‘A Jitney Jury:’ Week of September 10th, 1921

Virginia Rappe

One hundred years ago this week, a tragedy occurred that still has writers like James Reidel and Popegrutch trying to figure out exactly what happened. Grace Kingsley didn’t offer her opinion about what went on, but she was there to describe some of what people in Hollywood had to say about it:

The Los Angeles motion-picture colony is stirred as never before in its somewhat lively history by the sensational Arbuckle-Rappe case and the indictment of Roscoe Arbuckle on the charge of manslaughter. There’s a jitney jury on every studio set, sitting out the death watch. Groups of picture players gather about at every pause in the film work to discuss developments in the case. Opinions and sympathies are as diverse as the four quarters of the earth regarding the truth of the charges made against Arbuckle and concerning the outcome of his probably trial.

Some paint Arbuckle as a behalo’d saint. Others are busy all day hacking his monogram.

Buster Keaton

Gloom so thick you can cut it with a knife has gathered over most of the picture folk, especially in studios where Arbuckle is intimately known. Buster Keaton’s studio suspended work for two days following the arrest of the comedian. Mr. Keaton was one of Arbuckle’s comedians before he branched out as a star on his own.

“We just couldn’t work,” said Buster with a real choke in his voice and tears in his eyes. To those who know Buster this rare show of feeling reveals how deep his emotions in this matter really are.

At the Lasky studio, where Arbuckle was so well known and so well liked, and at the Realart studio, the crepe stuff is simply gumming up the breezes. Comedians are playing their scenes with the muffler on; leading ladies in sob stories find it very easy to weep. Every edition of the papers is brought to the studios, and a running fire of explosive comment accompanies the reading of each fresh page, along with the murmured obbligato of independent conjecture and gossip.

Wallace Reid — his death due to morphine addiction in 1923 caused another scandal

Not everybody wanted to be part of that jitney jury: some just wanted the subject to go away. At a party at Wallace Reid’s house, they tried to chat and play billiards, “but there was an indefinable sadness over everybody. Somebody said something about how dreadful it all was, and Mr. Reid turned quickly. ‘We aren’t talking about that,’ he remonstrated sharply.”

Like Kingsley, I don’t have a useful opinion to add to the enormous pile of stuff already written about the case. Gilbert King wrote an even-handed summary of it for the Smithsonian Magazine, if you want an overview. 

April 15, 1922

However, I did learn how eager some filmgoers were to forgive Arbuckle after he was acquitted at his third trial on Wednesday, April 12, 1922. His movie Gasoline Gus had been withdrawn from the Million Dollar Theater on the same day that the first newspaper reports appeared that linked Arbuckle to Rappe’s death (September 10, 1921), and the film was returned to the screen nearly as quickly after the acquittal. It opened at the New Garrick Theater on April 15th, 1922 and Kingsley’s report and review appeared on the 17th. She mentioned that he was back in Los Angeles, then said:

Fatty’s celluloid double came back in Gasoline Gus, too, at the Garrick, and was greeted by crowds, who cheered and applauded him, both Saturday and yesterday.

If the comedian had arranged a professional come-back himself, he couldn’t have stage-managed the job as Fate did it for him. For the audiences weren’t professional audiences who greeted him, but the fans who have waited all this time for another booming laugh, such as only Fatty and a few others can give them. And they cheered his first appearance on the screen and applauded when the picture was finished and laughed in between.

Gasoline Gus is perhaps the best picture which Fatty Arbuckle ever made. In it he has returned to his old jazz comedy, the comedy of whimsical gags, of funny falls and of his own peculiar style of romping through the picture. Yet there is pathos, too, and there is a lot of thrilling suspense and action. It was showing at Grauman’s and was taken off when Arbuckle was arrested.

April 16, 1922

So it seemed like audiences were ready to go to his movies. On April 17th, the Times reported that Paramount studio president Adolph Zukor had wired the West Coast studio that they would immediately release three pictures that Arbuckle had already finished for them, Gasoline Gus, Freight Prepaid and Leap Year.  Zukor said, “We are confident the American public is eminently fair and realize by this time that Arbuckle has been the victim of unfortunate circumstances.”

However, on April 18th, Will Hays, in his first act as the head of the brand-new Motion Picture Producers and Distributors organization, officially banned Arbuckle from appearing on the screen. Bert Lennon, the publicity director at the New Garrick Theater, told the Times that they would abide by his decision. They replaced Gasoline Gus with a Cecil B. De Mille comedy, Saturday Night, which had run earlier that year. Hays changed his mind eight months later, but by then it was too late, and Arbuckle never had the same success as a film actor. Needing work, he returned to touring in vaudeville and directing films.

“Arbuckle Film Withdrawn,” Los Angeles Times, September 12, 1921.

“Ban Put on Arbuckle,” Los Angeles Times, April 19, 1922.

“Fatty Has Three Releases,” Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1922.

“Mystery Death Takes Actress,” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 1921.

Edwin Schallert, “Reviews,” Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1921.

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