Gene Fowler, a noted screenwriter during the early days of talkies, said, “Hollywood is a celluloid gut that must be nourished endlessly, an all-devouring gut that greedily takes in and speedily rids itself of talents fed to it from enchanted salvers. A victim of this gluttony enjoys a drugged moment of wealth, huzzas, and statuettes…but once the jaws of the man-eater close upon him, his lot becomes that of any other morsel” (Young). It is uncertain when he was quoted as saying this, but one may have musings that he was/would be referring to the great silent comedian Roscoe Arbuckle, who enjoyed fame and fortune comparable to that of Charlie Chaplin at the height of his career. But, as with many Hollywood figures of fame and fortune, Arbuckle’s life would end tragically and abruptly, once the “man-eaters close[d] upon him.”
Yet the works and contribution of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle to the evolution of silent comedy are undisputable. Although Arbuckle was later deemed as “Hollywood’s Scapegoat,” he contributed to film history a large filmography that combined physical comedy with intelligent stagecraft, and influenced other comedians of the silent era, including Buster Keaton, and left an undeniable legacy on silent comedy that was tragically cut short. Herein I will attempt to examine Arbuckle’s early career, which included work at Keystone Films with producer Mack Sennett, as well as his collaborations with producer Joseph Schenck with his series of Comique comedies, which include a few of Arbuckle’s significant films that he made with Buster Keaton. Then I will take a brief look at the 1921 scandal that marred Arbuckle’s name, and look at the effect it had on his later career and his life in general, and briefly touch upon the events of his life after he was acquitted.
There are many stories which report the origins of Arbuckle’s employment for producer Mack Sennett at the Keystone Film Company. These theories range from simply showing up in Sennett’s office and saying, “Name’s Arbuckle. Roscoe Arbuckle. Call me ‘Fatty’. I’m with a stock company. I’m a funnyman and an acrobat. Bet I could do good in pictures. Whatcha think?” (Young, 31), to him going into a “feather-light time-step,” clapping his hands and doing a backwards somersault. Although these theories, and there are many more, are certainly interesting, the most plausible is the theory where he met Keystone comedian Fred Mace in the streetcar on his way to the studio to look for work, getting a quick rundown on Sennett and Keystone from Mace, and then being taken on the lot and introduced to the “cigar-chewing producer,” as well as a young Mabel Normand (Young). It’s said that Sennett was not particularly impressed with Arbuckle at the time, but that it was Mabel Normand who sensed Roscoe’s potential, and urged Sennett to hire him (Young). Robert Young, in his book Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: A Bio-Bibliography, states, “In Mabel Normand, Roscoe could not have made a better first friend at Keystone. She had Sennett’s ear, and often was able to persuade him, against his stubborn Irish will, to follow her almost always correct instincts” (Young, 32). Her instincts about Roscoe Arbuckle would later turn all three of them into household names.
Between June 1913 and May 1916, Fatty and Mabel starred in 36 films together for Mack Sennett and the Keystone Film Company, the first of which was The Gangsters (1913), where Arbuckle played as a cop. The film was not as financially successful as any producer would hope, but rather served to prove to Sennett that “The Fat Boy” was agile, funny, and made a good comic cop (Young). Mabel convinced Sennett that Arbuckle had tremendous potential as a leading man, which led to Arbuckle signing a contract which took him to earning upwards of $1,000 per week less than a year later (Young). In today’s terms, that equals roughly $24,000 per week (CPI). The teaming of Roscoe and Mabel was a move that greatly accelerated the careers of both people, and their frequent roles as innocent sweethearts won-over audiences worldwide. The “Fat Boy” radiated charm, and Mabel had an infectious smile (Young). After Mack Sennett let Charlie Chaplin slip through his fingers and into a rival studio (for allegedly not wanting to give him a raise, which Sennett later on said that he regretted), “Arbuckle finally won the much-sought-after position of top comedian on the lot…bringing with it control of his own film unit and… [trust] from Sennett” (Edmonds, 82).
By 1916, the “Fatty” comedies had hit their stride. They had evolved into “two-reelers” and had become enormously successful, with plots that usually ran along the lines of “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl,” and they usually featured happy, romantic endings (Edmonds). Other hallmarks of the Sennett-controlled Fatty films include, but are not limited to, custard pies flying from all directions without provocation, gangs of uncoordinated policemen arriving late at the scene and being unable to do anything to help the situation, cars running through busy traffic intersections, only to come to a stop on a set of railroad tracks with a train inevitably bearing down on it. Film critic Anthony Slide contended that the lack of a plausible story in these films was the reason why these comedies were such a huge success from the outset. “There was no legitimate reason for whatever happened on the screen. The pace at which the comedy was put over was the most important thing, and this pace was maintained by skillful editing techniques” (Oderman, 43). A Mack Sennett comedy, unlike stage plays of the time, meant frantic men and pretty women and constant action. But, as had Chaplin before him, Sennett was about to let Arbuckle slip through his penny-pinching fingers and into the arms of a different studio.
