We Can’t Trust Them!: Week of May 14th, 1921

Actual Roscoe Arbuckle

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley included a cute story about one of Roscoe Arbuckle’s adventures during his December trip to Paris:

The chubby comedian chanced to stroll by a small theater near his hotel in the gay French city. One of his comedies was to open that night. A crowd stood about, and an interpreter read to him a sign offering $15 to the person who could best impersonate the famous American actor, Roscoe Arbuckle.

Whereupon Roscoe dashed madly backstage, and the interpreter entered his name as a candidate. Not a soul around the theater recognized Arbuckle. Entry after entry wobbled across the stage trying to impersonate him, and then Roscoe himself went on.

Finally prizes were given out, and what was the comedian’s amazement when he was handed seventh prize—not even third or fourth—but seventh! Evidently there were better Arbuckles in the house than he! And the prize was a galley ticket to see the picture in which he was appearing.

He didn’t go.

Arbuckle in Paris, 1920

If only this story was true! Lending some believability to it, Arbuckle really had been in Paris in late 1920. Kingsley had reported on his return just before Christmas, and she relayed a few stories about his travels in France and England on February 3rd, including one about how he lied to journalists:

It seems that while in London Arbuckle was besieged by reporters. And he told them all a different story as to how he lost his voice and went into pictures. The stories appearing simultaneously in seven different papers caused quite a sensation.

So maybe Kingsley could have been more wary. I’m fairly certain that Arbuckle’s contest crashing did not happen in part because nobody else reported it, and he didn’t mention it when he told her about his trip earlier. But I’m even more suspicious because it was so close to a story that had been making the rounds about Charlie Chaplin since 1918. Several newspapers said that he entered a Chaplin imitator contest at a fair and only came in twentieth (or in some reports, twenty-seventh).

There actually were Chaplin imitator contests. I couldn’t find any mention of Arbuckle imitator contests.

Even that story was a myth; the Skeptics site has best debunking of it. On top of their own research, they contacted Chaplin’s official website which answered that they hadn’t seen any proof of him losing such a contest. For both Chaplin and Arbuckle, the story was too good to be true.

Publicists had a difficult job, coming up with new ways to keep their clients in the spotlight, and entertainment writers did have to fill up their columns every single day. The Paramount publicity department wanted Arbuckle in the paper this week because his latest film, The Traveling Salesman, had just opened in Los Angeles. The problem was that it wasn’t terrific. Kingsley called it only “good enough.” Trade reviews were middling too. Sumner Smith in Moving Picture World said, “While it cannot be called Arbuckle’s best picture, it makes an amusing vehicle for the corpulent star, affording him plenty of chances for a display of his unique style of fun-making.”

There’s only one thing worse for a publicist than trying to get their star into the papers, and that’s wishing they could keep them out. In just a few months, “the tragic intersection of the lives of Roscoe Arbuckle and Virginia Rappe,” as one writer put it, was about to happen.

Sumner Smith, “The Traveling Salesman,” Moving Picture World, May 7, 1921, p.88.

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