Still friends after all these years. Mabel Normand with Norma and Constance Talmadge in 1923.

Now, from the title, you might think the good old days of silent film, refers to a time in the 1920s. This was, of course, the time of the fully developed pantomimic motion picture, but if you’d asked a star in the 1920s, when were the good old days, they’d have probably answered, 1907 to 1912. To a 1920s movie star, caught up in the complex and dog-eat-dog nature of the 1920s film business, the memory of those early, halcyon days of moving pictures, brought with it a waft of tranquillity to their now hectic lives. Many, like Mabel Normand, wrote briefly, and with a sigh, of those early days, at studios like Vitagraph and Biograph. Others, though, were more industrious, like Mary Pickford and Mrs D.W. Griffith, and wrote lengthy accounts of those days, long before their minds had begun to fog over. These accounts refer only to the Biograph studio, where the movie genius, D.W. Griffith, reigned supreme, but in general, the accounts also speak for the other studios.

In order of the volume of accounts written: Linda Griffith, Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand.

The moving picture, as we all know, did not appear in 1907, but was a product of the late 19th Century. To begin with, the U.S. film business was small and scrappy, and was not helped by the Edison Trust, which sought to monopolise the business. It was a poor relation, in those days, of the European film industry, and was not regarded favourably, at first, by most of the American public, or at least the theatre-going public. However, the first movie actors came directly from the stage, though not without some reluctance, for being seen entering a movie studio was tantamount to ending your stage career. Movies were immoral, simple as that. When the then stage-actor D.W. Griffith entered Biograph for the first time, he pulled up his coat collar, and pulled down his hat, so as not to be recognised. Not much later a young Mary Pickford entered the building, cursing her mother, for sending her to this den of iniquity. The following comes from her autobiography. Things had been tough for the Smith (Pickford) acting family, and there was no work in sight for Mary. Consequently, a distraught Mary was ordered to 11 East Fourteenth Street, to gain a few bucks from posing in pictures. This was terrible, for Mary was a stage actress, trained by none other than David Belasco. Later, Mary was to also claim that these were the good old days, but she was unhappy about the informality among the company. My god, the actors and actresses were addressing each other by their first names, and were getting way too familiar. Mary turned to leave, but then a tall man with a hooked nose, rushed by, but stopped in his tracks, when he saw her. He stared at Mary, and screwed up his eyes, seemingly framing her. What a rude man, thought Mary, but then the man spoke:

“My name’s Griffith, I’m the director down here. Are you looking for work, young lady?”

“Yes, but I’m a stage actress, from the Belasco company.”

Griffith looked her up and down, then said:

“No, sorry, I can’t use you.”

He turned to walk away, and Mary shouted after him:

“Why not?”

“Too fat!” Came the answer.

Then, he turned back. He studied Mary’s face, then ran her flaxen curls through his hands.

“Well, perhaps I can use you.”

“I must have Belasco pay, ten dollars a day.” Mary stammered.

“Well, when I see Belasco, I’ll tell him I’m paying you ten dollars.”

So it was that Gladys Smith, aka Mary Pickford, began work at Biograph studios. Griffith never truly made up his mind about Mary. She was podgier than most of his leading ladies, and weighed 20 to 30 pounds above the usual 100 pounds. Mary could never glide around, as the waif-like Blanche Sweet, but her face was beautifully oval, symmetrical and camera-proof. To Mary’s chagrin, Griffith put her into a compartment, from which he occasionally pulled her out. Let’s dally a moment, with Mary’s perception of Biograph, which differs from that of other Biographers. What she saw shocked her, for, while some players were acting on the various stages, others were milling around, laughing, joking and guffawing.

Biograph studios.

The noise made by the hundred or so people present, was deafening. One lounging oaf, caught her attention. He was a big guy, leaning against a piece of scenery, chewing gum and grinning at her. Mary glared back at this moron, who turned out to be a Canadian, like herself, but this man was a country boy, with manners to match. His name was Mack Sennett. He was still grinning, when Mary was put on a stage, where a banjo was placed in her hands. For the first time, she had to mime, which was a difficulty for her. She ignored the grinner, but then her leading man entered, ad-libbing “Who’s the dame?”, nodding towards Mary. Well, Mary had had enough, and throwing down the banjo, she stormed off. Never before, had she been so insulted – calling her a ‘dame’ was tantamount to calling her a prostitute. Sennett’s grin broadened, and Mary’s insolent leading man was Owen Moore, later to be her husband.

The studio turned out to be nothing, if not democratic, with everyone getting a fair crack at leads, although it seems clear that this was part of the management’s ploy to prevent any actor’s cranium swelling too much, and we will get back to Mary’s view of this practice, later on. In general, the players were happy with the situation, but as time went on, the early-comers came to think that they should have first shot at the plum parts. In the very early days, there was one actress that thought she ranked above all others, and that was Florence Lawrence. A former child stage star, recruited to films by Vitagraph, she was head-hunted by D.W. Griffith, and coerced by him to leave Vitagraph. She breezed like a queen through the studio, pushing the other actresses aside, if in a hurry to reach the set or dressing room. On her first day at the studio, Mary Pickford locked horns with ‘the queen’ after she used Mary’s powder compact, without a bye or leave. Her majesty simply glared at her accuser, then stomped off, after pushing Mary aside. Mary, of course, was as balloon-headed as Florence, but, like the other actresses, she realised that it was best policy to keep on good terms with her peers. In this respect, there was soon to be a role model figure to follow, at the studio, and that was Mabel Normand. Mrs Griffith described her as “generous-hearted to a fault”, but also “daring and reckless, she was like a frisky young colt, that would brook no bridle.” Unsurprising, then, that many of the youngsters began to emulate her, and actually wanted to be her. Mrs Griffith again: “Yes, Mabel was the most wonderful girl in the world, the most beautiful, and the best sport” (or “a good fellow” as Chaplin later told it).

Mabel was “a good sport”, if a trifle over-dressed.

It was the departure of Florence Lawrence (under a dark cloud) that opened the door of opportunity for the other actresses. Any semblance of elitism left with the self-styled queen, and feigned democracy came into vogue. Everyone had their chance at leads, but that democracy was carefully managed on the studio floor, by Griffith. Nobody was more annoyed about this than Miss Pickford, who often quizzed him as to why he did not give her this, or that part. Griffith would ignore her (and others who had similar questions) then break out into operatic song, as only a Welshman can. Many years later, he admitted that Mary was suitable for many parts, but he wanted to keep her feet on the ground. Griffith was also a cruel man that loved to see his players suffer. At times when Mary and Blanche Sweet seemed to be a little lacklustre in performance, he would bawl them out. Any insolence in return, would result in Mary being thrown at the wall, or Blanche being kneed off the stage. As Mary once told him “Sir, you are no southern gentleman.” Mack Sennett, became a perpetual thorn in Mary’s side, as she was a serious-minded girl, who could readily be made the butt of a joke or two. Mack got deep in with Mary, as she was helpful in his quest to be a screenwriter. Mary had more scripts accepted than Mack, and so Mack would give a script to Mary to present to the management. She’d present it as her own, and they’d share the fifteen dollars. One day, Mack plagiarised a story he found in a newspaper column, and he gave it to Mary to present. Unfortunately, the story was recognised, and Mary got a good ticking off from the office. How the future King of Comedy must have roared with laughter, but soon he had someone else to pursue. It was, of course, Mabel Normand. Now, getting to Mabel, unless you were in with ‘the crowd’ was difficult. Mack was regarded as a loser in the social stakes, and no girl would have anything to do with him.  However, came the time when Mack needed Mabel – badly. He’d been made director of comedy, and finding a leading lady was difficult. Mabel, was unapproachable, but she had one weakness – diamonds! Mack began to shower her with sparklers, and eventually won her round, although it was not all plain sailing. Mrs Griffith records the time, when Mabel threw a two-thousand-dollar bracelet back at The King. So it was, that the guy Mrs Griffith said would never buy a girl a milk shake, came to be expending his entire income on one girl. A very good investment, so it turned out.

Combatants but friends. Mary and Mabel in The Mender of Nets, 1912.

Inside the Studio.

When the movie industry first departed for Los Angeles, they used rough, outdoor stages, with splintery boards set up as stages. Back at the Biograph, though, the situation was different. The old brownstone building had once been a mansion, with beautiful wooden floors, although now hollowed, due to the passage of a million feet. The main studio, with its stages, had once been the ballroom, and the dressing rooms, prop room and wardrobe, were scattered throughout the four-storey building, which included a basement. Hordes of actors, wannabes, and extras were all over the house, many in the studio proper, but they also spread out on all floors, and dozens could be found lounging in the hallway, or on the stairways. A recipe for frayed tempers and fist fights, obviously, although mostly there was good-natured banter and friendly sarcasm. Queen of the banter and sarcasm from 1911, through 1912, was Mabel Normand. Reckless, but generous to a fault, she was the fulcrum around which the studio turned, or at least the social side of the studio. There were other fulcrums, at least for the actresses. A king-pin for the girls with problems, was Kate Bruce, or ‘Brucie’ as she was known. Brucie put up many of the out-of-town girls at her Manhattan apartment, and provided a shoulder for those with role rejection and boyfriend troubles. Essential also, were the stage mothers. A thorn in the side for the director, as they pushed their young charges forward for the best parts, they also benefitted him, when their recalcitrant and surly girls refused to do the great man’s bidding. Mama always knew best, and it was best to follow the director’s orders. Mary Pickford, in those days, was already a stage mother in her own right, pushing for her own  leading parts. Her mama, was left to sort out Mary’s siblings, Jack and Lottie, although Mary often intervened to get them parts as well. Fortunate it was that Mrs Pickford was also a good seamstress, and Mary and Lottie were able to compete against most comers, wearing mother’s hand sewn, but usually gingham dresses. However, there were some that were so well-attired that competing against them was hopeless. Enter the modish (as Mrs Griffith called her) Dorothy Davenport, later Mrs Wally Reid, whose family often visited Paris, and returned bearing armfuls of the latest costumery from the capital of world fashion. Sometimes Mary, Blanche and Mabel, got to wear these fine clothes, as Griffith would pay $10 for the use of particularly stunning garments. As Mabel was to say years later, returning these costumes was the most painful thing in the world. In fact, she determined, at that point, that she’d have wardrobes full of fashionable clothes, and she’d buy Parisian frocks, six at a time, wear one, and give the rest away. Her dream came true, soon enough. Dorothy Davenport, as everyone knows, had a stage mother, Alice Davenport, an actress that was to play Mabel’s mother in many, many films down the years. Mabel was one of the few girls in films that never had a stage mother – she made her own way in the world. The Biograph and Vitagraph stage mothers worried over Mabel. She was reckless of her own safety, and was far too familiar with the boys. The mother of the Talmadge sisters used to tell them “Never commit to a man, until I’ve seen the size of his wallet.” Falling off of cliffs, and diving off high boards was O.K. for Mabel, but the mothers would not allow it for their girls – unless, of course, the director paid a premium. They were the guardians of their daughter’s morals, but they’d willingly throw the girls onto the casting couch, if it meant a good part.

Great scenery, just a mile from Manhattan: Pearl White on the Palisades, Fort Lee, New Jersey.

On Location.

The good times, of course, were not confined to the studio, and many directors were keen to get out into the landscape, where they wouldn’t be bothered by the Parks Police, and rascals mocking the actors, or making suggestive remarks to the actresses. Strait-laced women coming across a street corner or park bench love scene would be furious with the actresses, who they termed immoral something or others, occasionally lashing out with well-weighted handbags. Within driving distance of New York there was splendid scenery that could pass for the wild west, or even Mexico. Fort Lee, New Jersey was close to the Palisades that made dramatic background for action and other films. Eventually, Fort Lee became over-run with film companies vying for the best spots, so that Griffith looked further afield – often way out towards the Canadian border. Free holidays it was for the players, but the days were not so good, when they lodged in reasonably classy hostelries, but three to a bed for the men, and two-a-bed for the women. The lovers among the group cared not, for they simply grabbed a Biograph canoe for the night, and paddled off to some lonely spot, disregarding the fact that this was bear country. Anyhow, it beat petting behind the studio scenery, which could inexplicably move at any time. Mrs Griffith makes it clear who was the biggest groucher, over beds, food and everything else. It was Mack Sennet, who thought he should dine like a lord and sleep comfortably in a four-poster – entwined within silken sheets, no doubt. Sennett was, nonetheless, a good bass singer and along with piano-playing and tenor singing actors, provided the evening entertainment, when he wasn’t grouching, of course. In future years, he would sing at the piano with his star-of-stars Mabel Normand, but we have no indication that Mabel joined the Sennett quartet in those early days. Perhaps she had better things to do, and better people to do it with, like live-wire Jack Pickford. Mabel did join Mack Sennett, however, out on the Jersey Shore proper, around Atlantic City, where the King of Comedy would organise the Biograph cross country runs, across fields and over farm gates. Only one person could keep up with the flying Sennett, and that was Mabel Normand, swift of foot, and queen of the fence jump.

D.W. Griffith, on location.

The young New Yorkers made the most of their freedom away from the city. The men organised crap games, and youngsters like Jack Pickford and Bobby Harron, were interested, and got a taste for the whisky that accompanied these games. The girls brought gin and other ladies’ spirits into their hotels, to add some naughtiness to their lives. Things would have been fine, but for one rowdy, midnight card game rousing the movie genius from his slumber. D.W. Griffith confiscated the hard liquor, and banned the crap games, but to maintain the general good will, he brought in iced India Pale Ale. The allegation that it was Mabel Normand who introduced the girls to gin, dirty jokes and the demon cigarettes has yet to be proven.

Actors and actresses from the New York boroughs, like Brooklyn, The Bronx and Staten Island, had been mesmerised by the bright lights of Manhattan, but their horizons had been further broadened by the Griffith excursions that they would never have otherwise seen. Later, of course, they would transverse the continent, populate far away California and Florida, and eventually some would gravitate to Europe.

Strange Goings on Out West.

The greatest location for the film companies was California. Many studios moved west for the winter season, and this gave the players even more scope to throw off their eastern-imposed manners. Some of course, used to the bright lights of New York, became homesick, but in general we can say that a good time was had by all. Not all of stage-mamas came west, which gave their charges a chance ‘do their thing’. Ostensibly, they were under the scrutiny of elected chaperones, but the youngsters soon found a way to slip away from their guardians. Night-life was restricted to a small part of downtown Los Angeles, but was nothing approaching what they’d experienced back east. Mostly they worked on the far edges of central L.A., for in the early days, Hollywood was not a place that welcomed movie people.

To get ahead, get a boa.

By 1913, change was in the air. Mabel Normand, the legend, the darling of the Biograph people, had settled in dusty, bottom-drawer, Edendale, where she starred in the new Keystone pictures, and was anointed Queen of The Movies, by the proto-movie press. The new girls coming out west with Griffith for the first time, like Dorothy Gish and Gertrude Bambrick were mesmerised by the stories of Mabel that they heard. No doubt they got to see her in the flesh, although they did not actually meet her until some time later. A somewhat larger than life young lady, unashamedly wearing a white mink wrap, and sporting the biggest boa feather anyone had ever seen, Dotty and Gertie were impressed. They set out to be Mabel, for just one night. Suitably fortified with gin and tonic, they hitched down their waistbands to expose a little midriff, then hit the town. What happened? Nothing happened, for DWG and Del Henderson hunted them down, and returned them to their chaperones before the came to harm, or were arrested. Whereas Dotty went on to be the insolent scourge of D.W. Griffith, Gertie, Griffith star for a while, settled down and married Marshall Neilan. Unfortunately, Dotty never mastered the art of plucking the heart strings of those she offended. In this respect, she was most unlike her idol.

In Summary.

Quite likely the 1920s stars were looking back through rose tinted spectacles. However, we have to consider the general situation for people like themselves, in 1907. Many came from poor backgrounds, and those that were stage performers, were, likely as not, doomed to spending their lives travelling, from one two-bit town to another, sometimes sleeping in rough hotels, or sometimes bedding down on hard, railway station benches. When looking at it this way, we can see that a film studio, with all year-round work, and regular pay, without travelling at the actor’s own expense, was a much easier way of life – why they did not even have to learn any lines! At between five and ten dollars a day, life was a cinch, by comparison. Nor did the studios have much control of the actors, for they were, then, a rare breed. D.W. Griffith bemoaned the fact that he had to admit all and sundry, so that the building could be bulging with as many as two hundred souls, many of whom would never be more than ‘atmosphere’. There was nothing he could do, except keep them fed and happy, on the famous curled Biograph sandwiches. No-one was ever fired from Biograph, even those that committed cardinal sins. Sullen and insolent actresses were tolerated, but step over the line, and they would not play the lead in the next Griffith picture. The performers were ambitious, and ready to steal any scene, but society was much more parochial back then, and people were more likely, and expected, to help their brethren. The slip-ups, however, were never thereafter, alluded to, like the time that Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand, and Blanche Sweet black-balled fourteen-year-old Mae Marsh, for taking the lead role in ‘Man’s Genesis’ and ‘The Sands of Dee’. A Griffith stunt, no doubt, but black-balled poor Mae remained, within the future Hollywood social scene. A black mark, clearly, on Hollywood society, but in the main, the stars preferred to reserve their venom for the evil producers. By the 1920s, the producers were becoming very hard-nosed, as the cost of movies soared, and accountants and bankers moved in. No wonder the stars looked back through a pink mist, to the time of the five-dollar day and curled up, but honest, sandwiches. Old alliances were cemented, when Mabel Normand had the first of her scandals in 1922, and the aspiring stars of 1911, came out and publicly supported her. Attempts to turn the finger of blame on the producers, inevitably came to nought, but the players had shown that they would not be pushed around by their ‘betters’. Mrs Griffith said of the early days, “This was the age of our innocence”, and perhaps it was, although we might consider that Mrs Griffith’s ‘innocence’ was a relative term.

The good old days end: The movies head for California.


When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925).

Working-Class Hollywood by Steven J. Ross (1998).

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

Mabel Normand: A Source Book to her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006)

Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923).

The Man Who Invented Hollywood: The Autobiography of D.W. Griffith. Edited and Annotated By James Hart. 1972.


In the story of Mabel Normand, and indeed of all the later to be Hollywood movie stars of the silent screen, 1911 was a watershed year. At the Biograph studio, D.W. Griffith was beginning to reap the benefits of his work to bring some organisation to the film-making process, regardless of the fact that his wife (Linda Arvidson) had now left him. Mabel Normand, it is said, had been an extra at the studio in 1910, but had left for Vitagraph, where she had the good fortune to be chosen, by the great John Bunny, to co-star in comedies. Mabel took to comedy like a duck to water, and her vivacious, if brazen, screen character Betty, made many sit up and take note. Yes, vivacious was Mabel, but perhaps, a little too brazen, for her antics around the studio got her fired in the Fall. Her next port of call was Biograph, where many of the actresses and actors were delighted that cheeky elf, Mabel, was onboard. Perhaps, even Griffith himself got a little excited, for he had work for Mabel – dark-eyed, characterful girls were as rare as hen’s teeth in drama.

In another 1911 guise, ‘Her Awakening’.

If Griffith had looked at Mabel as a mystery, a bad girl and a vamp, there was someone else at Biograph that needed her ‘Vitagraph Betty’ character. He was Mack Sennett, a second-rate actor, but one that had dreams of being a director. Recently his diligence had paid off, and he’d been made director of comedy at the studio. He’d found it relatively easy to recruit men for comedy, but the women were reluctant, thinking that doing comedy was deleterious to their careers. It was genuinely believed that a woman had to be ugly, in a funny sort of way, to do comedy i.e. they got laughs simply by their odd features. The majority of the Biograph actresses were stunningly beautiful, and this included Mabel, who had, of course, already proved her worth in comedy. The story is that Sennett asked that Griffith share Mabel with him. Much to Mabel’s annoyance, the ‘movie genius’ agreed. Not that she was averse to comedy, but like most actresses, as Mrs Griffith tells us, she thought Mack was a creep, a dud, a third-class ticket. However, there was no harm in having a foot in both camps, drama as well as comedy. Mack was being smart, however, as he was sure Mabel would make it in drama, giving him an extra string to his bow, shall we say. Nor was Mabel a mere dramatist, or pretty face. She was athletic, a good horse-rider, swimmer and diver. He’s what Mary Pickford later said of Mabel in her Biograph days:

“She had been playing ultra-seriously in drama. Because she was dark and the representative type of villainess, she played the flashing-eyed creature of temperament, whose very looks were stilletos in your heart, and whose movements undulated like a snake crawling through the brush. The thousands of those that have laughed with her on the screen in the last few years of comedy, have perhaps forgotten her as a heavy woman.

* From ‘New Year’s Eve on The Train’. 1916.


“There was no cliff so high that Mabel was afraid of it, no water so deep that she would not dive into it, and no bucking bronco so wild, she would not ride it.” 

* From ‘Personalities I Have Met: Mabel Normand’. 1916.

Clever guy was Mack – he was acquiring the movies’ greatest all-rounder. How much it cost to keep Mabel onboard is unknown, but if you look at her in this film, arriving like a queen in the plush Pierce-Arrow car in Huntingdon, Long Island, you will have some idea of her requirements. On the evidence of Mrs D.W. Griffith, Mack spent thousands (today’s money) plying her with diamonds.

Her ladyship arrives on Long Island.

The Film.

