Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp had first appeared on screen in ‘Kid’s Auto Races in Venice’, but there is some suggestion that he might have first taken to the set in ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’. For the latter picture he had to perform alongside Mabel, ‘Queen of The Movies’. This was a golden opportunity for Chaplin, for Mabel films were eagerly awaited by the public, and while it seems that Keystone major shareholders, Kessell and Baumann, supported Charlie, Mack Sennett clearly did not want him around. To be brief, as this subject has been covered in previous articles, Sennett thought Chaplin was too young, too close to his star-of-star’s age for his liking – the producer had been in the movie game long enough to know that leading men and leading ladies were all too prone to running off together. This Mack clearly states in his autobiography, although Kessell and Baumann were keen to get Chaplin into a good position. Hence his appearance alongside Mabel in ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’. The main thing about this film is that Chaplin gets the first scene almost to himself. We can only imagine that Mabel was furious about this (she had a ready-made scene of her entering a hotel) and apparently refused to work with Charlie for the following two months. It was under these circumstances that ‘A Film Johnnie’ was made.
Although Mabel had Charlie had assumed that they would get together in films, they were both now going their own way. Charlie had a screen character, but he needed to cultivate a leading lady. His predecessor, Ford Sterling, always had a ‘resident’ leading lady in Mabel Normand, though we might say Mabel had a leading man in Ford Sterling. Charlie had homed in on an actress by the name of Peggy Pearce. Peggy was a pretty girl, with unusual chiselled features, and Charlie was keen, as he said in his memoirs, to carry on working with her. He struck up a close relationship with Peggy, and visited her at home, where her mother welcomed his presence. Then, as often happened, she dropped Charlie, and he was no longer welcome at Peggy’s abode. What had happened? The fact is, nobody knew what had happened – not even Chaplin. Possibly, the strange little vaudevillian with a black tide mark around his neck, was not considered a good catch by Mama Pearce. It might be that Sennett decided she would not work with Charlie, or perhaps she was warned off. Keystone had a Queen, and what the Queen wanted, she got. This does not mean that she was given anything, but she was able to influence which actresses worked and who they worked with. Some very good actresses, like Virginia Kirtley, Dixie Chene and Peggy Pearce, never made it at Keystone, and we must wonder why. Mabel was initially very keen to work with Charlie, although the spat, which developed while making ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’, changed that for a while. Charlie was furious at losing Peggy, but Mabel was probably quietly smiling, knowing she’d eventually have Charlie to herself, but on her own terms (this did happen, following ‘Mabel At The Wheel’). In any case, Peggy Pearce is just about Charlie’s leading lady in this picture, and it is she that provides the pulchritudinous interest in ‘A Film Johnnie’.
Charles S. Chaplin: The Film Johnnie
Peggy Pearce: Keystone actress
Edgar Kennedy: Film Director
Ford Sterling: Himself
Roscoe Arbuckle: Himself
Harry McCoy: Audience member
Minta Durfee (Arbuckle): Audience member and as Herself
Directed by: George Nichols
Release date: March 2 1914
The film begins with Charlie standing outside an early and primitive movie house, or ‘flea pit’. He’s a tramp-like character, looking at the various movie posters, including, naturally, Keystone efforts. One poster attracts his attention, showing a girl in a motor-racing helmet and a ‘reverse racoon’ oily face. The legend above reads the ‘Champion Driver’, implying that the girl is a car race winner (she seems to be Fay Tincher who stood in for Mabel in ‘At The Wheel’). Charlie makes much of drooling over her, although he mocks her dirty face. Charlie decides to go into the cheap joint, and removes some coins from an old sock, which he pulls from his pocket. We now get to see the inside of a contemporary picture house, with its wooden folding chairs, and rudimentary silver screen. Naturally, Charlie causes problems with the seated clientele. Charlie eventually settles down to watch the film, but gets edgy during a Civil War scene, creating trouble with fellow movie-goer, Minta Arbuckle. The next movie, is a Keystone effort starring Peggy Pearce, who is billed as ‘The Keystone Girl’, a title normally reserved for Mabel Normand, perhaps indicating that Charlie is flipping Mabel ‘the bird’ (However, the intertitle we see today might have been inserted by Syd Chaplin, when he revamped Charlie’s films). Eventually, Charlie gets a little too overactive, as he watches the film, upsets the audience, and is thrown out.
He can’t get Keystone out of his mind, nonetheless, and finds his way to the studio, where the company is arriving back, after filming on location. The place shown, though, is not the real junk yard of a studio, but, according to John Bengston, some very posh premises at Bryston Apartments, 2701 Wilshire Boulevard, L.A. The stars pour out of the cars, and they include Minta and Roscoe Arbuckle. Charlie decides the Keystoners must have money, so begins hustling them for cash. Fatty gives him a coin, but the next Keystoner along manages to rob him of his gain. A group of actors, including Minta, pass the scruffy Chaplin with disdain and laughter. He tries to follow the stars into the studio, but the open door is slammed in his face. He gets into an argument with the studio director, who is outside talking to the doorman. The director tells Charlie “We don’t want any bums around here!” and storms through the door. Crafty Charlie slides through with him, incensing the doorman, who swings his baseball bat at Chas, but too late. The door closes and the bat is thrown back into the doorman’s head. Inside, Charlie causes a near riot, but he is soon in love – with the lovely Peggy Pearce, who has appeared on set. Unfortunately, Charlie wanders into the prop room, where he avails himself of a pistol, with which he causes immense chaos around the studio. Sadly, for Charlie, Peggy is not amused by his antics, or his interference in her scenes, and the director is fuming and would kill Chaplin, if he could catch the little rat. Eventually, Charlie simply walks out, where the doorman is waiting with his bat. As he raises the bat to brain the tramp, Charlie kicks the old man back into his chair.
Back in the studio, reports come in of a fire downtown, and we see the company pile into the cars, and head off to get some free footage of a house on fire – just right for their current picture. Charlie gets wind of what’s going on, and chases after the cars on foot. He catches up with them on location, his presence immediately enraging the director. Charlie is soon warming his hands by the blazing house, but then he notices the fair Peggy being assaulted in a scene. For the first time in his life, he becomes chivalrous, and wades in among the actors to rescue the maiden in distress. Peggy, though, is not pleased with her shining knight, nor is the director, who when Charlie puts out their small blaze with a bucket of water, sets out to kill the tramp with a piece of four by two. In the melee the camera goes over and two of the actors have to restrain the director, when he goes beserk. The fire department cease aiming their hoses at the fire, and turn them on the squabbling threesome, as Charlie makes a lunge for pretty Peggy. However, Peggy has had enough and decides to give Charlie a whopping, which is followed by Charlie being soaked by the fireman’s hoses. End of film.
Some comments on this film. This is very much Keystone’s traditional fare, with plenty of slapstick, guns, crazy people (who could never exist) and a lovely girl for decoration. Peggy Pearce was indeed a lovely girl, but with unusual features that gel with the Mack Sennett paradigm of pretty peculiarity. Indeed, it does seem as though Chaplin thought she could become his permanent foil but, perhaps, Peggy realised there was no scope for stardom in being a fall girl to a star. Soon enough Charlie was put with Mabel Normand, although she rather dampened his fire onscreen. Another Peggy, Peggy Page (perhaps aka Helen Carruthers) suited Charlie much better, although he ditched her, when he left for Essanay, and found his long-term foil, in Edna Purviance. The studio scenes are of interest, and though the place seems crowded, we should remember that there would have been around thirty to fifty studio people around watching. At that time, however, the big crowds were for Ford Sterling and his co-star, Mabel Normand. Random footage was important to studios back then, as demonstrated, in this film, by the whole company jumping in cars and racing to a fire. The floor-trailing dress worn by Peggy, was known as a ‘suicide frock’, for the simple reason that, catch your foot in the hem, and it’s ‘curtains’. The first U.S. movie star, Florence Lawrence, had her career ended, when she caught a foot in her trailing dress, then tumbled down a staircase, breaking her neck. Mabel, wisely, ensured her skirts were above the ankle (with the exception of wedding dresses). Peggy Pearce, by the by, was one of those that were lured away to ex-Keystoner Henri Lehrman’s studio, known as LKO. Peggy left the screen in 1920. Random filming might have produced the Civil War scene in this film. Mabel once told a press guy that that she and a crew once went out to Tom Ince’s 101 Ranch studio at Topanga, and surreptitiously shot his expensive, panoramic war scene. Mabel’s entrance scene in ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’ is another random scene, shot outside a plush hotel in Pasadena.
King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).
Mabel Normand’s Own Life Story by Chandler Sprague. Los Angeles Examiner (February 17, 1924)
Charles Chaplin: My autobiographyby Charles Chaplin (1964).
An odd title, perhaps, as it is clear that no-one can say when there two stars first met. That they met sometime at the Biograph studio, New York, in around 1910, is indisputable, but the reader might ask why their meeting is of interest to anybody. The fact is that Owen appears, more or less a dramatic actor, alongside Mabel in the Keystone film, ‘The Little Teacher’, of 1915. There are also other Keystone films in which he seems to briefly appear, as an extra. This is, of course, very unexpected, but we might be able to make sense of this by looking at the evidence.
Let’s start by looking at who the two characters were. Mabel Normand was the most vivacious, devil-may-care, passionate and altruistic of the actresses that ever graced the halls of that great edifice, Hollywood. Owen Moore was the all-round ‘good fellow’ known for his sharply tailored suits, handsome looks, and he-man persona, with a hint of the menacing about it. Quite simply, Mabel was an actor’s dream, while Owen ensured that his female fans did not sleep long enough to encounter dreams. It is, then, inconceivable that these two people were not drawn to each other. Drawn they might have been, but by January 1911, Owen was married – to Mabel’s movie compatriot, Mary Pickford. We know that, to Mabel, married men were out of bounds, and it is unlikely that any close friendship they’d had, would have continued. Not that Owen was ever faithful in the marriage, but neither was his wife. The union was not a good one, with Owen not being keen on the way that producers and directors were boosting her career, while the same people, he thought, were holding him back. Owen had a fiery Irish temper, best exemplified by what happened when Mary and he left Biograph for the IMP company, in 1911. On location in Cuba, Owen got into a violent argument with the director (Thomas Ince) and his assistant, about a number of things, and Owen gave the assistant a clout on the ear. Owen decided to leave, and dragged Mary away with him, down to the harbour and onto a U.S. bound ship. The matter had been reported to the local police, but actor and actress escaped lapolicia’s attempts to arrest them.
Mary and Owen arrived back at Biograph, to find that Mabel, who’d also briefly left the studio, had returned as a named comedy star from the Vitagraph. Owen, no doubt, gloated that Mabel had made it, while Mary had bombed in the Caribbean. Mary, though, was not an emotional person, and, like many other girls, thought Mabel was wonderful. It was brother Jack that named Mary ‘The Ice Queen’, due to her pragmatism and lack of passion. In fact, Mary’s pragmatism, rather than her spirit, was to guide her and her family to success, as great as Mabel’s, by 1914. Jack, being around 14 years of age, probably picked up some aspects of his later personality from Owen, as well as from Owen’s ‘pals. The younger Pickford, also seems to have been much involved with Mabel, and, combined, they were scourge of the studio (just little things, you know, like tar on washroom towels and door handles wired to the mains).
As time went by, Owen became more and more disgruntled with Mary’s success. He was himself, somewhat successful, but his persona and vile temper meant that he could not capitalise on that success. He would have stand-up fights with directors and producers, so that his dalliance at any one place was but brief. When Mary went to Majestic Pictures, she asked that they employ Owen as well, and got him some directing work. While directing Mary, an argument blew up between them, and Owen lashed out at her:
“Don’t put on any of your Mrs Owen Moore airs around here. Remember, you are only Mary Pickford!”
In various ways, Owen tried to impose his will on Mary. Later, she disposed of her tormentor, but replaced him with the gilded cage that was ‘Pickfair’ and Douglas Fairbanks. For now, though, Mary had to put up with Owen, and his violent outbursts. However, if Mary was feeling distressed and suicidal, then Owen had his own psychological concerns. His wife was unsupportive, and he probably drank himself into oblivion along with his alter-ego, Wallace Beery. There was, however, out in Hollywood, someone that could soothe a troubled brow, but we are not here speaking of Kate Bruce, eternal agony aunt to the Biograph girls, but surprisingly, of Mabel Normand. Fiercely loyal to her friends, and a dagger in the heart of her enemies, Mabel was generous and kind-hearted to a fault. Long hours, in 1914, did Mabel spend with Charlie Chaplin, when he crept into her dressing room, depressed and discouraged. Mabel was “light-hearted, kind and generous, a good fellow” (as Chaplin later put it). At the studio, she’d taken the wardrobe lady’s daughter under her wing, and got her on the first step of acting success. Her name was Bebe Daniels. While Mary Pickford shut herself up, in whatever movie mansion she happened to be in, Mabel was the girl loose in Hollywood. At the centre of everything, whether in Levy’s Café, or a wild party, Mabel was always ready to help out. That Owen would really approach Mabel directly for help, is a little doubtful, but Mrs Moore might have. When Mary and Owen first arrived in Los Angeles, things were not good between them. The first movie star, established permanently in the City of Angels, was Mabel Normand, and it was normal for film people arriving from the east, to seek her out for advice and companionship. Mabel was at the core of everything, although ‘everything’ was very small in 1913/14. Consequently, it seems possible that Mary might have contacted Mabel to help out on the Owen front. The two had been competitors at the Biograph, although on friendly terms. When Mary wrote her newspaper columns in 1916, she made it clear how much she admired Mabel, the girl who’d walked in off the street, and showed the theatrical artists how it was done. Although they never socialised (Mary was the stay-at-home type) Mary knew that Mabel, as an ex-Biograph girl, would be willing to help out in a practical way. She was well aware that Mabel, now officially hailed as ‘The Queen of The Movies’ was able to pull strings at her studio, Keystone Comedies. Although Mary had got Owen hired alongside herself, at the Majestic studio, things were not going well, and Owen was laid off on occasions, due to his abrasive personality. It might be helpful, if Mabel could, perhaps, persuade Mack Sennett to give Owen some work. Now, we have mentioned Owen appearing in ‘The Little Teacher’ but we are, here, talking of 1914, when there are no credits for Owen Moore in the Keystone films. Nonetheless, he seems to appear in the 1914 film, ‘Mabel At The Wheel’. It is a bit part, and Owen seems to be among the spectators at the racetrack. This takes us beyond what we know, so why would Owen Moore be in this picture? Naturally, we might be disposed towards discounting Owen’s presence as a fluke i.e. it is merely someone that looks like him. Also, this film was shot, when Owen and Mary were just moving from New York to Los Angeles, making it a close-run thing. Like the previous supposition, this is a negative. However, the latter is also a slight positive, for, although Owen had appeared in the film ‘Battle of The Sexes’ it was by no means certain that Majestic would keep him on. Certainly, the director down there, D.W. Griffith, would not have seen eye to eye with the unpredictable Irishman. As we have already seen, Mabel would have been the one to approach, and Mary would have known that Mabel was directing her own films.
The fly in the ointment, would have been Mack Sennett, who disliked any young dandy that might think of getting close and personal with his star-of-stars. However, ‘Mabel At The Wheel’ was a big film, bigger than anything Keystone had produced before. With Pearl White about to hit the scene as a debutante in the Pathe film series, ‘The perils of Pauline’, Keystone’s offering had to succeed, so much so, that studio big boss, Charles Baumann, came to L.A. in order to keep an eye on things. He insisted that daughter Ada, be in the picture, and that Charlie Chaplin play the villain of the piece. It is fair to say that every Keystoner was in the picture, and that others were brought in from outside. It is clear that Sennett hated Chaplin, and Mabel had fallen out with the limey, two months earlier, although she seems to have been delighted with Ada. Chaplin, we know, was furious with the way that Mabel treated him out on location, which would have been vastly different to that received by Owen ‘Mr Smooth’ Moore. The old Biograph (and Vitagraph) people, by the by, were a very cliquey group that outsiders could only enter, by proving themselves worthy. Eventually, Chaplin was accepted, but only by bowing before Queen Mabel, and specifically, during the making of this film. Louise Brooks, Clara Bow and Mae Marsh were shut out by the ‘royalty’ of Hollywood.
If, indeed, this is Owen performing in this film, then Sennett was well aware of his presence, for he is sitting directly behind ‘The King’. In other words, Owen isn’t just a bit-player, but someone performing a cameo. Looking from Sennett’s angle, it would be useful to have the cool Mr Moore in his picture [See Footnote].
1915 and The Little Teacher.
With ‘The Little Teacher’ we are on safer ground, as regards Owen Moore’s presence in the films of Mabel Normand. Some people will know that the original screenplay for ‘Little Teacher’ was written by Mary Pickford, who also starred in the 1909, D.W. Griffith film of that name. We know that Mary visited Mabel in her movie star mansion on the top of Melrose Hill, sometime in 1915, for she wrote of it in her newspaper column of 1916. Perhaps they were discussing the use of Mary’s screenplay in a comedy. Perhaps, though, this was a dinner party, with the whole Pickford family, including Owen, present (Mary, like Lillian Gish, would never have attended a wild ‘Mabel party’). It seems Mary and Mabel discussed ‘old times’ (1912) when Mabel and brother Jack ran amok on the L.A. bound train to the disgust of the old maids and gents aboard, which is something Mary also wrote of. Mary just could not gush enough about Mabel, while sister Lottie, along with Dorothy Gish and Gertrude Bambrick, had long worshipped at the temple of Mabel. Mabel needed this script, lifted as it was from a dramatic film, but probably advised Mary to screw every penny she could out of tight-fisted Sennett. Could Mabel please take Owen as co-star, it would get him out of her banana curls for a while, and besides, wasn’t he just the suave dude to play Mabel’s boyfriend? Mary was not afraid to let Owen out of her sight, and perhaps Mabel would be kind enough to marry him? Well, Mabel had plenty of eligible men on her arm at one time or another, but she never married any of them.
Some kind of deal was settled, with Mack Sennett. Although he disagreed with Mabel’s aspirations for drama, he probably realised that the combination of a classic film and the suave Mr Moore was good for his wallet. He was, unfortunately, at this time, not happy with his star-of-stars. With Chaplin, another one who graced her arm, she had made films that were overly melodramatic, and she seems to have become a little bombastic towards the ‘King’. With the departure of Chaplin, the only actor that would put up with the Queen’s movie excesses, Mack decided to bring her down to earth, knock her off her perch, so to speak. The peculiar thing is that Mabel had her greatest year to date, in 1915. Peculiar, because the boss did everything possible to pull the rug out from under her. Mack brought on the Bathing Beauties, Mabel was named top comedienne by Photoplay magazine. He put her with Fatty Arbuckle in ridiculous, cheap, slapstick pictures – the public couldn’t get enough of them. He began to turn down her constant demands for pay rises – Mabel moved into a movie-star mansion. Things were bad between the ‘King’ and the ‘Queen’, and many of Mabel’s old friends had left the studio. There were far too many new faces on the lot – Louise Fazenda, Dixie Chene, Virginia Kirtley, Gloria Swanson. Any one of them could be promoted by Mack to the position of Keystone Girl, so Mabel needed some new allies, and one major ally that she cultivated was theatrical star turned tin-type, Raymond Hitchcock. An old enemy of Sennett, he’d probably been head-hunted by Keystone bosses, Kessell and Baumann, for some new feature films under their distributor’s banner, Triangle. There is also a vague suggestion that Mabel began to cultivate the Triangle big boss, Harry Aitken, and by the last days of 1915, Mabel was working at the Triangle studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. In May 1915, however, things were readied for the arrival of big star, Owen Moore, and the making of ‘The Little Teacher’. Owen had a big part to play, and no doubt, picked up an equally big pay check. He appears in the important part of the film, where he comes at loggerheads with Mack Sennett. The scene, where they fight it out in Sennett’s Fiat race car, perhaps demonstrates that the two were not the best of friends, having previously swapped punches at the Biograph studio. Real life often bled over into Keystone films. At the end of the picture, Owen has the enviable role of having his arm around the nightdress-clad Mabel, but whether this reflects real life, we cannot say. All we know is that Owen and Mabel were the most eligible leading man and lady in the world, not withstanding Owen’s very loose, and failing, marriage to Mary Pickford. Of course, all of Mabel’s men were ‘eligible’ although they were looked at with some circumspection by Mack Sennett, who, regardless of his attitude towards Mabel, still understood that she brought in the nickels and dimes – the life-blood of the film industry. Lose her, though, to some movie gigolo and his studio was done, and so it is little wonder that Owen was soon out of the studio gate. However, he was brought back alongside Mabel, for ‘Oh, Mabel Behave’ in 1922, which was, apparently, a lucklustre film, regardless of Owen’s presence.
So it was that Owen Moore got his feet briefly under the table in the Keystone commissary. ‘Help out, and get helped out’ was the motto of the old Biograph people, and it is not absurd to suspect that Mabel helped Owen out of a hole at this time. That is, if Owen’s studio did not loan him to Sennett for ‘The Little Teacher’. He was worth having as a popular cameo, but Mack would not have been keen to pay a substantial fee. His presence in the film is gold dust, and we might wonder what could have been, if he had become Mabel’s permanent ‘straight guy’. Alas, this is all dreams, for it seems Owen was far too good-looking for Sennett to stomach, although this was not the end of Mabel’s association with the Moore family. In 1917, brother Tom came to the Goldwyn studio and appeared in two films alongside Mabel. Tom was a more amenable character than Owen, more stable. Tom and Mabel became good friends, and Mabel was Maid of Honour at Tom’s 1921 wedding to Renee Adoree. Mabel became a close friend of Renee, as she usually did with the wives of her men friends. She gave Renee an inscribed vanity set, and later Renee presented Mabel with a silver Hawaiian surfer, which she thought Mabel would like to attach to the radiator cap of her new Stutz car. No doubt there are many stories underlying that of The Keystone Girl, and her relationships with her old pals from the Biograph.
