On Labour Day, 1921, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, one of the most successful and powerful comedians in Hollywood at the time, decided to celebrate signing a million dollar contract with Paramount by driving up to San Francisco to throw a party.
The party raged over the three day weekend, with various Hollywood hangers on drifting in and out as everybody got more wasted and wild. At some point, Roscoe and actress Virginia Rappé were alone in his hotel room – for how long and how they got there is disputed, but they were alone, for some time, for some reason, at some point.
Shortly afterwards (or possibly during), Virginia began screaming in pain.
Three days later she was dead.
That’s pretty much all we know for certain.
Arbuckle was accused of rape or sexual assault which resulted in Virginia’s death.
After two hung juries, a third trial saw him acquitted for manslaughter – but the court of public opinion had its say and Arbuckle never really worked again. He became the first performer to be blacklisted by the newly formed Hayes office and died, destitute at the age of 35.
“I know Arbuckle was acquitted, and I know Al Capone was only guilty of tax evasion.” – Gloria Swanson
However, from around the sixties onwards, the narrative of this case began to change.
Writer after writer stated unequivocally that Arbuckle was a completely innocent scapegoat of puritan efforts to clean up Hollywood’s sex, drugs and Charleston image. There’s no disputing that he was acquitted, but as we all know, when it comes to rape, legally unproven and false accusations are two very different things. Gloria Swanson said at the time “I know Arbuckle was acquitted and I know that Al Capone was only guilty of tax fraud.”
I’m not looking to re try Arbuckle. He was acquitted and he is long dead – but I am curious as to how the narrative went from legally unproven to false, decades after the fact.
There is a principle in criminal law that goes “it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer.”
I can’t help but wonder if the myth of Arbuckle having been the one innocent who suffered is at the heart of why a hundred – and counting – men have escaped in Hollywood ever since.
That is what this podcast is going to attempt to explore. I may or may not change my personal opinion of what happened in that hotel room in September 1921 – but I do hope to break down and understand and perhaps expose, who believed which version – and why.