The Daily Mail published a piece by the AP last week, just one more of the 47 zillion articles about Harvey Weinstein. This one was a list of historical sex scandals:
For anyone thinking the days of the so-called casting couch were long gone, this past week has been eye-opening, as the growing list of women directing allegations of sexual harassment and rape at Harvey Weinstein suggests they never left Hollywood.
Here’s a look at some cases from the past and present.
FIRST MAJOR SEX SCANDAL
In the first scandal to shake Hollywood, the comedian Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle attended a wild party in San Francisco in 1921 that ended in the death of actress Virginia Rappe. Writhing in pain from a ruptured bladder, she accused Arbuckle of raping her. When she died days later, he was charged with murder, which was downgraded to manslaughter. Arbuckle was acquitted after three trials.
Now that’s an interesting story to lead with. I don’t know if it’s truly the “first major” scandal but I do know that the whole story reflects just as badly on the press than it does on Hollywood.
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle isn’t well known nowadays–mostly thanks to his career being destroyed by the scandal–but the man was a comedic genius. He went from the stage to Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio. He was one of the infamous Keystone Cops then later a frequent costar of Mabel Normand. It has been claimed that he was the first actor on film to take a pie to the face (Wikipedia says that the honor actually goes to Ben Turpin in 1909). (Incidentally, Normand is credited with realizing that cream pies worked the best.) At Keystone, he also worked with Charlie Chaplin.
Arbuckle started his own production company, and it was here that he brought another of the silent era’s greatest comedians to the screen for the first time. He met vaudeville star Buster Keaton in New York and persuaded him to try film.
In 1921, Arbuckle was under contract with Paramount making six movies a year. His trip to San Francisco was supposed to be a vacation. The vacation led to the disastrous party held in his and his companions’ hotel rooms.
Virginia Rappe wasn’t much in the way of an actress. IMDB lists things like “Undetermined Role” and uncredited for most of her roles. She was allegedly promiscuous and known for having bizarre behavior when drunk. According to one account:
”Well, once I went in her house to hang up some cleaning and the first thing I knew she’d torn off her dress and was running outdoors yelling, ‘Save me, a man attacked me.’ The neighbors told me whenever she got a few drinks she did that.”
Somehow Rappe ended up at Arbuckle and co’s party. With her was a friend named Bambina Delmont. Rappe collapsed at the party. They called a doctor but everyone believed she was simply drunk. She made scene, screaming and tearing her clothes, and allegedly said to Delmont, “What did he do to me, Maudie? Roscoe did this to me.”
Delmont would then claim that Arbuckle had raped Rappe. Delmont didn’t have the greatest reputation herself. She was believed to have been involved in blackmail schemes. One of the doctors who examined Rappe found no evidence of rape. Rappe died a few days later.
The newspapers ate Arbuckle alive. They destroyed his reputation. He was vile rapist who crushed a woman to death while assaulting her. Scandals sell and William Randolph Hearst bragged that this one “sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the Lusitania.” Hollywood threw him under the bus. A politically ambitious district attorney decided to use the case to his advantage.
He was charged with first degree murder, but this was reduced to manslaughter. He was never charged with any kind of sexual assault. There was no evidence that Rappe had been raped and her friend who made the accusation not only changed her story repeatedly but attempted to extort money from Arbuckle.
Three trials. Two hung juries. The first thanks to a woman who made up her mind that he was guilty no matter what and the second thanks to his defense botching it. The third, which acquitted him, apologized:
“Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done 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.”
What actually killed the ironically named Virginia Rappe? She died of a ruptured bladder but no one knows for sure what caused that. Possibly an infection. Possibly a botched abortion.
Alice Mann, Roscoe Arbuckle, and Buster Keaton in Coney Island (1917)
The acquittal didn’t matter much to Hollywood. Arbuckle’s career was ruined. His films were banned from being shown. Close friends like Buster Keaton would try to give him work but Arbuckle suffered from alcoholism and depression.
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle looks to be the complete opposite of Harvey Weinstein. An innocent man with a previously excellent reputation destroyed by false accusations and yellow journalism. But like Weinstein, both the press and Hollywood turned on him and dragged his name through the mud.
In 1933, it looked like Arbuckle had finally got things turned around. He had a series of new shorts and a film contract. He died, however, in June of that year at the age of 46 of a heart attack. And when his name gets remembered, it’s usually in connection with the scandal and not the body of work which he created.
Archive of Crime Library article
The Skinny of the Fatty Arbuckle Trial
More on Fatty Arbuckle: His Films and Legacy