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It was a wild party, that first weekend in September 1921 in San Francisco, and the way it developed in its fatal, wet happiness, that marked Hollywood forever. "The Day the Laughter Stopped" is the name of the book by David A. Yallop (1976), which told of the night, the scandal and the man in the center, Fatty Arbuckle. There have been dozens of other books and articles since then. Johnny Depp bought the rights to a novel devoted to Fatty's fate.
Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was the strong man in American cinema for a few years before Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin began their triumphal procession. A giant baby, aggressive and gentle at the same time, who embodied pure slapstick and was able to develop the most graceful moments with his misshapen body. "Words can hardly suggest how energetically these comedians rumbled together and jumped away from each other," wrote James Agee, "the gestures were wildly empathetic, no contour or movement of the body was wasted or expressionless."
And Fatty was very special, "with his relaxed, cheerful smile, his silky manipulation of his body mass and his devilish mastery with cakes (he was two-handed and could approach people in opposite directions at the same time)".
Room 1219, St. Francis Luxury Hotel, San Francisco, September 5, 1921, Labor Day: the day the laughter ended. Fatty Arbuckle really wanted to let it rip. He had a contract with the Paramount studio for three million dollars, which was amazing at the time, half a dozen of his films were on the screens in the country and others had already been shot. The serial weekly production of comedies was an exhausting job.
What really happened in room 1219 on September 5, 1921?
Two days earlier, Fatty had pulled up with his friends in his new Pierce-Arrow in front of the St. Francis, the next evening starlets followed, among them Virginia Rappe and her friend Maude Delmont. A few days later, Virginia was dead, Fatty behind bars. The charge was murder, then changed to manslaughter, and the people demanded the death penalty.
What had happened in room 1219 on Labor Day could never be determined. What remains is a jumble of statements and contradictions, of false claims and revocations, of lousy tactics in court. Virginia Rappe had withdrawn into the bathroom of the suite when the party was going on - was she in pain or was she drunk? Fatty wanted to take care of her, but when Maude walked into the room it looked like he was going after her. "He did this to meVirginia is reported to have groaned. She was taken to the hospital and died of peritonitis on September 9th, her bladder torn.
A penetration? An icicle, a cola or a bubbly bottle? Fatty's penis? Had he crushed her with his weight?
His weight will doom him, said a commentator who knew the mood in the country. The gentle giant baby was declared a monster. The absurdities continued in court, there were three trials, two of which ended with a "hung jury" that could not come to an agreement. In the third there was a conviction - for the consumption of alcohol. It was the time of prohibition. As for the death, the jury complained that Fatty had been seriously wronged by the public prejudice - and acquitted him.
A lot has also changed for the cinema. During the crisis, the "Hays Office" took over the regiment, the voluntary censorship of Hollywood producers. The paradise of slapstick was closed, the cinema operated in a moral gray area. His anarchy was considered dubious, in its mixture of naivety and meanness, infantility and aggression.
Chaplin and Keaton (whom Arbuckle had introduced to the cinema) adapted, developing more complex stories and reducing the wild pace and aggressiveness of the short films. The laughter didn't stop completely, but it was soaked up in melancholy and humanism.
But for Fatty it was the end. He was acquitted in court, but the street's verdict was different. Angry women in Connecticut tore up the screens of cinemas playing Fatty's films; cowboys in Wyoming shot at the screen. His good friend Keaton wanted to keep Fatty in the film business, he gave him the direction of his film "Sherlock Jr.", which was intended, sarcastically subversive, as the pseudonym Will B. Good.
But Arbuckle was so annoyed and chaotic by the process stress that he had to stop after three weeks. The actress Louise Brooks thought of him with respectful wistfulness, she was the Lulu in Georg Wilhelm Pabst's "Pandora's Box" and knew about the mechanics of social morality and the Hollywood dream and pleasure factory. Brooks made the film "Windy Riley Goes Hollywood" with Fatty in the thirties.
She remembers how he sat sadly in his chair at the time, like a dead person: "He was a wonderful dancer, a wonderful ballroom dancer in his big days. It was like floating in the arms of a huge donut that was delicious."
It wasn't until 1933 that Fatty got another film deal, at the Warner Brothers studio, more than ten years after the day the laughter stopped. "This is the best day of my life," he said. On the night of that best day, he died at the age of 46. "Those who demanded their pounds of meat," Will Rogers said at the time, "have finally been satisfied. Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle met them by dying of a broken heart."
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