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Was Fatty Arbuckle “the Chris Farley of silent cinema”? Or was Chris Farley the Fatty Arbuckle of late-night comedy? Both men were hilarious. Both moved with the grace and athleticism of ballet dancers, despite their incongruous size. Both resented using their weight to make people laugh -- a gimmick Farley bitterly called “fatty fall down.” Both reached heights of insane popularity. And that nearly instant fame and wealth led both to tragedy. 

Ironically, some believe David Mamet’s screenplay about Arbuckle may have been the one thing that could have saved Farley.

“As soon as he heard little bits and pieces about Arbuckle’s life, he said, ‘This is me.’” remembers Farley’s brother Tom in his book The Chris Farley Show. “It was the whole idea that nobody understands the real person underneath. ‘I’m going to tell them about the real Fatty Arbuckle, and maybe they’ll understand the real Chris Farley.’” 

The Real Fatty Arbuckle

How big was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle?

No, not size-wise. (If you must know, Arbuckle tipped the scales somewhere between 250 and 300 pounds -- a big man but undersized for, say, an offensive lineman.) The question referred to his career and the answer, appropriately, is “huge.”

Public domain

The Little Tramp and Fatty get swank.

Arbuckle was one of the first movie superstars, tumbling around with the Keystone Cops, mentoring Charlie Chaplin, and discovering Buster Keaton. Paramount paid him $3 million over three years to keep making pictures (and prevent him from leaving for the newly formed United Artists).  In today’s dollars, that about $142 million, give or take a few hundred thou.

Roscoe could do it all, brother.  He wrote and directed most of his own films, one of the first and only stars who made the transition from silent shorts to talking, full-length features. 

He wasn’t nuts about the “Fatty” nickname, a holdover from childhood. He tolerated it because fans knew him as Fatty but real friends knew not to use it. If a stranger tried to call him that in real life, his response was “I’ve got a name, you know.”  

And like Farley in later years, Arbuckle eventually resisted using his girth for laughs. “I refuse to try to make people laugh at my bulk,” he said. “Personally, I cannot believe that a battleship is a bit funnier than a canoe, but some people do not feel that way about it.”  As time went on, he transitioned from “fatty fall down” to more situational humor and audiences didn’t mind one bit.

“Now I’ve Got You”

It’s the summer of 1921.  Arbuckle’s latest, Crazy to Marry, was another smash so why not party like a rock star?  His pal Fred Fischbach planned a banger -- three days of whooping it up in San Francisco over the Labor Day weekend, complete with illegal booze (this was during Prohibition) and plenty of fun-loving company.

It didn’t take long for things to go sideways.

Arbuckle awoke on Labor Day to a rager already in full swing.  Two of the guests enjoying themselves:  Virginia Rappe, a 25-year-old actress and reputed party girl, and Maude Delmont, a lady known to some as a madame with a penchant for blackmail. Arbuckle soon joined them and the rest of the partiers, enjoying the music and illicit cocktails.

Wikimedia Commons

Not a good Labor Day.

What happened next depends on whose testimony you believe. If that’s Maude Delmont, the situation was horrific. Here’s her version (or at least one of them): After sharing a few drinks with Rappe, Arbuckle pulled her into a room with a sinister “I’ve waited for you five years, and now I’ve got you.”  Fast-forward half an hour and Delmont says she heard screaming.  She kicked at the door, soon opened by a sheepish, pajama-clad Arbuckle wearing Rappe’s hat “cocked at an angle.” Rappe was behind him on the bed, moaning in pain. 

Doctors were called and Rappe was taken to another room. The young actress stayed at the hotel for a few days before being transferred to a hospital. On September 9, Rappe died of a ruptured bladder. 

Arbuckle was about to make a dubious kind of history: The subject of the first celebrity sex scandal. Newspapers still ruled back in 1920, with many publishing multiple editions a day.  And no story, not even the sinking of the Lusitania, sold papers like the Fatty Arbuckle shocker. 

San Francisco Police Department

If it weren't for the booking number, this could double as Arbuckle's senior portrait.

The assumption was that Arbuckle forced himself on the young woman, his weight leading to a fatal injury. The New Yorker rounded up headlines that epitomized the breathless coverage, very little of it based in factual reporting:  The Los Angeles Times reported unfounded plans “to send Arbuckle to death on gallows.” The San Francisco Call and Post snarked, “Arbuckle dances while girl is dying, joyous frolic amid death tragedy.” The Oxnard Daily Courier called him “Arbuckle, the beast.”

William Randolph Hearst’s papers piled on. On September 13 alone, his San Francisco Examiner ran seventeen stories about Arbuckle and the “orgy” that led to Rappe’s death.

