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Sex scandals that rocked Hollywood

Roman Polanksi and David Letterman's recent troubles call to mind past showbiz indiscretions.

October 16, 2009|Susan King

Before there was Roman Polanski, there was Errol Flynn. Before David Letterman, Charlie Chaplin.

Celebrity sex scandals have been around for as long as there have been celebrities -- yes, even before TMZ and Perez Hilton -- so the recent arrest of Polanski relating to his having sex with a 13-year-old girl and Letterman's confession of having sex with female members of his staff are just the latest in a long and sometimes sordid history.

"This is nothing new for the media and the public to become obsessed with this and report this in juicy, lurid, titillating detail," says film historian and critic Stephen Farber, who notes that there is "this very moralistic side to this country that sort of plays on that. Some of these events are not big events in other countries, whereas here they are sources of wagging tongues."

Some stars have seen their careers crash down upon them, but others have endured the headlines and have put their lives back in order.

Farber says some celebrities, such as Woody Allen and Ingrid Bergman, survived sex scandals because of "longevity. Some people go on a longer time," says Farber. "Memories are short."

Here's a look at sex scandals that rocked Hollywood:

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Roscoe Arbuckle

The rotund silent-film comedian and director, nicknamed Fatty, was one of the biggest stars of the era. In 1921, he was accused of raping and killing a young actress named Virginia Rappe after a wild Labor Day party at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.

His trial was turned into a three-ring media circus, fueled by the Hearst papers' sensationalized stories. Hollywood executives told his friends and colleagues not to speak up for him. His first two court dates were mistrials. But it took only six minutes for the third jury to find him not guilty. They even wrote an apology to Arbuckle: "Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice had been done to him."

His career never recovered. He directed some films under the name William Goodrich. Arbuckle finally made an acting comeback in 1932, doing a series of two-reel comedies for Warner Bros. He died in 1933 at the age of 46.

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Charlie Chaplin

The Little Tramp found himself at the center of a highly publicized paternity suit in 1943, brought about by a fledging actress named Joan Barry. The two had become lovers in 1941, shortly after he signed her to a $75-a-week salary for a film he was considering. But by 1942, the affair and the contract were history. But Barry wouldn't take no for an answer and began harassing him.

After she gave birth to a baby girl in 1943, she filed a paternity suit against him. Though the blood tests proved that Chaplin wasn't the father, her attorney somehow swayed the court to make the tests inadmissible. Chaplin was ordered to support the little girl. And in 1944, federal officials brought Mann Act charges against him regarding his relationship with Barry. He was acquitted, but his public image was severely damaged. Barry was institutionalized in 1953 after she was found walking the streets barefoot, carrying baby sandals and a ring and muttering, "This is magic."

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Errol Flynn

The handsome actor was always known for his flamboyant lifestyle -- as a teenager he was expelled from several schools (at one, he had an affair with a school laundress).

And in Hollywood, the star of such swashbucklers as "The Adventures of Robin Hood" was known for his womanizing and vast consumption of alcohol. In 1942, two underage girls, Betty Hansen and Peggy Satterlee, accused Flynn of statutory rape. A sensationalized trial took place in January and February 1943. He was acquitted of all charges.

His next film, "Gentleman Jim," was a hit. But his hedonistic lifestyle caught up with him. He died of a heart attack at the age of 50 in 1959, with his 17-year-old girlfriend, Beverly Aadland, by his bedside.

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Rex Harrison

"Sexy Rexy," who later would win a Tony and an Oscar for his performances on stage and screen as Professor Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady," came to Hollywood with his second wife, Lilli Palmer, in the 1940s after appearing in several films in his native England.

Signed to a contract at Fox, he starred in such hits as "Anna and the King" and "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir." In 1947, he began to have an affair with actress Carole Landis. Harrison, however, wouldn't divorce Palmer to marry her. Supposedly despondent over this fact, Landis, who had attempted suicide previously, ended up taking a fatal overdose of pills at her Pacific Palisades home in 1948 after spending the night there with Harrison.

The scandal ended his contract at Fox and temporarily halted his film career. He and Palmer divorced in 1957. He would marry four more times.

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Ingrid Bergman

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