“Thou shalt not say that Miss Normand owns a tufted limousine.”

Are you kidding me? Mabel and the what! Has this something to do with Walt Disney or, perhaps, Willie Wonka? Not really, although there are some connections between the strange Mr. Wonka and the equally strange Mabel. In fact, ‘The Chocolate Cake Interview’ is the title given to a famous interview given by The Madcap, which is sometimes also known as ‘The Alarm Clock Interview’. As chocolate is far superior to alarm clocks (in taste at least) we’ll just call it The Chocolate Cake Interview, but first some background.

The Masquerader1da

“For the Studio Newsletter? Get lost!”

Most people have at least slightly heard of Madcap Mabel, and most of them will tell you she was nuts. This is, to some extent true, but it’s worth pondering for a moment, why she is thought to have been ‘nuts’. Mainly, and initially, it was due to her crazy actions and stunts in her pictures, including pies in the face (or ‘boat race’ to Charlie Chaplin) of which she’d only received but five at the last count. As time went by, people began to realise that Mabel was also slightly weird off set, and it was possibly this weirdness that endeared her so much to the Hollywood set. To those that she despised, and to newspaper men, she was a nightmare, being notoriously difficult to interview, if in fact, you could get an interview with her at all. Mabel was central to Hollywood, was seen all over town, and rarely left Los Angeles, but holding her still long enough for an interview was well neigh impossible. On top of that, in public places she was always surrounded by a crowd, which was impossible to penetrate. You might write to her studio, with a request for an interview, but all you would receive back was a written answer to questions the studio thought you might ask. The outcome was that the press forever held a grudge against The Madcap, and when the murder scandal of 1922 broke, the pressmen were ready, with daggers drawn, to wreak their revenge on “she of the stubborn lips.”

Carn Mabel

The Chocolate Cake Interview.

It was a morning in June 1918, when journalist David Raymond, from ‘Play World’ arrived at the studio of Goldwyn Pictures, for a pre-arranged interview with Sam Goldwyn’s Girl. After a wait of around half-an-hour, he was told that Miss Normand was not at the studio that day, but if he proceeded to her home, she would allot him ten minutes of her valuable time. The lady at the front desk gave him a piece of monogrammed, creamy parchment on which was a preamble for the interview as follows:

“Miss Mabel Normand will pretend to be glad to see you when you call on her at four o’clock, and the art of simulation will be lavished all on you.

 Miss Normand will be perfectly glad that you have chosen to seek her out and invade the privacy of her apartment.”

“Miss Mabel will act as though she has never been interviewed before, and will blush and simper and beg you to publish her latest photograph. In fact, Miss Normand will not be herself at all, for she knows that you will much prefer to write of her as an animated doll, squeaking opinions someone else has thought up, tucked in a doll’s house and wearing doll’s clothes, all lacy and blue.” [note that blue was a girls’ colour back in the day].

Clearly, this was all meant to put the journalist on the back foot, put him in his place. She was, after all the star-of-all-stars and did not need to cosy up to the press. Mabel, of course, could make the toughest producer quake in his boots, so what chance did a mere ‘journo’ have? There followed a list of instructions or stipulations:

  1. That you do not say she owns gold furniture.
  2. Nor that she is whirled hither and thither in a tufted limousine.
  3. Nor that she has a dog.
  4. That you do not mention the hundreds of letters she receives.
  5. That you will not say she adores working in pictures.
  6. That you omit descriptions of her clothes.
  7. That you refrain from saying she loves all sports and all-outdoors.
  8. That you will not advertise her tremendous war-work.
  9. That you do not credit her for her interest in sociology and world politics.
  10. That you do not reveal her passion for the works of Edith Wharton, Mrs Humphry Ward, and Joseph Conrad.

“PS: In making these stipulations Miss Normand realises she is snatching away the props of your profession, for who heard of an interview without at least six of these mainstays. However, if you still wish to come, Miss Normand will be at home for ten minutes. Moreover, Miss Normand dares you to come. Please sign and return special delivery if Miss Normand is to reserve time for you.”


“Hilarious drivel.”

So, the guy has been put in his place, and must have wondered what he was getting into. He faltered for a moment, then realised that if he could pull off the interview, the world, and his editor, would be at his feet. Now, if the reader has been living in the real world, they will find the foregoing just a little familiar, but we’ll discuss that later. Now, our intrepid press guy took a deep breath and set off to find out what lay behind “The door of the Mischievous Mabel, The Naughty Normand.”

At the famed door, our journo knocked, and was shocked to find that The Naughty Normand herself answered his knock, and not a maid. To his relief, she was not attired in the negligee that had rocked several journos on their heels in the past. The house-coated Mabel led him over to the settee and they sat down. Mabel moved the newspaper she’d been reading:

“Oh. I only read the funnies – you don’t think I actually read that thing, do you?” But I do like the dictionary, it looks good among the other books on the shelf. They’re all dummies of course, but the dictionary is real – the cook uses it to look up the spellings of the things she makes.”

The journo suddenly realised that Mabel was asking the questions, and answering them herself – should he start asking some questions? No matter, Mabel was doing a good job. She realises that everyone thinks movie actresses are just dumb broads, and any books they have are just hollow receptacles for gin bottles. Mack Sennett, of course, had a repertoire of dumb Mabel jokes – like he once caught her reading a paper upside down, and she thought that a ‘horse’s neck’ was a piece of old dobbin. However, Frank Capra was once in Sennett’s house, and he took one of his thousand books down from a shelf – it was just a fake, an empty box. Meanwhile, the press man is looking around the room. No, the carpets are not pink or pastel blue, in fact the carpets are dark and oriental, and there is no nod to modernity there. The room and it’s furnishing are heavily Edwardian, nay Victorian, with a baby grand piano in one corner. Before he could comment, he is caught in the gaze of the famously lustrous dark eyes of the goddess Mabel, deep, intoxicating, and shadowed by those absurdly long, curling lashes. The light shines through these lashes, like sunbeams filigreed over a rose-smothered pergola. Her eyes were not a subject forbidden in her manifesto, so our man is in his rights in phrasing their beauty after the mode of Elinor Glyn, but to say Mabel is the ‘It’ girl would be doing the goddess a disservice. Seeing the press man in a state of mesmerisation, Mabel begins to speak:

“Men, she says, are my most serious interest, after dictionaries. I think they are the most serious things in the world. Especially when they tell me how beautiful I am. Then the pathos of their position is so acute, I am moved pity – when I want so much to smile. They are also a serious problem, when they explain the mistakes other men make when doing what they themselves know they could do better – such as commanding armies, food distribution and directing my screen productions.”


Mabel and the fluttering eyelashes.

Mabel glanced at her alarm clock.

“One feels kindly towards such men – all men in fact.”

She gives a Portia-like, knowing smile.

“Because they are so serious, and are such an important essential of life, one can’t escape them, they are everywhere. Why, only this morning a man called to manicure me. Now we have women munitions workers, women conductors and elevator operators, so one gets the feeling that men will get their chance in professions formerly barred from them.”

The reporter wants to know of Mabel’s latest film and her future plans, but her regal form rises from the seat and walks towards the desk. Our man is being treated to a private viewing of the Keystone Girl walk – she does not swing her hips, mince or skip, she is clearly walking, but the mechanics are not readily visible. The walk is, however, gay and perhaps a little impudent. The reporter had noticed that Mabel had been crossing and uncrossing her legs as she spoke, ‘twinkling’ those legs in the smick-smack manner, as they say down in Hollywood. He’d also noticed that Miss Mabel was wearing a pink satin negligee under the housecoat, which glinted in the light as she moved her legs. This worried him, in case she suddenly divested herself of the housecoat. He also remembered that Mabel was fond of walking around in the altogether. He had no chance to think up an extrication plan, for Mabel had returned with a kid-covered notebook.


Camisole said to have been worn by Mabel. (Mabel Normand Estate).

“This is what amuses me most, the commonplaces that people that should know better. Take this for example (she reads from the book) ‘I think a woman’s destiny is motherhood and the home’, and ‘Every woman uses her sex in some way’.”

Mabel says she loves that, and she loves the girl, a star, that made that discovery, but wonders what that leaves “for little old me.” The reporter leans forward to view the page, but Mabel quickly snaps it shut.

“Before you ask, I can’t tell you who told me these things. This would let you know more than is good for you.”

Now the journo decided he must get a question in, but he only gets one word out before:

“Do you like chocolate cake? I simply love it, nothing in the world is more vital to me at the moment than – chocolate cake. I am expecting a four-storey one from a shop I trust – or that will trust me. But there is a maddening doubt about it.”


The cake. Mickey 1918.

The reporter looked concerned, as Mabel continued:

“Will it or will it not, I ask myself, be iced on the sides as well as the top? The sugar shortage forces economy, and I have been told to expect the worst.”

As the press man tried to gather his shattered thoughts, there was a shrill ring from the alarm clock, which wobbled its way across the mahogany desk.

“Your ten minutes, my friend… ” Miss Normand announced, smiling cordially and rising to her full height of five feet “are up. Please go, I must be alone when the chocolate cake arrives. With great sorrows or great joys, I seek solitude. I am not like other girls, you understand.”

As the journo later wrote “There, was nothing more to say then, and there is nothing more to say now, except that Mabel Normand’s manner was serious all the way through.” He had, more or less, been bundled out of the apartment, by an alarm clock, held by some modern-day Mad Hatter. He felt lucky that the housecoat had stayed on, and even more lucky that the negligee hadn’t followed, but he was confused and unsure about what had actually happened. Of one thing he was sure, Mabel “was not like other girls.”


Heavy, man. Mabel’s film star dining room. [Looking For Mabel Normand website].

What does it all mean?

You might say “It means Mabel was nuts.” On the face of it, this seems true, but it also appears that some psychology was going on. If you believe the latter, then you believe that The Madcap wasn’t quite that nuts, but was merely putting our journalist in his place, in exactly the same way she’d been putting producers and other big-shots in their place down the years. She “was not like other girls” from way back, and the name Madcap Mabel was first coined by her co-actors in 1911, although she’d shown distinct signs of something close to insanity during her brief schooldays. Mabel often mentioned chocolate cake, and gave the impression that she devoured the stuff at every opportunity. It’s a curious fact, though, that she seems to have lost around 20 to 30 pounds between 1912 and 1918, and a whole lot more between 1918 and 1920. Anecdotal evidence suggests she ate like the proverbial bird, possibly due to the long-running contract clause stating “The artist shall not exceed 99 pounds in weight.”


“There’s no time, no time!”

Perhaps, the chocolate cake appearing in a newspaper article would rattle her producer? Mabel was strange, but, as we said at the beginning, there’s something familiar about what she said and did. Does she not seem very much like a star of the 1930s, or 1940s, and even of today? Is it not normal now, for a movie queen to talk in riddles, to disrespect everyone, cuss everyone, dodge the press and give them hell if they corner her? They are, of course, following the format set by Mabel, all those years ago. In an interview in the 1920s, Mabel said that, when she started out, she had no-one to follow, no-one to imitate, for there were no movie-stars in those days, and certainly none of the type we know today. There was Florence Lawrence, who lacked the attitude of a genuine star, and then there was the up-and-coming Mary Pickford, who kept close to her producer, and after she married Doug Fairbanks disappeared into Pickfair, taking on her husband’s persona in the process. Neither Florence or Mary captured the hearts of the Hollywooders themselves, although Mary’s heart was captured by Mabel, way back in those early days at Biograph Studios, as she told in her newspaper column. Only one actress specifically used Mabel’s character as a basis for her own over time, and that was Gloria Swanson, who’d played a ‘Mabel-like’ role in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard However, when she appeared on chat-shows, in ‘Mabelesque’ turban and flowing gown, she made sure that the cruder and more vulgar elements of Mabel’s persona were not in evidence. So, that is the story of the chocolate cake………

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Mabel plays at being Gloria Swanson in 1922.



The Tragic Side of Mabel Normand: Obtaining an Interview Under Difficulties, by David Raymond. Play World June 1918.

The Girl on The Cover, by Norbert Lusk. Picture-Play Magazine, February 1918, pg 262-265.

 Storms, Chocolate Cakes, and Vampires Her Delight! Pictures and Picture-goer, August 1918.

[See these on the Looking For Mabel Normand site:

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




Married for the umpteenth time. Fatty and Mabel Adrift.

The Fatty and Mabel films were produced in 1915, starring Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel Normand. Although they were made just a short time after the Charlie and Mabel films, they were of an entirely different nature. The eleven films that Charlie and Mabel made, went a long way towards denting the total slapstick regime at Keystone. Chaplin came with a ‘licence’ from big bosses Kessell and Baumann, to work as he wished, although he was, at the time, merely a knockabout comic – an arch slap-sticker. However, he came into contact with Sennett’s star-of-stars, who was then trying to break away from the slapstick mould and develop pictures that had more dramatic and tragic content. Mack’s films were, on one level, crude, seedy and even toxic. The message from New York was that Charlie had to work with Keystone’s biggest star, whether Mack Sennett liked it or not. As a consequence, Mabel was able to utilise Charlie’s ‘licence’ in order to produce films very close to those which she wished to make. Rough and tumble would not be totally ruled out, though, as Sennett could partially introduce slap-stick and, naturally, Charlie had little understanding, back then, of the dramatic arts. The Charlie and Mabel films, then, incorporated Keystone nonsense, with the kind of dramatics that Mabel had trained for under D.W. Griffith. Sennett did not approve of Chaplin being too close to his most valuable star, so he ensured that he (Mack) appeared in some of the films, and so was often on the set to ‘keep an eye on things’. Word had come to Mack that the young pair were having amorous meetings in Mabel’s dressing room, and they’d been seen together all over town – sometimes during working hours, and in a ‘stolen’ company car. By September 1914, Mack had decided to be rid of the young, bohemian upstart and would not renew his contract. Essentially Mabel had made a monkey of Mack, and might have been considering running away with the limey to a rival studio.


Slapstick and nonsense in Those Country Kids.

Charlie left at Christmas 1914, as Mabel was partying down Hollywood way. However, if Mabel thought she could carry on as before, she would be sorely disappointed. Mack intended to come down on the star-of-stars like a ton of the proverbial concrete blocks. He’d humiliate her, clip her wings and show her who was the boss – Mabel would slapstick like there was no tomorrow. Beyond that, Mack had another idea – he’d recreate Mabel’s old Diving Girl and Water Nymph films, but the stars would not be the 95-pound girls then popular in the movies. He’d reach back to the 1890s and hire chubby, meaty girls, who could wobble effectively in a bathing costume. The first Bathing Beauties began to appear on the lot, as Mack thumped the table and declared that Mabel would hereafter make silly, nonsensical, lovey-dovey films with Roscoe Arbuckle. The themes were common enough at Keystone: Country Girl falls in love with slightly unattractive country boy, even though she has plenty of suitors in her phone book. Inevitably they elope, down the typically Keystone ladder, which snaps in half. After many slapstick-laden adventures they eventually marry. Roscoe and Mabel were furious; these were not the films they wanted to appear in, and they made the pair, seasoned pros, look like amateurs. The fact that the pictures were hugely popular, and good box-office, meant nothing to Mabel, who was soon to be voted the best comedienne of 1915, attracting tens of thousands more votes that Mary Pickford (Best Leading Lady).


Al St Johns meets the gorgeous Mabel in Fatty and Mabel Adrift.

In June 1915, as arrangements were being made to incorporate Keystone into the large conglomerate, Triangle, Mack decided to pull off his best trick yet, and give Mabel the chance to appear in a story that she’d always wished to do – The Little Teacher, written by Mary Pickford in her Biograph days. However, all was not as it seems, for Mabel would not de facto be the star – Mack Sennett would. Seeing that Mabel was still very useful, he gave her a part where she would dive off the high Hollenbeck Bridge in order to rescue Roscoe Arbuckle, and give her the bonus of working with newly-signed Owen Moore, who Mabel had known well at Biograph. Owen was the husband of Mary Pickford, but, as soon as Mack realised Owen and Mary were about to separate, he got rid of Owen for the same reason he’d ditched Chaplin. In all probability, this upset Mabel, and now, with the Bathing Beauties parading around the lot, she considered bailing out of the studio.


Mabel’s moment in the sun. The Little Teacher on Hollenbeck Bridge.

While Roscoe and Mabel were talking of higher things for the future, the public for their part, couldn’t get enough of the Fatty and Mabel films. They were short, fast-moving and  woven around the greatest story on earth — the love story. Even today, they retain a certain charm among those that love silent comedies. In any case, with the money pouring in, Mack was in no mood to risk his cash on feature films like the Tillie’s Punctured Romance of 1914. A lot was happening in California in 1915, and Mack decided to launch his two lovers into The World’s Fair in San Francisco, and The Exposition of San Diego, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal. Lovers’ tiffs always played a part in the couple’s films, but in these two films Roscoe and Mabel crank those tiffs up to new levels. In San Francisco, Mabel enters an ‘iron Maiden’ on an old convict ship, and Roscoe slams the door, heavily laden with spikes, on her, while in San Diego, they have violent arguments within the park. Another park, Idora, Oakland, plays a part in Mabel’s Wilful Way, in which Fatty and Mabel seemingly meet for the first time. Mack has his giant electric fans working overtime for this picture, and sets Mabel’s fashionable dress rippling like never before. A newspaper report of the time records that the fans caused Mabel’s dress to blow up over her head during the helter-skelter scenes, so that there were several re-takes required. This probably gave Mabel the idea of giving the audience a glimpse of what she wore under her striped dress. A scene was inserted, in which her parents bend the recalcitrant Mabel over a fairground stall and spank her with a shoe. As Mabel kicks her legs in pain, her flurries of petticoats are revealed to the public gaze.


The audience gets its 5 cents-worth. Mabel’s Wilful Way.

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Roscoe ‘accidentally’ closes  the Iron Maiden on Mabel

The constant arguments that ensued between Mack and Mabel, convinced Mack that he ought to give Mabel a few choice parts, such as in My Valet. In general, though, Mabel’s name would not be prominent in the film titles, and where her name did appear it would follow her leading man’s name. However, Mack made an error by putting Mabel with Raymond Hitchcock, who became a close friend of Mabel’s and was an old foe of Sennett. This was Sennett’s perennial problem, for he had to put Mabel with a leading man, who would inevitably  succumb to her diaphanous charms, and, by default become Mack’s opposition.  By September of 1915, friction at Keystone was becoming intense, with Roscoe and Mabel becoming jaded by their lacklustre roles. Some time off was required, so, when a shoe bounced off Mabel’s head during a wedding scene, she played it for all it was worth. Roscoe and his wife volunteered to get Mabel to hospital, but drove her directly to their beach pad out at Santa Monica. Meanwhile, Mack was out on location in L.A., where he heard a newsboy announce:

“Read all about it – film star critically injured!”

“Hmm, wonder who that is?” Pondered the King of Comedy.

“Read all about it – Mabel Normand has head injury… expected to die!”

“What the f…..!”

Mack rang the studio to learn that nobody knew the whereabouts of Mabel, and it was two weeks before she arrived back on Allesandro Street. Mabel, of course, had not just been sunning herself on the beach, but had likely been in touch with Keystone’s over-bosses and the Triangle boss himself, Harry Aitken back in New York. Arrangements were soon made for Mabel, Roscoe, and a small company to travel out to New York Motion Picture’s studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey on the day after Christmas, 1915. Roscoe and Mabel completed a film called Fatty and Mabel Adrift, then rolled out of L.A. At a stop-over in Salt Lake City, the company fell from the train a little worse for the booze, and carried out a Triangle publicity shoot, where Mabel was pictured drinking something, booze or medicinal ‘goop’, from a bottle. Whatever it was in the bottle, it seems to be intended as an affront to Sennett.


Roscoe and Mabel’s beach house outside Santa Monica. Fatty And Mabel Adrift.