In the clip of ‘Mabel At The Wheel’ there is someone else unexpected, and she is driving the car. Many people suspect, by the driver’s appearance, that she is someone called Fay Tincher. Students of Mabel, and keen fans back in the day, noted that the driver does not quite look like Mabel, and studio stills indicate that it was Miss Tincher driving the race car. There are several Keystone regulars in the clip: Mack Sennett, Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport, Minta Arbuckle, and alongside the latter, Ada Baumann, daughter of Keystone over-boss, Charles O. Baumann. Ada was not an actress, but she was a national figure-skating champion.
Mabel Normand: A Source Book to her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006)
King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).
Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).
Sunshine and Shadowby Mary Pickford (1956).
When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925).
‘Wordly But Not Weary’ An article on Mabel Normand by Willis Gold Beck. Motion Picture Magazine. September 1921.
‘Wedding of Tom Moore and Renee Adoree’Photoplay May 1921.
‘Wedding Gifts’ by Louella Parsons. New York Morning Telegraph. April 1921.
A recent post on this site, told the story of movie producer Sam Goldwyn. Touched upon, also, was the relationship between Goldwyn, and his star Mabel Normand. These two characters were, of course, the most remarkable and mysterious personalities to arrive in the silent movie industry, and their unusual relationship is worthy of examination. However, these are only two of three intangible characters within the movie business. The third was, naturally, Charles Spencer Chaplin, who formed a slightly incongruous social trio with Sam and Mabel, between 1917 and 1921. We start by dispelling a few myths about these three, and particularly with those pertaining to Charlie and Mabel.
Dispelling the Myths.
“Mabel Normand was never an actress of any note, and she was lifted from the streets by Mack Sennett. Charlie Chaplin unmasked her as a fraud when he arrived at the Keystone Studios in 1914.” Well, for a start, Mabel was a star comedy actress at the Vitagraph studios, long before she had any involvement with Mack Sennett. There is also no evidence either of the two being amorously involved. The story that Mabel was outdone by Chaplin at Keystone, comes from a misreading of Chaplin’s autobiography, principally by Richard Attenborough, when he was making the film ‘Chaplin’. Now long-gone, he is probably still laughing at his deception. However, Chaplin’s second movie employer, George Spoor of Essanay, also publicly lampooned Mack and Mabel, when he acquired The Tramp. Notably, though, he also ran Chaplin down, when he left Essanay. Truth is that Chaplin was a mere slap-sticker when he first ran into Mabel, who had developed a distinctive dramatic style under movie genius, D.W. Griffith. By 1914, Mabel had advanced her own ideas of combining comedy with drama, although financial considerations prevented her from fully implementing those ideas until much later. Eventually, of course, Chaplin was to utilise Mabel’s concepts. It should be borne in mind that Mabel was never a slap-sticker, although the nonsense stuff went on all around her. Her role was to be a central figure, admittedly an ingenue, around which the crazy business revolved. Her second role was to bring kudos to Sennett’s clown-bound studio, which would enable ‘The King’ to hold his head high among the big drama studios. Chaplin left Keystone at the end of 1914, although he says in his autobiography that he did not want to leave, as he had friends at the studio. Friends, in the plural, is almost certainly the wrong term, for he seems to have had only one friend, and that was Mabel Normand. Chaplin was about as popular with the company, as a rattle-snake in a lucky dip.
Sam Goldwyn is a somewhat under-rated producer, considering the acclaim given to Lasky, Zukor, and even Ince. His lowly place in the producer pantheon was down to his inability to produce dramatic block-busters, in spite of his all-star company. He was, however, a very interesting character in his own right, and he played a prominent part in keeping the star system going, in the face of opposition from some other studios. There is an abiding myth that Sam and Mabel were lovers, and that Mabel became pregnant by him. This all, as usual, comes from the pages of Hollywood Babylon, and there is no tangible evidence for it.
Sam meets Mabel.
Mabel began her movie career, ‘tis said, in 1910. Sam, however, was a comparative late-comer to the business. Sometime in 1914, he’d watched his first movie, and became enthralled with the flickery stuff straightaway. He persuaded his partners to get into pictures, although they had no idea how they were made. Cecile B. DeMille was selected to make the first film, although he was also new, and understood nothing of direction. Fortunately, the picture was a cowboy story, a popular genre, and one that could be dealt with by utilising simple stories. Against all expectations, the film was a success, and even Lasky became enthusiastic. If Goldwyn hadn’t been so passionate about pictures from the start, then the Lasky film company would not have become a reality, neither would Goldwyn pictures, Paramount, nor MGM. It was Sam’s passion and ability to infect others with passion, that made him such a notable character. His strange appearance (balding and sporting plasticine legs) made him look like a jerk, but his gushing personality, and peculiar accent, an odd mix of Polish and English, drew people to him. In particular, he could talk the wallet right out of a doubting banker’s pocket. When Goldwyn left his partners to form his own company, he began looking for stars that might help charm the cash from potential backers.
Actresses provided the key to success in the silent era, but Goldwyn, being Goldwyn, went straight to the top. Mary Pickford was, by then, much enamoured with Douglas Fairbanks, but she herself was gushing about the greatest actress of the time, Mabel Normand. In a way, it might have been inevitable that these two madcaps would gravitate together, but it is not known where they first met. Whereas, it would be unlikely that you’d meet Mary Pickford on the Hollywood scene, Mabel could be found at the centre of any wild Hollywood party. Nonetheless, we might guess that Sam met Mabel at the opening party for the Mabel Normand Studio in the early summer of 1916. She’d been an obsession of Sam’s for some time, but approaching Mabel (now a Hollywood legend) on her own ground would be difficult. Surrounded by her hand-maidens (old Biograph actresses and ‘new’ girls) it would be difficult for any man to approach the giggling group, ever-ready to bring down any pompous producer or director. Mabel, in those days, was at the top of her game, the idol of Hollywood, having been the first actress to put her name of the roof of a studio. So sweet to many, one look from those doleful eyes could send daggers straight to your heart, if she took objection to your approach. Sam, though, was no mere mortal, and we might imagine that he went straight to it, trying to mesmerise Mabel with his own particular brand of personality and humour. His last words to her, in his own brand of pigeon English, were something like “Mees Norrmand, I veery much admire your vork, and eef you are ever looking for a job, I vill sign you straight avay.” As he walked away, with his duck-like gait, he most likely ignored the tittering and giggling behind him. He had made his first move towards signing a star to the nascent Goldwyn Pictures.
In September 1916, Sam was ready to bring everything together, cash, stories and players, for his new company. He’d got the word that Mabel was out on a limb, her distributing company, Triangle, beginning to crumble. Mack Sennett was sure that he could renew his grip on Mabel, but already he was looking to get what he could out of the remnants of Triangle, which was also his distributing company. Under these circumstances, Sam struck, and managed to sign Mabel on the 15th September, which was a major coup for a producer, then without studio, or enough cash to begin film-making. Mabel, nonetheless, was also a chancer, and in 1912 had walked out on a dramatic career under D.W. Griffith, for a new-start company called Keystone. Mary Pickford had also left Biograph earlier for new company IMP, but had returned a failure, after that company collapsed. Mabel knew, then, that such ventures were risky, but was always up for a challenge. Benefits were, as at Keystone, being the star on the studio lot. However, having secured Mabel, Sam went after star number two. Mae Marsh was a rising Griffith star, but she soon realised that the genius was developing a preference for Lillian Gish. Mae grabbed Sam’s pen with alacrity, and signed.
It is thought that, between September 1916 and April 1917, Mabel was on a retainer from either Keystone or another company, New York Motion Pictures, part owners of Keystone, but also under the umbrella of Triangle. Naturally, NYMP and/or Keystone had Mabel under surveillance, which came to light in late 1916, when a private detective, trailing Mabel, tried to blackmail her. It was in April 1917 that Mabel’s defection became apparent, as newspapers announced that Mabel, now in New York, was prepared to work for the highest bidder. There are several reasons why she might have changed her mind about Goldwyn. Perhaps she believed that Sennett had got himself straight with the Triangle fiasco, and that he would come grovelling for her on his hands and knees. Alternatively, she might have been appalled that Sam had signed Mae Marsh as his second star. Mabel, along with Mary Pickford, and Blanche Sweet, had fallen out with D.W. Griffith, after he’d made Mae his number one star back in 1912. Then, there was the awful journey across the Hudson every day from Manhattan to New Jersey, and Mabel simply could never live in Jersey. It is possible that a combination of these reasons caused her to renege on the Goldwyn deal. Although Mack Sennett was fighting Triangle boss Harry Aitken, for his very survival, he sent lawyers to negotiate with her. Unfortunately, Goldwyn gained a court injunction, forbidding Mabel to work for anyone but Goldwyn Pictures. Not to be beaten, Mack decided to spend the pants off Sam, by renegotiating Mabel’s contract up to a ridiculous price, although Mabel ended these shenanigans early, and entered Sam’s studio. Sam had been determined, and possibly Mabel thought that, by fighting so hard, he deserved her services. In any event, she sent Mack the following terse telegram.
The All-Star Studio.
As Sam got on with his star-buying plans, Mabel, who had suffered a serious bout of what seems to have been pneumonia, was sent by Sam to his Florida studio to recover. After several weeks in the sun, Mabel returned to where she belonged – New York. She was, though, fuming after reading of the never-ending list of theatrical stars that Goldwyn had signed – Mary Garden, Pauline Frederick, Madge Kennedy et al. In New York, Mabel immediately began her party rounds, and released a series of stories to the press. She was clearly determined to steal the limelight from the ex-stage competition. However, if she’d thought that Sam would not publicise her presence, then she was wrong. Although Sam was not a ‘hands-on’ producer, like Mack Sennett, he made certain that his press releases were second to none. His films might have been less than inspiring, but as Faye Dunaway might have said, his advertising was just dandy. Not that Sam did not try to make good pictures, and he quizzed every successful producer and director closely about their methods. Whilst the consummate businessman, film-making was simply a black art to him. His studio supervisor was his old partner, Abe Lehr, who had quickly learned about the film business, but in 1917, he was still a little raw. Sam soon found that his stage stars floundered when hit with the vagaries and possibilities of film, while Mae Marsh turned out to be a very thin, beached whale, when apart from D.W. Griffith. He did, however, have a genuine movie star, who, as Sam stated in his autobiography, knew the film business from every angle. Her name was Mabel Normand. A peculiar creature, she had, unusually, made it big in pictures without a stage background. Here we have to remember, that the big movie stars all came via the stage; Mary Pickford, the Gish sisters, Blanche Sweet, Florence Lawrence were all grounded in stage-craft. Mae Marsh had, in Hollywood legend, been taken from the street to stardom in one day, by D.W. Griffith, but Sam soon found that she had no clue as to how pictures were made. Hence his continual presence in Mabel’s dressing room, where he engaged her constantly in directed conversation. Yes, probably, he was trying to get into her bloomers, but this was not his primary consideration. Mainly, Sam thirsted for knowledge. Knowledge of film-making, and how to know what would work and what would not. Beyond that, he wanted to understand the history of film-making, and how the big producers came to be where they were in 1918. How was it, that an actor doing supporting roles for D.W. Griffith, had become The King of Comedy, and how was it that an 18-year-old star from the Griffith stable, Mabel Normand, had given up a good dramatic career, to go off with The King, along with four other middle-aged guys, in order to found the kingdom of Keystone, way out in the Wild West? It just did not make sense. It seems that Sam never got a coherent answer from Mabel, and it is true that, even today, the question remains unanswered.
Chaplin in Culver City.
Sam, naturally, had, like so many others, been totally mesmerised by Mabel, but his enquiries around Hollywood led him to suspect that someone greater than he, had also been mesmerised by Mabel. His name was Charlie Chaplin, and when Sam brought his studio west to Culver City L.A., he soon had Charlie’s brother, Syd, working under Marshall Neilan in a small studio on his studio lot. Charlie was then going through a bad period with his first wife, Mildred Harris, and began spending more and more time with Syd at Culver City, after work. This meant that he would also run into Sam quite often. By sheer good fortune, Chaplin was a guy lacking in real confidence, and sought the advice of others wherever he could find it. Sam, who could supply such reassurance, considered himself to be something of a psychoanalyst – he tried hard to analyse himself, but he also loved to analyse others. In his office, after hours, he listened to Charlie, and wondered how this insignificant little man, a misfit like Sam himself, had come to occupy a position at the top of the comedy tree. In real-life, he wasn’t so funny, and would often be morose and melancholy. Being not a little devious, Sam would introduce small talk. Charlie and Sam had both worked in England. Had Charlie ever been to Birmingham, and if he had, what did he think of the place? Charlie replied that he had indeed been to ‘Brum’, it was a ghastly industrial complex, which he hated. How curious, he told Sam, that ‘Brum’ was so close to Shakespeare’s Stratford-On-Avon, and but a short walk to the home of Lady Godiva. Sam realised then, that Charlie was a dreamer, and although a comic, was a follower of The Bard. Now, Sam had heard that the secret behind the little tramp was his own star, Mabel Normand. The story was that they had been lovers, but no-one could confirm that. Chester Conklin had told him that Charlie had been Mabel’s prize. Dejected and rejected by the clowns at the Keystone studio, Mabel had taken him in, into her dressing room, ‘twas said. How very fortunate thought Sam, and he wasn’t only thinking of l’amour. Chester and Ford Sterling had confirmed that Mabel had schooled Charlie, not in the art of slapstick, at which he was proficient, but of combining comedy with drama, and more specifically, with tragedy and melancholy. Being a melancholic fellow, Chaplin learned fast, although it would a few years until he fully melded the two genres. Another actor put it more bluntly, Charlie was a lap-dog on Mabel’s leash, paraded at functions and parties, as her protégé. It seemed Charlie really was Mabel’s prize. What, Sam wondered, did Mabel’s producer, Mack Sennett, think of this. Well, he’d apparently hated Chaplin’s guts from the get-go, and he’d been fed certain information, by the fake Frenchman Henri Lehrman, about what Charlie and Mabel were up to in her dressing room. Did Mack know they were stealing company cars and going off to god knows where, when they should have been working? Mack himself had suspected as much, and had once told Sam that he feared they might run off together, to the opposition. In the summer of 1914, he’d stepped in, and put a block on the pair’s joint film-making, except when he was actually appearing in the film himself. Sam understood perfectly, Mabel was a treasure, worth her weight in gold, and definitely worth the rest of his Goldwyn stage-stars put together. With her, came the kudos that only a protégé of the great D.W. Griffith could bring. Her advice on movie matters, however, was worth much more than gold, and as already stated, she knew the movie business from every angle.
Sam suspected that Mabel had a string of spies and look-outs around his studio, the result being that he could never catch her skiving, or absent from her post. This, he thought, could explain why she always seemed to know when Chaplin was in his office. When the tramp was around, Mabel was sure to appear, at some point. Mabel was a good-time girl, and the gad about town, so that she was sure to be gone from the studio by four in the afternoon (a star had to get her hair done, you know). However, she had the uncanny ability to miraculously materialise when Chaplin was ensconced with Sam. Very matter of fact, was Mabel, oh, she never expected to see Charlie there. Charlie became more reticent, when Mabel was around, and Sam thought them to be like a long-time married couple – couldn’t live together, couldn’t live apart. However, Mabel was always gay, and amusing. Charlie had told Sam that he never spoke to anyone on the day he left Keystone, but Mabel would sometimes mention a dinner they had together on the day Charlie left their old studio. “Oh Charlie, wasn’t that a sad occasion, we were both in tears” She would say, while gazing over to Charlie, in order to catch his reaction. Charlie would become uncomfortable, and shuffle in his chair – somehow Mabel had realised what Charlie had been putting around. “Well, perhaps Charlie would like to come over to Goldwyn studios” Sam once said. Charlie tilted his head and looked at Sam askance, while a barely veiled smile spread across Mabel’s face. For Charlie, it was hopeless, Mabel always seemed to head him off at the pass, shall we say, whenever he tried to introduce another subject. Keystone was said to have been Mabel’s kingdom, but Sam realised that her kingdom was, in fact, any place she happened to be. Prim and demure she might have been, but she was like a coiled spring, and ready to jump into any conversation, and divert its course. Mabel talked incessantly about her brother, then fighting in the mud, far away on Flanders Field. This would also unsettle Charlie, who had not signed up to fight for his home country in the Great War, and was most eligible for a white feather.
But, what of Syd Chaplin, who in the late 1910s was Charlie’s on-and off-manager. Sometimes he would come over to Sam’s office, and if he was lucky, he’d catch Mabel there. Syd, of course, was the world’s greatest lecher, but if he thought he would ever get anywhere with Mabel, then he was mistaken. Sure, she liked Syd, Syd was fun, but by that time Mabel had developed a passion for ‘deeper’ men – men like brother Charlie. Fact is, Syd had come along a couple of years too late, and, in any case, could he really compete with Owen Moore, or Jack Mulhall? It should be said here, that Charlie was now able to hold his own at Hollywood parties, after that year of grooming by Mabel. Sometime in 1918, Goldwyn had thrown a big party, at which his stars and many others in the business attended. It was here that Charlie Chaplin met the 16-year-old Mildred Harris, and had married her in the Fall of 1918. It was soon after that Mabel had arrived from New York, following a year’s stint at Goldwyn’s studios in Fort Lee and Florida. It seems that the marriage did not go well, and that this was probably why Charlie so often called in on Sam. In his autobiography, Charlie states that he deliberately stayed late at the studio to avoid going home. Mabel had known Mildred in New York, and it has been suggested that she had advised her to make contact with Chaplin, but whether this is true, we do not know. What we do know is that Mabel eventually became very much involved with Charlie and Mildred, and when she wasn’t at Culver City, she was with Mildred, or rather, Mildred was with Mabel and her gaggle of friends. A row soon developed between Mildred and Charlie, over Mildred’s impending contract with Louis B. Mayer. Charlie thought the contract to be bad, but Mildred had been told by a friend that it was good. Mayer, like everyone in Hollywood, was a close acquaintance of Mabel, so we might well wonder who the ‘friend’ of Mildred was. An even bigger row erupted when a baby was eventually born. Charlie was furious, when Mildred announced the baby’s name was Norman. Fifty years later, Charlie could still write of his anger at the child not being given a family name, like Charles or Sydney. Perhaps, if the child had been a girl, it would have been called Mabel? In the event, the baby died after a few days. Mabel soon came around trying to cheer the couple up, and arranged a weekend snowball party for them, at a rented Swiss chalet on Mount Lowe. Strangely, the words ‘The Little Mouse’ were carved on the child’s gravestone, which became the name of Mabel’s stage-play in 1925.
As we have already said, Sam was greatly interested in the relationship between Mabel and Charlie. Although there was some spark between them, there was also some baggage that prevented them from fully gravitating together. Sam identified that there was rivalry between them, but although Mabel was quite, chirpy about it, Charlie was filled with resentment. Who knows, perhaps his year on the leash had been as much of a dagger in his heart, as a great opportunity? Much as he told Sam that he had gone to Keystone, and showed them how to make pictures, Sam knew the awful truth. He also knew that Charlie and Mabel’s pictures were different from the other Keystones. Charlie’s first picture, in which he played the tramp (Mabel’s Strange Predicament) was classic Keystone, with a few minutes of revelry, leading up to the classic Sennett chase, in which Charlie pursued Mabel around a hotel in her pajamas. Then, there had been ‘Mabel At The Wheel’, perhaps Keystone’s first two-reeler, upon which Mabel had rested her reputation. This film was tailor-made for Mabel, and there was to be no chase, but a car race, which she won. There had been almost a two-month hiatus, during which Mabel and Charlie did not perform together. It is reasonable to suggest that Charlie getting a 55-second opening scene in ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’, might have annoyed Mabel. Whatever the case, Mabel did not seem to want Charlie in her new picture, which she directed. Charlie was definitely not going to get a part in which he could showboat — she seemed determined to take the swagger out of the little limey. The film, however, was important to Keystone, and big boss Charles O. Baumann, came from New York to Los Angeles, presumably to ensure that there was no trouble between leading man and leading lady. The fact that Baumann’s daughter, Ada, came with him, and appeared in the picture, seems to suggest that she was to be a kind of go-between for Sennett and Baumann, the latter not actually coming to the studio itself. It appears that Baumann wanted Chaplin to be given a good part in the film, but Sennett, for certain reasons, did not. Mabel had no dislike for Charlie, but had her own reason for not wanting a slap-sticker like him in her picture. What was her reason? Well, as Sam probably understood, the Pathe company were on the warpath, with their ‘Perils of Pauline’, starring ex-stage girl, Pearl White.
‘Mabel At The Wheel’ had to succeed to safeguard Mabel’s career, as well as Keystone, and she wasn’t about to have it spoiled by a jumped-up vaudevillian clowning in her definitive picture. It is possible that she banned Charlie’s tramp outfit, and made him, shall we say, a little lacklustre in his performance. Just look at the title, which indicates ‘a girl at the wheel’, not a drunken tramp falling around the place. Charlie, naturally, went into a sulk, went on strike, out on location in Santa Monica, so that the crew and cast returned early to Edendale. Sennett was furious and called Baumann, who had, probably, already been called by Ada, setting out what had occurred. Baumann declared that Charlie should remain in the film (Sennett wanted to fire him). For his part, Charlie had to do exactly as he was told — by a girl, called Mabel. Charlie and Sennett both complied, with the limey putting in a very dull performance, while Mabel was raised to new heights, and, importantly, saw off ‘Pauline’. It was following ‘Mabel At The Wheel’ that Charlie and Mabel began to collaborate fully on films, which were to be very different from other Keystones. What had happened? It seems that at just three months into his movie career, Charlie was keen to allow Mabel anything she wanted in their joint pictures, as long as she’d let him be the drunken tramp (yes, the tramp is always drunk/tipsy, just like Chaplin’s old music hall character). What Mabel wanted was room to proceed with the development of her tragic character, from her days under D.W. Griffith. Other actors scorned this ‘nonsense’ but there was something in it for Charlie. The height of this collaboration came in ‘Mabel’s Busy Day’ which was just about the craziest film ever to come out of early Hollywood. Goldwyn would have understood perfectly, when Mack Sennett began to take the pair to dinner every night – he was keeping a close eye on them, now a team that might take their act elsewhere. Why the team began to drift apart in the late Summer/Fall of 1914, was difficult to understand, but perhaps Charlie realised he was becoming something of a movie gigolo to Mistress Mabel. However, it was probably at Mabel’s insistence that he still made a few films with her, and gave her a few cameos. “So, what about this” Sam might have asked Charlie, as he pushed a famous movie cartoon under his nose. The cartoon showed Chester Conklin and others in awe of Charlie’s ‘Strange Predicament’ act, and Mabel fainting. “Not guilty” Chaplin would have replied “All down to Essanay’s boss, George Spoor, who wanted to put Keystone down.”
