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.)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.