The company made many stops, en-route to Fort Lee, and were royally welcomed by numerous mayors and local dignitaries, before arriving in the Big Apple, where they were greeted with a great fanfare by their advance guard, led by the incorrigible Sydney Chaplin. Mack Sennett, sitting on his throne, back in an unusually silent Keystone, could not have been amused by the festivities back east. The lunatics had taken over the asylum, and here was the problem; what if Roscoe, Mabel, Minta Arbuckle and Al St. Johns never came back? He had his new stars, like Louise Fazenda, but they were still unknown quantities in the long-term, and how long would the Bathing Beauty craze last? Had Mack’s hubris been misplaced? Meanwhile, after the celebrations, the Mabel Normand company were getting busy. Together with Roscoe, Mabel planned a different type of film, far removed from the Mack Sennett variety. The film would be a drama, with some comedy inserted here and there. Rather than playing lovesick country kids, Roscoe and Mabel played a married middle-class couple, with everything that entailed. The pair can be said to have played dramatic parts in this film, with the comedy supplied by Al St Johns. Mabel is noticeable by the display of more flesh than The Keystone Girl should be displaying, and Roscoe is always suited and booted, as he is a doctor. Essentially, a male school-friend of Mabel’s comes to visit, and Roscoe is not happy. A pair of burglars, or house invaders, are woven into the story, Al St Johns and Joe Bordeaux, who by using deception, gain access to the house. Roscoe manfully throws the intruders out. However, the thugs are not through yet, and one of them phones Roscoe and gets him away on a fake medical call. The place turns out to be an abandoned house, and Roscoe thinks his wife is behind the deception. Meanwhile, the burglars have been in his house, where the usual Keystone fun and japes are taking place as Mabel’s ‘lover’ fights them off. Roscoe returns home after the villains have fled, but finds nightie-clad Mabel just about in bed with her lover. Roscoe throws his competitor out of the window, then strangles Mabel, but she comes around, and shoots the fat man as he descends the stairs. However, the whole thing becomes a Dallas preview, as it turns out that it was all a dream and no fights or shootings ever happened.


The Mabel Normand company in Salt Lake City in 1915.

Of course, without the dream sequence, it all meant the end of Fatty and Mabel, as far as Keystone was concerned. Was the dream ordered into the script by Sennett? We will never know, but it is possible that he’d decided he actually needed Roscoe and Mabel, and would not let them drift away. Notably, Mabel plays, for the first time since her Griffith days, a naughty woman, with equally naughty thoughts. This Sennett would never have allowed, for his Keystone Girl had to be purity itself, and the notion of her having amorous and womanly desires would have been unthinkable, and bad box-office to boot. The unfortunate thing about this film was that Roscoe directed and shot Mabel as a kind of vamp. This was never going to work, as Mabel was a natural vamp, and did not need to tape her eyelids wide open and circle her eyes with dark greasepaint, like some ghastly Theda Barra or Joan Crawford – her audience liked their ingenue just the way she was. The nods towards vampishness and impropriety were unnecessary, and as Connie Talmadge later said “She could never make a better vamp, even with a rose in her hair.”

He Did &1

Mabel plays the naughty housewife in a nightdress — it never really worked.

Eventually, the time arrived for the company to return west. Now, it seems that Mabel’s contract was coming to an end, although Roscoe and wife Minta were still in contract, so, after some discussion, Mabel decided to sit tight in New York, while her friends returned to the coast. Undoubtedly, the big, New York-based Keystone bosses, were keen on having Mabel at their Fort Lee studio, but snatching her from Sennett would have been messy. In any case, what Mabel was interested in getting control of was the new ‘features-only’ studio Sennett had built out at East Hollywood (or more correctly Silverlake). It is possible that Kessell, Baumann and Aitken decided to support her in this, if only to give Sennett a poke in the eye. What followed was incredible, and Mabel pulled off the biggest actress-led coup that the movie industry was ever to see.

It was while Mack was on the lot, in mid-March, organising his Bathing Beauties, that someone pushed a copy of ‘Variety’ under his nose. He couldn’t believe what he read:

“Mabel Normand with Mutual.”

“It was stated that Mabel Normand has 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, and is said to have affixed her signature to a contract. There is a possibility that she will appear in the Chaplin releases.”

[The Mabel Normand Sourcebook: from Variety March 17, 1916].

Where the fuck was that bitch, someone get a wire out to Aitken! Well, the wire did no good — no-one knew where Mabel was, and the big bosses denied any knowledge of the Variety article. In fact, Mabel was holed up in the apartment of Raymond Hitchcock and his wife, and communications were eventually only made via Mabel’s family on Staten Island. Quite who did what, and who said what, we do not know, but Mabel returned to the coast in triumph, having secured the new studio for herself, and it would house the newly-born Mabel Normand Feature Film Company. The press, nay Hollywood, went wild.


Making like a film star. Mabel with Raymond Hitchcock (right) at a premiere in 1926.

Disembarking the train in San Bernardino, to avoid reporters, Mabel ran into the town representatives that always garlanded visitors, but a sizeable number of her Hollywood friends were there as well to bombard her with bouquets, as Mack Sennett and Tom Ince fought their way through, to get the Keystone Girl into the waiting company car. Who the three girls were that piled in with them, no-one remembers – was it Norma Talmadge, Dotty Gish, and perhaps Alice Joyce? It was of no import, but it set The King of Comedy’s teeth gnashing, and interfered with the spiel he was about to give Mabel. The upshot was that Mack had a story for the new company, and the studio supervisor would be Tom Ince, not Mack Sennett. Within a week, Mabel had carpeted the studio throughout, strewn fresh flowers around, and had installed a dressing room balcony overlooking the main stage – courtesy of a thousand-dollar loan from Sennett, that was never repaid. Mabel was no longer The Keystone Girl, but was, perhaps, The Mabel Normand Girl.


Pigeon-toed Mabel with bouquet.



We will leave Mabel there, in her moment of triumph, but the Mack and Mabel war was far from over. In the end, neither would claim victory in the endless series of skirmishes that followed, down through the next ten years.




The Fatty and Mabel Films.

(All can be found on You Tube)

Fatty and Mabel’s Wash Day.

Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life.

Fatty and Mabel viewing The World’s Fair, San Francisco.

Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego exposition

Fatty and Mabel’s Married Life.

Mabel, Fatty And The Law (Fatty’s Spooning Days).

The Little Band of Gold.

Wished on Mabel.

Mabel’s Wilful Way.

The Little Teacher.

Fatty and Mabel Adrift.

He Did and He Didn’t.

(Those Country Kids 1914).





Chaplin and Old Father Time in The Property Man, 1914.

In the western world, the theatre as a form of entertainment, and perhaps culture, had been dominant for many centuries, before a new upstart arrived at the end of the 1800s – the motion picture. On the European continent, eyes were turning towards the new-fangled flickers, although the ‘flicks’ were to have a somewhat rougher ride in the British Isles. Across the pond in the U.S.A. some theatrical people were taking the French and Italian moving pictures on board, and there was a home-grown industry slowly on the rise. However, before the movies could get going in ‘the home of the free’ something called the English Music Hall arrived with the avowed intent of spoiling the movie party. What was the Music Hall? Essentially, the Music Hall was a low form of vaudevillian-like entertainment that arose, due to the particular circumstance pertaining in the British Isles. In London, the 17th Century kings had decreed that theatres had to be licensed, and they would only issue said licenses to two theatres. This, in itself, meant that lower forms of the theatre would inevitably arise to cater for the masses. Already, those ‘masses’ had become fond of lewd forms of entertainment, and in the 19th Century, people now had a little cash in their pockets, which the low joints were keen to relieve them of.

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‘Wiltons’, a low form of Music Hall in Wapping, East London.

In the 1850s, a certain Henry Mayhew had patrolled the streets of Olde London Towne and its debauched forms of entertainment. He was horrified to find that young girls and boys were attending these dens of iniquity, and were imitating what they’d seen within, on the streets outside the dens. Girls, with their blouses unbuttoned to the waist, and skirts hitched way above the knee, were seen giving suggestive signs towards lecherous boys, with whom they’d go off together to god knows where. Mayhew gave evidence at various commissions, meeting to construct a plan to halt the rise in debauchery and obscene public behaviour. It is important to remember here that Mayhew put the blame squarely on Irish immigrants, the very people that were to fill the theatrical and movie roles in the U.S. In Britain, however, it was considered wise for Queen Victoria herself to patronise the building of The People’s Palace in the rough East End of London at Mile End. In a strange twist this kind of legitimised the people of the East End, and equally legitimised the enormous Music Halls being erected to the rear of some well-situated public houses. The People’s Palace, by the way, stood close to the pub, where in 1922, a certain Mabel Normand had almost been crushed to death in the onrush, as drinkers had realised that The Little Clown was in their midst. This is a clear indication as to how much things had changed by that time.

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The greatest exponent of outrageous behaviour in the Music Hall was the indefatigable Marie Lloyd. In early 1913, she arrived in New York to take advantage of the Music Hall craze, then challenging the growing movie industry, as well as the legitimate theatre. The authorities responded by locking her up, on the charge of ‘moral turpitude’. In general, the City Fathers of America were against the spread of this obscene form of entertainment. Already, Marie’s compatriot and former co-actor, Charlie Chaplin, was reaching out to the rising U.S. film industry –  a clear sign of things to come. Marie Lloyd’s sister, Alice, had already penetrated the movies to some extent. By this time, also, the pairing of Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand had begun to change the nature of the entertainment industry. Irish-Canadian Sennett, had begun his career in the lewd joints down on Manhattan’s Bowery. The acts here were of the Vaudevillian/Music Hall type, which included ‘dirty-dancers’ like the unforgettable Little Egypt. Within Hollywood, it was known that he’d been much involved with the seedy side of the Bowery, and it is thought that he also ran some ‘street girls’. Mack was caught up in at least one raid on his ‘theatre’’ and appeared in court. He mentions the raid in his autobiography, as well as a knife fight with a pimp. Mack, of course, never managed to penetrate the legitimate theatre, and this rejection, plus the brush with the law influenced his thinking ever after.


Mabel and Jewel Carmen in That Ragtime Band. 1913.

We have not yet mentioned the Property Man, the all-important guy that looked after, and distributed the props in the theatres and film studios. In 1914, Charlie Chaplin played the part of a property man in a film about a theatre that came directly from the fertile mind of our old friend Mack Sennett. Still affected by his treatment at the hands of the legitimate theatricals, Mack was ever-keen to have one over on his foes. Now he had ‘made it’ he would teach that high-brow scum a lesson. The film would be named The Property Man, and portrayed a day in the life of a theatre prop guy. Mack would use everything at his disposal to expose the exalted theatres as little more than over-priced, over-hyped flea-pits. He would dig deep and dirty in this picture, from which his biggest star would, naturally, be excluded. In any case, Mabel Normand would probably not have wanted to be in on this film, as just about all of her friends were actresses from the stage. They would probably not have remained her friends for long, if she’d publicly ridiculed them. Mabel, of course, was one of those few actresses that had simply walked into the New York Biograph Studio from the street. It was Mabel, also, that appeared in Mack’s previous vaudeville-bashing film called That Ragtime Band in 1913. However, in that film, due to one of his extras, Jewel Carmen, having just just been captured in a whorehouse raid, Mack introduced prostitutes into the theatrical acts, thereby thumbing his nose at the theatre and the authorities. The lovely Mabel, in a seductive satin dress, rippled by electric fans, served to take the disrespectful edge off the film. So, let’s look at what The Property Man is trying to tell us.


Battle commences in the star dressing room. Peggy Page and  Phyllis Allen.

The Film.

The first sight we have of the property man, is of him swigging beer from a jug with his ageing, ‘father-time’ assistant. Straight away we are aware that this establishment employs the dregs of the earth. Outside, a husband and wife combo have arrived to give a performance, and notice that they have been left off of the Bill. The notice board is Mack’s first attempt to rubbish the theatre. There are numerous special prices, the range being 9, 19, 29, and 49 cents, which is confusing and ridiculous, but this is just what Sennett wishes to convey. Come here and you’ll pay a whole lot more than the 5 cents admission to a movie house – the implication is that for 9 cents you sit on the floor, and the confusing array of prices is merely there to confound the potential audience. Boxes are available at the reduced price of 95 cents – they are usually $1.23 (yet another strange price). Obviously, the theatre is struggling to compete with the flickers. The acts billed are The Goo Goo Sisters, Garlico The Strongman (in feets (sic) of strength), and Geo Ham and Lena Fat, rendering the heart-rending sketch ‘Sorrow’. There are, it seems, five other great acts.



The Goo Goos:  Vivian Edwards and Cecile Arnold.

The arrival of the warring acts, leads to many crazy scenes, of which the one concerning the star dressing room is the most hilarious, but also the most revealing. Star dressing rooms were the biggest joke of the theatre. In her autobiography,’ Sunshine and Shadow’, Mary Pickford gives us a glimpse into a star dressing room. These rooms had been greatly abused by the cantankerous and moody ‘stars’ that inhabited them. Mirrors were usually smashed, fittings ripped out and obscene ‘messages’ scrawled on the make-up stained walls. In the early days, of course, there were no star dressing rooms in the movie studios — communal and democratic changing rooms being the norm. This was a while before Geraldine Farra and Mabel Normand had their luxuriously appointed dressing rooms, replete with marble bathtubs.


“Time flies when you’re having fun, old man.”

As with all Chaplin-Sennett productions, the film descends into complete madness, owing to the unholy behaviour of the prop man and the poor condition of the theatre, as well as the badly painted backdrops. Much time is taken up with the various acts hurling the strongman’s weights and dumbells around, while the prop man tinkers with Garlico’s tutu-apparelled partner, when he isn’t stomping on the head of old father-time. In the end Garlico’s assistant is knocked out by a wayward iron ball. The prop man gallantly supports her, but when Garlico finds her in the arms of Mr. Chaplin, the trouble escalates.



Knocked out — Peggy Page.

In these type of films, the audience watching the the show is usually filmed as well. Mack Sennett is in the front row with Harry McCoy as an irritating drunk, and the usual suspects fill the remaining seats. The delicious, Spanish-looking Dixie Chene adds a little ray of sunshine to the auditorium. As in That Ragtime Band, the audience get hosed down, in this case by Charlie Chaplin, although Sennett disappears just before the tap is turned on. The critics, unsurprisingly, lampooned the film, and were up in arms that an old man had his head stamped on several times, although they thought the film was exceedingly funny. 10/10 said the Keystone audience, although there might have been chants of “Where’s Mabel”. There was, needless to say, no obvious role for Mabel in this film. There was no way the Keystone Girl could wear a tutu, and she’d already turned down a grass-skirt role in D.W. Griffith’s film Man’s Genesis, and would later turn down a star part in His Prehistoric Past, which also featured grass skirts.


Peggy close and personal with Chaplin.

Peggy Page. 

The actress playing Garlico’s assistant is of some interest. Her real name is thought to have been Helen or Gladys Carruthers. Gladys and Helen were sisters, and it seems that Gladys, the elder sister, appeared in this and other Chaplin Keystone films. Together with their mother, they seem to have constituted a gold-digging team that had varying degrees of success in the states they’d operated in. At Keystone, they seem to have had enough confidence to challenge Mabel on her home ground, and Gladys appeared with Chaplin numerous times, presumably to Mabel’s annoyance. In Gentlemen of Nerve, there is evidence of friction between the parties in the film itself, as Mabel took the lead with Charlie. When Chaplin left Keystone for Essanay, one of the sisters followed him to Niles, but Charlie had gone to Chicago, and not Niles. The Carruthers girls were both good-looking, but had plain, uninteresting faces, and, although compliant, they were not what Chaplin was looking for in the long-term. Helen later became a baroness, having married a European Baron, but in 1925, she tumbled from a 5th floor window during the New York heatwave, and was killed. Gladys and her mother hit the new cruising scene, and hit gold when Gladys met and married a millionaire.


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Upper-crust Music Hall: The Alhambra, Leicester Square, London 1874.



Linda Griffith was the wife of the movie genius D.W. Griffith. In 1925, in the wake of a series of Hollywood scandals, Mrs Griffith published her book ‘When The Movies Were Young’, designed give a balanced view of those involved in the picture-making business. Few books had been published up to that point, which detailed the advent of the institution that would eventually become the hallowed place known as Hollywood. Mrs Griffith was not intentionally writing history, but the work she produced is the only record we have of the movies on the very cusp of greatness. The book deals with the period 1905, just prior to the San Francisco Fire (or earthquake) to 1915, when her husband released the iconic Birth of A Nation. Here is the story behind the book.

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This work is far from flaw-free, as its purpose was to show the movie stars and producers of Hollywood, as being innocent and bereft of vice. However, the newspapers, of 1921 to 1924, naturally, were brim-full of stories about Hollywood orgies, murders and general foul play. In the course of depicting the stars as paragons and of being unusually pure, Mrs Griffith has somewhat attenuated the true story of the movie people, although there is still much useful information to be garnered from its pages. The book begins by telling the story of Kentuckian-born David Griffith and Linda Arvidson in California. Both were struggling stage performers, and David, becoming tired of part-timing in the Northern California hop fields, decided to head for New York, and seek his fortune there. Linda was left behind in San Francisco, and was there when the earthquake struck. Destitute, homeless, and bearing a one-way ticket to New York, courtesy of the Red Cross, Linda set off to join David in the east, attired in some second-hand Red Cross apparel. The pair married, and David found work with the Biograph Studio, and soon got Linda into the company, although they agreed not to let on that they were known to each other. Of course, David was starting on the bottom rung, and was very much ashamed of his position. According to Linda, this shame released his inner self, so that he was mostly in a state of rage, and would ‘chill’ by punching holes in the doors of their apartment. Once Linda and a friend spent a day collecting wild flowers that she thought would brighten up their miserable home. When the great man returned home, he threw the whole collection out of the window, bellowing “It’s not flowers we want, it’s f……g money! A low point occurred later, when their mutual friend from San Francisco, Harriett Quimby, the girl aviator and screenwriter, arrived at the door, bedecked in furs and jewels. Two hours later David watched her drive away in her new Pierce-Arrow motor-car, then collapsed into a chair, offering the opinion “She’s a success!”

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Harriett Quimby in her only movie scene in 1911. She died in a plane crash in 1912.

He offered the same opinion, six years later, as he watched a certain Mabel Normand’s name go up above her own studio out west in Hollywood. He was, of course, approaching his own success, and was soon made the chief director at Biograph. The new director collected early stars, like Florence Lawrence, but soon there came the Belasco-trained stage actress, Mary Pickford and many others. He also acquired an Irish-Canadian chancer, fresh from the low joints on the Bowery. His name was Mack Sennett. A shy, ex-modelling girl, with no stage mother, by the name of Mabel Normand, arrived sometime in late 1909 or early 1910. Although Mabel was very popular with the other players, Griffith put her into specific roles, where he required a dark girl. This meant she got very few leading parts, and when the Biograph company left for a stint in California, Mabel and many others were left behind. Mary and Lottie Pickford were put on the train, but brother Jack was left out, although Mama Pickford threw little Jack onto the caboose, just as it pulled out. Also along was the matronly Kate Bruce that served as the ‘agony aunt’ to the young actresses, and whose services were often monopolised by the emotional Lillian Gish.

Mrs Griffith reveals an interesting fact about the movie industry. The belief was that ‘clothes maketh the man’ — and the woman. Actresses like Dorothy Davenport, were able to gain many more roles due to the excellence of their clothing, as her family were fairly wealthy and travelled often to Paris. Mr Griffith was able to rent Miss Davenport’s apparel at $10 a day per item. Meanwhile, the Gish and Pickford family had to make do with home-spun gingham dresses. The company wardrobe was begun by D.W. in 1910, when he sent his wife out to buy clothing for the actresses, with the princely sum of $50.

Out in California, the already friendly company began getting even closer. The actresses in particular, realised that Griffith was setting them against each other, in a fierce kind of competition, so they banded together and began to call his bluff. Out in Los Angeles, also, the players realised that the local populace was decidedly against ‘these immoral intruders’ and took careful note. Mack Sennett, meanwhile, was making himself unpopular with the director and the other players. Griffith did not see him as a bona fide actor, and gave him few roles, which meant he did not eat at the top table, and had to dine, to his fury, on dry, curled up company sandwiches.


Left: Mabel in the orange  groves.  Right: Mack does not like his sandwiches. 1912.

