The current Hollywood scandal engulfing Harvey Weinstein is sending shockwaves across showbiz communities. Almost daily new allegations emerge from actresses who accuse him of sexual harassment and even assault. Weight has been added to the accusations (if it were needed) as damning audio has emerged of Weinstein trying to entice a female into his hotel room, along with respected Oscar winning A-list stars, Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, announcing that they too were subject to Weinstein’s particular brand of alleged casting couch proclivities. Famous collaborators and notables such as the Obamas vociferously condemn his behaviour and the tsunami of accusations has led his wife to separate from him and his own company to sack him.
Hollywood is used to scandal and no doubt when this one dies down another will at some point emerge to further scandalise the public, whose insatiable appetite will need to be fed. This has been the pattern since the film industry’s inception and silver-screen celebrities were created by powerful movie moguls such as Weinstein. Almost one hundred years ago Hollywood’s first major scandal involving a beloved actor highlighted tinseltown’s lasciviousness, immorality and fast lifestyles, left a man vilified and gave the newspapers of the day enough fodder to sell more copies than when the Lusitania was tragically sunk.
It was the roaring twenties and Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, a nickname he despised, was big in size and big news. He began his career in vaudeville shows and then got his big break as a Keystone Cop, amusing the public with slapstick comedy, his agility unaffected by his large frame. He had earned $3 million in the previous three years for eighteen silent films and he had just signed another million dollar contract. He has big name friends in Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton but his time at the top was going to be short.
On the 5 September 1921 Arbuckle and some friends threw a party in their suite at the St. Francis Hotel in San Fransisco to celebrate his hit silent movie Crazy to Marry during Labour Day weekend. Prohibition laws were ignored and drink was flowing at the party. Virginia Rappe, a 25-year-old fledgling actress was at the party with one of her friends, Maude Delmont. Delmont had a history of setting up men for extortion and in the immediate aftermath, was Arbuckle’s main accuser.
One version of what happened at that party is that Arbuckle took an intoxicated Rappe into a bedroom and sexually assaulted her, crushing her with his enormous body weight, rupturing her bladder. Her screams of agony alerted people and she was first assisted to another room in the hotel before being hospitalised. She died four days later of peritonitis.
Another version is that Arbuckle was about to leave the party and go sight-seeing and so went to his room to change his clothes. He found Rappe vomiting in his bathroom and he helped her to lie down on his bed, left the room for a few minutes and on his return found her on the floor. He went to get help and thus the party-goers witnessed her screaming and tearing at her clothes, something that was noted that she had done previously when drunk. Rappe was settled in another room in the hotel and Arbuckle left to go sight-seeing before returning to Los Angeles.
Whilst the story of how Rappe became ill is disputed, the fact that she was not hospitalised for three days undoubtedly affected her outcome. A hotel doctor and nurse examined her and friends who visited thought she was intoxicated after drinking prohibited alcohol and failed to see the urgency of the situation. She died on 9 September in Wakefield Sanatorium, a maternity hospital, adding the mystery surrounding her death, for why wasn’t she sent to a regular hospital for treatment? Rumours circulated about Rappe’s sexual history and that she had died after an illegal abortion. But evidence was hard to find as the sanatorium performed an illegal autopsy, was this to cover-up the rumoured abortion?
Arbuckle was arrested after Rappe died and was tried for manslaughter in November 1921. With a verdict stuck at 10 – 2 for acquittal he was sent for retrial. The second trial also ended in a hung jury, only this time 8 – 4 for conviction. It was thought that the second defence team did not put forward a solid enough case and Arbuckle did not take the stand to tell his version of events. So a third trial was needed, which took place in March 1922. His defence team worked harder for his acquittal and Arbuckle took the stand, which worked in his favour, as in the second trial not taking the stand was perceived as an admission of guilt. This trial exonerated him with the jury issuing an apology to Arbuckle. But by then the damage was done, sensational newspaper stories had tried and convicted him before a court of law could absolve him of any responsibility. He was briefly blacklisted and spent years trying to secure work. Eventually he directed under the pseudonym of Willian B. Goodrich (Will B Good). After signing a come-back contract in 1933 he died in bed of a heart attack.