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Fatty Goes to Frisco: A Review of Room 1219 and Comments

The silent film era is riddled with contradiction, confusion and the loss of thousands of the films made before 1927.  As studios began making films, having discovered there was an audience for it, and more importantly, profits to be made, they began cranking them out at an enormous rate.  Making it up as they went along, the early filmmakers had no blueprint or guide to show them how to make films.  They were learning on the job.  Contradiction came in the form of filming technique, story structure and acting styles.  The confusion was determining what the audiences wanted to see, although in the very early days it was such a novelty that practically anything filmed was worthy of the price of admission.

But audiences soon let the early studios know what they liked, as they sought out the studios and filmmakers, like D.W. Griffith at Biograph, because they knew they were getting good entertainment.  These audiences soon became enamored of certain actors and actresses, seeking out films with their favorites.  As actors weren’t given screen credit, they became known by their roles associated with the studios for which they worked.  In 1908, actress Florence Lawrence became known as “The Biograph Girl” and is regarded as the first movie star.  Audience flocked to the films she was in and she soon became in demand for other studios at a higher salary.  (At Biograph, Lawrence was replaced by Mary Pickford.)

Florence Lawrence, The Biograph Girl

With the star system now entrenched, personalities were driving the medium.  Audiences couldn’t get enough of “Little Mary” Pickford, Mary Miles Minter, Wallace Reid, Mabel Normand and Douglas Fairbanks. Comedies were the overall favorite and Charles Chaplin was the most popular star in the world with his Little Tramp character.

Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford

Mary Miles Minter

Mary Miles Minter

Wallace Reid

Wallace Reid

Mabel Normand

Mabel Normand

Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks

Chaplin began in British vaudeville before being discovered by Mack Sennett, who offered him a job at his Keystone Studios.  Chaplin accepted and began working with Mabel Normand, who was the reigning queen of comedy at the time.  Also working at Keystone was a young, rotund comedian named Roscoe Arbuckle.

Roscoe Arbuckle

Roscoe Arbuckle

After Chaplin left Keystone Studios, Sennett, who had great success with the Keystone Kops, began pairing Normand with Arbuckle.  Billed as “Fatty” (a name he hated), Arbuckle played mischievous and naïve hayseed, or appeared in drag.  As he started headlining his own films, he quickly became the second most popular film comedian.  Paramount Studios offered him a three-year, $3,000,000 contract in 1918 (about $46,000,000 today).

Roscoe and Mabe

Roscoe and Mabel

418px-Fatty_Arbuckle_The_Hayseed_Film_Daily_1919

Arbuckle lived lavishly openly.  He bought a mansion, he bought cars, he threw parties.  Of course he wasn’t alone. This first generation of movie stars, who had grown up in abject poverty, didn’t really know what to do with the buckets of money that came their way.  Prohibition was in effect, but that didn’t stop them from becoming alcoholics.  Drugs, including cocaine, morphine and heroin, were in plentiful supply, often supplied by people who worked for the studios.  It was the era of the casting couch, as hundreds of young women were lured to Hollywood only to find that once they were used, they were discarded quickly.

Roscoe's Pierce-Arrow

Roscoe’s Pierce-Arrow

The studios had people that tried to control all elements of the press and presented only the best face to the public.  But, you can’t keep good gossip away, and there was plenty to talk about.  While it seemed Hollywood was playing, many in America became concerned and there was some grass-roots movements beginning to form with the sole purpose of cleaning up the movies.

Greg Merritt’s new book, Room 1219:  The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood (September, 2013, Chicago Review Press) is the account of sensational accusations and subsequent trials of Roscoe Arbuckle, following a party held Labor Day weekend in San Francisco.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1613747926/ref=as_li_ss_il?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1613747926&linkCode=as2&tag=greghatfrumi-20

It would seem there is a small renaissance today in the lives of silent film stars.  New biographies are being published of the bigger stars (John Gilbert and Mae Murray) and more obscure film actors (Peg Entwistle and Mary Wickes).  There remains huge interest in silent stars such as Harlow and Garbo (who made the transition into sound), Chaplin, Pickford, director William Desmond Taylor, Mabel Normand, Laurel and Hardy and several others.

The life of Roscoe Arbuckle falls into an odd category.  On one hand, his films have now become relegated to the pile of silent films that seem to end up in bargain bins of DVDs for $1.00, even while becoming easier to view (YouTube).

His story isn’t of his success as a comedian and silent film star; it’s the story of his being accused, initially of murder, and subsequently, manslaughter, and the salaciousness that followed.  The story of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle is legend.  It’s the nagging details that are muddled.

