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When you study the life and times of Mabel Normand, it is not long before the image of Charlie Chaplin looms large in your research. Chaplin, of course, became the greatest and most well-known figure of the silver screen. However, in Chaplin’s story, one other figure of the silent screen looms large – Mabel Normand, the legendary Keystone Girl. Both gained popularity, to some extent, from their feet. Chaplin, naturally, had those feet stuck in oversize tramp shoes, which he ably used in his shuffling, feet askew, walk. Mabel’s walk, utilizing very small feet, was at the other end of the scale, and those half a dozen steps per foot contributed to her cuteness, but were also a little comical in themselves – she sort of tripped along rather than ran. Unlike Chaplin, it seems that Mabel never had a song recorded about her feet. The song was called Those Charlie Chaplin Feet, published in 1915, demonstrating the attention he’d drawn by that time.
Charlie and Mabel getting on famously.
It is only right, that Mabel should forever be associated with Chaplin, and vice versa, as Chaplin served his apprenticeship at Keystone, under the tutelage of Mabel, undisputed Master (or mistress) of Tragedy and Comedy. In his autobiography, Chaplin said he saw a lot of Mabel at Keystone, but this must be the biggest understatement in history. While Chaplin was reticent about his professional and personal relationship with Sennett’s star-of-stars, Mabel was ever-ready to point out that they got together on a daily basis in her bungalow dressing room, and even implied that their relationship was as much personal as professional. Keystone part-owner, Mack Sennett, erroneously labelled as Mabel’s lover, seems to have encouraged this notion of pupil and teacher, simply because it diluted Chaplin’s persona of ‘Genius’. It is noticeable that Chaplin never denied any of this, but, in Mabel’s lifetime, he remained reticent, and we only have third party quotes, as to his real thoughts on Mabel, other than those publicly made, immediately following her death.
Mabel in a tragic role in 1912.
Chaplin’s place in Keystone.
When Chaplin arrived at the studio, way out of downtown L.A., in Edendale, he was coming into a hostile environment. For one thing, as there were only a finite number of jobs for movie actors, American-born performers were very much against the number of English Music Hall comedians admitted into the studios. Keystone actor, Fred Mace, was particularly vociferous in his disapproval of American jobs going to foreigners. However, the producers of comedies were particularly keen to acquire the Music Hall veterans, as they carried in their heads a lifetime’s worth of gags. This made the mass production of films both easier and quicker.
Chaplin really was a star before he was a star.
Keystone big bosses in the east, Kessell and Baumann, had realized that vaudevillians were necessary to give their studios an air of respectability. In public speaking, also, the English, who had by and large cultivated aristocratic accents, would provide kudos to the studios, burdened as they were, with working-class performers bearing awful local and regional accents. Mabel, at that time, had a coarse Brooklyn accent, and, later, Kansas girl Louise Brooks felt that her strange ‘covered wagon’ accent held her back at her studio. The fly in ointment for Chaplin was Mack Sennett, a refugee from the stage, who had an intense disliking for stage actors. He particularly disliked Raymond Hitchcock, the self-inflated thespian, who had once thrown him out of a stage production in New York. Mabel, who was in awe of stage people, became a close friend of Hitchcock and his wife, that were later to hide her at their N.Y. apartment, on the occasions Mabel ran away from Sennett. Sennett, it should be remembered was a Svengali to Mabel, not a lover. The truth is, once Sennett had seen Kessell and Baumann’s new signing, Chaplin, he ‘hated his guts’, as Charles Baumann was to later reveal in a letter to Sennett that still exists among Sennett’s private papers.
Mabel with Lew Cody (L) and Raymond Hitchcock (R) at a 1926 premiere.
The reason for Sennett’s attitude is plainly obvious. His other main comedians were relatively old men, and those that were not quite so old were married, and had watchful wives working at Keystone. Chaplin was about the same age as Mabel, and so was definitely a threat to Mack’s control of Mabel. Only one person in Hollywood had ever seen Chaplin offstage before 1914. That person was Mary Pickford, who described him years later, as a tousle-haired young man with the air of a bohemian poet or writer. In fact, he seemed to be an actresses’ dream. There is little doubt that, at some point, during 1913, she had made these thoughts known to Mack, and probably Mabel as well. This would have almost certainly alarmed Sennett, although Mabel would have been keen to meet him. At the eventual meeting with Chaplin, Sennett would have detected the natural interest Mabel and Charlie had for each other. In the weeks before Chaplin arrived at the studio, Mack would have been constantly wiring Kessell and Baumann, about preventing Chaplin from starting at the studio. The big bosses, however, knew where they were going – star vaudevillians were the future. Mack could do nothing, but make a film called Mabel’s Dramatic Career, in which he sets out to shoot the tin-type who’d stolen Mabel away. This hopefully would make Chaplin (and Mabel) see sense.
