It is easy for us today to lose sight of the staggering amounts of money successful people in the fledgling movie industry were making back in the 1920s. The average person in America could live comfortably on less than a thousand dollars a year, about $20 a week. In Hollywood, however, even a lowly ‘crowd’ extra earned $5 a day, a ‘small group’ extra $10 a day, and if you were fortunate enough to land a close-up, your pay jumped to $25 a day! Those few who actually got dialogue leapt into an even higher bracket.
Studio heads were collecting as much as $20,000 a week. Mary Pickford (above) was earning the mind-boggling sum of $50,000 a week as ‘America’s Sweetheart’, and was known throughout the world, yet the highest paid star of all was comedian Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle (below), who was raking in $150,000 a week! When we consider that a brand new Rolls Royce put you back just $5,000; that a mansion only cost $35,000, and a gallon of whiskey went for a measly $2, what Fatty was getting bordered on the obscene.
He drove a specially modified Pierce-Arrow automobile that cost $250,000, was four times as big as a normal motor car, and contained a bar and even a toilet, no less! He was the highest-paid star on Earth, and his studio heads hated that he got so much, even if his pictures were making them a fortune. So, when he trouble struck in 1921, these men stood by and did not raise a finger to help him, each of them eager to see Fatty knocked off his ‘high and mighty’ pedestal.
At a Labor Day party in San Francisco at the St Francis Hotel (at top) in 1921, a young, uninvited guest named Virginia Rappe fell ill, was taken to hospital, and died. An autopsy revealed she had a seriously infected bladder, caused by a poorly performed abortion (her sixth, in fact), that had led to peritonitis. It was later learned (much later) that the surgeon who tended the girl in hospital and who later performed the autopsy, was the same man who had previously botched the abortion! Needless to say, he was in no hurry to admit to any degree of culpability in the girl’s death, so when accusations began flying in a different direction altogether, at Arbuckle and not at him, he quietly slid into the background and let them run their course.
Somehow, poor Arbuckle found himself accused of violating the girl, either with a Coca Cola bottle or a champagne bottle, while he was raping her at the party; and that the injuries to her abdomen which ultimately led to her death were caused by him. The dead girl was depicted as an innocent young, star-struck girl, minding her own business, who suddenly found the enormous superstar atop her indulging himself in the vilest of ways. There was no truth to any of this, but the papers and the public lapped up every juicy morsel. And Fatty’s studio heads said and did nothing to help their star.
Miss Rappe, as anyone who knew her in Hollywood could testify, was anything but a naïve, star-struck little girl. She was, in fact, a well-known slut who hung around the casting lots turning tricks and generally screwing anyone she thought might be of use to her. Mack Sennett had to have his entire living room fumigated (twice) following visits from her that left ‘crabs’ infestations in his lounge. Why he would fall for her twice was never explained, but he was just one of many men to fall foul of her promiscuous habits and their disease-ridden legacy. Her autopsy also revealed that she had gonorrhoea at the time of her demise.
Of the forty guests present at the party that day, only one implicated Arbuckle in Rappe’s death, and that guest was the woman who brought her to the party in the first place, a con-artist, bigamist and prostitute (she had been arrested fifty times), named Bambina Delmont. Not only was she the prosecution’s star witness, she was their only witness, but one willing to lie through her back-teeth if it would score her some cash. Acquaintances had overheard her on the phone discussing the case and saying that she thought she could get ‘a stack of money’ out of Arbuckle. Her other source of income (other than prostitution that is), involved hiring herself to lawyers in order to lure married men into adulterous situations. None of her past record was permitted in evidence, however. One day, somebody must explain to me the wisdom behind that, for it entirely escapes me.
In all, Fatty Arbuckle had to endure three trials, because the first two resulted in ‘hung’ juries. It was later discovered that in trials one and two there had been a solitary ‘hold-out’, a juror planted by the prosecution in each one to prevent a ‘not guilty’ verdict being returned. The third trial had 12 genuine jurors and they unanimously declared the defendant not guilty. Not only that, but the judge made a lengthy and abject apology to him, stating categorically that the comedian had ‘nothing whatsoever’ to do with the death of the girl, and that he should never have been accused or tried in the first place.
But exoneration came far too late. His career was well and truly gone, along with his good name and his wealth. Lawyers had cost him a fortune. For a while he tried directing under a false name (Will B. Good). Then, Warner Bros allowed him to star in some short films (with sound) and the results were promising enough for him to be offered a feature film contract. Sadly, Roscoe died in his sleep the night after he signed the contract. His wife always said he died of a broken heart – and maybe he did.