Fatty Arbuckle in Life and Death

Sep. 27, 2013
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To understand the rise and fall of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, one of Hollywood’s first superstars, let’s turn for comparison to Michael Jackson. Like the late 20th century superstar, Arbuckle was enormously popular and instantly recognizable; he loved children, lived extravagantly and fell from grace, forever under a cloud of doubt over what went on behind closed doors. For Arbuckle, whose popularity as a comedian rivaled Charlie Chaplin, the fall was even more precipitous—linked not to a string of accusations and deepening eccentricity, but to a single shocking incident. Arbuckle was charged with murdering actress Virginia Rappe while having sex in a hotel room during a drunken party.

Arbuckle was tried and acquitted three times after Rappe’s death in 1921, but the press already found him guilty on day one and the jury of public opinion leaned toward conviction. His career was wrecked, his movies withdrawn from circulation, yet unlike MJ, Arbuckle survived just long enough for a short, positive epilogue. He made a few comedies in the early 1930s, including one with Howard Shemp of the Three Stooges, and seemed on the way to recovering public and media favor. But Fatty fell asleep and died in 1933 after an evening of what he loved most—eating, drinking and socializing.

The story has never been better told than in Greg Merritt’s biography Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal that Changed Hollywood (published by Chicago Review Press). The author seems to have no axe to grind against Arbuckle or Rappe, and no agenda other than sifting the truth from nearly a century of lies, contradictions and bad reporting. Admittedly, the whole truth can never be known for certain; everyone involved had reason to lie or conceal, and yet, Merritt constructs a plausible version of events.

Unlike many previous authors, Merritt approaches both Arbuckle and Rappe with sympathy and an effort at understanding. Arbuckle’s childhood was Dickensian; after his mother’s death he was eventually shipped off with nothing but a cardboard suitcase to live with his father. After waiting many hours at the train station, the 12-year old discovered that the peripatetic father he expected to meet had moved on again. The desk clerk at a nearby hotel pitied the waif and gave him room and board in exchange for work. Vaudeville was Arbuckle’s ticket out.

As for Rappe, she was a fascinating figure in her own right; born out of wedlock and never knowing her father, Rappe recreated herself as one of America’s first professional models. An avid publicity seeker, she forged an image of female autonomy at a time when a woman was expected to live in her husband’s shadow. Rappe turned to fashion design and eventually tried her hand in Hollywood, with less success. She was much more than the failed actress or bit-player-in-her-own-demise usually depicted in accounts of the Arbuckle case.

Merritt’s accomplishment is great when considering the Augean stable of falsehood he had to clear to arrive at Room 1219. Reporters repeated each others mistakes and unsubstantiated allegations became embedded in the public record. Nowadays, the Arbuckle affair is mostly remembered from the lurid tale of rape in Kenneth Anger’s flim-flam bestseller, Hollywood Babylon. Aside from bringing honesty and clarity to the case, Merritt has written an engaging story of early Hollywood, especially in light of the legacy of Arbuckle’s murder trial. With the press, shocked citizens, ardent moralizers and outraged feminists (who embraced Rappe as an abused woman) baying for blood and condemning Hollywood as Sodom near the sea, the film industry began implementing a system of self-censorship under Postmaster General Will Hays, aptly described by Arbuckle’s wife Minta Durfee as resembling “a rat dressed up in men’s clothing.” Was it a kind of irony that the strictest version of the censorious Hollywood Production Code came into effect around the time of Arbuckle’s death?


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