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Ken's Comedy Corner
By Ken Lashway

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Other than silent film aficionados, most people who have heard of1917 Kromo Gravure Fatty Arbuckle Trading Card 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 singer/dancer.

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, and1920's Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle 5x7 Fan Photo 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 Harold 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, 1915-16 Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle Large Black and White Trading Cardone Maude 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 heart failure.

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.