –Wilbur, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

The comic duo composed of a fat and thin character is a common trope in Western cinema, and has been for a long time.  The thin character is usually smart and quick-tempered; the fat character tends to be meek and simple-minded (either unintelligent, naive, or both), but also tends to be the source of humor, whether through a savant sense for one-liners, propensity for pratfalls, or outlandish eccentricities.  One of the most famous and most illustrative pairs of this kind is Abbott and Costello, who started out as a Vaudeville act and went on to star in more than 30 films together.  Several of their films are horror-comedy, the first of which is Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, putting the hapless duo in a story filled with supernatural threats.  Most of the fun comes from seeing them in way over their heads, coming to the realization that something is up and trying to figure out what’s going on.  62 years later, the same basic dynamic of two disparately-sized Joe Six Packs inadvertently stumbling into a horror film scenario plays out in Tucker & Dale Versus Evil.  Although both horror and comedy have changed enough in the intervening years to make some significant differences in the dynamic between the characters, there’s also a lot that hasn’t changed for respective fat guys Wilbur Gray (Lou Costello) and Dale Dobson (Tyler Labine).

Dale and Wilbur are both the sole fat characters in their respective films.  Wilbur is directly labeled as the fat guy: his size is directly mentioned in several jokes (e.g. Wilbur says he’s “floating in love,” Chick responds by calling him a “blimp”).  Dale’s size is not directly referenced, but is part of a few typical fat-person sight gags (e.g. inappropriately-timed nudity, falling on his friend) and is arguably a part of his insecurities.  Chad, his main college kid nemesis, has an athletic physique.  Tucker tells his friend to have more confidence, but Dale responds that he’s always had an easier time with the ladies.  (It’s never stated directly that Dale is referencing Tucker’s physique, but they did cast Alan Tudyk…)

The dynamic between the two friends at the center of each movie is very similar. Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Tucker– the thin friends– are both more practical and strong-willed than Wilbur or Dale, and often take the role of leader.  Both Dale and Wilbur are more passive, but the films interpret that in different ways.  Dale’s lack of assertiveness is due to an “inferiority complex,” as Tucker describes it:  if Dale gains confidence, then he will be able to stand up for himself and flirt with women.  Tucker acts like an older brother to Dale, giving him advice and emotional support when he feels bad about himself, such as his initial failure to talk to beautiful college student Allison (Katrina Bowden).  Dale privileges Tucker over his own interests, such as pretending to like fishing because it allows him to spend time with his friend.

Wilbur’s weakness, on the other hand, is an immutable personality flaw, something that is practically part of his biology.  Dracula (Bela Lugosi) is plotting to put a fresh brain in Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange) in order to make him a compliant servant; Wilbur is being targeted as the donor because he has an “obedient” brain with “no will of his own, no fiendish intellect to oppose his master.”  Chick acts more like a boss, ordering Wilbur around and trying to rein in his unruly behavior.  Wilbur relies on Chick for physical protection, wailing his friend’s name whenever he’s frightened (of course, this results in the monsters removing themselves from the scene by the time Chick arrives).

Dale’s and Wilbur’s love interests are essential to the plots of both films, and both involve them mooning over women who are intelligent and conventionally beautiful, but again we see the similarities end there.  At the beginning of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, the differences between Allison and Dale are highlighted.  College students like Allison “grew up with vacation homes and guys like me fixing their toilets,” Dale argues early in movie, explaining why he won’t approach her.  But just as Allison is convinced by her friends that Tucker and Dale are evil sadists because they look like villains from movies like Deliverance, Dale’s first impression of her is also a stereotype, and he discovers that she is a tomboy who grew up on a farm and likes bowling. Both Dale and Allison are the moral centers of their respective groups; Allison encourages her friends not to judge the locals of the rural area they’re camping in, while Tucker complains that Dale led them into a fiasco by being “a good Samaritan.”  The growth of their relationship, as much as the string of mishaps and misconceptions that make the titular characters look like serial killers, are the film’s evidence against judging a book by its cover.

tyler labine, tucker and dale vs evil

Wilbur’s love life is the inverse.  In the beginning of the film, Wilbur is dating the beautiful Sandra (Lenore Aubert).  The audience soon discovers that her affection is too good to be true: Sandra is working with Dracula to revive the Monster, and wants to use Wilbur in their experiment.  Later in the film, another beautiful woman, Joan (Jane Randolph), also professes love for Wilbur.  Without pausing to question her motives, Wilbur blithely tries to juggle relationships with both women, even bringing them to the same costume ball.  Joan, however, is also using Wilbur in an attempt to discover Dracula and the Monster’s whereabouts. While revisiting these films to write this piece, I imagined a young Dale watching Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein and internalizing that it is foolish for a fat person like himself to consider a viable relationship with someone “out of their league.”

