What was the Fatty Arbuckle Scandal and how did it influence Hollywood?
In the 1920s and 1930s, as Hollywood became a more organized institution with recognizable, marketable actors and actresses, individuals who were part of this unique, and exclusive community came under increasing scrutiny. Men and women who were a part of this elite circle were subjects of gossip, and their exploits were were laid bare and exposed to the reading public. According to historian Lois Banner, actors and actresses' lives were described as "free and easy" in almost every sense of the phrase, and a series of scandals, including those of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, created an opportunity for critique.
Who was Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle?
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was born in Kansas in 1887. His family moved to Santa Ana when he was about two, and with his mother’s encouragement, he began to act and sing on stage. However, his father no longer encouraged his acting when his mother passed away. Arbuckle seemed to give up on his passion and took odd jobs to get by. One day, when a customer overheard him singing while working, he was encouraged to perform at a talent show. The crowd, however, didn’t care for his singing. He tripped and fell off the stage—which sent the audience into a laughing frenzy. It was this that brought him to begin a career in vaudeville.
In 1913, he signed with Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Company and became one of the Keystone Kops. The Keystone Kops was a slapstick comedy sitcom of the silent era that featured Arbuckle and a handful of other actors as a squad of incompetent police officers. In the show, Arbuckle’s weight—which hovered between an estimated 250 and 300 pounds—was often part of the comedic act. Though he despised the nickname “Fatty,” it stuck.
Arbuckle continued to do well in his career, and then in 1921, he signed a 3-year, $1 million contract with Paramount. The size of this contract was unheard of in this era. Furthermore, he had just been paid for completing 18 silent films for the studio, and his most recent film, Crazy to Marry, was in theaters across the country. Arbuckle seemed at the top of his career, and his friends planned a party to celebrate his success and let loose on Labor Day weekend.
At first, Arbuckle didn’t really want to have the party. He was exhausted from work, and when he was getting his car serviced in Los Angeles, he sat on an acid-soaked rag and got 2nd degree burns on his backside. Nevertheless, his friend insisted on the party. On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, Arbuckle and his friend, Fred Fischbach, drove from Los Angeles to the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. By the end of the weekend, Arbuckle would be sitting in jail, held without bail, for the murder of 25-year-old Virginia Rappe.
Fischbach had arranged everything. The hotel rooms, the invitations, and the liquor (even though this was during the Prohibition era). They had a suite and two adjoining rooms in the St. Francis Hotel. Not surprisingly, there were a number of uninvited guests—most notably Maude Delmont and Virginia Rappe. Rappe was an aspiring actress, model, and party girl while Delmont was a known blackmailer and purported madam. Arbuckle didn’t care for their presence because he worried they might bring negative attention to the party.
Those are the facts. From here, there are two versions of the story.
Arbuckle’s Version of Events:
Arbuckle claimed he had a few drinks with Rappe, after which he claimed she became hysterical. According to Arbuckle, Rappe complained she couldn’t breathe and began to tear off her clothes. Arbuckle claims he was never alone with her, and that he had witnesses who could attest to that. He also said they could confirm she was unwell since they saw her vomiting in the bathroom. According to Arbuckle, he and the other partygoers thought she simply had too much to drink, so they left her in a room alone to recover. When partygoers later checked on Rappe, they recognized she was still unwell and called on the hotel staff to get her out of there, but she was not taken to a hospital immediately. Rappe was eventually taken to a hospital, and she died from peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder.
Delmont’s Version of Events:
According to Delmont, Rappe and Arbuckle had a few drinks, and then he pulled her into an adjoining room. Delmont heard Arbuckle say “I’ve waited for you five years and now I’ve got you.” Delmont claimed that after about half an hour, she heard screaming, so she forced her way into the room. Delmont claimed that she saw Rappe sprawled on the bed, naked and bleeding crying: “Arbuckle did it.” According to Delmont’s version of events, the ruptured bladder was caused by Arbuckle’s heft atop Rappe when he was raping her. Some journalists accused Arbuckle of raping her with a foreign object.
With two competing versions of the story in play, Arbuckle was soon arrested and charged with murder. The nation's newspapers went wild. According to William Randolph Hearst, the Arbuckle story sold more papers than the sinking of the Lusitania. People reacted immediately to the accusations against Arbuckle. His movies were pulled from theaters across the country, and his party, and the scandal, became representative symbols of the immorality in Hollywood.
The incident split the motion picture industry—with “one group convinced of the big comedian’s blameleness and determined to aid him to clear his name, and the other equally determined to ‘see justice done.’” Lambasting Arbuckle, Henry Lehrman, film director and Rappe’s fiancé, exclaimed: this “is from making idols and millionaires out of people that you take from the gutter.” The result of the trial put Hollywood, and the motion picture industry under intense public scrutiny.
Historian Lois Banner stated that performers’ private lives became public—and publicized—as “free and easy.” One authority high up in the theatrical world remarked: That [in] Hollywood… Stories of drug parties, liquor parties, and other forms of debauchery by certain individuals at various parties throughout the country are no longer new. In the aftermath of Virginia Rappe’s death, the film industry went on the attack against allegations that they were particularly immoral. The Billboard newsletter urged Hollywood to “purge” the trade of “those intruders whose actions have brought only discredit upon the film industry.”
