Roscoe Arbuckle case

The case Roscoe Arbuckle , following the death of the actress Virginia Rappe , in 1921 , is the first of what will be called the great scandals Hollywood. The actor and director Roscoe Arbuckle , at the time at the height of his glory, is accused of the rape and the death of the actress. The press for months seizes the news and gives it such a resonance that the American film industry decides to adopt codes of good conduct to moralize the profession and film production. Despite his acquittal , Roscoe Arbuckle is forbidden to work and this is the brutal end of his career.

A party that ends badly

For the Labor Day 1 weekend , three friends, Roscoe Arbuckle , Lowell Sherman and Fred Fischbach are hosting a party on the twelfth floor of the San Francisco Hotel San Francisco . In this period of Prohibition where the sale and transport of alcohol is forbidden, these meetings, which are pretexts for consumption, are frequent. The festivities take place in the suite 1220, the two adjoining rooms (1219 and 1221, Arbuckle and Frischback in the first and Sherman in the second) housing the guests. The three friends, escorted by two show-girl girlfriends, arrive from Los Angeles in Pierce-Arrow 2 Customized Roscoe Arbuckle and settle in their suites the afternoon of Saturday for festivities lasting three days 3 .

Everyone agrees that a lot of alcohol is consumed during these three days. It is more difficult to know who participates and when.

There are two versions explaining the presence of Virginia Rappe at these celebrations on September 5th. The first is that Fred Fischbach meets fortuitously in the lobby of the hotel, Ira Fortlouis . He is accompanied by Virginia Rappe, Al Semnacher , his agent and Maude Delmont . Frischback invites them to join them. The second reports that Roscoe Arbuckle knows Virginia Rappe 4 and Ira Fortlouis and himself launches the invitation. This second version is contradicted by Arbuckle’s statements at trial 5 .

All these people comes after 1220 to 12  h  0 , soon joined by Alice Blake and Zey Prevon two showgirls, also know Fred Fischbach. Mae Taub, a friend of Roscoe Arbuckle that must accompany visiting in the afternoon, just get it and comes to 13  h  30 .

According to a first version, around 14  h  0 , having drunk, Virginia Rappe, feels bad (her autopsy will show moreover that she suffers from a crisis of acute peritonitis followed by intestinal perforation, this inflammation being due to the bursting of her bladder, attributed according to the experts to the syphilis of which the young woman was attacked, either to an abortion attempt or to forced and violent sexual intercourse imposed by Roscoe Arbuckle 6 ), left the suite 1220 and joined one of the adjoining rooms in order to relax. Roscoe Arbuckle left turn after about 15  pm  0 to go and change before leaving with Mae Taub 7. Roscoe Arbuckle claims to have found Virginia Rappe lying on the floor of her bathroom. She was obviously under the influence of alcohol and sick and he would have laid her on the bed, returning to the bathroom to change. It was coming out of the latter that he found the actress agitated and that he would have warned the other participants. According to the prosecution, it is Roscoe Arbuckle who allegedly dragged Virginia Rappe into her room with intent to rape her. Twenty-five witnesses claim to have seen her follow her and that she seemed at first consenting for intercourse. She would then have become “hysterical” and would have finally resisted Roscoe Arbuckle without being able to

In the state of agitation of Virginia Rappe, participants in the party are convinced that she suffers only an excess of drink. She screams, pulls off her clothes and rolls to the ground, apparently suffering from severe abdominal pain. They try to calm her down, make her take an icy bath, apply ice to her body. Finally, the management of the hotel is notified 9 , Virginia Rappe is driven to a neighboring room (1227) and the doctor 10 of the hotel is called. The versions diverge to know who gives the alert. For the prosecution it is at the request of Maude Delmont , worried to hear the screams of the victim through the door, for the defense.

On Tuesday morning, Arbuckle, Fischbach and Sherman return to Los Angeles by boat after boarding their car. Virginia Rappe stays at the hotel with Maude Delmont, consults various doctors. She ends up being taken to hospital 11on Thursday and she dies the next day, on Friday.