lou costello, abbott and costello meet frankenstein

The differing dynamics between friends is also reflected in how the thin friend reacts to their fat friend’s romantic inclinations.  Chick repeatedly expresses skepticism that women like Joan and Sandra could be attracted to a guy like Wilbur, and tries to talk Wilbur into “sharing,” despite the fact that both women are disinterested in him. Tucker is occasionally frustrated that his friend chooses to woo Allison instead of help with renovations to their cabin, but ultimately he supports and encourages his friend.

Chick and Wilbur find themselves the victims of an objective threat– Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman (Lon Chaney Jr.) are all very real in their world– while Tucker and Dale are largely threatened due to subjective interpretation: the college kids see a scenario they and the audience associate with horror films and map their ghoulish expectations onto it, fueled by Chad’s prejudice against hillbillies and forceful positioning of himself as an anti-hero.  For much of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, Wilbur sees the monsters in their supernatural form and tries to convince skeptical Chick that they are real.  Lawrence Talbot (aka the Wolfman) warns Chick and Wilbur of the oncoming supernatural threat, but Wilbur is the one who sees him first in his werewolf form.  Wilbur also resists becoming part of Team Dracula, as he twice averts his gaze from a hypnotizing vampiric gaze and narrowly misses becoming part of the Monster when he is saved by Chick and Talbot.  Dale, on the other hand, tries for much of the film to be seen as benign when he is misjudged as a threat, even going so far as to sit down for a mediated discussion over tea with Chad to hash out their differences.  Eventually, though, he must conform to the college kids’ perception of him as a “psycho hillbilly” in order to save his friends and defeat Chad, who is the real source of danger to the other characters.

Seen in conversation with each other, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil show a progression of attitudes with regards to their fat protagonists.  Wilbur is static, as foolish at the end of the movie as he is in the beginning.  His body is a marker of his personality traits, marking him as objectively unattractive and inherently less dignified than the other characters.  At the beginning of Dale’s story, he perceives himself as the audience perceives Wilbur.  However, Dale lives in a world where perception can be changed and corrected.  His body and appearance never change, but he is able to change his persona through how he presents himself and how others see him, going from diffident fat friend to “killer hillbilly” warrior to romantic hero.

Teaching and Holding Back: Strictly Ballroom (1992, dir. Baz Luhrmann)

Strictly Ballroom is Luhrmann’s directorial debut, a romantic comedy about Scott, an impatient and talented competitive ballroom dancer who gains an unlikely partner in awkward amateur Fran mere weeks before the Big Competition he’s been working towards (and groomed for) his entire life.  The story is well-trod territory: part underdog sports story, part Pygmalion, with some rage against the machine thrown in for good measure, but the film charms with its energy, sweetness, and colorful mise en scene.  Plus I’m a sucker for films that are ensconced in insular subcultures, making characters’ goals simultaneously low stakes and very, very high stakes.  I didn’t watch this movie with the intent of writing about it, but you find fat characters in the darndest places.

I would describe three of the characters in the movie as fat: Les, Barry, and Ya Ya (Fran’s grandmother).  Their fatness isn’t explicitly part of how any of them are characterized; the movie doesn’t draw attention to the size of their bodies, nor are they coded as markedly different from the thinner characters.  All three characters are of the previous generation, those who have raised the protagonists.  Their influence is that of authority, albeit in different ways.

Barry, as the president of the ballroom association and competition judge, is the most direct authority figure.  He has the power to designate who the champion is, and his rulings influence “the future of dancesport” itself.  He also cleverly manipulates the politics of the Australian competitive ballroom world.  Strictly Ballroom values veracity in artistic expression, and as self-styled puppet master of a world of sequined costumes and heavy eyeshadow, Barry is the master of the artificial.  He’s even shown to be wearing a wig, the perfect accessory for a blustering, red-faced judge who is wrapped up in the antiquated status quo and his own self-importance.