The Cast:

Mabel Normand: The Diving Girl

Fred Mace: The Unclesea

Wm. J. Butler: Uncle’s Friend

Verner Clarges: The Doctor

Robert Harron: The Bellboy


Donald Crisp:

Grace Henderson

Del Henderson

Edward Dillon

James Waltham

Florence Lee

Film Run-Time: 6 minutes

Director: Mack Sennett

Release Date: August 21st 1911

This picture portrays the girl that Mary Pickford writes about. From Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Cuddebackville in New York State, Mabel had impressed with her athletic prowess. Falling off a cliff into the Neversink River, and swimming through its rapids, in ‘The Squaw’s Love’ was all in a day’s work for Mabel. However, Griffith only made the Indian drama, after Sennett had directed Mabel in ‘The Diving Girl’. The girl that Mabel plays in ‘Diving Girl’ is a rather audacious hussy, used to getting her way, and “all of herself” as they still say, down on Staten Island, Mabel’s homeland.  Being Mabel, however, she is also lovable, adorable and somewhat engaging in her personality. The story is that the screen Mabel goes to the posh Long Island resort of Huntington, with her uncle and his friend. The inference is that this trip means that the parents get a rest from their impetuous, hyperactive daughter. In the first scene, the group arrive in the aforesaid plush automobile, at an equally plush hotel. Mabel is clearly enjoying the pimped ride, and has a superior air about her. While uncle and friend get themselves comfortable on a sea-view balcony, Mabel is off with the resident lads and lassies. This is probably the first time she becomes the centrepiece of the action, the queen bee, as she would later be at the Keystone studio. The youngsters swirl around her, as she performs athletic feats of diving. Indeed, she is much as the Vitagraph and Biograph players described her around the studio. Mabel does complex and crazy dives off the high board, as well as lovey graceful ones. Uncle, however, is horrified at what he sees. Never has he seen such behaviour from a girl, and he is further shocked, when Mabel slips out of her bathing skirts, to reveal her lithe body, barely covered by a tight-fitting one-piece bathing suit. Has this girl no morals – she is surrounded by very interested boys, while the girls gaze on with admiration. Uncle regrets bringing her along, and determines she should be at home, helping mother with the household chores.  

The men procure a rowing boat, and set out to grab Mabel from the off-shore diving pontoon. Mabel suddenly surfaces from under the boat, scaring the life out of the two old boys. The uncle ends up soaked, and ridiculed by Mabel’s friends, when he tries to force his charge out of the sea. A sulking Mabel is placed under hotel room arrest, but when she is released back into the world by her brother, this is the end, and Uncle orders everyone home, although the poor deah has developed a nasty cold from his ocean dip. Mabel smiles at the camera, as she contemplates uncle’s predicament, then waves goodbye to the audience, as she’s driven off, very pleased to be back in the limousine. How many girls got to ride in a limo in 1911?


Comments on the Film.

This is just about the first film in which Mabel is portrayed as something approaching the later Keystone Girl. The film is a bare six minutes long, and can be regarded as situation comedy, with very little story line. The whole thing is supported by Mabel’s personality, her athletic prowess, and her fast-changing facial gestures, albeit in prototype form. According to Mabel, D.W. Griffith worked on these gestures intensely, to give that fluid look to her expressions. The beneficiary, of course, was Mack Sennett. Making contact with the audience, through the camera, was something that was not approved of, yet Mabel does this several times in the film. It was this connection to her audience that endeared her to the public. Presumably, the girl in this film did not entirely endear herself with D.W. Griffith, but he’d seen enough to know she was leading lady material, and a match for his stage-trained stars. We might say, then, that this film put Mabel on the road to stardom, though it is also fair to say that the Bunny films had given her a good starting point.

Just training.

Notes on the film.

1. Huntington was, and is, an upper-class resort. If you were poor you went to Coney Island. Mabel, whenever in the east, spent a lot of time on Long Island, often staying at the house of her friends, Raymond Hitchcock and his wife.

2. The two leading men in this film, Dell Henderson and Fred Mace, had different experiences with Mack Sennett. Mack had often worked with Del at Biograph and they remained life-long friends. In the early Keystone years, Fred Mace was often leading man to Mabel Normand, and just as often played her husband. There was, nonetheless, no love lost between Mack and Fred, and after long and bitter arguments with Mack, Fred left Keystone under a dark cloud.

3. Grace Henderson, a bather here, had also appeared with Bobby Harron (here, the bell boy) in ‘The Unveiling’ of 1911. The wicked and devious girl, trying to vamp Bobby, and steal his fortune, was a certain Mabel Normand.

4. The Pierce-Arrow car that Mabel rides in, could well be the one possessed at the time by D.W. Griffith. These top-line automobiles were very rare in those days. In his book ‘King of Comedy’ Mack states that he hankered for a car like DWG’s, and here’s what he supposedly told Mabel:

“Mabel, one day we’ll be so rich, we’ll ride around in a Pierce-Arrow car, firing diamonds at people with catapults.”

This is probably untrue, but it’s a good story anyway.

5. No-one knows where Mabel learned to swim and dive. It is said that she never went to school, and like Tom Sawyer, spent her time swimming in, not the Mississippi, but the Hudson River. This may, or may not, be correct, but she was certainly an accomplished sportswoman, by the time she arrived at Biograph. Mrs D.W. Griffith called her rise and subsequent career as “Astonishing”  

6. When Mabel departed the Keystone studio, Mack Sennett was forced to look around for other sportswomen. There was another sporting girl, linked to Keystone. She was Ada, daughter of keystone big boss-man Charles Baumann, and a friend of Mabel. She was a national figure-skating champion, and it is said she once competed in the Olympics. The latter event is unconfirmed, but she can be seen playing Mabel’s friend in ‘Mabel At The Wheel’ (1914).

7. Many faces, later inhabiting Keystone, can be seen here. Grace Henderson was not Dell’s wife, but another bather in this film, Florence Lee.  It was the Hendersons that D.W. Griffith entrusted as chaperones to the young actresses (average age sixteen) out in Los Angeles – much to the girls’ displeasure, according to Mrs Griffith.

8. The diving girl theme was too good to leave, so Mack Sennett starred Mabel in a 1912 remake, ‘The Water Nymph’ with added young love. Later, in 1914, when Keystone went into full money-making mode, he put ‘Fatty and Mabel’ into ‘Sea Nymphs’ and other water-related pictures, while, at the same time, considered filling his studio with a host of water nymphs that he would call ‘The Bathing Beauties’.

Arbuckle tries to empty the ocean in ‘Sea Nymphs’.


Mabel with Sam Goldwyn and Charlie Chaplin in 1921.

Now, we know who Mabel is, but who was Mary Ann? Mary Ann was not a person, but a film – a film that was never made. The interest of a film that was never made, is in the events that surrounded that film, the reasons for its proposition, and the reasons why it was never shot. The picture was proposed in 1922, by Mack Sennett, and would feature his star-of-stars, Mabel Normand. However, there is a trail of events that lead up to the film, or non-film. Let’s start in 1921, when a certain Sam Goldwyn agreed to loan his beloved star, Mabel Normand, to Mack Sennett for the sum of $30,000, or $750,000 in today’s money. Goldwyn ran an all-star studio, but near bankruptcy forced the canny Polish Jew to let his stars go, one by one. Like so many producers, he hung onto Mabel like a leach. He knew he’d lose her in the end, however, and when Mack Sennett, King of Comedy, came calling for Mabel’s fair hand, he demanded a King’s ransom. Shocked at Goldwyn’s demands, the King slunk off, defeated. He tried to forget Mabel, but he could not get her out of his head, and at night she came into his dreams, like a spectre. It is said that he could be often seen banging his head on the rotting timber walls of his office, screaming “Goldwyn, give me back my girl!” for Mabel had once been his girl, his Keystone Girl, but in his hubris, he’d let his star-of-stars slip through his fingers. Not that he romanticised over the girl from Staten Island, for his prime concern was for money and prestige. In 1916, Mack had understood that Mabel was his path to greatness, she who’d worked under the best, John Bunny in comedy, and D.W. Griffith in drama. No actress had encompassed comedy, tragedy and drama so effectively as Mabel, and she brought the prestige of Bunny and Griffith to any studio she worked at. Since Mabel had left him, or “ran away”, as the King termed it, he’d become little more than a purveyor of slapstick, just another Hal Roach, another Buster Keaton. He held the greatest comediennes under contract, but they had no standing outside of comedy. Louise Fazenda, Polly Moran, Alice Howell, they were all, essentially, female slapstickers, getting laughs by doing silly things, and making grotesque facial expressions. Mack’s peers, such as Adolph Zukor, commanded respect with their big drama studios, like Paramount. Mack could make dramas, he thought, better than any man alive, if only he had Mabel.  Sam knew all of this, and stood his ground, it was thirty-grand, or no Mabel. Mabel had been a big star at Keystone, but the Goldwyn publicity machine had raised her to the level of Goddess, Goddess of Hollywood. Mack did the rounds, hitting his movie friends for cash, and involving himself with the Shylocks, waiting off-stage on the periphery of the movie business. After many weeks passed, Mack went to Culver City, and slapped thirty-thousand on Sam’s desk. “There you are Sam, hand her over.” Sam spread the cash out and smiled. He could have nailed Sennett to the floor, and asked for a million, but he thought of Mabel, who by sticking by him, would be in trouble, when he finally fell. “You have her for vun film only” Said Sam, in his comical broken English “Zen I vant her back.” Mack had no option but to agree.

Note the term ‘Dramatic’.

So it was, that after a five-year separation, Mabel Normand, Queen of The Movies, breezed back into Sennett Comedies to make the ‘Cinderella’ picture, ‘Molly O’. The whole studio went crazy, with the new actresses whispering to each other, “Is it her, is it really her, Mabel Normand, the Goddess of Hollywood, Oh my God, it really is her!” There was, of course, no-one bigger than Mabel in those days, and as the whole company gathered around her, Mack allowed himself a self-satisfied grin. It was just like the old days again. Except it wasn’t.  Mabel would turn out to be very formal with Mack now, no more Miss Nice Girl. Swirling through the crowd, she marched to her dressing room, tearing the gold star off of the door, as she went. She looked around. There was the new Chippendale sofa, the new gold leaf decorated make up table and desk, and a gold-plated vanity set placed on it. In a separate room, they had positioned a marble bath, with gold taps, befitting of Cleopatra herself. The actresses followed, and packed themselves into the dressing room, as they would do every day for the next two years. Miss Mabel was nothing, if not democratic. Mack arrived to inform Mabel that she should come to the office, where they would discuss the plans for shooting the film. An extra girl answered the door, saying she was sorry but Miss Normand was in her bath at the moment, and would he kindly call back. Mack stormed off, and Mabel followed him – four hours later. We don’t know exactly what was said, but the documentary evidence suggests something like this:

“Mabel, I’ll give you everything you want – F. Richard Jones for director, dramatics, tragedy and sublime comedy. I need you Mabel.”

“You had me five years ago, Michael Sinnott, and you let me go.”

“What could I do Mabel. You signed for Sam behind my back, while the vultures at Triangle, were picking over my bones. I had to save the studio.”

“We could have started a new one.”

“Mabel, Mabel, it’s not that easy, and anyway, you’d already flown the coop.”

“See my solicitor, Mister King of Comedy, I want to renegotiate the contract.”

Mabel got up to leave.

“My God, Mabel, what’s up now?

“That clause about actress supplies costumes, I want it removed.”

“O.K., O.K., consider it gone.”

“And there’s the matter of $3,000 a week. I think I’m worth at least five-thousand, plus 25% of the profits. I’m no longer your Keystone Girl, my thick-necked Mick.”

Mack coloured up, but then realised something.

“Good to have you back, Mabel. It’s just like the good old days, mind games and all that.”

“No it isn’t. Good day!”

Mabel marched out, and slammed the door. A whole lot of giggling was coming from outside. Mack looked out, and saw Mabel surrounded by a gaggle of actresses. He knew she’d told them the King had been put in his place. He also knew Mabel was staying, at five-grand a week and 25% of the profits.

W.D. Taylor.

The Shooting of Molly O’ and W.D. Taylor.

The story gradually evolved, with Mabel becoming more adventurous in her exploits with her leading men. The Keystone Girl had been demure, innocent, and butter would not have melted in her mouth. Molly O’ did not wait for men to scoop her up, as did her predecessor. Her leading Man was Jack Mulhall, a heart-throb that Mack had to keep an eye on. However, Mack kept his promise, and allowed dramatics and melancholy in equal measure with comedy. Out of hours, though, Mabel was very formal with her producer. Mack held a party at his house, to which he’d invited various big-shots and moneyed men. His star was expected to attend. Dutifully, Mabel arrived, with a certain William Desmond Taylor in tow. Taylor was a director with Paramount, and Mack was not happy, with his star fraternising with the ‘opposition’. He was even less happy, when Mabel left with Taylor, after fifteen minutes – a star was obliged to stay by her producer all night. Fury built up within Mack, against Mulhall and Taylor. Mulhall was soon put in his place, by a punch in the jaw from Sennett (his autobiography), which removed any intentions the actor had, about running off with Mabel. As soon as filming was complete, though, Mabel made off to New York, ostensibly to publicise the picture. Mack was soon to learn, however, that Mabel was shacked up, on Long Island, with a former Keystone comedian,


by the name of Raymond Hitchcock, and his wife. This ruffled Sennett’s feathers, for he had an intense dislike for Hitchcock. In the meantime, Fatty Arbuckle had been embroiled in a court case over the death of actress Virginia Rappe. The newspapers had implied that Mabel was in the same San Francisco hotel at the time Virginia died. Mack was worried over the publicity implications. In the event, the film did well, and handsomely repaid its quarter-of-a-million-dollar cost. Mabel returned to Los Angeles in October, and began discussions with Mack over a new film, ‘Suzanna’. Mabel, as usual, was very formal and non-committal. Mack was boiling up inside, over her formality, and her continued association with Taylor. Taylor was Irish, and all the men in her life, that had caused him trouble, had been Irish. How right he was, for Mack himself was as Irish as the Glocca Mora mist. Mack made a mental note to have a word with Adolph Zukor, the head of Taylor’s studio, Paramount. It was on the first day of filming ‘Suzanna’ that Mabel, up early for once, and getting into her Suzanna costume, was told that W.D. Taylor had been shot dead. Mabel had been the last person to see Taylor alive, and neighbours watched aghast as a small girl in a Mexican outfit, replete with sombrero, was led to a police car, and taken downtown for questioning.

Mabel was in deep trouble now, and her constant habit of involving herself in love triangles had led her there. There was, of course, no evidence that Mabel had committed the deed, and she was released. Arriving home, though, it proved nearly impossible to reach her front door. Journalists and rubber-neckers were besieging her duplex, but with the help of a couple of Keystoners, she fought her way to the front door. And immediately phoned Mack Sennett. Told about the death of Taylor, Mack feigned surprise at Mabel’s insistence that he’d been shot.

Mabel in Long Island Sound. 1921.

“Mabel, I heard he’d had a heart attack.”

“It wasn’t his heart that attacked him, Mack, but a .38 pistol.”

“That’s tough, such a shame.”

“It’s a shame alright, but what are you gonna do about the mob around my house?”

“Don’t worry, kid, I’ll sort it out.”

Half an hour later the King of Comedy was taken downtown for questioning, but he’d already arranged for a gang of thugs, armed with clubs and concealed firearms, to surround Mabel’s house. Soon, the third part of the love triangle arrived at 1089 West Seventh Street, and undeterred by the private detectives (thugs) she reached the front door. Inside, genuine policemen tried to bar her way, but Mabel allowed her in. Mabel spoke to Mary Miles Minter in a very easy-going way, and Mary was shocked to hear how close Mabel had been to her own on-off lover. If she had any thought of having it out with Mabel, then it was hopeless, for Mabel was charmingly disarming in her speech, as so many had discovered in the past. Even the District Attorney could not, later, think of why he’d run Mabel in. Eventually, Sennett had Mabel relocated to a ‘safe house’ in Altadena. From here she completed ‘Susanna’, then boarded a liner for Europe, on the same day that former government man Will Hays arrived from the east to clean up the decadent Hollywood. Mack Sennett’s parting words to Mabel were that he had a great film for her when she returned. It was called ‘Mary Ann’.

Mabel poses with the D.A. (right), all nice and friendly-like.

New York to London and Back.

The main aim of the European tour was to merely get away from the media’s obsession with the Rappe and Taylor deaths. Meetings with studio bosses in London, Paris, and Munich, might have been a sign that Mabel was shifting out of the U.S., but we cannot be sure about this, although she had one firm offer from a British studio. Just to show she was the Queen of love triangles, Mabel met up with the boyfriend of one Constance Talmadge, out in gay Paree. His name was Prince Ibrahim of Egypt, and sheik-like enough to be much sought after by the ladies. 1922 was, after all, the year of the Sheik, following Rudolph Valentino’s film. It was suggested that marriage was in the air, and why not, for it was likely that Mabel’s career was over. However, when Ibrahim’s King heard that a low-life Hollywood actress was frittering his money away on the gaming tables of Monte Carlo, and intent on marrying the Prince, he recalled Ibrahim to Cairo. Mabel returned briefly to London, then set sail for the shores of the Americas. Well, if Mabel had thought that things had receded, then she was to be shocked by what she found. During her tour, Mabel had dribbled back information about her tour, but for the press this was not enough. They’d been concocting their own stories: Mabel had given a diving exhibition on the ship – naked. She’d done likewise, they said, at the country pile of a Lord of the Realm (much to her Ladyship’s displeasure) and had mingled with the rabble and unwashed of London’s East End ghetto. Mabel shrugged it all off, and aroused another round of interest, by displaying a huge diamond on her ring finger. “Was Mabel engaged?” The press asked. Mabel quipped that D.W. Griffith had given it to her, in recognition of her being such a great actress. As usual, a social scene soon developed around Mabel in New York. Glasses tinkled until the early hours, with Mabel seemingly forgetting all about Hollywood, and of course ‘Mary Ann’.

Sailing from New York. Would she come back?

Shock and Awe.

If Mabel had become complacent, and good for nothing except parties, then she was soon to be shocked back to reality. Turned out Mack Sennett had begun filming a new feature film called ‘Extra Girl’. Sennett had no actress that could carry out such a picture, except Mabel of course, so why hadn’t he called her? To add insult to injury, the leading lady was not exactly an actress, but a Bathing Beauty, by the name of Phyllis Haver. Mabel was furious, and got Sennett on the line – long distance. What was said, we do not know, but there were undoubtedly plenty of Anglo-Saxon expletives flying, and perhaps threats made by Mabel. Whatever was the case, Miss Haver was gone from the studio by the time Mabel rolled into Los Angeles, to take over the role, and no doubt burn the thousands of feet of film already shot. The reason why the film was so important to Mabel might relate to her rehabilitation with the public. The press had tried to portray her as some kind of a monster, a killer, or someone that was shielding a killer. ‘Extra Girl’ was about a girl that goes to Hollywood with dreams of being a big movie star. She gets fleeced by a bunch of villains, and in the end decides to quit the nasty film business, settle down, get married, have kids, and live broke, but happily ever after. Mabel, of course, could never live this life, but the public went for it big time. Mabel was welcomed back into the fold, to the sound of box office receipts amounting, eventually, to 18-million dollars. In early 1924, though, Mabel was unaware of her impending wealth. It was far from clear that ‘Extra Girl would be a success, in spite of Sennett’s massive publicity campaign for the picture. The promise was there for ‘Mary Ann’ should the new picture succeed, but whether Mabel panicked, or her passion for danger resurfaced, we do not know, but shel embroiled herself in another ‘threesome’. The man in the new triangle was wealthy oil baron Courtland Dines, and the ‘other woman’, Edna Purviance, long-term leading lady of Charlie Chaplin. Edna’s latest film, without Chaplin, was ‘A Woman of Paris’. The film was not greeted favourably, especially as it bore Chaplin’s name, although he did not appear in any scene. Things looked bleak for Edna, as the film’s royalties were meant to provide her with a pension. In this situation, she seems to have adopted the course of most washed-up actresses, and latched onto Dines – there was even talk of marriage. Mabel and Edna had been friends for some time, and the threesome was formed for nights out and days on ocean yachts. Later, Mabel’s deputy housekeeper, as Mrs Ethel Burns termed herself, revealed that Mabel and Courtland had been seeing each other behind Edna’s back. However, Mabel appears to have gone cold on the relationship, as news came in that ‘Extra Girl’ was taking off. It was obvious that she no longer needed a husband, but Courtland was furious at Mabel’s new and cold attitude towards him. In fact, Courtland began to be nasty towards both women, but he would reserve his worst excesses for Mabel. He sneered at her reputation for being a good-time girl, and a man-eater. He’d found Edna to be beautiful, but dull, while Mabel, he thought, was a live wire and interesting. Now he considered the Queen of Hollywood in a different light — she’d lost her nerve, he thought, at the first sound of wedding bells.

Trouble brewing: Edna Courts and Mabel clowning on a yacht.

On New Year’s Day, Courtland and Edna lolled around Court’s apartment, holding their heads, and trying to see off some severe hangovers. It had been one hell of a party, but what now? Call for Mabel, that was the answer. Mabel who always made the party swing, Mabel the joker, yes Mabel was a good fellow. In fact, Mabel had just crawled out of bed, nursing her own sore head, and intended doing no more than help the maid take down the Christmas tree. The housekeeper took the call. Edna was at the other end, pleading for Mabel to come over. Mamie put her hand over the speaker, told Mabel what Edna was saying, and that Courtland was in the background saying “Get that f……g bitch round here right now!” Mabel thought she had to go, even though Courts was clearly under the ‘hair of the dog’. Ignoring all reason, Mabel got the chauffeur to drive her to the apartment, where they were greeted by a belligerent Dines. The chauffeur, John Kelly, thought Mabel should not go in, but she waved him off and entered the apartment. A few hours later the call came from a very drunk Mabel, asking to be picked up. Kelly began to leave, but Mrs Burns told him to take Mabel’s .25 automatic pistol, which was kept in a drawer in Mabel’s bedroom. Ten minutes later, he was walking through Dines door. Mabel was almost comatose, but as Kelly led her to the door, Dines took hold of a whisky bottle and came forward to brain him. Two shots rang out, and Dines staggered back, a bullet through his lung. The result was Kelly (actually a chain-gang escapee, called Greer) on an attempted murder charge, Courts in hospital, and Edna and Mabel booked downtown as witnesses / suspects.

Miss Normand’s hands fairly talked, except when she examined the the first exhibit.

Beyond Dines himself, the chief victim here was Edna, whose career was on the rocks, and little hope of marrying into money. Mabel went into ‘tough it out mode’ and took all the brickbats that were thrown at her. At Kelly’s trial, she kept up a facetious rapport with the judge, and adopted an arrogant and aristocratic air. The press noticed that Mabel had been subpoened to court, and that somewhere, down the years, she’d lost her Brooklyn accent and was now speaking in tones with certain odd features:

“One of them is Miss Normand’s broad “oh”, very broad “a”. It is “a” as in bawth”, “cawn’t” “rather” and “pawdon”. A real Cavendish Square breadth of accent, so like dear old Lonnon town.”

