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A Fallen Star: Fatty Arbuckle

Fatty Arbuckle was literally a Hollywood “heavyweight”. A larger in life comedian, Arbuckle was the highest paid actor in Hollywood in 1921 but his star was soon to fall from the skies when he was accused of causing the death of a beautiful young woman during a raucous party involving bootleg liquor and illicit sexual escapades. Scandals in Hollywood are nothing new but when Tinsel Town’s biggest star fell from grace it was a catastrophic implosion to the tragic career of Fatty Arbuckle.

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was not just a comedic actor – he had been the first Hollywood star to command a million dollar salary. His career started in vaudeville where he became friends with another comedian, Buster Keaton. His friendship with Keaton lasted throughout his lifetime. In fact, it was Arbuckle who gave Keaton his first break in Hollywood by offering Keaton his first opportunity for a role in a film and, throughout the years, Arbuckle and Keaton appeared in 14 films together.

The hefty actor had started his own career in Hollywood working for Mack Sennet and had co-starred with Charlie Chaplin and Mable Normand. Although Arbuckle was a large man, carrying a weight of between 250 to 300 pounds, he was agile on his feet and an expert at performing physical, slapstick comedy which made him a favorite with film fans.

Arbuckle had been churning out picture after picture in September of 1921 when he decided to take a vacation in San Francisco. He booked a suite, room 1219 at the ritzy St. Francis Hotel across from Union Square. After checking into the hotel, Arbuckle decided to host a party for a few friends on September 5th. Before the party had hardly begun, it was crashed by some individuals who had heard that the famed actor was in San Francisco and they wanted to rub shoulders with the biggest star in Hollywood.

One of the party crashers was a 26-year old woman named Virginia Rappe. She was a pretty young woman but according to some in attendance at the party, Rappe appeared to be in some sort of physical pain or distress and soon was admitted to the hospital. Rappe’s girlfriend, Maude Delmont, accused Fatty Arbuckle of “murder” by reportedly sexually assaulting Virginia Rappe.

According to records, the attending doctor found no sign of sexual assault, however, it was clear that Virginia Rappe had life-threatening medical issues including what appeared to be a ruptured bladder and, sadly, four days after crashing Arbuckle’s party, Virginia Rappe had drawn her final breath as a result of acute peritonitis.

The police swiftly arrested Fatty Arbuckle claiming that he had forced himself on Miss Rappe and his heavy weight had crushed the young woman’s body and charging the actor with manslaughter.

Newspapers across the country seized on the scandalous story and accusations against Arbuckle were paraded in banner headlines. During the jury trial, many of Arbuckle’s Hollywood friends including Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were prevented by their studios from vouching for Arbuckle’s character. The public which had once idolized Arbuckle as their favorite film star, turned against him with a vengeance.

In the courtroom, it seemed that the facts were not conclusive. According to testimony, Fatty Arbuckle was known to be a generous and kind person despite his superstardom. Witnesses who had been in attendance at the party at the St. Francis swore that they had never seen Arbuckle alone with Virginia Rappe. Physician’s records showed that Rappe was previously known to be suffering from severe bladder issues which could have accounted for her sudden collapse and death. In addition, Rappe’s friend, Maude Delmont who had a record of prostitution and extortion, had reportedly been in contact with a friend in Los Angeles following the party at the St. Francis in which she stated she felt she could get money from Arbuckle – an implication that she may have been planning to blackmail the actor.

The attending physician also testified that Virginia Rappe had told him before she died that Arbuckle had not assaulted her. However, in a surprising move, the doctor’s testimony was dismissed as hearsay by the judge. When the case ended with a hung jury – ten jurors voting to acquit Arbuckle and two jurors feeling the star was guilty.

Arbuckle had to endure a second trial which also failed to reach a verdict and the star had to brace himself for a third trial. Arbuckle’s legal team redoubled their efforts. They mounted a vigorous defense which included exposing claims that Rappe had been a promiscuous “party girl”. In addition, the prosecution’s main witness recounted his testimony claiming he had been pressured by the San Francisco District Attorney to lie in court.

It took less than 10 minutes for the jury to return to the court with a decision of “not guilty” and the foreman of the jury issued a heartfelt apology to the accused saying, “Acquittal is not enough for Mr. Arbuckle.”

Fatty Arbuckle’s acquittal had cost him his reputation and a mountain of legal fees amounting to more than $10 million dollars by today’s standard. Adding insult to injury, Hollywood producers united to ban Arbuckle from ever working in the movie industry claiming that despite his acquittal he had been proven to be “immoral” – an ironic statement from the questionable kingmakers in Hollywood.

Some, including Buster Keaton, stood by Arbuckle. Keaton, in fact, generously paid Arbuckle 35% of the profits from his own film production company to keep Arbuckle afloat. After the trial, Arbuckle felt lucky to occasionally find work as a director although he had to work under a pseudonym, William B. Goodrich.

It took more than a decade before Arbuckle would be offered another role on the big screen. He was overjoyed at the chance, in 1933 he signed a contract with Warner Bros. to appear in a new film. In a tragic turn of circumstances, just one day after signing a contract for what he hoped would be his comeback and declaring that this had been the “best day of my life”, Roscoe Arbuckle died in his sleep at the age of just 46.

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