Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Destruction of Fatty Arbuckle

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle wasn’t Hollywood-hot. He didn’t have any high-profile romances, and the gossip mags never complimented him on his dashing evening wear. But he was one of the best physical comedians of all time, and from 1914 to 1920, he effectively ruled the movie business. He was Will Ferrell meets Chris Farley with a twist of Fire-Marshall-Bill-era Jim Carrey, and he was, and remains, a marvel to behold. Here was a man who, despite his mass, seemed to float across the screen, and whose comedy had deftness and grace — qualities Ferrell’s tighty-whitey romps, for all of their glory, distinctly lack.

But “Fatty” was just Arbuckle’s picture personality, the name given to his various characters in their endlessly hilarious approaches to "hayseed visits big city; hjinks ensue." Off-screen, he refused to answer to the name, making explicit the distinction between textual and extra-textual persona that studio publicity worked so hard to obviate. Yet it was this off-screen persona that would eventually lead to his demise, when an alcohol-soaked weekend led to the most dramatic fall from grace in Hollywood history. I am not being overdramatic. This guy was ruined. On the surface, Arbuckle’s actions were the scandal. But as the details surrounding the event and its handling have come to light, it’s become clear that the true scandal was the willingness with which the studio heads threw their most prominent star under the figurative bus.

According to lore, Arbuckle weighed 13 pounds at birth, prompting his very slim father to question the child’s parentage. Totally pissed and skeptical, he named his son after his least favorite politician, Republican Roscoe Conkling. And so began a dramatic career centered on Arbuckle’s heft, which constituted the very core of his star text. Arbuckle’s mother suffered from various illnesses and difficulties following his birth (he was one of nine children), and his father, still convinced of his son’s illegitimate status, beat him regularly. Arbuckle’s mother passed away when he was 12, and Arbuckle, by then more than 180 pounds, was on his own.

Here the gauzy lens applied to every Hollywood discovery story goes into high gear: Arbuckle had a beautiful singing voice, and his friends encouraged him to try out for the stage. The audition he chose — to become part of a vaudeville revue — purportedly employed an honest-to-god massive hook to pull people off stage when they bombed. Arbuckle sang; no one clapped; the hook came for him ... and he responded by somersaulting into the orchestra pit. Whether truth or fiction, this piece of apocryphal lore was reproduced time and again to emphasize Arbuckle’s dexterity and ingenuity.

Arbuckle spent the next decade traveling the vaudeville circuit, romancing and marrying another vaudevillian, Minta Durfree, in 1908. A year later, he made his first onscreen appearance, and began appearing in various comedy one-reelers [one reel of film = 10-12 minutes] before becoming a regular in the Keystone Cops series. Arbuckle’s size and comedic skill distinguished him immediately, and his films, especially those with Mabel Normand, became a sensation. She was the Wilma to his Fred, the April from Parks and Rec to his Andy from Parks and Rec, the [INSERT CUTE FUNNY GIRL’S NAME HERE] to his Jason Segel.

Arbuckle continued to refine his comedic trademarks, using his near-balletic control of his body to make it seem even more out of control. Dude was a PIONEERING PIE-IN-THE-FACER. He began directing and producing, recruiting and mentoring both Charlie Chaplin and (my total favorite of the silent comedians) Buster Keaton.

Directing Keaton in 'Coney Island'

Arbuckle was the complete comedy package: a Judd Apatow who could act. And audiences LOVED him. Anything he was in, they’d see, thus setting the standard that holds today: overweight men can be stars, but only if they’re also funny, and especially if they use their weight as a point of humor. Arbuckle, however, was a stickler about the ways in which he’d use it. He’d fall over, do somersaults, land on his feet — anything to highlight his body's liberty. But he refused any gag that framed it as a trap: he refused to flounder stuck in a chair, desk, or doorway.

Arbuckle’s popularity coincided with the rise of Hollywood and the concurrent rise in star power. To put a complicated period of film history in somewhat reductive terms, early films relied on actors, yet studios were reluctant to release the actual names of the stars themselves, in part because A Name → A Star → Power → The studio paying the star more for his/her perceived value.

But audience members weren’t stupid, and soon began giving their own names to various performers, i.e. “The Girl With Dimples,” or “The Girl With Curls” (though never “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”). Through various means and for various reasons, actors' names became well-known by 1912, marking the beginning of film stardom as we know it today. And with knowledge of stars' names came the hunger to know about their off-screen lives: how they had come to Hollywood, what were their (nearly always tragic) life stories, how did they spend their new-found wealth (generally quite loudly), and how were they living their seemingly glamorous lives???

As a result of this newfound prominence, stars realized they could demand more from their studios — hundreds of thousands more, plus portions of the profits. Arbuckle was able to negotiate a contract with Paramount in 1914 that allotted $1,000 a day plus 25% of all profits and full artistic control. That’s like the deal between FX and Louis CK, only with a Will Smith salary. Even on that then-unheard of salary, Arbuckle was making millions for his studio, and by 1918, they agreed to pay him a million dollars a year for the next three years. Covert that to 2012 dollars and THAT IS SOME SCROOGE MCDUCK MONEY, YOU GUYS.

All over America, various Blue Bloods and Old Monies and East Eggers were already all sorts of anxious about the ”new” Hollywood wealth. Here was an entire “colony,” as it was then called, of lower class, un-educated, first- and second-generation immigrants suddenly flush with cash, just waiting to become Exhibit #1 in Why Poor People Shouldn’t Be Allowed to Have Nice Things.

