WALKING THE WALK WITH CHARLIE CHAPLIN.

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“It’s a dirty old man!” The tramp first time out (Mabel’s Strange Predicament 1914).

One of the biggest mysteries in film comedy, is how Chaplin came up with his tramp character. However, contemporary reviews of his early films, suggest that his walk was more important to audiences, rather than who he was, or who he represented. A master-stroke? You bet, and he lived off the back of the walk for decades. In general, we now accept the story of the advent of the flat-footed tramp, as ‘given’ but how did the little guy actually come about? Let’s look at the evidence.

From Music Hall to Keystone Comedies.

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Marie Doro.

The first mystery that we have, is that of how Chaplin came to be at Keystone. Mack Sennett said, in his autobiography, that he’d seen Chaplin in his English Music Hall show and thought he’d be just right for his slapstick outfit. Chaplin, as we all know, was a knockabout comic, who specialised in playing a drunk, although he’d extra’d in ‘proper’ stage shows, and had even appeared with the great American star, Marie Doro (‘The most beautiful girl in the world’). Consequently, Mack asked his bosses, Kessell and Baumann, to locate the limey and sign him up. In her short autobiography of 1924, Mabel Normand said that she could not remember who had seen Chaplin, or who had thought it a good idea to sign him up. Sennett’s story might have seemed plausible, except that we know he had an intense dislike of theatre and vaudeville performers. He preferred to take someone off the street, then train them up to meet his own requirements. Theatricals were swollen-headed and insolent, as, indeed, were some dramatic movie stars, like Mabel. It might have been a casual remark to Kessell and Baumann, after Mack had seen Charlie, that made them think about bringing in Chaplin. Keystone, of course, would have been THE place for a knock-about comic to work, and it could be that Charlie actively set out to get within the, not so grand, gates of Keystone. There is a suspicion that he sought the help of an agent to secure a place for him at the world’s greatest slapstick studio. Another attraction, naturally, was the Keystone Girl. Could he worm his way into Mabel’s affections? Well, he’d had some success in the past, but most actresses had stage mothers that did not like the cut of Chaplin’s jib. Now, Mabel, he knew, had no stage mother. For Mabel’s part, she had a description of Charlie from Mary Pickford, who’d seen him in a restaurant in 1912, and she would have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of this young, toussel-haired bohemian. Beyond this, we must remember that Chaplin was a Kessell and Baumann signing, Kessell and Baumann, being the chief shareholders in Keystone Comedies. The pair never really trusted Sennett and would be glad to get ‘their own man’ into the studio. Mabel had been ‘their own woman’ until Sennett signed her directly in 1913.  To understand the situation after Charlie’s arrival at Keystone, we need to look at the major players in this saga, starting with Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand.

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Everyone’s doing the Tramp Walk. Chaplin judges a contest in 1921.

Mack and Mabel.

To comprehend the relationship between Mack and Mabel, we must forget about the old saga of Mack and Mabel the lovers. This relationship, however, is relevant to the story of Charles Spencer Chaplin. In her seminal book on the early film industry, Mrs Linda Griffith does not mention any amorous connection between Mack and Mabel, although she acknowledges that Mack did become interested in Mabel, after she’d achieved stardom at the Vitagraph studio in 1911. Mack, about to launch his own studio under Kessell and Baumann’s New York Motion Pictures concern, showered Mabel with diamonds, some of which she accepted and some of which she refused. Mabel was fickle, but her name, professional ability and range, encompassing drama, comedy and tragedy, meant that he had to persevere. Mabel’s athleticism and fearlessness were, naturally, well known and made her entirely suited to slapstick, bearing in mind that she rarely fell about the set, and instead concentrated on her diving and other athletic abilities.

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Not married, not lovers, just actress and producer.

How Sennett ever managed to poach Mabel from under the nose of D.W. Griffith is one of the great mysteries of history, but it meant that, for the first and only time, he had a Griffith-trained dramatic star under contract. For ever after, he defended his star against all-comers, until the formidable Sam Goldwyn lured her away in 1917 (although Mack got her back in 1921). At Biograph studios, Mabel had switched effortlessly between Sennett-directed comedies and Griffith dramas, sometimes starring alone, and sometimes with Blanche Sweet or Mary Pickford. It seems likely that Mack promised Mabel drama-based comedies at Keystone, which would have made Mabel amenable to moving west.

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No slapstick please.

The numerous arguments that erupted between the pair between 1913 and 1915, probably arose as Mack reneged on the deal. Throughout 1913, Mabel fought for every bit of drama she could find, but Mack just wanted more and more slapstick, which was, after all, his bread-winning genre. Although some people claim that Mabel was a mere slapsticker, they should note that she rarely indulged in this kind of nonsense. She got physical by doing graceful dives into lakes, falling off cliffs, rampaging on bare horseback, driving race cars, or flying in string-bag aircraft. In her whole career only around four pies ever connected with Mabel’s cute face, although she waved many revolvers in people’s faces. To say Mabel was a precious treasure would be an understatement, and Mack Sennett knew it.

Charlie and The Fun Factory.

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A rare event. A pie in the face.

In his various interviews and his autobiography, Chaplin was very coy about the way that he discovered his tramp character. The story varied slightly depending on the circumstances, but basically this is what he said happened. He’d been hanging around the studio for weeks, watching the various actors at work, then one day he was grabbed by actor/director and fake Frenchman Henri ‘Pathe’ Lehrman, and thrown into a disreputable film called ‘Making A Living’. He was given no advice about costume or characterisation, and unwisely chose a frock coat, a plug hat and a monocle. The result was a disaster, and he looked completely ridiculous. Charlie knew he could be funny, but now he was totally dejected, and felt like chucking the whole thing in. Mack and Mabel had been away on location, and when they returned Charlie hoped for a better chance, for Mabel had made it clear that she had some interest in him. As he watched Mack and Mabel setting up a hotel lobby scene, Mack asked Charlie to go and put on a funny costume. Charlie combed the prop room and came up with a scruffy tight jacket, voluminous trousers, perched derby hat, and over-sized shoes. When attired in the costume, and swinging a cane, he was imbued with the tramp’s character, and the walk came naturally. Mack threw the tramp into the lobby scene and told him to make like a drunk. Charlie obeyed, and put his Music Hall drunk into action. Mack was impressed, and allowed Charlie the whole 55 second scene to himself. The film was Mabel’s Strange Predicament, which was where the tramp had been born, and Charlie embarked on his movie career.

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Mabel had some interest in Charlie (Gentlemen of Nerve).

We know there are problems with Charlie’s account, although some of it is undoubtedly true. Let’s look at some facts about Keystone’s early relationship with Chaplin. Sennett was very suspicious of Charlie, from the moment he set eyes on him. He was a young, handsome bohemian kind of guy that might easily turn Mabel’s equally young and passionate head. This little limey might run off with her, in the same way that Mack had run off with her, eighteen months earlier. In a downtown restaurant in L.A. Mack told Charlie he thought he was too young for the studio, but Mabel disagreed. She was of course surrounded by middle-aged and married men, so Charlie appeared to be a breath of fresh air to this red-bloodied and spirited girl. However, Sennett’s comment and the release of a film (Mabel’s Dramatic Career) in which Mack sets out to kill an actor that stole his girl, failed to daunt Charlie, although he does state that he went to the studio twice, but was too afraid to enter. However, he knew he had the support of Kessell and Baumann, so he eventually walked onto the lot. Mack, naturally, ignored the little limey, but he also took pains to prevent Mabel from coming into contact with him. Charlie was only aware of her whereabouts on the lot, by observing the knots of crewmen around the place, and the sudden rush towards certain sets, which indicated The Keystone Girl was on stage. Indeed, Mack and Mabel did go on location, during which they probably filmed the scene of Mabel entering the Hotel Raymond in Pasadena, which was used in Mabel’s Strange Predicament. We might guess that Mabel’s return was the catalyst that secured him a part in the picture. There can be little doubt that the crew and actors were sniggering about the egotistical Chaplin being left to ‘wither on the vine’ and it is possible that Mabel felt sorry for the “poor deeah.” Sorry for him, or not, Mabel seems to have been livid, when she discovered Charlie had been given the 55 second opening scene, and refused to work with him for almost two months. We must conclude that the New York bosses had something to do with the opening scene, and it’s worth remembering that this was exactly what they expected of Charlie.

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“Oh no! It’s that old tramp again.”

Now we have to consider if Charlie had thought up the idea of the tramp all on his lonesome. Fact is that the tramp character was not unknown at Keystone. Fact also, is that Sennett’s own Keystone character was a scruffy guy, very tramp like, but more of a country boy–turned American hobo. Chaplin seems to have taken the scruffy Sennett character and turned him into a hybrid of the likeable but wily old English tramp, and the more aggressive American hobo. If Charlie was astute, he might have noticed that, while everyone at Keystone had an identifiable character, they also had their own walk. Sennett had his ungainly, dim country boy walk, and he ensured that all his actors had an appropriate gait – if they didn’t have a walk, he gave them one. Louise Fazenda was given the hop-skip walk of the ingenue, and Vivian Edwards an equally little-girl walk. Roscoe always had to a have an uncoordinated manner about him, even though he was actually quite athletic. Mabel had her own real-life walk, where she glided around as though on wheels. However, Mack gave her a screen walk by simply speeding up the film, although Mabel had her own impetuous screen walk, which said “f..k you” (best seen in He Did and He Didn’t).

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Two Sennett hobos: Left: 1910. Right: 1914

Conclusions

There is no reason to suppose that Chaplin had actually invented the tramp, a character already known from the English Music Hall and at Keystone Studios. His stroke of genius was the tramp’s walk, never seen before in the U.S., although, those that have studied the English Music Hall, say that the shuffling gait was already well-established in that branch of the theatre. Nonetheless, the walk struck a chord with the movie-going public. We might say that he was indeed very fortunate, in being taken under the wing of Keystone’s greatest actress, Mabel Normand. Although a handsome guy, at both Keystone and Karno he was regarded as an egotistical, sulky and thoroughly obnoxious little swine. However, Mabel took him in, and he discovered new things about acting. Melancholy and tragedy were then unknown to him, but, being a melancholic fella himself, he soon picked it all up from Mabel, who had trained for drama under the great D.W. Griffith (whose resident tragedienne she was) and for comedy under the equally great John Bunny. In all probability it was Mabel that urged Charlie to get a character and a walk, before Sennett forced one upon him. Charlie’s main character, obviously, was the drunk, and it is noticeable that the tramp is always, always drunk, so the basis of his screen character was ready to go, when he first arrived at Keystone – Mabel filled in the rest.

 

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Sennett scruffy guy walk, 1913. Mabel’s Dramatic Career.

A quick note: Mabel refused to work with Chaplin for two months after the ‘Strange Predicament’ first scene fiasco. In around March 1914, Mabel began shooting a new film that was very much different to the run of the mill Keystone stuff. It had a strong story, and was partly dramatic in temper. It was called ‘Mabel At The Wheel’ and The Keystone Girl wanted no slapstickers in it. However, big bosses Kessell and Baumann wanted Chaplin in, and Baumann specifically came out to L.A. to keep an eye on things. He didn’t go to the studio, but sent daughter, Ada, to appear in the film, alongside Mabel. Charlie played the villain in the picture, but it was decreed (by Mabel?) that he revert to the subdued costume of ‘Making A Living’. Charlie complied, and used his slapstick as requested. Having bowed to the Queen on this point, his progress was assured.

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Bibliography.

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

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

Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006).

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

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

 

 

 

 

LOVE IN A MALIBU BEACH HOUSE: ‘FATTY AND MABEL ADRIFT’ 1916.

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This film was one of the series of the Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand ‘country lovers’ series, in which farm-hand Fatty and farm-girl Mabel acted out their innocent love lives. They were not entirely restricted to the rural setting, of course, and were sometimes neighbours or met by chance at a fairground. Boy meets girl pictures have always been popular with the public and this series was no exception. They are remarkable for several reasons, one being that this was the first time that anyone was allowed to properly kiss the Keystone Girl, which of course made Fatty the envy of every red-bloodied male in the world. Mabel had made married and lover films in 1914 with Charlie Chaplin, but Sennett never allowed any signs of affection between them. Mack, we know, was very suspicious of Chaplin, and if he allowed them to become a ‘love team’ in the eyes of the public, they might easily take their act elsewhere. However, Mack and Mabel had often played lovers, but the kisses were always just pecks.

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Ever wondered when movie stars first hit the beach at Malibu? Fatty and Mabel had one in 1915. The film is one of Keystone’s better efforts, which could have been opened out into a full-blown feature. Unfortunately, the main shareholders, Kessell and Baumann, had decreed that a feature could only be headlined by an established star from the theatre, meaning that early features were few and far between. Despite their popularity, Roscoe and Mabel hated these roles, with Fatty as the jovial fat boy and Mabel as the virtuous / innocent gamin. Mack Sennett, though, was determined to make changes at the studio, and was minded to stamp out the drama and tragedy that pervaded the Charlie and Mabel films of the previous year. Mabel had taken the lonesome and much-derided Charlie under her wing, but there was a price to pay. In their films, while Charlie could slapstick as much as he wanted, he had to accept Mabel’s frequent returns to her original genres of drama and tragedy. As everyone knows, Charlie was a good learner, and took Mabel’s ideas with him to Essanay Studios. Now, however, Mack was swinging the rope, and expected everyone to jump.

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The Film’s importance.

This film was completed at the end a particularly difficult year for Mabel, during which Mack tried to humble and humiliate her, and bring in unknown actresses and bathing beauties that he reckoned could replace Mabel at a cheap rent. Mabel, however, had been busy ingratiating herself with Keystone bosses, Kessell and Baumann, as well as Harry Aitken of Keystone’s distributors, Triangle Films. By a piece of clever piece of manoeuvring, she arranged for herself, Roscoe Arbuckle and a small company to travel east and make films while under loan to Triangle / New York Motion Pictures at Fort Lee, New Jersey. Further manoeuvring got her a lucrative contract with Mutual, which further led to Triangle and Keystone being panicked into handing over Keystone’s new Hollywood studio to Mabel, for her own exclusive use, under a new company, The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company. She arrived back in L.A. to a heroine’s welcome, being the first actor to put their name above a studio. Fatty and Mabel Adrift, then, was the last short film that Mabel produced under the Keystone Banner – except for ‘He Did and He Didn’t’, which, however, was filmed at the New York Motion Picture studio, in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and was in production as ‘Adrift’ was released.

The Film.

It would be interesting to know what people around the world thought of Keystone movies, in regard to the setting. They would certainly be surprised that they were filmed within the bounds of the city of Los Angeles, as it all looks like the wild west. Hollywood, by then well known, didn’t look much different, with much of Sunset Boulevard having a rural aspect. Most certainly,’ Adrift’ was filmed, apart from the seaside sequence, on and around the studio lot in far from salubrious, Edendale.

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Sunset Boulevard 1910.

The beach scenes were filmed at Twin Rocks, between Santa Monica and Malibu, an area where Norwegian and Japanese fisherfolk had their small, rough-built villages. Mack and Mabel were no strangers to these places, which were utilised by their studio, Biograph, when making sea films. Mary Pickford and Mabel were starred in The Mender of Nets here, and D.W. Griffith cleverly contrived his shots, so that it looked as though the story played out in a Norwegian fiord. By the by, Roscoe and Minta Arbuckle had a beach house in Santa Monica at this time, and they had a weekend lodger by the name of Mabel Normand.

Here’s the cast:

Mabel Normand: A country maid.

Roscoe Arbuckle: A farm hand.

Al St. John: Hiram Perkins’ son.

Mai Wells: Mabel’s mother.

Frank Hays: Mabel’s father.

Wayland Trask: Brutus Bombastic.

Glen Cavendar: Dodgy realtor.

Joe Bordeaux: Realtor’s chauffeur.

Luke the dog: Luke (Roscoe’s dog).

Date of release: 9th January 1916.

Directed by: Roscoe Arbuckle

The Plot.

 

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Oh no, the adrift scenes were filmed in the Keystone tank!

Well, well, if Fatty and Mabel aren’t puppy lovers down on the farm. Here they romp around in the hay, among those resident Keystone animals, the cows, the ducks and Roscoe’s dog, Luke. Roscoe is, as Roscoe is, but Mabel has weaved some magic on her hair, which makes her particularly alluring, even though she wears the obligatory gingham and farm girl boots. Frank Hays, of the chiselled wood features, plays Mabel’s father, and for once Alice Davenport isn’t her mother. All is rural bliss, until Hiram Perkins of the farm next door, sends his son around, asking for Mabel’s fair hand. Meanwhile, a realtor pulls off the road with a punctured tyre. While Roscoe lifts the car without a jack, the realtor, a certain I. Landem, has words with Mabel’s parents, as the maid herself has gets waylaid by the farmer’s son. Roscoe soon fixes the puncture, and blows up the tyre by mouth, just as the dodgy realtor returns, having sold Mabel’s parents a seaside pad, which they want to give to their daughter as a wedding present. Realising that the farmer’s boy is interfering with Mabel, Roscoe steams in and sends the villain packing, with a pitchfork in his backside, and a dog chomping at his heels. All ends well, or seems to, when Roscoe and Mabel marry. As usual, Mabel is somewhat ambivalent about the wedding (In real life, Mabel loved diamonds and collected plenty of engagement rings, but was never keen on a plain band of gold). The happy couple pile into a hay cart, and are off on their married life.

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Fatty and Mabel got married.

Fatty and Mabel move into Hollywood star’s Malibu pad, but Fatty’s rival has other ideas. He employs Brutus Bombastic (abductions, merders and robberies dun) to help him break up the happy home. A funny bit occurs in one scene, where Mabel lovingly bakes some scones, but when she drops the overweight and rock hard cakes on a plate, the thing shatters, and there follows a classic demonstration of the Normand blending of facial expressions. A technical first appears (so they say) when Mabel calls Roscoe in for his dinner, when the sea can be viewed in a window alongside her. Roscoe is fishing on the beach alongside his dog, and a comical scene occurs, as he catches a wayward shark.

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Inside, the pair are joined at dinner by Luke the dog. Fatty tries to cut one of the rock cakes, but fails, as Mabel tries to look unconcerned. He passes the rock to Luke, who turns up his nose, so he taps the cake with a knife and puts it to his ear, like a tuning fork. Mabel breaks down and starts crying, so Roscoe takes her into his arms and starts to comfort her, meanwhile attacking the scones and pretending to eat them. This cheers Mabel up. Just then. the dog alerts them to the fact he’s seen a face at the window. It is, of course, Hiram Perkins’ son, the loser in love. Fatty dashes out and sees the villain off, but sonny boy soon runs into the evil Brutus Bombastic and his gang, who agree to help him out — for a small fee.

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Tsunami!!!

 

 

That night a storm erupts, which pounds the little house, and sees water pouring through the poorly fitted window frames. There follow several funny scenes in which Mabel is scared to death and dives into bed with Luke the dog. Preceding these scenes though is the famous kissing scene, where Fatty and Mabel pucker up, before bed. Notice, though, that they don’t share a bed or even a bedroom, but that it is OK for Mabel to sleep with a dog. This was a perpetual theme for Mack Sennett that he used elsewhere, including the 1914 picture Mabel’s Strange Predicament. He found it most hilarious.

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During the storm, the devious gang go to the beach house and knock the flimsy structure off its foundations. The house floats away, out to sea. The following scenes have to be seen, rather than read about. They are, at once, both scary and very funny. Mabel, of course, by her numerous and varied reactions, makes these scenes, as well as the picture. Those that loved her swimming and diving films, would love the fact that she disappears underwater on several occasions, and has to be rescued by the gallant Roscoe. Avid Mabel followers would have known, however, that it was Mabel that usually did the rescuing. Indeed, she rescued the rotund Roscoe from the Hollenbeck lake in the film ‘The Little Teacher’.

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Some notes on the film.

  • So, Fatty and Mabel had a Malibu movie star beach house in 1915. However, this was a $50 shack, of a kind that were scattered all along the seashore at this time. Roscoe and Minta Arbuckle had one at this time. Here’s the fact — actors found it cheaper to live out on the coast than in the city, and hang the inconvenience. Later, it became cheaper to live in Hollywood, than Santa Monica or Malibu.
  • By the time this picture was released, Roscoe and Mabel were in New Jersey, on loan to the Triangle Company. Roscoe returned in early March 1916, but Mabel stayed put. When she later returned, it was under ‘The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company’. She never worked for Keystone again.
  • There is a scene, where Fatty lifts the front of a car with one hand. As he begins to lift, we see  someone moving at the back corner of the car. It looks as though Fatty didn’t lift the front, but that someone pushed down on the back. Possibly a rear spring had been removed to enable the back to move down.
  • The public loved the ‘Fatty and Mabels’, but the evidence is that the co-stars thought they were cheap, silly and lacking in artistic content. Any amount of technical ‘firsts’ (if they were firsts) could not change this.
  • Score: 8/10 for sheer ‘amusability’ and having everything covered.

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SCUM FROM THE GUTTER! THE STORY OF THE EARLY HOLLYWOOD STARS.

