SCANDALS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD
Chugach Peaks Photography
On July 26, 2006, Mel Gibson—’80s hunk, ’90s director, ’00s oddball—was arrested for driving under the influence. He was visibly drunk and combative, and hurled misogynistic, anti-Semitic slurs at the arresting officers. Within hours, Gibson’s disheveled mug shot had gone viral, as had the audiotape of his arrest, thanks to upstart website TMZ.com. The story made TMZ, but more important, it destroyed Gibson, whose personal and professional lives immediately fell apart. His marriage collapsed; work dried up. The man so powerful that he could make a film graphically detailing the death of Christ—a millionaire many, many times over—couldn’t make a hit film in Hollywood. Today, Gibson is slowly reappearing in supporting roles, but save some remarkable, redemptive gesture, his career as a leading man is over.
Had this happened just seventy years ago, Gibson’s fate would have been dramatically different. He would’ve been signed to a studio contract, complete with a morality clause to govern his behavior, and he’d have had studio-employed “fixers”—the hidden yet essential cogs in the star-making machine—to clean up after him in case of scandal. The fixers would erase all traces of the incident: the police would be paid off; the report would disappear. To the public at large, he’d continue to be a gallant husband, doting father, and responsible citizen—the very paragon of contemporary masculinity. Any whispers of chronic drunkenness would be silenced by well-placed mentions in the gossip columns concerning his commitment to his adoring children and devoted wife. Gibson’s image would remain intact, his earning power for the studio secure. Because in the golden age of Hollywood, scandal was a roadblock, but rarely an endgame.
During this period, stars weren’t born; they were made. Scouts would bring in “raw” star material, culled from the vaudeville circuit, the theater, or the soda fountain counter. The potential star would be given a name, a sanitized (and sometimes dramatized) backstory, a makeover, and a contract. After assigning him or her a few bit parts and gauging audience reception (usually through the amount and tone of fan mail), the studio would figure the performer’s fate. An actor could be kept around to “pleasure” visiting execs, relegated to the stock character pool, or promoted to bona fide stardom, with first choice of roles and directors. Stardom was what happened when the raw star material and studio magic created an image that was not only beautiful but sublime; not only likable but charismatic. For an actor to become a star, he had to become more than the sum of his exquisite parts. His image had to demonstrate a particular way of life, a way of being in the world that resonated and inspired emulation—the boy next door all grown up, the rough cowboy with a heart of gold, the adventurer with a romantic streak.
This book tells the story of how these extraordinary stars were made, but also, as the title indicates, how they were unmade—or at least how the emergence of scandal compromised their carefully constructed public personas. The stars in this book were immaculate productions: the result of tremendous toil on the part of press agents, stylists, directors, and cooperative gossip columnists and fan magazine editors. But even the most perfect productions can crumble beneath the weight of their accumulated cultural meaning. Over the course of the next fourteen chapters, you’ll see how that pressure served as a catalyst for all manner of misbehavior: drug use, gambling, and illicit sexual encounters in various shapes and styles. In other words, the bigger the star, the more meaningful she becomes to the public, the higher the chance for scandal to emerge.
Yet a star’s actions, behavior, or lifestyle choices are never de facto scandalous; rather, they become scandalous when they violate the status quo in some way. A divorce in 1920 was potentially scandalous; today, it’s par for the course. In 1950, homosexuality was unspeakable; today, it’s doable, if difficult, with the help of a well-orchestrated coming-out narrative. Scandal is amplified when a star’s actions violate not only the status quo but the underlying understanding of that star’s image as well: when “Saint Ingrid” (Ingrid Bergman) ran off with an Italian director and gave birth to a child out of wedlock, the scandal was rooted not only in the infidelity but in how brazenly she violated her fans’ understanding of her image and what it seemed to represent.
Scandal thus functions as a rupture—not only in a star’s image, but in whatever cultural value that star represents. With carefully planned publicity, that rupture can be repaired. A star can repent; her actions can be reframed. See, for example, the dramatic reconfiguration of Brad Pitt’s divorce from Jennifer Aniston, or Robert Downey Jr.’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes of addiction. The status quo is seemingly restored.
The scandals discussed in this book are more than just smut. They’re history lessons, teaching us about what it meant to be a man, a woman, a child, a straight person, a fat person, a person of color, or a sex object during specific time periods in our past. But they’re also love stories, tragedies, and comedies—lessons in the way stars come to embody a culture’s hopes and aspirations and the harshness with which they are treated when they fail to meet expectations. Above all, these stories are page-turners: the very stuff of the very best of Hollywood films, complete with crackling narrative tension, breathless ascents, and dramatic downfalls. Many of these scandals end in tragedy, but others are raucous, screwball comedies, filled with wit, double entendres, and generalized rascalry. These stars lived big—and the narratives of their lives, their loves and losses, the way they rose and fell from fame, are just as impressive as their conspicuous spending habits.
This book will introduce you to new stories, broaden stories you know, and revise those you thought you knew. Chances are, you’re familiar with many of the stars and scandals to come—Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, James Dean. These stars endure for specific cultural reasons, co-opted by new generations, plastered on dorm room walls, and evoked in magazine photo shoots as signifiers of authenticity, rebellion, or class. But this book also includes the stories of much less familiar names: Jean Harlow, Wallace Reid, Clara Bow, Dorothy Dandridge, to name a few—stars who once enjoyed tremendous popularity but have, for various reasons, faded with time.