Arbuckle’s first trial took place in November 1921. He was charged with manslaughter and the jury was hung ten to two for acquittal. The second trial was deadlocked ten to two for conviction. Finally, in the third trial, in March 1922, a jury found Arbuckle not guilty.
Delmont proved a troublesome witness. In some versions of her story, she was lifelong friends with Rappe. In others, they had just met a few days before. Furthermore, Delmont had a history of fraud and extortion. She was sometimes referred to as “Madame Black.” She would procure young women for parties with wealthy male guests, but then they would eventually be accused of rape or blackmailed into paying for silence. Some telegrams were also discovered where Delmont said: “WE HAVE ROSCOE ARBUCKLE IN A HOLE HERE CHANCE TO MAKE SOME MONEY OUT OF HIM.”
Arbuckle’s lawyers found evidence showing that Rappe had a chronic bladder condition, and there was no evidence of violence or defensive wounds. When the final jury found Arbuckle not guilty, they issued him an apology.
Over the course of the three trials, Arbuckle had spent more than $700,000 on his defense, and his career and reputation were ruined.
After the Trials
The incident had effects on the motion picture industry as well. Will Hays came aboard to work as a censor for the industry to help restore its image. One of the first things he did was to ban and blacklist Fatty Arbuckle from appearing on screen. Though the ban on Arbuckle was lifted 8 months later, the damage had been done. He was no longer relevant.
Arbuckle changed his name to William Goodrich, and for the rest of his life—which was not very long—he worked for a pittance directing films behind the scenes. In 1933, he had begun to make a comeback. Signing with Warner Brothers to act in some comedy shorts, but he would not live to see himself return to his prior success. He died on June 29, 1933, after having a heart attack in his hotel room.
The Arbuckle trial wasn’t the only scandal in the early 1920s. In one case, a bisexual director who was found murdered. There were also several situations where movie stars died from drug overdoses. As a result, the nation's religious leaders stepped in and began forming local censorship boards and chopping up movies every which way to suit the standards of their communities.
The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) had formed in 1922 to reassure America that Hollywood did not condone immorality in the wake of lifestyle scandals than in newspaper headlines, like those of Fatty Arbuckle.
Eventually, Hollywood studios banded together under former Postmaster General Will Hays to come up with a list of 36 self-imposed "Don'ts and Be Carefuls." There were no penalties, no laws, no enforcement. Nevertheless, the movie industry policed itself. the major film studios were governed by a production code requiring that their pictures be "wholesome" and "moral" and encourage what the studios called "correct thinking." While Hays's name would later become synonymous with the Hollywood Code era, his work resulted in general guidelines—not enforcement. However, his name is associated with regulation since he was the first person really tasked with that assignment.
Hollywood wanted to reassure civic leaders throughout the United States that they were interested in promoting a wholesome image, producing clean movies, and self-policing. This way, local agencies would not need to censor or edit films—as had been the norm pre-Code, which resulted in some movies being censored or cut in different ways.
The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) organized The Studio Relations Committee in 1930 and gave them the responsibility of ensuring industry self-censorship. The Production Code was adopted March 31, 1930. The Studio Relations Committee became the Production Code Administration in 1934, after which it was more effective.
The code underwent a number of revisions through the 1950s, but at its core were the general principles that “1. No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil, or sin. 2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented. 3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.”
Additionally, there were prohibitions on films displaying (among other things): scenes of nudity, suggestive dancing, discussions of sexual perversity (usually this referred to same-sex relations), superfluous use of liquor, ridicule of religion, miscegenation (or interracial relationships between whites and Blacks), and lustful kissing.
While the Fatty Arbuckle scandal drew attention to some of the more seedy parts of Hollywood, it was one of a few scandals that forced Hollywood executives to turn on the offensive to self-regulate and present a more wholesome image to the rest of the world. As America changed in the 1920s and 1930s, the Hays and Production Codes were an attempt to counter changes taking place in urban life, gender, and race.
For more on the Hays Code, see: The Hays Code, Gangsters, and Prohibition: How did 1934 change Hollywood?
- Lois Banner, 'American Beauty', p. 183.
- Gary F. Fine, "Scandal, Social Conditions, and the Creation of Public Attention," p. 300 and Johnson, "Fatty Arbuckle Trials (1921-1922)," p. 242-243.
- “Murder Charge Placed Aagainst Fatty Arbuckle,” Indianapolis Star, September 12, 1921, 1.
- Quoted in “Murder Charge Placed Against Fatty Arbuckle,” Indianapolis Star, September 12, 1921, 2.
- Quoted in Marion Russell, ed., “Drive Out the Rotters from the Film Industry,” The Billboard, vol. 33, no. 39, (September 24, 1921): 104.
- Gilbert King, "The Skinny on the Fatty Arbuckle Trial," Smithsonian Magazine, November 8, 2011, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-skinny-on-the-fatty-arbuckle-trial-131228859/.
“Complete Nudity Is Never Permitted”: The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, History Matters, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5099/.
Hayes, David P. The Motion Picture Production Code, https://productioncode.dhwritings.com/intro.php.
Mondello, Bob, "Remembering Hollywood's Hays Code, 40 Years On," NPR, August 8, 2008, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93301189.
Movie Morals Uunder Fire,” New York Times, February 12, 1922, 80.<be>