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The ‘angelic’ Mabel Normand on screen.

Contents:

  • Introduction
  • The Journey to Stardom
  • A Drift to L.A.
  • Mabel Normand: A Case Study
  • Conclusions

Introduction.

When you enter the world of the silent movies, you are entering a world totally different world to that in which we live today. Historians will tell you that the past is a different place – they do things differently there. And, so it is with the early motion picture, and its stars that possessed the air of mystery hung around them, made more mysterious by the fact that they never spoke. Like the gods of the ancients they only spoke through the medium of mere humans – producers and directors. The mystery remained, until the era ended, with the introduction of sound, and like the gods of old, the stars toppled from their plinths and shattered into smithereens on the ground. Who were the silent stars, where did they come from, how did they take the public by storm, and become a fascination for a generation? Well, it was not an easy ride.

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D.W. Griffith’s Biograph studio, Santa Monica 1911.

The Journey to stardom.

In his autobiography of 1954, Mack Sennett wrote:

“When you get right down to it, there is no such place as Hollywood.”

He was right – in a way. What he meant was that there was no one place where the film industry resided. However, Hollywood was a real place, and until the City Fathers of Los Angeles took it over, it had been an idyllic rural town. Founded in the late 19th Century, Hollywood became a haven for those that wanted to escape the developing bedlam in the east. Many folks were lured by the promise of a better life, their own plot of land with a house upon it, all beyond the reach of the greedy Revenue Service. For some reason, Hollywood became the main destination for migrating Iowans, and they jealously guarded their newly-found paradise. They regarded outsiders with suspicion, especially cowboys, anyone resembling a carpet-bagger, and the acting fraternity. In 1909, a hook-nosed confederate gentleman called D.W. Griffith, came to Hollywood from New York, in search of a temporary studio lot, but was given short shrift by the suspicious Hollywooders. They sent the future genius packing, to down-town Los Angeles. They knew about actors – all the scum of the earth, and actresses – whores every one of them.

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They could spot an actress at at 200 yards. ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’.

A Drift to L.A.

1912 found a certain Mack Sennett in Los Angeles with Mr. Griffith. He too needed a studio lot, and Hollywood was tempting, but he was met with abuse and twelve-gauge shotguns. Mack didn’t give up, and went to upmarket Glendale, where he was given three minutes to get out of town. Downcast and beaten, Mack dejectedly rolled into the inaptly named Edendale, nestled between the two posher places. The place looked very much like the Dodge City of Wyatt Earp, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, and he accepted an old yard, formerly housing Bison Films, with a collection of ramshackle sheds planted upon it. To this improbable studio, he brought, as Adela Rogers St. John tells us, “his star-of-stars, Mabel Normand, for ever and ever the Queen of Clowns.” The Selig company had beaten Keystone to Edendale, but other small film companies had drifted in and out, over a short period of time. Kalem had a star-of-stars, by the name of Alice Joyce, a friend and former colleague of Mabel in the modelling line. Alice worked between New York and Los Angeles, and knew a lot about the city of the angels. The ‘angels’ were far from being angelic, and in a town with the highest homicide rate in the U.S., they could spot an actress at 200 yards. There were tales of movie girls being spat on by women as they rode the trolley, or whacked around the head, with well-weighted  handbags, in the belief that the girls were there to steal their menfolk. In the early days, a gaggle of Angelenoes had followed the Griffith company out to a location. During a slightly steamy scene, a woman stepped forward and slapped an actress called Mary Pickford around the face. Before her group could cheer and jeer, they found themselves running for their lives, pursued down the road by a small dark girl brandishing a tree branch, intent on bashing their thick skulls in.

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Too close for some people. Mabel in ‘Her Awakening’ 1911.

By 1912, the movie industry had established itself in the USA. Still mainly based in New York and New Jersey, some of the former abusers of L.A. were rolling into the studios looking for extra work. Those in Edendale were happy to do menial graft, although residents of Aarron Street, Edendale, were not amused by the number foul-mouthed cowboys gathering on the corner, waiting for work from Keystone or Kalem. New actresses coming to Keystone, like Louise Fazenda and Gloria Swanson, moved into Edendale, and were happy to do so. Early on, Mabel had rejected Sennett’s idea that she should live close by the studio. She was a city girl, and no way would she live anywhere than in downtown, and at the Alexandria Hotel to boot. She drove to the studio every day, to avoid the dreaded trollies, but after a few brushes with the law, she demanded a chauffeured car to pick her up each morning. Sennett learned that true stars didn’t come cheap.

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Edendale and the studio lot as Sennett found it.

By 1913, many of the movie magazines had come into being, and they served as a hedge against the abuse that was launched by some newspapers against the movie people. They, along with the studios, created the dream world of silent film – the actors were heroic, the actresses were beautiful heroines, though also damsels in distress, awaiting their shining knights. Actors were portrayed as ‘clean cut’ and the actresses were all chaste, wholesome and unusually pure. Some newspaper men were, however, on the prowl, as by 1916, the big stars were beginning to become reticent and reluctant to give personal interviews. Below the surface, the press men were building up a smouldering resentment against ‘the dark stars’ but for the time being, they carried on printing the studio blurb, about how this or that star had brought their ageing mother out to Hollywood to share in their success, or had made a donation to a local hospital or orphanage. The stars spent their time, it was claimed, perusing literary works in their vast libraries, playing healthy games, like croquet and golf, or undertaking a little ballroom dancing. The public at large believed this, and the photographs they had of the stars, with the sunlight glistening through their hair, seemed to prove how angelic they all were.

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Mabel gets ‘intellectual’ as movie fans riot at Olive Thomas’ funeral

During the late 1910s, a plethora of unsavoury episodes had occurred in the movie industry, which by bribery and other means, had been covered up and went unreported. In 1917, producer Adolph Zukor, Roscoe Arbuckle and other movie people arranged a party in New York, to which a local Madame brought a selection of her young courtesans. One of them turned out to be a minor, and later threatened Zukor and Arbuckle with a law suit. Zukor handed the case to a certain W.D. Taylor, who paid the ‘minor’ off and did the same regarding a reporter, who’d got a sniff of the story. In 1920, Taylor was again brought in to deal with the unexplained deaths of three stars, Clarine Seymour, Bobby Harron and Olive Thomas along with a Hollywood stuntman. Taylor led a service for the dead stars, but at Olive Thomas’ funeral there was a public riot, as it was suspected that Olive, known as Everyone’s Sweetheart, had been murdered. Jack Pickford had been her husband, and a story arose that Jack’s sister, Mary, had something to do with the murder of The Sweetheart. Needless to say, Mary did not attend the funeral. Mary, of course, ran into her own problems in 1920, when she married Douglas Fairbanks, immediately after divorcing Owen Moore. Stories arose of Mary and Doug’s infidelity, and Mary was suspected of undergoing a backstreet abortion in 1909, which left her sterile. Fairbanks wisely offset the adverse publicity by courting the press, and behaving like a ‘swell guy’.

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Tragic stars: angel Clarine Seymour and Bobby Harron.

Mabel Normand: A Case Study.

It could be said that the media began to build up a dossier on the stars, unwittingly, in some cases. The stars, who all claimed to be literary buffs, appeared to be, to the journalists, totally uneducated. Some spoke with strong Bronx accents, some with ‘covered wagon’ mid-western drawls, or accents common down on Bourbon Street, while others clearly represented the great unwashed. Let’s take Mabel Normand as a case study. While she spoke softly in inoffensive and musical Brooklyn tones, there was some dispute over her place of origin. Mabel it turned out, had no birth certificate, but her mother said that she was born on Rhode Island and went to school on Staten Island. One keen journalist toured the schools on Staten Island, but no-one had ever heard of a Mabel Normand. He tried Rhode Island and Long Island, but with no success, so came to the conclusion that she’d never attended school. Probably, she’d ‘wasted’ her time among the actors at the Snug Harbour Seaman’s Home, where her father was Head of Entertainments. In these situations, the stars always countered by claiming they’d attended convent schools, not so uncommon amongst those of the Irish fraternity, to which most of the stars belonged. Mabel said she’d attended a convent school somewhere “Up near North Westport.” Later she said “My father taught me to play the piano, and my mother taught me to read.” The press men were suspicious, but the fall of the silent stars was not far off. In the meantime, while Mabel was in New York, she went to a dancehall with a screenwriter friend. Nothing wrong with that, but, back in the day, two females prowling a dancehall, made people suspicious. Seeing that the girls were attracting some male attention, a woman approached Mabel’s friend and hit her around the head with a handbag loaded with silver dollars. The woman had made a big mistake, for in assaulting the girl, she’d crossed Mabel’s path, and was soon spitting teeth. As the story went to press, Mabel’s studio intervened, hailing Mabel as a heroine, who’d saved a young girl from a vicious assault.

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Snug Harbor Sailor’s Home.

From 1919 through 1920, the movie mags were full of stories of Mabel falling critically ill with the influenza virus, pleurisy and pneumonia. A priest read the last rites over her, and a service was read in a local church. Mabel survived to make the blockbuster ‘Molly O’ but then the roof fell in on Hollywood. 1921 found Roscoe Arbuckle up on a charge of manslaughter, after he seemingly killed an actress in San Francisco. Following hard on Roscoe’s scandal, Mabel was questioned over the death Of William Desmond Taylor, who’d been shot, by an assailant unknown. While the police investigated, the press guys were combing their back files, and digging out anything they could throw at The Keystone Girl. They’d have their revenge, for the way Miss ‘Purity’ Mabel had treated them. A little snooping revealed that Mabel was having a love affair with Taylor, but this was no ordinary love affair – it was a love triangle, and the third corner was a young actress, Mary Miles Minter. Mary was nineteen, Mabel was thirty. Could it be that Taylor was dumping Mabel for Mary? They knew that Mabel carried a .25 automatic everywhere, but Taylor had been shot with a .38. Some reporters knew that Mabel used the firing range on the Keystone back-lot, shooting the studio’s .38 and .45 calibre guns, so she was no stranger to the bigger stuff. Looking back, the journos realised that Mabel had been involved in several love triangles before, and legend told that she’d had a thousand lovers, but between fifty and eighty would do for the press.

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Mabel was well used to handling guns. [The Gusher, 1913].

 The headline conclusion was that Mabel was a whore. Of course, a whore does it for money, but there was no evidence that Mabel ever charged for her ‘services’, and word had it that she lavished money on her men. Now all sorts of avenues opened up for the newspapers. What about the orphan boys that she picked off the streets in her car – where did she take them? What about her alleged affair with Jack Pickford, back when he was fourteen and a minor? Well, none of it cut any ice. Yes, she picked up orphans, but she took them to the races. Jack Pickford might have been fourteen, but back then, Mabel was only seventeen herself – and, crucially, a minor. However, the initial charge that Mabel was running around with all sorts of men, stuck. There was something else. Mabel had never had a chaperone or stage mother, since her earliest times in the movie business. This was very unusual, back in the Edwardian era, and meant that this impassioned girl was never supervised, and wasn’t it true that in 1912, again as a minor, she’d travelled sleeper class on a train with five men, during the 5-day journey from New York to Los Angeles? The press noted that Mabel had, contrary to normal practice, never brought her mother out to Hollywood to share in her success. Clearly, she didn’t want her mother to see the life she was leading, a life of wild parties, drunkenness and debauchery. In fact, it was well-known that Mabel had invented the wild Hollywood party, and had presumably corrupted many a young actress along the way.

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Mabel departs New York.

In June 1922, Mabel ran away to Europe to avoid the furore, just as the movie industry’s clean-up Czar, Will Hays, rolled into town, to a rapturous welcome and party at the Hollywood Bowl. Cops and press men awaited Mabel in New York, but she sidestepped the law, and no-one got to her, until after the ship had slipped its moorings. Someone filmed her, looking back with no little disdain at the U.S., and who could blame her for that? The ship seemed crowded with journalists, all eager for ‘Mabel stories’. Soon, some of the newsmen shipped back in launches, but an unexpectedly high number had tickets for the entire voyage. Reports were sent back of a drunken Mabel falling off bar stool and swimming naked in the ship’s pool. Meanwhile, back in the U.S. the press was still attacking the Babylon that was Hollywood. Only one ‘vulgarian of the gutter’ had left American shores, and the rest were still swilling around in the stinking sewage they called Tinsel Town. Tales were circulated about this actor or that actress, running around with cars full of ‘the hop’, when they weren’t, that is, running around with illicit booze. The Women’s Clubs of America had no option, but to come out against the ‘Hollywood whores’ and drew up a comprehensive list of bad women to add to the original sinful witch, Mabel Normand. To some, the problem lay with the movie producers that had lured starry-eyed youngsters to Hollywood with stories of awaiting fame and fortune. Young aspiring actresses soon found that general movie work was very poorly paid indeed, and they needed to do street corner work in order to survive. Furthermore, far too many movie people were roaming Los Angeles bearing firearms, and it was clear that these very firearms had made many people disappear, including W.D. Taylor. Miss Normand’s partner in crime was Mack Sennett, who many pressmen thought, should stand trial for the Taylor murder. Mabel must be weeded out of Europe, brought back, and forced to testify against her producer. Couldn’t she be given the newly-developed Truth Drug to loosen her silent lips? In amongst all this, there were some laughs. Cowboy turned comedian, Will Rogers, took the stage in Los Angeles, saying:

“Two people were shot in L.A. today – Mabel Normand must be back in town!”

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Will Hays rolls into a Hollywood welcome — but no Mabel.

 

It was after Mabel returned to New York that the press began a campaign to keep ‘the witch’ there, and prevent her from returning to the flesh-pots of the west. The view was that the entire movie industry should be shipped back east, where the authorities could keep a better eye on the disgusting vulgarians. Indeed, Mabel did consider staying in New York, which was a much livelier hub, and was much closer to Europe, should she decide to take up one of the many offers from European studios. As she partied, considered her options, then partied some more, there came some dramatic news – Sennett had begun a new feature film – and Mabel wasn’t the star! By a series of brilliant manoeuvres, Mabel managed to secure the star role for herself, and the impostor was sent packing. The film was important in bringing Mabel back into the fold and reinstating her paragon status. The plot concerned a young girl lured to Hollywood, but finding it full of crooks and charlatans, she gave up her pursuit of stardom, married, and lived happily ever after. Keen ‘Mabelites’ were aware that this was not the Keystone Girl, but the picture was good for her reputation and very good box office indeed.

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Mabel runs for it in Extra Girl (1923).

It proved difficult to pursue Mabel, now that the public had accepted her back, but the press soon turned their attentions to other film ‘scumbags’. An amount of flack was directed towards Mabel’s presumed partner in crime, the pervert, tax dodger and un-American Charlie Chaplin. Some made him the worst of the worst, and invented a new term for him ‘The vulgarian of the gutter’. Vulgarian of the gutter, yes, but one that spoke with an imposed aristocratic accent. He was noted down for destruction. They didn’t have to wait long. On New Year’s day 1924, Mabel’s chauffeur shot oil millionaire Courtland Dines — in the presence of the Naughty Normand and Chaplin’s leading lady,  Edna Purviance. No sooner had the cops arrived, than the press crowded into Dines’ apartment. An LAPD man asked Mabel what had happened, to which she replied, contemptuously,

“Well mister, I guess someone shot him”

They further noted that Edna remained aloof, and both actresses were clearly drunk. The trial of the chauffeur did not go well, with Mabel adopting an aristocratic accent, “redolent more of old ‘lonnon’ town, than Los Angeles”. Edna Purviance fared even worse, by turning up in a gay outfit and gold shoes. Her career ended at that point. Mabel went underground for a time, and settled into a kind of pseudo-life, bought a house in Beverly Hills, but, of course, didn’t marry, as she’d been advised. Boredom (in spite of more wild parties than ever), dictated that she reappeared in public, though not in films, but in a nationwide stage show. The play ‘The Little Mouse’ played to packed houses, but the critics were scathing of Mabel’s soft voice that could not heard beyond the orchestra. The show closed early, and Mabel returned to L.A. a million bucks richer. More trouble came as a certain Mrs Church named Mabel in a divorce petition, but not as co-respondent, but as ‘someone that had alienated her husband’s affections’. Apparently, Mabel had shared her illicit booze with Mr. Church, while they were both in hospital. The press relished the thought of getting their long knives into Mabel, but the whole thing fizzled out, as it was clear that millions of women worldwide could bring the same charge against her. 

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So, Mabel was out of news (slightly) but attention switched to Chaplin and his supposed whore-of-whores, Louise Brooks. It was in 1925, as Chaplin was in New York, for the premiere of the ‘Gold Rush’ that he had a torrid affair with dancing girl Louise Brooks. The press soon got wind of it, and someone printed nude photographs of Miss Brooks. The guttersnipe Chaplin and his whore in waiting, had gotten together, while Chaplin’s wife, Lita Grey, was having his child. Charlie dropped Louise like a hot potato. A little later, Louise ran into Mabel in a Hollywood restaurant. Mabel tore into her, launching this invective against her:

“Call me a whore if you like, but I’m no home-breaker, and I don’t fuck with married men!”

Louise’s position in Hollywood was over before it had begun, and Tinsel Town’s ‘royalty’ never forgave her. Mabel was right, of course, for although criticised for her constant stream of lovers, nobody had ever managed to bring evidence for adultery. The general onslaught, however, against the dark stars of Hollywood continued ad infinitum.

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Louise Brooks

The onslaught, naturally, continued against Chaplin, and every pressman cheered when he landed an income tax bill of one-million dollars in 1927. Curiously, though, the initial codes introduced by Hays failed to ‘clean up’ Hollywood’s act, and semi-nudes and even full-nudes began to appear on screen, the former including the Doris Day of the silent screen, Bessie Love. Stories continued to appear in the press, including a mother and daughter chasing stardom, who starved to death, right there in Hollywood. Further stories followed of Hollywooders dying mysteriously from drug addiction, alcohol abuse, or syphyllis. Mabel herself had been forgiven by the time she began film-making with Hal Roach in 1926.  Many were pleased that she finally married in that year, but it was just a sham, to show that she’d settled down. When she died in 1930, Douglas Fairbanks and Sidney Sutherland appealed for calm at the funeral, while Will Rogers asked for those that didn’t know her to refrain from writing about her. The service was attended by thousands, but an eerie silence prevailed, punctuated by sobbing, as the casket was brought out to the hearse. Standing among the good and the great of Hollywood that day, was a certain Will Hays, who told reporters that he bore Miss Normand no personal malice, and that he’d never thought of her other than as a decent human being. On that very day, the door closed on the silent movie era.

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Conclusions.

It is clear that none of those that became the stars of the U.S. silent movie era, ever suspected that they’d be anything other than poverty-stricken cogs in an industrial machine, collecting slave wages in a factory, or behind a shop counter. The stars were, of course, a product of their time. The massive explosion of what we might call ‘modernity, led to the rise of the lighter industries that produced the gramophone, the motor car, and the movie camera, but also produced a small rise in wages or availability of wages, and a few surplus cents, to spend on the new entertainments, one of which was the ‘flickers’ — nickelodeons and the cinema. Acting was a derided profession outside of the legitimate theatre. In the main, the early movie industry drew in those from the rough end of the theatre — vaudevillians and circuit actors, who found the studios preferable to roaming the country, sleeping in railway stations, while surviving on $5 a week.

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A press-eye view of the Hollywood actresses.

A number of those drawn to the movies were immigrants, but it quickly became apparent that many of them were second or third generation immigrants, the majority being of Irish descent. The Irish, of course, were Catholic, and outliers in protestant America. There were others too — Jews from Eastern Europe, who were keen to trade in the movies for profit. None of the players in the nascent picture industry thought that the thing would last, and few thought that they would become incredibly wealthy. Once they acquired wealth, they were brought to the attention of the mass media and the authorities. Catholics, Jews and the general dross of society were dangerous to America.

Madcap Mabel100tAs time progressed, they became associated with anarchism, unionism, communism, and fenianism, the latter not affecting America directly, but some Irish stars were suspected of embarrassing the country by funding the I.R.A. in Great Britain. These people were also tax  and draft dodgers, they suspected. Hadn’t Mabel Normand opposed the Great War, and hadn’t she supported the trades unions, and women’s suffrage, even going so far to indicate that she would stand for mayor of Los Angeles? What of her partner in sewage, Charlie Chaplin, an immigrant who never took U.S. citizenship, and was clearly immoral and probably Jewish, as well? It was during the Arbuckle scandal of 1921 that the likes of the Hearst corporation had their chance to pillory the scumbag element infesting Hollywood. Once on a roll, there was no stopping the anti-movie star machine. The curious thing was that Hollywood continued on in its old ways, indicating, perhaps, that it had become too big to fail.

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WHERE TO FIND MABEL NORMAND.

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You won’t find Mabel in a box.