Fatty Arbuckle was the first to very publicly evidence that maxim, and he would pay for his sins with his career. On September 5, 1921, Arbuckle and two friends drove from Hollywood to San Francisco, where they rented three rooms at the swanky St. Francis Hotel. They invited girls, got some under-the-table booze (remember: Prohibition), and started a good old-fashioned hotel-room-wrecking party. At some point during the night, Arbuckle was alone in one of the bedrooms with a young model-turned-quasi-starlet, Virginia Rappe. Rappe had first garnered notice after appearing on the cover of some famous sheet music, and parlayed her good looks into a stint as a Sennett Bathing Beauty. In other words, she was the 1920s version of the reality star, with the corresponding amount of cultural cache.

The details of what occurred next are muddled by years of scandal-mongering and sensational retelling, but here’s what’s clear:

1) Rappe attended the party and was alone in a room with Arbuckle.

2) At some point during the evening, Rappe became ill and was taken to the hospital.

3) After several days in the hospital, Rappe died of peritonitis, apparently from a ruptured bladder.

The press went public with Arbuckle’s involvement the day after Rappe’s death, proclaiming “S.F. Booze Party Kills Young Actress,” and alleging that Rappe had made a “deathbed plea” to “Get Roscoe.” Despite a dearth of evidence, rumors quickly began to circulate concerning Arbuckle’s role in Rappe’s death: he had crushed her under his weight; alternately, he had attempted to have sex with her and, finding himself impotent, raped her with a broken Coke bottle, thus rupturing her bladder.

Again, there was no hard evidence that either of these scenarios had taken place, but because both fit with understandings of Arbuckle’s image, based as it was on his weight and its resultant romantic complications, the rumors seemed to carry an aura of truth. For in years leading up to the scandal, Arbuckle’s image had amassed a complex asexual tension. The fan magazines labored to establish him as an unlikely ladies' man — indeed, an unfortunately timed Photoplay feature, already on newsstands when the scandal broke, proclaimed, under Arbuckle’s byline, that “I am convinced that the fat man as a lover is going to be the best seller on the market for the next few years. He is coming into his kingdom at last. He may never ring as high prices or display as fancy goods as these he-vamps and caveman and Don Juans, but as a good, reliable, all the year around line of goods, he’s going to have it on them all.”

But Arbuckle had also spent the last six years on film diligently confusing gender identity.

As Sam Stoloff emphasizes in his ridiculously good essay on the Arbuckle scandal (and its relation to the Black Sox scandal — no seriously, it’s amazing; go find it, it’s right here. $2.17 Used! Snatch that UP!), Arbuckle’s comedy often pivoted on his asexual identity. Part of it was his natural babyface, and part of it was the fact that he periodically played babies (kinda like when Jim Carrey becomes a baby in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, only with more cheek mass). In other films, romance was played as a joke or, alternately, he cross-dressed to play "Miss Fatty." Recall, too, that this was the early 1920s, when women were banding their breasts and bobbing their hair and asserting their subjectivity through crazy stuff like MOTHERFUCKING VOTING ... you can imagine how a non-masculine, non-romantic, asexual dude might trouble the water, or, at the very least, make it easy for others to think him capable of sexual deviance.

Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter and endured not one, not two, but three trials for his alleged crime. I’m not going to go into the nitty-gritty of what went on in each trial, but try to imagine the mismanagement and publicity akin to the O.J. Simpson trial, and you’ll be getting close.

There may not have been round-the-clock Court TV coverage, but there was a thriving tabloid press and no shortage of bombastic rhetoric. The assistant prosecutor for one of the trials, Milton U’Ren, became known for his florid, damning description of Arbuckle’s lifestyle. To wit: “A Babylonian feast was in progress there. The defendant had sumptuous quarters with his friends ... Food was spread, wine and liquor were served, and this modern Belshazzar sat upon his throne, surrounded by his lords and their ladies; there was music, feasting, singing and dancing.”

A modern Belshazzar! The last king of Babylonia, sundered amidst his decadence! That is some Game of Thrones-esque doomsday stuff right there!

However overblown his rhetoric may have been, U’Ren’s prophesies would ultimately prove correct. There was a hung jury, a retrial, and a final, resounding, acquittal. It became clear that Rappe had pre-existing medical conditions, often complained of stomach pains, and may have had a botched abortion or treatment in the days preceding her encounter with Arbuckle. (The release of this information smacks of slut-shaming and/or victim-blaming, but a pre-existing condition seems to be a much more logical cause of death than “sex with overweight person.” I mean, if we’re going to talk about wrongdoing, maybe we should focus more on the lack of legal birth control that may or may not have led Rappe to a backdoor abortion.)

Arbuckle was acquitted of all wrong-doing in the eyes of the law. But the court of public opinion had made its decision before the first trial even began: Arbuckle was guilty. Perhaps of violating a young woman, but definitely of being too much — too big, too rich, too tasteless. He became the symbol for Hollywood excess — physical, monetary — writ large.

The studio heads got the message: Belshazzar must be destroyed! Because if he wasn’t, the United States government, then on a bit of a regulatory kick, might take control of the film industry itself, handling censorship and determining what could and could not make it on the screen, or even how stars could and could not act off-screen. Plus, any sort of government participation could also mean that the government would take a closer look at how the studios were doing business, which is to say how they were making millions through monopolistic practices.

