Legend off the silver screen: Hollywood's baddest boy

He was the cherub-faced funny-man paid millions to make people laugh. Fatty Arbuckle, though, was anything but an angel, as a planned film of his life will show. John Walsh on an actor whose antics make Mel Gibson look tame
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The Independent Culture

When it comes to Hollywood scandals, things decidedly ain't what they used to be.

So Lindsay Lohan is told by studio bosses to knock off the non-stop partying for a while? Oh my sainted aunt. So Colin Farrell smokes in public and tries to seduce elderly actresses in hotel rooms? Lawks a mercy.

So Mel Gibson disgraces himself by yelling drunkenly at a cop about how the Jews are responsible for all the troubles in the world? It's interestingly self-destructive behaviour (not to mention that toe-curlingly sanctimonious "apology" the next day) but nobody's ever going to make a movie out of it, are they?

Unlike the Fatty Arbuckle affair. Someone is going to make a movie out of that. No less than Johnny Depp has bought the rights to the book of his life.

Depp enjoys playing ambiguous figures from the gothic-bohemian demi-monde, where the lines between the good guys and the bad guys aren't clearly drawn (such as Edward Scissorhands, Jack Sparrow, Ed Wood, Willy Wonka and the chronically stoned Inspector Abberline in From Hell).

In choosing the Fatty Arbuckle story, he has taken on one of the most morally embattled tales of the 20th century, one whose reverberations haven't settled down after nearly 90 years, a story that has inspired violently opposed opinions in movie figures from Buster Keaton to David Thomson.

For the Fatty Scandal was ground-breaking, epic, epoch-defining: the moment when the Californian dream factory lost whatever innocence it pretended to enjoy.

Arbuckle was Hollywood's first celebrity fatality, a rotund, jovial millionaire slapstick artiste accused of rape and murder, tried in court three times and finally thrown to the wolves by the horrified burghers of middle America. The details of what happened at a notorious party in 1921 have been passed down the decades in whispers; they continue to intrigue.

A book on the fatal shindig, The Day the Laughter Stopped by David A Yallop, was published in 1975. In the same year, Kenneth Anger's vicious unveiling of movie-star secrets, Hollywood Babylon, devoted a chapter to speculations about the rape that have, for years, been taken as gospel. The Merchant-Ivory team filmed a version of the story in The Wild Party, with James Coco as the rotund vaudevillean.

In 1991, Andy Edmonds brought out Frame Up!, a re-thinking of the trials. In May this year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York put on a 56-film retrospective of the portly comedian's work. And, last year he was the subject of I, Fatty, a vivid fictional autobiography by the novelist and screenwriter Jerry Stahl; it's that book Depp will be using as his raw material.

A relic of the silent screen, Arbuckle is far from forgotten - but he's fated to be known less for his body of work than for his actual body - 266lb of brutally voluptuous flesh which, on one night of crazed excess, allegedly caused a starlet's insides to explode.

He was born Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle in Kansas in 1887. His father William was "a professional boozehound, gifted at going belly up in five languages", who abused and abandoned his family, and suspected that his obese son was not his flesh and blood.

By nine, young Roscoe weighed more than 10 stone. After his mother died (he was 12) he went to live with his sister, but they ran out of room for him. He went to live at his father's new fast-food restaurant in San Jose, California, but his father vamoosed before he got there.

He earned his keep by doing odd jobs and grew up surrounded by performers, a culture to which he took like a duckling to a pond. To their surprise, the fat kid turned out to have talent, singing songs of love and tenderness in a high falsetto voice. He became a popular local turn, then his fame spread country-wide: he'd sing his plangent love songs, an immensely fat teenage loser in voluminous trousers, braces and a comical hat.

He made a couple of two-reeler movies and, in 1909, decided to go into films full-time. According to Kenneth Anger, he was working as a plumber's mate when he visited Mack Sennett to unblock his drain. Sennett, creator of the Keystone Cops, liked the look of the fat, ugly guy and signed him up to a lifetime of pratfalls, mud-slides and custard pies in the face. (Movie legend has it that Arbuckle invented the flung-fruit-pie effect after picknicking beside the Rio Grande in Texas. Some of Pancho Villa's army were camped on the other side of the river, and the soldiers and comedians began throwing fruit at each other; at the climax, Arbuckle knocked a soldier off his horse with a bunch of bananas, to the generale's delight.)

Arbuckle met Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton; he gave the latter his first break in movies, in the 1917 short The Butcher Boy. Despite the fact he hated his soubriquet of "Fatty" (and never used it himself) his success grew and grew. He teamed up with Mabel Norman, the foremost comic actress of the day, to make dozens of forgettable squibs such as Mabel and Fatty's Wash Day and Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life. For seven years, Arbuckle was at the top of the comedy tree, writing, acting and directing. By 1917, he was earning a fabulous $5,000 a week.

The wild party was on Labour Day weekend in September 1921. Arbuckle was in a mood to celebrate his new three-year, £3m contract with Paramount, and chose the ritzy Hotel St Francis in San Francisco. Arbuckle drove up there on Friday the 3rd in his new $25,000 Pierce-Arrow with his pals, Lowell Sherman and Freddy Fishback. In another car, was Fatty's friend Bambina Maude Delmont, along with an upcoming starlet of 26 called Virginia Rappe.

