Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle remains one of the most tragic names in film history. He was the great cinematic comedian who never was. His career in film was ruined by false accusations that three juries refused to convict him; in spite of publisher William Randolph Hearst’s vast media empire sensationalizing the trial in their coverage and accusing him of rape. Still, every story that has an ending must have a beginning and the future once looked bright for Roscoe and it was. On this month of June, way back in 1913 – June 5, 1913 – Roscoe got the big break every hopeful actor and actress yearns for – a contract – Roscoe’s was with Mack Sennett, arguably at that time the king of comedy.
It was the break Roscoe needed and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Canadian born Max Sennett, one of the big forefathers of filmed comedy; his most famous, enduring and profitable creation being the bumbling Keystone Cops; had an eye for comedy talent. Roscoe was a comedic and blended seamlessly with Sennett’s other major star Mabel Normand.
Roscoe and Mabel would make a popular pairing and would team up to make several short films; the first acknowledge full length film wasn’t until 1914 – Tillie’s Punctured Romance directed by Sennett and co-starring fellow Sennett actors Mabel Normand and Charles Chaplin.
The tragedy of Roscoe Arbuckle then rears its ugly head. For anyone searching on the internet for information is akin to searching for a needle in a haystack. The name of Virgina Rappe remains and probably will forever so with Roscoe’s. Hollywood was in the midst of several scandals that began to alienate some and brought a more intense scrutiny by religious leaders in the U.S.
Roscoe’s co-star Mabel Normand would have her own troubles over the mysterious murder of film director and her lover William Desmond Taylor.
Roscoe would have the misfortune of attending a party that a struggling actress Virginia Rappe was also in attendance. Unbeknownst to all, according to Wikipedia, Rappe:
“…suffered from cystitis, and that consuming alcohol could aggravate that condition.Witnesses also testified that she had previously suffered from venereal disease, so there were allegations that her death was brought on by her health rather than by an assault.”
We, as custodians of the past, are left with sensationalized garbage with which to remember the life and cinema of Roscoe Arbuckle.
So, a little about Roscoe:
“Despite his physical size, Arbuckle was remarkably agile and acrobatic. Director Mack Sennett, when recounting his first meeting with Arbuckle, noted that he “skipped up the stairs as lightly as Fred Astaire”; and, “without warning went into a feather light step, clapped his hands and did a backward somersault as graceful as a girl tumbler”. His comedies are noted as rollicking and fast-paced, have many chase scenes, and feature sight gags. Arbuckle was fond of the “pie in the face“, a comedy cliché that has come to symbolize silent-film-era comedy itself. The earliest known pie thrown in film was in the June 1913 Keystone one-reeler A Noise from the Deep, starring Arbuckle and frequent screen partner Mabel Normand.
In 1914, Paramount Pictures made the then-unheard-of offer of US$1,000-a-day plus 25% of all profits and complete artistic control to make movies with Arbuckle and Normand. The movies were so lucrative and popular that in 1918 they offered Arbuckle a three-year, $3 million contract (equivalent to about $49,000,000 in 2017 dollars.
It was in this month of June – June 5 1913, a great film comedian signed with producer Max Sennett. This contract would help Roscoe Arbuckle become famous. It would also be his death warrant9.