Silent Screen megastar who got his start in Silver Lake originally with Director William Selig and later found fame at Mack Sennett Studios reigned as the king of film comics and was the highest paid star in Hollywood in 1914 after just five years in the business. Seven years later, at the zenith of his popularity, and with a new 3-year, $3 million contact (over $40 million in today’s dollars) was laid low by a scandal that rocked Hollywood and the world. Although he was later deemed innocent, the scandal destroyed his career. Although his untimely death at the age of 46 was listed as a heart attack, his friend Buster Keaton claimed the real cause was a broken heart.
Arbuckle’s future troubles emerged from the very beginning when he came into the world in 1887 weighing 13 pounds (some sources say it was 16 pounds). His abusive, alcoholic, smallish father, not believing the boy was his, named him after a public figure he despised: philandering New York Republican senator Roscoe Conkling. The difficult birth contributed to his mother’s ill health (and death 12 years later) would further cast blame on the boy, perhaps making it a blessing that the father abandoned the family shortly after moving from Kansas to Santa Ana in 1889. The traumatic circumstances combined with the family’s poverty and isolation as well as his outsized bulk, turned Arbucke into a painfully shy, socially awkward young man.
Despite these disadvantages, Arbuckle possessed considerable athletic ability; Hollywood mogul Mack Sennett would later comment on the paradox, proclaiming at one point “He skipped up the stairs as lightly as Fred Astaire, and did a back summersault as graceful as a tumbler.” He also possessed a wonderful tenor singing voice that led Enrico Caruso to advise Arbuckle to “give up this slapstick nonsense and begin concentrating on becoming the second greatest singer in the world.”
At the height of his popularity, the fun-loving Arbuckle traveled to San Francisco for a Labor Day weekend of partying with friends Lowell Sherman and Fred Fischbach. Along with the booze and drugs came a bevy of young girls, among them an aspiring starlet, Virginia Rappe, with a racy reputation (and possessing a chronic bladder infection). Well into the multi-day party, Rappe was found unconscious in Arbuckle’s hotel room. Delayed in her hospitalization to keep the matter hush-hush, she died four days later of peritonitis from a ruptured bladder.
Though the tragedy clearly resulted from the exacerbation of Rappe’s condition, an ambitious district attorney wasted no time in recklessly charging Arbuckle with taking advantage of the intoxicated young man and raping her to death with a liquor bottle. The yellow press would have a field day with the wild accusations which irreparably destroyed Arbuckle’s child-like screen persona before his acquittal on all charges at the third of his “trials of the century” (the first two ended inconclusively; likely due to jury bribery).
Arbuckle might have been able to resuscitate his career after a reasonable cooling off period, but the heavy legal fees had ruined him financially. Initially banned from the screen for life, he was reduced to night club and stage appearances and an occasional directing jobs under the pseudonym, Will B. Good. When the ban was finally lifted and on the verge of a sound-era comeback, he died in his sleep in 1933; he was 46 years old. Despite the decade-long hiatus from the screen. thousands of fans lined the streets outside Campbell’s Funeral Home at 66th Street and Broadway, the same funeral home where Rudolph Valentino lay in state seven year earlier.
Adapted from Silver Lake Chronicles: Exploring an Urban Oasis in Los Angeles. Please do not us this material without permission. © All rights reserved.