Fatty Arbuckle, a silent-film era performer at the height of his fame, is arrested in San Francisco for the rape and murder of aspiring actress Virginia Rappe. Arbuckle was later acquitted by a jury, but the scandal essentially put an end to his career.
Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle was born on March 24, 1887, in Smith Center, Kansas. He worked as a vaudeville performer and starting in 1913, began appearing in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops comedies. Arbuckle became known for his comedic pratfalls and pie-throwing. In 1917, Arbuckle formed his own company and began writing and directing films, many of which starred his friend and fellow comedian Buster Keaton. In 1919, the heavy-set actor signed a $1 million per year deal with Paramount Pictures, an extraordinary sum for the time.
In early September 1921, Arbuckle went to San Francisco with two male friends for a short vacation and checked into the St. Francis Hotel. The men hosted a party in their suite, during which a guest named Virginia Rappe, who had been drinking, became ill. Rappe, who was in her twenties, died several days later from peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder. Maude Delmont, another guest at the party, claimed Arbuckle had raped Rappe and injured her bladder.
Arbuckle’s arrest on September 11 by the San Francisco police soon generated a massive scandal. Arbuckle maintained his innocence, but he was lambasted in the press and the public, unused to Hollywood scandal, boycotted his films. The politically ambitious San Francisco district attorney was determined to prosecute Arbuckle, even though Delmont turned out to be a questionable witness, with a criminal record of her own. Several other witnesses would later claim the prosecution had intimidated them into giving false testimony.
After two mistrials, the jury in Arbuckle’s third trial found him not guilty and even issued him an apology. Despite this favorable outcome for Arbuckle, the U.S. film industry nevertheless temporarily banned him. He subsequently attempted a comeback and even directed several films under the pseudonym William B. Goodrich, but his career never fully recovered and he struggled with alcoholism. Arbuckle died of heart failure at age 46 on June 29, 1933, in New York City.
Crimes of the Century
When the world first read about the events of Sept. 3, 1920 in the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, the plotline appeared to be tabloid-headline loud and clear: during a wild party, an obese Hollywood comedy star takes advantage of a naive young actress, puncturing her bladder during forced sex (with a beer bottle!) she dies a painful death of peritonitis. The star was Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, perhaps the first film actor to be paid an annual salary of $1 million, an amazing sum in the silent film industry. Insisting he had done nothing wrong, Arbuckle nevertheless went through three trials, hounded by newspapers and morality groups each time. His movies were banned in both America and Britain. Some people even called for him to be executed. But the woman who brought the charges a friend of the dead starlet never testified in court because of a past record of extortion, racketeering and bigamy. Neither was the woman an eyewitness to the alleged crime. Arbuckle's first two trials thus ended in hung juries. And the third acquitted him of all crimes. That jury even issued him an apology. But his career was over. The media pall over his reputation was impossible to overcome. The public and much of Hollywood would never forgive him all his comeback attempts failed. Indeed, as a result of the scandal, the White House established the Hays Office as the movie industry's moral arbiter and censor. Arbuckle died in 1933, after falling into alcoholism and a lurid obscurity.
Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle had long been a performer. When he was a teenager, Arbuckle traveled the West Coast on the vaudeville circuit. In 1913, at the age of 26, Arbuckle hit the big time when he signed with Mack Sennett's Keystone Film Company and became one of the Keystone Kops.
Arbuckle was heavy—he weighed somewhere between 250 and 300 pounds—and that was part of his comedy. He moved gracefully, threw pies, and humorously tumbled.
In 1921, Arbuckle signed a three-year contract with Paramount for $1 million—an unheard-of amount at the time, even in Hollywood.
To celebrate just having finished three pictures at the same time and to celebrate his new contract with Paramount, Arbuckle and a couple of friends drove up from Los Angeles to San Francisco on Saturday, September 3, 1921, for some Labor Day weekend revelry.
