The first big star of the movies is all but forgotten today thanks to an ambitious politician, a heartless newspaper man and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle as an exceptional physical comedian and the first star of silent movies despite weighing over 300 pounds. He turned his improbable athleticism, acting ability and natural charm into a $ 1 million-a-year movie career in an age when the average worker made $ 1236. His films are just as funny today as when they we made 90 years ago.
Roscoe did like to enjoy himself and loved to throw parties for his friends and fellow movie stars.
Unfortunately in September 1921 at one such elaborate party, Roscoe’s luck ran out.
On the fifth of September, Roscoe drove with several friends up from Hollywood to San Francisco for Labor Day weekend. The group got several rooms at the elegant St. Francis Hotel and one of the friends, Bambina Maude Delmont (didn’t they have great names back then?) called out for alcohol – illegal at the time – and party girls.
One of the girls who showed up was Virginia Rappe, a minor actress who had worked previously with Arbuckle. Rappe’s movie career had actually ended several months earlier when she spread a sexual disease and crabs around a studio – at one point causing the entire studio to have to be closed for three days and be fumigated.
After several hours of the party going strong, Rappe was seen fleeing the party, partially dressed and screaming in pain. She died several days later of peritonitis from a ruptured bladder.
Delmont, who you will remember provided the girls and illegal alcohol (and who also had former convictions for blackmail and extortion) saw the possibility of profit and offered to Arbuckle’s lawyers to hush up the story for a price. They refused since by this time the coroner had autopsied Rappe’s body and found no signs of violence or foul play. “…no evidence of a criminal assault, no signs that the girl had been attacked in any way.”
District Attorney Matthew Brady, planning to run for governor, saw a chance to make a name for himself and arraigned Arbuckle. Delmont testified before a grand jury and claim variously that Roscoe had raped Rappe with a Coca Cola bottle, a champagne bottle or did the damage himself. None of these were true, of course.
Adolph Zukor, head of Arbuckle’s movie studio paid for the best defense lawyers and Roscoe Arbuckle was acquitted of all charges. Three times. Yes, he was forced to endure three trials.
But they could do nothing about public opinion. Yellow journalism, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst had a field day with the sensational Arbuckle case in his trash rags. Hearst later claimed that the case “sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the Lusitania.” Arbuckle, once the most loved and popular star in the world was finished. He would never star again despite support from powerful friends like Zudor and Buster Keaton.
Roscoe passed away in 1933 at 46. He should not be forgotten.
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