Los Angeles Herald, June 17 1924.

A bit unfair, perhaps, because most of Hollywood were now speaking in the dulcet tones of “Old Lonnon Town.” In fact, the studios were now sending their baby stars for elocution lessons with real old English schoolma’ams. However, the press weren’t finished with Mabel. How dare she put on such aristocratic airs in a court of law, — she that had so recently crawled from the gutter. And those hand flourishes! “Miss Normand’s hands fairly talked.” All in all, Mabel gave as good as she got, but she was home and dry, as a nationwide publicity tour had saved the picture, and the fans were happy to later tell their children that they’d once seen Mabel Normand. Poor Edna, never regained her former verve, but Mabel wasn’t finished yet. Although, now a wealthy woman, she planned one more visit to the well. No, this was not ‘Mary Ann’ for Sennett had put aside the picture, as Mabel began ferreting around trying to discover who had hired Kelly (Greer). Possibly, it was Sennett, but Mabel’s secretary resigned, after accusations that she’d taken the convict on. Mrs Burns was fired, for having revealed intimate details of Mabel’s life to the press. Particularly harmful was the fact that Kelly knew where the gun was hidden in Mabel’s bedroom, which labelled her as a kind of Lady Chatterley, who pursued relationships with the hired help (This was not helped, later, when she was named in a divorce case brought by a woman claiming that Mabel had alienated her husband’s affections for her). Another revelation was that the gun Kelly used was one of a pair — the other pistol was carried by Mabel herself. The well that Mabel intended to visit was the stage. Royalties were still rolling in from her last three films, but maintaining a movie star lifestyle was expensive. Impresario, Al Woods, proposed that she headline a nationwide show called ‘The Little Mouse’, which would pull in the dollars, no matter how poor it turned out to be. Mabel would make the difference. The show was poor, but Mabel did make the difference, and reputedly earned herself a million dollars. She returned to her newly-purchased Beverly Hills house, and waited, between parties, of course. In 1926, she was called to Sennett studios, for discussions about a new film. ‘Mary Ann’ had been permanently deleted, and now Mack proposed something else. Mabel had arrived in style, wafted in, aboard Sennett’s glamorous Rolls Royce. As Sennett baby star, Ruth Taylor, wrote in her diary (published in the 1940s):

May 14th

“Who do you think came to see us today. Mabel Normand! Why I can’t hardly believe it yet. Mabel Normand herself. She looked thin, but was all they around here told me she would be. Everyone acted liked the queen had come.”

As Mack had known full well, Mabel had already signed for Hal Roach, but it seems he needed Mabel so badly, he was willing to risk a massive law suit. Nonetheless, Mabel soon realised that the new film would contain several of his old stars, and would be a mere sop to the King’s ego. To the disappointment of everyone at the studio, there would be no big star coming to their Alessandro Street edifice.

That, then, is the story of ‘Mary Ann’, the greatest film that was never made. There is no surviving script, as far as the author is aware, and so we can only muse about its content. Undoubtedly, it was a Cinderella, rags to riches, tale, for as Mabel once said “What other kind of story is there?”


Edna Purviance lived on until 1958, when she died of cancer, aged 62. She’d been on a pension from Chaplin for many years.

Mabel Normand died in 1930, from tuberculosis, aged 37.

Mack Sennett died in 1960, age 80, ten days before Phyllis Haver took her own life, age 61.

Courtland Dines was committed to a mental hospital in 1933, having ‘lost his mind’.

Jack Mulhall made films for 50 years, and died in 1979, aged 91.

Ruth Taylor ended her career in 1930. She died in 1985, aged 79. Her son was director/writer Buck Henry.

Sam Goldwyn continued in pictures until 1959. He died in 1974, aged 94.

Hal Roach ceased making films in 1955, when his son took over the studio. He died in 1992, aged 100.


Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923).

Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap by Timothy Dean Lefler (2016).

Mabel Normand: A Source Book to her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006)

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

The Keystone Kid by Coy Watson Jnr. (2001)

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925).


The Keystone lot (dotted line) before Keystone.

This article takes us back to 1911, when the movies had hauled themselves out of the nickelodeon stage, and the industry was beginning, just beginning, to take on a more acceptable and legitimate air.  Some movie directors, like D.W. Griffith, had become a little famous among movie-goers, for his avant-garde methods. We are here talking of the United States, although at the time, the French and Italian film makers were ahead of the game. Ahead, not just in drama, but in comedy too. The French Pathe company was making superb comedies, with their leading man, Max Linder. The comedies were imported into the U.S., and were a complete success. Before long, movie newspaper columnists were bemoaning the fact that there were no bespoke comedy film-makers in the United States. Comedies were mostly being made alongside dramas, with the former being the poor relation of the latter. At Vitagraph, in Brooklyn, an old stage artist, by the name of John Bunny, was making comedies with his leading lady, Flora Finch. Bunny was a rotund, kind of Mr Pickwick character, and his side-kick was very near to being Mrs Punchinello. They made an odd couple, and were, to an extent, dependent for laughs upon their physiognomies. In 1911, however, the pairing acquired a third partner, Mabel Normand. Mabel was young, vivacious and vibrant, very attractive, and very funny. Comedy was about to be shaken out of the Edwardian era. Nothing like Mabel had been seen before, and the public took note, along with many comedy artists, and members of the Biograph company, that had previously run into

Flora Finch (L) and her nemesis, Mabel Normand.

the girl from Staten Island. The names of those Biographers, out in Los Angeles for the winter, that watched her on a screen, reads like a list of stars from the later Hollywood. Owen Moore, Mary, Lottie and Jack Pickford, Blanche Sweet, Mack Sennett, Linda Griffith, and perhaps even her genius husband, watched rivetted to the screen, not daring to believe what they saw. Mabel was a star alright, and was seemingly hitting the big time, long before their own movie careers had got off the ground. Most interested was Mack Sennett, who had already begun some tentative negotiations with movie big-shots, Kessell and Baumann, around forming a totally comedy studio. The wise-guys were interested, but Mack was unable to reveal an ability to bring comedians with him. In reality, Mack would have to deliver, not just comedians, but a comedienne as well. Mack touted around, and found several actors that were interested, but the girls would have no truck with the clumsy thirty-something, from the Canadian outback. Then, Mack had a brainwave. He’d write a kind of love letter to Mabel in New York. After many hours, he’d managed to scrape a letter together, and added a gooey poem, stolen from a newspaper. In the letter, the later King of Comedy, announced his love for Vitagraph Betty. As he posted the letter, Mack thought there was a slim chance of a reply. Less than three weeks later, he did receive the reply, and it did not say “Get lost creep.” It thanked him for his kind words, and she “absolutely loved the poem.” Mack got to the bottom and read “Your girl Mabel.” Mack was over the moon, and showed the letter to all that would read the words. Henri ‘Pathe’ Lehrman sneered, and forwarded the view that the girl was having a laugh at Sennett’s expense. One can imagine Mabel smiling as she wrote those words, probably with the help of a giggling Norma, of the Talmadge acting family. There can be little doubt that letters to other admirers where signed “Your girl Mabel.” Norma Talmadge was one of those that were mesmerised by the outgoing Mabel, although sister Constance later recorded their mother’s veiled displeasure at her daughter being so involved with the dangerously extroverted Mabel. However, everyone loved Mabel, including Mama, who was concerned at Mabel’s lack of supervision from a stage-mother. Mabel was bound to get in trouble, and she warned her girls not to copy her actions. Mabel did get into trouble, her activities around the studio drawing the attention of the god-fearing, Quaker owners, and after one unladylike episode, she was fired.    

“What happened to “Your Girl Mabel?” “She was just a dream, Mack.”

After trying the Reliance studio, Mabel ended up at the Biograph, where Mack quickly got to work on her, bribing her with diamonds. In the first instance, Mack wanted her for his Biograph comedy unit, and it was only after D.W. Griffith agreed to share her with Sennett that Mabel’s Biograph comedies were made. Later, out in L.A., in 1912, he needed her for the new Keystone Studio project. While with Biograph in the Californian city, Mack, and perhaps Mabel, met up with Kessell and Baumann to finalise details of the new studio. Keystone would inherit a dusty lot on Alessandro Street, Edendale, which was about to be vacated by K and B’s Bison studio, makers of cowboy pictures. Mabel seemed to be non-committal at first, and it seems the other actresses were appalled at her taking off for the wild west, with the feeble-minded Sennett. However, there was an advantage for Mabel, such as being the only leading lady, meaning she could bathe in the success of Keystone, without the fear of another actress stealing her scenes. Naturally, this depended upon Keystone being a success, and this was by no means guaranteed. We must also consider that Sennett / Kessel and Baumann promised Mabel a continuation of her dramatic career, as had been the case under D.W. Griffith. The way that things later turned out, it seems that this promise was made. This is inferred from the fact that Mabel was never directly involved in slapstick. While the men were running around falling out of cars, getting their asses kicked, and receiving heavy objects on their heads, Mabel appears to have had a protective ring around her. The ring was professional in nature, and prevented her reputation, as a serious actress, from becoming tainted. You will see Mabel tripping over carpets and being bowled over by Fatty Arbuckle, but in the main, little more (but see footnote). She acted as the fulcrum that the action turned around, and her main contributions to comedy, were her subtle facial gestures, and equally subtle body and hand movements. In later years, she gave D.W. Griffith the credit for developing these attributes. However, in 1912, Mabel probably had no faith in Sennett’s promises, but more trust in the tried and tested Kessell and Baumann. The $125 that K and B offered her to throw in her lot with Keystone, might have helped sway her, although we must consider the possible effect of Baumann’s daughter, the mysterious Ada. Ada was slightly younger than Mabel, but like Mabel, she was bright and modern, as well as being a sporting type. Like many young girls of the time, she probably looked up to Mabel, and would have been delighted to see her at Daddy’s studio. Ada later appeared alongside Mabel in the 1914 film ‘Mabel At The Wheel’.

The Baumann’s in L.A, 1912. Right: Mack makes a lewd suggestion to Ada in ‘Mabel At The Wheel’.

Goodbye Mr Griffith.

For better or for worse, five actors and one actress left Biograph to join the Keystone. D.W. Griffith scoffed, thinking they’d be back, suitably humbled, within a few weeks. The stage-mothers wrang their hands – Mabel was foolish and in great moral danger, going off with five middle-aged men to a place 3,000 miles distant. The time was either late July or early August, and the first one or two pictures were made in New York. Contrary to the Biographers’ expectations, the early films were a success, and the Keystone company were soon on the train and heading west. Although the actors had previously been at the temporary Biograph studio, this had been located in downtown, close to the hotels, and nightlife of the main city. Edendale was way, way out, and a place that Charlie Chaplin described as very bleak indeed. One such bleak place was the Keystone lot, now abandoned by the cowboys of Bison. Cowboys, of course, do not require a studio, all they need is somewhere to corral their horses overnight, then in the morning, they’d be filming in the hills all around. Many of the actors were real-life cowpokes, and were unused to easy living, so the rural state of the lot was of no concern to them. What the New York actors thought of the lot, and Edendale itself, is only partially recorded in later comments. Charlie Chaplin came along in 1914, when the place had been built up a bit, although the buildings were a little rickety. Here’s what he said:

“It (Edendale) was an anomalous-looking place that could not make up its mind whether to be a humble residential district or a semi-industrial one. It had small lumber yards and junk yards, and abandoned small farms on which were built one or two shacky wooden stores that fronted the road …….. I found myself opposite the Keystone Studio. It was a dilapidated affair with a green fence around it, one hundred and fifty feet square. The entrance to it was up a garden path and through an old bungalow – the whole place looked as anomalous as Edendale itself.”

In her autobiography, Bessie Love recalls visiting Keystone, from the Griffith studio on Sunset Boulevard in 1915. Trouble was that nobody knew how to get to Edendale, so out in the backwoods was the place. Edendale, then, was mis-named, for it was no Garden Of Eden. Many others have described the studio thus, even in the late 1920s, when it had been totally built over, with yet more shacks, all leaning at crazy angles, according to Frank Capra. In 1928, the City of Los Angeles ordered its demolition, due to the, now abandoned, studio being a public danger and an eyesore. Mack himself was not initially happy with the site, and had sought out better locations in more prestigious places like Hollywood and Glendale, but the locals met him with shotguns, and ordered the low-life out of town. Movie studio indeed! Everyone was downhearted when they saw the proposed lot, upon which the only intact building was one of Chaplin’s stores, a grocery store to be precise, so old that its front was out of alignment with the road, indicating its existence prior to the current road, which was but a mere dusty track. The bungalow was in a state of disrepair, and became Mabel’s dressing room, and later that of the female players. No actors, some who had wives with them, elected to live in Edendale. Mack moved into the Athletic Club, and Mabel seems to rented her favourite accommodation, a hotel suite, further into town. Just right for a-girl-about-town. However, being a a-girl-about-town in Los Angeles was difficult for someone used to the bright lights of Manhattan, and we must suppose that Mabel made several attempts to flee back east. How she was kept there, in the Wild West, is anyone’s guess. In New York, Mabel had a legion of friends, and handsome leading men. Here she had Mack Sennett, Ford Sterling, Fred Mace, and Henri Lehrmann, the fake Frenchman. One was married and the others weren’t exactly the catch of the year. Just two blocks away was the Selig studio, a primitive place, but sporting a prestigious Spanish Mission frontage. The Keystoners, no doubt, came to be on friendly terms with that company, but unlike the Keystone, the actors and actresses were not permanently based out west, and returned frequently to the east coast. It may have been at this time, that Mabel first met Selig performers, Minta and Roscoe Arbuckle. An old friend of Mabel, was Alice Joyce, as big a star as you could get back then. We know the pair met up frequently when Alice was in town, but she was one of the first of the trans-continental stars, who filmed in Los Angeles, with Kalem in the winter, and returned east in the summer. This must have been heart-breaking for Mabel, who was one of the first, if not the first New York actress to live permanently in Los Angeles. In fact, Mabel later told of dragging herself to bed every night, and crying herself to sleep. Having escaped the dreary landscape of Staten Island, for the lights of Manhattan, she was now firmly stuck in the Californian dustbowl.

Faux-boy, Mabel, stands outside her dressing room, with the former grocery store behind her. All appears neatly manicured in this scene from 1912 (Mabel’s Adventures).

In spite of the surroundings, Keystone made a great many successful films during their first six months. Everything was crude, and dust-laden, but they got by, filming in the streets and in parks, or in the hills at the back of the lot. Keystone sits on Alessandro Street (Glendale Boulevard today) which itself sits in the bottom of a canyon or valley. During good weather this was fine, but during times of rain, the water swept off the hills, flooding the street and the studio lot. Mack Sennett told the story of Mabel crossing the street to the studio, in a rainstorm, and falling down a man-hole. The problem with this story is that there was no drainage back then, so no manholes. Indeed, there was no sewage system, and the studio relied on chamber pots. In the first days there was no electricity, the procedure being to pay the city $800, and they’d hook you up sometime in the future. Nevertheless, Keystone had electricity early on, and so, some city hall palms must have been greased. Electricity was useful for powering the six feet fans that Keystone used to add life to a scene, in a place that is often windless. Water was available from wells, which are said, by Bessie Love, to have produced some particularly soft water , entirely necessary to fill Mabel’s bath four times a day. Of course, she did not have her Cleopatran marble bath in those days, but one of those tin things that hang on the backs of doors in the Keystone films. The actors weren’t known for bathing, and it seems that Charlie Chaplin never took a bath in his entire life, according to Minta Arbuckle.

Selig Studios, utilised by Charlie and Mabel (inset) in ‘Tillie’s Punctured Romance’.

We have mentioned the Selig studio in connection with Edendale, but this location was also popular with under-funded tiny studios and labs that did not last very long. Alessandro Street was one of those they called Poverty Row. In general, any studio that was reasonably well capitalised steered clear of Edendale. Of all the possible places, Hollywood came to be the most popular. This was no Poverty Row, and its allure was increased, by the fact that the actors were accepted into the Hollywood Inn. Unfortunately, the owners did not take any nonsense from the actors, some of whom began to look elsewhere. The cheapest properties were well away from the city, at places like Santa Monica and Venice, and the least costly thing was a beach hut. Roscoe and Minta Arbuckle had a hut there by 1915, and the whole idea of beach-front properties is parodied in the film ‘Fatty and Mabel Adrift’ in which the loving couple’s dream home (or shack) close to Malibu, is swept away in a storm. Mabel does not seem to have resided at the Hollywood Inn, but rather, she took rooms in other hotels. She particularly liked the more ‘intellectual’ areas and in the early 1920s, like Mack Sennett, she moved into the bohemian area based on West Seventh Street. Very un-Mabel-like was her residence at a colonial pile on Melrose Hill, which was probably the first Hollywood mansion. However, at the end of 1915, after around 6 months, she moved out, and travelled to New York, intending it seems, to never return.

Fatty and Mabel at their beach-front house near Malibu in 1915. Those silent stars really were decadent.

By 1913, Keystone had stamped their mark on the movie landscape. Ex-circus clown, Ford Sterling, and his leading lady, Mabel Normand, were the darlings of the movie-goers. A certain Roscoe Arbuckle had arrived and was making his own form of roly-poly fun. Actresses were pouring into the lot, mainly in supporting roles, for the papers and the magazines were anointing Mabel ‘The Queen of The Movies’. She was not then ensconced in her castle, but there were no Hollywooders yet living in movie mansions. Mabel’s compatriots from Biograph were a cream rising, but Mary Pickford had yet to make her association with big-shot Adolph Zukor, that would put her name in lights. Mabel herself, was fully aware that her fame now, was based not upon her dramatic abilities, but upon nonsense, athletic prowess, and slapstick. Any promises made that she would be allowed unrestrained dramatics were clearly not being honoured. Quite likely, the film ‘Mabel’s Dramatic Career’ was designed to partially rectify this situation. Whilst not exactly a drama, it stretched out Mabel’s personality to a greater extent, and allowed her to use some of the art she’d developed under D.W. Griffith. In the film she plays the complex domestic slavey, at one moment dippy and dreamy, then insanely jealous, then violent and vengeful. Overall, she is very, very Irish in character. Importantly, Mack Sennett adds his own ending, in which he attempts to shoot Mabel and the ‘tin-type’ actor that has stolen her from him. Following the film, Charlie Chaplin arrived at the studio gate, to begin his movie career. Twice he attempted to enter the lot, but twice he walked away. It seems the inference of the ‘Dramatic Career’ ending had told on him, for Sennett had already made it clear that he did not want Chaplin anywhere near his star-of-stars. Good-looking was Charlie, but also a little bohemian, and clearly sensitive, someone who could turn a young girl’s head. By the end of 1913, and almost eighteen months into its existence, Keystone had covered just about every possible comic scenario. Towards the end of the year, they made ‘Cohen Saves The Flag’, a Civil War picture, and a mild send up of a D.W. Griffith film, with Mabel in period costume, and looking very Little Bo Peepish. The main star was Ford Sterling, who like other Keystone men, was about to depart the studio. His replacement was Charlie Chaplin.

Newly-weds Mabel and Sterling go into action, while the Mack Sennett wind fans whirl.

1914 blew in as a strange year. The studio was going strong, but the pending loss of Sterling, Lehrman, and Fred Mace could have been the thing that upset Keystone’s apple cart. On top of that it was clear that Sterling’s replacement was not popular with Sennett. Chaplin was left to languish around the studio, and he certainly had little hope of getting together with the Queen of The Movies. However, Chaplin held tight, confident that the big bosses in New York would ensure that he was put to work. Eventually, Mack had to relent, and assigned the future tramp to Henri Lehrman. However, he would get nowhere near Mabel, for Mack took her with him on a week-long location shoot, not to shoot any particular film, but merely to get location shots that could be used in future films. What Sennett had done was bring two giant egos together, and he was fully aware that the weather ahead would be stormy. Unfortunately, when he returned Chaplin was still around, and fuming at his treatment by Lehrman. However, Mack needed Charlie for some funny business in ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’, in which Chaplin adopted the tramp’s outfit for the first time. He got on well, working alongside Mabel, but Mabel seems to have blown him out after he was given the first scene practically to himself. According to Charlie, on release of the film, his first scene caused the audience to go silent and shuffle their feet. They perked up, and cheered, when Mabel reappeared, but it would be two months before the pair got together again. By the end of those two months the studio had been put into disarray. Keystone was used to fending off the new tiny comedy units that were springing up, but now one of the big boys was coming for their audience. In fact, the studio was the biggest boy in comedy – no less than Pathe itself. The Frenchies had opened a U.S. branch, Eclectic Studios, and were intent on confronting Keystone’s biggest star, head on. Why not, for what was Keystone, but a mere facsimile of Pathe? The Frenchmen’s giant star was a man, but in the U.S. they intended fielding a female, and a theatre star at that. Pearl White would play Pauline in a series of films about the adventures of a debutante, just coming out. This was different enough from the working-class Mabel, and Pauline would also be blond. However, as Mack might have told it “We was scairt!” In the event ‘The Perils of Pauline’ created its own middle-class audience, and barely touched the blue-collar followers of Keystone, most of whom would have thrown rotten tomatoes at the spoilt, upper-crust debutante.

The panic of Pauline also provided Mabel with a chance to recreate herself, and present herself in a way that she had been unable to do since those days under D.W. Griffith. She’d still be the sweet girl next door, but would also be an action girl, a kind of early Wonder-Woman. The film proposed, ‘Mabel At The Wheel’ set Mabel against a dastardly villain, who kidnaps her boyfriend, just before he’s due to drive in the Santa Monica Car Race. Mabel takes the drive, and wins the race. This was a big film, and the New York bosses wanted everyone in it. Charles Baumann personally came to Los Angeles, and put daughter Ada, in the picture. With Ada on scene, and Daddy just up the road in downtown, problems were soon put right, when Chaplin (the villain) made a fuss about Mabel limiting his slapstick gags. As Richard Attenborough has Mabel say in the film ‘Chaplin’, “Charlie, this isn’t a film about being funny with a hose.” And nor was it.

