A major celebrity is accused of rape; the media report on the accusation and subsequent trial with sensational relish, exhibiting the worst aspects of what was once called ‘yellow journalism’ by portraying the accused as a monster and preempting a verdict by assuming guilt; puritanical pressure groups call for his execution and colleagues are warned not to speak up on his behalf at the risk of damaging their own popularity and being implicated by association; the prosecutor at the celebrity’s trial has ulterior motives, pressurising witnesses to make false statements and concluding the accused is guilty after being fed lurid stories from a convicted fraudster, successfully blackening the accused’s character in the process; the end result is a mistrial and the case is drawn out into two further trials, almost as though the powers-that-be are more concerned with establishing guilt than accepting innocence in order to save face; the publicity causes the celebrity’s work to be censored and excised from circulation, in some cases destroyed completely; his career is ruined and his reputation permanently tarnished as a consequence, even though eventually cleared of all charges; the legal cost of the three trials forces him to sell his house and places him on the brink of bankruptcy without the means of earning a living from his former career.
Although this sorry story may seem uncomfortably prescient, it actually stems from over ninety years ago and the celebrity in question was silent movie star, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. Learning nothing from history seems to be a contemporary curse and in the case of poor old Arbuckle, everything that has become commonplace in courtrooms over the past couple of years already had precedents stretching back to the early 1920s. Oscar Wilde is a name that is frequently evoked when describing some recent show trials involving accusations of historical sex crimes, but the closer one studies the case of Fatty Arbuckle, the closer the parallels with present day miscarriages of justice seem.
A century ago, silent cinema’s obvious absence of onscreen dialogue meant that it crossed all language barriers in a way that ‘talkies’ never have and the stars it produced became international household names with remarkable rapidity at a time when there was no comparable competition in terms of mass media. Someone such as Charlie Chaplin at the peak of his popularity was perhaps the most recognisable man on the planet, enjoying a level of worldwide fame that only The Beatles and Diana, Princess of Wales have experienced in recent decades.
Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was up there with Chaplin and Keaton in the 1910s, mentoring the former and discovering the latter (as well as giving an early break to a young comedian by the name of Bob Hope). A former child prodigy, ironically famed for his powerful singing voice, Arbuckle’s natural comedic talent saw him progress to the Vaudeville circuit whilst still in his teens. As a means of subsidising his stage career, he made extra cash appearing in the nascent Hollywood movie industry’s comedy shorts, including the famous Mack Sennett Keystone Cops series. He soon rose through the ranks, as was possible in those early days, to found his own film company and take complete control of his increasingly profitable output. Audiences responded favourably and by the turn of the 20s, ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was known and loved across the globe. Then it all came crashing down.
From all accounts, Arbuckle was a kindly gentleman whose shyness around the opposite sex maybe stemmed from his huge bulk; but he made his name in an industry that was attracting the attention of fanatical moral lobbyists that were finding examples of depravity and decadence in all aspects of popular culture, whether jazz, the movies or alcohol; they were already responsible for outlawing the latter and when a sordid story emerged from a San Francisco party in 1921, one at which Arbuckle was present, they viewed it as symptomatic of Hollywood’s corrupting influence on the nation. It was just the scandal they, and the newspapers of William Randolph Hurst (the Murdoch of his day), had been waiting for.
A minor actress named Virginia Rappe was also at the said party; when the illicit hooch being served had a dramatic effect on her, the doctor resident at the hotel at which the party was held dispensed morphine to calm her down; what the medical man was unaware of was that Rappe suffered from a condition that alcohol exacerbated. She already had a reputation for drinking too much and then ripping off her clothes when afflicted by the resulting pain and was also in poor physical health due to a series of botched abortions. She wasn’t hospitalised until two days after the San Francisco party, by which time it was too late. Rappe died of peritonitis courtesy of a ruptured bladder. Prior to her death, Rappe’s friend Bambina Maud Delmont claimed Rappe had been raped by Arbuckle, despite an examination revealing no evidence. The police came to the decision that Rappe’s bladder had been ruptured by the weight of Arbuckle and arrested him on charges of rape and manslaughter.
When the case went to trial, the world’s media reported it in a manner we’d find all-too familiar today. The prosecutor had ambitions to run for governor and derived most of his accusations against Arbuckle from Bambina Maud Delmont’s vivid imagination; that she had a track record of numerous dubious activities of an illegal nature perhaps prevented the prosecutor from allowing her to take the stand, which would have undoubtedly exposed her as an unreliable witness. After two weeks, the jury’s indecision was underlined by the presence of a juror connected to the DA’s office who had claimed she was determined to find Arbuckle guilty. Unsurprisingly, the jury failed to reach a verdict and a mistrial was declared.
Arbuckle had to endure a second trial whilst fantastically gruesome accounts of him raping Rappe with a bottle circulated in the Hearst press. One of the prosecution witnesses was an ex-studio security guard who it eventually transpired was in the middle of being charged with sexual abuse of a minor, yet even this revelation and the fact that Rappe’s history of drunken promiscuity was documented couldn’t alter the bias against Arbuckle after months of sensational headlines. The jury was again unable to decide and only after a third trial, by which time Bambina Maud Delmont was touring the country and exploiting her infamy, was Arbuckle finally acquitted.
Arbuckle left court a free man, but the legacy of the trial was something he couldn’t shake off. He was temporarily banned from making movies by the man who introduced the notorious Hays Code to clean-up Hollywood and received financial assistance from Buster Keaton until the ban was lifted. The effect of everything he’d been through led to Arbuckle to seek solace in the bottle and the little movie work he could find in the years after the trials couldn’t return him to the status he’d enjoyed before them. He died from a heart attack in 1933, aged just 46, unable to live down the scandal that had also resulted in the prints of many of his movies being incinerated, lost forever.
What Roscoe Arbuckle went through almost a hundred years ago has unnerving echoes in the present day. The inconsistencies and holes in the evidence against him, not to mention the unreliability of the witnesses and jurors as well as the ulterior motives of the prosecutor, the influence of moral crusaders, the deliberate destruction of his work and the biased reporting of the press, all appear to constitute a user manual for future witch-hunts. There are many lessons that could have been learned from the fate meted out to Fatty Arbuckle; unfortunately, the wrong side learned them.
© The Editor