One of the  questions asked on this blog is “Where does the information, used in these articles, come from? The answer is “From all over” and surprisingly, it is readily available. Mabel always said she was the most photographed girl in the world, but in reality, she was the most written about girl in the world. Clearly then, there is no other actor about whom this series of blogs could be written. In general, the factual information is derived from newspaper archive websites, third party websites, books, and movie magazines. Approximately 70% of the information can be readily found on the internet at the touch of a button (what would we do without it?). There are two types of books featuring Mabel – those wholly concerned with The Madcap herself, and those that mention her. Some of the books that are solely concerned with Mabel, mostly aim at raising Mabel to beyond goddess status, and are, in many cases, almost useless for our purposes. Similarly, there are websites devoted solely to setting Mabel up as the ‘bad girl’ of Hollywood, and, to be honest, none of these are of any of use for genuine research. You can identify them straight away, as they begin with “Mabel Normand was a drug addict and died from drug addiction.” Without supporting evidence, these words aren’t worth the ink (or electricity) used to create them. If you are lucky enough, and wealthy enough, you may be able to purchase old movie magazines and memorabilia, but be warned, these are now extraordinarily expensive. Once you have the information, you will need to do something with it. The raw data may be interesting, but for proper research purposes it has to be sifted and weighted. Weighting can be categorised as the process of giving a level of credence to each piece of catalogued information. For instance, if a piece of information comes from just one unverified source, it can only be used with great care. However, there is also a certain amount of subjectivity here, and a researcher must decide whether the unverified data concerned is of such intrinsic value that it can be utilised, without verification from another source. If it appears plausible, then it can be used with the aforementioned ‘great care’.

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Even comics can be useful, like this British one from 1920. A boy’s bargain at 4 cents equivalent. [‘Finding Mabel Normand’ website].

 One very important factor is the date of the information. In other words, contemporary writing takes precedence over later texts, and, to be honest, anything stated by the silent actors, after the publication of Mack Sennett’s autobiographies, is probably based on events found within the pages of that august(?) work, and, therefore, is of little value. Charlie Chaplin’s references to Mabel are to be treasured, although he does not say nearly enough to satisfy us. Be warned, though, his words are often misquoted. As usual, though, a certain amount of subjectivity is required here, but this is inevitable, and cannot always be avoided. Let’s now look at the available categories of data, and evaluate their worth in the context of Mabel Normand, and the silent movie era in general.

The Internet.

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As we live in the era of electronic data (and garbage) availability, we should naturally start with the internet. In the sphere of Mabel Normand, two sites stand out a s being particularly useful. One is the ‘Looking For Mabel Normand’ website, once maintained by the late Marilyn Slater, but continued, apparently, by her son. Although it can be seen as a shrine to Mabel, it is, nonetheless, extremely useful, and is not merely confined to information on Mabel. Marilyn, it seems, personally knew some of the last people on earth to have actually met Mabel i.e. her personal nurse Julia Brew (Benson), and possibly Mack Sennett. The site is a veritable mine of information, and, although it puts Mabel, to some extent, on a pedestal it also offers an insight into her darker side.  William Thomas Sherman has produced a book and internet pdf. called ‘Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of her Life and Films’ which is crammed full of newspaper and other contemporary articles relating to Mabel. Be aware, however, that this work contains thousands of references, which indicate that Mabel was just about the most written-about girl in history. We might call Mr. Sherman’s colossal work ‘the cornerstone of Mabel scholarship’. These two sites are the first ports of call for all things Mabel. Some other sites should be treated with caution. W.D. Taylor, Mabel’s friend who was murdered, is represented by the Taylorology website. Stephen Normand, great nephew of Mabel, has a site called MabelNormand.com. The picture above, is of Stephen with the famous painting of Mabel as ‘Mickey’.

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Films.

Films are incredibly dangerous things, although never as dangerous as in the days when audiences believed everything they saw on the silver screen — instead we now have conspiracy websites. The difficulty is that the average motion picture stories can only have one angle, from it they cannot deviate – there is none of the balance that we find in (some) documentaries. A few Mabel-based films, such as Hollywood Cavalcade (1939) had little effect on Mabel’s professional and personal reputation, although others, particularly ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950) have destroyed Mabel’s reputation, seemingly forever. Richard Attenborough’s film ‘Chaplin’ (1991) was intended to boost Charlie Chaplin’s reputation, but it was necessary to destroy his mentor’s reputation in the process. His mentor, of course, being Mabel Normand. However, nothing in the film’s script related to anything Chaplin said in his autobiography. He never dismissed Mabel’s professional abilities and he certainly never turned a hose on her — if he had, he’d have been immediately beaten to death by the crew. ‘Tricky Dicky’ was also wrong in stating that Mabel never made a film after 1922, and Syd Chaplin would never have dared to ‘dis’ Mack Sennett, as seen in the picture, simply because Mack was his employer! Motion picture documentaries, in general, after 1950, tried to ignore Mabel, even though they showed clips from her films. In the 1980s, a certain Paul Merton attempted to make a series about Hollywood that completely ignored Mabel and Mack Sennett. Never heard of Paul Merton? He was a ten-cent, British stand-up comic of dubious ability. One of the problems for those making Mabel pictures is the impossibility of portraying the multi-faceted nature of the little clown. 

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L: Madcap Mabel 1950. R: Dark and dusky-eyed Mabel (??) 1991.

“Hello Mabel.”

Under this heading come the various short films and cartoons, made with reference to Mabel. During the early 1940s, when Mabel’s name still in the public mind, a short film was produced of the ‘Night of A Thousand Stars’ when past and present movie stars gathered to honour the memory of  “a girl with a golden heart” during the opening of The Mabel Normand Sound Stage at Republic Studios (now CBS). ‘Hello Mabel’ was a song produced by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band in the late 1960s, as a short-lived ‘Mabel revival’ arose on the back of the ‘Mack and Mabel’ stage show. Later, Neill Innes produced the comedy video ‘Hello Mabel’ using the Bonzo’s song as a background. The video depicts the difficulty of displaying Mabel’s versatility accurately on film. A single actress can only portray one aspect of Mabel’s screen personality — in this case the cute but scatter-witted Sennett version. We might  question the wisdom of portraying guns in this video. The original ‘Hello Mabel’ was a short film by Mabel, intended as a send-up of D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Lonedale Operator’ starring Blanche Sweet. Mabel’s name seems to have led to a rash of cartoon and other heroines, and the rise in popularity of the name Mabel might have come about in the same way.

 

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Mabel and Jack Pickford cartoon strip [Looking For Mabel Normand website].

Books.

Many of the books written about, and mentioning Mabel, come from a time following the publication of Mack Sennett’s and Charlie Chaplin’s memoirs. They also post-date the time of McCarthyism, the expulsion of Charlie Chaplin from the U.S. and the (perhaps unintentional) demonisation of Mabel in the film Sunset Boulevard. It should be borne in mind, also, that all of the surviving stars were well-advanced in years when interviewed by 1960s and 1970s authors. Furthermore, it seems their minds were dimmed by the long-term effects of alcohol. Bereft, to some extent, of their faculties, then, they appear to have regurgitated vast tracts of the works of Sennett and Chaplin, and in particular the former.

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Minta Durfee (Arbuckle) said some very strange things, asserting, in an interview, available in transcript form on the internet, that Chaplin was a “dirty commie”, and that Mabel had “swum with dolphins in the ocean right outside her beach house in Santa Monica.” Well, the contention that Chaplin was a communist comes chiefly from the works of writer Hedda Hopper, someone that has little credence these days. She provided no evidence that Chaplin was actually a communist, which puts Chaplin in the same category as ‘Communist’ President Roosevelt – ‘case unproven’. Hedda Hopper also claimed that Mabel was a cocaine addict, and she’d stumbled upon a bag of ‘white powder’ in Mabel’s house. She further says she disposed of it, but this implies she never analysed the ‘substance’. It could have been flour, sugar, or any other kind of powder, but she says that the stuff knocked Mabel unconscious, which seems to rule out cocaine. If it was cocaine, it was no doubt for ‘party use’ and the fact that Mabel’s nostrils never rotted out, suggests that she was not an addict, at least of cocaine. Minta adds something of use to us, which is not found elsewhere – she says Mabel, in 1916, self-medicated for the effects of tuberculosis by taking something she calls ‘goop’ which might have contained an opiate, cocaine, or some other medicinal drug. As far as white powder is concerned, this could, conceivably, have been a certain drug Mabel perhaps took to dull the effects of tuberculosis. Its name is heroin, and, until 1925 (when it was banned) it was considered a safe form of opium. Getting back to Minta’s dolphins, she is clearly remembering a newspaper article of 1917, when it was stated that Mabel was water-skiing and swimming with dolphins off Long Island. In all probability, this was all Goldwyn Studios nonsense publicity. Minta Durfee, by the by, was very excited about being sought out by neo-silent movie fans, and got a little carried away. Other silent movie stars, who’d been forced to work behind department store counters, were only a little less excited by the fuss. Minta was interviewed by Stephen Normand in the early 1970s.

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When The Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith. The Bible for those concerned with understanding the silent movie era, and probably the most important work on the subject. Published in 1925 by the wife of D.W. Griffith, the book deals with the very early days of U.S. film-making at The Biograph Studios, New York. We are talking here of 1907 through to 1912. During those years, the cream of later Hollywood passed through the doors of Biograph: Blanche Sweet, Mabel Normand, Mary Pickford, the Gish sisters, Owen Moore, Florence LaBadie, Ford Sterling, Flora Finch, Florence Lawrence, Mack Sennett, Gertie Bambrick and a hundred more. It is Mrs Griffith who first puts Mabel forward as the Queen Bee of the studio, the actresses adoring her and even worshipping this small girl from Staten Island.  She also puts her into the setting where she first began to ‘daredevil’ and lay the foundations for her “astonishing career.” Mrs Griffith tells us the circumstances under which Mabel became the centrepiece, the king pin of the studio and the later movie colony in Los Angeles. There wasn’t an actress in that brownstone building that did not wish to be Mabel. This book is the essential for those that wish to study the early motion picture in the U.S. However, the reasons for the release of the book rather take the edge of its value. The intention was to try to minimise the damage done to Hollywood by the Mabel and Fatty Arbuckle scandals, and so the actors and actresses are presented as pure and innocent, young people whose only vice was a quick sarsaparilla after work. Therefore, a fair amount of reading between the lines is required. Score: 9/10 for sheer effort.

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Mabel dare-devils on and off a cliff in Biograph’s ‘The Squaws’s Love’.

The King of Comedy 1954 by Mack Sennett: We need not look further than Louise Brooks’ ‘Lulu in Hollywood’ to be told that there is only one line of truth in Sennett’s book. The truth is Sennett ‘paid attention’ – to actors and anything that might make a film. The rest of it, the Mack and Mabel love story, the idea that he conned his business partners out of Keystone and much else – is all pure fiction. However, Mack’s book is a good read – he was, after all, the greatest showman on earth — if a disaster as a human being. It seems that Mack knew little about Mabel the person, and relied on her long-term friend and nurse, Julia Benson for his information. “Historically worthless” said the sagacious Miss Brooks. Score 1/10 for truthfulness; 6/10 for ‘reading fun’.

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Mack and Mabel.

Charles Chaplin: My Autobiography 1963 by Charles S. Chaplin: If Charlie told us what we wanted to know, and what he knew, then this would be a good book. In general, in the 500 odd pages of his work, he merely lists the celebrities he has met, and some of the child brides he had. He does not mention wife number two, Lita Grey, at all, and fails to mention that he had a well-publicised affair with Louise Brooks, while Lita was at home having their child. We know Chaplin dropped the ‘The Helmet’ when newspapers revealed she’d posed nude for photos. Chaplin does, however, go some way to describing Mabel, which Sennett was unable to do. It’s as though Mack didn’t know her that well. Chaplin could have gone further with the nature of his relationship with Mabel, but as Mack was still alive when he began writing, his hands were tied. He does, nonetheless, give us the best description we have of Mabel’s features and personality. The view given of Mabel by Richard Attenborough in the film Chaplin (supposedly based on the book) is not to be found in Chaplin’s book – ‘Tricky Dicky’ made it all up. Having sketched Mabel out once, Charlie returns to her later in the book. Score 7/10.

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Chas and Mabel.

Love, Laughter and Tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela, Rogers, St. John (1978). Adela was a journalist, who met Mabel in 1915, and remained a close friend until Mabel’s  death. She goes a bit far with her salutation of Mabel who she describes as “elfin, unusually pure” and then claims “we found her under the rose bush.” A bit too mushy, perhaps, but indicates how Hollywood felt about Mabel, back in the day. Score: 7/10.

Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks. This is an interesting book, which is an autobiography, of sorts. Louise, although, by the 1950s, an alcoholic, and crippled with arthritis, does try to be honest, within the limits set by Mack Sennett’s book (yes, Sennett did set the limit, and, yes, nobody went beyond it). This work is not constructed from her original manuscript, which she trashed following the publication of King of Comedy. If the ‘King’ could not dare to tell the truth, then how could she, a mere actress. This is unfortunate, for Louise has a certain knack for getting down to the nitty-gritty. There is no dishonesty about her, and it is a shame that. she only told part of the story. Score: 8/10 for interest value. 

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The Keystone Krowd: Mack, Mabel, the cops and the girls by Stuart Oderman. Should be some interesting details here, and there are a few, but, as he says, first-off, Mabel died from drug addiction then we have to be cautious. The last time I looked at Mabel’s death certificate it said cause of death: ‘Tuberculosis’. We should always be wary of muddling the facts – that’s inexcusable, even if a dodgy conclusion is acceptable. Score: 5/10.

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Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett by Simon Louvish. A true work of scholarship. Simon Louvish has fully researched his subject, and has not blindly followed the conclusions of others. It really is academic research, but it is also an easy and delightful read. This one is a must. Score: 9.5/10.

The Fun Factory: The Keystone Company and The Emergence of Mass Culture. Another work of scholarship, but this one really does cover the academic ground, and draws conclusions on how Keystone affected the social fabric of the U.S. and the world. A must if you really want to understand The King of Comedy, his films and his clowns. Score 8/10.

Dreams For Sale: The Rise and Fall of The Triangle Film Corporation by Kalton C. Lahune. (1971). Few mentions of Mabel, but tells the story of the company within which both Mack and Mabel had production companies. Both fled, somewhat burned, when said company collapsed. Score: 7/10 for interest value.

The Movie Maker: Charles O. Baumann by Jillian Ada Kelly (2015). The story behind the man and his partner, Adam Kessell, who created Keystone Comedies, within the New York Motion Picture Company. Fascinating, and covers the story of Baumann’s daughter, Ada, who became a friend and confident of Mabel. 7/10.

A Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies, From Nickelodeons to Youtube by Trav S.D. Little here about Mabel, but its value is in the way it is presented. Score: 6/10.

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1957). This book does give some useful insights into the old Hollywood, but she carefully avoids mentioning Mabel too much. Mabel’s name was mud at this time. Score: 7/10.

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Sam Goldwyn and his stars. Mabel is 5th from left.

Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923). This book, which was co-written by movie big-shot Sam Goldwyn, uses some of Sam’ s own stories of Mabel, as well those by his studio supervisor, Abe Lehr contribution (or Mr. Leer as Mabel called him) is a treasure for those interested in understanding the personality of The Little Clown. I would rate it’s perceived value at 7/10 although it is very rare today, and I have never seen a copy.

List of other publications.

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

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

 

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

Mabel by Herbert Low New Movie Magazine (April 1931).

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.

Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, by Simon Louvish (2009).  Covers the development of Chaplin’s tramp, from 1914 on.

Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin. by John Bengston (2006). The well-illustrated book looks at the extant locations of old Hollywood. Score: 8/10.

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Hello Mabel! by Adela Rogers St. Johns, Photoplay ( 1921).

Private Papers.

By this we mean the private papers of those formerly within the film industry. This applies mainly to the papers of the studio producers. The two main ones are those of Adolph Zukor and Mack Sennett. Zukor kept private letters from Mabel for 40 years, and Sennett provides information on films, their cost, Mabel’s contracts, and some screenplays, as well as other information. They reside in a Los Angeles museum, but are, to some extent, available online

 

Addendum.

Hollywood Babylon: Any books or articles of this nature are complete junk, and unless you are keen on sensationalism, then the best you can do is throw them in the trashcan.  Some of them masquerade as serious works e.g. ‘The Girl From Hollywood’, but it is clear that the author had a great pile of articles, which he selectively used to construct a sensational story that would sell, and sell well.

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MABEL BECOMES A FOIL: ‘THE FATAL MALLET’ 1914.

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Love is dumb.

On the face of it, The Fatal Mallet (rel: June 1st) appears to be the biggest piece of garbage ever to come from the Keystone Studio. The action consists of little more than men hitting each other over the head with mallets, although a boy gets drop-kicked by a tramp, and a woman gets kicked in the ass. Now, Keystone had produced such nonsense before, but they did not feature Keystone’s cutest trick, Mabel Normand. Mabel, a former Griffith girl, began to formulate ideas for a new form of comedy that was based in drama, from late 1913. She wanted stories that included passion, tragedy and, hopefully, they’d carry a moral of some sort. Keystone was not above love and romance, but it always revolved around arranged marriages and an elopement that usually ended when the elopers’ ladder snapped in half. Mabel had trained in drama and tragedy under the movie genius D.W. Griffith, and she never wanted to move very far from that genre. Being very outspoken, we must wonder why Mabel agreed to appear in this downmarket film. The reason was steeped in Keystone’s recent history as related below, and is only slightly complicated.

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Broken ladder ends Fatty & Mabel’s elopement. ‘Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life’ 1915.

 Keystone History.

The arrival of a certain Charles Spencer Chaplin at the studio in late 1913, caused not a few problems at the studio. He was not welcomed with open arms by Mack Sennett, who tried hard to keep this handsome young man out, that he believed could run off with the precious Keystone Girl. We’ll discuss, further on, why this situation, and Chaplin’s need to distance himself from Mabel, after taking her help and advice, might be relevant to the film. Relevant also, could be the fact that Mabel was then attracting the women’s suffrage audience, and she and Sennett might have wanted to capitalise on this, by showing men as mindless morons. “Every man thinks he can do a thing better than any other man, including command armies and direct my films” Quoth Mabel in later years.

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The Fatal Mallet.

So, cometh the day, and they made The Fatal Mallet, which, as we have said, was not the type of film Mabel wished to be involved with. However, as a Sennett-inspired film, it would not require Mabel to know its exact content and nature. This is not so unusual in the movies, where films are made piecemeal, and very often the actors haven’t a clue about the picture’s story. It seems possible that Mack and Charlie might have conspired against Mabel, to produce a film in which the men would take precedence and, The Keystone Girl would be reduced to a mere foil — in other words they’d clip the Queen’s wings, and give themselves a chance to shine.

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Charlie has a unique way of attracting the girls.

For this picture, Mabel, appears at 180 degrees to her character in Mabel’s Busy Day. She is very summery, and wears a lovely patterned dress and wide-brimmed straw hat. To all intents she is Little Miss Muffet, who, of course, formed the basis for the ingenues of the silent screen. Mack appears to be Mabel’s boyfriend, a scruffy character who is a mirror image of Chaplin, but is clearly a dim-witted country boy (a popular theme with Sennett). As in many films, Mabel is seen as feeling protective towards men, who are obviously dumb and the rejects of society, although in real life she would not have been seen dead with the Sennett character. Enter Charlie Chaplin, a half-tramp sort of character, who seems to know Mabel, and is not pleased to see her with Mack. While Mack is distracted, Charlie steals Mabel away. Mabel is a little shocked, but the screen Mabel is just like the real Mabel, and the real Mabel is fickle. Mack, though, is not as simple as we think, and he hunts down the pair, and, finding them fraternising behind a shed, he craftily kicks Chaplin in the derriere. Charlie, thinking it was Mabel, gives her a return kick in the ass, for which he receives a slam in the chops from the Keystone Girl, but not until she’d gone through her entire range of facial expressions and verbal abuse. Mabel runs off, in the usual forward-leaning Keystone manner, which draws attention to her rear, already accentuated by the bow on her midriff sash. The sharp-eyed will notice the letters V.W.I. on the shed door, which are seen later displayed as I.W.W. The letters stand for the trades’ union organisation, Industrial Workers of the World, of which more below.

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I.W.W? Oh my God, they’re communists!

Mabel, having made her way back to Mack, finds country boy is not amused, and he refuses Mabel’s advances. However, they make up, and in the next scene, Mack is pushing Mabel on a swing. Naturally, Charlie appears at this point, and is sent sprawling by Mabel’s outstretched legs that hit him square in the bread basket. As Charlie gets up, he’s hit by a brick hurled by Sennett. The pair run off and hide behind a tree, but Charlie has the brick, which he hurls, hitting Mabel square in the chops. Mabel, of course, hurls it straight back, and Charlie collects it in the toothbrush moustache. As Charlie gets up, Mack and Mabel try to disappear behind the tree, but Charlie is looking for revenge, and approaches them menacingly. Mabel lifts her hand, Charlie lifts his foot, Mabel pushes Mack in front of her, telling him to knock the tramp out. Mack squares up to Charlie, as Mabel turns to the camera saying “My hero.” Unfortunately, it’s Mack that, to Mabel’s horror, gets knocked out. However, Mack Swain has blown into the scene, and our fickle heroine runs to him. Undaunted, Mack and Chas join forces, and gather up the ever-present bricks, which they smash over Swain’s head, as Mabel fawns over him. Swain thinks a bird has dumped on his head, but sees Mack and Charlie, and goes after them.

