While working the book CHASE! A Tribute to the Keystone Kops (slight plug there, hee hee), editor Lon Davis kindly asked me: had I ever read he and his wife Debra’s book King of the Movies: Francis X. Bushman? When I said I hadn’t, he offered to send me a copy. Of course I accepted–who wouldn’t want to learn more about Edwardian heartthrob Frankie X?
And I can now say, without bias or exaggeration, that King of the Movies is one of the most engaging, readable biographies of a screen star that I’ve come across, possibly supplanting my former favorites Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara and The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks. Or at least standing shoulder to shoulder with them. I mean, they’re pretty darn awesome too.
It’s not hard to argue that the aftermath of the 1921 Labor Day scandal is still unfolding to this day. Those curious enough to investigate the case will learn that Virginia Rappe died under mysterious circumstances allegedly involving Roscoe Arbuckle, and that Arbuckle was eventually acquitted of manslaughter. But ugly rumors and hearsay about “a comedian who raped a girl” or “a disease-ridden actress who died at a wild party” still abound. And while most fans of classic films today are thankfully quick to let you know about Arbuckle’s acquittal, it’s Virginia’s reputation that seems to get battered the most consistently. She’s been called a “party girl” at best and a “whore” at worst, depicted as a good times gal whose devil-may-care lifestyle made her pay the ultimate price.
This caricature is what originally caught the eye of historian Joan Myers, the first to do substantial research into Virginia’s backstory: “I’d never been satisfied with the way Virginia Rappe had been depicted…All of our knowledge about her was unsubstantiated and looked suspiciously familiar–it’s pretty much the traditional rhetoric trotted out as a defense in any rape case.” Surprisingly, info about Virginia’s life and career was not very hard for her to find. And I can confirm that simple searches in newspaper archives can bring up a surprising variety of articles and photos about her.
So let’s do two things in this post: let’s clear out some of the cobwebs and get to know Virginia better as a human being, and then take a fresh look at the unfortunate events that lead to her death. Perhaps there’s other angles that haven’t been considered that can add something new to the discussion–that’s what I’m hoping!
It’s one of the most famous scandals in Hollywood history: the 1921 “Arbuckle scandal” revolving around actress Virginia Rappe, who became ill under mysterious circumstances at Roscoe Arbuckle’s Labor Day party in a San Francisco hotel and died a few days later. Arbuckle, one of the most beloved comedians in the world at the time, was accused of her murder, resulting in three sensational trials and mountains of hysterical press coverage. He was eventually acquitted, but the scandal has forever tinged both his name and the name of Rappe. Most people today have at least a faint idea of the scandal–usually the ugliest rumors, unfortunately. And it’s definitely fascinated generations of film history fans, who’ve debated every detail of the case ever since.
And I should know, because I’m one of those film history fans. Admittedly I don’t find the sordid details fun to read about, especially since Arbuckle’s one of my favorite comedians. And there’s something…inherently impractical about wanting a blow-by-blow timeline of the Labor Day party. Sure, we can piece together a pretty detailed picture from witness testimonies, but think back to the last party you’ve been to. Can you remember exactly what time you got there, who attended, when each person arrived and left? Can you remember exact conversations? What certain people were eating or how many drinks each person had? Heck, I have a hard time remembering exactly how my day went yesterday. And this is a party that happened an entire century ago. Need I add that we’ll never know precisely what happened in room 1219 (where Rappe first became ill)? The only two people in the world who truly knew were Arbuckle and Rappe, and we only have Arbuckle’s side of the story–no doubt heavily influenced by his attorneys.
Having said all that, it was still a very historically significant case, and worth looking into if only because the reputations of Arbuckle and Rappe have been dragged through the soggiest, most putrid of mud. I also wanted to share a theory that’s been brewing in my mind that might help explain some of Arbuckle’s behavior.
Today marks 100 years since the news broke about the infamous Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal. Even if you’ve never seen an Arbuckle film (or aren’t too sure what the comedian even looked like), you’ve probably heard about his “wild Labor Day party” that took place in a San Francisco hotel back in 1921. While the exact sequence of events is rather mysterious to this day, actress Virginia Rappe became ill at the party and passed away a few days later. An autopsy determined the death was due to a ruptured bladder and the resulting infection. Arbuckle, who apparently had been alone with her when she first became ill, was accused of having assaulted her in some way that lead to her death. Several sensational trials later he was acquitted, but his career would never be the same. Nor, you could argue, would Hollywood.
I’ll be going into more detail about this case in a later post, so for now, here’s some trivia about the scandal. It just might contradict what you’ve often heard! My main source is Greg Merritt’s thoroughly-researched Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood. He did a fine job digging into the details of the case, and while it’s a bit melodramatic in spots and his theory on what actually happened in room 1219 isn’t super persuasive to me, it’s head and shoulders above other books on the scandal (like The Day the Laughter Stopped, which is basically a novel).
This is the last post for Rural America In Film Month. I hope you’ve enjoyed following along! For the “finale” I wanted to reshare my piece on my personal favorite silent film–one of the Griffith films that Lillian Gish would describe as “rural poems.” You will rarely see a sweeter portrait of a bygone time.
