Did Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle murder Virginia Rappe? That questions defined the film industry for thirty years. Upset with Hollywood’s moral failures, Christians demanded changes. We took over, fighting until the studios decided to censor themselves.
This special episode of Truce ties into our last episode with Abby Johnson of the Unplanned movie.
This episode explores:
- Who was Fatty Arbuckle?
- Who was Virginia Rappe?
- Did Fatty Arbuckle murder Virginia Rappe?
- What is the MPAA?
- What started the Motional Picture Association of America?
- Did Christians really censor the golden age of films?
- Smithsonian article about the alleged murder of Virginia Rappe
- The Fatty Arbuckle Case – “pop” book about the incident, though it doesn’t seem 100% accurate.
- An extensive archive of papers from the MPPDA – search “Will Hays” or “Roscoe Arbuckle” for some background
- An excellent article and video about the Hays Code by the Hoosier State Chronicles. The video is well worth watching.
- Photograph of Virginia Rappe at the morgue
- Video from Vox about this form of censorship
This episode contains discussion of murder and rape, though it is not graphic. Discretion is advised.
Virginia said, some years before her death, “I’m a jinx. As soon as I love a man, something terrible happens to him.”1
It was a hot day in 1921. September in San Francisco, sometime after 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Famous people partied together in a hotel suite. Topless women. Alcohol. Couples danced to the radio. This was the heady days of early cinema. New technologies and techniques were invented every day. One of the most famous actors in Hollywood was among those attending the party. He was round, heavy, with a baby face. A peer of Charlie Chaplain, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. Five foot six at 226 pounds. His name was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. He made $5,000 a week, about $71,000 in our money.
The actor crossed the hotel room and approached a beautiful woman. They’d been eyeing each other for some time. He was a Hollywood playboy, she a fashion designer turned actress engaged to another man. A film director who seemed to almost approve of her flirtations with other men.
He took her by the hand and said, loud enough for others to hear “I’ve waited five years for this and now I got you.” They disappeared into a separate bedroom.
The couple was gone for twenty minutes during which time the party carried on. More dancing. More alcohol, which was illegal. But available if you had the money. The guests got sloppy drunk. Spread out on couches. Had a good time, for the most part. Until Virginia screamed. Just once. Shortly before her death. The revelers ran to the bedroom door, but it was locked. Virginia yelled again, insisting that Fatty Arbuckle was killing her.
That affair set off a domino effect that sparked one of the most publicized court cases of its age, ruined a man’s career, and manipulated our perception of how people were back then. Perhaps the golden age of movies wasn’t so golden.
You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian church. We press pause on the culture wars to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
The 20s and early 30s were a time of moral struggle.
A murder trial involving one of Hollywood’s biggest starts certainly didn’t help.
Consider that day in 1921. The St. Francis Hotel in San Fransisco2. A Hollywood icon walked into a hotel bedroom with the fiancee of another man. She was famous in her own right and well dressed. The big man wore only a maroon robe and slippers3. Fatty Arbuckle was so famous that Buster Keaton, one of the greatest stars of the silent era, got second billing when they acted together.
The lovers joined hands and left the party. Lovers may not be the right word. It’s unclear if she went because she was drunk, or because she was trying to make her fiance jealous. Perhaps she really did like Fatty Arbuckle. Some eye witnesses say that she was dragged into the room against her will. We don’t know because the accounts differ so wildly. And everyone at the party was inebriated.
Twenty minutes later everyone heard Virginia Rappe scream.
Virginia had needed to use the bathroom before leaving the party. In the course of events inside the bedroom, her bladder ruptured4. Perhaps, due to force placed on it during the affair. The first doctor on the scene misdiagnosed her condition. Told her to rest in her own room. It was just too much alcohol. Except… it wasn’t. She was dying. Doctors could have stitched up her bladder if they’d gotten her to a hospital immediately. But that didn’t happen. They carried her to a room and left her there. A fatal mistake.
Virginia endured four days of excruciating pain. She told a nurse that Arbuckle had raped her.
