The Myth of the Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle Ban

The Myth of the Fatty Ban

The 1920s had barely begun when a real life situation developed that would lead to the first officially announced ban in Australia on an actor and his entire output, past, present and future, as opposed to a single film. Incredibly the ban had nothing to do with on-screen horror, instead the ban was enforced upon one of the most popular cinematic comedians of the silent era and, even more incredibly, despite the ban was official, it was also widely ignored.
Roscoe Arbuckle, better known to the movie going public by his nickname, ‘Fatty[i]’, was one of the most popular of the early silent comedians. He worked with the greats of the era, Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and acted as mentor to the young Bob Hope. His popularity was reflected in his three year contract with Paramount Pictures which would see him earn a whopping $1,000,000 a year. Arbuckle was box office gold, only behind Chaplin for sheer money making capacity in Australia in the early 1920s. Arbuckle was featured in newspapers, on film magazines and even in cartoon strips; his girth was his selling point, combined with incredibly agility. His comedic timing was impeccable and by mid-1921 there was an Arbuckle movie being screened somewhere at a cinema at any given time in Australia.
Suite 1221 of St. Francis Hotel shortly after Arbuckle's party
Arbuckle was front page news from the 12th of September, 1921 when news broke of his arrest for rape. At the same time as newspapers were gleefully advertising his films Brewster’s Millions (1921), The Bell Boy (1918), and Good Night, Nurse (1918), the latter two films co-starring Buster Keaton, Arbuckle was being arraigned and charged with the rape and murder of a young, would-be actress, Virgina Rappe.
Rappe had died after a particularly wild party held in Arbuckle’s hotel room in early September, 1921 and the newspapers instantly began reporting her death was due to Arbuckle’s weight damaging her internal organs as he was raping her on his bed. Even more salaciously, the inference was that Arbuckle had penetrated Rappe with a Coke (or champagne) bottle, thus causing her internal injuries.
Even worse for Arbuckle, the party was one where alcohol had flowed freely (in a time when America was firmly in the grip of Prohibition) and Arbuckle was a married man, giving those who were morally outraged more ammunition. In Australia, as with America, the arrest of Arbuckle and the subsequent trials were widely reported in newspapers and even before he could be found innocent or guilty, indeed even before the case could reach the courts; housewives groups were calling for a ban on his movies on moral grounds.
Virginia Rappe
History now shows that Arbuckle was totally innocent of all charges – the rape of Rappe by Arbuckle, or anyone else that day, simply did not occur, nor did the story of the Coke bottle. Yet Arbuckle was accused of rape (and murder) by a friend of Rappes, named Maude Delmont, for her own reasons, and duly framed by an over eager District Attorney, Matthew Brady[ii], looking to make his mark. The suggestions of an injury due to a bottle, or ice, came from Rappe’s manager, who was not present at the time, nor did he see Rappe’s body. Arbuckle later testified that both he, and others present in the room, including women, had used ice to rub Rappe’s stomach and forehead in an attempt to calm her down. Matters were not helped when one of Rappe’s lovers, film director Henry ‘Pathe’ Lerhman, began a media campaign against Arbuckle[iii]. It’s also been strongly suggested that Arbuckle was sacrificed by the film industry as a whole in an attempt to introduce tighter standards and censorship in the United States.
Rappe died of peritonitis, due to a combination of pre-existing health conditions, including chronic cystitis, which was aggravated by drinking alcohol, venereal disease and an alleged botched backyard abortion. The doctor who performed the autopsy found no evidence of rape, or any sexual activity leading up to her death, but noted that her general health was poor at the time. Outside of Delmont who, herself, wasn’t in the room at the time of Rappe’s collapse, nobody present witnessed, or heard, any sexual assault. As it stands, Arbuckle’s only crime was being in the same suite as Rappe when she fell ill. Her penchant for heavy drinking of ‘bootleg’ booze, Prohibition or not, wouldn’t have helped her stay alive. It made no difference that Arbuckle was ultimately found not guilty and exonerated after three trials (the first two trials ended in mistrials), his name was poison. This was largely due to William Randolph Hearst, who, sensing a story made sure that his tabloids reported the more sensational rumors from the party at the cost of the actual truth[iv]. Arbuckle was tried by the media, found guilty and executed, career wise.
