Thursday, Mar. 01, 2007

The Fatty Arbuckle Scandal, 1920

When the world first read about the events of Sept. 3, 1920 in the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, the plotline appeared to be tabloid-headline loud and clear: during a wild party, an obese Hollywood comedy star takes advantage of a naive young actress, puncturing her bladder during forced sex (with a beer bottle!); she dies a painful death of peritonitis. The star was Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, perhaps the first film actor to be paid an annual salary of $1 million, an amazing sum in the silent film industry. Insisting he had done nothing wrong, Arbuckle nevertheless went through three trials, hounded by newspapers and morality groups each time. His movies were banned in both America and Britain. Some people even called for him to be executed. But the woman who brought the charges — a friend of the dead starlet — never testified in court because of a past record of extortion, racketeering and bigamy. Neither was the woman an eyewitness to the alleged crime. Arbuckle's first two trials thus ended in hung juries. And the third acquitted him of all crimes. That jury even issued him an apology. But his career was over. The media pall over his reputation was impossible to overcome. The public and much of Hollywood would never forgive him; all his comeback attempts failed. Indeed, as a result of the scandal, the White House established the Hays Office as the movie industry's moral arbiter and censor. Arbuckle died in 1933, after falling into alcoholism and a lurid obscurity.