Keystone cars outside the studio in 1915.

‘Mabel At The Wheel’ went onscreen to serious applause, and the threat from false-blond Pearl White subsided. Things were looking good for Keystone, Mack Sennett and Charlie and Mabel. The two youngsters developed a mutually beneficial association, and became very close. Whether close enough to share Mabel’s aforementioned tin bath, the author is unable to say, but they spent much time together in the bungalow dressing room, discussing scripts of course. There were benefits to being linked to The Queen of Hollywood, like being introduced to the good and great of the silver screen, and it was worth the ignominy of being paraded around like a dog in a show. Mabel’s ability to start up, otherwise disabled company cars, was another benefit, utilised when they were bored with work, and fancied taking in a show in the centre of town, or a trip to the coast.

Mabel gets to play a deb.

The Mabel and Charlie films were very successful, uniquely combining Mabel’s melancholy (she had been Griffith’s resident tragedienne) and Charlie’s crazy slapstick — we might call him Ford Sterling plus-plus. However, there was a certain kind of chemistry brewing in Miss Normand’s dressing room. Scripts issuing from this building had Mabel indulging in slapstick madness, and Charlie taking on his leading lady’s melancholy. However, the subtle intonations of seemingly crazy films, like ‘Mabel’s Busy Day’, probably went over the heads of the average movie-goer, who, nonetheless, roared out loud at the madness portrayed in the picture. The level of collaboration between Charlie and Mabel, seems to have begun to tail off during the late summer. Changes were happening around the studio, and Sennett was having new thoughts about the direction of his films. In the light of what his top pair were turning out, he seems to have decided that a ‘return to basics’ was required. The Fun Factory must be fun, with no heavy dramatics and melancholy getting in the way. Possibly, it was he that intervened and rescheduled the duo with different partners. Alternatively, Charlie might have decided that his lap-dog days were over, and felt confident that he could go it alone, and become the prime mover in his pictures. His leading ladies would be subservient, but so very grateful, and Sennett was now taking on any girl that came to the gate. The King of Comedy was convinced that he did not need ready-made stars. Like his former master, D.W. Griffith, he thought he could make any actor or actress a big deal. Henceforth, nonsense and lunacy would be his watchwords. He had no intention of renewing Chaplin’s contract — in his mind, he’d created the tramp, and what he’d created he could create again (for what is the Tramp but an imitation of Mack’s scruffy film character). As for Mabel, she’d have to knuckle down, come down off her high horse, work with any actor of his choosing. Mabel, though, was not for firing. No other comedy outfit had a bona fide Griffith girl on its books, and ‘Griffith’ meant credibility down on Poverty Row.

Ragamuffin Mabel has a slight disagreement with Charlie in ‘Mabel’s Busy Day’.

The Early Days End At Keystone.

The fall of 1914 was the time for the Keystone bosses to put their hands in their very full pockets, and produce a full-blown feature film. Who would be the star? Charlie? Mabel? Arbuckle? Well, none of those actually, for not one of the bosses would risk the film on their home-spun actors. Instead, they’d go for a big theatre star, Marie Dressler. Thus it was, that the Keystone players became supporting acts in ‘Tillie’s Punctured Romance’. Chaplin later said that “the film had little merit”. He was, of course, unhappy at his ‘bad guy’ role, and even more unhappy at being minus his tramp’s outfit. Charlie realised he was on his way out of the gate, but Mabel was given quite a bit of freedom within her ‘bad girl turned paragon’ role. She formed part of the King’s later plans. By the end of 1914, Chaplin was gone, Mabel was in a non-artistic black hole, but was well paid. Marie Dressler became a part of the studio, and its publicity machine. any perils from Pauline had failed to materialise, and dissenters like Ford Sterling and Henri Lehrman had been seen off. As the King sat in his new tower office, surveying all he owned, he was smug in the fact that newbies, like Hal Roach and Buster Keaton, would never compete with him. In fact, he’d steal coming stars from rising studios, and would soon acquire the Joker Studio star, Louise Fazenda. He could never, however, get away from his old master’s model of pushing the female to the fore, but the new girls he planned to present were different to the half-starved offerings of D.W. Griffith. His new girls were robust, but sweet, and with plenty of meat on them.

Who could defeat the Bathing beauties?

What did 95-pound Mabel think about that? She’d been on a strict diet for years, in the cause of film, and soon the new crowd would take over the lot, and as the Bathing Beauties, they’d muscle into her Diving Girl image, although they never went near the water. This was a direct challenge to Mabel’s reign. Who knows, perhaps Mack would make one of them his star-of-stars? Food for thought, although Mack’s aim to make the Kops big in his films was a lesser threat. Towards the end of the year, Arbuckle made ‘Those Country Kids’ with Mabel, a film that would trigger the rash of ‘Fatty and Mabels’ the following year. However, Keystone were no longer new on the block, their presence was established, and they would soon be massively capitalised by joining, along with Griffith and Ince, the newly created Triangle distribution group. March 1915, forms the dividing line between the old dust-bowl studio, and the new, improved Keystone, when buildings, such as the new dressing room block were built, and Mabel and the actresses were forced from their bungalow, and into soul-less, well guarded cells. New actors made a bee-line for the studio, including some from the stage, like Raymond Hitchcock, life-long friend of Mabel Normand, and abject enemy of Mack Sennett. While Fatty and Mabel spun money with their country lovers pictures, Mack toyed with his Beauties and Kops. A transition was taking place at Keystone, and the full story of 1915 belongs to another time, but it was a time of viscous arguments between Mack and Mabel, Mack and Roscoe and Mack and Raymond Hitchcock, and one that would fill a book. It is sufficient to say that the year ended with Mabel “running away” (Sennett’s words) but returning as the first actress to have her name on the roof of her own studio — a personal and professional separation from the goings on in Edendale.

Mabel gets fresh with Raymond Hitchcock in 1921.

Footnote: However, Mabel was involved in more slapstick antics with Charlie Chaplin than with any other actor. It might have been that she was helping the new boy out, but this might have been just Mabel showing that she could slapstick every bit as good as the boys. In his autobiography, Sam Goldwyn, who knew them well during 1918-1921, said they had a love-hate relationship. Like an old married couple, they could neither live together, nor live apart.


When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925).

Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923).

Charles Chaplin: My autobiography by Charles Chaplin (1964).

The Dream That Came True article in Motion Picture Magazine (Dec. 1916).

From Hollywood With Love, by Bessie Love, 1977

Dreams for Sale: The Rise and Fall of the Triangle Film Corporation by Kalton C. Lahue. 1971.

The Movie Maker: Charles O. Baumann by Jillian Ada Kelly (2015).

New Year’s Eve On The Train. By Mary Pickford. Syndicated article, July 1916. 


Mae Busch and Dorothy Reid (Davenport) discuss the cardboard cut-out of Mabel, as Mickey, set up for the opening of The Mabel Normand Sound Stage in 1940.

Within the annals of the motion picture industry, there is no story that is more emotive than that of Mabel Normand, Mae Busch and the mythical vase. So emotive, and entrenched, is this story that otherwise competent researchers, have taken up the tale and made it the centrepiece of their rendering of the story of Mack and Mabel, the doomed lovers. Now within this series of articles you will find mention of Mae Busch, but no mention of any love story, or vase. The reason is that there is no evidence for either event. The classic story of the vase hinges on the Mack and Mabel love story, in which Mack and Mabel were madly in love, and engaged to marry, but Mack cheated on Mabel, and made a play for Mae Busch. Mabel went to their love nest and confronted the cheats, whereupon Mae (a close friend of Mabel) smashed a vase over her head. This occurrence is then used to explain the so-called madness of Mabel, and her later involvement in her much-publicised scandals. The first thing we can say is that no-one stops to consider that Mabel might have been a little crazy prior to the vase incident. Secondly, where is the evidence that Mack and Mabel were lovers? There is none, although there is enough evidence to say that they collaborated closely in the early days. The whole story reads like something out of a Keystone script, and furthermore, the reporting of the vase incident occurred a full seven years after the supposed event. So, what’s going on here? We need to examine the whole story bit by bit, as follows.

A reflection of reality: Mabel with ‘oldies’ Mack Sennett and Ford Sterling. ‘A Strong Revenge’ (1913).

What is The Story?

The story, or at least the love story, begins in August 1912, when the Keystone Studio was founded on a rough patch of ground, alongside Alessandro Street, Edendale, an outer suburb of Los Angeles. The few actors they had, as well as the director and sole leading lady, had come from the Biograph Studio, New York, 3,000 miles to the east. Essentially, the five middle-aged men had travelled by train for five days with the actress, aged (it was then thought) seventeen, but looking around four years younger. It was very soon, perhaps by the end of the year, that a kind of love story was emerging in relation to Mack and Mabel. Journalists began to accept that the pair were engaged to marry, although there was nothing that positively indicated that this was the case. Indeed, when Mrs D.W. Griffith began to write her seminal book on the movie industry, in 1925, she had no inkling that Mack and Mabel were amorously involved, and yet she’d been at Biograph with them. She did relate, nonetheless, that Mack tried to ‘buy’ Mabel with expensive pieces of jewellery, but implies that this was his method of getting diamond-loving Mabel onboard with the Biograph comedy and Keystone projects. In his book ‘King of Comedy’ Mack regales us with his version of the love story. His story is far from that of Mrs Griffith, and he tells us that, when he gave Mabel a two-dollar paste diamond ring from Woolworth, she was over the moon. After all, they were in love. The story is implausible, and he is trying to tell us that he was just a poor lad doing as best he could, while Mabel was something akin to her sweet and innocent Keystone Girl image, portrayed in the films. Mabel was then a star, leading lady of John Bunny and the like, and earning very reasonable money for the time. By that time, Mack was also appearing regularly in films, and making enough that he need not embarrass himself with shopping in Woolworth. Furthermore, Mabel was extremely popular with the actors, and well-used to extravagant gifts. Mrs Griffith stated the occasion when Mabel actually threw an eighty-dollar ($2,000 now) diamond bracelet back at him, indicating she did not consider this a worthwhile gift. However, there may be a little truth in the two-dollar ring story, and we have to consider Mabel’s status as a minor. Although it seems clear that Mabel was, by 1912, living in Manhattan, rather than at home on Staten Island, she would need parental permission to travel to Los Angeles. Travelling for five days on a train across a continent, with five middle-aged men, could attract the attention of the authorities, not to mention the self-styled ‘morals police’. The Mann Act made it a Federal offence to carry a female (especially a minor) across state lines for immoral purposes, which, in those days, included moving pictures. In his book, Mack states that he gave Mabel the ring on the ferry to Staten Island. He claims that they were going to announce their engagement to Mr and Mrs Normand. This could actually be true, but what if this was, in fact, part of a hoax? What if the thing that Mack and Mabel really wanted was the parents’ blessing to travel to California? This would, to some extent, prevent a problem, should some old maid ‘squeal’ on them on the journey west. This could have been the beginning of the Mack and Mabel love myth, something which they’d have to live with forever-after, much to their discomfiture.

“Keep smiling Mabel, we’re meant to be in love.” (1915 cartoon).

The Years Leading up to The Vase.

There can be little doubt that the story of the love affair persisted for another three years. During this time, though, Mabel’s name was associated with various men, all without Mack taking any great interest. However, if he took small notice of Mabel’s amorous escapades, then he was certainly aware that Mabel could be snatched away for professional reasons. He therefore had her tailed by private detectives, to make sure she was not meeting up with the ‘opposition’. As 1912 rolled into 1913, it was clear that Mabel was becoming a celebrity, and one magazine named her ‘The Queen of The Movies’. To Mack’s annoyance, Mabel began to demand more control over her pictures, and she also demanded ever-increasing pay. When Mabel’s pay reached $500 a week, Mack and his partners began to worry. The worry was put aside, briefly, when a certain actor by the name of Charles Spencer Chaplin arrived at Keystone, at the tail-end of 1913. Although Mack was initially keen to have Chaplin onboard, he seems (according to Chaplin) to have changed his mind, when he and Mabel finally met him. Now, the nature of the initial meeting is shrouded in mystery, but Chaplin does give us some clues. On the day of the meeting the three were seated in a rathskeller in downtown L.A. Mack was very cheerful, but then he looked at Chaplin with a quizzical expression on his face, and announced that Charlie was too young for his studio. Well, you could have knocked Chas down with a feather, and Mabel, silent until now, interjected, saying that he could always make up to appear older. This was, of course, true, but Mack would have none of it, and Charlie was soon dropped off outside his hotel, and Mack and Mabel drove off, both in a very sombre mood. The Charlie / Mabel relationship has, of course, been covered many times before, in these articles, but here it is suffice to say that they got on very well, after some early misunderstandings. There was some give and take between them, with Mabel giving Charlie a lot of scope for slapstick, in their joint films, while Charlie allowed Mabel unlimited tragic and melancholic stuff, which she’d learned under D.W. Griffith. The results were good, and the big bosses in New York were pleased, as was Sennett, although he intended giving Charlie the boot at the end of his contract. We must consider, though, that he was a little unhappy with the amount of dramatics in the young pair’s films.

Bathing Beauties: “They had hips.”

The Year of The Vase.

Chaplin departed at the close of 1914, and Mack had plans that did not include any drama, but greater nonsense, wriggling girls, and full-on Keystone Kops. The slightly underdressed Bathing Beauties began wobbling around the lot, offsetting Mack’s clowns. Mabel had been the original bathing beauty, but she could plainly see that the new girls were a little too meaty to ever swim successfully in the ocean. The Beauties were playing opposite the same leading men that Mabel had, and still did. Understandably, she was furious with Mack, for her very personage, her public persona, had been watered down, by the advent of the Bathing Beauties. Arguments erupted between The King of Comedy and his Star-of-Stars that could be heard clear across the lot. Presumably, Mabel made threats, like leaving, suing him for breach of promise, and everything under the sun. Mack did not waver, but stood his ground. We might construe that Mabel was now earning a tidy sum at Keystone, perhaps close to the thousand dollars a week that Chaplin was now getting, which made Sennett certain that she would not ‘walk’. The King’s response was to put Mabel into crazy short films with Roscoe Arbuckle – great pictures, but lacking the artistic touch that Mabel wanted. By the middle of 1915, the situation was becoming intolerable for Mabel, and Roscoe was not best pleased with their film’s predictable content – boy meets girl, girl and boy fall in love, boy and girl elope. In his autobiography, Mack admits that this was the situation, and he states that he’d ignored Mabel, and proposed to make it up – by marrying her! Now there could not have been many girls that wanted to be involved with Sennett, let alone marry him. Mabel was the apple of every Hollywood heart-throbs eye, so why would she bother with the clumsy

Mack gets a ‘movie’ ring on Mabel’s finger.

Mack Sennett. However, Mack insists that he named the date – 4th July 1915. How very convenient, how very (in)appropriate (US citizens will know what I mean). He goes on to say that on the eve of the wedding, Mabel caught him with Mae Busch, at some kind of love nest. In his story, Mabel screams and runs out, in a very un-Mabel like manner. The date of 4th July is popular with Sennett, presumably for its emotive impact, but the rest of his tale is somewhat insipid. It is hard to believe that Mabel, being Mabel, would simply run out screaming. A swift uppercut to one or both of them would be the more likely scenario. There is no vase mentioned here, and it is implausible to imagine that Mae would have had time to seek out a vase, let alone smash it over Mabel’s head, considering how fast the latter could move. There is, then, nothing that could help us in our quest for the legendary vase. However, The King adds that the next day Mabel failed to appear, and he heard reports that she was in hospital, critically ill with a head injury. Proof enough to substantiate the vase on the head story? No, not really, for the reports of Mabel being hospitalised arose, not in mid-Summer, but in the Fall of 1915, when it was announced that Mabel had a severe head injury and was not expected to live. The report originated with a doctor, who no journalist was able to contact. This is very fishy, for it was not unknown for actors and actresses to concoct some kind of injury story, in order to get a few days off, or sleep off a hangover from the night before. Telling the truth was reserved for the newcomers to the business, like Virginia Cherill, who famously told Charlie Chaplin that she took a day off to get her hair done. She was fired on the spot, but reinstated by Chaplin’s board of directors. With the big stars, it was a bit different – they were contracted to complete a film, a set number of films, or simply a set length of time (usually a year). Firing a star for having a week or two off, was legally perilous for a studio. There was, of course, no way of docking a contracted actor’s pay, unless they failed to complete the set work. Mabel, we know, was a master at skipping work. Later, she led Sam Goldwyn, Hal Roach and Mack Sennett a merry dance, with her non-appearances and lateness, as well as stealing company cars, for shopping trips, when she was bored. We will not list her endless excuses here, but they were many and varied. In the instance of Mabel’s head injury, Keystone published a piece in which it was stated that Mabel had been hit by a shoe, thrown during a wedding scene. The studio was struggling to understand what was happening, but they did know Mabel had been hit by a shoe. Mabel herself said that Fatty Arbuckle had sat on her head, but this was stated much later, and may refer to a different incident. In the event, Mabel returned to the studio, apparently none the worse for the injury.

Nursing a broken head. This one occurred in 1916.

Still No Vase?

Now, you might be wondering where the vase comes into all of this. Well, it is not ‘where’ but ‘when’ the vase came into all of this. You might think 1915, or, perhaps, 1916. 1917? All wrong, I’m afraid, for the answer is 1922. Students of Mabel will recognise this year, as the one in which William Desmond Taylor, close friend of Mabel, was shot dead by an unknown assassin. Briefly, it was suspected that someone Mabel knew had carried out the deed, but she remained tight-lipped. All kinds of accusations were thrown at Mabel, before she fled, first to Altadena, then to Europe. In her absence, damning newspaper articles and many books were written, based on the affair. Particularly cutting was ‘The Girl From Hollywood‘ which is just about, a scathing attack on elements of Mabel’s life. However, Mabel’s friends did not sit idly by, and replied with open letters to the newspapers. One murder suspect, early on, and forever after, was Mack Sennett, and among Mabel’s associates there was a view propagated that all Mabel’s problems were due to Sennett. Some claimed that Sennett had promised to marry Mabel, then reneged on that promise. This caused Mabel to develop mental health issues, and, according to friend and journalist, Adela Rogers St. John, she threw herself off of Venice pier, knocking herself unconscious on a timber, as she fell. However, it seems hard to believe that Mabel would do away with herself over a man, and especially Mack Sennett, who was hardly the catch of the century. So, now we come to the vase. Towards the end of 1922, a compatriot of Adela at Photo Play magazine, Ed Roberts, wrote the short book, Sins of Hollywood: An Expose of Hollywood Vice, detailing the debauchery and Romanesque goings on, down Hollywood way. Like Adela and James R. Quirk, editor and founder of Photo Play, he was on friendly terms with Mabel, and so we cannot expect that he was intent on ‘outing’ Mabel. Rather, he painted her in an innocent manner, putting the blame for her misfortune, and that of W.D. Taylor, on the no-good producers, and in particular on Mack Sennett. He told the tale of the vase, but used the names Jack, Molly and Mae. Most people would come to the conclusion that the real players in the story were Mack, Mabel and Mae. Mae, of course, wielded the legendary vase, and Molly (Mabel) received it, while Mack was the cheating fiance. The sharp-eyed will note that Mabel played Molly in the current film ‘Molly O’ and her leading man was Jack, Jack Mulhall. Mae, naturally, could be any old ‘Mae’. Those with good memories will know that Mack Sennett had some history with Mulhall, and in yet another story (supported by Sennett) he punched Jack in the jaw, when he caught him with Mabel, in her apartment. Interesting also, that Mack hurled Mabel across the room, injuring her arm, not her head.

Jack Mulhall and Mabel in ‘Molly O’.

These are the stories that have been carried forward. Adela Rogers St. John reinforced her story within the pages of her autobiography ‘Love, Laughter, and Tears: My Hollywood Story’ published in 1980. She waxed lyrically about Mabel, believing her to be an elf, born of the fairy folk. “We found her under the rose bush” Adela informs us. Another person that thought similarly of Mabel, was Minta Durfee (Arbuckle). Through the 1960s and early 1970s, she reiterated the vase story, although she admitted having no direct knowledge of the incident. Presumably, she read the story somewhere. Indeed, she told the tale of Mabel and the dolphin, that, she says, Mabel befriended in the ocean outside Minta and Roscoe’s beach house at Santa Monica. This had been reported in a newspaper, way back in 1921, although it occurred at Long Island, NY. The moral here is that we should not put any faith in stories from the distant past, as presented by aging actors, whose facility of recall has been dimmed by the passage of time, and perhaps, a little drop of the ‘gargle’. We might here add that there has been a further attempt to find some reason for Mabel’s apparent physical decline, after 1915. Many people claim that prior to this year, Mabel had been somewhat voluptuous, and full-bodied, but after 1915 she became increasingly thin. The problem with this is that there is no evidence for a buxom Mabel, during the early days. In films like ‘Oh, Those Eyes’ and ‘The Fickle Spaniard’ Mabel is very shapely, but where she wears a swimsuit, such as in ‘The Diving Girl’, she appears almost boyish. Some will argue that her rear is far from ‘boyish’ here, but there are such things as false bottoms, and Keystone were masters in their use — watch any Keystone, where someone gets kicked in the backside. False bosoms were as common as false eyelashes, and false teeth, the best examples being two of the films mentioned above, and ‘Helen’s Marriage’.

What Does It All Mean?

Although a good story, there is no evidence for any truth in the tale of the vase. The story told by Ed Roberts may in fact relate to a tussle between Mack Sennett and Jack Mulhall, although where Mae comes into it is anyone’s guess.1915 was the year of eternal battles between Mack and Mabel, and it is quite possible that an argument over Mack trying to promote another actress (perhaps Mae Busch) over Mabel, could have ended with Mabel confronting both of them, vase or no vase. However, a rush by Mabel’s legion of friends, to protect her reputation, in 1922, might have resulted in a whole mass of intertangled stories being forwarded, which are hard, or impossible, to disentangle today. Very useful have been these concoctions of fact and fiction, for they provide an explanation for the apparent madness of Miss Mabel Normand. This has been snatched up by the many lovers of Mabel, past and present, who wish to rescue her name, her memory, from eternal damnation, no matter how mad she might have been. The real truth is that Mabel was never mad. That she was ambitious, even egotistical, while at the same time altruistic and lovable, is clear from the contemporary evidence, and although she might have needed the vase, and other stories in 1922, these are hardly necessities today.


