Roscoe Conkling "Fatty" Arbuckle (March 24, 1887 – June 29, 1933) was a silent film star in the 1910s, a pioneering film comedian and one of Hollywood's biggest stars during The Silent Age. Today, however, he's best known for being the Trope Maker for celebrity scandals, and for being partly responsible for the development of The Hays Code.
Arbuckle was born on March 24, 1887 in Smith Center, Kansas. He had a birth weight of 13 pounds, causing disbelief in his father that he and his wife, who were both slim, could produce such a child. Consequently, his father named him after senator Roscoe Conkling, a man that he despised. This was only the beginning of a long and spiteful relationship between father and son.
Arbuckle started a singing career when he was a child, and began working in vaudeville when he was a teenager. He appeared in his first film in 1909, and started doing regular film work in 1913 after moving to Universal Pictures. Despite his size, Arbuckle was surprisingly agile and acrobatic, and his films were known for their fast-paced comedy. One thing that his movies helped to popularize was the Pie in the Face gag — the first known instance of a thrown pie landing in someone's face was in his 1913 short A Noise from the Deep. His comedy proved to be a huge hit — by 1914, Paramount Pictures was offering him and his frequent collaborator Mabel Normand (one of Hollywood's first female writers, producers and directors) an unheard-of contract of $1000 a day, 25% of all profits and Protection from Editors. By 1918, he was getting a 3-year, $3 million contract. In addition to making movies, Arbuckle managed to secure the big breaks of a number of actors whose names have become synonymous with early Hollywood, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Bob Hope.
Arbuckle was always very sensitive about his weight, and refused to let his size be used for cheap fat jokes (such as getting stuck in a doorway or chair). He disliked his nickname of "Fatty", which had been given to him in school, and discouraged people from addressing him as such off-screen. Eventually, his weight, along with his drinking, started to cause him health problems. In 1916, he got an infection in his leg that was so bad that the doctors considered amputating it. While Arbuckle recovered with both legs intact, he had lost 80 pounds and had become addicted to morphine.
On the night of September 5, 1921, Arbuckle attended what would become the most fateful party of his life. The morning after, an aspiring young actress named Virginia Rappe suffered a ruptured bladder in one of the hotel rooms that he and his friends had rented for a night of festivities, and died four days later. Before she collapsed, Rappe claimed that "Arbuckle did it" and "He hurt me" during the party. Rappe suffered from chronic cystitis, a condition that flared up whenever she got drunk — a problem that could not have been helped by her heavy drinking habits or the low quality of Prohibition-era booze. There exist two stories about what exactly happened to Rappe at the party:
- Arbuckle claimed that he had walked into Rappe's room in order to change his clothes, only to discover her vomiting in the toilet. He told her to lie down and called in some of the party guests to help her, and they placed her in a bathtub of cold water and rubbed ice on her stomach in order to help her deal with the pain. They then called the hotel manager and a doctor. According to one author, Rappe's claims that Arbuckle had hit her were the result of him accidentally kneeing her in the stomach during the relatively innocent horseplay going on at the party, damaging her already-compromised reproductive organs.
- According to Bambina Maude Delmont, Rappe's companion at the party, Arbuckle had raped Rappe, and his weight pressing on her body caused her bladder to rupture. The ice was allegedly part of an attempt to simulate sex with her.
Virtually overnight, the incident became a major media sensation, with exaggerated stories showing up in every newspaper. Rumors replaced the ice with a bottle of Coke or champagne, and created an image of Arbuckle as a lecherous slob who used his size to overpower and rape young women — a far cry from the Gentle Giant that he was in real life by all accounts. Public opinion turned against Arbuckle so quickly and harshly that, when his wife was entering the courthouse to support him, somebody tried to shoot her.
Three highly sensationalized trials were held, but it was clear that the prosecution really didn't have much of a leg to stand on. Most infamously, the prosecutor refused to have Delmont, the one who had made the accusation in the first place, testify before the court, as her testimony was simply too disjointed. Although Arbuckle was ultimately acquitted, with the case against him getting torn apart on the stand and the jury even apologizing for the injustice that had been done to him, the damage was already done. Arbuckle was the O. J. Simpson of The Roaring '20s, with the public feeling that he was guilty no matter what the court said. He had gone over $700,000 in debt due to legal fees, and he lost his house and his cars to pay the debt. He had been blacklisted from the American film industry, with theaters refusing to show his films. Moral Guardians, including then-Postmaster General William H. Haysnote , declared the Arbuckle case and other contemporary scandals (including a murder case involving former collaborator Mabel Normand) to be proof of the poor standards of morality in Hollywood, and started pushing for increased censorship.
Arbuckle faded into obscurity afterwards. As Cracked detailed, even though the blacklist was ended within a year, he was unable to find any regular employment and only had small parts in two movies during the rest of the decade, and in 1924 started directing under the pseudonym of William Goodrich. He finally returned to acting in 1931... only to die at a party two years later. Buster Keaton always supported his friend and regarded him as a major influence on his films.
