In the era of silent films, Hollywood was not too unlike the Hollywood of today. When not on set, many young stars would spend days on end partying, doing drugs and sleeping with one another. Of course these weekend hookups created plenty of fodder for tabloids, but in spite of the hedonistic atmosphere, Hollywood still had an innocence to it that surpassed any rumors. That all changed over Labor Day weekend in 1921 when Tinseltown faced its very first widely publicized scandal.
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the first true pioneers of slapstick comedy. His films delighted both young and old alike, and audiences packed theater halls across the country (in what towns theaters existed back then) in order to see what sort of shenanigans the jolly funny man would get himself into.
Taking a break from his rigorous filming schedule, Arbuckle decided to attend a party at the posh St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Also in attendance was a struggling actress named Virginia Rappe. At some point during the party Rappe and Arbuckle would find themselves in a bedroom together. It wasn’t long thereafter that screams were heard.
Party guests burst into the room to see what was happening. A fully clothed Rappe was withered on the bed, crying out in pain. Arbuckle told guests that he had went to use the restroom when he found Rappe drunk on the floor. He said he lifted her onto the bed and she rolled back off. As Arbuckle attempted to explain the situation, a still screaming Rappe cried out,
“He did this to me!”
Words that would forever seal Arbuckle’s fate.
Arbuckle and other guests left the party shortly thereafter. They assumed the woman had just been drunk and thought nothing more of the incident.
Several days passed and Rappe’s condition only worsened. Rappe’s friend, Bambina Maude Delmont, who had also been at the party that weekend, took her to the hospital. She told doctors that Rappe had been raped by Arlbuckle, but an examination showed no signs of any rape ever occurring. Rappe died a day later.
In spite of the doctor’s opinion that Rappe had not been a victim of sexual assault, Arbuckle was arrested and charged in her murder, which was later reduced to manslaughter. The papers were not kind to Arbuckle and before the trial even began, crowds began to gather just to spit in the once beloved comedian’s face.
Arbuckle was painted as a predator, who lured the young actress into the bedroom before pinning her down and raping her, causing a rupture in her bladder. Arbuckle’s lawyers were easily able to prove that the allegations were false. The prosecution’s key witness, Bambina Delmont, was found to have been a career criminal who made up the story in order to extort Arbuckle. She never took the stand.
Other witnesses were found to have been forced to take the stand against Arbuckle by way of threat and intimidation. He was tried three times, twice resulting in hung juries. Arbuckle was finally acquitted after his third trial in 1922.
Though he had been found innocent, Arbuckle’s career was nearly over. Many of his films were censored or destroyed outright, and the Hollywood censorship board that had been founded after the Arbuckle scandal demanded that he never worked in the film industry ever again.
The ban on Arbuckle was lifted a year later, but even then he was still unofficially blacklisted and it was uncertain if his career would ever fully recover. He continued to work under an assumed name and in 1932 Warner Brothers agreed to have him act in two shorts. Arbuckle died of a heart attack a year later. Rumor had it that he had just signed a contract with Warner Brothers to make his first big comeback since the scandal starring in his own full-length feature film.
Though most Hollywood historians believe that Arbuckle had not raped Virginia Rappe that night in room 1219, Rappe’s true cause of death remains a topic of controversy. Several theories have been brought up, such as an inflammation of her abdomen aggravated by her excessive use of alcohol at the party.
The slightly more conspiratorial theory is that Rappe’s bladder had been torn in a botched abortion. According to court testimony, as Rappe’s condition began to reach fatal levels she was transferred to a maternity hospital. There she underwent an illegal examination immediately after her death, removing certain organs that could have confirmed that she had been the victim of a botched abortion, which could have proven negligence at the hand of the hospital that performed the procedure.
Whatever the case may have been, the scandal will forever live on as one of the greatest mysteries in the history of Hollywood.