"We feel a great injustice has been done him."
The jury that freed Fatty Arbuckle
On April 12, 1922, Roscoe Conklin Arbuckle (his friends never called him Fatty) emerged from a courtroom in San Francisco and told the press:
"This is the most solemn moment of my life. My innocence of the hideous charge preferred against me has been proved . . . I am truly grateful to my fellow men and women. My life has been devoted to the production of clean pictures for the happiness of children. I shall try to enlarge my field of usefulness so that my art shall have a wider service."
That's not the way it worked out. Hollywood never let Fatty Arbuckle enlarge his "field of usefulness" until it was too late.
The round comedian's $5,000-a-week career had actually ended September 5, 1921, during a boozy midday party in a suite in the St. Francis Hotel in the City of Hills. It ended when Arbuckle, in his pajamas, adjourned to a bedroom with Virginia Rappé, a delicately beautiful actress and model.
The girl, twenty-three, died four days later, and the State of California blamed her demise on "external pressure" applied by Arbuckle during a sexual adventure. The cause of death was peritonitis, following a rupture of the bladder.
The incident rocked Hollywood on its foundations. The silent screen counted 35,000,000 cash customers per week at the time and the studios weren't relying solely on the kiss-proof, drink-proof, sin-proof Western hero to lure them in. Not at all. The fan who wanted something more like-it-is than the 200 percent purity of William S. Hart or Jack Holt had a nice selection of bedroom epics to draw from.
Hollywood somehow knew about the revolution in manners and morals right from the start; the cameras had been grinding away on the New Freedom since the war's end. The once-delicate subject of divorce and the general loosening of the marital ties had produced some spicy items on celluloid, bringing forth a rash of agonized comments from women in clubs and men in cloth. Fighting the twin threats of boycott and censorship, the studios dreaded a live scandal even more than their own juicy canned product. The irony was that the big blow finally came not from one of the screen's more frolicsome lover boys but from a hefty comic whose work on film was the soul of good clean Mack Sennett slapstick.
Fatty Arbuckle's ordealand Hollywood'slasted through not one but three trials. The star contended all along that Miss Rappé's torn bladder grew out of a chronic condition aggravated by bootleg hootch, but the state's witnesses furnished more lurid headlines. Miss "Bambina" Maud Delmont testified that there were screams from the hotel room and then Arbuckle emerged, giggling, with the girl's hat tilted on the side of his head, and said, "Go in and get her dressed and take her back to the Palace. She makes too much noise." The witness said she found Miss Rappé all but naked, moaning, "I'm dying, I'm dying,"
and writhing in pain. Alice Blake, a showgirl, supported Miss Delmont's story. "We tried to dress her," she said, "but found her clothing torn to shreds. Her shirtwaist, underclothes and even her stockings were ripped and torn so that one could hardly recognize what garments they were."
The women thought Miss Rappé might have had too much to drink, among other things, so they put her into a cold bath. Doctors called by the defense testified that the bath could have ruptured the bladder. The actress, while she lingered, had furnished no clues to the bedroom scene beyond telling a nurse that she had been intimate with the fun-loving 320-pound comedian.
The first jury stood 10-2 for acquittal after 43 hours, so a mistrial was declared. The second stood 10-2 for conviction and was dismissed after 44 hours. The third panel took just 6 minutes to clear the pink-faced defendant of manslaughter and then observed:
"Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel a great injustice has been done him and there was not the slightest proof to connect him in any way with the commission of any crime."
Miss Rappé's fiance, director Henry Lehrman, saw it another way.
"Virginia had the most remarkable determination," Lehrman said. "She would rise from the dead to defend her person from indignity. As for Arbuckle, this is what comes of taking vulgarians from the gutter and giving them enormous salaries and making idols of them. Some people don't know how to get a kick out of life, except in a beastly way.
They are the ones who participate in orgies that surpass the orgies of degenerate Rome."
The studios, watching the box office, endorsed the Lehrman view not just by blacklisting Arbuckle but by junking his unreleased movies. The chances are that those little treasures could not have been sold in any case: Exhibitors everywhere had labeled the over-sized star guilty long before the third jury acquitted him.
Arbuckle changed his name to William Goodrichsomebody said he should have made it Will B. Goodand got some casual work as a directorbut eleven years passed before anyone let him act. Warner Brothers put him in some two-reel comedies in 1933, shooting in New York.
He finished one on June 30 and said, "This is the happiest day of my life." In the morning, he was deadfelled in his sleep by a heart attack. He was forty-six. Years later, his old pie-in-the-face comedies turned up on afternoon television programs aimed at the kiddie audience. The TV people figured, correctly, that the younger set couldn't possibly be
contaminated by the pre-Rappé Arbuckle.