Comique Film Corporation
Paramount Pictures agent Lou Anger somehow managed to slip past studio guards and make his way to Arbuckle’s Keystone set in 1916. Anger offered Arbuckle $1,000 per day starting salary, and complete control over his pictures, with the possibility of earning an annual salary of $1 million in three years’ time, if his films were successful at the box office (Oderman). Following a health crisis wherein his leg was set to be amputated and he was prescribed heroin for the easing of the pain, Arbuckle began shooting his first film for Paramount, called The Butcher Boy (1917). While shooting on the set, Lou Anger introduced Arbuckle to a skinny young vaudeville veteran named Buster Keaton. “From the start, Arbuckle implicitly trusted him with the more intricate and dangerous jobs. Within three months he was assistant director” (Young, 57). One of the first things that Keaton was hired for was to take a fall by catching a bag of flour with his face. Said Keaton, “Roscoe is weighing out sacks of flour and tying them up when a yokel fight breaks out in the store. He’s to heave a sack at Al St. John and Al’s to duck. This will let it arrive special delivery to my head” (Young, 57). And take that heaved sack of flour to the head he did, to the delight of Arbuckle and audiences: Keaton had carried out the scene perfectly, and the first take was the only take (Young).
The Butcher Boy wouldn’t necessarily be a very noteworthy film if it weren’t for two key factors: It was Arbuckle’s first film with his own film unit, and it was the film debut of Buster Keaton. Because Arbuckle had enjoyed so much success by playing the Fatty character at Keystone, for The Butcher Boy he stuck with what he knew worked. It is clear from viewing the film that Arbuckle was very aware of his audience, and of their love for the Fatty character, and further exposition on his character was unnecessary because it had already been established with audiences. Because of Arbuckle’s immediate liking to Keaton, it is certainly possible that Keaton made creative suggestions to Arbuckle while collaborating on The Butcher Boy. However, this being Keaton’s first film set experience, he was likely too new to the process of making moving pictures to explore more than a handful of creative options (Neibaur).
Between May and October of 1917, Roscoe and Buster would follow The Butcher Boy with five more fast-paced, gag-filled comedies. These included A Reckless Romeo, The Rough House (where, it is noted, that Arbuckle originated the dancing dinner rolls sequence that was later taken and used in The Gold Rush by Charlie Chaplin in 1925 (Young)), His Wedding Night, Oh, Doctor!, and Fatty at Coney Island, wherein Roscoe and Buster took over the famous New York amusement park with hilarious and disastrous results. It was while filming Fatty at Coney Island that Arbuckle had a near brush with being framed for rape. The film unit was on location at the amusement park, and Roscoe was in his resting room, “…when a well-endowed sixteen year-old extra [who had been] hired for the summer knocked and entered holding two bathing suits in front of her. ‘Which one shall I wear?’ she asked, dropping the first one [and] then the other to stand stark naked and smiling. Shaken, Arbuckle wasted no time leaving the room, later telling Buster, who asked why the girl had been fired, ‘I had enough sense to get the hell out of there fast. The door [just about] knocked her mother down. She was all set to bust in. Daughter would scream. Ma would yell, ‘Rape!’ And here would come Pa with the shotgun’” (Young, 58). This event had such an impact on Roscoe, that he convinced Joseph Schenck that the best place to work was in California. Thus, Arbuckle and Keaton, with their Comique Film unit in tow, moved to a vacant studio on Sixth and Alamitos streets in Long Beach (Young, 58). Here on the west coast, after weeks of living “like a gypsy” (Young, 59), Arbuckle checked into a room at the Hollywood Hotel, where another one of the guests was a young actress named Virginia Rappe, who, little did Roscoe know, would end up making a serious impact on his life and career.
Once the Comique Film Company was settled on the west coast, little time was wasted. Working on a schedule of seven or eight weeks per film, they turned out a series of extremely successful two-reelers that had Paramount executives glowing. Some of these films included The Bell Boy, Moonshine, Good Night, Nurse!, and The Cook, which marked Keaton’s final film appearance before being called up in the Army during World War I in June 1918 (Young). For Keaton, life in the military had “…all the logic of a Sennett two-reeler: his uniform never fit, his shoes were too big, and, after a brief training period at Long Island’s Camp Upton, he found himself stationed outside Paris in a village where the rain never seemed to stop” (Oderman, 126). Keaton was eventually tasked with setting up a comedy troupe with anybody who had had any performance ability, and dubbed them “The Sunshine Boys.” The Sunshine Boys would perform for the troops wherever the 140th Infantry was stationed, and Keaton greatly enjoyed the experience.