By familiarizing ourselves with the contours of stardom and scandal that shaped the past, we can see how they shape the present. Today, as before, there are certain types of stars for whom we will forgive all manner of trespass, and other types of stars who, once they step over the line, can never return. If our stars are reflections of our values and ourselves, then the way we elevate, denigrate, and dispose of them also functions as a sort of cultural mirror, however distorted, clumsy, and unbecoming. The aim of the book, then, is not simply to titillate, nor is it to propagate old, worn-out rumors. Rather, it will help rescue gossip, the study of stars, and scandal from the cultural wastebasket. With every chapter, you’ll see how these stories are crucial to understanding our present and our past—history dressed in an evening gown and pearls, holding a flute of expensive champagne. But beware: Once you read one, it’s difficult not to read them all. Your list of must-watch classic films will grow exponentially. You might develop a hankering for well-tailored double-breasted suits. Rest assured, it’s all natural—once you become familiar with these stars, their complex narratives and their bewitching charisma prove impossible to resist. And you’ll never think about stars, Hollywood, or the machinations that create them in the same way again.
When the moving image first began to circulate in the late nineteenth century, it wasn’t as if stars suddenly popped up along with it. Audiences were mostly just fascinated with the technological marvel they saw before them—the moving image itself was the star. Even as cinema developed in the early 1900s, huge, unwieldy cameras made it difficult to film anything other than a full-length shot. Because viewers couldn’t see the actor’s face up close, it was difficult to develop the feelings of admiration or affection that we associate with film stars. Gradually, close-ups became more prevalent, various actors became more recognizable, fans began to know the stars’ names, and slowly but surely, audiences pieced together “types” associated with each star—the hero, the villain, the damsel in distress, the virtuous heroine.
It wasn’t until the early 1910s, however, that stars as we understand them today came to be: an actor with a recognizable type on-screen—a “picture personality”—accompanied by information about her off-screen, made available through the proliferating fan magazines. A star was the combination of her on-screen and off-screen selves—selves that complemented and amplified each other. An actor who played a cowboy on-screen would stable a horse just outside of Hollywood; a sporting heroine would fit in a game of golf between taking care of her children and cooking dinner. Crucially, these off-screen images were always squeaky clean. Women were married or seeking marriage; men were eligible bachelors or devoted husbands. Throughout the 1910s, these narratives served a distinct purpose: to make Hollywood seem less scandalous.
Because the “film colony,” as it was then called, was populated with young people, mostly poor immigrants, it was assumed that these actors, now flush with cash and lacking in so-called moral hygiene, would run wild. The logic of the time went something like this: if Hollywood was filled with immoral behavior, that selfsame behavior would seep onto the screen, thereby corrupting the impressionable youth so irresistibly drawn to the picture show. To sustain their business, then, and calm the anxiety propagated by reactionary moralists, the studios collaborated with the gossip press to make the stars’ lives seem squeaky clean.
Working together, the studios, fan magazines, and gossip columnists painted a becoming, believable portrait of the players on the screen. By providing details from actors’ domestic, ostensibly private existences, studios enabled fans to feel as if they had access to the true, authentic star. Knowledge about the star’s living room, dress purchases, or other patterns of conspicuous consumption became de facto knowledge about how he or she “really was.” In this way, Hollywood was able to convincingly suggest that the stars were without scandal. Until, that is, the stars started making decisions that no matter of fawning publicity could cover up. These cracks in the image of both the star and Hollywood as a whole provided a dim, shadowy peephole unto a new layer of the star: the scandalous, unspeakable, immoral core.
But as will become clear, this period of salacious scandal in the early twenties did not sink the industry; rather, it served as a catalyst for Hollywood to better manage its stars and their actions. The stars did not suddenly become less prone to scandalous behavior; the cover-up and management strategies simply got better. This pattern—the emergence of scandal; the subsequent emergence of techniques to manage it—has structured the dynamics of Hollywood for the past century. Sometimes scandal emerges due to a savvy new publication; other times, it’s a rebellious star with a lack of oversight. The means of release and the methods of containment may change, but the pattern endures. As we trace that pattern, and how it adjusts with the cultural temperature, a vivid picture of the past American century begins to come to light.
With her immaculate curls, plaintive eyes, and porcelain skin, Mary Pickford bore a keen resemblance to a child’s doll. And like a doll, she acted out the fantasies of others: her whimsical spirit and wholesomeness represented an American ideal under threat, proof positive that Victorian notions of girlhood and virtue could endure the onset of modernity. In this way, Mary Pickford became “a girl of all girls,” an exemplar of femininity and desexualized youth. She began her film career in 1909 at the age of seventeen, but played roles much younger, usually as adolescent and prepubescent daughters. In 1909 alone, Pickford appeared in fifty films; by 1915, her salary equaled that of the president. In the years to come, she’d continue to play young girls—most notably in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), and Pollyanna (1920)—but she also worked, with mixed success, to sophisticate and texture her image. By the end of the 1910s, she was, without question, the biggest star in the world.
Audiences just adored her. A review in The Bioscope nails her appeal: only Pickford could be “ineffably sweet, joyously young, and sometimes, if one may put it so, almost unbearably heartbreaking in its tender pathos.” She may have been “ineffably sweet,” but she was also a savvy businesswoman, entrusted, from a very early age, with providing for her entire family. Her father, a drunk, had left the family when Pickford was three years old, and her mother concentrated on promoting young Mary’s career. Throughout the 1910s, Pickford made a series of business decisions that afforded her more and more control over her image and salary; by 1916, her contract with Zukor Inc. gave her full authority over every production—along with five hundred dollars a week, an unheard-of salary. She was still playing little girl roles, but she had morphed into the first of many female actors bestowed with the title of “America’s Sweetheart,” neatly eliding her Canadian birth. Pickford may have been powerful, but any anxiety over that power was muted by how convincingly and consistently she radiated demureness and amiability.