Mabel and family about to be shot by Mack Sennett.
When Chaplin finally arrived at Edendale, he was kept well away from Mabel, and it is likely that Sennett and others (briefed by Sennett) dripped poison, about Chaplin, into her ear.
The Tramp gets started.
After a few weeks hanging around the studio, while Sennett tried to get him removed, Chaplin was put into a couple of lacklustre films. The studio star-of-stars, Mabel, was inaccessible to Chaplin, until, in February, when Sennett was short of a few gags, he brought the limey onto the hotel lobby set for Mabel’s Strange Predicament, to help in an opening scene. Chaplin, who was on his way to film a nonsense movie called Kid Auto Races At Venice, contrived to appear as a Sennett-style character, like a hobo or tramp. Where he differed from Sennett was in his shuffling gait, much enhanced by some oversized boots. He did a long scene, which pleased everyone, and was then whisked off to Venice. On his return, he did an extra short scene with Mabel, which presumably was meant to be the definitive first scene. In Chaplin’s absence, some other scenes had been shot, but Mack decided to make Chaplin a main character in the movie.
Mabel meets Charlie – first scene from Mabel’s Strange Predicament.
This can be deduced from the disturbance it caused to the scenes already shot. For instance, when Mabel’s boyfriend leaves flowers in her room, he puts them into a vase that had already contained his flowers in a previous scene. This suggests a change in the story line, that contrived a means of setting up a tramp versus boyfriend scenario, in which a locked-out Mabel ends up being chased by Chaplin, around the hotel in her pajamas. The film was a complete success, and was the best in the ‘What Mabel Did’ series to that date. However, from Mabel’s point of view, she had been robbed of a first scene, and it had been stolen by Chaplin. The first scene shows Mabel alongside Chaplin for less than 10 seconds. For the remaining 50 seconds Chaplin has the floor to himself. It is not likely that Mack made this decision alone, and it seems highly probable that Kessell and Baumann made the decision to give Chaplin the long scene.
Feisty, pajama-clad Mabel gets into a fight with Alice Davenport and Chester Conklin in their hotel bedroom. Mabel’s Strange Predicament, 1914.
Mabel would have been incandescent with rage. No one should steal a scene from her – the Keystone Girl, the Queen of Comedy, the Star-of Stars. The result was that Mabel refused to work with Chaplin for the best part of two months. She must have avoided all contact with Charlie, for he began to form relationships with lesser actresses, like Peggy Pearce.
Mabel and Ada. First scene Mabel At The Wheel 1914.
Mabel At The Wheel.
This is the most famous of the Mabel and Charlie films, if only because Chaplin takes great pains to mention it in his autobiography. It was the first film the duo had made together since Mabel’s Strange Predicament, and this only occurred, perhaps, because Kessell and Baumann ordained that Mabel and the ‘coming man’ should be brought together. It appears that Mabel had ensured that no scene would be ‘stolen’ by Chaplin. This she achieved by insisting that she directed, and that Chaplin should appear sans his tramp’s outfit. Baumann, who was in L.A. on business, countered by sending his figure-skating champion daughter, Ada, along to extra in the film, and report on what went on. Naturally, Chaplin was upset by all of this, especially with Mabel being the director. In his book, he implies that Mabel was too young to direct, but she was only two-and-a-bit years younger than him, and was a true veteran of the movies. At this time, Chaplin was a dyed-in-the wool gags-man, and it is likely that he knew little about straight forward acting, especially in films. Mabel, a Griffith trained actress, as stated above, was keen to have a story-line in her film. This picture was going to be a dramatic comedy, not a situation comedy, where cops tripped over one another, and mindless goons got sprayed with water from their own hosepipe. Chaplin’s gags would be restricted in number.
Mabel is the darling of the Santa Monica race fans.
The story presented in Mabel At The Wheel is a strong one, the strongest at the studio so far. A middle-class girl with a car racing boyfriend is stalked by an unpleasant, plug-hatted villain, who, after being rejected by Mabel, kidnaps the boyfriend at a race meeting, presumably to prevent him becoming a hero in Mabel’s eyes.
What he hadn’t reckoned on, was Mabel stepping in, and taking over the drive of, what seems to be, Sennett’s racing Stutz. After attempts by Chaplin’s villainous associates to derail Mabel’s drive, she wins the race. So we end up with a heroine, not a hero – just the right formula for those halcyon days of emancipation. Chaplin would have been livid, and clearly thought he should be the hero, but in this film he seems curiously shrunken, and a little side-lined. Chaplin’s limited slapstick is somewhat neutralised by Sennett’s unkempt, tobacco juice spewing character (a tramp?) who causes a ruckus in the spectator stands, and attempts to abduct Ada Baumann.
