Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (1887-1933)

Birth name: Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle
Birthdate: Thursday, March 24th, 1887
Location: Smith Center, Kansas, USA

Died: Thursday, June 29th, 1933
Location: New York City, New York, USA
Cause of death: Heart attack

Best known for: One of the most successful stars of the silent comedy era (he was the first movie star to be paid $1m a year) whose fall from grace has overshadowed his achievements in film ever since. Few people could name one of his films, but more probably know all about the scandal that destroyed his career and rocked Hollywood to its core.

Roscoe's mugshots, 1921, when he was 34
The saddest thing about Fatty Arbuckle is that he was actually cleared of the charges of the rape and manslaughter of Virginia Rappe levelled against him. The circumstances and details of the scandal and the subsequent trials are well documented elsewhere, but it's fact that after six months of legal proceedings, sitting in the dock and hearing a catalogue of prosecution statements against him over the course of three trials (two were deemed mistrials), Roscoe Arbuckle was found not guilty. On April 12th, 1922, the jury took just six minutes to return a not guilty verdict - and five of those minutes were spent writing a statement of apology to Roscoe, saying that the jury felt "a great injustice" was done him and that "Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free of all blame".

Roscoe Arbuckle at one of his three trials in 1921/22.
Roscoe was 35 at the time of his acquittal. By this point he'd been working in the movie industry for 13 years and had enjoyed huge success both in his own series of short films, and alongside fellow silent comedians such as Charlie Chaplin, the Keystone Cops and Buster Keaton. But all this counted for nothing as the American people found it difficult to see past the lurid headlines that the three trials had sparked in the press, and his career took a nosedive, despite his innocence.

Roscoe in his final star feature for 11
years, Leap Year.
After June 1922's The Fast Freight, Roscoe didn't make another appearance on the silver screen for 18 months, in January 1924's Leap Year. In those days, when studios churned out several shorts a month from their rising stars, 18 months was a long time out of the spotlight. Roscoe's reputation was in tatters - film distributors were reluctant to screen old or new films of his, and in some cases, his archive was damaged by the actual destruction of film prints (a loss which sadly leaves holes in his back catalogue even today). Leap Year wasn't actually shown in American theatres until 2008 due to Roscoe's trial, although it was shown at private screenings in the 1980s.

Old friend Buster Keaton famously refused to turn his back on Roscoe and tried to get him work by employing him on a number of his projects - he was slated to direct some scenes in Keaton's Sherlock Jr (1924) - but didn't actually carry this out - and made an uncredited cameo in 1925's Go West as "Woman in department store", but it wasn't enough to save Roscoe from the lure of the bottle.

Roscoe moved behind the
camera to direct in the 1920s
One solution that did arise was a change of name. Roscoe went from Fatty Arbuckle to William Goodrich (his father's name), and secured work behind the cameras as a director. Under this pseudonym, Roscoe helmed no fewer than 51 shorts between July 1924's His First Car (starring Roscoe's nephew Al St John) and 1932's It's a Cinch. However, Roscoe's output wasn't necessarily a positive reflection of his professionalism, as this quote from Louise Brooks (who appeared in 1931's Windy Riley Goes Hollywood) attests: "He made no attempt to direct this picture. He just sat in his director's chair like a dead man. He had been very nice and sweetly dead ever since the scandal that ruined his career. But it was such an amazing thing for me to come in to make this broken-down picture, and to find my director was the great Roscoe Arbuckle. Oh, I thought he was magnificent in films. He was a wonderful ballroom dancer, in his heyday. It was like floating in the arms of a huge doughnut, really delightful!"

After the best part of a decade out of the limelight of the camera lens himself, Roscoe attempted a comeback when he signed to Warner Bros. in 1932, agreeing to make six 20-minute comedy shorts. These films provide us with the only recordings of Roscoe's voice, and proved very successful on American shores. However, despite the scandal being 11 years behind him, not all territories were as forgiving: when Warner Bros. tried to exhibit Roscoe's first short, November 1932's Hey, Pop!, in the UK, the British Board of Film Classification declined permission, citing the manslaughter trial as reason.

Roscoe often weighed over
300lbs, something that was
written into his contracts.
Over the course of the next 12 months, Roscoe's final six shorts were released - Buzzin' Around, How've You Bean?, Close Relations, In the Dough and Tomalio, which he finished shooting on June 28th, 1933. The very next day Warner Bros. signed the 46-year-old Roscoe up for his first feature-length picture in nine years, but tragically, his big comeback would never see the light of day. That night, Thursday, June 29th, he went out to celebrate his first wedding anniversary with third wife Addie Oakley Dukes McPhail, when he reportedly exclaimed: "This is the best day of my life." Later that night, when back home and fast asleep, Roscoe suffered a heart attack and died. His wife had his body cremated, as per his wishes.

Roscoe's final three shorts were released posthumously, in the autumn and winter of 1933. The last one, Tomalio, doesn't seem to be available in the public domain, but his penultimate short is - In the Dough - so here's how Fatty appeared in the days leading up to his untimely death...

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