Greg Merritt's new book, Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood (September, 2013, Chicago Review Press) is the account of sensational accusations and subsequent trials of Roscoe Arbuckle, following a party held Labor Day weekend in San Francisco.
It would seem there is a small renaissance today in the lives of silent film stars. New biographies are being published of the bigger stars (John Gilbert and Mae Murray) and more obscure film actors (Peg Entwistle and Mary Wickes). There remains huge interest in silent stars such as Harlow and Garbo (who made the transition into sound), Chaplin, Pickford, director William Desmond Taylor, Mabel Normand, Laurel and Hardy and several others.
The life of Roscoe Arbuckle falls into an odd category. On one hand, his films have now become relegated to the pile of silent films that seem to end up in bargain bins of DVDs for $1.00, even while becoming easier to view (YouTube). His story isn't of his success as a comedian and silent film star; it's the story of his being accused, initially of murder, and subsequently, manslaughter, and the salaciousness that followed. The story of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle is legend. It's the nagging details that are muddled.
Thankfully, Merritt's book takes a close look at all the evidence, all the while putting Arbuckle's place in history in perspective. Merritt reviews autopsy reports, trial transcripts, police and coroner testimony, newspaper articles and never before published interviews to give a very balanced analysis of what could have happened that Labor Day of 1921.
Here's the story in brief: By 1921, Arbuckle was big box office. His films were popular all over America and the world. He was loved by everyone; on screen he was one of us. Arbuckle had just completed the film, Freight Prepaid, for Paramount and was working on his next feature film. He needed a break and took a small entourage to San Francisco, where they would have a party in the suites of the Hotel St. Francis.
Throughout the weekend, people would come and go. There was alcohol and plenty of it. On Monday, an actress whom Arbuckle knew slightly, Virginia Rappe, came up to the party and after a few drinks, began talking to Arbuckle.
One of the strengths of Room 1219 is its most thorough biography of Virginia Rappe. Previous books on the Arbuckle case portray her as a desperate actress or prostitute. Merritt shows she actually had some success in Hollywood and had other opportunities. When she was talking to Arbuckle, it would make sense that she would ask him for work.
She was also pretty, Arbuckle was flirty, drinks were being served, it was a party. The two of them slipped away into Room 1219.
What followed changed the lives of both of them. Rappe was injured, her bladder ruptured. No one at the time knew how serious it was. Arbuckle left her in the care of others and the party broke up.
Rappe died four days later. Based on the testimony of others at the party, including Rappe companion Maude Delmont who never testified in open court, Arbuckle was arrested for the murder in an attempt to perpetrate rape of Virginia Rappe.
The charge was eventually reduced to manslaughter and the trial of the century was on and on and on. There would be three trials in all. Merritt breaks down each one, showing the lame attempts by the show-boating prosecution to introduce hearsay evidence, twisted testimony and wild speculation. Of course, the defense did Arbuckle no favors, at least during the first two trials. They seemed unprepared at times, believing that no jury could find it in them to convict one of America's greatest clowns. Merritt provides the pertinent transcripts of the trials, showing where the evidence is favorable to Arbuckle, but also shows the holes in his alibi.
At the third trial, Arbuckle was acquitted in less than 10 minutes. But the damage had already been done. His career was over. His films were still banned practically all over the country. Will Hays had been appointed head of the new Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which, basically, was a self-serving reform group. Hays was the puppet of the studio heads and one of his first edicts was to ban Arbuckle permanently from working in any studio in Hollywood.
Room 1219 details Arbuckle's exile from Hollywood; Hays' reversal; and Arbuckle's subsequent comeback as a director, stage performer and, ultimately, his return to acting in film. Using all the evidence put into place in the book, Merritt provides a good, logical theory on what really happened that day in San Francisco. It was an event that should have ended differently. The lives of two people were ruined that day. Rappe lost her life and Arbuckle lost everything.
Room 1219 will be welcomed by all film buffs as the most complete account of the Arbuckle trials. It's hard to believe 92 years later, there is still new evidence being discovered and new theories advanced. Fascinating and full of new information about the case, its participants and victims, Room 1219 engages the reader from start to finish with no happy endings in sight.