Other than silent film
aficionados, most people who have heard of Fatty Arbuckle are probably only
aware that he was linked in some way to a scandal occurring in the early days of
Hollywood, and may know little else about the scandal itself or Arbuckle’s
career in general. The truth of the matter is that a great tragedy did
occur in this man’s life, but the victim of this tragedy was not the young woman
who died in its throes - it was Mr. Arbuckle himself. In the days before
journalists were held accountable for the truth, and when sensationalism sold
newspapers, a wonderful film career was all but destroyed by the frenzied and
irresponsible reporting of the biggest Hollywood scandal of the century.
But first things first.
Roscoe Arbuckle was born in 1887 to a very
poor family in Smith Center, Kansas, and at fourteen pounds, was overweight from
the day he entered the world. Small wonder that during his teens, he acquired
the nickname that followed him throughout his life, although it was never used
by friends. In tiny Smith Center, Roscoe might never have achieved the fame he
eventually did, but early in life his family moved to Santa Ana, California.
There, Roscoe’s mother died in 1899, and never having been close with his
father, he was abandoned at the tender age of twelve. He worked at a hotel in
San Jose to support himself, and his habitual singing while at work got him
noticed by a performer at that same hotel, who thought the boy had talent. She
encouraged him to audition for local productions, and at one of these he was
spotted by David Grauman, who soon had Roscoe appearing in vaudeville shows as a
In 1909, he appeared in his very first
film, for Selig Productions, entitled “Ben’s Kid”. It was not a memorable
effort, but he appeared in three more shorts that year, one in 1910 and one more
in 1913, all for Selig. In between films, he appeared in theatrical tours
domestically and in the Orient.
Roscoe’s big break came in 1913, when he
signed on with Keystone Studios and the great Mack Sennett. Keystone had just
lost its biggest star, and Sennett thought Arbuckle had tremendous potential as
a slapstick comedian in short films, which were mushrooming in popularity at
that time. The movie-going public took to Roscoe immediately, and Sennett made
sure his his new star was kept before the public - in 1913, Roscoe starred in in
thirty shorts for Keystone, then forty-six more in 1914, and twenty more in
1915. Arbuckle did indeed have a knack for slapstick, as can be seen from even a
modest survey of these Keystone classics. For instance, in “A Noise to Remember”
(1914), he filmed the first pie-throwing scene in comic history, which device
has of course been repeated countless times since.
It is also true that Roscoe had some
wonderful comedic talent supporting him in the Keystone shorts, including Edgar
Kennedy, Ford Sterling, Mabel Normand (with whom he teamed many times in an
ongoing film series), the Keystone Cops, Mack Sennett himself, and even
Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. No, that is not a misprint - both Chaplin and Harold
Lloyd appeared in supporting roles in Arbuckle films during the Keystone years.
When Roscoe teamed several times with Buster Keaton for Comique Productions in
1917, he became the answer to a fascinating trivia question - who was the only
comedian ever to have Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton co-star
in his films?
But Roscoe’s success really had much more
to do with his own instincts for comedy, rather than the group of rising stars
that appeared with him in those early years. In March of 1914 with “Barnyard
Flirtations“, Roscoe became the first of the great silent film comedians to
direct his own films. At first, he stayed true to the Keystone formula,
providing his audience with plenty of pratfalls, pie-throwing, chases, and
physical comedy in general. He was very agile for a large man, and performed
many of these comic slapstick bits himself, refusing to allow his weight to
hinder him on film. And he was never afraid to try something new - in fact, he
welcomed it. He felt that his fans were intelligent enough to appreciate what he
referred to as ‘scenic beauty’ on film, in addition to the strictly comic bits,
and he incorporated more of this in his work as he grew more adept at directing.
By 1917, things got even better for Roscoe.
He was offered complete artistic control over making movies, along with a
tremendously lucrative deal to come to Comique Productions. With everything
going his way, Roscoe produced his best work ever, in films universally regarded
as comedy classics. His pal Buster Keaton was writing much of the material for
these movies, but it was Roscoe starring in such great shorts as “Butcher Boy”,
“Coney Island”, “Out West”, and “The Bellboy”, and he was rewarded for his
efforts by the tremendous popularity of the films. These movies were loaded with
original and creative comic scenes - if you take a close look at “Rough House”,
you will see a routine which was the inspiration for Charlie Chaplin’s famous
‘dance of the dinner rolls’ from “The Gold Rush”.
But all good things come to an end, and the
Comique years did too. In 1920, Roscoe was offered the unbelievable sum of one
million dollars annually to jump to Paramount to star in feature films for
Adolph Zukor. He could not decline, and left Comique - but he also left behind
all vestiges of control over his movies. At Paramount, he filmed nine features
through 1921, none of which were very memorable, and which bore little
resemblance to the inspired comic masterpieces made at Keystone and Comique.
It was at this point, with his career in
something of a slump that disaster befell Roscoe Arbuckle. Taking a break from
the frantic pace of filming at Paramount, he went to a friend’s party in San
Francisco. There, a young woman who had had five abortions before the age of
sixteen, Virginia Rappe, fell ill in the bathroom which adjoined her hotel room
with Roscoe’s room. He got her a drink, as she requested, and left her in the
care of hotel personnel, as she was screaming in pain for reasons unknown. The
woman died four days later from peritonitis, with complications from gonorrhea.
Incredibly, Roscoe was accused of raping the woman by her companion,
Delmont, who had more than fifty counts of bigamy, fraud, extortion, and
blackmail filed against her by California police. Pending an investigation of
the incident, police felt compelled to arrest Roscoe Arbuckle for murder.
The case went to trial, and resulted in a
hung jury twice before the third jury acquitted
Arbuckle. By that time, more
evidence had come to light about both the principals involved, as well as the
coroner’s report, which fully exonerated Arbuckle. But the damage was done.
Roscoe was blacklisted in Hollywood - the first such action of its kind. From
1922 to 1932, Roscoe was unable to get any serious roles in film, although
friends like Buster Keaton tried to help with smaller roles. Then finally in
1932, all of Hollywood finally rallied behind him, decrying the injustice which
had been done to Arbuckle.
Jack Warner signed him to a contract to do
six shorts, which included “Close Relations” and “In the Dough”, two films with
Shemp Howard. These were good films, not quite up to the level of his earlier
work, but popular enough that Warner Brothers wanted him to appear in a feature
film next. But that was not to be - in June of 1933, Roscoe Arbuckle died from
Friends who knew the torment he had gone
through since the scandal, and who had witnessed one of America’s most beloved
celebrities become one of its most reviled, put it a different way - they said
Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle died of a broken heart.
Ken Lashway is a freelance writer from New York.