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“My Hero.”                                                             “He knocked him out!.”

Mack and Charlie hide out in the old shed, around which Swain prowls with a brick at the ready. Surprise, surprise, Mabel gets the brick in her face. While Swain and Mabel make up, Mack and Charlie are back on the scene with an arsenal of bricks, which they hurl, and then run back to the shed. After more shenanigans, Charlie finds a mallet, with which they hunt Swain down. They discover Swain sitting with Mabel and whack him over the head with the mallet, thereby knocking him out. The pair carry Swain back to their lair, after telling Mabel “He’ll be alright …. Eventually!”

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Mabel gets a touch of the D.W. Griffiths.

A series of comical scenes, involving the mallet, occur in the hut. Meanwhile, Mabel has decided she’s had it with men. Enter, the luckiest 8-year old boy in Hollywood. Coming up behind Mabel, he puts his arms around her waist. At first Mabel is shocked, but then decides a boy is better than any man, and responds to the fondling. Charlie, then finds the boy with his lover. The boy steps forward, telling Chas he’s going to eat knuckles, whereupon Charlie drop-kicks the kid, sending him sprawling. As Charlie gets personal with Mabel, Swain is coming to blows with Mack. The cringing Mack tells his assailant that it was Charlie who’d knocked him out, and they both go in search of the tramp. Finding him with The Keystone Girl, Swain tries to kick Charlie into a conveniently close lake. He’s unsuccessful and, after kicking Swain in the guts (obligatory in Keystones, for fat men and women) Charlie hoofs him into the lake. Enter Mack Sennett, who kicks Charlie into the lake, causing the fickle Mabel to eulogise over her new hero. The King of Comedy gets the girl. Hurrah!

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The luckiest kid in Hollywood.

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Until……

What is this film all about?

It would be easy to say “God knows”, but we know that Sennett never did ‘nuttin for nuttin’. Therefore, we must look for a meaning, even though this is the most slapstick-intensive film the studio ever produced. The answer seems to depend on whether Mabel instigated the film or not. If the picture was Mabel’s idea, then the message is clear – all men are nincompoops, and even an eight-year-old boy is a better bet for a girl. Would Sennett have agreed to such a posit? Yes, he would, under the circumstances pertaining at the time. We must remember that Madcap Mabel was, in this year, increasing the female audience of Keystone exponentially. Therefore, Sennett would have liked the notion of a female-oriented film, especially as the men might not be able to ‘see’ the message. Taking Mabel’s idea to its ultimate conclusion, she would have walked off into the sunset with the boy. However, this would have been a dangerous conclusion, considering the reactions of the various City Fathers to Keystone movies. Having made the point, Mabel then relinquishes control to Sennett, who, unexpectedly, gets the girl. Unexpectedly, because Sennett always plays a dumb, hobo-like country boy. This would have been a popular ending, as Sennett was then a much-liked character in the Keystones (believe it or not).

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Mack gets the girl.

There is a feeling here, though, that Mack and Charlie conspired to put Mabel out on limb, so to speak. Charlie, although greatly helped by Mabel, was eager to put her aside, and perform with lesser actresses that wouldn’t dim his light. Mack would have agreed with this, as it would, to some extent, have ‘reeled in’ the overly-popular, and rebellious star-of-stars. The first stage of the plot could have been this film. It is true, however, that nobody ‘dised’ the Keystone Girl, and Mabel pursued Charlie forever in real life, and made him suffer, all the time that she had a breath in her body. Some think that she even pursued him beyond the grave.

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Charlie and Mabel, just as friendly as pie.

Observations on The Film.

  • The first thing we notice is the I.W.W. chalked on the Keystone shed – and it is the Keystone shed, which had appeared in numerous pictures in the past. The I.W.W. stands for the Industrial Workers of The World, a trades union outfit supported by Charlie, Mabel, and for a time, Mack Sennett. Charlie and Mabel were life-long socialists.
  • A lot of the film was shot in Echo Park, although some scenes seem to have been filmed on the studio lot.
  • The dress Mabel wears in the film was also worn by some other actresses in later films. This could have been Mabel’s own dress, for she usually wore a dress once, then handed it on. At other times she’d buy six frocks, wear one, then give the rest away.
  • The film depicts people being hit over the head with bricks and a mallet, which only affects them temporarily (“he’ll be OK – eventually”) or not at all. This drew not a little protest from the authorities and the Church.
  • The wind blows constantly in the picture, which is strange in L.A. before the Santa Anna winds occur in the Fall. Keystone used multiple 6-feet wide electric fans, to set the trees waving, and the Keystone Girl’s dress shimmering.
  • The bricks lying around everywhere was a Sennett joke. The construction companies that built the houses in L.A. simply left their dross lying around, and the city road builders dumped hardcore, for roads that were never truly completed.

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Oh those bricks, those lovely bricks! [Mabel At The Wheel].

Conclusions. 

After all of the examinations, it seems that this was an extremely popular film in its time. Today, it remains popular with aficionados of Keystone, although some will find it junk. Sennett, Chaplin, and, to an extent Swain, are in their element, although Mabel fans were probably disappointed at the limited range that the Keystone Girl employs in the picture, although she bonds the whole thing together, and looks particularly lovely.

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MABEL AND THE SPANISH FLU.

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Foreword and Warning.

This blog was originally written back in January, but as the outbreak of novel coronavirus (Covid-19) in China moved into an epidemic, and possible pandemic, it seemed wise to withhold it, for the time being at least. As we are all now aware of the implications of Covid-19, it is probably appropriate to publish this blog now, especially as the subject of ‘at home’ deaths has now been publicly raised. The final section ‘Notes on the Spanish Flu and Other Coronavirus Infections’ relates the Spanish Flu pandemic to the present pandemic, although precautions have been taken to ensure that anything ‘alarmist’ has been kept out.

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Why Mabel and Influenza?

Students of the life and times of Mabel Normand will know that the Spanish flu figured large in the life (and perhaps death) of that actress. There is good evidence to support the view that Mabel contracted tuberculosis in childhood. In around 1899, and for the first of many times, a Roman Catholic priest read the last rites over her, but such was her determination that she survived and went on to conquer the movie world. Evidence also suggests that her family treated her, to some extent, like an invalid, but her inner drive pushed her on, and to many thousands of miles distant from the family home. It seems possible that Mabel’s otherwise inexplicable move to California, in 1912, was due to her medical need for clean, dry air. However by 1916, Minta Arbuckle had noticed that Mabel suffered from haemorrhaging of the lungs, which were drained, according to Polly Moran, by a tube protruding from her back.

In 1930, Charlie Chaplin said this of Mabel:

“Mabel’s illness was of long standing. When I first knew her fifteen years, she was suffering from tuberculosis; but so brave was her spirit that she tossed off the threat with a gay indifference.”

The conclusion must be that Mabel had contracted a disease that had ravaged her lungs, which left her possibly sterile, and prone to infections like pneumonia and influenza. Mabel, of course, was a natural athlete, and this undoubtedly helped her to survive. Anecdotal evidence, has Mabel collapsing on the set on some occasions, but after a short lie down, she was back, and with renewed vigour. Make what you will of the following, published by Mary Pickford in her newspaper column of 1916:

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

This of course refers to the Mabel of the Biograph studios, when she first began diving off high cliffs and mounting horses by running up from behind, and leaping onto her bareback steed, Apache-style. The inference is that death held no fear for Mabel and indicates that she believed she would not live far beyond the age of, perhaps, twenty-five. In the years 1913 – 1919, she had innumerable bouts of pneumonia, so severe that the Keystone players feared, not just for her life, but their very jobs. Mabel was the figurehead of the studio, and her loss, any time before 1916, would have resulted in the probable collapse of the studio. It is fair to say that Keystone’s main office was not in Mack Sennett’s tower, but in Mabel’s dressing room – the place where anything of importance happened.

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Mabel in the Vitagraph film Troublesome Secretaries.

Madcap Mabel.

In the early days, everyone in the movies was aware that Mabel was crazy. In later years, Constance Talmadge claimed that she and her sisters coined the term ‘Madcap Mabel’ in 1911, while they were all at the Vitagraph Studio in Brooklyn. This might be true, but the term was not in general use until after 1919 i.e. following the Spanish flu. The flu, in its third incarnation, struck Mabel down in earnest in 1919, but, after the usual visit from a Catholic priest, bearing bell, book and candle, she made a miraculous recovery. However, she was no longer the Mabel of old, her weight was down to 65 pounds, which left her a virtual skeleton, and she was terribly, terribly weak. Someone had engaged a permanent private nurse for her, either her producer, Sam Goldwyn, Charlie Chaplin (who owed her everything) or perhaps, as the nurse was a nun, the Catholic priest. Whatever, the nurse, Julia Brew, had plenty to contend with. It is said that there were many blood-stained nightdresses, which suggests that Mabel was projectile vomiting blood, and someone had stuck a mustard plaster to her chest, rather than her back, badly burning the skin. Apparently, Julia Brew saved a bunch of these nightdresses, but it is not known if they still exist (if they do, then they may be in the possession of Stephen Normand, great nephew of Mabel). It is at this point that we must discuss the symptoms of Spanish flu.

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Recovering from flu, surrounded by movie star pictures.

When the flu first struck, seemingly in a Kansas army base, USA, it was thought to be a new bacterial infection, perhaps similar to the pneumonia bacterium – almost nothing was known then of viruses. Some people of the ‘quack’ and ‘medicine man’ variety, thought the flu was due to bad air, and termed it the Grippe. The symptoms of the flu were simply horrific. People were gasping for breath, vomiting blood, and leaking the same from their ears and noses. Hospital floors became covered in blood and other bodily fluids, as patients died like flies. Nurses and cleaners couldn’t keep up, and they also died, while a few simply ran away. Nuns were brought in to administer to the dying, their calling keeping them at their posts, until they too succumbed. In quick time the disease left the army barracks in which it began, and entered the general populations of the world. People began to die in their millions, in their homes and out on the streets. Dogs set loose by their sick or ‘wise’ owners infested the environs of the cities, and were lured to the houses, from which the smell of death wafted. Starving dogs, en-masse, were launching themselves at doors and windows, in order to break in, and one New-Yorker recorded shooting a hundred canines in a day from his window. In the streets, of course, the dog packs were taking ‘live prey’. This is a sober warning for those that are thinking of letting their dogs loose in the current pandemic. Animals are smart hunters, much smarter than we usually suppose. For the purposes of this article, it is worth remembering that those that survived the Spanish flu, were left with serious psychological problems, inferring that the virus caused lasting brain damage. If this sounds familiar, it is because the same damage is attributed to Covid-19.

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Oregon Statesman October 1918.

The evidence indicates that the real Madcap Mabel arose, following her brush with the Spanish flu virus. Let’s look at what happened. Mabel had been working for Goldwyn films at the time, and had often been in New York, where she presumably picked up the virus. During her attack of flu, Mabel had been part way through filming a new picture, but shooting was stopped, as she wasted away before the crew’s eyes. Mabel was soon on her deathbed, the skin hanging from the limbs of the formerly voluptuous actress. Her eyes bulged hideously, and she was a ghostly white, tinged with blue. Goldwyn was at his wit’s end, but he had an ally in Charlie Chaplin, who had a studio next to Sam’s, in Culver City. Charlie had visited Mabel, and thought she’d pull through, so at Sam’s request he became a gopher between Sam and Mack Sennett, who dearly wanted his star back. Charlie sent Mack, unaware of the extent of Mabel’s illness, a note from Sam, saying he could have Mabel on loan for $30,000 (close to a million today). Mack snatched Sam’s arm off, $30,000 for a top Hollywood actress – it was a steal! However, when he and his director, Richard F. Jones, saw Mabel they were shocked. Not only was Mabel emaciated, but she had a wild look in her eyes, and was saying some strange things. If Sennett thought he’d have an easy ride he was wrong. Mabel demanded thousands a week, and 30% of her film’s net profits. Mack accepted the terms, and an additional clause, saying that the company would supply all costumes, something unheard of in silent Hollywood. Mabel was swinging the rope and Mack was happy to jump. Later, Mack and Dick Jones discussed the situation. Could Mabel return to full fitness? The answer was clearly, no. Could she manage three or four films a year, again no. They settled on one big feature film a year, and they decided that the company would pay her personal nurse’s wages to the tune of 5,000 bucks a year. Mack’s main asset must be protected. Here’s the fact. Mack only ever had one established Hollywood star under contract. She was Mabel Normand, who’d worked at the big drama studios, and trained under the movie genius himself, D.W. Griffith.

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Mabel was sent off to New York, and settled among the artists and bohemians of Greenwich Village. Mack had a phone number for an apartment in Manhattan, belonging to Marilyn Miller, but no-one was there, and Marilyn was away in Los Angeles. Then he read an interview given by Mabel, in which she said she was recovering. Was she going to work for Mack Sennett? “Mack who?” was her reply. Mack was furious, as he saw his thirty-thousand going down the drain. “The bitch has signed for someone else!” Then, next day, he got a wire from Mabel. “On my way to the coast. Send a car out for me, tomorrow at San Bernardino station .” Mack sent the car, and gave strict instruction for the chauffeur to deliver Mabel to his office. The driver was used to picking up stars from San Bernadino, as it avoided the main station in Los Angeles. Another attraction was that the locals would hang garlands of flowers around visitors’ necks, Hawaiian-style. He found Mabel surrounded by excited actresses, some of whom he recognised as big stars indeed. He wondered if their studios knew where they were. The driver got out and approached Mabel, and she waved goodbye to her friends, but four girls jumped into the car with her. The chauffeur was in trouble, it was 50 miles to Edendale, but he found himself close and personal with Blanche Sweet, which was some consolation (It was into Blanche Sweet’s house that Mabel soon moved). To the chauff’s horror, Mabel directed him to Levy’s Café, where Mabel ‘kidnapped’ him and dragged the poor guy inside. Mabel walked in at the head of the group, and everyone in the café took a double-take. Adela Rogers St.John recalled that, when everyone realised it was Mabel, there was a rush towards her, causing tables to be over-turned and women’s fifty-dollar hats knocked off and crushed under foot. Here was the Mabel of old, returned and physically healthy, but some noted a strangeness in those bush baby eyes that seemed to stare vacantly out. However, she seemed to be their Mabel, but perhaps even more so.

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At the studio, Mack Sennett found Mabel distant and completely disinterested in him personally – it was as though he was a mere fixture. Julia Brew, came with Mabel to the lot every day, and Dick Jones dealt with everything relating to the filming, and gave Mabel the increasing support she now required. In fact, Mack had a suspicion that the pair might have developed some kind of amorous friendship. Outside of the studio, Mack heard that Mabel was running around town with various guys, including a Latin lover by the name of Valentino, and a heart-throb called Jack Mulhall, her current leading man. At the end of the year, she turned up at a party given by Sennett, with an Irish director called William Desmond Taylor. Mabel was very short with Mack that night, although he wanted to make her the centrepiece of the party. However, Mabel left after ten minutes with Taylor. Mack mulled it all over. He could understand Valentino, and hunky Jack Mulhall, or even Jack Pickford, but Taylor? Mack knew he was a high brow literary man, who spoke with a definitive Knightsbridge accent. What was Mabel thinking of? Was she going crazy? A few months back Mabel had been seen everywhere with the effeminate director Paul Bern. Mabel — just about the most passionate girl in Hollywood, taking a homosexual as a lover? None of this made sense. Mack put private dicks on Mabel’s tail. Information received, suggested she was picking up orphan boys in her car. Oh my god! Mack brought her in for questioning, but it turned out that it was all innocent enough, and she was merely taking them to the races for a day out. There was something else, Mabel was spending far too long in her dressing room bath tub, a huge marble affair installed at Mack’s expense, and entirely suited to Cleopatra herself. Mabel told him that the sets were too far from the dressing room, and in future she wanted her films shot in the area between the dressing room block, and the main stage. Mabel had become impossible.

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Shooting ‘Extra Girl’  alongside the dressing room block.

After around a year of living with Blanche Sweet and her mother, Mabel moved to a medium-sized duplex on West Seventh Street, in the heart of the bohemian district. Her staff consisted of a house keeper, a cook, a maid, a gardener and a chauffeur. But there was also an assistant house-keeper, and a kitchen assistant. The chauff and the gardener lived out, but the women lived in the house. However, there was more. Mabel would bring young destitute girls to the house, and let them stay for weeks, even months, on end. Mabel’s assistant housekeeper later recorded that Mabel appeared to be exhausted, when she returned from the studio in the evening. Nevertheless, she insisted on going out on the town every night, and her core staff tried to dissuade her from the good-time girl routine. Sometimes, Mabel wouldn’t come back until 6 or 7 o’clock the next morning, if she’d met some hunk that took her fancy. Mabel would curse and swear at the staff, and sometimes threaten to shoot herself, if they tried to keep her at home. Other times she’d just threaten to ‘bob’ her hair. Sometimes, Mabel would stay home, but the live-in staff got little sleep, as Mabel roamed the house all night. She was now suffering from severe ‘night terrors’ and night sweats, consistent with her illness, and had frequent, intense bouts of pleurisy.

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Cable from Mabel to W.D.Taylor, then in London.

The strange affair with Taylor continued, seemingly forever. Mabel had become an inveterate letter writer, and wrote a host of, what seemed to be, love letters to the Irishman. Almost certainly, Taylor was searching for an exit plan, especially as his butler, Peavey, had an intense dislike for Mabel, who he thought had a dirty laugh reserved just for him. Obsessed as Mabel was about Taylor, she began to launch vicious tirades at him, and one day demanded back all the photos she’d given him, then sat in the middle of the floor in his living room, and cut every one of them up. She also ranted that she wanted her letters back, but he refused. Then, Mabel changed again, and seemed to become more agreeable.

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In February 1922, as Mabel began shooting ‘Suzanna’ she received a phone call from Edna Purviance, Taylor’s next-door neighbour, to the effect that Peavey was running around screaming that his master was dead. The Taylor case has been dealt with in detail in previous blogs, so it is sufficient to say that Mabel received a lot of adverse publicity, to which she responded in very ‘odd’ ways. She stood as a witness at the inquest, returning some confused answers to questions from the coroner. Four months later, Mabel left the States for Europe, where she arrived in London with little advance warning, although some journalists had known of her transatlantic journey. Primarily Mabel was there to meet movie and theatrical bosses, with a view to working in Britain. She was also looking to meet with literary greats, in order to buy rights to stories. Unfortunately, she began making crazy political statements from her hotel room at the Ritz. This was a bad move, being that she was of Irish extraction, during a period when the I.R.A. were busy blowing up key government figures, as well as British citizens. Her meetings with certain royals were cancelled, and she dropped out of some newspapers. However, lords and ladies were pleased to welcome her into their stately homes, although one baroness (it is said) threw her out after finding her swimming, in her birthday suit, in the baronial pool. Her entourage were shocked when, out of the blue, Mabel announced she wanted to visit a pub in the grim East End of town, a place chronicled by American writer, Jack London. She was warned not to do this, but she insisted on going anyway. Needless to say, the pub’s drinkers soon realised the Keystone Girl was in their midst, and Mabel was almost killed in the rush. Undaunted, she then wanted to go to an even worse district – the Limehouse of Thomas Burke (who wrote ‘Limehouse Nights’). Her quiet walk was interrupted, when she was spotted by an alert cockney kid who raised the cry “Mybel, it’s Mybel!” The accruing mob forced Mabel and co. into a Chinese café, from which they emerged only after the cops had dispersed the crowd. Onward unto Paris, Mabel teamed up with an old flame, Prince Ibrahim of Egypt. Together they hit the nightspots of Paris and the Riviera, moving on after ‘doing the races’ at trendy Deauville. The crazy film star drove her personal ‘Shiek’ down to Monaco, where they lost a fortune on the Monte Carlo gaming tables. It transpired that the Madcap was too much, even for a committed playboy, and Ibrahim headed back to the land of pyramids – just in time for the opening of King Tut’s tomb.

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“Gawd blimey Stan, if it ain’t that Mybel standin’ behind yer…”

Mabel arrived back in New York in early September, and became the centre of the New York party scene, basing herself in Marilyn Miller’s apartment. Then came news that Mack Sennett was shooting a Bathing Beauty in a big, new feature film. Mack took a long-distance call from a screeching Mabel, who demanded the part for herself. If anyone was taking the lead in a big Sennett film, it was her! Some threats, concerning the Taylor case, were, it seems, vented at Mack. Extra Girl was a success, and Mabel was about to embark on a nation-wide tour to promote the picture, when…….bang, her chauffeur shot millionaire oilman Courtland Dines. Turned out this was another love triangle, the third corner being none other than Edna Purviance. For some inexplicable reason, Mabel was seeing Courtland behind Edna’s back, Edna being, it is said, betrothed to the millionaire. Eventually, Mabel went cold on Courts, and the guy made some derogatory remarks to her, whereupon the chauff, imbued with loyalty to his employer, shot the loud-mouthed oil-man.

