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Once Upon a Time in Duluth: Eyes were glued to comedian 'Fatty' Arbuckle off-screen drama

1921: The countries beloved silent film actor was accused of manslaughter in the death of Virginia Rappe, a young actress who never recovered from an event at Arbuckle's hotel party.

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In the latter half of 1921, readers were invested in the case of Fatty Arbuckle and the dead Virginia Rappe. Duluth News Tribune archive / Newsbank

Around 100 years ago nowhere near Duluth, one of Hollywood’s best-paid stars had just opened the film “Crazy to Marry” when his headlines shifted from the silent comedy to real-life tragedy.

On the front page of the Sept. 12, 1921, edition of the Duluth News Tribune: “Fatty Arbuckle jailed on murder charge, loses jovial smile; girl’s death probed.”

Arbuckle and his buddies were staying in a trio of suites at the St. Francis Hotel, a celebrity hotspot in San Francisco’s Union Square. They invited guests to a party on the 12th floor. At one point the house doctor was called to tend to a sick guest — young actress Virginia Rappe, who died in the hospital days later.

A witness claimed that Arbuckle had raped and accidentally killed Rappe, though he maintained his innocence and was ultimately acquitted.

The story captivated readers well beyond Hollywood. Screenings of Arbuckle’s movies were canceled in Duluth and Superior. The News Tribune had near-daily front page coverage of the case — but also a note on the editorial page asking readers to not submit letters to the editor about it.

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Grandma, who is 'Fatty'

Kansas born Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was among the most famous comedians of the era, acting in and directing 14 films leading up to his mega-fall. He was a full-bodied actor whose exaggerated movements and golly-faces propelled his stories. When a restoration of Arbuckle’s films screened at the MoMa in New York City in 2006, the New York Times described him as “an overgrown infant and an adult sensualist.”

“A sketch out of the Sunday funnies: the large, almost perfectly round head, bisected by a wide mouth that could leer or grin or lustily devour, perched atop an almost equally round body, the spherical qualities of the ensemble accentuated by a bowler hat,” critic Dave Kehr wrote.

In the 1910s, the News Tribune often ran ads for movies and Arbuckle’s name was consistently employed as a way to lure comedy fans to the theater, whether it was to see “The Butcher Boy,” “O! Doctor” or “The Reckless Romeo,” a movie that made an appeal using his size as a punchline.

“The comedian who is worth his weight in laughs appears as an extra added attraction Sunday only with his own company in his latest scream,” according to the 1917 advertisement.

In a 1921 review of an age-old tale, reimagined for the screen, a reviewer wrote:

“If Roscoe Arbuckle has ever done anything equaling his work in ‘Brewster’s Millions,’ we have yet to see it. The title is the only thing recognizable in the screen version of this tried-and-trusty old stock vehicle, but you’ll forget the liberties taken with the plot in watching this heavyweight champion of comedians.

“From the first close-up, as Monte Brewster at the age of one year, shaking dice with cubes of sugar, to the final fade-out, Arbuckle in this apparently effortless manner creates laugh after laugh,” according to a review in the Chicago fan magazine Photoplay.

At the time of the hotel room scandal, the then-33 year old was signed with Paramount Pictures in a deal that would secure him millions of dollars. Recently, Arbuckle had worked simultaneously on three feature-length movies, which was considered a feat.

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“That is, shuttling from one to another during the filming,” according to a 1971 article in the New York Times.

After Rappe’s death, Arbuckle faced three juries: two hung and one acquitting him. Despite being cleared legally, his career crashed. For a while, the Motion Picture Association banned his films. He later worked under a pseudonym, William Goodrich. He died of heart failure in 1933.

Meanwhile, back in Duluth

Back in the day, readers were polled about what were the top stories currently featured in the News Tribune. Arbuckle’s name in the news had the same effect as his name on a marquee.

Asked what he was reading the week the news broke, mining engineer Dwight E. Woodbridge, of Wallace Street, said he was following Fatty: “The notoriety given Fatty Arbuckle seems to be gaining interest daily,” he told the News Tribune.

