Mae Marsh

In August 1913, I attended a small studio party, where I met up with my old nemesis Gladys Smith, or Mary Pickford as you may know her. Although I always harbored some small resentment against her, I was always friendly towards Mary – just for old time’s sake. And, of course, those old times (just two years back) were what we always talked of. One subject that always came up, when we Biograph girls got together, was that little minx Mae Marsh. You are all undoubtedly aware that one way directors and producers seek to boost their films is by introducing scantily dressed women. However, we Biograph actresses were staunch Edwardian girls, and the whole idea of showing even a bare ankle, was anathema to us (yes I did appear in a swimsuit twice, but as an athlete, not a bathing beauty). One day Griffith approached Mary Pickford, saying he was going to star her in a film called Man’s Genesis. “You mean you want me to prance around in a grass skirt” replied the indignant Mary. “Well I won’t do it!” Mary called all the actresses together, and we all agreed to turn the part down. Later, Griffith came to us, saying that, as we had behaved so despicably, he was giving the part to the new girl on the lot, Mae Marsh. What was more annoying was the fact that she was starred in the next film ‘The Sands of Dee’. Of course, she later did the big one, ‘The Birth of a Nation’. We blackballed Miss Marsh for many years after, until she finally said this to the press:

 “Of course, I was thrilled, and she (Pickford) was very much hurt. And I thought, Well, it’s all right with me. That is something. I was, you know, just a lame-brain.”

Naturally, I have forgiven her long ago. One thing that came of this incident was an agreement between the Biograph girls that we would do only wholesome films, and we would never disrespect each other in public. We remained firm and resolute, and it was only in the late 20s that the likes of Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and Dorothy Mackaill, began to kow-tow to the directors, and expose themselves to the detriment of the industry. I feel these actresses will soon fall [author’s note: they could and did].


Flappers and Flashers: Bow, Brooks, Mackaill

Having got that off my chest, I will tell you of the rest of my discussion with ‘America’s Sweetheart’. I told Mary that we’d received word from Adam Kessell that he was about to sign a certain Charles Spencer Chaplin, as part of his program to give us credibility by taking on actors from the legitimate stage. I had seen Chaplin perform, and knew he always had star billing (separate from his company, Karno). Mary had not seen him perform, but, amazingly, had seen him in real life – in a restaurant. The ‘Sweetheart’ went all dreamy eyed, as she described his bohemian appearance, his tousled hair, and his small, delicate hands that moved in deliberate, but subtle ways. Her companions, all silly young girls, thought he must be a Greenwich Village poet, an artist, or a writer. They were gobsmacked when told he was Charlie Chaplin, the famous vaudevillian. “Of course, you spoke to him” I said. “Well no”, she replied “, we had not been introduced!” Typical prissy Mary.


Chaplin Billing

I have to admit that I dreamed about ‘Bohemian Charlie from Bow’ for the next few days. When I was young I’d been a strange, lonely girl, and often wandered the Greenwich area hoping to meet a bohemian artist who’d want to put me on canvas. I imagined he’d whisk me away to some South Sea island, where we’d spend long hours on the beach painting each other (didn’t all artists do this?). As you know, I did become an artist’s model, but under a more commercial circumstance, and in wet and windy New York to boot. Getting back to Charlie, I was sitting in Mack’s office one day in September, casually looking through a pile of letters on his desk. I noticed one from Kessell and Baumann instructing him to get down to a certain L.A. theater and meet Chaplin, who they had now signed. “Why didn’t you tell me about this”, I shouted at Mack, “when are we going to see him!” “We’re not”, he replied. I knew why – Mack had been rejected by the theater in his early days, and had harbored a grudge ever since. However, I had no problem persuading Mack to go, as K & B would be furious if he didn’t. When the day came, we went down, and saw Charlie’s show, but I was too nervous to go backstage and meet him. I stood outside on the pavement, and Mack brought Charlie out to see me. Both Charlie and I were most embarrassed, and more stared at each other, than spoke to each other. As the great master, Griffith, always warned  – “never meet your idols”. I had come to idolize Chaplin on the stage, and he had idolized me in my films. Mack broke the ice, and suggested we all go to dinner at a restaurant. As we sat at the table I saw a great change come over Mack’s face. He’d obviously detected some chemistry between us, and thought Charlie could easily sweep me up, and gallop away, like some Arab sheik. I can understand his concern, as, if I had left Keystone in 1913 or ‘14, the studio would have been done for (Ford Sterling was already about to leave). Mack was still sulking, as he dropped me off at home, but things were obviously worse the next day, when I heard him shouting down the phone, on a long distance call to Adam Kessell. “I won’t have that egotistical limey here”, he raged. Of course, he was out-voted by K & B, so had to comply.

Mabels-Dramatic C8aa1

“Where’s that tin-type!” Mack on the hunt in Mabel’s Dramatic Career.


As you know Chaplin eventually arrived, but before he did so, Mack put me in Mabel’s Dramatic Career. The film was the usual Keystone nonsense, in which I am abducted by rejected suitor Ford Sterling, and tied to a barrel of gunpowder. This is, however, all on a film, shown within the actual film, and Mack is seen watching the picture. I was his former love, and Mack loses it, and fires his pistol at the screen. I remember making a scene, which I thought was the final one, in which the ‘villain’  (played by Ford Sterling) and I are married, and have three children – the usual happy ending. For some reason, I never saw all the rushes, and only saw the completed picture at a cinema with some of my friends. We were all shocked, for scenes had been inserted, which showed Mack hunting down the ‘villain’ to our house, then, seeing me and the children with him, he prepared to kill us all. In those days such things were not portrayed in comedies, and the inference was clear. If Chaplin ever laid a finger on The Keystone Girl, Mack would kill him (and, in all probability, me too).


Could Chaplin be the Sheik?

When the day came, and Chaplin did arrive, I kept well clear of him, and Chaplin, who must have seen the film, made no attempt to see me. Mack tried to keep us apart professionally, but eventually had to bring us together. We were stuck for some gags in an early scene for Mabel’s Strange Predicament, and Mack called Charlie over to provide some of his English Music Hall gags, for which he was well known. Charlie complied, and did his now famous tramp routine for the first time. He ran through his one minute long repertoire, which had us all in stitches, and then did a 13 second filmed scene with me.


Chas and Mabel get personal in a hotel minus a roof.

He was then whisked away to shoot a short picture in Venice, under Pathe Lehrman. We continued filming without Chas, but, on his return, we shot more scenes with him. Chas seemed more confident in his new costume, got up to speed, and finished up chasing me around the hotel in my pajamas. I felt obliged to keep up with the tramp for professional reasons, but the tuberculosis, which I was now suffering from, was sapping my energy. I ended up mentally and physically exhausted by the film’s end. Again, things happened in the film, of which I was totally unaware. It seems Chaplin was given an extension to the hotel lobby scene, in which I appeared for 13 seconds, making the scene almost a minute long. My scene where I pause outside, before entering the hotel, was meant to be the first scene, but was relegated to the third scene. I was absolutely furious, and charged into Mack’s office, ranting and stamping my feet, as I did in the park scene for His Trysting Place. I told Mack to keep the limey tramp out of my pictures.


I nearly got killed riding on the back of Chaplin’s sickle. Mabel at The Wheel.

Two months went by, and K & B decided I should be paired with Chas for the two-reeler, Mabel at The Wheel. This was my big one, as two-reelers were a new innovation. I had the expected big argument with Mack, telling him the limey would steal my picture. Mack simply shrugged his shoulders, saying “Orders is Orders.” O.K.”, I said, ” I’ll do the film, but I must have directorial control, and there is to be no tramp costume!” Alright, alright”, said Mack, and we set to making the picture. Poor old Chas was completely unsettled, when he saw me behind the camera, out on location in Santa Monica. Of course, he got all shirty, and began trying to change all the scenes. Nevertheless, we got a lot done, but Chas went on strike mid-afternoon. This was disastrous, as it was an expensive film, and we could not afford any hold ups. With so much film shot, I could not fire ‘Mr. Ego’, so I ordered everyone back to the studio. Of course Mack soon spotted that we were back two hours early, and flew out of his office. “What the..” he ranted. “That Englisher refused to work”, I said. Mack charged into the dressing room and confronted Chas, threatening to fire him. Of course he could not fire Chas, and in the ensuing long-distance call, Kessell told him to smooth things over with the tramp, who was making


Part way through this scene Chas went on strike.

them a whole load of bucks. Things were smoothed over, and we both realized that a leading lady is never in competition with her leading man. Consequently, we combined our efforts, and directed each other in our joint films. In effect, we had both won. Mack was never happy about Chas, though, and even put private dicks on my tail, to see if I was meeting up with the tramp. He had heard that we were getting together in my dressing room, and sometimes ‘stealing’ a company car to go into L.A. when we were bored with filming.

Dining every night with Mack at The Athletic Club was becoming very tiresome, and his friends there were also un-charismatic and dull. Chas had taken a room at the club, and I suggested we should have him along with us. Mack agreed, only because he would know where we were every night. Fortunately, boring old Mack always fell asleep after dinner, so we two would skip off to see a show or a picture, waking the old boy up when we returned. Oh, how young, and how gay we were, in those days before the storms hit us.

The lesson in all of this is not to dismiss any person or their views, you can always learn something from your fellow actors. Your enemies are in the studio office, not on the set. Furthermore, never head for the dressing room as soon as you’ve done your bit – those bums might be filming you right out of the picture.


* In part 4 I tell how Chas and I learned advanced comedy, and I get to understand how to manipulate the studio system.




Off to the land of Orange Groves.

In part 1 of my advice and autobiography, I told of my struggles at Biograph under The Great Griffith. Now, heading for Keystone’s new base out west, I was about to begin my astonishing, storm-tossed career. As we drove to the New York railway station, we passed the Biograph studio, and I could not help but give the place, and Griffith, the finger. I don’t know if that southern gentlemen saw me, but I hope he did. I delighted in the thought that he would soon have to boil himself in oil, when he saw our cutting-edge Keystone films.

The Tourists

“California here we come!”

The journey west was relatively uneventful, but our strange group, comprising several aging men and a young girl, seemingly 12 years old, solicited some odd looks from old maids and plug-hatted gents alike. “What’s up dearie, I shouted at the gawkers, “Haven’t you seen a white slave girl before?” I would have given them hell all the way to L.A., but Mack and Fred Mace kept me pinned down – something to do with the Mann Act.