Back at home, Arbuckle also soldiered on. The period of 11 months wherein Arbuckle worked without Keaton is an interesting time to examine, as the films were created without Keaton’s notable suggestions and ideas for gags. Arbuckle’s own capabilities were the reason for the success of the two-reelers, but Buster’s influence over the past several films had had a discernable impact (Neibaur). Al St. John, who had been overshadowed by Keaton when he joined the company, stepped up to fill the void. One of the most interesting films during this period of Arbuckle without Keaton is the film Love (1919). Love is an extremely funny, incredibly clever short that presents some of Arbuckle’s best gags within the context of a standard plot that revolved around Fatty and Al fighting over a rural girl. One of the most fascinating things about Love is how it continued to explore the possibilities that were offered by the film medium, which is something that had piqued Keaton’s interest perhaps even more than it had Arbuckle’s. A film like Love shows how far Roscoe had come from his Keystone roots as both a comedian and a filmmaker. Part of it was something to do with Keaton being so great of an inspiration, but, as Arbuckle scholars are quick to point out, this film was made while Buster was off at war, and thus “exhibited Arbuckle’s own comic prowess and cleverness as a filmmaker” (Neibaur, 131).
As the teens rolled towards the Roaring Twenties, there were many very funny people making movies, but there were only two geniuses starring in them: Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle. Both were masters of comedy and knew their craft well. Both had evolved from Keystone knockabout films into filmmakers of substance and insight. Both enjoyed full creative control over their work, and each would soon graduate to feature-length films by the end of the decade (Neibaur). However, Arbuckle did not have the same artful presentation as did Chaplin, and it appears from his films that he feared straying too far from his Keystone roots. Yet notwithstanding his humble origins, Arbuckle had evolved into a massive movie star. By this point in his career, he was making a salary of $4,500 per week (Young, 60) (or around $62,000 per week adjusted for inflation) (CPI). Arbuckle spent his wealth in numerous ways. At the advice of Lou Anger, Roscoe invested in “a local suburban baseball team, the Vernon Tigers. The players rewarded him by winning a championship and showing a profit. At home games he had a special, extra-wide seat in the stands, and now and then wore a team uniform in which he posed for a baseball trading card” (Young, 62). Seeing the west coast as his new home, he purchased a secluded mansion from Los Angeles socialite Randolph Huntington Miner for the sum of $250,000 (Young, 60) (or about $3.5 million) (CPI), and decked it out with furnishings from all over the world, including a $15,000 front door from Spain, “lush oriental rugs, antique china and crystal, and imported mahogany paneling” (Young, 60). Arbuckle’s acquisition of a home meant it was party time when his work day ended.
Roscoe was liked by just about everyone, and he was in cahoots with all of Hollywood’s reigning royalty. He went to their parties, and they regularly turned out for his, often partying through the night (Young). By September 1921, Roscoe had completed a bee-line schedule that included three features, and he was physically exhausted. Thus, he planned to drive up to San Francisco to spend the impending Labor Day weekend at the St. Francis Hotel, a particular favorite of his, and a regular guest of the hotel when he was in town. On Labor Day, Monday, September 5th, 1921, Roscoe held a lavish party in the twelfth-floor suite that he had reserved for the weekend. In attendance at this party were industry figures, executives, agents, actors, including Virginia Rappe, an actress who had been down on her luck in recent years, and who had met Arbuckle a few years previously. One notably absent figure from this party was Buster Keaton, who had had other plans for the weekend (Young). As the party progressed, Virginia drank too much too soon. She passed out, and attempts to revive her proved fruitless. Arbuckle “booked another room down the hall and had her put to bed. Her illness persisted” (Young, 65), and after three medical doctors had examined her and had administered drugs, including morphine, she was moved to a private hospital, the Wakefield Sanitarium” (Young).