Yet for all of her successes on-screen, her off-screen life was far from perfect. Pickford was entrapped in an abusive marriage to fellow silent actor Owen Moore, whom she had quietly wed in 1911 after meeting him on the studio lot. The marriage was kept secret due to Pickford’s mother’s disapproval of Moore, but IMP, their studio at the time, exploited the pairing, placing ads of the two together in a heart-shaped frame, paired with the catchphrases “She’s an Imp!” and “He’s an Imp!” Outwardly, Moore was “America’s first juvenile,” known for his boyish appearance on-screen. Off-screen, he was jealous of Pickford’s success and embittered by his reliance on her connections for his new contract at IMP. Alcoholism, exacerbated by professional jealousy, led to bouts of physical and emotional abuse, but Pickford had to keep all traces of their unrest a secret lest it compromise her pristine image. By 1916, it was a deeply unhappy marriage, with Pickford and Moore living apart for long periods of time.
Enter Douglas Fairbanks: ascendant king of Hollywood, swashbuckler, athlete, and all-American boy. Fairbanks was born in Denver, where his father was, at least between periods of drunkenness, a miner—a point that would be routinely exploited in the formation of Fairbanks’s Old West image, with its undertones of wild, raucous adventure. He had been surrounded by stage aspirations from an early age, and profiles loved to emphasize how his father had read him Shakespeare before abandoning the family. Young Fairbanks also regularly performed onstage during high school, though he left before earning his diploma. Depending on the publication and authorial intent, Fairbanks would claim that he then spent time at Colorado School of Mines, Princeton, or Harvard Law before finding success on Broadway and marrying Anna Beth Sully, the daughter of a wealthy captain of industry.
Fairbanks’s transition to film was part of a larger Hollywood migration of successful theater actors in the 1910s. He played the boy next door and the cowboy—the very embodiment of the American West, with its conflicting suggestions of wildness and honor. His hero was Teddy Roosevelt, and Fairbanks, at least publicly, aspired to all the connotations of rugged individualism that Roosevelt’s name implied. His energy was seemingly endless, a frenetic liveliness that jumped off the screen. Much like Pickford, Fairbanks was universally beloved: as historian Scott Curtis describes, “This energetic, even indefatigable star became so popular because he projected an image of Americans as they wanted to see themselves, as they still want to see themselves: as youthful and athletic, optimistic and adventurous, decisive and democratic.” He was the boy everyone loved to love, both on-screen and off.
Fairbanks’s image was rooted in authenticity, but that sense of realness, the seeming lack of manipulation, was, of course, manipulation itself. The conflation of the “real” and “reel” Fairbanks was due to some exquisite, if slightly over-the-top, press management. On the set of the western The Half-Breed (1916), for example, Fairbanks supposedly spent most of his time away from the set, off romping in the woods, returning with bleeding hands and torn clothing. When the director asked, “What in the name of mischief have you been doing now?” Fairbanks replied, “Trappin’. . . . Bobcats, of course.” The message: Fairbanks was a strapping explorer and would much rather spend time in the great outdoors than hobnobbing in the high society of Hollywood. Over the next decade, this apparent lack of pretense would serve Fairbanks well, as his statements and actions—especially those concerning his romantic life and the beloved Mary Pickford—were taken at face value and rarely questioned.
It’s unclear when, or how, Fairbanks and Pickford first met or became intimate. The Movie Colony, as it was then called, was a small, cliquey place, and their paths would’ve certainly crossed. One overwrought tale has Fairbanks carrying her over a dangerous stream at a Hollywood party; others have them falling deeply in love at first sight. But such romantic meet-cutes were all mapped onto their relationship after the fact, long after they’d gone public with their love. The exact time line remains murky, but they had certainly become friends by 1916, and by 1917, Fairbanks was taking Pickford’s business lead, leaving Triangle Film Corporation to set up his own production company, which would work exclusively with Pickford’s distribution arm. Later that year, both joined mutual friend Charlie Chaplin in a nationwide tour to engender support for World War I war bonds, with an exhausting schedule that included dozens of stops and uncounted hours in intimate company. It must’ve turned hot and heavy in short order, but according to official reports, it was nothing if not a chaste friendship.
Over the course of their three war bond tours, the public became accustomed to seeing the pair together. Not romantically, but depicted in the same frame, smiling, joking, charismatically together—together for the good of the country, using their fame for a cause much greater than themselves. Even the April 1918 announcement of Fairbanks’s imminent divorce, and subsequent rumors swirling around the “unnamed correspondent” (early twentieth-century speak for “person responsible for the breakup of the marriage”), widely believed to be Pickford, couldn’t blunt the goodwill. With their winning, affable smiles, charismatic on-screen personas, and patriotic, selfless service to the country, it would’ve been nearly impossible to frame them as villains.
It didn’t help that Moore came across rather poorly. “My wife,” he told one reporter, “has always seemed to me to be little more than a child, with a child’s winsomeness, appealingness, and trust in others.” That childishness, according to Moore, accounted for her susceptibility to the likes of Fairbanks. Moore also claimed that Fairbanks had an odd personality that fascinated women—he was dangerous, with an “instinct for possession that has doubtless come to him from his Anglo-Saxon ancestors.” Having effectively insulted an entire swath of the reading public, Moore eventually admitted that he, too, had succumbed to Fairbanks’s charms—which was why he hadn’t seen him stealing away his wife’s affections. Once he did figure it out, he kept quiet (out of deference, so he claimed, to the Liberty Loan campaign), but when Fairbanks’s divorce became public, he knew he had to speak. Still, Moore emphasized that it was Fairbanks who played the role of villain: “There is only one aggressor in the whole situation. The ‘other woman’ [Pickford] has been as much victimized as the rest, not wholly blameless, perhaps, but imposed upon.”
