“Fighting” Bob Shuler and the marketability of Virginia Rappe

During the 1920s and ‘30s, the radio evangelist Robert P. Shuler was known for his controversial broadcasts from his Southern Methodist church in Los Angeles, California. Known as “Fighting Bob,” Shuler attracted a large following for his vitriolic attacks on corrupt politicians during the Prohibition Era. Before the advent of radio, however, Shuler’s medium was the pulpit and pamphlets like the one that follows.

Shuler was one of the clergymen who exerted a major influence on the motion picture industry given his proximity to Hollywood. The appointment of Will H. Hays as Chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America in January 1922, just days before the second Arbuckle trial, was intended to placate those who, like Shuler, demanded that the movie industry be subjected to regulation and censorship.

Shuler took a special interest in the Arbuckle case. Most of his fellow clerics had moved on from the case even before the first trial began in mid-November 1921. Some, such as Billy Sunday, had virtually exonerated Arbuckle. Others distanced themselves from Virginia Rappe, after Arbuckle’s lawyers began to leak information revealing her “past” in October. For Shuler, however, Rappe’s past wasn’t the point. To him it didn’t matter if she was a “fallen woman” or that she consented to enter room 1219. Rappe was, ironically, still a featured actress in one of Shuler’s pamphlet, one that was rushed out in the wake of the Arbuckle party.

Following the hung jury of the first trial in December 1921, Shuler wrote A Deadly Comparison, which is one of the longest and most eloquent tracts that specifically targets Arbuckle and the motion picture executives who funded his defense. Shuler wasn’t known to be anti-Semitic nor did he decry the “Jewish business interests” that largely ran the movie-making industry, which was common in the propaganda of the revived Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s. But one will give pause though when reading his repeated rhetorical references to “shekels”.

Roscoe Arbuckle

From A Deadly Comparison (1922)

Rev. Robert Shuler, Trinity Methodist Church, Los Angeles[1]

I do not believe Roscoe Arbuckle deliberately murdered Virginia Rappe. That he was directly and absolutely responsible for her death, I am certain, and I think there are very few, indeed, who doubt that fact for a moment. I think Arbuckle was half drunk when the pitiful tragedy was enacted. I am sure Miss Rappe was also intoxicated. Thanks to our frank newspapers, everybody knows why Roscoe Arbuckle and Virginia Rappe were in a room together for almost an hour. Whether by force or by her consent, the world may never know, but we all know what crime against virtue and morality was therein enacted. Then came the end—the death of Virginia Rappe.

I confess that I myself have been as innocent as a new born babe in the face of conditions that ought to shock the very world and stir humanity to revolt. I have been a preacher and have not ferreted into the situation that has of late months forced itself upon the public. The facts have dawned upon me as a horrible revelation.

We now come face to face with the information that such parties as Fatty Arbuckle had in San Francisco have been the common and ordinary affairs of every day social life among the movie people. The movie folk have been so bold and brazen as to defend themselves on the ground that they are not ordinary mortals and should not be restricted by the usages and customs of ordinary life. We hear of the “eccentricities of genius.” We are told that the movie people are “temperamental,” and must have their wine and cigarettes, their pajama parties and loose relations because of their distinctive artistic peculiarities. One defender goes so far as to declare that the law should not require marriage among the movie folk and that the Bohemian community is their ideal abode. Daily we note divorce scandals that would seem to support his contention.

On top of this revelation, we find Arbuckle’s drunken carousal his crime against decency and morality, whether over the protest of by the consent of his victim, and the part he took in the death of the girl in question defended almost universally by the movie people, while not as prominent star or producer had come out, that we have noticed, to brand his acts as infamous. A large fund has been raised among the movie profession for his defense and one of the most successful criminal lawyers in California, when it comes to freeing murderers and rapists, has been retained by the movie people for the purpose of “white-washing” Fatty Arbuckle.

The attitude of the movie luminaries toward the marriage relation; their continuous “souse” divorce and scandal; their quarter of a century of screened sex appeal, itself a diagnosis of the condition back of the film; their attitude toward those of their number who, like Fatty Arbuckle, have insulted and outraged every decent sentiment of virtuous idealism; their insistent demand that they be left unrestricted by the American public to practice their “personal liberty” doctrine in deportment as well as in the products of their art, the evident looseness that has sprung up among them; their booze parties; their cigarette smoking beauties; their behavior as reported by scores who live neighbor to their studios; their refusal to brand such men as Arbuckle and kick them out; their disposition to pass over without criticism such a crime as the San Francisco crime; especially their willingness to defend the criminal with their money; all has forced me against my will and over my protest to believe that a majority of the movie crowd are of the same stripe as this comedian and that they see the necessity of saving his hide in order to save their own.