The actresses did not appreciate Mack’s brusque manner, and nobody appreciated his ideas for films mocking policemen and authority in general. He did write several screen-plays, though, for films in which Mary Pickford headlined. On return to New York, the company acquired several new ex-stage actors, and saw the return of Mabel Normand, who’d now hit comedy stardom at the Vitagraph Studio. She was now a boisterous young minx of a girl, with some rather vulgar and insolent traits, for which she had been fired from Vitagraph. Griffith recognised her abilities, as the ‘Vitagraph Betty’ films had been screened in L.A., and he was glad to re-hire her. Another person was also interested in young Mabel – Mack Sennett. The Betty films convinced him that Mabel was thoroughly suited to the films that he had planned. Unfortunately, Mabel was now unapproachable, being constantly surrounded by members of the adoring company. Consequently, when Mack was made director of the new Biograph comedy unit, he set out to buy Mabel. He plied her with several diamond rings, which she accepted, then totally ignored him. Making a final attempt to gain her attention, Mack bought her a seventy-five-dollar diamond bracelet. Having had some previous altercation with Mack, Mabel told him to ‘stick it’, so Mack sold it on for eighty-five dollars. If Mack had paid better attention, he’d have known Mabel hated anything hanging around her wrist, and hated gloves for the same reason.

Dorothy-and-Lillian-Gish-with-D.W.-Griffith in1922.

D.W. Griffiths with his  stars Lillian and Dorothy Gish in 1922. He would soon discard  the loyal Lillian, but by doing so would, paradoxically, discard himself.

As Mrs Griffith said, the actors and actresses jogged along, and, although the stars of tomorrow earned small salaries, they had work all year round. The company included Florence La Badie, Kate Bruce, Flora Finch, Bobby Harron, Jeanie MacPherson, Wilfred Lucas, Blanche Sweet, Gertrude Bambrick, the Gish sisters, Frank Grandin, Dorothy Davenport, Owen Moore, Fred Mace, Ford Sterling, Vivian Prescott, Dorothy West, Marion Leonard, Thomas Ince et al. Everyone mucked in, and it was not unusual to see a future Hollywood star lugging scenery around, painting said scenery and screwing sets together. Some of the more Shakespearian of thespians, however, like Raymond Hitchcock, refused to ‘muck in’ at Biograph and likewise at Keystone, a few years later. Bits of scenery, of course, served as cover for the young lovers and spooners, whose average age was around sixteen. All was, according to Mrs Griffith, very democratic and Utopian, with the players, horror of horrors, calling each other by their first names.


The fly in the ointment, by reading between Mrs Griffith’s lines, was her genius husband. Already we have mentioned D.W’s temper, but Linda also admits that he sometimes ‘attacked’ recalcitrant actresses. She says Griffith once kneed Blanche Sweet clear off the stage in a fit of rage over her stiff performance. Linda didn’t mention any violence towards Mary Pickford, presumably because it did not suit the story she was telling. Mary, nonetheless, tells us a tale in her autobiography of Griffith constantly abusing her, shaking her by the shoulders, and once throwing her clear across the set, badly bruising her arm. It is to be wondered what words Griffith had with Mabel, for she often ridiculed and taunted the great man. Possibly, her much-adored position among the players forestalled any chauvinistic assaults by the Grand Master, and we might expect that her association with ex-boxer Mack Sennett had the same effect. Mack by the way had been watching Griffith closely, and was certain that he could now run his own studio. However, for now, he was director of the comedy unit, and he made his play for Mabel. Approaching Griffith, he asked for the fair hand of Miss Normand – professionally that is. Griffith was dubious, as he had plans for Mabel, but he let her go, on condition that he could cast her in his own films whenever he wanted.


Jeannie MacPherson, Marion Sunshine, Alfred Paget, Blanche Sweet in From Out The Shadow.

Griffith was now taking his company on regular trips out to the Fort Lee area of New Jersey and upstate New York, where Mrs Griffith tells us that Mabel first began to ‘daredevil’ and excel in horse-riding, swimming, high diving and shooting. She describes Mabel in glowing terms, but this seems to have been lifted from a newspaper column run by Mary Pickford in 1916 – this what Mary said of Mabel:

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

Linda said something very similar, but it seems she left Biograph, after separating from her husband in 1911. Consequently, a proportion of what she says is third-hand, and it seems she interviewed many of the stars, before writing her book. She does however record the company leaving for California on New Year’s Eve 1911. On the train this time was almost the entire Biograph company. Linda describes the chaperone arrangements for the young actresses, put in place due to many of the stage mothers having been left behind. Mrs Griffith wrote that the Biograph inner sanctum had different facilities on the train, but does not recall any problems on the journey. In 1916, however, Mary Pickford wrote that everyone got a little merry that evening. Later, Blanche Sweet alleged that Mabel began to ‘corrupt’ the girls, by getting hold of bottles of booze and cigarettes, and teaching them dirty jokes. She and the young scallywag Jack Pickford, further encouraged the girls to taunt the plug-hatted gents and old maids in the various carriages. By some miracle, they all arrived safe and un-arrested in Los Angeles. On the first night, though, Dorothy Gish and Gertrude Bambrick, decided to slip their chaperones, and booked into a downtown hotel. In imitation of their heroine, Mabel Normand, they slid their skirts down to their hips and lifted their jackets, so as to expose their midriffs, and hit the town. However, Mrs Griffith has something a little wrong here, for Dotty Gish and Gertie Bambrick did not arrive at Biograph until after Mabel had departed the studio. This means that the event occurred very late in 1912, and further means that Mabel’s reputation persisted at Biograph beyond her physical presence there, which is quite extraordinary. However, Mrs G did refer to Mabel’s career as ‘astonishing’ and ‘startling’ so perhaps her spirit had become legendary by that time. Incidentally, Dotty and Gertie’s disappearance had not gone unnoticed, and D.W. and Del Henderson eventually recaptured the pair, as they left a downtown bar. Dotty Gish has been described as being very much insolent in the way that Mabel was, and Mrs G categorically states that she was a more capable actress than her better-known sister, although she preferred a good time to working, and actually left pictures for a couple of years in the 1910s.

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Blanche Sweet (centre): filled out by bacon sandwiches.

There is quite a dense amount of material in the book concerning the 1912 sojourn in Los Angeles. Our author records the building of their second temporary studio to a better standard than before; the feeding-up of Blanche Sweet on bacon sandwiches to ‘fill her out’; the complaints by Mack Sennett concerning the accommodation, and his ‘disappearances’ to confer with the owners of New York Motion Pictures, concerning the creation of the new studio, Keystone. Mrs G devotes a whole chapter to the rise of Mack Sennett to fame (or infamy) and the development of his star-of-stars, Mabel Normand. Mabel drifted, at that time, between dramatics, tragedy and comedy, starring with Mary Pickford in The Mender of Nets and with Chief Dark Cloud in The Squaw’s Love. Mabel appeared with Blanche Sweet in The Eternal Mother, and with Jack Pickford in numerous comedies.


Mabel daredevils in a knife fight and a plunge from a cliff-face. The Squaw’s Love.

Blanche was now set on her career, but it was to be some years before she caught up with Mary and Mabel in terms of stardom. Mack and Mary were now writing screenplays, and Mack had written the story for Mary’s first well-known film, The Lonely Villa. Mary wrote a screenplay for The Little Teacher, which Mack later utilised, in comic form, for Keystone Mabel. All was not roses, out in The Golden state, for Mrs G records the first physical and verbal assaults on actresses in L.A.; actress being another term for ‘scarlet woman’. As for Mack and Mabel, this was their last stint with The Biograph in L.A. By May they’d be gone to Keystone, and by August, they’d be making their pictures in the Edendale district of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, Mrs Griffith does not tell us exactly why Mabel left with Mack Sennett, who was regarded as a complete buffoon, and, furthermore, a ‘bad egg’. As an addendum on Mack, Mrs G says “Today, ’tis said, he is worth five-millions.”

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Comedy pioneers. Mack Sennett and Dell Henderson in Comrades.

Mrs Griffith left us with many facts concerning the stars at Biograph, including the fact that Mary Pickford never appeared in a big Griffith picture. This went to other more loyal subjects of the Master, such as Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh. In fact, Mrs G tells us that Mae Marsh was set on the road to the leading role in Birth of A Nation by a huge row that developed between Mr Griffith, Mary, Mabel and Blanche. Griffith had given the lead in a film called Man’s Genesis to Mary. Mary then refused the part as it involved wearing a grass skirt, but also lost the lead in The Sands Of Dee as a result. What Mrs G didn’t say was that the Biograph Girls blackballed little Mae – like forever.


A popular still photo from Biograph. Mack, Mabel, Fred Mace in 1912.

How good is this book?

Although the book was written for a specific purpose, we can be sure that Mrs Griffith was being as honest as she could with the known facts. The chronology gets out of sync in some places, but no more than in similar contemporary books concerned with the early silent screen. The fact is that the motion business grew so quickly from nothing that nobody had time to write the details down — everything relied on memory. The early days of the stars are well-documented here, although Mrs Griffith, unsurprisingly, ignores contributions made by other studios to the success of  the Biograph stars. Nothing is said of Flora Finch’s time at Vitagraph, and she also ignores the fact that Mabel Normand’s “startling career” was also given impetus at that Vitagraph. Of course, she is out to support her ex-husband’s reputation as a genius, although she does, if we read between the lines, expose him as a violent, and even lecherous personage. Mrs G does ask this relevant question:

“What then of the feted days of Doug and Mary? Of the peals of laughter that rocked a Charlie Chaplin audience? Of the suspenseful rescue of a Griffith heroine on the ice-blocked river? Of the storm tossed career of Mabel Normand?”

She correctly answers that the techniques of the silent screen will soon be lost, and correctly declares that the ‘It’ team of Doug, Mary and Charlie will be best remembered, ice-queen Lillian Gish less so, but that Mabel Normand will be consigned to the dustbin of history for her dastardly ‘crimes’. At Mrs Griffth’s time of  death, however, in 1949, Mabel’s Damnatio memoriae had yet to be written, but somehow she knew it was coming. An interesting fact about the book, is that Mrs Griffith does not give any credence to the fabled Mack and Mabel love story. All she says is that Mack chased after her and tried to ‘buy’ her with expensive trinkets, and that they argued continually. Mabel did not reciprocate Mack’s apparent affections, although she did eventually go off with Mack, or, more precisely, New York Motion Pictures new subsidiary Keystone.

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Linda Griffith at the San Juan Capistrano Mission, Ca. (Mission Bells 1913).

It was Mack’s own autobiography that replaced Mrs Griffith’s book, as the accepted account of the movies. There is, of course, “not one line of truth in that whole damned Sennett book” to quote Louise Brooks, who, after all, was resident in the Hollywood of the 1920s. Overall, Linda Griffith’s book is very readable and engaging, and tells the stories of the nascent stars, so numerous that it would be difficult to accommodate them within this one small blog. It  is, surely, the Bible of the early silent movie era.

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D.W. Griffith: “The Ku Klux Klan was entirely necessary.”



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

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

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

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks (1974).



Tragic aftermath of the fire, with broken bodies lying all around.


It was while Mabel was filming for the Vitagraph Company in 1911 that news came of the devastating fire at the Triangle Shirt Waist factory in Greenwich Village NY, in which 154 people, mainly young girls, died. At the time the fire started, all of the doors and fire exits had been locked, and the few girls that made it out somehow onto a fire escape, were killed when the inadequate structure collapsed. Others died jumping from the upper storey windows. The tragic news spread around the city, and, like everyone else, the Vitagraph players were deeply saddened by the reports. For the young actresses, the deaths were even more poignant, as without the movies, any one of them could have been working in that god-forsaken fire-trap. No-one was more moved by the fire than Mabel Normand, who’d just gone over to comedy with John Bunny. Mabel told the Talmadge sisters that she’d once worked in a similar place, where she’d contracted tuberculosis. It was Constance Talmadge that had made this revelation in an interview in the early 1970s, although there is no supporting evidence to confirm this. However, Adela Rogers St. Johns, in her book, Love, Laughter and Tears (1979), also claims that Mabel had worked in a factory as a child, an orphan in fact. Publicly, Mabel never mentioned any factory, so is the whole factory thing a mere fiction? Quite how we would ever prove that this was the case is unclear – we don’t even know where she was born or what school she attended. This lack of early information, of course, is common among the silent stars, but there is a way we can reconcile the early statements with those Mabel later made.


Fire escape collapse.

The Convent Laundries or Reform Schools.

Mabel claims, again like many other stars, that she’d attended a convent school “Up near Martha’s Vineyard in North Westport, Massachussets”. Not all Catholic convent schools, however, were of the strictly educational kind, some were reform schools for wayward girls, and they were called Mary Magdalene Convents. Rather than the usual convents, though, these institutions were laundries, to which wayward girls were sent to work their way to repentance. Some had morally digressed, and were prostitutes, or those who had borne children out of wedlock. Many were simply beyond parental control, and Mabel would fit this latter profile. Unfortunately, the die-hard ‘morally bankrupt’ types never changed, but did manage to infect the other girls with their scandalous ways. Naturally, this would provide a basis for the unusual social characteristics of Mabel. Her constant use of foul language, dirty jokes, her disrespect for authority, and the rest of the oddities that the Biograph, Vitagraph and Keystone girls noticed.

There is no doubt that the Shirtwaist fire had a great effect on Mabel, as it did on others that began to roll the affair up into the existing Suffragette Movement. Likewise, the ascending trades union movement made great use of the disaster. If Mabel had ever attended one of the grim Catholic laundries or reform schools, then she would have been scarred by her experience. The name Mary Magdalene is innocuous enough, and the convents were founded by the Order of The Good Shepherd, that opened an establishment in Buffalo, New York State. Paradoxically, many years later, Mabel was to partially fund the building of the Church of The Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills.



An Irish Magdalene Laundry. (from Finnegan, F.: ‘Do Penance or Perish’. Cosgrave Press. 2001).

Admission to the laundries was normally via a sentence given by a criminal court, but it is known that some girls were sent directly via a parish priest at the request of religious parents, exasperated by the behaviour of their rebellious daughters. Some readers will be aware that the ‘laundries’ (and other Catholic institutions) are currently under investigation for cruelty, sexual assault and neglect, and that a fortunate few souls have been compensated by the Pope’s church, although other religious orders ran similar establishments. For most of the 20th century, the Magdalene Convents were regarded as a good thing, as there were, early on, no women’s prisons or reformatories to which to send these ‘bad’ girls. However, as women’s prisons became more common, the courts stopped sending female felons to the convents, but Catholic families still sent their wayward girls to these establishments, in which the inmates were anonymous, and did not acquire a criminal record. Unfortunately, this also meant that the girls could be abused mentally, physically or sexually, by both the nuns themselves, and the priests that they sometimes admitted to ravish their young charges.


“You are hereby sentenced to five years in The Laundry, and may God have mercy on your soul.” (New York Historical Society, NYC).

The danger of disease at these unhealthy establishments is patently obvious, and street girls themselves carried plenty of ‘nasties’. The working conditions were particularly harsh and damp, so that tuberculosis became rife. It could be that Mabel acquired the disease here, and was ‘released’ as being of no further use. Back home, she would have become, perhaps, a nuisance to her family, having acquired some of the traits of the ‘wicked Irish girls’.

Putting it all into perspective.

There is, naturally, no smoking gun evidence to suggest that Mabel went away to be ‘reformed’. We have merely been trying to tie in the statement of Connie Talmadge and that made by Adela Rogers St. Johns, with statements that Mabel herself had made. Connie’s sister, Norma, could undoubtedly have told us more, as she knew Mabel better than anyone, having befriended ‘the little clown, when they were just seventeen. However, she remained silent on Mabel’s early life. This we might expect, as the basic rule in Hollywood was that you never asked where anyone had come from, or what they’d been up to in the murky past.

Basically, we know nothing concrete about Mabel’s early life. We do not know where she was born, or where she spent her very early childhood. What we do know is that Rhode Island, Long Island and Staten Island all claimed her for their own. We might guess that,  she lived on Staten Island from the age of around two or three years, but the lack of a birth certificate means we luck out on her date and place of birth. In the mid-1950s, a certain Mack Sennett wrote to the Chancellor of The Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, requesting a copy of Mabel Normand’s baptismal certificate. The Chancellor searched the records of all the parishes and drew a blank – Mabel Normand, the Queen of Hollywood, did not exist, and had never existed.

Div Girl18frt902da

Nothing like a bit of  high-diving on Long Island.

Since the early 1910s, the diligent press had searched for Mabel among the records of the New York School Boards, and also drew their own blanks. Mabel never attended any school on the island, but there was little reason to send Mabel such a distance as 200 miles to North Westport. Possibly, she just plain refused to school, and maybe her parents got in touch with their local priest in exacerbation, and had her removed to the convent. We know that Mabel roamed the island alone, sometimes on her brother’s bike, which she often stole, and there is a possibility that she roamed as far afield as Manhattan. Like some female Tom Sawyer, she seems to have spent much time swimming and diving into the Hudson. She was later to win swimming and diving competitions around the New York area. As she grew up, it seems she became insolent, and somewhat anti-authoritarian, perhaps to the extent that she was beyond parental control. Possibly, then, she was sent away before she could get into any real trouble. No doubt the local priest informed the parents that their child would be reformed and become a credit to society, but, as already stated, this was rarely the case.


Outrage as  ‘bad’ girls break out of a Reformatory Laundry and infest the streets of Glasgow (Daily Record 1958).

Many people that had known Mabel, said that she was a mass of contradictions, as regards her personality. All mixed up, due to some psychological aberration? Possibly, but there are other ways to look at this. Her parents were completely dissimilar in their character and outlook. Her mother was a god-fearing woman, who was not that keen on the acting profession. Her father was a musician, who’d kind of failed on the theatrical circuit, but was hired by ‘The Snug Harbour Retired Seamen’s Home to put on shows and concerts for its inmates. Naturally, he had the demeanour of a vaudevillian, and had worked low-class joints for many years, meaning that he was probably of the rough, mean type, and totally suited to working with equally rough, mean seamen. Into this mix came little Mabel, who undoubtedly was taken to the Snug Harbour on occasions by her father, where she would have come into contact with some very vulgar language and behaviour. As Mabel became a proficient piano-player, we might imagine that she was involved in the concerts and plays at The Snug, and perhaps this made her a little reluctant to attend school. Alternatively, the fact that she did not attend school, would explain why she was, perhaps, taken regularly to that establishment. Mother was keen for her daughter to have an education, and taught her to read (according to Mabel) and wanted her to attend church regularly, and probably hoped she’d follow the pattern of a ‘normal’ life. So, Mabel’s family life was enough to get her ‘mixed up’. Then, if we add the possible experience of a convent laundry, we might consider that those experiences contributed also to her later complex personality. The outcome was that she became a rebellious, and disrespectful spirit, to the extent that a large gulf grew between herself and her deeply religious mother. Direct contact between the two was rare, Mabel liking to keep 3,000 miles between herself and mama, with letter being the only communication between them. 

Church of the Good Shepherd0

Church of the Good Shepherd Beverly Hills (Google Earth 2017).

The final conclusion is that any of the actresses that we call the stars of the silent screen, could have, by misfortune, finished their days in a fire-trap factory or criminally-run Magdalene laundry.  In any event, the investigations into the institutions of the Church are ongoing, and the author recently received information that a religious person close to Mabel had, some years ago, pushed for a young girl to enter a convent school, where she was subsequently abused. That ‘girl’ has recently passed away, but as her family are still living, and might be taking legal action, that person’s name will not be mentioned here.


Protest marches followed the Shirtwaist Fire.  (National Archives at College Park).


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

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

Looking For Mabel Normand: Site maintained by Marilyn Slater.

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

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).



Caught in a Cabaret1

This is an article concerned with a hypothetical interview with Charlie Chaplin about his memories of Mabel Normand. Following the publication of his autobiography everyone wanted to know more about his relationship with The Keystone Girl. Despite numerous requests, Charlie always declined to talk further about the little clown. This article represents what Charlie might have said, if such an interview had ever taken place. ES is the interviewer and CC is Charlie Chaplin.

The Interview.

ES: Now Charlie let’s start with your book. Your allusions to Mabel are brief, but intriguing. They leave us hanging on a cliff edge, so why didn’t you say more?

CC: Well, let’s be clear about this — I only worked with Mabel for one year, and yet I wrote more about her than any other girl I’d known over such a short time. If you really want to know, I devoted a whole chapter to her in the original manuscript, and she turned up throughout the book.