Here, Moore—or Moore’s press agent—performed a tremendous rhetorical feat. He underlined Pickford’s “girl” image, an image that Americans adored, and then used the natural vulnerabilities of that image to explain any potential infidelity. Moore situated the blame firmly on Fairbanks—“there is only one aggressor”—while emphasizing his own propriety and patriotism. No matter what happened with Moore, Pickford could emerge with her integrity relatively unscathed.
Regardless of her seeming inculpability in the affair, the swirling rumors had become too much for Pickford. In April 1918, she announced her plans to go into total retirement. According to her sister, Pickford was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, “not only on account of the notoriety she has received in the papers in relation to a certain other star, but also because of her tireless work on the loan campaign.” The message was clear: gossip was hurting Little Mary—the same Little Mary who had not invited the advances of Fairbanks, who had simply toiled, to the point of exhaustion, for the sake of her country.
Pickford did not, in fact, go into total retirement. After some time away from the spotlight, she resumed work. The rumors quieted, which isn’t to say that the romance stopped, but Pickford and Fairbanks likely understood that their careers depended on the integrity of their images. The solution, then, was a marvel of carefully calculated publicity: they changed the conversation from one of gossip to one of business. Chaplin, Fairbanks, Pickford, and director D. W. Griffith founded United Artists (UA) in January 1919, with the goal of taking their careers into their own hands. Each would produce around five pictures a year with UA functioning as distributor. It was a loose artistic partnership designed to undercut the efforts of the studios, eager to tamp down the rising star salaries and demands. The move was ridiculed within the industry—according to one exec, “the inmates are taking over the asylum”—but it made headlines and further yoked Fairbanks and Pickford in the public eye.
By the time Pickford filed for divorce in March 1920, her union with Fairbanks was a foregone conclusion. Still, she denied that she would remarry—Fairbanks or anyone else—claiming that she simply wanted freedom. Moore agreed not to contest the case, prompting rumors of a payoff, which Pickford was quick to counter. As for reports of attempts to avoid the press, her defense was irrefutable: “I regarded [the divorce] as a sacred matter, of no interest to anyone but myself. . . . I felt that, though my career and my work in films are the interest of the public, my personal affairs were not.” Yet she demurred, “I now realize my mistake. I have learned now that I do not belong to myself. If I have done anything to offend the public I am so sorry. My life work is to make people happy, to fill their hearts with gladness through my appearance in picture stories.” Here, Pickford simultaneously shamed readers for their curiosity and invited them to extend that curiosity—so long as it meant they still loved her, still wanted to let her make them happy. She was, in other words, preparing them to support her no matter what the future would bring.
As it turned out, the very near future brought a very romantic wedding, with Fairbanks and Pickford marrying in a “secret” wedding in Los Angeles. It was a gossip dream come true, and instead of being scandalous, the reports were jubilant: “Famous Film Romance is Crowned by Nuptials,” exclaimed the Los Angeles Times, explaining that when Fairbanks was asked, “Are you happy?” he replied, “Oh gosh!” The pair were criticized for their choice of minister (a Baptist!), and Pickford’s divorce from Moore was contested on a technicality, but the overarching public sentiment was one of companionate romance. The Washington Post framed the culmination as a “real life drama,” telling the tale of how their love had been readily apparent for months, and “any one at all familiar with the strenuous methods of Doug was reasonably sure he would not accept ‘no’ as the final answer. Thus endeth the second reel in the life scenario of the most universally loved heroine the silent drama has ever produced.” By framing their marriage as a love story—complete with film reels—the press encouraged the public to embrace the narrative as they would a new Pickford film, only this time starring the King of Hollywood himself, finally united with his queen.
In an issue released two months after the marriage, Photoplay announced the tone for all descriptions of the coupling to follow. An article titled “The Pickford-Fairbanks Wooing”—a beautiful tale of “when friendship turned to love”—worked arduously to eradicate any hint of scandal, framing it as an inevitable coupling. It was a romance for the ages, with a well-deserved ending; at long last, “the film of their narrative is tinted with the sentimental blue of eventide that so long has been lacking.” The multipage spread goes on to emphasize how difficult Pickford’s life had been, describing the unhappiness of her marriage to Moore, and that in the midst of her friendship with Fairbanks, “the hope of a ray of moonlight” had finally reentered her life. According to Photoplay, Pickford’s divorce was tragic, as are all divorces—but like a tragedy in a movie, it was overcome with the happiness that comes from fate fulfilled, from finding her soul mate.
This narrative was reaffirmed on the couple’s grand honeymoon tour, where they were mobbed wherever they appeared. In Paris, in London, in New York—the world flocked to see them, not because of the scandal, but because they were a fairy tale in the flesh—one with an inconvenient backstory, but a fairy tale nonetheless. Upon their much-vaunted return to Hollywood, Fairbanks was so excited to see his beloved home that he leaped out of the car to visit his horses and dogs, then headed straight to the pool, into which he jumped fully clothed. The message was clear: Doug and Mary, at home and happy, were reigning over Hollywood at last.
So the story went for the next decade. Their home, quickly christened Pickfair, became the center of proper Hollywood society. Together, they marshaled the who’s who of stars, deciding who was appropriate for dinner with visiting dignitaries and heads of state and who was too déclassé, improper, or otherwise unrepresentative of the Hollywood they wanted the world to see. Charlie Chaplin pontificated; Albert Einstein discoursed; they watched new movies in their private screening room; everyone went to bed early; and, of course, liquor was never served. It was an upright, West Coast version of the salon, only with more jumping in the pool and wrestling with Fairbanks, who purportedly insisted that all guests rise at dawn to accompany him on rides through nearby Coyote Canyon. Photoplay showed off their home whenever they remodeled, complete with customary tasteful menus, while Fairbanks framed the couple as ardent homebodies: “I’ve never been to any of the places in Hollywood and Los Angeles that the newspapers write about,” he told The Literary Digest. “Why, Mary and I have only been to the Ambassador Hotel once since it was built. We spend practically all our evenings at home.”
