Roscoe Conkling "Fatty" Arbuckle
(March 24, 1887 – June 29, 1933) was an American illustrated song slide "model," silent film actor, comedian, director, and screenwriter. Starting at the Selig Polyscope Company he eventually moved to Keystone Studios where he worked with Mabel Normand and Harold Lloyd. He mentored Charlie Chaplin and discovered Buster Keaton and Bob Hope. He was one of the most popular stars of the 1910s, and soon became one of the highest paid, signing a contract to make $1 million a year in 1918.
In 1921 Arbuckle threw a party during Labor Day weekend. Bit player Virginia Rappe became ill at the party and died days later. Soon Arbuckle was accused of raping and accidentally killing Rappe, enduring three widely publicized manslaughter trials. His films were banned, his career was ruined, and he was publicly ostracized. Though he was acquitted by a jury and received a written apology, the trial's scandal has mostly overshadowed his legacy as a pioneering comedian. Though the ban on his films was eventually lifted, Arbuckle only worked sparingly through the 1920s. In 1932 he began a successful comeback, which he briefly enjoyed before his death in 1933.
Born in Smith Center, Kansas, one of nine children born to Mollie and William Goodrich Arbuckle who were of Scottish descent. Roscoe Arbuckle weighed in excess of 13 lb (6 kg) at birth and as both parents had slim builds this resulted in his father not believing the child was his own offspring. This disbelief led him to name the child after a politician whom he despised, Republican senator Roscoe Conkling. The birth was traumatic for Mollie and resulted in chronic health problems which contributed to her death 12 years later.
Arbuckle had a "wonderful" singing voice and was extremely agile. At the age of eight his mother encouraged him to perform in theatres which he enjoyed until she died in 1899 when he was 12. His father, who had always treated him harshly, now refused to support him and Arbuckle got work doing odd jobs in a hotel. Arbuckle was in the habit of singing while he worked and was overheard by a customer who was a professional singer. The customer invited him to perform in an amateur talent show. The show consisted of the audience judging acts by clapping or jeering with bad acts pulled off the stage by a shepherd's crook. Arbuckle sang, danced and did some clowning around but did not impress the audience. He saw the crook emerge from the wings and to avoid it somersaulted into the orchestra pit in obvious panic. The audience went wild and he not only won the competition but began a career in vaudeville.
In 1904 Arbuckle was invited by Sid Grauman to sing in his new Unique Theater in Minneapolis, which was the start of a long friendship between the two. He then joined the Pantages Theatre Group touring the West Coast of the United States and in 1906 joined the Orpheum Theater in Portland, Oregon owned by Leon Errol. Arbuckle became the main act and the group took their show on tour.
On August 6, 1908 he married Minta Durfee (1889 – 1975), the daughter of Charles Warren Durfee and Flora Adkins. Durfee starred in many early comedy films under the name Minta Durfee, often with Arbuckle. They reportedly made a strange couple as Minta was short and petite while Arbuckle was tall and very large. Arbuckle then joined the Morosco Burbank Stock vaudeville company and went on a tour of China and Japan returning in early 1909.
Arbuckle began his film career with the Selig Polyscope Company in July 1909 when he appeared in Ben's Kid. Arbuckle appeared sporadically in Selig one-reelers until 1913, moved briefly to Universal Pictures and became a star in producer-director Mack Sennett's Keystone Cops comedies. Although his large size was undoubtedly part of his comedic appeal Arbuckle was self-conscious about his weight and refused to use it to get "cheap" laughs. For example he would not allow himself be stuck in a doorway or chair.
Arbuckle was a talented singer. After Enrico Caruso heard him sing he urged the comedian to "give up this nonsense you do for a living, with training you could become the second greatest singer in the world".