The Skinny on the Fatty Arbuckle Trial
In the summer of 1921, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was on top of the world. Paramount Pictures had paid him an unprecedented $3 million over three years to star in 18 silent films, and he’d just signed another million-dollar contract with the studio. The portly comedian’s latest film, Crazy to Marry , was playing in theaters across the country. So his friend Fred Fischbach planned a big party to celebrate, a three-day Labor Day bash at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.
But by the end of the week, Fatty Arbuckle was sitting in Cell No. 12 on “felony row” at the San Francisco Hall of Justice, held without bail in the slaying of a 25-year-old actress named Virginia Rappe. Crazy to Marry was quickly pulled from theaters, and a nation was outraged to discover a sordid side to the off-screen lives of Hollywood stars. Behind Arbuckle’s troubles was a mysterious woman named Maude Delmont, a witness for the prosecution who would never be called to testify because police and prosecutors knew her story would not hold up on the stand. Yet what she had to say would be more than enough to ruin Arbuckle’s career.
The days leading up to the party did not put Arbuckle in the best of moods. He was in Los Angeles having his Pierce-Arrow automobile serviced when he sat down on an acid-soaked rag at the garage. The acid burned through his pants to his buttocks, causing second-degree burns. He was tempted to cancel the trip to San Francisco, but Fischbach would have none of it. He secured a rubber-padded ring for Arbuckle to sit on, and they made the drive up the coast to the St. Francis, where Fischbach had reserved adjoining rooms and a suite.
According to Arbuckle, Fischbach arranged everything from the rooms to the guests to the liquor (despite Prohibition), and on Labor Day, September 5, 1921, Arbuckle awoke to find that he had many uninvited guests. He was still walking around in his pajamas, bathrobe and slippers when he saw Delmont and Rappe and expressed concern that their reputations might alert police to the “gin party.” In Los Angeles, Delmont was known as a madam and blackmailer Rappe had made a something of a name for herself as a model, clothing designer, aspiring actress and party girl. But the food and booze were flowing by then, the music was playing, and Arbuckle was soon no longer focused on his exhausting work schedule, the burns on his backside or just who all those guests were. What happened in the ensuing hours would play out on the front pages of William Randolph Hearst’s national chain of newspapers, in lurid headlines, before Arbuckle had a chance to tell his side of the story.
Virginia Rappe was 25 years old when she arrived at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco for a Labor Day Weekend party.
Maude Delmont soon painted a sinister portrait of the happy-go-lucky portly prince of silent film. This is what she told the police: After Arbuckle and Rappe had had a few drinks together, he pulled her actress into an adjoining room, saying, “I’ve waited for you five years, and now I’ve got you.” After a half-hour or so, Delmont heard Rappe screaming, so she knocked on and then kicked at the locked door. After a delay, Arbuckle came to the door in his pajamas, wearing Rappe’s hat “cocked at an angle” and smiling his “foolish ‘screen smile.” Behind him, Rappe was sprawled on the bed, moaning.
“Arbuckle did it,” the actress said, according to Delmont.
Rappe was taken to another room. A doctor was summoned, and he attended to her. She stayed at the hotel for a few days before she was taken to a hospital—where she died, on September 9, of a ruptured bladder.
The Hearst papers had a field day with the story—the publisher would later say the Fatty Arbuckle scandal sold more papers than the sinking of the Lusitania. While sexually assaulting Virginia Rappe, the papers surmised, the 266-pound star had ruptured her bladder the San Francisco Examiner ran an editorial cartoon titled “They Walked Into His Parlor,” featuring Arbuckle in the middle of a giant spider web with two liquor bottles at hand and seven women caught in the web. Rumors that he had committed sexual depravities began to swirl.
Arbuckle turned himself in and was held for three weeks in jail. Police released a mug shot of the dejected actor, photographed in a suit and bow tie, his round face showing nothing of the joy everyone saw on celluloid. He remained silent as the innuendo swelled. Arbuckle’s lawyers insisted he was innocent and requested that the public make no judgment until all the facts were established. But they quickly realized Arbuckle would have to make a statement, and the comedian told a very different story from Maude Delmont’s.