Judging from dozens of accounts, Fairbanks and Pickford did indeed live a quiet, almost suburban life. But the specifics of their lifestyle were almost certainly exaggerated—with the express purpose of making them seem high-class, gentile, wholly above scandal, and, most important, perfect companions. The scandal of their relationship never truly happened. And it wasn’t because Pickford and Fairbanks were especially savvy, or even had any sort of phenomenal image management. These stars survived because they were just incredibly likable—and because fans so wanted them together, they would forgive all manner of rule bending in order for it to happen. The lesson, repeated dozens of times over the course of Hollywood history, was clear: a romance, properly played, can defuse even the biggest gossip bombs.
When Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was arrested for the assault of a young starlet at a so-called gin jollification party, it was as if he had singularly confirmed the nation’s very worst fears about Hollywood. These newly wealthy men and women didn’t know how to control their money, their bodies, or their lives, spending, cavorting, and reveling in excess. And Arbuckle, with his two-hundred-plus-pound girth, was this type of excess embodied. Within a week’s time, the highest-paid man in Hollywood, beloved for his physical comedy and chaste, boyish love stories, became the most hated man in America—a rapist, a drunk, and proof that the stars had, indeed, run wild.
Yet Arbuckle was none of these things. A drinker, yes; subject to revelry, of course—but he was acquitted of all charges against him. If a different star with a different image had found himself in Arbuckle’s place, the situation may never have reached such a fever pitch. Yet as many historians and scholars have come to agree, Arbuckle was scapegoated. No matter his innocence—he was the right man to take the fall for the rest of Hollywood, to usher in reformatory measures that would reorganize Hollywood, wresting power from the stars and restoring it to the studios. It’s not that his studio set him up. He just found himself in a position and charged with a crime that, given his image, was all too easy to believe he had committed.
For all of Arbuckle’s raucous on-screen antics, his off-screen life was a page straight out of a Dickens novel. His childhood was not a happy one. He was one of nine children, and his slender father was harsh and unloving, in part, according to lore, because he didn’t believe a child so large could be his own. His mother died when Arbuckle was twelve, and because his father refused to support him, Arbuckle was effectively on his own. Luckily, he developed his light comedic sense at an early age and cultivated his singing voice, which soon earned him notice and, eventually, a place on the vaudeville circuit. He attended Santa Clara College, where, in his words, “I matriculated in football, baseball and avoirdupois.” He traveled the West with various troupes, learned to “fall without damage,” and met and married fellow vaudevillian and rather petite Minta Durfee in 1908—a pairing that, like most things in Arbuckle’s life, further emphasized his size. By 1909, he was in pictures—most notably Mack Sennett’s famous Keystone Cops series. He refined his comedic act, partnering with Mabel Normand for an extended string of lovelorn comedies, such as Mabel and Fatty’s Wash Day and Mabel and Fatty’s Married Life.
The pictures were out-of-this-world popular. Arbuckle was so highly likable, and audiences loved him even more when he was paired with Normand, the straight woman to his comedic acrobatics. In Mabel and Fatty’s Married Life; Mabel, Fatty and the Law; and Wished on Mabel, the pair fought, reconciled, fought some more, and routinely ended in a jumble of limbs, physical wreckage, and laughter. And when Arbuckle cross-dressed—most notably in Miss Fatty’s Seaside Lovers and Coney Island—the result was transcendent in its simplicity.
But Arbuckle was more than just a comedian: he directed, conceived, and produced his own films, and helped kick-start the careers of Buster Keaton and several others. In 1914, Paramount offered him a sweetheart deal: a thousand dollars a day, 25 percent of the profits, plus complete artistic control. Over the next six years, the terms would only get more lucrative. By 1918, he had signed a three-million-dollar deal to make eighteen pictures over the next three years. He was championed as a master director, with an artistic touch that, according to one top producer, was “as full of poetry and sentiment as anything I ever saw.” Arbuckle was the star-director-producer powerhouse long before the age of Clooney and Affleck, which is part of the reason the studios were so threatened by him. After all, if Arbuckle could rake in a salary of a million dollars a year, what would stars ask for next?
Despite Arbuckle’s long-term marriage, the fan magazines wanted nothing of romance. Instead, it was all fat jokes, all the time. In fan magazine profiles, as in his own films, his size drove the narrative, structuring the piece and inflecting it with humor. Even his history was reshaped to emphasize and account for his fatness, continually playing up his alleged birth weight of 16 pounds. These jokes were never boldly malicious—they simply turned Arbuckle into someone defined, time and time again, by his size and appetite. A 1915 Photoplay article offered tongue-in-cheek advice from Arbuckle concerning how to perform “heavyweight athletics”:
Arise before 9 a.m. Dress and lace your own shoes. This develops the abdominal muscles . . . if you feel that you have eaten too much, take a little exercise such as rolling a few cigarettes. If this exercise proves insufficient, join an athletic club where the bars open early. Transact what business is necessary to your affairs but do not overexert. By this time you will be ready for lunch. I advise a very light luncheon: clam chowder; several seidels of beer, cold asparagus with mayonnaise dressing; a slab of roast beef; two or three baked potatoes; two pieces of blackberry or apricot pie . . . a quart of buttermilk.
He was the punch line for one-liners, usually variations on this one from Photoplay’s “Seen and Heard at the Movies”: “After watching Fatty Arbuckle for a little while small Bobby asked; ‘Mother, don’t you suppose he was made before the high price of meat began?” When a fan queried Photoplay as to the identity of Arbuckle’s wife, the magazine offered Durfee’s name, then asked, “Wouldn’t you love to be the wife of a fatty de foie gras?” Today, these jokes read as incredibly poor taste; then, they were simply part of the image production machine. As Photoplay pointed out, “His fat is his fortune.”
