Ninety-nine years ago this week, a group of Hollywood actors, writers, and wannabes headed to San Francisco for a party. Before the weekend was over, a woman died and the world’s biggest movie star was accused of a monstrous crime.
In 1921, the silent film industry was heating up and its stars were splashed across the pages of tabloids. The highest-paid actor at the time was comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. It’s impossible to undersell the importance that this man had on Hollywood–both good and bad.
His style of slapstick influenced Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, whom he mentored, but his influence didn’t end there. You can draw a straight line from Arbuckle to John Candy to Chris Farley. But despite his immense popularity, Arbuckle’s career ended in scandal and disgrace.
Not only that, but the scandal changed the way Hollywood studios managed their actors. It also paved the way for the Hays Code, which censored motion pictures for over three decades.
We tend to think of the past as a kinder, gentler, and more conservative era. But that’s due in large part to the Motion Picture Production Code, or Hays Code, that “cleaned up” the movies. It’s why married couples slept in separate twins beds onscreen and kisses were chaste pecks on the lips.
But before then, Hollywood was wild. The nudity, profanity, violence, and sensuality of those silent films and early talkies wouldn’t seem out of place today.
So why did it all change? During that fateful weekend in September of 1921, in the midst of a party fueled by bootleg booze, a 26-year-old woman named Virginia Rappe was found hysterical and in pain.
Depending on who you ask, Rappe was a drama queen with a history of tearing off her clothes and getting blackout drunk. Or she was a fun-loving young woman that Fatty Arbuckle assaulted to death in a hotel room.
Because Rappe did die, four days later, from a ruptured bladder. The scandal in the tabloids was unprecedented. Guests at the party all told a different story about what happened, but the one that stuck in the public’s mind was the most sordid.
Arbuckle was arrested for sexual assault and eventually tried for manslaughter. Even though the forensic evidence pointed to his innocence, he ended up being tried three times.
The first two were mistrials; the third resulted in an acquittal. But the damage had already been done. Arbuckle had been convicted in the court of public opinion the moment the news broke, and he would never work in any significant capacity again.
As for Hollywood, the studio systems clamped down on their stars to ensure that future scandals were kept under wraps. Arbuckle died of a heart attack at the age of 46, just before a rumored comeback.
He might not be a household name now, but his legacy continues to loom large over the film industry.