Document Dump #3: The morals of the movies

A Review of the Arbuckle Case

The following reprint of an editorial from “the British Communist” appeared in The Young Worker of March–April 1922, the official organ of the Young Workers League, published by the Young Workers League in Chicago. The text reflects the general view of both American and international communist organizations about the connection between the cases of Tom Mooney and Roscoe Arbuckle. The so-called “Frame-up Ring” in San Francisco’s Hall of Justice was likely not an organized shakedown ring as imagined by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the British Communist but rather a systemic bias that moneyed interests had against organized labor. What is more true is that labor activists had reason to feel betrayed by District Attorney Matthew Brady who had been elected in 1920 as a reform candidate with their support. Labor leaders on the eve of the first Arbuckle trial were expressing their impatience with Brady for his hesitation in reconsidering Mooney’s conviction for having been responsible for the Preparedness Day Bombing of 1916. Although Brady showed boldness, almost recklessness, in prosecuting Arbuckle, he didn’t benefit from it with his communist–labor constituency.

Front cover of The Young Worker March-April 1922 (

Moving pictures are one of the most powerful propaganda forces wielded by the capitalist class. To the millions of people who daily go to the picture shows is doled out the “virtues” of capitalism. The master class does not overlook any opportunity to slander organized labor through the use of pictures.  And the philosophy that is disseminated by use of the serene (sugar-coated with humor) is calculated to “appease” the hungry and to feed the unemployed with hope.

Because of their plastic minds, the young are especially apt to derive “instruction” from the pictures. The children and young people of this country attend the picture shows more frequently than do the adults. Hence the propaganda reaches them and to a greater degree. The morals of capitalism, as portrayed by such actors as “Fatty” Arbuckle and the countless number of his type who have not had the misfortune to have committed so slight an error as murder, are set up as examples to the future generation.

Accidents will happen; and once in a generation a cog will slip in the well-regulated machine and we get a glimpse of the true character of these teachers of morality.

But the capitalists will not desert so “valuable” a man as “Fatty”, and they begin to pull the strings to acquit him. Incidentally, the impartiality of our justice-dispensing machinery is revealed in all its hideousness.

It is easier to observe the actions of others. And the following interesting analysis of the Arbuckle Case and justice in the United States gives us a picture of a phase of American Capitalism as seen by our English comrades.

From the British Communist

So Roscoe—“Fatty”—Arbuckle is to come to trial again. Arbuckle was not always a rich man, he was once a “saloon bum,” a down and out hanger-on of pubs. As a chucker-out and as a potboy he once earned a more or less honest living, until he struck lucky on the films, but even in his time of great wealth he retained the manners, and habits of his pub-crawling days. He is, or was, at least, before this action began, a millionaire, and behind him are many of the most important cinema firms of the U.S.A., who have some miles of Arbuckle film which they dare not release till the fat comedian is acquitted.

District Attorney Brady, of California, prosecuting him, exclaimed aloud in court to a reporter:

“Can you tell me how I can join a bomb-throwing organisation? I mean an organisation more violent than the I.W.W. I believe in dynamiting when I see such efforts to pervert justice!”

District Attorney Brady is not a strong man. He is a weak and uncertain man, but he was put into office largely by a Labor vote, to perform one definite duty—to dislocate the whole operation of the “Frame-up” ring of California. This Ring originally worked through Brady’s predecessor, [Charles] Fickert. It used him to jail for life a San Francisco Labor leader, Tom Mooney, on a false charge of dynamiting. It produced forged evidence and suppressed real evidence. Witness after witness was brought forward and torn to pieces, and their places at once cynically taken by other hired agents. Eventually Mooney was condemned to death, but the grossness of the fraud was such that the sentence was changed to imprisonment for life—and he is still in jail.

For capitalist justice in California has gone one step further than it has here. There it is completely corrupt and completely at the direct service of a financial ring who own all the judges, can interfere in the selection of jurors, and have a regular service of false witnesses for use in almost any case. The utter filthiness of this whole gang was bound to provoke a reaction, and when Fickert was found to be having dealings with the Germans an opportunity arose for the election of a substitute—Brady—who was pledged to their destruction.

The Frame-up Ring has now been called in to defend Arbuckle, and it is defeating Brady. It has been called in because Arbuckle is essential to the Californian anti-union forces. He is the biggest propagandist inside the cinema trade for the “open shop” campaign which is now being pressed hard. A strong and partly successful attempt has been made to smash unionism in the film trade (an “open shop” is a non-union shop) and cut wages. The twelve firms involved in this drive are :

Christie Film Co., Thos. H. Ince Productions, Hal E. Roach Studios, Brunton Studios Inc., Buster Keaton Comedies, Lasky-Famous Players Co., Metro Pictures Corp., William Fox Studios, Goldwyn Pictures Corp., Realart Pictures Corp., Universal Film Company.