The press also grappled with how to reconcile Arbuckle’s size with apparent athleticism. Though Arbuckle had the build of a linebacker, he was tremendously dexterous. He could swim, dive, box, and run the hundred-yard dash in eleven seconds, which one author cheekily declared “the world’s record for fat men.” The moral of Arbuckle’s tale: the public could embrace his size and its connotations of excess so long as they knew that he was an all-American boy underneath with all-American athleticism—not a slovenly, sedentary ne’er-do-well. On Arbuckle’s body, fat wasn’t abject. It was the very source of his charisma.
But with one wild party, the public came to view his body with suspicion and disgust.
The Arbuckle arrest, trial, and aftermath have been reported and rehashed by dozens of journalists, historians, media scholars, and gossipmongers over the years, but nearly a century later, the details are still unclear, though the time line of events has been established. On Saturday, September 3, 1921, Arbuckle motored from Los Angeles to San Francisco, where he checked in to the St. Francis Hotel with plans to relax with friends. A day later, demi-starlet Virginia Rappe, best known for her appearance on the cover of sheet music, arrived at the hotel, along with two friends, Maude Delmont and Alfred Semnacher, Rappe’s manager. On Monday, Arbuckle invited the trio to a party, reportedly at the request of one of his friends. When Rappe and her friends arrived, Arbuckle had yet to dress for the day and was still wearing his pajamas and robe. They lunched and began drinking; others joined the party; the phonograph was put to loud use. At this party, where gin and whiskey were in ample supply, the “alleged rough treatment,” as it was first called in the press, took place.
At this point, testimonies diverge. According to Arbuckle and several others, “Everyone was feeling the effects of whiskey and gin.” Rappe started making a scene and went into the bedroom of the hotel room. Lowell Sherman reported that her behavior was of no “great concern”—everyone simply thought she “had a bun on,” or was drunk. Arbuckle had an afternoon appointment elsewhere in town, but in order to leave, he needed to change out of his pajamas. He entered the bedroom and locked the door, at which point he found “a woman writhing in the bathroom, writhing in pain” and “holding her stomach.” He picked her up, placed her on the bed, and called for the other women at the party to assist. Two women, including Rappe’s friend Delmont, came into the bedroom, where they found Rappe tearing off her clothes, “frothing at the mouth,” and ripping her undergarments. Arbuckle left the room, returned to find that Delmont had put ice under Rappe’s head (other reports place the ice on her stomach or, alternately, Rappe in the bath tub). Delmont told Arbuckle to get out of the room and leave Rappe be; Arbuckle then told Delmont to “shut up or I [will] throw you out the window.” They carried her to another room, put her in bed, covered her up, and at last sent for a doctor.
That’s one version of the story. The other version, propagated by Delmont, Semnacher, and party attendee Zev Prevost had the details somewhat different. Prevost testified that Arbuckle had been in the room for forty-five minutes with Rappe, at which point she knocked on the door and found Rappe “fully dressed, but her hair was hanging down, and she was moaning ‘I am dying, I am dying, I know I’m going to die.’” They took off her clothes and attempted to place her in the bath to ease the pain; at some point, Rappe claimed, “I am dying, he hurt me.” Semnacher alleged that Arbuckle had used “a foreign substance in an attack” and, the morning after, had told the other male guests at the party of “committing certain acts,” presumably sexual, that injured Miss Rappe.
The day after the party, Arbuckle returned to Los Angeles. On Thursday, Rappe was moved to Wakefield Sanitarium, where she died the next day from peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder. That day, Delmont publicly accused Arbuckle. On Saturday, Arbuckle was in custody and the story was front-page news, with an arraignment planned for Tuesday, September 13. Over the course of the next six months, the pieces of what had or had not occurred in that room slowly became clear, only to be quickly muddled by allegations of witness tampering, blackmail, and contradictory testimony. It is uncertain exactly what happened in the room, and who undressed whom, at what point, and for what reason, and dozens of books have attempted to untangle the mess of the investigation. But here’s what is certain: Rappe had suffered from chronic cystitis for several years. Whether or not Arbuckle did have sexual relations with her, it was her preexisting condition, not Arbuckle, that caused her death.
But in the weeks following Arbuckle’s arrest, the truth mattered much less than what people wanted to believe of a man of Arbuckle’s size, wealth, and vocation. It was a sensational story, with a seemingly endless stream of information, and the press pursued it with incredible stamina. In the days after the arraignment, the story was exploited as far as the bounds of mainstream journalism would allow, from “Arbuckle Born in Kansas Sod House” in the Los Angeles Times to “Weighed 16 Pounds at Birth” and “Remember Arbuckle as a Mischievous Lad” in the New York Times. It may have seemed like innocuous background reporting, but it was setting the stage for Arbuckle’s public indictment. Even though his sister relayed his generous support of his family, and his childhood acquaintances recalled him as a “fat, overgrown lad, always seeking and getting into mischief but never given to cruelty or violence,” the overarching emphasis was still on excess. He was a “heavy spender,” paying one hundred thousand dollars for his home. He owned six cars, including the most elaborate vehicle in all of California, priced at twenty-five thousand dollars and specially designed for his size. What’s more, he was negligent—the grave of his mother was unkempt, and his bulldog sat mournfully awaiting his return.
