Welcome back! Firstly, sorry to anyone who checked in last week expecting a post. My fiancé flew over at very short notice to help with some visa-related bits and pieces. As I’m sure you’ll understand, I was pretty well taken up enjoying some time with him. It was definitely wonderful to see him, especially after three months apart. But he’s back in the US now so normal service has resumed once again!
On this week’s My Vintage Life, we’re going to be talking about one of the most momentous and yet little remembered events in Hollywood history – the trial of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle for the rape and death of the actress Virginia Rappe. The scandal was truly the first to blacken Hollywood’s image – an image that had been traditionally dominated by the on-screen faces and personalities of its stars. Fatty Arbuckle’s trial was not only remarkable for its sensationalism and widespread coverage within the press. Its ripples also added fuel to a growing perception that Hollywood required some kind of moral and ethical regulation. I talked in my very first My Vintage Life post about pre-Code Hollywood – the Hollywood that existed before the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code that restricted what could be shown on screen. The censorship that came about in 1934 through the introduction of the Code can be traced back to the fallout of the accusations at Fatty Arbuckle’s trial and the fact that the mask had now been lifted from the true face of Hollywood.
So join me for this week’s My Vintage Life and an exploration of the scandal that felled Hollywood’s biggest star and turned the movie-making industry on its head.
Trigger Warning: This post will be talking about rape and sexual assault.
In the early part of the 1900s, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was the definition of a household name. Born in 1887 in Kansas, his talents were discovered early and, by the beginning of the 1900s, Arbuckle was well established as a successful vaudeville actor. By 1909, Arbuckle had broken through into film, playing consistently comedic roles that met with widespread recognition. Despite being known mostly for his size, it was his agility, athleticism, and refusal to be consigned to obtaining cheap laughs that really gained him a position as one of Hollywood’s best known stars. In 1914, Paramount Pictures recognised Arbuckle’s growing reputation and success by making him a salary offer of $1000 per day, in addition to paying him 25 percent of all profits make from his films. By 1918, this was increased to a $3,000,000 contract over three years. Such salaries were unheard of at the time and Fatty Arbuckle became Hollywood’s highest paid actor.
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
Inevitably, however, Arbuckle’s success was not destined to last. In 1921, Arbuckle made his way to San Francisco to take a short break from making films. His friend, Fred Fischbach, decided that a party was in order to celebrate Arbuckle’s newest contract with Paramount Pictures and the release of his most recent film Crazy To Marry. The party was held at the St. Francis Hotel and among its attendees was a 26-year old actress called Virginia Rappe. Rappe was not particularly well known for her acting. She had secured some relatively minor roles in the later half of the 1910s and appeared in several films directed by Henry Lehrman, to whom she subsequently became engaged.
Accounts obviously differ as to what precisely occurred during the party at the St. Francis Hotel. What is known, however, is that screams were heard from Room 1219 and Virginia Rappe was found writhing in agony. Within the week, she had died from a ruptured bladder. According to Maude Delmont, who was at the party with Rappe but whose relationship with Rappe remained unclear, Arbuckle had pulled Rappe into Room 1219. When Delmont heard Rappe screaming, she ran to the room and, finding the door locked, proceeded to knock and kick until Arbuckle appeared. Delmont found Rappe on the bed in visible agony and, in Delmont’s version, Rappe told her “Arbuckle did it.” This version of events was picked up and widely distributed by the press, who attributed Rappe’s subsequent death from a ruptured bladder to the weight of Arbuckle’s body pressing down on her while he raped her.
Arbuckle’s version of events offers an alternative account. In his telling, he was at no point actually alone with Rappe. He claimed that he had woken up to a party taking place in the rooms and that, later, Rappe’s drinking had made her hysterical. He subsequently found her vomiting and he, with the help of other party guests, moved her to Room 1219 so that she could recover. Despite Arbuckle’s very different account of events, he was charged with manslaughter and sent to trial.
The subsequent trials show much not only about the state of Hollywood, but also how little has changed in the way of prosecuting sexual assault. Over the course of three trials – the first two of which resulted in hung juries – Rappe’s sexual history and history with abortions were dissected. Arbuckle’s legal team argued that Rappe suffered from a pre-existing bladder condition, corroborating the fact that doctors had not found any evidence of sexual assault on her body. By the end of the third trial, these arguments had convinced the jury. They were, in fact, so incensed by Arbuckle’s subjugation to trial that they issued a formal apology:
“Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for there was not the slightest proof adduced 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 and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and woman who have sat listening for thirty-one days to evidence, that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from blame.”
This exoneration could not, however, salvage Arbuckle’s reputation. To assist in dealing with the fallout from the trial, the censor Will Hays was hired by Paramount Pictures to navigate the damage done by the scandal. In the immediate aftermath, Hays decided to remove Arbuckle from all films, although within the year Hays changed his mind. Still, Arbuckle never quite recovered from the trial’s impact. In 1933, on the day that Warner Bros approached him with an offer of a contract, Arbuckle died of a heart attack.
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle at Trial
The death of Virginia Rappe and surrounding scandal had a lasting impact, both on the personalities involved and on Hollywood at large. Will Hays, who became so integral in the rehabilitation of Paramount Pictures, subsequently took on the job of assisting the rehabilitation of Hollywood at large. By 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code (the Hays Code) had been introduced and Hollywood was subjected to industry-wide censorship of the films that it produced. The Code restricted the portrayal of sexual scenarios and bad language, among a whole host of other things deemed worthy of censorship. Despite Arbuckle’s exoneration, Hollywood’s first scandal did lasting damage. It revealed a Hollywood behind the movie screens – one of parties, illegal drinking, sex, and debauchery. For a country where conservatism had demanded the introduction of prohibition, it was perhaps inevitable that such a revelation would sit uncomfortably with the powers-that-be.
Yet, of all the lasting impacts had by the trial of Fatty Arbuckle, there is one that goes generally unmentioned. When reading about the scandal and trying to dissect what actually happened (which remains really difficult to do), it is Virginia Rappe who comes across as the most maligned of all involved. In a scandal that involved a suspected madam (Delmont) and a suspected murdered (Arbuckle), it is difficult to believe – although, not as difficult as it should be – that the dead victim should be the one to find her reputation most destroyed by events. Rappe’s life and lifestyle were torn to shreds during the trial and continued to be questioned even after Arbuckle’s exoneration. Rumours abounded following the trial, suggesting at different times that she had been a prostitute, an alcoholic, carried STDs, and that she had spread pubic lice around Keystone Studios. This type of character assassination remains still too common in trials of sexual assault and rape – it certainly sits uncomfortably with me that, in reading about the Fatty Arbuckle trial, I could recall too many news stories of similar trials where victims are subjected to the most grotesque types of questioning.
Rappe was a figure of her time and, in many respects, a product of the way in which Hollywood did business. If we assume for a moment that the rumours spread about her were true, it says far more about the cultural dynamics at work in and around Hollywood than it does about her personality or, realistically, her choices. Hollywood of the 1920s – and decades onwards – was one in which women were forced to utilise sex and sexuality to get ahead and get noticed. The expectation that women would sleep with producers, directors, and casting officials was a given. To expect, encourage, and subsequently degrade women for using sex to achieve their goals was a power dynamic that dominated film making for much of the 20th century. The experience of Virginia Rappe, both before and after death, is perhaps one of the best examples of how this relationship between sex, power, and movie-making manifested in the first few decades of the 1900s.
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