A biopic about Arbuckle has been stuck in Development Hell for more than forty years, and some have suggested that the project is cursed. The first actor they had lined up to play the original "live fat, die young" comic was John Belushi... in 1982. Then John Candy was attached to it... in 1994. And then Chris Farley stepped up... in 1997. (The film version of A Confederacy of Dunces seems to be condemned to the same fate because those same actors had also been considered to play Ignatius J. Reilly before they died.)
Fatty Arbuckle films with their own pages:
- Coney Island
- Fatty's Tintype Tangle
- The Garage
- The Knockout
- Leap Year
- The Red Mill (director only)
- That Little Band of Gold
Tropes used in other Arbuckle films:
- Acrofatic: Arbuckle was a nimble dancer and juggler. In Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition he dances a neat hula with some Hawaiian girls. He was also an excellent physical comedian and extremely agile despite his size.
- Added Alliterative Appeal: Look at the film titles on this page.
- Arranged Marriage: In Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life, the landlord is pressuring Mabel's father to marry Mabel off to his son in return for cancelling the mortgage. The father is, in turn, pressuring Mabel.
- Bond Villain Stupidity: In Fatty's Plucky Pup, the bad guys tie up Fatty's girl, and then rig up an elaborate trap in which an alarm clock will fire a gun and kill her at 3 o'clock. Then they leave.
- Bottomless Magazines: The sheik in A Flirt's Mistake fires a seemingly endless amount of bullets from his two pistols.
- Similarly, the husband in ''Tintype Tangle" attacks Fatty with two pistols that don't seem to run out of bullets at first, but eventually, they do.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall:
- At the end of Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life they get married. Fatty then looks straight at the camera and winks, presumably anticipating action on the wedding night with Mabel. Mabel gets indignant, looks straight at the camera as well, and starts angrily gesticulating. Then they both break down laughing and the film ends.
- In Fatty's Chance Acquaintance he looks at the camera and winks when he sees a girl.
- Canine Companion: In Fatty's Plucky Pup, Fatty takes said pup on a date with his girl.
- Captain Ersatz: Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition (1915) features an actor in Charlie Chaplin's Tramp costume. This was after Chaplin had left Keystone to make his own movies.
- Chinese Launderer: Prominently featured in Fatty's Faithful Fido. Sure enough, someone falls through the roof and into the washtub of said laundry.
- Country Mouse: The heroine in Leading Lizzy Astray is a farmgirl who is lured to the big city by a smooth-talking visitor. She is horrified when he takes her to a club where drinking and dancing is taking place. Fatty saves her.
- Down on the Farm:
- Leading Lizzy Astray finds Fatty a simple farmboy, in love with a local girl.
- Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life features a similar setup with Fatty and Mabel on the farm, in love.
- Dude Looks Like a Lady: In A Flirt's Mistake, Fatty approaches a pretty woman in the park, only to find out that his target is actually a man, a sheik in an elaborate costume.
- Gone Swimming, Clothes Stolen: Fatty becomes a cop in Fatty Joins the Force. One day while out on his beat he finds a plus-sized swimsuit and decides to go swimming. Some local kids that have been picking on him then steal his cop uniform.
- Hash House Lingo: In The Waiters' Ball, a customer asks for pork and beans, and the waiter shouts to Fatty to make "One grunt with a thousand on a plate!". Possibly the Trope Maker.
- Heavy Sleeper: In Fatty and Mabel Adrift, Fatty and Mabel are sleeping peacefully in their beachfront cottage, when the bad guys knock away the joists supporting the cottage and push it into the water. Fatty doesn't wake up until the next morning, when he and Mabel are at sea, in their house, adrift.
- Henpecked Husband: One of Fatty's go-to tropes. In Fatty's Chance Acquaintance his wife spanks him when he misbehaves.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: In Fatty's Faithful Fido, the villain draws a cross on Fatty's back in chalk, and arranges with his accomplice to hire Mooks to beat up the guy with the cross on his back. Unfortunately for him, the villain leans against the wall where he drew the chalk mark for his companion, thus getting the chalk mark on his back. He gets beat up.
- Hustling the Mark: In Fatty's Plucky Pup two con men are pulling this trick with a ball and cups at the fair. They have little trap doors which they can use to drop the ball if the mark picks the right cup.
- Lazy Husband: Mabel yells at her husband in Mabel and Fatty's Wash Day for not doing any of the housework. This leads her to go on an illicit outing with Fatty, her neighbor, who is a Henpecked Husband who does all of the housework.
- Lethal Chef: In Fatty and Mabel Adrift, poor Mabel's biscuits are so hard that they shatter plates.
- Literal Ass-Kicking: Many, many times.
