Another Hollywood Rape Frame-Up

        In 1929, just a few years after the Fatty Arbuckle rape trials, another Hollywood rape scandal exploded onto the front pages of the country’s newspapers—notably Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner. The names had changed, but much of the story was remarkably similar. Here it is:

       In 1928, Joseph Kennedy, father of the future president JFK, bought the Keith and Orpheum vaudeville theaters and merged them with his film distribution company, creating RKO (Radio Keith Orpheum). With the money he made from that deal, he decided to buy another famous vaudeville chain, the 63 top-quality theaters owned by Alexander Pantages.         

      Kennedy offered Pantages, $8 million. Pantages refused to sell. Always a ruthless businessman, Kennedy was not about to take No for an answer. First he stopped distributing RKO films to Pantages theaters. When that didn’t “persuade” Mr. Pantages, something unexpected occurred. Pantages was accused of rape by a 17-year-old vaudeville dancer.

Pantages (15-20 years before his trials)

       Eunice Pringle was her name and she claimed that Alexander Pantages had lured her to one of his theaters for an audition and raped her in a small side office. Sensationalist stories in the newspapers outraged the public: filthy old man (and a foreigner besides) rapes innocent schoolgirl. Pantages claimed he was being framed, but the jury found him guilty and sentenced him to 50 years in prison. His attorney appealed and won a new trial.

       Pantages was acquitted at his second trial after evidence showed that the elderly man was too frail to have forced such a strong, acrobatic young woman to do much of anything, that the broom closet in which she was allegedly raped could not hold 2 people, and that she, with her Russian manager/lover, had a past as a con artist and possibly prostitute. The lawyer pointed out that Pringle’s testimony at the two trials was delivered in exactly the same wording and manner, suggesting she had memorized her part to perfection. He also hinted that business rivals (aka Joe Kennedy) had put her up to it. Subsequent biographies of Joe Kennedy corroborate this tale, although there is no “smoking gun” evidence.

       So Pantages was free. Still, Kennedy won in the end.

       Just like Fatty Arbuckle, Alexander Pantages’ finances and reputation were destroyed by the ordeal, even though he was ultimately found innocent. He was forced to sell his theater chain to the highest bidder—guess who?—for a paltry $3.5  million, less than half what Kennedy had originally offered.

Alexander Pantages (15-20 years before his trials)

How the Fatty Arbuckle Scandal Affects Us Today

      Did you ever wonder why old movies were so comparatively free from violence, foul language, and sex? Why there was no blood on murdered people, why lovers kissed so chastely, why “My dear, I don’t give a damn” was a line that shocked audiences in 1939?

       An immediate outcome of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal of 1921 was the creation of a self-censorship board, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America, later shortened to the Motion Picture Association of America. This was a “voluntary” system meant to clean up the pictures by keeping movies free from immorality and thus keeping the threat of government censorship at bay.

       Will Hays, its first director, remained in his position for 24 years. By 1930, his rules had crystallized into something known as the Hays Code. This lasted until the 1960s when it was replaced by the age-based rating system you know today: PG-13 and so forth.  

          You might like to read the Hays Code. It’s too long to reproduce in its entirety here, but I think you’ll enjoy skimming through some of the rules. The whole thing can found at


 General Principles

1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

Particular Applications

I. Crimes Against the Law
These shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation.

1. Murder

  a. The technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation.

  b. Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail.

  c. Revenge in modern times shall not be justified.

2. Methods of Crime should not be explicitly presented.

  a. Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc., should not be detailed in method.

  b. Arson must subject to the same safeguards.

  c. The use of firearms should be restricted to the essentials.

  d. Methods of smuggling should not be presented.

3. Illegal drug traffic must never be presented.

4. The use of liquor in American life, when not required by the plot or for proper characterization, will not be shown.

II. Sex
The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.

1. Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively.

2. Scenes of Passion

  a. They should not be introduced when not essential to the plot.

  b. Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown.

  c. In general passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element.

3. Seduction or Rape

  a. They should never be more than suggested, and only when essential for the plot, and even then never shown by explicit method.

  b. They are never the proper subject for comedy.

4. Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.

5. White slavery shall not be treated.

6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden.

7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not subjects for motion pictures.

8. Scenes of actual child birth, in fact or in silhouette, are never to be presented.

9. Children’s sex organs are never to be exposed.

III. Vulgarity
The treatment of low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects should always be subject to the dictates of good taste and a regard for the sensibilities of the audience.

IV. Obscenity
Obscenity in word, gesture, reference, song, joke, or by suggestion (even when likely to be understood only by part of the audience) is forbidden.

V. Profanity
Pointed profanity (this includes the words, God, Lord, Jesus, Christ – unless used reverently – Hell, S.O.B., damn, Gawd), or every other profane or vulgar expression however used, is forbidden.

VI. Costume
1. Complete nudity is never permitted. This includes nudity in fact or in silhouette, or any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture.

2. Undressing scenes should be avoided, and never used save where essential to the plot.

3. Indecent or undue exposure is forbidden.

4. Dancing or costumes intended to permit undue exposure or indecent movements in the dance are forbidden.

VII. Dances
1. Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passions are forbidden.

2. Dances which emphasize indecent movements are to be regarded as obscene.

VIII. Religion
1. No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.

2. Ministers of religion in their character as ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or as villains.

3. Ceremonies of any definite religion should be carefully and respectfully handled.

IX. Locations
The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy.

X. National Feelings
1. The use of the Flag shall be consistently respectful.

2. The history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of other nations shall be represented fairly.

XI. Titles
Salacious, indecent, or obscene titles shall not be used.

XII. Repellent Subjects
The following subjects must be treated within the careful limits of good taste:
1. Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishments for crime.
2. Third degree methods.
3. Brutality and possible gruesomeness.
4. Branding of people or animals.
5. Apparent cruelty to children or animals.
6. The sale of women, or a woman selling her virtue.
7. Surgical operations.

The Fatty Arbuckle Story: What Really Happened

      Remember back in 2006, when the Duke University lacrosse players were accused of raping a stripper at a wild party? Remember the creepy prosecutor who ignored the evidence? Remember the way the newspapers condemned the students, their professors failed them, and everyone presumed they were guilty? Remember the changing stories of  “the victim” and her associate? Finally the students were proven innocent beyond any doubt, but their lives had been altered forever. That’s the Fatty Arbuckle story in a nutshell.

      Everyone who knew him described Fatty Arbuckle as kind, gentle, and shy. There is no reason to disbelieve his own account of the happenings that night at the party (it had plenty of corroboration) and here is his testimony, verbatim.


Published in: on April 5, 2010 at 11:20 am  Comments (2)  
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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, 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!