Mack tries to abduct the boss’s daughter.
What is the true story behind the shenanigans that surrounded the making of the film?Firstly, Charlie Baumann must have known there was going to be trouble during shooting, and this would explain Ada’s presence in the picture. She could give an unbiased report of what happened. Chaplin maintained that, when Mabel refused to accept his gags, he went on strike, causing the shoot to stop, and everyone to traipse back to the studio. According to him, Sennett went for him, in the dressing room, back at the studio. He then left, slamming the door behind him. He goes on to imply that, when Sennett called Baumann, to say he was firing Chaplin, Baumann stated that Chaplin had become too popular to be fired over a little tiff. While it is true to say Chaplin was getting popular, he was by no means a star, and was still very ragged around the edges. Chaplin’s claim that Sennett keeled over, and told him he could direct his own films, if he towed the line in the picture, can be taken as pure egotistical nonsense. If it wasn’t for Baumann, swelled-head Chaplin would have been gone from the studio, to sink into eternal obscurity. Sennett probably kept Chaplin on, as Baumann, Kessell and Ince could have over-ruled Mack, and closed the studio, if the problems continued.
Where Charlie received his lessons. Mabel’s Dressing Room.
The Tramp Toes The Line.
Eventually, Charlie got to direct his own pictures, but he was put under the overall mentor-ship of Mabel. Mabel later said:
“I am proud to say I held his hand, as he found his way through the swamp of motion pictures.”
They co-directed about 11 films, but Charlie could arrive at Mabel’s comfy dressing room at any time, although they would always get together in the bungalow after work, presumably to wait for Mack to finish work, and take them to dinner. As they say, keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer. Mack was fully aware that passionate leading ladies and leading men could elope together, and Charlie and Mabel were more passionate than most. Under the protection of The Keystone Girl, Charlie thought he could get away with anything, and often persuaded Mabel to ‘steal’ a company car, so that they could drive into L.A. for some fun. Make no mistake, Sennett knew what was going on, as he had spies everywhere (so did Kessell and Baumann – they put tails on both Mabel and Sennett). However, Mabel was very much afraid of Mack. If he got any hint that Charlie and Mabel were an item, he’d have ended their careers, and, perhaps, their lives too. Chaplin lived in fear of Sennett all his life, and only published his book, after the ‘King of Comedy’ was dead and buried.
“Floor it Mabel! The boss isn’t around.”
So, what instruction did Charlie get at the bungalow schoolroom? The most important thing he learned was humility, and how to get on with people. Chaplin was never much liked at Karno Company, and his room-mate, Stan Jefferson (Laurel) said he showed signs of insanity. Fortunately, Chaplin had secured a good teacher. Mabel’s ambition and ego were as big as anyone’s, but she had developed a means by which everyone would love and adore her. At Biograph she’d become the life and soul of the studio, so popular and cherished that even Griffith, who was the butt of most of her jokes, was unable to fire her. Most people know that in later years, Chaplin always made a party spin, even though he didn’t drink. His accomplice was often the ‘demure’ Mabel.
Chaplin learns the art of carrying babies. His Trysting Place 1914.
Mabel had studied the art of comedy, and had received her training under big comedy stars John Bunny and Flora Finch. As Chaplin was later to say:
“Mabel knew more about comedy than any of us will never know.”
Chaplin, then, was in good hands, but she taught him another genre – tragedy and pathos. In all probability, Chaplin had never considered combining pathos and comedy, but this was Mabel’s ultimate aim. Charlie was a willing learner, and listened well. In their films together, you can often see Mabel go into tragic mode, which her partnership with Charlie seems to have allowed her to indulge in. However, it seems Sennett, who supervised all films, introduced a higher level of slapstick to compensate for the heavy stuff. The two films, Mabel’s Busy Day and His Trysting Place, stand out in this respect. Chaplin learned a lot, but, like Sennett, he knew that audiences would not tolerate high levels of pathos. He would take pathos with him, when he left, but would shrink it to a background medium – this was the key to his later success.
Tramp versus Hot Dog Lady. Mabel’s Busy Day.
The Tramp steps out.
The eleven films Mabel and Charlie made together were successful, although Chaplin must have realized that his personality was drained and dissipated by appearing alongside ‘The Queen of Clowns’. It was clearly evident that, until the end of his Keystone contract, Mabel was always the star. Chaplin had to admit that, when he appeared alone in the first scene of Mabel’s Strange Predicament, his presence was met by the theater audience with – complete silence. Squeals of delight had met Mabel’s appearance. Fortunately, the film schedules permitted him to make films without Mabel’s overpowering presence in them. He chose leading ladies that did not have star status – Virginia Kirtley, Minta Arbuckle, Peggy Pearce and Dixie Chene. However, as Minta later told it, she was not overly fond of Mr ‘Ego’ Chaplin. Virginia Kirtley, Peggy Pearce and Dixie Chene were actresses aiming for stardom, and, consequently, were not keen to be the foils of Chaplin. In fact, Chaplin seems to have struck up a relationship with Peggy Pearce, but this soon turned sour, possibly due to Mabel’s displeasure being made known to Peggy. There is no doubt that Mabel regarded Charlie as her ‘property’.
My girl Mabel.
Chaplin turned to a new actress on the lot, by the name of Peggy Page, a plain girl, but one that was pretty enough, and had a good body, but was not really a proficient actress. No matter, she was the perfect foil. However, Peggy wasn’t an extra that just turned up at the studio gate. Her real name was Gladys Carruthers, and she had a gold-digging stage mother. The family (mother and two daughters) had arrived in L.A. from Texas where Gladys had married a well-off local man. Strangely, he blew his brains out with a pistol on the wedding night. In L.A. mother conspired to get Gladys into the movie business, and got her into Keystone. Getting in with Chaplin was what mother wanted, and she soon achieved that (she appears in some films). Peggy made more films with Chaplin than even Mabel, and mother was convinced they’d ‘made it’. However, Mabel was not unaware of what was happening, and, towards the end of the year, she grabbed leading lady status from Peggy, and appeared with Chaplin in four consecutive films. Mabel avoided appearing in Chaplin’s last Keystone, Man’s Genesis, as it involved career-destroying scenes wearing a grass skirt. Mabel undoubtedly knew Chaplin was leaving, as, despite the hype put around, he would leave at the end of Sennett’s boot. Why did Mabel want to ingratiate herself with Chaplin? The main reason was that he was a man with ambition, able to clear a path through the jungle of movie-land, in a way that
Playing up to Chaplin. Gentlemen of Nerve.
contemporary women were unable to do. She had a notion to get in with an actor-director, at the beginning, when it looked as though they’d land their own studio. This she did with Sennett and, later, Sam Goldwyn. However, she missed the mark with Chaplin, and, after having a final tearful dinner with Mabel, he left for Chicago and Broncho Billy. This threw Mabel into a spin, and her Madcap period can be traced back to this point. Mabel dearly wished to leave Keystone, and start anew with someone that understood her, someone like herself, someone like the melancholy Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin records in his autobiography that he did not want to leave Keystone, and Mabel’s support was one reason. Although Kessell and Baumann intervened, and told Sennett to offer Chaplin the world, he made Charlie an offer he could only refuse. Charlie was also made aware that a gun barrel could come through his window, one dark, stormy night. Mabel was Mack’s property and his alone. Chaplin was also wary of Mabel’s screen magnetism that could stifle his personality. He needed a foil, a stooge, not the star-of-all-stars.
Peggy Page (Check coat) takes a dim view of Charlie and his leading lady.
Charlie and Mabel post-1914.
Charlie and Mabel were not separated for long. Charlie evidently disliked Essanay’s Chicago studio, and was not pleased with the girl he thought could be his leading lady – Gloria Swanson. Although pretty, she was far too ambitious. He demanded to be sent to the company’s Californian ‘cowboy’ studio out at Niles Ca., a dusty old place almost 400 miles from L.A. There was no comfortable Mabel’s dressing room here, just old shacks, creaking iron bedsteads and faucets that spewed brown-colored water. It was while ‘camping’ here that he found his foil – the beautiful, but dull, Edna Purviance. Chaplin said this of her:
“I doubted whether she could act or had any humor, she looked so serious. Nevertheless we engaged her. She would at least be decorative to my comedies.”
It was inevitable that Chaplin would return to L.A., where he could not avoid running into Mabel. Within a few weeks Essanay had provided another studio in L.A. at Boyle Heights. Coming within Mabel’s sphere brought problems for Charlie. Whenever she saw Charlie in a restaurant or some other place, Mabel would point over to him and sing out:
“Charlie, I’ll be your leading lady yet!”
indicating that she would never forgive him for his treachery. Mabel could be sweet and adorable, but she held deep-set grudges forever. However, the pair renewed their friendship, and Mabel was over the moon when Chaplin married her good friend and Tinsel-Town live-wire Mildred Harris. Here was a hook to hang their new friendship on.
