October 26, 2013 2:04:50 PM
When you think of the great silent film comedians, you certainly think about Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and maybe Harold Lloyd. I know the work of these men, and my mind can play many famous sequences from their films. I know the name of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, but I barely know his work. Perhaps this is because his films are not up to the quality of the classics from those others, though when Arbuckle was making films in 1921, only Chaplin was was better known. And perhaps it is because Arbuckle was involved in a sex scandal and murder accusation, the first great Hollywood scandal. As you'd expect, even people who know about Arbuckle's downfall probably know a sensationalized version (as from the lurid, famous, but untrustworthy Hollywood Babylon), or at least that's all I knew. That's why I am happy to have read Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood (Chicago Review Press) by Greg Merritt, who has written about different aspects of movies and movie making. His book has lots to say about the scandal, with some new insights, but it also tells much about movie-making in the silent period, and the way Arbuckle's scandal has affected American entertainment through more recent decades.
Arbuckle was born in 1887 in Kansas. His father essentially abandoned the family, and that may have played a role in his personality, but it was his weight which truly affected him. He was always big. Other children teased him, and called him "Fatty;" all his life he was Fatty rather than Roscoe, and although he hated the name, it was fitting and it stuck. He would not be the only fat kid to have taken to showing off to get some positive attention, but in his case, he began skipping school to appear onstage with a comedy review. Eventually he was in vaudeville, singing and telling jokes. He moved on to films, along with his friends Keaton and Chaplin, playing a mischievous trickster or a naive bumpkin, or appearing in drag. Paramount gave him a three-year, $3,000,000 contract in 1918. Arbuckle loved his money, buying a mansion and many fancy cars. He was also generous, and all his life was known as a soft touch. By 1921, he was well known as a good guy for throwing a party, and prohibition did not get in the way.
One of the attractions of Merritt's book is that it tells the story of Virginia Rappe, whose only claim to fame is the scandal around her death. She was born in 1891 to an unwed mother, and early on she knew she wanted more. She was Virginia Rapp, and added the extra letter to her name when she was only sixteen (pronouncing it "rap pay") to make it more exotic. She was planning at the time to become a fashion designer, and had some talent in that line. Like many young women, she came to Hollywood to try her hand in the movies. She was pretty, and she got some minor roles; she and Arbuckle worked at the same studio but there was no link between them until a fateful party on Labor Day of 1921.
Arbuckle had had plenty of work, and decided to spend the holiday in San Francisco. He and a couple of his buddies checked into the St. Francis Hotel to unwind. Others went in and out of their rooms, among them Virginia Rappe. What happened to Rappe and Arbuckle within Room 1219 can never be known, Merritt admits. They were alone in the room for about ten minutes, and afterwards the petite Rappe had a ruptured bladder, which led to her death four days later. You would think that after three trials for manslaughter (one with a hung jury leaning toward conviction, one with a hung jury leaning toward acquittal, and a final one with a full acquittal) we would have a clear picture of what happened, but the showboating prosecution introduced all the wild hearsay it could, the defense seemed overconfident that no jury could convict the beloved clown, and the media went crazy with speculation and condemnation. It may have happened that Arbuckle's weight burst Rappe's bladder, but she had previous bladder problems, and was falling-down drunk. Some folklore handed down from the time says that Arbuckle was charged with rape, and other folklore says there was an orgy in the room; neither is true. The press sensationalism didn't die down over the decades; in the 1960s there was a story that Arbuckle had violated Rappe with a Coke bottle, but no such story was circulated at the time of the crime or the trials.
Merritt is good at setting the social scene. The film stars had no predecessors for their sort of fame, and not all of them handled it well. The press and public didn't know what to make of this new royalty, and they enjoyed tittering at the naughtiness and hijinks. There had never been anything, though, like the Arbuckle scandal. The press went nuts. There were, for instance, five general-interest newspapers in Los Angeles, and fourteen in New York City in 1921, and some of them had more than one edition a day, and plenty put out extra editions if there was big news. At a time before electronic broadcasting, this was still close to a coast-to-coast, 24/7 coverage for news. There were competing wire services, and news outlets were eager to grab any story that could be capped with a sensational headline. In the Arbuckle case, the truth quotient for a headline might be minimal. "GET ROSCOE IS DEATHBED PLEA" said one, and "ARBUCKLE DANCES WHILE GIRL IS DYING" said another. A more sympathetic, and probably no more factual, headline was about Arbuckle's pet: "BULLDOG MOURNS FOR ARBUCKLE."
The studios already had people in charge of spreading good stories and squashing bad ones, but Paramount could do nothing with this one. Theaters refused to show the Arbuckle films that had been playing at the time of Rappe's death, and the premium Turkish cigarette Omar canceled its ads featuring Arbuckle's endorsement, the first time an American celebrity lost such a contract due to a scandal. That Arbuckle was acquitted made no difference. Will Hays, head of the self-serving Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, banned Arbuckle from working in any Hollywood studio; Merritt discovers that Paramount's Adolph Zukor (who had written to William Randolph Hearst in an attempt to tone down the coverage of Arbuckle's case) pressured Hays for the banishment so that he himself would not have to make it happen.
Paramount became nervous with bad press over Arbuckle's behavior and other scandals. They pressured newly appointed movie czar Will Hays to restore the industry's image. He banished Arbuckle from the industry, even after the acquittal. Eight months later, Hays was to reverse the banishment, probably because theaters wanted to show Arbuckle's popular films and because the studios no longer saw his scandal as being a threat to their livelihoods. They were also perhaps worried that Hays would be exerting power over them in some expensive way in the future. Arbuckle was overjoyed, but his optimism was unwarranted. His career was over, and though he might have had some small successes as a writer, director, and stage performer (harking back to his vaudeville days), he died twelve years after the scandal, at age 46.
This is not just a story of Arbuckle's scandal. Merritt has excellent sections about other scandals that immediately followed, the expansion of film censorship, the very inception of the Hollywood system, prohibition, the start of our still-ongoing infatuation with the stars, and of course the media coverage devoted to them. Arbuckle was, Merritt asserts, a casualty of "the first great battle in a culture war that has persisted in various forms to the present day." It is hard to imagine how well we would all remember Fatty Arbuckle's films if he had had no scandal. It is important to understand the reach of this scandal, for as Merritt says, "No artist in American history has been censored more than Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle."