BRIGHT LIGHTS & EASELS: MABEL IN MANHATTAN.

Dreams of stardom, 1905.

Mabel Normand, as everybody knows, lived out her early years on Staten Island. However, her spiritual home was across the water on Manhattan. The two places are vastly different, with Manhattan being a lively, brightly lit place, and Staten Island drearily suburban. It appears that Mabel found the place somewhat depressing, although it was probably there that she honed her horse-riding skills, and she wasn’t alone, for movie cowboy, William S. Hart, also learned to ride, not on the western range, but on Staten Island. Mabel also claimed that she acquired her aquatic skills on the island. This sounds like an idyllic life, especially as Mabel’s family circumstances were quite unlike those of the other later-to-be stars, like the Pickfords, and the Gishes, who squatted in crumby lodgings or railway stations, as they travelled the theatrical circuits, across the United States. Mabel resided in quite a nice house, in leafy New Brighton, where the neighbours partook of afternoon tea, and twitched the chintz curtains, often. From what we can gather, referring to what Mabel later said, she was not happy among all this suburbanism, although her father, Claude, was entertainments officer at The Home For Old Seaman. He organised plays for the ex-sailors, and it is highly likely that Mabel played some small part in them, or played the piano, at which she was, apparently, very good. She seems to have been happiest going off on the bike, which she stole from her brother, and swimming and diving in the Hudson river (it is said). Mabel stated, in later years, that she had few friends, most of whom were, in fact, her siblings’ friends. “Although I understood them, they did not understand me” Said the future Queen Bee. Something of a loner, then, and almost certainly a dreamer, dreaming of the bright lights across the water, and perhaps, from what her theatrical/musician father told her, stardom on the stage.

Snug Harbour: Home for Old Seamen.

Eventually, aged fourteen, Mabel finally landed in Manhattan, not in the theatre, but, as some say, in the pattern department of a big store. The story goes that Mabel’s mother found her the job of packing knitting patterns, but the manageress found her so pretty that she sent her to a commercial artist used by the store, and she became a model. Another story is that somehow Mabel became acquainted with Alice Joyce, a future Hollywood star, then working as a model. In this case, Mabel got into modelling via Alice. One thing seems obvious, though, and that is that Alice and Mabel became good friends, but, as Alice was three years older, she can be seen as Mabel’s mentor. Mabel always made a point, in later interviews, of stressing that she continued to live at home, on Staten Island, travelling every day, by subway and ferry, to and from Central Manhattan. This is an arduous and mind-numbing daily journey, and indeed, in her book on the early movie industry, Mrs D.W. Griffith claims that girls from outlying areas of New York, chose to live in Manhattan, when working in the movies. In later journalistic articles, it is specified that Mabel lived with Alice Joyce. It is, then, quite believable that the two shared an apartment, although there might have been another model involved as well, by the name of Anna Q. Nilsson. Both Anna and Alice can be described as ‘runaways’, having absconded from their homes in Sweden and Kansas City respectively. Anna came to the U.S. via the Folies Begere in Paris, and we can imagine that both girls were worldly-wise and wilful in nature.  We might posit that the formerly quiet, respectful Mabel transformed to the version that the world later knew, as a result of contact with Anna and Alice. As will become apparent, however, Mabel was also to take social cues from elsewhere.

Mabel (c) with Anna Q. Nilssson (L) and Alice Joyce (R) during ‘The Fluffy Ruffles’ competition.

The three girls worked for a number of commercial artists – Charles Dana Gibson, James Montgomery Flagg, and Penrhyn Stanlaws, among others. That’s right, they were all Gibson Girls, and all appeared on magazine covers. Mabel, speaking about life as a model in later years, said she earned $1.50 ($37.50 today) for a morning session and the same for an afternoon session. Sometimes she would forego lunch, and do a photographic session. The pay was not fantastic, but, as Mabel explained, the artists were very kind, and sometimes gave them the Parisian-styled dresses they modelled. Mabel tells, also, that she used to massage one old artist’s arthritic legs for him, which, of course, raises some eyebrows. Eventually, Alice decided to try the new-fangled ‘flickers’ (movies), where the pay was a little higher. Soon Anna joined her at Kalem studios, and eventually Mabel chanced her arm, and walked into the studio. However, when she watched Alice perform, she was seeing a star at work, for Alice had quickly risen up the ranks. If this unnerved Mabel, she had no time to dwell on it, for she was grabbed for extra work, and sent off to be a puritan out on location, where she was chased up hill and down dale by Indians. Brow-beaten, perhaps, Mabel withdrew back to the artists, for there seemed to be little chance of stardom, or even half-decent roles. Eventually, she ran into an old friend who was working at the Biograph studio, under the direction of the great D.W. Griffith. The friend thought Mabel was ideal for Griffith, as she was incredibly slim, and ‘the genius’ was always short of dark girls to complement his army of blonds. Unlike Kalem, Griffith only occasionally made cowboy pictures, which was fine by Mabel, who seemed to like his overly-romanticised films.  

Entrance Biograph Studios, Manhattan.

Mabel’s entry into Biograph in late 1910, was recorded by Mary Pickford in her newspaper column in 1916. Mabel had been sat in a dressing room waiting to see Griffith, when Mary passed by. She was taken aback to see an unbelievably pretty dark-haired girl sitting there. Knowing that Griffith compartmentalised his actresses, Mary immediately realised that she was a rare beauty that could fulfil roles that the blond girls could not. She also knew that new girls left alone often lost their nerve and ran off, so she was pretty desperate to get Griffith to her. The description of a dark-haired girl, with big brown eyes, a Gibson Girl quiff, and three-inch eyelashes got his interest, and Mabel was hired.

Mabel soon found that she’d got herself into a menagerie, of sorts. The studio was a three-storey brownstone mansion, with the stages installed in the former ballroom. Dressing rooms and storage areas were scattered throughout the building, and all was pervaded by the din of two hundred people chattering away while working, eating, or simply lounging on the staircases – only Griffith had a chair. This was Mabel’s kind of place, for at heart, she was a ‘people-person’ and here she felt at ease. She was later to say:

“Nothing interesting happened in my life, until I got into motion pictures.”

If Mabel was interested in the creatures of the menagerie, strutting would-be starlets, heart-throbs, he-men and the like, then they were even more fascinated by her. A dark-haired girl, without a blond wig was, indeed, a rarity, and those fluttering eyelashes! She was soon three-deep with heart-throbs and he-men, but also girls, amazed at her ability to attract, and hold, the men’s attention. However, they soon learned that there was more to Mabel than a pretty face. At the end of 1910, nevertheless, Mabel found herself side-lined, along with other incipient stars, when the Biograph company left New York to winter in California. Mabel was still in training, and the company only took those with long experience, that is, only the theatrical players.

Vitagraph Mabel. 1911.

Mabel did not return to modelling, but travelled farther afield to Brooklyn, and the Vitagraph studio. Coming from the Griffith studio, she commanded no little respect, and brim-full of confidence, she soon made an impact. Comedian John Bunny, saw this now exuberant and vivacious girl around the studio, and just knew that he had to cast her in his films. This is where Mabel’s career took off. On the screen, the effervescent Mabel became a favourite, but she was even more favoured around the studio. Young actresses admired her animated, but reckless ways. Stage-mothers also loved her, but looked at her with some circumspection, and especially her unbridled fraternisation with the men. They warned their girls not to copy Mabel’s ways, but of course it was hopeless. Possibly,  Mabel sought digs in Flatbush, rather than travel daily across the East River, but we have no information on this. Unfortunately for Mabel, the studio owners were strict quakers, and one of her antics raised their eyebrows, and star or not, she was fired. There are many versions as to what the ‘antic’ was, and so we will not dwell on this point. Suffice to say that Vitagraph’s owner, J.S. Blackton was happy to attend the dedication and opening of the Mabel Normand Soundstage in 1940. Mabel, though, hadn’t quite toned down her act, for she lasted at the Reliance Studio a mere four hours, director Harold Reid (father of Wally) having to “let her go due to unacceptable behaviour.” By this time, Biograph was back in town, and Mabel made her way to 11 East Fourteenth Street. Now, if Mabel the star was born at Vitagraph ‘the legend’ was born in that brownstone building, but also in the wilds of upstate New York, Fort Lee, New Jersey, Long Island, and on the Jersey Shore, as far down as Atlantic City. In these places, as Mrs Griffith told it, “Mabel began to daredevil.” Diving off high cliffs, swimming rapids, and riding bucking broncos were all in a day’s work for the Biograph Girl. Other times, she played a vamp, or as Mary Pickford put it:

 “Being dark ….. she played the flashing-eyed creature of temperament, whose very looks were stilettos in your heart, and whose movements undulated like a snake crawling through the brush.” 

However, while holding court among her followers, she would sometimes notice an uncouth oaf, lounging against a pillar, grinning at her. She’d learnt of this guy the previous year. His name was Mack Sennett, a country boy from the Canadian outback, and the advice was to steer clear of this half-Irish madman, who had never so much (again according to Mrs Griffith) bought a girl a milk-shake. Soon, nonetheless, Sennett left his leaning post. He had been appointed comedy director of the studio, and had now lost his reticence, so approached Mabel with some swagger, and armed with a diamond bracelet. Now, Sennett had no innate interest in girls, but he knew he must have a leading lady in his comedies. Mabel, it has to be said, was tabled as the best in the comedy business at that time, and having opened her eyes with the diamonds, he went to Griffith and asked for Mabel’s fair hand, or at least he asked to share her with him. Unfortunately, as Mabel later recounted, Griffith agreed. The later King of Comedy had a script just right for the daredevil Mabel. She would don a very tight swimsuit and a story would be woven around her. Called ‘The Diving Girl’, the picture was a huge success. Modern swimsuits were just coming in, and the girls that wore them, mostly athletes, were heroines. No doubt the likes of Charlie Chaplin would be glad to meet the Diving Girl, and eventually he did, way out west. It is noticeable in the film, that Mabel’s legs are covered, and indeed, Griffith caused a huge ruckus, when he asked Mabel and Mary to appear on screen with bare legs – it just wasn’t done, back in the day. A Californian girl, by the name of Harriet Quimby, making good in New York, often visited the studio. Quite a gal was Harriet, an epitome of the liberated female, a talented screen-writer and flyer — the first woman to fly the English Channel and the first to hold a U.S. pilot’s licence. Harriet always arrived in a plush Pierce-Arrow limousine, looking a million dollars in her furs and diamonds. There can be little doubt that Mabel took note, and elements of Harriet can be seen in the later Keystone Girl [see Footnote].

Mabel continued oscillating between drama and comedy through 1911, and into 1912, when the company made pictures around Los Angeles. Biograph made a huge number of seminal pictures out west, with Mabel in a fair number of them.

Mabel covered up for Biograph’s ‘Her Awakening’.

At the end of Biograph’s 1912 sojourn in the west, Mabel decided to throw in her hand with Mack Sennett and the newly formed Keystone company. By all accounts, this caused a certain amount of panic among the players, as the scheme was bound to fail. Mary Pickford was devastated, and explained to Mabel how she’d quit Biograph for another new-start studio, which quickly failed, leaving her to return to Biograph, crestfallen and her credibility severely tarnished. Blanche Sweet, her grandmother, and the various stage-mothers tried to hold Mabel back, although it seems they might have had selfish reasons for doing so – she would have left an unbearable vacuum behind her. However, Mabel did take the plunge, the advantages of Keystone being $125-a-week, and being the sole leading lady. And so it was that Mabel left the bright lights of Manhattan, for the tinder dry dust bowl they call Los  Angeles. So it was, also, that Mabel became the first U.S. movie star to live permanently in the City of Angels – what did Mabel think about that? To be honest, we do not know, for Mabel never recorded her thoughts on the matter. No doubt she shed a few tears, over leaving New York and her friends, Mabel’s only companions now being grey-haired middle-aged men, most of whom were married. However, the next  few years were ones of relentless hard work and long days, trying to get the studio off the ground – there was little room for sentimentality. In fact it would be almost two years before Mabel hit New York again. On her vacation back east, she was hailed as the big star that she had become, and creeping covertly into her homeland, Staten Island, she was ‘captured’ by the Mayor of New Brighton, who insisted on parading her through the streets in an open-top limousine. It was here, in Manhattan, that she took advantage of the Flerda photographic studios, and had some publicity shots carried out. Naturally, Mabel was not the only ‘Hollywooder’ in town, as those that had become prisoners of the studios when they moved west, were keen to get back east, as often as possible. At any one time, the Pickford, Gish and Talmadge families could be found in Manhattan, along with a plethora of other stars, and all shared the social contacts they had in the city. In a way, they were ex-pats (of L.A.) living abroad (in New York), although, in another way, they were returning New Yorkers.

One of the Flerda photos of 1913.

Mabel returned many times to Manhattan, although it is unclear as to whether she went every time to Staten Island. Often she would depart the social scene, and stifling city for the resort town of Huntington, on Long Island. It was in early 1916, that Mabel was in the east to make films at the Triangle/New York Motion Pictures studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Mabel, of course, could never live in Jersey, and had an apartment near Central Park, Manhattan, which shows how wedded she was to the city, as the journey to Fort Lee was tedious and arduous, requiring an awkward trip on the ferry across the Hudson. When her time was up at Fort Lee, she refused to return west, and sat in Manhattan, offering her services to any New York studio that had the requisite funds to employ her. To cut a long story short, she ended up with her own studio in East Hollywood. A year later, and the studio had collapsed along with the Triangle group, and Mabel fled back to Manhattan. She soon had a party scene going on there, and it transpired that she had signed for Sam Goldwyn, but had decided to do a ‘1916’ and put herself up for auction. Mack Sennett decided to make a bid for Mabel, but Goldwyn obtained a court injunction, preventing her from signing for anyone else. Sennett tried to ‘starve’ Goldwyn out, by sending solicitors to increase Mabel’s contract price to unheard of levels. The attempt failed, and Mabel was soon in Goldwyn’s glass-covered, Fort Lee studio. For Mabel, the joy of being in Manhattan was slightly marred by the awkward journey across the river, but this was not to last, for the studio was soon relocated in Los Angeles. Not too problematic, as her friends were located for much of the year in the Hollywood area, and it was also an opportunity for Mabel to reacquaint herself with Charlie Chaplin, who had a studio on the site.

Filming at Goldwyn Studios, Fort Lee 1918.

It was in 1920 that Sam Goldwyn ran into financial difficulties, and began to jettison stars, but he dearly wanted to keep hold of Mabel, and had thoughts of loaning her out. On hearing this, Chaplin went into a kind of panic, thinking Mabel could end up in an unsuitable studio, and it seems he sent word to Mack Sennett. Chaplin brought a message to Goldwyn that Sennett was willing to pay $30,000 to borrow Mabel for one picture. After some dodging around, Sam accepted the offer, and off went Mabel. Not that she was happy about this, but Mack promised her a 25% cut of the net profits of the film, and agreed to spend $260,000 making it. Now, Mabel had been ill, it is said with the Spanish Influenza, and Sennett and the director F. Richard Jones, suggested she take a few weeks holiday, before the shoot began. Mabel elected to head east to Manhattan, but she did not hit the normal social scene, but the bohemian scene in Greenwich Village, where, it is said, she lived on cress and cabbage water for several weeks. Whether correct, or not, she was ready to return and shoot ‘Molly O’.

Greenwich Village – artists’ lofts and bohemians.

Shooting had just ended, when Labour Day weekend chimed in, and Hollywood cleared out, the stars heading for San Francisco, Catalina Island, or for those between pictures, New York. Roscoe Arbuckle held a party at the St. Francis Hotel, San Francisco, where an actress called Virginia Rappe died. All hell broke loose in the press, as journalists scrutinised the movie stars morals. Some bright sparks remembered that a certain Mabel Normand had been close to ‘Fatty’ – wasn’t it likely that Mabel was in ‘Frisco’ that night, and wasn’t it possible that she was at the party? The search was on for Mabel, but she was nowhere to be found. After several days, she surfaced in Manhattan, declaring that the whole Rappe thing was a mystery to her.  Was Mabel ever in San Francisco on that night? No-one knows, but with ‘Molly O’ just about finished, it was likely that she would have fled to the east. We use the word ‘fled’ because it seems clear that Mabel was not completely happy with working once more with Sennett. Clearly, she was completely at home in Manhattan, and indeed, she drew a lot of attention there. So much so that she upped sticks again, and moved out to Long Island, where she stayed with old friends, Raymond Hitchcock and wife. The press were happy to visit her there, when allowed to, which was quite often, due to Molly O’ being premiered in Manhattan in early December. You can never have too much publicity. Of course, it was no real problem to drive over to Manhattan for functions, arriving in the Hitchcock’s fabulous Rolls Royce car. The party in the east was ended by Mack Sennett, who wanted Mabel back, for the premiere at his Mission Theatre in Los Angeles. Mack thought this to be far more beneficial than any Broadway showing, so Mabel must return to the dust bowl. Well, Mack got his premiere, attended by every producer and director in the business. Very important was the presence of the drama producers, like Griffith and Paramount Studio, for this film was no straight comedy, it was a drama, and billed as such. Now Sennett could shrug off is reputation of making amusing, but rough and ready pictures. Ex-Griffith girl Mabel, had been essential to this success, but Mack had clearly thought everything through, and realised that Mabel had become a treasure in the field of drama. Money was no object, in regards to the number of private detectives put on Mabel’s tail. Word came that she was getting close to a Paramount director called Wm. Desmond Taylor, and Mack knew that he was a ‘fixer’ at his studio. Mack further got suspicious when his star-of-stars started to behave very formally with him. She attended a Christmas party at Sennett’s house, but turned up with Taylor, and left within minutes. Producer/star protocol had been broken, and Mack was livid. A few weeks later, and Taylor was found – shot dead. As Mack Sennett later said “Who shot Wm. Desmond Taylor? I don’t know.” Taylor’s butler said that Mabel did the deed, because Taylor failed to get her into Paramount. Police dismissed this, but believed Mabel knew the killer. The case was never resolved, but Sennett remained a suspect until the case was stood down in the 1950s. Who did shoot Wm. Desmond Taylor?

1.WD Taylor 2. Fatty outside the Court 3. Mabel with the Hitchcocks 4. Victorious in New York.

Although Mabel was not suspected of killing anyone, the newspapers had a field day with the story, and Mabel was at the centre of it all. “A little Arbuckle in petticoats” The press said. The studio had already begun the filming of ‘Suzanna’, Mabel being ferried to and from location in a blacked-out car. Mabel’s first thought must have been to run for New York, but the film shoot kept her in the west, where she abandoned her besieged West 7th Street home, for an out of the way house in Altadena. As the ferocity of the attacks on her increased, Mabel decided that New York was not far enough, and booked a European tour. As Suzanna was released, and Will Hays, former Postmaster General, hit L.A. to clean the town up, Mabel was on the train with her entourage, heading to New York. However, Los Angeles police had preceded her, and were combing Manhattan for the Hollywood refugee. Several days were spent searching for Mabel, but the last they saw of her she was waving at them from the RMS Aquitania.

Happy to leave New York on the Aquitania

“I have no dispute with the authorities, and was available any time they wanted to question me” She said to the press hordes that had stormed the ship. Did Mabel intend leaving for good? Probably not, for the days of stars leaving to work in Old Blighty were still a decade away. In any event, Mabel was gone a good few months, and returned to New York, not to silence but to the chorus of the baying press pack. Mabel had decided to stay in Manhattan, perhaps forever. Telegrams from Mack Sennett, who was planning a new Mabel picture went unanswered. Flustered, Mack called her long distance on a number he’d managed to discover some place. Someone answered and said they’d find Mabel. There were champagne glasses clinking in the background.

“Hello, who is it?” a voice came back.

“It’s me, Mack.”

“Mack who?”

“Mack Sennett, of course.”

“That’s what they all say, buster, now get lost.”

The phone went dead. That device never came back on line, leaving Mack to interrogate friends, in an effort to get addresses. It was hopeless, and such a shame, as Mack’s screenplay was especially written for Mabel, would bring her out of the doghouse, and of course, make him a multi-millionaire. He had to get a star, but none of the established actresses would touch it. It was Mabel’s film, and she should star in it. In desperation, he took a stock company actress called Phyllis Haver, and decided she would do. Unfortunately, Phyllis, a sweet-looking blond, had the appearance and actions of someone that had stepped out of a Keystone slapstick movie. Director F. Richard Jones, after three weeks shooting, told Mack “It’s hopeless boss, she just cannot get the nuances, appears contrived.” The newspapers had just issued the news about the new film, called ‘Extra Girl’.  Out of the blue, there came a call – from Mabel. She was furious, someone was starring in her picture, and she wanted that role, or else. What the ‘or else’ was we do not know, but perhaps she intended to give certain information to the authorities. As far as Mack was concerned this was great news, and Mabel soon arrived in L.A., “Gay as a wisp” according to The King of Comedy. The film was seen as a success, and Mabel began a nation-wide promotional tour. Her friend, Edna Purviance had less success with her first solo film (without Chaplin) and it seems Mabel provided her with some support and comfort. They met for a New Year’s Day drink at the apartment of Courtland Dines, supposed fiancé of Edna. In brief, Mabel’s chauffeur rushed into the apartment and shot Dines, and we will skip the mass of detail, which has been set out in previous articles. The press, naturally, pulled out their long-knives, and viscously attacked Mabel in their columns.

“Gay as a wisp.”

They had been waiting for this chance since the Taylor affair had fizzled out. This time, Mabel stayed put, having decided to tough it out. At the trial of the chauffer, Mabel railed from the witness box, and just about put the judge on trial. Mack Sennett melted into the background, as Mabel set out to discover who had hired the shooting chauffeur. Her secretary denied any knowledge of this, and said the chauffeur had been sent along by the Pierce-Arrow Company, from whom Mabel had bought a new car. Some people thought that Mack Sennett had sent the guy, just to make sure Mabel did not hitch up with a millionaire, like Dines, then put her feet up. This was all supposition of course, but the main thing to deal with now, was the fact that the press were implying that Mabel was a New York good-time girl, partying in Los Angeles. Her Hollywood friends thought she should make some commitment in Los Angeles, buy a house and settle down. So, rather than go back to Manhattan, Mabel bought a pile in Beverly Hills, and kind of retired. The retirement lasted a month, before it was suggested she go on a nationwide stage tour. Building on her fame in the movies, she could play to packed houses, and get a sizeable pension pot together. Indeed, many of the silent actresses, by 1925, were looking to do something similar, in lieu of marrying a millionaire. Well, if Mabel thought she was heading for New York, she was wrong. Although the show played to packed audiences across the country, the critics were scathing, as Mabel’s voice could not be heard beyond the orchestra. Therefore, there was little chance of the show hitting Broadway. She did, nonetheless, pocket a million dollars, some say two million, which was a nice little nest egg.

Calvary Mausoleum. Last resting place of Mabel Normand.

If Mabel had completely retired, then she would have headed back to Manhattan. Her friends, it was true, were in Los Angeles, although they were frequent visitors to New York. The U.S. movie industry was now almost entirely in L.A. or Florida, which were the places she needed to be seen in, if she ever wanted to return to films. In brief, Mabel attended and held Hollywood parties, attended many premieres, and eventually made some films for Hal Roach. A possibility with MGM fell through, when Mabel became very sick, in 1929. Mabel died in early 1930, her roots and family being in New York. We might think that the city would be her last resting place, but very quickly Hollywood took over the body of their favourite daughter, found someone to give up their tomb, and, against Mabel’s wishes, organised a massive funeral for which the entire movie industry shut down for its entire duration. A symbolic end for the Silent Movie Era, and although Mabel is interred in The Calvary Mausoleum, Los Angeles, her heart must surely be in New York, and specifically in Manhattan.

Footnote:

Mrs Griffith tells an interesting story in her book. She and Mr Griffith had known Harriet back in San Francisco, in 1905. A few years later, Harriet visited them in their rundown New York flat, in the days before DWG made it as a director. After the visit, DWG watched her step into her chauffeur-driven limousine, then fell back into his chair, exclaiming “My god, she’s a success!”

Bibliography

Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923).

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

Mabelescent: Which Athough Unclassified Typifies the Normand Naivete. By Truman B. Handy, Photo-play World, May 1920.

Sunshine and Shadow by 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)

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

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. 

Advertisement

 LATIN PASSION: ‘THE FICKLE SPANIARD’ 1912.

Latinos everywhere. Mack, Mabel and Fred in ‘A Spanish Dilemma’.

“Mabel was like – she was like so many things. She was like a French-Irish girl, as gay as a wisp, and she was also Spanish-like and brooding.” So spoke Mack Sennett in his book ‘King of Comedy’, and he was attempting to describe Mabel Normand. Whether he truly knew, or understood Mabel, is open to debate, for although he framed his book around Mabel, he used newspaper articles and the personality of the Keystone Girl (not the real Mabel) as his guide. True, Mabel was French-Irish, a heady mix, bound to create unbounded passion, and not a little trouble, very much like a Spanish gypsy girl. Mack was, of course, steeped in the lore of Old Spanish California, something he could not eradicate from his mind, after D.W. Griffith took him, and a small company from the Biograph, west in 1909. Spanish culture, of one sort or another, abounded in his films, and especially those featuring his star-of-stars, Mabel Normand. Mabel herself was bitten by the Spanish bug, the culture still lingering on, in and around Los Angeles, when she first hit California in 1912, again with D. W. Griffith. She was quick to snap up a pueblo-style house out on the Beverly Hills in 1925, replete with Spanish-inspired interior, for a cool $20,000. Sennett made many ‘Spanish’ pictures with Mabel, including ‘A Spanish Dilemma’ in 1912, ‘Suzanna’ in 1923, and ‘A Dash Through The Clouds’ in 1912, featuring ‘bad’ Mexicans in the Spanish Quarter. Further than this, Mack loved to utilise the Spanish colonial frontage of the Selig studio, just two blocks from the Keystone. The list of films featuring this frontage is too lengthy to list here, but they include ‘Mabel’s Adventures’ 1912, and ‘Tillie’s Punctured Romance’. Mack’s concept of Latin passion has to be borne in mind when watching this film, and there was no actress better to carry this through than Mabel. Note this is one of the last Biograph comedies directed by Sennett, before he took his place in the new Keystone company.

Memories of old Spain: Mabel’s Beverly Hills house today, and the Selig Studios

The Film.

Cast:

Mabel Normand                                  Marcelle

Fred Mace                                            The Spaniard

Claire Mc Dowell                                  Margot

Wm. J Butler                                         Marcelle’s father

Edward Dillon                                       Jose, the barber

Dell Henderson                                     The Padre

Wm. Beaudine                                      Man in barber shop

Kate Bruce                                             Woman in the chase

Harry Hyde                                            Man in the chase

Kate Toncray                                         Woman in the chase

Directors: Dell Henderson, Mack Sennett.

Screenplay: Dell Henderson.

Released: May 2nd 1912.

Runtime: 8 minutes.

The Story.

The Spaniard falls for Marcelle, and declares his undying love. Being a hot-bloodied Spaniard herself, Marcelle pulls out a natty little dirk, and shows her lover what she will do, if he ever cheats on her. It seems that Marcelle’s father is reluctant to give her hand to Mr. Spaniard, and father needs a shave, so they retire to the house where Marcelle gives the shave.  Jose, the barber, has damaged his arm, and so he recruits Marcelle as chief shaver at his shop.   and suddenly she sees her Spaniard canoodling with Margot. Marcelle draws her dagger, and races out to confront her betrayer. Our Spaniard makes a run for it, leaving Margot to face Marcelle and her sharp instrument. After giving Margot a piece of her mind, she races after the Spaniard, who locks himself in his house. Marcelle tries to batter the door down, but it is hopeless, and she leaves. A wag of a Mexican writes a note and sticks it to the door with a knife. The note reads:

“Your days are numbered

Marcel”

The Spaniard is mortified, and decides to run to the barber’s shop, to have his moustache shaved off, not knowing, of course, that the shaver is Marcelle. Settled in the chair, Marcelle is working on him with a cut-throat razor, and he is totally shocked when he realizes who is wielding the razor. As Marcelle threatens the Spaniard, someone runs for the padre, and the pair are soon pronounced man and wife. Whether this is a happy ending or not, only the viewer can decide.

Pronounced man and wifey.

Observations on the film.

The first thing we notice is the appalling state of the film, which derives from a paper copy. Unfortunately, we are denied those little nuances and gestures of Mabel, that make her films so intoxicating. It was (and is) said that the most disreputable film could be turned into a box-office winner, just by Mabel’s presence, and surely, this picture seriously needed some of the later Keystone Girl’s help.

Like most of the Sennett comedies made at Biograph, and at Keystone, this one is a send-up of a Griffith drama. As Mary Pickford told it in 1916, Mabel played the flashing-eyed creature of temperament in the Griffith dramas. To the movie-genius, she was the representative type of villainess, and he cast her accordingly.

Mary Pickford learns that you should never mess with scary Mabel’s boyfriend.

Many of the actors in this film came from the Biograph stock company, where they languished for long periods, unused, due to D.W. Griffith’s practice of keeping his players in compartments, from which he would pull them, as and when required. Kate Toncray was a regular in Biograph comedies, but did not cross over to Keystone, and we might suspect that she was not invited, due to there being room only for one Keystone Girl. Florence Barker went on to be a big star, but sadly died of pneumonia, aged just 21. Claire McDowell, also destined for stardom, was no stranger to a skirmish or two, with Mabel. Most prominently, she tried to kill Mabel (The Squaw’s Love) on a cliffside with a large knife, sending Mabel into the raging river below. It was from films like this that Mabel acquired her reputation for reckless action. Kate Bruce was a biograph regular. Born during the Civil War, Kate was known, according to Mrs Griffith,  as the agony aunt, chaperone, and landlady to the young actresses.

1. Mabel marries Kate Toncray to Mack Sennett (Tomboy Bessie) 2. Kate Bruce 3. Mabel and Claire MacDowell are Redskins (The Squaws Love)..

There seems to have been some kind of confusion here for Dell Henderson and Mack Sennett — all of the Spanish people, except the barber, have French names!

Dell Henderson was a long-term friend of Mack Sennett, and played a variety of parts, such as ministers and women (of the 6 feet-plus variety). According to Mrs Griffith, he and his wife were guardians of the young actresses morals, whenever the Biograph travelled to L.A.

Mack Sennett and Dell Henderson, way out west.

‘The Fickle Spaniard’ can be found in degraded form on YouTube.com

Bibliography

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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. 

WHY THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER MABEL NORMAND IN HOLLYWOOD.

The simple reason that there will never be another Mabel in Hollywood, is that Mabel was someone of her time. What do we mean by that? We mean that an entity was thrown up, that could only have existed during this particular period i.e. the early twentieth century. What was going on in the early twentieth century was conducive to a whole plethora of new industries coming into being, and each one would throw up its own figures of note. The one that most springs to mind is Henry Ford, in the automobile industry, but the movie industry threw up two legendary figures, director D.W. Griffith and actress Mabel Normand. Griffith, of course is part of Mabel’s story, but she isn’t really part of Griffith’s story, the leading figures there, were Florence Lawrence and Lillian Gish. It seems likely that, if the movies had not been created, then we would never have heard of Mabel Normand. Let’s start with a thumbnail sketch of the movie industry, and Mabel’s place within it, from the 1910s through the 1920s.

In 1910, the film industry was very modest in size, and was only just heaving itself out of the disreputable nickelodeon era. Studios were rather small, and were privately financed, as the banks would not risk money on these hand-to-mouth operations. Producers did, however, gain loans, using their private assets, or those of a rich uncle, as security. In the main, the movies drew from the lower echelons of society, many of the producers being refugees from the second-hand cloak and suit trade, or in the case of Mack Sennett, from the naughty stage-show business. The actors were former mechanics, shop-girls, hat-makers, or the like, although a considerable number had toured on the country’s theatre circuits, and from an early age. There were no real movie stars back then, but the Biograph studios gave many leading parts to Florence Lawrence, who came from the Vitagraph, where actors names were given. Biograph did not do this, but the Vitagraph actors, moving to other studios were recognised. Thus it was, that Florence became as close to a star as you could get, in those days. On her heels came Mary Pickford, fresh from the theatrical circuits, where she’d worked since a babe in arms. Mary had been something of a star on the stage, her blondilocks hairstyle being a big hit. Florence and Mary soon clashed, as they battled for plum parts. Both were very aloof, although Mary realised that it was to her advantage to be humble among her peers. Florence did not, and was very unpopular around the studio. There is an important point here, in that the actors thought they should stick together. Their enemies were the producers, the studio owners, who were much like movie villains, in their top hats and tails, cruising around in expensive motor-cars. The actors were not really egalitarian, but if a person was in trouble, everyone was expected to help out. Mack Sennett later explained it like this “We were all there for a dollar and dinner.” What he meant was that they worked for a dollar-a-day, and dinner was the dry, curled up sandwiches handed out by the studio at mid-day. In the 3-storey house that served as the Biograph studio, there would be up to 200 people, chattering around the sets, or lounging on the stairways, all hoping to get a part of some sort. Into this human menagerie there came one day, a small dark-haired girl, Mabel Normand, asking to see Mr Griffith. Mary Pickford saw her arrive, and instantly ran for Griffith.

Blondilocks: Mary Pickford

“Mister Griffith, you must see the new girl who’s arrived.”

“Why, is she a blond?”

“No, no, she’s dark, with big brown eyes, and three-inch eyelashes!”

Griffith immediately hired the girl with the 3-inch eyelashes. Mary was not entirely being charitable towards Mabel, for she surmised that Mabel could do the roles she hated i.e. ‘bad girl’ and vamp roles. This proved to be Mabel’s forte, until she got into comedy. Mabel proved to be very talented, but more than that, she was a hit on the social scene. The actors and actresses swarmed around her like bees around their queen. “Mabel was the most wonderful girl in the world, the most beautiful, the best sport” said Mrs Griffith fifteen years later. The best sport, because she seemed capable of anything – riding bucking broncos, diving off cliffs, swimming rapids, and winning the cross-country runs organised by Mack Sennett. The actresses that gathered around her, hoped for just one thing, that they would go to bed as Lottie Pickford, or Dorothy Gish, and awake the next morning as Mabel Normand. As for the actors, they hoped to gain the heart of Mabel, and many a month’s wages was spent wooing the ‘girl with the eyelashes’ only to find, once they’d presented the diamond ring, that they dropped out of favour. The ring was never returned, and Mabel’s wardrobe of Parisian clothes seemed to grow daily. As Charlie Chaplin put it half-a-century later:

“Everyone adored Mabel.”

What we have been describing is a rather parochial form of Hollywood, although in the early days, the term ‘Hollywood’ had not yet been coined. Everyone mucked in, carrying and painting scenery, sweeping, or whatever job needed doing. In essence the actors, actresses and directors grew up together, and the core of the later silent Hollywood was composed mainly, of the original megaphone men and players of 1910. Loyalty among the players was expected, and if someone was on a good run of roles and pay, well, it was only right that they should help their less fortunate fellows. Mabel Normand turned out to be the most altruistic of the actresses, and went beyond the call of duty to help others. She was, nonetheless, fiercely competitive, and although of less experience and less training than the theatrical people, she soon showed that she was willing to fight for a place at the top table, where the star of that day dined on steaks alongside D.W. Griffith. At the Vitagraph studio, Mabel also raised eyebrows among the company, with her vivacious personality, cutting wit, and seductive ways. She caught the attention of top comedian, John Bunny. It was in the Bunny pictures that Mabel began to excel, displacing his previous strange-looking co-star, Flora Finch. The ruthless Mabel later told, with a half-veiled smirk, how Flora had been great, until she was replaced by  younger, more capable comedienne.

John Bunny dozes as Mabel warns Flora that her career is about to die.

Returning to Biograph, now a named star, Mabel not only resumed her old position, but enhanced that position. Her situation was now that of Queen Bee, with the men swarming around her, and the women, shall we say, sitting at her feet. Multi-facetted was Mabel, and while a rare beauty to the men, the girls noted that, while possessing a magnetic personality, she was the model of emancipation. Mabel was now crossing and re-crossing the line between drama and comedy, starring in the former with Griffith and the latter with Mack Sennett. This  ability made her even more admirable in the eyes of the Biograph people, gaining her much respect and kudos, among the company. It was during this time that Mack Sennett began to make a move on Mabel, plying her with diamonds, and as he later said, with milk-shakes. Mrs Griffith records both of these things in her book, and says that Mabel once threw a diamond necklace back at the King of Comedy, and she actually asked the question:

“Would Mack Sennett ever buy a girl a milk-shake?”

The quote implies, of course, that Sennett had no intrinsic desire for females, and the necklace incident that Mabel realised his falsehood. This rather dispels the myth that Mack and Mabel were lovers. Clearly, Mack had a great need for Mabel, as he was negotiating with movie wise-guys Kessell and Baumann, for the post of supervising director within a newly set up studio. Respect and kudos were the elements that Mabel would bring to that studio, being known as the slim girl in a swimsuit from a Sennett comedy, and the tragic figure in ‘The Mender of Nets’, a Griffith picture co-starring Mary Pickford. It was principally Mary that tried to dissuade Mabel from going off with Sennett, who was regarded as a dangerous buffoon and lame-brain. Mary herself had made the mistake of leaving for the newly created IMP company, which ultimately failed, and it may be that her respect for Mabel was such that she thought she ought to warn Mabel. Mabel did eventually sign for the new company, Keystone, but her contract bore the signatures of the highly respected Kessell and Baumann, not Mack Sennett.

Biograph shorts: Mender of Nets with Mary Pickford; The Diving Girl; A Spanish Dilemma with Mack Sennett and Fred Mace.

Mabel’s new contract, for $125 a week, made her the highest paid actress in the business, and she was soon setting the screens on fire as the Keystone Girl. She had her own kingdom down on Alessandro Street, LA, where her subjects, the actors, doted on her. However, her kingdom expanded, as more and more studios sent their companies westward. Many of the actresses were saddled with chaperones, a necessity for the studios, as morality laws and something called the Mann Act, made it illegal to transport under-age girls (the average silent actress was 16 years of age) across state lines, for immoral purposes, and any decent prosecutor could make a case for the movies being immoral. Mabel’s reputation as a kind of ‘agony aunt’ hails from this time, when the burden must have been heavy on such young shoulders. Some years previously, the 14-year old Mabel had been taken onboard, in Manhattan, by the 17 year-old Alice Joyce, herself a ‘runaway’. The upshot of all of this, was that Mabel became the core of the incipient Hollywood, and in the early days, even producers would look her up, on their first arrival in Los Angeles. Several things made Mabel stand out by the mid-1910s – her ability to hunt out the latest fashions, occupy the headlines, pursue dangerous activities, and hold the best parties. We might add that she gained respect by never being a fool to the producers. It is a testament to her astuteness that none of these guys were ever able to determine whether she was disrespecting them, or not. Other girls, crudely imitating her, found their careers held back.

Mabel at the Roach studios with director F. Richard Jones. 1926.

Eventually, one producer did come to learn that getting it wrong with Mabel, would make his life a hell. In 1926, Mabel briefly made films for Hal Roach, a hard-nosed Irishman, who brooked no dissent, and kept Stan Laurel in a form of servitude. Roach, known by Mabel as “That thick-necked Mick”, was a pompous oaf, who thought women should stick to rattling pots and pans. However, he became a regular victim of Mabel’s cutting wit, and would often be driven from his studio, by Mabel and her girlfriends, who pursued the producer with a multitude of oaths and cusses. She was, said Hal, “The dirtiest-talking girl you ever heard.” If he had bowed before his Queen, things would have been much easier for him. One guy who had bowed before the Queen was producer Sam Goldwyn. A relative newcomer to the movie business, Mabel was already the Queen of The Movies, when he arrived, and he just knew he had to have her. Mabel also created havoc in Sam’s new, all-star studio, as she declared war on his prima-donnas, the stage and opera stars. However, Sam clung doggedly to Mabel, a star, a legend, from the time when he sat in front of the screen, rather than behind it. Even in bankruptcy, Sam tried to keep hold of Mabel, but an offer of $30,000 from Mack Sennett, would free him of any obligation as regards Mabel’s future welfare. So it was that the King of Comedy re-acquired ‘The Legend’ but the old rapport between them was now gone. Mack was quite pleased with himself, and the entire company was delighted to have a figurehead star at their studio. As far as Mabel was concerned, Mack had gained her services by matter of circumstance, and she would never forget the way he had treated her in 1915. She was about to serve revenge – cold. While she attended public functions with the King, she refused to have anything to do with him privately, although he managed to hood-wink her into attending her birthday party, organised by Sennett. No expense was spared on publicity for Mabel and her films, but it seems Mabel did not want to hang around. She latched onto a guy named William Desmond Taylor, who was a director at Paramount studios. Taylor’s butler and Mack Sennett, it seems, took the view that Mabel was trying to get into Paramount, via Taylor’s position. Next thing, Taylor was found with a .38 calibre hole in him. No-one knew who shot Taylor, but Sennett remained a suspect, until the case was stood down in the 1950s. Mabel was never a suspect, but the police and the majority of the press, were certain she knew the identity of the killer. All kinds of scandalous stuff was thrown at Mabel, by the gutter press, so scandalous, in fact, that her friends in Hollywood felt obliged to publicly defend her, at great risk to their own reputations. Mabel had created enemies in the journalistic press, by allowing only a favoured few scribes to have personal interviews. To them, the death of Taylor was a great opportunity to wreak revenge on the impudent Mabel. If Hollywood had made her their goddess, then they’d knock her off her pedestal. Well, they were never quite able to inflict damnatio memoriae on Mabel, and although out of pictures for three years, she was still making money, and delivering the wildest parties in Hollywood. Oh, and capturing the headlines too.

“Fit as a butcher’s dog.” Mabel poses with Charlie Chaplin for the last time, in 1928.

A year with Hal Roach, in 1926, got Mabel back on the screen, much to the joy of her fans, one of whom, Anita Garvin, starred alongside her in ‘Raggedy Rose’. The fans were less delighted in 1927, when Mabel fell sick, and disappeared for a while. She rose like a phoenix in 1928, and appeared as fit as the proverbial butcher’s dog, showing up at premieres and gracing Hollywood parties. It seems she had a ‘talkie’ screen test for MGM, which excited everyone, but nothing came of that, as Mabel again became sick. She was still making the headlines in 1929, but in September it was announced that she had been admitted to a sanitorium for treatment of a respiratory ailment. Despite announcements that Mabel was improving, she died on February 23rd 1930, aged thirty-seven. Shock and disbelief gripped the movie and movie magazine industries, at around 3 a.m. when the news was first released. A party held at the house of Lew Cody, where most of Hollywood had gathered, was besieged by reporters. Everyone gave their obituaries with little prompting, led by Charlie Chaplin, who gave numerous accounts of Mabel’s life that morning, but continued to gush uncontrollably for the next few days. By comparison, Mack Sennett, when told the news, merely said “This is indeed most regrettable.”  Mabel’s funeral was set for a week hence, and it was decided that all studios would close that day, so that the crews and actors could attend. Cowboy comedian, Will Rogers, appealed for calm, as it was suspected that a public riot could ensue. He further asked that no-one that had not known Mabel write anything about her. The funeral service was conducted in downtown Los Angeles, and thousands of people gathered outside the chapel, remaining respectfully silent throughout. The honorary pallbearers were the good and the great of the movie industry – Goldwyn, Mayer, Sennett, Griffith, Fairbanks, Palette, along with Judge James and airman Col. Art Goebel. The mood of the attendees was thoughtful, rather than sombre – if anyone had previously any doubt that the silent movie was being buried that day, then this was now clearly dispelled. Coincidence, or not, only one silent feature film was made after this date, and fittingly, it was Charlie Chaplin’s ‘City Lights’.

The final event of the silent era. The funeral of Mabel Normand. 1930.

Time to Answer The Question.

It is clear from the above that the early movie business can be described as parochial in nature. The directors, the actors, the actresses, the crewmen, and indeed, the producers, grew up together. The enemy – the press, the moralists – lay outside the studios, and it was desirable, nay essential, for the movie people to stand together. Cliquey? Well, maybe, and it was certainly difficult for newcomers to slot in. Those actors and actresses in the business in, say 1910, went on to form the core of the later Hollywood, and were, to some extent, unassailable. One of these was Mabel Normand, whose career Mrs Griffith termed “Astonishing!” Astonishing, because without stage-mother or man to support her, and lacking in theatrical training, she took her place among the ‘greats’, some of whom were later to write highly of her. She was to take a legendary place in Hollywood, which as it grew, gathered new producers, who were most interested in meeting ‘The Legend’. They all adored Mabel, but there is some suggestion that they were a little afraid of her ability to carry actors, and (in particular) actresses along with her. Signing Mabel, also brought other problems for producers, for her films with Mack Sennett were so successful that the fear of failure haunted them. Indeed, Sam Goldwyn was widely criticised, when his screenplays for Mabel turned out to be inferior than those of Keystone and The Mabel Normand Film Company. We must return to Charlie Chaplin’s “Everyone adored Mabel.”

Mabel’s marble bath about to come crashing down during the demolition of the Keystone studio.

By 1927, at the latest, everyone was aware that sound was coming to the movies, and that this meant a great investment for the old studios. Even Mack Sennett, he of the tumbledown, makeshift studio, abandoned the homely Alessandro Street premises, for new sound stages at Studio City. Newcomers to Hollywood now sported horn-rimmed glasses, and bore briefcases. They were the bankers, and soon their representatives would grace the boardrooms of every studio and film distributor company. The Hollywood ‘club’ was finished, there was no room now for loyalty and friendship, just money management. The moneymen insisted on maximisation of profits – actors would punch time cards, studio lunches would be paid for, and distributors would ensure that theatre owners revamp their premises, with Byzantine lobbies and plush seating. Sennett Comedies, for example, would join forces with Paramount, who would distribute the former’s films to luxurious picture palaces, and just in time for the 1930s depression to bite. Over-leveraged, Paramount tottered, then fell, taking Sennett with it. The situation was similar all over Hollywood, and the economic conditions produced more and more cost-cutting, although the studios still had their stars. These stars, however, were different, and we might call them the ‘unfree’. Sure, they still had their mansions, and fancy cars, but these were on loan from the studios, and could be withdrawn at any time. The days of marble baths in plush dressing rooms were over, as were the days when Mabel Normand would lie for hours, soaking in her Cleopatran tub. There was no time during the day, and, at night, when Mabel Normand and friends might have been whooping it up, her successors spent their nights, as Louise Brooks tells us in her book, learning lines from a script. The stars, though, still attempted to play the movie-star bit, especially as Mabel’s legend persisted into the 1930s and 1940s. Some actresses, such as Paulette Goddard, attempted to play ‘Mabel’ with the producers, and completely bombed. In his book, her husband Charlie Chaplin says “She could have played Scarlet O’Hara in ‘Gone With The Wind’ if only she’d kept her mouth shut.” Paulette had the raw truculence, but not the disarming charm of Mabel. Soon after ‘The Wind’ was released, the same producers paid homage to Mabel, “The girl with the golden heart”, at the opening of the Mabel Normand Soundstage in Republic’s L.A. Studio. The producers, Zukor, Mayer, Goldwyn, DeMille and company had survived, along with Mabel’s memory, deep into the talkie era. Nonetheless, they were not prepared, or not able, to let a small, dark-haired girl dominate them, or their industry, ever again. The Hollywood shenanigans now took place in the studio boardrooms, well away from the actors, the actresses, the directors, and the cameramen. Never again would, or could, a personage such as Mabel Normand be thrown up by the movie industry.

Old and new Hollywood gather at Republic studios to celebrate the life of, and dedicate a stage to, Mabel Normand. 1940.

Bibliography

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

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks (1974).

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

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

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

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

WHERE TO FIND MABEL NORMAND.

A few years back, an article was posted here, concerned with the primary sources of information on Mabel Normand. It put forward many of sources that are readily available today, but in spite of this, and in spite of extensive bibliographies at the ends of articles, the perennial question received is “Where can I find more about Mabel Normand?” To answer this question, the original article is repeated here.

One of the  questions asked on this blog is “Where does the information, used in these articles, come from? The answer is “From all over” and surprisingly, it is readily available. Mabel always said she was the most photographed girl in the world, but in reality, she was the most written about girl in the world. Clearly then, there is no other actor about whom this series of blogs could be written. In general, the factual information is derived from newspaper archive websites, third party websites, books, and movie magazines. Approximately 70% of the information can be readily found on the internet at the touch of a button (what would we do without it?). There are two types of books featuring Mabel – those wholly concerned with The Madcap herself, and those that mention her. Some of the books that are solely concerned with Mabel, mostly aim at raising Mabel to beyond goddess status, and are, in many cases, almost useless for our purposes. Similarly, there are websites devoted solely to setting Mabel up as the ‘bad girl’ of Hollywood, and, to be honest, none of these are of any of use for genuine research. You can identify them straight away, as they begin with “Mabel Nor mand was a drug addict and died from drug addiction.” Without supporting evidence, these words aren’t worth the ink (or electricity) used to create them. If you are lucky enough, and wealthy enough, you may be able to purchase old movie magazines and memorabilia, but be warned, these are now extraordinarily expensive. Once you have the information, you will need to do something with it. The raw data may be interesting, but for proper research purposes it has to be sifted and weighted. Weighting can be categorised as the process of giving a level of credence to each piece of catalogued information. For instance, if a piece of information comes from just one unverified source, it can only be used with great care. However, there is also a certain amount of subjectivity here, and a researcher must decide whether the unverified data concerned is of such intrinsic value that it can be utilised, without verification from another source. If it appears plausible, then it can be used with the aforementioned ‘great care’.

British boys could be forgiven for thinking Mabel was a schoolgirl.

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

The Internet.

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

Films

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

Mabels: Left in ‘Hollywood Boulevard’. Right in ‘Chaplin’.

Hello Mabel

Under this heading come the various short films and cartoons, made with reference to Mabel. During the early 1940s, when Mabel’s name still in the public mind, a short film was produced of the ‘Night of A Thousand Stars’ when past and present movie stars gathered to honour the memory of  “a girl with a golden heart” during the opening of The Mabel Normand Sound Stage at Republic Studios (now CBS). ‘Hello Mabel’ was a song produced by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band in the late 1960s, as a short-lived ‘Mabel revival’ arose on the back of the ‘Mack and Mabel’ stage show. Later, Neill Innes produced the comedy video ‘Hello Mabel’ using the Bonzo’s song as a background. The video demonstrates the difficulty of displaying Mabel’s versatility accurately on film. A single actress can only portray one aspect of Mabel’s screen personality — in this case the cute but scatter-witted Sennett version. Care has to be taken here, though, for this particular girl is clearly taken from Buster Keaton’s 1920 film, ‘Neighbours’. We might question the wisdom of portraying guns in this video. The original ‘Hello Mabel’ was a short film by Mabel, intended as a send-up of D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Lonedale Operator’ starring Blanche Sweet. Mabel’s name seems to have led to a rash of cartoon and other heroines, and the rise in popularity of the name Mabel might have come about in the same way.

Books

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

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

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

Biograph squaw, Mabel, fights it out with a knife-wielding love rival.

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

Mack and Mabel in love in 1913.

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

Charlie and Mabel in love in 1914.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

List of other publications.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Private Papers.

By this we mean the private papers of those formerly within the film industry. This applies mainly to the papers of the studio producers. The two main ones are those of Adolph Zukor and Mack Sennett. Zukor kept private letters from Mabel for 40 years, and Sennett provides information on films, their cost, Mabel’s contracts, and some screenplays, as well as other information. They reside in a Los Angeles museum, but are, to some extent, available online. Note that there are no personal communications between Mack and Mabel.

Addendum.

Hollywood Babylon: Any books or articles of this nature are complete junk, and unless you are keen on sensationalism, then the best you can do is throw them in the trashcan.  Some of them masquerade as serious works e.g. ‘The Girl From Hollywood’, but it is clear that the author had a great pile of articles, which he selectively used to construct a sensational story that would sell, and sell well. All Hollywood Babylon has its roots (and not its facts) in the story of Mabel Normand.

SUMMER STIRRINGS: ‘MABEL’S WILFUL WAY’ 1915.

Afternoon tea is what every vibrant teenage girl needs.

Preamble.

In the story of Mabel Normand, the Fatty and Mabel series of films are just about the most base, but also the most delightful. In 1914, Mabel had tried some deeper stories, including the Chaplin series, which were just a little too ephemeral for most people, although on the surface they were so much melancholic, and slap-stick nonsense. The ‘Fatty and Mabels’ were to all intents, merely boy meets girl stuff, which suited the Keystone boss, Mack Sennett, for such films were good money-spinners. After a year of these films, ‘Fatty’ Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel were straining to be let loose on some real pictures, and by a little manoeuvring, Mabel managed to get she and Roscoe loaned to the parent company’s studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. There they had a free reign, and made the dramatic-comedy film “He Did And He Didn’t.” In March, Roscoe returned, but Mabel stayed put, refusing to go back. The upshot was the creation of the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, and her own studio.

Returning to ‘Mabel’s Wilful Way’, this was a highly publicised picture, even before it was shot. Although Mack Sennett had been a fugitive film-maker, running from the police and park-keepers across Los Angeles, by 1913 he had enough clout to gain entry to race courses and fairgrounds all over Southern California. The owners and Sennett had a symbiotic relationship, whereby his films would advertise the venues, and his filming crews would be admitted to them for free. As we will discuss at the end, there are surviving newspaper stories about the making of this particular film.

The Film

Cast:

Mabel Normand                                        Mabel

Roscoe Arbuckle                                        Gad-about

Edgar Kennedy                                           Gad-about

Alice Davenport                                         Mabel’s mother

Glen Cavender                                           Mabel’s father

Joe Bordeaux                                              Cop

Bobby Dunn                                                Ice cream vendor

Billy Gilbert                                                 Black-face

Directors: Mack Sennett, Roscoe Arbuckle

Run-time              11 minutes

Location                Idora Park, Oakland, Ca, U.S.A.

Release Date        May 1st 1915

The Plot

Spring is sprung, and a young girl’s fancy turns to…..parks and boys. Unfortunately, this usually means a day out in the park with Ma and Pa. Poor Mabel, she is a girl of fifteen or sixteen (although actually twenty-three) and she could have so much more fun, without her over-aged parents around. Mabel is clearly a jazz-babe, and hates the classical music being played, as they take afternoon tea in the pavilion.

“This guy’s good for a free ice-cream”

Ma is munching on strong onions and Pa, very laid-back, is swilling spirits. Mabel jumps up and runs out looking for fun, her Empire-waisted, striped dress billowing in the unusually brisk California wind (discussed later). Fatty and his friend are eager to pick up some girls on their day out at the park, and they spot Mabel, at an ice cream stall. They have the perennial problem of two lads, but only one girl. Fatty bamboozles his friend, and makes a bee-line for Mabel, who is eating an ice-cream but has no money to pay. This time her charm has failed her, and the vendor is hopping mad. Fatty smoothly slides in, offering to pay. Realising he has no cash, he opens the till while the vendor’s back is turned, and steals a dollar. Fatty and Mabel quickly grab their cones, and skedaddle before the ice-cream man notices he’s been had. Next we see Fatty and Mabel jumping a barrier and feeding the big, bad bear, something that happens quite a lot in Keystone films. Meanwhile, Ma and Pa are searching for their wayward daughter. Pa runs into Fatty’s friend, under bad circumstances, and a fight ensues. Elsewhere, the lovers have discovered the ‘mountain slide’ where Mabel hurts her bum, and Fatty flies off, bowling over a cop. There is some reverse photography, as the cop sends Fatty flying, back to the slide, where he goes backwards to the top. Mabel jumps on him, and they ride down again. This time Mabel hurts her arm, as often seen in many other films. She runs off, slap bang into Fatty’s friend, who is very keen to be acquainted with her. Fatty is furious, and picks a posy in an attempt to woo Mabel back.

From there on we have a mix up of identities, in which Fatty mistakes Mother for Mabel, Mabel introduces the gad-about to her father, who he was fighting just a few minutes ago, and Mother recognises Fatty as her assailant and beats him with Mabel’s parasol. Fatty and friend are chased from the park by the cop, as Mabel is bent over the counter of a stall, and given a good spanking by Ma and Pa. End of film.

All wilful girls should be spanked.

Comments

The thing most striking in this film is Mabel’s outfit. Mabel was noted for her unusual garments, and this one is no exception. Her dress must have caused a stir with the public, as it is unlike anything seen in those times. The waist-line (Empire-line) is located under the bust, with the dress hanging loosely about the body. The material seems to come from an old deckchair, and she wears a very, very short jacket. Her hat is three-cornered, the latest in a line of odd head-wear from the Keystone Girl. All in all, she looks like a girl pirate. Mabel was fond of designing her own clothes, but unlike Mary Pickford, she was no seamstress.

The park location is very atmospheric, with quite a breeze blowing. We learn from the newspaper article that Mack Sennett employed several huge electric fans, which make Mabel’s dress billow like a bell tent in a gale. This, of course, is an old trick of Sennett’s, and when Mabel is around, the fans always blow full-on. Sometimes the dress is blown upwards, and sometimes it is blown between her legs, even in indoor scenes (see ‘That Ragtime Band’ and ‘The Gusher’). Additionally, in this film, the audience gets to see what Mabel wears under her dress, when she is spanked by her parents.

This is all basic Keystone stuff, with boy meets boy, Mabel’s trendy dress blowing around in the wind, a chase, and a mix-up of identities. Whether there’s a happy ending, or not, viewers must make up their own minds.

Mabel loves Fatty (Mabel’s New Hero).

THE PROBLEM WITH MABEL.

Mabel and lookalikes, 1918.

In 1914, Mabel had been one of the most prominent movie actresses, and the most prominent comedienne in the incipient Hollywood. Coming from the stable of D.W. Griffith and now a leading member of the Keystone troupe, everyone loved her, but some thought there was a problem, with ‘our Mabel’. Charlie Chaplin summed it up thus, in his memoirs. He tells of being assigned to Mabel, for a part in ‘Mabel At The Wheel’. Charlie tried to introduce some gags, but was told “Shut up and do as you’re told.” Charlie, a blatant misogynist, had never been spoken to like that by a teenage girl in all his life. He went into a sulk and downed tools, so to speak. It was then that he realised his mistake, as the crew and cast advanced on him, intending to beat the tramp’s lights out, for disrespecting their queen. Chaplin then goes on to inform us of the reasons for everyone’s reactions.

“Mabel”, Says Charlie, “Was extremely pretty…..light-hearted and gay, kind and generous, and everyone adored her.”

Charlie was wrong about Mabel being a teenage girl, for as we now know, she was twenty-two, so almost as old as himself. However, in the early Keystone days she carried a great weight on her young shoulders. Major Keystone shareholders, Kessell and Baumann, paid her an extraordinary amount of money for her work, but for that amount of dollars, she was expected to not only act, but support the studio, and help with the publicity. In those days she was not a nine-to-fiver. She also had to back another Keystone shareholder, Mack Sennett in various ways, including being by his side at all manner of work-related functions. Early on, they collaborated well enough, but gradually they became more and more distant, as Mack became a tyrant of the Napoleonic variety. By the time Chaplin arrived, Mabel was more  interested in helping the down-trodden extras, crew, and labourers at the studio. To these people, Mabel was not just a studio figure-head, its Cleopatra, but a mother-confessor, probably the youngest in the country, or indeed the world.

Mabel and Charlie are the best of friends

Some of the attributes Charlie alludes to Mabel are, of course, at variance with each other, but there is nothing in the available literature that gives reason for us to think differently. Mabel was unique, a kind that only comes along every generation or so, but some people have assigned other attributes to Mabel, as follows: manipulative, devious, and mercenary. If the last three were true, then no-one said so at the time. In 1914, she was, naturally, the main-stay of Keystone, and feted accordingly, but the affection ran very deep – deeper than her being somebody that created the conditions, whereby everyone would be paid a living wage.

In 1914, Mabel was a legend, within the movie industry, but the legend began, not in Los Angeles, but in New York, the original home of the U.S. motion picture business. It is worth saying that Mabel gave up her career with D.W. Griffith, to chance her arm with a company, Keystone, that as Mack Sennett later put it:

“… had no money, no studio, few actors and one lousy camera.”

Kudos and respect to Mabel. Respect for having been a Griffith actress, and kudos for giving her career up, and taking a risk with Keystone, out in the Wild West.

Keystoners swarm around their Queen in Salt Lake City.

Pre-Keystone Mabel.

After a short stint with Biograph in 1910, she was side-lined by Griffith in mid-training, when she was left behind, as the studio moved to California for the winter. She had been noted, however, for her beauty and unique persona. Arriving at the Vitagraph studio,  she was hardly a shrinking violet, and was immediately noticeable. Larger than life seems to be the correct descriptor for the vivacious Mabel, increasingly so, as she was soon co-starring in John Bunny comedies. Her attraction to men was obvious, but in those days of women’s emancipation, young girls were also drawn to her, often to the stage-mothers alarm, for much as they admired Mabel, they felt that she was heading for a fall, and fall she did, following some actions that caused the Quaker management to fire her. Being just seventeen, we can imagine that being a ‘star’ went to her young head, and she digressed somewhat. Her next engagement, at Reliance, lasted just two hours, after the director found her demeanour unacceptable.

Inevitably, she made her way back to Biograph, where she was welcomed as a named star, an honour that even long-serving child actress, Mary Pickford, did not have. Griffith, naturally, could not now play her as an extra, and set her to work immediately in drama. He began to coach her personally in the dramatic arts, and particularly in facial expressions. The lightning fast changes of expression that she later became famous for, she ascribed entirely to her training by Griffith. It was now that a Mabel ‘set’ began to arise within the studio. Not only did Mabel have her old charm, but she had a charisma that no Biograph actress had possessed since the days of Florence Lawrence – she was a known star, or the nearest thing to a star that could be found in 1911. Now, the reader might have heard that Mabel was not only a minx and a prankster, but was also insolent to the director and supervisor.

Vitagraph Mabel is larger than life.

This is not strictly true, as Mabel was much wiser from her experience at Vitagraph, so whereas she might have spoken of, say, Griffith in a derogatory manner, she did not do so directly to his face. Indeed, when Griffith’s wife, actress Linda Arvidson, later wrote of those halcyon days, she does not mention Mabel as one of those actresses (mainly theatre people) that crossed swords with ‘the movie genius’. It does seem that Mabel was developing veiled sarcasm, or was becoming, as producer Sam Goldwyn later put it, disarmingly charming. This probably, apart from her acting ability, accounts for what Mrs Griffith called her astonishing rise through what were some very impressive ‘ranks’. In point of fact, by 1912, Mabel was at the very core of Biograph, the very fulcrum around which, at least, the social side of Biograph turned. In a way, she became indispensable to the company of players, but some might argue that she had them eating out of her hand. In recent articles, the qualities attributed to Mabel, by Mary Pickford and Mrs Griffith, have been noted but to summarise, Mabel was an all-action girl, unafraid of high cliffs, swirling rapids, and bucking broncos, but still very alluring, kind, and very, very fond of dainty clothes. While men were attracted to her, the actresses worshipped her, and some prayed that they’d wake up the next morning, and actually be Mabel (Mrs Griffith again). One of these actresses was Dorothy Gish, who tried to adopt the Mabel ways with D.W. Griffith, but, without the armoury to convincingly carry it off, she did not attain stardom in the way that her more illustrious sister, Lillian, did.

Sultry Biograph Mabel.

Mabel of the Keystone.

Was Mabel’s taking up with the new, under-funded Keystone a good idea for Mabel. “Emphatically No!” Said the Biograph girls. The whole scheme was utter madness, and led by the equally mad Mack Sennett. They pleaded with her not to go, and quite honestly, Mabel must have given the idea great consideration, especially as Mary Pickford had only just returned from her abortive attempt to break loose with the IMP company that floated on little more than thin air. Mabel’s reasons, we might suggest were similar to Mary’s. This was to be a new company, with just one leading lady, Mabel Normand. There would be no competition, and none of the shenanigans that went on at Biograph. She would be the queen, not down on Broadway, admittedly, but on Alessandro Street, Edendale, Ca. Supporting the whole concern were the highly-respected entrepreneurs, Kessel and Baumann, who made their bones, and a pile of cash, on Times Square (then Longacre). What more could a headstrong, ruthlessly ambitious girl want? Well, $125 a week ($3,000 + today) for starters, her own dressing room, a suite in the Alexandria Hotel, and all the expense account dinners she could handle. Oh, and unbridled use of the boss’s fancy car. Of these things, being the queen of all was probably the most important, and would put her on a level with the great theatrical stars, even perhaps, Lillian Russell. Oh yes, that’s where the early stars were aiming, to be Lillian Russell, for no movie star of magnitude then existed.

In the very early days, the Queen of Edendale did not have a kingdom to speak of. The studio lot was simply that, a dusty (sometimes muddy) couple of acres, upon which were an old bungalow, a rickety barn, and a derelict grocery store. The store building served as the studio front office, while the front of the bungalow became Mabel’s dressing room, sectioned off from the rear, which was, initially, Mack  Sennett’s own office, but which later became the female dressing room. The barn was the communal male dressing room. Electricity had only just began to arrive in Edendale, and it is said that Sennett paid double the normal $800 to get hooked up right away. There were no flushing toilets, as there was no sewage system in 1912, so ‘poo pots’ were the order of the day. Nor did Mabel, then, have her marble bath, but one of those tin things that you see hanging on the backs of doors in the Keystone films, filled from the adjacent well. We are, pretty much, talking of the Wild West, where as Chaplin and Frank Capra described, everything was of wood, and the buildings were sheds, leaning at grotesque angles to each other.

The Alessandro street lot (centre right) before it became Bison, then Keystone.

During the creation period of Keystone, Mabel was doted on by the few actors around her, not only because they adored her, but because she was of vital importance to Keystone and their pay checks. Mabel was a precious treasure, but did she lie around, while adoring men dropped grapes into her mouth? Probably, but there was work to be done, and importantly, Mabel sought to avoid the mistakes of her predecessor, and was sure not to lord it over her peers. The connecting door between the actresses’ and Mabel’s dressing room was always open, and on cold mornings the entire company crammed into the Keystone Girl’s boudoir, where sat the only oil heater on the lot. As time moved on, she became the figure-head that drew many young actresses to the studio. Mabel was always kind and altruistic towards the girls, whilst also keeping a watchful eye on them. Any of them having personal audiences with the boss, and Mabel would know about it. She jealously guarded her position, and rightly so, for she’d given up a lot – her best years — to build Keystone, and as she might have added “With my bare hands.”

Charlie Chaplin, of course, was looking forward to meeting up with the Keystone Girl, when he arrived at the studio. However, Sennett had determined that he would not work with her right away, and like Sennett years earlier, he found he could not penetrate the perpetual circle of actors, actresses, and crew members that surrounded her. If Mabel was the king-pin of the studio, then Chaplin discovered this was indeed true. Soon though, Mabel would scoop the lonesome limey up, and weave her magic on him, but not before the tramp had blotted his copy book by disrespecting the Queen, and come close to being beaten to death by the crew.

Charlie wreaks revenge on Mabel, with a pin in the leg.

Whereas, Mabel was of the opinion that she’d built the studio, Mack was of the opinion that he had done the same. In 1915, amid a shower of professional awards, Mabel was bigger than Keystone. She had devoured the studio, no-one could touch her, and Mack began to think they’d created monster, right there on Alessandro Street. She had become too big, bigger than Keystone itself. The King of Comedy decided to clip the Queen’s wings, and began to promote other, cheaper, actresses over her. Although the pair had become estranged, each kept a close watch on the other. Mack had his spies follow Mabel everywhere, and people close to him reported back to her. Importantly, Mabel had become the centre of Hollywood society during the Keystone period, and her parties became legendary. She was, of course, the inventor of the wild Hollywood party. This came about, not just because of her vivacious personality, but because she was just about the first star actress to live full-time in Los Angeles. Hollywood just sort of coalesced around her.

The strain on Mabel in 1915 was palpable, and a lesser personality would have been forgiven for throwing in the towel. Mabel, though, was made of sterner stuff, and the incorporation of Keystone into the Triangle group, gave Mabel the opportunity to weave her spell on the top brass. By some form of black magic, she managed to persuade the Triangle big-shots to take her and a small Keystone company, into the New York Motion Pictures studio, far away in Fort Lee, New Jersey. This inevitably led to Sennett gritting his teeth, over the loss of Mabel for the 3-month stint in the east. Suddenly he realised that he’d been foolish to side-track Mabel, who had now totally outmanoeuvred him, The King of Comedy. As Mack’s hair turned white, and his teeth wore down, little did he know that more shocks were in store for him. Just as Mabel’s three months were up, he was contacted by Variety magazine. What did he think of the news that Mabel had signed for the Mutual company. Well, Mack could say nothing, for he had not known about this, and soon he was wiring the bosses back east, demanding to know how they’d managed to let his star-of-stars slip away. The bosses, Harry Aitken, Adam Kessell and Charles Baumann, denied any knowledge of the signing, and suggested that Mack make Mabel an offer she could not refuse. Nobody today knows what had happened, but it seems likely that there was a conspiracy by Mabel and New York to raise her status and value even higher, and Mack Sennett would pay. To keep Mabel onboard they would create a new concern, The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, to be housed in Sennett’s new 25,000 square feet studio in East Hollywood. As a sweetener, Sennett would receive 25% of the Mabel Normand company. The actors and actresses of Hollywood went crazy, Mabel was the first of their breed to put her name on the roof of a studio, and Mary Pickford waxed lyrical over Mabel’s success, in her weekly news column, but the producers, although beaming down on her at the opening ceremony of the studio, were not quite so sanguine about Mabel. All had been bewitched by the girl from Staten Island, at one time or another, and they all knew that she had engineered an adroit coup against Sennett, and in a way she’d had the New York wise-guys over as well. They also knew that Mabel was now unassailable, no-one could move against the legendary Mabel, without having the whole of Hollywood come down upon them. It would be difficult, but many producers decided to keep the sweet-smiling assassin out of their studios.

Goldwyn

However, when the Triangle concern began to show signs of collapse in late 1916, one producer decided he was not afraid to sign Mabel, and indeed, his success was dependent upon getting Mabel’s signature on a contract. Sam Goldwyn was a guy that kind of wandered into movies, and got lucky, when his first film struck pay dirt. After arguing with his partners, he had branched out, and founded his own studio. To get off the ground he needed a star to headline his company, but he didn’t want just any star, he wanted the star-of-stars, Mabel Normand. Received warnings that Mabel was dangerous, so very dangerous, just made Sam more determined. Like so many before him, he delighted in her personality and aura, ignoring the dangers. What were the dangers? Firstly, Mabel had a way of getting what she wanted, by a means that some called witchcraft. In fact she was an adept schemer, who’d got where she was without the support of either a stage-mother or a man. Secondly, woe-betide any producer that attempted to bring in another big star, or promote another actress to stardom. Mabel would either destroy them mentally, or find a way of bursting their bubble. It was unfortunate, then, that Sam’s second signing was Mae Marsh. Mae had been pulled off the street by D.W. Griffith and coached to stardom over the Biograph regulars, such as Mabel and Mary Pickford. Mabel black-balled Mae in social Hollywood for the next ten years. Poor Mae, she was only fourteen, and later said:

“What did I understand then, I was just a lamebrain, you know.”

There are many stories of Mabel at Goldwyn, simply because Sam wrote an autobiography in the early 1920s, in which Mabel figures prominently. In fact, he kind of psychoanalyses Mabel, and tries to drill down into her mind. He does this, while alluding to various incidents around the studio. We can group these as incidents involving other actresses, incidents involving management, and Mabel’s attitude to the pressmen invited to the all-star studio. The fact that this was an all-star studio was the thing that led to Mabel’s war against the other actresses. In the past just one favoured girl would lead Mabel on the warpath, now she was surrounded by stars. Just to make things worse, with the exception of Mae Marsh, they were all former stage artists.  Mabel would invade their sets, and put them off their stroke by various means, such as standing hands on hips laughing, tipping water on them from on high, or simply staring at them. Complaints regularly came to Sam, but his answer was always the same “What can I do? She is Mabel, the movies’ own, the Queen of Hollywood.” Sam might also have mentioned that she was his biggest earner. The supervisor of Sam’s studio was Abe Lehr (or ‘Leer’ as Mabel called him) who took the brunt of Mabel’s idiosyncrasies. It was said, by Goldwyn, that Mabel was “disarmingly charming.” This Lehr encountered, when he confronted Mabel over her lateness and non-attendances. Mabel got to work on him, in a charming manner, but Abe was ready for her. No matter how much she fluttered those eyelashes, and twinkled her legs, Abe was determined haul her up on the $30,000 the company had lost due to her late attendances. Mabel, though, as Goldwyn told it “Knew the business from every angle” and she knew that she brought profit to the bottom line, no matter what the back office accountants said. When Lehr threatened to inform Sam of the losses, Mabel offered him her brand new $8,000 car if he kept quiet. Lehr declined, and then he was confronted with a different Mabel. She let loose a torrent of curses and blasphemies at ‘Leer’, flung a paper-weight at his head, then ran screaming from the room. Lehr unwisely followed Mabel to her dressing room, where he was met with the infamous dirty laugh, and a shower from a perfume spray. Mabel had won the round, and the 30k was never mentioned again. Lehr reported the incident to Goldwyn who simply shrugged and said “That’s Mabel – what can I do.” In fact, Mabel was keeping Sam afloat, as his expensive theatricals lost the studio money at an alarming rate.

In 1919, Sam Goldwyn had the luck to be able to scrutinise two of the strangest Hollywood personalities, at the same time, and over an extended period. Mabel had been in the habit of coming to Sam’s office after work, to presumably keep an eye on him, while he could keep an eye on her. This had been normal practice way back in the Biograph days, and in his book, Sam relates his experiences with ex-Biograph girl, Mary Pickford. He encountered Mary, whenever he called in on the office of producer Adolph Zuckor. Mary, who then worked for Zuckor, seemed to be standing behind Zuckor’s Chesterfield chair, every time he visited. Sam noted that Mary was always fussing around him, shuffling his papers, and interjecting discreetly in conversations. She was, of course, keeping a close watch on her producer, and he obviously gained, by knowing where his million-dollar star was. The other regular visitor to Sam’s office was Charlie Chaplin.  After work, Charlie would visit his brother, Syd, who had a studio on Sam’s lot. He never went home until late, as his marriage to child-bride Mildred Harris, was falling apart. Mabel always made an appearance, when Charlie was around, leading to the suspicion that she had spies in the studio.

Mary P, Ad Zuckor in later years.

Sam had a grandstand seat to the enigmatic relationship between the former colleagues, who many said had been lovers at Keystone. Charlie, although previously talking voluminously (of himself) to Sam, would become reticent, and even withdrawn in the presence of Mabel. Mabel of course, would chatter away in her normal manner, occasionally saying “What do you think, Charlie” and “Isn’t that so, Charlie.” Charlie would mumble something or other, then go quiet again. Sam loved these occasions, and smiled as Charlie squirmed uncomfortably in his chair. It seemed there was some professional competition between them, but while Charlie was resentful of Mabel, she showed no hint of it, although she had some reason to resent Charlie. In reality, they were similar characters, but while Charlie could not hide his character, Mabel was the mistress of secrecy. Both were melancholic by nature, but Mabel’s outward exuberance, for her part, covered it up. For all of his egotism and misogyny, Mabel was more than a match for Charlie, in social situations. In fact, she was more than a match for anyone, but Charlie was also paranoid. He thought everyone had it in for him, was plotting against him, and Mabel had a particular way of speaking, which while bordering on the sarcastic, could not easily be deduced as such. This really upset some people, those that were full of themselves, but it cut deep with the paranoid Chaplin. The Queen of Hollywood would know when the veiled barbs she threw had hurt someone deeply. The next time she met them, she would be as nice as pie, although the offended person would have a bit of the hangdog about them.

“Oh dear” Mabel would say “I offended you, didn’t I? Geez, I  was only kidding, let’s make up and forget all about it.” In a roomful of people with big ears, the offended party would have little option, but to “forget all about it.” As Sam Goldwyn would say “That’s Mabel, what can you do?”

It is often said that Mabel’s Goldwyn films were shadows of the preceding Keystone pictures. This might have been so, but little of this work remains for us to judge. However, at Goldwyn, Mabel’s star shone brighter than ever, due in no small part, to Goldwyn’s steam-train of a publicity department. In the press there was nothing but Mabel, Mabel, Mabel, and if you wanted a Mabel doll, or plate, or cup, then Goldwyn could supply it. For Mabel, the publicity became a little unbearable, as the studio arranged press interviews for her in increasing numbers. In the past, she had arranged her own interviews, with trusted friends at magazines like Photoplay, but now she was expected to speak to all and sundry. Mabel would keep journalists waiting at the lot for several hours, then slip away, without saying a word, although she apologised to a few, and invited them to come to her house in the evening. Several journos arrived at the house, and reported finding Mabel, shall we say, not exactly appropriately attired. If true, then this was designed to put them off their stride, and soon they would find Mabel entering into a monologue, in which she both asked and answered the questions. Then, an alarm clock would sound, and Mabel would say “Your ten minutes, my friend, are over, now please leave.” One guy was told this:

“Please go now, I must be alone, when the chocolate cake arrives. With great sorrows or great joys, I seek solitude. I am not like other girls, you understand.”

The fellow found himself outside the door, and wondering what had happened. Unfortunately, this was all committed to memory, and a few years later, those slighted journos would wreak revenge on their tormentor. For now, though, Mabel was undisputed Queen, ruling social Hollywood, but soon she could drop from the silver screen. Sam Goldwyn was going bust, and was one by one dropping his stars. He’d hung onto Mabel as long as possible, now he would have to let her go. Sam was not, however, going to throw her on the scrapheap. Mabel was a valuable asset, and he proposed to loan her out, until he got back on his feet.

Mabel in the spot outside her house, where bemused press guys would find themselves, after being ceremoniously ‘let out’.

For Mabel’s part, she was gripped with sheer terror, for her old producer, Mack Sennett, had offered $30,000 to hire her for one picture. Goldwyn’s films, compared with Sennett’s were crass, but Mabel was happy where she was, playing the lady of the house, or studio. She tried to fend Sennett off, by offering Sam $54,000, which was more than Sennett was paying, but by 1921, the excess of $24,000 was not enough to finance a picture. It is said that Charlie Chaplin mediated between Mabel, Goldwyn and Sennett, helping secure Mabel $3,000 a week, 25% of film profits, and a plush dressing room with marble bath. No-one knows if Charlie did play a role here, but if true,  it does show that, in fact, he and Mabel’s bond was a strong one, for normally only a husband would negotiate for an actress. Sennett, of course, was keen to acquire Mabel for he was planning on making dramatic-comedies, and only Mabel would do. He had to act quickly, for any of the big drama studios could snap Mabel up. Mabel was on friendly terms with all the producers, except Hal Roach perhaps, and they all adored her, as she kept them amused. However, everyone knew Mabel was problematic, and as Roach later found, she could whip up insurrection on the lot. Everyone withdrew and allowed Sennett first refusal on Mabel. She’d driven a hard bargain, but Mack was happy, which was more than you could say about Mabel. She was polite with The King of Comedy, but was also very formal – things could never be the same again. Except the films, for together they created great things. Charlie Chaplin put it this way:

“It was a matter of understanding. They were both as Irish as the banshees, and Mack got the best out of Mabel’s wayward, rebellious Irish heart.”

What happened next has been the basis of a thousand books. It seemed Mabel was determined to escape the Sennett studio, but the producers of the big studios were reluctant to take on the girl that belonged with Mack Sennett. However, Mabel got close to a top Paramount director called W.D. Taylor in order, Taylor’s butler said, to get into his studio via the back door. In the event, Taylor turned up dead, and naturally, the butler said “Mabel did it.” Did it because Taylor had failed to get Mabel into Paramount. The police thought differently, and although many suspects arose down the years, Sennett was always on the list. The suspicion was that Sennett got rid of Taylor, in order to prevent Mabel leaving his studio. In reality, no-one knows who killed W.D. Taylor, and as one journalist wrote in 1922 “Nobody ever knows who shoots anyone, or why, in Los Angeles.” The police concluded that Mabel knew who had shot Taylor, and the press thought likewise. Actors and actresses came out publicly in support of Mabel, but the producers kept strangely quiet. Mabel made two more successful films with Sennett, then left him for good, after another shooting scandal rocked her life – they never had anything to do with one another again. The producers, who made a big show of cleaning up Hollywood, but while remaining friendly with Mabel, they were wary of signing her. Surprisingly, it seems Mabel was now wealthier than ever, and even made a small fortune, starring in a theatrical show.

A final photo of Mabel with Charlie C in 1928.

It seems, though, that she carried a terrible secret for the rest of her life. Mabel seems to have enjoyed the next few years as a movie, transcontinental socialite, who still took the headlines. By 1926, she was feeling ready to return to the screen, having presumably tired of La Dolce Vita. Mack Sennett tried to snap her up, and although Mabel visited the studio, to a rapturous welcome by the company, she declined The King of Comedy’s offer. Her actress friends, perhaps alarmed by any return to Sennett, sought to get her into the Hal Roach studio. Mary Pickford was a prime mover in this, and Mabel did, in fact, negotiate a good contract with Roach, who had been busy signing up falling stars for 50 bucks a week.. This illustrates well the problem with Mabel, for although her friends were staunchly loyal and helpful, Mabel repaid Roach, or “That thick-necked Mick” as Mabel named him, by turning his studio into a war zone. Roach was ruthlessly taunted by Mabel, who brought droves of girlfriends into the studio, that followed the Irishman around, bombarding him with taunts and assorted cuss words. Everyone sniggered, even Stan Laurel, who always had trouble standing up to Roach. After six months, Roach was unwilling to renew Mable’s contract. Mabel was becoming sick in any case, and would see out much of 1927, very sick indeed, although still visible in the headlines. Friends were worried about her, but she made a remarkable recovery in 1928, and attended many events and premieres. She was, of course, looking to get back into pictures, and made a short film on the set of MGM’s ‘Our Dancing Daughters’. This was billed as a private film, but it seems to have been a screen test instigated by Louis B. Mayer. Mayer had been a close friend of Mabel, and would have supported Mabel’s attempt to get into MGM, although the board later decided against it. A scene in ‘Hollywood Boulevard’ (1950) hints that Mayer was bamboozling her, and upon the film’s screening, Mayer went berserk, threatening to sue the producer, the director and everyone else. Mabel died in 1930, and was given the biggest funeral in Hollywood history. The big-shots of Tinsel Town that carried Mabel to her grave, were under no illusion — silent Hollywood was no more.

The Queen is laid to rest. Honorary pallbearers Doug Fairbanks, Col. Art Goebells, D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett, Sam Goldwyn. Feb. 1930.

Rolling it all up.

What, then, was the problem with Mabel? In general terms, she was too ‘big’. On the screen, naturally, Mary Pickford was just as big, or as Anita Garvin put it, perhaps a little less so. In Hollywood itself, Mabel reigned supreme, and everyone adored her, but some of those admirers (chiefly producers) were not a little afraid of our Mabel. She knew everyone, and everything, even the darkest secrets of the producers, whose lives were, in some cases, more sordid than their minions, the actors. Mabel though, by virtue of her position was unassailable i.e. if anyone ‘disappeared’ her, there would be hell to pay down on Hollywood Boulevard. Mabel’s troubles from 1922 onward could have been averted if she’d spoken up about the murder of W.D. Taylor, but she remained tight-lipped. She was, after all, the embodiment of Hollywood, and would only harm herself by speaking out. The producers, while remaining friendly, were happy to let Mabel to take the rap, so to speak, and while they cleaned up Hollywood, Mabel languished out of work, but they still doffed their caps to the Queen, and it is clear that she never ran out of money.

Bibliography

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

Mabelescent: Which Athough Unclassified Typifies the Normand Naivete. By Truman B. Handy, Photo-play World, May 1920.

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

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

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

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

The Tragic Side of Mabel Normand – Obtaining an Interview Under Difficulties
By David Raymond. Play World (June 1918).


MABEL AND THE GIRL FROM HOLLYWOOD.

Who was ‘the girl from Hollywood’? She was, in fact, a piece of fiction, created by the same writer that created Tarzan (he of the apes). His name was Edgar Rice Burroughs, and his Tarzan was fictional, but some of his story is based on real events. Likewise, his ‘Girl from Hollywood’, also has some basis in truth. Before being released as a book, the story was serialised in Munsey’s Magazine, between June and November 1922. The date of the release of the story gives a clue as to its subject. It is based on the murder of W.D. Taylor and the perceived character of Mabel Normand. Burroughs seems to have had a pile of newspaper cuttings, which he used to create the character in his book. In 1922, these stories about Mabel took on a life of their own, and the journalists could not write them fast enough. Needless to say, the public’s appetite for such scandalous material was insatiable.

The printing presses could not run fast enough in the 1920s.

Numerous facts from Mabel’s life were used to compose a picture of her, and present her as some kind of Frankenstein’s monster. However, Burroughs, like many other authors, tempered his story, so that in the end, bad as she was, The Girl from Hollywood could be viewed as a victim of the movie business, rather than a central figure within Hollywood that perpetrated heinous crimes and instigated bad behaviour. Now let’s have a look at some of the facts that Burroughs used, which made his story, and intentionally identified her in the story. We start off with the something that goes right back to the start of Mabel’s career. Mabel had many physical talents, which early on, brought her to a level from which she, an untrained actress, could begin to compete with the trained stage actresses at the Vitagraph and Biograph studios. Her talents included swimming rapids, diving off high cliffs and riding horses at insanely high speeds over rough terrain. The girl from Hollywood was also a keen horse-rider, and so in the first few pages we see a similarity with Mabel. Nor is that all, for the girl, Grace, pines to be on the stage, although mother objects. From what we know, Mabel had wanted to be on the stage, but although supported by her father, it seems Mother was not so keen. This story was not so well known, and it may not be true, but those in the movie industry accepted it as the truth. Known to many was the fact that Mabel (or more specifically the Keystone Girl) had a passion for cuddling young calves, and an aversion to marriage. Later, Grace is depicted as an animal lover in general, which may or may not be consistent with the real Mabel, but is definitely consistent with the screen Mabel. These facts, or factoids, identify Grace with Mabel early on in the book.

Mabel just loves new-born calves.

As the book proceeds, other Mabel facts present themselves. Mack and Mabel were crazy about old Spanish California, and Mabel at least loved Spanish interiors. Unsurprising then that Burrough’s Grace also loved the same décor. It is also a little amusing that Grace does not use any blatant cuss words against anybody, but simply says “You beast!” This is, of course, straight from the Keystone Girl script book, although it seems that the real Mabel might have used stronger language (in a number of Keystone’s, Mabel mouths “You beast” – no sound, remember). Burroughs further endows Grace with ‘selfish egotism’ and a rejection of marriage, something that the press had accused Mabel of, in early 1922. To the press of 1922, Mabel was “bad, bad, bad” and so bad that, unlike many actresses, Mabel never brought her mother out to Los Angeles to share in her success. An actress in Burroughs book, but not Grace, is pilloried for the same neglect, and for the reason that she did not want Mother to witness her ‘Roman’ lifestyle. This ignores the fact that Mabel’s parents might not have wanted to leave their leafy Staten Island suburb, for the fleshpots of Hollywood. In fact, in an interview in 1924, Mabel refers to her mother: “Some people might be surprised to learn that I have a mother. No, she is not a stage-mother, and she cannot come out west, as she has to look after my younger sister.” Her sister was then was at least 25 years of age. Contrary to what some journalists said, there is no evidence that Mabel bought her parents a new gothic-style mansion in New Brighton, just to keep them in the east.

Mabel’s parent’s house, Staten Island

In his autobiography, Mack Sennett states that Mabel was “Piled contradictions upon contradictions, then kicked at them with high heels and knocked them down like playroom blocks.” There is no reason to suppose that Sennett knew, or cared, very much about Mabel’s real-life personality, but he might have read The Girl From Hollywood, in which one character is “bad, bad, bad” as the press told it, while being sweet and generous to her servants. Strangely, she had a Japanese cook, just like Mabel. Drugs, of course, are at the bottom of everything in Burrough’s book, and the Girl from Hollywood has been trapped in Hollywood by unscrupulous film producers (in another piece of ‘Hollyweird’, the author claimed similarly that “The stars are the prisoners of Hollywood”). Unscrupulous was the watchword of the day for the producers who, Burroughs implies, kept their stars on the movie treadmill by plying them with opium, cocaine and heroin. Our great scribe, however, never considered that the stars might have merely have used drugs in social settings, that is at wild Hollywood parties, where there were always silver bowls containing paper twists, concealing a white powder. There is no evidence that producers kept their stars ‘stoned’ in order to control them and contain them. They had far better ways of doing this, which did not compromise their stars’ performance, but frayed their nerves, as they were constantly tailed by the producer’s private detectives. Naturally, some stars kind of ‘disappeared’ and sometimes, it seems, a person involved with a star turns up dead. In the respect, Burroughs does not disappoint.

Bad guys 1930s-style. Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano parties in Hollywood.

Conclusions

This book is not a good work, which is not surprising, for it is one of the first in a great line of Hollywood Babylon publications. At the time of its release, the New York times said “It is without one single redeeming merit.” Burroughs kind of agreed, and once said ‘If people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, then I could write stories just as rotten.” He was all about entertainment, and his stories were just that, entertaining and no more. He latched onto anything that people might find thrilling — an ape boy, or an ambitious girl making out in Hollywood. Mabel, we might assume, would have found the ape boy charming, but a tree-swinging man of the Fairbanks variety, was definitely not her thing. In any case, Hollywood made its money from the sublime and the ridiculous, so why shouldn’t Burroughs have a bite of the Tinsel Town cherry?

Bibliography

The Girl From Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1922.

The King of Comedy by Mack Sennett, 1952.

 THE HIDE OUT: MABEL ON LONG ISLAND.

Mabel takes the wheel of Raymond Hitchcock’s $12,000 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Long Island 1921.

Most people are aware that New York is a collection of islands. Some of the New York boroughs are true islands, while some, like Manhattan have an attachment to the mainland. Mabel Normand grew up on Staten Island, which was a place where those weary of the big city, Manhattan, could find suburban peace. Although not itself a borough, Coney Island was a place that grew up to be a seaside playground for New Yorkers, regardless of the size of their wallets. Beyond that was Long Island, which grew up to be a playground for the more wealthy of New York inhabitants. This meant it was aspirational for many residing in the New York boroughs, and it became aspirational for those making films in the early years. Name-drop Long Island as a location, and ears pricked up. Mention Coney Island, and some would spit on the ground. Movie producer D.W. Griffith always longed for locations, where he would not run into the roughs and dregs of society, who would heckle and abuse his actors in the parks and streets of New York. He sometimes used Atlantic City, on the Jersey Shore, but in the summer, at least, the same New York rough-necks, now on vacation, would gather around him. He later took to filming on the bluffs overlooking the Hudson river at Fort Lee, New Jersey, until it began to be overly-frequented by film crews. From then on, it was remote parts of New York State. However, much closer to home was Long Island, although its residents were distinctly ‘anti-movie’.

Pearl White on the Jersey-side bluffs, overlooking the Hudson River.

Mr Griffith, though, was an acceptable character, with a kind of Shakespearian way of speaking, and an $8,000 motor car. Now, anyone that possessed such an automobile, knew Shakespeare, and wore a top hat, had to be of the better classes. In this way he managed to ingratiate himself with the socially acceptable, and could access the holiday districts of Long Island. This was fortunate for some of his actors and actresses, as it meant a ride in Griffith’s Pierce-Arrow car, out to nice parts of the island, to film in resorts like Huntington. One such fortunate was a young Mabel Normand, who in 1911, arrived in Huntington aboard Griffith’s Pierce-Arrow to make the film that was to seal her destiny, ‘The Diving Girl’. In the first scene, she arrives chauffeured in Griffith’s Pierce-Arrow, looking very smug indeed. And no wonder, for not many eighteen-year-old girls arrived at a classy resort, in an equally classy chauffeur-driven automobile. No doubt, Long Island remained forever in Mabel’s mind, and she was to revisit the island many times down the years.

We’ll forgive Princess Mabel for looking superior, as she rolls into Huntington aboard D.W. Griffith’s glamorous Pierce-Arrow motor-car.

It is highly likely that Mabel had been to Coney Island several times as a child, and one of the first Keystone films, ‘At Coney Island’, was shot at this location.  Keystone’s view of Coney, however, was rather different to that of previous movies, whose films ridiculed lower-class people. The vivacious Keystone Girl, in her top-notch clothes, gave the air of a place where you would not, necessarily, be held up at gunpoint. Later, naturally, Mabel would get away to Long Island, as much as possible. In the late 1910s, while working for Sam Goldwyn at his Fort Lee studio, she would escape the dreaded ferry ride to the studio, and the stifling summer of New York, by diving and swimming in Long Island Sound. Other film people were to do the same, and Charlie Chaplin fled the tortuous New York summer of 1925, for Long Island. He was also escaping the hot publicity surrounding his adulterous affair with the dancer Louise Brooks.  So, we have mentioned Long Island and Coney Island, but what about Mabel’s home island of Staten. This was always the home of her parents, but there were certain reasons why Mabel would only occasionally take the ferry ride to Staten Island. For one thing, the press would stake out her parent’s New Brighton home, whenever they heard Mabel was in the east. Besieged would be an adequate word, and despite all of her ‘front’ and bluster, Mabel was, at heart, a very private person. To make matters worse, the Mayor of New Brighton had a habit of waylaying Mabel at the ferry terminal, and insisted on parading her around town in an open-top car. Eventually, a legend grew up that Mabel had a falling out with her mother early on, and this story persisted into the 1920s, and appeared in many of the disreputable Hollywood Babylon publications of that time.

Left: Trailer trash hit the Coney Island hot dogs,1903. Right: The impeccable Mabel arrives in 1912.

By 1921, the movie people were spending increasingly long periods ‘imprisoned’ in Los Angeles, a trip to the east becoming a rarity. In Los Angeles, you can forget about summer, for the town was hot and repressive at all times, the seasonal Santa Anna winds providing the only relief. Two places provided a breath of fresh air – Catalina Island and San Francisco. At weekends and vacation times, you could find the stars in one of these two places. Catalina Island was where Mabel and Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle shot ‘Sea Nymphs’ In which they both indulge in some comical swimming and diving.

Fatty and Mabel on Catalina Island.

Labour Day 1921, however, found Roscoe in San Francisco. It is likely, but not absolutely certain, that Mabel was in the town as well. During the evening of 5th September, an actress called Virginia Rappe died in the room of Roscoe Arbuckle at the Saint Frances hotel, San Francisco. Some pressmen tried to discover who else was in the room at the time. They got a few names, then some bright spark came up with the notion that Mabel Normand must surely have been there, based on the fact that Mabel was on friendly terms with Roscoe and wife, Minta. This had been true, but when Roscoe and Minta separated, Mabel had little to do with Roscoe, who now hung out with a male-only crowd, to which loose females were sometimes admitted. Now, Mabel was no-where to be found. Nobody knows if she’d been in San Francisco, but a few days later, she turned up in New York. Many of the stars were holidaying in the Big Apple, where the Mary Pickford film ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ was being premiered. At first Mabel did not attempt to hide herself, and indeed, the newspapers were all “Mabel this” and “Mabel that”, with just a few journos probing her whereabouts on the fatal night. This was enough for Mabel, much as she liked being the centre of movie society, she made a run for Long Island. Not the public resort, but the private home of Raymond Hitchcock and his wife. She spent her time water-skiing, diving and swimming in the Sound, but also made a publicly-released film, showing her with the Hitchcocks. A spirited girl, carefree, far from the trials and tribulations out west, and no involvement with the Saint Frances Hotel. This was to be a working vacation, aimed at publicizing her new picture ‘Molly O’, which would have its New York premiere in November. We might presume that Mabel intended to stay on in Long Island, until called back to make her next film in Los Angeles.

Braving the choppy waters of Long Island Sound in 1921.

