After reading and commenting on a friends blog about Michael Jackson, I was reminded of the story of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Never heard of him? That’s probably because he was from the silent film period and endured a terrible scandal that ruined his career and eventually killed him. In some ways it’s a lot like Michael Jackson’s story. A man at the top of his game has his world turned upside down by a scandal involving some kind of alleged sexual abuse. They go to court and they’re found innocent, but no one ever forgives or forgets and their career is essentially ruined. They die young as a result of their coping mechanisms for the hardships that came about as a result of their unceremonious loss of fame (ie. drinking, drugs etc).
We all know the story of Michael Jackson quite well, so I will elaborate a little more on Fatty Arbuckle (but not too much because I’d much prefer you go and read up on his story yourselves as it’s both fascinating and appalling what happened to the poor man). Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle was one of the most famous silent film comedians of all times, mentoring the likes of Charlie Chaplin and discovering Buster Keaton (my absolute favourite actor of all times, by the way) and Bob Hope (who I hope you all know!). He was one of the highest paid actors of the silent film era, being one of the first actors to earn $1 million per year back in a day where it only cost a few cents to see a movie at a nickelodeon. He was one of the most popular film stars of the 1910’s and pioneered the silent comedy and slapstick humour. He was plagued by his nickname Fatty which he detested, as he was a very athletic and agile man, not to mention a magnificent dancer. He was rich and famous and adored by everyone, and was on top of the world.
But then came the scandal that ruined his life. He threw a party at a hotel in San Francisco in 1921 as a means to have rest from his hectic work schedule. Some unsavoury characters came to the party, as what happens to most parties everywhere, including the aspiring-actress Virginia Rappe who fell sick during the celebrations and was only hospitalised two days later as her sickness worsened. She died two days later from peritonitis and a ruptured bladder (she was actually a very sick girl in general, she had chronic cystitis which was made worse drinking which she did an awful lot of and had had numerous abortions since a young age). As always, there was someone there ready to exploit the situation and ruin lives in the process. Her name was Maude Delmont and she made the claim that Roscoe Arbuckle raped Virginia Rappe which he was quickly charged for despite a distinct lack of evidence.
The story was a media sensation, as was Roscoe’s court case, of which he had three due to the first two trials being deadlocked and declared mistrials. Back then most newspapers were owned by William Randolph Hearst and he exploited the scandal in order to sell more papers. Roscoe was portrayed horrendously, as a fat deviant who used his weight to pin down innocent women and that sort of nonsense. Studio executives threatened other actors against speaking for Roscoe so he had very little public support from anybody, even his good friends, which only made his case look worse, even though prior to this scandal he’d been known as the “most chaste man in pictures”. Once acquitted and given a formal, written apology though, his life was left in tatters.
Who was going to let their children see a film of a fat pervert, acquitted or not? His acting days were over and so after a while he started making films under the pseudonym William Goodrich but lacked any passion and went through two divorces in the meantime. In 1932 he was signed with Warner Brothers to star under his real name in two short comedies which did quite well in the USA (though were banned in the UK despite it being 10 years since he was acquitted of the rape charge) . On June 29, 1933 he was signed to make a full-length feature film with WB since it was clear the public was prepared to accept Fatty Arbuckle back on their movie screens, which would have been his big comeback but that very night he suffered a fatal heart attack caused by years of drug and alcohol abuse.
To this day most people have no idea of who Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle is. If ever someone mentions to me that they like silent films, I always ask if they know about Fatty Arbuckle and so few do. Everyone knows Charlie Chaplin, but few know about one of the pioneers of the movie industry, one of the best slapstick comedians of all times nor of the scandal that ruined his life. In fact you can still read books about Hollywood scandals that mention the Fatty Arbuckle scandal in the exact same was it was portrayed in the media back in 1921 (ie. Hollywood Babylon).
I doubt that in 80 years people will struggle to remember Michael Jackson, in fact he will probably still be known as the King of Pop for many years to come. But I think it’s such a shame that someone who shares such a similar tale of tremendous high’s and terrible low’s is all but a distant memory of those few who think he’s worth remembering. It’s also a shame that this is a cycle that started back in the early 20s and continues on to this day, that celebrities get placed on such a high pedestal when they do well but can be brought back down so easily and violently, especially through the lies of the jealous and fame/money-hungry.
If you’re interested in learning more about Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle then I suggest tracking down a copy of “The Day the Laughter Stopped” by David Yallop as it is AMAZING though out of print and very hard to find. Otherwise there is the very recent “I, Fatty” by Jerry Stahl which is written as though it is a memoir by Roscoe himself.