This would have made Sam smile, for he knew that Spoor had also carried out a character assassination on Charlie, after he left Essanay. Charlie was a ladies’ man, but also an obnoxious little swine that never took a bath, and always had a black ‘tidemark’ around his neck, according to Spoor. Sam pondered on why the guy was the apple of Mabel’s eye. Word had come to him that Mabel would play some wicked pranks on Charlie, who was well-known for being cheap. One day, a group of Keystoners, including Mabel, were going to a posh restaurant, and Mabel asked Charlie to come along. Charlie was dubious, about spending $5 on a meal, but refusing the Keystone Girl anything could make life awkward, so he went along. The meal was huge and protracted, and not what Charlie had anticipated. The actors also downed an ocean of booze, while Charlie was teetotal. At the end, Mabel left for the toilet, which became the destination for several others, including Ford Sterling and Chester Conklin. Eventually, only Roscoe Arbuckle remained, drumming his fingers on the table. “We need the bill” Said Roscoe, and he went to find the waiter. Then, the waiter miraculously appeared, pushing a bill for $40 in Charlie’s face. He looked around — his companions had vanished, leaving him to pay the tab. Charlie came to the studio next day, with a glum face, the other actors turning away from him, visibly smirking. Hit by Sam with this story, Mabel doubled up with laughter at the memory, and remained that way for ten minutes.
Living with Mabel.
Mabel, as we have seen above, was not terribly impressed by Goldwyn’s female stars, which included opera singers as well as actresses. One particular opera singer, Geraldine Farrar, used to call out in song to her leading man “Good morning, how are you” in a very elongated, operatic way, to which the man would sing back in reply, and in the same manner “Very well, thank you.” Having heard enough of this, Mabel made her own reply, in one account, “Put a sock in it, you old bag” while another account included a liberal use of the ‘F’ word. One complaint Miss Farrar had was that Mabel would come around and stand hands on hips, and legs askance, watching her. Goldwyn, nevertheless could do nothing about Mabel, but had screens erected to prevent Mabel from watching the overly-sensitive Gerry. Mabel simply climbed the set, and looked down on her from high. It was Sam’s studio supervisor, Abe Lehr, that had to take the brunt of Mabel’s little games, and they were games too, no matter how serious the matter. While Sam limited himself to the loveable Mabel, Abe had to deal with the miscreant, everyday Mabel. From the earliest days, Mabel had always been late arriving at the studio, and she made Goldwyn’s no exception. However, someone in the back office was keen on numbers, and did the maths. Mabel’s lateness and no-shows had cost the studio $36,000. Lehr (who Mabel habitually called Mr. Leer) demanded Mabel’s immediate
presence in his office. Mabel turned up two days later, in a chipper mood, wondering what on earth Mr. Leer could want with her. Lehr explained that the losses she had created must be reported to Sam. Mabel turned on the charm, but all the eyelash fluttering and leg flashing in the world would do any good. Mabel then told him that she’d give him her new $8,000 car, if he did not tell Sam. It did no good. Realising that the outcome was assured, Mabel flew into a rage, narrowed her eyes, then cleared Lehr’s desk of papers, and threw a paper weight at his head. After dodging the heavy object, the boss sat unmoved. Mabel then went into her final phase, and burst into tears, then fled from the room screaming. Foolishly, Abe went after her, only to be doused by water from a fire bucket, but as the star-of-stars rushed into her dressing room, he continued to follow, and was liberally sprayed with perfume. Abe realised that confrontations with Mabel followed a particular pattern, which had to be stopped at some point. Sam, of course, had already worked this out, but had come to the conclusion that it was best to acquiesce to Mabel’s demands, and when Abe told Sam his story, the producer simply shrugged his shoulders — just give her what she wanted. Not that Sam was unconcerned about losing money, because he was. However, although Sam’s films were slammed by the critics, the Mabel pictures were very popular with the public, and consequently, made as much cash as his other players films put together. Mabel wanted a bigger, better dressing room — give it to her. Spend $5,000 on decorating said dressing room and installing a marble bath, then so be it. The figures still made sense.
One thing that came to bother Sam was Mabel’s level of spending, which was excessive, and wanton. In those days, the acting fraternity rarely made investments, and shied away from buying property. What was the point in buying a house in, say L.A. when next week they could be working in New York, Florida or even Europe? In 1915, Mabel had lived in a mansion, worthy of a southern plantation owner, but finding the domesticity of such a situation overbearing, she moved back into her favourite kind of establishment — a hotel suite. by 1919, Sam was already beginning to worry about the survival of his studio. He needed to reschedule his existing loans, and find new backers. This was a delicate operation, requiring the bankers’ belief in the ability of Sam to maintain his studio in good order. His worry was that his biggest star could be hauled through the courts for debt, creating adverse publicity for the studio. As a consequence, he began to pay $1,000 of her weekly pay in war bonds rather than cash. Now, whether Mabel was paid 3,000 a week, 2,000 a week or $5,000 a week, did not concern her. It was the figure written into her contract that demonstrated her worth. Mabel was no stranger to war bonds. Although she initially objected to the countries involvement in the Great War, she was to become a prime saleswoman for war bonds, with the ‘Buy a bond and get a kiss from Mabel’ sales drive. Mabel’s bonds built up, until she had $50,000 worth, but when she heard Sam was about to go bust, she entered his office and tipped all the bonds onto his desk, telling him he could keep them. Sam declined the offer — he was two-million in the red, and fifty thousand would have made little difference, although he appreciated the offer.
Mabel stories from her time at Goldwyn are legion, and would fill a book, but her impromptu excursions to Long Island Sound, need to be mentioned. Mabel had been introduced to the area, when she filmed with the Griffith company in the posh resort of Huntington in 1911. The Sound was renowned for water sports, and Mabel was a water nymph, in the film she made in 1911 called ‘The Diving Girl’. Later, while at Goldwyn studios, she went missing for three weeks. Although Mabel was then being ‘rested’ by the studio, Sam needed to speak to her. Eventually, he was shocked to read in the newspaper that she had won several swimming and diving competitions in Long Island Sound.
A Strange Occurrence.
As we have seen above, there came a time when Goldwyn’s chickens came home to roost. By 1920, it was clear that extravagant, but necessary, spending had just about cleaned him out. He’d waged an unequal fight with the big studios, and his big theatrical stars had turned out not to have been as big as he thought, at least as far as box office receipts were concerned. The stage-goddesses had proved to have feet of clay. His ray of light was the motion picture’s home-grown star, Mabel Normand, who always pulled in the dollars. He needed to hang onto Mabel, did Sam, but in the cause of ready cash, he should have been putting her out for loan. Now, in his autobiography, Mack Sennett had said that he approached Sam with a fistful of dollars, and meekly asked for Mabel’s fair hand. In reality, he did no such thing. A direct approach to Goldwyn would have set his razor sharp brain into action, and the 30k that Mack was offering, would have become insignificant alongside the inflated price that Sam demanded. What Mack (and Sam) needed was a go-between, and legend has it that Charlie Chaplin became that go-between. Sennett could only approach Sam on a business basis, but Charlie was in a position to appeal to Goldwyn’s human side. Mabel was trapped on a sinking ship, and it was unreasonable for Sam to hang onto her — why not loan her to Sennett, Mack and Mabel were both as Irish as the Banshees, and understood each other perfectly — it would be Mabel’s chance to rise to even greater heights. Eventually, Sam took the 30-grand, although Mabel was worth at least twice that. Sennett bent over backwards to give Mabel wanted, which was comedy within a medium of high drama, and their picture, Molly O’, lived up to that expectation.
Although Charlie had remained grounded, in some sense, to Sam and Mabel, he had been drifting away towards Doug Fairbanks and Mary Pickford for some time. When they married, in 1920, Charlie became the third element in that marriage, much to Mary’s perpetual annoyance. In Doug, Charlie found a listening ear, and one that did not psychologically analyse him. Mary, a domestic at heart, he could treat with the contempt with which he would have liked to have treated all women. There was never anything right about her, she was always too short, too fat, too self-opinionated about her business acumen. Life was safe for Charlie, at Fairbank’s Castle, or Pickfair as they called it, situated high on that hill, far from the maddening crowd, down in Hollywood. There was no Mabel to embarrass him, with her cutting and vicious wit, although when he had to venture into that modern-day Soddom, there was Mabel, waiting and ready to ambush him.
For Sam Goldwyn, the story of Charlie and Mabel never ended, and he must have looked forward to their occasional come-togethers at Levy’s Cafe, or some premiere or other. The last time that Sam, Charlie and Mabel came together was on that solemn day in 1930, when they, and the other big producers, bore the Keystone Girl to her final resting place. Whether Goldwyn had his psychiatrist’s notebook out on that day, we do not know, but a remarkable change had come over Chaplin. Rather than make one syndicated obituary, as most did, he produced many — he couldn’t say enough about Mabel. Had he gone insane? Apparently so, for the next day he began rampaging around his studio, declaring that his upcoming film, ‘City Lights’ would be silent. In fact that was the last feature silent film ever made in Hollywood — no others were made in 1930. Then he wanted to fire his casted leading lady, Virginia Cherill, a blonde ideal for the part of the blind girl. Perhaps, he wanted a dark-eyed colleen, for he signed dark-eyed Jewess, Paulette Goddard, for ‘Modern Times’ and persuaded her to stop bleaching her hair. In personality, she was similar to Mabel, and it seems Charlie coached Paulette to act like Mabel. Then, naturally, he married her, which was unfortunate, as Paulette turned out to be just like Mabel, and the result, predictably, was divorce. Blondes, of course, were deriguer in 1930s films, but when Walt Disney asked Chaplin for advice in making ‘Snow White’ he told Walt to make her dark-haired. A crazy notion, but it worked. Charlie found his own dark colleen in Oona O’Neil, but this marriage lasted, perhaps due to her being calm, level-headed, and most unlike Mabel.
Mabel Normand: A Source Book to her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006)
By late 1911, D.W. Griffith was already a legend of the silent movie industry. However, a six-month sojourn in Los Angeles, during 1912, and his return to New York, after delivering up a clutch of classic movies, was to cement his position as the genius of the motion picture (he never used the term ‘movies’). Accompanying him, of course, were his faithful players, such as Mary Pickford, Owen Moore, Dell Henderson, Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand and many other stars of the future Hollywood. Mary and Mabel had had more than one stint at Biograph, with Mary returning somewhat brow-beaten from IMP, but Mabel returning triumphant, in the summer of 1911, from her series of comedies at Vitagraph, alongside John Bunny. The Quaker owners of Vitagraph had fired Mabel for some particularly unladylike behaviour, but she was far from downhearted, and to the Biographers, she was the centre / Queen Bee of the studio. Mabel was immediately put to work, at the East Fourteenth Street studio, but all too soon, new comedy director Mack Sennett asked for her, professionally, that is. She was ideal for his movies, and Mack’s demands were met by Griffith, who agreed to share Mabel with him. Mabel was not particularly pleased, but it was with Sennett that she made her iconic film of 1911 ‘The Diving Girl’. At the same time, she made films for Griffith, like ‘Her Awakening’ and ‘The Eternal Mother’ which rekindled her love of the dramatic. However, if Mabel thought that comedy would be a mere moment in her life, she was mistaken, as future events would bear out.
Life on Fourteenth Street.
Fortunately, Griffith’s wife, Linda, recorded the goings on at Biograph, between 1908 and 1912, in the 1925 book ‘When The Movies Were Young’, so we have a unique insight into life in an early movie studio. On the eve of the company’s departure to the west, Mr. Griffith could contemplate on the fact that his well-trained players were now set for great things. Most of them would be California-bound, and the list reads like a roll call of the future Hollywood stars. As we have already said, Mabel herself was all set for stardom. In 1910 she’d been a Biograph bit-player, who had no doubt watched the performances of ‘old’ stage artists, like Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet with great interest. Mabel said she’d played alongside the movies’ first U.S. star, Florence Lawrence, but it seems clear that Florence had left Biograph, long before Mabel had arrived. This was just Mabel indulging in a bit of name-dropping. Blanche Sweet was going in and out of a purple period, and would probably have left, if her stage mother (actually her grandmother) hadn’t kept a tight grip of her. She wasn’t to rise up, until she arrived in Los Angeles. Other under-achievers were Mary’s siblings, Lottie and Jack, who were great actors, but it broke Mary’s heart to see them squander their talent – although both had their moments of glory. Jack, we know, was the little 14-year-old scamp that caused all the trouble around the studio. If the lights suddenly went out, then it was surely Jack that had wedged a quarter between the contacts somewhere, and blown the lot. He had an accomplice, though, and her name was Mabel Normand. Mabel was seventeen, coming on eighteen, but she looked and behaved as though she was Jack’s age. Although Mabel was the Queen Bee of the studio, in that she was always surrounded by admirers, she always had time for young Jack.
Griffith’s great plans, as he was fully aware, would come to nought, unless he could maintain control over his recalcitrant charges. Owen Moore was not under the control of either wife Mary, or his mother-in-law. There were others like him, who indulged in crap games, between sinking shots of whisky. Many of Owen’s compatriots, had an eye for actresses whose stage-mothers were out of eyeshot. Griffith banned the crap games and brought in free India Pale Ale, to hopefully stem the tide of hard liquor. Preparations and headaches for DWG were huge, including consoling those lesser actors that would be left behind. Some wives, mothers and girlfriends demanded to be taken with their menfolk, and Griffith had no objection, as long as they paid their own way. There was one necessity that the movie genius just had to deal with, and that was getting the parent’s permission to take their daughters far away, across multiple state lines. Griffith, though, had become a master of this, and he and his wife had charmed many a dissenting parent into releasing their girls to the evil flickers. His biggest success, was luring young Florence Lawrence away from Vitagraph studios, the stage and her mother. He made her America’s first film star, although it is fair to say that she was already on her way. For the logistics of the journey west, DWG called upon the help of Dell Henderson, who would later do the same for Mack Sennett at Keystone.
Having called up the Holy Ghost, Mack Sennett, we might as well say some words about him. Mack was not exactly unpopular, but many steered clear of the self-opinionated yokel from rural Canada. He had a dim view of his compatriots back home, although he was himself, left-footed and awkward. Everyone considered Mack a loser, especially the girls, who found him somewhat obnoxious and completely lacking in even mildly interesting small talk. The future King of Comedy, however, knew that he’d come good one day and that his detractors would eat their words, or he’d make them eat those words. He first came to prominence in a crazy Pathe-like film called ‘The Curtain Pole’. From there, having learned the directing trade from the master himself, he moved, in summer 1911, to the position of Director of Comedy. Dramatic actresses, such as Mary Pickford, breathed a sigh of relief, but a certain girl had come from Vitagraph with a track record in comedy. Her name was Mabel Normand. Mack had plenty of male comedians to call upon, but there was only one leading lady in comedy, and that was Mabel. Mack tried to waylay Mabel at every opportunity, offering her milk-shakes, then theatre tickets, and eventually diamonds. Mabel was not interested, but took the diamonds anyway. As already stated, Mack turned to being devious, and went to Griffith with a plan to share Mabel. Griffith could not easily refuse, and so it came to pass that Mabel found herself in comedy and drama. She was Mack’s creme de la crème and would save his films from being, as Charlie Chaplin later said “A crude melange of rough and tumble.” Whether Mabel knew it or not, a meeting with big-shots out in Los Angeles, would seal Mack and Mabel’s fate.
Here’s the situation as it pertained in late 1911 at the Biograph studio, Manhattan, as recounted by Mrs Griffith. Nobody was in the movies at that time, simply because they wanted to be on the silver screen. Most of the actors and actresses were struggling stage players, and were just biding their time at Biograph, until they got a break in the theatrical business. Some were individuals, some were husband and wife teams, while others were family groups like the Pickfords. Many came from the boroughs of New York, some of which were rather far-flung, causing the actors, like Mabel (from Staten Island) to seek digs with other performers. Staten Island is a fairly long and tedious journey from mid or upper Manhattan, so it is possible that she had also lived in Manhattan, during the time she was modelling for artists in the city. It was best to find lodgings north of the studio, for to the south were the notorious dens of the Lower East Side – not a place to wander through in those days, or any other days. The Biograph players, then, lived cheek by jowl with each other, for most of the time. Mabel, we might suspect, lived in with her greatest friend, Kalem’s Alice Joyce, who, at that time, was just about as close to being a movie star as you could get.
Orange Groves and Spanish Missions.
Griffith completed his plans towards the end of December 1911, and the company headed to the railway station – in Jersey City – to begin their four/five-day trip to California, aboard the Black Diamond Express. Mrs Griffith lists them thus: As well as the aforementioned Pickford family, Mabel and Blanche, there were: Owen Moore, Jeanie MacPherson, William Beaudine, Bobby Harron, Wilfred Lucas (The Great Lucas, Mabel called him), Claire MacDowell, Florence LeBadie, Stephanie Longfellow, Florence Barker, Frank Powell, Edwin August, Dell Henderson, Grace Henderson, Kate Toncray, Charlie Craig, Mack Sennett, Joe Graybill, Dorothy West, Donald Crisp, Vivian Prestcott, Kate Bruce, Alfred Paget, Eddie and Jack Dillon, Frank Grandin (called ‘Inflated Grandin’ by Sennett) and George ‘Pops’ Nichols (Mabel’s screen papa in countless later films) and baby Frank Baden Powell. This reads like a list of Hollywood stars, but Bobby Harron and Florence LeBadie would not go the distance. Jeanie MacPherson was not thought worthy of the trip west, but she set up such a wailing and crying that Griffith relented and took her anyway. Mrs Griffith thought Dorothy West to be unworthy, but her husband took her along as “Our cameras are so good now, that we can make anyone look beautiful.” The journey west was recorded in 1916 by Mary Pickford in a syndicated newspaper article called ‘New Year’s Eve On The Train’. Mrs Griffith also recorded a previous journey, in which she and hubby had their own facilities, and dined in the best part of the dining car. Griffith’s underling plebians, were no doubt engaging in their usual illicit activities, drinking and playing crap. The more genteel among them, Mary Pickford and Dorothy West were often in the observation car, cooing and oohing over the scenery as it passed by. Blanche Sweet, in 1912, was a prisoner of her grandmother, but later claimed that a certain Mabel, would enter her apartment bearing gin and cigarettes and unspeakable cuss words – corrupted was poor, innocent Blanche. Mary Pickford tells us that this first day was New Year’s Eve, and that night there was the expected ruckus, as the players ran through the train wishing everyone a Happy New Year, to the disgust of the old folks aboard, who weren’t used to tipsy, painted ladies (aka sixteen -year-old girls) together with rude lads, getting close and personal with them. Jack and Mabel were, no doubt, at the bottom of many of the disturbances, but there were plenty of other rabble-rousers aboard. Anyhow, no cops boarded the train, and Mabel gave demonstrations of her funny business, while Mack Sennett sang in his best bass voice, to keep the restless company amused. It has to be said that, even today, fights and small riots break out on these trains, owing to the tedium of the journey. Looking back, it is unlikely that the restless Mabel ever entered the observation car, except perhaps to chuckle at the inmates. A movie star tradition was beginning at around this time. For many years hence, the Hollywood actors would enter and leave Los Angeles, via San Bernardino station, where the local community would garland new arrivals, and stars love to be spoiled. During the golden age of silent film, the stars would motor out to San Bernardino, rather than start out east from L.A., as it avoided the press people.
Los Angeles and the Alexandria Hotel.
While the men were expected to find digs straightaway, the girls were put up at the rather plush Alexandria, until their accommodation was secured. The latter meant living in lodgings with their chaperones, Kate Bruce, the Hendersons, or Mama Pickford. Mabel appears to have been put with the Hendersons initially, but seems to have got together with Alice Joyce, then also on a working vacation with the Kalem company. Before long, Mary and several other girls abandoned Mama and secured their own lodgings downtown. It was while staying at the Alexandria that Mary was noticed by Randolph Hurst, as she stepped from a lift. Hearst made enquiries as to who ‘blondilocks’ was, but she doesn’t seem to have joined the newspaper tycoon’s harem. Mabel was also noticed at The Alexandria, by movie big-shots Adam Kessell and Charles O. Baumann, then in town dealing with their Bison company’s move from Edendale to Santa Monica. ‘Noticed’ however is probably the wrong word, for she was probably introduced to the wise guys, by Mack Sennett, keen to get K and B to make him director of their new comedy outfit, later to be called Keystone. We can assume that Mabel was non-committal about joining the new company, but the presence of Baumann’s daughter, Ada (a physical and sporting girl like Mabel) perhaps melted any resistance on Mabel’s part. It is interesting to note that many of the girls had a deep admiration for Mabel, which was something that both Mary Pickford and Mrs Griffith recorded in their writing. Her daredevil feats – diving off cliffs, riding bucking broncos and swimming rapids – were something to behold for the company of actors. Mabel possibly had her own heroine, in the form of Alice Joyce. Tall and vamp-like, she was probably everything Mabel wanted to be. Already a recognised actress in drama and cowboy pictures, she was clearly among the very first U.S. film stars. Mabel and Alice were often seen galloping horses over the sands of Santa Monica, along with Alice’s handsome leading man, Caryle Blackwell. In a fit of pique, it is said that D.W. Griffith told Alice that she reminded him of a cow. A cow maybe, but one that he might have wanted among his Biograph herd. Perhaps she had told the ‘genius’ a few home truths about himself.
Getting to Work.
