Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle
March 24, 1887 - June 29, 1933
Born in Smith Center, Kansas, on March 24, 1887, Roscoe Conkling was named after a politician, Senator Roscoe Conkling, whom his father thought contemptible. It seemed that Roscoe was a big baby, over 13 lbs at birth, and his slim father just never believed the child was his. Never close to his father, Roscoe would be supporting himself by the time he was twelve after the premature death of his mother. He would eventually become one of the kings of early film comedy whose artistic abilities can't be overstated and whose mentoring helped pave the way for other early greats such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Bob Hope.
Extremely agile, and with a wonderful singing voice, Roscoe Arbuckle wound up in vaudeville and was fairly successful by 1904. By 1909 he would start appearing in silent movie shorts by the Selig Polyscope Company, with his first performance in "Ben's Kid". He would stay with Selig Polyscope until 1913, at which time he made a short switch to Universal and ultimately wound up with Mack Sennett as a star in the Keystone Cops comedy films. Shortly thereafter, in 1914, Arbuckle was offered $1000 a day plus 25% of all profits by Paramount Pictures. By 1918, the studio would up the terms to 3 million dollars over 3 years. Roscoe Arbuckle was also a founding partner, along with Joseph Schenck, of his own film company, Comique. He would pass his controlling interests to Buster Keaton before acceptance of the 1918 Paramount deal.
At the top of his game in 1921, Fatty Arbuckles' shining star would come crashing down after the death of 26 year old Virginia Rappe, a small time actress who, otherwise, would most likely have been long forgotten to history.
On September 5, 1921, Roscoe Arbuckle, along with actor/director, Lowell Sherman and cameraman Fred Fischbach, rented a suite of rooms at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco where they held a party for several women and Hollywood friends. During the afternoon, the house doctor was summoned after Virginia Rappe had become seriously ill. Her condition was attributed to intoxication, and she was treated with morphine. She would be hospitalized 2 days later, where she passed away from peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder.
Enter Bambina Maude Delmont, Virginia Rappe's female companion at the party who had a long criminal history of racketeering, bigamy, fraud and extortion. Delmont accused Fatty of raping Virginia, his heavy weight allegedly causing her internal injuries from which she died. The hope was to extort a large settlement from his attorneys. By the time it was reported in the press, stories evolved about simulated sex with coke and champagne bottles. The police, along with the prosecutors, would probably have had to been deaf, dumb and blind not to recognize Delmonts motives. But the prosecutor, Matthew Brady, had political ambitions and William Randolph Hearst wanted to sell newspapers. The allegations were soon sensationalized and Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle, the legendary giant of early silent film, was finished. The victim of Hollywood's first major scandal, and a pair of men who had no interest in justice or accurate news reporting.
Roscoe would have to endure 3, highly sensationalized trials. He was ultimately exonerated with an unprecedented apology written by the jury at the conclusion of the last trial when they claimed that acquittal was not enough for the injustice that had been brought to bear against the actor. Regardless, the public's perception of Fatty Arbuckle was permanently damaged and Will H. Hays, the Hollywood censor, banned Arbuckle from ever working in film again.
Although never regaining his former celebrity, Fatty Arbuckle did work in film again, but most likely with a broken spirit. He wrote and directed a decent number of short comedies, under the pseudonym of William Goodrich. By 1932 he was able to secure a contract with Warner Brothers to appear, under his own name, in a half dozen comedy shorts. They were very successful with U.S. audiences, and on June 28, 1933 he was signed, again by Warner Brothers, for a full length feature film. Reports were that he was overjoyed with the chance. Sadly, the great, beloved comic of the silent film era, "Fatty" Arbuckle, passed away in his sleep from a heart attack the same evening.
* Roscoe was married three times. To Minta Durfee, an actress, which ended in divorce shortly after the trials. Minta was always a good caretaker of his name, defending him against the allegations until her death. He then married Doris Deane, which also ended in divorce. His third marriage was to actress Addie McPhail.
* Some historians believe that Virginia Rappe was the victim of a botched abortion. Although it may never be proven conclusively, it's the theory that we're most inclined to agree with.
* Roscoe was very much a part of the early careers of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, as well as providing early encouragement for a young Bob Hope.
* Apparently a gifted singer, Enrico Caruso once tried to persuade Fatty Arbuckle to abandon movie work to undertake serious voice training.