Once banned film resurfaces 90 years after scandal
This weekend, movie goers in the San Francisco Bay Area will have the rare opportunity to see a historic film few if any have ever seen on the big screen.
On August 27th, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, California will screen Leap Year, starring Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. The 1921 comedy was completed just before the rotund comedian's fateful Labor Day weekend in San Francisco. That weekend - and the charge of manslaughter, three trials, and sensational press coverage which grew out of it all would ruin Arbuckle's career and lead to a ban on his films. Leap Year - made at the height of his stardom - was never released.
In 1921, Arbuckle was one of the most popular actors in Hollywood. The one-time Keystone Kop had appeared in hundreds of silent films (both shorts and features), and was one of the highest paid entertainers in the world. Though he weighed more than 250 pounds, this sweet natured comic was well loved for his remarkable agility and slapstick grace.
Having just completed a film in Los Angeles, Arbuckle and two friends headed to the Bay Area. It was the Labor Day weekend, and the three checked into rooms at the historic St. Francis Hotel. Liquor in hand, the plan was to relax and have a good time.
During the party which developed, a starlet named Virginia Rappe fell seriously ill; tragically, she died a few days later. Arbuckle was accused by Rappe's friend of having sexually assaulted the actress, and by the sheer force of his weight having caused mortal harm.
A media frenzy ensued, and Arbuckle was brought up on a charge of murder. He was tried three times, with the first two trials ending in a hung jury. At the third trial, Arbuckle was finally acquitted. Along the way, there was speculation of false testimony, jury tampering, and backroom deals. After the third trial, the jury took the unusual step of issuing a public apology to the accused comedian.
But it didn't matter. Arbuckle was convicted in the courtroom of public opinion.
For months, from the time the first charges were leveled through the course of the three trials, newspapers across the country fueled moral outrage by printing story after story regarding Arbuckle's (and Hollywood's) depraved behavior. Led by civic and religious groups, there were strident calls to clean up the movie industry. Because of this public outcry, the comedian's films - which had earlier made millions laugh with their good-natured humor - were withdrawn from circulation.
A nationwide ban on Arbuckle's films went into effect. That ban included Leap Year, the Paramount production the comedian had finished shortly before Labor Day. It was never released.
According to the IMdB, Leap Year was first shown in Finland in 1924. It made its American debut only in 1981, when it was screened in Washington, D.C. and then Los Angeles. Leap Year made its Bay Area debut at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley in 1993.
The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum screening came about after the film museum recently acquired a scarce 16mm print of the film. The August 27th screening, according to Niles film historian David Keihn, is in all likelihood only the second time the film has been exhibited theatrically in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Interest in Arbuckle continues. Earlier this week, it was announced that Emmy Award winning actor Eric Stonestreet, best known as one-half of a gay couple on the ABC series Modern Family, will play the comedian in a made-for-TV movie directed by Barry Levinson and set to air on HBO. The Day the Laughter Stopped is based on a 1976 book of the same name by David A. Yallop. It stands as the first and still most reliable book on the Arbuckle trials. (A second book delineating the "Arbuckle scandal", Frame-Up, by Andy Edmonds, followed in 1991.)
According to an article in Vulture, Stonestreet has long hoped to play Arbuckle. "In addition to the fact that I'm from Kansas and he's from Kansas, I just always found it to be such a fascinating and tragic story," Stonestreet is quoted as saying. "He went from this jolly person who fell down and entertained people into a sexual deviant. It's a true story people don't know about, with a twist."
The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is located at 37417 Niles Blvd. in Fremont, California. For further information, call (510) 494-1411 or visit the Museum’s website at www.nilesfilmmuseum.org/.
Thomas Gladysz is an arts journalist and film buff, and the Director of the Louise Brooks Society, an internet-based archive and international fan club devoted to the legendary film star. Gladysz has contributed to books, organized exhibits, appeared on television and radio, and introduced the actress's films around the world. Recently, he organized an exhibit of books about the movies published during the silent film era. "Reading the Stars" remains on display at the San Francisco Public Library through August 28.