We eventually arrived in the City of Angels, where I discovered we had only the one camera we had brought with us, and the studio (if you could call it that) was not in downtown, but out in dusty old Edendale, where there were no made up roads, no real drainage, and where electricity might, or might not, arrive sometime in the future. Mack tried to get a studio out in upper-crust Glendale, but K & B said their old Bison lot at Edendale was good enough. In any case, no Glendale resident would sell us a lot – “We don’t want any tin-types here” they stormed. Charlie Chaplin always told the story that when he first arrived at Keystone in 1914, it was like a run-down lumber yard, but he does not know the half of it. The lot in 1912 was just weed-ridden dirt, with one small building that had been a grocery store (it probably went bust, due to a severe lack of customers). This had been fine for Bison, who made cowboy films, and if they needed

Keystone b4 Keystone

The Keystone lot before Keystone. Arrowed is the grocery store.

more room they could always gallop off into the surrounding empty countryside. Oh, yes, there was also a grim bungalow that Bison had erected, and I insisted that I had half of it for a dressing room, or I’d head back to civilization. Mack agreed, and the boys used the other half for their dressing room, and among this throng, Mack tried to maintain his office. I further insisted Mack get me an oil heater – it’s not always so warm in the golden state. Of course, on cold days, I let the actors in to get warmed up, but I insisted Mack could only enter by appointment. Poor old Mack, he’d taken the place of Griffith, and so, you see, I’d already begun my journey to take control of Keystone. At first, I called Mack, Napoleon Sennett, because he thought he was a great mover and a shaker, but then I shortened it to Nappy, to put him in his place. Mack insisted on taking me to dinner every night, which worried me not, as he always paid. Sometimes, though, I claimed to be too tired, as Mack was a complete social bore. He only took me out, so he could keep an eye on me, but there was nothing much else to do in those days, anyhow. Most of my friends were in New York, and it felt like we were all alone in the wild west. Rents in Edendale were cheap, but the place was so grim, and mind-numbing that we lived in hotels further into L.A. So much, then, for my dream of partying all night.


Down on Allesandro Street, Edendale 1914

One of the plus points of Keystone, was that we shot most films in the L.A. parks, which were absolutely beautiful, although we had little time to enjoy them. As in the New York parks, there were always cops ready to run us out, but my fluttering eyelashes, aided by Mack’s fluttering wallet, usually gave us a couple of hours shooting time. We shot anywhere and everywhere, including at baby contests. At one of these we changed an unattended baby left in a pram, for one of a different hue. Unfortunately, the distraught mother returned before we’d finished the shoot. We skeddadled before the cops arrived.


Echo Park L.A.

As time went by, more actors, actresses and extras arrived at the studio. Being very astute, I kept well in with all the company, old and new (if I liked them). To them, I was always gay, amusing, and a good fellow, and I even maintained their friendship with good old dollars. I never knew when I would need their help against Napoleon Sennett or K & B. New actresses were always a worry to me, and I’ve lost count of the arguments I had with Nappy, who was always looking to boost new actresses’ careers, and, I secretly suspected, he wanted to make a new ‘Mabel’. When any new girl came on the lot, I always went ‘missing’ so that I would not meet her. Usually, I went into the men’s dressing room, where no-one would look for me, and peered out through a peep-hole with an inquisitive eye on the new upstart, . When an actress by the strange name of Bessie Love, who was incredibly attractive, came on the lot with her boss, D.W. Griffith, I was, fortunately, in New York plotting against Nappy and K&B, so I was spared a heart attack.


The captivating Miss Love.


I befriended many of Keystone’s actresses, most of whom were not star material. I got on well with Minta Arbuckle, Peggy Pearce, and tragic Helen Carruthers, who was so often Charlie Chaplin’s leading lady at Keystone. I usually tried to keep any real competitors out of my films, so no girl ever stole a scene from me. One who did scare me was Virginia Kirtley, who was a real stunner (damn her blond hair) and a natural born actress. After she appeared with me in Mabel’s Dramatic Career, I told Mack he was not to cast her with me again. In the film, I beat her up real good with a stick, and then half-throttled the so-and-so. Why her career fizzled out so early, I do not know, but I hope I was not the reason [Endnote]. You will have noticed that I was the kiss of death to any actress who appeared with me, and that blond bombshell, Jewel Carmen, who appeared with me in That Ragtime Band (1913), only progressed by leaving Keystone. Jewel got herself in plenty of trouble, and I found out later that she was little more than a cheap whore, so we were well rid of her.

Virginia K

Mack messing with Virginia. Mabel gave her a good beating.

Now everyone wants to ask me about Mae Bushe, the actress who I befriended, and got into Keystone. The story goes that I caught her in bed with Mack, and Mae hit me over the head with a vase. Unfortunately, everyone has the chronology wrong. I did argue with Mack over Mae (and others) in July 1915, but the head injury I received (from a shoe thrown while shooting wedding scene) occurred in October 1915. So, no connection. Mae was just another floozie that Mack was punting along, to my detriment. Mack and I were ostensibly, engaged, but this had all been a ruse, although our mothers expected something to happen i.e. they expected us to marry. Neither of us was interested in marriage, but in my fury, I challenged Mack to do the deed. He hedged a little, but half agreed , and later showed me a $50,000 ring he’d bought. He then intimated that if I pulled out, I could keep the sparkler. Naturally, I tore his arm off, and that was that.

Endnote: In the film, Mabel completely loses it, and adopts the most frightening face in Tinseltown. It must have scared the bejeebaz out of poor Virginia. Mary Pickford said this of the Biograph Mabel “She was the representative type of villainess, the flashing-eyed creature of temperament, whose very looks were stilettos in your heart, and her movements were of a snake crawling through the brush.” No wonder she refused to appear with Mabel after Mender of Nets – she couldn’t stand the nightmares!


* In Part 3 Charlie Chaplin comes to town, and all our lives are turned upside down.



‘Never work with children or babies’ they say. Mabel seems unconcerned out west in 1912.


In spite of what many people think today, Mabel was a huge star in the 1910s. She was not really the female Chaplin, as many believe, but the female Douglas Fairbanks. Women adored Doug, and men wanted to be him. Men adored Mabel, and women wanted to be her (including many of the then current stars). Mabel was a beauty, but one that performed great feats of daring on-screen, and so prominent did she become that every studio wanted to have their own daring heroine. Pathe soon created The Perils of Pauline and the Exploits of Elaine serials for Pearl White. However, while Mabel played an ingenue (or more precisely a gamin) Pearl White appeared as a more sophisticated heroine (consequently she was much adored by reluctant ingenue Mary Pickford). The mystery is how Mabel, rejected by Biograph’s D.W. Griffith, and some other studios, become so prominent. Mabel beat Griffith’s ‘Our Mary’ (Pickford) to stardom, and put her name over a studio before Chaplin, Pickford, and even Sennett. Let’s start our investigation with the advice she gave via the contemporary press.


“Am I a star yet, Mr Griffith.” Mabel in a Florence Lawrence film.

1. Mabel’s public advice

In early 1924, Mabel was in the throes of rebuilding her public persona in the wake of the Taylor, and Dines affairs, but before the Church affair reared its  ugly head. The article was in two parts: advice, followed by a mini-autobiography. Under advice, she said she did not condone the usual advice given to prospective actresses of ‘DON’T DO IT!’ She draws attention to the fact that the profession is hard work (but omits the fact that acting can be extremely dangerous). Luck and favoritism can make a star, she says, but they can’t keep her there – only the public can do that. How does all this relate to Mabel herself?  Mabel probably worked harder than anyone in order to become a star, and struggled endlessly to remain one. Like so many others, she began her Mein Kampf at the Biograph Studio under D.W. Griffith.


Mabel with D.W: Faked  to annoy Griffith


2. Advice: The truth

Let’s have a little fun, and try to sketch out what advice Mabel might have given if she had the opportunity, and was not intending to return to the screen. As in the original, we will combine advice with an autobiography. Things might have gone like this:

What would I say to any girl intending to go into acting? Well, I would address my advice, not to the girl in question, but to her mother – “Don’t put your daughter on the stage (or in pictures) Mrs Worthington!” I never had a stage mother, but I did have a mother (are you surprised?) although a mother who fretted over my entry into acting, and tried very hard to stop me carrying on with the profession. When I got home after that first day at Biograph, at two in the morning, she went beserk, saying I was not to go back, but did snatch away my ten dollars earnings. Later, I told her I’d met a nice boy from the studio called Mack, who would be my chaperone, and look out for me (Mack was not really chaperone material, but he did buy me a milkshake). I showed her the two dollar engagement ring Mack had bought me, and she agreed I could return to the studio.


Mack and Mabel: not really lovers, but co-conspirators.

Now, girls should note that motion picture studios are not the nicest of places to spend one’s time. The surroundings are not at all pleasant, and you will be expected to hang around all week to pick up a lousy extra’s role for five dollars. You might be asked to move sets around, for which you will receive payment in the form of a dry, dog-eared sandwich. You will be expected to bow low before the director and producer for the meanest part, and prostitute yourself for any half decent role. Actresses were also expected to change their names. I refused to do any of this, and while Gladys Smith became Mary Pickford, Sarah Sweet became Blanche Sweet, and Juanita Horton became Bessie Love, I remained good old Mabel Normand. Once the studio had taken your name,

Sandwich time1

Biograph in L.A. Mack clowns, while Vivian Prescott partakes of a dry Griffith sandwich.

they owned your soul – for ever. Consequently, I received only supporting roles and extra’s work, like becoming a red Indian, getting chased up and down a muddy hillside by cowboys. The director down there, Mr Griffith, got upset because I mocked him behind his back, and I gathered together a posse of worshiping actresses, who ran amok causing problems for the studio elite. When the studio left to winter in California, sad-sack Griffith refused to take me, so I departed for the Vitagraph, where I learned comedy under Flora Finch and John Bunny. However, I was eventually fired for mooning out of the dressing room window at passengers on the railway. Well, they shouldn’t have been staring into my window. I then tried Kessell and Baumann’s Reliance outfit, but was soon let go for being ‘unacceptable’. All I did was to pull a chair out from under the fat director.

The eyes, the eyes

Mabel being cute in Oh, Those Eyes. To her fans, butter would not melt in her mouth.


I managed to return to Griffith, where I was put into tragic roles, in which I always died. The Great Director tried to convince me I was useless, and tortured me by forcing me to continually change facial gestures during rehearsals. The next time I see Mr ‘Great’ Griffith, I must congratulate him for developing my trademark lightning-quick facial expressions. “Thanks for the three million bucks D.W. – you hook-nosed Johnny Reb!”


Mabel begins a series of facials in Mickey (1918).


You will see that I did not exactly ingratiate myself with the studios, but before you contemplate doing the same you should be aware that I had a plan. I did not ingratiate myself with any director, I ingratiated myself with Mack Sennett. Yes, the same Mack Sennett who many at Biograph predicted would get absolutely nowhere. But I knew different. Mack was pressing Griffith to form a comedy unit, and when Griffith asked who he proposed as his starring comedian, he said Mabel Normand. D.W. might have sniggered under his breath, but he willingly let his recalcitrant Mabel go. Mack had let me in on what he was up to, and his intention was to make a few Biograph comedies, and use these to obtain backers for his own studio. Our 1912 sojourn in L.A. gave Mack the opportunity to waylay Kessell and Baumann, who were in the city seeing to business relating to Bison films. When Sennett told the pair he had a beautiful leading lady ready to sign, their ears pricked up, regardless of the Reliance fiasco, and agreed to set up a comedy unit in New York, to be called Keystone. We had pulled the rug out from under Griffith, and after making a few Biograph comedies, we departed, taking Ford Sterling, and Fred Mace, Pathe Lehrman, and other Biograph actors with us. My pay was a staggering $125 per week ($3,000 in today’s money).