Los Angeles Herald, January 21, 1919
Chaplin’s Bride In Snow Battle
“How would you like to stage a snowballing party in Southern California? Ridiculous, you say. You’re all wrong, and if you don’t believe it write to Mrs. Charlie Chaplin (Mildred Harris) and ask her about one she and Mabel Normand staged.
It was on the top of Mount Lowe, the famous peak of the Golden State, and the two screen queens and a party of friends had a royal time battling with each other. Mrs. Chaplin was captain of one of them and Mabel
Normand led the other.”
Getting back to 1915, Mabel was being hung out to dry by Sennett. There would be no more pathos, no more melancholy. Instead she would do films featuring two lovesick country kids – Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle. Fatty and the Keystone Girl bit their lips, and got on with it. However, things came to a head towards the close of the year, when it was apparent that Sennett was grooming new female stars. On top of this Mabel received a head injury caused by a shoe thrown in a wedding scene, Roscoe sitting on her head, or a vase smashed over her head by another actress. Whatever the cause, Mabel was off, and she arranged a temporary move to the Fort Lee Triangle Studios under direct control of Kessell and Baumann, at the very end of 1915. Arbuckle and a sizeable company went with her. Here Mabel and Roscoe were able to make a film more dramatic than usual, and poked Sennett in the eye. When the time came for Mabel to return to Edendale, she went missing. The following statement appeared in magazines and newspapers:
Variety, March 17, 1916
Mabel Normand with Mutual
It was stated that Mabel Normand had signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corporation on Tuesday afternoon of this week.
Miss Normand was closeted with president Freuler for almost an hour late that afternoon, and is said to have affixed her signature to a contract. There is a possibility that she will work in the Chaplin releases.
Did Mabel really think she would make it into Chaplin films? Maybe not, but the article sure put the wind up Sennett, Triangle and NYMP. By March 24th Triangle had capitulated and formed The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, which rented the new Keystone studio in East Hollywood, for Mabel’s exclusive use. One of NYMP’s greatest fears was that It couple, Charlie and Mabel, would team up to form a ‘dream team’.
As Mabel’s film Mickey was completed, and, as the Triangle Company fell apart, she took the opportunity to skedaddle, and sign for Goldwyn Pictures. However, like Sennett, Sam Goldwyn began to sign more stars. Mabel fell into constant arguments with the other actresses. By 1920 Mabel’s respiratory problems had worsened and Sam and the whole of Tinseltown feared Mabel was about to die. Then, a certain Mr Charlie Chaplin stepped in, and told Goldwyn that it was imperative he return Mabel to Sennett. Said the tramp:
“Mack and Mabel are both as Irish as the Banshees, they have an understanding. With Sennett, she excels, but anywhere else she is commonplace.”
Complete nonsense, of course, but Charlie appeared to be right – when returned to Sennett, Mabel made a speedy recovery. The question is, why didn’t Chaplin take Mabel on?” Like everyone else, Chaplin was deeply enamoured of Mabel, and as he became more popular, he felt he could dispense with Edna Purviance, but there were problems. Sennett had a deep disliking of Chaplin – if it hadn’t been for that damned limey, his studio wouldn’t have been turned upside down, and Mabel wouldn’t have ran away. His main thought was “Touch my Keystone Girl, and you die.” Chaplin didn’t want to die. Furthermore, although he had a profound love for Mabel, he wasn’t yet ready to take her on. Ten years later he was ready, but, by then Mabel was dead and in her grave.
Mabel made her first feature film with Sennett Studios, as Keystone was now known, and meanwhile Chaplin had cultivated a strong relationship with Doug and Mary (Fairbanks). Through this, he was able to meet hordes of celebrities, and through this also, he gained some badly needed personal credence. The American press were not pleased with his ‘debauched’ private life and Doug and Mary were clean cut kids, a safe pair of hands. They weren’t, of course, and both had periods of ‘debauchery’ in their lives.
The Fairbankses at home in Fortress Pickfair.
“A dark figure offstage.”
