01 October 2017

Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle

EFSP follows Le Gionate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone this week. One of the films shown is The Butcher Boy (1917) in which Buster Keaton made his film debut - 100 years ago. Director was American silent film actor and comedian Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle (1887-1933), who was himself also one of the most popular silent stars of the 1910s. Arbuckle started at the Selig Polyscope and moved to Keystone Studios, where he worked with Mabel Normand and Harold Lloyd. Arbuckle mentored Charlie Chaplin and discovered Keaton and Bob Hope. In 1920, he signed a contract with Paramount Pictures for US$1 million. Between November 1921 and April 1922, Arbuckle was the defendant in three widely publicised trials for the rape and manslaughter of starlet Virginia Rappe. Following the trials, his films were banned and he was publicly ostracised. Arbuckle only later worked as a film director under the alias William Goodrich. He was finally able to return to acting, making short two-reel comedies in 1932 for Warner Bros. He died in his sleep of a heart attack in 1933 at age 46, on the same day he signed a contract with Warner Brothers to make a feature film.

Fatty Arbuckle
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 799/2, 1925-1926. Photo: Phoebus Film.

Fatty Arbuckle
French postcard by Éditions Filma in the Les Vedettes du Cinéma series, no. 80. Photo: Super-Film.

Bowler-hat and pants whose legs were too short

Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle was born in 1887 in Smith Center, Kansas, one of nine children of Mary E. 'Mollie' Gordon and William Goodrich Arbuckle. His family moved to California when he was a year old.

Arbuckle had a wonderful singing voice and was extremely agile. At the age of eight, with his mother's encouragement, he first performed on stage with Frank Bacon's company. Arbuckle enjoyed performing and continued on until his mother's death in 1899 when he was 12.

His father, who had always treated him harshly, now refused to support him and Arbuckle got work doing odd jobs in a hotel. Arbuckle was in the habit of singing while he worked and was overheard by a customer who was a professional singer. The customer invited him to perform in an amateur talent show. He not only won the competition but began a career in vaudeville.

In 1904, Sid Grauman invited Arbuckle to sing illustrated songs in his new Unique Theater in San Francisco. He then joined the Pantages Theatre Group touring the West Coast of the United States and in 1906 played the Orpheum Theater in Portland, Oregon in a vaudeville troupe organised by Leon Errol. Arbuckle became the main act and the group took their show on tour.

In 1908, Arbuckle married Minta Durfee, who later starred in many early comedy films, often with Arbuckle. Arbuckle then joined the Morosco Burbank Stock vaudeville company and went on a tour of China and Japan returning in early 1909.

That year, Arbuckle began his film career with the Selig Polyscope Company when he appeared in Ben's Kid (Francis Boggs, 1909). He appeared sporadically in Selig one-reelers until 1913, moved briefly to Universal Pictures.

Then, Arbuckle went to work in producer-director Mack Sennett's Keystone Cops comedies. His character Fatty – he weighed 135 kilogrammes at the height of his career - usually wore bowler-hat and pants whose legs were too short. For the next 3-1/2 years he appeared in hundreds of one-reel comedies, mostly as policemen, but he also played different parts.

He would work with Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, among others, and would learn about the process of making films from Henry Lehrman, who directed many of his pictures. Despite his massive physical size, Arbuckle was remarkably agile and acrobatic. His comedies are noted as rollicking and fast-paced, have many chase scenes, and feature sight gags.

Arbuckle was fond of the ‘pie in the face’, a comedy cliche that has come to symbolise silent-film-era comedy itself. The earliest known custard pie thrown in film was in the Keystone one-reeler A Noise from the Deep (Mack Sennett, 1913). The pie was thrown by Mabel Normand and Arbuckle was the recipient.

Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand in Fatty's Wine Party (1914)
American postcard by Keystone cards, presented with Home Weekly. Photo: Keystone Film. Publicity still for Fatty's Wine Party (Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, 1914) with Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand. Caption: A Ticklish Moment.

Fatty Arbuckle in Fatty's Chance Acquaintance (1915)
American postcard by Keystone cards, presented with Home Weekly. Photo: Keystone Film. Publicity still for Fatty's Chance Acquaintance ( Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, 1915) with Billie Bennett.

A then-unheard-of offer

By 1914 Roscoe Arbuckle had begun directing some of his one-reels. Paramount Pictures made the then-unheard-of offer of US$1,000-a-day plus 25% of all profits and complete artistic control to make films with Arbuckle and Normand.

The next year he had moved up to two-reels, which meant that he would need to sustain the comedy to be successful - as it turned out, he was. Among his films were Fatty Again (Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, 1914), Mabel, Fatty and the Law (Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle,1915), Mabel and Fatty's Wash Day (Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, 1915), Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World's Fair at San Francisco (Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, 1915), Fatty's Reckless Fling (Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, 1915) with Edgar Kennedy, and many more.

Charles Chaplin assisted Arbuckle in The Knockout (Mack Sennett, 1914); and Harold Lloyd was his co-star in Miss Fatty's Seaside Lovers (Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, 1915). He also hired a young performer he met in New York by the name of Buster Keaton.

Keaton's film career would start with Roscoe in The Butcher Boy (Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, 1917). Keaton supported him in at least 14 shorts. The films were so lucrative and popular that in 1918 Paramount offered Arbuckle a three-year, $3 million contract ($48,000,000 in 2016 dollars).

