In this second episode of his three-part series, Paul Merton moves away from a generalized consideration of the early days of Hollywood into an analysis of the rise and fall of Roscoe ("Fatty") Arbuckle, once a great comic presence whose career was ruined by a notorious (and fickle) series of trials from 1921-22.
Arbuckle made his name working for the Mack Sennett company before branching out on his own. Always a presence on screen, he could combine both slapstick and pathos in performances that drew huge audiences. Signed on a long-term contract to Paramount, he gave an opportunity to young talents who would later make names for themselves such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Arbuckle was such a big star that wherever he traveled, he would draw huge crowds. A visit to Britain in 1920 - recorded for posterity by the newsreels - revealed him as a modest person who nonetheless knew how to hold the attention.
Arbuckle's career was ruined by a series of trials in which he was accused of murdering starlet Virginia Rappe. Through an elaborate series of reconstructions, accompanied by interviews with historian David Yallop, Paul Merton showed how the whole trial was nothing more than a put-up job based on the highly flimsy evidence of a publicity-seeking woman. Arbuckle was wholly innocent, but even though he was cleared of any wrong-doing, his career was destroyed as a result. In the end he had to retreat behind the camera to direct a series of comedies under the pseudonym William Goodrich.
In the Thirties Arbuckle enjoyed something of a renaissance as he appeared once more under his own name in comedies for Warner Brothers. He had just signed a contract to make another set of shorts for that studio when he died of a heart attack aged only forty-six.
Merton told a tragic tale with sympathy and insight, showing how the money-making ethos of Hollywood often ignored personal tragedies, especially in an atmosphere where the moral majority were urging audiences to boycott the movies on account of their alleged corrupting influence. Rather than trying to resist such calls, the studios simply lay down and let themselves be walked over; hence their indifference toward Arbuckle, despite his innocence.
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