As Mabel was in the throws of making her second Sennett film, Suzanna, dark clouds (or a dark figure offstage as Sennett told it) rolled in. Mabel had taken up with a Paramount director, known in Hollywood as W. D.Taylor, but, early in 1922, someone shot him dead. Taylor’s butler, Peavey, was adamant that Mabel had been trying persuade Taylor to get her into the prestigious Paramount Studio. He ranted that Mabel had shot Taylor, when he failed to meet her demand. However, everyone knew that Sennett had ‘spies’ following Mabel everywhere, and he knew what she did, why she did it, and with whom she did it. This made The King of Comedy a prime suspect, on the grounds that his star was about to decamp. In true Hollywood style though, the captains of the industry began to push the blame on others outside of Hollywood. They put the blame on a figure on the very edges of Tinseltown, the mother of Paramount starlet, Mary Miles Minter, another actress who’d had an intense relationship with Taylor. Chaplin kept well away from this mess, as the press were already after him. He was another ‘bad person’, and not only did he know Mabel well, he also knew that other bad boy, Roscoe Arbuckle, just as well. Only two Hollywood figures were brave enough to come to Mabel’s door at this time, Constance Talmadge and, curiously, perhaps, Mary Miles Minter.
Mary Miles Minter talks to Mabel Normand
W.D. Taylor’s courtyard residence.
Eventually the heat against Mabel died down, although the police continued to investigate Mary Miles Minter, her mother, and Mack Sennett. While Chaplin remained aloof, and ran his life from Doug and Mary’s Pickfair mansion, Mabel intensified her relationship with his co-star, or stooge, Edna Purviance. Mabel, as we’ve already seen maintained grudges forever, and her biggest grudge must have been against Edna, the girl who stole Chaplin from her. The story is a confused one. Mabel became overly friendly with Edna at a time when her film Extra Girl was gaining top reviews (late 1923) while Edna was heading downwards. Chaplin wanted to ditch her, but as she was the main contributor to his success (by her compliance). He could not simply discard her. Instead, he intended to give Edna her own career, by starring her in a film called A Woman of Paris. Not unsurprisingly, the film was a flop, but at least Chaplin could say that he’d tried. In the throws of her despair, Mabel was there to help her and support her, as she had supported Olive Thomas’ and Marilyn Miller’s mothers along with many others in the past.
Mabel and Edna party it up with Court on a yacht.
Along with Edna came a certain oil tycoon named Courtland Dines. Now, it seems, Edna (like many actresses) had decided that marriage to a millionaire was the right way out of the Hollywood pit. She clung to ‘Court’ like a leach, and had convinced herself that an engagement was on the horizon. But, Edna, although beautiful, was a dull companion. Naturally, our intrepid oilman had his sights set on someone more interesting and lively – Edna’s friend Mabel, the madcap, the elf, the Queen of Clowns. Edna often associated with Mabel with Court in tow, but, unknown to Chaplin’s girl, Mabel was seeing her lover behind her back. Chinese whispers went around among Mabel’s household staff. Their adorable queen was getting herself into another dangerous love triangle. Mrs Ethel Burns, a close friend, and sometime housekeeper, warned her of the dangers of associating with the hot-headed Dines.
Mabel in Beverly Hills, 1925, with a ‘no-gun’ chauffeur.
For whatever reason, Mabel did not listen, and flew into a tantrum, and screamed that, if she was so stupid, she’d blow her brains out with her .25 pistol. The staff remained vigilant, and even considered getting rid of the gun. Then, on New Years Day 1924, a great calamity befell Mabel and her loyal household. Her chauffeur went to pick up Mabel from a small party at Courtland Dines’ apartment, and, after an brief altercation with Dines, he shot at the loud-mouthed oilman four times, with Mabel’s gun. One of the shots pierced Dine’s lung, a wound from which he nearly died. The blame, as well as falling on the chauffeur, fell on Court, Mabel and Edna as well. All three had been drunk, and none of them could give a plausible story. A preliminary examination brought Mabel and Edna to court, but the trial was dropped, as Dines had refused to testify. The case was closed, but the two actresses’ careers were badly damaged. Mabel was able to travel the country, and save her film, but Edna was more or less finished in Hollywood. Her dreams of marriage were shattered, when Dines departed for Arizona without her. Chaplin could not help, but put Edna on a life-long pension. Did Mabel consider all of this sweet revenge, for Edna’s ‘theft’ of Chaplin? We will never know, but Mabel soon went on a national theatrical tour. She made at least 2 million dollars from the Extra Girl and the stage show. While she busied herself buying and fitting out an unpretentious mansion in Beverly Hills, old connections in Tinseltown were breaking down, the Fairbankses drew up the drawbridge at Pickfair, and the film tycoons consulted on how to get rid of the old Hollywood guard that had behaved so badly, and had held them over a barrel, while they mugged them.
Chaplin, Pickford, Griffith and Fairbanks create United Artists.
What Chaplin did next.