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A madcap in court. Mabel posing with her lawyer and the D.A.

The police were stunned by Mabel’s reply when asked what had happened. “I guess someone shot him, mister” was her reply. Mabel was again ordered to stand witness, but failed to show up, and was brought in by subpoena. This time, her statement was stranger than before, and in an aristocratic British accent, she made impertinent remarks, and even put the judge on trial. The press tore her apart, and opined that “this guttersnipe” should be kicked back to New York, or out of the country. Mabel cared not, as she sat back and counted the million greenbacks she received as royalties from Extra Girl. It was not long before another shock hit Mabel, as a Mrs Church named her in a divorce case, not as co-respondent, but as someone that had ‘alienated her husband’s affections’. This was her worst scandal, as the implication was that she was a loose woman. Mr Church had been in hospital with Mabel, after she’d broken her shoulder blade, after being thrown from a horse. The allegation was that the corrupt Miss Normand, had smuggled illicit booze into the hospital, and held an impromptu party in Mr Church’s room. Oddly enough, it was Courtland Dines who provided the explanation for Mabel’s injury. According to Dines, Mabel had tried to mount a horse while drunk, and simply fallen off the other side. “Mabel was crazy and probably insane” The oilman espoused. A few years later, Dines was dragged kicking and screaming to a mental asylum, where he was committed on the grounds of insanity!

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Where does a girl retire to? To a Beverly Hills mansion with chauffeured car, of course.

The advice given to Mabel was, settle down, buy a house and disappear. This she did, but, becoming bored, so she began writing weird letters to friends and acquaintances, but also to complete strangers, like shop-counter girls. She’d begun this in 1922, but now shop assistants were amazed to receive these rambling messages signed by The Keystone Girl herself. Clearly, Mabel had to get back to work, but what she actually did was both amazing and crazy. In 1925, at the request of impresario, Al Woods, Mabel went on the road with a lucrative, but bad, stage show called the Little Mouse. It played to packed houses, naturally, but Mabel’s voice was so soft she couldn’t be heard beyond the orchestra. Critics slammed the show anyway, and it closed early, leaving Mabel with nothing to do but pick up her million bucks in pay. Of the thousands that gathered at the stage door to see Mabel, and get her autograph, some reported that she looked drained, pale and distant, although her autographs were perfectly formed.

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Mabel now had at least two million banked, and money was still rolling in from Molly O’, Suzanna and Extra Girl. It does seem that she tried hard to settle down, but then she began to party like it there was no tomorrow. Friction with her staff began to worsen, as no-one could make Mabel see reason. She fired her friend and house-keeper Mrs Burns, for speaking to the press, and, after a minor  row, her long-term personal secretary, Betty Coss, resigned. Mabel sent her several letters of conciliation, but Betty refused to return. One letter she sent, might represent her state of mind at the time. It begins: “Betty, don’t be a baby…” Clearly, this no way to begin a reconciliation, and might be a pointer to Mabel’s psychological state at the time. Going into 1926, Mack Sennett made attempts to lure Mabel back. He asked her to come to the studio for talks regarding a huge extravaganza of a film that he had planned. New actress, Ruth Taylor, recorded this in her diary:

“Guess who came to see us today (at Sennett studios)? Mabel Normand! Why, I can’t even believe it yet. Mabel Normand herself. She was thin and has been ill, but she was all they told me around here that she would be. Everyone acted like the queen had come.” 

So, although Mabel had created a storm at the studio, she still had some residual illness. Mabel was interested in the film, but it seems that her friends and new husband could see problems with it, and she turned the part down. Instead, she went to Hal Roach studios, where Hal was busy signing up ‘falling stars’. Among those he’d recently signed was Theda Bara – for $50 a week! Hal undoubtedly thought Mabel would be a push-over, due to her diminishing mental capacity, but discovered she had plenty of friends, who pushed for $1,000 a week start rising to $5,000. On the plus side, Hal now had, for the first time, one of the Hollywood greats under contract. From day one, Hal was in trouble. Madcap Mabel brought droves of girlfriends to the studio, who followed the ‘thick-necked Mick’ (as Mabel called him) around the studio, hurling curse-laden abuse at him. He was sure that his supervisor, F. Richard Jones, and Mabel’s screenwriter, Stan Laurel, were quietly laughing. Years later, Hal would later say that Mabel was the dirtiest-talking girl he’d ever heard.

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Roach. Wished he’d never heard of Mabel Normand.

By early 1927, Mabel’s condition had worsened, and she withdrew from acting. Following more bouts of pneumonia and pleurisy, she’d apparently recovered by 1928 – the party girl was back, and was often seen around town. Plans were made to get Mabel into talkies by Louis B. Mayer, and a short test film was made on the set of MGM’s picture of the year ‘Our Dancing Daughters’. It was all in vain, however, for in 1929 it became clear that Mabel was into her last run. Bouts of pneumonia came thick and fast, and X-rays revealed that Mabel’s lungs were shot through – she was existing on a quarter of one lung. Mabel was admitted to the Pottenger Sanatorium, ostensibly to be cured, but she died there on February 23rd 1930, weighing just 45 pounds. Mack Sennett later reckoned that “If Mabel had looked after herself, she’d could have lived longer.” The Keystone Girl cared not for looking after herself – she wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Notes on the Spanish flu and other coronavirus infections.

This is a simplified view of the pandemics, and cannot replace expert opinion and professional views set out in respected medical journals.

The arrival of the Spanish Flu, sometimes called American Flu, or Somme/Trench Flu, was marked by its ability to carry off young adults between the ages of 20 and 30, although it also affected the elderly and chronically sick. Survivors were often left mentally affected. It killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide, and the outcome was remarkably like Covid-19, although at the genetic level, the two are dissimilar. The genome of the 1918 virus has been mapped, and there is nothing remarkable about it, nor anything to explain why the disease was so virulent.

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Braving the virus. Michigan 1918.

Mabel Normand’s greatest film, Mickey, was released in the middle of the Spanish Flu pandemic, so it is surprising that this was the highest grossing film of that time, and knocked D.W. Griffith’s ‘Birth Of A Nation’ off top spot, with a gross take of $18 million. However, many studios, including Mabel’s own Goldwyn studio, went, or nearly went, into bankruptcy at this time. It is sobering to think that, although the U.S. was well-placed to capitalise on the devastation existing in Europe, following the Great War, the country actually fell into a a marked recession, partly, at least, due to the pandemic.

Spanish flu spared nobody, it killed the fit as well as the frail, the rich as well as the poor, men as well as women, all in equal measure. Covid-19 is panning out that way, and, as with Spanish flu, there is now a lot of talk about those that died outside of hospital. When Covid-19, as with Spanish Flu, afflicts the respiratory system the results are ‘spectacular’, and this leads to hospitalisation. However, there are people that never reach hospital, and seem to almost fade away, in comparison to the hospitalised patients. These people might have been killed by multiple organ failure, brought on, in some cases, by an over-active immune system, itself brought on by the infection. This condition can, apparently, kill in as little as twelve hours. Normally, many more women die from the latter condition than men, so the women missing from the official hospital figures could be represented in  ‘at home’ or ‘other cause’ deaths — a similar situation arose with HIV.

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Die and get your money back.

Pandemics nearly always come in waves. With Spanish flu there were three consecutive waves that did not, necessarily, occur due to mutation of the virus. Many local authorities worldwide, closed public places (theatres, cinemas, sports venues) at various times, but when restrictions were relaxed, the virus reappeared, although it eventually ‘blew’ itself out, after around fifteen months. Covid-19 will be no different, and the second wave seems to have already begun in China.

The Spanish Flu killed around 670,000 Americans, but there were no controlled shutdowns, only piecemeal closures of public venues, and  social distancing was generally voluntary. Should the present shutdowns continue? Well, that’s for individuals, or groups of individuals, to decide, and if anyone thinks the government is wrong, then they should speak to their congressman. Many experts think that the total deaths from Covid-19 is something already written in the stars, so that opening up the economy will just bring death over a shorter period of time. This means that the hospital system will be overwhelmed, and that will bring its own problems. In practice, several shut-downs and re-openings will probably be necessary. Again, individuals and groups must make up their own minds on this. Taking hints from Fox News is optional. Governments will have to launch enquiries in order to discover the true nature of the pandemic, but those in power will have little appetite for this, and might choose to ‘forget’, in the same way that they ‘forgot’ the Spanish Flu.

 

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Bibliography

Pale Horse, Pale Rider, by Katherine Anne Porter (1939).

Pale Horse: The Spanish Flu and how it changed the world, by Laura Spinney (2017).

People of The Abyss, by Jack London (1903).

Limehouse Nights, by Thomas Burke (1903).

 

 

 

 

 

LIGHTS OF ALBUQUERQUE: ‘THE TOURISTS 1912’.

 

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Oh, Albuquerque, thou welcome oasis in the New Mexico desert. Septuagenarians and other aged folk will remember it for the riots of 1971, but way back in 1912, a motley crew of movie crazies alighted in this dusty town, where they proceeded to create their own form of mayhem. This proto-riot was led by Mack Sennett and his star-of-stars, Mabel Normand. The Indians of the reservation later passed down to their young squaws and braves, the story of how the notorious Madcap Mabel, the Naughty Normand, once blew into town like a whirlwind, and left, with everything turned upside down. This article tells the story of the making of the film The Tourists.

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Passenger Depot, Albuquerque.

This short film was made as the Biograph company returned from California to New York. During a stop-over in Albuquerque, the comedy unit made The Tourists, a film burlesquing the hordes of tourists that were beginning to infest the interesting places of America. Legend has it that Mabel, on her way west, had seen a woman get off the train, and run around gathering as much Indian culture, pots, tomahawks, head-dresses, as possible. In her rush to get on the train as it left, the daft creature dropped much of her haul leaving it smashed in the dust. Mabel was in fits of laughter, as she jeered the cringing tourist (if someone had fallen off a ladder she’d have laughed). Having made a whole bunch of comedies way out west, we might wonder why Sennett was so keen to film on the journey home. The answer is two-fold. Firstly, he had Mabel aboard, who was just about as jittery as a water-bug, and hopeless on long journeys. Secondly, he’d just about clinched a deal with New York Motion Pictures to direct their new company, Keystone Comedies. He needed to make a picture that would show-case the talents of his greatest asset, the mischievous Mabel, just in case the big-shots decided to cancel. ‘The Lights Of Albuquerque’ by the way, is a song by Jim Glaser. This film is not in good condition, but remains watchable.

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Indian encampment, Albequ.

The Indians involved in this film, are the local Indians of the area, chiefly the Pueblo tribe, but also the Navajo and Apaches. Some of the film ‘Indians’ were Keystone people, but many were the ‘real deal’. Heap big bucks must have been paid over by Mack Sennett, as there have always been severe restrictions on photography in the Indian lands, and palms needed to be well-greased and much firewater expended, to allow the Biograph Girl to run loose amongst the redskins. However, the film is a great advert for the Indian territory, so, as with his race-track and fairground films, Sennett might have paid zilch.

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When Mabel stopped off here later, in 1918, she found that many of the Indians she’d met in 1912, had died from the influenza pandemic, although a year later, she too would be lying on her deathbed, as a result of the same infection. How she survived no-one knows.

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War dance in the Indian lands

Cast:

Mabel: Trixie, a Tourist.

Charles West: Trixie’s boyfriend

Grace Henderson: Tourist

Wm. J. Butler: Tourist

Frank Evans: Big Chief

Kate Toncray: Big Chief’s wife.

Grace Henderson and Kate Toncray, were two of Biograph and Keystone’s older players, both born during the Civil War. Kate played alongside Mabel several times, and died in 1926. Frank Evans was born as the forty-niners set out for the California gold fields. He died in 1934.

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Mrs Big Chief objects.

The Plot.

The film begins with Trixie (Mabel) bursting loose from a carriage, as the train pulls into Albuquerque. This is undoubtedly the real Mabel, who has been cooped up on the train for over 16 hours, and is therefore edgy and skittish, as only the future Keystone Girl can be. The prototype for Trixie is undoubtedly Tomboy Bessie, the hyperactive schoolgirl of a few weeks earlier. For those who are interested in such things, Mabel is wearing, it seems, the same jacket, skirt and hat that she wore for A Dash Through The Clouds. In the latter film, she is also the same jittery girl seen in The Tourists. Indians have their wares set out close to the tracks, and, inevitably, Trixie wants some of it. She goes into Mabel hyperactive mode, which in the 1910s, so delighted the audiences, although some might find it a bit strange today.

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Mabel on the run.

Her companions are not impressed by the way Trixie is hoovering up the Indian-ware and her boyfriend objects. Mabel, of course, never took instructions from a man, and carries on acquiring pottery, until the inevitable happens, and the train pulls out without them. Everyone berates Trixie for making them miss the train, but Mabel followers will know that she could run like the wind, and our girl pursued many a moving train in her films, jumping on the observation platform with ease. While everyone was tearing their hair out, the boyfriend smashed the pottery on the ground, sending Trixie into a tantrum. As usual, Mabel quickly changes into the excitable Mabel again, and begins collecting more pots. Her boyfriend has another go at her, and in true Mabel style, she stamps her feet and runs off, presumably, to find another man. First, she runs into a bunch of squaws, and leads them into a silly dance, redolent of her Suzanna, who in 1923 coaxed some Apaches into a war dance.

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“We’ll get you next time, paleface!” Squaws on the warpath.

Trixie soon runs into the Big Chief, who seems to fall for her, and is soon showing her around the native village, at ultrasonic Mabel speed. Unexpectedly, Mrs Big Chief turns up and goes for Trixie’s throat. Mabel gets slightly scared, but dismisses the ageing squaw with a wave of her hand, and prompts Big Chief to tell her to “F…. Off.” The wife goes off screaming threats and curses, but Trixie is quite pleased with herself, and leads Big Chief off for an extended tour. Trouble arises when the boyfriend comes into the scene, and makes accusations at the Big Chief, but ‘Chiefy’ is a tough warrior, and soon sends the boyfriend packing, much to Trixie’s delight. Trixie (and Mabel) is nothing, if not fickle. As Trixie subjects the Indian brave to her adulation, the wife reappears with a war-band of rampant squaws, armed with tomahawks and stone-headed hammers. The chief and Trixie run off, in different directions, and Mabel ends up hiding under an Indian blanket, where her companions find her. She comes out of cover somewhat arrogantly, describing how she saw the redskins off. Her manner soon changes, when the squaws flash-mob reappears, and she flees in terror to the train. The group pile into their carriage, but have to beat the squaws back, who are clearly after Mabel’s scalp. The tourists make rude gestures to the Indians, as the train pulls out, and the redskins seem to be saying “Come back, girl, and we’ll kill you.”

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“So long, suckers.”

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The little weaver. Someone sign her up — she’s a star.

Comments on the Film.

  • This is clearly one of Mabel’s Queen Bee films, where she is at the centre of the action, although she is not yet the representative of women’s suffrage that she later became. For the time being the ‘scatter-brain Mabel’ would do, though we must, as stated in the beginning, realise that this film is a barb aimed fully at dumb tourists.
  • Sennett’s Biograph comedy team made a series of ‘Madcap Mabel’ films in 1911 and part way through 1912. They include this one, Tomboy Bessie and A Dash Through The Clouds, already mentioned, among others.
  • In the middle of the film there is scene of an Indian girl weaving a native cloth on a loom, alongside an older woman, perhaps her mother, who is carding wool. This reminds us that Keystone often made documentary shorts on interesting subjects, like ‘How Olives Are Canned’.
  • Mack and Mabel were absolutely crazy about the old Spanish west, and eventually Mabel bought a pueblo-style mansion in Beverly Hills for the huge sum of $20,000.
  • The verdict is that this is a very funny, but crude film, that is made bearable, as Charlie Chaplin would say “By the pulchritudinous influence of Miss Mabel Normand.”

CHARLIE CHAPLIN’S AMERICA.

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Charlie and Stan Laurel on the Continental Divide, Butte, Montana.

Many people will be aware that the annals of the silent movie are chock full of British actors and actresses, and we might ask the question “Why did the English (or British) want to come to America, and why did the Americans, generally speaking, want them?” The answer is kind of historical, although the history can be broken down into several sections – firstly, William Shakespeare, secondly, the English Music Hall. This takes care of the American side, but from the British point of view, the advantages were economic and an opportunity to blossom. Let’s start with things from the U.S. point of view.

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D.W. Griffith: aspiring Shakespearian and hop-picker extraordinaire.

Throughout the 19th Century, the cream of the theatre looked towards Shakespeare, right across the English-speaking world. The early 1900s, found a certain D.W. Griffith struggling to maintain himself as an actor, but all too often he was picking hops in northern California, just to survive. Inside, he knew he was a great actor of the Shakespearian kind, but he was stuck with tedious, irregular roles in the lower strata of the theatre. Moving on to New York, he again had a problem finding enough work, and soon found himself entering the film studio of the Biograph company, with hat tilted well forward and collar well turned up. Nobody must see him entering the demon movie studio. Being promoted (or demoted) after a time, to director, allowed the future movie genius to introduce pictures of a higher quality – half Shakespearian, and half dreamlike.

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Music Hall Attack.

Meanwhile, the British were busy permeating the American entertainment scene via The Music Hall. America, of course, had its own form of music hall, which was, essentially, a low form of theatre that the blue-collar workers simply loved. It ran at a fast pace, and presented acts at an equally fast pace – each act only lasting a few minutes. Let’s say they were the equivalent of the later, high-speed Keystone films. The British version was in a much later stage of development, and by 1900, the British music hall companies were pouring into the US, helping to satisfy demand. Alice Lloyd came over, became popular, and was soon followed by her more famous sister, Marie. The authorities, however, were not amused by the vulgarity displayed by the Brits, and, when Marie Lloyd entered the U.S. in 1912, she was immediately arrested and jailed on a charge of ‘moral turpitude’. Her former co-star, a Mr. Charlie Chaplin, was already in the country and doing quite well. Playing a drunk, he was the star of the Karno Music Hall company, and toured the States extensively. Note that Mack Sennett did not make him a movie star – he was, like Mabel Normand, already a star. Charlie liked America very much, thank you. Pay was higher than back home, and prices were much, much lower – result happiness, as Mr. Pickwick would say.

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A danger to American morals.

By 1911, Charlie was doing great in the land of the free, and noted how relatively easy it was to acquire land, houses and automobiles, although the latter were only slightly cheaper than back home (Model T Ford excepted). There was something else. A small dark girl playing in Vitagraph comedies had taken his fancy. Her name was Mabel Normand, and she weaved in and out of the films, making them tolerable. Perhaps, thought Charlie, he could meet the beautiful Vitagraph Girl, and perhaps he could even appear with her in pictures. The astute Charlie watched, as the movies became bigger in America. The reason was obvious to the Limey. In England it was relatively easy for a theatre company to travel to any part of the country, by rail or road. Across the pond, it was different. The vast distances, and remoteness of many towns, meant that country folk would have to travel to the nearest town, as much as 100 miles away, to see a big show. It was obvious to everyone that it was far easier to transport a can of film, and these cans could penetrate the remotest part. Charlie thought things through. He concluded that the comedies of the Vitagraph Girl, later the Keystone Girl, would, in all probability sweep the Music Hall away in America.

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The face that sank the music hall.

Chicago to Butte and L.A.

Having understood the changing situation, Charlie didn’t at first, aim for the movies. There were other irons to put into the fire. The future tramp made careful note of the opportunities in every place he passed through. New York was just fantastic, but everyone had an angle, and it was difficult to slide in. Charlie went to Brooklyn, and stood outside of the Vitagraph Studio, hoping to catch a glimpse of Vitagraph Betty. He was sure he could summon up the nerve to approach her, if she was alone. His luck was in, a small dark girl came out of the gate. Charlie moved in, but another girl came up to her, and she was an intimidating 5 feet 8 inches tall. Charlie shrank away. He’d had his first sighting of Norma and Constance Talmadge. The next time he’d see them, they’d be huge movie stars.  Charlie walked the streets of the Big Apple alone, as was his custom, then the Karno Company were off – Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Rochester, Chicago. The latter seemed to exude opportunities, but friends warned him that this was a mob town, and he’d need a big gun to succeed – even the Trades Unions were in fear of Big Jim Colosimo, and his later side-kicks, John Torrio and Alphonse Capone. Before he reached Butte, Montana, Charlie learned that huge wages were to be earned in this union-run town. Unfortunately, prices were equally as huge in the wild west place. While he was there, two guys rode in on Henderson 4-cylinder motorcycles, creating a storm of interest. Charlie admired the bikes, and spoke to the owners. One was called Carl Stearns Clancy, and he’d just ridden around the world. Charlie sat on one of the bikes and took a liking to it. He asked Clancy about the motorcycle business, and Clancy warned him off. He’d need big bucks to start up, with no guarantee of success. Charlie sitting on the bike,  fancied himself as a speed king. A year-and-a-half later, and he’d be riding a ‘sickle’ along a dusty Los Angeles road, straight into a ditch, and with the Keystone Girl on the back! The other rider was a Californian, who’d been an extra in the movies. Clancy himself confessed he was interested in entering the film business, and the next time Charlie saw him, he was a respected director in Hollywood.