Despite his massive physical size, Arbuckle was remarkably agile and acrobatic. Mack Sennett, when recounting his first meeting with Arbuckle, noted that he "skipped up the stairs as lightly as Fred Astaire"; and, "without warning went into a feather light step, clapped his hands and did a backward somersault as graceful as a girl tumbler". His comedies are noted as rollicking and fast-paced, have many chase scenes, and feature sight gags. Arbuckle was fond of the famous "pie in the face," a comedy cliché that has come to symbolize silent-film-era comedy itself. The earliest known use of this gag was in the June 1913 Keystone one-reeler A Noise from the Deep, starring Arbuckle and frequent screen partner Mabel Normand. (The first known "pie in the face" on-screen is in Ben Turpin's Mr. Flip in 1909. However, the oldest known thrown "pie in the face" is Normand's.)
In 1914 Paramount Pictures made the then-unheard of offer of US$1,000-a-day plus 25% of all profits and complete artistic control to make movies with Arbuckle and Normand. The movies were so lucrative and popular that in 1918 they offered Arbuckle a 3-year, $3 million contract.
By 1916 Arbuckle's weight and heavy drinking were causing severe health problems and an infection he caught became a carbuncle on his leg so bad that amputation was considered. Although he recovered with his leg intact, he had lost 80 lb (36 kg) - managing to get his weight down to 266 lbs (120 kg) - and he had become addicted to morphine. It might be added that this is reported to have been given to him by doctors to diminish the pains in his legs, as the danger of using morphine was not yet widely known.
Following his recovery, Arbuckle started his own film company, Comique, in partnership with Joseph Schenck. Although Comique produced some of the best short pictures of the silent era, in 1918 Arbuckle transferred his controlling interest in the company to Buster Keaton and accepted Paramount's $3 million offer to make up to 18 feature films over three years.
Arbuckle disliked his screen nickname, which he had been given because of his substantial girth. "Fatty" had also been Arbuckle's nickname since school; "It was inevitable", he said. He weighed 185 lb (84 kg) when he was 12. Fans also called Roscoe "The Prince of Whales" and "The Balloonatic". However, the name Fatty (big buster) identifies the character that Arbuckle portrayed on-screen (usually, a naive hayseed) — not Arbuckle himself. When Arbuckle portrayed a female, the character was named "Miss Fatty" (as in the film Miss Fatty's Seaside Lovers). Arbuckle discouraged anyone from addressing him as "Fatty" off-screen and when they did so his usual response was "I've got a name, you know."
After British actor Charlie Chaplin joined Keystone Studios in 1914, Arbuckle mentored him. Chaplin's most famous character, "the Tramp", was created after Chaplin adopted Arbuckle's trademark balloon pants, boots and tiny hat.
Arbuckle gave Buster Keaton his first film-making work in the 1917 short, The Butcher Boy. They soon became screen partners, with deadpan Buster soberly assisting wacky Roscoe in his crazy adventures. When Arbuckle was promoted to feature films Keaton inherited Arbuckle's short-subject company Comique, which launched his own career as a comedy star. Arbuckle's and Keaton's close friendship never wavered, even when Arbuckle was beset by tragedy at the zenith of his career and through the depression and downfall that followed. In his autobiography Keaton described Arbuckle's playful nature and his love of practical jokes, including several elaborately constructed schemes the two successfully pulled off at the expense of various Hollywood studio heads and stars.
Arbuckle also gave Bob Hope his break in show business. In 1927, Arbuckle allowed Hope to be the opening act in his comedy show in Cleveland. Roscoe then gave Hope the names and numbers of his friends in Hollywood, telling him to "go west".
On September 5, 1921 Arbuckle took a break from his hectic film schedule and despite suffering from second degree burns to both buttocks from an accident on set, drove to San Francisco with two friends, Lowell Sherman (an actor/director) and cameraman Fred Fischbach. The three checked into three rooms 1219 (Arbuckle & Fischbach), 1220 (empty) and 1221 (Sherman) at the St. Francis Hotel. They had rented 1220 as a party room and invited several women to the suite.