In 1916, Arbuckle had started his own film company, Comique, in partnership with Joseph Schenck. Although Comique produced some of the best short pictures of the silent era, in 1918 Arbuckle transferred his controlling interest in the company to Buster Keaton and accepted Paramount's $3 million offer to make up to 18 feature films over three years.

Roscoe's first feature was the Western comedy The Round-Up (George Melford, 1920) and it was successful. It was soon followed by other features, including Brewster's Millions (Joseph Henabery, 1921) and Gasoline Gus (James Cruze, 1921) with Lila Lee.

Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle
French postcard by Edition Paramount, Paris.

Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle
Swedish postcard by Forlag Nordisk Konst, Stockholm, no. 865. Photo: Triangle-Keystonefilm.

The Death of Virginia Rappe

On 5 September 1921, Roscoe Arbuckle took a break from his hectic film schedule and, drove to San Francisco with two friends, Lowell Sherman and Fred Fishback. The three checked into three rooms at the St. Francis Hotel. They invited several women to their suite.

During the carousing, a 26-year-old starlet named Virginia Rappe was found seriously ill 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 hospitalised until two days after the incident.

Virginia Rappe suffered from chronic cystitis, a condition that liquor irritated dramatically. Her heavy drinking habits and the poor quality of the era's bootleg alcohol could leave her in severe physical distress. She had undergone several abortions in the space of a few years, and she was preparing to undergo another.

At the hospital, Rappe's companion at the party, Bambina Maude Delmont, told Rappe's doctor that Arbuckle had raped her friend. The doctor examined Rappe but found no evidence of rape. Rappe died one day after her hospitalization of peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder. Delmont then told police that Arbuckle raped Rappe, and the police concluded that the impact Arbuckle's overweight body had on Rappe eventually caused her bladder to rupture. 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; exaggerated and sensationalized stories ran in William Randolph Hearst's nationwide newspaper chain. The resulting scandal destroyed Arbuckle's career and his personal life. In his testimony, Arbuckle denied he had any knowledge of Rappe's illness.

The first trial (14 November-4 December 1921) ended with the jury deadlocked 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal. The second trial (11 January -3 February 1922) also ended in a hung jury; this time the majority had ruled against Roscoe - 10 to 2 for conviction. The third trial (13 March – 12 April 1922) finally ended with an acquittal and a formal statement of apology to Arbuckle for putting him through the ordeal; a dramatic move in American justice.

At the time of his acquittal, Arbuckle owed over $700,000 in legal fees to his attorneys for the three criminal trials, and he was forced to sell his house and all of his cars to pay some of the debt. Although he had been cleared of all criminal charges, the scandal had greatly damaged his popularity among the general public. Will H. Hays banned Roscoe Arbuckle from ever working in U.S. movies again. He had also requested that all showings and bookings of Arbuckle films be canceled.

In December of the same year, under public pressure, Hays elected to lift the ban, but Arbuckle was still unable to secure work as an actor. Buster Keaton signed an agreement to give Arbuckle 35 percent of all future profits from his company, Buster Keaton Productions, to ease his financial situation.

In November 1923, Minta Durfee filed for divorce, charging grounds of desertion. The divorce was granted the following January. Arbuckle married Doris Deane in 1925.

Virginia Rappe
Virginia Rappe. Vintage photo. Collection: Didier Hanson.

The magic and youthful spirit of before

Roscoe Arbuckle tried returning to filmmaking, but industry resistance to distributing his pictures continued to linger after his acquittal. He retreated into alcoholism.

Buster Keaton attempted to help Arbuckle by giving him work on his films. Arbuckle wrote the story for a Keaton short called Day Dreams (Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton, 1922). Arbuckle allegedly co-directed scenes in Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924), but it is unclear how much of this footage remained in the film's final cut.

In 1925, Carter Dehaven made the short Character Studies (1927) in which Arbuckle appeared alongside Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and Jackie Coogan.

Eventually, Arbuckle was given work as a film director under the alias William Goodrich. Between 1924 and 1932, Arbuckle directed a number of comedy shorts under the pseudonym for Educational Pictures. His films included the Eddie Cantor feature Special Delivery (1927), the Marion Davies vehicle The Red Mill (1927) and Windy Riley Goes Hollywood (1931) with Louise Brooks.

In 1927, he was also engaged to direct and star a series of comedy shorts for producer Abe Carlos. The films were to be shot in Berlin and distributed internationally, and Arbuckle's wife Doris Deane was to star with him. The films were never produced.

In 1929, Doris Deane sued for divorce and Roscoe married Addie Oakley Dukes McPhail in 1931. In 1932, Arbuckle signed a contract with Warner Bros. to star under his own name in a series of two-reel comedies, to be filmed at the Vitagraph studios in Brooklyn. He started with Hey, Pop! (Alfred J. Goulding, 1932).

Tony Fontana at IMDb: “He completed six shorts and showed the magic and youthful spirit that he had a decade before.” These successful films with Al St. John (Arbuckle's nephew) and Lionel Stander constitute the only recordings of his voice. On 28 June 1933, Arbuckle had finished filming the last of the two-reelers and the next day he was signed by Warner Bros. to make a feature-length film.

That night he went out with friends to celebrate his first wedding anniversary and new Warner contract where he reportedly said: "This is the best day of my life." He suffered a heart attack later that night and died in his sleep. Roscoe Arbuckle was 46.

The Butcher Boy (Roscoe Arbuckle, 1917) with Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton. Source: Wm. Thomas Sherman (YouTube).

Sources: Tony Fontana (IMDb), Wikipedia and IMDb.

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