Thankfully, Merritt’s book takes a close look at all the evidence, all the while putting Arbuckle’s place in history in perspective.  Merritt reviews autopsy reports, trial transcripts, police and coroner testimony, newspaper articles and never before published interviews to give a very balanced analysis of what could have happened that Labor Day of 1921.

Here’s the story in brief:  By 1921, Arbuckle was big box office.  His films were popular all over America and the world.  He was loved by everyone; on screen he was one of us.  Arbuckle had just completed the film, Freight Prepaid, for Paramount and was working on his next feature film.  He needed a break and took a small entourage to San Francisco, where they would have a party in the suites of the Hotel St. Francis.

Hotel St. Francis.  Roscoe's bank of suites were at the top left in the first building.

Hotel St. Francis. Roscoe’s bank of suites were at the top left in the first building.

Room 1219 today

Room 1219 today

Throughout the weekend, people would come and go.  There was alcohol and plenty of it.  On Monday, an actress whom Arbuckle knew slightly, Virginia Rappe, came up to the party and after a few drinks, began talking to Arbuckle.

Virginia Rappe

Virginia Rappe

One of the strengths of Room 1219 is its most thorough biography of Virginia Rappe.  Previous books on the Arbuckle case portray her as a desperate actress or prostitute.  Merritt shows she actually had some success in Hollywood and had other opportunities.  When she was talking to Arbuckle, it would make sense that she would ask him for work.

She was also pretty, Arbuckle was flirty, drinks were being served, it was a party.  The two of them slipped away into Room 1219.

What followed changed the lives of both of them.  Rappe was injured, her bladder ruptured.  No one at the time knew how serious it was.  Arbuckle left her in the care of others and the party broke up.

Rappe died four days later.  Based on the testimony of others at the party, including Rappe companion Maude Delmont who never testified in open court, Arbuckle was arrested for the murder in an attempt to perpetrate rape of Virginia Rappe.

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Roscoe's Mug Shot

Roscoe’s Mug Shot

The charge was eventually reduced to manslaughter and the trial of the century was on and on and on.  There would be three trials in all.  Merritt breaks down each one, showing the lame attempts by the show-boating prosecution to introduce hearsay evidence, twisted testimony and wild speculation.  Of course, the defense did Arbuckle no favors, at least during the first two trials. They seemed unprepared at times, believing that no jury could find it in them to convict one of America’s greatest clowns.  Merritt provides the pertinent transcripts of the trials, showing where the evidence is favorable to Arbuckle, but also shows the holes in his alibi.

The first trial

The first trial

The Prosecution, Roscoe and the Defense Team

The Prosecution, Roscoe and the Defense Team

This was the era of newspapers and Arbuckle was front page news for months, at least until the third trial. By then, other Hollywood stories had grabbed the headlines:  the suicide of Olive Thomas (married to Jack Pickford, brother of Mary) in Paris, the murder of William Desmond Taylor (still unsolved to this day) and the death of matinee idol and drug addict Wallace Reid.

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At the third trial, Arbuckle was acquitted in less than 10 minutes.  But the damage had already been done.  His career was over.  His films were still banned practically all over the country.  Will Hays had been appointed head of the new Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which, basically, was a self-serving reform group.  Hays was the puppet of the studio heads and one of his first edicts was to ban Arbuckle permanently from working in any studio in Hollywood.

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Room 1219 also details Arbuckle’s exile from Hollywood;   Hays’ reversal; and Arbuckle’s subsequent comeback as a director, stage performer and, ultimately, his return to acting in film.  Using all the evidence put into place in the book, Merritt provides a good, logical theory on what really happened that day in San Francisco.  It was an event that should have ended differently.  The lives of two people were ruined that day.  Rappe lost her life and Arbuckle lost everything.

Room 1219 will be welcomed by all film buffs as the most complete account of the Arbuckle trials.  It’s hard to believe 92 years later, there is still new evidence being discovered and new theories advanced.  Fascinating and full of new information about the case, its participants and victims, Room 1219 engages the reader from start to finish with no happy endings in sight.

Virginia Rappe Grave at Hollywood Forever Cemetary

Virginia Rappe Grave at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

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The Book Scavenger

(Starting a new series of blogs where I write about not only the books I enjoy, but how these books came into my possession.  I hope to be able to share finding selected titles, the cost (because I’m always looking for a deal) and the connection a person has to his/her books.)