During the carousing, a 26-year-old aspiring actress named Virginia Rappe was found seriously ill in room 1219 and was examined by the hotel doctor, who concluded her symptoms were mostly caused by intoxication and gave her morphine to calm her. Rappe was not hospitalized until two days after the incident.
In truth, Virginia Rappe was quite a sick woman to begin with. She suffered from chronic cystitis, a condition that flared up dramatically whenever she drank. Her heavy drinking habits and the poor quality of the era's bootleg alcohol could leave her in severe physical distress. She developed a reputation for overimbibing at parties, then drunkenly tearing at her clothes from the resulting physical pain. But by the time of the St. Francis Hotel party, her reproductive health was a greater concern. She had undergone several abortions in the space of a few years, the quality of care she received for such procedures probably substandard, and she was preparing to undergo another (or, more likely, had recently done so) as a result of a pregnancy by her boyfriend, director Henry Lehrman.
Author Andy Edmonds theorized that during the course of relatively innocent horseplay at the party itself, Arbuckle may have accidentally struck Rappe's midsection with his knee. If she had undergone a botched abortion during the days immediately before, the blow might have been enough to badly damage her already compromised internal organs. This would also account for the statements that a delirious Rappe was alleged to have made later during the party, statements along the lines of "Arbuckle did it," or "He hurt me," without implicating Arbuckle in any rape or violent attack on her.
At the hospital, Rappe's companion at the party, Bambina Maude Delmont, told Rappe's doctor that Arbuckle had raped her friend. The doctor examined Rappe but found no evidence. Rappe died one day after her hospitalization, of peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder. Delmont then told police that Arbuckle raped Rappe and the police concluded that the impact Arbuckle's overweight body had on Rappe eventually caused her bladder to rupture. Rappe's manager Al Semnacker (at a later press conference) accused Arbuckle of using a piece of ice to simulate sex with her, which led to the injuries. By the time the story was reported in newspapers, the object had evolved into being a Coca-Cola or champagne bottle, instead of a piece of ice. This rumor, however, was never proven. In fact, witnesses testified that Arbuckle rubbed the ice on Rappe's stomach to ease her abdominal pain. Arbuckle denied any wrongdoing. Delmont later made a statement incriminating Arbuckle to the police in an attempt to extort money from Arbuckle's attorneys.
Arbuckle's trial was a major media event; exaggerated and sensationalised stories in William Randolph Hearst's nationwide newspaper chain damaged his career greatly. The newspapers portrayed him as a gross lecher who used his weight to overpower innocent girls. In reality Arbuckle was a good natured man so shy with women that he was regarded by those who knew him as "the most chaste man in pictures". Hearst was gratified by the Arbuckle scandal, and later said that it had "sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the RMS Lusitania." The resulting scandal destroyed both Arbuckle's career and his personal life. Morality groups called for Arbuckle to be sentenced to death, and studio executives ordered Arbuckle's industry friends (whose careers they controlled) not to publicly speak up for him. Charlie Chaplin was in England at the time; Buster Keaton did make a public statement in support of Arbuckle; film actor William S. Hart, who had never worked with Arbuckle, made public statements which presumed that Arbuckle was guilty.
The prosecutor, San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady, an intensely ambitious man who planned to run for governor, made public pronouncements of Arbuckle’s guilt and pressured witnesses to make false statements. Brady at first used Delmont as his star witness during the indictment hearing. Although the judge threatened Brady with dismissal of the case, Brady refused to allow Delmont, the only witness accusing Arbuckle, to take the stand and testify. Delmont had a long criminal record with convictions for racketeering, bigamy, fraud, extortion and allegedly was making a living by luring men into compromising positions, captured in photographs used as evidence in divorce proceedings. The defense had also obtained a letter from Delmont admitting to a plan to extort payment from Arbuckle. In view of Delmont’s constantly changing story, her testimony would have ended any chance of going to trial. Ultimately, the judge found no evidence of rape. After hearing testimony from one of the party guests, Zey Prevon, that Rappe told her "Roscoe hurt me" on her deathbed, the judge decided that Arbuckle could be charged with first-degree murder. Brady had originally planned to seek the death penalty.The charge was later reduced to manslaughter.