Much of the filming was to be on location, at the most scenic places possible. The Spanish Missions at San Gabriel and San Fernando, were popular venues, as was the coast between Venice and Malibu. San Fernando, with its desert location, proved useful, when they made pictures about the early pioneers, dying from thirst and Indian arrows. San Gabriel, according to film legend, was where Griffith and Bitzer first experimented with dramatic lighting in the 1910 picture ‘Thread of Destiny’. San Juan Capistrano, naturally, could not have been left off the list. Beyond Santa Monica, they secured a Norwegian fishing village on the bluffs, where they shot the famous ‘Mender of Nets’ so filmed that the place appeared to be located in a fiord. It has been suggested that this was shot at Honeymoon Cove, close to Redondo, and looking at the film, it seems that this is a possibility. Mary Pickford wears the traditional embroidered Scandinavian cap, that was, presumably, loaned by a real, live Viking lady. The Norwegians were most hospitable, if reticent, which could not be said of the nearby Japanese fisherfolk, who fought constantly with their European neighbours. It was, while making ‘Mender’ that Mary learned that Mabel’s eyes, often so doleful, could become “stilettoes that went straight to your heart.” As others were later to understand, stealing Mabel’s boyfriend was not a good idea. No surprise, then, that this is the only film in which Mary and Mabel ever faced off – it wasn’t worth the recurring nightmares. If Mabel had become Griffith’s action girl out in New York State, it was here, in California, that she became his tragedienne, as well as his wicked-eyed vamp. At the same time, Mabel was actively involved in making stupendous comedies with Mack Sennett, which none of the company of players would miss seeing at their first showings.
Of course, the Biograph still needed a studio of sorts, and the original temporary facility was rough, with the stages built from splintery, second-hand timber at Grand Avenue and Washington Street. Dressing rooms, at first tents, then crude huts, were set out, and not a silver star to be seen – they were communal in the true sense of the word. In later years, on Georgia and Girard, they would be improved, with smooth splinter-free boards. Around the lot were telegraph poles, which the young, local louts would climb, in order to watch the action over the fence, and make crude remarks to the actresses. ‘Bruisers’ were sent forth to punch their lights out, but the lads were so fast that not one was ever caught. Youngsters were one thing, but adult rubber-neckers were more concerning. The Hollywood Inn was unexpectedly friendly to the acting fraternity, and the place rented rooms to the company, as changing rooms. Leaving the hotel one day, for location, a group of actresses were followed some fellow guests, keen to know who these painted ladies were, and what their business was. At a clearing in some scrubland, the actresses met up with a cameraman and several actors. Mary Pickford was embroiled in a tame love scene, when a lady, one of the watching group of guests, stepped forward with the comment “I wouldn’t be seen dead doing the awful things you’re doing, and I certainly wouldn’t be seen wearing those disgusting clothes!” With that, she slapped young Mary around the face. Forever after, it would be impossible to see a movie star walking around Hollywood – they were all in disguise, which would avoid being spat upon by the disgusted local populace.
In later years, the city became home to many film processing companies, but at this time, the Biograph company developed and printed its own pictures. A loft was rented on Spring Street, where they developed film, and viewed the rushes. All pictures were sent east, fully finished and ready for public release. Finding suitable costumes in Los Angeles, however, was a problem, for only San Francisco catered for acting folk in those days. This meant sending a trustworthy guy, usually George Nichols, on the 400-plus miles, round trip to ‘The City’ in order to procure suitable clothing. Hollywood, then, was but a mere village, incorporated into the larger ‘village’ of L.A. Non-Mexican Angelenoes were, at that time, very ‘villagey’ in their attitude to outsiders. The did not trust them, and they certainly did not trust movie people – after all, they had journeyed west from the east to avoid the “rising tide of scum” and the dreaded taxman. Any random visitor could be a man from the Revenue, and those that had found untold wealth in oil wells and vast orange groves, did not appreciate a visit from Uncle Sam’s representatives. Very coy were these eastern migrants, when approached by Griffith for the use of their land or barn. One grumpy oilman, begrudgingly let the company film on his land, but when Griffith tried to give him 15 dollars for his trouble, the rich guy simply spat on the ground, and walked off cursing and swearing. A family living in a veritable manor house, were more amenable, and let the company film around their pleasant stone-built abode, and even appeared in the picture. At a private showing, though, they begged Griffith to scrap the film, as the goings-on in the picture put them in a bad light. What would their neighbours think!
As can be gathered, from the above, locations were as important to the tin-types as to a real-estate agent. Getting to remote spots, nonetheless, was difficult. For himself, Billy Bitzer and the star of the current film, Griffith hired an automobile at 300 dollars per month. He would hire others for the general cast, if necessary, but trollies were the order of the day, for nearby locations. Costumes and props were usually carted by horse and wagon, necessitating a very early start for the driver and prop-boy. Actors, fortunate to travel by limousine, became a little haughty about their position, as can be seen by Mabel Normand’s smug expression while aboard DWG’s luxurious Pierce-Arrow car in ‘The Diving Girl’ (above). Here we might conclude that, without the infernal combustion engine, Biograph would have been very limited in the number of landscapes they filmed. Lovely, rural Hollywood, surprisingly, was avoided by the company when filming, due to the level of animosity emitted by the locals towards the ‘tin-types’. Glendale wasn’t much better, nor Pasadena, holiday centre to Rockefeller and Carnegie types, although Mabel did once make it into the swanky Hotel Raymond (photo below). They could, of course, have slipped in between Hollywood and Glendale, at a place called Edendale, but any natural beauty it ever possessed, had been spoiled by ghastly lumber yards and a miscellany of semi-industrial activity. Later the location would become the home of a low comedy outfit called Keystone.
Filming, be assured, went rolling on every day, but with no lines to learn, the restless Biograph crowd had time and energy to burn every night. For sure, everyone went to the ‘flickers’ and some, like Mary Pickford, sat through more of the movie stuff than anyone else. Her siblings could take it or leave it, and found pleasures elsewhere, as did many of the company. Bars and saloons were the mainstay of downtown, with little else to do, except the occasional theatrical show, where the actors and actresses could dream of being stage stars. There were, of course, no true movie stars in those days. We might presume that, when his elders were propping up the bars, Jack Pickford was there, outside maybe, accepting whatever booze the actors were passing through the swing doors. Otherwise, he might have been out and about with Mabel and Alice, neither of whom was quite as angelic as their producers, current and future, pretended they were.
One of the things we can say about the movie industry, at this time, was its democratic nature. Democratic among the players, that is, for the management were viewed, to some extent, as remote slave-drivers. In both Los Angeles and New York, everyone was expected help with moving and painting scenery, as only a few were acting at any particular time. Payment for their labour came in the form of lunch-time sandwiches, so often dry and curled. Only a few complained. Stage stars down on their luck, complained about doing manual work, and a certain Mack Sennett, who objected to sandwiches, thinking he should dine on steaks. If democratic, the players were also fiercely competitive. Mary, Mabel and Blanche had pushed their way to the top by 1912, and felt able to turn down disreputable parts that might harm their careers later on. ‘Man’s Genesis’ involved the leading lady wearing a grass skirt, so the trio turned the part down. Furious, DWG gave the part to newly arrived Mae Marsh, as well as the lead in the next film ‘The Sands of Dee. Unfortunately, this was never forgotten by the future stars, who blackballed Mae for the next ten years.
Albuquerque and Home.
We need not list all the films the company made out west this year, but we should mention that, on the way back east, they stopped off at Albuquerque, home of the Navajo tribe, where Griffith and Sennett both made some notable pictures. Wilfred Lucas had made a prior visit to the town, in order to establish whether the place was suitable for making films, the question being “Were the residents receptive to the influx of annoying movie people?” Mabel made use of the mix of Indians and tourists to make the picture ‘The Tourists’ in which she both collects, and smashes, Indian wares, and gains the attentions of an Indian chief. Eventually, she is chased out of town by tomahawk and stone-hammer wielding squaws, angry at her fraternisation with the big Chief. Kate Toncray is the chief’s rejected wife. It was this film that set the seal on Mabel’s reputation as a complete madcap. Back home, Griffith began to take stock of his embryo stars. He was well aware that they were now well-trained, valuable assets, and it would be impossible to keep them anonymous much longer. The players knew this too, and were straining at the leash – other, newer companies
would allow them to develop as individual stars. Mary Pickford was adamant that she would leave as soon as possible. Others had similar thoughts, but most actresses had stage-mothers, who were loathe to advise their daughters to leave the good thing that was Biograph. For Mabel, things were a little different. Plans had been laid out west to join the Keystone company, initially in New York. The Biograph people were horrified. Keystone director and studio supervisor would be the crazy Irishman Mack Sennett – had Mabel lost her senses? Well, yes and no. At Keystone she would be the sole leading lady, and, just in case she had any reservations, her pay would be $125 a week. The disadvantage would clearly be the loss of her friends, and life 3,000 miles away, surrounded by greying, middle-aged men. Mabel was gone by August, and would soon be followed by Mary. So, the 1912 sojourn in Los Angeles came to an end. For those that ended their term with Biograph during 1912, there were new replacements, in the form of the Gish sisters and Gertrude Bambrick. In 1913, the remnants of the old guard and the new people, again wended their way out west. Mabel had left a legend behind her, which had been enhanced by the press insistence on naming her ‘The Queen of The Movies’. Naturally, everyone wanted to meet ‘the legend’ that they’d heard so much about, and in the west, most of them did meet her. Although diminutive in stature, her presence and her magnetism were something to behold, attributes that could turn a young girl’s head. Beyond that, Mabel was free and unfettered by stage mother, or chaperone. Two actresses, Dorothy Gish and Gertie Bambrick, were most impressed, and abandoned their chaperones, for a downtown hotel room, from where, with midriffs deftly exposed, they planned to hit the town. They’d be Mabel Normand for the night, but as Mrs Griffith relates the story, they were swiftly ‘recaptured’ by Mr. Griffith and his henchmen Dell Henderson.
1912, then, was an important year for the Biograph, but also for the incipient stars, as Hollywood was on the cusp of greatness. Many a Hollywood star would look fondly back on their time at Biograph, with its stale sandwiches and tyrannical director, as “The good old days.”
It worth reflecting on the fact that Albuquerque, rather than Hollywood, could have become the movie capital of the world. It is a major railway town, almost a thousand miles closer to New York, and the city fathers were keen to attract people and industry to their town. Quite why the film-makers bypassed the place is a mystery, but it is clear that New Mexico is an even drier place than California. The L.A. authorities promised water schemes, and other facilities, like electricity, which the cowboy folk in Albuquerque were slow to do. This might explain the loss of movie-makers interest in the town, which, furthermore, has no coastline.
When researching the situation at the Biograph studios in the early 1910s, we are reminded constantly that Mabel Normand was an outsider among the theatrically-trained actors and actresses. Of the few untrained ‘outsiders’ that walked into the studio from the street, it is notable that Mabel was the only one to make it big in pictures. It is no wonder that Mrs Griffith called her career “astonishing, astounding, and staggering.” Mae Marsh, another outsider, also made it in Griffith films, but his interest in her waned, and away from the movie genius, she rapidly fell from the public’s favour.
When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925).
The Man Who Invented Hollywood: The Autobiography of D.W. Griffith. Edited and Annotated By James Hart. 1972.
‘Mabel Normand’s Own Life Story’ by Chandler Sprague. Los Angeles Examiner (February 17, 1924)
‘Personalities I Have Met: Mabel Normand’ By Mary Pickford. Syndicated article, July 1916.
‘New Year’s Eve On The Train’ By Mary Pickford. Syndicated article, July 1916.
‘Biograph Advance Man Spends Day in This City’ Article in the Albuquerque Journal, 24th April 1912.
I was recently surprised to receive a copy of a newspaper article dating back almost to the first days of Hollywood Babylon. It was sent to me by Wm. Thomas Sherman, who received it from Bruce Long, who I assume to be an Australian. What is Hollywood Babylon? Hollywood Babylon can be seen as a series of newspaper/magazine articles, books and even films, condemning the actions and lifestyles of the film stars in Hollywood, which were published following the various scandals occurring between 1920 and 1924. Hollywood, of course, was deemed Babylon, to keep events in line with the Bible, although activities there, said the detractors, were more likely to be of a Roman and Byzantine kind. Books, like ‘The Girl From Hollywood’, were generated very quickly after the Mabel Normand/W.D. Taylor scandal of 1922, but the newspapers were full of the pulpit rantings of self-styled preachers, threatening fire and brimstone for the evil suburb of Los Angeles, that modern Gomorra. The surprising thing about this particular article/ranting is that it originates from Britain, rather than the U.S. It is not normal for an article, spewing such venom as this one, to be found in British archives, and for two reasons. Firstly, there was no gain for anyone in Britain to make such wild assertions against a person, other than a politician, residing in a foreign country. Secondly, Britain was still reeling from the effects of Irish Home Rule, the resultant Irish Civil War, and the various I.R.A. bombs exploding on the mainland, one of which killed a prominent M.P., while Mabel Normand was in the country. We might also add that Britain was also occupied with its own ‘bad girls’ like Music Hall star Marie Lloyd that the U.S. authorities once locked up for ‘moral turpitude’ on the say so of the British government. So, no real reason for the torrent of mealy-mouthed abuse from the British press, especially as Mabel had entered Britain, in 1922, in a rather understated manner, intended to merely make her presence known to those in the film industry, which was then just recovering from the Great War.
This particular article relates to 1924, long after Mabel had left British shores, and so it is even more surprising that it was ever released. The fact is, nonetheless, that this particular piece comes from Perth, and it seems, from Perth, Australia, although the publication claims that it was first released in London. Was it really released, in this overly-long form in London? We might doubt it, but we have no means of checking this out. Australians had long been critical of Hollywood, which they viewed as an appropriate place to send their own incorrigible actors and actresses. Indeed, Mabel herself had come under some criticism, in 1912, when the Antipodean press lampooned her for not responding in the manner expected to an enquiry from a fan. British actors also went to Hollywood, but with Shakespearian credentials, the exceptions being workhouse lad, Charles Chaplin and Lincolnshire’s own, dancing girl Dorothy Mackaill. Now, let’s dissect this strange ‘document’.
We have seen that this particular article was published in Perth, although it was claimed to have originated in London, perhaps in shorter form. First, we start off with the author alluding to the vast sums earned by the stars of Hollywood, that Klondyke of the screen, who he terms “the illiterate scum and the dregs of mankind”, whose sudden opulence has no regulation from religion or refinements of education. Well, our man has already used up a dictionary of adjectives, but no, this is only the start. He continues without a pause through three more sections.
“Drink and Drugs”
The author is now in his stride, found his mojo, so to speak. He calls up the wrath of the ancients, and likens the Hollywooders to King Midas, and his touch of gold. The Hollywood folk, also, have acquired the ears of the ass, along with the morals of the monkey. Did you know that the nemesis that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, rained drink and drugs down on Hollywood, and will burn it to ashes, because of dipsomania, heroin and cocaine? From here on, our high-minded journo gives us a clue, as to the publication in which he wrote. Not a movie mag, but something more high-brow, like The Gentlemen’s Magazine, for he now goes to talking on Commodus and Egalabalus, infamous Roman emperors, but not names on the tip of the tongue of any reasonable man on the Clapham omnibus. It is, however, at this point that we might take issue with our learned sage, who hopes (perhaps) that a hundred years hence a part or parcel of the truth will be told, but printed on asbestos and bound in fire boards. Well, today we know more than the old philosopher knew, but the whole truth still cannot be told.
Now ‘Cinemapolis’, that’s another invention of the learned scribe, but he also seems interested in someone called Courtland Dimes. True, there was a Courtland, in 1924, down Hollywood way, but his name was Dines. It seems our journo is so concerned about the money that the rag will pay for his piece that he thinks the man’s name is Dimes. As he says we do not know why Dines was shot, as the story from the shooter (chauffeur is just a little unbelievable. There is, of course, some notion that a third party did not want did not Mabel getting deeply involved with Dines, who was a millionaire, and there is nothing a falling star likes to latch onto than a millionaire. The scribe did not know that a falling star other than Mabel was interested in Dines, her name was Edna Purviance, and she was falling faster than Mabel. The scribe now wants to show us his literary knowledge, and drops names like George Bernard Shaw as though confetti. Now, however, he begins to fantasize over what Kelly might have said. I do not recall that Kelly said he wanted to deliver Mabel from Dimes’ [sic] “dope wiles”. This the pressman invented, as he invented “Abandon dope all ye who enter here!” which is what he imagines (or dreams) Kelly shouted as he rushed into Dines’ apartment, armed with Mabel’s revolver (which was actually a .25 automatic pistol). He now returns, briefly, to relate some of the things that Mabel, Dines and Edna actually said had happened, which differed from those that Kelly had stated. Much had been made of the fact that Kelly was in love with Mabel, but also had knowledge of where Mabel’s gun was kept in her bedroom, which caused a few “ahhas” in the U.S. press. For his part, the intrepid British writer skips over this. Mabel reportedly said on arrival at Dines’ place “Come on you dirty dogs, get in your dance, and let’s go somewhere.” The scribe introduces the words “get in your dancing togs”, just to make a little rhyme of it, he being, of course, so very versed in poetics. In essence, he wants to give an example of Mabel’s “quiddity” being unaware that anyone at all could make this remark, even the learned sage himself. Want to hear some Los Anglican argot? Here’s the journo’s example: “Dimes did not want to come out, so I went in.” Well, you can tell this guy had led a sheltered life! Mabels’ companion, mentioned at this point, was Ethel (or Edith) Burns. He mentions Mrs Burns in the same line as “By the way, Edna was engaged to Dimes!” He’s missing out something here, in that it was Mrs Burns who revealed that Mabel, Courtland and Edna were in a ‘love triangle’, and for which reason, Mabel broke off her friendship with Mrs Burns. Interesting also, that at this point, he mentions that Mabel stated that she did not hire Kelly, “It was my secretary that did that.” The secretary was Betty Coss, and Betty claimed that it was not her that had engaged the chauffeur. In his eagerness to incriminate Mabel (if only for messing around with the help), he is missing a big part of the story, in that no-one in the Normand household ever admitted to hiring Kelly. This is the biggest mystery in the whole case, for it must have been someone outside of Mabel’s immediate circle that hired that chauffeur. Who that was, nobody knows, but our journalistic friend thought that it was one of the big snuffers out of the truth in Hollywood i.e. someone ranking above an actress or director. Incidentally, Betty eventually walked out on Mabel, leaving her with no-one to deal with the fan mail, and taking the name and address of her bootlegger with her.
Our wordsmith of a sage now invokes another duo of famous ancient players (Petronius and Juvenal) as he likens Edna and Mabel to poor butterflies. Oh, how hard done by are the two comical, but tragic queens – “there is (smirk) some spice of irony” in the whole situation. The queens may be dethroned, and suffer the same fate as Fatty Arbuckle, who by the way, Mr Douglas, did have a name other than ‘Fatty’. If he had done his research, he would have realised that Edna had already been dethroned by her employer, Mr. C. Chaplin, who later put her on a life-long pension. As for Mabel, dethronement was not possible, although close enough in late 1923, for her to make a play for a millionaire. However, despite everything, her newly released picture ‘Extra Girl’ was a big success, negating any requirement for abdication, millionaire, or employer’s pension. If she got anything from her employer, then she took it, rather than was given it. As far as the shooting of Dimes [sic] goes, no-one knows why anyone is shot in Los Angeles. Time now to turn the clock back to Arbuckle and the death of Virginia Rappe. Mabel, it seems, had her earliest successes in Arbuckle pictures and was a witness in the Arbuckle/Rappe case. Neither of these things are true, for Mabel was drawing the crowds, long before her ‘Fatty and Mabel’ pictures. As for being a witness in the Rappe case, there never has been any evidence that Mabel was at the San Francisco hotel, where the death occurred in 1921. In S.F. anyway, or perhaps Catalina Island? Both these places were haunts for movie people, but all the indications are that Mabel was in New York at that time. She’d finished her contract with Sennett, and was where any self-respecting playgirl would be – living la dolca vita under the lights of Manhattan.
The writer is correct in stating that Mabel was a chief witness in the inquest of Irishman W.D. Taylor in 1922, but being a witness does not make one a suspect. This was yet another love triangle, involving yet another poor butterfly, Mary Miles Minter, who did write some silly love letters to Paramount director Taylor, as our scribe informs us. The whole affair was extremely complicated, and not as simple as Mabel being a heroin addict, with Taylor being shot for getting between Mabel and her supplier. For one thing, the love triangle revolved around Mary Miles Minter trying to stay with Paramount, and Mabel trying to get into Paramount. Such was told to the police by Taylor’s butler, Peavey. However, there is the case of British police or intelligence being involved in the investigations, and a certain Mack Sennett, who had a vested interest in preventing Mabel going over to Paramount. Taylor might have been a person of great interest to the British, due to his Irish connections, and some have suspected he was a fund-raiser for the Fenian cause. In any event, no-one was charged with the crime, and it is now impossible to discover a culprit. Who knows, perhaps, like Bobby Harron, he accidentally shot himself. We will never know.
“Mabel’s career was worthy of a heroin addict” states the learned sage. We might believe this, if only he gave us the evidence, for which there is none. She was employed by D.W. Griffith, at the age of twelve, he says, which makes us ponder on her age when she worked for the commercial artists, like James Montgomery Flagg and Charles Dana Gibson. She was, presumably, but a toddler in those days. “Mabel” He continues “Was born in Harlem 35 years ago”, which is news to anyone that has researched her life, but the place was disreputable enough to place the witch of Hollywood there at the time of her birth – where else would you find a heroin addict? However, she apparently grew up in Atlanta, Ga. which seems a strange move, as normally people move in the opposite direction. No matter, though, for Mabel returned to New York, to take up work with the aforementioned artists. Apparently, she first lost her mind when the Keystone Company offered her $125 a week to perform in comedies. Thereafter, she made $2,000 a week, which must surely have sent her completely insane. If he’d done his homework, the old sage would have known that she earned £3,000 a week, and received 25% of the profits of her films. Mabel was not working in 1924, except for touring nationally to promote her film ‘Extra Girl’ for which she might, or might not, have been paid. Nonetheless, the royalties from 3 big feature films, would have supported the most intense of good-time girls. Beyond that, Mabel was involved, in 1925, with a lucrative stage tour, which must have netted her a large mess of bucks, perhaps a million, but who knows?