ES: That, again, is very intriguing. Our readers will want to know why you took so much material out of the final draft.

CC: You must understand that I did not write alone – I had a ghost writer, paid by the publishers to basically hold me back. He told me straight “Charlie, you’re already in trouble with governments world-wide. If you associate yourself too closely with ‘bad girl’ Mabel, the heavens will open and you will drown in the downpour.” I listened, but listened, perhaps, too well.

ES: Will you ever publish this material?

CC: No, oh no, I read it every day, but I’ll destroy it long before I die.

ES: Okay, let’s leave it there. Now when did you first become aware of Mabel?

CC: In late 1910 or early 1911, same as everyone else. She exploded onto the screen as Vitagraph Betty in the John Bunny comedies.

ES: She was a dream wasn’t she?

John Bunny-Mabel 465a

No, not The Donald snoozing by Mabel’s side, but John Bunny.

CC: Yes, but, to a professional actor, she was more than that. The first time I saw her, I was sitting with my understudy Arthur Jefferson (Stan Laurel) and he kept nudging me with his elbow:

 “Look at that Charlie, look what she’s doing now, why didn’t we ever think of that?”

We both knew, that very minute, that we must get into pictures. On the stage we had to be very broad – it was all very much “Fr-i-e-n-d-s, R-o-m-a-n-s, C-o-u-n-t-r-y-m-e-n” legs planted wide and arms extended to the heavens. The Betty films made us understand what could be done with film. Subtle gestures, movements and little nuances could be transmitted to an audience, especially in the close shots that the movies made possible.

ES: Sure, so you appreciated Mabel’s art, but what of the other players and directors?

CC: If you mean what of D.W. Griffith, then there was no comparison. Now, I’m not dumbing Griffith down, but for all his hype, his films were, in the early days, just plays within a landscape that he put onto film. Mabel was a revelation, a breath of fresh air, the sensation of 1911, as the newspapers were quick to announce.

ES: So, you had to wait three years to meet her?

CC: Well, not exactly – I wrote to her. Sent a letter from Old Blighty to her studio.

ES: Did she reply?

CC: Strangely enough, yes. I got a photograph back (you know the classic one with the curtain hanging around her shoulders). This accompanied a lovely letter signed “Your Girl Mabel.” I showed the letter to other members of the company.


ES: What did they say?

CC: They laughed, and said I’d written it myself. Years later, I saw that letter’s twin, framed, and hanging in Mack Sennett’s office. The poor fool thought he was the only one. In fact, there were a million men worldwide, who had the self-same letter hanging on their walls. That was Mabel, she always made you feel special, and, as I later discovered, you’d feel even more special when you actually met her. A few years back, I discussed all of this with her compatriot at the Vitagraph, Norma Talmadge. She confirmed the letter thing, but told me men would send her engagement rings – some with huge diamonds set in them. She wore them in rotation, on her ring finger, just to keep everyone guessing.

ES: She began the whole movie star bit then?

CC: She was born a star.

ES: Eventually, you came to the U.S. and got called to Keystone by Kessell and Baumann to do films with Mabel.

CC: Not exactly. I engaged an American agent to promote me, and get me into the flickers. I told him I wanted to play opposite The Keystone Girl.

ES: What did he say?

CC: He simply laughed, and pointed to a filing cabinet:

“That”  He said  “Is full of the details of actors that want to be Miss Mabel’s leading man – I’m sorry Charlie, but you’ve got no chance, Mack Sennett has her closely guarded, and is very particular about who appears with his star-of-stars.”

I told him to keep at it, alongside his current publicity work for me.


Mabel in an early Biograph comedy: Oh Those Eyes.

ES: Eventually, of course, you got the call from Keystone’s Kessell and Baumann?

CC: That’s right, the agent forwarded the letter to me. Well, I fairly floated from Philadelphia to New York, where I met the movie giants and Baumann’s daughter Ada in their plush office on Longacre (Times Square). They wanted me at Keystone, and Ada smiled sweetly at me saying:

“Miss Mabel Normand has asked for you personally – you’ll be playing alongside the Keystone Girl, Mr Chaplin.”

Well, I virtually snatched the pen from Kessell’s hand and furiously signed for $125 dollars a week.

ES: So, Mabel had seen your act?

CC: Well, so it seems.

ES: And you went to Keystone?

CC: No, not straightaway, I had to complete my tour with the Karno Company, which eventually brought me to L.A. and the Empress Theatre, where Mack came backstage to see me.

KS: No Mabel then?

CC: Mabel stayed outside on the sidewalk, and Mack brought me outside to meet her.

KS: A momentous meeting clearly.

CC: Well, not really. You must understand that both Mabel and myself were essentially introverts, and neither of us could cope with meeting new people. We both mumbled something, but we made no eye contact.

KS: The world’s most eligible bachelor met the world’s most eligible maiden, and nothing happened?

CC: Yep, it was a damp squib. Sennett bundled us into his glamorous race car and took us to a restaurant. Over dinner, Sennett explained his methods and what he expected of me.


“Ooh, he’s such a gentleman.” Charlie and Mabel with Mack’s racing car and Thor IV motorcycle.

ES: Did Mabel say anything?

C.C. Not at first, she just looked down into her plate, but I did feel her foot brushing against mine under the table. I think Sennett detected a certain ‘atmosphere’, for he looked at me quizzically and said “I don’t think you’ll do Charlie, you’re too young!”

ES: But didn’t you always make up older on the stage?

CC: Yes, but he was wondering whether I might run off with his little clown – we were almost the same age. Actors and actresses, you’ll understand, are passionate, sensitive and emotional.

ES: But you had no such intention obviously.

CC: Are you kidding me? Of course I did! Anyway, Mabel finally looked up and told Mack I’d do just fine.

ES: So, Sennett didn’t want you at his studio?

CC: You bet he didn’t. After he dropped me off at my hotel, I think he was straight on to K and B, telling them to rescind my contract. When that didn’t work, he made the film Mabel’s Dramatic Career, in which he sets out to kill the tin-type that had stolen Mabel, along with Mabel and their three kids.


Mack decided to put an end to this domestic bliss. Mabel’s Dramatic Career.


ES: Didn’t that put you off?

CC: Well, I went thrice to the studio, and, like Dick Whittington, thrice I turned away. Then Mack phoned me and told me to get my ass down there pronto, so, figuring it was safe, down I went.

ES: And you were set straight to work with Mabel.

CC: Hell no! There was no sign of Mabel, although I often heard that dirty laugh across the lot, and knots of crewmen and actors betrayed her whereabouts. Mack kept me on a string for a month, while he tried to persuade K and B to ditch me.

ES: And after the month?

CC: Well, then he put me with Henri ‘Pathe’ Lehrman, the fake Frenchman, and we filmed Making a Living. Lehrman advised me to wear clothes like Sennett used in his early Biograph films, as it would please him and polish The King’s ego. I looked ridiculous in a ‘way down east’ moustache, top hat, frock coat and a monocle. We filmed outside Mabel’s bungalow dressing room, and I swear I could hear her laughing at me from inside.

ES: Then you went with Mabel?

CC: Kind of, yes. All of a sudden, and unexpectedly, I bumped into her coming around a corner on the lot:

“Ah, Charlie” She said “I’d wondered where you’d been hiding”.

I tried to explain that I hadn’t been hiding, but she cut me off .

“I hear you’re going to lead with me in my next film?

“Am I?” I asked.

“Oh yes, I’ve asked for you. Come to my dressing room, and I’ll explain the plot.”

ES: Oh, oh!

Dress Room Mabe5330is

Mabel’s dressing room.

CC: Exactly, but when the Queen calls you into her presence you’d better go. We entered the bungalow, which was a home from home. There were fashionable wicker chairs, a Louis XIVth dressing table, big plumped up cushions, a fan, a heater and a phonograph (I think they call them record players nowadays).

ES: Wow, that was something back then.

CC: Oh yeah, she was a movie star before the word was ever coined. Anyhow she sat me down and pulled up a chair real close, and began to tell me the scenario. Now, let me explain something. When Mabel spoke to you, she would keep touching your leg, or actually put her hand on your thigh – for a long time. She did this with women as well, and it kind of pulled you in, and all the time those big dark eyes were on you. This made you feel special and that you were the only one.

ES: My god, your blood pressure must have gone through the roof!

CC: Right, but anyway, she said they’d start shooting tomorrow morning at nine o’ clock sharp:

“Oh, by the way Charlie, don’t wear that stupid frock coat.”

To which I replied “What costume would you suggest?” She thought a moment, then said “Copy Mack’s scruffy, hobo character, it’ll…. “

“Please him and polish his ego?” I interjected

“Why, yes.”

ES: So, tell me Charlie, did Mabel have a star on her door?

C.C. Good god, no! At one time she came back to the bungalow and found a gold star stuck on the door. She tore it off, stormed over to Sennett’s office, and you could hear the arguments all over the lot. There was the sound of books and ledgers being thrown and a complete telephone came out through the window. No more stars ever appeared, although Mack did screw a sign to the door saying ‘The Keystone Girl’. By the way, Mabel was never alone in the dressing room, and it was usually full of actresses.


Mabel’s Strange Predicament.



Mabel and dog, inside and outside the hotel.

ES: I take it the film was Mabel’s Strange Predicament?

CC: Correct, and I arrived at precisely nine o’ clock. All the cast were there except Mabel. They’d set up a hotel lobby, and Mack threw me in and said “Do your stuff.” I did a drunken scene in the lobby, upsetting all the posh guests, then Mabel flounced along to the usual cheers and adulation of the crew and cast. I couldn’t believe what she was wearing. All the other women were wearing the tailor fit clothes that were then becoming popular – you know sharply tailored, like men’s clothes. Mabel was wearing a complicated dress that dated back to around 1870 and a huge boa feather. Both Mabel and I were incongruous among the other guests. She also had a dog on a lead! I had no time to ask questions, for after doing one short scene with Mabel, I was grabbed by Lehrman and driven off to Venice to do a film called Kid Auto Races in Venice.

ES: But didn’t you appear throughout Strange Predicament?

CC: Yes, we were back in four hours, and Mack told me I’d be playing a major part in the film. They’d shot some scenes without me, but now we raced like hell to complete the picture before the light faded. The film was manic, and ran at great speed, mostly with me chasing Mabel around in her pajamas. I never found out until much later what that darned film was all about.

ES: Clearly, you were now fully integrated with Mabel.

CC: Not a bit of it. Due to the intervention of K and B, I was given the opening scene all to myself – you know the drunken lobby scene.

ES: Oh dear.

CC: Oh dear, yes! Mabel was livid and spitting blood, and she refused to speak to me, or work with me for six weeks (The intended first scene had been shot weeks earlier with Mabel at a hotel in Pasadena). I did see Mabel, however, when I was doing a love scene with Minta Arbuckle for Cruel, Cruel Love. It was a lovely sunny day, but all of a sudden, the heavens opened, and we were both soaked to the skin. We looked up, and there was Mabel astride the top of the set, laughing with an empty bucket in her hand.

“You silly pair of lovesick bastards!” She cackled.


Minta and Charlie before the heavens opened.

ES: So how did you come to appear in, what was it, Mabel At The Wheel?

CC: It’s a complicated story. Mack was trying to ditch me, and K and B wanted me to stay. Baumann came to L.A. personally but didn’t come to the studio – he sent his daughter, Ada, to appear in the picture. Mack sent me off to meet up with Mabel and Ada out in Santa Monica, but when I got there, I found the girls behind the camera.

ES: Directing?

CC: Yes, indeed. Of course, this got me hot under the collar, especially as Mabel had ordered that I was not to wear the tramp’s outfit. Then Mabel told me I was not there to do gags and slapstick – this was a different kind of film. I was confused. I was a gagster, a knock-about comic, so why was I there? Anyhow the story’s been told many times, but the upshot was that all hell broke loose, until Baumann waded in and read the riot act. After I’d knuckled down, everything was fine between Mabel and I, but there were members of the cast and crew that wanted to beat me to death for disrespecting their Queen.

ES: So, Mabel was the Queen then.

CC: Oh yeah, you must understand that every studio back then had a figurehead, someone, usually an actress, that represented the studio, and all the company looked up to that person. Mabel was Queen in those days, but later became a Goddess to us all in Hollywood. Every aspiring player wanted to go to whatever studio their favourite star was at.


Mabel’s bungalow dressing room with garden behind.

ES: I’ve heard you and Mabel then collaborated closely, and you became a permanent fixture at her dressing room.

CC: Everyone was a ‘fixture’ in Mabel’s life, it was as though we were players in some grand Mabel production. One of the advantages, though, of being ‘friendly’ with Mabel was unrestricted admission to her bungalow dressing room. This was our base from which we planned our flurries into film world. Mabel was a good teacher, but I didn’t learn just about film-making, for Mabel put me on a course of how to get along with people. I hadn’t been much liked at Karno’s and no-one thought much of me at Keystone, but Mabel told me some home truths:

“Charlie” She Said “You must learn to get along in this movie colony, or you’re toast. The producers are not your friends, and you must build relationships with the actors. Look at me. Like you, I’m an introvert, but I forced myself to be an extrovert, so that I could get along.”

That was the theory, and Mabel soon got me into the practical, and took me to endless parties and introduced me to everyone that was anyone in Hollywood. I felt like her pet dog, and I could almost feel the leash. She explained Keystone’s methods to me in detail, telling me how all the actors and actresses had trained at the Vitagraph, and under D.W. Griffith at Biograph. Basically, the Keystones were burlesques or send-ups of Griffith films, which had been full of helpless women either wringing their hands or tearing their hair. The Keystone audience understood this ‘disrespect’ implicitly, and loved it. This explained why Mabel would run onto the set and commence all the hand wringing and hair-tearing. In fact, she could run onto the set and do anything and perfectly – first time. Many years later, I would remember this, as I struggled with my 200th take. My explanation of this unique ability is that Mabel was a phenomenon, a once-only personality that turned up, maybe, every thousand years. When she ran it looked as though she was on wheels, and she never got into a car or Indian canoe, she simply poured herself in.


Alice Davenport is less than pleased with Mabel and her canine friend.

ES: I’m intrigued by her Mabel’s Strange Predicament character. Did she explain this to you?

CC: Oh yeah, when I questioned her, she half-smiled and said:

“You don’t get it Charlie, do you?”

I confessed I didn’t.

I was playing an actress – you know a ‘bad girl’, a scarlet woman, which was why I had a dog in my bedroom.”

Now I realised why Alice Davenport looked at Mabel so so disparagingly, as she took her dog into the hotel room. Keystone audiences, of course, clearly understood what was going on – girl, dog, pajamas, bedroom. Marie Lloyd had nothing on Mabel in this respect.

ES: So, innuendo was a part of Keystone’s methodology?

CC: Indeed, along with burlesque and assorted nonsense. The innuendo worked like this. Mabel could never be presented as anything but pure and wholesome, so everything had to be in the eye (or mind) of the beholder. Mabel could never reveal her legs nor her bosom, unless it was ‘accidental’. For instance, when I lifted her skirt in Getting Acquainted, or when she exposed her upper thighs giving me the high kick in Mabel’s Busy Day. ‘Accidental’ also, was the exposure of her cleavage in Spanish Dilemma, where she surreptitiously undid her blouse, under cover of  picking a flower.

ES: The upshot was, you got along well with Mabel and did around a dozen films with her.

CC: Eleven, I think, and everyone a winner. I was a pure slap-sticker back then, but Mabel showed me how to bring tragedy and drama into the pictures. She was, of course, a trained dramatic actress – trained by none other than D.W. Griffith. Her ability as a tragedienne came naturally, as did her comedy. Sennett tried to limit the amount of melancholy she introduced into her pictures, but I went along with it, as she allowed me endless slapstick and knockabout comedy. It was give-and-take. For instance, Mabel’s Busy Day saw Mabel bring melancholy to her vending girl character, but she also piled in with my slapstick / ass-kicking, and ran around waving a big knife.


Mabel gives as good as she gets. Mabel’s Busy Day

ES: I think you kicked Mabel in the derriere at least two-dozen times and punched her in the face once or twice.

CC: Oh yes, and I once kicked her in the stomach, which caused a great furore among her fans. In fact, I regularly received threats by letter, informing me that I’d be killed “if I ever harmed one hair on that girl’s head.” In fact, I never intended to put her in that position, she chose it for herself.

ES: Please explain.

CC: I had the prerogative, given by Kessell and Baumann to do whatever I wanted. I was a pawn, to be precise, in the battle between K and B and Sennett. Mabel assumed that this also applied to her, and she introduced lots of melancholy, but wanted to be in the thick of the brick and ironing-board throwing, as well.

ES: I remember. Didn’t she once hit you over the head with an ironing board.

CC: That’s right, in His Trysting Place, a film about good old American married bliss, where she also threw a china bowl in my face.

ES:  Did you ever tire of working with Mabel – I see you did twenty films with other actresses.

CC: No, I never tired of her, and there were benefits to being with her. A dressing room heater in the cold weather, a drive downtown in a company car, when we got bored – I could never have got away with that on my own. In any case, the Keystone cars were immobilised in some way, but Mabel always got under the hood, fiddled with something and ‘Hey Presto’ they started up . One other advantage was free dinners with Sennett.


ES: Free dinners?

CC: Yes – Sennett had spies under Mabel’s windows, and heard that we’d been getting a little amorous, so he took us to dinner every night, just to keep an eye on us. It never worked, for the old guy always fell asleep after the meal, and we’d skip off for a couple of hours.

ES: To the back row of a picture house, no doubt?

CC: Well, that’s for me to know, and for you to find out! Anyhow getting back to the other actresses, Mabel was great, perhaps a little too great. On set she made me look small – you should never appear with the best, even if you learn something every time. I also thought she was impinging on my ground i.e. pure slapstick, which was unusual for a female. If this carried on she’d leave me with nothing, and in fact, they were starting to call me Mr. Mabel Normand. I called in Mack Sennett to help in The Fatal Mallet, where we managed to surround her, and crimp her style a little. In around August, I decided to leave Mabel’s crib and exclusively utilise lesser actresses. In particular, I used Peggy Page, a plain-faced, but pretty girl with a good body. She did everything I asked and never ventured any ideas.


ES: So, what did Mabel think about that?

CC: She was not amused, and I detected a change in her attitude towards me. Anyhow, about this time, K and B had the idea of a six-reel feature film, and Mabel and I got very excited about it. Imagine our dismay, when Mack was unable to get us into the lead. K and B brought in Marie Dressler from the stage, and we had to play second fiddle.

ES: Mabel didn’t appear until the second reel, if I remember rightly.

CC: That’s right. Mabel elected not to appear in the first part, which made me suspicious. That first reel was all slapstick, and I suspected Mabel had something special planned.

ES: That’s interesting, tell me more.

CC: Well, Mabel was playing the part of a crook’s moll, and she’d decided to milk the part for all it was worth. The clothes she wore were way over the top, and she even had a massive fur hand-muff in the hottest part of the L.A. summer.

ES: A typical low-class girl, then, who’d found riches as a gangster’s moll?

CC: Exactly, but she had more ammunition in her box – the famous close up. Now, I knew nothing of this until we saw the finished film downtown. Mabel organised this one-off scene, in which so much light was shone onto her face that her eyes looked blue, or pale on monochrome film. She’d decided to use klieg lights for this, and poor old Mabel went blind for about four days.


Mabel lit like you’ve never seen her lit before.

ES: Panic stations, obviously.

CC: You’d better believe it. We were all worried for her, but let me tell you something. If Mabel had been lost anytime before 1917, the whole studio would have folded. As luck would have it, she recovered, and not for the first time. She must have carried out a hundred highly dangerous stunts between 1911 and 1927, yet she always survived. In Tillies, Mabel played a part that she’d never played before, but, in the last half of the film, she reverted to The Keystone Girl, wearing that maid’s outfit.

ES: Wow! Wasn’t she something in that outfit?

CC: Oh yes, she got a few hearts racing, including mine, when we had that passionate kiss. I was the envy of the whole world.

ES: Yes, but in that passionate scene, didn’t she kiss you on the neck – gave you, what do you Brits call it? A love bite?

