Watch old black-and-white Hollywood films and you might find a few things missing, like foul language and overt sexuality. Look a little closer and you might notice that bad guys never get away with it, adultery always gets punished, and homosexuality is never glorified.
These aren't just signs of a more conservative time. They're the product of strict rules that filmmakers imposed on themselves to fend off an even wider crackdown.
Today, the infamous Production Code is largely forgotten. So is a slapstick star whose disastrous real-life hijinks came to represent all the wretched excesses of Hollywood. The very excesses, in fact, that the new restrictions aimed to vanquish on screen.
Now historian Greg Merritt explores the shocking case of an alleged deadly rape in a debauched San Francisco hotel in "Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood."
Perceptive, detailed and convincing, "Room 1219" is destined to become the definitive account of the wrenching loss of a young woman, the downfall of a funny fat man, and the price of carelessness in an era defined by it.
In an interview, Merritt talks about the Arbuckle case, the surprising details he discovered about the dead woman, and the remarkably modern feel of this almost century-old scandal.
Q: For readers who aren’t familiar with him, tell us a little bit about Fatty Arbuckle: How popular was he? Would everyone in the country have known who he was?
After a vaudeville career, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was a comedic actor in silent films as well as a director and screenwriter. He quickly rose to prominence in 1913 doing frantic slapstick, but his comedic style later broadened.
He was one of the first people to experience what it was like to be a movie star, and he was the first to sign a million-dollar annual contract. By 1921, he was second to only Charlie Chaplin in popularity among actors.
And he was extremely famous not just in America, but around the world. Silent films, with their inserted title cards, could be converted to any language easily, and most of the humor was visual.
Q: Are there any YouTube videos of his movies that you’d recommend readers watch to get a flavor of his comedy?
"The Rounders" (1914) is his best collaboration with Charlie Chaplin.
"Fatty and Mabel Adrift" (1916) is a disaster comedy and a good example of his work with Mabel Normand, and "Coney Island" (1917) is one of his many fine collaborations with the great Buster Keaton. "Good Night Nurse" (1918), another pairing with Keaton, has a macabre and surreal sensibility.
Q: One of the amazing things about your book is how contemporary the scandal sounds: Extramarital sex, a suspicious death of a boldly contemporary woman, a media frenzy, a stream of "expert" witnesses, and even an O.J. Simpson-style face-off over forensic science. What does the story tell us about changing values in that era?
It tells us a lot. The case unfolded during Prohibition and at the dawn of the Jazz Age. Society was undergoing sweeping changes, especially in regards to women, who had earned the right to vote in 1920 and were exerting more independence.
The young woman who died, Virginia Rappe, was an example of this modern, liberated archetype, though the press immediately after her death presented her instead as a violated innocent.
Much was made then of a "shocking" party with married men cavorting with show girls, drinking and dancing in the middle of the day in a hotel room. The media had to use euphemisms for terms like "rape," yet they were painting a colorfully sordid portrait of the modern world, gleefully writing about Hollywood's "orgies" and its supposedly rampant immorality.
Preachers and editorialists condemned Arbuckle and, in a broader sense, Hollywood and its movies. Many felt that Arbuckle needed to be tried and convicted of something just to fight back the immorality of the Jazz Age.
Q: What surprised you when you researched this story? Was anything unexpected or startling?
There were a lot of things, including some overlooked coroner's inquest testimony which I believe is crucial to solving the case. But the biggest overall surprise was the wealth of information about Virginia Rappe. Previous writers offered barely anything about her life other than the worst rumors about her, and yet there was a lot of fascinating information in newspapers waiting to be discovered.
She was adept at promoting her modeling, fashion design, and acting careers. She was profiled in the Chicago Tribune when she was a 17-year-old model and she continued to give interviews or pen her own articles throughout the remainder of her life. One of the most interesting things about her is how innovative her fashions were.
In some ways, just as Arbuckle was the archetype male movie star with his partying entourage and ostentatious spending, Rappe was the prototypical Jazz Age woman: an unmarried, outspoken entrepreneur. Both images would later be twisted to sinister meanings.
Q: What impact did this case have on Hollywood and the movies?
First it halted Arbuckle's movie career in September of 1921. Silent comedy legends Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd made most of their best movies after that date. So we never got to see how great Arbuckle could've been.
In a broader sense, there was a wave of government movie censorship after Arbuckle's arrest. The film industry countered this with its own self-censorship measures, culminating in the establishment of the Production Code in 1930. This was enforced in 1934 and lasted until 1968, when a rating system was established.
Those 34 years had a great impact on movie content, as some topics were never broached and others were couched in innuendo. The Arbuckle case wasn't the only reason for the establishment of the Code, but it was the major early impetus.
Q: How unfair was the justice system to Arbuckle?
He should never have been arrested for murder, and it's debatable whether or not he should have ever been tried for manslaughter – let alone three times.
Nevertheless, that pales in comparison to his press treatment. He went from one of the world's most beloved figures to one of its most hated in the course of a few days as a result of horrendously scandalous newspaper coverage.
The reputations of some witnesses and Virginia Rappe herself were tarnished during the trials, though much of that is to be expected. Rappe's reputation suffered much worse in the decades following the trials. In popular conspiracy theories, she became a perpetrator instead of a victim.
I assign some condemnation to Arbuckle for his cavalier, playboy attitude and what I argue was his perjurious cover story.
Q: How certain are you of your opinion?
I'm confident that I present what most likely happened in room 1219 on Labor Day, 1921. But we can never be certain. So I also present the other options and explain why I think they're less likely explanations.
Q: Why is this case worth talking about today?
This was a very popular and influential criminal case – tried both in the courts and in the media – and it's a lingering unsolved mystery.
Clearing away misinformation and finally offering a solution to the mystery that's consistent with the known facts is important for the reputations of Arbuckle and Rappe and for gaining a full understanding of the scandal's effects on movie history, the press, and American society.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.