After having a few drinks with Virginia Rappe, the actress became “hysterical,” Arbuckle said. She “complained she could not breathe and then started to tear off her clothes.” At no time, Arbuckle insisted, was he alone with her, and he said he had witnesses to corroborate the point. He found Rappe in his bathroom, vomiting, and he and several other guests tried to revive her from what they believed was intoxication. Eventually, they got her a room of her own where she could recover.
Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter and scheduled for trial that November. San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady saw the case as the perfect opportunity to jump-start his career in politics, but he was beginning to have trouble with his star witness, Delmont. Sometimes she claimed to be a lifelong friend of Rappe’s other times, she insisted they’d met just days before the party. She also had a criminal history of fraud and extortion, Brady discovered. Also known as “Madame Black,” Delmont procured young women for parties where wealthy male guests soon found themselves accused of rape and blackmailed into paying Delmont. Then there was the matter of the telegrams that she sent to attorneys in both San Diego and Los Angeles: “WE HAVE ROSCOE ARBUCKLE IN A HOLE HERE CHANCE TO MAKE SOME MONEY OUT OF HIM.”
Still, Brady proceeded to trial. The newspapers never questioned Delmont’s version of events, and they kept flogging Arbuckle. His reputation was in a shambles, even after his friends Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin vouched for his character.
But Arbuckle’s lawyers introduced medical evidence showing that Rappe had had a chronic bladder condition, and her autopsy concluded that there “were no marks of violence on the body, no signs that the girl had been attacked in any way.” (The defense also had witnesses with damaging information about Rappe’s past, but Arbuckle wouldn’t let them testify, he said, out of respect for the dead.) The doctor who treated Rappe at the hotel testified that she had told him Arbuckle did not try to sexually assault her, but the prosecutor got the point dismissed as hearsay.
Fatty Arbuckle was making $1 million per year in 1921 with Paramount Pictures. Photo: Wikipedia
Arbuckle took the stand in his own defense, and the jurors voted 10-2 for acquittal. When the prosecution tried him a second time, the jury deadlocked again. It wasn’t until the third trial, in March of 1922, that Arbuckle allowed his attorneys to call the witnesses who had known Rappe to the stand. He had little choice his funds were depleted—he would spend more than $700,000 on his defense—and his career was presumed to be dead. They testified that Rappe had suffered previous abdominal attacks drank heavily and often disrobed at parties after doing so was promiscuous, and had an illegitimate daughter. One of them also attacked Maude Delmont as “the complaining witness that never witnessed.”
On April 12, 1922, the jury acquitted Arbuckle of manslaughter after deliberating for just five minutes—four of which were used to prepare a statement:
Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him … there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story which we all believe. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and women that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.
One week later, Will Hays, whom the motion picture industry hired as a censor to restore its image, banned Fatty Arbuckle from appearing on screen. Hays would change his mind eight months later, but the damage was done. Arbuckle changed his name to William B. Goodrich (Will B. Good) and worked behind the scenes, directing films for friends who remained loyal to him and barely earning a living in the only business he knew. A little more than ten years later, on June 29, 1933, he had a heart attack and died in his hotel room. He was 46.
Books: Robert Grant, Joseph Katz, The Great Trials of the Twenties: The Watershed decade in America’s Courtrooms, Sarpedon, 1998. Scott Patrick Johnson, Trials of the Century: An Encyclopedia of Popular Culture and the Law, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2011. Charles F. Adams, Murder by the Bay: Historic Homicide In and About the City of San Francisco, Quill Driver Books, 2005. Stuart Oderman, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: A Biography of the Silent Film Comedian, 1887-1933, McFalrald, 1994.
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle Scandal Changes the Film Industry
Lindsay Lohan due in court for robbery charges brought against her. Brad Pitt divorces Jennifer Aniston and is seen with Angelina Jolie. Although some headlines surrounding celebrities are more shocking than others, it is still not a surprise to see these stories circulating all over the media. As much as one tries to not pay attention, somehow it makes its’ way into our lives. Lead actors and actresses weren’t known when silent film was first introduced. Their rise in fame and exposure was usually their downfall. Popular silent film star Roscoe Arbuckle is a prime example of how a negative scandal ultimately ended his career.
