A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1917 – Coney Island

This felt appropriate for many reasons. Mostly because 1917… probably the hardest one of these early years. I couldn’t really find anything that wasn’t a retread of something I’ve already talked about. And then I came across this film. I actually think it was Colin who suggested it, and provided enough reasoning for me to run with it and come up with more as to why it was the right choice.

Coney Island is a short film directed by and starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Even if you don’t know his work, you’ve heard the name Fatty Arbuckle. The man was a comedic powerhouse in this era. Arbuckle and Mack Sennett are probably the two biggest comedy directors going at this point in time. Now, it’s memorable for that alone, because two-reel comedies are a huge draw in this era, even with the advent of features. Features at this point weren’t yet the norm, but were getting there. They were more spectacles. Birth of a Nation, as I said, was a roadshow. They brought it from town to town and you went out to see it. If you were going to the movies on a Thursday, chances are you were watching something like this.

The other reason this felt like a good choice – it’s one of the first films of Buster Keaton. Technically his fifth, but what makes this memorable is that it’s before he created his on-screen persona, so this movie actually features him smiling on-screen, which, to people who know Buster Keaton, it’s like, “Whaaat?” That’s like hearing Arnold Schwarzenegger cried on screen. You’ve just never seen it.

Though, aside from all of that, there’s actually another reason I put this film up here, and it’s not to talk about Buster Keaton or any of that stuff, it’s to mention something else, tangentially related to this film, that is a very important part of film history during this time, which is – the kind of behavior Hollywood was exhibiting that led to severe concern and eventual censorship. Mainly coming in the form of a very sad story about Fatty Arbuckle.

Now, Hollywood, as we all know, was always a playground. The stars get famous, and they think they can do whatever they want without repercussion. There are famous people know who do heinous things and don’t get jail time. This was similar to back in the day. Lots and lots of scandals happening with Hollywood stars. Real fucked up shit. To the point where the government wanted to step in and get involved. And this sort of paralleled to the stuff that was actually in the movies, which eventually led to the Production Code and censorship and all that. But that’s not the partthat I’m here to talk about today. The part I’m here to talk about is the star scandals.

The government was keeping a close eye on Hollywood, given the amount of stars who were drinking and causing trouble, addicted to morphine, cocaine, heroin, you name it. So much stuff going on. So, they were looking to make an example of someone. Enter Fatty Arbuckle.

Huge comedian (literally and figuratively), takes a break from his hectic schedule and has a party with some friends. Meanwhile, during the party, a woman attending, named Virginia Rappe (a name sadly appropriate), was really sick in one of the rooms. The doctor who saw her figured she was drunk and gave her morphine. Meanwhile, what she really had was a UTI. She got them chronically, and they flared up whenever she drank, which was a lot, and because of the poor quality of bootleg liquor (remember, Prohibition). She would apparently drink a lot, and then because of the pain, drunkenly tear off her clothes. Meanwhile, she’d also had several abortions, so her insides were really not in good shape.

Anyway, her friend at the party said that Arbuckle raped her. And the doctor who examined her found absolutely no evidence of this whatsoever. Meanwhile, Rappe dies the next day after a ruptured bladder. So the friend goes to the police and says that Arbuckle raped Rappe, and the police figure, “Well, he was fat, that must have been what ruptured her bladder.” This is one of those situations where they’re just waiting to blame someone, and every explanation magically fits the supposed crime. Meanwhile, this blows up, and then a couple days later, her manager accused Arbuckle of using ice to masturbate her and that’s what caused it. And then by the time the papers got a hold of it, he’d violated her with a soda bottle. Apparently the friend was saying all this to try to get money out of him.

So then this whole thing goes to trial, and William Randolph Hearst (not a fan of Hollywood… and this is still 20 years before Citizen Kane), completely muckrakes the whole thing and turns everyone against Arbuckle. They make him into this overweight lecher who uses his weight to force himself on women and convinces them he’s guilty before the trial even started. Meanwhile this dude is the shiest motherfucker in the world and would never do anything rude to a woman.

So by the time the trial starts, his reputation is shot, people are calling for him to be put to death (so called “morality groups,” who are basically the religious right from a hundred years ago, and all those politically correct assholes now who go, “Oh my god, that man made an offensive joke, let’s burn him at the stake!” Or even better, “Let’s make him apologize and then get him fired!”). And even studios told actors not to speak up in his defense. It was fucked up.