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A lone Henderson at Butte, Montana. 1912.

As Charlie travelled on, he began to hanker for a ranch. He’d saved two thousand dollars, and thought it easiest to farm pigs, but this would still be hard work, and Charlie did not like blisters on his hands. Now he was in Los Angeles, then still a kind of hick town, although the rising downtown was pretty smart. Charlie bought himself an expensive coat and fedora hat, and roamed downtown with co-actor Stan Laurel. They were cool dudes and Charlie felt sure they could pick up some yankee broads, but all they got was the come on from the whores on West Seventh Street.

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Premier 1921.

He and Stan went to visit the temporary studio of Biograph located in downtown, where they climbed telegraph poles and made suggestive remarks over the fence to Blanche Sweet, Lillian Gish and other actresses, as they strutted their stuff. D.W. Griffith sent some ‘bruisers’ after them, but the slap-stickers were light on their feet, and easily gave them the slip. Later that day, Stan was looking through the Los Angeles Herald. “Hey, look at this Charlie, there’s a premiere downtown for a Keystone picture, Mabel’s Lovers, and they’ll be showing it with the old Water Nymph”. Well, Charlie knew of the Water Nymph, with Mabel stripped down to the bare essentials, and Mabel’s Lovers sounded a little, erm, interesting. So along they went. When they arrived at the theatre, there was already a crowd gathering, and the pair joined it. In those days, the movies were still in the backwoods, and there wasn’t the organised razzamatazz that there was later. However, extra lighting switched on as a very plush Pierce-Arrow car pulled up. The crowd surged forward and there were screams of “Mabel, Mabel” as a large, white-maned man stepped from the rear door. He held his hand out, as Mabel herself stepped out attired in fur coat, white stole and natty turban, the diamonds shimmering as she moved. Charlie and Stan pushed forward as best they could, and there she was, Miss Mabel, Star-of-Stars and Queen of the Movies. Queen she was, but she was tiny, and from the fifth row back, she was difficult to see, but as Mack Sennett (the big man) led Mabel forward, the crowd parted, and the Karno pair found themselves around a foot from The Keystone Girl. As Mabel passed, she glanced around, her gaze alighting on Charlie for an instant. Little did Charlie know that he’d been smitten, made a prisoner of the doleful Normand eyes.

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Doleful Mabel.

Later that night, after their show, the Karno pair relaxed in their hotel room. Stan was sitting in an armchair, leafing through a Sears and Roebuck catalogue, as Charlie lay on his bed, dreaming, dreaming of Mabel. He screwed his eyes up, trying to remember every little detail – that dark hair with the ringlets, those heavy eyelids with the two-inch lashes, the lovely mouth that curled delicately at the ends, promising humour and all sorts of indulgence, and those eyes, oh those bush-baby eyes. Charlie was in love. Anyhow, it was back to reality next day. Charlie’s reality, he’d decided, was America. He’d worked out that he could live well on 15 dollars a week – that would cover a swanky hotel room, and all his food and drink, with a little for taking in a show or a film. In a nutshell, he earned twice what he did back home, while everything was half price. From his $50 a week pay, he could then save at least $35 dollars, meaning he’d have over a thousand dollars by the end of the year, in addition to the two thousand he’d already saved. The Karno troupe was leaving for England at the end of 1913, but he would not be going back. His destiny lay in the United States, it was a no-brainer, and he’d sink or swim there. Stan also became keen on entering the movie business, although he was not a star in the way that Charlie was, so things would be more difficult. In fact, he would later appear on the American stage as a part of the ‘Keystone Trio’ where he’d play Chaplin, while his friend played Ford Sterling and his wife, Mabel Normand.

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There’s money to be had in the U.S. The Keystone Trio 1914.

The Path to Keystone.

Unbeknown to Stan, and everyone else, Charlie had engaged a New York agent to get him stage and movie work. Charlie told the agent to push for Keystone, as he wanted to play alongside Mabel. The agent looked at him and let out a huge roar of laughter. Didn’t this sad guy know that everyone wanted to be Mabel’s leading man! His manner changed, when Charlie offered him a $100 bonus, if the agent got him into Keystone. The die was cast, and while appearing in Philadelphia, Charlie received a letter from the agent, telling him to report to the offices of Kessel and Baumann in New York. Kessell and Baumann, of course, had controlling interests in the Keystone company. Charlie got straight on the train and headed for Times Square. The meeting with K and B proved very fruitful, with the big-shots offering him $125 or $150 a week – Charlie couldn’t remember which, but he knew it was much more than Karno was paying him. When Mabel Normand had sat in the same office eighteen months previously, she’d dreamed of the Parisian frocks she could now buy. Charlie dreamed of money – stashed in a safe deposit box. That day, and night, Charlie walked around New York in a daze, eventually ending up in a Fifth Avenue bar, where he expended the exorbitant sum of 30 cents for a stiff scotch. Rather than break into his $2,000 savings, Charlie walked around town until daybreak, when he jumped the train back to Philadelphia.

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Mack, Mabel, Ad Kessell, Ford Stirling. The people that made Charlie Chaplin.

Charlie confided only in Stan Laurel and his later manager, Alf Reeves, as most of the actors hated Chaplin for his egotism and aloofness. It was while playing at a theatre in Los Angeles that Mack Sennett came to see Charlie backstage at the Empress Theatre. He invited Charlie to a restaurant for a talk, telling him that Mabel was waiting out on the sidewalk for them. As he walked out, Charlie began to tremble, he was about to meet the Keystone Girl. What if she thought he was a dalk, a dumbass? He needn’t have worried, for Mabel was also very shy with new people, and the pair said little except “hello” to each other. Mack drove them to the restaurant, which Charlie remembered from the previous year, when he’d noticed a girl with long golden tresses, sitting at another table. The girl had noticed him, and she’d called a waiter over, and her nod towards Charlie, indicated that she was asking about him. A couple of years later, Mabel would introduce the girl to him – her name was Mary Pickford.

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This night, however, Mack was telling Charlie of the way his studio operated. Charlie noticed that Mabel had contrived a ‘Gibson Girl’ quiff, behind which she seemed to be hiding, her eyes flicking upwards occasionally, when she thought Charlie wasn’t looking. He noticed something else. He could feel Mabel’s foot running up and down his leg. Oh, my God, The Keystone Girl was playing footsie with him! Sennett realised what was going on, and his tone changed. He now expressed the thought that Charlie was too young for his studio, staffed as it was with ageing, and, importantly, married men. Suddenly, Mabel lifted her head and asserted that Charlie could make up to look as old as Mack liked. Inside Mack was fuming. If this limey thought he was going to make advances towards his girl, then he was mistaken. The story of the way in which Mack tried to dispose of Chaplin over the following twelve months has been told in previous blogs, and need not be reiterated here. It is sufficient to say that Charlie’s later involvement with Mabel, laid the foundations for his overwhelming success in the United States.

The Importance of Mabel’s Dressing Room.

To say Chaplin was disliked at Keystone, would be an understatement. The actors were aware of his apparent aloofness, and in return treated him with disdain. The actresses, however, were attracted towards this handsome dude, with a hint of the bohemian about him. Mabel, though, disappeared during his first two weeks at Keystone. Mack had, oddly, taken her away on location, hoping that his paymasters had removed the ‘little git’ by the time he returned from his unusual absence. Unfortunately, the New York bosses were adamant that Chaplin stayed. For reasons covered in earlier blogs, Mabel remained inaccessible to Charlie, although they appeared together in Mabel’s Strange Predicament. By sheer good fortune, Charlie was taken under Ford Sterling’s wing, and he introduced him to his numerous bar-room friends. This paved the oddball limey’s way into American society, although the Americans were highly suspicious of any British guys that were stealing American jobs.

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Chaplin’s movie nursery. Mabel’s dressing room and garden.

Fast forward to March 1914, when, by order of New York, or by demand of Mabel, Charlie appeared in Mabel At The Wheel. From this production, Charlie learned several things: Mabel could drive an automobile, she had no fear of getting on the back of a motorcycle, piloted by someone who had never done so previously, and she had some avantgarde ideas about the direction comedy should take. Chaplin, of course, was flabbergasted – there was no hero in the film, just a heroine, and Mabel had ordered that slapstick be minimised. The latter annoyed Charlie, as slapstick was his stock in trade. In the film ‘Chaplin’, the director has Mabel using these words:

“Charlie, this is not a film about being funny with a hose.”

It is likely that Mabel said something of this sort, as the film was story-based and not slapstick based. In his autobiography, Charlie says:

“Sweet Mabel – she was only about twenty, pretty and charming, everybody’s favourite, and everybody adored her.”

He had some words with Mabel, and then says that the cast and crew began to advance on him, with a view to beating the little upstart to death. He’d disrespected their Queen, and now he’d pay the price. If Mabel hadn’t stopped them, then none of us would ever have heard of Charles Spencer Chaplin and his funny walk. Thus, Charlie was in trouble with the studio, but Mabel was about to throw him a lifeline. In reality, the Keystone main office was not contained within Mack Sennett’s office, at least as far as the actors were concerned. De facto, the main centre was Mabel’s dressing room, and by good fortune, Charlie was summoned to attend the Queen in her ‘palace’. Mabel was fond of Charlie, so fond in fact that she ensured that when Charlie was in the dressing room that no actresses came in via the interconnecting door with the general female dressing room. The dressing room became Charlie’s place of learning. What did he learn? Well, firstly, he learned about film-making, of which he was totally ignorant. Then, he learned about comedy and timing. Sure, Charlie was already a comedian, but he was a knock-about comedian, and nothing more. Mabel taught Charlie how to create stories in comedy, rather than just fall about drunk, and hit cops over the head with mallets. Mabel was a great teacher, and he was eternally grateful for the lessons. Later he said this:

“Mabel knew more about comedy than any of us will ever know.”

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Charlie and Mabel disappear into the sunset. Mabel At The Wheel.

His most important lesson was in how to get along with people. At Karno, he’d muddled along without making too many friends, but he soon learned that the social side of the nascent Hollywood was more important than the professional side. Mabel told Charlie how she’d once been an introvert like him, but she’d learned how to become an extrovert, and the life and soul of the wild party. America was different to Britain, and sad-sacks were soon left by the wayside. Nor was Charlie’s training entirely theoretical. Mabel took him out into the world, and introduced him to people he’d never have met in a million years. Charlie, of course, was a good-looking guy, so it was no effort to have him on her arm at parties, premieres and restaurants. She introduced Charlie to Mary Pickford, the Talmadge sisters, the Gishes and guys that were big in pictures. Later, she introduced him to his first wife, Mildred Harris. Being with Mabel gave Charlie a certain kudos, but Mabel took lessons from Charlie too. The incipient tramp was a dude, well-dressed (if dirty) who already spoke with an aristocratic accent. This interested Mabel, who, by stages, began to leave her Brooklyn accent behind, and take on one originating in far-off Cavendish Square. Charlie also knew some French, the language of Mabel’s forebears, although Mabel never progressed far with that lingo. The Keystone Girl’s dressing room was also heated for cold mornings, and fans blew cooling air around in the middle of the day. It was also fitted out with comfortable furniture. How lucky was Charlie, but Mack was not amused.

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Mabel’s dressing room. Luxurious for 1914.

In Britain, when Charlie had left, there were few cars on the road, but he was amazed to find that Mabel had her own automobile, a 1913 Marion of 45-horsepower. However, just to keep Sennett in his place, she insisted that a chauffeured car be sent to pick her up at her hotel every morning. Mabel referred to Sennett as “That thick-necked Mick” which concerned Charlie, as Mack’s spies could be lurking under Mabel’s window. He was right to have concerns, for there were indeed spies, but these spies were more concerned with reporting any amorous episodes that might occur between the young pair. If ever Mabel and Charlie got bored with work, they’d borrow one of the studio’s cars and head downtown for a bit. The cars were always immobilised in some way, but Mabel would just lift the hood, fiddle with something, and the motor would start right up. Everyone out west could ride a horse, but Charlie sat this occupation out, and was terrified to see that Mabel would mount her steed, by running up from behind, then ride off bareback. Mabel also introduced Charlie to shirt packs, those cellophane-wrapped things, containing a shirt, collars and a tie. Charlie, we know, never changed his shirt from one year to the next, so Mabel gave him a pack every week. The aspiring tramp was also cheap, and resented paying for anything. Consequently, Mabel would load the limey up with cash, before they went anywhere, and this meant Charlie could buy rounds of drinks, so as not to embarrass Mabel. She was then making double what he was.

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Mabel at Lover’s Leap in 1913.

In order to keep a close eye on the love-struck couple, Mack took the pair to dinner every night, but when he inevitably fell asleep, they’d scarper for a couple of hours, to a show or, perhaps, Lover’s Leap, overlooking starlit Hollywood. Now, Mabel was one of these new women’s suffrage supporters, appearing in America but not yet in Britain, who didn’t just believe women were equal with men, but believed that women should rule men. Consequently, Charlie became aware that he was little more than a show-dog on Mabel’s leash, to be paraded at parties and the suchlike. Charlie noticed other things too. He realised that on the screen Mabel made him look small and insignificant. Although, from around April onwards, there were squeals of delight from the audience, when he made an appearance, there were bigger squeals and cheers when Mabel appeared. This mirrored what happened on the lot, for, when he stood on set, there were only a few silent souls around, but when Mabel appeared, carpenters dropped their hammers, electricians abandoned their screwdrivers, and painters their brushes, as they rushed headlong towards the set. Chaplin figured that he’d learned enough from Mabel to abandon her, and break out on his own. Mabel and Charlie were directing their own films, but Charlie began to choose extras as leading ladies. He made several films this way, but he’d underestimated Mabel. During love scenes he’d hear Mabel’s mocking cackle, which would be followed by a bucketful of water (or green dye) falling on his head from the top of the set. Beyond that, Mabel was fierce in her demands that she and Charlie should star together in their films. Charlie was helpless to resist – he’d been drawn into Mabel’s web and now he was caught. This brings us, in a roundabout way, to the subject of guns in America. Everyone that could afford them, had them. Mack Sennett had a veritable arsenal, at home, and in his office. Mabel always packed a .25 automatic in her bag, and its twin resided in her bedroom. She also owned a pair of small calibre derringers. In the films, where Mabel appeared with an actress, Peggy Page, who was popular with Chaplin, Mabel is seen carrying a small box handbag, which some think is just large enough to accommodate a derringer. Peggy (or Helen/Gladys Carruthers as she is thought to have been) was not alone in the studio, as her mother and sister were Keystone extras. It turns out they were a gold-digging gang, and at least one person involved with them had died with a bullet in the head.

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Mack and Mabel were very handy with guns.

By late 1914, Charlie was in a quandary – although he began to avoid Mabel, he was fearful of leaving his crib, the enveloping arms of the Keystone Girl. It was clear that Sennett wanted him gone, but it was equally clear that Mabel wanted him to stay. What Charlie really wanted was the support of Mabel, whilst at the same time using Miss Page in his films. The situation was impossible. In the event, Mack Sennett made the decision – Charlie could either clear out, collect a bullet in the head, or have a baseball bat embedded in his skull. Charlie chose the first option. This was the way they did business in the U.S. movie industry. Fortunately, Charlie had two offers open to him. Carl Laemmle of Universal had made him a reasonable offer, which would certainly ensure his success. Another offer came from a surprising quarter – the crazy cowboy, Broncho Billy, for a thousand-dollars-a-week. Billy wasn’t a comedian, but he thought that Chaplin was worth a try, although his partner in the studio Essanay, George Spoor, was unsure. Essanay was a real step in the dark, but Charlie formed the idea of saving forty-thousand-dollars and heading back to Old Blighty. He would operate out of Essanay, Chicago, which was far enough away that Mabel could not pursue him. Peggy Page did pursue him, but wound up at Essanay, Niles – eventually she arrived in Portland, where she swallowed Bichloride of Mercury, in an attempt to kill herself. Although Charlie tried to creep out of Keystone unnoticed (there was no leaving party) he found himself waylaid outside the gate by The Keystone Girl in her car. Mabel insisted that he get in, and they drove to a restaurant on the outskirts of town, where they had a final tearful dinner. Then, the tramp was gone.

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“Gonna walk out on me were ya, Charlie?”

Sleepless in Chicago and Roughing it in Niles.

Chaplin’s reputation preceded him to Chicago. The word was that Chaplin was arrogant, egotistical and fancied himself as a dude – George Spoor had also been spreading much poison about little limey. Chicago itself was also very job-centric, in that the mob-run trades unions, and the citizens, did not like outsiders stealing jobs. Consequently, Charlie ran into a wall of resentment at the studio. At every point the Chicagoans were putting obstacles in his path. At Keystone, Charlie had had a female co-writer, but now he had to accept scripts wholly written by a female – by order. Her name was Louella Parsons, a well-known screen-play writer and journalist. He soon found, also, that actors were reluctant to appear in his films, but eventually he chose an extra girl as his leading lady, Gloria Swanson. Outside of her pay check, Miss Swanson had no interest in Charlie’s comedy, and soon faded back in the first picture.  Charlie was completely distraught, and no doubt longed for the support of The Keystone Girl. In the end, he decided to break his contract, after first demanding the $10,000 signing bonus he’d been promised. There was then an agreement between Spoor, Charlie and Broncho Billy that Charlie would get the bonus, but that he would work from Niles, thereby getting the little upstart out of George Spoor’s hair. At Niles, Charlie had the support of Broncho Billy, and he was initiated into the eccentric cowboy’s lifestyle. Billy lived on the lot, in a small bungalow, which Charlie also moved into. However, this was a world away from Mabel’s studio bungalow, and there were no creature comforts, except a small fan. Like Diamond Jim Brady, Courtland Dines and Sam Goldwyn, Billy was an American eccentric. He loved the bright lights, the glitz and the girls of the city, and often drove the thirty-plus miles to San Francisco, so he could live La Dolce Vita. It was while out and about with Billy that Charlie met his future leading lady, Edna Purviance. She was manna from heaven for Charlie. She was not an actress, but she was photogenic, and knew her place in the scheme of things. Later, people would call her Edna Compliance. Niles proved not to be the panacea, Charlie had thought it was, and soon had to find a more suitable studio.

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Broncho Billy holds court at San Francisco in the film ‘Chaplin’.

The Prodigal Son Returns to L.A.

He discovered his Shangri-la in Boyle Heights L.A., where he shared a lot with two young comics, Buster Keaton and Hal Roach, two guys that Mabel loved to ridicule. The former she called “The Houndog” and the latter, “That thick-necked Mick.” And, what of Mabel? Well, Charlie was back on the Hollywood scene, thereby coming within the remit of girl from Staten Island – and she was everywhere. Although some people were now beginning to praise The Tramp, Mabel was in the habit of standing up in restaurants, pointing at Chaplin and making this threat:

“Charlie! I WILL be your leading lady, one day”

Mabel had introduced Charlie to the real America, and paved his way to success. The least he could do was make her his leading lady. Charlie, though, was ‘scairt’ (as Mack Sennett would say), scairt of bringing Mabel on screen alongside him. Ask for anything else – money, diamonds, houses, Rolls Royce cars, but not this. However, it is clear that Mabel enabled Charlie to become embedded within American society, even to the extent of, perhaps, teaching him the National Anthem (sung to the tune God Save The Queen) which was then ‘My country ’tis of thee’ in the same way she taught recalcitrant schoolkids Mack Sennett and Fatty Arbuckle in her film ‘The Little Teacher’.

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Mack and Fatty are taught the National Anthem by teacher Mabel.

Hollywood To Beverly Hills.

The years ticked by, and things happened. Mabel introduced Charlie to her new friend, Mildred Harris, a fifteen-year-old dancing girl from New York. Charlie decided to marry her, and all hell broke loose in the press, as he married her in a neighbouring state where such things were legal. The Tramp was no longer the flavour of the month. The limey had dared to  come to America and make good, only to defile the flower of the nation. Mabel, though, was ready to home in and protect and solace the couple, but it seems she became a third partner in the marriage. Charlie, as we have seen, was cheap, and although Mabel might have passed money to Mildred, it seems she prodded the younger girl to demand more from the tight-fisted Englisher. Eventually Mildred sued for divorce, and a huge alimony, the latter undoubtedly propelling Mabel into fits of hysterical laughter. Charlie, however, although tiring of America, dug his heels in, and became The King of Comedy and Mabel its Queen. Soon, Charlie found a way to circumvent Mabel, and teamed up, socially, with Douglas Fairbanks. The pair, and later Doug’s wife Mary Pickford, built up a social world based on celebrity. Their companions became the wealthy and famous of the world, eventually including Albert Einstein, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and anyone that was anyone in the extra-Hollywood universe. From Pickfair on the heights of Beverly Hills, Doug looked down with some disdain on the fleshpots of Hollywood way below. Charlie soon found himself in Beverly Hills, which suited him much better than the increasingly busy and noisy city, and renewed his faith in America. Mabel, naturally, stayed in the city, mainly in hotel suites, but eventually settling on a small duplex in the bohemian area, among the literary and artistic people she adored.