CC: Very observant of you Mr. Interviewer. It was like this. The Keystone Girl could never properly kiss a man on the lips – it was verboten by order of our Furher, Mack Sennett. People wondered why anyone would kiss my neck, saying I had a big ‘tide mark’ around it. Well, I may not have washed too often, but neither did Clara Bow.


“Necking eh? I’ll kill the bitch!”

ES: Mabel, of course, had a marble bath in her dressing room.

CC: That was later, but she did have one of those tin bath things.

ES: Which you shared?

CC: I don’t answer questions like that, my good man.

ES: Minta has said that Mabel used to buy you shirt, tie and cuff-link sets – you know, those cellophane-wrapped packs.

CC: That’s true, it was only later that I learned that she was upset that I never changed my clothes. Those shirt packs were meant as a kind of wake-up call, but I was oblivious to dirt, and I’d never heard the word ‘bath’ until you mentioned it just now!

ES: Getting back to Tillies, what do you think of the final released film?

CC:  I think it had little merit, and I was underplayed in it, as well as squeezed between Marie and Mabel, so that I almost disappeared. They shone, I didn’t.

ES: Was this when you thought about leaving Keystone?

CC: It had occurred to me, but the idea scared me to death. I’d decided to put Mabel at arm’s length, but was afraid to lose sight of her, in case I needed her. However, I reckoned now that I should secure the use of Peggy Page, as this would ‘big me up’ on screen – just in case I had to leave. I soon discovered what a fierce competitor Mabel was, when demands came to co-star her in my next few films. Prior to Tillies, she’d already usurped Gentlemen of Nerve from Peggy, and I was helpless to do anything. Peggy kinda fell apart, although Mack put her in the film as an extra, along with her mother, who held the poor girl’s hand throughout.


Peggy (check coat) is not happy with playing second fiddle to Mabel.

ES: I heard somewhere that the Page family (Peggy, Gladys and their mother) were furious about Mabel trying to curtail Peggy’s career.

CC: You’re correct. The whole Page gang turned up for the shoot, vowing to ‘get’ Mabel. However, Mabel was not stupid, and carried a box-handbag throughout the picture – just big enough to accommodate a Derringer. Turned out the Pages were the Carruthers family, a gold-digging clan from Texas. It was later that Peggy married a German Baron, but while in New York in 1925, I heard that the baroness had tumbled from a hotel window, just down the street, and died. Mabel got me for Getting Acquainted, but she pulled out of my final film, His Prehistoric Past, as it involved wearing a grass skirt, which would have messed with her image.

ES: So, Sennett refused to renew your contract for the appropriate sum of shekels, and you waved goodbye.

CC: Not exactly. I asked Sennett for $1,000 a week, but he said the company had only agreed to $750. I said I’d think about it. Sennett went to his desk drawer and pulled out a Colt .45, saying:

“I think negotiations are over, don’t you Charlie?”

I quickly agreed and made a smart exit. I had, of course, realised this might happen, so I’d sent for my brother Syd, to come over from England and be my manager.

ES: Presumably, you had plenty of offers, and Syd soon got to work on them.

CC: Hell, no. Sennett signed Syd up, and I was left all alone among the sharks!

ES: And Mabel…..?

CC: I really had to escape Mabel’s clutches — what with Sennett roaming L.A. with that .45. I figured that 2,000 miles was a respectable distance, so I was glad to sign with Essanay in Chicago.

ES: And you told her of your deal with ‘Broncho’ Billy and Essanay.

CC: Did I have to? Mabel knew everyone in the business, and was personally acquainted with Broncho Billy.

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Happy daze for Charlie and Mabel, before the dark clouds descended on them.

ES: I see in Mabel’s mini-autobiography of 1924, that you met up for a final dinner, before you left for Essanay.

CC: Yes, and I know you’re wondering why I didn’t mention it in my book. Unfortunately, I’m feeling very drained by all of this, so you’ll forgive me if I stop there. Perhaps you’ll come back in six months’ time when I’ve recovered.

ES: Okay Charlie, but can you sum Mabel up for us  in a few words?

CC: A few words …. are you joking my good chap!? Right here goes:

Charming, fascinating, obstinate, ethereal, egocentric, altruistic, bright, lovely, crude, vulgar, intellectual, disarming, maddening, endearing, and a total madcap.

How’s that?

ES: That’s fine Charlie, but I recognise some of these traits from Mary’s description of you.

CC: Tells you something, doesn’t it?

mabel and leopard Keystone1913ehm


Looking For Mabel Normand: Site maintained by Marilyn Slater.

Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923).

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1924).

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

Madcap Mabel by Sidney Sutherland: Liberty Magazine, September 6, 1930.



‘The bright young thing’ is associated with the era of the Flapper and the 1920s. Sometime before that, however, in the early 1910s, the concept of the bright young thing was already being forged, and even the term ‘flapper’ was in use.  In New York, at the Biograph studio, a strange Irishman and an even stranger colleen of a girl, were busy bringing the movies into the modern era. Their names were Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand. Now, if you think that the Biograph studio was run by a gentleman of Dixie that harked back to ancient history, and made his actors and actresses part of a nostalgic past that had never existed, then you’d be right, for the genius director D.W. Griffith was an anachronism of the early 20th Century, who presented his actresses as feeble period damsels in distress, just waiting for a knight in shining armour to rescue them. Mack and Mabel had a different idea. They were bright and modern, and embraced everything that was bright and modern. Whether it was ideas, such as the emancipated woman, or the trappings of modernity – the motor car, the aeroplane and the one-piece swimsuit, then Mack and Mabel were ready to embrace them. Keystone films may look dated to us, but back the day, everything was “Up to the minute” as Mabel used to say. Black and white, without sound, yes, but they represented what the average Joe and Jane wanted, not particularly what their parents wanted – so there you have the generational divide. Let’s start with this generation gap.


Trouble ahead: Bright young thing  Mabel meets bright young thing Peggy Page.

Here’s the way it was in the early 1900s. Kids were brought up to respect their elders, their teachers and authority, and the early movie-makers were aware of that, and gave lip service to it. Leaving Biograph Studio for The Vitagraph did Mabel little good in terms of anti-authoritarianism, as the company was run by Quakers, whose avowed aim was to produce wholesome films that were suitable for family viewing. This was important to the early industry, for initially the movies were for those without shame. Drunken, out of work men, feckless wives and scarlet ladies, all found the movie theatres entirely suited to their purposes. These people drifted in by ones and twos, bringing in five or ten cents a time, but get whole family in and you pull in thirty cents a time. The way to get families in was to make sure the films were not what the ‘scum’ wanted. What did the scum want? Madame stripping off for her bath, gratuitous violence, and perhaps freak pictures. At Vitagraph, Mabel felt she had to toe the line in her series of Betty films. She had to be middle-class, wholesome, and respect her father, John Bunny. If her boyfriend ever kissed her, she had to show a certain amount of distress and shame. However, for Mabel, showing respect meant throwing her arms around her elders and hugging and kissing them, and the film critics noticed this, although they applauded the films. Out in movie theatre land, the public was also noticing this new girl, who was a breath of fresh air and, unusually for a comedienne, very beautiful. The company found that the letters they received for Mabel were mostly complimentary, but some were downright lewd, and not a little suggestive. We don’t know if they had words with ‘Betty’ about toning her antics down, but worse was to come. Some passing old maids had been shocked at seeing Mabel in the altogether, standing at the street-side windows. The Quakers promptly fired her.


Seventeen and never been kissed. Troublesome Secretaries 1911.

Mabel ended up back at Biograph, where D.W. Griffith was pleased to see the Vitagraph Girl, who was now a capable performer with star status. Someone else was glad to see her — a crazy Irish actor by the name of Mack Sennett. Her reputation as a volatile and ‘game’ young lass, meant she was just right for the films he had in mind. Mabel was more than a bright young thing – she was THE bright young thing. So, Mack had the basis for the films he intended to make. Mabel would be his Queen Bee around which his hive would buzz. His drones would be crazy people, slap-stickers and gagsters, people who showed no respect for authority, parents, schoolteachers, cops nor anyone else. Into the mix he’d throw fancy cars, aircraft and any other modern device he could find. His Queen Bee would be forever on the new-fangled telephone, playing her phonograph, driving her car, and flying modern aircraft (or what we would call string-bags today). In mid-1911, this was all in Mack’s mind, but he realised he had to have the period touch as well, and involve not just love but also elopement. He might even be able to introduce some thinly-veiled sexuality, but, whatever, his Queen would have to wear up-to-the-minute clothes, and sport some very photogenic jewellery. Mabel needed no prompting, for she was already designing her own clothes and hats, and was acquiring diamond rings at a fast rate (Mabel’s odd outfit in the second photo cannot be found in any 1914 catalogue, and she must have designed the crazy ensemble herself, although Peggy’s check coat was an expensive fashion item at the time).


Mabel’s the first girl to fire a gun from an aircraft.

In late 1911, Mack was in a position to move in on Mabel. He’d achieved the first part of his plan, and had become the director of the Biograph Comedy unit – now let the madness begin. His efforts to procure Mabel were initially unsuccessful, and she’d only go in with Mack if Griffith agreed to give her dramatic parts as well. Griffith did agree, and Mabel joined Mack at his University of Nonsense. Mabel, of course, was extremely popular around the studio – the Queen Bee in reality, and her magnetism could easily be transferred to the screen. Other features of Mabel’s personality and character also struck Sennett – her horse-riding, shooting, swimming and diving skills were as sharp as her ability to acquire diamonds. All of this was important to Mack, who’d realised that the Suffragette Movement was looming large. Come the day, and every studio would need a footloose, liberated girl, and this could be equated in terms of nickels and dimes at the box office – eventually, he was sure, he’d corner the female market, as yet untapped. For now, his predominantly crazy, lusting blue-collar male audience would do.

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“Oh my God you can see her armpits!” Mabel’s a Liberated Diving Girl  in a swimsuit.

To begin with, he had to cut his clothes to fit the cloth. Fortunately, his star spent most of what she earned on fashionable clothes, which in the early studios meant everything for aspiring actors and actresses. Mack made this promise to Mabel: “One day we’ll drive around in a flashy Pierce-Arrow car, firing diamonds at people from catapults.” Naturally, only the incredibly wealthy and the incredibly successful could afford a $6,000 Pierce-Arrow, which brings us neatly to Harriet Quimby, the successful journalist-screen writer, who owned all the trappings of success – diamonds, furs and, naturally, a Pierce-Arrow car. In competition with her was none other than D.W. Griffith, who eventually caught up with Harriet and bought his own Pierce-Arrow, which was used to waft Queen Mabel into Huntington, Long Island for the making of The Diving Girl in 1911.

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Queen Mabel wafts into Long Island by Pierce-Arrow. 1912.

Harriet Quimby was also the intrepid and liberated Amazon that flew the English Channel in 1912. Following this event, Mack and Mabel quickly cobbled together A Dash Through The Clouds, in which Mabel became only the second girl to be filmed in an aircraft, and the first to fire a pistol from a flying machine. Unfortunately, no sooner had the film been canned, than Harriet was killed, after being thrown from her plane over Boston Harbour. The scene was set for Mabel to become the action girl of the movies, and she soon became the heroine of all red-bloodied girls, in the western hemisphere and beyond. She was, indeed, thoroughly modern Mabel.

The creation of Keystone Studios, at first in New York and then in Los Angeles, allowed Mack to branch out with his ‘toys’ and he ensured that his star-of-stars had plenty of them to play with. In particular, Mabel got to drive glamorous racing cars, or be driven in glamorous race cars by intrepid race drivers like ‘Terrible’ Teddy Tetzlaff and Barney Oldfield. Mabel even got her own personal mini-locomotive, powered by a truck engine, and Mack had a baby, or cycle car built for her by a local motorcycle engineering shop. Just to drive home the message, Mack went to great lengths to portray his girl as The Jazz Babe, a term just coming into use, when Mabel appeared in the film That Ragtime Band.


Mabel and car-locomotive.


The arrival of that young, wild-haired, bohemian limey, by the name of Charlie Chaplin, in late 1913, was something of a relief for Mabel, who’d seen nothing but ageing and married men for two years. Charlie was keen to get up close and personal with The Keystone Girl, but he was also keen to get his hands on the trappings of modern life. However, cars and motorcycles were an unknown quantity to Charlie, and he never did get the hang of the telephone. However, when you were with the Keystone Girl, you’d be thrown in with these things, whether you liked them or not, although he managed to avoid Mack’s other obsession — guns. Of course, Mabel waving a big knife (Mabel’s Busy Day) was just a little scary. The first Mabel and Charlie film involved no modern devices, merely a tramp, a girl in 19th Century dress, and a dog. The second film required an acquaintance with those demons of the modern world – racing cars and a motorcycle. Poor old Charlie was out of his depth, and his pride so hurt by Mabel’s grasp of the modern, that when Sennett asked if he could ride a motorcycle, he immediately said ‘Yes’. Well, he was half correct, for he’d once ridden a pedal cycle. So, there was two-cent Charlie at the controls of Mack’s Thor IV sickle, and Keystone’s million-dollar asset gets on the make-shift pillion seat. Mack shouts for Charlie to push off with his feet and “open the gas, slowl…” Too late, Charlie cracks the throttle wide unleashing all four horse-power, and the machine careers off, with Mabel hanging on for grim death behind. They roar down the gravelled road for thirty feet, until the machine develops a massive wobble, and Mabel is thrown off into a ditch, while Charlie, tied up in the bike, skates a hundred yards down the road in a shower of sparks. The crew race to extract their precious and bruised Jazz Queen from the ditch, leaving Charlie’s mortal remains to fester within the buckled bike. Charlie never did replace Mabel’s $400 dress. The film, Mabel At The Wheel, was a success for Mabel, the girl who won the Santa Monica 200-mile car race, despite Charlie’s attempts to sabotage her drive. Keystone’s female audience picked up a massive boost, while Charlie seemed to have been cut off at the knees by Mack and Mabel.


Mabel and Charlie are bright young things on Mack’s Thor IV motorcycle.

In any event, Charlie always appeared on screen in either a tramp’s or toff’s costume, but, out on the town, they were hailed as the bright young things most likely to succeed. They were, in effect, the ‘IT’ couple. From here on Mabel always did the driving, and arranged to steal one of the company cars, so they could go downtown, whenever they got bored with work. Mabel had plans to extend the team’s work into new, dramatic areas, but Mack, who never liked Charlie, gave the tramp an offer he could refuse, and he was gone by the end of 1914. 1915 saw Mack take complete control, and Mabel, who was at the pinnacle of her career, had to go along with his Lordship’s policy. There’d be no more melancholy, nor dramatics, but plenty of lovey stuff and elopements. Just to liven things up, Mack threw in plenty of technology, including a self-driving car with a mind of its own. Flying was now done on the cheap, and Mack decided that Chester Conklin would make an excellent pilot, and sent him aloft with Mabel. Just to make sure the plane wouldn’t fly off way up into the heavens, they put a long tether on the craft, which when it reached its extended length, pulled the plane back to earth with a resounding crash. Chester and Mabel were rushed to hospital, where they no doubt remained as long as possible. Technology was now racing around Mack’s head, alongside a strange cultural reversion. He’d reach back into the 1890s, and bring in some chubby girls in swimsuits that he’d call the Bathing Beauties. As Mack began welding cars back to back, so as they could go backwards and forwards (at the same time) Mabel flew the coop, and could only be persuaded to return by the promise of her own studio. Far away in Silverlake she could go back to the woods, and make the dramatic films she wanted sans technology.

_2cSept_1914 reel cover

“Mack’s swapped the HT leads around, but it won’t stop me driving his car.”

Mabel finally left in 1917, leaving Mack to his welders and fabricators, and beach beauties. Mack was now under the impression that he no longer needed stars — all he needed were gadgets and gizmos, guys with cross eyes, and girls that could wobble in the breeze. As for Mabel, with Sam Goldwyn’s films based on barely adapted stage plays, her opportunities to be thoroughly modern were now few. Her return to the Sennett fold in 1920, saw her fenced off, professionally, from the intense craziness in the studio, where men could fly, bath tubs could tear down the roads, and thirty feet long cars could carry the entire troupe of Bathing Beauties. For Mabel, period dress and stories, meant more to her now than any modern contrivances.

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The Keystone annual outing via the limo to beat all limos.



Tiring of Mack’s toys, Mabel gets a $14,000 ‘Roller’.

The Mack and Mabel collaboration ended in 1924, although Mack tried to get her back for a feature film in 1926. Having failed, Mack gave up on the type of features that Mabel appeared in. As a sign of greater modernity, Mack abandoned the old Keystone lumber yard, and inhabited newly-built facilities at Studio City. Gadgets were still a must, although the introduction of sound, paradoxically, muted them to some extent, but he could now introduce crooners like Bing Crosby. For Mabel, gadgetry (apart from a  Sennett-style collapsing car) ended completely for her Hal Roach films, although she’d adopted the more modern, shorter flapper skirt, bobbed hair and oversized cloche hat — she had been, of course, in danger of becoming an anachronism.



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Fatty and Mabel’s pre-Uber self-driving car.



Who better to plug your races than thoroughly modern Mabel. 1914

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Mabel is the liberated miss driving the Santa Fe express in 1913.



King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

Looking For Mabel Normand: Site maintained by Marilyn Slater.

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

The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett by Simon Louvish (2003).

Mabel Normand Sourcebook by William Thomas Sherman:




Press-eye view of the Movie Stars (1922).


Mrs Ethel Burns was Mabel’s ‘assistant’ housekeeper and sometime maid, for a number of years, and was a member of Mabel’s staff during the trauma of the Dines’ scandal. Her comments on Mabel were published by newspapers, following this scandal involving the shooting of Courtland Dines. Ethel’s words give us a unique insight into the Normand household, which we otherwise would not have had. What follows is a narrative in the first person based on what Mrs Burns told journalists, but first, some words on the nature of Hollywood. As most people that delve into the early film industry will know, Hollywood was a closed shop, a black hole from which it was virtually impossible to drawn any reliable information. Some people have described Tinsel Town as a hall of smoke and mirrors, in which you are forever lost, and where, if you do think you have made it through, you find you’re confronted with a vision of yourself. The fact is the silent stars, the directors and producers did not want you to know who they were, who they really were, nor did they want you to know where they came from. If you asked questions about this star or that star, you were presented with a studio still of the star in question. Hollywood dealt in dreams, and that’s why their star photos were so well crafted, and were a vision of something that did not, could not, in reality exist. Who can forget the studio photo of Marceline Day in her Little Miss Muffett costume, so lovely you could eat her, and butter would definitely not melt in her mouth.


Marcelline Day.

Another star, in whose mouth butter would not melt, was Mabel Normand. She drank like a fish, smoked like a chimney, fornicated all over town, but, to her public, her only vice was a little tipple after work. So religious was she, that she never missed church on a Sunday, and often had the vicar round for tea. Many journalists knew what the ‘dark stars’ were getting up to, and what annoyed them most was that they could not speak to those stars directly. The general rule  was – interviews only at the studio, but in many cases, the reporter would simply receive written answers from the producer. This stoked up anger within the newspaper fraternity, and they vowed that, one day, they’d reek their revenge on those dark stars. When the moment came, they tore Fatty Arbuckle apart. Then, due to unhappy circumstance in 1922, they got the chance to rip into his compatriot in crime, the ‘Blessed Baby’ Mabel Normand. Mabel survived, and bobbed up unscathed. However, the pressmen were astonished to find, just over a year later, that they had a second chance to knock the goddess off her pedestal.

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Mabel’s’ sugar plantation’ house, Melrose Hill.

Ethel’s Story.

I first drifted into Mabel’s life, sometime in 1916, when the former Keystone Girl was acquiring her own studio, and had become the biggest star in the universe. A friend of mine was close to Mabel, and when I was sick in hospital, without money to pay the medical expenses, Mabel stepped in and paid the $1,000 bill. After that, I saw quite a lot of Mabel, and often visited her at her hotel suite. Acquiring the studio, via the new movie company Triangle was a big deal, but Mabel soon found that the deal included abandoning her care-free hotel life, for what big boss, Harry Aitken, called a ‘movie star mansion’. He said it proved she’d settled down, had a stake out on the coast, and was not just another fly-by-night floozie. Mabel was most upset by this, as she’d always said she could never live in a big, ostentatious house. Of course, she was over-ruled, and Aitken, via Mack Sennett, rented a palace on Melrose Hill, overlooking Hollywood. Mabel asked me to accompany her to see the house. Well, when Mabel saw the place, she almost collapsed, and would have hit the deck if I hadn’t caught her. The house was beautiful, and built in the colonial style, like a sugar plantation owner’s house-on-a-hill.

