In Arbuckle’s voice, Stahl tells the story of the abandoned fat boy from Kansas who grew up on the road in vaudeville and rolled into Hollywood to almost single-handedly invent screen comedy, only to lose it all to alcoholism, addiction, and the decadent lifestyle of the time. By the second decade of the 1900’s, Arbuckle was more popular than Charlie Chaplin, and the first actor to make a million dollars a year. But by 1921, when he was accused of the rape and murder of actress Virginia Rappe at a San Francisco orgy, his fall from beloved star to national pariah was underway. Hung out to dry by studio heads eager to appease the country’s growing morality movements, Fatty was eventually acquitted, but he never recovered from the scandal.
A richly textured look at the wide-open city of Los Angeles in the early twentieth century, I, FATTY is also a story of Hollywood comedy itself, from the first pie fight – which happened to involve Pancho Villa – to Arbuckle’s famed collaborations with Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and a host of other comic titans. Filled with meticulously researched detail, Stahl’s book paints a vivid and visceral depiction of a bygone era. The first great Hollywood scandal, and the scandal-hungry public to which it gave rise, more than presaged the media-fed celebrity madness that continues to dominate today’s headlines.
Fatty’s descriptions of his Hollywood experiences – the degenerate party scene, the industry corruption, and the downward spiral into bootleg booze and still-legal heroin – are resonant terrain for Jerry Stahl, who described his own addiction in horrifying detail in the memoir and movie Permanent Midnight. Here, with sympathy, humor, and grace, Stahl inhabits the soul and mind of Fatty Arbuckle, and triumphs in his brilliant reimagining of this tragic, larger-than-life figure’s story.