The “Fatty” Arbuckle Scandal, Will Hays, and Negotiated Morality in 1920s America

Publication Year:
2015
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Repository URL:
https://digitalcommons.wku.edu/theses/1469
Author(s):
Whitehead, Aaron T.
Tags:
Popular Culture; Film History; Roscoe Arbuckle; Will Hays; Film Censorship; American Film Studies; American Popular Culture; Cultural History
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thesis / dissertation description
In the autumn of 1921, silent film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was arrested for the rape and murder of a model and actress named Virginia Rappé. The ensuing scandal created a firestorm of controversy not just around Arbuckle but the entire motion picture industry. Religious and moral reformers seized upon the scandal to decry the decline of “traditional” moral values taking place throughout American society in the aftermath of World War I. The scandal created a common objective for an anti-film coalition representing diverse social and religious groups, all dedicated to bringing about change in the motion picture industry through public pressure, boycotts, and censorship legislation. In the face of this threat, the film industry created the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, with Republican strategist Will Hays as its president. Hays worked to incorporate moral reformers into his new organization, giving them an outlet for their complaints while simultaneously co-opting and defusing their reform agenda. Hays’ use of public relations as the means to institute self-regulation within the motion picture industry enabled Hollywood to survive the Arbuckle scandal and continue to thrive. It also set up the mechanism by which the industry has effectively negotiated public discontent ever since.