originally published April 2, 2012
Long before the Tragic Fat-Guy stories of John Belushi, Chris Farley, and (almost) Artie Lange, Hollywood had one that could top them all. This was a man whose talent arguably eclipsed all three of those guys, and whose tragic fall was uglier and more heartbreaking. I’m talking about Roscoe Arbuckle, known to his fans as Fatty.
Arbuckle was a thirteen-pound baby, born to two slim, petite parents. While his mother was recovering, imagining the physics of passing a watermelon through a drinking straw, his father became convinced that such a monstrous baby couldn’t be his. For revenge, he named the baby ‘Roscoe’ after the womanizing, philandering senator Roscoe Conkling, whom Mr. Arbuckle despised.
Roscoe’s mother encouraged him to sing, and he was quite talented. She died when he was twelve, purportedly due to complications from health problems which stemmed from having expelled a child the size of an adult goat. His father had no interest in supporting Roscoe’s singing ambitions, but a lucky break came when Roscoe tried out for a talent contest.
This was one of those talent shows where they literally pull you off-stage by a shepherd’s hook if you suck. Roscoe sang and danced, but he wasn’t getting the cheers he wanted. Out came the suck-hook; to avoid being snared, Roscoe somersaulted into the orchestra pit. The crowd went wild. He won the talent contest.
Arbuckle, who was begrudgingly given the nickname ‘Fatty’ in school, was a successful vaudeville performer before he was old enough to vote. By the time he was 22, he was married and performing in films. He joined up with Mack Sennett’s Keystone Films in 1913, becoming an adept and natural comedic performer. His heft certainly enhanced the laughs, but Fatty refused to be a one-joke fatty. He wouldn’t do gags like getting stuck in a doorway or breaking a chair.
Fatty was remarkably agile, and not just for a tubby guy. He had a physical presence that betrayed his enormity. He also had a singing voice which inspired Enrico Caruso to declare that he should give up films and become the second-greatest singer in the world, but what set him apart from his contemporaries was his indefensible charisma. He wasn’t simply a chubby actor who could spark a laugh, he was a charming leading man. Also, the first ever pie-thrown-in-the-face gag in movie history? That was Fatty and Mabel Normand in 1913’s A Noise From The Deep.
By 1914, Arbuckle was earning $1000 a day, plus 25% of all his films’ profits, plus complete artistic control. He mentored Charlie Chaplin, who borrowed Fatty’s pants and undersized bowler hat to create his classic Tramp character. He gave Buster Keaton his first break, and the two became on-screen comedic partners for years. While touring live, Arbuckle allowed a young, unknown Bob Hope to open for him at a show in Cleveland, then hooked Hope up with his contacts in Hollywood. He was like the Sean “P-Diddy” Combs of early comedic cinema.
But enough about the good stuff. An epic tragedy needs some… well, tragedy. And Fatty Arbuckle had plenty. He was a heavy drinker, which never pairs up well with a substantially portly build. He caught an infection in 1916 which nearly resulted in the amputation of one of his legs. He recovered, but found himself addicted to morphine. Had Hollywood been rampant with heroin and ill-advised deviations into pop music at the time, Fatty probably would have succumbed.
For Arbuckle, everything changed on September 5, 1921. Having recently suffered 2nd-degree burns to his posterior during what I imagine was a hilarious blunder on-set, he and two friends drove to San Francisco for some highly-focused partying at the St. Francis Hotel. They rented three rooms, one of which was designated as the ‘party room’, and invited up a bunch of actresses, including Virginia Rappe.
Virginia suffered from chronic cystitis, a urinary bladder infection that had a tendency to flare up when she drank. When the pain became overwhelming, she’d tear at her clothing in agony, which no doubt made her immensely popular at parties. Arbuckle’s party at the St. Francis featured copious amounts of questionable Prohibition-era hooch, and Virginia indulged.
Her insides were also in extreme disarray due to a number of abortions she’d had in recent years. Abortions were not the sanitary, safe medical procedures they are today; the instruments used were crude and damaging.
There was “horseplay” at the party, which by 1921 standards meant dancing really fast, and possibly some kangaroo boxing. Author Andy Edmonds, who wrote about the scandal, claims that even Arbuckle’s knee bumping into Virginia’s tender abdomen during the course of the hijinks might have been enough to cause serious damage. Virginia was in pain the next day, and after suffering through another gruesome night she wound up dying in the hospital.
Despite no supporting witness testimony and no medical evidence of foul play, Virginia’s friend Bambina Maude Delmont told the doctors that Arbuckle had raped Virginia, and his massive weight had most likely caused the damage that led to her death. By the time the story hit the press, the rape had expanded to rape by Coke-bottle, and Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter.
This was Hollywood’s first major scandal, and thanks to William Randolph Hearst using his newspapers to TMZ the hell out of the affair, it became a media event. Arbuckle’s wife supported his claims of innocence, but public backlash was so extreme, someone actually shot at her when she was walking into the courthouse.
The first trial was a circus, with dozens of Arbuckle’s supporters booing the prosecutor and cheering on the defense witnesses. It came down to a 10-2 deadlock, with one of the jury holdouts, an allegedly radical feminist named Helen Hubbard, refusing to discuss evidence or go over trial transcripts, saying she’d vote guilty until “hell freezes over.” A mistrial was declared.
The defense was so confident in a win, Arbuckle didn’t testify in the second trial. The jurors mistook that as a statement of guilt though, and they were deadlocked at a 9-3 vote for guilty. The third trial came out in his favor – he was finally acquitted.
For Arbuckle, the damage had been done. His films were banned during the scandal, and afterward he couldn’t find work. His marriage collapsed and he climbed into a bottle. After making a handful of short films for Warner Brothers, he was signed to make his first feature in years in 1933, on a day which he declared to be the best of his life. A heart attack that night also made it his last.
Kind of a downer way to wrap up this story. Rather than write a punchline, I’m going to recommend a dose of great entertainment by Fatty himself in the form of The Butcher Boy, a film made in 1917 and featuring Buster Keaton’s film debut. It’s worth the watch.