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Charlie and Mabel were now living in different worlds. The press, for their part, were becoming increasingly suspicious of the stars, who were making great effort to avoid personal interviews. Into this suspicious soup was thrown, first, Roscoe Arbuckle, charged with murder, then Mabel, of suspected of murder in 1922, then, in 1924, suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon. In 1925, Charlie was again in trouble over marrying 16-year-old Lita Grey out of state, and was immediately embroiled in a furore over an affair with Louise Brooks, a dancing girl with a record of posing nude before the cameras. In the same year, Mabel was named in divorce suit. What with his leading lady, Edna Purviance, appearing in court alongside Mabel in the 1924 shooting case, Charlie’s thoughts turned again to ‘getting out’. Doug and Mary had the same thoughts, and London, Paris, or perhaps, Toronto, were considered. Charlie was in a quandary — London was not a good idea, as, on his visit in 1921, he’d received death threats over his failure to sign up to fight in the Great War. Everyone decided to stay put — for the moment.

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No Fear! Mabel toughs 1922 out with lawyer Milton Cohen.

 

1930 and its Ramifications.

It was in 1927, when the taxman came out of the woodwork, and slapped a million-dollar tax bill on The Tramp. They went after others, Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand. Mabel died in early 1930, just as the Fairbanks couple began to become a little estranged. Ties with the Fairbankses began to unravel, and he came to realise just what a rock Mabel had actually been. The pressure was coming onto Charlie, and he began running around his studio, ranting and raving, threatening to make his film, City Lights, the only silent picture of 1930. He also fired his star, Virginia Cherrill. He did make the film silent, but failed to ditch Virginia. As Stan Laurel was later to say, Charlie was now sliding into insanity. He began to make anti-fascist remarks in public, which alienated him from a large section of the American public, including Doug and Mary. Then, he began to develop a liking for dark-haired leading ladies, and put Mabel look-alike and act-alike, Paulette Goddard (his wife) into ‘Modern Times’ — a film that some reviewers criticised for being anti-American. Charlie feared not, although he took some precautions against assassination. Walt Disney asked Charlie for advice on how to portray Snow White. In the era of blond stars he replied “Make her dark-haired, with big dark eyes — big teeth are optional.” Onward sailed Charlie, causing an unwanted rift between the U.S. and Germany with the film The Great Dictator.

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Charlie with Mabel act-alike Paulette Goddard.

America Doesn’t Look so Good Now.

After divorcing Paulette, he wandered lonely as a cloud for some time, until he ran into Joan Barry and her paternity suit, which cost him big bucks. By 1943, he’d married dark-haired colleen Oona O’Neil, and then kept his head down. Wondering what to do, Charlie went into making the film Monsieur Verdoux, at a time when the FBI and the general public were going for his throat. Things looked bad for Charlie, as the McCarthy witch trials arrived, but, although branded a Russian agent, he decided to stand his ground in America. It didn’t help Charlie much, when his most illustrious co-star (and apparent partner in crime) Mabel Normand had her name dragged through the mud in ‘Hollywood Boulevard’ in 1950. Charlie held tight, and went into a new film called Limelight, which was a very ‘Mabelesque’ attempt to attract sympathy and clear his name. It didn’t work, and while attending the film’s premiere in London, news came that his permit to re-enter the U.S. was revoked. Chaplin, of course, had never taken U.S. citizenship. Charlie didn’t return to the U.S. until 197.. when he received an honorary oscar for ‘Limelight’.

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Free food with drinks in the U.S.A. Stone-drunk Charlie picks up some flowers (onions) for his wife (Mabel). ‘Mabel’s Married Life’ 1914.

Addendum.

Now you might well ask what of the stars that went from Hollywood to Europe? Well, there are many of them, but here are a few. Louise Brooks of course, made good in Germany with Pandora’s Box, but soon returned to America. Bessie Love and Bebe Daniels emigrated to Britain and stayed there throughout the Blitz and beyond. Upon her death, Bebe’s ashes were returned to Hollywood, but Bessie lies today beneath a cedar tree in Ruislip Cemetery, West London. The Brits are very happy to have her.

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MABEL NORMAND: HER ART AND FILMS.

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Her Awakening. Biograph, 1911.

Two Times A Biograph Girl.

The essence of Mabel Normand, so the movie magazines of the 1920s tell us, was ‘Mabelescence’. What was, or is Mabelescence? We cannot really say, for it is an indefinable quality possessed only by the Goddess of Old Hollywood, Mabel Normand. Some called her the ‘It Girl’, she who Elinor Glyn would have said was endowed with the mysterious qualities of ‘it’ whatever that was. In terms of her art, Mabel can be said to have had a naturalistic style that came from within, and once ‘in the zone’ even the loudest of director’s megaphones could not penetrate that sacred aura. Directors could put as many chalk marks on the set as they liked, it mattered not to Mabel, who would, as likely as not, disappear out of camera shot for a second or two. In late 1911 and early 1912, when Mabel was working under D.W. Griffith, he directed Miss Mabel, latterly a Gibson Girl, and Vitagraph girl, with the lightest touch, realising that this girl from Staten Island performed best when left to her own devices, totally absorbed in her character. This is best exemplified in The Mender of Nets, where she is playing opposite Mary Pickford who is clearly taking clues from the director, and hamming it up with Griffith’s own brand of ‘French’ hand gestures, very much redolent of semaphore signals. Later, Mabel would mock these, by introducing them into her films to get a laugh, so if you ever read that Mabel copied Mary Pickford, this is what they mean – but Mary herself derided these ridiculous hand gestures. Mabel had initially trained under Griffith in 1910, but had left in the winter of that year for Vitagraph, where she first attained the 1911 version of movie stardom. The Vitagraph films were much-acclaimed., but critics thought there was too much hugging and kissing in them.

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Troublesome Secretaries. Vitagraph 1911.

 

Vitagraph Betty and Keystone Mabel.

When Mack Sennett became comedy director at Biograph, he knew he had to have Mabel or sink. He’d been at Biograph with the dramatic artist, Mabel, in 1910, but in L.A. in 1911, he was seeing her on the screen in Vitagraph comedies, playing Betty alongside the legendary John Bunny. His dropped jaw said it all, as he uttered those immortal words “My god, it’s Mabel!” Meanwhile, 6,000 miles away, in a London pub, two music hall comics, were discussing a stunning comedienne they’d just seen in a moving picture – their names were Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. “That Betty (Mabel) is a knockout” Said Stan. “Sure is” Replied Charlie, as the cogs in his head began to turn. One day, the future tramp thought, he’d meet with Vitagraph Betty, and make her his own. Almost three years would pass before he met Miss Normand, by which time she’d be a big star, one of the first to set foot on the oiled, dirt roads of Hollywood.

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Mabel in glitzy Hollywood, 1913.

It would be another fifteen years, before Stan worked with Mabel as her screen-writer and director. By the time she’d left the Roach studio, Stan had acquired the tools he needed from Mabel, vis-a-vis the ‘head scratch’ and the ‘dumb face’ to form a comedy team with Oliver Hardy. Millions world-wide were now acquainted with Mabel Normand, but she blew into comedy by sheer fluke. At Vitagraph, as at Biograph, she turned heads, not just with her stunning looks, but with her effervescent personality. Mabel was crazy, and future stars, the Talmadge sisters, plus mother, found her fascinating and intriguing, eventually naming her ‘Madcap Mabel’. John Bunny was captivated by the off-screen Mabel as well, and decided to make her the on-screen Betty. Mabel conveyed zaniness with emotion and passion, but could also portray sentiment and kindness, especially to her screen father, John Bunny. She was also fearless in physical action, and on the screen, it was clear she would brook no nonsense. And that face – was it just people’s imaginations, or did she look different every time you glanced at her. In film technology parlance, she had a non-camera-proof face i.e. she looked different, depending on which angle from which she was shot. This made her interesting, but that wasn’t all. She had the unique ability to change her facial expressions, and at lightning speed. This was one hell of an actress, and in drama, her endless expressions were useful, but the speed of change and back again was gold-dust in comedy. As exemplified in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, it is clear that her face, front-on, is completely different to her profile. Full-frontal, when relaxed, her face is kind of fluffy, or as directors call it ‘doughnut’. However, the doughnut can change, using muscle control, to any shape you like. You expect her to have something close to a button nose. The surprise is that, in profile, Mabel has a classic half-moon face with a sharp ridge to her nose and a chin that projects upwards towards the nose, to give the unmistakable ‘witches look’.

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Two Mabels, one film. Left ‘doughnut. Right ‘witchy’ under the bed.

Often, a stark difference between frontal and profile view is considered a disadvantage in camera work, but Mabel’s positive attributes outweighed the negative. It is also noticeable that Mabel was able to relax her facial muscles to form a ‘full chin’ that filled out the sharp chin in profile. The Normand eyes were as big as a Cheshire cat’s, and as doleful as you like. Her mouth was delicious but we’ll leave the description to Charlie Chaplin:

“She was extremely pretty, with heavy-lidded eyes, and full lips that curled delicately at the ends of her mouth, expressing humour and all sorts of indulgence. She was light-hearted and gay, a good fellow, kind and generous, and everyone adored her.”

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Everyone loved Mabel.

At Vitagraph, the bosses had been well-pleased with their new acquisition, and letters about her that filled the studio’s mail, indicated that Mabel was cracking the difficult female market, or more specifically, the young female market. This, naturally, was the secret to Mabel’s commercial success. Self-respecting girls were apt to stay away from movie houses, where drunken layabouts passed their time, and hookers conducted their business. Once cinema bosses realised there was such a thing as the female dollar, they began cleaning up their act. Mabel was partly instrumental in this change, as teenage girls were mightily impressed with the activities of the Mischievous Mabel, the Naughty Normand. For the first time, girls realised that they could be emancipated, and were not tied to mother’s apron strings, until such time mama decided it was right to marry the sweet lad she’d found in the church choir. Mabel didn’t hang around to be married off to anyone, and her chosen ones (for there were many) were the likes of Owen Moore, Lew Cody, Jack Pickford, racing driver Teddy Tetzlaff and Jack Mulhall – all hunks, Hollywood heart-throbs, and ‘clothes-horse’ actors. When not hunting down the men, Mabel was diving off high cliffs, riding bucking broncos, swimming the English Channel, driving fast cars, and flying aircraft as though they were the most natural things in the world.

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Mabel simply loves Teddy Tetzlaff (Speed Kings 1913).

The girls hoped, like future movie star Dorothy Gish, that one day they’d wake up to find they were, in fact, Madcap Mabel. The mothers, of course, were not so sure about Mabel, and they preferred the comparative safety of Mary Pickford as role model to their daughters, although the screen Mabel appeared chaste and wholesome enough. However, Mabel’s career ended at Vitagraph, as the Quaker owners felt that she was kinda unwholesome. Consequently, she found herself back at Biograph, where Griffith welcomed her with open arms. Whenever Mabel departed a studio, she left an unfillable lacuna. Griffith had his tragedienne back, but Mack Sennett, now comedy director, had the chance to swoop up the world’s greatest comedienne. The actors and actresses were delighted at Mabel’s return. As Chaplin said, everyone adored her, but not only was the adorable Mabel back, but she was now also that rare being in 1911, a movie star. Unfortunately, for Mack Sennett, Mabel had become the darling of the studio, and it was impossible for him, on the very edge of the Biograph social circle, to break through the crowds that surrounded her. He therefore, went to Griffith asking if he could use Mabel in comedies. Griffith was reluctant, but agreed on the understanding that he could use her in drama, as and when he needed her. Mabel was not amused, but carried on nonetheless. Mabel, then, had a foot in both camps, and she appeared in some riotous comedies, as well serious dramas. Let Mary Pickford describe her, as she saw her in late 1911:

“Suddenly, we realised for the first time what a wonderful comedienne Mabel was. She’d been playing ultra-seriously in dramas. and played the flashing-eyed creature of temperament, whose very looks were stilletos in your heart and whose movements undulated like a snake through the brush. The thousands that have laughed with her on the screen over the last few years of comedy have forgotten that she was once a heavy woman.”

Mary Pickford, January 3, 1916.”

Mary should know because when she played opposite Mabel in The Mender of Nets. Mabel played a woman scorned in love, and so wrapped up in the part was she that Mary avoided working with her again – it wasn’t worth the sleepless nights and endless nightmares.

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Mabel and Mary. Mender of Nets 1912.

Mabel’s role in The Biograph Comedies.

Sennett’s aim was to present Mabel as a kind of fulcrum around which the actors, and the story span. Her role was to react to what was going on around her, but she was not a foil, as her reactions were central to the film. Most observers say she was the Queen Bee around which the hive, her very kingdom, buzzed. Mack cleverly used Mabel’s natural personality to support the pictures that were, as everyone knows, just a succession of unconnected nonsense scenes. Without the glue, Mabel, they would clearly fall apart. The screen Mabel, then, was the real Mabel, and, to an extent, she played herself. As Louise Brooks reminded us in her 1970s interviews, the most difficult thing in the world is to play yourself. Indeed, Louise was probably the actress most like Mabel in terms of acting performance, as Sennett realised after 1926, when he’d lost Mabel forever. The super-stars were Mary Pickford, the Talmadge and Gish sisters, Blanche Sweet and Mabel Normand. Against all the odds, he, a mere iron-worker and clown, had once held one of them under contract. His mind turned to Louise, who was, unfortunately, then signed to another studio. Fast forward to 1935, when Sennett, washed up and alone, sat in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel, dreaming of bringing Mabel back from the grave. Brooksie, also washed up, was then resident at the hotel, flitting in and out, and The King of Comedy noticed that Louise, now shorne of the famous ‘helmet’ and sporting a pony tail reaching down to her bum (as Chaplin would say) looked remarkably like the young Mabel. There can be no doubt that he would have put her into a ‘Mabel’ picture, if he could have found the finance (the men with the cash thought it too early to bring the Madcap back). Notable Biograph comedies actually starring Mabel were: Tomboy Bessie, The Diving Girl, The Tourists, and A Dash Through The Clouds. In others, like The Fickle Spaniard, and Hot Stuff, we might say that the men provide all the action. The film Oh Those Eyes, seems to have been intended to showcase Mabel’s attributes, including her changeable expressions and, of course, her eyes. Yes, she is the loveliest thing you have ever seen, but this is one of her ‘men are stupid’ films.

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Oh Those Eyes. 1912.

The Keystone Films.

During the Biograph days, there were no films with titles incorporating the word ‘Mabel’. Biograph did not permit an actor’s name to be released in any way, and so the ‘Mabel’ in the titles had to wait until the Keystone films. Her name was, however, known from the Vitagraph films, although she generally played the winsome ‘Betty’. This was a natural progression, as Mabel’s audience began to burgeon. Mabel would have her own films, but Mabel was keen to have a dramatic base to the pictures and a strong storyline. This, obviously, had to wait while the studio established itself, building on the previous Biograph comedies as a base. Mabel watched as The Keystone Girl ran, dived, swam, drove and rode to increasing stardom. Wow, even the stars themselves could hardly wait to see the latest Mabel picture on the New York and Los Angeles screens. Mabel herself, though, was awaiting the latest films from Mary Pickford, Alice Joyce and Dorothy Gish. While many stars were dreaming of waking up and finding they’d metamorphised into Mabel, the The Keystone Girl envied the Griffith, Kalem and Vitagraph stars, playing in screen adapted stories of historical importance. Perhaps she would awake and find herself to be Alice Joyce, as Alice awoke to find she was no longer in The Fine Arts studio, but in that lumber yard they called Keystone. Mabel fought long and hard with Mack Sennett to consider dramatic comedy, but, in truth, Sennett could not understand this sentiment. Keystone was on top of the world – they outsold D.W. Griffith at the box office, and Mack’s Midas touch not only propelled his star-of-of-stars to greater stardom, but raked in dollars so fast, that he had to hire educated men to count the stuff. Mabel was far from amused, and entered into a dark depression, which she only left, like any ex-model, as the cameras began to whirr.

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Biograph vamp. Mabel in The Eternal Mother 1911.

It wasn’t until part way through 1913, that Sennett felt the studio to be strong enough to risk some melodramatic interludes in the pictures. Mabel was, as D.W. Griffith had noted, a natural tragedienne, so it was this genre that he’d allowed Mabel to bring into the films. After all, the ancient Greeks understood well that the line between comedy and tragedy is but a thin, translucent veil. There was something else that pleased The King Of Comedy. Many of his films parodied or burlesqued  those of Griffith, in the sense that he used the ridiculous Griffith hand gestures and contorted facial expressions, to make a mockery of the great ‘genius’. He wanted Mabel, therefore, to  be tearing at her hair, slamming her fists together and raising her arms to the heavens in epic tragic scenes. This Mabel did not object to, as she’d long ridiculed Griffith, and, any way, this was still current movie practice. Mabel used melodramatics and tragedy to good effect in Mabel’s Dramatic Career, in which she, a poor domestic slavey, suffered under an uncaring employer, and was later tied to a barrel of gunpowder by a top-hatted villain. Having seemingly found happiness in marriage, her old employer decides to shoot her, her husband and her children through an open window.

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There’s nothing like a Griffith heroine in a Keystone comedy. Mabel’s Dramatic Career.

From early 1914, Mabel was making films alongside Charlie Chaplin. Mabel developed her ideas at this time, and passed them on to Chaplin, who utilised them in his later films. Things stagnated somewhat, during 1915, when, at the top of her game, she found herself in some artistically challenged, but lucrative films, with Roscoe Arbuckle.  The best of this series was ‘Fatty And Mabel Adrift’ the last to be made at Keystone L.A. In January 1916, Fatty and Mabel produced the unique melodramatic comedy, ‘He Did And He Didn’t’. Here, Mabel and Roscoe, reveal their dramatic talents, which they use to great effect. However, the picture reveals a chink in Mabel’s armour, in that she cannot effectively play a vamp, or even a naughty housewife. This is probably why D.W. Griffith never put her in vamp roles, except once in The Eternal Mother, where comedy overwhelmed her vampire efforts. She found the whole concept of acting out the role of a man-eater to be highly amusing, as she was a real-life vamp, and her roles, even as an innocent ingenue, had men sighing for her.

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Fatty and Mabel Adrift.

The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company.

Mabel’s greatest film was Mickey, undoubtedly, her greatest effort. The film was made in 1916, by The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, at her studio on Fountain Avenue, Silverlake L.A., but wasn’t released until 1918. In her determination to make Mickey a success, Mabel went through several directors including the great George Loane Tucker. Eventually, she settled on the young, dynamic director, F. Richard Jones, who she more or less monopolised for the rest of her career. F. Richard, beginning with Mickey, began a process of teasing out the very best of Mabel’s acting ability. In particular, he concentrated on her unique ability to manipulate her facial muscles to emphasise various moods, and enhanced these where appropriate. In general, he enriched what was good, and dismissed what was not good. This was important for feature films. In a 6-reel film, you could not use ‘filler’ scenes, and everything had to be of the best quality. Every film that F.Richard directed for Mabel was a blockbuster.

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With Dick Jones and at a premiere with Dick and Mack Sennett.

Goldwyn Films.

The first association with Jones, ended when Mabel left the MNFFC to join Sam Goldwyn Pictures. As with Sennett, Mabel was Sam’s first leading lady, and it seems she thought Sam would provide films with the same impact as those by Keystone. This was not to be the case, although as the movie industry progressed, Mabel’s fame progressed with it. This was mainly due to Sam’s incredible publicity machine, which put all his stars into the limelight. Mabel believed Sam, when he said he’d buy the best stories from the most famous writers, and the best stage shows. He didn’t lie, and he spent hundreds of thousands on the stories. However, he spent little on adapting the stories into screenplays, and Mabel was soon arguing frequently with her directors.

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Mabel as Mickey.

Trouble brewed with the studio supervisor, Abe Lehr, who Mabel called Mr. ‘Leer’. It is Mabel’s confrontations with Lehr and Goldwyn, which, paradoxically, built the legend of The Keystone Girl, principally because Sam and Abe recorded the shenanigans between themselves, and Mabel, in Sam’s autobiography – one of the first from Hollywood. From what Abe and Sam said, we can deduce that the Mabel of the screen was very close to being the real Mabel. Like The Keystone Girl, Mabel ran through the usual sequence, when confronted with something a little uncomfortable. Abe Lehr told Sam the following tale. Mabel had been turning up hours late at the studio, and was often Absent Without Leave, which he estimated had cost the studio $30,000. Abe suspected that Mabel had a new flame,  and he confronted her one day in his office, telling her that the studio came before her love-life, her hairdressing and her eyebrow plucking. Mabel went into the first stage of her sequence, which involved sitting on Abe’s desk, twinkling her legs, as Mack Sennett called it, and bringing those dark, saucer-like eyes and two-inch eyelashes into play. Abe was mesmerised, but stood his ground. Noting Abe’s intransigence, Mabel offered Abe her newly-delivered car worth $8,000, if he didn’t tell Sam about the losses. Abe was unmoved, so Mabel went into her second phase. Abe ducked as a heavy book just missed his head and a paperweight clipped his ear. Within seconds, Mabel had cleared Abe’s desk of anything throwable, and was now screaming a torrent of abuse and threats at her supervisor. Abe ignored the threats, and Mabel went into phase three. She burst into tears, began sobbing, then ran from the room screaming. Now, Abe made a mistake – he ran after Mabel, and was immediately met with two gallons of water, hurled from a fire-bucket. Undaunted, he pursued her into her dressing room, only to run into a massive plume of perfume spray. If Mr Leer had been under any illusions, he now understood that Mabel was The Keystone Girl. This was reinforced next day, when, as he opened his office door, a bucket of green dye fell on his head. He ran for his desk drawer, where he kept his hankerchiefs, and was lucky to spot two electrical wires leading to the metal handle of the drawer. The Naughty Normand had struck again.