The characters

Virginia Rappe

Virginia Rappe was born onAt New York. Her mother from Chicago moved there when she was pregnant to flee her family and the scandal because her child is conceived out of wedlock and without a declared father. Virginia returns to Chicago when her mother dies in 1906. The young orphan begins an early modeling career.

She began in the movies in secondary roles and met in 1919 Henry Lehrman , the producer of the film in which she turns and became engaged with him in 1920. Lehrman will rotate Virginia Rappe in the five films he produced with his company in 1920 and 1921.

During this trial, the earliness of the young teenager is often put forward to describe the personality of the latter, many abortions practiced since adolescence are supposed to explain his health problems and a dissolute life in the light manners.

Roscoe Arbuckle

Born in 1887, Roscoe Arbuckle is at the height of his glory when the scandal comes. A former vaudeville actor, singer and dancer, he debuted at the cinema in 1909. But it was at the Keystone Company led by Mack Sennett that Roscoe Arbuckle gained notoriety as an actor in making burlesque comedies. Overweight, he embodies the character of “fatty”, plump and resourceful boy, who quickly becomes, in terms of popularity, the equal of Charlot . Director of his own films in 1914, he created his own production company in 1917 12 and he embodies one of the most spectacular achievements of the film industry of that time.

In late 1919, he signed a one million dollar contract a year with Paramount Pictures to shoot feature films. With seven of them already released 13 when the affair broke out, he managed to be the first actor of popular short films to reach the rank of star of the rising Hollywood cinema alongside Douglas Fairbanks , Mary Pickford or Charlie Chaplin .

Rich, beloved and famous, nothing seemed to predestine him to play a leading role in a scandal. His image of bonhomie was confused with that of the character he played and the actor had never made headlines.

Maude Delmont

Maude Delmont , presented as the chaperon of Virginia Rappe even if she only knows it for a few days when the affair broke out, is a troubled person implicated in cases of mores, extortion or blackmail and to multiple times condemned by the American justice. The accusation is essentially based on his testimony. It changes the latter many times. It is a witness with morality so doubtful that the prosecutor does not call him to call at the bar. Her charge for bigamy at the time of the second trial will be the reason given by the prosecution for not bringing her to court.

Other characters

  • Mattews Brady . This is the district attorney 14 in charge of the prosecution. He has often been criticized for his virulence. The latter intends to use advertising around the Arbuckle trials for his own political career.
  • Fred Fischbach . It is a longtime friend and director of Roscoe Arbuckle met at the Keystone Company. Instigator and organizer of the weekend. After the affair, he takes the pseudonym ofFred Hibbard .
  • Lowell Sherman . Actor and director. Discreet participant, he will be little worried as a result of the case.
  • Zey Prevon .
  • Alice Blake .
  • Mae Taub .

The media campaign

The power of the press in the United States

The American press is inseparable from the concept of the fourth power . Counterbalance to the powers of the state ( legislature , executive power and judiciary ) the power of the American press is often presented as the expression of the popular voice, a form of direct democracy framing representative democracy . In the Roscoe Arbuckle case, public opinion plays a leading role 15 . The limits of such a counter-power are reached with the manipulation of opinion or the regrouping of the press in the hands of partisan interests. Similarly, lobbiespressure groups, leagues of virtue and morals , religious powers over civil society are the direct consequences of such power of the press.

The history of the American press is closely linked to this fourth power. From the xix th  century appear the large press groups and tycoons like Joseph Pulitzer . The power they exert on the political and the executive of the US government is further proof 16 . A particular type of press is born in this context, that was nicknamed The Yellow Journalism 17 . More populist than popular, he focuses on the sensational of the event he reports, not hesitating to swell the line, flout privacy and take a lot of freedom with journalistic ethics .

