Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, The Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal that Changed Hollywood
I was in third grade when Chris Farley died. It was a rainy Monday morning, the kind that brings only solemn thoughts to the mind. My friend walked over to me, a depressed look on his face no less, and explained to me that the funniest guy we knew died – from a drug overdose. Being barely 8, I knew nothing of the actor’s fondness for the indulgent life. One of the first veils of innocence had been pulled away. After a wild Labor Day weekend in 1921, which resulted in the death of a young actress named Virginia Rappe at (reportedly) the hands of Hollywood star Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, the American public experienced a similar loss.
Author Greg Merrits’s Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, The Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal that Changed Hollywood details, as the lengthy title promises, Fatty Arbuckle’s infamous scandal and it’s lasting impact. The narrative follows the rise of a young Arbuckle from his lonesome childhood, years on the vaudeville stage, immense success at Keystone and in Hollywood, the scandal, up until his last breath. Juxtaposed to the biography is the national scandal, three trails, and the lasting consequences on Hollywood and moviegoers.
The biography is a test of skill for the author not to introduce superfluous sentiment. Occasionally, as in the case of Hesketh Pearson’s masterful study on the life of Oscar Wilde, opinion pleases the reader. Merrist makes this crucial misstep, though, and is not as fortunate in Room 1219. What works so well in Pearson’s book is a personal relationship to the subject and not-so- distant-past culture, despite only enjoy the acquaintance during early adolescence. Merritt prefers to contextualize the retelling of Arbuckle’s fame and failures with the air of 21st century haughtiness, which confounds early 20th century reality into historical rendition.
This isn’t to say Merritt doesn’t entertain or posses the adequate research on his subject. Thanks to the all encompassing title after the colon of Room 1219, the array of relative information is vast:
“Born Kenneth Anglemyer in 1927 and raised in Los Angeles, Kenneth Anger made his first experimental short films with a child and his homoerotic Fireworks at age twenty. His avant-garde movies, which often explored occultism and/or sexuality, generated both praise and protest and made Anger a minor celebrity in the cinematic underground – but supplied scant income. He had been living in Paris since 1950 when he collected stories of movie industry depravity, and, influenced by Confidential (magazine) and the blunt writing style of occultist Aleister Crowley, he penned a photo-laden book of scandals, ‘Hollywood Babylone’, published in French in 1959. An item in American newspapers in 1961 read, ‘Vacationers returning from Europe are smuggling in a book called ‘Hollywood Babylone’ written entirely in French but apparently well worth translating.”
As well as insight on Old Hollywood:
“Theatrical producer Arthur Hammerstein offered Paramount $1 million for the two never-released feature films as well as the barely released ‘Gasoline Gus’. When that was refused, he offered to exhibit the features for only 10 percent of their profits, so confident was he that they would be successful. Referencing a screening of an Arbuckle movie in New York City two days earlier, ‘Hammerstein said, ‘The crowd was so anxious to see him that they nearly broke down the doors. Whenever people are told they ought not to see a certain thing that’s the very thing they are most eager to see.’ Paramount did not budge.”
Yet it is this less than pointed subject matter that fails to generate the necessary momentum for a great read. While the details of that fateful Labor Day weekend are intriguing enough, the author obsesses too much over the anecdotal. What readers are left with is a well researched Wikipedia that emphasizes the non-essential. The definitive book on the Arbuckle case? Yes. A seminal biography? No.