Buster Keaton on Virginia Rappe and Roscoe Arbuckle

The following text is an excerpt from Buster Keaton’s 1960 autobiography My Wonderful World of Slapstick (written with Charles Samuels) from the chapter “The Day the Laughter Stopped.” Keaton was probably Arbuckle’s closest friend in show business and in life. Arbuckle mentored Keaton when he started in Hollywood and in turn Keaton was there for Arbuckle after the latter was banned from the screen. There are a few factual errors in Keaton’s account, for instance Arbuckle was born in Smith Center not Smith Corners and the car he drove to San Francisco was a Pierce Arrow rather than a Rolls Royce, though these are relatively insignificant details as they relate to the case of Arbuckle and Rappe.

“But one day in September 1921, all of the laughter in Hollywood stopped. Overnight what had been innocent fun was suddenly being denounced as “another Hollywood drunken orgy” or “one more shocking example of sex depravity.” The day our laughter stopped was the day Roscoe Arbuckle was accused of having caused the death of Virginia Rappe, a Hollywood bit player and girl about town, in his suite at the St. Francis Hotel, in San Francisco. They’d had several weekend dates together, but there had been no arrangements made for this one [our italics]. She just happened to be up in San Francisco at the time.

“The full poignancy of what followed can be grasped only when one considers how touched with magic Arbuckle’s life had been during the years he had been a movie actor. Roscoe was born in Smith Center, Kansas, on March 24, 1887, which meant he was only thirty-four when catastrophe overwhelmed him. He was a small child when his family moved to California and at eight made his stage debut in San Jose with the stock company of Frank Bacon. If he ever went back to school after that it was not for long. He did anything he could to stay in show business: was a ticket taker at one theatre, sang sentimental ballads in a nickelodeon, worked as a smalltime vaudeville blackface monologuist up and down the West Coast.

“Roscoe got his first movie job by dancing up the steps to a porch where Sennett was standing with Mabel Normand and casually doing some back flips. Sennett, thinking a policeman that fat might be very funny, put him on as a Keystone Cop at three dollars a day. His fame started shortly afterward when he appeared with Mabel Normand in a series of shorts called Fatty and Mabel. Roscoe had been with Sennett for four years when producer Joseph Schenck gave him his own unit. Yet it was only when he started doing features for Famous Players-Lasky that Roscoe Arbuckle got into the big money. Then it became very big money indeed, $7,000 a week. Jesse Lasky was in charge of that studio which later became Paramount. In his autobiography, Blow My Own Horn, he calls Arbuckle “conscientious, hard-working, intelligent, always agreeable and anxious to please,” and adds, “He would invent priceless routines and also had a well-developed directorial sense.”

“Once Lasky handed Roscoe the tough assignment of doing three feature pictures in a row without a day’s rest in between. “I don’t know of another star,” said Lasky, “who would have submitted to such exorbitant demands on his energy. But Fatty Arbuckle wasn’t one to grumble. There were no temperamental displays in his repertoire. He went through the triple assignment like a whirling dervish, in his top form. They were the funniest pictures he ever made. We were sure they would reap a fortune. . . .”

“It was on finishing that backbreaking triple assignment that Roscoe drove up to San Francisco in his $25,000 Rolls Royce for the Labor Day weekend. With him were the actor Lowell Sherman and Fred Fischbach, a comedy director. San Francisco always has been a high-rolling good-time town but never more so than in the early twenties when flouting Prohibition became the new competitive sport. Roscoe checked into a large suite at the St. Francis. Friends and free-loaders, including several of San Francisco’s most important officials flocked there the moment news got around that Arbuckle, that prince of a fat man, was in town. Roscoe liked nothing better than playing host to all comers. He ordered three cases of the best whiskey and gin obtainable and all sorts of food sent up to his suite.

“in a police court. Then the district attorney demanded that the charge be changed to murder. On the plea of Dominguez this was refused. The official charge became “involuntary manslaughter,” and Roscoe was released in $5,000 bail. Realizing the seriousness of Roscoe’s situation, Joe Schenck tried to get the fabulous courtroom spellbinder Rogers to take over the case himself. But Rogers, old and sick and near death, begged off. He told Schenck, “Arbuckle’s weight will damn him. He will become a monster. They’ll never convict him. But this will ruin him, and maybe motion pictures also for some time. I cannot take the case but prepare Hollywood for tornadoes.”

“The tornadoes were already exploding all around us by then. Along with other friends of Roscoe’s, I offered to go to San Francisco to testify. Among the nasty rumors circulated was one that Arbuckle had pushed the piece of ice into the girl’s private parts, thus contributing to her death. As Roscoe’s intimate friend I knew that any such obscene act would have been beyond him. I was eager to tell the jury this and also to explain. The day was hot, and he had put on pajamas with a dressing gown over them. Among his guests that weekend was Virginia Rappe, the twenty-five-year-old Hollywood bit player. She had a reputation for getting hysterical and tearing off her clothes after taking a few drinks.