Not for a moment would I accuse all movie people of being immoral. I have until recently stubbornly declared that I believed the immoral element, although entirely too large, to be far in the minority. But I have been forced to revise my opinion and I have come to the deliberate conclusion that the extraordinary movie actor and actress, whose life is chaste and clean, whose deportment socially and otherwise is a blessing and help to American standards of life, whose moral standards are such as that they give support to chastity ad purity in the relations of men and women are not in the majority. That there are scores and hundreds of movie actors and actresses who are clean I am absolutely confident, but that they are today in the minority in their profession I have been forced to concede much as I hate to make such a concession.

Perhaps there is no single proof of this fact more pronounced than that they persist in the battle, against the Christian forces of America, to maintain their industry outside the pale of sane and safe regulation for the protection of public morals. There can be but one reason why they make such a fight: certainly, if they did not desire to produce that which would tarnish and stain the morals of the young, they would have no cause to make a concerted attack upon the efforts sponsored by Christian citizens to protect the child life of the land from the immoral in their films. If they did not desire to sell the salacious and suggestive, they could not for a moment object to a sane effort on the part of Christian men and women to rid the film of the salacious and suggestive. They have put their “personal liberty” over against public safety, much as the old saloon man and brewer did. And in doing so, they have not only committed themselves, but they convicted themselves as well. If you will seek for the fountain of this public attitude, you will find it in the private life of those assuming it. Certainly, Fatty Arbuckle does not believe in commissions for censorship, in regulation, in laws for the protection of the public. We know the reason why, for his story is in the newspapers. I think you will have no trouble in recognizing that he is a most splendid example of a type, a most certain sample of a variety of folk who have decided to be the independent authors of their own standards of morality or immorality, without regard to or respect for the public.

The manner of fostering upon the public the menacing doctrine of “personal liberty” is also a grave commentary upon the people who have adopted it. Just as slavery sought to maintain itself by bribes, in that the annihilation of the industry would bankrupt the nation; just as the brewers and distillers flung their threat of withdrawing their money bags; just as white slavery screwed its vice of money pressure when the houses of justice were after it; so the movies have threatened Los Angeles, in a recent censorship fight, with financial ruin if they are not permitted to have their own way. Great and startling headlines announced that they would move away and carry their millions with them if the public were given protection from the vicious in their wares. They approached businessmen with their money cudgel and cowed them into submission. They brought their gold to bear upon business and social organizations and whipped them into line. They used their abnormal advertising budgets to line the newspapers of this city solidly for their private interests and against the public welfare. In this policy, they followed with precision the well-defined paths over which every menacing agency has pushed its wa in an effort to profit personally from the wounding of idealism and the lowering of moral standards. Unfortunately, we have not had enough backbone in manhood and fearlessness in womanhood in this city to mee their attack and defend our sons and daughters against their greed. Their shekels sounded so loudly as that they drowned our love for little children and our interest in their purity in thought and life. And matching this attitude of the movie people in Los Angeles in the censorship fight comes a like stand with their dollars in their efforts to free Fatty Arbuckle and turn him loose upon the public an acceptable star, though the criminal that the whole world knows him to be. Again they type true. Again they measure up to their sample.

If a man should sin against industry in California as Fatty Arbuckle has sinned against society, no man would dare lift his voice in his defense. Fortunately for Fatty, he has only killed a woman, after defiling her body and spitting in the face of all decency. With the movies’ money to the rescue, he is virtually assured of his liberty and he will again come into Los Angeles to be kissed b his kind, a conqueror, a star. But had his crime been against a factory, had he blowed[2] up a ten-story building, had he interfered with business, his would have been a far different story. And again Fatty becomes a sample; for should the movie industry threaten the hogs or cattle or even chickens of California as they threaten the moral character of our sons and daughters, they would find the chamber of commerce, the business and industrial organizations after their scalp in true earnests. But Fatty and his movie cohorts have a great secret. Virginia Rappe dead and defenseless has no money value. Even her character may be torn to shreds, and allis well for she is dead. Just so the moral character of the young of Los Angeles is not worth $10.79 per school girl. It has no cash value. Factories and skyscrapers are valuable and Fatty dare not attack them. Hogs, cattle, and chickens are valuable and the movie people must not interfere with them. Herein is the sickening secret known to the movie world and practiced most perfectly.