The studios also had to calm the ire of individual censors. Up to this point, every major city/area had its own censor or censorship board — someone who would watch a film and decide what was or was not improper for the city’s audience to see. Some censors were strict, others less so, and as a result, a single film could have fifty different versions, one for each city that deemed various parts immoral or unacceptable. (In today’s terms, think of how different a cut of True Blood would be for viewers in, say, small-town Iowa than for those in Manhattan.)

Point is: censors, like the rest of America, were increasingly convinced that stars’ immoral actions off the screen meant that they shouldn’t appear on the screen. In other words, young, impressionable youths shouldn’t see any film starring someone known to have committed immoral acts off the screen. The studios thus attempted to wine-and-dine the censors, inviting them to elaborate soirees where they could mingle with the stars and learn, firsthand, that they weren’t immoral assholes.

One such mingle occurred in August 1921, just one month before the Arbuckle scandal broke. Universal had a big, expensive film, Foolish Wives, that it was ready to release, but knew that the censors might chop it to pieces. Studio execs invited 14 of the most influential censors to a lavish party at Hollywood’s Sunset Inn attended by dozens of stars — including Arbuckle, who, according to one report, “was host at a big table and did his damnedest to hand the censors plenty of laughs.” Fast forward one month later, and you have Arbuckle in custody, the censors feeling duped, and any hopes of a free pass for Foolish Wives out the door.

Fearing threats of even more extreme censorship, the studio heads got together, all behind-the-doors/room-filled-with-smoke style, and decided to regulate themselves before the government forced regulation upon them. They formed the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) alliance, appointed the former Postmaster General, Will Hays, and told him to get down to business. (The postmaster general may seem like an odd choice for a censor, but at this point, the P.G. was the guy in charge of rooting out pornography, which was often sent through the mail.) Less than a week after Arbuckle’s acquittal, Hays banned Arbuckle from appearing in films and yanked his body of work from distribution. Although Hays eventually rescinded the ban, Arbuckle, once the most powerful star in Hollywood, was effectively blacklisted.

The studios were ready to regulate their own. Over the next two years, Hays and the MPPDA helped spin scandal (most famously: Wallace Reid’s heroin overdose), and each of the major studios inserted “morality clauses” into their star contracts. While stars did not necessarily adhere to these clauses, their existence served an enormous P.R. function, underlining the studios’ refusal to tolerate “immoral” behavior.

The fall of Fatty Arbuckle might seem like a simple tale. A man was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and paid the tragic price. But as should be clear, Arbuckle’s demise, like many star scandals, had much more to do with American anxieties about class and gender than any actual wrongdoing. Arbuckle became the figurehead for all that was dangerous about Hollywood — the unbridled wealth, the unchecked vice — and no jury could acquit him of being an overweight, asexualized man.

He was an easy fall-guy, but unlike his deftly acrobatic screen persona, he could not find his way back up. Arbuckle exhausted his fortune funding his defense, and lived afterward in relative poverty, finding sporadic directing work under a pseudonym. In 1932, with more than a decade between him and the scandal, he appeared in a series of two-reel comedies to great success and signed a contract with Warner Bros. to star in a feature film. That night, Arbuckle, all of 48 years old, died in his sleep.

Thirty years later, Arbuckle’s scandal, like so many from classic Hollywood, was given new life via Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, which bypassed the story of Arbuckle’s acquittal in favor of a retelling that reads like an NC-17 version of Hard Copy. It’s so bad, and so truly libelous, that I dare not even copy it here, lest someone reproduce it out of context. But then, as today, readers wanted to believe the worst and the most salacious of their stars, in part out of schadenfreude, in part because it simply makes better reading. The more titillating, damning, and disgusting, the better. It’s not that different from looking for gore and grist in a movie plot — only with these tales, the characters end up unable to leave their homes, lose their livelihoods, and watch as their names become synonymous with immorality.

We don’t call ours stars “Fatty” anymore, and studios don’t (officially) ban stars from Hollywood. But we do let stars take on our personal anxieties, and shun them when they fail to embody them in ways that please us. We blind ourselves to corporate machinations that allow individuals to take the fall, and we make it easy to associate outsized bodies with the grotesque. Libel laws are more stringent these days, and stars are, in general, more circumspect. But I’m still terrified by what humans are eager to believe of one another, especially when class, gender, and body size intersect.

Previously: The Unspoken Tragedy of Natalie Wood.

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.

156 Comments / Post A Comment

raised amongst catalogs

AHHH! What is it about these that makes me rush to thank Anne Helen Peterson before I've even read them!? THANK YOU, ANNE HELEN.


@vanillawaif I don't know but I SECOND THIS. I LOVE these Scandals of Classic Hollywood articles TO PIECES.


@vanillawaif I agree! Keep 'em coming!

Poor Fatty... although, has anyone noticed that he really wasn't all that fat? At least, compared to today's standards?

Rollo Treadway

@LDiggitty The publicity folks really played up his weight, calling him things like the Prince of Whales and insisted he was over 300lbs. At that time he was actually more like 280lbs. He got much thinner in the aftermath of this scandal because of stress and general misery.


@Rollo Treadway In a lot of his shorts, he uses his size to emphasize the physical strength of his character, especially when playing a country bumpkin or the like. I mean, this one time in the middle of a classic slapstick throwdown he friggin' THROWS A PIANO at a dude!

Rollo Treadway

@DMcK Well he was strong! Buster said he was all muscle underneath that soft appearnce.