Roscoe Arbuckle, also known as Fatty Arbuckle, was signed to Keystone Studios in 1913. Arbuckle had worked with other well known comedians such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. He became a favorite among audiences during that time. He was considered to be the highest paid star in 1916. But his popularity didn’t last long.
Arbuckle decided to have a party in celebration of the $1 million deal he sealed with Paramount in 1921. The party took place in a hotel in San Francisco and actress Virginia Rappe was one of the attendees. The party was said to have lasted throughout Labor Day weekend. Four days later however Virginia Rappe had died in the hospital due to a ruptured bladder. Newspapers ran stories of Rappe’s death blaming Arbuckle and also mentioned orgies performed at the party. There were several reports of Arbuckle taking Rappe to his bedroom and Rappe heard screaming inside. There were allegations that Arbuckle raped her or harmed her enough to kill her.
Needless to say Arbuckle was charged with rape and murder in 1921. Arbuckle’s films were taken out from the theaters after the charges were brought against him. The press continued to write negative stories, further damaging his reputation, and focusing less on seeking the truth. Even after he was acquitted the damage was done. His contract with Paramount was cancelled and his image was ruined.
As a result the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association was formed in 1922. Will Hays, director of MPPDA, banned Arbuckles’ films to be screened and forbidden Arbuckle to work in the industry. Film censorship legislation was being imposed on other states and various states such as New York passed state censorship. The main goals of MPPDA after the Arbuckle incident was to internally censor films and use MPPDA as a platform to gain the publics’ trust, to gain a positive outlook on the film industry.
Stars wholesome image was constructed at the time and it was a reflection on the industry. The Arbuckle scandal changed the film industry. Self regulation was used as a means to demonstrate the industry wasn’t as immoral or as bad as the media turned them out to be. These changes in the film industry made an impact on how films are viewed in the present day. A rating system is implemented and films are continuously being censored for the public’s well being.
Barbas, Samantha. The Political Spectator: Censorship, Protest and the Moviegoing Experience, 1912-1922 Film History Vol. 11, No. 2, Émigré Filmmakers and Filmmaking (1999), pp. 217-229
Fine, Gary Alan. Scandal, Social Conditions, and the Creation of Public Attention: Fatty Arbuckle and the “Problem of Hollywood” Social Problems Vol. 44, No. 3 (Aug., 1997), pp. 297-323
Goldman. “Fatty Arbuckle: The fall of a comic giant.” Biography 3.11 (1999): 24. Film & Television Literature Index. EBSCO. Web. 28 Sept. 2011.
Vaughn, Stephen. The Devil’s Advocate: Will H. Hays and the Campaign to Make Movies Respectable Indiana Magazine of History Vol. 101, No. 2 (JUNE 2005), pp. 125-152
In 1920, Arbuckle signed a million-dollar contract with Paramount Pictures he was the first actor to earn $1 million a year. One of the clauses of Arbuckle’s contract was basically cruel: it held that he must remain over 250 pounds. He would even receive a bonus if he added 50 or 100 pounds. Arbuckle dutifully obliged, and spent the rest of his life hovering around 300 pounds.
In the autumn of 1921, silent film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was arrested for the rape and murder of a model and actress named Virginia Rappé. The ensuing scandal created a firestorm of controversy not just around Arbuckle but the entire motion picture industry. Religious and moral reformers seized upon the scandal to decry the decline of “traditional” moral values taking place throughout American society in the aftermath of World War I. The scandal created a common objective for an anti-film coalition representing diverse social and religious groups, all dedicated to bringing about change in the motion picture industry through public pressure, boycotts, and censorship legislation. In the face of this threat, the film industry created the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, with Republican strategist Will Hays as its president. Hays worked to incorporate moral reformers into his new organization, giving them an outlet for their complaints while simultaneously co-opting and defusing their reform agenda. Hays’ use of public relations as the means to institute self-regulation within the motion picture industry enabled Hollywood to survive the Arbuckle scandal and continue to thrive. It also set up the mechanism by which the industry has effectively negotiated public discontent ever since.
