Film Star Fatty Arbuckle Is Acquitted of Manslaughter Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of America’s most popular actor-comedians at the beginning of the 1920’s. He became the target of national outrage after he was accused of causing the death of actor Virginia Rappe, whom he reportedly raped at a party at a San Francisco hotel. Although he was acquitted, his career virtually ended.

Summary of Event

In 1921, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the world’s most famous film stars and the top actor at Paramount Pictures. After leading a hardscrabble life on the vaudeville theater circuit, he finally achieved fame around 1913 by starring in a series of comedy shorts produced by Mack Sennett, who had made stars of Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Mabel Normand. Despite his immense weight (250-300 pounds), Arbuckle was known for his deft comedic moves and his ability to take a fall. His sweet, humble persona made him a fan favorite with moviegoers while his lively sense of humor made him popular with his fellow Hollywood stars. [kw]Arbuckle Is Acquitted of Manslaughter, Film Star Fatty (Apr. 12, 1922) [kw]Film Star Fatty Arbuckle Is Acquitted of Manslaughter (Apr. 12, 1922) Arbuckle, Roscoe Rape;and Fatty Arbuckle[Arbuckle] San Francisco;Fatty Arbuckle trial[Arbuckle trial] Rappe, Virginia Arbuckle, Roscoe Rape;and Fatty Arbuckle[Arbuckle] San Francisco;Fatty Arbuckle trial[Arbuckle trial] Rappe, Virginia [g]United States;Apr. 12, 1922: Film Star Fatty Arbuckle Is Acquitted of Manslaughter[00270] [c]Law and the courts;Apr. 12, 1922: Film Star Fatty Arbuckle Is Acquitted of Manslaughter[00270] [c]Murder and suicide;Apr. 12, 1922: Film Star Fatty Arbuckle Is Acquitted of Manslaughter[00270] [c]Sex crimes;Apr. 12, 1922: Film Star Fatty Arbuckle Is Acquitted of Manslaughter[00270] Delmont, Margaret Maude Brady, Matthew A. McNab, Gavin

Fatty Arbuckle, seated second from right, at his manslaughter trial in San Francisco.

(Library of Congress)

In the summer of 1921, his new contract with Paramount promised him an annual salary of one million dollars, making him the highest paid film star in the history of cinema, to that time. Looking to celebrate his newfound fortune, Arbuckle decided to take a Labor Day weekend trip to San Francisco, California, with his friends, directors Lowell Sherman and Fred Fischbach. Together, they drove to San Francisco and checked into a suite at the St. Francis Hotel.

Arbuckle hoped for a quiet weekend visiting friends but Fischbach insisted on throwing a party. He ordered bootleg liquor, had it delivered to the suite, and invited to the hotel his Hollywood friends and hangers-on who were in town that weekend. Among those celebrities in town was actor Virginia Rappe, who had appeared in some minor films, and Margaret Maude Delmont, a media correspondent known primarily for accumulating potentially damaging evidence on stars. Arbuckle was unhappy to have either of them there, especially Rappe, who had a reputation as a “loose” woman, sometime prostitute, and a bad drunk. The party quickly devolved into a drunken revel, with Arbuckle fearing that the noise would get them thrown out of the hotel.

Several hours into the party, Arbuckle went to change clothes in his bedroom and discovered an ill Rappe vomiting in the bathroom. Arbuckle would later claim that he moved her to his bed and attempted to calm her down, though she continued to cry and scream. Her cries attracted the other partygoers, who found her lying on the bed with her clothes in disarray and sobbing incessantly. When attempts to calm her failed, the hotel doctor was called. After a brief examination, he declared that Rappe was merely intoxicated, and she was moved to another room. The party continued for the rest of the day and ended later that night.

The following day, Arbuckle checked out and left instructions that he would pay for Rappe’s room and medical costs. He and his friends returned to Los Angeles, believing everything would be fine. However, Rappe’s condition worsened. Two days later she was moved to a clinic where she was diagnosed with a ruptured bladder and acute peritonitis. She lapsed into a coma and died on September 9. Delmont, when questioned by police, said that Rappe had been sexually assaulted by Arbuckle. San Francisco district attorney Matthew A. Brady, an ambitious attorney hoping to become California governor, promptly charged Arbuckle with first degree murder, a charge later changed to manslaughter.

Confident of vindication, Arbuckle surrendered to authorities, only to be returned to San Francisco and jailed. National newspapers, particularly New York Times;and Fatty Arbuckle[Arbuckle] The New York Times and the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst, William Randolph Hearst, including the San Francisco Examiner, devoted page after page to the story, printing lurid gossip and unfounded rumors about Arbuckle’s alleged assault on Rappe. One legendary story relates that he sexually assaulted her with a soda or beer bottle. Groups around the country who already were decrying what they believed was an immoral Hollywood demanded the immediate withdrawal of all Arbuckle films from theaters; the theaters were quick to comply.