Kessell and Baumann looking very ‘Way Down East’.

You will see that progress in movies is not just about prostrating yourself before the studio bosses, and a certain amount of cunning and deception is required. My association with Mack and the new studio, freed me from any need to compete with other Biograph actresses. And formidable they were. You might recognize some of their names. They included Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, the Gish sisters, Florence Lawrence, and Vivian Prescott.

I’ll just mention what we did in the last few weeks at Biograph when I made films for their comedy unit, which served to showcase my talents without any real intra-mural interference. Memorable films were Tomboy Bessie, A Dash Through the Clouds, The Diving Girl, The Fickle Spaniard, and Oh Those Eyes. Any one of these could have got K&B going, but, to be sure, in The Fickle Spaniard, I craftily undid a button on my blouse,


Someone forgot to strap ingenue Mabel down in The Fickle Spaniard.

under cover of picking a flower. For once I became a naughty Edwardian girl, as my cleavage was exposed to the attention of my intended employers. Mack was clever enough to suggest this, and he further suggested drawing attention to my darting eyes, and my quick change face. Unlike Griffith, Mack developed my pout, something I did naturally when being serious, much to The Great Director’s annoyance. Of course, while in California with Biograph, I made straight dramatic film such as The Eternal Mother (in which I died) and The Mender of Nets, in which I acted the prissy Mary Pickford clear off the set.

Pouting Mabel

How to out-pout Betty Boop. Mabel in Oh, Those Eyes.

After making a few films in New York for Keystone, Mack managed to persuade K&B to send us to L.A. where we could make films in good daylight, and I could party, without having mom and dad breathing down my neck.


In the next part I will explain how I came to rule over Keystone.



My last post concerned Mabel Normand’s 1914 film, Mabel at the Wheel, in which many of the film’s race sequences were shot at the Santa Monica raceway. The races  ran from 1909 to 1919, as part of a program to put Santa Monica on the map. Circuit length was eight miles, and the track comprised public roads, with a hard-packed earth surface. The roads used were San Vicente Boulevard, Ocean Avenue, and Wilshire Boulevard, which forming a triangular-shaped course. At the time the races began, Santa Monica was little more than a village, with a population of 7,000 (90,000 today), while near neighbor Los Angeles was very much larger, and even Venice was more developed.


Where is everyone? Ocean Park 1900


Santa Monica’s link with racing and the movies.

Santa Monica had no real industry in the early days, and it mainly served as a seaside resort for the residents of Los Angeles, although travel by road was difficult, and it often took over two hours to reach the coast. Fortunately, there were the trollies, which covered the miles much more quickly. Interestingly, the early movie people often lived out in such places, as they could not afford the high rents in L.A. and Hollywood. In fact, ‘tin types’ were not at all welcome in Hollywood in the early days. In later years, the increasingly wealthy stars moved to Hollywood, the bohemian quarter of L.A. or Beverley Hills, but retained beach houses at Santa Monica (e.g. the Arbuckles and Mabel Normand).

Beach_Hse Adrift

Fatty and Mabel’s beach house at Malibu (Fatty and Mabel Adrift 1916).


The cars and the track.

The cars that ran in the 200 mile long races, were usually stripped down road cars, powered by huge aero engines of around 900 cubic inches (almost 15 litres), many of them chain-driven. European cars were fairly prominent, and included ‘rocket ships’ such as Fiat and Peugeot. Although slow to get on the pace, starting grids were soon full of American cars, like Stutz and Mercer. In spite of their vast engine size, these cars were only capable of reaching a little over 90 mph on the long straights available, which was just as well considering the road surface they raced on. Frighteningly, the early racer cars had wooden-spoked wheels that could disintegrate at any second, and often did.


‘Terrible’ Teddy Tetzlaff and mechanic try to fix their monster 900-cubic-inch Fiat, sabotaged by Mabel’s dad (Speed Kings 1913).

The photo of Doug Pullen crashing at Dead Man’s Curve in 1914, after his front wheel broke away is well-known. Cars could also turn over, if control was lost on the rutted surface of the track. Mabel’s car turning turtle in Mabel at The Wheel is based on a real life event that occurred while Keystone were filming a 1914 event at Dead Man’s Curve.


Above: Two views of the rollover at Deadman’s Curve. Below: Mabel & Co right her overturned car (Mabel at The Wheel 1914).


Although no-one was ever killed at Dead Man’s Curve, this is not true of other parts of the course. A huge crash occurred on San Vicente Avenue during the 1916 race, when a car’s steering broke, and the vehicle was launched off the circuit. The car cut down several trees, and the driver, a soda-stand lady, a cameraman, and a spectator were all killed, the latter by the detached car radiator. To be hit by one of these monster cars was always fatal – they weighed around three tons. The cars were extremely difficult to

DMC-Eddie Pullen-1914

Doug Pullen has an appointment with the barriers, as a wheel breaks loose. Note spectators (left) running for their lives, the brave camera-man, and onlookers up a telegraph pole.

handle due to their colossal weight, heavy steering, puny brakes, and poor road-holding. Many early movie stars bought these impossibly expensive cars, but soon found that driving, and even starting, the monsters was more effort than what it was worth, and they soon acquired chauffeurs. Those that didn’t found themselves having numerous accidents, and speeding tickets, when the massive cars got away from them. No small number of actors were killed, including Florence La Badie, and even Mack Sennett was smashed up, when he entrusted the driving to a less than able person. Sennett himself collected accidents and speeding tickets at a great rate. Many actresses bought themselves miniature cars, Mary Pickford having an ultra-small Rolls Royce, and Mabel Normand possessed a small cycle car, although both stars owned full-sized ‘Rollers’, Pierce Arrows, and Packard twin-sixes.


Mabel with her Mercer, using the world’s first mobile phone.


Santa Monica and track.

Heroes of the track.

Inevitably, some of the drivers, whose race wins were heavily advertised, became heroes to the spectators. One of the great legends was Earl Cooper. Born in 1883, Cooper was a prolific winner of big car events, especially for the Stutz racing team. In 1913, he appeared in the Keystone film Speed Kings in which he was woven into a story, where Ford Sterling wants him to marry his daughter, played by Mabel Normand. In the film, Cooper appears very embarrassed, and disinterested, even in the lovely Mabel. Unlike many racing legends, Cooper, won his races by being more astute than the next guy. He was also savvy enough to retire early, and, consequently, lived to the ripe old age of 79.

Mabel_ tetzlaffa

Miss Keystone takes a spin with Terrible Teddy (don’t touch that chain Mabel!).

A major competitor of Earl Cooper was Teddy Tetzlaff, who in Speed Kings wins the affections of Mabel, even though he does not win the race. This is all real-life Tetzlaff stuff, for Teddy was an exuburent, flamboyant character, who was not afraid of the camera. In fact, in Speed Kings, the grinning Teddy seems more interested in the camera lens than he is in the luscious Keystone Girl. Mabel, of course, was over the top, but she adored great achievers like Tetzlaff and Courtland Dines, hard men like Sennett, bohemian-type poets like Chaplin, and suave and sophisticated gents like W.D. Taylor. Tetzlaff always had the term ‘Terrible’ pre-fixed to his name, because of his habit of blowing his engines and gearboxes apart. However, his Benz engine survived long enough at Bonneville Salt Flats to create a new world speed record of 142.8 MPH in 1914. Tetzlaff worked for a number of years in car racing films with Wally Reid, but, inevitably, Teddy died in a car crash in 1929. His son, Teddy jr. became a movie cameraman.


Left: Earl Cooper doesn’t want this crazy Dutchman’s daughter. Right: Terrible Teddy is oblivious to what  Madcap Mabel’s saying, as he savors being a movie star (Speed Kings).


Barney Oldfield was a great friend of Mack Sennett, so made many appearances in Keystone films. He appeared fleetingly in several Keystones, although he more, or less, starred in Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life in 1913. Oldfield was a totally different type of racer, being rather portly, and seemingly much older than he actually was. He had many great achievements to his record, including the world speed record, and became a tire manufacturer, joining forces with Firestone in 1919 to form the Oldfield Tire Company. Oldfield was among the first to use a safety harness in racing. In Barney Oldfield’s a Race for a Life, Barney races a train that is going run over damsel Mabel Normand, who is chained to the rail track. Together with Mack Sennett, he rescues Mabel who has been placed on the line by archetypal villain Ford Sterling.


Mabel is saved: Barney and his cigar are heroes.

Over time the cars began to change. Engines began to be smaller (but more powerful), so the vehicles were less top heavy and, consequently, less prone to toppling over. Chain drive very slowly gave way to gear-driven  transmission, and controls became lighter, and more rational in their layout. The end result was safer, faster, but in some ways, less exciting autos. The day of the dinosaur was over.




Mabel is ‘Mistress Cool’ at the wheel of her Rolls Royce



A mammoth DOHC Fiat engine of 21 litres (1,281 cubic inches).


What Mack and Mabel dreamed of in 1911. A Pierce-Arrow.


ADash del rey

A Dash Through the Clouds 1912. The grid-like structure behind Mabel is the outside of  the Playa del Rey boarded race-track.




A very Parisian Mabel about to enter the Hollywood Hotel.

Mabel aficionados, and plenty of others, will know of Mabel at the Wheel. This was a film intended to boost Mabel’s screen persona to new heights. Admittedly, it was unusual at that time for a studio to even release a star’s name, let alone develop their character. However, we are talking about the unusual circumstances pervading the Keystone Studio. The Mabel of the screen was the real-life Mabel, and the real-life Mabel was responsible for bringing success to Keystone and Mack Sennett. For this Mabel demanded total loyalty from Sennett – no big-name female stars in her films, and no boosting of any actresses who may come onto the lot. Furthermore, she insisted that no man should steal a scene from her, although originals like Ford Sterling, Fred Mace, and Mack Swain, could compliment her as leading men.


“Get out of my film, you floozie!” Battle for stardom: Mabel vs Virginia Kirtley.