Fatty Arbuckle’s Scandal Leads To Change in the MPPDA
The Fatty Arbuckle Trial was momentous for the 1920s and the American Film Industry. During the time, the trial and scandal that he was associated with rocked the world, much like how scandals of celebrities today circulate as “big news”. But not only did the trial and scandal effect Arbuckle’s personal life, it also affected his career in a big way, causing its end and a change in the American Film Industry.
Originally born as Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle, “Fatty” was known as an American silent film actor. According to David Goldman, author of Fatty Arbuckle: The Fall of a Comic Giant, Arbuckle’s stardom surpassed Charlie Chaplin’s, and in 1916, Arbuckle was the “highest-paid movie star in the world” (Goldman).
On Labor Day weekend of 1921, Arbuckle was celebrating his new $1 million deal with Paramount, and decided to have a party at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, which was where the scandal set. Amongst the party goes, the aspiring actress, Virginia Rappe was present, but things took a turn for the worst during and after the party. The morning after one of the party during the holiday weekend, Rappe was feeling ill, and according to Marty Jones, author of HOLLYWOOD Scapegoat, “Rappe was dismissed as a victim of too much bathtub gin” and Rappe was moved to another room to sleep off the pain that she was feeling. Comes to Arbuckle’s surprise that Rappe was pronounced dead and he was under arrest for the murder of Virginia Rappe.
Arbuckle had three different trials for the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe. However the conclusive results of Rappe’s death did not involve rape at all. According to Marty Jones, author of Death of a Starlet, the evidence showed that Rapped was a victim of an illegal abortion, which showed that there was a tear in her bladder. Jones also says that when taken to a maternity hospital, Rappe’s organs, which could have potentially proved that she had an abortion, were removed and destroyed. The trial resulted in Arbuckle being not guilty and he was free of all charges. However, Arbuckle’s career was in jeopardy of this scandal.
Because of his scandal, according to Jones in HOLLYWOOD Scapegoat, the MPPDA needed to show that they were a strong force that wasn’t to be tested. They needed to sacrifice his career for all the scandals that were set in the film industry, i.e. the murder of William Desmond Taylor (Jones, HOLLYWOOD Scapegoat), and to show that they were a legitimate body that would set rules. As of April 18 th , 1922, the MPPDA announced, “Arbuckle was banned from working in motion pictures” (Jones, HOLLYWOOD Scapegoat). But merely a year late, Arbuckle was working behind the scenes under a pseudonym of William Goodrich (Jones, HOLLYWOOD Scapegoat), and after 10 years later, Arbuckle was able to return back to the big screen. Arbuckle’s lack of presence in film for 10 years proved that the MPPDA, as Jones puts it in HOLLYWOOD Scapegoat, was “seen as an effective watchdog” and that “the motion picture industry had in its own hip pocket the ability to control public perception”.
In the end, Arbuckle faced a serious heart attack in 1933, causing his death. In one way, Arbuckle’s death signifies the end of an era involving scandals, who to believe, and the extreme consequences one must face.
1.) Arbuckle, Roscoe “Fatty” . Cinema Image Gallery. Web. 2 Oct. 2011.
2.) Goldman. “Fatty Arbuckle: The fall of a comic giant.” Biography 3.11 (1999): 24. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 28 Sept. 2011.
3.) Jones, Marty. “HOLLYWOOD Scapegoat.” American History 39.6 (2005): 40-47. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 29 Sept. 2011.
4.) Jones, Marty. “The Death of a Starlet.” American History 39.6 (2005): 45. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 29 Sept. 2011.
Public enemy No 1
The case against the silent movies' king of slapstick would be Tinseltown's first major scandal.
