Time Machine

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On Saturday, September 3, Roscoe (“Fatty”) Arbuckle checked into the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. The rotund comedian had just finished filming three features simultaneously and was planning to relax over Labor Day weekend with a pair of friends. On Monday morning Virginia Rappe, an actress who had worked with Arbuckle at Keystone Studios years before, turned up in the hotel lobby. One of Arbuckle’s friends invited her to stop by an ongoing party in their suite, which she did later that day. Arbuckle and friends checked out on Tuesday morning, while Rappe, sick from drinking too much, rested in a separate room. Two days later she was moved to a hospital, where she died at one-thirty the next afternoon.

What had happened between Rappe’s arrival and Arbuckle’s departure immediately became the subject of intense, lurid speculation. A series of sex and drug scandals was coming out of Hollywood, so an aroused public was ready, perhaps eager, to believe the worst.

A medical examination showed that Rappe had died of a ruptured bladder, and many observers familiar with Arbuckle’s girth jumped to vile conclusions. In short order Arbuckle was indicted and tried for manslaughter; his movies were pulled from screens.

Two trials led to hung juries in December and February. At a third trial that spring Arbuckle’s lawyers brought out all manner of seamy facts about Rappe’s past, including numerous abortions, an illegitimate child, and a penchant for tearing her clothes off when drunk. She also had a history of bladder trouble, and at the time of the incident she was pregnant and was suffering from syphilis and an internal abscess. The jury deliberated just six minutes before finding Arbuckle not guilty.

The acquittal could not salvage Arbuckle’s ruined career, however. The tactics that won his case in the courtroom lost it in the press, which reveled in the details of the gin-soaked daytime pajama party with loose women. The movie industry’s Hays Office, recently established to counter Hollywood’s immoral image, banned Arbuckle from acting in April 1922. Though the ban was rescinded in December of that year, the studios were frightened and not one of them would touch the tainted star.

Arbuckle’s ordeal, while painful, did not leave him a broken man. He still had many friends in the industry who believed in his innocence, and he continued to work as a director, sometimes uncredited and sometimes under a pseudonym. He also acted on the stage and in vaudeville, crossing paths with such future stars as Bob Hope, Humphrey Bogart, Milton Berle, and Shemp Howard. (Another luminary associated with Arbuckle was the mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, who worked for his defense team as a Pinkerton detective.)

In one vaudeville skit a woman asked Arbuckle if he could tell her how to get into the movies, to which he replied, “Pardon me, young lady, but can you tell me how to get into the movies?”

But the fact is that, besides writing and directing, Arbuckle actually did manage to make a few brief onscreen appearances in the 1920s. In 1932, with memory of the scandal fading, he signed to appear in three comedy shorts for Warner Bros. He had just completed the last one when he died in his sleep of a heart attack on June 29, 1933.