“Ethel” She said “I can’t live here, I’m a democrat, not some bloated, slave-owning Republican. That place must have eight bedrooms.”

I flicked through the agent’s details.

“Says here, it’s got twelve bedrooms and six bathrooms.”

“Oh no, I’m not having it, what would I do with six bathrooms, for fuck’s sake!”

“Of course, her friends were all for it – by our reckoning a Queen should have a palace. There followed a lot of discussion to-and-fro with New York, and eventually Mabel moved in, but only because she’d persuaded six of us to move in with her. It was from that house that we all went to the opening party for Mabel’s studio in East Hollywood.


“Ooh, Lookie Mary, that’s just the house I want.”

The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company.

Now it was my turn to cringe – everyone that was anyone in Tinsel Town was there. As things became more Byzantine, more Bacchanalian, I left and went back to the house. I really didn’t want to see my favourite starlets, lying around in pools of their own vomit, their lovely dresses ruined, and more over their heads than covering their embarrassment. But that was Hollywood, the real Hollywood.


At the party that night was ‘America’s Sweetheart’, the lovely Mary Pickford. Mary left early that night also, for a night of illicit love with her new flame, at his hunting lodge in the Beverly Hills. His name was Doug Fairbanks, who later became her husband and, in my view, her nemesis.  It was, I think, at the end of August, that Mary came to our country pile to see Mabel, and kind of interview her for her newspaper column. Now, I was well-used to greeting stars at the door, but Mary always stunned me. She was under five feet tall, and looked like a ten-year-old, all dressed up in her mother’s clothes. Mary, though, was formidable in the area of finance, and Mabel called her Hetty Green, after the famous millionairess. Mabel phoned to say she’d be around half-an-hour late, which gave me time to speak to ‘The Sweetheart’. I gave her a cup of tea (she didn’t drink coffee).

“You know, you’re so lucky to live with Mabel, if I wanted to live with anyone it would be our little clown.” Said Mary.

From that followed a long discussion about Mabel, and their early days together at the Biograph studios. She told how the current stars had all grown up from kittens, under the tutelage of the great D.W. Griffith, or ‘old big nose’ as Mabel called him. Mabel was Queen Bee in those days, and it goes without saying that the men clustered around her, if they could get through the girls that is. Mabel was a particular draw for Mary’s young brother, Jack, and she had a job keeping his sticky hands off the dark-eyed beauty – Jack and Mabel were the two imps that caused all the trouble around Biograph, she told me. Jack was just fourteen, but Mabel, at seventeen, should have known better — but nobody minded. As our conversation went on, I realised something about Mary – she was magnanimous in her stardom. There were no airs and graces about her, and she was clear that Mabel’s dramatic abilities were way above those of anyone else.

“You know, Ethel, there was only one part she could not play – the vamp. Mabel was a natural man-magnet, and found it amusing that she would consciously attempt to vamp anyone. Griffith was furious, when Mabel giggled during a vamping scene.”

“How many films did you shoot with Mabel.”

“Oh, only the one, ‘The Mender of Nets’. I played a young hussy that stole Mabel’s boyfriend, but she played her part so convincingly that she scared the life out of me. It’s those eyes Ethel, so lovingly doleful one minute, but blazing with hatred the next. I had nightmares for the next two weeks. Her looks were like stilletos in my heart.”

I knew what she meant, I’d experienced the blazing-eyed Mabel myself.


Mabel gets scary in Mender of Nets.

Then the front door opened and Mabel stepped in.

“Oh, Mary, I do apologise for keeping you waiting.”

The two ran together into each other’s arms, to all intents, like lovers who’d been separated for years. The Hollywood way always embarrassed me, for in those days, two women showing affection for each other had a certain connotation. I was soon to learn that the old Biograph girls were a tightly-knit group, or ‘Witches’ Coven’ as Mack Sennett called them. Combined they were formidable, and greatly feared by the movie bosses. The girls always called each other by their first names, but they insisted that the producers call them ‘Miss This’ or ‘Miss That’. It was during that conversation with Mary that I realised Mabel was a heroine to Hollywood’s heroines. Mary wrote a touching article about her friend Mabel.

MP DailyTalksJulToSep1916_0000a


The collapse of Triangle in late 1916, caused Mabel to lose her studio, and even D.W. Griffith lost his shirt. Sennett fought tooth and nail with Harry Aitken, and came out with a studio sporting his own name. However, he lost Mabel, who signed with Sam Goldwyn. Goldwyn’s studio was in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and we were all devastated to lose her. At the rail station she dithered, but we pushed her aboard, as the train pulled out. We all cried real tears that day. The actual reason for the move east, was that America was entering the Great War. Mabel’s beloved brother had been called up to fight, and she felt she needed to be close to her family. No-one was ever closer to Claude than Mabel, and she feared, as he packed up his old kit-bag for Flanders Field, that he would not come back — he’d surely be killed fighting some-one else’s war. A hundred thousand of our boys never came back, their bones still lying today in a corner of a foreign field that will forever be America. To everyone’s relief, Claude did return. Mabel, of course, had campaigned publicly against the war, and made herself deeply unpopular with the authorities. When the war began, Mabel campaigned for war bonds money. She came up with the idea of ‘a bond for a kiss’, where anyone that bought a bond would get a kiss from Mabel. Well, she was almost killed in the ensuing rush. Surprisingly, the women that bought bonds did not forgo their peck on the cheek. Predictably, Mabel was all kissed-out by the end of the day.

War_Bonds-1918 drive584e

So, Mabel was gone, our little group had split up, and we went our separate ways. I saw all of Mabel’s Goldwyn films, but they seemed to lack something that was present in the old films. Sure, they were lavish, but unfitting of an actress of Mabel’s standing. Then we heard that Goldwyn was opening a studio in Culver City, and Mabel was coming back. Soon, I received a message from Mabel, asking if I would be her housekeeper. I had a job behind the counter of a department store, and would not have considered leaving, but I really wanted to be on the perfume counter, and my chances were slipping away. So, in late 1918 or early 1919, I took up Mabel’s offer. She had a large suite in a hotel, but eventually took a duplex at 3089 West Seventh Street, in the heart of the bohemian district. Mabel was much happier here than in the big house, and her friends, intellectual types, were all around. A big director lived in the other duplex. Strangely, Mabel bought a big house for her parents on Staten Island, costing $20,000 [est. value today $1million].

1089West_7th St7

Mabel and Chow on West 7th Street.

Things went fine, and a regular visitor was Mildred Harris, a lovely bright girl of sixteen, a Ziegfield dancer Mabel had met in NY. Mabel went everywhere with Mildred, who had a mindset similar to hers – I do not think Mabel ever grew up, she was a kind of female Peter Pan (her family called her ‘Baby’ after the Peter Pan character). Mabel introduced Mildred to Charlie Chaplin, who up and married her. Charlie, however, soon found that Mabel was a third part of their marriage – she came around so often. Mabel organised their social lives, as Charlie, who Mabel by the way, loved forever, was a social dunce. I remember one snowballing party she held on Mount Lowe for Charlie and Mildred, which everyone enjoyed, although Mabel developed pleurisy, then pneumonia. Whether this had any bearing on what happened next, I do not know. In 1920, Mabel fell sick, I mean really sick – in fact she was dying. Some say the death of her friend, actress Olive Thomas (‘Everyone’s Sweetheart’) made her give up on life, and certainly she sobbed inconsolably for weeks. Everyone at the studio held their breaths, as Mabel lay prostrate at home. Her breathing became strained, she coughed up an ocean of blood and had the ‘death rattle’ in her throat. The doctor came and examined her, while we waited outside the room. He came out shaking his head. “It’s tuberculosis, there’s nothing I can do. Send for a priest. If you need me tomorrow, you can let me know.” What he meant was he’d call back, if we needed a death certificate. We entered the room, and there lay Mabel in her flannelette nightdress and pigtails. She looked so small, like a child in that huge four-poster bed. Around her, six women were sobbing, which reminded me of the scene of the dying Cleopatra. We called the priest, who arrived with bell, book and candle. He read the last rites over our little girl, then left, leaving the bell by Mabel’s feet. I called Charlie Chaplin.

“She’s going Charlie, get over here quick.”

“Oh, my God!”

He must have dropped the receiver for I heard scampering feet and a door slamming. Ten minutes later, he was at the front door, and ran up the stairs. He took Mabel’s hot, little hand, and knelt down by the bed.

“Mabel, it’s me, Charlie.”

Mabel’s eyelids twitched weakly.

“Mabel, please don’t leave us. We need you. Please, please don’t go.”

We respectfully withdrew. Ten minutes later, Charlie emerged.

“Did she whisper anything.”

“Yes, she half-opened one eye and said  “Fuck Off.”  I think she’ll live Ethel.”

“Thank God” We all exclaimed. There could be no life after Mabel.

“Ethel, it’s those Goldwyn films that are killing her – she’s losing the will to live. Y’know what, I can’t bear to watch those pictures. I’ll talk to Sam and get him to drop Mabel – she must go back to Sennett.”


Mabel in bed with movie star photos around.

To say Charlie doted on her over the next few weeks, would be an understatement.  True to his word, he got Mabel out of contract, and arranged a permanent nurse. The nurse was Julia Brew, a former nun, a lovely lady, who kept Mabel with us for another ten years. Now it was time for me to marry, and I left Mabel, as she moved over to Mack Sennett Studios. As expected, her first feature with Sennett was great, although I was shocked by the last scene, where you get a full view up Mabel’s dress. Well, that’s progress, I suppose –  our age of innocence was over, and the boys got to finally got to see what Mabel wore under underneath – except they didn’t. I’ll let you into a secret, Mabel rarely wore underwear whilst filming. Due to her illness, she suffered real bad hot flushes, which caused her to sometimes pass out. Under the boiling sun, covered from head to toe, as we all were in the old days, and running around to boot, she had to let the heat our somehow, so she skipped the undies. Occasionally, like when she was kicking Chaplin in the derriere in Mabel’s Busy Day, the camera picked up something it shouldn’t. Mack saved the film by drawing bloomers on the negative in one frame. They don’t appear in any other frame, but they should have if she actually wore them.

Mabels BusyBloomers56

Decency pencilled in: Mabel’s bloomers.

Gloom and Shadow.

It was on the morning of 2nd February 1922 that we read with horror of the murder of W.D. Taylor, the film director. Mabel’s picture was splashed all over the front page. They claimed she was his lover. The butler further claimed that Mabel was the culprit — Mabel was ‘bad, bad, bad’. I tried to phone Mabel, but the thing was permanently engaged. I told hubby I was going to see her, but he thought I should stay away. Anyhow, I walked over to Mabel’s house, but my resolution failed when I saw the place was surrounded by cops. They’d certainly question me, and this might get into the press (the old man would not be happy). I left it a week, then returned to the house, but it was surrounded now by Sennett’s thugs armed with clubs, which they were clearly itching to embed in someone’s skull. A few days later, I went to the studio, where the gate-man asked me to wait. The bastard didn’t ring Mabel, but Mack Sennett. ‘His Master’s Voice’ came to the gate, and glared at me.

Whadd’ya want?” The King said gruffly.

 “I want to see Mabel, I’m a friend – Ethel Burns.”

Just then, Norma Talmadge and Lottie Pickford passed through the gate – they’d clearly been to see Mabel.

“Oi! You two! D’ya know this woman?” Sennett bellowed at them.

“Sure, she’s Mabel’s friend, Ethel.”

“O.K. Edith, go see the guard on the dressing rooms, and tell Mabel to get her ass down here”

As I walked towards the dressing block, I heard Sennett say:

“Damned women, we’ll never get any work done at this rate.”

The girls blew Mack a raspberry, as they left.

“You want to see Mabel?” Asked the female guard.


“Good, she needs all the visitors she can get. Up the stairs, turn right, and it’s the last room.”

I reached the room, and knocked on the door, unmarked with a star.

“Come right in” Said Mabel.

I walked in. There was Mabel sitting on the other side, under the window. This was one of those times, when instead of looking fourteen, she looked about nine. She seemed tiny. Mabel was wearing her Suzanna costume, a Mexican outfit and a huge sombrero, almost as big as herself.


Little girl lost in the desert. Mabel in Suzanna.


She got up and ran to me throwing her arms around me, whereupon we both burst into tears.

“I’m sorry, Mabel, are you due on set?”

“Yeah, but fuck it, old snot-face can wait.”

She looked out to where Sennett was standing, feet wide apart and arms akimbo, glaring up.

“He’s annoyed cos I’ve been in the bath for two hours.”

“You mean you’ve got a bath here?”

Of course, it’s in the bathroom”


Then, I realised that this was a suite of rooms. I opened a door. Inside was a huge marble bath.

Keystone_Mabel Dressing Room29a

Mabel’s marble bath pictured during demolition. Late 1920s.

“Good God, Mabel, Cleopatra must have bathed here.”

“Oh yeah, but she filled it with milk, I use perfumed water. I let the others use it too”

“You mean Charlie Chaplin bathed here?”

“Nah, Charlie hasn’t had a bath for years, scared of water, you know. That’s why he has that big tide mark around his fucking neck.”

“I suppose the guard stops the men from getting up here.”

“Sennett’s got me locked down, like some fucking vestal virgin. See that rope over there – when I want to escape, I throw that out into the street, and climb down.”

Then there came a banging on the door. It was our guard. Mack wanted Mabel now, on pain of death.

“I have to go Ethel, thanks awfully for coming.” I went with her down onto the lot, where I saw that they were shooting an indoor scene for Mabel’s film in the dusty area between the dressing rooms and the main stage building. I had no idea that films were made this way.


The next I knew, I received a letter from Mabel, postmarked ‘London’. She’d gone on a European tour. A few weeks later, I heard she was back in L.A. and beginning a new film called Extra Girl. The paper said this was the biggest film since Mickey in ’16, and would surely bring Mabel back into the fold. I sent her a bouquet and a Best Wishes card. Imagine my surprise, when Mabel phoned me – she wanted to offer me a job.

“You won’t believe how important this new film is, Ethel. It’s absolutely vital that I have someone to keep me on track – make sure I get to the studio on time, and all the other little things I need done. It’s a live-in job, as it’s so important, but I’ll make sure you do well out of it. How does $75 a week plus board grab you.”

I almost fainted, Mabel was generous to a fault, but seventy-five a week, my god! I don’t know if she knew, but I’d separated from my spouse, so I was raring to go. I moved into 3089 West Seventh in late March 1923. Mabel’s secretary was snowed under with work associated with Extra Girl, but she also had to deal with the contacts Mabel had made in Europe. Several companies wanted her to go out there, after Mabel had completed Extra Girl. I was surprised, also, that her fan mail had increased exponentially. The secretary, Betty Coss, said that many more letters were coming from females. Everything had changed, and her fan-base was now 65% female to 35% male. Getting a hold on the female audience had been difficult for the industry in the past, but Mabel had cracked it. I was commandeered to help Betty, on a part-time basis. She and I worked on getting fan photos printed as cheaply as possible. Betty suggested reducing the photos’ size, but Mabel refused. She was the consummate star, and nothing mattered more than her fans – she was not going to short-change them. Postage cost a fortune, but Betty decided to send photos only to people that enclosed a stamp addressed envelope. We saved many thousands of dollars by working this way. Stars would have to send a photo of themselves to get one from us. Want to know something? We pulled three or four engagements rings a week from the mail. Betty said they should be cashed in, but Mabel would not hear of it and had hundreds of them  — I think of her as a human magpie that cared not one jot for money, but loved shiny things. The house had become part living quarters, part office and part studio, with Mabel’s rushes, developed and drying in the kitchen. Having already seen the studio’s copies, she produced her own ‘different angle’ shots, filmed with her own camera. Did I mention she was a consummate professional?


Mabel is popular with the girls.

Something in the house had not changed. Mabel was still the good-time girl of old, but her general health was deteriorating. Years of partying, running all over town every night, eating ice-cream for breakfast and milk-shakes for lunch was taking its toll. She often had a hacking cough, and brought up blood from time to time. One of my jobs was getting the blood out of her nightdresses, and if it proved impossible, dispose of them surreptitiously i.e. burn them. Mabel was often worn out, when she came home from the studio, and sometimes she could hardly stand up. I always had a bath ready for her, but fifteen minutes after getting out, she’d don her movie star ‘clobber’ (as Charlie Chaplin termed it) and leave the house. I always tried to stop her going out, telling her she needed to stay in more often, especially when she had an early morning start at the studio. Mabel was impossible, and called us selfish by making her stay home for our own amusement. It’s true, we loved it when she stayed home. We were, after all, there for her, and when she was out, we felt redundant. Of course, she had to maintain her Hollywood contacts – attend parties and premieres. There was another thing – she could not have men around overnight. She was a single girl, and believe me, people (pressmen) were watching to see that men entering the house were gone by nightfall. In Hollywood they called her “She of a thousand lovers” an exaggeration of course, for they numbered less than a hundred, perhaps around seventy in her lifetime – as her box of engagement rings attests. Some people, outside Hollywood, called her a whore, but I can say that she never charged even one red cent for her ‘services’. She was, of course, blessed (or cursed) with a great passion for men, created, I think, by her desire to be loved. Men were probably the source of all her problems, as will be seen further on. Many times, she’d stagger home at 6 a.m. after a night’s partying and rutting with some hunk she’d met at a party. Of course, I had the unenviable task of bringing her around, and getting her fit for the studio. I always managed to get her to Allesandro Street by at least 2 p.m.


“Just a pint more gin, I think.”

At the house we always had interrupted sleep, when Mabel was at home. Mabel was a notoriously bad sleeper, and suffered from severe night sweats and night ‘terrors’. Consequently, she often wandered the house all night long. In the morning, I’d often find her comatosed in bed, and frozen stiff, as she’d thrown the bedclothes completely off. She became a mini-radiator during the night. That made we wonder how a man could lie close to her hot little body. Then it hit me – when she was in the arms of a lover, she was much calmer, and did not suffer the night terrors. Why didn’t she marry? Mabel knew Hollywood unions never worked, and the standard joke was “Don’t worry, if you miss your friend’s wedding, you can always go to the next one in about twelve month’s time.” Mabel took the sensible approach – had all the men she wanted, gained dozens of diamond rings, and had the option of dumping the guy along with her empty gin bottles.


“Don’t worry George, I’ve got a trunk-full at home.

Big Success and A Mad Chauffeur.

Late 1923 brought a big change down Hollywood way. At the house, there was talk, among the visiting starlets, of the advent of ‘talkies’ being close. I heard Connie Talmadge say she was persuading her sisters to bank their cash and ‘get out’, or, if all fails, grab a millionaire. Mabel was quietly worried I’m sure, but her film Extra Girl was a huge success, and critics said it was the greatest thing since Mickey. We went along to the pre-release screening and sat with Mabel and her movie friends – all furs, boa feathers and diamonds. If I told anyone that I’d been out with the stars, they’d have said I was nuts. Sitting with us was Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s leading lady, with whom Mabel had been on friendly terms for many years. Her own film, A Woman of Paris, was also released about this time. I went to the premiere with Mabel, and got a shock. Charlie’s name was in the credits, but he did not appear on the screen. The audience began shuffling their feet, and there were mutterings of “Where’s Chaplin?” Edna was led sobbing outside by Mabel, who mouthed “Keep watching” to me, as she went. The film bombed. Now you might have heard that Mabel was furious at Chaplin for not taking her as his leading lady. I cannot give an opinion on whether she held this grudge or not, but she did hold grudges – like for ever. Whether this has any bearing on what happened next, I do not know.

_cMabe526 Camdentw6

The trappings of success: Twin-6 Packard and Beverly Hills mansion. Mabel in 1925.