Books are not just items to read.  In many ways, books are comfort food, ever-lasting friends and, even, trophies.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading about someone, well, reading books and I hope you’ll share with me your own experiences.  We can have a dialogue on Facebook as to why the printed word, bindings and covers are so important to many of us.)
The Book Scavenger

I love books.  Ever since I can remember, I’ve always enjoyed reading, and having, books.  It started with the Hardy Boys, that venerable institution of boy detective stories that began its run in the mid-18th century, I believe, with its first few stories written by Benjamin Franklin.  Ben fancied himself a detective ever since he solved the Mystery of the Missing Rum Barrel, at the First Meeting of the Continental Congress in 1774.  (Spoiler Alert:  John Adams had hidden it in the belfry so members wouldn’t be drunk by the time he was scheduled to speak near the end of the program.)

By the time I got into the series, in elementary school, I had discovered the school library, where two books stood out, Little Britches by Ralph Moody, and a biography of the great Sauk warrior, Chief Black Hawk.

Little Britches was what we now call historical autobiographical fiction.  In it, Moody told the tale of his family’s move from New Hampshire to Colorado, when he was about 10.  His father was diagnosed with tuberculosis and it was hoped the dry air would help his father’s breathing.  Mostly the book was a story about a city kid finding his way on the ranch.  It resembled Green Acres, now that I think about it.  The family from the city bought the worst farm in Colorado, the Haney farm it was called.  Crops wouldn’t grow. The ground was hard as a rock and they had no real water source.  They had no experience being ranchers, so they were destined to fail.  The difference between the Moody family and the Douglas’ was that Oliver and Lisa were incredibly wealthy and the Moody’s were poor.

But for a kid my age, roughly 9 or 10 years old, it was a great story.  Because Ralph was my age during this time of the story, I related to him.  He did everything I would have done.  He went a got a job at one of the more successful farms in the neighborhood.  He learned to farm properly, learned to ride horses and worked side by side with some real cowboys.  It turned out Ralph had a real knack for handling horses and became a real expert with them.  When his father eventually died from his illness, Ralph, just barely a teenager, became the man of the family, and a series of book were born.

I found out there were eight books in Moody’s series, and I tried to find them all.  I found most of them at the library, but a couple have eluded me all these years.  I still hunt for them at used bookstores.  I believe I own four of the books in my library, and have read seven of the series.

The biography of Chief Black Hawk, founder of the hockey team in Chicago, was an interesting book to me.  As a kid, I had no political leanings, other than thinking that Jackie Kennedy sure did look different than Mamie Eisenhower, but as I read the book and read about the injustices done to the American Indian, I knew that wasn’t right.

Black Hawk was the leader of the Sauk tribe in Illinois and Wisconsin.  He fought against the American movement west of the Mississippi, until, of course, the white man figured out that bombing everything in sight might win them the battles.  Black Hawk didn’t go down without a fight, though.  He fought with the British during the War of 1812 (the enemy of my enemy is my friend) and in 1832, he played a major role in a war so big they named it after him – The Black Hawk War.

I’ve never been able to find this book, however.  I have no clue as to the author, but if you run across a young adult biography of one of the greatest Native American chiefs in history, let me know.

The Rest of the South Wall of the library at the Hatfield Ranch.

So, back to the Hardy Boys.

The books began their publishing life in 1927 and were written by F.W. Dixon, a pseudonym for Leslie McFarlane and others, although the Hardys were created by Edward Stratemeyer, who had also created Nancy Drew and Tom Swift.  All told, there are 58 original books with 38 revisions of the originals.

The books I got were revised versions with blue covers and, as I found out later, had been updated to reflect the 60’s.  No, Frank and Joe didn’t burn their draft cards or smoke pot or listen to the Grateful Dead (although it wouldn’t have hurt Frank who was always uptight).  They were clean cut kids, the sons of a famous private eye, and who always did their homework and were in bed by 9:00.

Now this is where the collecting part comes in.  On the back covers of these Hardy Boys books, the complete list of titles was shown.  I think at the time I was reading the books there were maybe 20 of the revised editions available, so I had reference to what I wanted.  As a kid, I read as many as I could get my hands upon, which was a lot, because the books were priced kid-friendly and they were readily available.  I also had the chance to read some of the older books because a friend of mine across the street had them.  He was an older teen and had outgrown them and gave them to me.  I still have them.

My mother didn’t seem to mind me wanting those Hardy Boys books, so I milked it and got practically every book on the list, with one exception.  I never could find The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, which purportedly, revealed how you could become a detective just like Frank and Joe.  When I was in the 6th grade, I became friends with the brother of the cutest girl in my class who had a copy of the book and he had actually gotten hold of some Plaster of Paris and had made a plaster cast of a footprint!  If that wasn’t detective-ing, I didn’t know what was!  We hung out a couple of times trying to decide what kind of detective work we wanted to do and it kind of fizzled out when he wouldn’t sell me the book.  I still don’t have that book.