Mabel got her way, and in early 1914, two months before Mabel At The Wheel, a humdinger of a film would be made that showcased The Keystone Girl, at the exclusion of Sterling, Swain and Roscoe Arbuckle. Although a single-reeler, the film was intended to lead Mabel later into a big (for the time) two-reeler (Mabel At The Wheel). A rough script had been drawn up for the single-reeler called Mabel’s Strange Predicament, but, unfortunately, Mack and Mabel were stuck on how to construct the first scene, which was to be in, and around, a hotel lobby. A new, highly skilled gag-man had just arrived at the studio, and Sennett grabbed him. His name was Charlie Chaplin. “Put on a comedy costume”, said the boss, “then get on the set, and see what you can do”. Chaplin obliged, and used the costume of a character he knew from the music hall – the tramp. Chaplin then gave a sparkling impression of a drunken tramp falling around the lobby, for which he received an ovation from the assembled studio people. It was not originally planned that the drunk guy would appear in more than one short scene, according to the extant pre-shoot synopsis.

Mabel_dirty OM

“Oh my god, it’s a dirty old man”. The first scene.

After quickly filming the scene, it appears Chaplin was whisked away to film in Venice, under direction of Pathe Lehrman (Kid Auto Races at Venice), while still in the tramp’s outfit. It is the records contained in Mack Sennett’s private papers that indicate the two films were made on the same day. On his return, some three hours later,  Chaplin was  put into a subsequent lobby scene, but it seems much filming had been done without him, although some elements of the story were changed after Chaplin’s second scene in order to include Chaplin’s character within the whole plot.  This resulted in some inconsistency in the film. In one scene a woman is seen in the hotel lobby smelling a flower, although Chaplin did not give the flower to her until a later scene. Also, Mabel’s boyfriend deposits a bunch of flowers in her room, but the flowers were already present in an earlier scene. These seem to be big slip-ups, even for Keystone. We can only conclude that Chaplin gags were added, which interfered with the continuity of the film.

Mabel’s Strange Predicament – a historical record?

We might think that this film has no relevance as history, even of the movie industry. Nevertheless, it might be possible to plot the rise of Chaplin’s tramp from anomalies in the film. Firstly, we know that the film’s intended director was a fake Frenchman called Pathe Lehrman. It was he that took Chaplin to Venice, and had great fun pushing the tramp around while filming the Kid Auto Races. Lehrman it seems became angry about


The evil Lehrman lurks in the background awaiting his chance to upstage Chaplin.

the ovations Chaplin had received for his performance, as the tramp in the first lobby scene of Mabel’s Strange Predicament. Chaplin sought to introduce numerous gags, and a massive argument took place with Lehrman. Sennett immediately demoted Lehrman to extra for the duration of the film, and installed himself as director (look out for Mr. ‘Ego’ Lehrman lurking at the back of the lobby and outside the hotel). The first lobby scene is interesting, for the film opens with Mabel and Charlie standing in the lobby together. Mabel departs after 13 seconds, but Charlie then holds the scene for a further 42 seconds, a staggering length for 1914 (75 feet of film in total). Bearing in mind that Mabel was the star of the picture, this was most unusual. In fact we know that Lehrman (who like everyone was in love with Mabel) tried to get most of the Chaplin scene cut out, but failed. We can also believe that Mabel would have expected that most of the scene would be cut. Charlie had effectively stolen the scene from Mabel. Of course, this is followed by two short scenes for Mabel, but they are split by a longer scene for Charlie in the lobby. The scene where Mabel poses briefly outside the hotel, then enters via the hotel steps, was probably intended to be the first scene, and crafted to get the audience warmed up as they recognized their favorite star. Chaplin records that his appearance was met with silence from the audience at first, as he was not then well known. It appears likely that Mabel’s entry to the hotel scene was shot while Charlie was absent. In the film, Mabel then enters the lobby and storms upstairs to her room, after some unwelcome attention from Charlie. Once in the room we can see that the boyfriend’s flowers are not there, and so this part was, perhaps, shot before Chaplin’s character was fully integrated into the film.  We then get more of Charlie in the lobby, and when the camera turns to Mabel’s room, lo and behold, the flowers have now mysteriously appeared. This suggests that the later shenanigans in Mabel’s room were linked to Charlie’s activities in the lobby, and his


Boyfriend places the flowers.  Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, the flowers are already there.

stealing of a flower from her boyfriend (which he gave to the seated woman). In other words, Charlie became the lynch-pin that now linked the scenes, and  he had, more or less, taken over the picture. In the second half of the picture, we see the hilarious goings on when Mabel gets accidentally locked out of her room in her pajamas. However, it is possible that the scene where Mabel hides under a bed in another room, with her dog, and was discovered by her boyfriend (as per the synopsis), was also filmed before Chaplin’s had a key role in the film. Chaplin’s scene of entering the room, after chasing Mabel around the hotel, were dovetailed into the old scheme.


How to get rid of a tramp. Lehrman and Chaplin in Kid Auto Races.


Pathe Lehrman  later stated that the film was shot in a single day, a remarkable achievement, especially if it was shot the same day (10th Jan.) as Kid Auto Races  (actually released before Mabel’s Strange Predicament).  [Endnote].



Mabel in trouble with Alice Davenport.

It will be noticed that Mabel puts in a sterling performance in the chase scenes with Chaplin, resulting, perhaps, from the realization that the tramp could be the ‘coming man’ and she needed to be more forceful. Following this film, it seems that Mabel refused to work with Chaplin. Sennett, in his autobiography, stated that Mabel said she did not, any longer, think his performance so good. In reality she perhaps thought Chaplin too good!

Mabel At The Wheel

This film was shot two-and-a half months after Mabel’s Strange Predicament. Mabel was, no doubt, still upset about what Chaplin had been allowed to do in the first film, and had resisted any attempt to team her with the tramp. We can well imagine that Mabel insisted on being the director, if Chaplin ever appeared alongside her again. This way she could control his exposure in the film, which was intended, after all, to showcase her talents alone. Trouble subsequently arose during shooting for Mabel At The Wheel, when Chaplin tried to introduce gags, as he had in Mabel’s Strange Predicament. Mabel refused to countenance them, and Charlie blew up. Shooting was stopped early, and Sennett threatened to fire Chaplin. Of course, it was impossible to fire Chaplin at this point, as he had already received much public acclaim. The situation was apparently smoothed over, and Chaplin was allowed to make suggestions, on the understanding, perhaps, that he was not to wear the tramp costume. The lack of the tramp outfit would have diminished Chaplin’s persona in the film, although he was probably still identifiable to his growing hoard of fans.


Mabel behind the wheel.


What was this film all about? Basically, it is all about an ordinary girl, who is able to jump straight into a racing car, then race, and win, on a hard-packed dirt road. The news papers then were full of daring deeds carried out by women such as Harriett Quimby, who was the first woman to achieve great things in an aircraft. Not only did product manufacturers jump on the bandwagon, and sponsor such women’s deeds, but film companies were also keen to have their own adventurous females in movies (The Perils of Pauline was one such series of films).  Mabel had previously shot a pistol from an aircraft, and climbed 300 feet down from a tethered balloon (wearing a swimsuit, of course). Her exploits on high diving boards were well known. Of course, in the film, Mabel wins the race after crashing once, and an amusing moment occurs when she powders her face, before getting in the car (much to the annoyance of the team). Mabel is seen driving the car down the straight sections, but it is far from clear who was driving when the car is spinning and sliding on the oiled surface of the corners. In all probability a professional driver was used, perhaps Teddy Tetzlaff (Mabel’s flame in Speed Kings) or Earl Cooper.

My_Hero SpeedK

“My Hero”. With Teddy Tetzlaff in Speed Kings (1913).

Chaplin’s role in the film is as a villain, somewhat similar to that played by Ford Sterling. As stated above this reduced Chaplin’s character, and we might imagine that Chaplin insisted on riding a motorcycle, so that he is not totally eclipsed by the Keystone Girl. Unfortunately, as Mabel later related, Chaplin had never actually ridden a two-wheeled machine. He told everyone that, as he’d ridden a bicycle, he could handle a motorcycle. The result was the obvious one – when he charged off with Mabel on the makeshift passenger seat, he soon lost control of the cycle, and, as Mabel later explained, the machine ended up in a ditch and their own mortal remains were scattered along the road.


We’re going ballistic Mabe” Charlie Launches Sennett’s Thor IV motorcycle.

The film was made in the time honored way, by using the public highway, and a race track. The race track was, in fact, a temporarily closed stretch of public road in Santa Monica, and the basis of the picture was a Keystone film made of the race. Some of the picture was made on the track after the race, and other scenes were shot on a set. The scene that caused most problems between Mabel and Charlie, was the one where Charlie uses a hose to water the race-track, ostensibly to cause Mabel to crash her car. Undoubtedly, this scene was filmed, not during the actual race, but, perhaps, soon after. We might think that, as this was a public road, Keystone’s actions were illegal, and dangerous. However, the authorities were happy for the race organizers to damp down their dirt roads with water and kerosene, as this helped compact the road, and allay the dust. However the amount of water Chaplin uses is excessive.



Santa Monica Race track.


Summarizing the films

Both of these films were intended to showcase Mabel’s talents, but, in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, along comes Chaplin, who would have completely dominated the picture, if Mabel had not made strenuous efforts to impose her character on the film. The results of the contest were, consequently, a draw, and a very fine picture was produced. What is a little annoying is that this was later dubbed a ‘Chaplin picture’, even though the title did not include his name. It appears that Mabel refused to work with Chaplin following this film, although we might suspect that Pathe Lehrman was whispering poison into Mabel’s ear concerning Chaplin’s evil intentions.


Typical Santa Monica action: crash at Deadman’s Curve.

The reason why the pair were brought together for Mabel’s flagship Mabel At the Wheel film, might lie with Keystone bosses Kessell and Baumann, who would certainly have considered them  a ‘dream team’. Sennett, who disliked Chaplin, probably agreed with Mabel that the tramp should be kept out. However, they had to include Chaplin, but made sure he was not immediately recognizable, by ensuring he did not appear in the tramp costume. Furthermore, the designation of Mabel as director would make it doubly certain that Chaplin could not take command of the picture. Job done – only it wasn’t. WW1 broke out early, and things got heated. Fortunately, it all got smoothed out, and plenty of Charlie and Mabel films followed. More importantly, the pair had long discussions about the direction screen comedy was going, and the result was films like Mickey and The Gold Rush.



Endnote: The fact that Mabel’s dog suddenly disappears (for good), as the boyfriend pulls Mabel out from under his friends bed, does not seem to relate to any rescheduling of scenes, and may simply be the typical Keystone discontinuity seen in so many of the studio’s films.


KEYSTONE: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett (2003).

Mack Sennett’s Private Papers held by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Charles Chaplin: My Autobiography (1964).

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



Extra Girl Mabel does a stint in the prop room.

We all know about the stars of silent movie, but very few of us ever think about the extras or supers – those essential, but underpaid, legions who inhabit the underworld of Tinseltown. One important thing to remember is that most of the silent stars, unless they were head-hunted from the theater, began as extras. Mabel herself began as an extra, wandering into the depressingly gloomy Biograph Studio on 14th Street, Manhattan, looking for five dollars and dinner (yes, everyone that stayed the day got at least a dry, curled up sandwich). Even America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, began as an extra, although she’d actually been sent by her mother, during a lull in theater work. Mack Sennett spent a long period as a Biograph extra, before he finally hit a leading role (being big and muscular, one imagines that he forced his way through the gannets, to get his flame, the diminutive Mabel, the best possible sandwich). Even the great D.W. Griffith, before he became director, dragged his unwilling, leaden feet Biograph-wards every day to carry out demeaning, low-grade roles.

Sandwich time1

Sandwich time for Mack Sennett, Eddie Dillon, Vivian Prescott. California 1912.


Who were the extras?

Everybody and anybody is the short answer. Some were short of a few dollars, some were out to become stars. No small number of the latter, were ambitious enough to put up with the dreary, humiliating work until they ‘made it’. While the work at Biograph was demeaning, the extras were further humiliated by having to stand all day. Only a couple of chairs were provided, so there was a daily fight for comfy costume baskets, when lunchtime approached. The theater, legitimate and otherwise, provided much fodder for the movie machine, although the ‘royalty’ of the theater were only ‘captured’ by the movies when the actors were in the most difficult of circumstances. The fact that even theatrical extras were expected to construct and move scenery, sent many a stage actor scuttling back to their daily trudge around the theatrical agents. Mack Sennett recorded one actor who would get upset when asked to ‘muck in’. “Sir”, he would say, “I am an A-C-T-O-R, I do not paint scenery, nor do I move or build sets!”


Mabel and vaudevillian Raymond Hitchcock. My Valet 1915

The Keystone Extras

The keystone studios are of interest when talking of ‘extras’. The establishment probably had a greater ratio of extras to regular actors than any other. Mabel, for a few years was the big star, being joined briefly by Ford Sterling, Fred Mace, Mack Swain, Charlie Chaplin, Polly Moran, and Louise Fazenda. Mabel was later to get herself in trouble, probably as a result of serving her time under The King of Comedy. Sennett was far from being the bumbling paragon that he portrays himself in his autobiography. He claims he always kept out of court, but this was far from the truth. He does admit to appearing before a judge after being found, during a police raid, in a bordello on the Bowery in New York. He claims he was merely playing the back end of a horse in a pantomime. However, court appearances became almost commonplace, including one following an accident, when he hit a pedestrian, while driving his car at a reckless speed. He sent an attorney to the court, who claimed Sennett was too busy to appear in person, and he earned ten-thousand dollars a week. The judge told him that if Sennett did not appear before him the next day, he would be sending ‘Mister ten-thousand dollars’ to jail. As most people are aware Sennett abandoned his old Edendale studio for Studio City in the late 1920s. The old Keystone lot (which was always rough and untidy) was left to fester and crumble, during which time one child was killed on the site, and another lost an eye . He was prosecuted and sued in both cases, at which point the fire authority ordered the studio to be demolished. Thus, was the background to the Keystone, into which the extras were thrown.


Left: Keystone demolition begins. Right: Mabel’s dressing room about to come crashing down.

Brushes with the law, then, were not unusual, at Keystone, even for the owner. Extras, due to their low earnings, were apt to get themselves into trouble. Cowboys turned up everyday on Aaron Street to see if they could get work. If nothing was doing, they would, perhaps, gallop off to Inceville, or maybe they would indulge in some other ‘profitable business’. No-one really knows what actors in the extra line got up to, but some engaged in unlawful pursuits. A few extras, who were aspiring actresses, are known to have had a profitable sideline in prostitution. Theatrical actresses had always had the reputation of making up the numbers in bordellos when work was slack. This reputation was passed on to movie extras, as the movies were considered more decadent than the theater. Actresses working on location would sometimes be abused and assaulted by women, who thought their behavior scandalous. Mabel once attended a function with a female friend, and it was not long before an older woman spotted that they were not escorted, and harangued them for trying to pick up men. The friend was then hit around the head by the woman’s handbag, which was packed with silver dollars.


(Left) Jewel Carmen with Mabel in That Ragtime Band. (Right) Photo.

Keystone was known for a lot of illicit goings on. Some of this was untrue, but stories of drug-peddling and prostitution abounded. The drug-peddling may be true, but there is no real proof. Prostitution is another thing, for some extras performing these services actually appeared in court. One such was Evelyn Quick, who seems to have been involved in a 1913 police raid on a house of disrepute in Vernon L.A. It is reported that she told  police she was 15 years old, and had been lured into prostitution by two car mechanics. Investigators later discovered she was actually 23 years of age, and was acting on her own initiative. The police case caused more than a little concern for Sennett, who immediately took his entire company to Mexico. Strangely, they did not return until the case had blown over. It is suspected, but not proven, that Sennett paid off the prosecutor. In any event, Quick returned to Keystone under the pseudonym Jewel Carmen, and, soon after, appeared with Mabel in That Ragtime Band. The film is notable for the prostitutes who appear on stage wielding placards advertising their ‘wares’. Clearly, Sennett, as usual, is giving the ‘bird’ to the authorities in this film. Quite why he used real-life Los Angeles addresses, 3 Flower Street and 2 Rose Street, in the film is a mystery . Flower Street, according to the 1920 census, was almost entirely populated by actors, but, far from being run-down, it was a well-to-do road.

Wilson Patterson Residence

Mansion of the President of  The 1st National Bank in Flower Street.

Carmen was later implicated in the circumstances involving the possible murder of  Thelma Todd in 1935. Her husband was a prime suspect in the case, and Carmen was joint-owner of the house where Todd’s body was found. Todd’s death was eventually decided to have been due to suicide, although an interesting fact is that Todd was involved with none other than Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, the infamous mobster. This leads to speculation, as to how early the gangster element was operating in Hollywood. If they were there by 1920 (the beginning of prohibition) then this might explain the various murders, and the drug epidemic that plagued Tinseltown in the 1920s and beyond.

It has been thought that another Keystone actress named as Peggy Page, might be the same person as Helen Carruthers, who attempted suicide in a Portland hotel in 1915. It seems she swallowed tablets of Bichloride of Mercury, used in the treatment of syphilis. The assumption is that she picked up the disease while working in a brothel. What argues against this, is that she appeared in 17 Chaplin Keystones, in some of which she was the leading lady. However, she might have become infected while still a struggling extra. It is interesting to note that, when she appeared in Mabel’s Busy Day, it was alongside older actress Billie Bennett, who was, by 1930, running the largest bordello in Los Angeles (Endnote).


Billie Bennett (Left) with Helen Carruthers (checked coat) in Mabel’s Busy Day.

As stated above, drugs have often been associated with Keystone, and it is  said that actor Hugh Fay was the sandman distributing  narcotics. Ex-vaudevillian, Fay, does not seem to be your archetypal dealer, and, indeed, no evidence has been produced to prove he was peddling drugs. The case seems to be different for Margaret Gibson (who never worked for Keystone). She was arrested in 1917 for opium dealing, but managed to get an acquittal, after some kind of intervention from her film company. Following this, she was known as Patricia Palmer. However, in 1923, she again managed to avoid conviction, this time for blackmail, after which her career declined. In 1964, she became the 300th person to claim she had shot director W.D. Taylor (note that Mack Sennett was a prime suspect in the case). Interestingly, it was thought at the time that Taylor was being blackmailed. Of course, Mabel was involved with W.D. Taylor, but, again, there is no indication that Taylor was a drug dealer supplying heroin, or any other narcotic, to Mabel. As Mabel was clearly taking something for her terminal illness, we cannot say she took no drugs, but  Minta Arbuckle had once said, she took some preparation, and that preparation almost certainly contained an opiate of sorts.


Mabel dances with Hugh Fay.

Summing up the Extras

Extras were a vital component of the movie industry. Apart from the fact that extras could grow into stars, those requiring immediate funds for survival were able to scrape a living from the studio. However, in order to make anything approaching a real living, extras often resorted to ‘moonlighting’ at occupations that were slightly, or wholly, illegal. Would the studios care about this? Well, we can be sure that the studio bosses were not too concerned, as they ran on what was, essentially, slave labor. As far as illegality was concerned, their advice was “Just don’t get caught.” The producers were as immoral as the next guy, and indulged in everything from tax evasion to  illegal booze (and perhaps drugs as well). People like Mack Sennett might have even had fingers in certain pies, such as the fleshpots down in Vernon, or downtown L.A. An extra’s life, predictably, was tough – if you didn’t die of starvation, you had an evens chance of going to jail.


             Lucky Luciano.                       Bugsy Siegel, shot dead in Beverley Hills.

Endnote: Helen Carruthers died around ten years later, when she jumped out of a window.




Empress Mabel holds court.

In 1877, Queen Victoria was made Empress of India. The chief reason for the new title was that her eldest daughter, Victoria, had married Frederick III, Emperor of Germany. This meant young Vicky became an empress, making the old Vicky a lesser monarch. In response, Queen Vic called for her government to crown her Empress. However, protocol prevented her from being an empress of the Empire, so Queen Vic became Empress Vic of India.

An empress, then, ranks much higher than a queen, but what has this all got to do with Mabel, always said to be The Queen of Keystone. Well, there is some evidence that Mabel was more than just a queen. The queen title was given her by the company’s actors, actresses and manual workers, whose favours she always courted. She did this by always being pleasant and, in many cases, helpful to even the lowest studio worker. Mabel also worked hard at being ‘gay and amusing around the lot’, according to Mack Sennett. Mack Sennett, of course, was the king, The King of Comedy. Sennett ruled Keystone with an iron fist, but was never able to completely lord it over Mabel, who was just about the studio’s most important asset. This is the basis of my contention that Mabel was the Empress. Let’s have a look at the facts, and see if Mabel was worthy of the title.

Mack and the avatar-Mabels

If we forget all the nonsense about Mack and Mabel the lovers, we come to the conclusion that, if anything, they were rivals – rivals for control of the hearts and minds of Keystone, and, indeed, the very person of Mabel Normand. For Mack’s part, he needed to hang on to Mabel, but also plan for the day when she would not be around. Mabel could leave, or even die, and in respect of the latter it was never entirely certain that she would reach her eventual age of thirty-seven. This is where the problems arose between Mack and Mabel, as it seemed clear Mack was always promoting new actresses. Mack


Left: Gloria Swanson.  Right: Mabel shows how it’s done.

was certain he could always manufacture another ‘Mabel’ – hadn’t he created the first ‘Mabel?’ Consequently, he always tried to have a replacement ‘Mabel’ to hand. Gloria Swanson, Louise Fazenda, Polly Moran, Phyllis Haver, even Dixie Chene; anyone of them could be the new Mabel. Except, that they couldn’t! When Sennett told Swanson, he was going to make her the next ‘Mabel’, she replied, “You’re not going to throw me off cliffs, chain me to a railway line, kick me in the rear, or any of that nonsense – a person could get killed doing that!’ Sennett tore up her contract. Of course, Swanson had done some of these things, but she refused to lie across the rail track, and instead, sat on a foam sleeper. When she did a ‘108’ she fell on a mattress. Fazenda and Moran were their own people, and would not have taken kindly to the kind of shenanigans it took to maintain a Mabelesque position at Keystone. Dixie Chene is a more difficult subject. In appearance, she was much like Mabel, and, therefore, a prime candidate, but her ability to perform like her was limited. It is by no means clear, as to what became of the tall, dark-haired Dixie. Perhaps she was too tall. I’ll get around to Phyllis Haver later in the blog.


Professor Sennett throws the switch on another Mabel.

Mack and Mabel get personal.

Over time things got worse between Mabel and Mack, as he brought in evermore new actresses. At the same time, Mack drove out any actors that might have been useful to Mabel’s cause. Mabel herself was still singularly successful in keeping actresses out of her films that might steal a scene or two. The obvious throw out was Charlie Chaplin, who Sennett never wanted in the first place, and was rid of the insurgent, as soon as he was able. Things smoldered until the end of the following year when Mabel and a small company departed Keystone for the up-to-the-minute New York Motion Pictures studio at Fort Lee. It seems Mabel had given Kessell and Baumann, owners of NYMP and Keystone, an ultimatum – either get me away from Sennett, or I go elsewhere. This was a forceful thing to do, for as much as Kessell and Baumann wanted Mabel, Sennett did not want to lose her. As far as Sennett was concerned, she was, ostensibly, only on temporary loan for a few weeks. Consequently, not far into 1916, Kessell and Baumann had to decide whether to let Mabel return to Sennett, or, in some way, keep hold of her. Mabel had no intention of sitting around waiting for a decision, and put out feelers to the Mutual Film Company, who had just begun to produce Chaplin films. Smart Mabel had ensured the resultant meeting with Mutual executives reached the ears of the press.

The following snippet was released in mid-March:

Variety, March 17, 1916

Mabel Normand with Mutual.

It was stated that Mabel Normand had signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corporation on Tuesday afternoon of this week. Miss Normand was closeted with President Freuler for almost an hour late that afternoon, and is said to have affixed her signature to a contract. There is a possibility that she will work in the Chaplin releases.


This caused blind panic in the K&B and Sennett camps, especially at the mention of Chaplin’s name. Mabel had pulled off a master stroke. Her employers would have to move – fast. Kessell, Baumann, and another member of their group, Tom Ince, quickly decided to form a new company, The Mabel Normand Feature Film Co. Nominally, Sennett would be kept out, but there was a problem. The new company needed its own studio, and Sennett cleverly stepped in to supply the premises, at a site on Fountain Avenue, L.A. He would also supply a director from his own studio. Thus it came about that Mabel pulled off the biggest coup of the early movie era. Of course, with Sennett involved, there were going to be problems. The true nature of the problems are unknown, but a great dispute engulfed NYMP, Sennett, and their new masters Triangle, just as filming of Mabel’s picture came to an end. Mabel herself, would disappear off the radar at times, and this prompted K&B to put private detectives on her tail. What was the Queen up to now? The Queen was now truly on her way to being the Empress of Edendale, and was putting out more feelers to producers. She intended to force her employer’s hands again, but The Empire was in trouble. Triangle toppled and fell, taking NYMP with it, while the Keystone name was sold off to Triangle president Harry Aitken (Sennett retained the studio). Mabel’s film negative briefly disappeared in the melee, but was recovered by owner Aitken, who spent two years editing the un-cut celluloid.

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Sennett and Kessell fight to own Mabel.

Another fine Mess

What was Mabel up to now? Well, it appears Mabel intended to sign for Sam Goldwyn, who was now setting up a new production company. It seemed a little ludicrous that Mabel would sign with a company of unknown ability and quality. In fact, Mabel was playing another smart game. By signing with Goldwyn, at a relatively low salary of $1,000 per week, Sennett, the only survivor of the Triangle fiasco still able to produce comedy, would be forced to chase her and woo her back. However, Sennett was also shrewd, and did not directly approach Mabel. Instead, he sent lawyers to New York with the purpose of re-negotiating Mabel’s contract. His intention was to spend the pants off Goldwyn, and make Mabel too expensive, so that he would relinquish his hold on The Keystone Girl. This would put Mabel in a much weakened position. The Keystone Girl herself sat in a New York apartment, telling reporters that she might work with Goldwyn, or she might sign with someone else. This prompted Goldwyn to sue Mabel for breach of contract. If the suit had been successful, Mabel would have been hit for around a million dollars in damages and compensation. However, before he could issue proceedings Goldwyn would have to show that he made some attempt to retain the actress. He therefore offered Mabel a pay rise to $1,500. Mabel would have to accept this, especially as Sennett was undoubtedly considering ceasing his efforts for her, for he could be drawn into the court case. Consequently, Mabel signed for Goldwyn, and entered the bleakest, most unproductive years of her career. The Empress became an ‘also ran.’

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Mabel with Goldwyn and Chaplin.

The Empress strikes back

Mabel was down and out, sickening, and lumbered with weak stories, but she was not finished yet. Three years down the line, Goldwyn mysteriously let Mabel go. He had no financial reason to do so, as Mabel’s films were still making money. Sennett claimed he made an offer Goldwyn couldn’t refuse, but we know that Goldwyn had discussions with the world’s greatest expert on Mabel, Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin told Goldwyn that Mabel could only excel at Sennett’s Studio, and advised him to return her to The King of Comedy. Now this meeting with Chaplin is recalled in Goldwyn’s autobiography, but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that this casual discussion was engineered by The Empress herself. Did she ask Chaplin to do her this one favour; after all she had smoothed his path at Keystone? The outcome was that Mabel returned to Sennett, and made a couple of good films, Molly O’ / Suzanna, both directed by F. Richard Jones. That she managed to monopolize Jones’ valuable services, suggests she had renewed power at the studio.


Mabel as Suzanna.

An Empire Lost and Won.

Having won back her throne, Mabel, it seems, had intentions to extend her empire, extend it out, that is, to include the biggest and best studio there was – Paramount. Her way in was to be via a Paramount director, who Mabel had befriended. His name was W.D. Taylor, and, before he could do anything to help Mabel, someone shot him dead. Mabel was the last person to see Taylor alive, and there were all sorts of ramifications. Mack helped her out to a small extent, but did not sign her to another picture. Mabel went into exile in Europe, as her supporters came out in droves to hammer the preying newspaper reporters.


Heading for Gay Paree

Mabel returned to New York a couple of months later. While in that city, she heard that Sennett, 4,000 miles away, had signed another actress to his biggest movie yet – The Extra Girl. That actress was Phyllis Haver. Mabel made the long-distance call to Edendale, demanding the part for herself. For some reason , Mabel was able to get Haver taken off  the movie, after three weeks of shooting. The Empress had spoken, and the Sennett lot became her dominion again.

The Dines affair, in 1924, where an oil tycoon was shot by Mabel’s chauffeur, brought Mabel under more pressure, especially as she showed little humility when she appeared as a witness in the chauffeur’s trial. Mabel appeared aloof, and her adoption of an aristocratic English accent, and French hand gestures did little to help her cause. At this point, it seems Mack decided not to proceed with any more Mabel


Mabel revels in her role as The Extra Girl. Mack does not appear too pleased.

films, and Mabel herself decided to create an empire elsewhere. Various extra-Hollywood possibilities were thrown at her, including making films in England, and a role on the American stage. The latter was extremely lucrative, and figures of $2-million had been bandied around for her leading role in the play ‘The Little Mouse‘. As a play, the scheme failed, but, undoubtedly, Mabel walked away with at least several hundred thousand dollars. She had once felt obliged to make the following statement:

“I made plenty, and I saved plenty – plenty meaning that if I never work again I can continue to live on the scale to which I’ve accustomed myself. Nobody else accustomed me to it!”  From: ‘Madcap Mabel‘, 1930.

It seems then that Mabel had gathered together a ‘war chest’ with which to renew her empire. This stood her in good stead, as she marshaled her friends together, for a new onslaught on Tinseltown. In 1926, her friends had managed to secure a place for her at Sennett’s rival studio Hal Roach, at which Mabel arrived as a half-starlet on $1,000 a week. After a couple of films she was on $4,000 a week, although she never stopped playing the Empress around the studio, mocking ‘that thick-necked Irishman’ Hal Roach. Ill-health eventually ended her career, and Mabel retired to her imperial palace in Beverley Hills. As with Alexander The Great, and other imperial personages, the ailing Mabel came under the control of the few people that surrounded her. Contained in the Pottenger Sanatorium at Monrovia, and denied visitors, she died on 23rd February 1930.

Mabel_Lit Mouse



What became of the bulk of Mabel’s money is a complete mystery



Dotty in classic Hollywood pose.

‘Dotty’ Mackaill was a silent and talkie star, who hailed from, of all places, Hull in the UK (properly called Kingston-upon-Hull). It is certain that Mabel was aware of Dotty, and may have even met her, but it is unlikely she was a friend. Being of the new kind of actress, who would bare all for a part, she was just the type of ‘liberated’ girl that Mabel would have disapproved of.

Dotty Mackail_Hull

Dotty in Hull, 1930, does the Hollywood pose.


They couldn’t keep her down on the Humber.

Born in 1903, it is said that Dotty began work in a Hull press office.  Being a headstrong, dreamy type, it wasn’t long before she set out for London, to seek fame and fortune as a dancer, her lessons and accommodation being paid for by her father. Dotty’s next stop was France where she appeared at the Moulin Rouge. While in Paris she was advised by a New York choreographer to seek work with the Zeigfield Follies in New York. She followed the advice, and joined Ziegfield. Her great friends at the Follies were Marion Davies and Nita Naldi, both of whom were useful contacts. Like her two friends, Dotty followed ex-Follies girl Olive Thomas into films, making her first picture in 1920, the same year Ollie died. Her first film was The Face At The Window, in which she played a minor part. Dotty hit stardom four years later with The Man who Came Back (1924). In that year she received the WAMPAS Baby Stars award, alongside other notables such as Clara Bow. A series of successful silent films ensued, and she managed to continue her career into the sound era.


In one her less risque moments.

Dotty’s silent film The Barker (1928) was re-shot as a part-talkie, but her film company First National failed to renew Dorothy’s contract in 1931. Following this she became a sort of ‘wandering star’, She made some good films at Columbia, MGM, and Paramount, but her career was declining. Dotty now began to appear in low-budget pictures, which carried her through to Bulldog Drummond at Bay in 1937, for Associated British Pictures, after which she never played a leading role, or any other role, in films again. Miss Mackaill stated that she was retiring, so as to care for her invalid mother. However, her film was said to be the worst of the Bulldog Drummond series, and we might suspect that it ended her career.


Hollywood meets Hull, 1930.

Beyond Hollywood

In 1955, Dotty decided to depart Los Angeles, and set down roots in Hawaii. Here she met Jack Lord, who persuaded her to appear in two episodes of Hawaii 5-O (1976 and 1980). Dotty lived at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Waikiki Beach, until she died in 1990. Her ashes were scattered on the ocean at Waikiki Beach.

DorMackaill hawaii-5-O

With Jack Lord in Hawaii 5-O

Dotty Facts:

Among the stars she appeared with were: Humphrey Bogard, Richard Barthelmess,  Lon Chaney, Anna May Wong, Noah Beery, Colleen Moore, John Barrymore, Bebe Daniels, and Anna Q. Nilsson.

At 5 feet 5 inches, she was somewhat taller than the average silent star actress.

Following her 1930 visit, Dotty never returned to her home town, preferring instead the warm climate of Hawaii.

She made around 70 films, and was married (briefly) three times.

Dotty remained essentially free of scandal for her entire career – a remarkable achievement for a Hollywood star.

Hull Visit 1930. 


The Keystone cops turn out to escort Dotty



“Oh, Dotty, please spare me a few pennies”          Dotty falls back into her seat, stunned






Plaque at Thoresby School







Griffith Gish2

D.W. Griffith with Lilian Gish

W.D. Griffith, ‘The Great Director.’ Now here is a difficult subject. Hailed as a genius in his lifetime, he is now looked at in a slightly different light. Firstly, many of his ‘firsts’ were not firsts at all, but repeats of things done by other American and European directors. Secondly, he was not the amiable father figure that many of the early silent stars said he was. Throughout her book, When the Movies were Young the ex-Mrs Griffith has us reading between the lines, when she calls Griffith ‘The Great Director’ or ‘The Great Man.’ In other places she details his bad temper, telling how, as an actor, he would get so wound up that when he got home, he’d punch holes in the doors. On one occasion his wife had gone out and picked bunches of wild flowers to brighten up their dingy apartment. Griffith threw them out of the window, saying “We don’t need flowers, we need money!”

So who was D.W. Griffith?

Griffith was a Kentuckian born in 1875, and partially raised on a farm. His family had fought on the Confederate side during the Civil War, and it is useful to remember that he never forgot that the South had lost the war. However, the idea that his father was a war hero known as ‘Roaring Jake’ has been disproved. He was, in fact, a hopeless alcoholic. D.W. ended up working the theater in San Francisco, and, when things were slack he went hop-picking. His other occupation, writing plays, was relatively unsuccessful. He left San Francisco in 1906 for Boston, but was soon followed by his fiancé, Linda Arvidson, who had been made homeless in the famous earthquake. They were married in New York, where they eventually found work in the theater. Around 1908, Griffith, and wife, found acting work at Biograph studios, 11 14th Street for $5 a day. Importantly, Griffith was able to sell stories to the studio at $15 a shot. By sheer fluke, the then director became ill, and was replaced by Griffith. His director’s pay was $45 a week, and his royalties reached $500 a month by the year’s end.


Biograph 11 14th Street.

The Great Director

Over the following few years virtually all the early stars of the silent era passed through the doors of Biograph. The first ‘Biograph Girl’ was Florence Lawrence, who was replaced by Mary Pickford, when Lawrence left the studio. Mary was already at Biograph, when a model by the name of Mabel Normand wandered in. Mary saw her sitting alone in the dressing room, awaiting an audience with the Great Griffith. Thinking Mabel was about to make a run for it, Mary ran for Griffith, and told him there was a new girl in the studio. “Oh, what another boring blond?”, he said.”No, no she’s got shiny black hair and eyelashes two inches long!” ‘Are you sure they’re two inches long?” asked Griffith. ‘Well, perhaps half-an-inch” she said, pulling Griffith towards the dressing room. The rest is history, and Mabel, after one abortive start, began her astonishing career.


There came a girl with shiny black hair and two-inch eyelashes.

One thing we have to say about Griffith was that he treated his people as though they were imbeciles. Rather than see how an actor or actress could carry a part, he would mold them into the shape he wanted. Mary Pickford tells how he would grab her by the shoulders, and try to shake some acting ability into her. On one occasion, while in a great rage, Griffith threw her bodily across the set, almost breaking her arm. He would also verbally abuse actresses, calling Mary Pickford “too fat” and Blanche Sweet, “too skinny.” Any reluctance by a member of the company to play a particular part, was punished by loss of a leading part in the next one or two pictures. This happened to Mary, Mabel and Blanche, when all refused to bare their legs for Man’s Genesis. Griffith made sure they lost good parts in several succeeding films. Mabel, however, was one actress Griffith could not tame. Mabel could never be serious, and would often laugh at Griffith’s attempts to ‘mold’ her. Griffith would try to torture the recalcitrant ex-model by forcing


Mabel with John Bunny in Troublesome Secretaries (1911).

her to do super-fast changes of expression. However, Mabel was a natural ‘woman of a thousand faces’, and, however hard Griffith tried, he could not beat Mabel’s lightning reflexes. Nonetheless, she later gave Griffith the credit for developing her trademark plastic face. Griffith was to leave Mabel behind on the first Biograph trip to the west coast, supposedly as punishment for mocking of him behind his back, while distracting the actress he was trying to direct. Unfortunately, some of the young actresses had come to worship at the altar of the goddess Mabel. In Los Angeles, on the 2nd west coast trip, Dorothy Gish and Gertrude Bambrick decided to be Mabel Normand, and slipped their chaperones for the purpose of hitting both the town and the booze. Griffith and Dell Henderson spent almost a day searching for them, eventually capturing them before they could carry out their plan. Dorothy Gish, it should be said, was as insolent as Mabel towards Griffith, on one occasion calling him “a hook-nosed Kike”. Unsurprisingly, Dorothy never got on as well as less talented Lilian Gish.


The Gish sisters

The West Coast Beckons Again

On the Griffith company’s return to New York, many of the actors that had been left behind were re-engaged. Mabel had spent time at Vitagraph, learning comedy with veterans Flora Finch and John Bunny, although it was reported that she’d had a try-out at the Kessell and Baumann film company, Reliance. Apparently, the director found her to be ‘unacceptable’ and dismissed her (Endnote). She returned to Biograph at a time when the company was considering setting up a comedy unit. However, Griffith mocked Mabel’s attempts at comedy, saying she was a dyed- in-the-wool tragedian. He would say that, as he utilized Mabel for tragic roles in which she usually died. Mabel was no fool, and realized that if she wanted to survive into the last reel, she would need to develop a different persona. With the onset of winter the company again set out for the land of the orange groves, where Mabel was again put into the tragic roles in which she excelled. It was soon noted by the other actors that Mabel was also a proficient comedienne, although Griffith remained unconvinced.


Genius at Work: Griffith and Cameraman Billy Bitzer (1920).

Griffith, probably to his bitter regret, never realized the ability Mabel possessed. When Mack Sennett took over as director of the comedy unit in 1912, Griffith gladly handed her over to the Irishman. Mabel later said she would never forgive Griffith for palming her off, but it was clearly a good move for her professionally. Mabel soon left for the new Keystone studio, leaving Griffith to his fast disappearing dramatic stars. Griffith himself was to depart by the end of that year.

Klansman Griffith

Griffith left Biograph over disagreements about the escalating costs of his films.He now signed with Mutual, where he created his own studio within the company. The great director had many ideas, which involved very costly feature films. It was at the new studio that he finally produced his 1915 masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation (formerly a stage play called The Clansman). This film was undoubtedly a masterpiece, and it grossed $15 million dollars at the box office. The picture, however, caused chaos wherever it was shown, due to its portrayal of black people. In many towns riots ensued, due to Griffith’s attempt bring back the beliefs of the past, all supposedly terminated by the Civil War. The Ku Klux Klan, thought to have been extinct, rode in again on the back of Griffith’s film. The man himself wanted to show the absurdity and cruelty of the North’s


Deja vu from Mr. Griffith.

putting down of the white population of the South following the Civil War. Black savages in the State Legislature, armed black men forcing whites from their home – all had a very small grain of truth. Fortunately, according to Griffith, the Ku Klux Klan intervened, and rescued the white folks from destruction. It does appear that Griffith intended not only to draw attention to the past, but to warn of what could happen in the future. This touched a nerve with some Americans, who began to take white supremacy to heart, and even create the KKK all over again. The present day KKK dates from this time.


Griffith Funeral: (L) Mary Pickford lays a floral tribute. (R) Richard Barthelmess, Pickford, Evelyn Baldwin, Lilian Gish.


Following the intense criticism of the racism of The Birth of a Nation, Griffith and his company, made moves to salvage the situation. His next film, Intolerance, set out to document the intolerance of the past, and reject all forms of racial supremacy. A difficult, and even painful, film to watch it was accepted as recompense for Griffith’s previous prejudiced views, and various new ways to use a camera were tried out in its production. The huge Babylonian set used for the film was a great wonder, but due to Griffith running out of money the crumbling set remained for several years, until the fire authorities ordered its demolition. In fact, Griffith was forced to buy out the film for $1-million, something that crippled him financially for the rest of his life.

Sign-up UA

Griffth, Pickford, Chaplin, Fairbanks create United Artists.

In 1919, Griffith set up the distribution company United Artists, along with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. Some of the films Griffith made for United Artists were successful, such as Way Down East, but others were not, prompting Griffith to leave United Artists. Griffith continued making films up until 1931, after which he only contributed to other people’s pictures. He was awarded  a special Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences during the mid-1930s. Griffith died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1948, while in the lobby of the Knickerbocker Hotel in L.A. A large public service was held in his honor at the Hollywood Masonic Temple, which was attended by a few stars. He was buried at Mount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard in Centerfield, Kentucky. In 1950, The Directors Guild of America provided a stone and bronze monument for his grave site. A floral tribute was laid by Mary Pickford.


Gish Sisters and Gun.


Characterizing the Great Director.

Trying to sum up D.W. Griffith is like trying to describe Alexander The Great. Either you think him a genius, or you think he was an evil tyrant, who stole his greatness from somebody else. Undoubtedly, he brought new techniques to the American film industry, and was brave enough to produce multi-reel films. On the negative side, it is apparent that Griffith was a foul-tempered sort, who abused his performers both mentally and physically, and festered bad will within those, like Dorothy Gish and Mabel Normand, who stood up to him. A small number of these refused to have their names changed by the great man, and they suffered at Biograph as a result. One thing Griffith loved to do was set off a gun close a young actress’ head. He thought it great fun to do this to little Mae Marsh. Another time he chased the Gish sisters around the set firing a pistol into the ceiling.


Impossible photo: fake Mabel with D.W.

Although Mary Pickford claimed to have stood firm against Griffith, it does seem that she was acquiescent to his demands, and only protested by leaving Biograph. As a result, she fared better than anyone, but this fact has led to suspicions that Griffith ran a casting couch. Pickford appears to have had a back-street abortion, which resulted in sterility, while at Biograph, and it has been said the pregnancy had nothing to do with later husband Owen Moore. Griffith’s wife, Linda Arvidson separated from him in 1911, for reasons never explained. As for Mabel, it seems she never truly regarded him as a friend. In all probability she saw Griffith as a necessary acquaintance, to whom she paid lip service.

