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Arbuckle case riled biz’s morality minders

<I>Variety</I> was chock-a-block with reports on the scandal

Long before the tabs, “ET” and “Access,” the Internet and bloggers, there were the sensationalist papers. And long before Robert Blake and Michael Jackson, other juicy scandals rocked Hollywood.

Whereas Variety today weighs in on these trials and tribulations only when there is a business angle — Jackson’s music empire was in question during his trial, and the paper duly explored the ramifications — it was very different in the 1920s.

In September 1921 the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal rocked the fledgling film industry and brought to the surface pent-up outrage at the mores, real or imagined, of Hollywood.

The week the rotund comedian was indicted on murder charges in the death of actress Virginia Rappe during a “wild weekend party,” Variety was chock-a-block with reports on the scandal. Under the banner “Scandal Hits Industry,” the paper recounted the grand jury proceeding, including testimony by two key witnesses. They stated that the dying girl moaned: “I am dying, I am dying. He hurt me.” That apparently clenched the indictment.

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Almost instantaneously, Arbuckle films were pulled from theaters across the country.

An Arbuckle-Mabel Normand two-reeler was yanked from the Manhattan Opera House. “The audience applauded briskly at the announcement of the change,” Variety reported.

Ditto around the country.

On its Editorials page the next week, Variety opined in the sanctimonious tone of most of the coverage elsewhere: “Millions of pretty girls turn their faces toward the gilded west and sigh for celluloid stardom. Thousands venture to go after the pot of brass at the end of the Cooper-Hewitt rainbow. Virginia Rappe was one of them. She yearned for stardom. She made it — at last.”

Presumably the editorialist was referring to her role as the star of a murder investigation.

Her last feature, it turns out, was an undistinguished comedy called “The Punch of the Irish.”

At the time of his arrest, Arbuckle was one of the most familiar faces in silent movies and was making $3,500 a week under contract to Famous Players.

But the moral watchdogs were ready to bark at a moment’s notice. Then, as now, Hollywood was an obvious target.

In early October a Variety headline read “Worldwide Condemnation of Pictures as Aftermath of Arbuckle Affair.”

“The attacks against the picture industry delivered by various churches may hurt the box office everywhere,” a Variety reporter opined.

And the shockwaves went ’round the world.

“Abroad the luster of the advent of Charles Chaplin in Paris was visibly dimmed by the news of the wild San Francisco orgy and its attendant fatality.”

Several months and two mistrials later, Variety reported deep inside its pages that a single shot of Arbuckle appeared on a screen in Brooklyn in a reel about the lives of the rich and famous.

Said the paper: “It was thought to have been attempted as a test to secure a line on public opinion toward Arbuckle, as Fatty’s third trial approaches.” (The Brooklyn audience had no discernible reaction.)

Weeks later, a jury deliberated for just six minutes before finding the actor not guilty.

But Arbuckle’s acting career was over, and though he tried his hand at directing some years later, his name rarely appeared in Variety thereafter.

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