Distracting but good. But distracting. Sounds like Archie Shepp to me. Anybody know?@v


I am at work alone in my office. The thought comes to me, floating softly across the ocean of my mind like a gentle sea breeze, "It's Wednesday...around 11...what does that mean...?"

Then like a bolt from heaven: "SCOH MIGHT be up on the Hairpin!!!!"

AND IT WAS. Hurray!

oh, disaster

@pterodactgirl Yes! Whenever I think it's been a while since the last SCOH, I refresh my screen and there's the new one. We have the SCOH sense.


@andrea disaster Seriously! It is the best sense to have though.


I love all of these, but I got a particular thrill from this one. My mom likes to tell people about Fatty Arbuckle and the origins of "In like Flynn" She has a knack for telling you about it, like it's the first time. I really enjoyed getting your perspective. Maybe I'll surprise my mom with new information. Probably not though. Not as fun.

dracula's ghost


I am sending it immediately to my film scholar husband who will also love it



@dracula's ghost Aw, I kind of like Lane but AHP would be GREAT, also.


I've been waiting for you to do Fatty Arbuckle's story! What a great interpretation of a series of seriously unfortunate events. Gender/asexuality/economics?? I never thought about it! It's always just been one of those fucked up tales that gets briefly mentioned in every film class when the silent era is touched upon.

Thank you!


@SBGBlogs Yes! I'd never thought of it in this context before either. My mind is kind of blown that I didn't know how his scandal related to the genesis of the Hays code. AHP is amazing as usual.


@SBGBlogs Yes, I've been waiting for this one, too. But I was apprehensive that this bit would be missed out. I'M SORRY I DOUBTED YOU, ANNE HELEN! Barely a mention of the actual scandal - because that's not the point. Textual and, as you say, meta-textual (mmmmm).

And I could KISS you for 'I’m still terrified by what humans are eager to believe of one another, especially when class, gender, and body size intersect.' Beautifully put.


Another excellent installment! I didn't know much or have a great interest in classic Hollywood before I came to the Hairpin, but I am eating this up! SO GOOD EVERY TIME!

(And also, not to detract from this man's sad story and rough life, but...there is something about his eyes in all these photos that I find deeply disturbing.)


@tortietabbie Eyeliner?


@a5ouncebird Could be!

oh, disaster

@tortietabbie Is it the eye color? They look so spooky and gray.

Anne Helen Petersen

@tortietabbie It's definitely the eyeliner. People with lighter eyes looked like weird ghosts on film if they didn't use ample amounts of eyeliner, which resulting in all sorts of odd eye maquillage looks.


@tortietabbie Guy-liner. He is the original Jared Leto.

Rollo Treadway

@tortietabbie Early cinema film was not panchromatic, which meant not all colors registered equally well. Roscoe had pale blue eyes, and blue shows poorly in those kind of film. Also early film was not very sensitive, so very powerful lighting was used for movies, which tends to wash details out, hence the profusion of guyliner. The silent era had more guyliner going on than a Cures concert.

Emily Eileen@twitter

@a5ouncebird I agree. I think it's mostly the eyeliner on small, light-colored eyes in a black and white picture. There's always something unnerving about seeing stage makeup out of context. (edit: Everyone else already said this. Note to self: read the whole conversation before commenting.)

Speaking of cake, I have cake

@Anne Helen Petersen THAT'S why silent movie stars always have those creepy over-exaggerated eyes! Thanks for explaining that. It's the one thing that takes away from my enjoyment of silent movies, cos the male characters sometimes look distractingly like drag queens


@all - thank you! :) You learn something new every day...


@Rollo Treadway And isn't this the start of James Wong Howe's career as a cinematographer? I seem to recall that he got a reputation for being to shoot blue eyes in a way that made them pop more and became Mary Miles Minter's preferred cameraman.

Rollo Treadway

@snarkypants I did not know that! But I know Stan Laurel's cameraman used special film that showed Laurel's blue eyes better. Arbuckle's cameraman was Elgin Lessley, who was Buster Keaton's favorite cameraman until he was poached by Harold Lloyd. Buster Keaton attributes the concept behind Sherlock Jr. to Elgin Lessley, and ask especially for him to film the last silent he directed, The Cameraman.

Tuna Surprise

"...studios don’t (officially) ban stars from Hollywood". No, but they do declare that stars can't be in an upcoming project because they are 'uninsurable'.


@Tuna Surprise "Uninsurable" is the new black(listed)


@Tuna Surprise I was wondering about that too. AHP, are you allowed to tell us who is unofficially banned from Hollywood these days? Is it just, like, LiLo and such, or is there a more sinister reason we don't hear from...who, exactly, anymore?


Thanks for this. I love your Scandals of Classic Hollywood.


I read Hollywood Babylon a few months ago. Thanks for posting about this story! One of my favorite features on the 'Pin. <3 Classic Hollywood forever!


@psychedelicate Me too, and I loved it. She's totally right though, I do long to believe the worst in everyone.


@psychedelicate Is it really as scandalous as it sounds? Would you say it's worth reading?


@Achyvi Oh, it's bananas.


@Achyvi it's fun. My favorite part is where there was apparently someone on one of the lots who peddled heroin as a cure for hangovers. I wouldn't take it seriously or take what he says as gospel though, and there is a very disturbing picture of a dead dog in the back that my mom and I covered up with a post-it note and tape.


Oh, this is so sad. SAD!


@PistolPackinMama I KNOW, ugh, poor guy.

Also, what happened to his wife?



Poor Roscoe. Poor Virginia.