In conclusion, then, we can say that Griffith was a director of genius status, but one whose character was essentially flawed.

Endnote:  Photoplay, January 1924






Biograph: Where stars were born.

Everyone will know that Mabel worked for several studios in her early years. Mabel claimed to have been at Kalem for all of one day, as an extra playing an Indian who was chased up and down a hill by cowboys. A little later, she spent a further single day at Biograph, before she again ‘ran away’, vowing never to return. The story goes that a certain Irishman, by the name of Mack Sennett, lured her back with the promise of a milk shake (with an egg in it). After a brief sojourn at Biograph, she was ‘let go’ by the studio, when D.W. Griffith took a select team to California. Mabel was then briefly employed at Vitagraph, where she was tutored in comedy by the best in the business, John Bunny and Flora Finch. However, on Griffith’s return, Mabel soon returned to Biograph, and the great director took her to L.A. on the studio’s next trip to California. It was here that the other actresses realized that Mabel was a great tragedian, but were soon astounded to find she was also a fantastic comedienne. These actresses (along with the actors) were to become the foundations on which movie-land was built.

Now, the aim of this post is not to give a run down on the Biograph starlets as individuals, but to take the Griffith girls as a group, and describe the way in which they, and Mabel, influenced, and, to some extent, attenuated the growth of the movie industry in the United States, and beyond. Clearly, other performers from other studios were involved, and we will need to include them. The Vitagraph was one of those studios where many of the stars of later days learned their craft, no small number of them drifting between that studio and Biograph, before finally taking off for Hollywood, Edendale and Culver City, where they were to become the ‘Hollywood royalty’, as Clara Bow later named them.

The Advent of the Stars.

From the Biograph Studio came the films that created the great stars of the silent age, the Pickfords, the Gishes, the Barrymores, Mabel Normand, and so on. The early days at Biograph were recorded by Linda Arvidson (also known as Mrs Griffith) in her legendary work  ‘When the Movies were Young’. This is a useful book, but it was published in 1925, with the express purpose of portraying the movie stars as complete innocents, following the Olive Thomas, Roscoe Arbuckle, and Mabel Normand scandals. Consequently, its usefulness is slightly blunted, and it should be said that much is based on press articles that were clearly issued by the studios for the same purpose, rather than issued by the individual concerned. Nevertheless, it does give some useful insights into the early movie industry, even if the chronology is somewhat distorted.

MP Norma Constance Ta

Mary Pickford with Norma and Constance Talmadge: Valentino funeral.


The Biograph Company, or American Mutoscope and Biograph Company as it was first known, was an early film production company set up in New York. In 1908, an ex-stage actor called D.W. Griffith became the director of the studio, which had re- located to 11 East 14th Street. It is Griffith who first began to launch the studio into the modern film age, and his first star was Florence Lawrence, a tallish blonde actress who was known as the’ Biograph Girl’. She was not known by her real name at Biograph, but when she moved on from that studio, she became the first known star of the American film industry. When Mary Pickford arrived at Biograph, Florence was already a ‘diva’ (of sorts) and inevitably a clash of personalities ensued. Importantly, their differences were soon patched up, and we might say that this was the beginning of the informal pact system, whereby Biograph actresses agreed not to disrespect each other, at least publicly.


Mabel and Mary: never publicly dissed each other.

This was imperative, as stage actresses had been regarded as part-time call-girls in the past, and the movies were seen as even more decadent than the theater. No small number of the actresses lacked stage experience, and these were morally respectable Edwardian girls, who were somewhat horrified at the fraternization between the sexes at the studio, and, horror of horrors, that everyone was known by their Christian names. One of these non-stage recruits was Mabel Normand, who, on her first day, appeared in a Florence Lawrence scene as a page wearing doublet and tights. Mabel was so embarrassed that she failed to return to the studio next day. As related above, she was later dragged back by Mack Sennett (Endnote). Move the clock forward a couple of years, and we find Mabel, Mary, Blanche Sweet, and Dorothy Bernard refusing to bare their legs and feet in Man’s Genesis, which clearly required a short grass skirt. The ‘strike’ failed, as Griffith starred newcomer Mae Marsh in the film and the next, The Sands of Dee.  Nevertheless, the quartet had struck a blow for actresses’ rights, which kept top performers clear of unwholesome (by Edwardian standards) scenes for 20 years. This greatly annoyed the film producers more and more each year, as they looked to introduce sex into movies, while also paying the performers less. An attempt to weaken the informal acting union was carried out by producers in 1919. The creation of United Artists in that year by Griffith, Pickford, Fairbanks and Chaplin, nonetheless, put paid to any attempt to reduce the power and salaries of the big stars.


Mabel the embarrassed page.

Who d’ya know, Joe?

Artists like Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand, Constance Talmadge, Lilian Gish and innumerable others, retained the ability to have swarms of producers chasing them with open cheque books. The Hollywood royalty remained intact, and they did not just control the studios. Any newcomer to Tinseltown would have to be informally vetted by the ‘royals’, and anyone not meeting their ‘standards’ would be snubbed. This meant they would not be invited to functions or parties, and no member of the Biograph gang would attend any studio functions where the ostracized person was present. One such person was Clara Bow of ‘It Girl’ fame, who had bowed to the producers and regularly appeared on screen in semi-lewd scenes. Mabel Normand named her dog ‘It Girl’. Just about accepted in Hollywood, ex-Ziegfield dancer and call-girl, Louise Brooks, got through by her association with Charlie Chaplin, and by marrying director and ex-Keystone Cop, Eddie Sutherland.  Brooks records that when she and Sutherland were making out a party list, she suggested inviting Clara Bow, but Sutherland dismissed the idea, saying Bow was ‘unacceptable’. The Hollywood royalty had spoken.


Mabel with Vitagraph friends: Flora Finch, Anita Stewart, Norma and Constance Talmadge, Florence Turner.

Acceptance into the Hollywood crowd depended on who you knew and how well you were liked. Olive Thomas was an actress from the Ziegfield Follies, who, by her association with, and marriage to, ex-Biograph man Jack Pickford, was welcomed into the fold, although Jack’s sister, Mary, was not too keen at first. The Arbuckles, Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, and Marie Dressler were all welcomed in. Gloria Swanson was someone who loitered on the edges of old-girl acceptance, and this may account for the diva’s somewhat dismissive attitude towards the other stars (Mabel Normand was not sweetness personified, but a crude and vulgar so and so). Gloria appears to have been annoyed at Mack Sennett’s suggestion that he would make her into a new Mabel Normand, and remained adamant that she would not be chained to a railway track, be kicked in the rear, tied to a barrel of gunpowder, nor perform a 108. She did get chained to the tracks but apparently knelt on a foam sleeper, and when she did the 108, she had a mattress to fall on. Mabel, it should be said, was singularly successful in keeping top line actresses out of her films.

There were notable times when the Biograph girls came together in public support for one of their number. Mabel Normand received support, following the Taylor and Dines affairs from big names such as Constance Talmadge, Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, and  Florence Lawrence , who wrote articles praising Mabel. Roscoe Arbuckle received similar support.

Bow Brooks

Clara Bow                                            Louise Brooks

An era ends

Naturally, the influence of the old Hollywood gang began to wear down over time, and their final demise was not just due to the introduction of talkies. Louise Brooks was one of the new sensual, flapper-type actresses to be introduced by the movie moguls. Unlike Clara Bow, she did mix with the Hollywood royalty. However, she was well aware as to why she and Bow were brought into Hollywood – it was to push the old prudish, money-grabbing stars away from the spotlight, especially after Will Hays managed , in 1925, to end censorship in many U.S. states. Brooks maintains that the studios began to pick the stars off, one by one from that time on. Scandal proved a good enough reason to dispense with Normand and Arbuckle, but in the meantime they were taking other aging stars, paying them impossibly high salaries, then putting them into dud under-publicised films.



“Oh my god! That harlot’s sleeping in the same bedroom as her husband!”

This more or less ended the career of Lilian Gish, who was starred in the weakly-publicised film The Wind in 1927. Brooks, although in Hollywood at that time, had never heard of the costly Gish film, and claims she saw it by sheer fluke in 1956, when it was presented to her as Gish’s greatest work. The film, she says, was not worthy of a great star, and its existence, at the time, was not widely known. A similar hatchet job was carried out on the Talmadge sisters, and the introduction of sound provided a good excuse to dispose with other early stars. Bebe Daniels and Bessie Love both made quick escapes to Britain, and extended their careers as a result. Curiously, Roscoe Arbuckle was brought back in talkies, although at a lower salary. His very ordinary, uninteresting voice perhaps cancelled out his silent-era escapades, while small-time silent actors Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy took comedy talkies by storm. Mabel withered on the vine at Roach studios in the late twenties, but it seems ill-health would have ended her career in any event.


“We’ll make a flapper out of you yet, Mabel”

The New Era begins, then ends.

With the dissolution of the old stars, the new girls on the block established themselves in the positions formerly held by the Biograph gang, right? Wrong, the new sensual stars like Brooks and Bow were soon to find themselves axed just like the old royalty. These people were getting just too big for their bobbed hair, and it wasn’t long before the ‘wrong voice’ excuse was used to remove them from Tinseltown. In reality their private lives had made them too dangerous, and risked bringing back wholesale censorship.


“Darn these talkies”

In the case of Brooks, she was also told her legs were too long, her body too short, and her head too small! Strangely, Paramount forced Clara into ever more talking parts, and they even got her singing onscreen. Clara was never a good speaker, and an even worse singer. Eventually, Clara had a mental collapse, and was shifted to a sanatorium. On recovery she made a few films, but her Hollywood days were soon over. Whatever actually happened, the two queens of flapper-dom were, frankly, run out of town. A new, new era then began to take shape, but the period is beyond the remit of this post.


Should we mourn the passing of the silent era? Possibly, but remember that those in at the beginning never thought the movies would last. Mabel, Mary and Blanche thought they would grab a quick few bucks, and then go back to modelling, in Mabel’s case, or the stage, in the case of Mary and Blanche. Unbelievably, the movies continued, but more amazing is the fact that Biograph and Vitagraph people got, and retained, stardom, while keeping the producers on their toes for 20 years.

Endnote: Mabel also said that she got a good talking to from her mother for arriving home from the studio very late that night. However, Mabel, who was then very shy according to Mary Pickford, could well have been too embarrassed to return, especially as a strange-looking Irishman kept grinning at her. His name was Mack Sennett.



When the Movies were Young by Linda Griffth (1925).

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

Madcap Mabel Normand by Sidney Sutherland, Liberty Magazine. Oct 11 1930.

New Years Eve on the Train by Mary Pickford. The Times-Democrat. Jan 3 1916.