Fearing mass censorship, the studio bosses invited William H. Hays, a former Republican presidential candidate popular with religious conservatives and a former U.S. postmaster general, to become the industry’s new morality czar. Hays founded the precursor of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and established a production code (known as the Hays Code) that dictated what could and could not be portrayed on film. Films hoping for release in theaters would first have to be approved by his office.

Arbuckle’s first trial began in November, 1921, and he was defended by San Francisco attorney Gavin McNab. At trial, Arbuckle’s conduct was questioned repeatedly by prosecutors, whereas Rappe’s past was not admissible in court. Witnesses who were at the party in San Francisco were threatened with jail time if they did not corroborate the story that Arbuckle raped Rappe. Delmont, Arbuckle’s chief accuser, did not even take the stand because district attorney Brady feared her story would fall apart under cross-examination. Even so, the trial ended in a hung jury, with eleven jurists voting not guilty and one juror (alleged to have ties with the district attorney’s office) refusing to vote anything but guilty. A second trial ended with the same result. A third trial allowed all the evidence to come forward. The jury deliberated for about five minutes before returning a not-guilty verdict on April 12, 1922. Some jurors even issued a public apology for all the pain and hardship Arbuckle had needlessly suffered.

Arbuckle’s sense of triumph was short-lived, however. A few days after his acquittal, Hays announced that Arbuckle would be banned from appearing in any Hollywood film. In effect, he became the first actor to be blacklisted. Unable to perform as an actor, he began operating a popular Hollywood restaurant and directing low-budget films under aliases. The ban was eventually lifted, but no movie offers came his way. Despondent, he watched his marriage fall apart and battled both drug and alcohol addictions.

Arbuckle toured the vaudeville circuit again and was warmly received by the public. During the early 1930’s, Warner Bros. studio cast him in a series of comedy shorts. When the films proved surprisingly popular at the box office, Warner signed Arbuckle to star in a feature film, his first since 1921. Arbuckle declared it “the best day of my life.” That night he suffered a heart attack in his sleep and died. His good friend, Buster Keaton, declared that Arbuckle had literally “died of a broken heart.”

Impact

The Arbuckle scandal had many far-reaching consequences for the film industry and journalism. It turned the private lives of actors into fodder for entertainment and established disturbing trends: Paparazzi paparazzi stalking stars in search of scandal and tabloid reportage. The blacklisting of Arbuckle established the precedent of banning actors, writers, and directors who did not conform to the movie industry’s rules of behavior. Blacklisting would come to fruition during the Red Red Scare Scare of the 1950’s, when actors and others in the entertainment industry would be banned from work based simply on innuendo and rumors that they had communist associations. The Hays Code remained in force until the 1960’s, thus providing incalculable influence on which movies were made and how sexuality, adult themes, and language were depicted in film. The scandal also revealed the media penchant for planting the idea in the public’s mind that a person was guilty before he or she had been tried in a court of law. Arbuckle, Roscoe Rape;and Fatty Arbuckle[Arbuckle] San Francisco;Fatty Arbuckle trial[Arbuckle trial] Rappe, Virginia

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anger, Kenneth. Hollywood Babylon. New ed. New York: Bell, 1981. The original, salacious, Hollywood tell-all book, which discusses the scandalous (though largely untrue) gossip whispered for decades behind Hollywood’s closed doors. Complete with lurid photographs (some quite shocking), this collection remains a classic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. The authoritative history of Hollywood’s silent-film years, featuring candid interviews with many of the leading stars, producers, and directors of the era. Heavily illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edmonds, Andy. Frame-Up! The Untold Story of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. New York: William Morrow, 1991. Entertaining biography of Arbuckle’s career. Includes his detailed revelations of what happened at the party in San Francisco in 1922.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oderman, Stuart. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: A Biography of the Silent Film Comedian, 1887-1933. Jefferson N.C.: McFarland, 2005. Warts-and-all biography that attempts to bring balance to the story of Arbuckle’s life by focusing both on his masterful film work as well as his troubled personal life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stahl, Jerry. I, Fatty: A Novel. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004. Fictionalization of Arbuckle’s life that attempts to go beneath the comedian’s jovial persona to reveal the demons and disappointments that first drove him to the heights of stardom, then caused him to crash.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Robert. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Comprehensive work detailing Arbuckle’s films. Includes interviews with Arbuckle and two of his wives.

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