02 August 2010

Tragic Tales: Fatty Arbuckle

By Lorelie Brown

Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and...Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle? Who the heck is that?

While almost everyone has heard of the first two, Arbuckle has all but faded from public memory, and it was all because of one woman’s death.

Fatty Arbuckle (he supposedly hated the nickname Fatty, but I can hardly make myself think of him by any other name) started in Vaudeville as a fairly young kid. He moved to motion pictures in 1909. But he didn't get his really big break until he moved to Universal Pictures in 1913 and starred in the Keystone Kops franchise. After those, Arbuckle became huge--his fame grew to match his very large body type. Arbuckle was somewhere between 250 and 300 pounds, but the remarkable part of him was that everyone remembered him as having a light graceful step that belied his large size. Along with helping to mentor Chaplin and Keaton, he also helped out Bob Hope by hooking him up with Hollywood contacts.

By 1921, Arbuckle was on top of the world, career wise. He'd moved to Paramount Studios for a then-amazing $1 million per year. Arbuckle and two friends drove up to San Francisco for Labor Day weekend and rented a total of three rooms at the St. Francis Hotel. After a few calls, illegal booze and catered food were both delivered and a party was in full swing.

Among the guests were Virginia Rappe and Maude Delmont. Though Rappe would later be described in newspapers a sweet and innocent girl, that was far from the truth. She'd clung to the outskirts of Hollywood for years, occasionally getting tiny roles and more frequently showing up at Hollywood parties. Delmont was even worse, being known for intentionally seducing men for the sole purpose of later blackmailing them.

Rappe took sick. That much is for sure. Beyond that, things are fuzzy. Arbuckle claimed he retired to his room to change clothes and found an obviously-ill Rappe in his bedroom. People were called in, ice was placed on her midsection and most everyone said she was ill from drinking too much alcohol. Several doctors treated Rappe in the hotel, and most agreed with the alcohol poisoning diagnosis. (Though what always makes my eyebrows go up is that one doc gave her morphine. For alcohol poisoning! Totally normal at the time, but now the idea of treating that with a depressant makes little sense to non-medically-educated me.) After four days in the hotel, Rappe was moved to a local hospital. She died there on 9 September of peritonitis and infection from a torn bladder.

Delmont, however, claimed that Arbuckle had raped her friend. It would be her claims that carried the day. The San Francisco Prosecutor at the time, Matthew Brady, was very ambitious and seemed to think he could ride a conviction of Arbuckle all the way to being governor of California. Prosecutors decided that Rappe's bladder had been torn by the very large Arbuckle's weight bearing down on her during the alleged rape. (In reality, Rappe's bladder was probably damaged by a botched abortion she had days before joining the Arbuckle party in San Francisco.)

Arbuckle was tried three times for Rappe's death. The first trial ended with a hung jury that was locked up at 10 to 2 for acquittal. The second was 10 to 2 for conviction. The third ended in a complete acquittal and the jury even went so far as to write Arbuckle a letter of apology that he had been put through so much.

But the damage was already done. In an ironic twist considering William Randolph Hearst's role in suppressing the 1924 Ince scandal, newspapers owned by Hearst pushed Arbuckle's guilt. Headlines had pretty much already convicted him. Articles carried lurid details and didn't hesitate to pass along rumors that Arbuckle had violated Rappe with foreign objects such as a coca-cola or champagne bottle.

Arbuckle's career was sacrificed on the pyre of public opinion. He was banned from movies for the better part of a year, but even after the ban was lifted he was never as famous again. He had a little comeback at the end of the 20s but it didn't last long. He died before he could really make it to the top again. And our collective memory lost a great actor.