When you consider the case of Fatty Arbuckle and the circumstances surrounding the facts, you get a good idea of what the combination of a hysterical media and yellow journalism can lead up to.
I guess you could say that Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle was destined to acquire the nickname “Fatty”. After all, when he born in Smith Center, Kansas on March 24, 1887, he weighed in at 14 pounds. It wasn’t too long before the local kids took notice of his girth and bestowed upon him the name he would carry for the rest of his life. His family, always poor, often had to live on the move in order to survive and “Fatty” took on a number off odd jobs to help them try and make ends meet. One of those odd jobs led to the events that would change his life forever.
He was about 25 years old and performing as a singer when he caught the eye of the legendary Mack Sennett. Sennett had just opened up the Keystone Film Company and was on the lookout for new talent to compliment his growing cadre of actors that included Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. When Sennett came up with the idea of the Keystone Kops, Arbuckle fit right in. Even though he had no formal training as an actor, he had a flair for comedy and the slapstick style of the day was right up his alley. It wasn’t too long before audiences took note of his style and talent and Arbuckle was soon one of the mainstays in the Keystone Kops series. Sennett, recognizing that he had a gold mine on his hands, quickly convinced Arbuckle to make a series of “Fatty and Mabel” films that featured his girlfriend, one Mabel Normand.
The next couple of years were good ones for Arbuckle. His popularity among audiences was high and he was viewed by the public as the stereotypical happy go lucky fat guy, Arbuckle wanted more though.
In 1916, Paramount Pictures came a calling with an offer that was hard to turn down. In a then unheard of move, they offered Arbuckle full creative control over his films and even formed a company called “The Comique Film Corporation” to achieve that end. The idea worked and Paramount wanted to lock up Arbuckle and his talents to a long-term deal. In 1921, they offered him a 3 year deal to the tune of 1 million per year. Big numbers in those days!
Paramount, wanting a return on their investment immediately put Arbuckle to work and he responded by cranking out nine feature films in the first eight months of 1921. All this effort led him to the brink of exhaustion and he decided he needed a break. He headed up to San Francisco on Labor Day weekend with some friends in order to unwind with some whiskey, music and women. Little did he know…
Sometime over the next couple of days, Arbuckle was introduced to an actress by the name of Virginia Rappe. Now Ms. Rappe, a former prostitute who had a long history of involvement with men and was rumored to had gone through anywhere between three and five abortions, was certainly no stranger to the party life. While she was employed at Keystone, it was rumored that she was thrown off the grounds because she had infected many of the actors with syphilis and a healthy dose of the crabs. Things got so bad that upon her dismissal, Sennett ordered that her dressing room be fumigated to prevent further outbreaks.
Anyway, sometime over the next couple of days, Ms. Rappe took ill and went into Arbuckle’s suite when he wasn’t there and proceeded to vomit. Arbuckle noticed her passed out on the bathroom floor and carried her into his bed. When she awoke, the screaming started and she accused Arbuckle of attacking her. She didn’t go to the hospital for the next three days and when she finally did it was too late. She died of a ruptured bladder.
On September 10, Arbuckle was formally charged with murder and the press had a field day. William Randolph Hearst, never one to let the facts get in the way of a good story, was especially lurid. His brand of yellow journalism theorized all sorts of accounts of the death of Ms. Rappe. The most memorable speculated that Arbuckle was so fat that he crushed her while performing intercourse. If that wasn’t wild enough, they then came up with the idea that Arbuckle had ruptured Ms. Rappe's bladder by inserting a champagne bottle in her vagina and that it had shattered.
Public reaction was swift and sure. A couple of days after these “revelations” were made, Arbuckle’s films were pulled from the theaters. His first trial, on the reduced charge of manslaughter was set to begin on November 18th.
It lasted three weeks. Arbuckle testified on his own behalf and ended when the jury could not arrive at a verdict. The vote was 10 to 2 to acquit.
The second trial saw a change in the defense’s strategy. Perhaps sensing a full acquittal, they didn’t call Arbuckle to the stand. The move backfired and the jury was again hung. This time though, they saw Arbuckle’s failure to testify as an admission of guilt and they were standing at 10 to 2 to convict.
Round three began in March of 1922 and this time the defense once again put Arbuckle on the stand. The moved worked and it took the jury all of six minutes of deliberation to acquit him of the charges. They even went so far as to issue the following letter about their decision.
Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was our only plain duty to give him this exoneration. 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 on the witness stand, which we all believed.
The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible.
We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and women who have sat listening for thirty-one days to the evidence that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.
You would think that with such a ringing endorsement of his innocence, Fatty Arbuckle would be free and clear to resume his career in filmmaking. You would be wrong.
I guess after one is tried and found in guilty in the press rather than in a court of law, one is subject to certain consequences. Those consequences for Arbuckle turned out to be devastating. A commission started by William Hays that centered upon such things as morals and public decency in filmmaking had been formed and would decide his fate.. Even though Arbuckle had been declared free and innocent of all charges, it wasn’t good enough to satisfy the powers of censorship. On April 18, 1922, Arbuckle was formally banned from making any more films.
Supposedly, the ban was lifted after six months but in reality it lasted a lifetime. For the next nine years, studio’s were reluctant to employ Arbuckle and he spent much of the time battling alcoholism and suffered a series of divorces. Even when he managed to find work, he was usually forced to use a pseudonym.
Fatty Arbuckle, who had risen so fast and fallen even faster never regained his stature among his Hollywood peers. He died in his sleep on June 29, 1933. He was all of 46 years old.