Synonymous with infamy, Roscoe Arbuckle, otherwise known as “Fatty” Arbuckle, is a figurehead for the ushering in of the Hollywood Production Code and the perils of fame. Several books have capitalized on the lurid events that presumably happened in Room 1219 of the St. Francis Hotel over Labor Day weekend in 1921; Greg Merritt’s Room 1219 isn’t one of them. One of the more concise looks at the Arbuckle trial and its aftermath, Room 1219 seeks out the players behind the trail, from Roscoe and his friends to the victim, the often ignored Virginia Rappe.
Most classic film fans know the highlights: Roscoe Arbuckle, at the top of his game as a Hollywood A-lister, was staying at the St. Francis hotel over Labor Day weekend. Drinks were consumed, girls went in and out. Virginia Rappe, a star on the rise, ended up dead of a perforated bladder. What happened leading up to Rappe’s death is one of the great mysteries of Hollywood.
Merritt begins by detailing Arbuckle’s rise to fame and how his poor upbringing caused him to embrace the follies of money a bit more extravagantly than he should have. It’s a tall order to blend two different biographies, both Arbuckle’s and Rappe’s, inside a true crime mystery with an added dash of film history, but Merritt succeeds. Based on your pre-existing knowledge on any of these subjects, particularly the formation of Hollywood and the Code, you might be able to skip sections here or there but Merritt’s voice remains clear and brisk, never staying in one location long.
Regardless of how he gets there, the book’s main thrust is in recounting the Arbuckle trials and the possible ways to explain Virginia Rappe’s death. Arbuckle’s acquittal is well-known, but what isn’t is the mud-slinging and ways the press turned against him. Arbuckle was no saint in the matter – with questions swirling about his participation leading up to and during the events always in question – but he certainly knew how to play the game, having his wife attend the trial and generally apologizing for his past behavior. In our current world of rape culture, Arbuckle’s story is generally utilized in other Hollywood rape cases, but doesn’t fit the requisite profile.
Where Merritt gives the least, but compelling, new information is in regards to Rappe. Merritt himself says Rappe’s name has suffered more than Arbuckle’s, with various newspapers labeling her a hanger-on and promiscuous, but Rappe was more than that. She was wild, yes, but she also had aspirations of being a fashion designer and actress. It’s disheartening reading how nothing’s changed since 1921 in what defines a perfect rape victim.
It’s easy to hold up Arbuckle as the poster boy for the perils of rape claims in America, but Greg Merritt remains respectable though never at the expense of the facts. He details the end result of Hollywood hedonism, but the question is where the line should be drawn? Arbuckle, more than anything else, was punished for being an example of the debauchery the Code was so dead-set against. Room 1219 looks at all the pieces that made one of the cleanest check-mates in history.
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