The first trial
Arbuckle was then arrested on the charges of manslaughter but freed himself on bail. The first trial began on November 14, 1921. At the beginning of the trial Arbuckle told his already-estranged wife, Minta Durfee, that he did not harm Rappe; she believed him and appeared regularly in the courtroom to support him. Public feeling was so negative that she was later shot at while entering the courthouse.
San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady served as the prosecutor. Brady's first witnesses during the trial included Betty Campbell, a model, who attended the September 5 party and testified that she saw Arbuckle with a smile on his face hours after the alleged rape occurred, Grace Hultson, a local nurse who testified it was very likely that Arbuckle did rape Rappe and bruise her body in the process, and Dr Edward Heinrich, a local criminologist who claimed he found Arbuckle's fingerprints smeared with Rappe's blood on room 1219's bathroom door. Dr Arthur Beardslee, the hotel doctor, testified that an external force seemed to have damaged the bladder. Betty Campbell, however, would also reveal that Brady threatened to charge her with perjury if she did not testify against Arbuckle. Heinrich's claim to have found fingerprints was cast into doubt after Arbuckle's defense attorney, Gavin McNabb, produced the St. Francis hotel maid, who testified that she had cleaned the room before the investigation even took place. Dr Beardslee admitted that Rappe had never mentioned being assaulted while he was treating her. McNabb was furthermore able to get nurse Hultson to admit that the rupture of Rappe's bladder could have very well been as a result of cancer, and that the bruises on her body could have also been as a result of the heavy jewelry she was wearing that evening. The pathology experts testified that while the bladder had ruptured there was evidence of chronic inflammation and no evidence of any pathological changes preceding the rupture, in other words there was no external cause for the rupture. The court's spectators reportedly booed the prosecution during the trial, and stood and cheered for Arbuckle after he testified.
Taking the witness stand, Arbuckle was simple, direct, and unflustered in both direct and cross examination. In his testimony, Arbuckle claimed that Rappe, whom he testified he had known for five or six years, came into the party room around midnight, and that some time afterward Mae Taub (daughter-in-law of Billy Sunday) asked him for a ride into town so he went to his room (1219) to change his clothes and discovered Rappe vomiting in the toilet. Arbuckle then claimed she told him she felt ill and asked to lie down, and that he carried her into the bedroom and asked a few of the party guests to help treat her. To calm Rappe down they placed her in a tub of cool water. Arbuckle and Fischbach then took her to room 1227 and called the hotel manager and doctor. After the doctor declared Rappe was just drunk, Arbuckle then drove Taub to town. The prosecution then presented Rappe's bladder as evidence that Rappe had an illness. Arbuckle denied he had any knowledge of Rappe's illness. The prosecution then noted that Arbuckle refused to call a doctor, and argued that he refused to do so because he knew of Rappe's illness and saw a perfect opportunity to kill her. On December 4, 1921, the jury returned deadlocked after 44 straight hours of deliberation with a deadlocked 10–2 not guilty verdict, and a mistrial was declared.
The second trial
The second trial began on January 11, 1922 with the same legal defense and prosecution as well as the same presiding judge. The same evidence was presented, but this time one of the witnesses, Zey Prevon, testified that district attorney Brady had forced her to lie. Another witness who claimed Arbuckle had bribed him turned out to be an escaped prisoner charged with assaulting an eight-year-old girl, and who was looking for a sentence reduction. Heinsen took back his earlier testimony and testified that the case's fingerprint evidence was likely faked. Further, in contrast to the first trial, Rappe's history of promiscuity and heavy drinking was detailed. The second trial also discredited some major evidence such as the identification of Arbuckle's fingerprints on the hotel bedroom door. The defense was so convinced of an acquittal that Arbuckle was not called to testify. Arbuckle's lawyer, McNab, barely made a closing argument to the jury. However, the jury interpreted the refusal to let Arbuckle testify as a sign of guilt. After over 40 hours of deliberation, the jury returned on February 3, deadlocked with a 9–3 guilty verdict. Another mistrial was declared.