Under the heading of Molly O’ (released 1921) our learned scribe begins, strangely, of the events of ten years earlier, and specifically of the time that Keystone Comedies offered her $125 a week. He seems to suggest that this staggering sum (for 1912) somehow turned her foolish. It appears that Mabel glad to receive it, but she was not that bothered, and probably preferred the $50 or $60 she got from Biograph, which would clearly lead, hopefully, to a better career. The writer could try to understand why Mabel chose to go with Keystone, but this is clearly beyond his comprehension. Instead, he leaps forward to the time when she earned thousands. He claims that she first became famous as “a low comedienne” in ‘Tillies Punctured Romance’ (1914) although she’d long been known as ‘The Queen of The Movies’, a title which recognised that her talents extended beyond comedy. “A tiny Arbuckle in petticoats” Says Mr (some people called him that) Douglas, totally ignoring the nature of Mabel’s comedy, which in no way can be allied to Arbuckle’s slapstick. She had “wonderful eyes, a slim figure, comical features, and grotesque gestures.” Well, not so comical features, and her gestures were limitless, and grotesque only on a few occasions in her 300 films. He mentions Charlie Chaplin, but hasn’t realised that her grotesqueness only applied in the films she made with the former music hall star. In these films the pair merged or blended as one, as Charlie took on Mabel’s melancholia, and Mabel, Charlie’s slapstick. Only ‘Tillies Punctured Romance’ and ‘Mabel’s Busy Day’ are memorable for grotesqueness. He is, for once, correct in that ‘Molly O’ took the world by storm, but so did ‘Mickey’ and ‘Extra Girl’ both generating their own Mabel memorabilia.
Well, it is true enough that Mabel professed to reading on philosophy and metaphysics, as many others also claimed. She was patently not illiterate, as our eminent writer claims, although whether she understood the writings of Freud and co may, as with most people, be disputed. D.W. Griffith advised his actors to always appear erudite, and would give a book to a player to read up on subjects pertaining to their next picture. Consequently, the company always understood who the star of the next film was to be, as they carried a book. Mabel was nothing, if not a willing pupil of the Master. Was it ever reported in London that Mabel ever said “I don’t want any blooming dinner.” She had, though, told a self-deprecating story of when she refused a dinner from Mack Sennett, and said she just wanted a drink. Mack said “I’ll get you a ‘Horse’s Neck’ to which Mabel replied “I said I don’t want any dinner.” An amusing story, but if she had said this, she would have not used the word ‘blooming’ but another adjective ending in ‘G’ but beginning with ‘F’. The writer is correct in mentioning that Mabel was always slim, indicating that she had few dinners, although you can drink as much as you like, when dieting. Mabel was known as The Jazz Baby, but Douglas seems to speak of the music as though it emitted some obnoxious smell under the nostrils. However, it’s just what he expected of Mabel. The ‘babe’ was never divorced, he says, but by this he means she was never married. Important? Yes, so it seems, for much was made of her spinster status between 1922 and 1926, for surely a husband would have prevented the wayward Mabel from getting in so much trouble? A strange logic, you might think, and you’d be right.
“Mabel was never one of the Five Hundred in New York society, but one of the Live Hundred in Hollywood.” One of the hundred raisers of Cain, but also the inventor of the wild Hollywood party, all brought on by an immersion in the sin of screendom. “Dope and pistols and autos-da-fe have been Mabel’s daily bread…… she was transformed out of a human being into a ‘close-up’. She became a movie angel instead of a woman.” Our man is probably right here, but we are all caught up in our own lives, and the silent stars were no different.
“Of course the screen queens know the price of everything and the value of nothing. How could a five-dollar model manage $100,000 a year?” It is true that Mabel understood little of money, but she did not need to, for money meant little to her. Stardom and fame were her wages, and a figure on a contract, with five zeros, merely reflected the esteem in which she was held. Those that crucified her in 1922, sent her, uncharacteristically, grasping for money that would support her in a life without income. It is sad to relate that the seemingly fortuitous acquisition of relative wealth, 1922-1925, actually made her a target for scoundrels and gold-diggers. Our friend’s sermon continues, telling how the stars are the prisoners of Hollywood, and their gilded boredom leads to orgies of drink and drugs. There is some little truth here, in that, compared with New York, Los Angeles, and particularly Hollywood, was a boring place to be. It would have been pointless looking for a movie star in Hollywood at this time. The few moving around the place were unrecognisable, but many lived in the bohemian areas of L.A., and, like Mabel, preferred hotel suites to castles or MacMansions. Hotel suites, because a star never knew when he/she would be working back east, in Florida, or perhaps Europe. To be frank, Los Angeles cleared of movie stars during holiday times, when the place to find them was San Francisco, Catalina Island, or even New York. Hedonists? Some were, some weren’t. Louise Brooks was, Mary Pickford was not. Mabel Normand fitted somewhere in between.
What is this all about?
We have seen that this was a curious piece to emanate from London, where nobody was really concerned about what was going on in remote Los Angeles. To a Londoner, a movie star was just someone on a silver screen, to all intents and purposes, an irrelevance to their daily lives. It is possible that this ‘work’ was published in Perth, with no London antecedent. Many years previously, an Australian paper had published an irate piece from an Antipodean Mabel fan, disgruntled because Mabel had given a terse reply to his fan letter. Mabel, of course, had been to London in 1922, but there are suggestions that she might have been back and forth across the Atlantic over the next year. Was Mabel intending to jump ship and work for a British film company in 1924? If our writer suspected as much, then perhaps he was trying to ensure that no company would sign the ‘Witch of Hollywood’. Perhaps, he could get her locked up for moral turpitude, as was Marie Lloyd, when she set foot in the U.S? As with so many things, we will never know the complete answer.
It is odd think that Keystone Mabel, also known as The Keystone Girl, appeared on the cinema screen for just three years, between 1912 and 1915. We might increase this time span, slightly, by including her time with the Biograph comedy unit, in which she served as the prototype for the later Keystone Girl. However, there was also a precursor for the prototype, in the ‘Betty’ that Mabel played in comedies alongside John Bunny, at the Vitagraph studios in 1911. Like the Keystone Girl, Betty was vivacious, effervescent and fashion-conscious. She lacked, however, the complexities and subtleties of the later Mabel, and was, let’s say, overly-bubbly, causing one critic to observe “There’s a lot of hugging and kissing going on in those pictures.” He was, naturally, right, but Betty blew onto the early screen like a whirlwind, and captivated the movie-going public, as well as the acting fraternity. The future King of Comedy, Biograph’s Mack Sennett, watched the Betty pictures with great interest, and it is a matter of record that he was made Biograph’s comedy director, just after Mabel arrived at Biograph, in around August 1911. In the first instance, D.W. Griffith, the director of drama down there, recognised that Mabel had talent, but her dark looks were what initially attracted him, and consequently, he put her into ‘bad girl’, tragic, and vamp roles. While many of the golden-haired actresses, like Mary Pickford, shied away from such parts, Mabel almost revelled in them, although, being ‘bad’, she always died before the last scene. Mack Sennett was watching her closely, noting her zany and somewhat outrageous personality around the studio.
In particular, he noted that you could always find her at the centre of a knot actors, a knot which he found impossible to penetrate, as he makes clear in his memoirs. Mabel had a magnetic personality. Almost as soon as Mack was made comedy director, he went to Griffith and sought Mabel on a shared basis. Griffith had no option but to agree, for he did not have continuous work for all of his girls. The likes of Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet, could hang around for days on end, without being put before the camera. As for Mabel, she was not at all pleased, about working with the clumsy oaf Sennett, who possessed little in the way of social skills, and was not well-liked, and even despised, by most of the Biograph actresses. He also had some odd ideas about comedy, and thought he could base his entire film portfolio on cops being kicked in the derriere and hit over the head with clubs. As it turned out, Sennett possessed an inane knack for knowing what would work on celluloid, and what would not. His later success was to come by using this ability and imposing it, by closely supervising his actors. Supervision was also a major strategy utilised by D.W. Griffith, and Sennett was nothing, if not a willing disciple of the movie genius. What supervision meant was laying out strict parameters for a film, and the way an actor performed within that film. The overall director need not direct every scene, but he would need to brief the actors and proxy director, on what he required. In this article, it will be argued that it was close supervision that created the Keystone Girl from Mabel / Betty and a lack of close supervision that ended the time of the Keystone Girl. We start by looking at Mabel’s concept of a motion picture.
Getting Mabel Onboard.
It seems that Mabel had thought that she was well and truly rooted in dramatic films under D.W. Griffith, and as she later told it, she was shocked when Griffith agreed to share her with Sennett. She had no interest in Mack’s crazy notion of comedy, but she went along with his ideas. This is where Mack’s supervision came in, and, rather than presenting Mabel as a crazy slapsticker, he made her the pivot, the fulcrum, or Queen Bee of his pictures. She was only slightly dizzy, and not as ‘dippy’ as some people think. This prevented Mabel from tarnishing her reputation as a serious actress (to a point), and gave her some way to express her acting talents. Moving on to Keystone was a different story. Away from Griffith and Biograph, she’d be a sitting duck, a foil, for the excesses of Mack Sennett and his company of clowns. The record, however, shows that Mabel did join Keystone and leave New York behind – almost 3,000 miles behind. This could only have happened, despite the lure of being the sole leading lady, if Mabel had been assured that the move would not harm her career. The assurance, we can assume, was that Mabel would be given dramatic outlets in the comedies, and that, eventually, they would shoot wholly dramatic pictures, alongside the comedies. The well-known arguments arose between Mack and Mabel, when Mabel was constrained in her drama, and the actual dramatic films never materialised. In other words, Mabel was being closely supervised, to ensure she did not drift too far from involvement with the ‘kick ass’ type of comedy. From what Sennett stated in his autobiography, Mabel would always try to circumvent the restrictions imposed by the agreed script, and Mack would have to intervene. From late 1913, Mabel directed the films she appeared in, and it seems possible that some knockabout comedians actually complained to Sennett, about what she was doing. It is entirely possible that they considered their performance was being diluted, by what they might have deemed ‘dramatic showboating’. Henri Lehrman (the ‘fake Frenchman’) was certainly one of these, as was George ‘Pops’ Nichols, although to a lesser extent, perhaps. Lehrman, we know, was the snitch that always ran to the boss with stories about other actors [Sennett’s memoirs]. Furthermore, it is clear that Sennett gave himself roles in the films, cameo and otherwise, that would enable him to keep an eye on proceedings. When things first came to a head in the Fall of 1913, Mack presented Mabel with ‘Mabel’s Dramatic Career’ in which she could be as tragic and dramatic as she liked – within reason of course. In the last scene of the picture, Sennett added something for the vaudevillian who was about to arrive at the studio. The details of that have been covered in previous articles, but the vaudevillian’s name is well known. It is Charles Spencer Chaplin.
Slapstick Isn’t So Bad.
By the time that Chaplin came to the studio, Mabel had received her dose of artistic freedom, as far it existed in those days. From what we can gather, from various statements, and a telegram to Sennett by Keystone big boss, Charles Baumann, Sennett “hated Chaplin’s guts.” [Sennett’s Private Papers: Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences]. Someone else, however, thought that he would be of use. We are talking, of course, of Mabel Normand. Chaplin was a newcomer to motion pictures, and had no idea as to how films were made [his memoirs], and this made him someone she could befriend,. Charlie says he detected this, when he first met her. Mabel made a point of befriending theatre people, like the Arbuckles. Her old friends at Biograph had mainly been stage artists, and Mabel knew that Keystone was a hostile environment for thespians. She had plans to take Chaplin under her wing, but she probably had an ulterior motive. Being a new actor on the block, Charlie would, perhaps, put up with more of her ideas than the old timers, like ‘Pops’ Nichols. After just one outing with Charlie, however, in ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’ Mabel suddenly decided to abandon the tramp, no doubt because he was given the opening scene to himself, during which he fell about, drunk, in a hotel lobby (his forte as well as his father’s). There was a two-month hiatus in the Mabel/Charlie relationship, although it is likely that the top management wanted them as a team. Due to a very important two-reeler being readied, it seems the two had to be brought together, perhaps by order of Charles Baumann himself . Mabel had little use for a knock-about comic in this picture, and surely Charlie did not want to be in a film with a heroine, and especially one denoted by the press as ‘The Queen of The Movies’. Furthermore, he had always resented being cast as a villain. Charlie went on strike, was nearly beaten to death by the crew, and soon forced to comply with Mabel’s wishes. To be brief, Chaplin made good from this experience, and he became Mabel’s favourite, or ‘prize’ as Chester Conklin later put it. In their films, Mabel let Charlie slapstick as much as he wanted, while he did not complain about her exercising her abilities as a tragedienne in the comedies. In fact, he would later utilise Mabel’s combination of melancholy and mirth in his own pictures. It is curious to note, nonetheless, that Mabel indulges in more slapstick in the Chaplin films, than she would ever do again. Was this a quid pro quo situation? We will never know for sure, but her knowledge of motion pictures, derived from none other than movie genius D.W. Griffith, would have secretly irked the little limey, who had bombed in the legitimate theatre (although he did meet ‘the most beautiful girl in the world’, Marie Doro). Eventually, bohemian Charlie left Keystone, leaving a vacuum to be filled. Sennett had tired of the tales he’d heard of Mabel and Charlie ‘stealing’ company cars for trips downtown, and hours spent together in Mabel’s dressing room, when they should have been on set. “They’re in love” Henri Lehrman told Mack, according to Mack’s memoirs, and love meant only one thing to Mack – that they might run off together. Now Chaplin was gone, Mack would wreak his revenge on ‘The Queen of The Movies’.
1915 proved a difficult time for Mabel. Mack was out to show that he did not need her. He brought in wriggling broads, that he called the Bathing Beauties – pretty girls, scantily clad, and with wicked eyes. Then he put her with Roscoe Arbuckle, who had become a veteran slapsticker, over the previous two years. Mack made it plain – there would be ass-kicking, there would be mallets over the head, but there would be no more melancholy or sad endings. Roscoe and Minta Arbuckle sympathised with her, as did thespian Raymond Hitchcock and wife, when they arrived, during that year. Mabel was in a bad place, but whether she conspired with the new management, ‘Triangle’, to move out of Keystone, we do not know for sure. History recalls that, on New Year’s Eve 1915, Mabel, Roscoe, Minta and Al St. John’s mounted the train, and headed east. Their destination was the Triangle and New York Motion Picture studio at Fort Lee, New Jersey. There they would make films, expected to be standard Keystone fare. However, the film ‘He Did And He Didn’t’ turned out to be a unique comedy. A semi-drama, it ended up with Roscoe and Mabel trying to kill each other. With a nod of respect to Sennett, they gave it a happy ending – it all turned out to be a Dallas-like dream. This was Mabel turning the tables on The King of Comedy, but there was more to come. In early March, the company arrived back in California – minus Mabel. What was happening? Nobody knew. Then, newspaper and magazine articles began to appear:
[Source: ‘Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook to Her Life and Films.’ by Wm. Thomas Sherman].
Panic ensued in the Triangle camp. Mabel must not go to Chaplin or Keystone’s former distributor and current enemy, Mutual! No one knew where Mabel was, but somehow, the bosses arranged that she would have her own company, The Mabel Normand Feature Film Co, and it would have its own studio, down in Hollywood, two blocks from her former mentor D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts studio. One suspects a conspiracy here – either Mabel conspired with Triangle boss, Harry Aitken, and Kessell and Baumann against Sennett, or vice versa, we cannot tell, but Mabel reappeared in L.A. a few weeks later, as gay as a wisp (as Mack Sennett later told it). The studio was the new building erected by Sennett on Fountain Avenue, but under the Triangle rules, he was barred from interfering in the new company, although he he had been allotted 25% of the shares (see endnote). Thomas Ince would be supervisor, and would arrange the director. If Mabel smelled a rat here, then she ought to have, for Ince was busy with big pictures,to follow up on ‘Civilisation’ and all too soon, he bailed, and Sennett stepped in. The Queen (and she was Queen, now, of all she surveyed) could probably have screamed, but there was no turning back, this was show business and no show, no business. Then rows began over the choice of director. Sennett brought in four, including George Lane Tucker, and they were all rejected by Mabel. She’d heard of a new super-kid on Alessandro Street, F. Richard Jones, and she demanded him. Mack was against it, for he was now wary of putting young guys with Mabel. In the end, though, Mabel won out, and the result was the acclaimed film-of-the-century, ‘Mountain Bred’ or ‘Mickey’ as it was to become. Was this Mabel’s greatest picture? Probably. It was a dramatized comedy, and although the Keystone Girl was still recognisable within it, there were some new aspects to her character. Jones had walked a tightrope between Mack and Mabel and come up with the goods.
The Advent of The Goldwyn Girl.
Unfortunately (or fortunately) ‘Mickey’ languished eighteen months before release, by which time the Triangle corporation had blown apart, spewing its constituent parts onto the streets of L.A., Fort Lee and New York. Due to the problems, Mabel was left languishing, after completing her film. Perhaps, held on a retainer by Triangle or Keystone, Mabel considered the situation to be dire enough for her to sign with a company that was months away from its first picture, Goldwyn Films. Mabel was called to New York by Sam Goldwyn in March 1917, and so, Triangle continuing to falter, she arrived in Manhattan, ready to go. Then something happened, and Mabel went cold on the Goldwyn deal. What the something was, we do not know, but the signing of a second star, Mae Marsh, might have caused her to have second thoughts. Again, she called journalists to her hotel room, and announced that she was available to the highest bidder. Mack Sennett, reading of Mabel’s defection, immediately sent lawyers to negotiate with her. Sam was furious with Mabel, and just as immediately, sought a court injunction, preventing her from working for any company, except Goldwyn Films. If he lost Mabel, his studio would not get off the ground, and his backers would withdraw their funding. We will miss out the shenanigans that ensued, between Mack, Mabel and Sam, but it is sufficient to say that Mabel was soon in Florida, making films as The Goldwyn Girl. Now what, or who, was the Goldwyn Girl. Well, the Goldwyn Girl, was nothing like her Keystone antecedent. Mabel, to some extent, was (professionally) out of control.
Sam was not a hands-on producer like Mack, and left day to day studio business to his supervisor, Abe Lehr, or “Abe Leer” as Mabel called him. Mabel changed directors as often as she changed Parisian frocks, and once more locked horns with George Loane Tucker. George kept at it this time, but, as with all directors, appeals for Sam to intervene fell on deaf ears. He wined and dined Mabel, spent hours conversing with her in the dressing room, and clearly was only interested in her friendship. If that meant a $3,000 dressing room overhaul, or time off water-skiing on Long Island, then so be it. In fact, he formed the opinion that Mabel knew the movie business inside out, and could be left to write and direct her own pictures. This was obviously true, but what pictures would she produce? Comedies, yes, but not comedies as the public knew them – Mabel was no Buster Keaton, producing films by linking endless gags together on a reel. We might describe Mabel, as an ‘anti-gagster’, her time with D.W. Griffith having given her a passion for higher things than slapstick. The Griffith in her, overtook the Keystone, and, although she thought she was being, shall we say, ‘culturally comedic’, the pictures had become flat, and her friends thought she’d lost her spark, and become ‘commonplace’. Here’s the crazy thing, though. The public still raved about Mabel, and could not get enough of her Goldwyn pictures. If they thought a film was lacklustre, then they forgave her, on the certainty that the next one would be better. The effect of the release of ‘Mickey’ while Mabel was at Goldwyn, blew Mabel from Queen Of The Movies to Goddess Of Hollywood. As big stage-star Madge Kennedy told it:
“We were all queens at one time or another, but Mabel was different, she was a goddess”.
‘Mickey’ of course, was the film that pitched Griffith’s ‘Birth Of A Nation’ off top spot, as the world’s biggest-selling picture. What did DWG think about that? Unfortunately, we will never know. Naturally, the motion picture was then rising to great heights, and Mabel rose with it, but it has to be said that Sam Goldwyn was a master of publicity, and Mabel received her fair share of that publicity, as the film industry burgeoned. For every film that Goldwyn brought out, so came a ton of memorabilia, and in-house events, while magazines produced pop-out, paper Mabel film characters that could be tricked out with paper fashions.
On Jack Pickford’s visit to the studio, Sam brought Jack and Mabel together for their first public get-together since their Biograph days, seemingly a thousand years ago. Sam made a big thing of brother Claude Normand coming to the studio, fresh from the Somme trenches, riding his new Indian motorcycle. The public loved the photos shot of Jack and Mabel on the bike. They got so close that an English magazine ran a ‘Jack and Mabel’ cartoon strip, in which Jack and Mabel appeared almost as an item. The world had gone Mabel crazy. In terms of art, however, where did Mabel now stand? With no strict supervision, Mabel had, professionally speaking, dared to walk on water. From what we can see, from the surviving fragments of the Goldwyn films, she had attempted to make dramatic films that had some comedy, within the parameters of the drama. Now, contrary to what many might think, and especially those that have not seen her films, Mabel’s comedy was subtle, and she relied, for comic effect, on ultra-fine facial expressions, and in particular on changes (often lightning fast) of facial expression. In the Goldwyn films she also utilised subtle hand gestures. We might put forward the hypothesis that, in the Goldwyn films, there was no counterbalance to Mabel’s subtlety and dramatics. In other words, she needed a slapsticker, a foil, off which to ‘bounce’. Chaplin, obviously, had Edna Purviance, and he fully understood that without her, he (the melancholic comedian), was nothing. Mabel’s idea that she could go it alone with comic drama, produced films that were not really that funny overall, although she herself did produce some laughs.
A Sennett Girl Again.