Chaplin was occupied in 1925 with finishing and publicizing his new film The Gold Rush. Now the black clouds were to descend on the tramp. While in New York, and while his wife Lita Grey, was having his child back in L.A., Charlie struck up an intense relationship with a young Ziegfield dancer and vamp extraordinaire by the name of Louise Brooks. Their two-month long passionate affair did not go unnoticed, and before long the press came up with a sheaf of photographs showing Louise posing nude. The papers had a field day, and Chaplin dropped ‘Brooksie’ like a hot potato. What did Mabel Normand think about this? Quite frankly, she would have been disgusted, but would have put the blame ‘that whore’ Louise Brooks, rather than Chaplin.
Louise meets Charlie cartoon 1925.
Chaplin was intent on resurrecting his career, but there is some evidence that the big producers, as well as the press, were out to ‘get’ Chaplin if they could. By the film tycoons, he was hated for being the instigator of the actor’s revolution that produced, with the aid of Doug and Mary, the United Artists production and distribution company back in 1919. thereby stalling their plan of taking the actors to the cleaners.
‘Old hands’ Charlie and Mabel get together at a premiere in 1927.
Still Hanging on.
Chaplin had little time for Mabel, although they met publicly on various occasions. After Mabel had her ‘sham’ marriage of 1926, and her helter-skelter film making at Roach, the pair’s social circles span in different circles, and Mabel’s respiratory problems became so great that she began to lose her mind, By 1929, she could barely make the effort to socialize to any great extent. In late September she entered the Pottenger Sanitarium, for treatment. She never checked out, and died at the Institute on 22nd February 1930. The Queen of Clowns, who had survived so much in her short life, had passed on. There was nothing left for Charlie to do, but attend the funeral with thousands of others, and, along with the luminaries of the movie business, bear his Keystone Girl to her grave. Not one foot of film was shot that day in Hollywood, and Charlie, Roscoe Arbuckle and numerous others made their obituaries:
“She was one of the truest friends I have ever known and one of the most remarkable, brilliant and self-sacrificing women anyone has ever known. She was a great woman and a great character.”
“Mabel’s illness was of long standing. When I first knew her fifteen years ago, she was suffering from tuberculosis; but so brave was her spirit that she tossed off the threat with a gay indifference.”
Charles S. Chaplin 1930
“I think I just loved her (Mabel). When I was a kid I adored her, I worshipped her. But after I met and worked with her she was just a normal person!”
Co-star, Anita Garvin. 1970
Gone but not forgotten.
So, Mabel was gone, but was she forgotten by Charlie? Not at all. The fact is he was haunted by the memory and image of Mabel. Nor was he alone, Mabel’s brother and closest friend, Claude, was haunted in same way. Fifteen years later, still in mourning for his tragic sister, he took his own life, cut his throat, in the basement of the Gothic house Mabel had bought on Staten Island. The Keystone Girl had left this mortal coil just as Charlie was beginning work on the film City Lights. He’d selected his new co-star, Virginia Cherril, a blond, who had seemed ideal to play the blind girl in his picture. However, Chaplin was a changed man. All of a sudden he became cantankerous, obtuse and impossible to work with. He suffered numerous, sleepless nights, and whatever Virginia did, Chaplin was never pleased with her. His star began to stay away from the studio – there were always excuses, she was having her hair done, her mother had died, etc, etc. Chaplin began to rage, and in the end he fired Virginia. His backers and associates panicked, as so much money had already been expended, and if Cheryl was a dud, where could they quickly find a suitable star? Chaplin held his ground, and dropped another bombshell – the film would be silent. The mode of filming had been discussed before hand, and everyone agreed the film would contain at least some dialogue. Chaplin held his ground – the film would be silent, but it was impossible and financially suicidal to change the leading lady, and so Virginia stayed.
This behaviour, on the part of Chaplin, was unusual, even for him. His inner thoughts were revealed, as Chaplin set out to produce his next film. His leading lady would be dark-haired, and a gamine to boot. There would no more sultry blonds, who were decorative, but made no tangible contribution. His new girl would be mysterious, lively, and of poor background. In fact, a latter day Keystone Girl that could not be battered down. He chose Paulette Goddard, a girl that he began courting in 1930, and later married. Although dark and full of Irish spirit, Goddard (real name Levy) was of Jewish descent. Chaplin found her ‘gay and amusing’, which all sounds very familiar, as he’d applied these words to another gamine, more than 15 years previously. Like the other girl, she was from the east, had a pronounced Brooklyn accent, and was a scatter-wit with money, bringing $50,000 alimony to invest in a movie con scheme. Chaplin talked her out of it. Paulette turned out to be a creature of whims, just like Mabel, and a rift developed between them, following the release of Modern Times in 1935. Things became more and more strained, and Paulette packed up and left. She realized she’d made a mistake, realized Charlie was impossible. This is where she differed from Mabel – the Keystone Girl would never marry anyone, especially Charlie. They were too much alike. After the early bliss of married life, there would be the clink of cold steel, as he chained her to the kitchen sink. In the vein of Mabel, however, Paulette was dynamite for any big studio. After considering Paulette for the part of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, the Selznick company realized that the outspoken Paulette could harm their public image, as much as that silent star of long ago … what was her name… Mabel something?
