March 24th marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of the great Roscoe Arbuckle. And to celebrate, Cladrite Radio is giving away not one, not two, but three copies of The Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a four-disc DVD boxed set that features 32 restored comedy classics.
In the 1920s, Arbuckle, once as popular as any comedy performer of the silent era, experienced a fall from grace that was precipitous and, sadly, unjust.
Born in Smith Center, Kansas, in 1887, Arbuckle, one of nine children, weighed in at 13 pounds. Because both his parents were slim, his father was convinced he was, well, not his father, and he named his son Roscoe after the philandering local politician he was sure had cuckolded him.
As a child, Arbuckle enjoyed performing in theatres as a singer, but when his mother died when he was 12, his father disowned him and Roscoe was forced to do odd jobs in a hotel. A professional singer heard Arbuckle singing in the lobby and encouraged him to enter an amateur talent show. Arbuckle used a spry bit of acrobatics to avoid the hook that was headed his way during that competition and in the process won the audience over, taking first prize.
That led to a vaudeville career, and in 1909, he signed on with the Selig Polyscope Company, appearing in one-reelers until 1913. He then moved briefly on to Universal Pictures before rising to stardom on the strength on his work in Mack Sennett‘s popular Keystone Kops shorts.
In 1914, Arbuckle signed with Paramount for the unheard-of sum of $1,000 a day and was afforded complete creative control over his movies. But excessive drinking and health issues led to an addiction to morphine, and he was in danger of losing a leg to a carbuncle. He eventually recovered, keeping his leg in the process, and launched his own production company, Comique, in partnership with Joseph Schenck. The company proved a success, but in 1918, Arbuckle transferred ownership to Buster Keaton so that he might sign a three-year, $3-million pact with Paramount.
Arbuckle had a big impact on a number of other memorable careers. He mentored Charlie Chaplin after the Brit signed with Keystone, and it was from Arbuckle that Chaplin borrowed the idea of having his Little Tramp character wear baggy pants, an undersized hat, and boots.
Arbuckle also gave Keaton his first work in motion pictures in the 1917 effort, The Butcher Boy. The two went on to be a successful and popular team until Arbuckle departed for Paramount.
Arbuckle also gave Bob Hope an early break, using him as an opening act in his 1927 comedy show and setting him up with contact info for some of the influential people Arbuckle was friendly with in Hollywood.
In 1921, while vacationing in San Francisco, Arbuckle and a couple of friends rented a suite of rooms at the St. Francis Hotel and invited a number of young women to them for some carousing. During the festivities, one young woman, an actress named Virginia Rappe, fell ill. The hotel doctor adjudged her to be intoxicated and gave her morphine to calm her.
Two days later, she was admitted to the hospital and later died of internal injuries. Arbuckle was accused of raping her and causing the injuries and her death. In the first two of three sensational trials, the juries came back deadlocked and a mistrial was declared in both instances.
By the third trial, Arbuckle had received so much bad publicity that his films were banned and his career was in complete free fall. Though it took the third jury just six minutes to acquit Arbuckle—they even wrote a statement of apology to be read in court to Arbuckle—the damage was done and Arbuckle’s career in ruins.
Arbuckle was eventually given some directorial work under the alias William Goodrich, and in 1932, he filmed six talkie shorts for Warner Brothers. Those films were successful enough that on June 29, 1933, Arbuckle signed a contract with Warners to make a feature film—he proclaimed it the happiest day of his life.
Sadly, he died in his sleep of a heart attack that very night at the age of 46.
Luckily, we still have a number of Arbuckle’s films to remember him by, and it gives us great pleasure to give away three copies of The Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a four-disc boxed set. Entries are being accepted throughout the month of March, with the three lucky winners being announced in early April. Enter early and often!