In the current age of seemingly endless gossip and scandals surrounding celebrities, the “gotcha” style of news reporting feels as if it must be a relatively recent advancement in the world of entertainment media. While the level of coverage may be vastly more prominent these days, actors from way back in the silent era of films could still fall prey to the rantings of publication outlets, and the prying eyes of the public who hope to get a front seat to a fascinating fall from grace. Of this, there exists no more prominent of an example than the tragic tale of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckleand the trial 100 years before the current Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial.
Born way back in 1887, Roscoe Arbuckle would go on to be the first movie star to make $1 million a year, paving the way for other giants of the era to follow suit not only in popularity, but in style of performance as well. The immediate popularity of Fatty Arbuckle in the budding world of cinema would eventually lead to his immense stardom, a career that up until that point, would be unmatched in fame and notoriety.
With such a widespread influence on the world of silent comedy, as well as making the transition gracefully to sound, one couldn’t be blamed for thinking of Roscoe as ‘too big to fail’ during his prime. Unfortunately, this was an assumption that would become all too tragic when looking back at the scandal which brought it all to a screeching halt.
Destined for Big Things
At 13 pounds, it was apparent why the newborn baby Roscoe would be cheekily referred to as “Fatty” from his first days on Earth, a nickname the would-be star carried resentment for throughout his life, though eventually he would learn to embrace for the sake of entertainment. Complications from his birth of him would eventually lead to his mother’s death of him, causing Arbuckle’s father to blame the child entirely, refusing to give support as he grew up and ultimately abandoning him.
Now fending for himself, a young Roscoe would find work as an errand boy at the local theaters and hotels. Being known for having an excellent singing voice, he’d eventually be recognized as a talented performer, and asked to take the stage in various amateur theater productions. A low self-esteem would see Arbuckle gravitating towards more comedic acts, as a way to create a defense mechanism towards any potential critics of his larger stature.
After theater work began to dry up, Roscoe turned his attention to the new motion picture business in 1909, and put his skills to work on the screen. General opinions of acting on film at the time were very low, with most deeming the live theater as the true home for acting. Despite this, Arbuckle managed to set an unmatched precedent for fame within the new industry, first finding success as a member of Mack Sennett’s keystone kops before climbing his way up the Hollywood ladder. Success would follow as Roscoe began to take on starring roles more often, even directing his own films after his popularity grew immensely. Though as Fatty Arbuckle was taking the world by storm with his movie career, a new face was just beginning to make the rounds in Hollywood.
Sharing the Spotlight
A young British stage actor known as Charlie Chaplin was taken under Roscoe’s wing, the two having an excellent rapport on the screen and off. Arbuckle would train the young performer in the ways of film production and performance, one to never shy away from sharing the screen with his fellow actors and allowing their talents to shine. This would lead to a prosperous partnership between the two actors, who created a handful of films together as a comedy duo.
Shortly after this, Roscoe Arbuckle began his own film company called Comique, seeking many talented young actors with the hopes to help provide them a future in film. One such talent, a young Buster Keaton, had already made a name for himself on the stage and hoped to transition to motion pictures. Shortly after meeting, Arbuckle decided to throw Keaton into one of his upcoming movies of him without much rehearsal. The two would go on to make a collection of film collaborations, and like Chaplin before him, have a tight bond as fellow actors and friends. After being offered an unprecedented $3 million dollar contract from Paramount, Arbuckle would hand off his film company in full to Keaton, and go on to become the biggest name in Hollywood.
The unfortunate truth when it comes to Fatty Arbuckle, is that conversations on the groundbreaking actor are, more often than not, about his infamous and equally as groundbreaking scandal, one that would follow the actor in some shape or form for the rest of his career. and cast a shadow on his otherwise beloved legacy. Though he would ultimately be found innocent of his alleged crimes, the damage was done, and the story would be permanently remembered.
It was while on vacation in 1921 that Arbuckle hosted a party in San Francisco, that of which was attended by a young actress, Virginia Rappe. Rappe would fall ill during the festivities after drinking too much alcohol, prompting Arbuckle to make an emergency call to a doctor to have her treated on site. A few days later, Rappe would die from complications of trauma, that of which Arbuckle would be blamed for.
The news sensationalized the scandal, marking it as the first of its kind. Never before had a celebrity faced such instant public backlash, with Hollywood turning its back on Roscoe, as well as copies of his films of him being destroyed in protest leading to a few being lost forever. Despite the lack of any incriminating evidence, studios would put out demands for their stars to not come to the defense of Arbuckle, and none would dare. That is, until the likes of Chaplin and Keaton spoke for their lifelong friend.
After three long trials, Roscoe Arbuckle would be acquitted of the crimes he was charged with, and would be left to pick up the pieces of a ravaged reputation. Though in a show of support, the jury who decided in favor of an innocent verdict for Arbuckle, gave this statement:
Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him. We also feel that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for there was not the slightest proof added to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime.
He was manly throughout the case, and told a straightforward story on the witness stand, which we all believed.
The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible.
We wish him success.… Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.
A Nervous Return
Though the bad press associated with Arbuckle would never quite be fully shaken, the actor managed to make a comeback to the world of Hollywood, garnering some decent success. The disgraced actor would look to directing under the pseudonym William B. Goodrich before making a return to stage for a series of live performances. After much pressure from the likes of Keaton and Chaplin, Jack Warner would finally give in and allow Roscoe to be featured on film under his label for a series of comedy shorts. An overjoyed Arbuckle would return to the screen after 11 years, and this time, in full sound.
The shorts were a massive success, proving that even after his time away from the industry, Arbuckle hadn’t missed a step. Warner would soon after announce their plans to create a series of feature length films starring Fatty Arbuckle, and with it a sense of redemption was in the air for the wrongfully persecuted actor.
In 1933, Roscoe Arbuckle would pass away in his sleep from a heart attack shortly before he planned to sign his new Warner contract. What the actor left behind, however, would be a monumental influence in film comedy, one that has reached even the modern day. Helping to kickstart the careers of other silent movie titans, and even managing to bounce back from the world’s first highly publicized celebrity scandal, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle remains an immortalized figure in Hollywood’s history, and in the minds of cinema fans everywhere.