That all sounds like a tidy narrative. We might be tempted in this era to think that this is a Harvey Weinstein incident. A powerful Hollywood man taking advantage of a woman struggling to make it in the biz. But that just isn’t the case.
There were two mistrials. The third jury found Arbuckle not guilty, and even apologized to Roscoe5. We might say that its because he was famous. Rich. At the top of his game. A white man who took what he wanted regardless of the consequences. But I’d caution you resist that temptation. Because, you see… it had all been a setup. There was a woman at the party by the name of Maude Delmont. Her nickname was “Madame Black”. Prosecutors had hoped that her testimony would put Arbuckle behind bars. Until they looked into her history. It turns out that she wasn’t the impartial witness they’d hoped for.
You see, Delmont had a side hustle. A dark, ugly little business. She was the go-to person if you wanted beautiful young women at your Hollywood parties. But it didn’t stop there. The women were there to seduce rich and famous men. Get them into bed. Make a show of it.
Then came the blackmail. Once the men took the bait, Maude stepped in and claimed that the women had been raped. Either they paid Maude Delmont or she’d leak the stories to the press.
We know this because the prosecutors found telegrams sent three days before the fateful party. Telegrams written by Maude Delmont. They were addressed to lawyers in San Diego and Los Angeles. She wrote, WE HAVE ROSCOE ARBUCKLE IN A HOLE HERE CHANCE TO MAKE SOME MONEY OUT OF HIM6.
It had been a setup. One that cost Virginia her life. Not because Roscoe had beaten her as some people suspected. But because of Virginia’s faulty bladder, an issue which was probably exacerbated by a drinking problem. Arbuckle hadn’t killed her. But that didn’t change the public’s opinion of Roscoe.
During the trial, theater owners banned his films. Fan mail turned to hate mail. Americans were scandalized by the poor behavior of Hollywood celebrities. The partygoers had broken Prohibition laws. Women came forward to testify against Arbuckle and his moral failures. Arbuckle was acquitted. He went free, but his career was over. Americans wouldn’t let it stop with there.
Popular opinion turned against the movie industry. Which was bad for business. Other celebrity scandals had occurred. Paternity suits, public divorces, rape cases. The death of Virginia Rappe tipped the scales.
Hollywood was already concerned that the government would step in and censor films. They didn’t want Washington running the film industry. Movies at the time were not seen as protected by the First Amendment. The studios decided to censor themselves. Beat the government to the punch. They formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, the MPPDA.
What they needed was someone to run it. Somebody who was already influential, someone who the politicians, especially conservative politicians, would like.
They chose Will Hays. Hays was a small man, only 110 pounds, cartoonish, with big ears that stuck out away from his head.
They had many reasons to pick this Indiana boy. He’d been the chair of the Republican National Committee from 1918-1921. He was also the campaign manager for Warren G Harding’s successful presidential run, which won him a job as postmaster general.
The guy had connections. Not to mention it couldn’t hurt to put a Presbyterian elder in charge of an organization that oversaw a supposedly Jewish run industry. Satisfy the haters. Pick someone so Republican, so overtly Christian that he can divert attention away from the studio heads.
Hays wasn’t a hundred percent clean. He’d been behind some malfeasance known at the Tea Pot Dome scandal. It had to do with payoffs associated with government oil contracts. Which I’d love to get into. But who has the time? Hays was chosen as the man for the job in 1922.
At first, the MPPDA promoted the film industry. Not really… regulating it. That didn’t stop public pressure. So they released a list of what they called “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” in 19277.
Some of these you’d expect. Like don’t show children’s sex organs. No illegal drugs. Good has to triumph over evil. Others are surprising. Like no profanity, including the Lord’s name in vain, no white slavery, and no sexual relationships between white and black races. No men and women in bed together. Think about Lucy and Ricky Ricardo with their separate beds in “I Love Lucy”.
