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When Swiss police apprehended director Roman Polanski (Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby) after he'd spent more than thirty years as a fugitive from justice, they couldn't have known that the arrest would set off a fiery international debate between those who see Polanski as an important cultural figure who is being persecuted, and those who can't believe that anyone would rush to the defense of a convicted child molester. Since the arrest, some of the attention Polanski had been involuntarily hogging has shifted to David Letterman, whose confession of infidelity — delivered in front of his live studio audience as part of a damage-control strategy against an extortion plot — was actually reviewed as "brilliant television" by jaded TV critics. Both cases serve as a handy reminder that sex scandals, from Fatty Arbuckle to Charlie Sheen, have always been part of the show-business circus, and that one can tell a lot about shifting mores by charting the careers of those caught in the spotlight with their zippers down.
1) THE STAR: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, silent comedy star and director
THE SCANDAL: On Labor Day weekend, 1921, the overworked Arbuckle treated himself to a holiday by checking into a hotel with a couple of male cronies and as many women as would respond to their wolf whistles. One of them was Virginia Rappe, a twenty-six-year-old aspiring starlet whom Arbuckle was said to have been lusting after. Two days later, Rappe checked into a hospital and died there of complications from a ruptured bladder. Subsequently, a friend who had accompanied her to the party told police that Arbuckle had raped the girl, and Rappe's manager fanned the flames in the press. Various sources claimed Arbuckle had fatally injured Rappe by violating her with a Coke bottle, a chunk of ice, and/or his bigass self.
Although police concluded there was no evidence that Rappe had been raped, the Hearst papers flogged the public into a fury. There were calls for Arbuckle's execution, and when he was finally charged with manslaughter, somebody took a shot at his estranged wife as she was entering the courtroom to show her support. After two mistrials, the third jury acquitted Arbuckle and presented him with a letter of apology.
THE FALLOUT: Arbuckle deserved his vindication, but he was considered toxic by the studios and his onscreen career was over. A few loyal friends got him jobs as a director (under the name "William Goodrich"), but he had begun to slip into alcoholism and declined rapidly, both on the set and off. Louise Brooks later described Arbuckle after the scandal as "very nice and sweetly dead."
2) THE STARS: Thomas Ince, pioneering filmmaker and independent studio chieftain; Charles Chaplin; Marion Davies, cuddly star of silent comedies and early talkies; and her paramour, newspaper tycoon and close personal friend of the devil, William Randolph Hearst
THE SCANDAL: In November of 1924, Ince was taken ashore from Hearst's yacht, where he had been one of the celebrity guests brought together for one of Hearst's floating parties. Soon he was dead, officially of a heart attack, and the body was quickly cremated and interred. Rumors quickly sprung up that Hearst had shot his guest, but that it was all a simple misunderstanding: he had actually been gunning for Chaplin, because he suspected the beloved screen comedian and notorious womanizer of scratching on Marion Davies. One story had it that Ince had interrupted Hearst just as he was about to murder Chaplin and that the gun went off as they struggled for it; another version had Hearst mistaking Ince for Chaplin as Ince sat chatting with Davies in the moonlight. Another of Hearst's guests, Louella Parsons, was supposedly rewarded for her silence with a lifetime contract as a writer for his papers, a position that she used to promote Davies' movie career even as it was dying on the vine.
THE FALLOUT: Because of Ince's hasty burial and the confusion surrounding the whole mess, we'll probably never know for sure just what happened. Hearst inadvertently stoked the rumors through his own papers, which issued false reports about where and when Ince was supposedly taken ill and about everything else to do with the case. Others onboard the yacht, including Chaplin and Davies, also lied about whether they'd even been there — maybe because many of the guests, Ince included, were spending the weekend with romantic partners other than their spouses — but Hearst's enemies were eager to assume the worst. Whatever happened, "the strange death of Thomas Ince" is now officially part of the Hearst mythology; an early draft of Citizen Kane referenced it, and in 2002, Peter Bogdanovich made a movie about it called The Cat's Meow. As for Ince, he was one of the men who built Hollywood, but he remains best remembered for his death.
3) THE STAR: Errol Flynn, high-living action star of the 1930s and 1940s
THE SCANDAL: In 1942, a pair of underage girls charged Flynn with statutory rape. The star was picked up and tried for the crime early the next year.
THE FALLOUT: Reflecting the attitude of the times, Flynn's defense team basically argued, yeah, he did it — wouldn't you? The high point of the trial came when Flynn's lawyer asked one of the girls if she hadn't wanted Flynn to undress her, and she replied, "I didn't have no objections." Because of the girls' ages, it shouldn't have mattered in the eyes of the law whether the sex was consensual or not, but given Flynn's rascally charisma, it apparently seemed that having any woman he liked was the movie star's honest due. Pearl Harbor had just been bombed; people had more important things to worry about. The jury quickly voted to acquit. Not only did the scandal have no negative effect on the star's career, it inspired U.S. serviceman to invent a new slang term designed to honor his sure-thing success with women: "In like Flynn."