Arbuckle, Fatty (1887-1933)

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Arbuckle, Fatty (1887-1933)

In the annals of film history, no celebrity better illustrates the fragility of stardom than Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. In 1919, Arbuckle was one of the most successful comedians in silent film. Two years later, accused of the rape and murder of a young actress, Arbuckle instantly became a national symbol of sin. An outraged public boycotted Arbuckle films, tore down movie posters, and demanded his conviction. For Arbuckle, who was found innocent in 1922, the scandal meant the end of a career. For the movie industry, it meant the beginning of self-censorship. And for many Americans, it represented the loss of a dream: as disappointed fans quickly learned, stars were very different from the heroes they portrayed on screen.

In his movies, Arbuckle typically portrayed a bumbling yet well-meaning hero who saved the day by pie-throwing, back-flipping, and generally outwitting his opponent. In spite of his bulky, 250-pound frame, Arbuckle proved to be an able acrobat—a skill he had perfected during his days in vaudeville. Abandoned by his father at the age of 12, Arbuckle earned his living performing in small-town theaters and later, in the Pantages theater circuit. After nearly 15 years on stage, though, in 1913 Arbuckle found himself out of a job, the victim of declining public interest in vaudeville. Almost by chance, Arbuckle wandered into Mack Sennett's Keystone film studio, where he was given the nickname "Fatty" and put to work. During his three years at Keystone, Arbuckle starred in the popular Fatty and Mabel series with actress Mabel Normand, and gained a reputation as a slapstick comedian. By 1917, when Arbuckle left Keystone to run his own production company, Comique, under the supervision of Joseph Schenck, he had become a nationally-known star.

At Comique, Arbuckle directed some of his most acclaimed comedies: Butcher Boy (1917), Out West (1918), and Back Stage (1919), which starred friend and fellow comedian Buster Keaton. In 1919, lured by a million dollar a year contract, Arbuckle agreed to star in six feature films for Paramount and began an intense schedule of shooting and rehearsals. But Paramount ultimately proved to be a disappointment. Dismayed by his lack of creative control and his frenetic schedule, Arbuckle went to San Francisco for a vacation in September 1921. On September 5, Arbuckle hosted a party in his room at the St. Francis Hotel—a wild affair complete with jazz, Hollywood starlets, and bootleg gin. Four days later, one of the actresses who had been at the party, 27-year-old Virginia Rappe, died of acute peritonitis, an inflammation of the lining of the abdomen that was allegedly caused by "an extreme amount of external force." Suspicion fell on Arbuckle, who was accused of raping Virginia and causing her death. Arbuckle was charged with murder and detained in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, news of the Arbuckle scandal sent shockwaves throughout the country. Theater owners withdrew Arbuckle films, and preachers gave sermons on Arbuckle and the evils of Hollywood. Paramount suspended Arbuckle's contract, and Will Hays—the "czar" of the movie industry, who had been hired to clean up Hollywood's image in the wake of the scandal—forbade Arbuckle from acting in any films. In the eyes of the public, Arbuckle was guilty as charged. But Arbuckle's trials told a different story. After two mistrials, Arbuckle was declared innocent in March 1922. This decision, however, meant little to moviegoers, who continued to speak out against Arbuckle in spite of his acquittal. In December 1922, Hays lifted the ban on Arbuckle, but it was too late: Arbuckle's career as an actor had been ruined.

Even though strong public opinion prevented Arbuckle from appearing on screen, Arbuckle managed to find work behind the camera, and between 1925 to 1932 directed several comedies under the pseudonym William Goodrich ("Will B. Good"). By 1932, though, bitter memories of the scandal had faded, and several of Arbuckle's friends published an article in Motion Picture magazine begging the public for forgiveness and demanding Arbuckle's return to the screen. Later that year, Jack Warner hired Arbuckle to star in six short films, but soon after the films were released, Arbuckle died on June 30, 1933, at the age of 46. Arbuckle, who had never recovered from the stress and shock of the scandal, spent his last years wrestling with alcoholism and depression. Although the official cause of Arbuckle's death was heart failure, Buster Keaton said that he died of a broken heart.

The Fatty Arbuckle scandal, though, was more than a personal tragedy. Motion pictures—and the concept of the movie "star"—were still new in the early 1920s, and the Arbuckle scandal gave movie fans a rude wake-up call. For the first time, Americans saw the dark side of stardom. Drunk with fame and wealth, actors could abuse their power and commit horrible crimes—indeed, as many social reformers had claimed, Hollywood might be a breeding ground for debauchery. In the face of this threat, the movie industry established a series of codes controlling the conduct of actors and the content of films, which culminated in the Production Code of the 1930s. The industry hoped to project an image of wholesomeness, but in the wake of the Arbuckle scandal, the public remained unconvinced. Although American audiences still continued to be entranced by the Hollywood "dream factory," they would never put their faith in movie stars in the way they had before 1921.

—Samantha Barbas

Further Reading:

Edmonds, Andy. Frame Up!: The Untold Story of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. New York, Morrow, 1991.

Oderman, Stuart. Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle: A Biography of the Silent Film Comedian. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland and Company, 1994.

Yallop, David. The Day the Laughter Stopped: The True Story of Fatty Arbuckle. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1976.

Young, Robert. Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle: A Bio-bibliography. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1994.