Saturday, January 19, 2013

Scandal! Roscoe Arbuckle's Day Off

Welcome to 2013 - a year of scandals at A Person in the Dark. Yes, I love movies, but I confess I am a sucker for those juicy Hollywood scandals of old.

January's Scandal: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle

Hollywood in the early part of the twentieth century was a tough place. The work was hard and the conditions hardly up to OSHA standards. But, for those lucky enough to gain fame and fortune, the fun and play was just as rough and tumble. Roscoe (he hated being called "Fatty") Arbuckle was the comic darling of the Keystone lot in the early teens. He and Mable Normand delighted the public with their adorable antics. Before Chaplin, before Keaton and before Lloyd, it was Fatty that tickled the movie-goers fancy. Arbuckle eventually left Keystone to produce his own films.
Mabel and Roscoe
By all accounts, Roscoe was a lovely man, kind and well-liked by his peers. Even his ex-wife,  actress Minta Durfee, proclaimed him the nicest man in the world. His friendship with Buster Keaton was rock solid and he served as a mentor to both Charlie Chaplin and, much later, to Bob Hope (encouraging Hope to seek his fortune in motion pictures). If Roscoe had a fatal flaw, it was his love for alcohol and an addiction to morphine (as the result of a serious leg injury). Those flaws didn't stand in his way when showing generosity to his friends, which lead him to plan a fun getaway to San Francisco to blow off some steam on September 5, 1921.

The plan seemed like a good one. San Francisco was often used by the movie stars as a place to let their hair down. So, Roscoe rented several rooms at the St. Francis Hotel for a group of his friends, who were all invited to a party. A little Labor Day r&r with alcohol and women was just what the doctor ordered. But, in the midst of the partying, something went horribly wrong.
Virginia Rappe
While the guests partied, one guest lay writhing in pain in one of Roscoe's rooms. Virginia Rappe was a model, sometime actress and girlfriend of director Henry Lehrman. She was also a notorious party girl who, as they used to say, was no better than she should be. Virginia, who was seriously ill before she even came to the party, was admitted to the hospital 2 days after the party, where she died on September 9, 1921. Her friend, Bambina Maude Delmont, told Virginia's doctor that Roscoe had raped her friend, who died of peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder.

Here's what happened:
* Virginia Rappe, already suffering from and poor health due, in part, from too much drinking and too many abortions, became seriously ill at the party. The hotel doctor determined that her condition was caused by an over consumption of alcohol.
* Roscoe, among others, tried to help her and tried to cool her overheated body with ice cubes and a bath.
*Maude Delmont, a known, said that Virginia told her Roscoe "hurt her," which meant rape. Delmont, a known professional correspondent for blackmailers who had been targeted by the police for fraud, bigamy, extortion, and racketeering, was not even present in the room when Virginia became ill.

Bambina Maude Delmont
Here's what the public was told:
Fatty Arbuckle, host of a wildly out of control party, savagely raped and caused the death of poor Virginia Rappe with his massive weight. Not only did he rape her, but the beast also abused her with either a Coca-Cola or champagne bottle.

On September 11, 1921, Roscoe Arbuckle was arrested for the murder of Virginia Rappe.
Roscoe's Mug Shot
For 2 excruciating trials, Roscoe's name and reputation was slandered while the prosecution paraded liar after liar before the jury. The wild partying ways of the the movie colony was exposed and morality groups called for Roscoe's  execution. Both trials resulted in a hung jury. Roscoe Arbuckle was finally cleared and found innocent at a third trial. At the end of the mercifully swift third trial, a verdict was rendered in 6 minutes, with the jury foreman reading this 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 judgement of fourteen men and women that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame." District Attorney Matthew Brady had pressured witnesses to lie under oath and it was revealed that Maude Delmont was attempting to extort money from Arbuckle's attorneys. But, exoneration came too late. Both his career and his spirit were ruined. William Randolph Hearst made hay of the scandal and made a fortune off of these lies in the process. He never apologized to Roscoe for gleefully destroying him. The public and Hollywood turned their back on the man who had brought joy to so many. He was innocent and he was a pariah.

Roscoe did have some loyal friends. Buster Keaton stood by him to the end and tried to give him work when no one else would. Buster, by the way, was asked to attend the party at the St. Francis that fateful weekend, but was unable to go due to other plans (plans for which he was eternally grateful). Roscoe turned to alcohol in a big way, but still managed to find work, directing low budget films under the pseudonym William Goodrich ("will be good").  By all accounts, he was a broken man. Things finally seemed to be looking up in 1933. One June 29, 1933 he was signed by Warner Brothers for a feature length film. But resurrection was not to come. Roscoe died of a heart attack that same night. Some may agree that cause of death was a broken heart.

