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Roscoe Arbuckle --Hollywood's First Scandal
A blast from the past
Roscoe Conkling "Fatty" Arbuckle, the prototype fat comic, predecessor of John Candy, Chris Farley, and dozens more, was born March 24, 1887, in Smith Center, Kansas.
Sadly, he is far better known these days for his role (or non-role) in a notorious party and death, than for his film career. Incidentally, his friends never called him "Fatty."
By 1917, Arbuckle had formed his own production company and was instrumental in developing the career of Buster Keaton. He was one of the highest paid stars in Hollywood. Indeed, everything seemed to be going great for Roscoe until the infamous Labor Day party of 1921, held at San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel.
One of the party guests was an actress named Virginia Rappé, a young woman who had five abortions before the age of sixteen. Rappé and her lover, Henry 'Pathé' Lehrman, had been thrown off the Keystone lot because of known venereal disease problems.
Along with Rappé came 'Bambina' Maude Delmont, against whom California police had filed at least 50 counts of extortion, bigamy, fraud, and racketeering. Delmont was also known as a 'professional correspondent,' for blackmailers.
Neither Rappé nor Delmont were invited by Arbuckle to the party. In fact, Arbuckle didn't invite anyone, since he wasn't the host. Arbuckle had voiced concern about Rappé and Delmont even being present, since their lowly reputation might cause the party to be raided.
At 3:00 PM, Roscoe Arbuckle decided to leave the party. He entered his bedroom to change clothes. When he tried to enter the adjoining bathroom, he found Virginia Rappé passed out on the bathroom floor. Arbuckle picked up Rappé, and placed her on the bed. She asked for a glass of water, which he gave her. At 3:10 PM, Arbuckle left, fully clothed, to get help. When he returned with others, they found Virginia Rappé, fully clothed, and screaming in pain.
After belting down 10 shots of hard liquor, Maude Delmont staggered in. The hotel management was called, and Virginia Rappé was carried, by Roscoe, to a nearby room. Maude Delmont followed, and passed out on another bed. At this point, everyone assumed that Rappé was suffering from nothing more than the effects of too much liquor or an attack of slight illness. Arbuckle then left the party to go sightseeing with a friend.
Four days later, Virginia Rappé died of peritonitis, brought on by a rupture of her Fallopian tubes, complicated by pus accumulation in the tubes from gonorrhea.
Maude Delmont came up with a different reason for Virginia's death: She went to the San Francisco Police, and filed charges that Roscoe Arbuckle had raped and caused the death of Virginia Rappé!
Later that day, Roscoe was arrested for murder.
At this, the national press - led by William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner - had a field day. Banner headlines, proclaiming lurid innuendoes about Arbuckle's private life, while portraying Rappé as a latter day Virgin Mary, filled newspaper dailies throughout the nation for weeks. Later, W. R. Hearst would brag that he'd sold more newspapers on the Arbuckle case than on the sinking of the Lusitania.
The public reaction to these headlines was swift and brutal. Women's groups across the United States condemned Arbuckle for his "immorality." As far as the public was concerned, Roscoe Arbuckle had already been found guilty of murder.
Meanwhile, San Francisco's District Attorney Matthew Brady - basking in the publicity of murder proceedings that would only be matched by the O. J. Simpson trial of 1994-95 - found out that his key witness, Maude Delmont, was lying. Every time Delmont talked about what happened in the hotel room, she gave a different story. Nevertheless, Brady insisted on going forward with the case.
Judge Sylvain Lazarus found Brady's case so weak that he had the charges reduced from murder to manslaughter. He might have dropped them completely, had it not been for the public uproar.
Roscoe remained in shock. "I don't understand it," he said. "One minute I'm the guy everybody loves, the next I'm the guy everybody loves to hate."
On November 28, 1921, Roscoe Arbuckle took the stand and testified. District Attorney Brady failed - in any way - to shake Arbuckle's testimony.
At the trial, medical experts - for the prosecution and defense - agreed that Virginia Rappé had died of a ruptured bladder, there were signs of acute peritonitis, that Virginia Rappé must have been in pain before the party, and that the ruptured bladder was not caused by an outside source.
On December 4 - after 22 ballots - the jury returned, announcing that it was hung, 11-1 for acquittal. D. A. Brady insisted on trying Roscoe a second time. This jury was also hung.
On April 12, 1922, Arbuckle was acquitted in the third trial, and the jury went out of its way to proclaim his total innocence.
Yet, on April 18th, Roscoe Arbuckle became the first actor ever to be blacklisted. Used as a scapegoat by Will Hays (president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) for the ills of Hollywood, Roscoe found himself unemployable.
In 1925, it was decided that Roscoe would be allowed to direct comedies, as long as he didn't use his real name. He chose the alias "William Goodrich," (or Will B. Good) after his father William Goodrich Arbuckle. Arbuckle would use the Goodrich alias until 1932.
In early 1932, Arbuckle was signed to star in six two reel short comedies by Jack Warner. Based on their success, he was signed by Warner Brothers to make a feature length film--on June 28, 1933. But coming eleven years after the needless blacklisting and constant emotional stress, it was too little, too late.
Roscoe Arbuckle died from heart failure, the very next day. Buster Keaton said that he died from a broken heart, and he was right.
Cold comfort that more than 100 years ago, Hollywood, the criminal justice system, and the media were already awful.
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