Around 1935 also, another strange thing happened. Charlie volunteered to help Walt Disney on his animated feature version of Snow White. Chaplin advised on many aspects of the film, and helped bring it success. But, wait a minute, shouldn’t a star character of the mid-1930s be a blond, a Jean Harlow carbon copy? This cartoon star had dark hair, with heavy lidded, sultry eyes, and a sweet mouth. Her personality was strangely reminiscent of the silent star, popularly known as Madcap Mabel. Against all expectations the film was a complete success. Elsewhere in Hollywood a certain bankrupt producer, named Mack Sennett, was taking note. Since his studio had folded, he’d given many interviews in which he’d referred to his actresses, non-specifically, as his ‘Beauties’. Things had changed; he now had a type that he could could use to forge a new career – a dark-haired beauty, with an engaging personality, Mabel Normand. He’d been watching a sultry, dark-haired actress called Louise Brooks, coming and going from the Roosevelt Hotel. Just perhaps….nah, she wasn’t quite right. Then, using his ‘great intellect’, as Mabel sarcastically called it, he decided he would launch a new career using, not a Mabel lookalike, but the memory of Mabel.
A dark-haired temptress, but could she be Mabel?
The rest is history. A film, loosely based on Mabel’s character, was released in 1940 by Republic Studios, called Hollywood Cavalcade. Co-incidentally with the release, a party of ‘a thousand stars’ was held at Republic (Sennett’s old studio) where amid an assembly of all the contemporary stars plus many stars of the silent era, the new Mabel Normand Sound-stage was dedicated. A bronze plaque, still extant and weighing 200 pounds, was affixed to the studio wall. Mack Sennett gave a speech saying “We dedicate this stage to the memory of Mabel Normand. Briefly… a little girl with a golden heart.”
The words on the plaque can be seen on the site page for these blogs: ‘The Life and Times of Mabel Normand’.
Beyond 1940, Mack published his autobiography, a badly concealed memorial to Mabel Normand. He was instrumental in getting another film released, based on Mabel’s life and her ongoing career, if she had lived. It starred ex-Sennett and Chaplin girl, Gloria Swanson, and was called Sunset Boulevard. A very bad stage show arrived in 1970, based loosely on Sennett’s autobiography called ‘Mack and Mabel’. Versions of the play still turn up today on stages around the world. Sennett, having put Mabel’s name out in the modern world, caused many books and songs to be written about her. A short while back, a short film called Mabel’s Dressing Room was released, and, of course, there is the famous 1970s pop song ‘Hello Mabel’. Then, in the early 1990’s, Richard Attenborough, released the film Chaplin in which’Tricky Dickie’ tried to destroy Mabel’s reputation. That bonehead was unsuccessful.
Gloria Swanson plays a crazy, aging Mabel in Sunset Boulevard. 1950.
Where was Chaplin when all this was going on? Perhaps, because he was promoting The Great Dictator, or to avoid embarrassment, he just did not show at the Republic party. Paulette Goddard appeared in the film, but this was her last appearance for Chaplin. Soon after, Chaplin was considering another film, Shadow and Substance, for which a young dark-haired beauty, of Irish descent, auditioned. Her name was Oona O’neil and she was 17 years old. Irish she was, but although she had the sweetness and gentleness of Mabel, she lacked the drive, ruthless pursuit of fame, and sharp sarcastic wit of The Girl from Staten Island. This, of course, was what Chaplin desired. He soon married Oona, but he would never have married the fearless Madcap Mabel, nor would he have cast her in his films. While Chaplin was now beyond compliant actresses, he certainly did not want a strong-willed gamine as a wife (he’d already tried that). Charlie and Oona remained married until Charlie’s death in 1988. In his later run of films he never cast a blond as leading lady.
Charlie and Oona.
Mabel Normand undoubtedly used powerful men to further her career, but she never went to the length of marrying them. Mack Sennett held a grip on his little clown for longer than anybody, but there is no evidence they were lovers. Her relationship with Chaplin was more profound, and would have gone further, but for the spectre of Sennett. What would have happened if the two had got together as a team in 1915. We would probably have had films of the like we have never seen. This would have been their legacy, although the genius Chaplin, that we now hail, would not have existed.