Sunday, July 24, 2011

I've Got a Name


It's often surprising to see just how far many people are prepared to go to assure others of their social availability. I watched the Casey Anthony trial on CNN here in my Philippine province with growing distaste. Not because the defendant was evidently such an appalling young woman, but because of the completely disproportionate attention that her trial was attracting from American media. Because it was televised, apparently millions of Americans were following every bit of testimony for the entirety of the last few weeks of the trial. Meanwhile pundits were interpreting every nod and blink by the defendant, reading an array of utterly bogus emotions and meanings into the look on her face, her tears or a smile.

Anthony's acquittal came as a shock to most viewers. I found it mildly surprising, but only because I didn't take part in the near-hysteria that gripped so many viewers in America. Because of the disgusting heavy-handedness of the television coverage, which every tabloid newspaper wallowed in, most people had made up their minds by the time the verdict was handed down that she was guilty. Screams against the not guilty accused were shrill and deafening. But nobody questioned the role of the media in the creation of the ridiculous and uninformed court of public opinion that pronounced the woman guilty without a trace of accountability. America's armchair trial judges have been questioning the wisdom of American jury trials, which seem to be devised to let the guilty go free. In fact, that is precisely what the American jury trial was created to do.

In the 1990s, it was the O.J. Simpson trial that aroused a similar amount of interest in the public, and level of outrage at the verdict. I remember when the Manson trial reached its climax, on January 25, 1971. One of my female classmates at a Catholic parochial school, a pretty girl from a rich family, burst into tears when she heard the verdict.

There have been numerous other "trials of the century" that have fascinated the public. There was one in 1922 that demonstrates, far more terribly than the Casey Anthony trial ever could, how public opinion can contradict a jury's verdict and how the media can so excite emotions in people who have no knowledge or understanding of the case to paroxysms of hate for the defendant. It was the trial, in three stages, of the film star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

Born March 24, 1887, he started as a singer on the west coast in 1904 (1), and began appearing in films in 1909 and finally moved to comedies in 1913. By 1914 he was directing his own films, often with his co-star Mabel Normand. Some have even suggested that Arbuckle's characteristic costume choices, like the over sized pants and too-small hat, were "borrowed" by Charlie Chaplin for his Tramp character.

By 1916, Arbuckle was so popular he created his own film company with Joseph Schenck. He gave a popular vaudeville performer named Buster Keaton his first chance in films in 1917, in the short,
The Butcher Boy. Under Arbuckle's tutelage, Keaton himself became such a successful star that in 1918 Arbuckle transferred controlling interest in his film company to Keaton, accepting an offer from Paramount for $3 million to produce eighteen feature films in three years.

He was always sensitive about his size, having weighed 187 lbs when he was only 12 years old. He resigned himself to his nickname, "Fatty", ("it was inevitable," he said) but would correct anyone who addressed him as "Fatty" with "I've got a name, you know."

He threw a party in San Francisco with two friends on September 5, 1921 at the St. Francis Hotel, inviting several women to join them. One of them, an aspiring actress named Virginia Rappe, became ill after drinking heavily, and was taken to an adjoining room. Two days after the party, was taken by a friend to a hospital where she died on September 9, apparently from peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder. The friend who brought her to the hospital told the doctor that Rappe, who was also a few weeks' pregnant, had been raped at the party by Arbuckle. She then told the police, who began an investigation.

Outrageous stories about what happened at the party began to appear in the press, which was dominated by William Randolph Hearst, who makes Rupert Murdoch look like an altar boy. Rappe's manager suggested that Arbuckle had used a piece of ice on her genitals, which became a bottle when it was reported in newspapers. The police concluded that it was Arbuckle's physical weight that had caused her bladder to rupture when he raped her.

Arbuckle was arrested and charged with manslaughter. The case first went to trial on November 14, 1921. Minta Durfee, Arbuckle's estranged wife, supported him in the first weeks of the trial, until public opinion turned so negative against him that someone fired a shot at her when she entered the courthouse. American morality groups called for the court to give Arbuckle the death penalty.

After evidence and testimony were presented, the jury was deadlocked, despite a 10-2 not guilty vote, and the judge ordered a mistrial. The second trial also ended in a mistrial, on a 9-3 guilty verdict. By the time the third trial was convened, the press was publishing incredibly derailed and salacious stories about Hollywood orgies. Arbuckle's films had been pulled from distribution. Religious leaders were using Arbuckle as an example of Hollywood's "immorality". The public had already made up its mind about Arbuckle's guilt.

But the third trial ended in a swift and unanimous acquittal of Arbuckle. His defense attorney had destroyed the prosecution's case and brought to light evidence of Virginia Rappe's extremely spotty history: besides being a heavy drinker, she had chronic cystitis that was exacerbated by her drinking. As an "aspiring actress", she had also been involved in several abortions in the space of only a few years and was evidently preparing for another when she died. During the six minutes it took to deliberate, the jury spent five of them drafting a letter of apology to Arbuckle, part of which ran:

Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him... there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story which we all believe. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgement of fourteen men and women that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.

Arbuckle, due to his admission of drinking alcohol at the party, was in violation of the Volstead Act and had to pay a $500 fine. His legal fees amounted to $700,000, causing him to sell a house and all his cars to pay it. His film career was destroyed by vindictive movie executives, particularly William H. Hays, creator of the infamous Hays Office, who initially banned Arbuckle from ever working in the U.S.

The trials had created a chill in Hollywood that caused many producers to adopt much stricter rules about the content of their films. For Arbuckle, despite his acquittal, it was already too late. A longtime drinker, he turned to it with renewed rigor. As his wife put it, "Roscoe only seemed to find solace and comfort in a bottle". Buster Keaton tried to help by giving him work in his films, behind the camera. Arbuckle finally took on the pseudonym William Goodrich (his father's name) and became a film director. Louise Brooks, made famous in G.W. Pabst's haunting silent film, Pandora's Box, worked with Arbuckle in 1931 and told Kevin Brownlow:

He made no attempt to direct this picture [Windy Riley Goes Hollywood]. He sat in his chair like a man dead. He had been very nice and sweetly dead ever since the scandal that ruined his career.

Arbuckle appeared again in films in 1932 when Warner Brothers signed him for a series of two-reel comedies. Upon finishing the last in the series, he dropped dead of an apparent heart attack the following day, June 29, 1933. He was 46.


(1) When Enrico Caruso heard Arbuckle sing, he told him: "Give up this nonsense you do for a living, with training you could become the second greatest singer in the world"

No comments: