Roscoe Arbuckle scandal  

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"That Arbuckle's predicament became fodder for the yellow journalism of the Hearst newspaper empire was also a harbinger of things to come."--Crimes and Trials of the Century (2007) Steven M. Chermak, ‎Frankie Y. Bailey


“If they are flagrantly immoral, hang them; do not show their pictures; suppress them; but do not make them all suffer for a few. This Arbuckle party was a beastly, disgusting thing and things like it should be stamped out. But I didn’t see any such things in Hollywood, and if there are dope parties there, they must be very small.”--Elinor Glyn cited in Hollywood Babylon (1959)

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On September 5, 1921, Roscoe Arbuckle took a break from his hectic film schedule and, despite suffering from second-degree burns to both buttocks from an on-set accident, drove to San Francisco with two friends, Lowell Sherman and Fred Fishback. The three checked into three rooms at the St. Francis Hotel: 1219 for Arbuckle and Fishback to share, 1221 for Sherman, and 1220 designated as a party room. Several women were invited to the suite. During the carousing, a 30-year-old aspiring actress named Virginia Rappe was found seriously ill in room 1219 and was examined by the hotel doctor, who concluded her symptoms were mostly caused by intoxication and gave her morphine to calm her. Rappe was not hospitalized until two days after the incident.

At the hospital, Rappe's companion at the party, Bambina Maude Delmont, told a doctor that Arbuckle had raped her friend. The doctor examined Rappe but found no evidence of rape. She died one day after her hospitalization from peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder. Rappe suffered from chronic urinary tract infections, a condition that liquor irritated dramatically.

Delmont then told police that Arbuckle had raped Rappe; the police concluded that the impact of Arbuckle's overweight body lying on top of Rappe had eventually caused her bladder to rupture. At a later press conference, Rappe's manager, Al Semnacher, accused Arbuckle of using a piece of ice to simulate sex with Rappe, thus leading to her injuries. By the time the story was reported in newspapers, the object had evolved into a Coca-Cola or champagne bottle rather than a piece of ice. In fact, witnesses testified that Arbuckle rubbed the ice on Rappe's stomach to ease her abdominal pain. Arbuckle denied any wrongdoing. Delmont later made a statement incriminating Arbuckle to the police in an attempt to extort money from Arbuckle's attorneys.

Arbuckle's trial was a major media event. The story was fueled by yellow journalism, with the newspapers portraying Arbuckle as a gross lecher who used his weight to overpower innocent girls. William Randolph Hearst's nationwide newspaper chain exploited the situation with exaggerated and sensationalized stories. Hearst was gratified by the profits he accrued during the Arbuckle scandal, and he later said that it had "sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the Lusitania." Morality groups called for Arbuckle to be sentenced to death. The resulting scandal destroyed Arbuckle's career along with his personal life.

Arbuckle was regarded by those who knew him closely as a good-natured man who was shy around women; he has been described as "the most chaste man in pictures". However, studio executives, fearing negative publicity by association, ordered Arbuckle's industry friends and fellow actors (whose careers they controlled) not to publicly speak up for him. Charlie Chaplin, who was in Britain at the time, told reporters that he could not and would not believe Arbuckle had anything to do with Rappe's death; having known Arbuckle since they both worked at Keystone in 1914, Chaplin "knew Roscoe to be a genial, easy-going type who would not harm a fly." Buster Keaton reportedly did make one public statement in support of Arbuckle's innocence, a decision which earned him a mild reprimand from the studio where he worked. Film actor William S. Hart, who had never met or worked with Arbuckle, made a number of damaging public statements in which he presumed that Arbuckle was guilty. Arbuckle later wrote a premise for a film parodying Hart as a thief, bully, and wife beater, which Keaton purchased from him. The resulting film, The Frozen North, was released in 1922, almost a year after the scandal first emerged. Keaton co-wrote, directed and starred in the picture; consequently, Hart refused to speak to Keaton for many years.

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