The role of the tabloids in the Roscoe Arbuckle affair is unavoidable. William Randolph Hearst , originally from San Francisco, is the counterpart on the West Coast of the United States of Joseph Pulitzer . With the San Francisco Examiner , he is the orchestrator of the press campaign organized around the case and relayed throughout the country. The scandal press has the particularity of serving as a defouloir and repoussoir. More than promoting the unhealthy curiosity of the reader, it also represents the means to highlight and denounce a behavior that denounces it in an ambiguous position where moralism and voyeurism mingle.

The first goal remaining to “sell paper”, William Randolph Hearst will boast to Joseph M. Schenck 18 to have made more prints with Roscoe Arbuckle, than in the case of Lusitania whose press campaign will lead to entry into the US war in the first world war.

Proponents of the moralization of the film industry will rely on this press that it would be a caricature to reduce to the denunciation of the morals dissolute the Hollywood gente. To take into account only the moral and ethical dimension in the attempt of the film profession to change its image without putting it in parallel with the colossal sums involved in the entertainment economy, conceals the dimension of true industry that has taken cinema booming.

Yellow Journalism and Cinema

As the film industry expands, the place of cinema and its stars in the American popular press is linked to the phenomenon of starification. An association between the personality of the actor and the film, beyond the interpretation of a role in the service of a work, eventually assimilating the latter to the main performer. We will see a film “of” Rudolph Valentino , obscuring the work of dozens of people. Even if the stardom is not an invention of the cinema, the extreme popularity of the cinema, will amplify this confusion through the press.

Very soon movie stars are going to be the best way to sell a movie, and very soon their private life will be spread in newspapers. Max Linder , Mary Pickford or Theda Bara also owe much to the press their notoriety and status. A star becomes the insurance of selling a film and downstream the possibility of producing it. The development of cinema in commercial activity brews huge amounts of money whose first consequence is the stellar cachet of the stars.

The display of wealth and social success in newspapers defines these modern fairy tales. There are naturally mixed stories of hearts and episodes more intimate but just as publicity. It’s a double-edged sword and it’s not just “rose water” that makes “sell paper” 19 . The sulfurous reputation of theatrical actresses of the previous century naturally finds its development with the cinema. Close to the Roscoe Arbuckle affair, Olive Thomas ‘ poisoning death or the dissolute life of her husband, Jack Pickford , hit the headlines.

Roscoe Arbuckle is the illustration of this phenomenon. Committed to $ 40 a week in 1913 to play in Mack Sennett’s films , he increased his salary by a few months thanks to the success of his character Fatty. In 1917, it is 1000 $ per day and a profit sharing 25% of the profits that are offered in the contract he signed with Joseph M. Schenck . In 1920, he was the first actor to sign a contract reaching the symbolic sum of $ 1,000,000 a year . Coming from a very modest background, he embodies this dream in the popular press where his lifestyle often appears. His physique has so far preserved stories of manners and his marriage withMinta Durfee is a good facade 20 . He is presented as a facetious good man, but the good nature of the character he embodies on the screen protects him.

The Arbuckle case and public opinion

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The accusation

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The version of Roscoe Arbuckle

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The lawsuits

On 28 September Judge Sylvain J. Lazarus, finding that the evidence against Roscoe Arbuckle is insufficient, turns the charge of homicide into manslaughter and Roscoe Arbuckle is released on 29 bail 21 . He appears free at the hearing of the first trial which begins Monday, November 14, 1921.

The first trial

The charges against him are based on testimonies emanating either from celebrities who have or have not taken part in the party, or from members of the police. None are conclusive and the statements of the police investigators boil down to “Arbuckle fingerprints with the blood of the victim” on one of the bedroom doors and are swept away by the testimony of the hotel staff who made cleaning between the day of the holiday and the inquiry 22. Some witnesses return to their statement, others disappear and the only main prosecution witness remains Maude Delmont. Its implications in stories of blackmail and extortion in previous cases discredit it. The medical experts quoted conclude that Virginia Rappe died as a result of a bladder rupture. Signs of acute peritonitis suggest that it is well before the party and according to medical experts, the rupture of the bladder was not caused by an external source. The jury failing to agree to a verdict (10 votes for acquittal and two votes for guilt) of 4 December 1921, the case is to be 23 .

