In 1917 Buster Keaton met Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was making a series of slapstick comedies at movie mogul Joseph Schenck’s specially created Comique studio. Four years later, Arbuckle’s career was in ruins.
On Friday 2 September 1921, the weekend of Labor Day, Keaton telephoned Arbuckle to invite him to go sailing with him on a rented yacht. Roscoe told Buster he had already committed himself to go to San Francisco for the weekend with two friends. “Break with them,” Buster urged. “You’ll have more fun with us.” According to Rudi Kesh’s biography Keaton (1966), Buster ever after recalled how Arbuckle hesitated before saying, “No, I can’t. A promise is a promise.”
San Francisco’s Westin St Francis Hotel still shows visitors the room where an infamous bootleg-booze party took place 90 years ago today. In short, an actress by the name of Virginia Rappe was found screaming in agony on a bed. A few days later in hospital she died of peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder. The man charged with causing her death was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
Overnight, the larger than life comedian – who in 1918 had signed Hollywood’s first contract for one million dollars a year and whom Mack Sennett at their first meeting described as having “skipped up the stairs as lightly as Fred Astaire”, who then without warning went into “a feather light step, clapped his hands and did a backward somersault as graceful as a girl tumbler” – became public enemy number one.
Arbuckle’s story was that he had gone to use the bathroom and found Rappe in a drunken faint on the floor. He carried her to the bed but she fell off. When Arbuckle left the party, revellers initially assumed the actress was merely the worse for wear. But her condition deteriorated and when she was taken to hospital three days later her friend, Bambina Maude Delmont, told the doctor Arbuckle had raped Rappe. A medical examination found no evidence of sexual assault and one day later she died.
Arbuckle was arrested and charged with manslaughter. The trial was a major media event. Sensationalized stories in William Randolph Hearst’s nationwide newspaper chain portrayed him as a lecher who used his weight to overpower innocent girls. Hearst said that the scandal had “sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.” It destroyed Arbuckle’s career and his personal life. Morality groups called for Arbuckle to be sentenced to death and studio executives ordered Arbuckle’s film friends (whose careers they controlled) not to speak up for him – a move described by film historians as “the first Hollywood scandal with box office implications.”
The case against Arbuckle was riddled with holes. His chief accuser, Bambina Maude Delmont, was a convicted criminal who had admitted plotting to extort money from him. She never took the stand. And it emerged in court that the prosecution had used intimidation to force several witnesses to testify against Arbuckle. Even so, the actor was tried three times over, with the first two cases ending in hung juries.
At the third trial in 1922, the jury took only six minutes to return a unanimous verdict of not guilty – five of those minutes were spent writing a public apology unprecedented in American justice. The jury foreman read it out:
“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 believed. 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.”
One week after Arbuckle’s acquittal the Hays Office (in charge of implementing the set of moral censorship guidelines governing the production of the vast majority of United States motion pictures released by major studios) officially banned all his comedies, cancelled all showings and bookings, and barred the comedian from acting in films. Buster Keaton pleaded with Joseph Schenck to let Arbuckle become a director – to no avail. It took ten years in the wilderness before Arbuckle was again able to sign a contract in 1932 with Warner Brothers to star under his own name in a series of two-reel comedies. The films were very successful in America, although when Warner Brothers attempted to release the first one in the United Kingdom, the British Board of Film Censors cited the scandal and refused to grant an exhibition certificate.
Roscoe Arbuckle finished filming the last of the two-reelers on 28 June 1933. The next day he was signed by Warner Brothers to make a feature-length film. He reportedly said, “This is the best day of my life.” Later that night he suffered a heart attack and died in his sleep. He was 46. Recently it was announced that an adaptation of David Yallop’s book about the scandal, The Day the Laughter Stopped (1976), is being made. It will be a telefilm for HBO, the American premium cable television network owned by Time Warner, one of today’s movie moguls. Let’s hope that when it comes out, silent cinema’s tragicomic tale will finally have been dealt with honestly and fairly.