Again I have drawn a deadly parallel, but who dares deny it. The loaf of bread is censored. The bottle of milk is censored. The factory must face a commission for the protection of life and limb. The railroad must deal with a commission for the protection of public interests. The bank must account to a like commission. We elect a board of education, a commission on our schools. The movie business stands alone today with the unbridled privilege of exploiting for grate receipts. The reason is that all they threaten is character, idealism, manhood, womanhood, and here there is no cash value. Money has talked in the censorship fight. Money is talking in the Arbuckle trial. Ah, gold is eloquent, indeed!

They have taken Fatty off the screen, you say. Yes, but not because of any antagonism to Fatty’s crime, as their attitude clearly denotes, but for the protection of their gate receipts which were suddenly imperiled by the indignation that swept the nation following the San Francisco tragedy. And now the newspapers have announced (their newspapers, you understand) that their money is flowing into an immense fund to clear the comedian, and whether or not his pictures will go back upon the screen depends upon the verdict of the jury. That jury will only pass upon the guilt or innocence of the defendant, charged with manslaughter, and the public must never forget that, unfortunately, the history of such cases in America, where unlimited money is set in motion, is not very hopeful for justice. That jury will have nothing to say as to that drunken party, as to the crime against womanhood, against virtue, against decency, committed in that room, either by the consent or over the protest of the victim. The pictures of Fatty Arbuckle will go back and become the sensation of the movie world for the next twelve, if that jury says “not guilty,” despite the fact that all men know the filth and viciousness of the circumstances attending that party.

It is the common understanding that the ordinary movie man or woman considers Fatty as unfortunate. The newspapers controlled by their abnormal advertisers, are so picturing him. He is likened to a “big, naughty boy,”[3] who, unfortunately, got caught. There is no blame attached to the party by his fellow movie stars. There is no condemnation for what happened in that room is unspeakable. We are told that he played in “hard luck.” Such an attitude can be a commentary on but one thing: An all but total loss of ideals; an all but absolute annihilation of moral standards.

In conclusion, I desire to reiterate what I have so often said: The movie is here to stay. We need it, if it can be controlled for decency and morality, for right and humanity’s welfare. It is a great educational agency. It has to do with the very motives or fountains of life and thereby becomes extremely beneficial or of limitless danger. Guarded and guided, controlled and directed, the movie has no confines to its appeal for the better things. Left to the doctrine of license, its menacing power will overwhelm American idealism within another decade. It is best understood by a study of the people who are behind and in it and for this reason I have drawn the deadly parallel and stated the frank, blunt, cold conclusions which you have heard. It is up to the people. Unfortunately, the movie industry is run a strictly commercial basis. It has no character. It has only a purse. In the censorship fight its leaders had the nerve to ask the Los Angeles chamber of commerce to make the box office receipts the bill of health for the industry. Such a pernicious doctrine will do nothing less than wreck, unless the people act.

Here are the ridiculous high places in Fatty’s trial: “Fatty” finds Virginia Rappe on the floor in mortal agony. He tenderly places her on his bed and locks the bedroom door. He ministers to her in gallant fashion during almost an hour of excruciating agony without calling for help from the adjoining room where her friends and his are gathered, phoning for a doctor or asking for other assistance. At last her friends begin to knock on the door and he lets them in, announces that Virginia is sick and proceeds to place chunks of ice on her nude body. And when he is accused of an awful crime, he locks the story of his good Samaritan activities in his own heart and, though charged with the act of a fiend, does not so much as tell his closest friend until the trial comes on. His lawyer declares that he kept this secret of his chivalry lest the public mob him. The fabrication is not even artistic. It is too crude for an amateur. It is as full of holes as a sieve.

