On Labor Day weekend, 1921, at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, California, a party took place that caused the death of a woman, the end of a man’s career, and ultimately the implementation of the Motion Picture Code that changed how the movie business operated in Hollywood. Myths about that party abound, and in fact these myths constitute some of the earliest awareness many people have about the silent era. Not surprisingly, silent film buffs have long been dedicated to correcting these myths, but in doing so, some have swung equally far in presenting “disinformation from the other side.” In honor of this strange centenary, I have spent time reading up on this event and have come to some conclusions – some of which may challenge received wisdom on the topic.
So, what really happened? Well, some facts everyone can agree on. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle went up to San Francisco on Labor Day weekend, having just wrapped a grueling shooting schedule to produce three features at once, and, along with two friends checked in to three rooms on the twelfth floor of the St. Francis hotel. A party started early on the next day, with people stopping in, drifting out, and sometimes returning later. There was bootleg booze (Prohibition was on already), a phonograph playing current hits, a mixed crowd, and the big man presided in his pajamas. Several young actresses and models were among the guests, and at some point, a young woman named Virginia Rappe went into the bathroom, passing through Arbuckle’s bedroom. Somewhat later, Arbuckle went into that bedroom and the door was closed for at least a few minutes. When Arbuckle emerged, Rappe was lying on his bed in pain, and various guests went into the room to attempt to comfort her or suggest home remedies – the consensus was that she had had too much to drink. Eventually, a doctor was called, the party ended, and several days later, Rappe died from a ruptured bladder.