The Arbuckle Trial begins: A theater review of the first week

While working on the corpus of our narrative, we have neglected to add some timely sidebars to this blog. So, we shall observe the end of the first week of the first Arbuckle trial with this mock theater review by George Warren, a theater critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Unlike the Examiner and the Call, the Chronicle didn’t give the Arbuckle trial first-page coverage. The editors saw it as local news and restricted the front page to more serious stories, like the naval disarmament conference in Washington. Even this “review” didn’t appear in its pages. It was distributed by a press syndicate to newspapers such as the Salt Lake Telegram, Chattanooga News, and other out-of-town papers where it ran the week of November 20-26, 1921.

Datelined November 19, the Sunday feature is based on the initial days of jury selection. But it captures the theatrics that many observers thought characterized the defense. Here, Arbuckle played an important part that may not have been passive but well planned, like shooting a comedy. So did his estranged wife, Minta Durfee.

What Dramatic Critic Thinks of Arbuckle: Frisco Writer Sees Fatty’s Biggest Drama Being Enacted in Court

By George Warren

Life, the greatest dramatist of them all, has written a rather involved piece in that much discussed tragedy, “The Death of Virginia Rappe.”

I have seen but the prologue and find that, as usual, this master of the drama makes one wait through tedious routine in order to catch the fine climaxes and thrills. There has been more of action than of drama. For the most part, the lines run too long to sustain dramatic interest.

This may explain why, in spite of the worldwide publicity, the tragedy has received, the first-night audiences were slim. There was no rush for admission and those who attended were mostly students of life’s dramas or professionals who came in on complimentaries.

While the product was being prepared, I had heard so much of the lead character, Roscoe Arbuckle, that I was a bit disappointed at the manner in which he was shoved into the background in the earlier scenes. A newcomer had been secured,[1] almost on the eve of the first presentation, and had been given all the “fat speeches.”

He is Gavin McNab, a veteran actor who plays the role of attorney for Arbuckle. He gives a fine and finished performance. In his past roles of a political dictator, clubman, and public figure, he has handled himself almost equally well, but he is best known for the performances in which he plays the part of defense counsel.

His stage presence is perfect and he becomes at once a dominant figure. His long and sometimes tiresome lines are forgotten in his excellent facial expressions and suave command of situations.

Arbuckle is doing tremendously fine work in his unhappy role. He is presumed, in the play, to have brought about the death of a beautiful actress, Virginia Rappe, during a revel staged in a fashionable hotel suite.

Here is an actor who, a few months back, was presumed to be fit only for slapstick comedy. Never have I seen a player who so completely reversed his type. His expression is frequently that of a hurt and troubled victim of circumstances, perplexed by what is going on about him, appealing to all eyes for sympathy. Again, he is the tense observer of the figures that pass before him, as though disinterested in all else but that upon which his eye centers. It is an impressive performance, having a tendency to make one forget the lack of drama and center upon this characterization of the man who plays the “heavy.”

Quite an interesting a performance is given by Minta Durfee Arbuckle, the wife. It has been customary in drama of this sort for the accused and his wife to appear side by side, but here we have the wife in a more or less inconspicuous part of the stage. Accustomed to the ingénue, the soubrette of light opera roles, she now appears in a semi-emotional part—that of a wife helping her husband in his fight for freedom. My chief criticism would be that she overdresses a bit for the part.

The district attorney and his assistants are handled with fine restraint by Matthew Brady and Milton U’Ren. Assurance and confidence, rather than spectacular stagecraft, marks their work.

Comedy relief was furnished for the most part by several dozen men and women who had bits as prospective jurors. They acted as “feeders” for the lines of the attorney characters.

Altogether it gets away to a fair start and, as the plot later proceeds, may prove as interesting a drama of life as had been done in some years.

San Francisco Hall of Justice, the site of all three Arbuckle trials (Calisphere)

[1] A reference to Gavin McNab having taken over as lead defense counsel from Frank Dominguez.

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