At the hospital, they learned that Rappe had a venereal disease and she had been suffering the side effects for upwards of six weeks. Her friend Bambina Maude Delmont, “a woman of few scruples and few morals whose sordid past include prostitution, swindling, and blackmail” (Young, 65), sensed an opportunity to make big money out her Virginia’s condition. Thus, she began telling all who would listen the lie that Roscoe had raped the girl while she was in a drunken stupor, and then ruptured her bladder with his great weight (Young). A telegram was later discovered by authorities that originated form Delmont, stating “We have Roscoe Arbuckle in a hole here. Chance to make some money out of him” (Young, 65). This malicious lie would go on to do untold damage, damage that Roscoe would learn of in the months following Labor Day 1921, when his hard-earned and cherished fame was “dishonestly and viciously turned to totally undeserved disgrace and public contempt” (Young, 65). Assured that Rappe would be all right, Arbuckle checked out of the St. Francis Hotel and made his way back to Los Angeles. On September 9th, 1921, at 1:30pm, Rappe succumbed to her illness and died. It is noted that “at no time during her illness did Rappe accuse Arbuckle of any misconduct, and she loudly denied he had injured her in any way when others tried to get her to do so” (Young, 66).
The events that followed Virginia Rappe’s death happened in rapid succession. Upon learning of her death, Delmont went to the press and the police, demanding that Arbuckle be arrested and prosecuted on a murder charge. Paramount, wanting to protect their highest-grossing actor, called upon famed criminal defense attorney Earl Rogers. Rogers, an older man who was sick and dying himself, almost accepted the case, but had to decline, saying, “Arbuckle’s weight will damn him. He is charged with an attack on this girl that resulted in her death. He will no longer be the roly-poly, good-natured funny fat man that everybody loves. He will become a monster. If he were an ordinary man, his own spotless reputation [and] clean pictures would save him. They’ll never convict him, but this will ruin him and maybe motion pictures for some time” (Young, 67). Many people were out to get Arbuckle, and the first two trials played out like a circus. They were marked by claims of witness tampering, faked evidence, and the mysterious absence of his main agitator, Bambina Delmont. Eventually, both trials ended up as mistrials. Meanwhile, in the wake of much uncertainty, Arbuckle’s salary was suspended; his films were pulled from exhibition houses all across the country, and even his films in England and Switzerland were banned from being shown (Young). A third trial was called, and this time nothing was left out: witnesses were questioned so intensely that one of them passed out on the stand (Young). Rappe’s past was thoroughly checked and double-checked: she had at one time been a prostitute, had undergone at least five abortions by the time she was sixteen years old, had a history of bladder problems that often resulted in her going “berserk and tearing at her clothing when affected by alcohol” (Young, 70), and had suffered from a number of venereal diseases. Roscoe, ever the gentleman, hated his attorney’s having to “drag the dead girl’s character through the legal mud” (Young, 71). While the verdict of not guilty cemented his innocence, it was a battle that was won in a war that had already been lost (Young).
Having been acquitted of the crime, Arbuckle was ready to get back to work, but the American public wasn’t ready to have him. All showings of his films were cancelled, and his films were banned from being shown in many of the states. He sold his mansion and his cars and was heavily in debt for the legal fees of his three trials. Many in Hollywood shunned him for fear that their careers would turn south if they associated with him. Buster Keaton had taken over as the star of the Comique Film Company and had renamed it Buster Keaton Productions, although they remained friends. Arbuckle tried doing more two-reelers, even going to the length to produce them under the pseudonym William B. Goodrich, but the American people wouldn’t have it. He dabbled in sound pictures for Jack Warner, but even those didn’t find great success. Overworked and overweight, on June 22, 1933, Arbuckle’s heart stopped. He was 46 years old (Young). At his funeral the following week, Roscoe’s friend Will Rogers said, “Those who demanded their pound of flesh finally received their satisfaction. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle accommodated them by dying, and from a broken heart. He brought much happiness to many, and never knowingly wronged a soul. The Lord will pass on his innocence or guilt now, and not the reformers” (Young, 86).
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle rose from obscurity to become one of silent cinema’s leading comedians. He introduced another comedian, Buster Keaton, to the world of moving pictures, and left a lasting legacy to be remembered by. Although undone by the scandal that rocked his life to the very center, Arbuckle went on and tried to continue making people laugh, but The People wouldn’t have him. Joseph Schenck, Roscoe’s producer and friend until the end, said, “All who have ever known the real Roscoe Arbuckle will always treasure the memory of the great, generous heart of the man, a heart big enough to embrace in its warmth everyone who came to him for help, friend and stranger alike” (Young, 86).
"CPI Inflation Calculator." CPI Inflation Calculator. Web. 5 June 2015.
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Neibaur, James L. Arbuckle and Keaton: Their 14 Film Collaborations. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2007. Print.
Oderman, Stuart. Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle: A Biography of the Silent Film Comedian, 1887-1933. Jefferson: McFarland, 1994. Print.
The Best of Arbuckle and Keaton Collection. Image Entertainment, 2002. DVD.
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