Fatty is Innocent!


      By the time the third trial rolled around, public hysteria had calmed enough to make a fair trial possible. This time the defense let Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle take the stand where he delivered a sincere and believable testimony. Several of the supposed eye witness accusers had fled the country rather than be prosecuted for perjury. The jury deliberated for only a few minutes before returning a verdict of Not Guilty. Not only that, the jury insisted on reading a formal apology to Arbuckle for the travesty of justice that he had endured.

      Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. He was manly throughout the case, and told a straightforward story on the witness stand, which we all believed. The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and women who have sat listening for thirty-one days to the evidence, that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free of all blame.

      So everyone lived happily ever after, right? Noooooooooo.

      You would think Fatty’s employer, Paramount, would have fallen on their knees with apologies for their despicable treatment of him. Instead, still trying to distance themselves from any hint of scandal, they banned all his films. As a direct result of the trials, Hollywood studios created a self-censorship morality board headed by Will Hays, who promptly banned Fatty from the motion picture business all together. (He rescinded the ban after a year or so.) Deeply in debt from lawyers’ fees and unable to work, he spiraled down fast.

      Buster Keaton, loyal to the last, paid his friend’s debts and defied the ban, hiring Arbuckle to direct his latest picture. Sadly, he was too depressed to function. His friends sent him on a long trip to get him out of the country and give him a chance to recover.

     By 1925, the Powers That Be decided Arbuckle could direct pictures as long as he used a pseudonym. So for a few years, “William Goodrich” directed comedies. Within the next few more years, he began acting in some films, but he always maintained a low profile.

      Vindication finally arrived in 1933, when Warner Brothers signed Arbuckle to a long term contract. He celebrated that night and died in his sleep. He was 46.

The Scandal of the Decade

     The Fatty Arbuckle trial was Hollywood’s most sensational scandal of the Roaring Twenties. Really, trials would be more accurate—the poor man endured three during 1921 and 1922, as the first two juries were deadlocked.

     Large since birth, Roscoe had been nicknamed Fatty as a child. He reportedly hated the name but it stuck, and he made the best of it. His weight (reportedly 250-300 pounds) certainly didn’t diminish his career on the stage and later in silent films. If you are familiar with the Keystone Cops, you know Fatty Arbuckle—he’s the biggest cop in the bunch, the one on the far right in this picture.

     Fatty was a good actor (see an early Keystone Cops film here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qg1iVu62hiw), a great singer, a wonderful dancer, and a kind person: he was supposedly responsible for discovering or mentoring young comic actors, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Bob Hope. But that wasn’t enough to save him when he was accused of rape and murder after a wild party in a San Francisco hotel.

     The yellow press of that era went wild with the story, fabricating lurid details and printing anything that would sell papers. Fatty was accused of raping a woman and crushing her to death with his huge bulk. Or he raped her with a coke bottle. Or a champagne bottle (and this during Prohibition!). Or ice cubes. Whatever. Evidence was next to nothing, and the prosecution’s star witnesses had stories that changed every day, but the gullible public swallowed it whole. And gutless Hollywood moguls, who controlled the actors at that time, forbade anyone to comment on the story in a way that would support Fatty. They were terrified that the scandal would spread to Hollywood and ruin business, which to some extent it did.

     What actually caused the death of the young woman (an alcoholic who had undergone repeated abortions) only four days after the party was a ruptured bladder, possibly brought on by a recent abortion. She never accused Fatty of rape, and doctors found no evidence of rape or violence. The reason she wasn’t taken to the hospital sooner was because her friends all assumed she was drunk or hungover, and would sleep it off as usual. When she finally reached the hospital, peritonitis had set in, and she died.

      The first trial was a travesty of justice. The second was an exercise in stupidity—the defense decided to show their contempt for the prosecution’s case by not putting Fatty on the stand or even making closing remarks, something some members of the jury interpreted as an admission of guilt. So a third trial became necessary.

Next: Fatty’s vindication—and then punishment!

The Name Game

       Silent film actors often gave themselves a new name, something more memorable, more alliterative, more modern than the one bestowed upon them by their parents. For example, one casting director advised a handsome young extra named Frank Cooper to change to a first name that sounded tougher. She suggested Gary after her rough-and-tumble hometown of Gary, Indiana. “Coop” took her advice. When little Gladys Smith got her first part in a David Belasco play, the famous New York director insisted she change her humdrum name. Together they settled on Mary Pickford. She became one of the country’s most famous film actresses, known all over the world as “Little Mary” or “Our Mary.” Her siblings were all too happy to piggyback on Big Sis’s fame. They change their names as well, from the almost comically boring John Smith to Jack Pickford, and from Charlotte Smith to Lottie Pickford.

       Foreign-born actors needed something less—well, less foreign, so that American audiences could pronounce and remember their names. So Greta Lovisa Gustafsson became Greta Garbo, the famous vamp. Wong Liu Tsong became Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American film star. My favorite? Get a load of this: Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi who became Rudolph Valentino, the Latin Lover.  Here are a few more silent movie name changes:

 Mary Astor – Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke

Joan Crawford – Lucille Lesueur

Lon Chaney – Leonidas Chaney

Douglas Fairbanks – Douglas Elton Ullman

W. C. Fields – William Claude Dunkinfield

Buster Keaton – Joseph Frank Keaton

Stan Laurel – Arthur Stanley Jefferson



Kids in Vaudeville

Look at these cute boys! How old do you think they were?

 09-09-2009 03;51;16PMIf they were under 7, someone was breaking the law. Although kiddie acts were a mainstay of old vaudeville, the dreaded “Gerry society” tried its best for decades to keep them off the stage.  

 Properly known as the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Gerry society got its nickname from its founder, Elbridge T. Gerry, who started it in 1875, nine years after the SPCA was organized to prevent cruelty to animals. Its purpose was to protect children from abuse and exploitation. Now that doesn’t sound bad, but in practice, Gerry was far more concerned about stage moms exploiting their children than he was about starving waifs sleeping in the gutters or sweatshop tots working 14-hour days. He thought theater was immoral (amusement parks too) and referred to child performers “child-slaves of the stage.” His influence led to the passing of strict laws in New York state that regulated what minors could do on stage. Children under 16 were prohibited from singing, dancing, juggling, or performing acrobatics; over 7 could have a small speaking part if they had a Gerry society permit but no one under 7 was allowed on stage at all.  

This ruined the livelihood of many performers. The Keaton family, whose son Buster had been the star of their comedy vaudeville act since he was 3, dealt with the law by swearing that Buster was 7. Others tried to pass their children off as midgets. In his memoirs, Buster says that he and his father were arrested nearly every other week. Presumably they paid the fine at the police station or talked their way out of it. In other states, the laws varied and enforcement was uneven. Sometimes vaudevillians could get by without any hassles.    

Gerry was president or legal advisor of the New York SPCC until his death in 1927. Interestingly, the group exists today. Theatrical producers must still get the Society’s permission for children to go on stage and the group still monitors child actors to make sure they have proper schooling.

Published in: on September 15, 2009 at 2:57 am  Comments (4)  
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