Will HBO Arbuckle Bio Tell the Truth About Early Hollywood?

HOLLYWOODNew York Magazine revealed this week that HBO Films has given the go-ahead for a biopic about Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, whose career as a film comedian was ruined by false rape and murder charges for which the stocky star was tried and acquitted three times. The film will be based on the book The Day the Laughter Stopped by David A. Yallop, and will star Eric Stonestreet, a featured player on ABC's Modern Family. The project is expected to be completed in the spring or summer of 2012.

The troubles that sank Arbuckle's 12-year film career began on September 5, 1921—Labor Day—when Arbuckle, taking a break between films, rented three suites at San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel with actor/director Lowell Sherman and cameraman Fred Fischbach, intending to throw a party for a number of female companions that would include plenty of booze, which had been illegal for about 18 months under the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

One of the party guests, it turned out, was actress/model Virginia Rappé, a woman well-known in Hollywood for stripping nude when drunk and for being a woman of "easy virtue."  Rappé was accompanied by someone who may have been her pimp, Maude "Madam Black" Delmont, also known as "Bambina," against whom police had filed over 50 charges of extortion.

What happened from that point forward is still unclear. It's known that Rappé got very drunk, began ripping her clothes off and screaming (perhaps because of chronic cystitis, aggravated by drinking alcohol), and reportedly collapsed in the bathroom of Arbuckle's suite. The star reportedly moved her to his bed, called for a doctor and even got the actress her own room—and then he rejoined the party. Eventually, Rappé was taken to a local hospital where, three days later, she died of a ruptured bladder and accompanying peritonitis—and then the accusations began. Delmont accused Arbuckle of raping Rappé, allegedly with both his cock and either a champagne or Coca-Cola bottle, which allegedly caused the ruptured bladder and killed her. Police arrested Arbuckle for the crime, but according to film historian Karie Bible, "Delmont’s story changed constantly and the district attorney realized that she was an unreliable witness. She never testified at any of the trials, in spite of being the chief accuser."

Nonetheless, Arbuckle underwent three murder trials, lasting a total of nearly three months, the first two resulting in hung juries, while the last not only acquitted the actor, the jury actually wrote an apology which read in part, "Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him... There was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime."

But it hardly mattered; Arbuckle's career was in ruins. Even Paramount, which had three Arbuckle movies in the can and ready for release, shelved them permanently. Will Hayes, head of the new Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America, which would for nearly 40 years be Hollywood's official censorship organization under the Motion Picture Production Code, banned Arbuckle from working in movies in the U.S. ever again, and urged movie theaters across the country to cancel any Arbuckle films they might then have been screening. (All complied.)

There's no doubt that it'll be a hell of a story, and Stonestreet told New York Magazine's Vulture Blog that he'd wanted to play Arbuckle since the late '90s—"I just always found it to be such a fascinating and tragic story," he said. "He went from this jolly person who fell down and entertained people into a sexual deviant."—but the real question is, will the HBO film portray 1920s Hollywood as it actually was? That is, the Hollywood that in many ways looked like and lived much as the adult video industry does now, rather than the Goody Two-Shoes image it would like the public to believe it always had?

For one thing, in early Hollywood, studios ruled the roost, headed by moguls such as Samuel Goldwyn, William Fox, Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer, Jesse L. Lasky and the four Warner Brothers, and all of the major stars were under iron-clad contracts to one studio or another, with nothing resembling the Screen Actors Guild to represent their interests. And while it was technically the studio heads' job to keep things from getting out of hand, their methods were often suspect.

Consider, for instance, the case of Wallace Reid, the single most popular star of the early '20s—and a major alcoholic. While filming Valley of the Giants in 1919, he was involved in a train wreck that left him with such excruciating injuries that he wanted to quit the movie. But Jesse Lasky, head of Famous Players, wouldn't have that! Instead, the mogul sent the studio physician to the set to keep Reid constantly supplied with morphine so that he could continue working—and once that film wrapped, with Reid contracted to start another movie right away, Lasky kept the morphine flowing. The constant drug supply left Reid a complete addict who spent 1922 checking himself in and out of sanitariums and hospitals for treatment of both the pain and his addiction—until it got so bad that in January, 1923, he died in his wife's arms—at the ripe old age of 31.

And then there was the sex! Most people have heard of the on- and off-camera escapades of top stars Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow, but who knows that Joan Crawford was the life of the party in the '20s, drinking well into the night, engaging in countless affairs (including plenty of rough sex) and who, in the words of frequent co-star Bette Davis, "slept with every star at MGM ... of both sexes," counting Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck and Marilyn Monroe among her lovers? (There were even rumors that Crawford's mother had made her work as a prostitute.)

Yep, Hollywood was one wild place in the 1920s—and we can only hope that HBO captures some of that truth in its production.

Pictured: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Virginia Rappé.

(This article has been updated to more properly describe the planned movie as a "biopic.")