Beautiful story! And the movie people are back of it with their cash. No wonder the prosecuting attorney remarked before the trial concluded that a failure to convict would prove that “jails were builded [sic] for the poor.”[4] He further went on record as declaring that his efforts to secure evidence were blocked at every turn by this financially builded [sic] machine of moviedom, set in motion for the purification of the reputation of one of its most brilliant stars. Thus movie gold in California had defied justice; mocked womanhood, standing the presence of her defiled and dead sister; sneered its contempt in the face of decent social demands; laughed to scorn idealism and morality and battered down the very citadels of childhood’s worshipful faith. The brutal force of clinking shekels has been felt in California, until our social order has trembled to its foundations.

But the mockery of justice that has attended this carnival of shame has not wiped out the record. What a tutor in idealism and morality is “Fatty” Arbuckle, clothed in his pajamas, reigning king in the Belshazzar feast of a San Francisco hotel, where looseness, debauch, drunkenness and filth run riot!

The newspapers have hinted at the “dog parties” of filmdom.[5] No, I can’t tell you about them. There is no language that I could use, howeverncarefully selected the wording, that would fitly describe those parties and this pamphlet go through the United States mails. Picture the most degrading and nauseating scene that could possible by enacted before a mixed audience, and you have not outdone the facts. These are the people who are playing upon the emotional fountains and motives of growing boys and girls in this Christian nation. God forgive us when we train our children for life under the tutorage of those who go the way of the Arbuckle “dog party.”

They all but washed “Fatty” and in the second trial will no doubt complete the renovation, but American fathers and mothers stand horrified before the evidence of that trial. The guests are pictured chasing each other through hallways and bedrooms, through bathrooms and parlors, clad in sleeping attire and undergarments, dancing with each other in such garbs, drinking, smoking, swearing, telling vile stories, without regard to sex or convention, or morality, or decency. Yes, it is all in the wide open now, this disgusting, putrid, filthy mess, amazing in its slime, even though “Fatty” has virtually secured his gold-bought liberty.

And no one denies that such filth, that such disgusting behavior, that such defiance of morality and chastity constitute the “thrills” and “high touches” of the ordinary booze party of filmdom. “Fatty’s” San Francisco party was one of the many, a splendid sample, a glorious success, had not an “accident occurred” in which we are given to understand “Fatty” played in “hard luck.: In other such parties leading luminaries have been more fortunate and the “accidents” that occurred were not so disastrous. There are on the record an instance or two where the ambulance was needed and the hospital called into play, but this seems to haven the first straight killing accomplished.

The battle is just a step away if not already upon us. It is Idealism vs. Pelf.[6] It is the same fight that stained America red with blood back in the sixties. It is the same fight waged by womanhood and real men against the booze industry. It is the same fight that the sons and daughters of Christianity put up against white slavery. It is the fight for the preservation of society, the maintenance of right and justice, the saving of American ideals from the ravenous lust for revenues. The gate receipts have decreed that purity, that virtue, that cleanliness must give way before the clink of coin, and when the society resents this brutal rape of idealism, the yellow monarch marches forth to bribe, to buy, to intimidate; to win with the rattle of shekels, whether it be in a court, or a city council, an effort to bring a star to justice or an attempt to sucre freedom from filth for the eyes of little children, by appointment of a commission of censors.

In this battle that must be joined if civilization is to survive, the film folk have not only resurrected the sword of gold, so tremendously used by the liquor forces in their last stand, but the bozze-wet arguments of that battlefield have found for themselves a new champion. The doctrine of license; the “personal liberty” plea of those whose stomachs in the old liquor days were far more important than society’s welfare; the battle against restriction, against regulation, against interference for public good. This is the new battle cry of filmdom, revamped and revarnished. Again the ghost of that old man straw in the wet days of yore spoke eloquently of blue laws championed by long-haired fanatics who would deprive mankind of all liberty. There is nothing new in this fight. It is as old as slavery, as old as booze, as old as license, as old as lust, as old as greed, as old as the seeds of hell.

Robert Shuler in the witness chair during a 1929 libel suit (Calisphere)

[1] Adapted from a reprint in the Enid [OK] Daily Eagle, March 5, 1922, the day before Will Hays assumed his new job as Chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.

[2] Shuler’s spellings, which are consistent with Southern idioms, have been retained.

[3] An allusion to the pronouncements of Mabel Normand, Alice Lake, and others who had worked with Arbuckle.

[4] Shuler is quoting San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady.

[5] dog party, i.e., film colony slang for booze party; also called a “monkey dinner.”

[6] pelf, money earned in a disreputable or dishonest way.

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