Mack Sennett Studios.

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With Sam Goldwyn.

1920, found Mabel prostrate at home, with the death rattle in her throat. She’d been struck down by the third incidence of the Spanish flu pandemic, and the virus was ravaging her already damaged lungs. Sam Goldwyn had postponed the shooting of Mabel’s current picture, which was fortunate, as Mabel’s weight was below 60 pounds – not enough to sustain human life. A stream of movie star visitors came to the house, but Mabel, in and out of a deep coma, barely noticed. Charlie Chaplin came daily, one day finding a priest administering the last rites over his former lover. However, he was certain that Mabel was becoming more lucid, and one day she’d opened an eye and said “Fuck off Chaplin.” Charlie realised then that she was recovering, and went to see Sam Goldwyn. Charlie told Sam that he must release Mabel, as his lacklustre pictures were killing her. “Why not send Mabel back to Sennett – she will only die if she stays here.” Sam was unsure, but told Chaplin to go see Sennett, and tell him he can have Mabel back – the price was $30,000 (around a million today).  A few weeks later, Mabel arrived at the Mack Sennett studios, where her Pierce-Arrow car was met by the entire adoring studio company. Mabel exited the car at Mack’s tower office. She made it up one flight of stairs, but had to be carried up the next by her chauffeur. Mabel was brought into the office and sat in a chair opposite a horrified Mack Sennett and F. Richard Jones, who saw a walking skeleton before them. Quickly, Mack got Mabel to sign a letter of intent, then he gave her a copy of the contract to take away, and sign if she was happy with the terms. Mack himself, carried Mabel back down the stairs, and he returned to Dick Jones, ashen-faced. Sitting down he looked at Dick.

“What do you think Dick, she looks like the living dead – she’s got a xylophone for a chest.”

“Well, we can’t photograph her looking like that, perhaps we should try one-reelers first.”

“No way do I put her in anything but features, she’s just cost me $30,000!”

“Send her back, boss, and save 30k.”

“Sam Goldwyn will never have her again, even if I have to lose 30-grand. She’s mine….mine, understand!?”

“In that case, Mack, I suggest you send her back to New York, until she’s filled out a bit.”

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Thus it was, that Mabel returned to Mack’s office to sign the contract, and where Mack swallowed hard as Mabel demanded 25% of the profits and $3,000 a week. If Mack had been more alert, he’d have noticed Mabel wink at Dick Jones as she signed. Two days later, Mabel departed for New York, where Mildred Harris had arranged for Mabel to stay in her apartment. In the event Mabel moved into a loft in Greenwich Village with some friends. Mabel was happy, her roots were among the artists, so what better place for an ex-Gibson Girl to convalesce?

Mabel returned to the coast, as gay as a wisp, and ready to roll. Her new film was Molly O’, a Cinderella story about a poor Irish girl that eventually gets the man and the cash. The film represents Mabel’s return to drama, for this is a dramatic film, with a little humour slipped in. As so often, George ‘Pops’ Nichols plays Mabel’s Irish father, who, as always, loves to take his belt to his wayward daughter. Again, Dick Jones has stepped in to enhance Mabel’s good points, but for this film, and ever after, Mabel goes nowhere near the water, nor a high cliff, nor the bare back of a galloping stallion. The stunts are replaced with scenes of Mabel dancing. She is fully a Griffith maiden, but the film, if dialogue was added, would pass for a 1930s drama.

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The dancing was something which fans always requested, although a certain measure of comedy was added to it. Result: a sell-out, and a cool million into Miss Normand’s safe deposit box. Problem: Leading man Jack Mulhall, who Mabel fell for. For the third time, Mack was losing his girl. Sennett socked Jack in the jaw, but had to confront him 25 years later on the ‘This is your Life program’. Mack looked pensive as Jack walked up to him. Jack shook his hand, and said:

“I’m as thrilled tonight, as when you chose me to be the leading man to Mabel Normand, of beloved memory, in Molly O.”

Jack walked away without throwing a punch.

In 1922, they began Mabel’s new film, Suzanna, a tale of Old Spain. Mabel and Dick were preparing to get to grips with the new plot. However, one day, as Mabel got into her Mexican costume, the police arrived and carried her off. People watched, as a girl in a patterned poncho and sombrero hat was put into an LAPD car. “Well, just what you’d expect from a diego.” Said some observers. What had happened was that Mabel’s lover, William Desmond Taylor had been shot dead, and Mabel, for that day, was the prime suspect. A huge battle developed between the Hollywood stars and the press that tried to crucify her. This overflowed into the film, and Mabel was shown as defensive, but vulnerable. However, there are some quips in the film which relate to the Taylor murder. At one time, on a lonesome trail, Mabel picks up a horseshoe, and looks through it with a wry grin. Then, she tosses it away – “I don’t need luck!” She seems to say. Once again, Jones gets Mabel dancing, although the sequence is speeded up for comedic effect. This film is not a drama with added comedy, it is comedy that incorporates some drama, which was entirely necessary, considering Mabel’s private problems.

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Suzanna.

In June 1922, Mabel fled the country to avoid the adverse publicity, although Suzanna did good box-office. In England, Mabel met the authors, like H.G. Wells, G.B. Shaw and others, who she thought might provide her with good stories. She left England for France, with a draft contract from the ABC Studio. In France, she led the gay life, with her own personal Sheik – the wealthy Prince Ibrahim of Egypt, but also received offers from French studios, and later from Italian and German outfits. So Mabel had options. A millionaire, film contracts, and a possiblity of screenplays for her own company. Her Prince was called home by his King, who’d heard he was about to marry a scumbag Hollywood actress. End of Sheik. Mabel hit the Deauville races and the gaming tables in Monte Carlo, but by early September, she was on her way home. Back in New York, Mabel made no attempt to contact Sennett. Everyone thought she was in Staten Island, but secret arrangements had been made for her to use Marilyn Miller’s apartment in Manhattan. Mack began a new feature, Extra Girl, starring Phyllis Haver – Mabel it seemed was gone…. for good. Mabel, though, was far from gone, and spent $20 on a long distance phone call, in which she made a series of threats against The King of Comedy, which she would turn into reality if she did not get the part. Mabel needed this part to rehabilitate herself with an accusing public.

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Extra Girl 1923.

The press, the women’s clubs and the church were screaming accusations in her direction. “Mabel is a murderer, Mabel is a whore, Mabel is an altogether bad egg.” The story of Extra Girl was one of a young girl, lured to the bright lights of Hollywood. Eventually, she gives up the bright lights for marriage to her childhood love. Naturally, Mabel would have done no such thing, but the film was received with great applause, and Mabel walked away with another million bucks. The story of Extra Girl is dramatic, but Sennett and Jones have brought back the lovable Keystone Girl for this picture. Her fans were delighted, as this was just what they wanted. Dick Jones, nonetheless, is not found wanting, and has again enhanced and smoothed out the Keystone Girl of old, and brought her into the roaring twenties. Impetuous references to the Taylor case are numerous in the film, and her fans thought that giving a finger to the authorities was the right thing to do.

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Dying in the arms of  Ralph Graves. Extra Girl.

As adulation for Mabel continued through late 1923, everything looked fine, but disaster struck on New Year’s day 1924, when Mabel’s chauffeur shot oilman and playboy, Courtland Dines. Present at the time was Mabel and her friend Edna Purviance. The newspapers were instantly on to the story, and soon realised that, as with the Taylor case, there was a love triangle, behind the shooting. ‘Courts’ was the fiance of Edna, and the press soon discovered that Courts had been seeing Mabel behind Edna’s back. The fury against ‘bad girl’ Mabel erupted again. Mabel dug her heels in, and went on a nation-wide tour, promoting Extra Girl, and this proved successful. Unfortunately, waiting in the wings was a certain Mrs Church, who, in September 1924, named Mabel in a divorce petition. This struck Mabel in the heart, although she was not named as co-respondent, but as someone that had ‘alienated her husband’s affections’. Now everyone knew that Mabel was bad, bad, bad.

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Bad girl out for a ride (Looking For Mabel Normand website).

Stagestruck and Hal Roach.

No future films were planned, but impressario Al Woods contacted her, with a view to putting her into a stage show. The play would tour nationwide, but, although the stage-play was not good, Al was sure that Mabel’s name would bring packed houses. And so, Mabel was the road again, but her voice did not carry beyond the orchestra, and the tour was ended after a few weeks, although audience numbers were high. Mabel’s pay? Another cool million. Back in L.A. the good-time girl decided to put her feet up, buy a Beverly Hills mansion and disappear. Her friends advised her to marry and give up the wild parties. Mabel did marry in 1926, but did not live with her husband, and, of course, continued partying like there was no tomorrow. Naturally, Mabel soon became morose and discontented with her work-free life, especially after a feature film role with Mack Sennett fell through. Fearful for Mabel’s mental health, Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet and F. Richard Jones contacted Hal Roach about her going to his studios. Jones was, by now, Hal’s studio supervisor, and pushed for Mabel to be signed. As a result Mabel went to Roach Studios, where a certain Stan Laurel was elected her screen-writer and director. Hal at this time, was buying up falling silent stars at a cheap rent, and got Theda Bara for $50 a week! Mabel, however, was a little more expensive and came with a price tag of $1,000 dollars a week for the first two weeks, then $3,000 a-week, rising to $5,000 a-week thereafter. Roach might have been smug about capturing Sennett’s Keystone Girl, but he would soon realise the that handling the little clown was not going to be a walk in the park. Mabel initiated insurrection in the studio and her supporters were young, new actresses, old acquaintances, Stan Laurel, the and, importantly, F. Richard Jones. Hal was beleagured, as Mabel and her friends followed the ‘Thick-necked Mick’ (as Mabel called him) around the studio, hurling vulgar abuse at him. Hal later said: “She was the dirtiest-talking girl, you’d ever heard.”

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Hal Roach “She was the dirtiest-talking girl you’d ever heard.”

“As filming began, it was clear that the ailing Mabel needed a lot of support. It was difficult to keep her within camera range, and a hacking cough interfered with the schedule. Stan, Dick and husband Lew Cody, combined to help Mabel, but her basic ability hadn’t deserted her. The films, then, were successful, although they lacked the lustre of the Sennett pictures. Dick, continued to adapt Mabel to the changed circumstances, which helped dilute the effects of the Laurel screenplays that were alright, but not brilliant. The public, however, loved the pictures, and loved the fact that Mabel was back. In Raggedy Rose, Mabel gets knocked out by a wayward boot, just like she did in the Sennett films. In general, however, they lack the Sennett touch, although they are funny, as befitting stories from the pen of Stan Laurel. Later Sennett was to say:

“She shouldn’t have left me. I could have made her good films, better than any other man could have made them.”

There is nothing particularly new in these films, and they more or less follow the Roach formula. Inevitably, Mabel appears with a gun, just to keep her detractors happy. To keep her detractors happy, also, sheappears as a kind of preying mantis, who hunts down a man, and strips him virtually naked.

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One Hour Married 1927.

In late 1926, Mabel began suffering severe respiratory problems, and she did not take up her option to re-sign. For almost half a year her wings were clipped, as she fought off pneumonia, bout by bout. Surprisingly, Mabel recovered, and was again hitting the parties and premieres, much to her fan’s delight. Moving into 1928, Mabel seemed to be everywhere, around town, and in the newspaper headlines. The headlines can be summed up as “What Mabel did” and “What Mabel did next.” Arriving at the premiere of ‘Lilac Time’ the press pushed Mabel and Charlie Chaplin together for their final photo, with Mabel baring her bosom to show just how fit she was. Fit enough, it seems, for old friend Louis B. Mayer of MGM to give her a test for talkies in this year. The aim seems to have been to show that Mabel could still cut it in movies, and what the company did, was make a short film on the set of the big MGM film of that year, ‘Our Dancing Daughters’. Mabel had a copy of the film made and gave it as a present to husband Lew Cody. It’s whereabouts today are unknown. The silent movie era ended on February 28th 1930, the day they buried the Keystone Girl.

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Filming on the art-deco set of Our Dancing Daughters, 1928.

 

Her Best Films.

It is, naturally, impossible to decided which of Mabel’s films were de facto better, although we can say which were the most popular. The main thing to remember, is that Mabel never had a film ‘bomb’ — not at Biograph, Vitagraph, Keystone, The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, Goldwyn, Mack Sennett Studios, nor Hal Roach Comedies. Artistically, we must inevitably look to the feature films. The battle today is between Mickey (1918) and Extra Girl (1923), both highly popular with the contemporary public, but produced, surprisingly, in different circumstances. Mickey was produced at the tail end of the development phase of Hollywood movies, while Extra Girl was produced during the so-called Golden Era of silent pictures. Extra Girl is technically a more advance picture, but nothing can approach the sheer charm of Mickey and Mickey herself. Charming also were the Fatty and Mabel shorts, but these were, in reality, junk, although they were popular in 1915, and still are today. The difference is that 1915 audiences thought that Fatty and Mabel really were love-struck country kids.

 

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Bibliography.

https://themabelnormand.com/filmography/

New Years Eve On The Train, 1916, by Mary Pickford. The Times-Democrat , Lima, Ohio.

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

Personalities I Have Known: Mabel Normand, 1916, by Mary Pickford. Syndicated column.

Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006).

https://archive.org/stream/MabelNormandASourceBookToHerLifeAndFilms/MNSB7_djvu.txt

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

 

“HOW DID THEY KEEP THEIR HATS ON?” MABEL’S BUSY DAY & OTHER MUSINGS.

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Since the previous blog on ‘Mabel’s Busy Day’ was posted, several people have sent emails concerning aspects of the film, and one follower asked the question on the blog page, “How did they keep their hats on?” Well, most of the questions were answered in the original draft, which I drastically cut down to make the article bloggable – most of these blogs begin as long research papers and are, consequently, unsuitable for blogging. It seems worth going over the main points of the film that have not already been covered, especially as the story represents the pinnacle of the Charlie and Mabel collaboration, after which Sennett seems to have intervened and partially pulled the plug on pathos and melancholy. or supervised it closely.

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“Come on then, you piece of …..”

The Brutalisation of Women.

What the hell is this? Please explain: The girl we see in this film is the product of Mabel’s perception of a brutal social system. Dickens, Charles Kingsley, Jacob Riis and Jack London wrote of such things. Our vending girl, who has been beaten and downtrodden all of her life, has herself become brutal. She is clearly a female, fluttering her two-inch eyelashes, but she is as hard as nails, highly suspicious, and, though her butter knife is blunt, she will kill you. The first guy that dares ridicule her, is smashed in the teeth, and kicked in the ass, before he can get up. A cop threatens her with his truncheon. Mabel fronts him out and says “Don’t you touch me!” (or else). Mack Sennett is lucky to escape after tapping her derriere with his cane. Enter Charlie Chaplin, who appears benevolent, but is actually an evil opportunist. However, the real Charlie understands Mabel’s plight perfectly. He would later take Mabel’s coster-girl, and absorb her into his own melancholic character. For fifteen years his leading ladies would be mainly of the D.W. Griffith type, but, after Mabel’s death, he attempted to change his flower girl in City Lights for a tragic Mabel type, but failed. In Modern Times, he brought Mabel’s coster-girl back, in the form of the poor gamin, Paulette Goddard, whose rendition was so effective that her photos from that film, remain a staple in silent film magazines and internet sites. Of her wish to produce stronger films, Mabel told an interviewer: “I am not a doll, living in a doll’s house, squeaking words written by someone else!” However, this is one of the few Mabel films that does not have a ‘Cinderella’ ending.

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Mabel’s hat-pin — Illegal within city limits.

How did they keep their hats on?

So, now we come to the important puzzle, but lighter subject, of how they kept their hats on. Not everyone actually keeps their hats on in the film, but the ‘lost’ hats are of the cheapo variety. The women are easier to understand, because their hats were located by one-foot long hat-pins that go through the hat and the hair piled up on their heads. You can see Mabel insert her hat-pin in several movies. This is, of course, why you should not mess with The Keystone Girl. The men, pre-1920, had somewhat longer hair than we might have expected, and so, possibly, they also used some type of pin. Alternatively, a grippy, internal headband might have sufficed. The straw boaters are never allowed to float off. In one scene Charlie throws of his frock coat, to tackle The Keystone Girl, who is about to ‘Mabelise’ him. He steps back onto the coat, realises it’s there, and quickly grabs it, and throws the thing out of the scene.

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Charlie shows Mack Sennett how to keep his hat on.

Melancholy, mania and the ‘Big H’.

The first thing is that Mabel seems to be, as well as melancholic, not a little manic. Her eyes appear glazed and vacant and she is not a little scary, although she is also tragic, a point which some 1914 viewers might have noticed. This raises the question of drug use, which is a popular theme among ‘Hollywood Babylonianists’. Was Mabel a drug-taker? No-one was closer to Mabel at this time than Minta Durfee (Arbuckle) who years later (many years later) said Mabel took a medicine she called ‘Goop’ to calm down the haemorrhage in her lungs, caused by tuberculosis. What was in the goop? The most common ingredients for a 1910s medicine, were cocaine and codeine. There is a further possibility that her tuberculosis, as Charlie Chaplin tells us, was greatly advanced, even at this early stage. As we all know, advanced stages of serious diseases are treated with opiates, and, prior to 1925, the most popular opiate derivative was the big ‘H’ or Heroin. This is the drug that made its users ‘heroic’, hence the name. In 1925, realising that the stuff was not as safe as thought, the authorities banned the Big ‘H’. It was Polly Moran,  who said that Mabel had a tube sticking out of her back, which was draining one lung. A colloquial story has Mabel, aged eight, lying in bed recovering from tuberculosis, listening to a doctor speaking to her parents. The doctor said “She’ll live, but she’ll always be an invalid.” The story goes that Mabel thought “Invalid? No f….g way!” It was then that she determined to be an athlete, a concert pianist, or a star of some kind. Whatever, everyone would know her name. She challenged the gods to do their worst.

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“Cocaine going ’round my brain.”

It’s Hot in L.A.

Now we come to another thing related to this film. More colloquial stories suggest that Mabel sometimes passed out on the set. If this is true, then we might expect that Mabel had the usual problem associated with severe illness, that of controlling her temperature, something that is doubly troubling in the L.A. climate. This would have been exacerbated by the fact that clothing was thick and heavy, back in the day. No self-respecting woman would appear sans a hat, and multiple petticoats were de riguer.

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This might solve the mystery of the immense wind that seems to blow through the films, especially when Mabel is around. The fact is that Keystone used 6-feet wide electric fans to create the breeze, ostensibly to make the trees wave and Mabel’s dress billow and shimmer. Could it be that they kept the actors, and especially The Keystone Girl cool? Possibly related to this, is the fact that Mabel appears to be wearing no bloomers in this film. We see almost to the tops of her legs, during high kicks, but no sign of underwear – then, suddenly, she’s wearing knee length bloomers! They seem to be like the ones Alice Howell wears in Laughing Gas, but presumably, not the same ones. They must have been drawn in, during the editing. It seems certain that a lack of lower underwear would allow heat to be dissipated, from an otherwise completely covered body.

 

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Charlie’s coat, mentioned above, reminds us that actor’s in 1914, provided their own clothing. The jacket probably cost Mr. ‘Cheapie’ Chaplin a few bucks. The cost of the set/location was nothing, for filming by the Keystone was advertised by the Ascot Racecourse, where the picture was shot – hence the crowds you see hanging around. The next year, when they made Mabel’s Wilful Way, at Oakland’s Idora Park, it was so much advertised that the press came along to report on the shoot, and their stories give us a clue, as to one function of the Keystone electric fans (see article below).

 

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Not many people are aware that, in the early days, actors provided their own costumes. Artists got roles by the cut of their cloth. Wardrobes began to appear at studios from around 1910, but the bosses were still ripping off performers into the 1940s. Big stars, like Mabel and Mary Pickford, were able to get the ‘actress to supply costumes’ clause, removed from their contracts. Louise Brooks claimed she lost a $1,000 suit in one scene filmed in 1926 — goodbye to a week’s pay (Lulu in Hollywood). It should be noted that the IRS did not give actors a clothing allowance to set against tax payable, so they got a double whammy.

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Section of Mabel’s Molly O’ contract with ‘artist supplies costume clause’ scrubbed out and modified [Looking For Mabel  Normand website].

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