Hollywood’s first sex scandal but not its last: the trial of comic Fatty Arbuckle

 
 
 
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On April 12, 1922, a press mob eagerly waited in front of a San Francisco courtroom, expecting Roscoe Conklin Arbuckle, widely known as Fatty Arbuckle, to emerge and give his official statement. When he did, he said:
“This is the most solemn moment of my life. My innocence of the hideous charge preferred against me has been proved… I am truly grateful to my fellow men and women. My life has been devoted to the production of clean pictures for the happiness of children. I shall try to enlarge my field of usefulness so that my art shall have a wider service.”

But oh, how wrong he was! His “field of usefulness” never again saw the light of day because Hollywood decided to put an end to Arbuckle’s career, provoked by the outrageous scandal that blackened the reputation of the roly-poly, joyous comic.

The collapse of Fatty Arbuckle’s initially sparkling career came during a boozy party in his suite at the St. Francis Hotel in the City of Hills. Four days after the party, the beautiful actress and model Virginia Rappe was found dead in her home.

Roscoe Arbuckle,
Stars of the Photoplay, 1916

What took place between Arbuckle and the 23-year-old Rappe in the suite’s bedroom was the focus of the ensuing trial. The State of California pressed Arbuckle with charges, saying he’d raped Rappe.  He was blamed for accidentally killing her with “external pressure” during sex. The medical records showed peritonitis as the cause of death, followed by a rupture of the bladder.

Ad for The Hayseed (1919) with Arbuckle holding his dog Luke

The incident rocked not just Arbuckle’s $5,000-a-week career but Hollywood’s foundations. The fans who were eager to get juicer stories than the 100 percent personal purity that Hollywood sold through the icons of Jack Holt and William S. Hart now, unexpectedly, got it via the bedroom of a 320-pound performer. Even the Hollywood machinery was surprised by the irony of having its image polluted not by the notorious lover boys but by a slapstick comedian.

American actress Virginia Rappe (1895-1921)

Newspapers were quick to push the scandalous headlines, printing stories before the trial that suggested Arbuckle’s guilt. Provocative articles described graphically how Arbuckle forced himself on the innocent Rappe and crushed her with his bulky body, and made no mention of Rappe’s reputation for becoming intoxicated at parties and then tearing at her own clothes, nor of her recent “backstreet” abortions.

Suite 1221 of St. Francis Hotel shortly after Arbuckle’s party

Arbuckle’s defense that Rappe’s ruptured bladder was a result of a chronic cystitis condition aggravated by massive intakes of alcohol was disputed by State witnesses who filled the media with outrageous headlines.

Rappe’s coffin arrives in Los Angeles, September 17, 1921

One such statement was given by Bambina Maud Delmont, who testified hearing screams from the hotel bedroom followed by Arbuckle emerging from the room, saying, “Go in and get her dressed and take her back to the Palace. She makes too much noise.” Additionally, the witness said that Miss Rappe was lying on the floor, pleading for help and moaning, “I’m dying.”

Casket of Virginia Rappe

Another witness, the showgirl Alice Blake, supported this story, explaining that they couldn’t dress Miss Rappe as her garments were all ripped, torn to shreds. and unrecognizable. The two witnesses said that they thought the girl was drunk, so they decided to sober her up in a cold bath–an action that later the doctors called by the defense claimed ruptured the bladder.

Arbuckle at the first trial

According to the book The 20s: The Lawless Decade by Paul Sann, the first trial took 43 hours, standing 10-2 for acquittal, while the second lasted 44 hours and ended 10-2 for conviction by the jury. Both of the trials were a hung jury because the jury’s verdict was not unanimous.

News story of the six minute not-guilty verdict, 1922

The third jury, however, took only six minutes to acquit, releasing Arbuckle from the charges of manslaughter to which Miss Rappe’s fiance reacted: “Virginia would rise from the dead to defend herself from indignity! As for Arbuckle, this is what comes of taking vulgarians from the gutter and giving them enormous salaries and making idols of them. Some people don’t know how to get a kick out of life, except in a beastly way. They are the ones who participate in orgies that surpass the orgies of degenerate Rome.”

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Despite the third jury’s decision in Arbuckle’s case, the exhibitors and studios had already pronounced the star guilty, blacklisting his name and unreleased work. He continued to work as a director under the name William B. Goodrich, but was unable to regain any popularity in front of the camera. Shortly after his 46th birthday, he died in his sleep from a heart attack.