Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Fatty Arbuckle and the Death of Virginia Rappe

'A Broken Heart'

At the time of Arbuckle's acquittal, the 35-year-old actor owed $700,000 to his attorneys. He had lost his house and his cars. The acquittal, even accompanied by the extraordinary statement from the jury, did not mean that Arbuckle could resume his career.

Will Hays, US Postmaster General (Library of Congress)
Will Hays,
US Postmaster General
(Library of Congress)

The comedian had broken a law on the way to the infamous party: he had brought liquor to it. In 1922, he pled guilty to violating the Volstead Act and paid a $500 fine.

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle had come to represent everything that was supposedly wrong with Hollywood. His very name conjured up the worst type of sexual predator, leading to his being the first person to be blacklisted from films. The films in which he starred had been withdrawn from circulation because of his, however undeservedly, sullied reputation. The major force behind this blacklisting was Will Hays.

Formerly U.S. postmaster general, Hays is best remembered for an organization dedicated to sanitizing the motion picture industry. It was called the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). Hays and his organization were courted because Hollywood feared that public outrage would lead to government censorship. Movie producers decided to head that threat off at the pass by agreeing to rules of self-censorship which Hays helped form.

Second wife Doris Deane
Second wife Doris Deane

On April 18, 1922, Hays issued a statement saying, "After consulting at length with Mr. Nicholas Schenck, representing Mr. Joseph Schenck, the producers, and Mr. Adolph Zukor and Mr. Jessy Lasky of the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, the distributors, I will state that at my request they have cancelled all showings and all bookings of the Arbuckle films. They do this that the whole matter may have the consideration that its importance warrants, and the action is taken notwithstanding the fact that they had nearly ten thousand contracts in force for the Arbuckle pictures." Hays would officially lift this ban on December 20 of that same year but Arbuckle would not be able to find work in front of a camera for a decade.

He was able to obtain work behind the camera as a director when working under the pseudonym "William B. Goodrich." The name he picked showed that the trauma he had suffered had not erased his sense of humor. Perhaps it also showed that he had finally forgiven his father for parental maltreatment.

As Goodrich, Arbuckle directed a 1927 Eddie Cantor film called Special Delivery and a short starring Louise Brooks called Windy Riley Goes to Hollywood in 1931.

However, Arbuckle was still depressed. Perhaps he needed to perform before real audiences, to have people see him as the jolly fat man he had always played and not the man suspected of a dirty and disgusting crime. For a while, he returned to the stage. He made a tour on the old Vaudeville circuit. There he found affectionate crowds laughing and applauding at his old antics. Having the public accept him once again was wonderfully gratifying.

Third wife Addie McPhail, publicity photo
Third wife Addie
publicity photo

He met lovely, dimpled Doris Deane and the two fell in love. Minta divorced him in 1925 and four months later he wed Deane. However, the marriage was not successful. He was still depressed because of his travails and, as he had before, sought comfort in alcohol. They divorced three years after getting married.

Apparently believing that the scandal had finally died down, Warner-Vitaphone hired Arbuckle to work onscreen in the early 1930s. He made a series of two-reelers. One of them, Buzzin' Around, showed that he still had a special gift for light-hearted slapstick. Audiences flocked to these delightfully funny movies, showing that there were many who remained his fans and that he could make new ones as well.

Meanwhile, he also found a new love, pretty dark-eyed actress Addie McPhail. The couple was married in June, 1932. It seemed like things were finally looking up for Arbuckle. He was making movies that people loved and enjoying a good marriage.

Warner Brothers offered Arbuckle a feature film contract. He eagerly accepted but never got a chance to fulfill its terms. He and his wife Addie went out to dinner for a double celebration — the contract and their first wedding anniversary.

'Fatty' Arbuckle, publicity photo
'Fatty' Arbuckle,
publicity photo

At the age of 46, he died in his sleep, shortly after he and his wife returned from their night on the town. The cause of death was medically heart disease. His close friend Buster Keaton said, "He died of a broken heart."

However, it should be remembered that he had made a successful comeback. He was also happily married. Thus, it is realistic to believe that, for all his bad luck, including dying at a young age, Roscoe Arbuckle died a happy man. He certainly deserved to.

Sadly, Arbuckle is often remembered today as "the man who raped a girl with a Coke bottle" or "the man who tried to rape an actress and killed her." He was neither of these things. Sometimes people recall him, correctly, as falsely accused of a murder. It would be most appropriate if he were remembered as a genius of comedy. Those smart enough and lucky enough to see his films will know him as a brilliant comedian. Roscoe Arbuckle loved to make people laugh and he was very good at it. Several decades ago, on a horrible day, the laughter stopped. It is long overdue for it to start again.