Roscoe Arbuckle Week, Part I (Life before the storm)

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To mark the 95th anniversary of the scandal which changed comedy legend Roscoe Arbuckle’s life forever, I’m doing another theme week. Roscoe was such a wonderful comedian and dear, sweet man who deserves to be remembered truthfully. Though he was completely exonerated, many people judge him guilty based on decades-old lies, and call him “Fatty.” However, I’m hopeful his reputation will continue its gradual rehabilitation and that more people will discover his surviving films.

Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle was born 24 March 1887, in Smith Center, Kansas, weighing over 13 pounds. Since both of his parents were slim people, his father, William Goodrich Arbuckle, foolishly believed another man had to be the father. Thus, the baby was named for NY Republican Senator Roscoe Conkling, a notorious philanderer whom he hated. (What a loving father!)

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Possibly due to his large size, Roscoe’s birth was very traumatic and caused chronic health problems for his mother, Mary (Mollie) E. Gordon Arbuckle. These health problems sadly contributed to her death 12 years later. However, while his mother was still earthside, she encouraged him to join character actor Frank Bacon’s troupe in Santa Ana, California. Roscoe made his stage début at age eight.

Roscoe had a wonderful singing voice and was very graceful in spite of his size. He moved like a ballerina. Roscoe loved performing, though after his mother’s death, his abusive father forced him to retire and wouldn’t even financially support him. Young Roscoe did odd jobs in a hotel, singing while he worked.

One day, a professional singer overheard him and invited him to an amateur talent show. The audience clapped or jeered, and bombing acts were pulled offstage by a hook. Roscoe didn’t impress them, and when he saw the hook coming, he fearfully dove into the orchestra pit. The audience went nuts over this, so much so Roscoe won the contest and began a vaudeville career.

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In 1904, Sid Grauman invited Roscoe to sing by his new Unique Theater in San Francisco. After this, Roscoe joined the touring Pantages Theater Group. Ironically, this group was headed by Greek-born vaudevillian and producer Alexander Pantages, whose career also crashed to a halt after he was accused of rape. (Pantages was also ultimately acquitted, though that’s a whole other story!)

In 1906, Roscoe played by the Orpheum Theater in Portland, Oregon, in a vaudeville troupe headed by Australian-born Leon Errol. Roscoe rose to become the star, and went on tour again.

On 6 August 1908, Roscoe married Araminta (Minta) Estelle Durfee (1 October 1889–9 September 1975), whom he co-starred with many times from 1913 to 1916. In contrast to Roscoe, Minta was short and petite.

After marrying, Roscoe joined the Morosco Burbank Stock vaudeville company, with whom he toured Japan and China. He started his film career in July 1909, after returning to the U.S.

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Roscoe’s first film was Ben’s Kid, shot by the Selig Polyscope Company. He appeared on and off in their one-reelers till 1913, then briefly moved to Universal Pictures. Soon after this, he got picked up by the legendary Mack Sennett, and became one of the famous Keystone Kops.

Though Roscoe knew his weight was part of his appeal, he was very self-conscious about it, and had the dignity to refuse to use it for cheap laughs. For example, he never got stuck in a chair or doorway, and didn’t act winded going up or down stairs. He also hated the screen name “Fatty.”

In 1914, Paramount Pictures offered him $1,000 a day, 25% of all profits, and total creative control. Roscoe’s films were so popular, he was offered a three-year, three million dollar contract in 1918. This was about $47,000,000 in 2016 money.

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Besides wife Minta, Roscoe also frequently co-starred with Mabel Normand (one of the biggest female comedy stars of the era), his nephew Al St. John (the blonde on the right), his best friend Buster Keaton (on the left), and the awesome Luke, his very talented Pit Bull.

Though Roscoe and Minta separated in 1921 (just prior to the scandal) and divorced in 1925, Minta always spoke of him in the most wonderful terms, calling him the most generous person she’d ever met, and that if she had to do it all over again, she’d still marry him. Roscoe also got visitation rights with Luke.

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Roscoe had a health scare in 1916, with an infected carbuncle that almost cost him his leg. Though he lost 80 pounds during recovery and saved his leg, he also became addicted to the drug of the gods, morphine. (I loved getting legally high on morphine after my surgeries and during my hospital stays!)

After his recovery, he started his own film company, Comique. Roscoe continued going from strength to strength, and in 1920, he began making features.

Then, on 5 September 1921, his life changed forever.

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9 thoughts on “Roscoe Arbuckle Week, Part I (Life before the storm)

  1. A 13 pound baby? Ouch. And we all thought my brother at 10 pounds was big. lol I think that we refused to use his weight for cheap laughs. It seems like that’s happen too much lately on TV and film.

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  2. That’s not fair. I was so fascinated by the story, and then you just stop. I hate cliffhangers. Thankfully, your website is not a book series, so the wait for the next installment won’t be too long. Waiting…

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    • He didn’t have the same type of consistent screen character as Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd, though his films are nevertheless charming, sweet, and funny. His character was just different from the other three. If not for the scandal, he could’ve taken his screen character to even greater heights.

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