Justin Hays, of East First Street, agreed: “Fatty Arbuckle on Felony Row was one of the stories that interested me most in this morning’s News Tribune.”

(Herbert Graves, of Goodhue Street, didn’t take the bait. His favorite: “The story about the ham sandwich costing $22,000 — in Russian money — tickled me,” he said.)

On Sept. 13, 1921, the News Tribune announced that the Clinton Meyers company had canceled Arbuckle. It would not be screening Fatty flicks in Duluth and Superior until “the Arbuckle case has been disposed of to the satisfaction of the courts.”

(In Wyoming, where it was reported that a mob of 150 men and boys stormed a theater playing an Arbuckle film and shot up the screen. Days later, this was deemed a myth and a publicity stunt.)

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Despite staying updated with every new bit of information — “Fatty was ‘Pied Piper’ for children, stepmother, washerwoman says” (Sept. 13, 1921), “The life of the party and the death of the party; ‘Weaker’ sex shows interest in Arbuckle trial” (Oct.5, 1921), “Arbuckle has lost ten pounds, jail is new reducing stun” (Sept. 18, 1921) — the newspaper would not accept commentary on them.

“The News Tribune has received numerous letters to the Forum column dealing with the Arbuckle case, the publication of which would only lead to controversy overrunning this column to the extent of crowding out letters of readers advancing a more valued opinion,” according to the request that first ran Sept. 20, 1921. “In refusing the publication of these letters, the News Tribune hopes it has voiced the approval of its readers.”

So what’s the story

Arbuckle returned to San Francisco from Los Angeles after Rappe’s death to assist in the investigation and was taken into custody, according to a Sept. 10, 1921, article in the New York Times. He issued a statement of what happened that night at the St. Francis Hotel.

Rappe, Maude Delmont and A.L. Seminacher had been invited to his rooms for a few drinks. He was eating breakfast when they arrived and they “talked over matters that concerned us,” he said.

“Shortly after Miss Rappe had taken a few drinks she became hysterical and complained she could not breath and then started to tear off her clothes. I requested two girls present at the time to take care of Miss Rappe. She was disrobed and put in a bathtub to be revived. The immersion did not benefit her and I then telephone to the hotel manager, telling him what was wrong and with the request that Miss Rappe be given a room.”

When she didn’t get better, he called a physician. Arbuckle said he was never alone with Rappe.

He ended up leaving the hotel the next day — he was not kicked out of the hotel, he added.

Maude Delmont had a different story: She said Rappe’s clothing was torn and that she said “Roscoe hurt me.” She said she heard screams coming from Arbuckle’s room and that she demanded he open the door.

“He did so and it was noted that he was wearing Miss Rappe’s hat and the pajamas he was wearing were wet with perspiration. The Rappe girl was on the bed tearing at her clothing and screaming: ‘I am hurt. I am dying. He did it,’” according to a story in the Sept. 14 edition of the News Tribune.

'Hysterical woman'

By November, the late Rappe was characterized in court as being a hysterical woman prone to tearing at her clothes and shrieking at parties. One actor-turned-witness for Arbuckle took the stand to tell a tale of a gin-soaked night at his house.

“Someone said they liked her garters,” Philo McCullough said. “She said, ‘do you like them,’ and then she pulled off her stockings. Thyen she tore her waist.”

It took three juries to come to a conclusion on Arbuckle. All told, in the finale, there were 70 witnesses and it lasted longer than either of the first two trials.

In mid-April 1922, Arbuckle was acquitted on manslaughter charges.

“The jurors held an informal reception with Arbuckle in the jury room while newspaper photographers, armed with flashlights, took many pictures,” according to the news report.

“I’ll be a comedian instead of a tragedian — but not unless the public wants me,” he told a reporter as he packed his truck to return to Los Angeles.

Arbuckle’s career never rebounded.

Christa Lawler is a features reporter for the News Tribune. She can be reached at clawler@duluthnews.com .

Related Topics: HISTORYMOVIESCRIME
Christa Lawler is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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