“I don’t weigh a pound over one hundred and eighty and, what’s more, I never did.”–Fatty Arbuckle
Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle was born on this day in Smith Center, Kansas, USA in 1887. Today is the 126th anniversary of his birth.
He was the youngest of nine children born to Mollie and William Goodrich Arbuckle. He was a big baby (some sources say 13 pounds, some say 16 pounds) too big, apparently. His father thought the baby wasn’t his.
Roscoe never lost his baby fat and soon earned the nickname “Fatty.” When he was a year old the family moved to California. With his mother’s encouragement, Fatty, who had a good singing voice, started singing and doing comedy on stage when he was eight years old. He worked in vaudeville until 1899 when his mother died. At that point his father, who never accepted Fatty and would often beat the child, turned him out of the house. Fatty supported himself by doing odd jobs at a hotel. Luckily for him he soon won a talent contest and was back on stage…
performing as an acrobat, clown and singer. His first real professional engagement was in 1904, singing illustrated songs for Sid Grauman at the Unique Theater in San Jose, CA, at $17.50 a week. He later worked in the Morosco Burbank stock company and traveled through China and Japan with Ferris Hartman. His last appearance on the stage was with Hartman in Yokahama, Japan, in 1913, where he played the Mikado. [IMDB]
By 1909 he was working in films. He started at the Keystone Film Company as an extra — making a whopping $3 a day — but his star soon rose. He was featured in several Keystone Cop adventures. He also starred with Mabel Norman in a number of movie shorts called “Fatty and Mabel.” He invented the thrown-pie-in-the-face gag for his film “A Noise from the Deep“. He started his own company, Comique, but sold his interest to friend Buster Keaton before signing with Paramount Pictures for an unheard of $3 million for 3 years.
Arbuckle helped Buster Keaton get started in the film industry. He also mentored Charlie Chaplin and Bob Hope.
His weight plagued him all his life. He was 185 pounds when he was 12, and “It was written in his contract that his weight remain above 250 pounds and that he would be given a healthy yearly bonus if he exceeded that by 50 to 100 pounds. During his career he kept it well over 300.” [IMDB] He also had substance abuse issues with both alcohol and morphine.Scandal put a halt to Arbuckle’s career in 1921. He attended a three-day Labor day weekend bash held by his friend Fred Hibbard at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. There was…
“a jazz band, catered food, and ample illegal alcoholic beverages. It was by all accounts a weekend of debauchery, and the party gave Arbuckle more lasting fame than any of his films.” [NNDB]
Fatty was getting ready to leave and went into one of the bedrooms to change when he found his friend Virginia Rappe “weak, sick, and vomiting in the bathroom. He helped her onto the bed.” [Ibid] Rappe suffered from cystitis, a condition that was aggravated when she drank heavily. It caused her so much pain that she would rip off her clothing to try to get some relief. That’s what she did at the party. As Fatty and another guest, Maude Delmont, tried to comfort her, but she complained she couldn’t breath and began to rip off her clothes. Delmount put ice on her stomach and thighs, Fatty called hotel doctor and manager. The hotel doctor told them that Rappe was just drunk, and, with the situation under control, Fatty left the party as planned. However, “Rappe died of a ruptured bladder several days later, and as soon as Arbuckle heard of her death, he returned from Los Angeles to San Francisco. He was arrested on 11 September 1921, and tried for manslaughter.” [Ibid]
The newspapers, led by William Randolph Hearst‘s group, made this incident Hollywood’s first truly major scandal. Roscoe was tried not once but three times for the criminal charges; the trials began in November 1921 and lasted until April 1922; the first two ended with hung juries … [IMDB]
Delmont claimed that Fatty had raped Rappe, but it later came out that she tried to extort money from Arbuckle and only went to the police with the claim after he refused to pay. Rappe’s manager Al Semnacker said Fatty, who’s obesity made him impotent, used a piece of ice to rape the actress (the object morphed into a Coca-Cola or champagne bottle in later newspaper retellings of the story.) The more lurid the story grew, the more newspapers it sold.
Matthew Brady, the San Francisco District Attorney who acted as prosecutor for the trial pressured witnesses into making false statements against Arbuckle.
At his third and final trial in April of 1922, the jury not only returned a “not guilty” verdict but excoriated the prosecution for pursuing what they said was a flimsy case with no evidence of Arbuckle having committed any crime; several jury members walked to Arbuckle after the verdict was read and hugged him and shook his hand. [IMDB]
But the damage to his career was done. Paramount cancelled his contract and the new Hayes Commission banned his movies. He sunk into alcoholism. He got some work through his friend Buster Keaton. He was able to direct under the name of “William Goodrich.” And in 1932 he appeared before the cameras again, this time in a short talkie, “Hey, Pop!” for Warner Brothers.
With the success of the shorts Warner Brothers signed Roscoe to a feature film contract, but he died in his sleep on June 29, 1933 , at age 46, the night after he signed the contract. [NNDB]