A Closer Look–And Different Perspective–On The “Arbuckle Scandal”

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.

90 Years Ago, Roscoe Arbuckle Should Have Stayed Home - Ace Atkins
The famous Arbuckle mugshot.

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.

Hollywood Flashback: Before O.J. Simpson, Fatty Arbuckle's Trial Shocked  the World – The Hollywood Reporter

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.

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The “Arbuckle Scandal” Turns 100–Some Facts And Trivia

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.

Roscoe Arbuckle | Photos | Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers
In court.

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).

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