Cinema and Media Studies Roscoe Arbuckle
by
Rob King
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0240

Introduction

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (b. 1887–d. 1933) was a comedian and filmmaker whose critical acclaim and popularity in the 1910s were entirely overshadowed by a career-destroying scandal in 1921. Following an early career as an illustrated song performer and several brief stints as a performer in Selig and Nestor film comedies, Arbuckle eventually found fame as “Fatty” after joining Mack Sennett’s legendary Keystone Film Company in 1913. Distinguished not only as an agile performer but also by his creative directing, Arbuckle achieved a level of autonomy unparalleled at Sennett’s studio, establishing his own East Coast unit of the company in Fort Lee, New Jersey, at the end of 1915. By this point, Arbuckle approached the critical stature of his former Keystone confrère Charles Chaplin as one of the few film comedians to be discussed seriously as a filmmaker, his work celebrated by commentators for its visual pictorialism. Arbuckle would go on to head his own studio, the Comique Film Corporation, in late 1916, where he wrote, directed, and starred in twenty two-reel comedies (which also mark the screen debuts of Buster Keaton). Four years later he graduated to features at Paramount, making him the first major male clown to star regularly in feature-length comedies. Yet these achievements would be swiftly annulled by the events of September 5, 1921, when the actress Virginia Rappe was discovered critically ill at a party at Arbuckle’s San Francisco hotel room, dying four days later. Allegations of violent rape saw Arbuckle tried three times for manslaughter, the first two trials ending in hung juries, the third in his acquittal; his career, however, could not be recuperated. In the wake of the Rappe scandal, Hollywood’s leaders moved quickly to form a new regulatory agency, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, whose first major decision was to ban Arbuckle from the screen. Nonetheless, with the support of his friends, Arbuckle was able to find consistent directorial work through the 1920s, initially uncredited but subsequently under the pseudonym William Goodrich (his father’s name). It was also under this pseudonym that Arbuckle directed two feature films, The Red Mill (1927, starring Marion Davies) and Special Delivery (1927, starring Eddie Cantor). He eventually returned to the screen in six Vitaphone two-reel talking comedies produced in 1932–1933, dying of a heart attack hours after he completed the last of these.

General Overviews

A figure of Arbuckle’s notoriety has inevitably attracted a steady, if small, stream of popular biographies, most devoted in great part to the Rappe affair and its aftermath. The first book-length works on the comedian were simply paperback rehashes of the events in San Francisco (for purposes of organization, works devoted primarily or exclusively to the scandal are listed in their own section). But by the 1970s more comprehensive biographical studies were beginning to emerge. A major role in this shift was played by Minta Durfee Arbuckle, the comedian’s first wife, who provided extensive assistance to many of these biographers as an interview subject during the late years of her life (she died in 1975). Edmonds 1991, Fine 1971, Oderman 1994, Yallop 1976, and Young 1994 all draw upon conversations with Durfee, whose memories are also recorded as oral history in Wagner 1975. Unfortunately, most of the Arbuckle biographies exemplify the limitations of popular history, lacking notes on sources and featuring unsupported anecdotes and invented dialogue. Young 1994 is a welcome exception and is to be most recommended to scholars. Roberts 1993 forgoes the comedian’s tumultuous personal life entirely in order to track the contours of the comedian’s professional career as a director.

  • Edmonds, Andy. Frame-Up! The Shocking Scandal That Destroyed Hollywood’s Biggest Star. New York: Avon, 1991.

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    Edmonds’ book adds little to pre-existing accounts beyond speculation about behind-the-scenes manipulation of the Rappe trials. Archivist Samuel Gill updates the filmography first published in Yallop 1976.

  • Fine, Gerald. Fatty: The Celebrated Novel of Hollywood’s First Super-Star RoscoeFatty” Arbuckle. Hollywood, CA: Fine, 1971.

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    Includes abundant speculation on Arbuckle’s early life and draws upon much of the most lurid hearsay surrounding the scandal. Young 1994 speculates that the work was labeled a novel to avoid legal repercussions (p. 271).

  • Oderman, Stuart. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: A Biography of the Silent Film Comedian. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1994.

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    Of all the Arbuckle biographies, Oderman’s is most strongly colored by the author’s interviews with Minta Durfee Arbuckle. Oderman presents Durfee’s account and perspectives with little critical distance, yet the biography thereby gives fascinating evidence of her investment in defending her former husband’s legacy.

  • Roberts, Richard M. “Fatty Arbuckle Re-Examined.” Classic Images 213 (March 1993): 50–53.

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    A brief two-part overview of Arbuckle’s career in film, sidestepping the scandal. The first looks at the comedian’s work in the 1910s; the second covers Arbuckle’s anonymous and pseudonymous directing in the 1920s.The second part is continued as “Fatty After the Fall.” Classic Images 214 (April 1993): 42–44.

  • Wagner, Walter. You Must Remember This: Oral Reminiscences of the Real Hollywood. New York: Putnam’s, 1975.

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    This collection of oral histories includes an interview with then eighty-three-year-old Minta Durfee Arbuckle, who reflects on her relationship with the comedian, their period together at Keystone, and the scandal.

  • Yallop, David. The Day the Laughter Stopped: The True Story of Fatty Arbuckle. New York: St. Martin’s, 1976.

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    The first full-length biography of the comedian, Yallop’s book draws on a range of interviews with Arbuckle’s contemporaries. Fully half the text is devoted to the scandal. The book also includes what was, at the time, the most complete filmography of the comedian, compiled by Samuel Gill.

  • Young, Robert, Jr. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    A succinct and valuable reference book, containing a detailed biographical essay, reprinted interviews, theater credits, and a filmography. More even-handed and scholarly than other Arbuckle biographies to date.

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