“On hearing Roscoe was in town, Virginia joined Arbuckle’s party with an older woman and her own manager, Al Semnacher. After her death, everyone in Hollywood who knew Virginia was surprised to read newspaper descriptions of her as a frail little flower, a starlet whom death had robbed of the chance to achieve the heights on the silver screen. The truth is that Virginia was a big-boned, husky young woman, five feet seven inches tall, who weighed 135 pounds. She was about as virtuous as most of the other untalented young women who had been knocking around Hollywood for years, picking up small parts any way they could [our italics].

Buster Keaton (Library of Congress)

“After taking a couple of orange blossoms, a cocktail made of orange juice and gin, Virginia got sick. Most of the persons present testified later that she had started to tear off her clothes. She also complained of feeling ill. Roscoe had a couple of girls—one was the woman Virginia had arrived with—take her into the bedroom. He joined the three of them a little later and found Virginia in bed. Suspecting she might be faking he placed a bit of ice against her thigh. She failed to react, and he asked the women in the room to undress her and put her in the tub. When Virginia continued ill, Roscoe sent for the St. Francis’s house physician.

“Virginia was removed to a hospital where she died a few days later. According to her woman friend, she had kept moaning just before she died, “He hurt me. Roscoe hurt me.” It was largely on the basis of this statement that Roscoe was requested to come back to San Francisco for questioning by District Attorney Matthew Brady. He returned immediately, accompanied by Lou Anger and Frank Dominguez, an associate of Earl Rogers, California’s most famous criminal attorney.

“On September 12, a Coroner’s Jury returned a true bill against Arbuckle charging manslaughter. He was jailed, held without bail until he was arraigned that it was I who had first told Roscoe that ice held against a person’s thigh was the quickest way to discover whether they were faking illness.

“Mr. Dominguez talked us out of going to the trial. He said that there was bitter feeling in San Francisco even against him for taking a case that local people felt should have gone to one of their own lawyers. “They would resent you fellows even more,” he said, “and discount your evidence, feeling you were merely Arbuckle’s front men.”

“Meanwhile an unprecedented storm of hatred and bitterness was sweeping the country against Arbuckle. Before he even was tried his films were barred in many communities including New York City. Reform groups everywhere threatened to boycott any theatre which exhibited Roscoe’s movies. Churches of many denominations rocked with their preachers denunciations of the famous funny man. At a meeting of the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, a Danish delegate, Mrs. Forchhammer, dragged Arbuckle’s name into a discussion of international white slavery.

“Adolph Zukor and other producers of Arbuckle films received such a flood of abusive and condemnatory mail from Roscoe’s former fans that they were frightened into promising that none of his pictures would ever be shown again. With all of this came persistent threats of national censorship. The studio heads, hoping to avoid that, decided to ask Will Hays, United States Postmaster General, to become czar of their industry and to censor themselves. They chose Hays, who had also been President Harding’s campaign manager, because he was the most influential politician in the United States.

“In all, there were three trials of Roscoe Arbuckle in San Francisco for manslaughter. The first two resulted in hung juries. In the third he was acquitted by a jury that said he deserved an apology from those who had wrecked his career with the baseless charge of contributing to the death of Virginia Rappe. Before his first trial started, he had returned to Los Angeles to await the start of court proceedings. With some other of his close friends, I went to meet him at the old Santa Fe Railroad Station in Los Angeles.

“So did a hate-frenzied mob of 1500 men and women who seemed to want only to get close enough to tear him to pieces. And they yelled at the fat man they had loved so much a few weeks before, “Murderer!” “Big, fat slob!” “Beast!” and “Degenerate bastard some in the crowd had come to cheer him, but they were drowned out in the din.

“Roscoe never got over that experience. He never could forget how those people had looked at him and cursed him, how it had been necessary for the police to rush to protect him from them. People everywhere in the world seemed to feel the same way about him as that mob. By then the letters of abuse and vilification were flooding in from every country in the world.

“However, there was one spot on earth where nobody hated Roscoe Arbuckle or thought he was guilty. That was Hollywood. the town so often pictured as turning on its own people whenever they get into trouble. What Hollywood did later on to encourage this bewildered, baby-faced fat man to stand on his feet and face the terrifying outside world might well be remembered, I think, by all of us.”

Buster Keaton with Charles Samuels, from the chapter “The Day the Laughter Stopped,” in My Wonderful World of Slapstick (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960), pp. 156ff.

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