Rappe was brown-haired and sweet-faced and had a reputation for sexual promiscuity; rumour had it that she had given half the Sennett studio crabs. Arbuckle adored her. He wanted her for his leading lady. He wanted her for a few more things as well.

The party occupied three suites on the 12th floor, fuelled by bootleg whisky and radio jazz.

On Monday, 5 September, people were still coming and going, guests were shimmying in their smalls and the sloshed party girls were drinking gin-and-Orange Blossom cocktails. It was all terribly Great Gatsby.

At about 3pm, Fatty Arbuckle, wearing pyjamas and a bathrobe, seized a drunken Virginia Rappe by the hand and steered her towards suite 1221.

What happened next has long been the stuff of speculation. Screams and moans were heard from the bedroom, Arbuckle emerged with ripped pyjamas and with Virginia's battered hat in his head and announced, jovially, "Go in and get her dressed and get her to the Palace [hotel]. She makes too much noise."

According to Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon, the girls found Miss Rappe writhing in pain and groaning: "I'm dying ... He hurt me." At the Pine Street hospital, she slipped into a coma and died on 10 September. Also according to Anger, it was the action of deputy coroner Michael Brown that precipitated a court case. He went to hospital to find an orderly preparing to incinerate Virginia's injured female organs and thus destroy the evidence.

Brown requisitioned them, examined Virginia's insides and discovered that she had died of peritonitis after her bladder had ruptured. The police were called and Fatty Arbuckle was charged with rape and murder.

Instantly, a rumour mill began to turn, concerning the nature of Ms Rappe's rape. How had her bladder been ruptured? Lurid speculations flew that Arbuckle, finding himself unable to perform, had penetrated her with a Coke bottle; or a champagne bottle; or a jagged piece of ice. It was whispered that the delicate starlet's bladder had been burst by Arbuckle's gigantic penis.

Maude Delmont, who had found her moaning and writhing, tried to blackmail Arbuckle but failed. Across the country, his name became anathema. In Connecticut, women vigilantes attending an Arbuckle comedy pulled down the screen. Elsewhere, bottles and eggs were flung at his celluloid visage. In Wyoming, outraged cowboys shot up the cinema. The Hearst newspapers ran a campaign of unprecedented bile against the actor: the New York Times went so far as to say that Rappe had, quite frankly, been lucky to have been crushed to death before having to endure "a fat man's foulness", whatever that may have meant.

In fact, Rappe's death may not have been anything to do with Arbuckle's attentions, foul or otherwise. In Frame Up!, Andy Edmonds discovered Rappe was unwell, a chronic sufferer from cystitis on whom alcohol worked like poison. She had apparently asked Arbuckle for money to pay for an abortion, and it may have been the after-effects of an illegal termination that brought about her illness at the party.

At the first trial, in November 1921, Arbuckle denied wrongdoing and his lawyers trashed Rappe's character. After 43 hours' deliberation, the jury acquitted him by 10-2. The judge declared a mistrial. At the second trial, the jury found him guilty by 10-2 and were similarly dismissed.

In April, 1922, a third trial pulled in 40 witnesses (most of them very drunk at the time of the assault), heard their confused testimony and acquitted the defendant. At the end, they offered this remarkable, and unprecedented, observation: "Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel a grave injustice has been done him, and there was not the slightest proof to connect him in any way with the commission of any crime."

So everything was hunky-dory after that, and Arbuckle returned - a triumphant, vindicated man - to making innocently comic films for undemanding mid-Western audiences? No, not quite.

The taint of scandal never left him. Virginia Rappe and the alleged champagne bottle hung around him for ever afterwards, like a bad smell. Wherever he went, people annoyingly whistled a popular tune called, "I'm Coming, Virginia". Paramount cancelled the $3m contract which had been the occasion for the party in the first place. Any of his films that were awaiting release were dumped. He was banned from acting. Burbank moralists rained curses on his head. "If [people like Arbuckle] are flagrantly immoral," thundered Elinor Glyn, the screenwriter, "hang them, do not show their pictures, suppress them ... This Arbuckle party was a beastly, disgusting thing, and things like it should be stamped out."

Arbuckle was helped into a post-trial career by his friend Buster Keaton, for whom he wrote Daydreams and directed scenes (for Sherlock Jnr) under the pseudonym of William Goodrich. A broken man, he turned to drink. He was just on the point of being rehabilitated by Warner Brothers, in six short comedies under his own name, when he died of heart failure in 1933, aged 46.

In a sense, the jury is still out on Roscoe Arbuckle. Was he a disgusting, maverick voluptuary? A man in the wrong room at the wrong time? Or the scapegoat for an industry suddenly appalled to have been found with its moral trousers down? We still can't be certain. But at least we have Jerry Stahl (ex-junkie novelist) and Johnny Depp (modern-day saint) to give us their version of the truth about Hollywood's dark side.

'I, Fatty' by Jerry Stahl, published by Allison & Busby, £10.99

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