It was around about this time that a new gardener-chauffeur came to the house. Mabel had just bought a flashy Packard Twin-six (12 cylinder) motor car, and the chauffeur (Joe Kelly) was included in the package. He was quite liked by all of us, and, naturally, lived out. Mabel herself was kind of crumbling at this time, with all the worry of the impending talkie takeover. There were many furious arguments with Mabel, over her crazy lifestyle. I remember physically grabbing her, as she tried to leave for a party one night, all togged up with $100,000 worth of jewels. “Look Mabel, you’ve got an early start tomorrow, stay home and have an early night.” She stood and adopted the blazing-eyed look, then screamed:

“O.k. if I’m too stupid to know when to go out, I’ll get my gun and blow my head off.”

She ran for the stairs, as Mamie Owens screamed:

“Stop her, someone stop her!”

Mabel ran halfway up the stairs, turned and screamed at us:

“When will you lot leave me alone!”

This gave me the chance, and I ran up and grabbed her ankles, upending her. The others piled in, and we got her off the stairs. Eventually, Mabel calmed down, and for the first time in months she had a meal at home. Eating her portions every night, we’d all got as fat as butter. Next day we discussed getting rid of the gun. Well, she might not miss the one in her bedroom, but we knew she always carried its twin in her bag. If we removed this one, she’d notice straight away. Now we entered a different time. Edna had acquired a new boyfriend, a multi-millionaire called Courtland Dines. I was somewhat dismayed, when Edna and ‘Courts’ kept calling around. They were both very immature, and I thought them to be a bad influence on Mabel. A couple of times they brought a pet monkey with them which greatly annoyed housekeeper Mamie Owens “If that darned thing shits in here once more, I’ll shove it down Edna’s throat!” Another threat made  by Mabel was to bob her hair, which caused us to run around in a blind panic, trying to hide all the scissors.


Dines and girls run a little play on a yacht. Mabel seems to be going for a gun.

Now things began to change. Courts kept phoning, arranging to meet Mabel alone in this restaurant or that restaurant. Mabel seemed to encourage this, but I thought she might have initiated the affair. Why? The fear of the future, naturally – he was her fall back if everything went wrong. In any case, Mabel was fiercely competitive, and had stolen no end of starlet’s boyfriends in the past. I think she just HAD to do it, to prove herself. Then, Mabel began to go cold on Courts. I think she realised her career was not going to just end, and she did not need someone like Dines, who seemed to me, to be insane. But he was greatly annoyed and often phoned, screaming obscenities down the line. On New Year’s Eve 1924, Mabel went to two parties – one at Dines’ apartment and one somewhere else – probably it was at Mack Sennett’s place. Anyhow Mabel came home in the early hours of New Year’s Day, on the back of the milk cart. I found her lying on the doorstep along with the milk. We brought her in like a sack of fur-covered potatoes, and put her to bed. Mabel woke up about three p.m., as right as rain, but about 5 o’ clock, Edna phoned, asking Mabel to come around for a few drinks. I don’t think Mabel wanted to go, as she had an appendix operation booked for the next day and was in the middle of taking her Christmas tree down. However, she decided to go around there for just an hour, and told Kelly to bring the car round. I was concerned, as Dines was acting strangely, and I thought he might turn violent. As Mabel left, I reminded her of the military brushes she’d brought Courts for Christmas, but having forgotten them, they still lay on a small table by the door.


Dines Apartment.

“Oh, fuck him, I’ll give that ignorant bastard nothing.”

Mabel was generous with Christmas presents and even Joe, an employee of 6 weeks, received a pair of platinum cuff-links. We had great problems buying for Mabel – just what DO you buy for the girl that has everything? Anyhow, when Joe came back, he came in for a sandwich and a coffee. He told us Dines was in a strange and violent mood. He was fuming over those brushes, and picked an argument with Mabel, but Joe bit his tongue. Joe, like everyone, was very protective of his diminutive employer, and I remember Chaplin telling me that, when he’d once had words with Mabel on set, the crew decided to beat him to a pulp. If Mabel hadn’t stopped them, he’d be playing his harp right now. It was about 8 o’clock, when Mabel phoned a little the worse for the gargle. She asked that Joe come and collect her. In the background, I could hear Court cursing and swearing – in fact he was sneering at Mabel and said she wasn’t going home.

I said to Joe:

“Go get her now, Dines is holding her against her will.”

Joe did no more but flew up the stairs and grabbed Mabel’s gun. I tried to stop him, but he got the weapon and flew out the door. The next I heard was that Joe had shot Dines, and Mabel and Edna were down at the cop shop. Mabel phoned and said she’d be home soon. When she got back, it was discussed as to whether she should go for the next day’s operation. I said she should, as it would keep the L.A.P.D. off her back. Mabel agreed, and left early to avoid the law, in case they turned up. However, Mabel did end up as a witness in court, and was pilloried by the press for being jokey with the judge, and speaking in a high-class English accent, “totally unsuited to a guttersnipe, who’d only just crawled from the trashcan”.


Such was her treatment at the hands of the law that, when I gave a short statement to the press, Mabel got very angry with me. Kelly (actually an escaped convict called Greer) told the press that I’d given him the gun to defend himself, but I said that he’d taken the gun from Mabel’s lingerie drawer in the bedroom on his own initiative. This obviously meant that Kelly knew his way around Mabel’s bedroom. The press had a field day and said it proved the innocent Keystone Girl was little better than a prostitute. Mabel confronted me with blazing eyes:

“You know what that means, Ethel. It means that I fuck with the help! They think I’m someone that hires men just to bed them!”

I burst into floods of tears, I’d thought I was helping Mabel, but I’d helped crucify her. Mabel, then, changed right back again, and began to console me. Of course, I’d made another mistake, I’d told the cops, that the Kelly gun was one of a pair — Mabel carried the other gun in her bag. This meant that there were TWO guns in the room that night!

“Look Ethel, I’m having a bad time right now, and I must ‘let you go’ to save my neck. I’ll give you three month’s pay, and when the fuss has died down, I’ll bring you back”.

Betty Telegram733t

Mabel’s wire to Betty. The ‘baby’ bit did not really help.

It was the same old Mabel, generous to a fault. She suspected that Sennett had planted Kelly, to ensure that she didn’t marry Dines, meaning, naturally, she would come under the sway of another man (by the way, Dines was committed to an asylum for the insane, just a few years later). Mabel confronted The King, and forced him to find me an apartment and pay the rent. The events that followed are too horrible to mention, but eventually Mabel fell out with Betty Coss, and in a drunken rage, accused her of hiring Kelly, in collusion with Sennett. Betty stormed out, and despite two years of pleading, she never came back, so hurt was she. On the good side, Mabel wrote Betty a reference so she could get another job, while Betty supported her in relation to Mabel’s third scandal, where a Mrs Church named her in a divorce petition. I also never returned to Mabel, whose life changed dramatically in 1925/6, when she bought a Beverly Hills mansion, settled down (sort of) and married (sort of). The last time I had anything to do with Mabel was on February 28th 1930 – the day we buried The Keystone Girl.

Dines_Mrs Burns defendsMabel62



Los Angeles Examiner, January 2, 1924 COURTLAND S. DINES SHOT by Chandler Sprague. From Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of Her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman.

“Daily Talks by Mary Pickford,” (syndicated column), July 1916
PERSONALITIES I HAVE MET.: Mabel Normand. From Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of Her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman.

Nevada State Journal: GAY COMPANIONS ARE RAPPED FOR MABEL’S MIX UPS, January 12th 1924.























Not many people are interested in silent movies, but most of the ‘non-believers’ have heard of Mary Pickford and her business associate and ‘thorn in the side’ Charlie Chaplin. Of course, there were thousands of other stars in the industry that manufactured new starlets at the rate of around twenty a week. Many people have dismissed both Mary and Charlie as mere money-grabbers, who, if they hadn’t fallen into pictures, would have been big in some other financially lucrative field. This is undoubtedly true, but they were also very good at what they did in the ‘flickers’. Interestingly, neither of these greats were live wires or committed party goers, although Charlie, at the insistence of a certain Miss Normand, did attend parties, even though, unlike Mary, he did not partake of the gargle. Miss Normand and Mr. Chaplin had very interesting lives, but so did Miss Pickford. This is her story, up until 1920. For the period 1920 on, you can read it by following this link:

Product of Canada.

Born in Hogtown (Toronto) Canada, in 1892, as Gladys Louise Smith, a citizen of the British Empire, the later ‘America’s Sweetheart’ arrived into a comfortable but not wealthy family. Mary was joined by two other siblings, before tragedy struck and her father was killed in an accident aboard a ship. This plunged the family into poverty, and Mary’s grandmother moved in to help. Mama, Charlotte, had to work to support them, and spent some time in the none too well-paid clothing industry. By all accounts mother was a good seamstress, and Mary had to muck in and learn the trade. Meanwhile, she also had to care for the little ones. This might explain why Lottie (nickname ‘Chuckie’) and Jack grew up carefree, while Mary was forever the rock and confident of the family. Similarly, way down in Ohio, there was a comparable sibling to sibling relationship between Lillian Gish and her younger sister Dorothy. Eventually, the Smith family crossed the border into ‘the states’ where Charlotte found work for all the family in the theatre, which was where they met the Gish family, whose lives were to run parallel with the Smiths. The Smiths first met the Gishes, at a casting selection for a play. Lillian and Dorothy, who appeared small, but weren’t that small (they were just sweet), were sitting on the other side of the room. Mary noticed they were incredibly well-dressed, and the Smiths wondered who they were. Naturally, they would not approach them until they’d been formally introduced. After some little discussion, Jack (the ‘scamp’ of the family) jumped up, saying “I’ll find out who they are?” He went over to the girls, and was soon in a conversation with them in the way he would with girls forever after.  He came back and told his family that they were Lillian and Dorothy Gish. The name Lillian Gish went around Mary’s head for a while, until she suddenly realised something. This was the girl that had stolen a big theatre part from her a short while back. However, Mary wasn’t one to dwell on things, and soon Jack brought the Gish family over, and they all became friends, notwithstanding the fact that Lillian took this part from Mary as well. Jack, naturally, remained much enamoured of Dotty — forever.


Mary and her mother meet  up with the Gish sisters.

Hair is Everything.

Mary, was now developing her little Lord Fauntleroy or Goldilocks hairstyle, which she hoped would make her unique. The problem was that it required much attention and the use of three different types of roller – one lot for the waves on top, another for the main body of the hair, and yet another for the banana curls. Once the rollers went in, that was it, there was no partying or night out of any kind that day, nor any other day. As Mary once told Madge Kennedy, “My success is entirely down to my hair.” The hairdo was so successful that all the actresses began to copy it. Mabel Normand, who preferred the natural look, was later forced by Mack Sennett to adopt the banana curl. Mabel hated them – they were itchy, hot and made her feel uncomfortable. Staying home at night didn’t suit her, so she did what most girls did, and made the ropes (as she called them) using rags. When not in shot, she immediately piled them up on her head. Madge Bellamy later revealed that, to prevent the rollers digging into her head while asleep, Mary put her hand between her hair and her head. Over time this resulted in damage to the nerves in her hand, partially paralyzing it. Everyone, including Mary, was glad when the flapper ‘bob cut’ came into fashion and they could shear off those ridiculous ‘ropes’.


Mabel wears some especially ridiculous banana curls in Extra Girl, where she’s supposed to be an aspiring movie star.

Down on East Fourteenth Street.

The Smith family were very successful on the stage, but Mama was fully aware that she was no longer in the flush of youth. She would not be able to travel the country, act all evening, and slave all night to make her children’s clothes, for much longer. On top of that the theatrical circuit only operated during the winter months, so, having heard that the flickers worked all year round, she sent her best asset, Mary, along to the Biograph Studio. Was Mary displeased? You bet – she had a good position within the prestigious David Belasco company, and was afraid that pictures would damage her reputation, and finish her for theatre work. However, she always obeyed mama, so down to the Griffith studio she went. After checking that nobody she knew was watching, Mary dashed up the steps. Almost immediately, she was confronted by a tall man with a big, long nose – movie genius, D.W. Griffith. He looked Mary up and down in a most unpleasant manner, and demanded:

 “Are you an actress?”

“Well, what do you think – ten years on the stage and two of those with David Belasco” Mary replied tersely.

“No, don’t think I can use you” and then the genius turned to walk away.

“Why not?” asked Mary.

Griffith turned his head back, pointed at her and said simply:

“Too fat!”

Well, Mary knew she was chubby, but outright fat? No way!

“O.K. Mister high and mighty, let me tell you something – you are the most ignorant, self-opinionated, obnoxious-looking excuse for a man that I have ever met. I wouldn’t work here, even for fifty bucks-a-week.”

Mary turned to walk away, but the guy grabbed her by the arm, and said:

“You know, you might well be worth that fifty a week.”

Mary was of a mind to tell the ignoramus to stick his job, but what would mama say? Mary was put to work straight away, but was slightly put off by the informality of the actors, who greeted each other by their first names! Mary was used to being called Miss Smith. It was on this very day that our Mary ran into the Queen of The Movies, Florence Lawrence. Mary was in the dressing room, when The Queen breezed in, pushing all the girls aside, and snatching up Mary’s compact to powder her nose. Mary glared at her saying:

“Hey, that’s mine!”

The Queen glared fiercely back at her, then swanned off, without uttering a word. Mary was fuming, but the girls told her to calm down, as no-one dared disrespect The Queen. “Queen, I’ll give her Queen.” Mary made a mental note – one day she’d pull the bitch’s head down from up her ass, and knock her clear off her throne. Not long after, The Queen made a huge error, and got herself fired from the studio, and became a blazing, falling star. Good riddance, thought Mary. Mary was somewhat miffed at the familiarity going on, and guys and girls seemed to be disappearing periodically behind the scenery. Not only that, but some of the men were approaching her, apparently with lewd intentions. One was a certain Owen Moore, but as he was called on set, Mary found that she quite liked him. However, there was a big, uncouth animal of a man staring at her. As Owen passed by, the guy caught his arm

“Whose the dame?” He asked.

Well, Mary was incensed. In those days the term ‘Dame’ meant something quite different. She marched straight up to him and asked him why he treated her so disrespectfully. The guy merely grinned and seemed highly amused. Later she discovered his name was Mack Sennett, an ignorant Irishman, who’d been a boiler-maker, a boxer and, they said, a pimp down on the Bowery. Mary went on to make numerous films alongside the future King of Comedy.

MPickford_MSennett Italian Barber1911_fd6

“Ooh” says Mary as she runs into Mack Sennett in 1911.


Mary was delighted to find that the studio paid by the day, and she happily collected her ten-dollars pay that evening. She made her way to the theatre where the family were performing. Unfortunately, there was an unusually heavy storm, which soaked her, destroying her new blue serge suit, shoes and straw hat. She made her way to the dressing room, where she found mother and Chuckie were on stage. Jack was curled up like a snail, asleep on top of a trunk. When mother returned, Mary said “I…I.. m…m.. made ten dollars” through chattering teeth. Mother took the sodden ten dollars, and did a quick calculation. The ruined clothes were worth fifteen dollars, but the rest of the week would be almost clear profit. That very night, mama made Mary a new outfit – clothes meant everything in the theatre and the flickers. The most modish person at the studio was Dorothy Davenport, the daughter of actress Alice Davenport, and future wife of Wally Reid. She had relatives who travelled regularly out to Europe, where they acquired Parisian gowns. Griffith often rented hats, dresses, and parasols from Miss Davenport, and gave them to Mary to wear in a picture. The cost? Ten dollars a time. “The movie industry must be mad!” Thought Mary.


The Pickford bunch or the Romanovs? Mary, enticing Lottie and rascally Jack.

Eventually, the entire Smith family moved over to Biograph. Things went well for Mary, but every actress was made to fight for the roles. Griffith used various tricks, but eventually the girls formed their own unofficial trades union. What they would do was refuse to fight openly over roles, and they would never disrespect each other. Griffith tried to drive a wedge between them, but was largely unsuccessful. During this time, Mary played many parts, some of which she was unsuited to. Often, she had to don a dark wig and play a villainess or some such evil character. This Mary did not like, especially as she had a devil of a job getting said wig over her ‘big’ hair. Then, there came a stroke of luck. As she passed by the dressing room, she saw a beautifully dark apparition sitting there. She had wonderfully big eyes and a gorgeous mouth that was to die for. Mabel Normand had arrived, and she was soon doing the villainous and temptress stuff, all of which she picked up very easily, notwithstanding the fact that she had never acted before. Mary was off the hook, and she could get on with the goody-two-shoes stuff. Mabel was useful in another way. She was man flypaper, and took the heat off Mary, so she could concentrate on her love, Owen Moore. Owen, of course, was mad about Mabel, but being involved with Mary, Mabel would have none of it.


Left: Mary and Owen. Right: Does Mary know about this? Mabel and Owen.

Later, when Mary and Owen had separated, it was a different matter, and Mack Sennett, by now a producer, would have to drive Owen from his studio, before he ran off with his prized possession, Mabel. However, Mabel was to disappear into the Vitagraph company, as Griffith took the Biograph company out to L.A. on New Years’ Eve 1910. Mary and Lottie were to go to L.A., leaving mama and Jack behind. Mama was on the platform, imploring Griffith to take Jack along. On the train, Mary prayed that he wouldn’t take Jack on board – he was a nuisance, and would cramp her style. Unfortunately, Griffith relented and mama threw Jack onto the train just as it pulled out. End of Mary’s freedom. They made wonderful films under the Golden State sun, and Jack was kept busy standing in for the girls during dangerous stunts. Things were good, but Griffith was becoming a bore and a vicious taskmaster. Something else happened while they were out in L.A. By the end of February, the newspapers were full of praise for a new movie star – a comedienne, Mabel Normand. The whole company raced to the movie house, when Mabel’s films came through. It was her, alright, but far from being the new girl, she was now a capable actress, a dish, and the Queen Bee within the movies of John Bunny. Someone now became very interested in Mabel – the uncouth lout, Mack Sennett. Word was out that he was now writing to Mabel, and boasting that she’d replied, signing her letters “Your girl Mabel.” No-one believed him. Mack however, was now in competition with Mary in the area of screenwriting. Mack, we know, had written the screenplay for her first well-known film, The Lonely Villa. Conversely, Mary had written The Little Teacher, which Mack later adapted for Mabel Normand. The competition was fierce, and Mack always said that Mary’s stories were sold on the length of her curls.


Mary in The Lonely Villa, adapted by Mack Sennett from the play Au Telephone.

Mary returned to New York with the $1,200 that she and Jack had saved. She put the money in a bag and presented it to mother. Mother looked in the bag and said “Oh, stage money.” Mary became indignant and told her it was real. At this point, Jack snatched the cash, and ran around the room shouting “We’re rich! We’re rich!” Mary and her mother spent half an hour picking up the loot. Mary was glad to be back – she was dreaming of meeting Owen again. They began an affair behind mother’s back. Story is, Mary got pregnant, and had a back-street abortion, which rendered her infertile. Owen and Mary then married in total secrecy.


“Take Me To Cuba.”

Eventually, Mary had had it with Griffith. She left Biograph and joined the new IMP company. The company and the director were pretty much green, and the decision by them to film in Cuba was a bad one. Now, the lovers told the family of their union, and they got most upset. On top of this, Owen fell out with one of the directors, whom he felled with a single ‘sucker’ punch. Owen and Mary fled on a ship back to the States before the cops arrived. Back in New York they were hired by Majestic Pictures that was involved in a tangled web with Kessell and Baumann of New York Motion Pictures, and with whom, unknown to Mary, Mack Sennett was beginning discussions for the creation of a new comedy unit. Eventually, Mary had to eat humble pie and return to Biograph. On arrival back at the studio, Mary discovered Mabel Normand had returned, but, like Mary, she was magnanimous in her new-found stardom. Also, there was a new comedy unit at Biograph, under the direction of Mack Sennett, which almost monopolised the services of Mabel. Mabel insisted that they should also put her into dramatic films, which Griffith did. Mary found that Mabel had changed greatly, and was now the leader of the pack at Biograph, alongside that scamp of a brother of hers, the indefatigable Jack. Mama thought Jack was becoming far too familiar with Mabel, and told him to keep his hands off her. “She’s too old for you, Jack” She said. Jack was barely fourteen and Mabel was seventeen, going on eighteen. Jack, however, was growing fast, was almost as tall as Mabel and looked about the same age. Mary threw her hands up in despair, as Mabel and Jack regularly disappeared together. Did it really matter, if they were youngsters in love? Mabel, like Mary now, was infertile due to childhood tuberculosis….so what the heck?