@PistolPackinMama And also the "if they don't embody (literally in this case) our anxieties appropriately, we will RUIN THEM" part. :(

Rollo Treadway

@SarahP At the time of the scandal, Roscoe Arbuckle had been estranged but friendly with his first wife Minta Durfee for years. He was more or less living as a single man during that time. During the scandal, Minta Durfee, to her everlasting credit, came to his defense. They divorced after the scandal blew over, and Roscoe married two more times before his untimely death.


@Rollo Treadway Thanks, I was wondering this as well!


@Rollo Treadway Thanks!


@Rollo Treadway Whatta lady! I dunno what the feminine term for mensch is, but she is it.

Chris Roberts@facebook

You've captured the perfect storm via a more perfect YAWN. Really, who cares about a dead fat guy?


@Chris Roberts@facebook Troll.


@Chris Roberts@facebook I thought this troll had been banned? His comment is maybe less ad hominem than his earlier ones, but still kind of sticks out amid the usual witty banter.


@Chris Roberts@facebook
Die, and we'll let you know, fathead.


@Chris Roberts@facebook WE do. WE care. No yawning over here, man. Now get out of here, juicebox.
I'm always fascinated by SoCH, and I squealed out loud when I saw that it's on Fatty Arbuckle.
There was an INCREDIBLE series on Turner Classic Movies called "Moguls and Movie Stars", about the inception, rise, and fall of the Hollywood studio system. I DVR'd all of the episodes; they have an episode about Fatty, Buster, Mabel, the Marion Davies/William Randolph Hearst affair, and the rest of that time period. SO GOOD.


@BScottie yes that and Mysteries and Scandals were the best shows!!!!!


@Chris Roberts@facebook CHRIS YOU'RE BACK! I demand further absurdity.


@BScottie Maybe chrisroberts@facebook is Molly Fischer's psudonym.


@Chris Roberts@facebook

Maybe it's the Three Stooges post you want.

Valley Girl

@Chris Roberts@facebook I was disappointed when your last comment passed without much notice. I appreciate that you held back on the virulent misogyny and homophobia today but you're still a sad little person and I hope you get banned soon. Or did it already happen once, since your lovely comment history is gone? Must hurt to lose all those bon mots you posted.

Bon Vivant

@Chris Roberts@facebook Shoo! There are adults talking here!


@Chris Roberts@facebook Can we ban this dude yet?

Chris Roberts@facebook

@Megan Patterson@facebook To My Subjects, Don't You Know:

I, Madness

And I will be the first to acknowledge that I am mad. And too I am supreme dementia. And every form and diagnosis and every schizophrenic disassociation of the cognitive mind and every outburst of flame in the words of a schizophrenic and every grandiose height of soprano song of this beautifully wracking affliction. And I am bi-polar and the impossible heightened sensation of being alive and the non-stop imagination and the lunatic rush of rapid thoughts and action and I am the empty shell of feelings and the desperate candle that flickers low and in constant danger of the fatal wind of suicide that in its joy howls relentless and is successful in turning off the light in its greed.

And I am always in this and all anorexic and a sociopath and hyperkinetic attention deficit disorder and every possible mood disorder and a-typical and affective and psychotic and amnesia and post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorder and night terror. And developmentally disabled, I am inertia. And every known psychiatric condition and running in my veins every psychopharmacology. And every Thorazine and every Lithium and every Haldol and every Ritalin and every Valium and every and always Paxil. And every therapy. And every cold sheet pack and every sensory depravation and every electric shock treatment and every insulin shock. And every psychotherapy and every counting back to the cradle.

And remember this in the history of the cosmos and its equally small universal universe and the planets like pins and on this earth there has never been nor will there ever be delirium absolute none but mine. And in the history of mankind no one living before me who has trodden ancient dust barefoot then sandaled then clattering in heavy armor then booted in leather and then in patent sole has been certifiable they the whole lot are pretenders they are fakirs.

And I alone am seriously disturbed. And no one now who walks on concrete walks on asphalt streets on steel bridges is unhinged. And the hectic pace and the hustle are nothing of the bedlamite they are poseurs. And the acts of the non compos mentis I claim also. And no one in the future in the furtherance of humankind as they will walk absent flesh and organs and walk skeletal feet in the age of ages through cemeteries scalding mounds will ever be a lunatic. And the land that is earth's one-quarter surface I name AND every continent every mountain range every valley every cave every city every state every country every province every hill and every tunnel. And nothing nobody no beast no insect no bird no plant no microorganism no grain of sand escapes my crazed sight. And I crumble in ecstasy with my bare hands all. And then to the other three quarters of this planet's surface the ocean the rivers the creeks the lakes the streams all forms of aquatic life every reef the surface of the sea's floor I gather up in my arms and swallow it whole. And I am a non existent planet and it is glory and it is emptiness and without it all I am gladly mad.


Valley Girl

@Chris Roberts@facebook Tell it to your Kindle vanity books, would ya?

Bon Vivant

@Chris Roberts@facebook All of that, yet a terrible bore nonetheless.

Chris Roberts@facebook

@Bon Vivant Yeah, a bore just like your mother for having you, pig dumpling.

Valley Girl

@Chris Roberts@facebook There's the misogyny we know so well! You are as predictable as you are unwelcome.

Emily Eileen@twitter

@Chris Roberts@facebook

Too long. Didn't read.

Chris Roberts@facebook

@Emily Eileen@twitter It's not meant to be read, it is a textual sculpture you dumb ass - go get some culture.