King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954)

The Girl From Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1922).

Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).

Sins of Hollywood: An Expose of Hollywood Vice by Ed Roberts (1922).

Mabel Normand: A Source Book to her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006)

When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925). maintained by Stephen Normand.

Mabel Normand’s Own Life Story by Chandler Sprague. Los Angeles Examiner (February 17, 1924)

Looking For Mabel Normand Site maintained by Marilyn Slater.

Charles Chaplin: My autobiography by Charles Chaplin (1964).

The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett by Simon Louvish (2003).

Madcap Mabel: The True Story of a Great Comedienne by Sydney Sutherland. ‘Liberty’ 1930.

Mabel Normand Says Goodbye, by James R. Quirk, Photoplay May 1930.


The King of Comedy and The Queen of The Movies.

Mack Sennett, honorary Academy Award winner, and one-time multi-millionaire, in the days when a dollar was worth a dollar. Lauded by the movie industry, was The King of Comedy, but like his Queen and Star-Of-Stars, Mabel Normand, he remains, to a large extent, a mystery. We know he was born on a farm in Canada in 1880, and that at some time, he crossed the border to Berlin in the United States. In 1907, together with a certain D.W. Griffith, he walked through the doors of the Biograph Studio, to begin his movie career. Unfortunately, between his job in an ironworks in East Berlin, and Biograph, we lose track of ‘The King’. Where was he in the intervening years, and how did he gain the grit and determination to succeed in the cut and thrust of the industry that would eventually be called Hollywood. Let’s look at what we know, and attempt to track his path.

Iron Town and Gay Town.

Berlin ( East) is an iron town in Connecticut, according to Mack Sennett. He is right, but whether he worked in the ironworks there, as he claims, is open to debate. His move to Northampton, is much easier to understand. Nowadays it has a flourishing gay community, but more about that later. Mack spins several yarns about old Northampton, including his relationship with Calvin Coolidge, then Mayor, and later, President of the United States. More believable is his attempt to become an opera singing, although being a bass, there was little demand for his services.

East Berlin Ironworks

Roscoe Arbuckle, Fatty of the Keystones, had more success, being a baritone, while Miss Mabel could sing like a nightingale, although her voice did nor project well (they say, although no recording of her voice survives today). However, what Mack actually did in Northampton is unknown. Somehow, in this place of culture he developed his persona, although it seems clear that later events and encounters gave an oppositional element to his character. Now, though, we say we do not know what Mack was doing, he does give us a few stories, or tall tales. Like many in the later Hollywood, Mack was a name-dropper, and he name-drops like crazy in these tales. There is no need to relate these myths, but he claims to have known Calvin Coolidge, and Marie Dressler, the celebrated theatrical comedienne. Marie Dressler was later to become a Sennett star, appearing first in ‘Tillies Punctured Romance’, alongside Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin. We have, of course, missed out on Mack’s time down on the farm. He spends little time in his biography on his idyllic rural life, so we must suppose it was far from elysian. In fact, he had a dislike for his country compatriots, awkward yokels and rubes, the lot of them. Many of them, were to ‘star’ in his later films, if they but knew it. The country boy was to be ridiculed, despised and used to gain cheap laughs.

The Big Apple.

Understandably, Mack began to set his eyes on New York and Broadway. He seems to have developed a taste for the arts, or at least, pseudo-arts. In Northampton, he packed up his old kit-bag and headed for the city of dreams. He knew he had to succeed, but his hopes for the legitimate stage, singing or acting, were dashed, like they were for so many out-of-town wannabes. Broadway was out of the question, but that other entertainment thoroughfare, The Bowery, remained a possibility. The Bowery had two parts – the legitimate part and the illegitimate part. The latter is truly embedded in the Lower East Side, home to gangsters, con-artists, opium smokers, pimps and their ‘girls’. Here Mack could lose himself, for now, in the low theatres of this degraded area. This is where The King really cut his teeth, although he would tell all and sundry that he learned everything in the foundry. To be honest, he probably learned more in Northampton, but his education was almost certainly topped out on The Bowery, and around about.

Little Egypt

Little Egypt and The Tale of The Pimp. 

Now, what does The King tells us about his time on The Bowery? Well, he says quite a lot – surprisingly. He tells us that he worked in a low joint, where the star act was Little Egypt, the legendary ‘dirty dancer’ of the early 1900s. What was Mack doing there? Well, he told the judge that he was playing the hind part of a horse. Judge? That’s right, he was rounded up in a police raid on the joint, and dragged to the court on a charge of something like Moral Turpitude. He claims the judge laughed so much at his story that he let our man off. A tall, Keystone story? Oh yes. Then there is the tale of the pimp, or more specifically, the knife fight with a pimp. Mack tells us that he had an argument with a pimp over a girl. Well, an argument with a pimp would be over a girl, wouldn’t it? However, Mack claims that this girl was his girlfriend, and he implies that he was rescuing her from the clutches of the evil pimp. We can surmise that the basis of this story, is in the fact that Mack had a criminal record, that could be revealed by some simple journalistic inquiry. Therefore, he is pre-empting the situation by coming clean, at least on these two incidents. There are probably more, and the reality is that Sennett was, perhaps, involved in some murky goings on, but just how murky, we cannot tell. In any event, his later propensity towards violence gives us some clues.

A Meeting With A Genius.

In 1907, two washed out, but young, actors walked into the Biograph studios at 11 East Fourteenth Street, Manhattan. One was the coming movie genius, D.W. Griffith, and the other the coming King of Comedy, Mack Sennett. For both, it was the last chance saloon, as they were, in their own particular ways, failures. Griffith was a dreamer, a spinner of Homeric tales, while Sennett was a chancer, and an opportunist. Having given up hope of making it as an actor, Griffith began to raise eyebrows with his ability to organise and direct people. Sennett started to scratch around, hoping to pick up something worthwhile. He had no particular talent, except in spotting the ways in which others hauled themselves up the ladder of success. Griffith was a guy worth studying. Mack learned that Griffith had made reasonable money, by writing plays, and so he began writing screenplays, as did another Biograph player, Mary Pickford. He therefore stood between stage-trained actress and Belasco Girl, Pickford, and aspiring genius, Griffith. He fed off each of them. Mary was a better writer than he, and also very accessible. DWG was not so accessible, but he watched the genius at work – and he observed carefully the way his legendary cameraman, Billy Bitzer, went to his work. According to Mrs Griffith in her book (When The Movies Were Young 1925) Sennett began to stake Griffith out, by hovering around the street door, at the end of the day. The genius, he knew, always walked home, so as to keep in trim but also mull things over. When he knew Griffith was about to come out, Sennett began to walk, slowly, so that Griffith would catch him up, rather than the other way round. Sennett would make a few pleasantries, and then begin to ‘grill’ the movie genius. He learned that Griffith thought the status of the moving picture would rise exponentially. There was nothing in this for the actor, but directors and producers would rise to level of kings and emperors. This was all dependent on the quality of the films. Great themes must be sought out by the makers of motion pictures, and they must be based upon the works of the greatest writers – Shakespeare, Homer, Fennimore Cooper, Dickens. Sennett would consider what he had been told, but wondered if there was a place for lighter entertainment. What about films of cops being kicked in the butt, car loads of the same driving off cliffs, and cute girls doing crazy things? Griffith found the whole thing absurd and preposterous. The future King wasn’t so sure. In France, a certain film company called Pathe, were making such movies, and they were a riot. He’d adhere to some of the Griffith roadmap, but he was convinced that crazy comedy would carve its own niche. As far as the Griffith way was concerned, he’d adhere to the great man’s notion of producing films that were visually, and technically, as good as the camera could make them. One question that Sennett had asked Griffith was why he cast girls that were sometimes less than attractive. Griffith replied “My dear Sennett, our cameras are so good now that we can make any girl appear beautiful on the screen.” Sennett took heed. In the Griffith paradigm, the female was the being around which movies were spun – Griffith had no heroes, just heroines, albeit very sweet and innocent ones. When he had his studio (and he was sure he would) he would use less than pretty actresses, girls who would be grateful and not as pretentious and egotistical, as the lot currently residing at Biograph. Unfortunately, Mack didn’t fully adhere to this paradigm, and one beautiful girl would later cause him continuous and massive headaches, although she’d also make him many millions of dollars.

Mack Sennett (C) and D.W. Griffith (R) get together with Charlie Chaplin and Tom Ince.

Getting Along.

So, Mack Sennett had the ear of a movie genius, but within the studio, he had few friends. Mack was an oddball, an outsider, and although people found him a little peculiar, they were also wary of the strange, thick-necked Irishman. His background was dubious, and the actresses thought him ‘creepy’, many refusing to work with him. Two actresses did put up with him, Mary Pickford and Griffith’s wife, stage name Linda Arvidson. Mack hovered around Mary, who in his opinion, was a lousy actress (“affected”), but she was not a little clever, and sharp with the financial stuff. Mary had a boyfriend, Owen Moore, who was not to be messed with, but the general consensus was that Mack was a homosexual, so no threat. Now, it is often said that Mack homed in on one certain actress by the name of Mabel Normand. Naturally, once he’d formulated his idea of creating a comedy studio, he made a bee-line for her. Mabel, of course, had come to Biograph, flush with success from the John Bunny comedies produced at Vitagraph. However, she was now the centre of the Biograph social scene, and penetrating the adoring circle that surrounded her was difficult for a left-footed rube, like Mack Sennett. Being so popular, with the Biograph crowd, Mabel was flippant with men, very discerning, and already collecting the mass of diamond rings from admirers, for which she later became famous. She was, naturally, laying the foundations for the way that movie stars would forever behave. Mabel could be sweet and amusing, but anyone that approached her with the wrong attitude, would be met with a torrent of abuse that would make the strongest of men cringe.

The multi-facetted Mabel: Cowgirl and baby-sitter, Diving girl, Movie star, dutiful daughter, and vamp (sort of).

Much Ado About Mabel

In the Fall of 1911, Mack had got lucky. The director of the new comedy unit fell sick, and Mack was promoted to his place. This was around the time that Mabel arrived at Biograph, and so every day it became more imperative that he secure the services of Mabel. He correctly calculated that, no matter how many clowns he had, he’d need to offset their monkey business with a leading lady. Of course, Mabel was by now involved in the Griffith dramas, and did not seem too pleased at the prospect of working in comedy with Sennett. She told the King where to get off, but Sennett used a shrewd tactic. He went to Griffith and asked him to share Mabel with him. Griffith was used to selecting actresses on a whim, and losing his great tragedienne and dark seductress, did not appeal to him. However, Griffith knew that Mack would go to the management, who would then order Mabel to work with him. Far better to keep things amicable, and agree to Mack’s demands, although he reserved the right to cast Mabel whenever he wanted. Mabel would serve Mack very well, but she always reserved a little disdain for ‘Nappy’, as she called him. Mack was now on his way, and gaining credibility for his possession of Griffith girl Mabel. An early success for Mack was ‘The Diving Girl’. It turned out that Mabel was not just a pretty face and an actress. On location in Long Island, New York State and the Jersey Shore, Mabel startled the company with her bucking bronco rides, high cliff dives, and gutsy swims through swirling rapids. Mack began to feel the possibilities were endless, and allowed himself to dream. His comedies could encompass pathos, thrilling stunts, as well western themes, love stories anon. For this, he must have Mabel.

‘Indians’ Mabel and Claire MacDowell have a cliff-side knife fight in ‘A Squaw’s Love’ 1911.

As we have seen, Mabel was difficult to approach on a one-to-one level. In breaks between filming, everyone flocked around her, and in the evenings, she disappeared, out on the town, with who knows who. For the first time, the King began to worry about where she was, and who she was meeting. Once the cameras stopped whirling, she acted as though Mack was not there. A regular supply of diamonds, of course, kept her on-side, although, when miffed, she’d throw two-thousand-dollar bracelets back at him. As far as Mabel was concerned, she was a Griffith girl, and could walk out on Mack at any time. Somehow, someway, he’d have to secure Mabel’s services, for he’d already begun negotiations with movie big-shots Kessell and Baumann, over a proposed comedy studio. He kept this secret from all of the Biograph people, but eventually he would have to tell Mabel. She would, undoubtedly, be his bargaining chip with K and B. To have control of Vitagraph Betty / Griffith girl Mabel, would impress the wise-guys. He would have to get to work on Mabel. This was going to be difficult, for Mabel did not have all of her eggs in the comedy basket. Indeed, she was with Sennett by default. Nobody knew, at the time, that a comedienne could become a star, and Mabel wanted stardom, more than money, more than diamonds. However, there was rebellion in the Biograph air, with the top actresses realising that the studio was holding them back, by nor releasing their names. They had no means of projecting their image, and in 1912, the talk among the Biograph girls, was of leaving the studio. Mabel was lucky, for she could go to the new studio, to be named Keystone, and realising she would be the only leading lady, she decided this would be a good move. Dramatic art could stand aside for the moment, as she helped build the new studio, but she must have had some promise, from Mack and Kessell and Baumann, that dramatic films would eventually come.

While the stars tuck in, Mack Sennett (left) grouches about the parlous state of the Biograph sandwiches. California, 1912.

New Yorkers in The Wild West.

Mack was a loser, a buffoon, a hopeless waster, according to Mrs Griffith, and everyone else at Biograph. Mary and Blanche tried to dissuade Mabel from taking this crazy move. To Mack’s good fortune, Mabel threw in her lot with the thick-necked Irishman, and the rest is history. Without a doubt, Mack could have made it without Mabel, although he would not have fared so well with an ‘also-ran’ actress. Mabel’s status, as a disciple of D.W. Griffith, carried some gravitas, which would soon rub off on Keystone. The multi-facetted talent of Mabel, combined with her dramatic status, made a winner of loser Sennett. A top-class actress, carrying the prestige of D.W. Griffith, at a new, makeshift studio, in the wild west — who’d have thought it? But it happened, right there in Edendale in 1912. Mack had made it, and he allowed himself a chuckle over the short-sightedness of those that had dismissed him as a cheap joke. However, life was not easy for the awkward rube from the Canadian outback. Suspicious, and with an eye out for anyone that might steal his precious treasure, Mabel, Mack never slept too well. No doubt he woke many times during the night in a cold sweat, having dreamt that another producer had stolen his Mabel away. However, he kept his star-of-stars for three years, until, after a series of damaging professional disputes, he lost Mabel to Sam Goldwyn. Mack carried on, using credible Mabel replacements, but they were not stars with the credence of his Keystone Girl. They were dyed in the wool comediennes, girls with funny faces, and slapstickers. Not one could hold her own, in the feature films the King had planned, or could pull the audiences in the way that the big drama studios, like Famous Players, could pull them. Mack would have stayed at the level of purveyor of nonsense, if he hadn’t, by good fortune, managed to prise Mabel from Goldwyn in 1921, and produce three glorious feature films, which blew the box-office figures away. The first film, ‘Molly O’, was hailed as a masterpiece that encompassed comedy, drama and melancholy, in a way that even the big guys, like Adolph Zuckor, or Louis B Mayer, could not have emulated. Mabel was the talk of the town, and Mack was its King.

A return to the Keystone Girl for Suzanna.

Unfortunately, the murder of Mabel’s friend, William Desmond Taylor, and its public outcry against the stars, caused Mabel’s new found character to be clipped back for ‘Suzanna’ which included more of the old Keystone Girl character – the innocent, scatter-witted, yet playful elf, of the previous era. This was less successful in the emerging flapper period, and it seemed that an impasse arose between Mack and Mabel. The reason, or reasons, for the impasse are many and complicated, but two stand out. Firstly, Mack was a prime suspect in the Taylor murder, and secondly, for his part, Mack had decided that Mabel was tainted by the shooting, and could not be presented onscreen in the way that he, and Mabel, wanted. Mabel departed for Europe, perhaps, in Mack’s mind, forever. Thinking he could make feature films without her, he began an epic film, featuring Phyllis Haver (a former Bathing Beauty) in the lead. The story, according to Mack, was that Phyllis failed to impress, and he pleaded, long distance (Mabel was then in New York) for his star-of-stars to come home. An alternative story is that Mabel threatened Mack with some revelations concerning the Taylor case that could put the King in the ‘chair’ if she did not get the part. Whichever was the case, Mabel returned to L.A. and made the film. This picture was, in Mabel’s eyes, her way back to the hearts of the public, although she was patently too old to play the part of a young, innocent girl lured to Hollywood. It had the desired effect, however, and the film almost matched Mabel’s most successful feature, ‘Mickey’ by making a little under 15-million dollars. The rift between actress and producer was, nonetheless, too great, and the pair parted, with no little animosity between them, it seems.

No More Mabel.

Mack soldiered on, pulling in stars and potential stars, then losing them. Marie Prevost was a home-grown star, who made it under Sennett, then promptly left to hit the top of movie tree, for a time. By 1926, Mack could see he was going to struggle, as other comedy outlets moved strongly into his territory. He planned to hark back to the past, and what better way to do that, than bringing Mabel back. Mabel was, by now, a very wealthy young lady, who had no further need for work. However, she lent Mack her ear, and in May 1926, returned, with much fanfare, to the Edendale studio, for discussions on a new picture. The whole studio went crazy. The young actors and actresses knew the legend of Mabel Normand, but they had never seen her in person. Now ‘the legend’ was coming to their studio, imparting that crumbling edifice with a new status. Ruth Taylor, then an unknown, wrote the following in her diary that was published in 1940:

May 14th. Guess who came to see us today? Mabel Normand! Why I can’t hardly believe it yet. She looked thin and has been ill, but she was all they told me around she would be. Everyone acted as though the Queen had come.”

The King did indeed parade his Queen around the lot. Unfortunately, Mack had intended that the film would simultaneously present his stars of old, including Mabel and Gloria Swanson, and inevitably they both turned him down. To Sennett’s great fury, Mabel then signed with the opposition, Hal Roach. His greatest director, F. Richard Jones, had also decamped to Roach, and Mack smelled a rat, a conspiracy. Jones would reveal the secret methods of Keystone, and if he worked with Mabel, their mode of operation would be revealed to a gleeful Hal Roach. When working together, the pair were a joy to behold, their harmony and understanding, being obvious to all bearing witness to it. One plus point, in Sennett’s view, was that Jones was Roach’s studio supervisor, and Mabel would come more in contact with screenwriter and director, Stan Laurel. Stan, thought Mack, was a dummy, a poor copy of Buster Keaton. Sadly, for Mack, Jones had more input into Mabel’s performances than he’d considered possible. Stan did little more than write Mabel’s stories, while Jones oversaw Mabel’s direction. Clever guy was Stan, for as he later attested, he learned everything from Jones. He watched him coax those subtle little facial gestures from Mabel, the ‘dumb face’ and the ‘hair scratch’ in particular. Avid Laurel and Hardy fans will know how these gags were used in the films that made the pairing and Hal Roach famous for twenty years. All three were old men, by the time the gravy train stopped. As for Mack, he gloated on the fact that Mabel’s Roach films were way below the Sennett standard. Mabel left Roach at the end of 1926, but neither Mack nor Mabel saw or spoke to each other ever again. The gulf, the chasm, between them was too great to bridge.  

The Keystone lot before it was Keystone (Middle ground-right).

What Happened to The Sennett Millions?

Mack, of course, continued on, with signing and un-signing stars, but also taking advantage of the torrent of cheap money, then flowing from the banks. By 1926, it is said that he was worth 15-million dollars. Most of this, naturally, belonged to others, but his hubris became so great that he involved himself in madcap projects like gold mining, oil drilling, and building the crazy Hollywoodland development, with its ostentatious sign. No longer content with his lumber yard of a studio, he invested heavily in a new site at Studio City, where he could undertake the making of sound pictures. The studio in Edendale was left to rot, until, like Griffith’s great Babylonian set, the City forced him to tear it down. A pile of firewood, Keystone was, but national newspapers sent journalists to watch the legendary walls fall. With reverence, they watched as the celebrated dressing room and marble bath of Miss Mabel Normand came crashing to the ground.

Overleveraged was the King of Comedy, but that was the norm all around the world, during the roaring 20s. In 1930, he attended the funeral of his Keystone Girl, but he was on a roll, and pulling in actors like Harry Langdon, W.C. Fields and Bing Crosby. He threw in his lot with distributor Adolph Zukor, of the Paramount organisation. Zuckor’s spending was also spiralling out of control — he was building luxurious movie houses, with Byzantine lobbies. When the Great Depression struck fully home in 1933, Zukor went bust, taking the financially exposed Sennett with him, his kingdom crumbling to just so much dust. And that was the end of the King of Comedy. Well, not quite, for he still had something uniquely tangible — the memory of the Keystone Girl. Although Mack’s persona was withering fast in the public’s eyes, Mabel remained beloved and unforgotten. He made several attempts over the next 20 years, to rebuild his career on the back of Mabel’s memory. Over the same 20 years, Mack received awards for his contribution to the early film industry, and it was expedient for him to acknowledge Mabel’s contribution to his success. The new owners of his studio, Republic, were looking for a big film in which showcase their comedy star, Judy Canova. Mack suggested

Abandoned, but not forgotten.

a remake of Mabel’s ‘Sis Hopkins’, which was ideal for the gangly, country gal, Judy. The former king further supplied a 300-pound bronze plaque in memory of Mabel to hang in the stage building, which Republic dedicated to her. At a celebration party, that a thousand former and present stars attended, the stage was formerly dedicated. Mack’s name as well as Mabel’s continued to be held in esteem through the 1940s. In 1949, Mack thought it was time to act, in order to revitalise his career. He submitted a script to Paramount, entitled ‘The Keystone Girl’ with which he hoped to make a comeback. In spite of Adolph Zukor causing Mack’s demise, fifteen years back, he knew that Zukor had been on friendly terms with Mabel, and he would be only too glad to make the picture. Unfortunately, Zukor’s power at Paramount was waning, and other members of the board were not keen on bolstering up old man Sennett, in a film dedicated to extending his ego. That the film was about Sennett, can be deduced from Betty Grable’s refusing to take the role of Mabel Normand, on the grounds that the part was “miniscule.” While Zukor tried to get Mary Pickford to take the film’s lead, the Paramount executives took onboard another script, called ‘Sunset Boulevard’. The script harked back to the days of the silent era, and highlighted the extravagances and misdeeds of its stars. The script was harmless enough, but the director, Billy Wilder, thought to give the film more bite, by homing in on one star, Mabel Normand, whose name is mentioned twice (some say three) times in the picture. Zukor was not best pleased with Wilder, but Louis B. Mayer went crazy when he watched the premiere. The hinge point of the film was his own professional relationship with Mabel, during 1928. Curiously, his part was played by producer Cecil B. DeMille. In any event this most disreputable of films brought eternal damnation for Mabel Normand, whose name could never, for all time, be uttered in polite society. Mabel’s name is missing from the silent movie documentaries of the 1950s and 1960s, but Mack clung on, although his enthusiasm for Mabel was clearly waning. He decided to write a book of his exploits, and appeared as the subject, in 1954, on the ‘This Is Your Life’ T.V. show, while still writing the book. Mabel was barely mentioned, until Jack Mulhall, leading man for ‘Molly O’, was ushered in. Mulhall and Sennett, of course had some ‘previous’ when they were involved in a fist fight over Mabel. Mack was tempted to make a run for it, but stayed to hear Jack say:

“Mack Sennett, I want to thank for choosing me, of all the leading men in Hollywood, to play alongside Mabel Normand, of beloved memory, in Molly O.”

