90 Years Ago, Roscoe Arbuckle Should Have Stayed Home

This Labor Day weekend marks the 90th Anniversary of the fateful trip to San Francisco that led to the downfall of one of Hollywood’s first major stars. Silent film comedian Roscoe Arbuckle booked three rooms at the St. Francis Hotel, where he threw a grand party full of beautiful girls and bootleg whiskey. Sometime during the party, a bit-part player and sometime-model named Virginia Rappe got sick and died not long thereafter.

The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office charged the rotund actor with rape and murder, and that news set off the first major celebrity scandal.

The public quickly turned on Roscoe, who up to that point was widely adored and as popular as any movie star in 1921. He was on equal footing with Chaplin — whom he helped start in the business — and had just signed a million-dollar deal with Paramount. He’d gone to San Francisco to celebrate that new deal with a couple of Hollywood pals. During his trial, women spit on him.

What happened in that suite has been the source of debate and conjecture for almost a century now, but what continues to fascinate many people is Arbuckle himself and his great fall from stardom.

When I started work on my novel about the trial, Devil’s Garden (G.P. Putnam’s Sons 2009), I knew more about the myth than the facts. I was fortunate enough to find the trial transcripts intact and even Virginia Rappe’s medical records. Those documents revealed no infamous Coke bottle and that a lot of initial slander about the case never panned out. My novel centered on the true involvement of a young Pinkerton detective working for the defense named Dashiell Hammett. Many critics believe the writer’s hard-boiled world view came partly from watching the railroading of Arbuckle first hand.

Actors from John Belushi to Chris Farley have talked about making a movie on the Arbuckle scandal. Those projects, almost like the true story, have been doomed from the start.

To get a sense of the fury and circus around the Arbuckle trial, check out the spectacular image file at the San Francisco Public Library that includes rare stills of Arbuckle and newspapers photos of the trial.
Arbuckle actually suffered through three trials before finally being acquitted of all charges. But the damage was done. He had been vilified in newspapers throughout the world, and when he returned to Hollywood, he was banned from making movies by the newly formed Hayes Commission.

Ten years later, seldom remembered and broke, he died. Those lucky enough to discover his films at festivals or on DVD, will find one of early Hollywood’s great talents.

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