@psychedelicate Yes, Mysteries and Scandals! The one on the Black Dahlia deeply disturbed/fascinated me.


@Chris Roberts@facebook Gracious! Well, as a textual sculpture, I must say it's not saying much. What is the title? Building Blocks of the Soul? The Ocean, Sideways (For Topsy-Turvy Is The World)? Sentence Fragments: A Love Story?

I am dying to understand the sparkle of your unique genius!

:Cinnamon Girl:

@Chris Roberts@facebook to his long post I say ?????????? and HAHAHAHAHA.

I mean, usually I don't like to pay attention to these kinds of angry internet folks, but seriously... so many words, so little meaning, so many giggles from me (perhaps it's because I'm high? Whatever, in any case, I'm laughing).

Chris Roberts@facebook

@miwome All that you mention is quite incisively, but mine is mostly The Unplace of Ad Infinitum Undays. There is a place for you so long as you can lay down massive, anti-divergent copy and conversely, crystal clear narratives.

Miss Violet

Amazing installment! I especially love your ability to paint the larger picture in these articles. Your writing continues to give us insight into undercurrents still at play in our star system today. Love. In this one I loved your observation that Old Money was getting very nervous about all this new money in the hands of "lower class, un-educated, first- and second-generation immigrants" - I never thought about it that way before.

There's a very interesting novel by Jerry Stahl called "I, Fatty", in which he tells the story in first person, as if it is an autobiography. I remember it being rather good - but I'm also partial to Jerry Stahl for his excellent heroin-in-Hollywood memoir "Permanent Midnight".


Great article! FYI- Wallace Reid died of a morphine overdose, not heroin.

Anne Helen Petersen

@acefreakly Ahhhhh, but that's a story in and of itself -- the Hays office were very keen to make it sound like he was only taking morphine (a much more genteel drug) for his back (which he injured while making a movie) but in reality, he had developed a (much less "classy") addiction to opiates including heroin.


@Anne Helen Petersen Ahhhhh..... Interesting!

Coleen Dyer Wybranski@facebook

@acefreakly I agree! I just tried reading about Reid via Wikipedia, but of course it mentions morphine and not heroin. Also, I just want to be AHP when I grow up.


I'm increasingly disappointed every time I find out something in Hollywood Babylon isn't true.

Does this mean Lupe Velez didn't really drown in her toilet?!



That's why I prefer Kenneth Calm's Hollywood Assyria.

Tragically Ludicrous

@jacqueline But she bought the toilet in Springfield!

I Love Stamos

I've never really cared that much about Old Hollywood, but I love these posts. They get me through boring Wednesdays at work.


@I Love Stamos Turns out I only THOUGHT I didn't care about old Hollywood, thanks to these columns!


@I Love Stamos maybe one day she will write about STAMOS!!! Still my dream man. <3


@psychedelicate I don't know if you happened to watch the Super Bowl, but here's this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y59VUQxX3Dk

Alice Prin

Who's the bearded chappy in the Buster Keaton photo?

Please NOTE: "Justin Long with a time machine" is not the answer I'm looking for.


@Alice Prin he looked like John Krasinski to me!


@Alice Prin As I was looking at the pic, I thought, "Hey! Buster Keaton looks totally different in that -- OH, he's the one on the left. WAIT?! Is that Charlie Chaplin with a beard? WHO IS THIS MAN?"

And isn't Buster Keaton EVERYONE'S favorite silent movie comedian?

Anne Helen Petersen

@sam.i.am I once knew a guy whose favorite silent comedian was Harold Lloyd. This spoke more about him than he knew.

Alice Prin

@sam.i.am - YEAH, I had the same reaction, but I knew it wasn't Chaplin. Who, outside of work, was ssssssoooort of a babe?


I know, sorry, I need to figure out text links.


@Anne Helen Petersen Harold Lloyd is my favourite too! Wait. What am I not getting here.


@Alice Prin The bearded guy is Al St. John, Arbuckle's nephew who also started out at Keystone and went with Arbuckle when he started making his own films.

Also, I love Buster. :-)


@Alice Prin
Hellz yeah, totally a babe!


@Anne Helen Petersen


But Buster is the greatest.

When are you going to do Our Gang?

Alice Prin

@MoonBat OH MAN I wish we had a Chaplin Scandals. His life was A MESS.

Anne Helen Petersen

@Alice Prin Buster had a sad, sad life. And Chaplin, wooooo doggie, there are so many stories to tell there. All in due time: we need a woman next.


@Anne Helen Petersen What about two women? I'd love to hear you cover the Olivia de Havilland/Joan Fontaine feud.


@Alice Prin He's adorable, right? I immediately noticed him too and now have a mystery crush. [ah, mystery solved. *swoon*]

Emily Eileen@twitter

@Alice Prin yes please! wasn't he sssssssort of a pedophile?


@Anne Helen Petersen

(Gene Tieeeerrrrneeeyyy. GENE TIERNEY.)

Coleen Dyer Wybranski@facebook

@pterodactgirl I just swooned. Pleeeease do deHavilland/Fontaine!


@Alice Prin I have made it my personal mission to teach pretty linking TO EVERYONE! So. It goes a little something...like this.

< a href= "url" > words I want to be linky < /a >

Now, the difference between that and an actual link is that you take out all of the spaces BUT ONE: the one between "a" and "href". The spaces next to brackets should all go. (Just in case, to be extra clear: where I wrote "url," copy and paste the url of the page you want to link to, and where I wrote "words I want to be linky," write the text that you want to be the link.)