Roscoe Arbuckle's mug shot
The calls for Arbuckle to be banned began immediately after the news of his arrest was made public. The Queensland manager for Paramount Pictures wrote to newspapers informing the public that all Arbuckle films were to be withdrawn by exhibition as quickly as possible, but included the caveat that, should Arbuckle be cleared, those same films would be put back into the cinemas[v]. Housewives groups around the country stepped up the pressure with letter writing campaigns to newspapers calling for a ban.
Even as talk was happening in regards to the banning of Arbuckle films coming into the country (The Sky Pilot and The Trombone Player), Arbuckle’s earlier, Keystone era films with Charlie Chaplin and Chester Conklin were being dusted off and quietly placed back into circulation where they thrived. No matter what his crimes were, real or imagined, no matter how many community groups, parents groups and social activists denounced him, Arbuckle was still highly popular with the cinema going public.
As far as Australia was concerned, Arbuckle’s films were, unofficially, banned as of 5 July, 1922, when the Cinematograph Exhibitors Association formally announced a ban on his pictures[vi]. This ban was debated in the newspapers, but those defending Arbuckle were in the minority. The question of the appropriateness of his films being shown were raised in the House of Representatives, with Federal Minister Edmund Jowett calling on the Minister for Trades and Customs[vii] to take immediate steps to prevent his films from being exhibited. The Minister in question, Arthur Rodgers, then took the matter up with the Chief Censor.
The Chief Censor, Professor Wallace, duly responded[viii] that importers and exhibitors had been contacted and no more Arbuckle films would be brought into the country. Further to this, movie houses intending on showing Arbuckle films would be told, in no uncertain terms, that such screenings were not to happen. “No films featuring ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle have entered this country since the notorious trial of that actor,” Rodgers told the House of Representatives, “the pictures now being exhibited came in before the trial, and, therefore, the Censor cannot be rightly taken to task in regard to them. In any case, the Commonwealth Government can exercise supervision over the picture-show business only by means of its Customs powers. If it is thought that action should be taken in regard to the films already admitted, it will be for the State authorities to move on the matter, they having complete power to do so. Since the honorable member's first question on the subject, I have seen the Chief Censor, and he has been in communication with the exhibitors concerned. I have reason to believe that, in recognition of the feeling of the country, these films will be withdrawn from exhibition[ix].”
Despite the Chief Censor and now the Federal Government giving every indication of a ban being in place, more was needed for the many community groups, who were beginning to question Arbuckle’s innocence, with claims that he had expended his vast fortune on buying justice.
On the same day as Rodgers addressed Parliament, the Victorian Cinematograph Exhibitors Association took out an ad[x] in Melbourne newspapers stating that they would not be showing any Arbuckle film, new or old, in any of their cinemas across the state. The ad listed 75 separate theatres who promised that Arbuckle was finished on the screen in their cinemas. Once Victoria made the public announcement other states quickly followed suit. In South Australia, a group of exhibitors gathered all of the Arbuckle films they could find, carried them off to nearby Glenelg Beach on 8 October, 1922 and set fire to them[xi]. Thick, acrid black smoke could be clearly seen from Adelaide’s CBD, 11 kilometres away. The heat was described as intense, which wasn’t very surprising as the film stock contained a large amount of nitrate which would have went up the second flame was applied. The smouldering mound of silver nitrate was left on the sands to wash out to the Southern Ocean.
