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The Strange Story of Fatty Arbuckle

Fatty Arbuckle (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Note: This article includes details about a rape accusation made against Fatty Arbuckle. It gets a little graphic.Born Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle, Fatty Arbuckle was a silent movie actor, singer, comedian, director and screenwriter. He was also at the center of one of the first Hollywood scandals.

Arbuckle was born on 24 Mar 1887 in Smith Center, Kansas, a town so small that it had just gotten its first post office 14 years earlier. He was one of nine children born to Mary E. “Mollie” Gordon and William Goodrich Arbuckle. At birth he weighed over 13 pounds and, since both of his parents were on the slim side, his father believed that he was not his and named him after a local philandering politician.

His career in entertainment began in 1904 when he was hired to sing at the Unique Theater in San Francisco by Sid Grauman. He joined up with a vaudeville group, the Pantages Theatre Group, which performed around the West Coast.

On 06 Aug 1908 he married Minta Durfee who also appeared in many of his movies. Minta was petite while Fatty weighed in at over 300 pounds so they made a rather unusual couple. He toured Japan and China with a vaudeville troupe and, when he returned in 1909, he was signed by the Selig Polyscope Company to make movies. In 1913 he signed with Universal Pictures and appeared in the Keystone Cops movies. He was paid $3 a day, $74 in today’s money. He still sang occasionally and must have been talented since Enrico Caruso suggested he drop the comedy and sing full-time.

Despite his size Arbuckle was quite agile. He could even do a backwards somersault with ease. This worked well with his movie rolls. Unfortunately he developed a carbuncle on his leg. The doctors wanted to amputate but he turned them down. The pain led to a morphine addiction.

In September of 1921 Arbuckle decided to take a break from film making. He had received second degree burns on both halves of his buttocks in an accident on the set. Along with two friends he drove to San Francisco where they checked into the St. Francis Hotel where they rented three rooms and started to throw a series of parties. They invited a 26 year old actress named Virginia Rappe who got very sick and was treated by the hotel doctor. He concluded that she was drunk and gave her some morphine to calm her down. She was not taken to the hospital until two days later.

It turned out that Rappe suffered from chronic cystitus, a condition aggravated by alcohol. She had a reputation for drinking and the bootleg alcohol of the day was of a poor quality. When she got drunk she had a tendency to rip her clothes off.

While she was at the hospital, a friend told the doctor that Arbuckle had raped Rappe. The doctors examined her and found no evidence of rape and Rappe died the next day from a ruptured bladder. Her friend went to the police and repeated her claim that Rappe had been raped ant the police concluded that Arbuckle’s size had caused the bladder to rupture. Rappe’s manager accused Arbuckle of inserting a piece of ice into Rappe’s vagina. As the story hit the news, it became more and more lurid. Witnesses testified that Arbuckle had rubbed ice on Rappe’s stomach in an attempt to alleviate the pain.

William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper chain picked up the story and milked it for all it was worth. Hearst bragged about how much money it had made him. More and more accusations were made about Arbuckle. Arbuckle denied them but studio executives boycotted him anyway.

San Francisco’s District Attorney, Matthew Brady, who wanted to run for governor, pressured witnesses to perjure themselves. A letter detailing a plot to extort payment from Arbuckle and frequent changes in the story from Rappe’s friend should have put an end to the charges but it did not. Arbuckle was arrested on 21 Sep 1921 and charged with manslaughter.

The case went to trial on 14 Nov 1921. After much testimony against Arbuckle, one of the witnesses came forward and said that the District Attorney had said that he would charge her with pergury if she did not testify against Arbuckle.

Arbuckle testified that he had gone to his room at the hotel to change his clothes and found Rappe vomiting in the bathroom. He carried her to the bed at her request. Then she fell to the floor and started ripping at her clothing as she had often done in the past. In an attempt to calm her down they put her in a bathtub of cold water and called the hotel doctor. He denied attempting to have sex with her. The trial ended in a mistrial.

A new trial began on 11 Jan 1922. One of the witnesses testified that Arbuckle once asked him for the key to Rappe’s room at the studio. He refused to give it to him. It was later discovered that this witness had been convicted of raping an 8 year old girl and traded his testimony for a sentence reduction. Other witnesses against Arbuckle retracted their stories and this trial also ended with a mistrial.

A third trial began on 13 Mar 1922. By this time Arbuckle’s movies had been banned from the theaters and the newspapers had been full of lurid stories about him. More evidence was admitted this time and it took the jury six minutes to return a not guilty plea. The jury went so far as to issue a statement that a great injustice had been done to Arbuckle.

It was later discovered that Rappe had gotten an abortion a few days before the party and that could easily have caused her bladder to burst.

Despite his vindication, theaters still refused to show his movies. He couldn’t get any work. Minta filed for divorce in 1923. Arbuckle married Doris Deane in 1925. Buster Keaton helped him out by giving his some work at his studio and Arbuckle did some directing work under the pseudonym William Goodrich. In 1929 Doris Deane sued for divorce claiming desertion and cruelty but, at that time, that was the only way a woman could divorce her husband. In 1932 Arbuckle married a third time to Addie Oakley Dukes McPhail.

In 1932 Arbuckle signed with Warner Bros. under his own name to produce six two-reel comedies. These were filmed in New York City and are the only movies to feature his voice.

On 28 Jun 1933, Arbuckle finished the last of the two-reelers and went out with some friends to celebrate his first wedding anniversary to Addie. He told them that this was the best day of his life. Later that night he suffered a heart attack and died in his sleep.

© 2018 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.

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Written by Gary J Sibio

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