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Scandalous Hollywood: Fatty Arbuckle

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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

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Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess

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Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife

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McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Tragedy?
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Classic TV Revisited: The Royal

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The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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