Oct 23, 2013

Book Review--Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and The Scandal That Changed Hollywood

Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and The Scandal That Changed Hollywood
Greg Merritt
Chicago Review Press, 2013

My introduction to Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was via a magazine feature about Hollywood scandals. Through that I learned that the silent screen comic had been tried three times for the murder of what was called a young starlet at a wild party in San Francisco. The detail that he may have crushed the poor woman to death while attempting to rape her haunted me. That he was also supposedly molested her with a bottle horrified me. I was twelve years old and just beginning to learn about classic movies. I decided that I had no desire to learn about this man, even though he hadn't been convicted for these crimes. The whole situation disgusted me, true or not. I imagine this has happened to many fans of old movies over the years.

The 1921 Labor Day weekend party Arbuckle threw with his friends in three rooms at the top of the Hotel St. Francis was the setting of a scandal so outrageous that it retains its notoriety today. The hefty star was one of the most wealthy and beloved stars in Hollywood when he set off for San Francisco in his custom Pierce-Arrow, well-stocked with liquor. Days later, he was in a jail cell, under suspicion for causing the death of actress, model and designer Virginia Rappe. After the trials for the crime, his acquittal came swiftly; the jury had deliberated for only a few minutes. Still, his reputation never recovered, not even after death.

Arbuckle had been tried by his public as well, and the fact that the married (though estranged) actor had been drinking illegal alcohol and partying with young chorus girls in a hotel was scandal enough for shocked women's groups and religious organizations. Newspapers competing with increasingly sensational headlines reinforced his public humiliation. Years later, a series of influential books further destroyed his reputation, partly with total fabrications, such as the bottle story, which could be easily disproved by referencing any of the court cases.

Greg Merritt does his best to weed through all the details of this scandal to find the truth, or as much of it as can be found. There's no way to know exactly what happened between Arbuckle and Rappe, because they spent several minutes alone behind a closed hotel room door the day of that fateful party. Merritt builds as much of the story as he can with the available facts, adding his own educated guesses about various details.

In addition to playing detective, Merritt does much to restore the reputations of Arbuckle and Rappe. He resurrects the comic who was one of the first big movie stars, a man who was adored throughout the world. Even when he found success, Fatty never put on airs, he was kind and generous to his fans and co-workers. When an inmate at a prison asked him to come entertain, he obliged. He was also known to have no professional jealousy and an amiable manner on the set. Rappe, who has tended to be written off as a slut, or even a whore, riddled with venereal disease is revealed as an ambitious actress struggling to find success, but living with a certain amount of dignity.
Arbuckle in 1919

Merritt explores the comic's troubled, lonely childhood, where he lost his mother at age twelve and suffered abuse at the hands of his father. Arbuckle never had a chance to play as a child, and so he made up for it as an adult, sometimes going too far, but usually meaning well. He was troubled, but Merritt makes it clear it is not likely he was a rapist, or prone to violence.

Usually I find courtroom procedurals tiresome and I assumed it would be a struggle to get through the extensive sections about the trials, but Merritt fills them with engrossing details that reveal the complexity of the case and the effect it had on society and Hollywood. He is always cautious and often skeptical of the rumors and testimonials associated with the case, and for good reason. Sometimes he injects a little humor, a welcome relief in the midst of such a sad story and appropriately handled.

I felt Merritt successfully cut through all the misinformation surrounding the scandal, and given how many years it has been accumulating, that was a huge task. Stories of Arbuckle's life pre-scandal are alternated with chapters about the event and aftermath, an approach I found appropriately jarring as it mirrored the dramatic, sudden effect Rappe's death had on both the comic and his industry. Weaving the sensational with the less explosive events of his biography gives the book a balance that it could not have had if told chronologically.

Merritt has structured the book so that it revisits the scene of Rappe's death after the facts, and theories, are revealed. He bookends the story with a review of the party events. The first time, he tells them straightforward, simply setting up the basics of the mystery. He ends by telling the story again, but from different perspectives: that of the state, the defense and followed by his own analysis. He comes to a conclusion about what really happened that day, and it is the most plausible explanation I've heard yet.

Room 1219 works as true crime, Hollywood history and biography. It covers tricky territory, but the research is strong. I've never been more curious to view the films of Roscoe Arbuckle, because I finally feel like I've been able to separate the real man from the rumors.

Many thanks to Chicago Review Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

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