The Success, Scandal, and Fall of Roscoe Arbuckle

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the most popular comedians of early cinema. Arbuckle, who was also a screenwriter and director, became one of the highest-paid artists in Hollywood and signed a lucrative contract with Paramount Pictures in 1920.

Arbuckle’s huge success was not to last. A huge scandal was soon to follow which Arbuckle was involved in three trials in 1922 and 1923 for the alleged rape and manslaughter of actress Virginia Rappe. Arbuckle was initially charged with first-degree murder which was eventually reduced to manslaughter. Morality groups demanded he faced the death penalty and Hollywood top moguls ordered all of Hollywood colleagues and friends to disown him. His films were banned.

The public, who had loved Arbuckle, turned quickly against him. Silent film legend Gloria Swanson said in her 1980 autobiography that “the newspapers had proved in less than a week that the public got a much greater thrill out of watching stars fall than out of watching them shine”.

Although Roscoe Arbuckle was eventually cleared by the jury, the public still regarded him as guilty. Throughout the years, the scandal and the eventual downfall of Roscoe Arbuckle overshadowed his accomplishments as a silent film pioneer and filmmaker.

Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle was born in the Smith Center in Kansas on March 24, 1887. He was one of nine children of Mary E. Gordon and William Goodrich Arbuckle. Arbuckle was a large baby, weighing a reported 16 pounds at birth, which convinced his father that he had to be illegitimate. Both parents had slim builds, so William decided to name the baby after the notorious philandering politician Roscoe Conkling. The birth was traumatic for Mary which caused chronic health problems that led to her death 12 years later. His father did not support him but then, he treated his son badly throughout his life.

Arbuckle had always enjoyed performing, especially since making his stage debut at the age of eight with Frank Bacon’s company at Santa Ana, California. He was also a gifted singer and was invited to show off his singing and dancing skills on a talent show. The audience did not react well and so, a frightened Arbuckle resorted to leaping into the orchestra pit. The audience went into hysterics and Arbuckle won the competition, which in turn, launched him a successful career in vaudeville.

Arbuckle’s singing talents were still utilized, especially at the Unique Theater in San Francisco in 1904. He then performed with the touring Pantages Theatre Group and by 1906, he became the main act with the Orpheum Theater.

Arbuckle’s film career began with an appearance in Ben’s Kid, a short for the Selig Polyscope Company in July 1909. He continued to make an appearance in Selig shorts for the next four years.

Arbuckle married silent screen actress Minta Durfee on August 6. Durfee had starred in many of his films.

Following a brief move to Universal Pictures, Arbuckle became a star in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops in 1913, quickly rising to lead star and director in his movies.

Although his large size was part of his comic appeal, Arbuckle was self-conscious about his weight and was reluctant to use it for comic effect. Arbuckle’s comedies emphasized more on being frantic with many chase sequences and sight gags. One particular sight gang is the introduction of the “pie in the face” gag, which has now become a cliché in comedy. The earliest known pie thrown in the film was in the Keystone short A Noise from the Seep (1913) starring Arbuckle and his regular screen partner Mable Normand.

By 1914 Arbuckle began directed some of his many comedies such as Fatty Again (1914), Mabel and Fatty’s Wash day (1915), and Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco (1915).

Arbuckle and Charles Chaplin appeared in several shorts together, most notably The Rounders (1914) which is the only film where their pairing is central to the story.

In 1917, Arbuckle formed a partnership with producer Joseph M. Schenck to form a company called Comique. With his own company, Arbuckle had complete artistic control and his films would soon earn him 1000 dollars a week.

Not everybody was happy with Arbuckle’s career. Legendary operatic tenor Enrico Caruso once tried to persuade Arbuckle to concentrate on his singing because he said that Arbuckle “could become the second-best singer in the world” after him.

Roscoe Arbuckle was also an excellent dancer. Silent star Louise Brooks once enjoyed a dance with Arbuckle, likening it to “floating in the arms of a huge donut – really delightful”.

In 1917, Arbuckle met a young performer called Buster Keaton and starred him in his short The Butcher Boy. This was the beginning of Keaton’s film career.