Who knows, perhaps it was Jack that gave Mack the idea of basing his book around Mabel Normand. In the event, the book contained no secrets about Mack or Mabel’s life. However, the book and his T.V. appearances alerted the Income Tax authorities, who began to investigate his finances, believing Mack had hidden wealth. In 1955, an investigation was carried out on the KIng. He was found to be broke, and living on a stipend from a movie industry charity. His suite in the Roosevelt Hotel turned out to be a small room, sans balcony. Now an old man with a paunch and a crew cut, the the final curtain was about to fall on his life. However, he was ready with another Mabel story, a musical this time. Time, though, was running out, and Mack’s mind was going. His friends directed him, in a state of protestation, to a sanitorium, then an old folk’s home, where he finally died aged eighty in 1960. Phyllis Havers, the girl Mabel had taken the role of the Extra Girl from, took her own life ten days later. An interesting postscript is that, a decade after his death, a musical play called ‘Mack and Mabel’ appeared on Broadway. Mack would have heartily approved, as it perpetuated his myth of Mack, the King of the Movies, and Mabel, the scatter-witted broad that he made a star. Mabel would have viewed it the other way round.

1960 and Mack reminisces over the girl he lost.


Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923).

Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap by Timothy Dean Lefler (2016).

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925).

Charles Chaplin: My autobiography by Charles Chaplin (1964).

The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett by Simon Louvish (2003).

The Dream That Came True in Motion Picture Magazine (Dec. 1916).

The Movie Maker: Charles O. Baumann by Jillian Ada Kelly (2015).

Personalities I Have Met: Mabel Normand. By Mary Pickford. Syndicated article, July 1916. 

New Year’s Eve On The Train. By Mary Pickford. Syndicated article, July 1916. 


Did you know?

Just about John Wayne’s earliest public duty was at the opening of the Mabel Normand Sound Stage, Republic Studios, Christmas 1940. He was filmed clowning around with Fatty and Mabel’s ‘Simple Life’ farmyard hand-pump.

Over a thousand current and former actors attended the event, and its attendant party, including Laurel and Hardy star Mae Busch, and the very modish Dorothy Davenport, silent actress and wife of the late Wallace Reid. Others included Mack Sennett, Keystone cops, such as Chester Conklin, but also Gabby Hayes, Minta Arbuckle, Louise Fazenda, and Mabel’s comedy successor, Judy Canova.

Left: Unveiling the Mabel Normand plaque. Rgt: John Wayne and Ann Miller fight for Mabel’s handpump.

Mabel is said to have been born in Provident Rhode Island, although, like many of the acting fraternity, she had no birth certificate. Rhode Island laid claim to Mabel, but Long and Staten Islands also claimed her as their own. Staten Island was where Mabel grew up, but Long Island had been her movie-days playground, where she shot several films, including the seminal ‘Diving Girl’ for Biograph Studios. The story of Mabel playing with a dolphin, originated from an event in Long Island Sound, reported in 1920, although Minta Arbuckle was later to say it occurred in the sea, outside her Santa Monica beach front property.

As far as we know, Mabel was first employed as an artist’s model, from the age of fourteen, working for men such as Charles Dana Gibson, James Montgomery Flack, and other well-known commercial artists. It was in modelling that Mabel met Alice Joyce and Anna Q. Nilsson, both of whom became stars of the later Hollywood. In fact, Alice was one of the earliest U.S. stars, having worked for the Kalem Studio, from around 1908. Alice and Mabel remained life-long friends, and was, it seems, the only one of her daughter’s friends accepted by Mabel’s mother (the others must have been pretty bad) Mabel earned $1.50 for every three hour sitting (or standing) she did for the artists. She said she did two per day, although she sometimes skipped lunch to pose for a photographic company. Though Mabel claimed that she went home every night (by ferry, foot and subway) Mrs D.W. Griffith, in her book of 1925, claims that most out-of-town actors and posers found shared digs in Manhattan. The journey to and from Staten Island was just too tedious.

Gibson Girl Mabel.

Working for Gibson, made Mabel one the famous and select band called ‘Gibson Girls’. However, in her time, she was also a Biograph Girl, Vitagraph Betty, Biograph and Keystone Mabel, a Goldwyn Girl, and a Sennett Girl. We might also say she was a Roach Girl, although Hal Roach would disagree, as she caused chaos at his male-oriented studio. “She was the dirtiest talking girl you ever heard” Said the shocked Irishman. Mabel referred to Roach as “That thick-necked Mick.” Additionally, we might say she was a Mabel Normand Girl, for in 1916 she worked for the Mabel Normand Feature Film Co.

Mabel never worked for a studio based in Hollywood, although she was known as the Queen of Hollywood, as well as the Queen of Movies. The nearest she got to Hollywood (a small L.A. suburb) was at the Mabel Normand Studio, in modern-day Silverlake, just outside East Hollywood.

The Mabel Normand Studio was around 200 yards from the Hollywood Fine Arts Studio of her old director, D.W. Griffith. Presumably, the ‘genius’ had a small fit when he saw Mabel’s name go up over her studio. His wife reported that he’d almost collapsed when he saw that old friend, Harriet Quimby, had ‘made it’ as a screenwriter and acclaimed female aircraft pilot.

The Fountain Ave studio, home of the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company

To Mrs Griffith also, we owe the information that the other actresses at Biograph, not only adored Mabel, they actually wanted to be her! Mrs G tells the story that, in L.A. in 1913, Dorothy Gish and Gertrude Bambrick skipped their chaperones, bared their midriffs, and hit the night spots, Mabel Normand-style. It took Mr Griffith and Del Henderson several hours to round the pair up. According to Mrs G, it was on the Jersey shore and in far out Cuddebackville, that Mabel first turned heads with her horse-riding and cliff-diving skills. Her high board diving was perfected in Huntington, Long Island, where she did long graceful dives and high scary ones for the film ‘The Diving Girl’. In 1916, Mary Pickford said this of Mabel:

There was no cliff so high that Mabel was afraid of it, no water so deep that she would not dive into it, and no bucking bronco too wild that she would not ride it”.

The legend, then, of Mabel Normand, began not with film-goers, but with her fellow actors. Again, in 1916, Mary Pickford related how Mabel came to Biograph studio, very shy and ‘hiding’ behind her Gibson Girl quiff, although this seems like writer’s licence. Instantly, Mary recognised Mabel as a ‘type’ with her long eyelashes, and dark looks. She immediately ran for Mr Griffith, who just as immediately recognized the tragedienne in her, and he assumed she could effectively play a ‘bad girl’. Here’s what Mary said about Mabel playing Melpomene, or Eris, to her Venus:

“She played the flashing-eyed creature of temperament whose very looks were stilletos in your heart, and whose movements undulated like a snake crawling through the brush. The thousands that have laughed with her on the screen in the last few years of her comedy, have forgotten her, perhaps, as a heavy woman.”

Being dark, Griffith also cast her as a ‘vamp’ which role always amused Mabel, as she was, in reality, a most accomplished seductress, against whose wiles, Odysseus himself would have needed to be tied permanently to his mast head. Mary found her ‘different’ to other girls, but adored her nonetheless. There was no animosity between them, although they moved in different circles. Mabel was, of course, the social centre of Hollywood, the inventor of the wild party, and a good-time girl. The pair rarely lived further than half-a-mile apart, but equally rarely, met socially, due to Mary preferring the quiet life, dusting and polishing the hallowed halls of Pickfair, rather than partying down in Hollywood, among the maddening crowd.

Believe it or not, Mabel is playing a vamp here. 1911.

As we have seen, Mabel was a good-time girl, and as such, never thought to buy a house and settle down. Like many Hollywooders, she held the view that she would not be in L.A. forever. Inevitably, the film industry would rebound to New York, or Europe would become the place to be. Mabel’s favourite residence was a hotel suite, as she was not domestically inclined, and hotels provided all the necessary services. However, she did, in 1915, briefly have a monster movie mansion out on Melrose Hill, the first star to possess such a residence. She soon gave it up, as being unsuitable for a good-time girl. Unfortunately, by the mid-1920s the lack of firm roots for the movie stars led to them being pilloried by the press, and Mabel finally bought her Beverly Hills movie mansion in 1925. However, she immediately departed for a nation-wide stage tour, and if the show had made it to Broadway, it is doubtful that she would have been seen in Los Angeles again. Mabel, by the way, bought her parents a Gothic pile on Staten Island in 1920. The houses cost $20,000 apiece, and while Mabel was on tour it was Barbara La Marr that occupied the Beverly Hills mansion. Mabel’s most well-known residence was 1089 West Seventh Street, L.A. Well-known, because in 1922, following the Taylor shooting, the press released the address, leading to a ten-deep throng of ‘rubber-neckers’ around the building. Sennett sent men, armed with baseball bats and firearms, to guard the place, but eventually set Mabel up Altadena.

Mabel departed L.A. for the Triangle studios, Fort Lee, New Jersey, at Christmas 1915, intending, perhaps, to never return, which might explain her leaving the Melrose Hill residence. She was drawn back to California by the offer of her own studio on Fountain Avenue, Silverlake, where she was contracted to The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, under the umbrella of Triangle. It was here that Mabel produced her greatest film, ‘Mickey’ that was not released until 1918. The studio encompassed 25,000 square feet, and had her name emblazoned on the roof in five feet high letters. The building stood (and still does stand) just 200 yards from her mentor, D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts’ studio (now gone). What he said, or thought, when Mabel’s name boards went up is not recorded, although we’d like to think he collapsed, saying “The cow’s made it.” Cow was Griffith’s ‘affectionate’ term for a woman.

Mabel lives on in her Fountain Avenue Studio.

Well known is Mabel’s scandal of 1922, involving William Desmond Taylor. She was then filming ‘Suzanna’ and after completing the picture, she sailed off to Europe. In London, she kept a low(ish) profile, due to news of the Taylor scandal spreading worldwide. The intention was to explore the possibility of working in the British film industry, and she met various studio executives, staying with several movie actors, and one Lord of the Realm. While in London, she visited the slums of that city, at the recommendation of Charlie Chaplin. Unfortunately, she was recognised every place she went, and was nearly trampled to death in the rush at an East End pub, and a Chinese cafe in Limehouse. In France, she met up with her current boyfriend, Prince Ibrahim of Egypt, becoming the only movie star to have her own personal Sheik (sheiks being popularised by Valentino’s film of 1921). They toured France together, and Mabel seems to have enjoyed spending the Sheik’s money at the gaming tables in Monte Carlo and the horse race track in Deauville. They visited Germany and Italy, before the Prince was called back to Egypt by his King, who’d heard he was about to marry a scumbag Hollywood actress. Mabel returned to Britain, and seemingly, signed a letter of intent with a London studio, before sailing back to the U.S. She never returned.

Cars were synonymous with the name Mabel Normand, back in the day. She was termed the Champion Driver, although it’s doubtful that she ever drove on a racetrack. Her first car was a Marion in 1912, although like many she hankered for a Pierce-Arrow, the most luxurious automobile available at that time. Later, she acquired the desirable Packard Twin-Six (V12), but seems to have had a Rolls Royce for a time. The famous photo of Mabel sitting in a cyclecar was shot for publicity reasons. A cycle car is a four-wheeler constructed from motorcycle components, including the engine, often of Harley-Davidson origin.

Life’s good when you have a Beverly Hills mansion and a Packard V12 (chauffeur-driven, of course).
Life’s even better when you have a ‘Roller’.

Mabel was famous in her time, for her extravagant dressing rooms, and marble ‘Cleopatra’ bath. However, in the early Keystone studio, she had the front part of a bungalow for a dressing room. The rear part was the dressing room for the other actresses, but the interconnecting door was always open, so that the actresses were spread all over the bungalow. The story goes that the door was only closed when Charlie Chaplin visited, but no, he wasn’t using her marble bath, as he never (it is said) had a wash of any kind. In any case, Mabel only had one of those tin things back in the day. Other tin things were the chamber pots the Keystoners used, for there were no flushing toilets at Sennett’s ramshackle studio, in the early days. The public, of course, never knew that Keystone was a ramshackle affair, as Sennett always used footage of posh buildings downtown, for his representations of the studio, which, in reality, had the appearance a derelict lumber yard.

Mabel’s bathtub during demolition.

Keystone, in the very early days, was an odd place, for the studio had several leading men, but only one leading lady. “Beauty and the Beasts” Chaplin termed it. It’s location, in a semi-derelict suburb of L.A. was not, unsurprisingly, what Sennett wanted. He tried both Glendale and Hollywood, but the residents refused to sell him land, as soon as they learned the low nature of his business. Hollywood,. the village, was later bought out piecemeal, by the bigger studios.

This article has been a short round-up of some interesting facts concerning Mabel Normand. The sum total of available facts would fill several volumes, and so we will leave it there.


Mabel Normand: A Source Book to her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006)

Meet The Stars: The Dedication of The Mabel Normand Soundstage 1940. Video included in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol.1. Blu-Ray by Flicker Alley.

Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923).

Personalities I Have Met: Mabel Normand. By Mary Pickford. Syndicated article, July 1916. 

New Year’s Eve On The Train. By Mary Pickford. Syndicated article, July 1916. 

Mabel Normand:

When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925).

Mabel Normand’s Own Life Story by Chandler Sprague. Los Angeles Examiner (February 17, 1924)

SLHC Interview with Jesse Rogg of Mack Sennett Studios 12/17/2014: YouTube video.

Charles Chaplin: My autobiography by Charles Chaplin (1964).

The Dream That Came True in Motion Picture Magazine (Dec. 1916).


Mabel makes like a film-star at the premiere of ‘Molly O’ in 1921

There are several different versions of the entity that was Mabel Normand. We can quickly summarise two of them. The first one has its origins in the press of the 1920s. In a nutshell, following the murder of W.D. Taylor and the shooting of Courtland Dines, after which the newspapers labelled her a monster, totally at variance with the Mabel portrayed in her films. Complicit in projecting Mabel to the highest level, were her friends in the media, from around late 1912. Later they would jump to her defence, following the scandals of 1922 onwards, but they would also carry the Hollywood crowd with them, and give the Hollywooders folio space in which to make their points of view. To sum up, people either thought Mabel was a reincarnation of Lucretia Borgia, or an innocent elf, born of the fairy folk. Both views are clearly extreme, and there must be a way to reconcile them. In this article we try to uncover the real Mabel, who must have been very ambitious and determined in order to get where she was in the cut-throat movie business. This does not mean that she got on by shooting people, but she was no paragon either, although it was possible for individuals to believe she had elf-like qualities. Implicit in this, is the notion that Mabel ‘made herself’, a unique individual, who at a time when the concept of the movie-star was unknown, managed to establish exactly what a star was, and how such a being should behave.

Snug Harbour Old Seaman’s Home.

In The Beginning.

In a previous article, we saw that Mabel’s early years are a mystery to us. She first crops up as a model posing for commercial artists, like Charles Dana Gibson, in central Manhattan. She appears to have been just a girl trying to make out, but her association with her father’s small theatre at the Snug Harbour ‘Home For Old Seaman’ on Staten Island, suggests that she might have had leanings towards a stage career. Probably, she began modelling in 1906 or 1907, where she met with two older girls, Anna Q. Nilsonn and Alice Joyce, who, by separate routes, had become worldly wise and confident in themselves. They were different to Mabel, both in height and appearance. Whereas, Mabel was not very tall (just 5 feet in height) and appeared very young and innocent, Anna and Alice, as we have said before, were taller, more sophisticated, with the air of the ‘vamp’ about them. Undoubtedly, Mabel looked up to them, in the same way that the later stars of Hollywood would look up to her. Inevitably, the young Mabel would take social cues from the older pair, although in later interviews she would never admit to feeling inferior to anyone. In all probability, Alice, Mabel, and perhaps Anna too, took lodgings together in Manhattan – a normal practice for out-of-city girls. Their dreams, undoubtedly, were to get onto the stage, although none had any real theatrical experience, except for Anna, who’d been a dancer with the Follie Begere in Paris. When Alice got work with the Kalem Motion Picture Company, an easier move than the stage for a teenager, Mabel decided to try the flickers herself. Unfortunately, by the time Mabel arrived at the studio, Alice had moved up the ranks to the rank of the incipient star. Along with Florence Lawrence, Alice was one of the earliest U.S. actresses that we might call a movie-star. Mabel had missed the boat to stardom at Kalem, and spent her time dressed as a Puritan, being chased uphill and down dale, by savage Indians. Eventually, she tired of extra work, and returned to modelling. All was not lost, though, for Mabel had learned much about the movie business at Kalem. Alice had become an accomplished horse-rider, and was no stranger to westerns, so we can imagine that Mabel’s later equestrian abilities, so lauded later by the Biograph people, were acquired at this time. It was obvious that Alice’s success had been based on a wide-ranging skill set – a mere pretty face meant little in westerns. Handling guns was another skill that was useful, but at some time, Mabel learned that swimming and diving were attributes to be prized, as indicated by the attention paid by the newspapers to high level, sporting females.

Florence Lawrence (rgt). Her reign was but brief.

Eventually, Mabel decided to try her luck at D.W. Griffith’s Biograph studio on East Fourteenth Street. The Alice Joyce of Biograph, though, was the legendary Florence Lawrence, another girl schooled in western arts, but also in music, dancing and looking pretty. Mabel maintained that her first Griffith picture starred Florence Lawrence, but it is certain that Flo’ had left by the time Mabel arrived. Perhaps, that is why Mabel went to Biograph, suspecting that no big stars were in residence (we use the term ‘stars’ advisedly, as there were no mega-stars in those days). However, Mabel soon realised that the competition was fierce, with the established actresses including Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet and Florence LeBadie. It was fortunate, then, that D.W. Griffith ran a ‘democratic’ studio, where everyone would get their day in the sun. Griffith was not really democratic, but wanted to prevent his players becoming too swollen in the cranial area. Mary and co, therefore, resented new people coming in, but Mabel soon became very popular by her vivacious personality, and the following story doing the rounds, convinced her that popularity among peers was a good thing. Miss Lawrence had not been a magnanimous starlet, the story went, and breezed around like a queen, treating the other actresses like so much peasantry. Eventually, she thought the world revolved around her, and offered her services to another studio, liberally criticising Biograph in the same letter. The company was, like Biograph, part of the Edison Trust, the members of which did not poach other member’s actors. Miss Lawrence was immediately ‘let go’. This tale gave Mabel a notion as to how far to go in her dealings with the studios, and that she should always appear loyal, even when plotting a decamp. Although Mabel forever claimed to have had great respect for Florence Lawrence, at least as an actress, we might suspect that if Mabel wanted to follow anyone, it was the great stage star Lillian Russell. When Mabel had been young, the only stars were on the stage, and Lillian was the greatest of them all. A great actress was Lillian, but her private life probably appealed to young Mabel. In real life, Mabel had probably seen her alighting from her carriage on opening night, and sweeping into the theatre, in all her Parisian finery. Outside of the theatre, Lillian was associated with the greatest of men, and had a decades long affair with none other than Diamond Jim Brady. “That” Thought Mabel “Is who I want to be – Lillian Russell.”

Step aside Lillian Russell.

Putting on the Style.

Mabel’s first stint at Biograph did not last long, perhaps a mere two or three months. Only part way through her training, the company departed for the Golden State, leaving all but the stage-trained actresses behind. An enquiry at the Vitagraph secured her a place at the Quaker-run studio, into which Mabel blew, like a storm. She was now supremely confident, at least in the social area, if not quite there in the professional field – yet. Accounts from those in residence at the time, like Constance Talmadge, suggest a lively, animated and spirited girl, who quickly ingratiated herself with everybody. The stage-mothers, that abounded in every studio in those days, also adored Mabel, but viewed her with some circumspection. Mabel had no stage-mother, was a girl on the loose, and where had she been, what had she done? Could she corrupt her girls? Mama Talmadge warned the girls not to ape Mabel’s ways. She was out of control, and would most surely come unstuck. Nonetheless, it was Norma Talmadge that became Mabel’s greatest friend, although Connie was more cautious, and, of course, Natalie had no views of her own. Norma and Mabel became the terrors of the studio, as Mabel and the young Jack Pickford had been at Biograph. Mabel certainly drew the men, but as Charlie Chaplin later said “She was one of the lads, an all-round good fellow” indicating there was another inscrutable aspect to her character. One man that certainly noticed Mabel, was comedian John Bunny, then at the top of his game. He saw that she was just the vivacious girl that he needed for his comedies. He especially noted that Mabel was never serious, always playful, and would complement, or offset, his own character. In this way, Mabel hit the screens fully formed, as a complete star. The girl she played, Betty, was as close as we might ever get to the real Mabel, the later Keystone Girl having many additional features, which made her not a little complex and confusing. It seems, however, that Mabel overacted to her new found fame, and developed a little hubris, which the Quaker owners found disturbing. In particular, they were disturbed about her bouts of unladylike behaviour and language. It is not known what she said, when they fired her, but she no doubt unleashed a torrent of unholy invective, against her accusers. Being Catholic, she cared not for what Quakers thought. Elsewhere Mabel had been noticed on the screen by her old Biograph chums, and everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Alice Joyce, and Stan Laurel. Mabel was just wonderful.