The papers framed the party as a “fatal wine orgy” and a “booze party,” and within days, dozens of cities throughout the country had canceled or banned the showing of Arbuckle films. He proclaimed his innocence, appealing to “the Christian charity of the civilized world” until the court reached its verdict. But the sensationalism was just too much. As details of the party emerged, the “gin jollification” party morphed into the most nefarious circles of hell combined, indicative of an epidemic of parties filled with drugs, alcohol, and, worst of all, women dancing in the nude. Even men unconnected to the film industry were purportedly in attendance—a clear sign that Hollywood’s immorality was spreading, and would continue to spread, if not contained. Rumors placed Arbuckle either crushing Rappe with his weight or, angry that he could not perform, raping her with a bottle. These rumors spread not necessarily because they were rooted in fact but because Arbuckle’s image—or more specifically, Arbuckle’s body—seemed capable of enacting them. That’s the most insidious quality of gossip: it doesn’t matter if it’s true; it matters if it seems plausible. Arbuckle’s image wasn’t that of a rapist, but it was defined by excess and a certain asexuality, manifest in his films, in which he regularly cross-dressed, and he looked, to be blunt, like an overgrown baby. And when someone’s sexuality reads as nonnormative, it’s all the easier to believe him capable of anything, including rage at his own impotence and unspeakable sexual violence.
In this way, the baby-faced, bumbling, most beloved star in America became a drunkard, a rapist, and a murderer practically overnight. And who was to blame? Hollywood—and the fans who made it. Within days, condemnation began to flow. For Myra Nye, pontificating in the Los Angeles Times, the entire industry was at fault: “When a man may be raised from the position of corridor-cleaner in a bar-room to a pedestal of fame where he may make an income of 5000 a week simply because he is fat and can make faces, while the real talent of clearly youth passes unnoticed, the values of life are surely confused.” The editorial’s implicit message: poor people shouldn’t get rich too fast, and they certainly shouldn’t get rich for “making faces.” In Los Angeles, dozens of religious leaders offered sermons on “Moral Degradation,” “Hollywood and the Ten Commandments,” and “Moralizations upon a Degenerate’s Debauchery and Lust.” “This sort of party is not American, it belongs to the ages of Nero, the depraved,” declared one pastor. Producers must thus “clean out the libertines and harlots from their outfit before the public decides to clean the whole business.” Senator Henry Myers claimed that Hollywood was replete with “debauchery, drunkenness, ribaldry,” along with “dissipation and free love,” and as a result, the movies were just as bad as the “open saloon” in their ability to corrupt the young.
Sin was a pathogen: the product of too much money and too little oversight, it seeped into the motion pictures, where it then infected all those who viewed them. Arbuckle’s actions in a San Francisco hotel thus infected every man, woman, and especially child who had ever seen him on the screen. No matter that his actual films were some of the least offensive on the screen and that he had even made a pledge in 1917 only to create “clean” comedy, producing “nothing that will offend the proprieties, whether applied to children or grown-ups.” The fact that they were innocuous—and thus framed as appropriate for children—made his off-screen offenses all the more grave.
But even the most arch of critics fell short of calling for a ban on motion pictures altogether. That would be too much: as appalled as audiences were at the allegations of Arbuckle’s behavior, they still loved the movies. The solution, then, was censorship. Even before the events in September, censorship boards on the state and city levels were demanding cuts to various films—too much violence, too much suggestive sexuality, too much skin, too irreverent; the list went on. But each board asked for slightly different cuts, forcing the studio to provide unique prints of a film for dozens of different states and municipalities, a process that was both expensive and inefficient. It was also a slippery slope: if studios continued to heed the demands of individual censors, it might lead to a single, national censor. This scenario might sound feasible, but that censor would be government based—and therein lay the rub. More than anything, the studios wanted to keep the government out of their business, in no small part because their business models violated antitrust laws. To save their monopolies, then, they had to figure out a way to appease the calls for censorship, but to do so without actually appointing a government censor.
Thus the studios came together and created an organization—the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA)—and elected to censor themselves. They appointed devout Presbyterian and former postmaster general Will H. Hays as its head, luring him with a salary of $150,000 a year—approximately $1.9 million today. This appointment might seem an odd choice for the job, but recall that the postmaster general, at the time, wasn’t just controlling the price of postage; he was responsible for rooting out obscenity sent through the mail—“stag” magazines, erotica, pornography, etc.—essentially acting as an arbiter of which media products could and could not reach a national audience. Just months before, a similarly appointed “czar” had successfully sanitized the sport of baseball following the Black Sox scandal, in which several members of the White Sox accepted bribes to “throw” the World Series; the idea was that Hays would do the same for the movie industry.
Hays’s first act as head of the MPPDA, issued on April 18, 1922, was a blanket ban of all Arbuckle films. Arbuckle had still not been convicted, but the ban at least temporarily appeased groups clamoring for censorship. The ban resulted in the loss of ten thousand booking contracts at a cost of one million dollars, but it was a price the industry was willing to pay if it meant fending off the threat of national censorship and government oversight. With the full cooperation of the studios, Hays instituted mandatory “morality clauses” in star contracts, which effectively forced stars to hew to strict standards of moral behavior. If a star violated the clause, he or she would be released from the contract without question. In practice, these clauses meant little; outwardly, however, they signified a willingness on the part of both the studios and their stars to clean up Hollywood at large. Today, Hays is best known for the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” (don’t, for example, use the Lord’s name in vain or depict white slavery or miscegenation, and be careful about how you present the flag, rape, surgical operations, and “first night scenes”), which comprised the so-called Hays Code and governed the content of movies for decades to come. But these initial steps—and the ban of Arbuckle’s films in particular—were crucial in avoiding government incursion and sustaining the status quo. Hays, in other words, set the ship aright, yet he did so at the behest of the industry and at the cost of Arbuckle’s career.