But I had a Hardy Boys collection that rivaled anyone I knew.  I think I stopped reading the Hardy Boys when I discovered James Bond in the early 1960’s.  In 1962, the first James Bond movie, Dr. No was released and the paperback racks were flooded with reprints of the Fleming novels.

I somehow got my hands on Peyton Place by Grace Metalious.  It was a giant best-seller in the late 1950’s and copies were readily available, especially after the television program launched in the early 60’s.  It was certainly a different style of book for me and though I could tell the writing was a bit clunky, it was steamy enough to be interesting.  I didn’t read another book of that type until Valley of the Dolls came along.

Bookstores were an anomaly to me at the time.  Other than the library, I really didn’t visit any bookstore.  The library was where you went to get hardbacks because every corner drug store or newsstand had a rack of mass market paperbacks that adults bought.  Most of the paperbacks were 25 cents, with some costing 50 cents.

I remember the biggest department store in Cincinnati, Shillito’s, having a large book selection.  Later, I went to Kidd’s Bookstore downtown, with four floors of books, and then discovered this place called Ohio Bookstore and nearly next to it Acres of Books.

Ohio Bookstore is still in existence and it can be both a treasure trove of used books, and a frustrating collection of books, depending on what you’re looking for.  The guys there are great and can generally tell you where a particular book might be.  They have a nice collection of paperbacks and several tables of mass markets.  Prices are reasonable too.

My favorite used bookstore, back in the old days, was Bertrand Smith’s Acres of Books on Main Street in downtown Cincinnati.  There were at least three floors of books.  It was the kind of place I’ve always loved:  Dimly lit, the musty smell of used books fragrant in the air and the chance that dust would cloud the space above your head when you touched a book that had sat there for months, even years.

I bought my first copy of Moss Hart’s Act One there.  It was one of the books that changed my life.  The store had at least six copies on the shelf and I had my pick of the best.  The prices were very good, too.  It was a feat of endurance to browse the entire store on a semi-regular basis.

(I later found out there was an Acres of Books in Long Beach.  I was in Long Beach in 2010 and passed an old building with “Acres of Books” on the front.  I found out that Smith had opened this store decades ago, until the space of taken for area redevelopment, the same as his location in Cincinnati.)

So where do you go for used books these days?  A few places in Cincinnati are great for browsing.  Dutenhofer’s in CliftonHeights is a good place to start, and although I don’t like their premium pricing, I still go there.  The aforementioned Ohio Book Store is a must visit.  There used to be a place in the Mohawk area on McMicken Avenue call The Bookstore and owned by a University of Cincinnati professor.  The hours were so random and the store had no real days and times that it became frustrating to visit on the chance that they were open.  I haven’t been there in a couple of years, so if it’s open, let me know.

Bonnett’s in Dayton, Ohio is great for book and pop culture lovers, although the store is in closed quarters, so if you’re claustrophobic, you may want to avoid it.  But it has that used book smell that is as appealing as a bakery on a spring day.

Half Price Books has several stores in the area and I like to go to every single one because the mix is different at each one.  They used to be better when they first opened because their inventory consisted largely of the books they bought from customers.  Now, they have a ton of remainders and promotional books and, when I visited one store this past weekend, J.K. Rowling’s new book for sale in a promo shipper for 20% off regular price.  (The irony is, when the book becomes a cut-out due to over printing and sells for pennies on the dollar, Half Price Books will already have the inventory in stock.)  But, I can always find books to buy there, especially in their clearance section (which used to be a dollar, but are now two dollars.)  Look for coupons and special days of sales, which make it worthwhile.

But I mostly love the thrift stores.  St. Vincent DePaul stores are better than Goodwill, which are better than Valley Thrift.  Some of the St. Vincent DePaul stores have hundreds of used books, priced at 50 cents for paperbacks and $1.00 for hardbacks.  They also have specials frequently and the selection is good.

I do shop at Betterworldbooks.com and thriftbooks.com and I check out Amazon and Abebooks (owned by Amazon now).

I’m not opposed to reading books digitally.  I have several books on my Kindle Fire and a couple on my laptop.  If I find an interesting e-book, I will read it and then look for a hard copy.

Good luck with your book hunting because that’s the thrill of scouring used book stores.  Discovery plays a big part in going to used book stores.  The chance to find a book and be able to say, “I didn’t know there was a book on that!”  Finding the one book that has eluded you all your life and suddenly seeing it on the shelf is a feeling that cannot be conveyed.  But if I get there first, I’m going to buy it before you.