Mabel with Norma and Constance Talmadge.

If you’d have asked Mabel if she was downhearted, she would have used a Chaplinism in reply. “Downhearted? I should jolly well say not!” Consequently, she set out to trek to the very top, although at that time there was no ‘top’. However, Mabel proposed to make her own ‘top’, and be the Lillian Russell of the movies. A good move at the time, would be to get a place at the Reliance studio, run by forward-thinking big-shots, Kessell and Baumann. Whether her bad-girl reputation went before her, we do not know, but the director down there fired her within two hours. Just for the record the director was Hal Reid, father of Wally, and he did not approve of Mabel’s studio antics. However, the Biograph company had returned, and D.W. Griffith gladly welcomed her back. Mabel’s reputation was high, and a group soon formed around her. Waiting in the wings was a left-footed country boy, Mack Sennett, who’d seen Mabel perform out on a Los Angeles screen. He was also close to being made comedy director at Biograph, and knew he had to have Mabel, Bunny’s Princess of Comedy. Approaching Mabel was almost an impossibility for a rube like Sennett. The men on her arm were the future Hollywood heart-throbs, like Jack Pickford and, soon to be married, Owen Moore. Mack was outside the circle, and could not buy his way in, as he was a cheapskate, who’d never, ‘tis said, bought a girl a milkshake. Mabel, though, was of such importance that he thrust his hand deep into his pocket. He began to shower Mabel with diamonds, and better ones than the huge number she received from other admirers. Mack now approached Griffith, who was casting Mabel in tragic roles, and asked him to share Mabel with him for comedies. Griffith agreed, although Mabel was not too enamoured with the idea. She made sure that she knew about every new drama role that came up. Mack, for his part, tried to keep a grip on his prize, and when things became bad between them, he presented Mabel with a $75 diamond bracelet. Mabel threw it back at him – the first and only time she turned down jewellery. Mack sold it on for $85. Here she surpassed Lillian Russell, who never turned anything down. Mabel was developing her own personality, with a reputation for being fiercely independent and a fool to no-one. It was this trait that appealed to the other young actresses, whose mothers decided their futures, and eventually married them off. Mabel had no stage-mother, no regular boyfriend, but still made her way through life. Her dealings with movie-genius Griffith, were an art to be admired. Griffith was an awkward taskmaster, but Mabel seems to have had the measure of the guy, and consequently, never had any serious issues with ‘the genius’. Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet and Dorothy Gish did have issues, which Griffith solved by throwing them at a wall, or kneeing them off the stage. The stage mothers did not come out against Griffith, as it was against their financial interest to do so. Their girls were at fault, and particularly Dorothy, who called Griffith “a hook-nosed kike” to his face. The term she used might have come initially from Mabel herself, and Dotty was an ardent follower of Mabel.

L: Mack Sennett and co. trying the Biograph sandwiches Rgt: Mabel’s new job. Los Angeles 1912.

We have seen that, by design, or otherwise, Mabel had acquired some traits that other actresses found desirable, or creditable. She was, however, in the Fall of 1911, still a little raw, around the edges, but we might conclude that she was smoothed out, and stretched, by contact with an occasional visitor to the Biograph, by the name of Harriett Quimby, the famous screen-writer, girl aviator, and lauded public figure. Now, Harriett had been a friend of Mr and Mrs Griffith, out west, in the days when a good meal was a luxury. Later, in the east, when Griffith was a struggling stage actor, Harriett hit the headlines, and became a favourite of the movie world. Mrs Griffith told the tale, in her memoirs, of how Harriett came to their crumbling flat in New York, from where they watched her step, all furs and jewels, out of her luxury Pierce-Arrow car, bright red with white seats. She was accompanied by two doting men, who would undoubtedly have carried her train, if she’d had one. When she left, the Griffith’s watched her go, and D.W. collapsed in a chair, muttering “She’s a success.” We might conclude that, although every girl at Biograph wished to be Mabel, she wanted to be, not just Lillian Russell, but Harriett Quimby. In 1912, Mabel made the film ‘A Dash Through The Clouds’ which was sort of a tribute to Harriett, and made just after she’d flown the English Channel – the first woman to do so. Unfortunately, Harriett was killed in an aircraft accident over Boston harbour, but not before she’d appeared in the Griffith film “White Lines On A Sullen Sea.” By New Year’s Eve 1911, when the Biograph company rolled west for Los Angeles, Mabel was just about the rounded professional, but also a ‘good fellow’. She had the privilege of working in both comedy and tragedy, and, quite frankly, she could be forgiven for thinking the world was her oyster. On that New Year’s Eve night there was some over-zealous revelry, according to Mary Pickford. We might suspect that Mabel played a leading part of that revelry, with Blanche Sweet (filmdom’s first platinum blond) saying that Mabel was, shall we say, keen to corrupt the other girls on that 5-day journey. By corrupt, she meant introducing them to booze, cigarettes, foul language and dirty jokes.

Harriett Quimby in ‘Lines of White on A Sullen Sea’ 1911.

Out in Los Angeles, Mabel seems to have skipped her chaperones, and moved in with someone else. Many have wondered if she was shacked-up with an actor, but we know Alice Joyce was in L.A. at the time, and also on a workation, so it is likely that she shared rooms with Alice. Naturally, Mabel continued to create herself, continued to amaze with her daring feats, and became the tragedienne per excellence, alongside a somewhat lacklustre Mary Pickford in ‘The Mender of Nets’. She was becoming more fiercely independent, and was also adopting the mantra of a suffragette. Already, Mack Sennett had told her that he had hopes of forming a new comedy studio with Kessell and Baumann. Mack met with them secretly at the Alexandria Hotel, downtown, and we might suppose that Mabel came along. Mabel, we must construe, was a necessity, and a key to success to negotiations with the wise-guys. There has to be a female in a comedy, and Mabel was the best in the business. Just as important was her status as a Griffith Girl – Mabel was no dumb broad that had just walked in off the street. Canny was Mabel, for she never revealed any interest she might have had in the project. It was left to Sennett to persuade her – no Mabel, no studio. The Biograph films, drama and comedy, were a great success, so much so that Mabel would have been foolish to leave the studio. However, Mack had a few months to get to work on Mabel.

Mack vs Mabel.

The established Biograph actresses were soon to learn that their positions at Biograph were not assured. Griffith thought them to be arrogant and smug, so that when Mary refused a leading role in ’Man’s Genesis’ because it meant wearing a grass skirt, Griffith was far from amused. Rather than pass this one on to the equally arrogant Mabel or Blanche, he gave it to the new, and untrained, Mae Marsh. The part was highly suited to Mabel, as the film was almost a tragedy, and she was furious. The proto-stars got their heads together, and decided that Biograph no longer fitted the bill, and they all agreed to leave, as soon as possible. Many new, more vigorous studios were springing up. However, when Mae got the lead in the next big picture, ‘The Sands of Dee’ the trio blackballed her – not on the professional side, but on the social side. She was never accepted into the later Hollywood social scene. Mabel now bared her teeth, and knew that she needed a studio, where her position was unassailable. Mack made her many promises that her roles would encompass drama, together with a little tragedy, and she would be the main leading lady. Mabel seems to have got on well with Charlie Baumann’s daughter, Ada, a lively girl like Mabel, and so it was a no-brainer to throw in her lot with the new studio, to be called Keystone. Mary and Blanche were appalled. Sennett was a loser, a buffoon, and Mabel would soon find herself in trouble. Eventually, Mary left too, but Blanche stayed on, either because she was afraid to leave, or that her stage-mother kept her chained to Griffith. It is interesting that Mabel zoomed to stardom at Keystone, while Mary had to wait two years, until Adolph Zukor put her name up in lights.

Mabel in her ‘cyclecar’ (1914) and, as she probably preferred, chauffeur-driven in D.W. Griffith’s Pierce-Arrow (1911).

Keystone 1912 on.

At the Keystone company, initially in New York, Mabel was fully formed, although others would add the finishing touches to her screen aura, and public image. In Sennett’s eyes, Mabel would not be just a scatter-witted girl, led a merry chase by his Kops and clowns. These were ‘modern times,’ and Mabel also had to be bright and modern. They made her a demon driver and a devil of an aviator, implying that machines made the girl. This, of course, was a new concept, and the press was keen to plug the idea of a thoroughly modern Mabel. In late 1913, they dubbed her The Queen of The Movies, which was quite a burden for a young girl to carry. At every step of the way, there was an increasing level of fan mail, all of which had to be dealt with by the recipient. The climb upwards, nevertheless, was unrelenting, and Mabel was no longer inventing herself. It was as though she brought along the real Mabel, and others filled the rest in. In keeping ahead of the game, there was a need for every actress to reinvent herself. Between 1917 and the 1920, Mabel acquired the following:

A passion for high-brow books.

An aristocratic mode of speaking.

A very political stance on war and women’s emancipation.

Appearing to be intellectually-inclined was merely a means of fending off accusations that she and other actors were illiterate. Mabel was one of the first to drop her ‘sing-songy’ Brooklyn accent, and adopt one that was more redolent of old London town, rather than New York City. By 1920, many film studios were sending their actresses to old English school ma’ams, for elocution lessons that would eradicate their mid-western ‘covered wagon’ accents – entirely necessary, when they spoke at public functions. Mabel, it seems, was always ‘politically aware’. Constance Talmadge noted that Mabel raged against the authorities, when a hundred girls died in a New York sweat shop inferno, named ‘The Waist Shirt Fire’ in 1911. Later she would bring her politics to the fore, leading a campaign against the U.S. involvement in the Great war of 1914 – 1918. The call was ‘Don’t wage war, plant trees of peace’. In furtherance of the suffragette movement, Mabel had always spoken out on issues of women’s emancipation, and in the mid-1920s, she announced she was going to stand for Mayor of Los Angeles on a suffrage ticket. Nothing came of this.

Going overboard with the biggest feather boa in Hollywood.

Summarising it all.

1918 to 1919 was the year that saw a change coming over the film industry, which would eventually lead to a fully matured silent Hollywood, that is, the Hollywood that was to fall with the coming of the Talkies. In terms of actresses, there were new girls coming in, dancing girls, and girls prepared to take their clothes off before the camera – flappers to be precise. The old guard had to change radically, and many, like Mabel, made adjustments to their public image, in order to carry their careers forward. This is all for another article, however, and the absolute cut-off date is 1920, when Mabel made the transition between Goldwyn Pictures and Mack Sennett Comedies, adopting a slightly new persona along the way.  This article, though, has been about the way that Mabel blew into the movies like a hurricane, leaving the stage actresses gasping, as she straight-lined to the top. Having arrived at the top, she proceeded to sketch out the way that a movie star should act, speak, and strut her style in public. Appearing to be intellectually inclined, interested in politics, while all the time being thoroughly modern, and breezing around, wearing the best that Gay Paree could provide, would make her the apple of the public eye, although she retained her humility among her Hollywood peers – a lesson she no doubt learned from Florence Lawrence. Finally, if Mabel sounds like a present-day movie star, then she ought to, for what are those stars doing, if not trying to be Miss Normand? When Mabel first walked through the doors of the Biograph studio, there was no-one to show her what to do, or how to do it. She was the first to bring the aura of the stage stars, the Lillian Russells, to the place we now call Hollywood.


When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925).

Mabel Normand: A Source Book to her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006)

Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923).

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).


Some time back, the author received an email from a resident of Staten Island, who wondered why my articles rarely strayed back to the time before Mabel arrived at the Biograph studio in Manhattan. I replied that, indeed, I had written of this time, but that little is known of this period of her life. The correspondent immediately wrote back, seemingly incensed at my glib and laconic reply. Surely, he asked, there was more to her life than a daily journey to and from Staten Island, interspersed with a few modelling assignments? He assured me that travelling on that damned ferry to Manhattan, and the trek through the East Side to the upper city was not worth the $1.50 she received from modelling, even if she sometimes did two stints at 1.50 apiece. No self-respecting Staten Island girl would do such a thing, my friend again assured me. He told me to come up with something better. Well, it is true that Staten Island girls are not known for knuckling down to a menial life, but modelling was preferable to serving behind a shop counter, and the lights of Manhattan were a big draw for a youngster from the suburbs, that is, if Staten Island could even be called suburban. Naturally, I had considered Mabel’s life before Biograph, but the evidence was scant, and most of that came from Mabel herself, someone who did not want us to know too much of her early years. “Nothing interesting happened to me, before I got into pictures” Mabel assures us. However, Staten Island girls are made of sterner stuff, and we can be sure that Mabel didn’t wait around for the movies, or anything else to come to her. Perhaps, if Manhattan wouldn’t come to her, then she would go to Manhattan. In a nod towards my Staten Island email friend, I will now make a stab at recounting Mabel’s early years. Much has been cobbled together down the years to explain her early life, and the way she got into motion pictures, and some of it is not for the squeamish, so be warned!

Mabel’s childhood home on Tysen Street, New Brighton, Staten Island.

Birth and Early Years.

No-one knows where Mabel was born, as she had no birth certificate. Mack Sennett, nonetheless, was convinced she was born in Providence, Rhode Island. As Mabel was a life-long Catholic, so she should, at least, have a record of baptism. However, the Bishop could not help Mack in this matter, but Rhode Island did claim Mabel as one of their own. Indeed, Long Island and Staten Island also claimed her. So, Mabel was a non-person, leading 1910s journalist, Adela Rogers St. John, to state “We found her under the rose bush.” Now, although we’ve fallen at the first hurdle, it is only a small stumble, for it was normal for early movie people to have no record of their birth. Let’s move on to Mabel’s early life. At some point her parents, Mary and Claude Normand, moved onto Staten Island. Claude had found work, as the organiser of entertainments at the Home for Old Seamen in New Brighton. It seems that Claude had worked in the theatre as part of the orchestra, but Mary does not seem to have had gainful employment, but became a pillar of her local Catholic church. As far as we know, Mary, although from an acting family, never appeared on the stage. Mrs Normand was of Irish extraction, while Claude was French-Canadian. As a consequence, there was an explosive mix of blood, flowing through Mabel’s veins – the hot Latin of the French and the crazy stubbornness of the Hibernian. However, Mabel’s siblings, Claude and Gladys, appear to have been relatively calm and placid, with Mabel being the only outlandish Normand, except, of course, for Claude Senior. Her father taught Mabel to play the piano, but he, no doubt, took her to the Seamans’ Home, where she might have appeared in short plays. The story is that he was immensely proud of his dark-haired girl, who, from one angle, looked classically French, and from another, very Irish. Photographs from her early teens, demonstrate that Mabel was keen to pose for the camera, and probably dreamed of a stage career. We can only assume that Claude supported Mabel in this dream, although Mother probably disapproved. There is no evidence, whatsoever, that Mabel ever attended school, which leaves us to suspect that she spent more time in father’s plays. Many years later, Mabel would say she attended a residential convent school, but it was common for the acting fraternity to claim they were educated at church schools. Mabel’s convent, she said, was at North Westport, “up near Martha’s Vineyard”, the latter being, perhaps, a little name-dropping by Mabel.

Left: Mabel, aged 8, and Papa, both looking very French. Centre: All of herself (as they say on Staten Island), age 10. Right: Dreams of stardom, age 13.

Manhattan, Alice Joyce and Anna Q. Nilsonn.

Let’s recap for a moment. Although Mabel had no birth certificate, there is no doubt that she existed. A dreamy girl that loved to dress up, pose for pictures, and act on stage. Schooling never played a part in her thinking, and she probably thought more of the bright lights of Manhattan that she could see across the water. How much did the young Mabel know of the Big Apple? It is said that Claude spent much time in Manhattan, visiting the low joints on the Bowery, and he might have taken his favourite daughter with him. This is not unknown, for Bessie Love, in her memoirs, states that her father, who loved to show her off, would take her to brothels, and leave her with ‘the girls’ while he was upstairs with one of their compatriots. Cheap joints, then, would have been in Mabel’s vocabulary, as would foul

Models: Anna, Mabel and Alice.

language, which she was, no doubt, also exposed to at the Seaman’s Home. No wonder, then, that her sentences were half-filled with the ‘F’ word. No wonder too that she learned to stick up for herself in bad company. We can see how she became a tough cookie that could rise to the top in an equally tough industry. At the age of fourteen, it was normal for a girl to take some gainful employment, but it was unlikely that Mabel ever thought of working behind a shop counter, somewhere in a Staten Island street. The story is that Mabel’s mother heard of a job packing patterns in the mail order department of a big Manhattan store. Mabel went along, but the manager there thought Mabel too pretty and sent her off to pose for a commercial artist that was used by the store. It is certainly true that Mabel became an artists’ model, but the story that she went for a shop job, must surely be untrue – Mabel would rather have died. As we have seen, Mabel is assumed to have been a regular visitor to Manhattan during her early years. Somewhere, somehow, she might have met artists’ model Alice Joyce, and her friend, the Swedish model, Anna Q. Nilsonn. Both girls were somewhat older than Mabel, and she seems to have looked up to them – and not because they were much taller than her. It is possible that Alice got Mabel into modelling, and interesting to note that Alice was just about the only Manhattan friend that Mabel introduced to mama, who was, we are told, thrilled with Alice, suggesting that she had a respectable air about her. Alice, perhaps, mentioned modelling (which was a scandalous career) and persuaded Mrs Normand that her daughter was safe in her hands. Mama’s acquiescence to modelling, would certainly have led to Mabel leaving Staten Island for Manhattan, where she would have, of course, taken lodgings with the ‘respectable’ Alice and Anna. Mabel’s story, naturally, was that she remained living at home, and made the fiendish journey to and from Staten Island every day. Against this, we have Mrs D.W. Griffith’s assertion (in ‘When The Movies Were Young’) that actresses from Staten and Long Islands, generally sought digs in Manhattan. A pad in The Big Apple was a no-brainer. Now we have mentioned that Mabel was a ‘tough cookie’ but Alice and Anna were probably her mentors. Alice vacated her Swedish homeland as a young teen, and went to join the Folie-Begere in Paris, then moved on, alone, to the U.S.A. Alice became a very early movie star, with the Kalem company. Mabel followed, but found the going tough with the cowboy pictures outfit, and to be honest, she did not look too much like Annie Oakley. Only one actress, could make it in cowboy films, and that was Alice. Anna never made it that far with Kalem.

After her first stint in the movies, Mabel moved back to modelling. Modelling, of course, is a precarious occupation, and artists would not require models every day. Although Mabel worked for Charles Dana Gibson, James Montgomery Flagg, and Penryn Stanlaws, it is likely that she, and other models, took additional work. Where and what would this work have been? Well, as accomplished posers, they would probably have modelled clothes at fashion shows, but they would also have been drawn to the stage. Not having been brought up in the theatrical business, models would have taken lesser roles, perhaps dancing girls, in low, disreputable ’theatres’ on the Bowery. We have a description of such places from, of all people, Mack Sennett. Mack tells us, in his autobiography, that he was once hauled before a judge, having been caught in a police raid on a joint, featuring the legendary dirty dancer, Little Egypt. Later on, he says he was involved in a knife fight with a pimp. Naturally, he is only telling us these things, because there is some publicly accessible record of the events. Far better to come clean with a plausible explanation, than be caught out, at a later date. His explanation for the first occurrence is that he was innocently playing the part of the rear half of a pantomime horse, and he’d never even heard of a Little Egypt. As for the pimp fight, he claimed it was over a girl. Well, wouldn’t a fight with a pimp be over a girl!? It seems Mr Sennett is being very economical with the truth, and it clear that he once inhabited a very murky pond indeed. Naturally, some people have proposed that Mack met Mabel, not at Biograph studios, but down in the seedy part of town, but there is no evidence to support this. It would be quite possible that Mabel operated, occasionally, on the fringes of Lower East Side society, without being drawn into it deeply enough, to run into Mack Sennett.

Biograph and The Movies.

Unlike many other future movie stars, Mabel never claimed to have felt cheap or ashamed at entering a film studio. Career stage actors and actresses, like Mary Pickford, felt almost guilty, at having to take on work in the ‘flickers’. Mabel, of course, had never been on any billboard, although her anonymous face had graced many a magazine cover. Shame did not come into it, for the ‘flickers’ meant steady money, with free (stale) sandwiches thrown in. In a way, Mabel was in the right place, for although she had no real training in acting, she had become worldly-wise enough to tough it out with the best the stage could offer. We are here talking of the likes of Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, and Florence Lawrence. Mabel was slim enough to appeal to director D.W. Griffith for some parts in his films, although he would have thought that her friend, Alice Joyce, was too tall and, indeed, too large. He later told Alice she “looked like a cow”, perhaps meaning she was a little top heavy. Here we are speaking of 1910, but when in 1910 we cannot say. The abiding story, repeated by Mrs Griffith, is that Mabel was left behind in December of that year, when the company left for a six-month working vacation in California. This might indicate that she was not far into her training, which further indicates that she did not arrive at Biograph until, say, around October. From here on, we are now in recorded history, with Mabel achieving fame in comedies at Vitagraph, and yet more fame under Griffith and Sennett, back at Biograph, and later, at Keystone.

Mabel impresses in this Indian cliff-side fight scene, out at Cuddebackville in 1911.