“Mr. Bice[xii], the Chief Secretary, has announced that the Government has prohibited the screening in South Australia of films featuring Roscoe ("Fatty") Arbuckle,” announced newspapers in South Australia. “The Government, said Mr. Bice, would ban the presentation of programmes on which appeared personalities whose records were better forgotten. It was determined to see that clean and wholesome pictures were exhibited, and anything objectionable would be forbidden.[xiii]
"Virginia Rappe (The girl Fatty Arbuckle has been accused of murdering)" - Tasteless advertising, Gundagi Times (NSW), 6 January, 1922
Feelings were mixed in Western Australia. While agreeing, in principle, with the ban, it was left to exhibitors to decide if it was to be enforced. The Western Australian stance was best summed up in the Daily News. “While it was left to the patrons of picture shows in Victoria to decide whether films in which the notorious Roscoe Arbuckle was featured should be tolerated after the Archbishop. Dr. Lees, had uttered a strong protest, the producers in New South Wales banned the pictures from their theatres. To their credit the producers in this State have not, so far, offended public, taste by making an attempt to re-introduce Arbuckle. At a social function on Thursday night last, at which the leading picture show managers, were assembled, Mr. J. J. Simons, M.L.A who, seemingly, cannot see anything wrong in anyone or anything American, counseled the producers to show Arbuckle pictures[xiv].”
“An Arbuckle film, the first to be exhibited in Australia since the revelations in connection with the private life of the fat comedian, was withdrawn from a leading Melbourne theatre recently, after a couple of showings, in deference to a howl that arose from pulpits, platforms and a section of the press,” wrote the Call. “During the controversy much was said of the immorality of Arbuckle, and strangely enough most of the community seemed to be on the side of the suppressionists. Present writer doesn't propose to enter into the rights and wrongs of the argument unless it comes West, but it is interesting to note that while Arbuckle is banned, Oscar Wilde is now permitted in the best societies — as a matter of fact every amateur dramatic club that fancies itself at all has a shot at an Oscar Wilde production. Our contention isn't that Wilde should be banned, but if the morals of the man and not the quality of his productions call for suppression, aren't there quite enough scandals associated with Wilde? And if we go further, haven't serious reflections been cast on the moral character of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Horatio Nelson, and quite a number of Australian Premiers? If we are to outlaw a man's works because of undesirable traits in his personal character, we should at least treat them all alike. And if we did that, our list of historic idols would be cut-down probably by two-thirds[xv].”
The ban on Arbuckle came mainly in the form of advertising censorship. His image wasn’t used in ads for his films, but his name was, and the bulk of his films attracted the scantest of reviews, but these reviews were all positive. This went against the general media reportage of Arbuckle. Almost every article that was written about him from this point onwards mentioned Rappe and the murder/rape charges. Arbuckle’s divorces, his failure to find work, his financial state and the status of the bans were all newsworthy, even if the continued success of his films were not.
But the ban was, largely, a myth. For all of the public fury and hype, Arbuckle films were still being shown at cinemas, both in suburban and country areas, while the trials were happening. This was in direct contrast to the reports of a ban, and the activities of various religious and social groups who were busily burning and destroying Arbuckle films and merchandise. Virginia Rappe’s movies were also dusted off and, even there, she was linked to Arbuckle. One tasteless such ad, for A Twilight Baby (1920) labeled Rappe as, “The girl Fatty Arbuckle has been accused of murdering[xvi]”.
States that showed Arbuckle films included Queensland, Western Australia and Northern Territory. New South Wales[xvii], Victoria[xviii], Tasmania and South Australia banned Arbuckle, but the ban was not as widespread as people thought. In New South Wales the ban only existed on any new Arbuckle film coming into the country, films that were already here were shown, after a few months had passed. This happened in most states, with Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania upholding their bans until after Arbuckle had died.
Victoria bans Arbuckle - The Argus (Vic), 29 September, 1922
Screenings of Arbuckle’s short silent movies would continue well into the 1930s[xix], and well after he passed away. The reasons why his films were shown is not a mystery. He was a very effective screen comedian. Many of his co-stars, notably Chaplin and Keaton, were still popular with the public and, more importantly, his movies made money. Admittedly they didn’t make as much as they did before the controversy, but they could still be counted on to bring in children who didn’t care what Arbuckle might have done, or not, off-screen. And that was the important part. Arbuckle’s movies were shown at children’s matinées, usually as the second feature to western and serials.
In 1927, five years after the ban was announced, moves were made to formally un-ban Arbuckle films, to no avail. The lifting of the ban would have been a formality as, by now, his films were again being advertised in newspapers as coming attractions[xx].