Mabel, then, was quite happy in the east, but someone else was not. His name was Mack Sennett, Mabel’s producer. He had been unhappy about his strained relationship with his star-of-stars, who he had bought out of her contract with Sam Goldwyn for $30,000 ($750,000 today). Mabel had wriggled and squirmed, and tried to get the deal with Sennett stopped, then even offered Goldwyn $54,000 to keep her on, but Sam was in big financial trouble, and could not finance another film. Mabel had to go with Sennett, but she drove a hard bargain. $3,000 a week, 25% of the net profits, and a luxurious dressing room, replete with marble bath. Mack acquiesced, and promised to spend $260,000 on the picture – he bowed before the Queen of Hollywood. In return, Mabel was very formal with Mack, although in the Keystone days, they’d been collaborators, and lived cheek by jowl. To cut a long story short, Mack, in the end, had been disloyal to his Keystone Girl, and they’d split in 1915, under unpleasant circumstances. Now, Mack was just Mabel’s employer, and she would treat him as such. Certainly, she would attend his boring Hollywood dinner parties and business functions, but they would never be friends. Mack was like a cat on hot bricks, when his star was out of sight, and her association with Hitchcock unnerved the King of Comedy, as he explains in his autobiography. Consequently, in October, he called her back to L.A. He’d bought a theatre in L.A. called the Mission Theatre, and had decided that Molly O’ would premiere there, before New York. Mabel was disappointed, but business was business, and she returned to the Alessandro Street studio. Leaving lovely Long Island and her friends, for the seething cauldron of Hollywood would be a wrench, but she would soon renew acquaintance with another friend out west, by the name of William Desmond Taylor. The rest is a story of intrigue, murder, and deception which has been amply covered in previous articles, so there is little need to detail this complex matter here. It is sufficient to say, that, although Mabel enjoyed the glittering events of New York movie society down the years, her bolt-hole was always Long Island.

Left: Close and personal in Raymond Hitchcock’s Long Island garden. Right: At the premiere of Molly O’ with Mack Sennett and F. Richard Jones. 1921.

Bibliography

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)

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

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

New York Morning Telegraph, September 18, 1921 ‘The leading film lights in New York’.

Los Angeles Evening Express, December 1, 1921 ‘Molly O’ Makes Audience Feel ‘Oh, You Molly!’

WHY MAKE SILENT MOVIES?

Relatively few people appreciate silent movies today, and this is hard fact, despite the legions of latter-day ‘silent’ fans. Silent movies are difficult to understand, and if you avert your eyes, to take a mouthful of popcorn, then you completely lose the plot (if you even had the plot in the first place). The simple answer is that people have changed, isn’t it? Well, there is no reason to suppose that Cro-Magnon Man thought any differently to us humans today, so it is unlikely that, in a hundred or so years, our species has suffered any serious evolution. The factors involved here are technical, yes, but also geographical, demographical, and socio-economic. This needs some explanation.

An advancement over the original Edison camera.

New technologies, modern gadgets and conveniences, are associated with the rise of world industrialisation, during the nineteenth century, and movies were no different. However, the rise of, say, the railways was not enough to spawn a full-blown movie industry, even after Edison’s great invention of a usable movie camera. The best example of the spread of both the railways and, eventually, the movies, is found in the United States. The mid-western and far-western U.S. was transformed from the wild place known by Lewis and Clark to a series of rail-heads, and attendant cities during the course of the nineteenth century. However, there was agricultural wealth to be found in the vast regions beyond the cities, and so farming communities and market town grew up, in order to feed the country and the world. In general, the small farms were connected to the markets by very bad roads and mud tracks. Farmers would only travel to the market when absolutely necessary, and the big city, where the produce eventually fetched-up, hardly ever. They were, in the main, isolated, and created their own entertainments. Isolation is two-way, and people rarely ventured into the outback, and this included troupes of theatrical players, who moved from city to city, via the railway system. Rarely did the big troupes appear in the smaller towns with no rail connection, and country people would only travel to see a show, once, perhaps twice, in a lifetime. In the U.S. at least, everything was well set for the onslaught of the movie. A movie, of course, is just a can containing a reel of film, which can easily be carried by one person to wherever there was an audience. Grandpa Clampett, sitting in the backwoods of Tennessee, could easily watch the latest screen-stars, as long as some enterprising fellow was prepared to go fetch the film, and set up a makeshift cinema. There was, very soon, a great appetite for movies in the United States. Elsewhere, things were different. The U.K. had a well-founded, spinal rail system, but it also had numerous branch lines, which spread out to almost every village. Players could travel to almost every place in the country, and it was the Music Hall that became very popular. Indeed, so popular that the film industry had a great and long problem defeating the English Music Hall, victory only being declared in the after World War 2.

Early cinema in the woods (Eastern England).

It is no wonder that film surpassed the theatre as a popular entertainment, so that the big stars of the stage could not ignore the movies, and soon those stars, such as Lillian Russell, were joining the ranks of the movie actors. By the early years of the twentieth century, however, the English Music Hall, and vaudeville was nipping away at the legitimate theatre in the U.S. and threatening to subdue the genre. The Karno troupe was taking the country by storm, with its stars like Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. These were ‘speechless’, slap-sticking comedians, and the comedy movie producers were soon chasing them down. Charlie was bright enough to know that life was easier in the movies, pay was higher, and, in any case, the silver screen would soon sweep the stage away. The town railway stations that brought the theatrical players, and the film cans, need no longer double as hotels for the travelling people, where the Chaplins, the Pickfords, the Gishes, would rest their weary heads. The movies became a double-edged sword, as the new industry stole away not just the audience, but the very actors, and the stages themselves, in many cases, were to be planted with the abominable silver screen. In his autobiography, Mack Sennett voiced his opinion on the growing success of the movies, after 1914. “Young lads and lasses” Quoth the King of Comedy “Now found they had somewhere to go in the evening — the darkened back row of the picture house.”

Theatrical star Lillian Russell; Music Hall stars Charlie Chaplin and Marie Lloyd.

Was the silent movie, then, what people wanted?  Not entirely, for the early films lacked something important – sound. In this respect there is a clear distinction between soundless drama and comedy, which made the former, in some people’s minds, more hilarious than the latter. The theatre critics continuously hammered the work of D.W. Griffith and his fellows, pointing out that the antics of the actors were over the top, and not a little forced. While the public worshipped Pickford, Normand and Sweet, the critics often mercilessly criticised their performances. The drama studios, nonetheless, had an ace up their sleeves, and that was those beautifully crafted photographs, which are now the epitome of the silent era. Later, they would use merchandising (Pickford/Normand dolls, cups, plates) to draw the audiences deeper into their web. Comedy, naturally, was a different matter, for comedy does not rely on dialogue for its kicks. Laurel and Hardy were a prime example. Silent comedy players, they adapted to sound very well, but it is clear that the dialogue merely links the scenes, and sets out the plot. The funny bits are completely silent, apart the incidental pops and bangs. ‘Incidentals’ were always necessary in the silent days, to enhance the action, although appropriate music was played all the way through.

“You too can have your own Mabel cut-out doll set!” [Looking For Mabel website].

It is a curious thing that the silent movie gave opportunities for those that would not survive the stage. Mabel Normand was credited with a voice so weak that her speech would not carry beyond the orchestra. Most of the prominent film stars of the 1910s and 1920s began their careers before 1910, and were able to play the system until the very end. When was the end? 1930, many would say, when Charlie Chaplin made ‘City Lights’, the last silent feature film to be produced. Short ‘silents’ were made occasionally down the years, although most of these were comedies. It is said that Al Jolson’s ‘The Jazz Singer’ (1927) put the first nail in the silent movie coffin, but the stars were worried long before this. Always there had been the horrible thought that some bright soul might marry sound to film. In the early 1920s there were several rumours of ‘talkies’ being developed, and by 1923 many of the old stars were looking for other ways to live in the manner to which they were accustomed. The stars were also under attack by the media, after a series of scandals, which caused many journalists to call for either the movie industry to be closed down, or for a quick introduction of ‘talkies’ so the Hollywooders would have to learn lines overnight, instead of skipping off to “Roman orgies.” The general opinion was that the sound innovators that had effectively been bought out by the silent movie moguls, so that their inventions ended up in the trashcan.

Falling stars? Norma and Constance Talmadge, Mabel Normand, Mid-1920s.

In Conclusion

Show a silent drama movie to a group of modern children, and most will flee in seconds, even a cowboy picture could not hold them. However, show them a silent comedy, and they implicitly understand, although none will watch for longer than five minutes. Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and some Chaplin funnies will get their attention, although the esoterics of late Mabel Normand (and Normand / Chaplin) pictures will not be grasped. Although there is a hardcore of ‘silent’ fans today, many will not understand the rationale of the 1910s audience, who were biding their time, waiting for something. That something was sound.

DAMSEL IN DISTRESS: ‘THE BANGVILLE POLICE’ 1913.

“Burglars!”

This is one of those early Keystone  pictures in which the studio brings together the Griffith Girl and the Keystone Girl, in the form of Mabel Normand. Being released in March 1913, the picture was produced a mere six months after Mabel flew the movie coop of D.W. Griffith at the Biograph studio in New York. Still within people’s memory, then, lay the notion that Mabel was, as Mary Pickford later said, “A heavy woman.” What she meant, of course, was that Mabel had been among that select band of dramatic actresses promoted to early stardom by D.W. Griffith that would form the core of the later ‘Hollywood’. Mary Pickford’s words (written in 1916) were meant to illustrate Mabel’s remarkable transition from heavy woman (actually ‘bad girl’ and vamp) to light-hearted, vivacious comedienne. Not quite so remarkable, though, as Mary implied, for Mabel had been starring in Vitagraph comedies in 1911, then later, the Biograph comedies for Mack Sennett.

Why have a steering wheel, when you can have a ship’s tiller?

Following the creation of Keystone, Mabel attempted to keep her drama and comedy running side by side. This allowed her to maintain her credibility as a serious actress, with that credibility picked up, somewhat, by the studio, and without which the Keystone films would have been endowed with junk status. Mack Sennett never had a girl, other than Mabel, that could put over a plot as well – some could be funny, some could odd-looking, some could take the knocks of slap-stick, but none were able to effectively marry the comedic with the dramatic, which is why, in 1921, Sennett could spend $250,000 (6 million-plus today) making ‘Molly O’, starring Mabel Normand, a film which he billed as a drama, bringing him on par with the big studios, like Paramount. In ‘Bangville Police’ it will be noticed that Mabel’s acting is ‘over the top’ but this was normal in silent films, although it is clear that there is nothing ‘wooden’ or forced about the way Mabel carries this out. The Bangville Police, are most certainly the forerunners of the Keystone Kops, but even the latter would be horrified by the parlous state of the Bangville squad car. However, the public would soon demand that they see more of the Kops.

In brief, this is a classic early Keystone film, in which Mabel forms the fulcrum of the story, around which all of the nonsense is spun. On this point, Charlie Chaplin said the following:

“Mabel Normand, who was quite charming, weaved in and out of them [the films] and justified their existence.”

-and-

“She provided the pulchritudinous interest.”

Charlie, naturally, steers clear of Mabel’s acting ability, but anyhow, we take his meaning.

The Film.

Cast:

Mabel Normand: Della

Nick Cogley: Della’s father

Dot Farley: Della’s mother

Fred Mace: The Sherriff

Charles Avery: Deputy

Edgar Kennedy: Deputy

Raymond Hatton: Farm Hand

Director: Henry Lehrman

Runtime: 8 minutes

Release Date: 25th April 1913.

The Story

Della is a bright, young maiden living on a farm in Arcadia, otherwise known as Bangville, and her only wish is to own a little calf, and so she feeds the cow by hand, seemingly in the belief that this will produce a calf. Her idyllic life is interrupted by the sudden appearance of what appear to be burglars (or ‘burglers’). She barricades the door to keep the villains out, just as mother goes to enter, and of course she goes flying.

Mabel in Arcadia.

Della knows who to contact, and phones for the Police. Unfortunately, the Bangville cops, are not up to much, and the sheriff’s undertaking his favourite occupation — sleeping. He soon gathers that something is amiss, and alerts his deputy and a local posse by firing his gun into the ceiling. The deputy and the rest of the make-shift militia soon come running, but falling all over the place, as might be expected. The sheriff and his deputy pile into the sheriff’s dilapidated flivver, and off they go in a series of bangs and infernal explosions. The posse runs off into the landscape armed with assorted agricultural implements. Meanwhile, Della’s parents have reached the barricaded door and they begin to break it down, as Della retreats into a closet. Della is discovered, and she attempts to explain what happened. A noise is heard outside the door, so daddy, gun in hand, opens it, and runs straight into the sheriff. More explanations are made, and everyone runs to the barn, where Della first saw the villains. Of course, there is nobody there, but Della notices a new-born calf in the hay, and everything is forgotten, as Della cradles the calf.

Notes on the film

Much of the picture is shot around the Keystone lot, but there is what appears to be an abandoned mining town, which serves as Bangville town. Built on a hill, it is not like anything found on the Keystone lot, but very much like fake towns built by the Thomas Ince studio, out at Topanga Canyon. In his autobiography, Sennett tells of creeping into Ince’s place, and using his facilities and pyrotechnics. However, the two producers worked closely with each other, so we have might expected mutual consent.

We have already mentioned the work of D.W. Griffith, of whom Mack and Mabel were disciples. Like many other Keystone stories, this one follows those of the great man. Griffith was very interested in Utopia, or Arcadia, where glossamer-clad maidens flitted around, heroines of another age. He never quite, though, achieved the gossamer, as there was not one girl at his studio, willing to wear see-through clothes. He was also interested in the concept of ‘Old Dixie’ which he sometimes confused with Utopia. Many of his films, like this Keystone one, involved young girls trapped in a house, while villains try to break in. Mabel looks pretty scared here, and Griffith always panicked his actresses by firing a shotgun behind the camera.

Left; Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett in ‘An Arcadian Maid’ 1910. Rgt: “Burglars!” Mary Pickford again in ‘The Lonely Villa 1909 (written by Mack Sennett).

Some of the audience might have pitied poor Della (Mabel) here, for in her idyllic life, she is surrounded by old people. However, for later films, Mack Sennett gives her a boyfriend in the shape of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. They lived happily ever after, or so it seems. Again, some of the audience might have found Della a little silly, while others might have claimed the ‘Kops’ to be ridiculous. Another section might have been angry at the way country rubes and bumpkins were portrayed, but Sennett was out to attract the widest audience possible. In other words, there was something for everyone.

Whatever the manufacturer of the squad car, it is clear that it dates back to the early years of the century, and might be a Pierce-Arrow. This makes it unusual, for ten year old cars were rare, back in the day. Most of them had expired, and saw out their days as chicken coops.