A few years ago I wrote a book chapter on the scandal surrounding silent film star, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. The research taught me many things. I learned that Arbuckle was perhaps the first real movie star. He was among the first — if not the very first — actor to write, direct and star in his own films. He was one of the original Keystone Kops. He was a mentor to Buster Keaton, and his million dollar studio contract even predated Charlie Chaplin’s.
In short, Arbuckle was a big deal. Arbuckle was also the victim of yellow journalism, wrongly accused of a terrible crime and died a pariah. The meteoric rise and hard fall of Roscoe Arbuckle is nothing less than Shakespearean.
Most of Arbuckle’s travails owe to the greed and ambition of two men: San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.
Brady saw the groundswell of media attention surrounding Arbuckle’s legal troubles as a way to advance his financial and political fortunes. Brady had his sights set on becoming the governor of California. Nothing catapults a prosecutor into the public consciousness like a big vulgar show trial. Brady also received a pair of inexplicable payments ($10,000 each — this was 1921) from studio head Aldolph Zukor — with whom Arbuckle had a protracted dispute.
Then there’s Hearst. From all accounts, Hearst seemed to enjoy the sport of ruining people for profit. Destroying Arbuckle in a moment of vulnerability wasn’t just taking candy from a baby. It was taking the candy, kicking the stroller off a cliff and running a bulldozer over it once it reached bottom.
Hearst recognized the great media fodder Arbuckle represented. His vast media empire painted the portly movie idol as a monstrous villain, rapist and murderer. It matters little that the evidence said otherwise. Delivering Arbuckle’s head on a pike proved to be extremely profitable. The sensation of it sold a lot of papers.
It took three trials to acquit Arbuckle: one deadlocked to convict; one deadlocked to acquit; and finally a verdict in number three. When the third jury pronounced Arbuckle not guilty, they had deliberated for fewer than five minutes; and in that time they composed a note apologizing to Arbuckle for the grievous shame done to him.
None of this mattered. Arbuckle’s life was largely over. His films had been pulled from all theaters. He had been banned from working in the industry. The outrage over Arbuckle’s non-crime ushered in the era of the Hayes Code and censorial puritanism.
In nearly a century, little has changed. Movies have gotten progressively more vulgar and tolerant, and I can’t help think but about the Norma Desmond quote from Sunset Boulevard: “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.”
Show trials have become so commonplace as to have lost their “show” quality. They are little more than legal peep shows.
While Hearst is long dead, his ideological bastard son, Rupert Murdoch, is alive and well. Of all our sins, this is the most grievous. We continue to allow the cynical perversion of the Golden Rule to dominate: He who has the gold, makes the rules. Only this time it’s he who has the gold controls the narrative.
It’s not as if the people on the left don’t do this, for they surely do. It’s that the extremities of the right have raised it to high art. As a culture, we have become so inured of it we don’t distinguish between commentary and reporting. Outlets like Murdoch’s Fox News make sure you can’t tell the difference.
As for Arbuckle, he has been largely reduced to a footnote. This is a shame. The term “comedic genius” fails to capture his brilliance.
If you have a minute, search the web for a few Arbuckle shorts. Pretty quickly the danger of letting the Hearsts of this world darken our stars will become evident.
Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org