Buster Keaton and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in The Garage (1920)

Following a string of shorts, the final two-reeler that Arbuckle and Keaton made together is The Garage (1920) with a comedy style from director Arbuckle that has become less frantic and more imaginative than in his previous films. The splendid pairing of Arbuckle and Keaton in this wonderful short resembles the later cinematic pairing of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The Garage is one of Arbuckle’s finest moments.

Arbuckle would soon make full-length features for Paramount such as The Round-Up (1920), Brewster’s Millions (1920), and Gasoline Gus (1921).

The scandal would soon put an abrupt end to Arbuckle’s popularity. After completing three films, an exhausted Arbuckle attended a party at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. One of those at the party, movie starlet Virginia Rappe, died of a ruptured bladder several days later. Arbuckle was accused of rape and manslaughter. It became clear later that the “eyewitness” testimony was questionable and the newspapers, largely orchestrated by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, had been negative towards Arbuckle.

Three court trials were held. The first two trials ended in hung juries but the third resulted in a full acquittal. However, the damage to Roscoe Arbuckle’s reputation was done.

Minta Durfee filed for divorce from Roscoe Arbuckle in November 1923. Although they had been separated for almost two years, Durfee always claimed that her friend Roscoe Arbuckle was the nicest man in the world. They had a brief reconciliation but Durfee filed for divorce again in December 1924 and married actress Doris Deane on May 16, 1925.

Arbuckle tried to get back into filmmaking but Hollywood was resistant for any comeback. Arbuckle began to struggle with alcoholism. His former co-star Buster Keaton, who was now a huge international success, tried to help Arbuckle by giving him work in some of his projects such as Sherlock Jr. (1924).

Arbuckle would soon work under the pseudonym William Goodrich, named after his father, in the hope of obtaining work. In 1931 he directed Windy Riley Goes to Hollywood which starred Louise Brooks. Like Arbuckle, Louise Brooks was born in Kansas and she held great affection for the disgraced comic. Brooks told lauded author Kevin Brownlow that Arbuckle “made no attempt to direct this picture. He just sat in his director’s chair like a dead man. He had been very nice and sweetly dead ever since ever since the scandal that ruined his career”.

Courtesy of a letter-writing campaign by friends in the industry, Roscoe Arbuckle made a comeback. In 1932, he filmed six comedy shorts that were successful in the United States but the British Board of Film Censors banned the film, still citing the scandal as the reason.

On June 21 of 1932, Arbuckle married actress Addie Oakley Dukes McPhail in Erie, Pennsylvania (Doris Deane sued for divorce in 1929)

On the eve of signing a major contract with Warner Bros, Roscoe Arbuckle died in his sleep. He was only 46.

Roscoe Arbuckle’s fall from grace, despite being proved innocent, is one of Hollywood’s early tragedies. Arbuckle mentored Charles Chaplin and discovered Buster Keaton, Bob Hope, and Italian comedian Monty Banks. He worked with Mable Normand, Harold Lloyd, and his nephew, Al St, John.

Arbuckle once said in 1921 that “I don’t understand it. One minute I’m the guy everybody loves, the next I’m the guy everybody loves to hate”. However, some artists continued to think highly of him such as Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin. Keaton was a character witness at his third trial and had hoped to have his close friend Arbuckle work as his co-director during the 1920s.

One of the most elegant tributes to Roscoe Arbuckle came from Louise Brooks who told Kevin Brownlow that “it was an amazing thing for me to come in to make in to make this broken-down picture, and to find my director was the great Roscoe Arbuckle”.

Roscoe Arbuckle died in his sleep on June 23, 1933. He had been celebrating signing a contract with Warner Bros. to make a full-length feature film and his first wedding anniversary to Addie. Later in the evening, Arbuckle told friends that it was the best day of his life.

Despite being an early pioneer of slapstick film comedy, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s full artistic potential was never realized. Despite not being remembered for any defining masterpiece, Roscoe Arbuckle’s influence on future cinematic slapstick is huge. This is a legacy that must not be forgotten.

Buster Keaton, Roscoe Arbuckle and Al St. John on set (circa 1917)
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