Alice Prin

@Alice Prin Yesss, and not a moment too soon, my other comment with URLs got deleted. Thanks!!


@Anne Helen Petersen Gene Tierney would be awesome! Or Jean Harlow, who I think you mentioned in passing in the Clara Bow entry.


Excellent as always! I definitely think that people are all too willing to believe that an unusual or different person is some kind of criminal.

"Totally pissed and skeptical, he named his son after his least favorite politician, Republican Roscoe Conkling." Ouch. That's pretty cold.


@Ananta Yeah. I feel really terrible for Fatty Arbuckle's mom :/...


@Ananta At least he named him Roscoe, and not like, Conk or something.

Lee Van Queef

The photos and clips you included here killed it, even more so than usual. Ohhh, so good.


Fantastic article, Anne. I love these posts so much. I've been fascinated by this story for a while and I'm glad to read your take on it. I love the connection to the Hays Code, which I find endlessly fascinating.

Also, unrelated to Mr. Arbuckle here, but I saw "The Artist" last week and I'm incredibly grateful for these articles (and your blog) and how much they enhanced my understanding of the film. When I left, I really wanted to sit down and talk to you and get your take.

The Hyperbolic Julia Set

@sam.i.am Yes! An AHP perspective on "The Artist" would be most welcome! Also, in regards to earlier posts, I THOUGHT I was interested in classic hollywood but I now realize how little I knew before SoCH! And I rarely considered more modern celebrity gossip before I discovered her blog. Thank you Anne! Ignore the Chris Roberts@facebooks of the world and keep on educating us on our entertainment and what it says about us.


I have always loved Arbuckle, because I'm the kind of nerd who loves old black and white physical comedy. ("City Lights" is, for my money, the only romance movie other than "Annie Hall" worth a damn). This line though:

“I am convinced that the fat man as a lover is going to be the best seller on the market for the next few years. He is coming into his kingdom at last. He may never ring as high prices or display as fancy goods as these he-vamps and caveman and Don Juans, but as a good, reliable, all the year around line of goods, he’s going to have it on them all.”

I'm gonna start buying billboards with that. And blasting "Now That We Found Love" in the clubs. And putting Justin Timberlake's bony ass to shame.

Party Falcon

Can we get that giant swath of the conservative public to read ALL of Scandals of Classic Hollywood? You know, that entire collective of people who genuinely believe that everything and everyone before 1965 was as pure as the driven snow?

Can we get them to read AND process?


@Party Falcon At least the Hollywood publicists and censors from back in the day can rest in peace knowing that, in the long run, their tactics actually worked on people.


This was a fantastic/heartbreaking post, and not just because the words "ruptured bladder" are certain to cause frequent UTI sufferers everywhere to pop an extra AZO cranberry pill this evening. Not that I would know or anything.


Ahhhhhhh I just read this in Civil Procedure class... worst idea ever because my professor is the scariest Socratic Method caller ever, but I couldn't tear myself away! So good!


That last picture with Houdini and the rope of nails is amazing.


haha, i had no idea Wining and Dining the Censors was such a thing that movie studios had to do! and the idea of the postmaster general having cachet as the guy who controls the porn is hilarious.
this whole story is so sad, though.

Noelle O'Donnell

I don't know what my deal is today but the part about him dying at 48 in his sleep after barely embarking on a comeback made me cry.
Amazing article, thank you for shedding light on an Old Hollywood actor I wasn't that familiar with.

Bon Vivant

Dear AHP: Though I know you would soundly beat me, please come over and play Scene IT: the TCM version with me. I have no one to play it with!!
Also, I've determined that I will always ask you to hang out after reading one of your articles. You're the bee's knees!


I'm trying to console myself with the fact that he died knowing he was making a comeback. I don't know why, but of all the tragic stories behind classic Hollywood figures, this one really gets to me.


Fatty Arbuckle's story always fascinated me but I never realized that scandal went down at the St. Francis! They do NOT mention that in the lobby display of famous historical events of the hotel's past. Fancy that.


@Diana I know! If I'd known this when my school held its prom there, I'd have been a lot more excited about prom.

That probably tells you more about me than you needed to know though.

Rollo Treadway

I've been a huuuge fan of the SoCH series, but this story, as a big silent comedy fan, just struck me so much I was compelled to finally sign up for an account to comment! Spot on with the social context in which this scandal took hold and metasized. What really struck me when I read more and more about the silent era is how actors back then tended to be regarded as disreputable and morally suspect, because the film industry attracted the type of people (immigrants, Jews, poor, uneducated) who would have had difficulty advancing in polite society. And yet at the same time these people were admired and emulated by their fans. This tension between fascination and repulsion really fueled the big scandals of the era (the Arbuckle trials, the murder of Desmond Taylor, Chaplin's divorce from his second wife).

But there is a bright side to this entire sordid tale. The people in the film industry, shunned by polite society, were extraordinarily close to each other, to an extent unimaginable today. During the scandal Roscoe's many friends closed ranks around him and shielded and helped him as much as they could. Both Chaplin and Keaton considered being Roscoe's character witnesses, at the risk of destroying their own careers; Keaton was only talked out of it when people pointed out that if he destroyed his career his cast and crew would have no work either. Buster wound up handing over 25% of the money he made from his own movies to Roscoe for as long as he had his own production company. His friends helped him with getting directing jobs under the pseudonym Will B. Goode, supported him when he started business ventures away from the spotlight. Buster Keaton had always emphasized that the things one must remember about the story is that Roscoe is innocent, and his friends stuck by him no matter what happened.

