Bill Cosby's arrest on charges of sexual assault dating back over the course of decades isn't the first time a beloved comedian has faced scandal and the criminal justice system. In fact, Hollywood's first modern scandal ensnared a comedic actor nearly a hundred years ago.
A century ago, the cinematic narrative structure was well established by films like The Great Train Robbery (1903). Soon after, audience’s grew complicit with the new technology and discovered a love for films that told stories about characters with whom they could identify. Thus the most important shift in the evolution of the relationship between the spectator and the screen was the dawn of the movie star.
Just like today’s Facebook groups and Youtube channels, audiences came together in fandom and adoration of these movie stars in the form of fan clubs. Audiences began to care less about the films and stories themselves and instead obsess over their favourite actors. This lead to a voracious appetite for information about these celebrities to the point of idolization and, in true Keeping up with the Kardashian’s form, an incredible desire to live vicariously through them.
This scrutiny, however was a double-edged sword, as the personal lives of celebrities of cinema became of interest to the public, more and more did their off-screen behavior come to have a direct affect on their perception in the eyes of their fans and, of greater concern to the studios who marketed them, ticket sales for their films. Their misdeeds often became sensational stories and public opinion could whip into a fury at the provocation of a juicy headline.
Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was a comedian of large proportions who gained a huge following from a wide demographic. His career in cinema gained momentum in 1913 when he was employed at Mack Sennett's Keystone studio. The Chris Farley of his day, Arbuckle's imposing figure combined with amazing physical agility made an immediate impression, and he quickly became an audience favorite. Although his own comic genius may be debatable, his repertoire consisted of pratfalls, physical gags and funny faces; he worked with other iconic comedians and celebrities in their own rights such as Charlie Chaplin in The Rounders (1915). Arbuckle also had a reputation as a man who enjoyed large parties flowing with plenty of bootlegged liquor and it was this which lead to the scandal that ruined his career.
What happened one late summer night of 1921 in San Francisco remains a matter of conjecture to this day. Debate lingers as to the intimate details however the generally accepted account is that during Labor Day weekend, a young starlet named Virginia Rappe went into convulsions after being alone with Arbuckle and died several days later of a ruptured bladder.
Now here is where scholars seem to omit and invent certain details or inflate innuendos and Hollywood rumors as to what occurred on the night in question, ambiguity that can be easily understood by how the media ran sensational headlines the day after Virginia Rappe’s death. Sam Stoloff in Headline Hollywood, A Century of Scandal, elaborates on the mitigating factors in Arbuckle’s three ensuing trials. The most influential factor being a galvanized public, stoked by the media coverage that took matters into their own hands, many condemning Arbuckle publicly and even infiltrating the jury:
Arbuckle was thunderously denounced – in editorial columns, pulpits, meetings of women’s and civic organizations, and on the floor of Congress – almost immediately. As the originally reported “evidence” crumbled, the prevailing attitude was that, even if innocent of the actual charge, he was certainly guilty of lewd and immoral conduct.
Although Arbuckle went free, prurient minds dwelt on fantasies of the helpless young beauty at the mercy of the slavering fat beast. A Hearst writer offered a sickening valedictory. “Little Virginia Rappe, the best dressed girl in the movies, whose up-to-the-minute clothes have been the envy of thousands, today wears the oldest garment in the world. It is a shroud.” (Robin Cross, The Movie Stars Story 1984)
Having heard the accounts of what happened that night and the dramatic and drawn out affair that the trial became, how did the Hollywood system respond to public accusations of lewdness and immorality? In Scandal, Social Conditions, and the Creation of Public Attention, Gary Alan Fine proposes that high profile scandals are as much a product of the media and the public in some cases more so than the individuals involved. He argues that often “moral entrepreneurs” use such opportunities to inflate the claims and put pressure on government institutions to impose legislation as precursors to bringing their outside agenda into the mainstream. Editorials have been joined by the chorus of "outrage brigades" on social media, punctuated with trending hashtags directly attacking the accused. In this regard, Stephen Vaughn explains that critics rallied behind the banner of Catholic morality and used the 1921 trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle as one of many catalysts to set in motion events that would lead to the establishment of the Motion Picture Production code by the end of the decade.
A 1939 article in The Public Opinion Quarterly lends a living record to history at a time when Will Hays had been maintaining the balance of power in terms of guidelines surrounding censorship and his by then well-established “Hays Code.” By then the Hays code had been in effect for more than ten years with one of the regulating powers including the censorship and temporary boycott the was enacted against Arbuckle:
First of all, there was developed a public relations campaign. In the words of Terry Ramsaye in his Million and One Nights, “The motion picture began to scream with outraged innocence.” Ramsaye goes on to say that: “Writers, better known for their fictional contributions to the scenario departments than for their abilities as reporters, were brought in as a defensive army. Hays also organized a Public Relations Committee which consisted of numerous national organizations, representing social, educational, commercial, and religious groups.
After all, what became of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle? According to Stoloff, “Arbuckle made a brief screen comeback in the early 1930s just before his death. But these were a shabby, rather shamefaced coda to his once illustrious career. Arbuckle’s films now only exist in a few film archives or on hard-to-find videotapes of Hollywood arcane, although the scandal is periodically recycled.” Arbuckle died nearly broke in 1933.
It can be put forth that the “Fatty” Arbuckle case was perhaps the template of which Hollywood and the media alike would ever after abide by when it comes to celebrity scandals. To reiterate Gary Alan Fine, the insidious fallout from these scandals can empower “moral entrepreneurs” to use such opportunities to inflate the claims and put pressure on government institutions to impose legislation as precursors to bringing their outside agenda into the mainstream. With the advent of platforms like Twitter, the role of the spectator at has evolved only in scale as we continue to pay less attention to the spectacle on screen, and consume the spectacle that is celebrity misery.