The Trial of Fatty Arbuckle
Wanda Felix

Mack Sennett recalled meeting him: "A tremendous man skipped up the steps as lightly as Fred Astaire. He was tremendous, obese --- just plain fat. 'Name's Arbuckle,' he said, 'Roscoe Arbuckle. Call me Fatty! I'm with a stock company. I'm a funnyman and an acrobat. But I could do good in pictures. Whatcha think?' With no warning he went into a featherlight step, clapped his hands, and did a backward somersault as graceful as a girl tumbler."

Adela Rogers St. Johns remembered the early days in Hollywood like this: "Everybody loved everybody. There were love affairs going on, and everybody had an excitement about the whole thing that I've never seen since. None of us knew even vaguely what we were doing. None of us knew what this picture business had come to; the greatest form of art and entertainment the world has ever known was put together there for awhile. It didn't last long but it was great, and here we were, right in the middle of the goldfish bowl, with everybody beginning to look at us."

By 1921 Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was one of the highest paid actor/directors in the motion picture business. But on September 5 of that year, during a weekend party he was throwing at the Saint Francis Hotel in San Francisco, the water in the goldfish bowl turned murky. Virginia Rappe (Rap-pay), a girl attending the party, ran screaming from a bedroom, took sick and died four days later.

On September 17 Roscoe Arbuckle was arraigned in San Francisco charged with the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe. The legendary producer, Adolph Zukor (who footed the legal bill) tried to bring in the great trial lawyer, Earl Rogers, father of Adela, but Rogers was in ill health and couldn't take the case.

Adela remembered her father speaking to her about Fatty's plight, "They will make it very tough on him, because of his weight. A man of that enormous fatness being charged with the rape of a young girl will prejudice them, even just the thought of it."

Indeed, they made it very tough on the fat man. As Kevin Brownilow puts it in Hollywood: The Pioneers,

    "District Attorney Matthew Brady ... must have been beside himself. An intensely ambitious man, he planned to run for governor. Here presented to him in the most sensational terms, was the scandal of the century-an apparent open and shut case."

The ambitious Mr. Brady had a very helpful ally in William Randolph Hearst --- the undisputed champion of yellow journalism. Early director, and friend of Arbuckle's, Viola Dana recalled,

    "Hearst was instrumental in wanting the motion picture industry in Northern California (i.e. San Francisco), and instead it settled in Southern California. I think that was part of his motive in crucifying Arbuckle."

Hearst crucified Arbuckle for another reason --- circulation ... Hearst was gratified by the Arbuckle scandal; he said later that it had "sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the Lusitania."

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The ugliest twist, one many people are unaware of, is that Arbuckle was completely innocent. He was set up by a venal woman named Maude Delmont, known as "Madame Black." Delmont would provide girls for parties and then have the girl claim she was raped by a prominent director or producer. Concerned about his career, the victim would submit to Delmont's request for money to keep the story out of the press. When Rappe died a few days after the party, from a condition unrelated to the events at the St. Francis Hotel, Delmont gave Fatty Arbuckle's name to the police.

Arbuckle's wife stuck by him throughout the trial --- such was the public's scorn that she was shot at while entering the courthouse --- but the producers in Hollywood forbade his movie friends to testify on his behalf fearing that their careers would be besmirched and that the scandal would cut into profits.

After two trials resulted in hung juries, Fatty was acquitted at the third, with a written apology from the jury --- an apology unprecedented in American justice.

    "Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle [they wrote]. 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 judgment of fourteen men and women that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame."

It was, of course, too little too late. Will Hays, the ex-Postmaster General, had been installed as a kind of overlord-Pope charged with cleaning up the movies for America. As Arbuckle faced his second trial, so Brownilow puts it in his book,

    Hays went into a sort of metaphorical desert to consult with his conscience ... On April 19, 1922 Will Hays made the first major policy decision of his new job. He banned Roscoe Arbuckle from the screen.

Roscoe Arbuckle's career was decimated. The funnyman who'd done handsprings down the steps to introduce himself to Mack Sennett; the fat man who'd two years earlier signed a contract with Adolph Zukor for the astronomical sum of one million dollars a year; the director who'd acted as mentor to his friend Buster Keaton, would never rise again. A scandal fueled entirely by innuendo had been hideously successful. Fatty's time was past.

Arbuckle worked as a director, under another name, on several films after the trials. Keaton suggested he use the name Will B. Good, he did ... almost. Louise Brooks told Kevin Brownilow about working with Arbuckle at that time.

    He was working under the name William Goodrich. He made no attempt to direct this picture. He sat in his chair like a dead man. He had been very nice and sweetly dead since that scandal had ruined his career. It was such an amazing thing for me to come in to make this 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.

Arbuckle died a few years later.

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In the short history of the motion picture, Fatty Arbuckle is of central importance. His coat and hat were borrowed by a young Charlie Chaplin to create a character that became an American icon. He was a very close friend of Buster Keaton's and is credited with singlehandedly shepherding Keaton's early film career. That Arbuckle is usually conceived as a minor figure stands as testament to the power of the vendetta directed at him.

    "Oh, we kept having scandals right along," said Adela Rogers St. Johns. "If you throw into one small town and one small industry, the people who can impress the world with their drama, their sex appeal, with their lovemaking, with all of the big emotional dramatic things that can happen, and you put them all together in one little bowl, you're going to have some explosions. I'm only surprised we had so few."

Thanks is due Kevin Brownilow, author of "Hollywood: The Pioneers" and "The Parade's Gone By." I drew on both books extensively as source material for this essay. Also to Marc Wannamaker of the wonderful Bison Archive in Beverly Hills for providing the photograph of Roscoe Arbuckle.

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