Meanwhile, a DA, who was trying to run for office, used Arbuckle to raise his platform and basically tried to rig the trial to get the verdict he wanted. False statements, coercion, all of it. Meanwhile, his only witness is the friend, who they found out had a history of fraud and extortion, and made her living luring men into positions like this and blackmailing them. So they don’t even have her testify. The main witness is a woman at the party who claims Rappe said, “Roscoe hurt me.” And all the other witnesses are doctors and nurses, one of whom even said that the DA threatened to charge her with perjury if she didn’t testify against Arbuckle. The whole defense was flatly contradicted in cross-examination. And somehow, despite all of this, the trial only results in a mistrial. 10-2 not guilty. 2 people still felt he was guilty. One of the two said she would vote guilty “until hell freezes over” and refused to look at any of the evidence, having already made up her mind. (Not to mention, her husband worked in the DA’s office, and somehow she was still allowed on the jury.)

So then there’s a second trial. And the same evidence is presented, only this time, one witness says the DA forced her to lie. Another said Arbuckle blackmailed him into not telling anyone he raped Rappe (but he turned out to be an ex-con who sexually assaulted an 8-year-old girl, and was going to have his sentence reduced for his testimony. Just to show you how terrific the legal system is). Things went so well for the defense that they didn’t even bother to call Arbuckle to testify. Though the jurors took this as a sign of guilt, and they ended up 10-2 in favor of guilty this time. But still, another mistrial.

So now the third trial starts. And at this point, all of Arbuckle’s films are banned, and all these other Hollywood scandals have been coming out (because the tabloids have been opened. There are some really interesting once. Olive Thomas, William Desmond Taylor. And Thomas Ince. Which was so interesting it became a movie. The Cat’s Meow, in 2001). This time, the defense just completely went on the offensive, and flat out disproved everything. And this time, the jury only took six minutes (six!) to come back with a unanimous not guilty verdict.

And, get this – five minutes of those six were spent drafting this statement, which the foreman read after the verdict:

Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story on the witness stand, which we all believed. The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and woman who have sat listening for thirty-one days to evidence, that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.

Makes you feel a little better about humanity? Yeah, me too. Only problem is, the story isn’t quite that happily.

Arbuckle was ruined by this. He couldn’t get any work at all. People still thought of the scandal when they thought of him. And a lot of people (you know which ones. They’re the same ones as today) still considered him guilty despite overwhelming evidence that he wasn’t. His trials were also one of the main things cited by Will Hays when the Production Code was started. He even banned Arbuckle from working in movies again, which the studios had to abide by, because the Production Code was basically their way of keeping the government off their asses. Though Hays did lift the ban eight months later. Which was nice of him. To ban someone after he was found innocent and then allow him back after it would be impossible for him to get work anyway.

But even so, Arbuckle was ruined financially, and at this point, all of his films were destroyed, which means so precious few of them survive today. He couldn’t get work, his wife left him (though she always thought highly of him. So it’s not one of those awful divorces), and so he started to drink. In a really nice gesture, Buster Keaton signed an agreement to give Arbuckle 35% of all future earnings from his production company. And he tried to get him to work on his films, and he managed to start directing again under an alias. Though he was a shell of his former self, drinking heavily and essentially dead to the world.

And then, finally, things started to look up again for him. He signed a contract to actually star under his own name again (at this point, sound has been invented, so he’s recording on Vitaphone), and the films actually became successes. He finished shooting the last of the shorts, and they went so well, he was signed to a contract to make a feature. He went out with his friends to celebrate, and told them, “This is the best day of my life.” And later that night, he suffered a heart attack and died in his sleep.

It’s such a sad story. And one that so few people know. It’s heartbreaking to hear what happened to this guy, simply because people were looking for someone to blame and the wrong person accused him at the right time. It’s so tragic. But I felt the story was worth telling, and these are the kind of things that are happening in Hollywood now. Because Hollywood, as I like to say to people… was essentially a child. The early years were them learning to walk and tell stories and basically function in this medium it was given, and now, it’s in those teenage years where it starts to do really stupid shit and eventually has to learn to grow up. You can actually track the history of Hollywood as a metaphor for the growth of the individual.

So I felt, for all of these reasons, this was the film to choose for 1917.

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