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Fatty Arbuckle and the Start of the Me Too Movement

1920s | July 5, 2018


August 21, 1922. 'Fatty' Arbuckle Sails to Produce Own Pictures. (Getty Images)

Long before Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby started groping young Hollywood starlets, there was Fatty Arbuckle. In the early 1920s, Arbuckle was a big star…literally and figuratively. He topped the scales at more than 260 pounds and embraces the stage name “Fatty” as a replacement for his given name, Roscoe. And, he was Hollywood’s first actor to earn more than one million dollars. Like Weinstein and Cosby after him, Arbuckle’s fall from grace was the result of inappropriate sexual relations with an up-and-coming Hollywood actress. Or was it? Was Arbuckle simply an innocent man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time? 

Bootlegged Booze and Beautiful Babes

Fatty Arbuckle liked his alcohol, even during Prohibition. The silent film star was a frequent guest at Hollywood parties where bootlegs liquor flowed freely. On Labor Day weekend in 1921, Arbuckle, enjoying a break from filming, was living large at the swanky St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Also in attendance was a 30-year old beauty named Virginia Rappe, an aspiring actress. As the evening went by, Arbuckle and Rappe went alone to one of the hotel’s rooms, Room 1219. Moments later, Rappe screamed. 

What Happened in Room 1219?

Hearing Rappe’s screams, other party guests ran to Room 1219. Rappe was lying on the bed, doubled over in pain, and Arbuckle was standing over her. Although Rappe was fully clothed, the couple was in a hotel room unchaperoned, so everyone turned an accusing eye to Arbuckle. The rotund star explained that the drunken Rappe had passed out in the bathroom. Arbuckle claimed he merely carried her to the bed where she came to, writhing and flailing, and fell off the bed. Rappe then whispered, “He did this to me.” The incriminating words would come back to haunt him.

Rape, Alcohol Poisoning, or Something More?

Arbuckle and the other partygoers assumed Rappe needed to sleep off the effects of the alcohol, but the next day, her condition had worsened. She was overcome with abdominal pain. When she was still sick three days later, her friend, Bambina Maude Delmont, took Rappe to the hospital where she told the doctors Arbuckle had raped her. Soon, Rappe was dead and everyone was left with unanswered questions.

Despite Delmont’s insistence that Arbuckle had raped Rappe, the medical examination showed no evidence of sexual assault. It was determined that Rappe suffered from chronic cystitis, a condition affecting the bladder, and that the cause of death was perforated bladder. Not satisfied with the doctor’s findings, Delmont claimed that the obese Arbuckle had crushed the petite Rappe during a wild sex romp, rupturing her delicate bladder under his immense weight. 

Scandal, Lies, and Yellow Journalism

The 1920s gave birth to the fake news movement in the form of yellow journalism. The quest to sell more newspapers led newspaper editors to publish outlandish, unsubstantiated claims. The Fatty Arbuckle allegations made for ideal fake news fodder and Arbuckle’s case became the first big Hollywood scandal. Both famed newspaper moguls, Joseph Pulitzer, and William Randolph Hearst, ran news stories in which they claimed that Arbuckle had used a Coke bottle to rape Rappe. This claim was never proven, but in the court of public opinion, Arbuckle was a sick, perverted, guilty man. 

Guilty…but of what?

Arbuckle was initially charged with murder, but the charges were reduced to manslaughter. There was really no evidence in the case, and Arbuckle’s crafty lawyers used the age-old “character attack” technique to cast both the deceased Rappe and that accusing Delmont in negative lights, claiming they were sexually promiscuous party girls with low morals. They even claimed that Delmont had tried to extort money from Arbuckle. The defense even showed that the prosecution tried to intimidate witnesses into testifying against Arbuckle. Still, it took three trials – the first two ending in hung juries – to acquit Arbuckle of assault and murder, but the damage had been done.

Arbuckle was never on trial for rape, yet the public labeled him a rapist. He was shunned by the movie industry because no director or producer wanted to be associated with him. When he went out in public, people spit in his face. He received hate mail. He had a mountain of legal bills. His reputation and livelihood were in tatters. 

(NY Daily News)

The Comeback That Never Happened

Arbuckle spent years trying to make a comeback in the movie industry, despite being blacklisted in Hollywood. He tried seeking acting jobs by using a new stage name, to no avail. Finally, in 1933, Warner Bros offered him a contract for a feature film. Arbuckle stated that it was “the best day of my life,” That very night, however, he died of a heart attack. He was 46 years old.

We will never know what happened in Room 1219 but we know that Fatty Arbuckle was the first major Hollywood star to be accused of career-ending sexual misconduct. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.