Les, although still a member of the ballroom old guard, is more balanced than Barry.  A self-described “experienced professional,” he is Scott’s teacher who encourages him to win by sticking to traditional ballroom dance moves and finding an acceptable partner for him to compete with.  While still a part of the world of ballroom artifice, he ultimately prioritizes the integrity of the competition over Barry’s machinations.

At the other end of the spectrum from Barry, we have Ya Ya, Fran’s grandmother, who embodies the veracity of dance.  She dresses plainly with no makeup or hair styling, and imparts the two central pieces of wisdom Strictly Ballroom has to offer, teaching Fran that “a life lived in fear is a life half lived” and teaching Scott that the rhythm is in his heart.  (Seriously, Scott, you’ve been dancing since you were 6 and you’ve never had a mentor or a book or another movie about a dancer teach you that?  At least it gave Ya Ya an excuse to touch his chest.)  Her approach to dance is more soulful than that of Barry or Les, but she’s also reinforcing norms. She teaches the paso doble that has the veracity of tradition behind it, a dance that is more “real” than Scott’s ballroom version.  She, along with Fran and Rico, rein in Scott’s headstrong individualism, helping him learn humility and cooperation as he corrals his flamboyantly athletic style into one (admittedly sweet) slide onto the dancefloor during the film’s climax.

So we have three fat characters who represent the authority of age and the different forms that can take.  However, their positions as elders makes their fat somewhat more acceptable, and none of them are remarkable outliers in terms of size (Barry would probably be described as “paunchy”).  If anything, the actors chosen to embody these characters are stout as part of showing their age, and perhaps as a visual counterbalance to thinner partners who represent the same point of view (Les and Shirley; Ya Ya and Rico; Barry and his blonde co-judge consort) and in contrast to the slim, young protagonists who receive their teachings.

In fact, there are plenty of movies that feature older people whose bodies are “stout” or “matronly” or “paunchy”; I’m sure that if I were to write about every one I saw, this blog would be full of those reviews, and likely say very similar things.  Barry, Les, and Ya Ya are all elders, keepers of tradition. Their fatness is somewhat incidental, something that we recognize as a common marker of age and being past one’s prime.  These three want to see the prime of their own youth repeated by their progeny and their slimmer, more relevant bodies, despite the different ways they have of achieving their goals.

II.

It took me until the day after viewing to think about the fat characters in Strictly Ballroom, because the first representation of fatness that caught my eye was a bit player.  At the beginning of the movie, Fran is at the peak of her ugly duckingness (ducklingitude?).  Not only is she insecure and unpolished (the standard trifecta of no makeup, frizzy hair, and glasses),  she is a “beginner” dancer: not only beneath the serious attentions of Scott, Les, and Shirley, but– as she repeats a few times at the beginning of the film– without a partner.

This isn’t technically true, however:  while Fran is awkwardly by herself for a few numbers during the opening scene at the dance studio, she is paired with another woman, specifically the only fat student there.  In the third act, Scott is spurred into reconciling and reuniting with Fran in part by the pity-inducing sight of her dancing at the Pan Pacific Grand Prix in the beginner’s category, with the same fat partner.  Fran is marginalized and diminished by the characters in power and the hierarchy of merit that they uphold, those who don’t recognize her as an able or appropriate dance partner for Scott.  She is placed in categories in the dance world that are wrong for her given her place in the narrative: she is  the beginner’s dance category, despite having authentic knowledge of dance that she is able to share with Scott, and she is made to dance the man’s role, despite fulfilling a very classically feminine role in a romantic story.

Strictly Ballroom: Fran and the Fat Dancer at the Pan Pacific Grand Prix

Her fat partner is a physical manifestation of this humiliation and ostracization.  Even after her skin clears up and her frizzy hair turns into curls, even after her need for eyeglasses has faded into memory, the painful relapse into being a nobody beginner is the presence of the fat dancer.  The fat dancer is a non-person, not even considered a partner by the person she’s dancing with.  She is a competent dancer (at least, to my untrained eye), but because of her body size (as in the dance studio, she is the only fat person on the Pan Pacific dance floor), she is even less a part of the world of acceptability than Fran.  Her presence is unwelcome, presenting a pathetic and humorous contrast to dreamy Scott.  The fat dancer accessorizes and amplifies Fran’s humiliation.  As we see here and in other movies– Justin Long’s cheerleader tryout scene in Dodgeball: a True Underdog Story springs to mind– slender characters are vulnerable to mocking and humiliation just through pairing with a fat person for an activity.  Straight-sized readers: consider this your warning.