- Mistaken for Terrorist: Fatty's New Role features him as a bum who cadges free lunches from the snacks available at bars, but is thrown out by an obnoxious bar owner. Unfortunately, the newspapers have reported a story of a bomber who's been blowing up bars where he's been denied a free lunch. The obnoxious bar owner's acquaintances decide to screw with him by writing a bomb threat stating that the terrorist will blow up the bar at three. At three o'clock, Fatty strolls in. Hilarity Ensues.
- Name and Name: Used for many of the films where Arbuckle co-starred with Mabel Normand.
- Organ Grinder: An organ grinder's obnoxious monkey breaks loose and climbs all over Fatty and Mabel in Mabel and Fatty's Married Life. An irritated Fatty promptly picks up the monkey and throws him away. The enraged organ grinder then seeks revenge.
- Pie in the Face: Arbuckle's A Noise from the Deep (1913) is believed to be the first ever example of this trope, possibly the Trope Maker. The Other Wiki credits a 1909 Ben Turpin film called Mr. Flip, but notes that the pie in that film was hand-held, not thrown. In any case, Arbuckle would use this trope many, many times in later films.
- Police Are Useless: In Mabel and Fatty's Married Life, the police at the station are sleeping so soundly that the dispatcher has to fire his gun to wake them up.
- The Production Curse: For years, Hollywood has tried to make a biopic about Fatty. Unforunately, the attached comedic actors were Chris Farley, John Belushi and John Candy, all of whom ended up dying young like Fatty.
- Punny Name: Fatty and Mabel Adrift features "I. Landem, Seaside Real Estate".
- Roofhopping: The dog chases the bad guy across rooftops in Fatty's Faithful Fido.
- Silent Movie: The large bulk of his filmography is silent. Due to the scandal and his untimely death, Fatty made only half a dozen "talkies" (which are the only recordings of his voice).
- Throw the Dog a Bone: After his life and career in ruins from the scandal, Fatty's film career finally perked up in 1932, when he was approved for six short films. He was then contacted by Warner Bros for a feature film the following year. Though he died in his sleep from a heart attack the following night, he defied expectations by going out on what he openly declared the happiest day of his life.
- Timmy in a Well: In Fatty's Plucky Pup, the dog summons Fatty to rescue his girl after the bad guys have tied her up. Not content to stop there, the dog actually frees the girl himself by tugging at the ropes.
- Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Many Fatty Arbuckle films featured him in a romantic pairing with either his real-life wife Minta Durfee, or Keystone Studios star Mabel Normand, both of whom were very attractive women.
- Yellowface: A painfully bad example of this trope with the owner of a Chinese laundry in Fatty's Faithful Fido.
Fatty Arbuckle Shout Outs in fiction:
- The obscure horror novel Devilday (which inspired the almost-as-obscure horror film Madhouse with Vincent Price and Peter Cushing) discusses the Arbuckle rape scandal.
- Kim Newman's Alternate History short story The Pierce-Arrow Stalled, and... begins with Arbuckle's car breaking down, causing him to never make it to that fateful party. This gives us a Hollywood where The Hays Code never went into effect, leading to some... interesting developments in film. At the end, an older, wiser Arbuckle watches Gone with the Wind as directed by Orson Welles.
- Kim Newman's "Sorcerer Conjurer Wizard Witch" has a throwaway reference suggesting that the villain, a black magician, orchestrated the Rappe scandal for unknown purposes, possibly just For the Evulz.
- The Spenser novel Sixkill features a movie star character called Jumbo Nelson who really is the kind of gross lecherous monster Arbuckle was painted as. The questions is, did he really kill the girl?
- In John M. Ford's short story "Chain Home Low" (a piece of Fan Fiction written about The Sandman (1989)), Fatty Arbuckle is inspired by a dream to do a film about the victims of the "Sleepy Sickness" (a condition caused by the imprisonment of Morpheus for nearly 70 years). Arbuckle films it under a pseudonym, and in the modern day its considered "a noir classic."
- Critical Role: One episode features Guest-Star Party Member Gern Blanston, a Cloudcuckoolander necromancer who travels with his undead thralls Coral, Carol, Stimpy, and Fatty Arbuckle. Fatty Arbuckle, a shambling skeleton (for maximum irony), ends up sacrificing itself on a kamikaze run to take out some fire elementals with an explosive candle.
- Batman: The Brave and the Bold: In the episode "Emperor Joker!", one of The Joker's mooks is Fatty. Unlike the Joker's other silent-comedian thugs, he's his chubby self rather than hugely overmuscled.
- In Celebrity Deathmatch, during the 1920s fight between Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, the announcers notice Arbuckle in the audience and decide to kick him while he's down.That wholesome character has a long and storied career ahead of him!
- An episode of Family Guy has Peter confusing the name Fatty Arbuckle with the term fatty corpusle during a Doctor's exam. In a later episode, Vern and Johnny did a song to the tune of "Camptown Races" about the Virginia Rappe scandal.
- Garfield and Friends: Jon Arbuckle has a Country Cousin named Roscoe Arbuckle. Roscoe is fat and clumsy.