The Arbuckle scandal, along with the scandal concerning the mysterious death of director William Desmond Taylor, put the morality (or immorality) of Hollywood in the spotlight forever and all time. For a deeper dive into the Roscoe Arbuckle scandal, check out Frame-Up, The Untold Story of Roscoe "Fatty Arbuckle," by Andy Edmonds.

Remnants of Roscoe are still among us. Click here and check out his beautiful 1919 custom made Pierce Arrow, currently at auction. He sure had good taste!
Said Louise Brooks, who, at the tail end of her career, found herself playing a part in the cheaply-made Windy Riley Goes to Hollywood (1931, director: William Goodrich):
"He made no attempt to direct this picture. He sat in his chair like a man dead. He had been very nice and sweetly dead ever since the scandal that ruined his career. But it was such an amazing thing for me to come in to make this broken-down picture, and to find my director was the great Roscoe Arbuckle. Oh, I thought he was magnificent in films. He was a wonderful dancer—a wonderful ballroom dancer, in his heyday. It was like floating in the arms of a huge doughnut—really delightful."

Monday, January 7, 2013

Book Review: "Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips" by Michael G. Ankerich

Like the fictional Lina Lamont of “Singin’ in the Rain,” the real-life Mae Murray was “a shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament." While real people walked on the ground, Mae Murray fluttered above it on gauzy fairy wings. While real people breathed oxygen, Mae Murray inhaled the rarefied air of the gods. While real people ate, slept and aged. Mae faced each morning ageless and dewy-fresh, a vision of perpetual loveliness. So believed those wonderful people out there in the dark (for a time) and, sadly, so believed Mae Murray (all of the time).
“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Norma Desmond

Although it is not proven that Mae Murray was the inspiration for Norma Desmond, it is almost impossible not to see a resemblance between the two. However, the real-life Mae made the fictional Norma seem almost normal. The real-life silent screen queen of the 20s was defined, not only by her screen allure, but also by her fabrications, her fictions, her pretenses, her litigiousness and her decidedly odd behavior. The real story of the girl with the bee-stung lips has lied buried beneath Mae’s attempt to artfully obscure the truth. She has remained an unsolved crackpot mystery. Unsolved, that is, until the seven veils of artifice have been lifted, one my one, by author Michael G. Ankerich in the aptly-titled “Mae Murray: The Girl With the Bee-Stung Lips.”

Author Ankerich gives us the Mae we know and the Mae we did not know. We know she was a Ziegfeld performer and successful dancer, we know she was a successful movie queen, we know she was bilked out of her fortune by faux-royalty, we know she lost custody of her son, and we know she descended into poverty and madness. What we did not know is that Mae, born Marie Koenig, came from poverty, that she was remarkably hard working and a team player (at her best), and that she tried, she really tried, to make it all work. The author also reveals that she had a family whose existence she denied as long as possible. Ankerich hit a homerun by interviewing her son Koran/David, a main player in Mae’s life who has, up until now, refused to be interviewed. He sheds invaluable light on his mother who, though she might have loved him, could not let go of the fantasy that Hollywood had, at first, so willingly helped her to create and, at last, destroyed any hope of her leading a normal life out of the spotlight.
“You know, a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.”
Cecil B. De Mille speaking of Norma Desmond
Like a circus performer whose spangles look glamorous from afar, but tawdry and tacky at close range, Ankerich gives us the sad, sad story of Mae’s decline. But, Mae is clearly a likeable gal, and the author likes her, too. When her life was secure and centered (especially during her marriage to director Robert Z. Leonard), she was fun, generous and a serious artist. He treats her with great compassion always, even when she was at her most unlikeable. The memories of George Hamilton, whose mother befriended Mae in her old age and who George knew (and tangoed with) as a youth, are tender and revealing (it was George’s mother who paid for Mae headstone upon her death).
“You were silly like us, but your gift survived it all.”
W.H. Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”

Yes, she was silly, but her gift still lives on. It is on display in many silent films still available, but in full flower in 1925’s “The Merry Widow.” She and director Erich Von Stroheim (oh the irony) butted heads, but in the end they produced her greatest achievement, the one she lived off the rest of her life.

"Where are the cameras? Where are my flowers? I must be photographed with flowers! Get them before I’m surrounded by cameramen!"

Mae Murray at the end of the long, dark journey

This book, bedsides being a swell read, is a must for all silent film lovers and for those who love the larger-than-life characters that made that era golden.

“Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips” is available at Amazon.

For more about the irrepressible Mae, visit Michael G. Ankerich’s blog "Close Ups and Long Shots" by clicking HERE.