Despite the ban Arbuckle was still a subject of public interest, sometimes for the wrong reasons. On February 7, 1929, Independent Australian Party Minister Walter Marks was detailing his visits to both England and America, where he studied the film industry. In an interjection, Marks was asked by Labor’s George Yates if he’d taken the time out to, “…visit Fatty Arbuckle”. Marks replied, “I thank the honorable member for that interjection, and am pleased to say that in the United States of America, as in Australia, if a man is so unfortunate as to be down and out, his friends make an effort to lift him out of the mire. Fatty Arbuckle, mainly through the assistance rendered by his former associates, is now conducting a smart restaurant at Hollywood, and is making good.[xxi]
South Australia burns Arbuckle. Films burnt on Glenelg Beach by exhibitors on October 8, 1922. The Observor (SA), 21 October, 1922, 
In February, 1933, the Truth in Sydney decided to dredge up the scandal once more, this time as a new Arbuckle talking feature, Hey, Pop! was due for release. “SCREEN FIEND IS BACK,” screamed the headline. “Sleeping Censor Fails In His Job. Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, salacious scoundrel of the screen, has staged a comeback. The man, whose immoral orgies shocked the world and cost beautiful Virginia Rappe her life, is appearing in a city talkie. And this cruel and rapacious pervert is hailed in the advertisements of the daily Press as ‘the most popular man on earth.’”
Despite the broadsheets name, the Truth reported anything but the truth for the bulk of its life. The Truth was built around reportage of scandal, often dismissing the facts, such as Arbuckle’s acquittal and his presence on screens for the decade since the scandal, and painted a scurrilous picture of Arbuckle that was anything but reality as they dredged up the scandal.
Back in 'Frisco in 1921 Arbuckle, the mountain of fat and flesh, revealed himself as a monster of lust as well as of avoirdupois. In the early morning after a night of drink and vice in his rich apartments, Virginia Rappe, the famous screen beauty, was killed. Arbuckle was seized by the police and held on a murder charge, and what the detectives discovered shocked the world. Virginia Rappe had been plied with champagne until she was in a condition of mental stupor. She had lost sense and chastity and thereupon was seized by this devilish 'comedian.' And then in a fashion that made the California Grand Jury shudder, this foolish beauty was treated by Arbuckle in an inhuman manner. The woman's cries of pain and fear were not heard above the bellowing’s of the remainder of the besotted revelers.
And now, in the enlightened days of 1933, the Australian film censor permits a picture by this scoundrel to enter the Commonwealth and be advertised as a 'welcome back to the famous screen comedian.' Children In particular are Invited to attend the theatre and witness the pranks of Arbuckle. If this man had been an Australian crook and sex-killer, would the Censor have allowed him to appear on stage or screen? And would any Australian who committed anything like the unexampled lust parade of Arbuckle be allowed to dump talkies into America? Our sleeping censor should revive from his mental trance for a sufficient time to admit his error of judgment, recall this picture, and dump it back to Hollywood from whence it came[xxii].
The Truth’s wild ravings made zero difference. Running for 18 minutes, Hey, Pop! (Warner Brothers, 1932) was duly released and was placed as a supporting feature. It didn’t set the country on fire, but proved popular enough to continue running well into the 1930s.
Officially the ban remained in place until Arbuckle died in July 1933 and even after that date his films were not to be released for film revivals or to television until the 1970s. Sadly, even in death, Arbuckle was remembered, in Australia, as being a rapist[xxiii].
Despite scandals involving cinema and actors that had come before[xxiv], and would come after, the Arbuckle ban was the first and, to date, only time in Australia that an actor’s entire output was banned, even if that ban wasn’t as widespread, or enforced as rigidly, as people believed. But the real ramifications of the mythical Australia-wide Arbuckle ban would be felt for years to come and would be referenced in the future when other bans were introduced.

[i] Arbuckle hated the nick-name ‘Fatty’. He’d generally refuse to answer to it, instead reminding people, in a quiet, but polite voice, that his name was Roscoe.
