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."

13 comments:

The Lady Eve said...

Dear Chick, Hollywood scandals have always intrigued me. So glad you told the true story of the Arbuckle fiasco. Like most, I heard the untrue story (how many untrue tales there were - about Clara Bow, John Gilbert, etc., etc.) first and believed it. Quite a while later I learned the facts. Appalling that such a talented, beloved man's reputation, career and life were completely destroyed by a vile fiction. By the way, William Randolph Hearst's face has always reminded me of the portrait in Dorian Gray's attic. What do you think?

FlickChick said...

Lady Eve - I was so outrageous the way this man was railroaded. As for Hearst, he was a part of that society (via Marion Davies) and it is just amazing how he sacrificed Arbuckle for the sale of newspapers. As for Dorian Gray - he definitely was the photo in the attic!!

silverscreenings said...

It's always such a horrible thing for innocent people to be framed. And it's also a shame that when people learn about Arbuckle, they always learn the wrong version first.

Thanks for this post and for helping to clean up the false rumours.

FlickChick said...

silverscreenings - what was so horrible is that people (such as the DA & WR Hearst) knowingly participated in his destruction. Such a sad story.

said...

What a sad thing happened to Roscoe! Unfortunately, this scandal also had an impact with Mabel Normand's career. And even Chaplin had a similar gossip going on, hadn't he?
Oh, and seeing Virginia Rappe's IMDb page, I found out that a new James Franco project may be Roscoe's biopic!
Kisses!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Le - that is such exciting news! I hope they do the story justice.

Samantha said...

It is wonderful to hear the truth behind all the gossip out there about Roscoe. I had heard the story long ago but I don't think I ever knew the "real" truth.
Thanks for the blog. It was great!

Samantha said...

Oh and thanks for the picture of the beautiful blue car! I would love to drive that around Hollywood today.

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Samantha - I can just see you tooling around Hollywood in that beauty!

ClassicBecky said...

Innocent and a pariah -- that poor man. I think such a thing would have killed my spirit too. Injustice hurts more than anything. I was interested in Hearst's nasty part in this: " ... Hearst made hay of the scandal and made a fortune ... He never apologized to Roscoe for gleefully destroying him." With the other things I've read about Hearst, and now this, I think he deserved all the embarrassment he got with "Citizen Kane" and more!

It's a shame that Roscoe could not have known that after his death, in years to come, his work would be resurrected, his name restored, and his place as a comedy star cemented with classic movie lovers. As one who believes in life after death, I know he is enjoying it now (and probably LOVED "Citizen Kane")!

Wonderful article, Chick. I'm glad to see someone so talented get his due. And I can't wait to see the TV movie you posted on Facebook!

Lasso The Movies said...

What a wonderfully written post. I love to watch Roscoe's old films and I hate the fact that most people only remember his scandal. Thanks for clearly explaining the facts and trying to educate those who haven't heard the truth.

FlickChick said...

Oh, thank you, Becky. I do hope that HBO film does Roscoe justice - he deserves it.

FlickChick said...

Paul - I am so glad you are a fan of Roscoe!