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1930s & Earlier / Fatty Arbuckle Scandal 1921
One of the most tragic figures in movie history was Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle. A onetime cabaret singer, Arbuckle was among the most popular actors in silent comedies from 1914 to 1921. Starting as an extra at Keystone Studios, the surprisingly nimble Arbuckle quickly graduated to starring roles in the studio's slapstick comedy films where he was noted for his terrific accuracy in throwing pies and other missiles. Later, like Charlie Chaplin, Arbuckle matured as a performer, adding brilliantly subtle aspects to his comedy routines. A box-office favorite, he was making a seven-figure salary at Paramount Pictures in 1921. Midway through that year Arbuckle was so popular that he was put to work on three feature comedy films simultaneously! Shortly after completing them, Arbuckle's career abruptly ended in scandal. He was accused of sexually assaulting small-time actress Virginia Rappe at a party he was hosting in a suite at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco on Labor Day 1921. Rappe died four days later in a maternity hosptal of peritonitis from a ruptured bladder, presumably caused by the 266-pound Arbuckle forcing himself on her. (There was also an apocryphal story of Rappe being raped with a champagne or cola bottle. How this slanderous story started is anyone's guess.) Rappe had become violently ill and irrational at the party. Arbuckle and several partygoers tried to succor Rappe and eventually moved her to another hotel room where she was examined by three different doctors over the next three days. A postmortem on Rappe's body found no signs of sexual assault whatsoever. In all likelihood Rappe death's was due to medical negligence or malpractice. Moreover, Rappe was hardly the virginal victim that the popular press and D.A.'s office portrayed her to be. The mistress of director Henry Lehrman, Rappe had had at least four abortions by the time she was 16, she had an out-of-wedlock child that she had abandoned, and she was afflicted with gonorrhea. In the summer of 1921 the 26-year-old Rappe, who hadn't had an acting job in two years, recently underwent another illegal abortion. Rappe was also suffering from a chronic illness that was exacerbated by her taste for poor-quality Prohibition booze. The accusations against Arbuckle were based solely on a malicious complaint fabricated by party attendee Maude Delmont, a known extortionist who claimed to be a "lifelong friend" of Rappe's--but had only known Rappe for two days prior to the Labor Day party. Arbuckle was astounded when a horde of reporters descended upon his Hollywood mansion to tell him he was being investigated for rape and possible murder charges in Rappe's death. Beginning in late September, Arbuckle was tried three times for rape and manslaughter in the space of seven months. He spent $700,000 on legal fees to beat the bogus charges. The prosecution's case was absurdly weak and should have been dropped. In fact, complainant Delmont was never called as a witness because her wild story of Arbuckle assaulting Rappe for an hour did not jibe with the physical evidence nor the timeline of events at the party. Nevertheless, the San Francisco D.A.'s office doggedly pursued the charges against Arbuckle because of intense pressure by reformers and moralists. The first two trials resulted in hung juries. At the first trial, Arbuckle fared terrifically when he eagerly took the stand to defend himself. It ended with the jury voting 10-2 in favor of acquittal. One stubborn holdout was a militant feminist so determined to convict Arbuckle that she refused to read any portions of the trial's transcript or listen to other jurors' opinions--to the point of childishly putting her hands over her ears! The second trial, in which Arbuckle's legal team badly advised him not to bother to take the stand because his innocence was obvious, was surprisingly 9-3 in favor of conviction! At the third trial, in April 1922, Arbuckle wisely took the stand. The jury deliberated for a mere six minutes before returning with a not guilty verdict that was loudly cheered by the gallery. Furthermore, the jury also insisted a formal apology to Arbuckle be read into the trials' official transcript. Film historians generally believe Arbuckle was totally innocent of any wrongdoing and was the victim of malicious prosecution. Nevertheless, his acting career abruptly ended because newly appointed Hollywood censorship czar Will Hays banned distributors from showing any Arbuckle comedies despite being acquitted! Although filmdom was deprived of a master comic's work, Arbuckle stayed in movies by directing films under an assumed name. He was just beginning to make an acting comeback--with six two-reel comedie--when died of heart failure in 1933 at age 46. According to Arbuckle biographer David A. Yallop, in an era when Hollywood stars routinely engaged in all sorts of debauchery, Roscoe, ironically, "was probably the most chaste man in Hollywood."