[ii] "District Attorney Matthew Brady ... must have been beside himself. An intensely ambitious man, he planned to run for governor. Here presented to him in the most sensational terms, was the scandal of the century-an apparent open and shut case." – Kevin Brownlow, The Pioneers. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. 1979.
[iii] Indeed it has often been suggested that Rappe was either about to undergo yet another backyard abortion, or had just had it, to rid herself of Lerhman’s baby.
[iv] Hearst was gratified by the profits he accrued during the Arbuckle scandal, and later said that it had "sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the Lusitania." Felix, Wanda (Fall 1995). "Fatty". The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities
[v] Arbuckle Pictures. Daily Standard (Qld), 20 September, 1921
[vi] No Arbuckle Films. Ballarat Star, 5 July, 1922
[vii] House of Representatives Hansard, 26 September 1922.
[viii] Arbuckle Films. Express and Telegraph (SA), 27 September, 1922
[ix] Start of Business. Hansard, 28 September 1922
[x] Notice to Picture Theatre Patrons. The Argus (Vic), 28 September, 1922
[xi] The Last Of An Arbuckle Film. The Observer (SA), 21 October, 1922
[xii] Sir John George Bice KCMG (24 June 1853 – 9 November 1923)
[xiii] “Fatty” Arbuckle Films Prohibited. Chronicle, 14 October, 1922
[xiv] Notes and Comments. Daily News (WA), 18 October, 1922
[xv] Notes. Call (WA) 13 October, 1922
[xvi] World’s Best Pictures. Gundagai Times (NSW), 6 January, 1922
[xvii] Not Here. Evening News (NSW), 23 December, 1922. “Still Banned in NSW. Arbuckle films are still banned in N.S.W. Mr. Hicks, managing director of paramount films in Australia, said today that he had no intention of releasing Arbuckle pictures in Australia. The public had shown that Arbuckle was “in bad” and while the feeling existed his films were to be banned.”
[xviii] Arbuckle Films Banned. Maitland Daily Mercury (NSW), 28 September, 1922. “The Victorian Cinema Exhibitors Association has declared not to exhibit Arbuckle films”
[xix] Arbuckle’s silent comedies were being shown at cinemas as late as 1954 when a travelling road show of Chaplin, Arbuckle, Lloyd and various Keystone Kops comedies was being shown in country cinemas.
[xx] As an example, the Brisbane Courier (QLD), 11 August 1928. “Fatty Arbuckle appears with Charlie Chaplin in "A Quiet Life." at the Majestic Theatre, and is his old 18 stone self. The picture is full of the splendid comedy, and shows these two famous comedians at their best.”
[xxi] Governor-General’s Speech, Hansard, 7 February, 1929
[xxii] Arbuckle. Truth (NSW), 19 February, 1933
[xxiii] Too Willing Starlet Set New Low In Publicity & Necklines. The Mirror (NSW), 17 April, 1954. In talking about scandals in Hollywood, the following was written, “Not so lucky were rapist Fatty Arbuckle, drunk Laurence Tierney, and Lila Leeds.”
[xxiv] Silent film scandals that did not result in bans, either official or unofficial, include the Olive Thomas drug overdose death due to husband Jack Pickford’s own drug abuse, Wallace Reid’s death due to drug addiction and Mary Miles Minter and Mabel Normand being named as persons of interest in director William Taylor Desmond’s murder. Golden Age scandals such as Errol Flynn’s rape allegations, Robert Mitchum’s incarceration for marijuana possession, through to modern day scandals such as Roman Polanski’s drug fuelled rape of a 13 year old girl and his fleeing America, to Woody Allen’s alleged seduction of his underage adopted step-daughter and allegations of sexual abuse and Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic rantings, alleged racism and accusations of spousal abuse have all seen no official bans in Australia. Indeed, in some cases, some performers’ careers, such as Polanski and Allen, have benefited from the publicity and gained widespread support and sympathy at the expense of their victims.


Kid said…
Found innocent, but still condemned. Poor man. As for his partying, he wasn't the only Hollywood star to indulge in frivolity, but it seems he carried the can for everyone.

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