In spite of everything, the Keystone in Mabel was dying. Sam, for his part, was also running into trouble, even though he was making money from Mabel’s films. His ex-theatrical stars weren’t doing so well. People like Charlie Chaplin, were horrified at the films Mabel was appearing in – although they made money now, they were not commercial enough to carry Mabel forward in her career, should the current gravy train end. This, it seems, is what Chaplin told Sam. Sam responded by docking $1,000 a week from her pay, and putting the cash into war bonds – Mabel would not end up on the streets during his watch. However, Sam knew he was going bankrupt. Mabel was a very valuable young lady, an asset, and loaning her out to other studios at a large fee, seemed to make sense. Mack Sennett wanted Mabel back. He had no female star that could hold her own in the area of big feature films – and Mack wanted features, badly. He wanted to hold his own, not against Keaton and Roach, but against the big boys, the Adolph Zukors, the Laskys and the Louis B. Mayers of the industry. Mabel was his passport to that end. It is stated, by Mack Sennett, that $30,000 changed hands, and Mabel was freed to make one picture for Sennett Comedies. What did Mabel think about that? It seems she was not exactly euphoric, and we can imagine that she preferred Goldwyn to control-freak Sennett. In fact, Mabel even offered Sam $50,000 to help him out, which Sam graciously declined. For his part, Sennett did all he could to bring Mabel onside. In his autobiography, Mack states that he promised “to make the films she wanted”, and assured her that he could make films bigger and better than any man alive. Mabel was, it seems, incredulous. The King of Comedy was bound to reassert control, although the resources he proposed to put at her disposal, were colossal. Mabel signed for $3,000 a week and 25% of the net profits of one film. The standard ‘artist supplies costumes’ clause was deleted, and Mabel demanded a dressing room furnished to high standard, with a marble bath installed. A limousine was to be sent daily, to waft her into the studio. Was Mabel grateful? Probably, but she felt a certain contempt for Mack. While she did not treat him with outright disdain, she was very formal with him, as Sennett states in his memoirs. She had never called him Mack, but instead used his real name, Michael. Now he was Mister Sennett.
Mack was true to his word, and poured in cash to the tune of above a quarter-million dollars to ensure success [he says]. He also gave Mabel exclusive use of director F. Richard Jones, which undoubtedly made her more amenable. What Sennett did not do, was to give Mabel free reign over the content of the new film ‘Molly O’. The King’s idea was to release Mabel from some of the chains that had held her to the Edwardian Keystone Girl. Actresses were beginning to show more flesh in their pictures, and be more daring in the portrayal of their intimate (screen) lives. If Sennett had showcased Mabel’s derriere in the old films, well, it was now seemly to put a camera up her skirts. Tame stuff, really, but Mabel was very conscious of damaging her reputation, to the detriment of her career (her public knew nothing of her raucous social life, and thought she spent her time talking to her roses, and sipping tea with the vicar). However, she could now actively pursue her leading man, and be shown leering at the guy from around a corner. And, some guy was her leading man – none other than hunk and heart-throb, Jack Mulhall. Way back at Keystone, things had been different. Mabel was never the pursuer, she always had one love, no matter how many guys chased her, and how many ‘ideal’ suitors father brought to the house. Sometimes, though, Mabel was fickle, and played one lover off against another. We might suppose that this appealed to the young girls in her audience, whilst not initiating any particular disgust in their accompanying mothers, and it does appear that Mabel was among the first to bring females, in any number, to the wicked movie houses (her avowed interest in the suffragette movement, might also have helped here). There are, in ‘Molly O’ many attempts to bring drama and melancholy into the scenes. This, however, is fairly well controlled, and we might suspect Sennett’s hand intervening here. When Mabel becomes tragic, you can almost see Sennett cringing on the set, but he allowed plenty enough of it through. In terms of box office receipts, Molly O’ almost matched ‘Mickey’ which was quite an achievement in 1921, when the competition was becoming extremely fierce. Apart from anything else Griffith’s ‘Way Down East’ and ‘The Flapper’ starring Olive Thomas, were still roaming the world’s cinemas.
Following ‘Molly O’ Mabel’s life became very complicated. Mabel signed for another Sennett picture ‘Susanna’ but at Sennett’s New Year’s party, Mabel arrived with someone called William Desmond Taylor. In contravention of producer/employee etiquette, Mabel left early with her man. Taylor had a butler, by the name of Peavey, and when Taylor turned up dead a few weeks later, Peavey pointed the finger at Mabel. Taylor had been a director and ‘fixer’ at Paramount studios, and Peavey told the coroner that Mabel was annoyed at Taylor’s reluctance to get her into Paramount. Here is proof that Mabel wanted out of Sennett Comedies, and, as soon as ‘Susanna’ was completed, she left for Europe. In the surviving portion of ‘Susanna’ we see little of the girl in ‘Molly O’ but a hint of the old Keystone Girl. Very cute, and the man-hunter is somewhat contained. Following the crescendo of criticism, in the aftermath of the Taylor scandal, it was impossible to present Mabel as anything other than a rather elderly ingenue. Mabel did one last film for Sennett, ‘Extra Girl’ made in 1923. The ingenue here, is overlain with a veneer of melancholy and tragedy, so intense that it would make an ancient Greek theatre-goer cry. The film was Mabel’s saviour after Taylor, and aptly followed the story of a (sweet of course) girl, lured to Hollywood by the dream of stardom, where she gets fleeced by villains. As usual, the film has a happy, married, ending. The final inter-title says:
Not exactly Mabel, but it helped stop some flak. Extra Girl, then is a curious mix of the old Keystone Girl, and elements of the Molly O’ girl, woven together, with a bit of magic by F. Richard Jones. It is worth noting that there are a few freshly-enhanced facial expressions here, two of which were later used by someone at the Hal Roach studio. Mabel, as we know, made her next and last films with Roach, but we need not go there. Well, perhaps we do need to go there to finish off the story.
In 1926, Mack asked Mabel to come to Allesandro Street for discussions about a new picture. Mabel went along, but, although her presence caused quite a stir among the young actors and actresses (all childhood Mabel fans), she declined the offer. Instead, she went to Mack’s arch-enemy, Hal Roach. Hal, at that time, was signing ‘fallen stars’ on a pittance, and had signed Theda Bara at $50 a week. However, he had to pay a pretty penny for Mabel. The studio supervisor was none other than F. Richard Jones, and her screenwriter/director, surprisingly, Stan Laurel. There can be no doubt that Jones had much to do with Mabel’s pictures, as Stan would have been as nervous as hell (he’d never worked with ‘the greats’). Jones might have been a fine director, but he was constrained, it seems, by the writ of Hal Roach. Hal produced funny films, but they were just that, funny films. Ninety-per-cent of his pictures were of the gag and slapstick variety, and he rarely, if ever, ventured onto the ground that Mabel trod, at least prior to 1937.
Hal was as Irish as Mack and Mabel, but he never understood where they were coming from (Mabel labelled him ‘that thick-necked Mick’). Even with the help of Dick Jones, Mabel never managed to quite pull it all together, as in the Sennett films. There are glimpses of the later Stan Laurel in Mabel’s performance in ‘Raggedy Rose’. Whether this was the way Mabel was going, or Stan or another director, steered her in that direction, we don’t know. However, Stan watched closely, especially when Dick was on set. Many years later, he said he’d learned everything from Jones. He couldn’t say it, but he also learned from Mabel. Remember Stan’s’ hair scratch’ and the ‘dumb face’ – they’re pure Mabel. As for Roach, he took a lot of abuse from Mabel and the ‘girl-gang’ she brought to the studio, and, unsurprisingly, Hal was not sorry to see her go. The conclusion on the Roach year is that Mabel was supervised, but in the wrong way, due to the imposition of the Roach formula, which made all his pictures pretty much alike, regardless of who was in them. In a way, Roach was a gag counter, and Mabel was most unsuited to his studio. Hal is credited with the statement “Mabel’s talent was for a comic situation rather than sustained narrative” which is just the sort of thing we might have expected him to have said, although totally and deliberately misleading (or perhaps he hadn’t seen her feature films).
Summing it all up.
The Keystone Girl was a product of her time. To Mack Sennett, she was entirely necessary to his scheme, but it was probably Mabel that first thought that The Keystone Girl had a limited shelf-life. Whether she also thought that Mack would agree to transforming her into a more dramatic character we do not know, although it seems clear that The King made constant attempts to restrain her dramatic excesses. Mabel’s idea seems to have been to combine comedy and drama in equal measure, which, we might say, was an unworkable notion. You can have a drama with some comedy, and you can have a comedy with some drama, but you cannot have the two in equal quantity, otherwise you are in a kind of no-man’s land, which, naturally, no audience would comprehend. Sennett had an innate understanding of what people wanted, and he knew that what they wanted was slapstick and short, sharp situation comedy. That was 1911 to late 1914. Thereafter, like Mabel, he thought something different should be added. More special effects were needed, more modern machines, and a troupe of pretty girls clad in bathing suits. In late 1916, having partly complied with Mabel’s wishes in Mickey, he foolishly let her walk away. Too late did he realise that, regardless of his crazy clowns and wriggling beauties, he had nothing that could take the fight to the big studios, or tweak the nose of his old master, D.W. Griffith. Some luck, and a wad of dollars, secured Mabel from Sam Goldwyn for ‘Molly O’ in which he allowed Mabel a large measure of freedom, but made sure that some of the Mabel of old came through in the film. After Roach, it was left to Sennett to proclaim “Mabel, I could have made great films for you, greater than any man alive!” Quite possibly, he could have.
Endnote: Sennett contract with Kessell and Baumann for the Mabel Normand Picture Company (MNFFC).
[Source: Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook Her Life and Films]
King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).
Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923).
Mabel Normand: A Source Book to her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006)
The picture above is a still from the film ‘The Squaw’s Love’. This film was made in 1911, out at Cuddebackville, New York State. Mabel Normand (Wild Flower) and Claire McDowell (Silver Fawn) play Indian squaws, who have a misunderstanding about a young brave. and end up having a knife fight on a cliff above the Neversink River. The film was directed by movie genius D.W. Griffith, who called the film “an Indian poem of love”, which fits well with the great man’s concept of the noble savage. The picture, however, was, shall we say, badly put together, in spite of the great director’s supervision. No matter, though, for the young Mabel makes up for any inadequacies, with her charm, alongside her acting and physical abilities. Here we need another “however” for Mabel is stiffer in her actions than we usually see her. We might put this down to Griffith’s direction, as he controlled his players (and particularly actresses) with a ruthless iron touch or grip. Mary Pickford of course, was always somewhat ‘wooden’ in her acting at Biograph. This was mainly due to the Griffith factor, as were those crazy semaphore hand signal that you see her doing in the Griffith films. Having said that, Mabel does contribute a lot of herself to the film, as she would do ever after. Later, Mack Sennett would explain that it was always best to give Mabel a strict scenario, but allow her to do what she wanted within those strict guidelines. Therefore, we must inevitably wonder about that cliff scene, and ask ourselves if Mabel had suggested this scene to Griffith. Like Mabel, Griffith was a romantic, his mind full of noble savages, but two squaws fighting it out on a cliffside? This would be beyond the genius’ contemplation, so it gives rise to the suspicion that Mabel might have asked for that particular scene. As Mary Pickford and Mrs D.W. Griffith would later say: “There was no bucking bronco so wild that Mabel would not have ridden it, no cliff so high that she would not jump off it, and no water so deep that she would not dive into it.” The Biograph people formed this view out in rural Cuddebackville, where city girl Mabel first began to daredevil.
Cuddebackville is a small village or hamlet, around 80 miles from New York City. In the 1910s it was a vacation retreat for New Yorkers, and remains so today. For a dreamer like Griffith, the place was idyllic, full of rubes instead of the NYC louts that taunted the actors, and made suggestive remarks to the actresses. Actors in those days were lucky to earn $20 a week, and many were paid $5 a day, but only for the days that they worked, meaning that vacations were an unknown luxury. The sojourns out in Cuddebackville, were indeed holidays, albeit working ones. The Cuddeback Inn, which the company used during shooting was not large, and the likes of Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet shared two to a bed, while Mack Sennett, Jack Pickford and Owen Moore shared three to a bed! The location was, though, all very atmospheric for the shooting of film.
When viewing this film, it seems obvious that Claire McDowell makes a better Indian than Mabel. Claire’s cheeks are slightly hollowed, which gives the impression that she might be a genuine native of the country. Mabel, however, has rather full cheeks, which makes her pretty, but, in her make-up, looking very Moorish, rather than Indian. It was those cheeks that made her pout, when she was being serious, something Griffith disapproved of, although the pout was later to become a weapon in the armoury of the Keystone Girl. A real native American, Dark Cloud, appears in the film.
Claire, by the way, was in her mid-30s when she made the film, so older than Mack Sennett and DWG, and 17 years older than Mabel (Kate Bruce, of course, was just about the eldest actress at Biograph, having been born before the Civil War. She long served as agony aunt and mentor to the future Hollywood stars, and remained in films until 1931). As far as the story goes, Mabel (the chief’s daughter it seems) is in love with Gray Fox, played by Alfred Paget. Gray Fox asks for Mabel’s hand, but the chief replies by having him banished from the tribe. The Indians carry him off, and give him a good whooping to help him on his way. White Eagle (Dark Cloud), who is Silver Fawn’s love, finds his friend Gray Fox beaten up out on the trail. Gray Fox tells White Eagle to go and bring Wild Flower to him – it seems that Mabel is about to have her first of many elopements. Unfortunately, White Eagle and Wild Flower are spotted making their way through the woods to Gray Fox, and the other Indians, including Silver Fawn, come to the wrong, but logical, conclusion. Silver Fawn grabs a big knife and sets out to get her rival (viewers will note that it is usually Mabel that grabs a knife). She locates Wild Flower on top of a cliff, and jumps her, but doesn’t realise its Madcap Mabel, who fends off her wild swing with the knife. A tussle follows, and Wild Flower falls from the cliff into the river. End of? No not really, for although the river is a raging torrent, Mabel is the Water Nymph, and stays afloat long enough to be rescued by Gray Fox in his canoe. This particular scene is quite dangerous, for the cliff face, which is jagged, is not sheer but sloping. This meant that Mabel had to give a good shove, outwards, to avoid the jagged rocks below. If she’d missed her footing we would never have heard of Keystone Mabel. Now, in Gray Fox’s canoe, we see, I believe, the first time that Mabel goes completely limp, as she slumps into the canoe. Going completely limp is a big deal, for as the Keystone girl, she would do this many times, when knocked out by Fatty Arbuckle, or when she swoons (females were expected to swoon, back in the day). No other actress, not Gloria Swanson, not Louise Fazenda, ever managed to carry this off like Mabel – it does, naturally, require trust in your fellows i.e. they could fail to catch Gloria, but let the Queen of Keystone fall? Unthinkable!
In an ordinary film this would be the end, but although Wild Flower and Silver Fawn make up, the picture takes a new turn. A rival tribe of Indians are attacking the Mabel tribe, and she, of course, leads the counter-attack. No Third Cavalry is required, as Mabel takes the initiative, while Gray Fox becomes paralysed with fear. The incipient Keystone Girl, as we all understand, knows no fear. While her brave holds his head in his hands in despair, Mabel leaps from their canoe, a dagger between her teeth. She swims through the rapids, and finding the attackers’ canoes, she dives underwater, in order to slash the bottoms out of the craft. Mabel makes her way back to her friends, and they paddle off into the sunset, as their rivals’ canoes, along with their crews, sink slowly to the bottom of the Neversink. The final scene is typically Griffith, with Mabel and Claire looking very smug, as their braves paddle them away.
Conclusions on the film.
The first thing to say is that the picture is very difficult to follow, as indeed, many Griffith films are. More intertitles could be used. Mabel delights, as usual, whether or not she makes a good Indian., The final part might have been dreamed up by Mabel herself, as indeed the cliff fight might well have been. The film followed on shortly after ‘The Diving Girl’, making Mabel the all-action girl to the world. However, she was also all-action to the Biograph people, and it seems that it was out in Cuddebackville that the girl from Staten Island began to be known for her thrilling and reckless deeds, as well as the one to get any party going. The legend of the Keystone Girl began right there, in Cuddebackville.
The Man Who Invented Hollywood: The Autobiography of D.W. Griffith. Edited and Annotated By James Hart. 1972.
When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925).
Personalities I Have Met: Mabel Normand. By Mary Pickford. Syndicated article, July 1916.
New Year’s Eve On The Train. By Mary Pickford. Syndicated article, July 1916.
Much has been made of the Keystone film ‘Mabel At The Wheel’. Charlie Chaplin devotes no less than four pages of his autobiography to the movie, and, indeed, it forms, along with ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’ the foundation of the legend of The Tramp. Richard Attenborough (deliberately?) misread the Chaplin story, and painted Mack Sennett and Mabel as dimwits that had to bow before the greater genius of Charles Spencer Chaplin. Is there any truth in the long-running saga of the tramp, and what, if any, is the significance of the film ‘Mabel At The Wheel’? Let’s dissect the evidence and find out.
What was Mabel At The Wheel?
There are several reasons why this film was significant and important for the Keystone studio, as well as its star, Mabel Normand (ignore the later star role credits to Chaplin). The immediate trigger for the film was probably the announcement that French Comedy film-makers, Pathe, now had a U.S. arm that was about to produce a series of films, starring stage star Pearl White. ‘The Perils of Pauline’ would follow the adventures of a debutante known as Pauline, and Pauline would be a kind of ingenue, but one that wages a war on villains, lechers and assorted ne’er-do-wells. Keystone undoubtedly viewed this as a direct assault on their own all-action ingenue, Keystone Mabel. Certainly, the inner circle of Keystone went into a deep conference – would Pauline steal their audience? Keystone could not take the risk, they had to respond. In the event, Pauline would create her own, completely new audience, comprising those that considered themselves above the Keystone, blue-collar nonsense. However, in March 1914, Keystone was “scairt” as Mack Sennett would say. As for Mabel, she, perhaps, suffered a few sleepless nights.
We have mentioned the inner circle of Keystone, and this includes the company shareholders beyond Mack Sennett – Adam Kessell, Charles O. Baumann, and Thomas Ince. Kessell and Baumann were the New York big-shots that provided the funding that allowed Keystone to be created in 1912. Now, they would have to dig deep to fund something that would take the fight to Pathe, and no doubt, tears flowed and violins played, as they reached deep into their moth-ridden pockets. The reply to Pauline would be no less than a two-reeler, and would present Mabel, full-on, as a girl motor-racer, and a champion for fair play, all whilst maintaining her position as the eternal ingenue. This was a tall order, but the entire resources of the studio were brought together for this one two-reel film, and a two-reeler, we can be assured, was a big deal back in those mean, barrel-scraping days.
A Tramp in Santa Monica.
Miss Mabel Normand was the allotted director for this film, and, as we have seen, she had her whole career resting on this one picture. Furthermore, she had, it seems, been pushing for such a film for at least a year. Her talents had not been taxed since her days with D.W. Griffith, excepting, perhaps, in ‘Mabel’s Dramatic Career’, but then only lightly. Did Sennett gather his cohorts around and brief them as to the significance of this one picture? Most likely he did, and there were probably some glum faces. Actors used to leading roles, would have to eat humble pie and play roles as ‘atmosphere’. To an extent, one of these was Mr Charlie Chaplin. In a series of short films, he’d gained a reputation as ‘The Tramp’. The tramp was a kind of scruffy, Mack Sennett-style character, who had a certain, odd walk that would take the world by storm. Chaplin, of course, was a knock-about comic, who played a drunk for many years in the English Music Hall, and the essence of the tramp is ‘the drunk’ – for the former is invariably (or appears to be) inebriated. Chaplin had been trained in acrobatics and prat falls, by the originator of slapstick, Music Hall impresario Fred Karno. He had, we know, played in the legitimate theatre as an extra to the ‘greats’ such as Marie Doro, billed as ‘the most beautiful girl in the world’. Too often, though, he was told that he ‘stank’ and his lifeline was to be Fred Karno and his troupe of slapstickers.
During the previous two months at Keystone, Charlie had learned to live without direct contact with the Queen of the studio, Mabel Normand. For certain reasons, Mabel had shut him out, following their film ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’. Now, he was supposed to support his Queen in a film in which he was cast as a villain, wearing a villain’s top-hat and frock coat. Furthermore, he had to suffer the ignominy of appearing in a film that had no hero, but a heroine. Down on location in Santa Monica, Charlie was shocked to find Mabel behind the camera, directing, and she soon started barking orders at him. Charlie offered up some gag about a hose, and in the film ‘Chaplin’, Dicky Attenborough gives Mabel the line:
“Charlie, this is not a film about being funny with a hose.”
In all probability, she did say something of that sort, for, in truth, this was not a film about being funny with a hose. By way of explanation, we might say that Mabel pictures, where she had some control, were not like Chaplin, Keaton, or even Lloyd films. The three comedians, in essence, linked gags together to form a complete picture. We might make the later Chaplin a slight exception, for reasons we will see later. In brief, Mabel’s apprenticeship under D.W. Griffith had given her a wider view of film-making, which she sought to bring to her comedy. ‘Mabel At The Wheel’ had a narrative, and the narrative was that a girl’s racing driver boyfriend is kidnapped by a villain (Chaplin), and she takes the drive and wins the race. “Preposterous!” screamed Charlie, we might imagine. “A girl driving a race car – Never!” The sulking tramp, then went on strike, causing the crew and cast to congregate in a murmuring group. As Chaplin tells it, they were proposing to beat him to death, for having disrespected their Queen. However, Mabel stopped them, and as it was late afternoon, suspended shooting. Mack Sennett was furious that thirty minutes of filming was lost, and, we understand, telephoned Baumann, telling him that Chaplin was fired. There were not, however, in 1914, any long-distance telephone lines to New York, so how did Mack make the call? Fact is that, and here we deviate from Chaplin’s story, Baumann was in Los Angeles on business, although he did not go to Keystone.
