Scandalous Hollywood: Fatty Arbuckle

EVERYTHING about silent screen comedian-producer-director Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was immense: his talent, his prodigious girth (he tipped the scales at 266 pounds), his paycheck (at the zenith of his popularity, he pulled down $10,000 for a day’s work), his fame . . . his infamy. Sadly, he became part of urban legend more for the lurid apocrypha that surrounded his involvement in one of Hollywood’s most notorious scandals than for his gargantuan comedic talent.

Born in extreme poverty in Kansas, the jolly, beefy Arbuckle first broke into showbiz as a carnival performer, eventually crossing over to films–slapstick comedies, to be more precise–in 1908. Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Company hired Fatty in 1913 for a whopping $5 a week, employing his peerless comic timing in a string of short subjects with Keystone Kops, the standard bevies of bathing beauties, and partnering him with the lively comedienne Mabel Normand. A succession of popular two-reelers with Charlie Chaplin and frequent collaborator Buster Keaton cemented Arbuckle’s reputation as one of the preeminent raucous funnymen of the silent screen, and in 1917, Paramount signed him for a mind-boggling salary of $5,000 a week.

On Labor Day weekend of 1921, after signing a new million-dollar contract with Paramount, Fatty decided to throw himself a bathtub gin-soaked bacchanal (later called an orgy by the press) in a trio of adjoining suites at San Francisco’s luxurious St. Francis Hotel. A starlet-cum-call-girl named Virginia Rappe crashed the party, and before too long, began complaining of abdominal pains and retired to the bathroom attached to Arbuckle’s bedroom suite to vomit.

Here’s where the details get a little murky: supposedly, Arbuckle discovered her there and carried her to his bed, where he applied ice to her abdomen in an effort to reduce her fever. Four days later, Rappe died in a hospital of peritonitis brought on by a ruptured bladder. The press immediately sensationalized the story, speculating that the hefty Arbuckle had caused the rupture by ravishing Rappe, and in some extreme accounts, by violating her with a champagne bottle.

Scandalous Hollywood Fatty Arbuckle

Virginia Rappe

There are any number of theories circulating about what actually caused the fatal injury–a botched abortion, a game gone awry in which Rappe tickled Fatty and his knee jerked up and caught her in the stomach, or a combination of the two–but it seems likely that her death was accidental and not the result of any depraved brutality on the part of Arbuckle.

Though an autopsy revealed absolutely no physical evidence of a sexual attack, and inquiry further suggested that the woman possessed a mitigating, dubious background–including a history of prostitution, the fact she had had numerous abortions and suffered from syphilis to boot, a disease that well could have caused the lethal rupture–William Randolph Hearst’s yellow journalism made of Arbuckle a manslaughtering rapist and the emblem of Hollywood’s threat to the moral fabric of America.

Arbuckle endured three trials before being acquitted in 1922–the third jury deliberated for less than a minute and included an official apology with the verdict. But Arbuckle’s hard-proven innocence mattered little in the end. A scapegoat to the strident moralists who were crying for symbolic Hollywood blood, Arbuckle was readily sacrificed to the newly formed Hays Office (a “censorship” bureau established to monitor Hollywood’s morally suspect stars), and his movies were pulled from theaters all over the country. Despite being banned from the screen, Arbuckle nonetheless directed movies for a time under the pointed pseudonym William B. Good. He lived long enough to make a comeback in a series of two-reelers in the early thirties, but he had taken to drinking quite heavily after his career was shattered, and he died, in 1933, at the age of forty-six.

I don’t weigh a pound over one hundred and eighty and, what’s more, I never did. – Fatty Arbuckle

Other posts featuring the following