There is a collective dream of the era we like to describe as Victorian. It is composed of brownish lace, top hats, dusty wrought iron and soft-edged photos of remote, elegant people. It’s that feeling we have when we come across something surprisingly delicate and worn in an antique shop. It’s the way the term “Victorian” itself suggests good posture, engravings, and heavy drapery.
Within that collective dream, occasionally there would come a gem like True Heart Susie (1919). This is a film not only made from dreams, and not only nostalgic memories of the “olden days”, but polished snippets of a time that was still alive and well. The year it was made World War I had just ended, the Model T was still the butt of countless jokes, and only 2% of American farms had electricity.
Looking for some rare old films to watch? Other than Archive.org or YouTube–if you don’t mind wading through an ocean of fuzzy public domain copies and painful soundtracks–I can’t think of a better place to go than the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website. It has a free online library of freshly-preserved films, everything from 1910s cartoons to 1940s documentaries. And I recently discovered that the site was also hiding a marvelous surprise–for me, anyways!
On their “Treasures from the American Film Archives” screening room page they the link for a 14-minute film called Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther (1939). The caption caught my eye: “Preserved by Minnesota Historical Society.” I, a native Minnesotan, thought: “Hold on! Cologne? Wait, was this filmed in that Cologne?”
Cologne, Minnesota, you see, is a little town only a short drive from where I grew up. You zip past cornfields and soybean fields and cow pastures for awhile, cross a highway, and there it is, with an old railroad line running through it and a pretty little lake along one side. I still live pretty close by, and last year I even considered buying a house there! And lo and behold there it was, the star of a pre-WWII amateur film. How could I not check that out?
One of the most charming “Fatty and Mabel” comedies, Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life (1915) manages to hit a number of birds with one stone: it’s rural-themed, it riffs on the popular “evil mortgage collector threatens the farm” theme, it riffs on the equally popular “evil mortgage collector threatens the farm unless he can marry the pretty daughter” theme, adds a romantic triangle, has hijinks around a hand-cranked well, throws in a couple Keystone Kops, and finds time for some surrealism.
One of my favorite silents of all time, TOL’ABLE DAVID is a masterpiece of both storytelling and Americana. I put a lot of thought into this piece back in 2017, and hope it inspires you to seek out this incredible film!
It’s during these warm days of summer, when the humid, greenery-scented air brings back nostalgic memories, that I find myself turning to Tol’able David (1921). A masterpiece of Americana, it’s also arguably one of the great masterpieces of the cinema. It’s also one of my absolute favorite silent movies.
In my Way Down East article I included a quote from a D.W. Griffith essay explaining his reasoning behind spending a fortune on the rights. I thought y’all might like to see the essay in full–it’s not super long, but it’s pretty thoughtful. Without further ado, here’s “Why I Paid $175,000 For Way Down East, published in Picture-Play Magazine, May 1920.
Art and money have little in common; but, unfortunately money has become a kind of standard these days. We are accustomed to hear on all sides, “How much did it cost?” When we have been acquainted with the price paid, we very often base our judgment of values accordingly, and if we purchase it we value it all the more, because it cost so much.
Now there is a certain justification for all this. We have been taught from childhood to regard more highly those things upon which the greatest money value has been placed. The finest candies in the corner store always brought the biggest price; the doll that had the lovely hair and the eyes that opened and closed, always seemed to be just beyond the reach of mother’s or father’s pocketbook, and the little baseball that fitted so snugly into the palm of our hand cost so much more than the large, loosely wound one that could be had for a nickel. When we became older and went to the circus or to the theater, the best seats always cost so much more than the others, and the costly seats were always the best ones.
And so, when I was asked the quite natural question: “Why did you pay $175,000 for ‘Way Down East,'” I realized that the value of the little I am able to accomplish in the world of the motion picture may, after all, be judged by the money invested or the money expended, rather than in the more lasting reward of accomplishment.
While $175,000 is in itself a small fortune…it is the least significant feature in connection with my desire to immortalize this classic of the American stage, to immortalize it in so far as immortality can be established by the motion picture.
As the years pass by, there is a phase of American life that is rapidly disappearing. In but a very few years now we will have passed beyond that most delightful “rural America” which, even to-day, is but a remnant of what it used to be in our grandfather’s time. The passing of “Old Dobbin” and the one-horse shay in favor of the more modern motor car is removing one of the most treasured of American customs. In but a few years there will be no “Way Down East” and “Way Down South,” no deep-tangled wildwood and no old oaken bucket. Instead, we will become quite modernized, and the old log fire will have given place to the electric heater or the old steam radiator. Even to-day the farm hand has about been replaced by machinery, and the milkmaid finds her occupation gone through the introduction of the electrical milking machine, the old oaken bucket has been thrown into the discard, and filtered water runs through modern pipe right into the farmhouse.
Rural life in America is a sacred memory. It should never be forgotten.
For many years I have received innumerable requests for a production that would recreate those “good old days down on the farm.” I believe, in selecting “Way Down East,” I have come upon the most representative story. It will be a work of pleasure and love to place it upon the screen, and for the realization of that opportunity the cost does not matter.