It was the time of Silent movies, Keystone cops and the new age of Cinema. Fatty Arbuckle was one the elite stars of the era. During this period Paramount Pictures made an offer of $1000 a day plus a percentage of the profits for the film star in 1914. It was unheard of at the time. He also gave breaks to other performers Buster Keaton and Bob Hope for example.
Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle was originally from Kansas (born March 24, 1887) but his family migrated to Santa Ana, California when he was about 2 years old. He started out as part of the west coast Vaudeville circuit when he was a teenager. Arbuckle was a heavy person, he weighed 250-300 lbs. and that became part of his act. He tumbled and moved quite gracefully throwing pies. In Vaudeville as well silent movies, Fatty Arbuckle was a one of the most popular stars.
In 1921 Paramount offered him a three-year contract was for $3 million dollars, the equivalent of $54,000,000 today. To celebrate his new contract Arbuckle and two friends decided to throw a three-day bender or celebration. Arbuckle went with two friends north to San Francisco. There they got rooms 2019, 2020, 2021 at the St. Francis Hotel, which is where they held the festivities. The party started September 5, 1921; it was a Monday which was Labor Day. It was during prohibition, so the fact they were well equipped with liquor brought in a large audience…About 3 p.m. Fatty got dressed to go sightseeing, it was then the trouble began.
Virginia Rappe was a model and a silent movie actor. She was going between L.A. and San Francisco for the last few years of her life. In 1919 she began a romantic relationship with Henry Lehman and appeared in at least four of his films. It was said at one point that they were engaged to married. She was in San Francisco at the time and was attending the party.
Within minutes after Arbuckle’s announcement to go out, Virginia Rappe was raped and in such bad physical condition that people were coming to her aid. At first, they believed she was just very drunk. Virginia had a habit of tearing off her clothes when she got drunk, which she was doing that day. The people around her tried to apply ice to her to cool her down, sober her up. She was not getting any better. Eventually the hotel staff moved her to another room to rest. No one knew how serious her issues were. Arbuckle went sightseeing, and then drove back to L.A. without really knowing what had happened.
Rappe was not taken to the hospital for three days, as the people around her believed her issues were with alcohol. Rappe was taken to the Wakefield Sanitorium, a maternity hospital known for providing abortions. Virginia Rappe died the next day from peritonitis from a ruptured bladder. Shortly afterward Roscoe Arbuckle was arrested for the murder of Virginia Rappe.
The press was brutal stating that Arbuckle’s weight caused Rappe’s bladder to rupture during the rape. They assumed Arbuckle was guilty and Rappe was innocent. Even though most knew she was a party girl, who had several previous abortions. By those standards at that time Rappe would be considered immoral. None of the allegations against Arbuckle were ever proven. One party guest Zey Prevon said that Rappe told her "Roscoe hurt me" on her deathbed. Another woman said hours after the alleged crime Arbuckle was smiling. Rappe did have bruising on her body.
The movie theaters stopped showing Arbuckle’s movies immediately and he became a symbol of the decadence and debauchery of show business. The crime and Arbuckle were all over the media, making it difficult to try the case. Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter. The first two trials were hung juries, deadlocked at 10-2 ten to convict and two to acquit.
By the third trial Prevon had vanished, so could not testify. It was determined Rappe could have had cancer, and the bruising could have come from the heavy jewelry she was wearing. In the third trial Arbuckle testified, and the jury found him innocent. He was banned from making movies until December 1922, but it did not matter his career was ruined.
He had a tough time finding work but directed (as Goodrich) and stayed close to the industry. By 1933 he was making a comeback, Warner Bros. had hired him again. It was short lived as on June 29, 1933, Fatty Arbuckle went to bed and had a massive heart attack. He died at age 46.
Roscoe Arbuckle started working in the business at 7 years old. Sid Grauman (Of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in L.A.) hired him to sing in his new theater in San Francisco. Fatty was an excellent tenor in fact, Enrico Caruso heard him sing. He suggested he give up the “nonsense he did for a living” and with training he could be a famous and world renown singer.
He was married three times to Minta Durfree (1908-1925), Doris Deane (1925-1929), and Addie Oakley Dukes McPhail (1932) but had no children. Minta Durfree appeared with him while he worked Vaudeville and in some of his movies.
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