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).
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.
Have you ever had an actor who grew on you? Someone you really didn’t care for at first, but who finally won you over? For me, it was a comedian you may or may not have heard of: Al St. John, nephew of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and a key player at the legendary Keystone Film Company.
Why didn’t I care for him? Well…
Let’s just say he was a little much. But only at first! …Let’s take a look. Continue reading →
It’s one of the most famous photos from silent comedy. Or from the silent era itself. Or, heck, from cinema itself. It’s the image that probably leaps to mind when you say “Keystone Kops.”
It’s also key to what I think is the ultimate championship trivia question: “This famous still comes from which lost film?” The winning answer–major props if you know it–is “In the Clutches of a Gang!” *Cue lots of applause and money showering from the ceiling*
For being such a wildly famous image, it’s surprising that In the Clutches of a Gang (1914) isn’t better known–as a title, at any rate. After all, the film itself has been lost for many decades, yet another casualty of delicate nitrate paired with the relentless march of time. What a pity that such a tantalizing piece of slapstick history should have been so thoroughly, and regrettably, lost.
Silent-ology is pleased to present this exclusive interview with the prolific silent comedy historian Steve Massa, author of the new book Rediscovering Roscoe: The Films of “Fatty” Arbuckle. We talk about why a book on Roscoe’s films was overdue, about his considerable directorial skills, about his wonderful friendship with Buster and Al St. John, and just how many hours he would put into filming a single difficult gag…and more!
I must say, after the impressively hefty Slapstick Divas volume I was surprised (and delighted) to see another sizable book from you so soon! How long has Rediscovering Roscoe been in the works?
I have to say that I was a bit surprised too at how hefty Rediscovering Roscoe turned out to be. It was originally planned to be a smaller format book, like Lame Brains and Lunatics and Divas, but it grew too large. I got very lucky finding material and I wanted each film entry to be as thorough as possible. Every one would have credits, cast, working title, contemporary reviews, and archive sources, in addition to a commentary on surviving films and as much as I could find on missing ones. I have to admit that I “borrowed” the format of the book from Rob Stone’s excellent Laurel or Hardy, one of my favorite film books.Continue reading →
Back when I first got into silent comedy, it wasn’t long before I became a fan of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. I’d heard his name all my life thanks to the infamous 1921 scandal (you’ve probably heard he was acquitted), but he always seemed like more of a shadowy figure than a real man, a sort of “character” from that misty, quasi-mythical era of “Classic Films.” Thanks mainly to the wonderful DVD set of Arbuckle comedies by CineMuseum–I plug them because I love them!–I discovered that this “Fatty” was not only a very real individual, but genuinely funny, very funny. And like all fans in the know, I only call him “Roscoe.”
Spring is finally here! (It sure took awhile to get to my neck of the woods, lemme tellya.) And with that in mind, it’s time to take a look at a couple fresh, new (or pretty new) releases that will make nice additions to the well-curated collection of silents that we all obviously have.
It’s with a resounding “Hurrah!” that I greet CineMuseum’s newest release, a Blu-ray/DVD combo of Roscoe Arbuckle’s first feature film, The Round Up (1920). If you’ve read any of my Comique Month series from last July, you’ll know that I’m a big Arbuckle fan. So having this charming Western available is a nice boon for my collection. Continue reading →
This is the final Comique Month post. Man, it’s gone by fast! A great big THANK YOU to everyone who’s been following along. If you haven’t seen much of Arbuckle’s post-Keystone work before, I really hope these posts inspired you to check it out. And I hope it will bring you as much joy as it has brought me!
The Hayseed (1919)
The Hayseed revisits Arbuckle’s beloved rural setting, with yes, another quirky small-town store. It was one of Arbuckle’s most successful shorts, popular with small-town audiences and city slickers alike.
There’s more of a plot to The Hayseed than other Comiques. Roscoe works at a village general store and is also the mail carrier (he always seemed to be a jack-of-all-trades in his films). Buster also works in the same store. Roscoe loves Molly, a country girl, but she’s also being courted by the local sheriff, played by gangly John Coogan (father of famous little Jackie). Naturally they become romantic rivals. It turns out, though, that John is not such a nice guy as he seems. Continue reading →
One of the cherries on top of the Comique sundae, The Cook is a giddy, determinedly free-spirited short that features Roscoe being an impromptu Salome, Buster Egyptian-dancing with careless abandon, and Luke the dog saving the day. It also features Goatland, and lemme tellya, more amusement parks could stand to have a Goatland. We’re missing out, my friends.