Noelle O'Donnell

@Rollo Treadway Thsnk you so much for sharing this! It's wonderful to hear that Arbuckle had a circle of friends willing to stand by him through everything.


@Rollo Treadway That makes me feel so very much better. Also, Will B. Goode! You can't keep a good comic down, I tell you what.


You must (and I mean MUST as in HAVE TO as in ARE HEREBY COMMANDED TO) cover Mabel Normand next. Infidelity! Addiction! Murder! And in spite of it all, a smart, funny, successful gal in the midst of it. MUST!!!

Rollo Treadway

@DMcK Yes! That's what I immediately thought when I read this one. Mabel Normand is the ultimate SoCH. Sex, drugs, murder, her story's got it all.

Fred Talmadge@facebook

Great story, I learned a bit. Personally I try not to pay attention to artists personal life I just want to enjoy their work without prejudice.


Sniff. I already knew a fair bit of what's contained in this article, but it still made me cry anyway.

Rollo Treadway

Though I don't know if I agree with the theory that Roscoe Arbuckle's ambiguous sexual image had to do with his downfall. Wearing dressing and impersonating females was really par for the course in silent era comedy. Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, all did that. And none of the silent era comedians projected a hypermasculine type of image. I think what made people more ill at ease was how much less innocent these comedians were off camera than before the camera. I think even today, someone who just knows the Big Three based upon their movies would be shocked at how many women they were sleeping with, generally while they were already married. Harold Lloyd was luck in keeping his private life well out of the spotlight, but both Chaplin and Keaton were embroiled in sexual scandals, and like with Arbuckle, I think the problem was not so much what they presented on screen, but the extent to which that image differed from their off-screen lives.


I'm glad so many people remember and still love Roscoe.


I'm glad so many people remember and still love Roscoe.

Valley Girl

Another amazing installment as always, Anne Helen! A+! :B

I totally thought I knew this story via some Maxim article and E's Mysteries and Scandals, which this column always reminds me of except for without the cheesy factor. OMG, Wikipedia just reminded me that A.J. Benza's catchphrase was "Fame, ain't it a bitch" and it jogged my memory of watching so much cheesy E! in the late 90's. Anyway, I seem to recall they presented that there was some ambiguity but they definitely didn't emphasize that he was exonerated. And I don't think I'd ever heard about Arbuckle's connection to the Hays Code! I wish I could find the Arbuckle episode on YT to see if I misremember or if they really painted him with an awful brush.

Rollo Treadway

@Valley Girl That's the greatest injustice regarding this affair today. Some people have a vague inkling that Roscoe Arbuckle was involved in a scandal, but many don't know that he had been beyond exonerated. The jury of his third trial was so outraged at the injustice that Roscoe endured that they actually wrote him a letter of apology, for having to put up with not one, but three ridiculous trials.

hero worship

Such a great article. Can I request a future SCH on Joan Fontaine vs. Olivia de Havilland? Or Merle Oberon?


Piping up to repeat my past nomination. Gene Tierney! Sad, lovely, crazy, tragic and ultimately SASSY MEMOIRIST Gene Tierney.

Star Jonestown



There are lots of scandals to be had from the silent era of film. I believe Clara Bow had her share of sex gossip (real stories and embellished slut shaming) and the same is true of a few others as well.

The infinitely LOVELY Louise Brooks was a bit scandalous in that she was a drinking, fucking, hard ass and wanted to do things her own way and didn't care all THAT much about acting/attention/Hollywood run around. She ended up going to Europe, then living alone, a reclusive cantankerous spinster writer.

Gloria Swanson has some great lines referring to silent films in "Sunset Boulevard," like, "We didn't need dialogue, we had faces!" Louise Brooks is by far my favorite "face" of that time. She is so cute and mischievous and seems so fun and funny, just oozes charm. Check her out if you have not already!

Shaun Robinson@facebook

"She was the Wilma to his Fred, the April from Parks and Rec to his Andy from Parks and Rec, the [INSERT CUTE FUNNY GIRL’S NAME HERE] to his Jason Segel."

David Spade to his Chris Farley?


AHP, this made me cry. SO GOOD. What a tragic story.


I loved this. Man! I'm so glad to hear about his friends standing by him (although you have to feel sorry for the poor girl who died too, it's all very unfortunate).

Nora Chance

I am a total Buster Keaton maniac who put together a Virginia Rappe cosplay to wear to Coke World in Atlanta, and this is the best version of the story I've ever read.

Clarke Barry@twitter

At the time of his death it is said John Candy was in early talks to do an Arbuckle bio-pic. Arbuckle's story has fascinated me for years. It is sad he is all but forgotten now.


A year after this was posted, for right now I'm writing some fiction for myself about Buster Keaton and his life & times and this is the first thing that came up on a google search. I'm so glad I've discovered this blog! I look forward to whatever else I find here. Especially if you have written something about Mabel Normand...
Thank you for writing so lovingly about Roscoe Arbuckle.
I think it's significant to note that his happened in San Francisco, where Hearst's newspapers were king. And it was Hearst who kept this ball rolling, and newspapers selling. The Chandler's LA Times was much more circumspect about the lives of stars.
And one of the first jobs Keaton found for Roscoe as Will B. Good was directing Marion Davies...


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clips you included it, more so than usual..
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