What really happened between Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Virginia Rappe in that San Francisco hotel room on September 5, 1921?
A few days after their encounter, Rappe, a movie bit player, died, and enormously successful film comedian Arbuckle was arrested for murder. Later charged with manslaughter, he survived two hung juries (one favored acquittal, the other conviction) before a third acquitted him. Merritt (Celluloid Mavericks: A History of American Independent Film, 2000, etc.) displays great compassion for all involved, especially the two principals, both of whom have suffered at the hands of both formal and informal biographers. (Among other things, he traces, and dismisses, the egregious, pervasive story about rape-by-bottle.) Merritt begins with the Labor Day weekend when Arbuckle drove his lavish Pierce-Arrow to San Francisco for a hotel party. Although Prohibition was the law of the land, liquor flowed freely; Arbuckle had a huge stash back in his mansion. The author intercuts the stories of the weekend with the biographies of Arbuckle and Rappe, alternating chapters until he arrives at the trials. He provides necessary cinema history, including the history of film censorship, and ends with his own evaluation of the evidence and his conclusions about what probably occurred—though only Arbuckle and Rappe were present, so certainty is elusive. Merritt charts the sad arc of Arbuckle's career after his acquittal, emphasizing the loyalty of friends like Buster Keaton, and discusses his subsequent work behind the camera and on the vaudeville stage, where audiences often received him warmly. The author notes that the Arbuckle case was one of the earliest in America's culture wars. Arbuckle emerges as a sympathetic figure, but many others, including movie moguls, don’t fare as well.
The definitive account of one of Hollywood's most notorious scandals.