The third trial
By this time of the third trial, Arbuckle's films had been banned and newspapers had been filled for the past seven months with stories of alleged Hollywood orgies, murder, and sexual perversion. Delmont was touring the country giving one-woman shows as "The woman who signed the murder charge against Arbuckle", and lecturing on the evils of Hollywood. The third trial began on March 13, 1922, and this time the defense took no chances. McNab took the defense on the offense, tearing apart the prosecution's case. This time, Arbuckle again testified and maintained his denials in his heartfelt testimony about his version of the events at the hotel party. McNab also managed to get in still more evidence about Virgina Rappe's lurid past, and reviewed how the district attorney, Matthew Brady fell for the outlandish charges of Maude Delmont, whom McNab described in his long, closing statement as "the complaining witness who never witnessed". Another hole in the prosecution's case was opened when its star witness, Zey Pevron, was discovered to have fled the country. On April 12, the jury began deliberations and it took only six minutes to return a unanimous not guilty verdict - five of those minutes were spent writing a statement of apology, an apology unprecedented in American justice. The jury statement as read by the jury foreman stated:
“ Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done 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. ”
Some experts later concluded that Rappe's bladder might also have ruptured as a result of an abortion she might have had a short time before the September 5, 1921 party. However, Rappe's organs had been destroyed and it was now impossible to test for pregnancy. Because alcohol was consumed at the party, Arbuckle was forced to plead guilty to violating the Volstead Act, and had to pay a $500 fine. At the time of his acquittal, Arbuckle owed $700,000 in legal fees to his attorneys for the three criminal trials, and had lost his house and his cars to pay off some of the debt.
Although cleared of all criminal charges, the scandal and trials had greatly damaged his popularity among the general public, and Will H. Hays, who served as the head of the newly-formed Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) Hollywood censor board, cited Arbuckle as an example of the poor morals in Hollywood. On April 18, 1922, six days after Arbuckle's acquittal, Hays banned Roscoe Arbuckle from ever working in U.S. movies again. He had also requested that all showings and bookings of Arbuckle films be cancelled, and exhibitors complied. In December of the same year, Hays elected to lift the ban, but Arbuckle was not able to secure work as an actor for a long time. Most exhibitors still declined to show Arbuckle's films, several of which have no copies known to have survived intact. One of Arbuckle's feature-length films known to survive is Leap Year, which Paramount declined to release in the United States due to the scandal. It was eventually released in Europe.
Though it was regarded as Hollywood's first major scandal, the Arbuckle case was one of four major Paramount-related scandals of the period. In 1920, Olive Thomas died after drinking a large quantity of medication meant for her husband (matinee idol Jack Pickford), which she had mistaken for water. In 1922, the murder of director William Desmond Taylor effectively ended the careers of actresses Mary Miles Minter and former Arbuckle screen partner Mabel Normand. In 1923, actor/director Wallace Reid's drug addiction resulted in his death. These scandals led major studios to include morality clauses in contracts.
In November 1923, Arbuckle's estranged wife Minta Durfee filed for divorce, charging grounds of desertion. In January 1924, the divorce was granted on her part. They had been separated since 1921, though Durfee always claimed he was the nicest man in the world, and that they were still friends. After a brief reconciliation, Durfee again filed for divorce, this time from Paris, in December 1924. Arbuckle married Doris Deane on May 16, 1925.
