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Arbuckle case first true scandal in Hollywood


The case of comedian Fatty Arbuckle, shown here in this 1920 file photo, was the Michael Jackson trial of its time.
 (File/Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
The case of comedian Fatty Arbuckle, shown here in this 1920 file photo, was the Michael Jackson trial of its time. (File/Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Stephen Whitty Newhouse News Service

The defendant was a millionaire entertainer – fabulously wealthy, internationally famous, hailed by his countless young fans as a big kid who just never grew up.

The charges were nearly unprintable, involving an innocent victim plied with liquor, gross sexual perversions and a calculated cover-up.

And as the defense lawyers made their money, and the district attorney made his reputation, the tabloids circled like vultures and the star watched his career collapse.

Yes, the old Fatty Arbuckle scandal makes the current Michael Jackson trial seem almost routine.

“It’s hard for people to wrap their minds around it now, but Arbuckle’s was the first true Hollywood scandal,” says Arbuckle expert Paul Gierucki. “Even the O.J. Simpson case paled by comparison.”

Arbuckle’s trials for manslaughter – there were eventually three – destroyed the comic’s career and led to his banning from the screen.

Today, even despite his eventual acquittal, he’s often remembered as a villain or, at best, a sad, sick joke. But some Arbuckle admirers are trying to change that.

Last year, Jerry Stahl’s novel, “I, Fatty,” portrayed the comedian as the victim of a frame-up.

Gierucki, a collector who purchased Arbuckle’s own scrapbooks, is finishing up not only a definitive biography, but a feature-length documentary. His company, Laughsmith Entertainment, will release a four-DVD set of restored Arbuckle films next month.

Nearly 120 years after his birth, the fat man is making a comeback.

Roscoe Arbuckle was born in 1887 in small-town Kansas, to a poor family that soon moved to California. His mother died while he was a child; his father eventually abandoned him.

By age 8, Roscoe, a chubby, sweet-faced child, was working in vaudeville.

“Like many people, he found a new family in the theater,” says Gierucki. “He was what was called an ‘illustrated singer,’ where he would sing dramatic ballads while they projected glass slides with the words, and the audience would sing along.”

Arbuckle expanded his act to include bits of slapstick comedy, and by 1909 moved into movies as a Keystone Cop.

Agile and ambidextrous – years later, the critic James Agee would marvel over Arbuckle’s ability to accurately hurl pies with both hands at once – he was a gifted comedian. A gifted filmmaker, too, who directed his own films long before Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton dared to do so.

“Arbuckle was a very important figure,” says historian Steve Massa. “Even up until 1920, he was second only to Chaplin.

“And he was an extremely accomplished director – in terms of the working-out of gags and the camerawork, movies like ‘The Waiter’s Ball’ are tremendously sophisticated.”

Arbuckle’s appeal was based not only on his talent, but his image. He was flirty but not sexual, violent but not malicious. His costume – a too-small derby, pants flapping above his ankles – suggested a boy in clothes he’d outgrown but was too poor to replace.

Offscreen, though, he was hardly as innocent, or untroubled, as his comedies suggested.

Although Stahl’s portrayal of the actor as a desperate, nearly lifelong drug addict is exaggerated (“That’s why I call it a novel,” the author dryly remarks), it is true that Arbuckle was briefly on morphine and probably an alcoholic. The first performer to sign a million-dollar contract, he spent thousands on bootleg liquor and wild parties.

Studio bribes were able to hush up any sordid details until an epic Arbuckle drunk in 1921 at San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel. During the manic, weekend-long celebration, starlet Virginia Rappe passed out. No one thought of rushing her to the hospital. By the time she was admitted, days later, she had peritonitis from a punctured bladder.

And before she lapsed into a fatal coma, she whispered: “Fatty Arbuckle did this to me.”

Or did she?

The Arbuckle case was one no cautious prosecutor would have welcomed. Almost all of the witnesses were drunk. Most of them contradicted each other. (Two women would later admit they had been coached in their stories; a third, a convicted bigamist and Arbuckle’s chief accuser, never took the stand, preferring to sell her story on the lecture circuit.)

But the district attorney was ambitious. The media – led by William Randolph Hearst, owner of a string of sensationalist dailies – wanted to sell copies. And many American religious leaders were convinced it was time to teach Hollywood a lesson.

“It was a time so completely like ours, with warnings about how Hollywood was corrupting our youth,” says Stahl. “It’s just that instead of the Parents Television Council complaining about it, you had Billy Sunday.”

The Arbuckle scandal had everything. The victim had modeled for the sheet music to “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and demure stills of her in gingham frocks were displayed to the jury. Even her name was perfect, not-so-subtly suggesting “Virgin Raped.”

And while the testimony went on, detailing jazz records, bootleg gin and illicit sex, the defendant sat there, pale and sweating.

“The fact that it was Fatty Arbuckle only made it worse,” says Massa, an associate producer of the DVD set. “Many people felt betrayed: ‘We thought you were this big kid, and instead you’re this rapist monster?’ “

The hysteria grew. Papers ran doctored photos of Arbuckle behind bars. His films, their titles now grotesque jokes – “Crazy to Marry,” “Life of the Party” – were hastily withdrawn from circulation.

The first trial ended in a hung jury, leaning toward acquittal. The second trial ended in another stalemate, this time edging toward conviction. For the third trial, Arbuckle’s desperate lawyer finally decided to posthumously put the victim on trial.

Rappe was portrayed as a promiscuous bit player who had slept with half the men on the Keystone lot. She also, apparently, had racked up a series of illegal abortions – including one just a few days before she began gulping gin in Arbuckle’s suite.

This time there were no doubts in the jury room. After six minutes of deliberation, Arbuckle was acquitted. The foreman of the jury even read a formal apology declaring Arbuckle “entirely innocent” and lamenting that “a great injustice has been done him.”

Yet the “Prince of Whales” was now damaged goods. Even if he hadn’t raped that girl – and the “if” was never fully chased from many people’s minds – he had still bought bootleg liquor. He had still consorted with loose women.

Of course that put him in good company with most of Hollywood (and still ahead of Chaplin, whose fondness for teenagers was already well-known). But censor Will Hays, newly imported by Hollywood to help clean up its image, needed an example. Arbuckle was banned from the screen.

For a while, he ran a nightclub – hardly the ideal job for a man with a drinking problem – and went back to the stage. Keaton hired him to help direct “Sherlock Jr.” and sardonically suggested he change his name to Will B. Good. Arbuckle settled for the less obvious William Goodrich, and spent the next decade making movies for other people.

Although the legend persists that Arbuckle died a ruined man – “broke and broken” as the original tell-all “Hollywood Babylon” declared; after an overdose, as the Stahl book suggests – in fact he passed away in his sleep, at the age of 46. He had begun to appear on screen again, and had just signed a new contract with Warner Bros.

Arbuckle was about to finally redeem himself – and then the man who had lost so much was robbed even of that. Although he had been acquitted, in many people’s minds he died guilty. His films, unwanted, continued to rot on their reels.

“It breaks my heart to know so many of his movies are missing,” says Gierucki. “It leaves a huge void. His films are just marvelous efforts and generations have been deprived from seeing them – how tragic is that?”

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