Rappe Brief #1

A Misfit Pair

The Wikipedia entry for Virginia Rappe suffers from inaccuracies but doesn’t take sides per se. What we have found out is that her traveling companion at Roscoe Arbuckle’s Labor Day party of September 5, 1921, Maude Delmont, is not the infamous figure, who “had a police record for extortion, prostitution and blackmail.” This assertion has been made over and over again without any evidence to support it. None was offered during the three Arbuckle trials and nothing was made of the fact that she was on a first-name basis with “Roscoe” and quite familiar with him as well as one of the doctors who treated Rappe and requested her autopsy. We are developing a more sympathetic picture of this woman.

This note, however, deals with another revision that should be less contentious: adding a final film to Virginia Rappe’s thin filmography.

Before it was considered indecent and unseemly to show the dead actress in American movie theaters, A Misfit Pair(1921) began its run during the week following her death on September 9. The one-reel comedy, made by a small production unit for Universal Pictures’ Century Comedies, was intended for a package called “Romance Week”—to compete with Paramount Week—and first mentioned in the June 3, 1921, issue of Universal Weekly.[1]

A Czech film scholar found a very brief synopsis that lacked a cast list. But the main gag was a grocery store clerk who, after a number of hijinks, finds himself trying to save a man dangling from a building and a man drowning in a pond at the same time. They are the “misfit pair” of the title as well as the clerk’s rival for the attentions of a young lady. But nothing is known about that episode in the comedy.

As it turned out, Rappe’s death and the charge of murder being brought against Arbuckle by Maude Delmont and San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady, offered theater managers the opportunity to fill seats with those curious to see Virginia Rappe on screen. Across a broad swath of the country’s midsection, from St. Louis to Salt Lake City, Rappe’s name appeared prominently in newspaper advertisements. In St. Louis, the Royal Theatre not only listed A Misfit Pair as an “Extra Added Attraction” starring Virginia Rappe, but added that Lloyd Hamilton, Rappe’s co-star in Henry Lehrman’s A Twilight Baby (1919), starred as well as —impossibly? in cameo?—Buster Keaton.[2]

Hamilton, undoubtedly, really was in this comedy. It was his vehicle and apparently funny enough to enjoy a revival in 1927. But why A Misfit Pair was never advertised as such in 1921 makes it curious. Hamilton was a prominent screen comedian— usually playing an oblivious type not far from what Arbuckle and Keaton covered but didn’t cost a $1 million a year. We can only guess that Hamilton wasn’t under contract with Universal and that it was side work.

A Virginia Rappe “exploitation” ad in the St. Louis Star and Times of September 18, 1921 (Newspapers.com)

Rappe’s part in A Misfit Pair was likely restricted to a few scenes that became, in 1921, a voyeuristic “glance” in a motion picture lasting no longer than a cartoon. Nevertheless, our curiosity goes in a different direction. We see, or better, triangulate another significance of this short—and lost—comedy’s existence. It is threefold. A Misfit Pair suggests (1) that Rappe wanted to be a “photoplayer” after several years of testing the waters, mostly under the aegis of her putative boyfriend, the comedy director, Henry Lehrman. It also (2) lends credence to the director Fred Fishback’s possible intercession in her career after Lehrman. He was head of Century Comedies and rumored to be working with Rappe in the earliest reportage in the Los Angeles Times on the day after her death. Lastly, it was Fishback who took advantage of the “accident” of Rappe’s presence in San Francisco on Labor Day morning. He telephoned her at the Palace Hotel, as she sat having breakfast in the Garden Court, a setting that still exists, to invite her to Arbuckle’s suite in the St. Francis Hotel. Fishback relied on “intelligence” (these scare quotes are necessary) from a friend, the gown salesman Ira Fortlouis. Both knew Rappe’s manager, Al Semnacher, who drove her and Delmont from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

The Garden Court of the Palace Hotel, San Francisco, ca. 1920 (Library of Congress)

We have read reportage in which District Attorney Brady suspected that Rappe had been lured to Arbuckle’s party with the promise of future film roles. But Brady and his assistants never built a case on those suspicions. In our book, we want to shine a light on the people and reasons that fed his suspicions and that one of these men, Fred Fishback, was in a position to help her career, as a fellow protégé of Henry Lehrman, and had already done so directly or indirectly.

Was the chance adventure to the St. Francis really part of an intended venture?

[1] “Your Universal Ready to Help You,” Universal Weekly, June 3, 1921, 8.

[2] “Movie Directory,” St. Louis Star and Times, 18 September 1921, B7.

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