Saturday, August 2, 2014

Arbuckle: Hollywood’s First Scandal, Part l

“The day the laughter stopped was September 5, 1921.”
                                                                       --Buster Keaton

Roscoe Arbuckle with Buster Keaton
From 1914 until 1921 Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was the silent screen eras most famous comedian. His popularity with the public made him one of Hollywood’s highest paid actors.

He was responsible for assisting the careers of future stars Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Bob Hope.

But one fateful Labor Day Weekend at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco ruined his career and his finances. Arbuckle a gentle giant who was loved for his kindness and good nature was about to be embroiled in Hollywood’s first major scandal.

Early Years

Roscoe Arbuckle’s life started like it ended with suffering. It is said he was 14 pounds at birth. His mother had a long recovery after the delivery. His father, William Arbuckle, a man of slight build immediately questioned Roscoe’s parentage and blamed the baby for his wife’s ill health.

He named the baby boy after a politician he disliked. Convinced the infant was illegitimate. William disowned Roscoe and beat him regularly. Roscoe’s mom died when he was twelve, and his hard-drinking father abandoned him.

To his credit Roscoe from then on supported himself. He first made a living by singing in local theatres—he had a beautiful singing voice. He found the audience appreciation helped him forget the cruel teasing he endured growing up because of his weight.

He moved into vaudeville where he was remarkably limber for his size. He worked as a clown, singer, and in acrobatic acts. He then climbed his way through the ranks in the film industry.

In 1909 Roscoe married a singer Minta “Minty” Durfee. Unfortunately, his drinking would end this marriage when the two separated in 1917.

Many who knew Roscoe personally stated that he never was unfaithful to Minty even after they separated. He gained a reputation after this as being “the most chaste man in Hollywood.”

Film Career

In many of the hundreds of one-reel comedies Roscoe first appeared at the Mack Sennett studio he portrayed a Keystone Cop. In 1914 Arbuckle started to direct some of the films he acted in. In 1915 he proved he could sustain his comedy in two-reelers.

As a Keystone Cop
By 1917 Arbuckle had formed his own film company with Joseph Schenck called Comique. Roscoe now had creative control over his work.

Comique turned out some of the greatest film classics of the silent era. Arbuckle left Comique when Paramount offered him one million a year.

Roscoe literary ruled Hollywood at this point—he was one of the best physical comedians of all time. Despite his size, he floated across the screen with grace. He didn’t go for cheap fat jokes—like getting stuck in doorways or chairs—his talent surpassed this.

At the time Roscoe started in the film industry studios purposely played down leading actors in their films. They would not even release their names to the public. The reason for this was the studios knew if their actors gained too much recognition, it would give them more power—then they would demand more money.

Roscoe’s immense popularity with the public broke this barrier—he literally was the first actor to gain “star power.”  

Professionally, he was known as “Fatty” Arbuckle, but in all other aspects of his life, he preferred to be called Roscoe. The studios ever after blamed him for breaking down the barrier they had so carefully put in place.

Working hard at Paramount Arbuckle went to San Francisco to rest and relax over the Labor Day weekend in 1921.

Virginia Rappe
One actress present at the party was Virginia Rappe. She was raised without a father, and at a young age, she started seeking love. Back then contraceptives were not reliable, and Rappe had five abortions by the age of 16. She also had several bouts of venereal disease. At age 17 she gave birth to a baby out of wedlock and placed it in foster care. *

Rappe attractive started modeling in her teens. She moved to San Francisco where she occasionally did nude modeling. She became engaged, but tragically her fiancé died in a trolley-car accident.

Henry Lehrman with Charlie Chaplin
Devastated she moved to Los Angeles. In 1917 she started to date a Hollywood director, Henry Lehrman. She was offered several small, unaccredited roles in pictures but her acting career didn’t take off.  It was rumored she randomly worked as a prostitute to pay her bills.

One rumor was Rappe had a reputation for bizarre behavior when she drank. Her neighbors reported that when she was drunk, she would tear off her clothes and run around claiming a man had assaulted her.

One absurd legend states she and Lehrman were kicked off the Sennett lot for being infested with lice. Sennett after this supposedly had his studio fumigated.

By September of 1921 Rappe and Lehrman had broken off their relationship.

After the Labor Day party Roscoe was amazed when he was arrested for the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe. The last time he had seen her she was drunk, acting crazy and ill but very much alive.

There have been numerous accounts written about what happened that weekend but all are based upon speculation. So I will share here what is known and why many feel Arbuckle was accused of these two heinous crimes.

* In recent years, female writers have tried to whitewash Rappe's life. I don't list her actions to criticize her--she led a hard life--I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

In Part ll of Roscoe Arbuckle: Hollywood’s First Scandal I share information about the party, Virginia Rappe's death, and the woman who set the scandal in motion.

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