Arbuckle tried returning to filmmaking, but industry resistance to distributing his pictures lingered after his acquittal. He retreated into alcoholism. In the words of his first wife, "Roscoe only seemed to find solace and comfort in a bottle".
Buster Keaton attempted to help Arbuckle by giving him work on Keaton's films. Arbuckle wrote the story for a Keaton short called Daydreams. Arbuckle allegedly co-directed scenes in Keaton's Sherlock, Jr., but it is unclear how much of this footage remained in the film's final cut.
In 1925 Carter Dehaven made the short Character Studies. Arbuckle appeared alongside Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and Jackie Coogan.
William Goodrich pseudonym
Eventually, Arbuckle found work as a film director under the alias William Goodrich. According to author David Yallop in The Day the Laughter Stopped (a biography of Arbuckle with special attention to the scandal and its aftermath), Arbuckle's father's full name was William Goodrich Arbuckle. A persistent but unsupported legend credited Keaton, an inveterate punster, with suggesting that Arbuckle become a director under the alias "Will B. Good." The pun being too obvious, Arbuckle adopted the more formal pseudonym "William Goodrich".
Arbuckle directed a number of comedy shorts under the pseudonym for Educational Pictures, which featured lesser-known comics of the day. Louise Brooks, who played the ingenue in Windy Riley Goes Hollywood (1931), told Kevin Brownlow:
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.
In 1929, Doris Deane sued for divorce in Los Angeles, charging desertion and cruelty. On June 21, 1931 Roscoe married Addie Oakley Dukes McPhail (later Addie Oakley Sheldon, 1905 – 2003) in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Brief comeback and death
In 1932 Arbuckle signed a contract with Warner Brothers to star under his own name in a series of two-reel comedies, to be filmed at the Vitaphone studios in Brooklyn. These six shorts constitute the only recordings of his voice. Silent-film comedian Al St. John (Arbuckle's nephew) and actors Lionel Stander and Shemp Howard appeared with Arbuckle. The films were very successful in America, although when Warner Brothers attempted to release the first one (Hey, Pop!) in the United Kingdom, the British Board of Film Censors cited the 10-year-old scandal and refused to grant an exhibition certificate.
Roscoe Arbuckle had finished filming the last of the two-reelers on June 28, 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." He suffered a heart attack later that night and died in his sleep. He was only 46. Arbuckle was cremated, and his ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
Many of Arbuckle's films, including the feature Life of the Party, survive only as worn prints with foreign-language inter-titles. Little or no effort was made to preserve original negatives and prints during Hollywood's first two decades. By the early 21st century some of Arbuckle's short subjects (particularly those co-starring Chaplin or Keaton) had been restored, released on DVD and even screened theatrically. Arbuckle's early influence on American slapstick comedy is widely cited.
Director Kevin Connor planned a film, The Life of the Party based on Arbuckle's life in 2007. It was to star Chris Kattan and Preston Lacy. However the project was unable to find funding and was shelved in late 2008.
The 1975 James Ivory film The Wild Party has been repeatedly but incorrectly cited as a film dramatization of the Arbuckle/Rappe scandal. In fact it is loosely based on the 1920s poem by Joseph Moncure March. In this film, James Coco portrays a heavy-set silent-film comedian named Jolly Grimm whose career is on the skids, but who is desperately planning a comeback. Raquel Welch portrays his mistress, who ultimately goads him into shooting her. This film may have been inspired by misconceptions surrounding the Arbuckle scandal, yet it bears almost no resemblance to the documented facts of the case.
Chris Farley had expressed interest in starring as Arbuckle in a biography film. This idea was suggested to him by comedy guru Del Close. Farley died before any details of the film had been worked out.
In April and May 2006, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City mounted a 56-film, month-long retrospective of all of Arbuckle's known surviving work, running the entire series twice. Highlights included The Rounders (1914) with Charles Chaplin and Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life (1915) with Mabel Normand.
Arbuckle is the subject of a novel entitled I, Fatty by author Jerry Stahl.