Saturday, 29 October 2011

Roscoe Arbuckle: A Good Man Wronged

Back in the early days of cinema, in the silent era, one of the brightest movie stars of his generation was Roscoe Arbuckle.

Roscoe was a large man, but never used his size as an easy way to get laughs. He was very nimble for a larger gentleman, and excelled in physical comedy, and his films were often fast paced with chase scenes and stunts.

At the peak of his popularity in 1918 he was offered a $3million contract to make 18 feature films over a three year period with Paramount Pictures, this equates to over $43million in today's money.

During his time in the limelight he helped bring through new talent such as Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin (who adopted his trade mark tiny bowler hat and balloon pants for his Little Tramp character) and is said to have given Bob Hope his first break in showbusiness when he asked Hope to open for his comedy act.

In September 1921 during a break from his punishing filming schedule, Roscoe, along with two friends, Lowell Sherman (a film director) and Fred Fischbach (a cameraman) went to San Francisco and checked into three rooms at the St. Francis hotel. Arbuckle and Fischbach shared a room, Sherman had his own room, and the third room was booked as a "party room".

Roscoe Arbuckle
Several women were invited to the room, during the events of the evening the hotel doctor was called to Arbuckle's room to tend to an ill woman, Virginia Rappe. The doctor was dismissed by Virginia's friend, Maude Delmont, who called for a Doctor Rumwell to help her instead. She was not taken to hospital until two days after the incident.

Virginia Rappe had been ill for some time, it is believed that she had undergone a botched abortion as a result of becoming pregnant by her boyfriend, director Henry Lehrmann, prior to the incident, an operation undertaken by the same Doctor Rumwell.

It has been suggested that Rappe, in her inebriated state, may have been knocked in the abdomen by Arbuckle during a bout of innocent horseplay, causing her already damaged organs to rupture. This would also account for her alleged statements while delirious with pain that "Arbuckle did it".

At the hospital, Delmont told the doctor that Arbuckle had raped her friend. The doctor examined her and could find no evidence to support this claim. Virginia Rappe died a day later from peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder.

Delmont went to the police and repeated her claim that Arbuckle had raped Virginia, the police concluded that because of his weight, Arbuckle could have caused her bladder to rupture, and so began some of the most despicable newspaper coverage, which would haunt Roscoe Arbuckle for the rest of his life.

William Randolph Hearst's newspaper publications claimed that Arbuckle was a terrible womaniser who used his size to overpower unsuspecting girls, according to those who knew Arbuckle this reputation couldn't be further from the truth, he was described as very shy and awkward around women.

When the trial began, the prosecutor used Delmont as his prime witness in the indictment hearing, but refused to let her give evidence during the trial. Delmont had a long criminal record, including racketeering, bigamy, fraud and extortion. She was known to secretly take photographs of men in compromising positions and demand money in exchange for her silence. The judge was unable to find any evidence to support a charge of rape, but found reasonable grounds to charge Arbuckle with first degree murder, this was later changed to a manslaughter charge.

At the end of the first trial, after 44 hours of deliberation the jury reached a deadlock 10-2 not guilty verdict and a mistrial was declared. It was later revealed that one of the members of the jury was part of the Daughters Of The American Revolution feminist pressure group, who had vowed that she would vote guilty until hell freezes over, and that she refused to discuss the evidence, look at the exhibits or read the trial transcripts.

Three of the witnesses for the prosecution in the first trial, Betty Campbell, Zey Prevon and Alice Lake revealed that Matthew Brady, the prosecutor, coerced them into testifying against Arbuckle, threatening them with prison if they refused.

In the second trial Roscoe's defence team really dropped the ball by not asking him to testify, presumably thinking that this had been thoroughly covered in the very public first trial. They also omitted the usual summing up of the evidence to the jury, which did not impress them one bit.

The jury were again deadlocked, this time 10-2 in favour of a guilty verdict, which forced a third trial.

When the third trial took place on March 6th 1922, Roscoe Arbuckle once more stepped up to the witness box and made his case before the jury.

When the jury were asked to retire and consider their verdict, they were out of the court for a total of six minutes. When they returned to the court room the foreman of the jury was given permission by the judge to read aloud a statement:

"Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him... He was manly throughout the case, and told a straight-forward 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 judgement of fourteen men and women who have sat listening for thirty one days to evidence, that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame."

Roscoe and Buster Keaton
In November 1923, Roscoe's estranged wife filed for divorce, she had stood by him during the trial, but the pressure on them both had taken its toll.

Arbuckle tried to return to acting, but even though he was found not guilty, there was a reticence from the studios to hire him. His friend Buster Keaton stood by him, employing him as (uncredited) co-director on Sherlock Jr and handing him a cameo in Go West. Buster & Charlie Chaplin helped him financially after the furore of the trial.

Arbuckle turned to directing under the pseudonym William Goodrich, which attracted the attention of Warner Bros. he made some two-reelers that proved successful, and in 1932 after a decade in the wilderness Warners offered Roscoe a contract to make some feature films, which he accepted. Later in the evening that same day he suffered a fatal heart attack in his sleep.

It's a very sad story, and because the industry at the time wanted to draw a veil over the whole affair, an important character in the development of cinema is in danger of being forgotten.

I could not have written this without the wonderful resource that is Silent Comedy by Paul Merton, a thoroughly engrossing book about the early days of cinema. If you are interested in this period in history or the cult of celebrity which really got going with the birth of Hollywood, it is a fantastic read.

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