The second trial

The second trial, which took place on January 9, 1922, gave a verdict opposite the first (ten votes for guilt and two for acquittal). It also ends with a blocked situation, lack of unanimity of the jury 24 .

The third trial

The dissolute life of Virginia is exposed at the third trial and peritonitis attributed to chronic cystitis, degenerating disease with alcohol ingestion 25 . The jurors of the third hearing give their verdict in six minutes, April 12, 1922. It is without appeal and accompanied by the following statement:”The acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We believe that a great injustice has been committed. We also believe that it is our duty to give him this exemption, by virtue of the evidence, because there is not the slightest charge to be held against him, nor in any way to detain a crime. He was brave throughout the case, and told the witness a simple story that we all believed. What happened at the hotel is an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, as the evidence shows, was in no way responsible. We wish him every success and hope that the American people will pay full attention to stop fourteen men and women who sat for 31 days and concluded that Roscoe Arbuckle is completely innocent and free from blame. “26 .

Roscoe Arbuckle is just fined $ 500 for violating the Volstead Act (alcohol consumption in Prohibition Time). It is further ruined by the three trial 27 .

The “trial” of Hollywood

On April 18, 1922, Roscoe Arbuckle became the first actor to be blacklisted . William Hays states: “After consulting at length with Mr. Nicholas Schenck , representing Mr. Joseph Schenck, the producers, and Mr. Adolph Zukor and Mr. Jesse L. Lasky of the Famous Players-Lasky Company 28 , the distributors, at my request , canceled all screenings and all bookings of Arbuckle’s films. ”

William Hays is a Republican senator, Minister of Posts when the affair Arbuckle / Rappe affair. President of the National Party Bureau 29 from 1918 to 1921 and Campaign Director of US President Warren G. Harding 30 in 1920, he is heavily involved in American politics. During the case, it will often take place alongside the partisans of order and morality 31 . He is actively involved in the creation of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America 32(MPPDA), which will try to give a new image of the film industry. It’s a censorship committeeresponsible for ensuring the content of the films in order to replace the committees of censorship specific to each state. Created in the wake of the Arbuckle / Rappe affair, it is a non-governmental organization that intends to show that the profession is able to “clean the house”.

The Hays Williams announced his resignation from his ministerial post to become chairman of the MPPDA 33 . Roscoe Arbuckle’s ban is the first decision that explains (but does not justify) the rigidity and stubbornness of William Hays and the MPPDA to try to establish their credibility. It shows if it was necessary that it is the manners of the artists who are put in the pillory and that Roscoe Arbuckle serves as scapegoat .

The need for “moralization” within the film industry is prior. Adolph Zukor enacted in 1920 a “list of imperative recommendations” and “the prohibition of unseemly situations, the triumph of virtue over vice, the assertion that a useless nude exhibition is dangerous” 34 . He fights to impose morality in the production of Paramount pressuring people he leads 35 . He is first and foremost the employer of Roscoe Arbuckle and is at odds between the scandal and the image of his stars, the display of their alleged escapades in the press and his moralizing speech.

The in the morning is discovered the body of William Desmond Taylor , killed by a bullet in the back. Taylor is a popular actor and director also working for Paramount. The sensation press in which the “Arbuckle scandal” begins to run out of steam can once again ride on this news item. The murder is never solved and keeps the readers looking for months. Many of the many suspects are close to Paramount. Mary Miles Minter, the young star of the moment and mistress of Taylor, but especially Mabel Normand close friend of the victim whose name is closely associated with Roscoe Arbuckle. The MPPDA’s decision comes as the second big Hollywood scandal hits the headlines and is another reason to explain the rigor and unfairness of Roscoe Arbuckle’s ban.

