Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Re-reading Hollywood's First Sexual Scandal: Virginia Rappe, New Western Women, and the Bohemian Movie Colony
Hilary Anne Hallett

Last modified: 2010-09-29


Most scholars of American film know that Hollywood’s so-called “first canonical scandal” erupted in 1921 when a “starlet” died after attending a party thrown by slapstick star, Roscoe Arbuckle.  For decades many have located the significance of the “Fatty’ Arbuckle Scandal,” as it has been invariably called, in how it moved the industry closer to instituting an internal system of regulation capable of controlling the industry’s moral image on screen and off.  Others have followed Richard de Cordova’s argument that it precipitated a shift in the discourse about Hollywood’s stars.  These accounts offer crucial insights.  But they fail to explain what made the scandal so scandalous at the time because they ignore the role of gender in what was a sex scandal after all. 

The scandal reveals much more about the significance of Hollywood’s first social imaginary if we spotlight its other principal character: Virginia Rappe.   If later analyses ignore Rappe, the newspapers that first fashioned the event did not.  Indeed, these narratives initially devoted as much attention to Rappe as to Arbuckle, making the actress “A STAR AT LAST,” in Variety’s words.   Focusing on Rappe—who she was, what she wanted, and how representations of her changed after death—directs attention toward the gendered dynamics of the scandal's production, reception, interpretation, and ultimate significance.  Specifically, the paper argues that event became a scandal because Rappe spoke to already established concerns about the industry’s support of a bohemian New Western Woman by World War One.  The long shadow cast by the West’s relationship to new norms of manhood, and the tendency to look east in studies of modern womanhood, have obscured the prominent role of New Western Women.  Yet by the 1910s, the West possessed the New Woman’s strongest lure and most powerful generator: the motion picture industry in Los Angeles.  Promotions of Hollywood’s bohemian New West challenged the nation’s gendered boundaries by promising adventurous working girls like Rappe a place to explore their personal, professional, and sexual freedoms.  Thus, in reinterpreting why the scandal sparked so much debate, this paper re-imagines not only why so many female fans supported the industry's rise across the country but why so many others participated in the massive, western migration that made Los Angles into the first western boom-town where women outnumbered men.

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