This initial code was not well enforced. It was more symbolic. Suggested. Which wasn’t good enough for some viewers, especially Catholic leaders. So they created a stricter code in 1930. This list was soon termed the Hays Code, after Will Hays. But there was conflict there. Remember, this was 1930. Right at the beginning of the Great Depression. People didn’t have money for food, let alone entertainment like movies. Customers were not going to see films. This was a terrible time to start cleaning up the films. So they still didn’t clean it up! The industry did what they could to attract more viewers. By adding nudity and violence. Not to mention homosexuality. What would that be? A don’t or a be careful? Anyhow, let me give you some examples.
In the film Morocco (1930), Marlene Dietrich dressed as a man and kissed a girl in the audience of a cabaret8. There were gay characters in films like Our Betters (1933), Sailor’s Luck (1933), and Cavalcade (1933).
Religious audiences noticed that the moral guidelines of the Hays Code were not being followed. Catholic leaders formed the Legion of Decency. They put pressure on Catholics, making them pledge not to go and see films that the legion disapproved of. Hollywood was facing a boycott. Their gamble to spice up films to get more eyeballs backfired. In 1934, Catholics demanded that the Hays Code be enforced9.
Which is why there was a “golden age of cinema”. Movies like“It Happened One Night”, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “The Wizard of Oz”. Hollywood pictures became clean.
That’s not to say that films from this period were all roses and smiles. They made some dark films. But they had to be clever about it. Work around the rules. This is the era of film noir. Movies like The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity. And one of my favorite black and white films – Sunset Boulevard. Which… when you think about it… is not all that squeaky clean.
It’s about this Hollywood writer. We first meet him as he’s floating face down in a pool. Dead. Even though he’s narrator?
JOE: That’s me. Joe Gillis. The deadish narrator.
Then we flash back. He’s a has been. All washed up. Trying to get this film made.
JOE: It’s called Bases Loaded.
The trouble is. His car is about to get reposessed. And he can’t lose his car because in Los Angeles that’s like getting your legs cut off.
JOE: In Los Angeles that’s like getting your legs cut off.
He gets in a high speed car chase, and he stashes his ride the garage of a giant old house on Sunset Boulevard. It belongs to Norma Desmond.
NORMA: And now Mr. Demille…
NORMA: I’m sorry.
Norma Desmond. A has been actress from the silent days of film. She used to be big.
NORMA: I am big! It’s the pictures that got small.
Which is one of her two big catchphrases in the movie. Joe is a poor writer running from the repo man and Norma is in need of a comeback.
NORMA: Don’t say that! It’s not a comeback. I hate that word.
So the two make a deal. Joe will rework her screenplay and she’ll provide for his needs. Which leads to an uneasy romantic? Relationship. They’re clearly sleeping together, but it’s all hinted at. Thanks to the Hays Code.
At the end, as Joe is leaving Norma, she pulls a gun on him and shoots. Joe stumbles and falls into the pool. There is no blood. None. Not even when he hits the water. At this point, Joe’s selfish behavior, using an old woman for her money, is paid back with his life. And Norma, in one of the great scenes in film history, promenades down the stairs as cameras are rolling. She’s back in the limelight! In front of the cameras and she says this famous line that is almost always misquoted:
Now. Yes, now.
NORMA: All right Mr. DeMille… I’m ready for my closeup.
Think about that film today. We’d definitely get more than a hint that the two were sleeping together. In the 1950’s version, though, there’s only subtext. And no foul language. You’ve seen movies recently, there is no way there wouldn’t be some swearing, at least when he’s stumbling to his death. But it’s clean. Even though the film is about a man using an old woman for her money, you could probably show the movie to a pretty young kid without any issues.
That’s the palpable difference between films then and now. They had to be creative with their deviance.
Will Hays was the public face at the start of the movement to gussy up Hollywood’s image. But the artists weren’t going to keep it clean if left to their own devices.
