After reviewing Monster City last week, I decided this week to present an infamous scandal from the early days of Hollywood. Fatty Arbuckle may not be a familiar name today but in Hollywood’s silent film era, he was a top star.
Silent Film Star
Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle got into pictures at a time when the film industry was just beginning to establish itself in California. Early production companies established in New York or Chicago found the climate of Southern California ideal for making motion pictures. The abundant sunshine provided natural lighting for outdoor filming. Also, the landscape made for exotic backdrops and a perfect setting for Western dramas.
Fatty Arbuckle quickly became a regular at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. There he worked with such top silent stars as Mabel Normand and Harold Lloyd. Despite his 300-pound bulk, Fatty Arbuckle was remarkably agile and acrobatic. He was also fond of the classic “pie in the face” gag. The studio frequently paired Arbuckle with Normand and their films were exceedingly popular.
Over Labor Day weekend in 1921, Arbuckle took a break from filming and drove to San Francisco with two friends. Their they took three rooms in the St. Francis hotel, one of which, 1220, was the “party room.” Despite prohibition, alcohol flowed freely, and several women were invited.
One female guest was a young aspiring actress, Virginia Rappe (pronounced rap-PAY). Partygoers found Rappe seriously ill in suite 1219 and called the hotel doctor. The doctor assumed her symptoms were from intoxication and gave her a shot of morphine. Two days later, Rappe went to the hospital. She died a day later from peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder.
The problem for Fatty Arbuckle was that the woman who accompanied Virginia Rappe to the party, one Bambina Maude Delmont, told Rappe’s doctor that Arbuckle had raped her friend. Doctors found no evidence or rape. Indeed, it later developed that Delmont had a criminal record and was involved in prostitution, extortion, and blackmail. However, the police were more credulous. Ambitious district attorney Matthew A. Brady (he wanted to run for governor) decided to prosecute Arbuckle for manslaughter. Ultimately, Brady would take Fatty Arbuckle to trial three times.
The trial that began on November 14, 1921 at the San Francisco city courthouse was lurid. Prosecutor Brady presented witnesses whose “evidence” was questionable, including a “criminologist” who breezily concluded that Rappe had tried to flee the hotel room and that Arbuckle stopped her by putting his hand over hers as she grasped the doorknob. There was also testimony that Rappe suffered from chronic bladder infections and hints that she may have had a recent abortion. The jury deadlocked at 10-2 for acquittal and the judge declared a mistrial.
On January 11, 1922, Brady tried again. The prosecution, defense, and even the judge were the same; only the jury was different. Unlike the first trial, Rappe’s history of promiscuity and heaving drinking featured prominently. Also, the defense discredited some major prosecution evidence. Arbuckle’s attorneys were so confident of an acquittal they did not put him on the stand. This was a mistake. Some on the jury (improperly) took Arbuckle’s not testifying as a sign of guilt. This jury deadlocked 9-3 for acquittal, resulting in another mistrial.
Fatty Arbuckle’s third trial began on March 13, 1922. This time, his defense attorney, Gavin McNab, left nothing to chance and mounted an aggressive defense. This jury returned with acquittal after deliberating for only six minutes. They spent five of those minutes writing out a formal apology statement.
A number of authors have written books on Arbuckle and the trials, including Brad Kronen and Andy Edmonds.
Regardless of the acquittal and apology, Fatty Arbuckle found that exhibitors refused to show his films, and no one would hire him. There was a determined effort to destroy copies of many of his films. Many of his important pictures have no remaining prints. His wife, actress Minta Durfee, filed for divorce. Unable to find work, Arbuckle retreated into alcoholism.
Eventually, the man known as Fatty Arbuckle was able to find work as a director using the pseudonym of William Goodrich. Later, in 1932, Warner Brothers signed him to star in six two-reel comedies. Then on June 29, 1933, Arbuckle signed a contract with Warner’s to star in a full-length feature film. Celebrating with friends, he reportedly told them, “This is the best day of my life.”
Fatty Arbuckle died of a heart attack in his sleep that night.