Back in the real world, Arbuckle turned himself in to the police and spent three weeks in jail. His version of what happened was substantially different from Delmont’s. While he copped to sharing a few drinks with Rappe, he denied spending time alone with her.  Instead, he claimed to find the actress in his bathroom vomiting and tearing at her clothes, at which point doctors were called. 

Arbuckle’s trials just added to the media frenzy.  The prosecution leaned hard into Delmont’s version of things but would not put her on the witness stand.  Maude’s reputation was shaky, her story often changed, and then there were the telegrams that she sent to attorneys with messages like:

“WE HAVE ROSCOE ARBUCKLE IN A HOLE HERE CHANCE TO MAKE SOME MONEY OUT OF HIM.”  

Arbuckle’s attorneys presented testimony from doctors that Rappe had a chronic bladder condition that existed long before she met the comic star.  Couple that with an autopsy report that found “no marks of violence on the body, no signs that the girl had been attacked in any way.”  

It took three trials, but Arbuckle was eventually found innocent of everything except guzzling bootleg booze.

It didn’t matter.  The constant media battering destroyed Arbuckle’s reputation at a time when moral authorities were badgering movie studios to cut ties with those of less than sterling character.  Fatty Arbuckle was banned from appearing on screens altogether, and by the time the exile lifted, his career was completely in ruins. 

Arbuckle changed his name to William (Will) B. Goode and scraped a living together working behind the scenes.  A decade later, he died of a heart attack in a hotel room. He was 46.

The Guy Behind the Crazy Fat Guy

Fatty Arbuckle’s life was tragic, but from a movie producer’s perspective, his story had it all: Comedy, pathos, sex, a man falsely accused and then redeemed, only to meet tragedy once more.

But producing that movie has proved treacherous. In fact, the Fatty Arbuckle Curse has been cast on several Hollywood stars who tried to make a picture about his life, most notably John Belushi, John Candy, and Chris Farley.  

Paramount Pictures

Farley nerded out about meeting David Mamet. 

Farley got further than most. Comedy uber-producer Bernie Brillstein set up a meeting for Chris to meet Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Mamet, who was also interested in an Arbuckle project. 

Meeting with Mamet meant everything, Tom Farley told ComedyNerd. “Chris was like ‘Holy sh*t. Now it’s real.’”

“That story has always fascinated me, only because Arbuckle was innocent,” says Brillstein. “Chris came to the meeting at a little restaurant down in the Village, and he was … the well-behaved Chris, because he couldn’t believe that David Mamet even wanted to meet him. Mamet loved him. It was a great meeting. He said yes before we got up from the table, and he wrote it for Chris.” 

Mamet based the script on Andy Edmond’s book, Frame-Up: The Untold Story of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. But unfortunately, some believe Farley’s issues with sobriety stalled the movie from going into production.  

“His managers …told him he couldn’t do it until he’d been sober for two years, otherwise no one would insure him,” says Tim O’Malley, a comedy colleague from Farley’s Second City days. “He didn’t think that was fair. To me, that was the first time he’d been fired in his life, for real, where someone actually said no to him.”

Or was the production postponed for other reasons? If Chris Farley had a real dark side, argues his brother Tom, it was a management team that could only see him as a clown. While the Fatty Arbuckle project was intriguing, “it was easier and potentially more profitable to make and sell what Chris called “fatty falls down” movies.”

In either case, Farley never got the chance to make the movie.

The push to film Arbuckle’s story continues.  Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet signed on for HBO’s The Day the Laughter Stopped back in 2011 but IMDB says the film is still “in development.”  (In other words, it ain’t happening.) The Fatty Arbuckle Curse appears to still be in effect with no actual film in sight. 

“I know that it would have changed (Farley’s) career,” said Brillstein.

And just maybe, the role would have transformed not only his acting prospects but his personal life as well. “Chris always wanted to show another side of himself but he wasn’t allowed to,” Tom says.

Chris’s comedy persona -- the over-the-top clown with a seemingly endless supply of manic energy -- made it impossible for new acquaintances to see the man underneath. “Everything was tied to his comedy image,” says Tom. “He could never get into a real relationship, what he really wanted in life.” 

Tom believes if the world at large could have seen Chris the performer in a new way, in a more complex, human way, then maybe people could have seen Chris the human being for who he really was.

Sadly, it’s a dream role that Farley never got to play.  

For more ComedyNerd, be sure to check out:

Sesame Street’s Secret Writing Rules

Jerry Seinfeld vs. George Carlin: The Case for Cursing in Comedy

When We Become the Punchline

Top image: Universal Pictures

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