Over the course of the next six months, Arbuckle stood trial three times, each time more complicated than the last. There was a hung jury, a retrial, and a final, resounding acquittal, issued by the jury with an accompanying statement:
Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him. We also feel that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration under the evidence for there was not the slightest proof adduced, to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. . . . We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and women who have sat for thirty-one days listening to the evidence that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from blame.
Hays even lifted the ban on his films in December 1922, as “Every man in the right way and in the proper time is entitled to his chance to make good. It is apparent that Arbuckle’s conduct since his trouble merits that chance.”
But it was too late. Hundreds of telegrams poured into the Hays office protesting the reinstatement. The National Education Association publicly insisted Arbuckle’s pictures remain out of circulation, lest they corrupt a new generation of young moviegoers, and the directors association refused to allow him back into their ranks. The official ban on Arbuckle’s films may have been lifted, but his career was, for all intents and purposes, over. He had exhausted his finances on his three defenses and, stripped of his career, had no steady means of income. He spent the next ten years in relative poverty, directing sporadically under a pseudonym. In 1932, with more than a decade between him and the scandal, he appeared in a series of two-reel comedies. Everyone loved them, and a comeback seemed just around the corner. He signed a contract with Warner Bros.; the press seemed ready to welcome him back. But on June 29, 1933, the very night he signed his contract, Arbuckle, all of forty-six years old, died in his sleep.
The fall of Fatty Arbuckle might seem like a simple tale: a man was in the wrong place at the wrong time and paid a tragic price. But Arbuckle’s demise had much more to do with American anxieties about class and gender than any actual wrongdoing. He became the figurehead for all that was dangerous about Hollywood—unbridled wealth, the unchecked vice—and no jury could acquit him of being an overweight, asexualized, overpaid man. It was easy for the public to forgive, or even ignore, the transgressions of Fairbanks and Pickford, the “King and Queen of Hollywood,” by cloaking them in romance and destiny. But Arbuckle’s transgressions simply could not be reframed. Even if he did not rape or injure a young starlet, he was still Fatty. Not even the impressive rhetorical machinery of the fan magazines could refute that.
We don’t call our stars “Fatty” anymore, and studios don’t (officially) ban them from Hollywood. But we do still allow stars to take on our personal anxieties, and shun them when they fail to embody them in ways that please us. We blind ourselves to corporate machinations that allow individuals to take the fall, and we make it easy to associate outsize bodies with the grotesque. Libel laws are more stringent, and after the lesson of Arbuckle, a star would never be caught in a situation like what went down at the St. Francis Hotel. But it’s nonetheless terrifying what humans are eager to believe of one another, especially when class, gender, and body size intersect.
At 6'3" and 190 strapping pounds, Wallace Reid was a giant among men of the silent era. Between 1919 and 1921, he starred in five race car films, all variations on the same simple, appealing theme, from The Roaring Road (1919) to Excuse My Dust (1920). “I suppose I’m the original lucky individual,” he told the Washington Post. “No matter how many accidents I am in, I always escape without serious damage, though I usually carry away some mark or another as a memento. Luckily, they’ve never been on my face.” Lucky indeed, because Reid was classically handsome, with balanced features and earnest, sparkling eyes that added texture to his thrill-seeking persona.
A modern equivalent of Wallace Reid would be a hybrid of a Jackass cast member and a Judd Apatow man-child, a brawny boy next door. Yet this boy next door also had a long-term addiction to opiates and would eventually die from severe symptoms of withdrawal. There was no way to cover up Reid’s death, so Will Hays, working with Reid’s wife, changed the conversation entirely. It was a marvel of early publicity that helped establish the language of addiction and recovery that persists today. Reid could’ve been labeled a junkie—proof that despite Hays’s “cleanup,” the filth of Hollywood persisted—but instead, he died a victim and a hero.
To understand how Hays spun the story, we have to understand Reid’s image. Reid grew up in a theater family, but spent most of his time being athletic and handsome and successful—the all-American QB and homecoming king years before those things meant what they mean today. He starred in dozens of one-reel films before catching the eye of D. W. Griffith, who cast him as a blacksmith in The Birth of a Nation (1915). It was a small part, but he was shirtless—and the result was something akin to the way women responded to Brad Pitt in nothing but a pair of jeans in Thelma & Louise.
Over the next five years, Reid appeared in a slew of race car pictures, performing his own stunts and firmly establishing his masculinity . . . while also starring as a ladies’ man in a string of exotic romances, most successfully opposite opera singer Geraldine Farrar. On-screen as the champion of the racetrack, he was equally at home as the plaything of the vampy Gloria Swanson. He was that rare Hollywood star who curried equal favor with both sexes: women wanted him; men wanted to be him. Yet Reid was keen to disassociate himself from the label of “matinee idol,” lest it compromise his appeal to men. “May the Lord forbid that anyone ever think I’m a matinee idol,” he told Motion Picture. “If I ever thought I’d have that label attached to me, I’d start to direct tomorrow. That’s one reason why I like the race-track stuff—it gives me the chance to get mussed up and honest-to-goodness dirty!”
Unlike Douglas Fairbanks, whose image was also characterized by athleticism and strength, Reid’s vigor was seemingly spontaneous. Fairbanks went to the gym; Reid was the type to play pickup football with some guys he met while walking home from work. Reid was also a bit of a dilettante; he was a jack-of-all-trades, even if he didn’t do any of those trades all that well, except, perhaps, racing. But his “dabblings” marked him as a sort of new-money Renaissance man, equally invested in high-class hobbies (book collecting, painting, chemistry, music) and working-class diversions (racing and fixing cars). He was quick to make friends—a positive quality, save when it led him to hang with “the wrong sort of crowd.” In this way, Reid’s natural geniality was both the source of his charm and the catalyst for his downfall. He was reckless, but it wasn’t his fault.