Unless you are a silent film fan like I am, you probably don’t know who Roscoe Arbuckle is. There’s an outside chance you might know him by his character’s name, “Fatty.” Today, March 24, is his birthday. While he is largely forgotten now, he was the most-recognized man in the world a century ago. Arbuckle is a nobody these days because he was the first victim of the press and morality crowd that still seems intent on wrecking entertainers’ careers.
A fat kid from a broken home, Arbuckle found a living in vaudeville, relying on his singing voice for his pay. The great opera star Enrico Caruso heard him sing long after his film career had blossomed, and he told Arbuckle to “… give up this nonsense you do for a living, with training you could become the second greatest singer in the world.”
When films began, Arbuckle moved to this new medium, and the audiences loved his physical humor and puckish face. He made his first one-reeler (“Ben’s Kid”) in 1909, and in 1921, he was so successful that he had signed a deal with Paramount for $1 million (about $13.3 million today).
He was already a millionaire from the work he had done in the 12 years before, including a stint at Keystone Studios, home of the “Keystone Kops” comedies. There, he worked with Harold Lloyd and Mabel Normand, and an English kid named Charlie Chaplin. When Chaplin invented his famous tramp character one day in the dressing room at Keystone, the hat belonged to Arbuckle’s father-in-law and the tramp’s trousers were Arbuckle’s. He easily had 120 pounds on Chaplin, and that’s why the little tramp’s trousers look so baggy. Arbuckle also discovered Buster Keaton and Bob Hope.
It all went to hell on Arbuckle in September 1921, when he went up to San Francisco for Labor Day weekend. There was a party in a hotel involving illegal drugs (alcohol, this was during Prohibition), and one of the female guests, Virginia Rappe (ra-PAY), fell ill and died four days later from a ruptured bladder. Arbuckle had been alone briefly with her in one of the three rooms where the party had been held, and he was quickly indicted in her death.
San Francisco DA Matthew Brady was an ambitious fellow. He had his eyes on the governor’s mansion, and he knew a conviction would get him all the publicity he needed. He went after Arbuckle with everything he had, including detention of witness, evidence tampering and perjury charges for those who didn’t tell the story his way.
Brady claimed that, while alone, Arbuckle had attempted to rape Rappe, and in the struggle, he injured her such that her bladder ruptured. The evidence was shaky at best, and medical testimony suggests Rappe had had bladder trouble for years. There was also speculation that an abortion she had a few days before the party may have been to blame.
Aiding Brady was William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day (or maybe Murdoch is the Hearst of our time). Hearst knew that the trial would sell papers, and relying on the axiom “if it bleeds, it leads,” he put Arbuckle’s trial on page one, every edition. His reporters often didn’t even do journalism; they wrote fiction. But it was fiction that sold.
Then, around the country, the men in dresses (the clergy) denounced Arbuckle from the pulpits every Sunday. They complained to the parishioners (most of whom had made Arbuckle rich by buying movie tickets) about loose women, violence and booze — Hollywood the den of iniquity was born.
The first trial ended in a hung jury, 11 for acquittal, one for conviction. The one vote against him was Helen Hubbard, whose husband was a lawyer who regularly did business with DA Brady and his office. She said she didn’t want to deliberate, that she made up her mind in the courtroom and that she would vote guilty till “hell freezes over.” She should never have been on the jury.
Brady could see the governor’s mansion slipping away, so a second trial was held. Hearst was more than happy to sell more papers by claiming the first trial was rigged by Arbuckle’s money. In the second trial, a few strategic blunders befell the actor. His lawyer declined to make a closing statement, and Arbuckle was not put on the stand to defend himself (he had done so in the first trial). There was another mistrial, this time 10-2 for a conviction.
DA Brady got a third chance because of this almost-conviction. However, Arbuckle’s lawyers took off the gloves and won an acquittal on April 12, 1922. The jury deliberated just six minutes before coming back unanimously for Arbuckle. The jury even released a statement that read in part, “Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime.”
Acquittal wasn’t enough to put Arbuckle back on screen. Will H. Hays, who served as the head of the newly formed Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) Hollywood censor board, banned Roscoe from making movies and demanded that exhibitors cease booking his films and cancel bookings already made. There was enough pressure on Hays to lift the ban in December, but exhibitors were leery of “Fatty” Arbuckle films, and Paramount declined to release one made before the first trial.
Buster Keaton was the kind of friend everyone needs. When Arbuckle was banned from films, Keaton signed over 35 percent of the profits from Buster Keaton Productions to Arbuckle. He also found work for him as a bit player in a movie or two.
Additionally, Arbuckle directed under a pseudonym, Will B. Good (a promise? Or sarcasm?), but Louise Brooks, whom he directed in “Windy Riley Goes Hollywood,” said, “He made no attempt to direct this picture. He sat in his chair like a man dead. He had been very nice and sweetly dead ever since the scandal that ruined his career.”
In 1932 and 1933, Arbuckle started to get back into the acting game, and on June 29, 1933, he signed with Warner Brothers to make a feature-length film. He died that night of heart failure.
Every Hollywood scandal since then had been a variation on the theme. Audiences build up their heroes and heroines only to tear them down again. Drugs, sex, money. It’s almost 100 years old.
Happy Birthday, Roscoe! You deserved better.
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.