In a nod towards our correspondent in Staten Island, we have followed the evidence, such as it is. We can be certain that Mabel received no formal education, and also certain that she spent her early years on Staten Island. From there on, we are treading on unfirm ground, until we reach her appearance on the screen and in the newspapers/magazines. All we really know is that she arrived at the Vitagraph studios in 1911, fully formed, as Constance Talmadge said, as the brash, bewitching, Madcap Mabel. Although Mabel seems to have been an exhibitionist from an early age, she also appears to have accumulated some of her other characteristics, along the way. Elements of her manner of speaking, she might have picked up from the rough and ready sailors at the New Brighton home. Developing a taste for the bright lights, she could well have set up in Manhattan, free of parental supervision. Clearly, her contact with two older and more wordly-wise girls, Alice and Anna, could have contributed to her ‘don’t care’ attitude, that was to prove so useful later on. It seems clear that, when Biograph were out in Los Angeles in 1912, D.W. Griffith was not exactly enamoured with Alice Joyce being around Mabel, and he seems to have considered her a corrupting influence, or “a cow”. Alice’s involvement with Mabel, at this time, is recorded by Mrs Griffith, who thought fondly of the daredevil, sporting Mabel. So there you have, an alternative account of the early life of Mabel Normand, but, as with all the other early accounts, not based on truly firm evidence.


King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925).

Mabel Normand’s Own Life Story by Chandler Sprague. Los Angeles Examiner (February 17, 1924)

Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

Personalities I Have Met: Mabel Normand. By Mary Pickford. Syndicated article, July 1916. 

New Year’s Eve On The Train. By Mary Pickford. Syndicated article, July 1916. 



Contrary to what many people think, researching the old silent movie stars is a very complicated business. Sure, there is much that has been written on the subject, but very little of the material and evidence is reliable, or of contemporary date. Some of this material comes under the heading of ‘Hollywood Babylon’, that is magazine and newspaper articles, books and other disreputable writings that have a post-1921 date. 1921, of course, was the year of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, which was followed by those of Mabel Normand, in 1922, 1924 and 1925. The flow of scurrilous writings began in 1921, but became a torrent by 1925. As time went on, the real reason for Hollywood Babylon, became less apparent, which resulted in a transition to sensationalism, and the introduction of a new term, ‘Hollywierd’. In Hollywierd, specific parts of ‘Babylon’ are cherry-picked for their sensationalist appeal. Consequently, whole books have been constructed in recent years that merely list weird and wonderful facts about Old Hollywood. However, in the mid-1920s, there was a kickback from the Hollywood stars and their friends, which produced a flurry of books and articles in defence of those in the industry, charged with Babylonian and Byzantine excesses. Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, Florence Lawrence wrote open letters of support for Mabel Normand, while Mrs D.W. Griffith and Sam Goldwyn wrote memoirs that supported the nature of the film industry, as well as of Mabel.

The Roots of Hollywood Babylon.

The roots of ‘Babylon’ ran very deep, and had been growing for many years, prior to 1921. Those roots were put down by the journalists, and specifically by the journalists that were shut out from interviews with the stars. The big stars, Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand, Owen Moore and co, had derived their status from being in the business, just at the time that it was on the cusp of greatness. In a similar way, the journalists that had been in early enough to interview the nascent stars, and had helped them on their way to the top, were trusted by the stars. Mabel Normand gelled with the new movie magazine, Photoplay, when it first arrived on the scene. Editor, James R. Quirk, thought highly of Mabel, and sent his wordsmith, Adela Rogers, St. John along to interview her in 1915. It was Adela’s first job, and she wrote glowingly of Mabel. Favouritism worked for a while, but by the time Mabel arrived at Goldwyn Pictures, in 1917, the Hollywood scene had blown up to an enormous size. More and more journalists were vying for a piece of the stars. The studios tried press releases to keep them at bay, but the magazines and newspapers were demanding direct access to their actors. The studios were forced to allow the journos, at least a few interviews, although the stars found ways to evade them on the lot. Typically, it would go like this. The studio would allow a journalist, say, half an hour with Miss Normand, if the guy would kindly show up at 10 a.m. Of course, the pressman would assume that Mabel turned up about 10, giving him half an hour, before she began work at 10:30. However, he would be told that Mabel had yet to arrive, so he would snoop around the lot, trying to get a story, before he returned to the front office, where he’d be told that “Miss Normand is delayed and won’t arrive before 11.” Well, 11 would arrive, then 12, and still no Mabel. One o’clock, two o’ clock, still no Mabel. A stirring on the lot at 2:30, told the intrepid reporter that the ‘Queen of The Movies’ had indeed arrived. “Oh, you poor deah, you’ve been waiting so long. I’m sorry, but Sam wants me on set straightaway. Tell you what, come to my house at six, and you can have your interview. Sorry must rush.” The journo would arrive at the house at six, expecting to find Mabel out. The shock, when the Queen opened the door herself, clad in a sheer negligee, was palpable. Seated alongside the Goldwyn beauty, on the sofa, the pressman was uneasy, but Mabel would break the ice – by setting the alarm clock! “There, you’ve got ten minutes to question me, my man.” What would follow was a monologue, with Mabel both asking and answering the questions.  Soon enough, the alarm would ring, Mabel would rise and say:

 “Your time, Mr pressman, is up. Please go now, I have a chocolate cake being delivered, and in times of great sorrow, or great joy, such as eating chocolate cake, I must be alone. I am not like other girls, you understand, so please go now.”

The journo found himself outside, wondering what the hell had happened. He’d sat there hanging on her words, and had not asked a single question. He knew what had happened – he’d been bewitched, by the Witch of Hollywood. What was that chocolate cake thing all about? Mabel was a nut (or perhaps a madcap). We get the impression, then, that a number of journalists were building up a resentment against stars like Mabel. Who was she, anyhow? No-one knew where she was born, and she had certainly never been anywhere near a schoolroom. How dare she put on airs and graces, how dare she demand truck loads of money for her services to the film industry. Then there was Mabel’s constant flow of male companions. Wasn’t one man good enough for the Queen, and why hadn’t she married? As far as anyone could tell, her lack of a husband was the cause of her degenerative nature. A husband would control her excesses, and she would be better off for it. Perhaps a mate would ween her off the vulgar language that she was often overheard using around the studio lot. Finally, how was it that the original Hollywood crowd still held such sway in the industry, demanding ever-increasing pay, while newcomers were nailed to the floor in their contracts, and dismissed for the slightest indiscretion? At this time, nonetheless, it was impossible to challenge the Kings and Queens of the film industry – they had too many supporters high up, and had become folk heroes to the masses.

Mabel and Charlie Chaplin get unusually friendly with a journalist (‘The Masquerader’).

1919 to 1921.

Well, a lot happened in 1919. This was the year in which some parts of the film industry (principally the film distributors) decided to get together, and break the star system, bring the Gods and Goddesses of Hollywood, crashing down from their plinths. Some producers, though, still held out, steadfastly supporting the star system. One was Mabel’s producer, Sam Goldwyn. Sam loved his stars, and had more or less cornered the market the ‘golden girls’ of both the theatre and the movies. His power was in the stars he controlled. However, another power was rising in the west, and from a surprising source. A group of big stars and directors, decided to rebel, and form their own distributing company. They were, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, and they created United Artists. This, more or less, stopped the big guys in their tracks, as the biggest names in the business were united against them. That same year, big-shot producer Adolph Zukor held a party at a New York hotel, and the small number of attendees included Roscoe Arbuckle. It is said that a ‘madame’ brought a girl to the party, who was abused by those present, and that, later, the madame threatened to make public what had happened. In other words, she blackmailed the big-shots. Legend has it that a slick operator, or fixer, was brought in by Zukor, to tidy things up. He was William Desmond Taylor – remember that name, for he will turn up later.

Olive Thomas, Bobby Harron, Clarine Seymour: Tragedies of 1920.

1920 brought more problems for Zukor and co. This is the year of the deaths of four stars, one of who was a famous stunt man. The others were rising stars, Olive Thomas, Bobby Harron and Clarine Seymour. Olive took an accidental, but lethal, dose of Bichloride of Mercury, Bobby accidentally shot himself, while Clarine died following an operation. The public were incredulous, but, again, W.D. Taylor was brought in to smooth things over. This was going to be difficult, for rumours about the New York affair still abounded, as did the strange and unexpected death of Florence LeBadie, following a car crash in 1917. Certain features of Olive Thomas’ death made it non-accidental to the movie-going public, and a few fingers were pointed in the direction of her sister-in-law, Mary Pickford. To be brief, Mary was upset that Olive had married brother Jack, due to the fact Olive was a dancing girl. This was enough for the public, and Mary was wise not to attend her funeral in New York, as she could have been killed in the riot that ensued.

1921 was the year that Hollywood imploded upon itself. In September, Roscoe Arbuckle was charged with murdering an actress, Virginia Rappe  at the St. Frances Hotel, San Francisco. He endured three trials, before being acquitted, but even W.D. Taylor was not able to save his career. The journos started casting around for other scapegoats. Who else was in the hotel at the time of Virginia’s death? What about the Witch of Hollywood, Mabel Normand? Like everyone else in the industry, Mabel would have departed hot and dusty L.A. for ‘Frisco’ during the Labour Day holiday. Mabel, though, quickly disappeared, but soon reappeared in New York, ready to party on the release of her new film ‘Molly O’. Few journos were able to get to her, and those that did were told that Mabel had been nowhere near San Francisco that fateful night, and she’d never heard of a Virginia Rappe. The Mabel in New York was not down-beaten, and even made a promotional film, in which she cavorts with a married man in a garden, although, to be fair, the man’s wife is on hand to beat down any flames of passion that might arise. In light of what would happen later, this ‘cavorting’ was, perhaps, unwise on Mabel’s part.

Mabel ‘cavorts’ in a garden with actor Raymond Hitchcock.


By 1922, many journalists’ quills had been well-sharpened. Novels based on the “scandalous” lives of the motion picture stars, were in preparation. “Over-indulged, over-sexed and under-worked”, proclaimed many newspapers and magazines. Some traced the immorality back to the ‘free love’ proposed by Elinor Glyn and her cohorts of adherents. Others thought that a lack of governmental control had led to a tide of scum overflowing from the gutter, and into decent society. The apparent murder of director William Desmond Taylor in February 1922, was a gift from Heaven (or Hell) for the press. The last one to see Taylor alive was Mabel Normand, who, the pressmen decided, was Taylor’s lover. Further investigations by journalists revealed that there had, in fact, been a love triangle, with the third participant being Paramount star, Mary Miles Minter. The papers got their teeth into the story, and claimed that a nightdress had been found at Taylor’s address with the monogram ‘MN’. Later it transpired that the letters were ‘MMM’, linking it firmly to Mary Miles Minter. Whether the nightdress existed or not, Mabel was dragged to court as a witness. Before the court, Mabel made a few droll quips in answer to the judge’s questions and had previously been photographed, as nice as pie, with the District Attorney. The newspapers noted that Mabel used an aristocratic tone of speech, more suited to ‘Old Lonnon Town” than Los Angeles. Mabel, they said, was illiterate, but put on airs and graces unsuited to someone, so recently crawled from the gutter. Some of this poison was off-the-cuff, but much was revenge for Mabel’s flippant treatment of the press over the last ten years. The novels in preparation increased manifold, based entirely on the ‘evidence’ garnered by the press. There were, of course, two other Normand scandals. One where her chauffeur shot the wealthy Courtland Dines, during another love triangle, and a third, where a wife alleged Mabel had cavorted with her husband in a hospital room. We need not go deeply into these here, and it is sufficient to say that these latter incidents served to reinforce the newspapers’ allegations. By the end of 1922, the books based on the life of Mabel numbered in the dozens. However, as already stated, there were many articles and open letters in the newspapers that actually came out on Mabel’s side. Her friends from her earliest days of Hollywood supported her, by reason of the fact that they too might come under attack, although true comradeship was also a reason to support Mabel. Notable pro-Mabel/pro- film industry books written in the immediate post-Taylor period were ‘Behind The Screen’ by Sam Goldwyn ‘When The Movies Were Young’ by Mrs D.W. Griffith, and, to an extent, Ed Robert’s ‘Sins of Hollywood’.

Mabel In Fiction.

So little was known of Mabel’s early life, and her private life in pictures, that much that was written with conviction that  can be classed as fiction. Let’s just delve into an early piece of Babylon called ‘The Girl From Hollywood’. This was an early roll up of the life of Mabel, as disseminated by the media. Consequently, the girl from Hollywood actually drifted into the sordid movie business, and was soon under the control of a man, who plied her with drugs. Immersed in Hollywood depravity, she soon knew nothing else, and she forgot her old non-movie friends, along with her family. Unlike some other actresses, she never thought to bring her family out to movieville, where they might not approve of her lifestyle. Mabel was accused of all of these things by the media, but in real life, she only brought her brother out as a cameraman, whilst ensuring (some said) that her parents stayed put back east, in the house she bought for them. The public knew who was being spoken of, and little snippets, like the girl’s love of horses, and other minor details.

Those darned movie stars.

Now, we have spoken of those in the movie industry and the press that fully supported Mabel. One Mabel fan was James R. Quirk, who, when he began Photo Play magazine, made Mabel almost its resident star. One of his first journalists was Adela Rogers St. John, who was much taken by Mabel’s persona, and wrote gushingly of her. Adela claimed to have been a close confident of Mabel, although we have no evidence that this was the case. She often wrote that ‘poor Mabel’ was sick, hospitalised, or injured. Then she would write that Mabel had miraculously recovered, and was up and about again, bright as a new penny. Adela reported that Mabel had become dangerously ill while at the Goldwyn studio in 1920, and to be fair, she did lose some weight, and looked very skeletal in some photos and films. It is also known, though, that she deliberately lost weight for her last film at Goldwyn, so we do not really know the truth of the matter. However, Adela made much of her return “from convalescence” and to her former voluptuous self. Mabel, of course, had never been exactly voluptuous, and her slenderness had made her very versatile, being able to perform both ‘small’ and ‘big’ parts, using a little padding for the latter. In 1922, Adela’s Photo Play colleague, Ed Roberts wrote a book, or booklet, entitled ‘The Sins of Hollywood: An Expose of Hollywood Vice’. Roberts did not come out fully against Mabel or Roscoe, but instead, turned the spotlight, somewhat, upon the nature of the industry, and those that ran it. Roscoe was, naturally, beyond redemption, for he had been alone in the hotel room with Virginia, when she suffered the injury, or medical emergency, that killed her, and the verdict of the jury did not alter that. Conversely, Mabel had not been directly involved in the two shootings, to which she was a witness, and Ed Roberts rode to he rescue. In his scribblings, he indicated that Mabel was a victim of the movie industry, a paragon, rather than a pariah. He told the following story, although he was careful not to mention real names. Molly (Mabel) was in love with Jack (Mack), but Mae (Mae Busch) ingratiated herself with Mack. Molly caught Jack and Mae together in their love nest and confronted them. Mae panicked and smashed a vase over Molly’s head, occasioning a serious injury. The implication was that the head injury (which almost killed her) turned her just a little crazy, and was responsible for her later woes.

Mack and Mabel.

The time alluded to was the Fall of 1915, when it was reported that Mabel had been hospitalised with an apparent head injury caused by shoe reportedly thrown in a wedding scene – another story was that Roscoe Arbuckle had sat on her head (an almost un-survivable event). Professionally, the Queen of Keystone had been at war with the King, during 1915, but there was no love intrigue. In fact, in her 1925 book, Mrs D.W. Griffith throws cold water on the Mack and Mabel love story, stating categorically that no girl at the Biograph studio had been romantically interested in the coarse and clumsy Sennett, and, furthermore, Mabel had more handsome and dashing suitors than any other girl. Sure, once the future King of Comedy knew he was in line for a directorship, he began to ply Mabel with diamonds (and milkshakes), having realised she was exactly what was needed for his films. Mabel, it need not be said, was a cute cookie, that would never turn down sparklers, which, according to Sennett, made “something happen in her eyes.” She was not, though, totally mercenary, and sometimes threw diamond bracelets back at the King, just to let him know she wasn’t easy. It is worth mentioning that Mack does go into the Mabel and Mae thing in his autobiography, but it is clear that Mack used old newspaper and other cuttings to compile his text (it is fairly obvious that he knew little of Mabel’s private life). Mabel did catch Mack and Mae together, says the King, but it was a social meeting for business purposes. We can imagine that Mabel was furious that Mae was having a private conference with Sennett, that might result in her losing her number one position at the studio. Sennett tries to twist the facts a little, and claims that his true love (Mabel) thought he and Mae were lovers, and ran from the room, out into the night. Mack pursued her, but couldn’t console her. Next day he read she was in hospital with a fatal brain injury, although Mabel later turned up bright and chipper. Both Robert’s and Sennett’s accounts are slightly similar but not identical. Just to complicate the issue, Adela Rogers St. John had her own version of the story. She, Mabel and others were sitting in the Ship Café in Venice (in 1915 it seems) when Mabel muttered something about “What’s the point”, whereupon she rose and walked outside. After a minute or so, Adela went outside, to find Mabel being dragged from the ocean by life guards. Mabel had a serious gash on her head. She’d, according to Adela, thrown herself off Venice pier, and hit her head on a massive timber. It was a suicide attempt, brought on by her rejection by the man she loved. At one point in her autobiography, Adela becomes a little too melodramatic, and it is worth repeating one paragraph from the book:

“And so he (Sennett) took with him that small, dark pixie of a girl, named Mabel Normand, whom he loved all his life – Mabel and Mabel only and always – and yet he was to destroy her as mortals always do, the pixies, and elfs, and fairy folk. The Little People. Yes, yes, yes – Mabel was one of the little people. And she fell in love with a mortal, and that brought her under the sway of Melpomene, who wove the web of tragedy.”

The obvious problem with this tract is that there are no such things as pixies, elves, and fairies, except in a Shakespearian play or a film of D.W. Griffith. It is true that actresses latched onto directors and producers, for the furtherance of their careers and directors and producers did likewise. Sometimes they married – for convenience. Mabel was never short of a lover, or three, and when she’d finished with them, she discarded them along with her empty gin bottles, and had no intention of ever getting married. No pixie, then, but an ordinary Edwardian woman trying to get along, in a very extraordinary business. Adela has, here, confused the Keystone Girl and Biograph Girl, with the real Mabel. In Keystone’s Fatty and Mabel films, Mabel was the delightful pixie, while she had been Griffith’s resident tragedienne at the Biograph studio. Later in life, Keystone’s Minta Arbuckle also, it appears, became confused. Somewhere, in her dim memory, she, like Sennett, had half-remembered a story about Mabel receiving a head injury, caused by our old friend Mae Busch. However, in her story, the stricken Mabel had dragged, or driven, herself the twelve miles from Los Angeles to the Arbuckle’s beach house in Santa Monica, which seems a curious thing to do, when one has a potentially life-threatening injury. Minta also mentioned seeing Mabel playing in the sea with a dolphin at Santa Monica, but the story of Mabel with a dolphin dates back to around 1919, when she is recorded as having swam with a dolphin in Long Island Sound. A tale read long ago can bleed over into a persons own memory over the mists of time.

Mabel with Minta Arbuckle (right) in Salt Lake City.

Bringing it all together.

This has been a thumbnail sketch of the various takes on the life and tribulations of one Mabel Normand. The repository of facts and factoids is vast, and would fill a whole volume, or series of volumes. However, we have seen enough here, to illustrate the way that fiction imposes on fact, and produces a distorted image of an historical personage. Mabel was either an innocent elf, or a monster created, not by Dr. Frankenstein, but by the very industry of which she was a part. Which ‘Mabel’ should you choose? The fact is that neither of these Mabels can be real, it is simply not possible.  By the nature of human existence, we are all a product of two persons, made as one. One can be, at once, altruistic and benevolent, whilst harbouring vengeful and even violent thoughts. Mabel was no different, and there are elements of the cheeky pixie and the vengeful, egotistical actress about her. The delightful pixie in her, existed side by side with what some have termed the witch of Hollywood, who could charm the pants off of a bishop. The innocent and sweet elf, brought out to the wild west by Mack Sennett, never existed, but neither did the evil, conniving Mabel recorded by the journalistic fraternity, but is there some means of reconciling these two different constructs? Well, the fact is that Mabel’s friends over-egged the pudding, just as surely as her enemies, in the journalistic field, over-egged their own particular pudding. In reality, Mabel was a forceful personality. This must be true, for she reached the top of the movie tree, in spite of not having an acting background, but there is no evidence that she used a gun or baseball bat to achieve this. The events of 1915/1916, where Sennett tried his best to break her, and Mabel took the initiative, gaining her own studio in the process, proves that she was no push-over, no shrinking violet. The pixie, or witch, within her, as well as her ability to listen to others, drew people to her. While her many associations with men, made some look at her with circumspection, this was not unusual at the time, for men held all of the power in those days. Admittedly, she also had a natural passion for men, and enjoyed having the most handsome and eligible guys on her arm, but it was her various intrigues and complicated love triangles that eventually proved to be her downfall (that is if you believe she ever fell). Rather than being a victim of the evil Mack Sennett, Mabel actually strung him along, fully aware that he needed her professional ability and status. This is why he had her tailed by detectives everywhere, and not because he was afraid that she might have an affair with the counter guy at the local milk bar, but because she might fall in with some actor, or director, that could get her into another studio. In 1922, Mabel got in too deep with a Paramount director, then, in 1924, with a millionaire oilman. Both guys ended up being shot, seemingly for their association with Mabel.

In a nutshell, we should be wary of any constructs that seek to sum up Mabel’s character, using one-sided stories as their basis. Her friends had a vested interest in presenting her in a certain way, while her enemies (the gutter press) had an interest in portraying her in a completely different way. Take either, and you’ll be sent up a blind alley. There is no time machine that can take us back a century, so there is a danger that stories transmitted many years after the events occurred, together with the views of aging actors given in the 1970s, rather than 1915-1920, could be used to present a false truth.


Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923).

The Sins of Hollywood: An Expose of Movie Vice by Ed Roberts (1922).

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925).

Horrors of Hollywood: Life In The Cinema World At Los Angeles by James Douglas. Perth Evening News (May 21 1924).

The Girl From Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1922)

Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks (1974).

Personalities I Have Met: Mabel Normand. By Mary Pickford. Syndicated article, July 1916. 

New Year’s Eve On The Train. By Mary Pickford. Syndicated article, July 1916. 

Madcap Mabel: The True Story of a Great Comedienne by Sydney Sutherland. ‘Liberty’ 1930.

Mabel Normand Says Goodbye, by James R. Quirk, Photoplay May 1930.

The Tragic Side of Mabel Normand: Obtaining an Interview Under Difficulties, by David Raymond. Play World June 1918.