Supporting evidence for this, comes from the fact that Ada Baumann had a role in ‘Mabel At The Wheel’, and the Baumanns always travelled as a family – expense account holidays, perhaps. We can assume that Chaplin also complained to Baumann, and that Baumann contacted his daughter, to get the full story. Baumann’s decision was that Chaplin would not be fired, but would complete the picture without fuss (i.e. do as he was told). Consequently, the picture was completed, and no animals or humans were harmed. Sennett was put in his place, as was Chaplin, but Mabel now thought she could work with the tramp. The following pictures were unlike any Keystones Mabel had done before. She became very dramatic and tragic, but in some of them, she indulges in more slapstick than ever before. “Was this a quid pro quo situation?” We might well ask. Possibly it was, with Chaplin happy to oblige Mabel with the dramatics, and Mabel happy to help out with the slapstick.
That, then, is the story behind ‘Mabel At The Wheel’ and Charlie and Mabel were to collaborate on a further nine pictures that year. Pauline and her perils never did knock Keystone off its perch, but, just in case, Mabel’s next role was as a debutante in ‘Caught In A Cabaret’ alongside Charlie Chaplin.
Further Notes on The Film.
The race-track scenes were shot at the actual Santa Monica races, although some of the grandstand scenes were shot at the studio. The paved road driving scenes are thought to have been shot also in Santa Monica, but this is not necessarily the case (in the film ‘Chaplin’ Attenborough places the race in an orange grove — strange guy!). The Santa Monica races were run almost entirely on oiled dirt roads, and took in San Vincente Boulevard, Ocean Avenue, and Wilshire Boulevard.
There has been much speculation, as to who drove the race car in the film, Mabel or someone called Fay Tincher. In some publicity shots, the cast includes Fay, who is wearing a race helmet and goggles. This might suggest that Fay, who looked slightly similar to Mabel, did the driving, but from the film this is not at all clear. The driver does, indeed, look a little different to Mabel, and we can only introduce a little logic here in order to force a decision. Does it make sense for Mabel to be driving the car? Well, Mabel directed and acted in the film, which is a tall order at any time. Given that, would Mabel (plus the Keystone partners) be keen to waste, perhaps, a day or more, driving around in circles on a suburban road? The answer is clearly no, especially when we consider that Mabel was just about the movie industry’s top earner at the time (somewhere between $250 and $500 a week). $40 a week was big money for the average actress and extras made $5 a day. Fay’s career almost followed Mabel’s, as she was first signed by D.W. Griffith to play vamps, before moving on to comedy. In the picture below, Fay seems a bit shorter than Mabel, but a little more robustly built.
Ada Baumann only appeared in this one film, which might make us wonder if she was not a ‘plant’ sent by Baumann to keep an eye on things. At the bottom of all the shenanigans seems to be the fact that Chaplin was Kessell and Baumann’s ‘man’ i.e. they (rather than Sennett) signed him, and they would stipulate what Chaplin did or didn’t do. If this was the case, then it follows that Chaplin had a kind of licence to do what he wanted, but bearing in mind that Sennett had a big baseball bat. It further follows that Mabel might have used that licence for her own advantage, for, as we have already said, she most certainly put on the agony and the style in those pictures with Chaplin. This, of course, all ended with Chaplin’s departure from Keystone.
Just for interest value, Mabel, in an interview, told the following tale about the making of ‘Mabel At The Wheel’. Sennett asked Chaplin if he’d ever ridden a motorcycle. Chaplin replied in the affirmative. However, he had only ever ridden a bicycle, and when the time came to shoot, they put Charlie on the motor-bike, and Mabel hopped on behind. Charlie then roared off totally out of control, and went into a one hundred yard speed wobble. Finally the machine looped — the Queen of The Movies was cast into a ditch, and Charlie, entangled with the machine, skated on for another fifty yards. Once the crew had pulled the bedraggled Mabel from the ditch, they set about extricating the mortal remains of Charlie from a very bent motorcycle. It’s a good story but not necessarily a true one (although we might rather hope that it is true).
Here are some unusual (for Mabel) slapstick scenes that appear in ‘Mabel At The Wheel’:
Bright, young thing, Mabel, is enticed into riding on the back of the suave Chaplin’s Thor-4 motorcycle, but they don’t go far, before Mabel falls off the bike, and into a big muddy puddle. Her Parisian ensemble seems ruined, but no matter, it went on to be ‘ruined’ by several other Keystone actresses in the future. The person who actually falls off the bike is not the loose-jointed Mabel, but seemingly a man (stuntman). Alternatively, was it our robust friend, Fay Tincher? Very muscular was Fay, compared with “very feminine” (as Mary Pickford once said) Mabel. Another reason why it might have been Fay, hurling that monster car around in ‘At The Wheel’.
Charlie and Mabel try to disfigure each others physiognomy in a brick throwing contest. Paul Merton (Birth of Hollywood series) claims that Chaplin gives as good as he gets, but watch the clip below and see what you think.
Charlie and Mabel start another duel, this time using pins to stab each other. Not very funny, you might think, but, as always it’s not what Mabel does, but the way she does it. Watch her eyes, and her very natural reactions (I mean in the film, and not particularly in the clip below).
Unusually, no motor-racing stars appear in this picture, although Sennett always tried to get them involved. Perhaps, Mabel did not want Oldfield, Tetzlaff, or Cooper, stealing her scenes, which, if true, shows what a tightrope Sennett, Kessell, and Baumann were walking, during the making of this picture.
King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).
Mabel Normand: A Source Book to her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006)
The Keystone company utilised a large number of locations in and around Los Angeles, as a backdrop to their pictures. The following is a random selection of locations used in the films of Mabel Normand, as well as some pictures important in her life.
The two clips above, show the same place. The left-hand picture, from ‘Mabel’s Adventures’ and featuring a cross-dressed Mabel, depicts the northern side of the Selig studio on Allesandro Street, Edendale. The picture on the right shows what seems to be the same place, but two years later in ‘Tillie’s Punctured Romance’. If this is the same place, then the small shrubs of 1912 have become rampant vines. Barely visible in the first picture is a mass of dirty water by the curb (or kerb as Mr. Chaplin would say). This reminds us that the major L.A. thoroughfares ran in the valleys between the hills, so that during heavy downpours, the rainwater would rush down the hillsides, and fill up the road. Hence, the high curbs seen here, and all over Los Angeles. In 1914, flooding caused $500-million worth of damage across the city, although mostly caused by the un-canalised Los Angeles river. Proof that it does rain in California, can be seen in the Keystone picture ‘Between Showers’ made on a flooded Wilshire Boulevard.
Above: Another studio, this time Keystone, just a couple of blocks away from Selig. The left picture comes from ‘Mabel’s Adventures’ and shows a bungalow (perhaps Mabel’s dressing room) to Mabel’s right and the old grocery store that Keystone used as the front office is behind her. The right hand picture is from ‘That Ragtime Band’ and shows Mabel in front of the ‘grocery store’. The bungalow cannot really be seen here, but the house in the background is farther away than it appears. The building now has a blind, but is that a washing line behind Mabel? There is also a gate behind her, and a fence has also made an appearance, perhaps the one that Chaplin described as being green, in his autobiography. Chaplin states that the studio entrance, in 1914, was via a gate, and up a garden path, then through a bungalow, which kind of fits in with what we see in the second picture. The bungalow and the office appear in so many Keystone pictures that it is impossible to quantify them.
Above: Left, Mabel makes like Lillian Russell, outside the Hollywood Hotel in ‘Tillie’s Punctured Romance’. Right, still doing the stage-star bit outside the Raymond Hotel in Pasadena for ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’. The clientele of the ‘Hollywood’ can be said to have had rather thin wallets, but those of the Raymond had enough cash to fill a railway car. Pasadena, of course, was a 1910s resort for multi-millionaires, Presidents and Rockefeller-types, while the Hollywood Hotel even admitted (shock, horror) movie people. The scene outside the Raymond was shot, when Mack and Mabel were on location in early 1914, but the scene might not have been shot specifically for ‘Strange Predicament’. Keystone often toured the countryside, shooting random scenes that they could use in their pictures. Why Mabel is wearing a dress, in the second scene, that is at least forty years out of date, is a question that can no longer be answered.
A little distant from Los Angeles, but the picture on the left shows Mabel’s childhood home on Staten Island. On the right, Mabel is fourteen and seemingly dreaming of stardom. The house was owned by the Retired Seamen’s Home in New Brighton, that was Mabel’s father’s employer. Father, Claude, was entertainments manager at the home, and we might suspect that Mabel’s interest in acting was inspired by her father’s employment.
Around the campfire at Big Bear Lake, San Bernardino National Park, during the making of ‘Mountain Bred, better known as ‘Mickey’, in 1916. Centre is Mabel, surrounded by the cast, including George ‘Pops’ Nichols, director F. Richard Jones, and Indian squaw ‘Minnie Haw Haw’. The San Bernardino area became very popular for making outdoor pictures, and particularly westerns.
San Bernadino railway station before it burnt down in 1916. This was a commonly used entry and exit point for the Hollywood stars. The fifty mile drive out to San Bernadino, avoided the press men and photographers that plagued the Los Angeles station. The replacement for the old station was built in the revivalist missionary style.The right hand picture shows Mabel, apparently, at San Bernadino. The spray of flowers might confirm this was San Bernardino, as it was customary for the local community to garland those arriving at the station.
Salt Lake City railway station, New Year 1915, and Mabel drinks a “So long” toast to Mack Sennett. From left: Al St. John, Roscoe Arbuckle, an unknown, Mabel and Minta Arbuckle. Right: Mabel gets a ‘snow pie’ in the face from Fatty. The purpose of this journey east was to make films at the ‘Triangle’ company’s studio in Fort Lee, NJ and to highlight that new company’s presence in the movie world. The company had returned by March 1916, minus Mabel, who refused to come back to Los Angeles. She remained in New York, until Triangle had formed the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, and Mack Sennett had handed over his new Hollywood studio for Mabel’s own personal use (the story is a little more complicated, but that will do for now).
Did you know that Fatty and Mabel were one of the first couples to have a Malibu beach home? The scene, above left, comes from ‘Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1915) and was shot at Castle Rocks, on the road to Malibu. The shot on the right is taken from directly above where the house (or shack) stood, and the largest rock in the picture was eventually blown up, as it was “in the way.” Roscoe and Minta Arbuckle did have a beach house in Santa Monica, where Mabel would stay at weekends. Eventually, she came to think she was intruding, and bought her own house, just up the beach. It’s an interesting fact that many actors moved out to Santa Monica, as property was cheaper, to rent or buy, than in downtown or suburbs like Hollywood. Furthermore, there were signs in Hollywood boarding house windows that announced “No dogs, No actors!”
Doug Pullen makes an appointment with the barrier at ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ during the Santa Monica Road Races in 1914, after a front wheel breaks away. Right: Mabel extricates herself from her crashed car in the same year, at another section of the track in the film ‘Mabel At The Wheel’. Pullen has just turned off of Ocean Drive and onto Wilshire Boulevard (believe it or not!). The curve he crashes on was known as ‘Deadman’s Curve’ although nobody ever died there. Mabel’s car appears to be a Stutz, and not the 14-litre Fiat race car that her producer Mack Sennett owned. It was during the making of ‘Mabel At The Wheel’ that Charlie Chaplin went on strike, when his ego was dented, by the discovery that the film did not have a hero, but a heroine. As Charlie recalled in his autobiography, he barely escaped with his life, as the crew were proposed to beat the tramp to death for disrespecting their Queen.
Still on the motor racing theme, demon driver, ‘Terrible’ Teddy Tetzlaff, scares the hell out of Mabel, although the car cannot be moving, as the drive chain that Mabel is clutching at, would have quickly snipped off her trim digits (Publicity Still). Right: A happier moment, when Teddy whisks fashion-queen Mabel away from an arranged marriage with his racing opponent, Earl Cooper (Speed Kings 1913). An interesting choice in hat adornment.
The scene at left comes from the Biograph picture ‘The Squaw’s Love’ of 1911. The scene depicts a knife fight between Indian squaw Mabel and a love rival. This is an early film in which Mabel begins to daredevil. The setting is a bluff above the Neversink river, at Cuddebackville, New York State. Director D.W. Griffith utilised a number of scenic locations in both NYS and New Jersey, between 1907 and 1913. Mabel, of course, became noted for her fearlessness in action scenes, prompting Mary Pickford to later write: “There was no bucking bronco so wild that she would not ride it, no water so deep that she would not dive into it, and no cliff so high, she would not dive off it.”
The picture on the right is a frame from ‘Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life’. It is a rural scene, perhaps shot on the Keystone lot. So many of Mabel’s films were shot in the countryside that her audience must have wondered where this place was. A few might have known it was California, but many would have believed that somewhere there was this real-life hyperactive milk maid, who was always getting herself into crazy fixes. Perhaps some believed that this was their own Russian Steppe, Australian outback, or American mid-west. It could be anywhere, and, strange as it might seem, this could even have been Sunset Boulevard, before it became totally urbanised.
Above, in a publicity still for ‘Susanna’ is Mabel with her favourite director, F. Richard Jones. Jones directed all of Mabel’s big feature films, ‘Mickey’, ‘Molly O’, Suzanna, and ‘Extra Girl’. He also supervised her films for the Roach studio. This shot is taken out on the lonesome trail, somewhere, perhaps in the scrub desert area around Baldwin Lake, close to San Bernardino. Mabel’s last feature film, though, was partially directed and written by Stan Laurel (yes, really!) but supervised by Jones. Apparently, according to Mrs D.W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford, there was no bucking bronco too wild that Mabel would not ride it. Mabel appeared in westerns for the Kalem company and Biograph, but never starred in them, and yes, she was crazy about old Spanish California.
Mack Sennett, Mabel and F. Richard Jones at the premiere of Molly O’ which took place at the Mission Theatre, on Broadway, Los Angeles. The Mission was owned by Mack Sennett, who had recently refurbished the place in a Spanish style. This theatre was one of Sennett’s early tycoon projects, his last being the Hollywoodland development with its Hollywood sign, which helped him into bankruptcy.
The timber, and roofless, building above is 1215 Bates Avenue, Los Angeles. In 1916 it was the home of the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company. Today they call it The Mack Sennett Studio, as you can in the right hand photo, showing Beyonce leaving the building after completing a music video. The longest side of the triangular-shaped building fronts onto Fountain Avenue, which leads, in 150 yards up to the Fine Arts Studio of one D.W. Griffith, one-time mentor to Mabel Normand. Current owner, Jesse Rogg, claims that Mabel still walks those hallowed boards, and her life-size portrait hangs in the foyer.
In the photo above, we see the Ship Cafe in Venice. The left hand picture dates from c.1906, while the right hand picture features Mabel in Venice with the Ship and dancehall in the background. The scene is clearly staged with a painted backdrop, and Mabel appears to be wearing her ‘Oh Those Eyes’ costume, which dates this as 1912, when the Biograph company were in California. This backdrop might have been a standard tourist prop, rather than a Biograph-contrived scene. The Ship Cafe was placed in Venice by Baron Long in 1905. Baron Long, as many will know, was also responsible for the Vernon Country Club, Hawaiian Village, and the Sunset Inn, as well as a racetrack down in Tijuana, Mexico. Curiously, the Ship owned the Biltmore Hotel L.A. Baron Long had been an actor, so he had some affection for the acting fraternity, and the ship became an atmospheric meeting place for the Hollywood crowd. As we might expect, prices at the Ship were a little higher than those seen on cafe menu boards in Keystone films, although the latter are always low-class joints. The Ship, a mock Spanish galleon, burned down and disappeared for good in 1946.
Above are two houses owned by Mabel. Left is her pueblo-style house at 526 Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, bought in 1925. Right is the Gothic-style house that Mabel bought for her parents in 1920, at 125 St. Marks Place, St. George’s on Staten Island. Both were architect designed, and in both cases, Mabel purchased them from the owners that commissioned them, within a year of their erection. The Beverly Hills house is currently valued at $10-million, while the Staten Island house is valued at one-million. The Staten Island house is much larger than it looks, as it goes back a long way from the street frontage. Furnishings and decorations in the Beverly Hills house were heavy and Edwardian, nay Victorian, which surprised press men when they visited — they’d expected to find a place that was very art deco in style. Although the Staten Island house is virtually unchanged, the Beverly Hills house now has a pitched roof, so the flat Spanish job clearly gave problems. Lastly, the proud owners of the St. Marks house have posted photos of the interior of the house, and they say that on some dark nights, if you listen carefully, you can hear a cane tapping up the garden path — Charlie Chaplin come to visit? A tall story, perhaps, but a good one, nonetheless.
The impressive abode of one Alla Nazimova, a famous stage and movie actress, and close friend of Mabel Normand. Mabel was a keen swimmer, but her pool was very small, and not very private. For these reasons, she could often be found in the almost Olympic-sized pool in Alla’s garden. From late 1924, Mabel could be found more and more in Alla’s garden, as she coached Mabel in voice projection, for her upcoming national stage tour, which had been organised by movie and theatre guy, Al Woods.. During this time, Mabel bought the Beverly Hills house, then, in October 1925, she abandoned the place to begin the tour, taking her private nurse, Julia Benson, and Alla with her. Alla returned to L.A. fairly soon, but Julia saw it through. The play, The Little Mouse’, played to packed house, but was lampooned by the critics, so that it never made it to Broadway. However, it was a money spinner, and some claim Mabel made three million, which is difficult to believe, but she might have collected a million, with Woods possibly pocketing twice that. The whole thing seems to been a money-making exercise, as Mabel’s voice was too slight for her to have ever been successful in the theatre. Mabel was still collecting royalties from her last three feature films, but an extra million or so, would make a nice pension, should she never work again. Clearly, she could continue to avoid marriage, being of independent means. Wedlock seems to have been the only thing she ever feared, but, paradoxically, being flush with cash, eventually made her a target for movie gigolos and gold-diggers.
Above we see a scene depicting the massive refurbishing of Keystone in March 1915. Mack Sennett and big boss Adam Kessell keep a firm hold of Mabel, with Ford Sterling far right. Mabel’s last attendance at Keystone is often believed to have been in late 1923, but she last set foot on its Poverty Road boards on May 14th 1926. The occasion was recorded by rising star, Ruth Taylor, in her diary published in the 1940s. Here’s what she wrote:
“Who do you think came to see us today. Why I can’t hardly believe it yet. Mabel Normand herself. She was all they around here told me she would be. They acted like the Queen had come.”
It seems ‘the legend’ had survived the scandals. We know that Mack Sennett had planned a big feature film, and Mabel was there to negotiate a contract relevant to the picture. It seems, though, that the film was for the glorification of Mack himself, and Mabel, and several other stars, turned The KIng down. It was then that Mabel, unexpectedly, signed for Mack’s opposition, Hal Roach. Something else unexpected happened. Mabel upped and married movie ‘clothes horse’ Lew Cody.
Above, 1926 Left: Newly-weds Lew and Mabel. Right: Mabel and Dick Jones surprised outside the Roach studio. Although Mabel was becoming very sick at this time, she was not so sick that she could not work. She did, however, have support from her private nurse, Julia Benson, who seems to be just behind Dick and Mabel in the right-hand picture, judging by the distinctive raincoat and hat that she wore during 1925/6. Dick Jones was Roach’s supervisor at the time, although Mabel was directed by someone whose name has become synonymous with film comedy — Stan Laurel. It appears, though, that Dick got a little too involved with Mabel’s direction, much to Hal Roach’s annoyance, we might guess. Hal never got the chance to bawl Dick and Mabel out, as Mabel brought droves of girl friends and wannabe actresses to the studio, that followed Hal around, hurling insults at him, whenever he appeared. Mabel termed Hal “The thick-necked Mick” and the producer later recalled that Mabel was “The dirtiest talking girl you ever heard.”
A poignant last photo of Charlie Chaplin and Mabel, together in 1928. Back in the day, they’d been bright young things, but one would pass on within eighteen months of this photo, while the other would go not a little crazy. After a year of ill-health, Mabel was back around town around again in this picture, and trying to look as fit as a butcher’s dog, going by her bared breast. Towards the end of the year, Mabel made a short film, on the set of MGM’s ‘Our Dancing Daughters’ which was the big picture of that year. Said to have been a private film, we might suspect that this was a test for a possible move to MGM.
In spite of Mabel being good friends with MGM president, Louis B. Mayer, nothing came of the new career. Although it had been a good year for Mabel on the publicity and social front, by early 1929, she was already suffering from severe respiratory problems. In September, she was admitted to the Pottenger sanitorium on Monrovia. Only Julia Benson and Lew Cody saw Mabel during her lengthy confinement at the establishment. The announcement of her death in late February 1930, came as a shock to Hollywood. Obituaries could be read by the ton, many poignant, like those of Charlie Chaplin and Will Rogers.
The above photo (left) was taken outside the chapel of Cunningham and O’Connor, 1031 South Grand Avenue LA, at the funeral of Mabel Normand. Mabel lies here at the Calvary Mausoleum, Boyle Heights, Los Angeles.
Above shows the opening of the Mabel Normand Soundstage at the Republic (now CBS) studio in Studio City, L.A. in 1940 Unveiling the 300-pound bronze plaque are William Farnham, Mack Sennett and Judy Canova. Around 1,000 stars, young and old, attended the opening party, and, in good Keystone Girl style, much liquor was dispensed by white-coated barmen, from the 100-feet of bar. Visits to the sound stage are by appointment only — there are no regular tours.
This has been just a quick tour of Mabel locations. How many Staten Islanders will know that 125 St. Mark’s Place was the home of Mabel’s family. The current owner does, but when Jesse Rogg bought Mabel’s studio on Fountain Avenue, he’d had no idea of her connection with the place. Many people believe that Mabel worked at Sennett’s Studio City establishment, but the truth is that she never set foot on the lot. The owner of 526 Camden Drive, Beverly Hills probably wonders why so many people stop and photograph that house’s facade.
The Keystone studio was a very strange beast indeed, but its inception was even more strange. However, the new company’s almost immediate transference, from New York to the far west, makes this a most fascinating story. Here’s that story, but, as usual, we must first set out some background.