Fatty Arbuckle, their star scab actor, was also their best asset in this campaign. And then he gets himself arrested for rape and murder. Still, money can do most things. and the Frame-up Ring got busy. First of all Judge Lazarus was made to reduce the charge from one of murder by rape to manslaughter. It will be remembered that Arbuckle carried the girl Virginia Rappe out of the room at a drunken party in his hotel, saying, “I’ve waited for you five years”; that a chambermaid passing by the bedroom door heard the girl’s screams and struggles; that the guests who entered the room later found her naked and in agony, crying, “He hurt me!” while Arbuckle, dressed in the girl’s picture hat, stood by saying. “If she screams again, I’ll throw her out of the window.” Virginia Rappe died of the injuries he had inflicted.

At the trial the Frame-up Ring got hold of one witness after another and “persuaded” them that they had perjured themselves. It went far afield to search out means of throwing mud at the dead girl’s character. It saw to it that Judge Lazarus summed up as heavily as he could against the prosecution, describing the chambermaid as “hysterical,” and laying the greatest stress upon the points put forward by the more-than-shady witnesses for the defence. And the papers were able to announce that Fatty was “morally acquitted” because the jury was 10 to 2 for acquittal [at the end of the first trial in December 1921].

But the California bosses don’t leave such things as juror’s votes to the chances of evidence. The jury was selected in advance, at least in the majority, and its foreman, Fritze, was a well-known agent of the ring. The juror who stood out for conviction, Mrs. Helen Hubbard, now publicly swears that Fritze and others threats of violence and intimidation, also third-degree methods, to force her to agree to acquittal. Fritze used to her the words, “I’ll knock your — —— block off!” Her husband, T. W. Hubbard, was approached by one of the ring (a minor member, Oliva) demanding that he instruct his wife to vote for acquittal. Oliva further said that he (Oliva) would pass the note through to the jury, and that if Hubbard refused he would be ruined.

That is trial by jury in California.

But the Frame-up Ring goes deeper in the mire than that. How did an honest woman, Mrs. Helen Hubbard, find herself on that jury? The Frame-up Ring had “double-crossed” Fatty. It knew he could be bled for more money. and intended that he should have to stand a second trial.

That is United States’ justice. It was that same Frame-up Ring which condemned Tom Mooney to imprisonment for life on an utterly false charge five years ago-and he is still in jail. It is that same system of justice which has now forged a whole case against two Italian-American active trade unionists—Sacco and Vanzetti—and condemned them to death on an equally false charge.

Tom Mooney’s Monthly writes:

“Fatty” Arbuckle and motion pictures are inseparable—the Frameup Ring knows this and it is bent on a rich harvest. It knew in advance just what the verdict would be in the Arbuckle trial. Vincent Riccardi exposed this feature of the Frameup Ring‘s work last year when he showed beyond any doubt the methods of control and the uses to which the Ring put this so-called machinery of justice for its own enrichment. Riccardi showed that it was the sworn policy of the Ring to have disagreements where its victim (the defendant) had not been shaken down for all of his money. If the Ring knew he had more money or opportunities of obtaining it. it would split the Jury by placing upon it those who it knew in advance would vote not to agree on a verdict. Some regular acquitters and some regular convicters—thus does it produce a mistrial and open up another avenue to the pockets of ‘‘Fatty’’ and his rich friends.

Now, should “Fatty” and his rich friends in the scab, open-shop, 100 Per Cent “American” plan, motion picture enterprises come clean with enough coin of the realm between now and the time tor the next trial, he will never be brought to trial; the case will be dismissed} “for lack of sufficient evidence to convict.” If he fails to dig up the “dough” in large sums, the Frameup Ring will hold the club of another trial over his head and make him across with many dollars or the big gates of San Quentin prison will await him. In fact, it would not surprise us to see a. second disagreement It would mean more thousands of dollars in the coffers of the Ring.

Most times we think very little of the pious resolutions and hardly annuals which are passed regularly by Labor Party and Trades Union Congresses. But we do think this time that it would be a crime to fail to make at least a verbal protest. The friends who are defending Sacco and Vanzetti, the friends who are still seeking the release of Mooney, specifically ask for protest by the British workers, believing that over there these will have some effect. We must not refuse them.

As for Fatty, we can do little to express our contempt of him and his defenders. “Union Labor is through with Fatty’s pictures,” says Tom Mooney’s Monthly, from America: we suppose, too, that it will be long before a decent working man, or his wife or kids wastes another ninepence over here on the fat beast.


Roscoe Arbuckle aboard the RMS Aquitania, 1920 (Library of Congress)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s