The guy tasked with enforcing the code was Joseph Breen. He was a strong Roman Catholic, who had some sketchy anti-semitic ideas. The Breen Team went through scripts before films were made and made notes of anything they found objectionable. Their seal of approval from that era appears in the credits of most films of the era. Which made Joseph Breen the most powerful Hollywood mogul you’ve never heard of. He decided what films made it to distribution and which did not. Because the studios who agreed to this code, also owned the theaters where the films were shown.
It wasn’t just big business that agreed to censorship. Actors, under contract with the studios, were often required to live their lives in a wholesome manner. Or… pretend to. Even to the point of Hollywood studios creating fake heterosexual relationships to cover up the lifestyles of their homosexual actors. They hired press agents to ensure that nobody found out how movie stars really lived. The same was true for baseball players. Babe Ruth needed PR people to cover up his hard lifestyle of alcohol and women. In that era the public illusion of morality was key. Knowing that, some people think that Maude Delmont blackmail story was created by the studio PR people to protect Fatty Arbuckle. The problem is… there just isn’t evidence of a coverup. But there is evidence for Maude’s blackmail scheme.
The Hays Code was in effect until the 1960’s. The organization was renamed to the Motion Picture Association of America, the MPAA. Instead of censoring movies, they settled on rating them. Eventually, over decades, landing on the system we have today with G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17. Consumers, they realized, could decide what they wanted for themselves.
For thirty years, the industry was run by Christians. No, not run… ruled. Controlled. Bullied. As part of a PR campaign to subdue Americans who were outraged by indecency in the movies.
Flash forward to today and modern concern about freedom of speech. Think about our last episode, where we discussed the pro-life movie “Unplanned”. Many conservatives are upset by the way that this film has been treated in the media, saying that the MPAA’s R rating was unfair. That it amounted to censorship. Which is quite a swing. Christians went from running the MPAA and censoring films, to now protesting the same organization for doing what we used to do. The shoe is now other the other foot, as they say.
That is takeaway number one. We’re two faced when it comes to censorship. We want our kind of freedom of speech.
Takeaway two is this: remember that Hollywood is and always has been artifice. Christians today often wax philosophic about the good old days. When people in Hollywood had good morals, when actors led decent lives. They point to films of old as proof that the human condition was better back then.
Let me tell you clearly… no it wasn’t.
It’s an illusion. Like so much in the movie world. The golden age was manufactured. It’s makeup applied heavily to the human condition. Movies were clean because we forced them to look clean. Not because producers, writers, directors, and actors were better people back then. Or because they wanted to make clean films. This nostalgia for a bygone era applies to areas beyond the silver screen. We gussy up our collective memories of this whole era. In reality the supposed Golden Age of cinema coincided with Americans rounding up Japanese Americans and imprisoning them on our own soil. We enforced Jim Crow Laws. We oppressed women. We blacklisted anyone who might be even a little communist. We polluted our own soil with nuclear waste. Knowingly pushed tobacco even though we knew it caused cancer.
We have always been and, until the end of time, will be imperfect. That’s why we need a savior in the first place. That’s why our great grandparents needed a savior too. We need Jesus just as badly now as they did in the 1930’s. Pretending that the media was better back then on its own does us no good at all. It only looks good because it was censored. As much as we want to bellyache about being censored ourselves, we can’t have it both ways.
Special thanks to my friend Andy Pearson for his help researching this story. I’ve got a long list of sources on our website, including some fascinating videos on this subject. There is also a link to an archive where you can read original documents from the MPPDA. You can also watch one of Fatty Arbuckle’s films for yourself. The website is www.trucepodcast.com. Once there you can find our social media links, join the email list, and learn more about my films Bringing up Bobby and Between the Walls, and find my novel Cradle Robber. Thanks to Kjera Griffith and Gannon Castle for their vocal work. Roy Browning designed our website, and his company, JMC Brands, is just starting to assist with advertising. My friend John Wilkerson from the Wired Homeschool podcast is helping me with social media. Our logo was created by my friend Andy Huff. Nick Staron gives me the uncensored feedback I so desperately need.
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Thanks for listening.
I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.