Posted by Susan Doll on October 12, 2015
Next Sunday, October 18, at 2:30am, TCM airs The Life of the Party starring Fatty Arbuckle. It was released in November 1920, ten months before the fateful party that ruined the comedian’s life and career. Life of the Party, indeed.
On September 5, 1921, Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle was arrested for manslaughter in the death of starlet Virginia Rappe, one of the attendees at his infamous Labor Day party at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Prohibition had been in effect for over a year and a half, but the main reason for the party was to consume alcohol. The party began on Saturday, and drunken participants drifted in and out of Arbuckle’s hotel rooms all weekend. On Labor Day, Rappe dropped by with two other guests. In the afternoon, she was found semi-conscious in one of Arbuckle’s rooms. She was carried to another room in the hotel, and later that week, she was taken to a hospital, where she died of peritonitis due to a ruptured bladder. Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter based on the dubious, ever-changing testimony of a key witness. After three trials, he was eventually acquitted, but the relentless sensationalized press coverage had exposed and exaggerated a party lifestyle of drinking and carousing. Huge headlines, such as “Arbuckle the Beast,” had left their mark. Despite the declaration of innocence by a jury, the newly appointed head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Will Hays, banned Roscoe Arbuckle from starring in future films and ordered distributors to cancel any of his movies still playing in theaters.
During the course of the scandal, and long afterword, rumor and myth accused Arbuckle of rape, sexual assault with foreign objects, making crude jokes while the injured starlet lay dying, and other barbarisms, while Rappe’s tragic and checkered personal life as a Hollywood wannabe was scrutinized in detail. Recent scholarship maintains that Arbuckle did not assault Rappe, though his behavior toward her suggests that he treated her as just another girl on the fringes of the film industry. He did not check up on her once she was taken ill, though he initially agreed to pay for a doctor’s visit if she could not afford it. He returned to Hollywood while Rappe was suffering in pain at the St. Francis.
The Arbuckle affair has been declared the scandal of all movie scandals, the trial of the century, and the event that triggered the adoption of an industry-controlled censorship. Theories, books, articles, and myths have been conceived to expose, explain, and extrapolate on the event until it is difficult to determine the exact facts and the extent of the fallout.
All agree that Arbuckle was enjoying a career peak when the scandal occurred. In the 150 films he had appeared in by 1921, he had established a persona as a bumpkin type. Ironically, the gags in his comedies were not based around his weight or girth; instead, they showcased his acrobatic agility. He could dive, dart, and duck with amazing dexterity and grace, and that became part of his star image. In 1917, Arbuckle established his own production company, Comique, with producer Joseph Schenck. The films were distributed through Famous Players-Lasky, which had just merged with Paramount. While at Comique, Arbuckle had creative control over his work, directing and starring in 14 shorts. He hired two other comics as costars—nephew Al St. John and Buster Keaton. Keaton and Arbuckle became great friends. Buster often accompanied Fatty on his drinking excursions to San Francisco, but he had recently married and declined to attend the Labor Day party. (Arbuckle was married to Minta Durfee at the time, but their marriage had been on the rocks for about four years.) If Keaton had attended the party, would it have affected his career? Or, was the press only gunning for the biggest star? After all, actor-director Lowell Sherman had accompanied Arbuckle to San Francisco, but the incident did not curb his career.
When Paramount signed Arbuckle to a contract in 1919, Adolph Zukor—president of Famous Players-Lasky—thought the comedian was ready for feature-length films and offered him $2 million. However, the price for this career opportunity was the loss of creative control and an accelerated pace of production. The scripts were taken from stories and plays purchased by the studio with little regard for Arbuckle’s star image, and Zukor used an assembly-line approach to produce the features. The comedian was rushed from one film to another; at one point, he was making two films at the same time. During the weekend of the Labor Day party, Arbuckle had seven films in theaters around the country and two in the can.
The Life of the Party is indicative of Arbuckle’s work at Paramount. Because it was feature length, the plot was more detailed and the character more developed than the Fatty persona from his shorts. Instead of playing “Fatty,” the comedian stars as Algernon Leary, an up-and-coming lawyer running for office on the reform ticket. His goal is to break up the local milk trust. A group of society women convince him to join their efforts to bring milk to school children, which requires him to attend their charity ball. A dishonest judge in league with the milk trust sets up Algernon by sending a femme fatale to drag him into a compromising position in order to ruin his reputation, a scene that resonates with a different meaning in light of the Arbuckle scandal.
The Life of the Party was based on a short story by Irvin S. Cobb, an established journalist and author. In the early 1900s, Cobb became the highest paid reporter in America before joining the Saturday Evening Post, eventually penning 300 short stories and 60 novels. Dozens of his stories were purchased by the studios and turned into films, including several of his Judge Priest stories. Considered a regionalist, the Kentucky-born Cobb specialized in stories that focused on small-town characters and customs. Cobb’s name was recognizable enough to be used in the marketing for The Life of the Party. Newspaper ads listed only two names—Fatty Arbuckle and Irvin S. Cobb. Cobb’s name may have added prestige to The Life of the Party, but the intricate story interfered with Arbuckle’s comic style. Most notably, his light-footed movements and agile stunts were stifled. Often his character was reduced to verbal confrontations in which he conversed back and forth with another character via intertitles—not the forte of a physical comedian.
In addition to the coincidental title and content of The Life of the Party, other details of Arbuckle’s life and career from the fall of 1921 seem eerie in retrospect. That month’s issue of Photoplay featured an article attributed to Arbuckle, though like all fanzine articles, it was probably written by a ghostwriter. In “Love Confessions of a Fat Man,” Arbuckle pontificates on why heavy men will soon give handsome matinee idols a run for their money with the ladies. He declared, “Fat men tend to be faithful,” a statement Minta Durfee would likely not agree with. By far the oddest statement in the article has to be: “It is very hard to murder or be murdered by a fat man.”
Edmonds, Andy. Frame-Up: The Untold Story of Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle. Williams Morrow, & Co., 1991.
Merritt, Greg. Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2013.
Kizer, David Allen. Wolves at the Door. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2010.
Yallop, David. The Day the Laughter Stopped. Constable, 2014.
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