Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Tragic Story of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle

From the day he was born, Roscoe Arbuckle was special. Born on March 24, 1887, in Smith Center, Kansas, he weighed a whopping 16 pounds. His family later moved to California when he was one years old. His first stage performance was when he was just eight years old with the Webster-Brown Stock Company. As a child, he performed as a clown, acrobat and singer.  As an adult, he was hired by Mack Sennett's Keystone film studio and appeared in hundreds of one-reel comedies, usually with the Keystone Kops. Arbuckle appeared with many legends of the silver screen such as Mabel Normand and Charles Chaplin.

Though Roscoe was a large man, he never used his weight for a cheap laugh. Instead, he was known for his agility, which he used in his comedy.  As his popularity grew so did his opportunities. In 1915, he moved up from one-reel movies to two-reels. In 1917, he and Joseph M. Schenck formed a partnership called Comique. The company was very successful. Soon Arbuckle was making over $1,000 a week. As an owner of the company, he gave a break to the young actor of Buster Keaton. Arbuckle’s popularity continued to soar and at the height of his career, his comedy star was second only to Charles Chaplin. This success translated in as Arbuckle being promoted by Paramount to making full-length movies in 1919.

Tragedy struck in September of 1921 when a starlet by the name of Virginia Rappe fell seriously ill during a party at his apartment. Arbuckle said that he had found her throwing up uncontrollably in his bedroom after a heavy bout of binge drinking. According to him, he left her at the party to be cared for by friends while he went out sightseeing. However, "Bambina" Maude Delmont, who was known for blackmailing people, was at the party as well and she had a very different story of the events. She said that Arbuckle had taken the actress back to his bedroom saying, "I've waited for this a long time". According to her the guests heard screaming coming from the bedroom. When the guests burst into room, she said that they found Rappe nude and bleeding.

What is known is that they never took her to the hospital. Instead, a few days later she was admitted to the Wakefield Sanitarium, which was known as an abortion facility.  Rappe died the following day from peritonitis, which was caused by a ruptured bladder. Shortly afterwards the police arrested Arbuckle for manslaughter.

 The press tried Arbuckle and found him guilty long before it went to trial. The press coverage was an example of some of the worse of yellow journalism. They spilled gallons of ink inventing worse and worse theories. They painted graphic tales of Arbuckle raping and murdering her with his weight or inserting objects in her. 

Arbuckle's trial resulted in a hung jury. As a result he was tried again, which too resulted in a hung jury. The third trial resulted in a “not guilty” and a letter of support to Arbuckle by the jury.

While the courts found Arbuckle innocent, his career as an actor was ruined. No one would put him in a film. Under the pseudonym of “William Goodrich”, he was able to direct Buster Keaton and others successfully. Finally, he did appear in a talky in 1932 (‘Hey, Pop!’) and later in six short films.

Arbuckle died peacefully in his sleep on June 29, 1933. He was only 46 years old.

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