A few months ago I was discussing the subject of silent comedy with someone who knew nothing much beyond the fact that there used to be someone named Charlie Chaplin. I brought the name of Roscoe Arbuckle and, to my surprise, I was asked, “Wasn’t he the one who raped that girl with a Coke bottle?” Hollywood Babylon strikes again. After declining to smack this person upside the head, it occurred to me that people today still think that “Fatty” did indeed rape and kill someone when it never happened. They don’t know or care to know that Roscoe was tried three times for Virginia Rappe’s death and was acquitted on the third go-around by a jury that issued a statement stating that they felt that the actor had undergone a “monstrous injustice.”
The prosecution never had the evidence to support a murder case and never had it for rape either. Testimony showed that both Arbuckle and Rappe were fully dressed in their one encounter during the party at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco on Labor Day, 1921. The core of their case was that Roscoe had thrown himself on top of her and caused her bladder to burst. Peritonitis set in and Rappe died a few days after the party. Yet despite Roscoe’s acquittal, he was banned from pictures by Will Hays for conduct detrimental to the industry, and even have Hays reinstated him, he was persona non grata for almost a decade.
The case has made for both non-fiction books and fictional novels. Here’s a partial list.
1. “The Day The Laughter Stopped” by David Yallop. An exhaustive reconstruction of the Arbuckle’s three trials with a focus on the testimony delivered in court. Although pretty much comprehensive on the subject, it is a rather dry read.
2. Frame-Up by Andy Edmonds. Edmonds delivers a part biography, part crime book focusing on the political reasons behind the trial and argues that Roscoe was set-up in order to deflect blame for the beastly behavior of certain executives at Famous Players-Lasky. Interesting, but the conclusion doesn’t hold water.
3. Room 1219 by Greg Merritt. The title refers to the number of Roscoe’s suite at the St. Francis Hotel. Merritt juxtaposes biographies of both Arbuckle and Rappe against a recounting of the trial. While the format gets a bit tedious at times, the writing is first-rate and allows for a thorough understanding on why the San Francisco D.A. decided to try Arbuckle on the flimsiest of evidence and details the damage done to the comic’s reputation and career. Meritt also offers his take on what happened in the hotel room between Roscoe and Virginia–can’t say that I buy it. Good read, though.
1. Devil’s Garden by Ace Atkins. Atkins’ novel has Pinkerton man and future mystery novelist Dashiell Hammett being hired by Arbuckle’s defense team to find out what happened. I wouldn’t give away the ending to a good book. The mob was involved!
2. I, Fatty by Jerry Stahl. Stahl has a drug-addled Arbuckle narrating his story to his Japanese valet. While many of the details in the novel are accurate, Arbuckle was not the drug addict he’s made out to be. Interesting, but a bit of a misfire.
Extra added bonus: And if you want to try a cinematic variation on the case, I would recommend 1973’s “The Wild Party” with James Coco and Raquel Welch. It’s not the story itself, but there are similarities with the Rappe story.