Although William Hays officially lifted the ban on December 20, 1922, Roscoe Arbuckle is not allowed to play in films for the next ten years.


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The film Wild The Wild Party by James Ivory , released in 1975 is inspired by this case.

The novel The Preponderants (2015, Hedi Kaddour ) makes this case an element of the plot of history.

Notes and references

  1. ↑ The Labor Day is Labor Day in the United States where the first Monday in September is busy.
  2. ↑ One of the most expensive vehicles of its time acquired in 1919 by Roscoe Arbuckle for $ 25 000. Cf ( in ) Vincent Mirabel, Hollywood Crime Stories , First 1ditions,p.  47.
  3. ↑ ( in ) Robert Young, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. At Bio-bibliography , Greenwood Press,p.  110
  4. He was engaged to Henry Lehrman, whom he has been with since turning under his direction at the Keystone Company .
  5. ↑ A third version of Kennett Anger mentions that Virginia Rappe would have come with Roscoe Arbuckle of Los Angeles is not very credible, the parts of the trial mentioning the arrival at the party of the actress and Maude Delmont on Monday.
  6. ↑ Denyse Beaulieu, Sex game book: Cultural History of Sexuality , Assouline,p.  120
  7. ↑ Arbuckle remained in pajamas and dressing gown all morning.
  8. ↑ ( in ) Vincent Mirabel, Hollywood Crime Stories , First 1ditions,p.  49
  9. ↑ HJ Boyle, assistant director.
  10. ↑ r Arthur Beardslee.
  11. ↑ Wakefield Sanatorium which is rather a clinic where obstetric care is practiced.
  12. ↑ With Joseph M. Schenck , the Comique Film Corporation .
  13. ↑ Two other shot will not come out in the United States following the case.
  14. ↑ Elected, he is district attorney of San Francisco from 1919 to 1943.
  15. ↑ Even if the prosecutor and judges, characters representing the state in the indictment, are elected officials.
  16. ↑ Hearst is sometimes accused of causing the Spanish-American War of 1898 to increase sales of his newspaper.
  17. ↑ . Originally the nickname given to newspapers publishing ”  comic strip  ” on paper of poor quality tinged with yellow and by extension today means sensational journalism.
  18. ↑ Reported by Buster Keaton . Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill (1987)
  19. ↑ In 1920 , for months, the divorce of the “sweetheart of America”, Mary Pickford , and his remarriage with Douglas Fairbanks , another huge star of the moment, is a good example of this media display of privacy stars.
  20. ↑ It is actually separated from the latter for more than two years when the case explodes.
  21. ↑ Security deposit of $ 5,000 . The New York Times  [ archive ] of September 28, 1921.
  22. ↑ The party took place on September 5th, the arrest of Roscoe Arbuckle on the 11th and the investigation thereafter.
  23. ↑ ( in ) Kevin Brownlow, Hollywood, the pioneers , Knopf,p.  110
  24. ↑ ( in ) Stuart Oderman, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. A Biography of the Silent Film Comedian, 1887-1933 , McFarland,p.  185-186
  25. ↑ ( in ) Unsolved Crimes , Time-Life Books,p.  110
  26. ↑ Statement From the Jury – April 12, 1922
  27. ↑ ( in ) Robert Young, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. At Bio-bibliography , Greenwood Press,p.  112
  28. ↑ Original name of the most known Distribution Company Paramount name
  29. ↑ Republican National Committee, the governing bodies of the Republican Party in the United States.
  30. ↑ 29 th  president of the United States, media owner, elected on a conservative agenda, it slows the progressive reforms of his predecessors. His mandate will be marked by a series of scandals that will involve his government and his friends.
  31. ↑ Highlighting his role as a presbyterian deacon
  32. ↑ Who will become the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in the late 1940s.
  33. ↑ Effective in March 1921.
  34. ↑ Jean-Luc Douin, Dictionary of censorship in cinema, PUF
  35. ↑ cf. his opposition to Cecil B. DeMille remained famous.

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