"This was the guy who discovered Buster Keaton who helped mentor Charlie Chaplin," says Arbuckle biographer Stuart Oderman. "He had magical comic timing. He was one of the all-time greats."
But overnight, the roly-poly buffoon adored by children across America was public enemy number one, and people were spitting in his face outside court.
It was on 5 September 1921, that Arbuckle ended up at a party in a luxury suite on the 12th floor of the St Francis, after taking a break from a hectic filming schedule.
Among the guests was Virginia Rappe, a 30-year-old struggling actress who suffered from chronic cystitis, a bladder inflammation.
At some point, Arbuckle and Rappe ended up together in a bedroom from where, a few minutes later, her screams were heard.
HBO’s Fatty Arbuckle Movie Probably Won’t Be Sponsored By Coca Cola
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was a man ahead of his time. Not in his work as a silent movie comedian, which was completely of its time, but in the fact that his career and life were destroyed by a sensational trial. In 1921 Arbuckle was accused of raping and causing the death of aspiring actress Virginia Rappe, who died of peritonitis from a ruptured bladder. The police initially said that Arbuckle had blown out her bladder by laying his fat body on top of her later Rappe’s manager said that Arbuckle had caused internal injuries to Rappe by fucking her with a piece of ice. The newspapers of the time, in their wisdom, morphed the ice into a Coca Cola bottle.
After three trials Arbuckle was found not guilty, but his films had been banned by an outraged public and his career was destroyed. His wife left him. He eventually directed some shorts under a pseudonym, made a brief comeback in the 30s and then died the same day he signed a full length feature contract with Warner Bros. He supposedly said ‘This is the best day of my life,’ just hours before his heart failed him on June 28, 1933.
These days Fatty’s scandal is seen as one of the first in Hollywood history, and it’s what’s he’s most famous for.
HBO will be adapting a book about Arbuckle, The Day the Laughter Stopped(what a fucking trite title, huh?), and Eric Stonestreet of Modern Familywill be playing Fatty. Barry Levinson is attached to direct, and John Adamsscripter Kirk Ellis will be writing. According to Vulture, who broke the story, The Day the Laughter Stoppedwill be about more than just Fatty’s life:
Instead, the goal is to tell the tale of how America transformed from the exuberance that followed the end of World War I into a more repressive, conservative place during the era of prohibition. The film will also touch on Washington’s relationship with Hollywood, as well as the role of media in modern society.
Can’t a fake Coke bottle rape movie just be a fake Coke bottle rape movie?
By the way, this won’t be the first time the Fatty Arbuckle story has hit the screen. The movie version of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylondepicts the Rappe/Arbuckle business as softcore smut. It’s a pretty weird movie.
Did Fatty Arbuckle murder Virginia Rappe?
In the 1920s and 1930s, as Hollywood became a more organized institution with recognizable, marketable actors and actresses, individuals who were part of this unique, and exclusive community came under increasing scrutiny. Men and women who were a part of this elite circle were subjects of gossip, and their exploits were were laid bare and exposed to the reading public. According to historian Lois Banner, actors and actresses’ lives were described as “free and easy” in almost every sense of the phrase, and a series of scandals, including those of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, created an opportunity for critique.
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was born in Kansas in 1887. His family moved to Santa Ana when he was about two, and with his mother’s encouragement, he began to act and sing on stage. However, his father no longer encouraged his acting when his mother passed away. Arbuckle seemed to give up on his passion and took odd jobs to get by. One day, when a customer overheard him singing while working, he was encouraged to perform at a talent show. The crowd, however, didn’t care for his singing. He tripped and fell off the stage—which sent the audience into a laughing frenzy. It was this that brought him to begin a career in vaudeville.
In 1913, he signed with Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Company and became one of the Keystone Kops. The Keystone Kops was a slapstick comedy sitcom of the silent era that featured Arbuckle and a handful of other actors as a squad of incompetent police officers. In the show, Arbuckle’s weight—which hovered between an estimated 250 and 300 pounds—was often part of the comedic act. Though he despised the nickname “Fatty,” it stuck.