The original company of the Keystone studio comprised of Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, Henri ‘Pathe’ Lehrman and Fred Mace. All of these were characters that had been part of the Biograph stock company, then making comedy films at 11 East Fourteenth Street, in Manhattan, New York. The odd one out here is Mabel Normand, who was simultaneously making dramatic films, under Biograph’s movie genius, D.W. Griffith. Strange, indeed, is the fact that Mabel gave any credence whatsoever, to the idea of throwing in a good dramatic career, for a doubtful one with a company possessing few actors, one camera, no studio, and virtually no money. The prevailing conclusion has been that Mabel was madly in love with Mack, and would have followed him to the ends of the earth. Total nonsense, of course, and there is no evidence that this was the case. The real answer is more interesting, and a little more complicated.
Biograph Studio 1912.
In 1922, when Mrs D.W. Griffith wrote her seminal book on the movie industry, ‘When The Movies Were Young’ she indicated that the Biograph studio was a happy, almost egalitarian paradise. Egalitarian, yes, to an extent, but the players were fiercely competitive, although, they avoided the ‘swollen cranium syndrome’ said to have afflicted the first U.S. film star, Florence Lawrence. In 1912, there were three actresses that were greatly utilised by D.W. Griffith: Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand and Blanche Sweet. Mary was a dyed-in-the-wool stage actress, and very experienced. Mabel had simply wandered into the studio from the street, but had quickly made progress, and during a spell elsewhere, had become a comedy star, which stood her in good stead, when back at Biograph. In dramatic pictures, she played vamps as well as bad and tragic women. Silken-haired Blanche had the potential to outdo any of her contemporaries, and was popular with Griffith, as an example of feminine innocence. However, she blew hot and cold, and could be surly with the director. Both Mary and Blanche were mentally, verbally, and physically abused by Griffith, who saw no reason not to knee a girl off the stage, call her “too fat” or throw her at the wall, if she did not perform as he liked. There is no indication that Griffith ever laid violent hands upon Mabel, but then Mabel was very physical herself, and her cutting and vicious invective (not to mention her evil stare) was said to reduce the strongest of men to a quivering jelly. In other words, it was best not to upset her. These actresses, and some others, had made a pact that they would never disrespect each other, or allow Griffith to work up ridiculous levels of competition between them. This operated reasonably well, until DWG decided that he wanted a girl in a grass skirt to star in ‘Man’s Genesis’. Mary turned the part down, on the grounds that it would harm her image as the eternal ingenue. Both Mabel and Blanche came out in sympathy with Mary, and for exactly the same reason. In a fit of rage, Griffith handed the part to the young and untrained Mae Marsh, who the genius tutored to star in ‘Genesis’ and the following ‘Sands of Dee’. Here then, began the legend that Griffith had taken little Mae from the street to stardom in a single day. The other girls blackballed Mae, and began plotting to vacate the studio for greener pastures elsewhere. Mabel was gone by the summer, but Mary continued until the Fall, leaving Blanche behind to fight it out with new arrivals, the Gish sisters.
Mack Sennett Gets Started.
Mack Sennett had walked through the Biograph door in 1907, at just about the same moment as D.W. Griffith. However, although DWG rose up through the ranks, Sennett did not move far. Regarded as a buffoon and a clumsy oaf by the generality of actors, he could not penetrate the adoring circle surrounding the pretty and popular new girl, Mabel Normand, when she arrived in 1910. Shortly thereafter, the company left for their annual sojourn out west, leaving non-stage actors, including Mabel, behind. Out west, in Los Angeles, Mack was not idle, but making contact with New York movie big-shots, Kessell and Baumann, then in L.A. as they organised their new cowboy picture company, Bison. K and B heard Sennett out, and even nodded politely, at his ideas for comedies based around cops and plug-hatted gents being kicked in the derriere. They were, they told Sennett, too busy on other projects at the moment, to consider a comedy unit, but look them up again in about six months. This was what Mack wanted. He now had six months to gather the wherewithal, in order to impress the wide-boys. Then, a bit of luck. While ensconced with other Biograph people in a cinema in downtown L.A., he became aware of a pretty little comedienne playing alongside comedian John Bunny in a Vitagraph picture. He rubbed his eyes – “My God, it’s Mabel!” He looked around, and saw Mary, Blanche and everyone else jabbering away excitedly “It’s Mabel, it’s Mabel!” Indeed, it was Mabel – she’d damned well made it, that’s what she’d done.
That night, Mack discussed the picture, ‘Troublesome Secretaries’ with his room-mate, Del Henderson. Del thought the film great, and Mabel superb. Should Mack contact her, about his ideas, and the tentative contact with K and B? Del thought he was wasting his time. The offers were probably already flooding to her door, and Kessel and Baumann would have been in the vanguard. Mack spent the night composing a letter to Mabel, expressing his eternal love for her – he’d always loved her, he wrote, but with all the crowd surrounding her, he just could not get the words out. Then he copied out a silly poem from the L.A. Times, and added it as a postscript. What did Del think of the letter? He thought it ridiculous, but hell, it was worth a try. The letter was soon rattling its way to Vitagraph in Brooklyn, but in the meantime, Griffith had the dream lover hard at work. Imagine Mack’s surprise when he received the return letter from Mabel. She said she treasured his letter, and thought the poem to be the loveliest thing in the whole world. The future King of Comedy was over the moon, but he’d got a bit over-excited. One can imagine that his was one of hundreds of similar letters received by Vitagraph Betty, with the replies being worked over by a giggling Mabel and her equally giggling friend, Norma Talmadge. As with all the letters, Mabel signed Mack’s version “Your girl Mabel.” Who knows, perhaps Jack Pickford received one, or maybe, music hall man Charlie Chaplin and his understudy, Stan Laurel. Mabel’s secret to success was that she always, in letters, on the screen, or in real life, made a person feel like they were special, the only one.
Back in New York, Mack had a bit more luck. The comedy director at Biograph had fallen very sick, and Mack was given his job. Time now to expand his CV, by turning out some good comedies. He renewed his contacts with K and B, telling them to watch out for his pictures. Then, another stroke of luck. Mabel, it seems, had been fired by Vitagraph’s Quaker owners, for some pretty unladylike behaviour. A contact with Charles Baumann, resulted in her getting hired by their satellite studio, Reliance. However, Baumann had neglected to tell her that Reliance was about to be sold off, and by the time she got there, new management was in place. The new director soon pronounced Mabel to be crude and vulgar in her conduct, and dismissed her, after just four hours. Inevitably, Mabel ended up back at the door of D.W. Griffith, who happily re-hired her. By doing so, Mabel then fell, unwittingly, into the clutches of Mack Sennett. Mabel was getting leading dramatic parts, but Sennett intervened and demanded that Griffith share Mabel with him. Mabel would be the icing on his cake, when he presented that cake to Kessell and Baumann. Naturally, Mabel was a little resentful about being traded around like so much horse meat, but Mack began to ply her with diamonds, and when Mabel saw diamonds, something happened in her eyes. However, Mabel did not always accept the sparklers, and once threw a seventy-five dollar bracelet back at ‘The King’. His highness sold it on for eighty dollars in good Sennett style. If DWG was playing one actress off against another, then Mabel was playing her own game with the genius and the king. 1911 ended with Mabel having a whole bunch of dramatic and comedy films to her credit, and movie-goers knew her by name, as, although Biograph did not release actor’s names, she was recognised from her credited Vitagraph pictures. As usual, the entire Biograph company left, on New Year’s Eve, for California, where Mack had a meeting booked with Kessell and Baumann, concerning the new studio, and the transference of the old Bison lot, in Edendale, to what would become the Keystone company.
The choice of leaving date proved to be somewhat unfortunate, considering the nature of some of the men aboard, like Marshall Neilan and Owen Moore. That there would be some revelry was assured, and with a contingent of plug-hatted gents and old maids also aboard, there was certain to be conflict. The young Biograph girls would surely not be a problem, as they each had stage mothers, with the exception of one, Mabel Normand. In her newspaper column of 1916, Mary Pickford recalled the journey west and the company’s celebrations on the train. The toffs and old maids were not amused about these drunken celebrations, and were not enthralled with what they called “painted ladies” dressed in Parisian finery, running through the train. Most, far from being ladies, seemed to be just thirteen years of age, but how precisely did they make the money for those flouncy frocks? Mary gives no more information, but we might suspect that Mabel was the ring-leader, as she usually was. In fact, Blanche Sweet claimed that Mabel introduced her to cigarettes, cuss words, and strong spirits on that 5-day train ride – her corruption was, apparently, complete.
In the event, no-one died on the train, and no-one was arrested. After a couple of days, at the Alexandria Hotel, the actors moved out to digs, with DWG carefully placing his young girls with chaperones, and with Del Henderson and wife taking a large contingent, including, it appears, Mabel. Upon the late arrival of Mrs Pickford, Mary and several others moved in with her. In his autobiography, Mack claims that he remained at the Alexandria Hotel, but the costs would suggest otherwise, and he probably moved in with the Hendersons, as soon as there was room. Nonetheless, Mack began to meet with Kessell and Baumann, who were staying at the very plush Alexandria. He would, we might suspect, have brought Mabel along to meet the New York bosses, and it was probably here that Mabel first met Baumann’s daughter, Ada, a very physical girl, just like Mabel. Ada would go on to be a national figure-skating champion, and appear in the 1914 film, ‘Mabel At The Wheel’. It seems unlikely that Mabel was at more than one meeting, and she seems to have spent much of her spare time, with old friend and Kalem star, Alice Joyce. There seems to a suggestion that Mabel had not been told about the future move of Keystone from the mooted location of New York, to Edendale. Mabel would have declined any invitation to sign for Keystone, if she’d have known the location was a two-acre tip, in a run-down area of Los Angeles. For Sennett, naturally, his portfolio of films, many featuring Mabel, would have been his key to the door to Kessell and Baumann’s office, and success. Mabel, K and B probably considered, was no normal comedy actress, but one born of the drama studio of D.W. Griffith.
Sennett might have been disheartened that Griffith was now featuring Mabel in an increasing number of dramatic films. He made an attempt to corral and keep hold of her. This was difficult, for Mabel was now a legend in her own lifetime, not yet so much in the outside world, but within Biograph itself. Men fell at her feet, and became putty in her hands, while the girls, seeing her social success, wanted to befriend her, hoping something would rub off on them. The studio children ran naturally to her, as did any of the actresses that had any worries, making her, probably, the youngest agony aunt in history. “Mabel”, Said Mrs Griffith “Was generous to a fault.” Under these circumstances, Mack had little chance of getting her alone, or working on her psyche. Mabel wasn’t interested in money, but Mack knew that diamonds, furs and tufted limousines lit up her eyes. He’d probably worked out that Mabel wanted to take on the aura of a stage-star, like a motion picture version of Lillian Russell, who she’d undoubtedly seen at theatre opening nights on Broadway. Movie stars proper, clearly did not exist in those days, but, according to Mack, he told her this:
“Mabel, we’re going to be a success, and we’ll have so much money that we’ll drive around in a Pierce-Arrow limousine, firing diamonds at people from catapults.”
Mabel was dubious. Mack was a dreamer, a jerk, and a loser, according to most Biograph actors. However, she liked what he told her, and kept him on the back-burner, just in case. Eventually, the time came to return to 11 East Fourteenth Street, Mabel having several great films under her belt, and Mack ready to go on the Keystone project.
On The Streets in New York.
Soon after the return to NY, Mack confided to his group of actors that Keystone was a goer. The men jumped at the opportunity, but getting Mabel onboard would be difficult. He broached the subject carefully to Mabel, over a milk-shake on Fifth Avenue. He explained that Kessell and Baumann wanted her in their studio, and she should go to their Longacre office, where they’d explain the situation, and set out her salary. “I’m getting sixty-dollars a week” Said Mack “And I expect you to get seventy, or even eighty dollars.” Giving her no time for contemplation, he led Mabel to Longacre, where K and B welcomed her, and informed her of their offer of one-hundred-dollars a week. Mabel was flabbergasted, and fell silent, but Baumann immediately made a further offer of one-hundred-and-twenty-five dollars a week. Struck dumb, Mabel motioned for him to bring the pen and contract, and shakily signed on the bottom of the page. She’d hit the big time, and the whirl continued with a celebratory dinner at the plush Rector’s Restaurant. Mabel told her friends at Biograph that she was leaving Biograph, for a salary of above a hundred dollars a week. The actors were stunned, but many were dismayed. Mary Pickford, who’d made her own mistake with the nascent IMP company at an earlier time, begged Mabel not to go off with this crazy company, and the equally crazy Mack Sennett. Mary’s mother weighed in and said her piece, as did Blanche Sweet’s grandmother. Mabel, they told her, was in grave danger, going off with a bunch of madmen, and with no stage-mother or chaperone of any kind. There was, of course, some selfishness among the company, as Mabel had been a central point around which the fun revolved. Most came to understand though, that eventually they too would have to leave the highly restrictive Biograph studio, or go down with the ship that would clearly sink. Griffith himself, would leave not long after, but we can imagine that he was furious at losing his most able tragedienne to, of all people, Mack Sennett.
The Keystone company began to film out on the streets of New York, for they had no studio. One of the pictures they made was ‘At Coney Island’ which depicted a young girl caught up in events around the fairground. In Mack Sennett’s concept, the screen Mabel was the same as the real Mabel that the Biograph people knew so well. Very pretty, a good, agile mover, a little zany, and oh, so fickle. There was another aspect to Mabel, for she brought status and kudos to the new concern, being an actress from the Griffith stable. The evidence indicates that Mabel was promised dramatic roles in the future, once Keystone had established itself, and this would entirely explain why she gave up on her career under Griffith.
Away to Old Spain.
The time in New York did not last long, and if Mabel did not know the truth, then she soon discovered that the company was to move west, and into the now vacant Bison lot in Edendale. Arrangements to move west were complicated and difficult, especially if Mabel had decided she wanted out. There was another problem relating to Mabel. When Griffith moved Biograph west, he made careful arrangements for his actresses (average age 16) to be chaperoned. Parents and guardians had to sign an affidavit to the effect that they agreed with their charges being taken 3,000 miles to Los Angeles. Keystone, clearly, had no suitable chaperones, and by 1912, the Mann Act was in force, making it illegal for anyone to carry an underage (although not exclusively) female across state lines for immoral purposes. In many states underage meant under 21, and the movies could well be considered an ‘immoral purpose’. What to do then? Well, in his autobiography, Mack kind of tells us. He regales us with the the story, clearly false, that Mabel wanted to visit her parents on Staten Island, so Mack went along with her on the ferry. During the ‘voyage’ Mack presented her with a cheap engagement ring, took her into his arms and, in the moonlight, he kissed her. If this sounds a little familiar, then it ought to, for it is a scene straight out of a Keystone screenplay. What probably happened was that they had gone to Staten Island to obtain the parent’s blessing on their (fallacious) engagement, and their signatures on an affidavit. Mack was now clear to take Mabel to California. The bogus engagement, however, was to hang around their necks like an albatross, for the rest of their lives. Incidentally, the notion that Mabel would accept a paste engagement ring from a Woolworth’s store is patently ridiculous. If it wasn’t in a Tiffany’s box, then it would have been “So long, Buster” and we have seen that she’d already rejected a seventy-five dollar diamond bracelet.
On the train west, the Keystoners must have made an incongruous group — four greying middle-aged men and a seemingly thirteen-year-old girl. No doubt, any old maids on the train would have felt the lash of the Keystone Girl’s tongue, should they have made any unwarranted assertions. It seems, though, that the company made it far enough to receive their customary flower garlands at San Bernardino station, then it was onwards to L.A. and the Alexandria Hotel. As usual, the hotel was to be temporary, but we can imagine that Mabel fought tooth and nail to stay on. A movie star, which is what she most certainly thought herself to be, does not live in digs. Mack Sennett probably had the idea of moving into the squat-like bungalow on the Edendale lot — it was certainly cheap, and such a spider-infested squat, in Niles, was what Charlie Chaplin had in 1915, when he joined the Essanay company. Mabel had probably already realised that she was indispensible to Keystone, and no doubt demanded an apartment in a better area, such as Hollywood or Glendale. Then there was the plush limousine to waft her to and from the studio, along with the fur coat and latest Parisian-style hat, with plenty of fruit salad on top. This lady did not come cheap, and she intended to make herself as expensive as possible. There were, of course, the electric trollies running out to Edendale, but dangers awaited an actress travelling in public, and the public could recognise an actress at a hundred yards. Actresses weren’t exactly popular in Hollywood, Glendale, or Pasadena. The people of these places considered themselves a cut above, and they did not want actresses i.e. whores, walking their stuff around their neighbourhood. Many an actress was spat on while travelling by trolley, or had a handbag swung around their face, by a woman, thinking she was after her man. Beyond that, the general Los Angeles area had the highest homicide rate in the country during the 1910s.
If Mabel had her head full of the Spanish missions, senors and senoritas, then the ‘studio’ out on Allesandro Street, would have been a wake up call. Neither L.A.s Chinatown, nor Mexican quarter looked quite like this. After a full two years of operation, Charlie Chaplin described the place as follows:
“It was a dilapidated affair, with a green fence around it, one hundred and fifty feet square. The entrance to it was up a garden path, through an old bungalow — the whole place looked as anomalous as Edendale itself.” (which meant it looked like an old lumber or junk yard).
From: ‘Chaplin: My Autobiography’ (1964).
It made for a depressing sight, and to prevent Mabel from jumping the next train out, Mack offered part of the the bungalow as her star’s dressing room. He had the dressing room panelled off, and there was a connecting door to to the back of the bungalow, which later became the general female dressing room. However, the door was never closed, and soon, the stock company could be found in both sides of the house. The main thing here was that Mabel had set out the way it was going to be, thereafter. However, she did not have the famous marble ‘Cleopatra’ bath in those days, and everything was rudimentary, even the bath, which was one of those tin things, that hang behind doors in Keystone films. There was no sewage system, but a septic tank, although this was not fed by flushing toilets. Instead, a ‘pot boy’ collected up the numerous chamber pots and took them to the tank, twice daily. Municipal drainage had not arrived in those days, and the company headed for the hills (or hill) behind the studio, when the rains hit, causing the lot to become a lagoon. Most of the time, though, they chewed on the pervading and famous Los Angeles dust. In pursuit of the coveted electrical current, the company paid the city fathers the requisite eight hundred dollars, which ensured a hook-up would arrive in three to five years, but as it arrived at Keystone much sooner, we might suppose Mack slid the city clerk an accompanying wad. The electrical cabling would not support heaters, and there was only one place to find an oil stove, and that was in Mabel’s dressing room, which soon became a resort for everyone on cold mornings.
Well, we know Mabel stayed on, as she appeared in around forty films over the next year. By early 1913, the first articles began to appear, naming her as “The Queen of The Movies” which was wasn’t a bad place to be, although she would not become the Goddess Mabel for a few years. Her place in the pictures, show-cased Mabel, who mostly played the central pivot around which everything spun. A very clever use of her talents by Mack Sennett, and the actors played along with it, realising Mabel was their best advertisement. Beyond that, as Charlie Chaplin later said “She was light-hearted and gay, a good fellow, kind and generous, and everyone adored her.” Mabel, it seems came to terms with living in the wild west, and the fact that everyone doted on her (who were mostly men in the early days) probably helped, but the loss of her old friends probably hurt her more deeply than she let on. Later she would recall crawling into bed every night and crying herself to sleep. On balance, being driven meant that she was unlikely to throw in the towel, and run back east. The stage was now set for Keystone to flourish, although machinations back in New York, meant that stage actors would be regularly sent west to burst Mack and Mabel’s localised bubble, although stirring some deep emotions within Mabel.
We might imagine that Alice Joyce became Mabel’s rock, during these difficult early times. Alice was the first of those stars that we might call truly trans-continental, spending half the year in the east, and half in the west. The Biograph company arrived again in L.A. by early 1913, and we might suppose that the Keystone players renewed acquaintances with the Griffith crowd. It seems clear, however, that the legend of Mabel had survived her departure from Biograph, and some of the new actresses were keen to meet, or at least see, ‘The Legend’. Whether Dorothy Gish or Gertie Bambrick actually met Mabel, or merely viewed her from from across Levy’s Cafe, we do not know, but the pair were sufficiently impressed to decide they wanted to be Mabel. As Mrs Griffith later reported it, Dottie and Gertie slipped their chaperones, booked into a hotel, and made ready to hit the town. They were recaptured by D.W. Griffith and Del Henderson, several hours later, as they left a theatre. Mrs Griffith further relates that they were back with their chaperones in minutes, after hitching their skirts back up, to cover their bared midriffs. So, what was it that inspired the younger girls to worship Mabel? She was, clearly, unspeakably feminine, moved as though on wheels, and in a white sable, glittering with diamonds, swamped by a sea of admirers, she made a picture that was irresistible to wannabe actresses in the early 1910s. Doted on, for sure, by the Keystone actors, Mabel, contrary to what Andrew Slide said in his book ‘She Could Have Been Chaplin‘, was never given anything. Rather, she took what she wanted. There is a distinct and subtle difference.
This has been the story of the founding of the Keystone film company that was to become the home of the Keystone Kops, and the Bathing Beauties, but, in the early days, all had rested upon the shoulders of a small, dusky-eyed girl named Mabel Normand. Her journey through the next three-and-a-bit years would be both exhilarating and heart-breaking, culminating with the eventual severance with Keystone, although the final disconnect with Sennett did not occur until 1924.
Note on Mabel as ‘The Queen of The Movies’: Once this title had been bestowed by journalists, the Keystone studio began to utilise it in their regular briefs to the press. For instance, when Marie Dressler came to the studio, Mack Sennett released a whole plethora of nonsense about war breaking out between stage star Marie and Mabel Normand ‘The Queen of The Movies’. In 1914, Charlie Chaplin apparently directed the film ‘Queen Of The Movies’ in which Mabel played an opening cameo role. Unfortunately, the film has disappeared, but we do know that Mabel was cut from later releases (her cameo in Chaplin’s ‘The Masquerader’ is extant).
King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).
Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).
Sunshine and Shadowby Mary Pickford (1956).
When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925).
Mabel Normand’s Own Life Story by Chandler Sprague. Los Angeles Examiner (February 17, 1924)