Jack gets close and personal with ‘big sister’ Mabel in What The Doctor Ordered.

Then, one day, the Gishes suddenly appeared, to Mary’s delight. Immediately, Griffith began to pit Lillian and Mary against one another, in order to whip up some competition. Neither took the bait. This was one of the genius’ favorite tricks, but they were not having it. Not long after, Griffith began to go cool on Mary and would shake her by the shoulders if she did not perform as he wanted. Then, one day, in a fit of misogynistic rage, he picked Mary up and threw her bodily across the set. She landed hard on one arm, which seemed to have been broken, but turned out to be just badly bruised. Not long after, he kneed Blanche Sweet clear off the stage, just to show who was boss. Other girls suffered the same treatment, except Mabel. Mabel, naturally, was no slouch with her fists, but Mack Sennett had now moved in on her. Griffith and Sennett were the biggest, roughest brawlers at the studio, and neither wanted to take on the other, so Mabel remained unmolested, even though she constantly ridiculed the genius and launched a tirade of the foulest language at him.


Mary with DWG.

True to form, the company left for L.A. on New Year’s Eve 1911, but this time there was trouble on board. Free from parental control, Mabel and Jack tore through the train, upsetting plug-hatted gents and old maids alike. Griffith was furious. He went to Mary “Keep that kid under control.” Then to Sennett “Control that girl of yours!” Mary of course could do nothing, and Mabel was hardly Mack’s wife. Eventually, the cops boarded the train, but soon discovered that the villains were minors. Griffith got a stern warning “Control those delinquents or go to jail.” He was not amused. Out in L.A., Mabel began to corrupt the other girls, and was sneaking booze into the makeshift studio. Griffith was furious when he found all his girls drunk and incapable, and confiscated Mabel’s gin bottles. He began to regularly supply bottles of iced India Pale Ale, imported fresh from the home of good beer, Burton-on-Trent, England. Woe betide anyone he found with the hard stuff. It was at this time that Mary got a taste for the booze, and became a secret drinker – for the rest of her life.

Out in California, they were soon hard at work. Mary got some good roles, and played opposite Mabel in ‘The Mender of Nets’. Here Mary got not a little upset. Griffith had strictly controlled Mary, insisting she did all of the classic Griffith mugging and hand movements. Mabel was left very much to her own devices. Incensed, Mary went for Griffith demanding an explanation. “My dear Mary, Mabel performs best when left alone, acting naturally. If you don’t like it, then you can leave.” Mary thought that she might just do that. She heard from Mabel that she and Mack were in serious discussions with Kessell and Baumann, and would be gone from Biograph by the end of May. Mary thought, “Right that’s it I’m out of here too.”


Mary  did not get much freedom here, but did get to wear Norwegian National dress.

Came the day when Griffith had a great idea for a picture called The Sands of Dee. Mary, Mabel and Blanche Sweet all wanted to have the lead. However, at the same time the genius began to cast for Man’s Genesis. His first thought was to put Mary in as the leading lady. However, when she saw that the part involved the wearing of a grass skirt, she turned it down. In disgust, Mary told the other girls, Blanche, Mabel and Lottie, who all said they’d turn the role down. Griffith had an ace up his sleeve – he’d put little Mae Marsh in as the lead. Mae was a new girl, inexperienced in acting and the girls were horrified. It was then that the first blot appeared in the movie industry’s copy book. ‘The Girls’ blackballed little Mae, kept her out of their club, and held a grudge against her forever. Griffith responded by giving Mae the lead in his The Sand of Dee as well, and later she’d star in Griffith’s greatest picture, Birth of A Nation (Mary, by the way, never did a big Griffith picture). Mae remained in the doghouse as far as ‘The Girls’ were concerned, for the next ten years. In 1922, with her career declining, Mae made a public apology in the press. Mabel and Blanche said that they’d forgiven Mae long ago. Mary was unavailable for comment.

In April 1912, Mabel made an announcement. She was joining New York Motion Picture’s Keystone studio to do comedy at $125 per week. Mary was pleased for her, but the $125 made her eyes roll. She decided she’d aim for $200 a week, rising to $500, then $1,000 by the time she was twenty. Mabel finally left New York that summer, heading for L.A. with Sennett’s ‘University of Nonsense’. Griffith called his actresses together.

“Your leader and Queen has left the studio and this city. Now bear this in mind – she and that jerk Sennett will bomb, and never be heard of again. They have no studio, no camera, and no supporting cast. Don’t make the same mistake! Meeting adjourned….”

Well, Griffith soon had egg (or a pie) on his face, didn’t he? Meanwhile, Mary was contemplating her departure – from films. She decided to return to the stage. Things were getting hot in the movies, and they would not last anyhow. She went straight to David Belasco, to renew her stage career. Belasco agreed to take her back at $125 a week.

“Mister Belasco, I must have two hundred.”

“Well Mary, let’s see how you get on, and we’ll discuss it again in a few weeks.”

Mary accepted, at least she’d equalled Mabel. However, the weeks dragged by, and no mention of the two hundred, but the rumour mill was suggesting that Mabel had hit $200. Mary confronted Belasco about the missing seventy-five dollars.

“Well, I think we can accommodate you on this, but don’t get any ideas of being another Lillian Russell.”

“The thought had never crossed my mind, Mr Belasco.”

Things at the theatre had not gone quite as Mary had hoped. Competition had increased, she worked harder, and come next summer, the theatres would close for the season. Suddenly, the movies looked good, especially as the pay there was increasing exponentially. She thought of going back to Biograph, but that would be embarrassing, and in any case, Griffith himself had left for a studio out on the coast. A new studio called Famous Players had been created under Daniel Frohman and Adolph Zukor, and the company would make theatrically-based films. They offered Mary $500 a week. Mary was over the moon, but news soon came that a group of other actresses had also hit the five-hundred mark. Never mind, she was looking now towards $1,000 a week. Then, guess what – news came that Charlie Chaplin had been offered $1,250 a week by Essanay. Soon after, it became known that Mabel had hit $1,000. This was getting ridiculous “Was there really so much money in the movies?” She soon collected her own one-thousand and looked towards the future. She was being lauded by the critics and her success was written in the stars. She won many press competitions, and in 1915 achieved the status of Best Leading Lady. Mabel was Best Comedienne, but Mary was somewhat dismayed to learn that The Keystone Girl had polled tens of thousands more votes than her. However, Mary was clearly at the top of the game, but something was happening out Keystone way. Mabel had left Sennett, and the newspapers said she’d signed with Mutual to work with Chaplin at $1,500 a week. “It can’t be true.” Thought Mary, and it wasn’t. Soon news came that Mabel had her own studio in East Hollywood under Triangle, with her name above it in five-feet high letters. Everyone, including Mary, was happy that one of their own had made it, but everything seemed to be surreal. The papers said Mabel was making $2,000 a week, while Charlie was now on $12,500.  Mary was running a newspaper column at the time and dropped in on Mabel at her new movie star mansion to interview her. She wrote two touching pieces about Mabel – one called ‘New Year’s Eve On The Train’ and one entitled simply ‘Mabel Normand’. Mary, of course, went out and got her own classical pile at 56 Fremont Place. Although Mary had her own dedicated studio in Hollywood, Zukor refused to put Mary’s name atop the building.

56 Fremont Pluhsd4899asI

Go classical, young girl. 56 Fremont Place.

Mary attended the opening party at Mabel’s studio, but left early with her new flame, Douglas Fairbanks. Back at Doug’s hunting lodge in the Beverly Hills, they planned to desert their spouses, divorce them and move in together, at an expanded hunting lodge. Chaplin was now getting quite close to Doug – he needed a bolt hole, for Mabel was closing in on him, harassing him and embarrassing him. She would often throw her arms around him when she saw him in the street, and point and scream at him in restaurants “Charlie, I will be your leading lady some day!” Mary thought “Serves him right for dumping Mabel.” Mary had some reservations about the little limey. Doug, naturally, was all for Charlie, and for keeping Mabel from entering their lives. Mabel had a way of penetrating lives, even marriages, and Charlie had made the mistake of marrying Mabel’s friend, Mildred Harris. One day he came up to the hunting lodge in a fit of despair. Every time that he came home, he’d find Mabel in his sitting room. Together with Mildred, she was planning their lives. This party, that party, go here, go there – even a snowballing party up on Mount Lowe. Charlie was either in a state of euphoric egotism, or deep in depression. Mary wanted him to go away, but Charlie was there for the duration.


Jack and Mary leave their Swiss chalet bungalow.

The Great War came along, and brother Jack disappeared into the army, but got himself in a heap of trouble with the authorities. Just as the Armistice came about, Mary upped and left Zukor’s company, now called Paramount, and acquired her own autonomous studio within First National. In 1919, a strange thing happened. Doug got word that the big studios and the distributors were planning to combine, and clamp down on the small studios, like Doug and Mary’s, dramatically reduce the star’s pay, and end the star system with a stroke of the pen. Doug, Mary and Charlie got together with D.W. Griffith and decided to create a medium-sized distribution concern, which they’d call United Artists. The big boys were stuffed – they had to call off their dastardly plan. The newspapers carried the headline “The lunatics have taken over the asylum!” The following year, Doug and Mary married, Doug having paid off his wife with $400,000, while Mary handed an estimated $100,000 to Owen Moore. Somehow, incredibly, they avoided the censure of the press, who knew nothing of the pay-offs for a long time. They did, however, report that a baby was on the way, but we know this was impossible, due to Mary’s infertility. We might suspect that Doug understood this well, and thought Mary’s barrenness to be a blessing. The son he already had was one too many.


Doug, Mary and Charlie in 1918.

Married Life.

Others would have predicted what happen next. Mary seems to have sleep-walked into the marriage, without realising that Doug was a control freak. He gave a list to Mary of the people that could come to the house. Mary was shocked to find that many of her friends were not on that list. In particular, Mabel was left off – “We don’t want ‘the bad-girl’ around here” Said the self-righteous Doug. Doug of course, was one of the few men rejected by Mabel. When Doug tried to home in on her, she simply said “I don’t date gorillas – now fuck off.” Doug had no option but to accept Mary’s family, who all lived at ‘Pickfair’ at one time or another. Jack never believed that Doug loved Mary, and he told Doug Fairbanks Jnr. that he once staked out the marriage bed, just to see if they ever ‘did it’. Jack’s report? “They didn’t.” Doug hated Jack and was extremely jealous of his success with women.


Jack and Mary.

He once asked journalist Adela Rogers St. John “Tell me, what the hell do women see in that skinny little runt?” The modest Doug considered himself god’s gift, and was playing the field from day one. In a way Doug truly lived in ‘La La Land’ of which he was the centre. Too late, Mary must have realised her mistake – she would become part of Doug’s world of make-believe. The castle, the roof-swinging, the fancy foreign cars and the international tour were all of his conception. Down the years, Mary was pushed into the position of ‘the little woman at home’. Some people say that was all she ever wanted. The record shows, nonetheless, that she dearly wanted to run with Jack and Lottie, the Normands and the Dot Gishes of this world. It’s probably true to say that Mary was cold, icy cold, unable to maintain friendships in the way that other Hollywood starlets did, but that didn’t mean she didn’t want to be close to people. In all probability, she thought that Doug could open the doors of perception for her, but the world he opened was the world of celebrity, within which dwelt the likes of Albert Einstein, Lord Mountbatten and other feted nobles and ‘faces’. It wasn’t long before Chaplin was bringing his under-age wives around every Sunday, and dumping them on Mary, while he and Doug went off into the hills, or swung from the roof gutters of Pickfair.

Olive T Jack Pick

The ‘It’ couple: Jack and Ollie.

This article only extends to 1920, but a lot happened in that year. Mary and Doug married in March, and then honeymooned in Europe, where she was almost killed by the crowds of well-wishers. Doug loved it all and encouraged it – Mary did not. Then, brother Jack and his wife, the lovely Olive Thomas, ‘Everybody’s Sweetheart’ hit Europe, and it was there that Olive died from ingesting Bichloride of Mercury. Mary and Doug did not approve of Olive, who was an independent type, a dancing girl, and, as they saw it, a harlot. Ollie’s funeral was in New York, where massive crowds rioted, believing she’d been murdered. Doug and Mary, naturally, chose not to attend the funeral, suspecting the mob would tear them apart. Doug and Mary were suspects of murder by proxy in the eyes of Mabel Normand, although her suspicions soon fell away from Mary and alighted solely upon Doug. The final verdict was that Olive had accidentally poisoned herself.



Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

New Years Eve on The Train By Mary Pickford (1916) Syndicated article.

When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1924)

Personalities I have Met: Lillian and Dorothy Gish: By Mary Pickford. McClure Newspaper Syndicate June 12th 1916.

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).



Mabel dies in the arms of Ralph Graves. ‘Extra Girl’ 1923.

You probably think that Mabel Normand died from drug addiction. And well you might, for even books written by reliable authors say this correct. Unfortunately, not one of them has presented any credible evidence – in fact they present no evidence at all. Mabel’s death certificate clearly states: “Cause of Death: Tuberculosis” and it is signed by a qualified doctor. Having said that, Mabel’s eventual demise was, to some extent, unexpected at that time. Mabel hadn’t been seen for five months, with all of her close friends being denied access to the Pottenger sanatorium, where she’d languished since September 1929. Only her personal nurse, Julia Benson, and husband Lew Cody, saw her during those five months. It need not be said that half a year is a long time for any person to stay in a sanatorium, clinic or hospice. Some people claimed to have visited her, including journalist Adela Rogers St. John, but Mrs Benson denies this. With all the controversy surrounding her untimely death, it is worthwhile looking at the all of the alternative options to Tuberculosis.

MICKEY_18 mabe4831rtv

The public did not know how sick Mabel was when she did this stunt.

Drug Addiction.

There is a possibility that Mabel did use drugs, but not in the way that some people suggest. Most of those that claim Mabel was an addict, maintain that she used cocaine. Naturally, everyone in Hollywood was using cocaine as a recreational drug, and there were always twists of paper in silver bowls at Tinsel Town parties. Consequently, when they say Mabel was caught by the cops with a bag of white powder in her car, then it is plainly obvious that any starlet’s car was carrying a bag of ‘coke’ at one time or another.  There is no evidence that Mabel used high quantities of cocaine, and there are no photos showing the incriminating ‘nostril rot’. As a general medicinal drug, cocaine would have been of little use to her. The story that Mabel had suffered tuberculosis in childhood is common in statements by those that were central in the film colony at the time. Minta Arbuckle said it, Charlie Chaplin said it, Polly Moran said it, Constance Talmadge said it, and there are many others. Minta had also said that Mabel was often very sick, coughed up blood, and was bad enough to take something that Mabel called her ‘goop’. This was a medicine of some sort, and might have contained codeine and / or cocaine. However, beyond 1916, it seems Mabel was ill enough to require something beyond this preparation, and opium comes to mind. Opium, of course, was illegal, but its derivative, heroin, was not! As Heroin was legal, and, furthermore, considered a safe form of opium, this would have been Mabel’s best choice. Its effects were also long lasting, unlike the buzz-inducing drugs, like cocaine. Heroin was not finally made totally illegal until 1925. Naturally, the drug remained available via the black market beyond that date. Actress turned journalist, Hedda Hopper, made the claim that she’d once found Mabel in a coma, with a bag of cocaine beside her, which she then flushed down the toilet. Unfortunately, this tale is not corroborated by anyone else, and Hedda Hopper has no credibility today. Question: Would cocaine put you into a coma – if so, then why take the stuff? There is, then, some evidence for drugs, but the use of cocaine for anything other than occasional recreational purposes can be discounted.


Wedding shower:  Mabel in white hat, Hedda Hopper 3rd on her left, wearing the supercilious look. Most of these women aren’t actresses but wives of big shots in the industry.

Tuberculosis and Other Causes.

As this is the official cause of death, then we must take this as the most likely reason for death, especially as this disease was rife in Hollywood and around the world. Two of Mabel’s siblings died in childhood (deaths officially recorded) of the disease, and it is fairly obvious that Mabel could, also have contracted ‘TB’. As seen above, many contemporaries said that Mabel had contracted T.B. in childhood. Chaplin said a little more:

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

That Mabel was fatally ill in 1920, is not to be denied. She was saved by a nurse called Julia Brew (Benson) who attended her for the next ten years. She later reported that when she first saw Mabel, she had a massive burn to her chest caused by the application of a mustard plaster, substantiating the story of a respiratory problem. On that day, she realised Mabel was suffering from tuberculosis.


Mabel and Julia in 1924.


There are other causes of death in the mix. Tuberculosis was rampant in Hollywood, but so were STDs, and principally syphilis. Syphilis is known to ‘mimic’ other diseases, and is particularly good at mimicking tuberculosis. Mabel, with her multiple partners, was a prime candidate for this particular SDT, although there is another theory on the source of this syphilis. Author Simom Louvish (Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett) has carried out some research into the Normand family. A Staten Island child named Walter Normand died in 1898 of odema of the lungs caused by congenital ‘syphilitic laryngitis’, suggesting the condition was present in the parents. If so, it might be that Mabel had also inherited the disease. Indeed, Mabel seems to have suffered throat problems, before she encountered full-blown trouble with her lungs. There is no evidence, however, that Walter was a relative, and both parents survived to relative old age (her mother attained 62, and her father around 80).


Diet, Booze and Health-Sapping Work.


Some people have suggested that Mabel died from problems associated with her lifestyle. Mack Sennett is adamant about this, and stated that a lack of rest, along with living on ice-cream and milkshakes took her life. Well, we could also say that the tremendous amount of work she undertook for Keystone between 1912 and 1915, could have destroyed her health. Bad diet was a problem for many actresses at the time, due to the studios insisting that they kept their weight below 99 pounds, which was a ridiculous weight, even for a five-feet tall girl. Mabel began as a voluptuous girl in 1910, but gradually became much thinner in the ensuing years. Of course, the starving actresses would have been prone to ‘hitting the bottle’ and plenty of them were taken by the demon booze. In fact, no small number of them starved to death on a booze diet, right there in Hollywood. It is fair to say, though, that Mabel’s death cannot be attributed to alcohol, although she sank a fair amount of gin.

The Hollywood Disease.


Gone under strange circumstances.  Clarine Seymour, Olive Thomas, Rudy Valentino.

People with the Hollywood Disease, simply disappeared, or mysteriously ‘popped off’. The numbers of such cases are relatively high and include Bobby Harron, Olive Thomas, Clarine Seymour, Tom Ince, Rudolph Valentino, Virginia Rappe, Martha Mansfield, Florence La Badie, and W.D. Taylor. Sometimes these deaths precipitated riots, with huge numbers of people thinking their stars had been ‘done away with’. Some of the foregoing were shot dead, but many suffered medical emergencies that came out of the blue. Olive Thomas ‘accidentally’ swallowed Bichloride of Mercury, Clarine Seymour and Rudy Valentino both developed intestinal problems overnight, while Florence La Badie was injured in a car crash, but doctors said she’d survive – she died five days later of “blood poisoning.” Virginia Rappe was supposedly squashed flat by Fatty Arbuckle, and Martha Mansfield mysteriously burst into flames. A common factor in many of these cases is that some kind of a doctor emerged from the woodwork to give a different and benign cause of death to that originally proffered. Many of the above can be said to have become a nuisance to the studios, which has led people to imagine that they were actually murdered – by the gun, poison, or the match. Conspiracy theories? Well, maybe.


This brings us to Mabel and the possibility that she was poisoned, or even starved to death in that Monrovia sanatorium. To understand this view we need to go back to 1922, and the murder of Mabel’s supposed lover, W.D. Taylor. It seems that someone shot Taylor, which caused huge problems for Mabel. Now, up to that point, Mabel had been a ‘gad about town’ spending recklessly and living La Dolce Vitae. However, fearing her career was over due to adverse publicity, she began to get a grip on herself. First, she insisted that Sennett gave her the lead in his biggest film yet, then she went on a nationwide stage tour. She appears to have netted at least $2-million from these two enterprises, but instead of blowing the lot, as previously, she bought a mansion in Beverly Hills, and invested, or put aside her cash. She already had a £50,000 trust fund that had been set up by Sam Goldwyn in 1919, when he feared Mabel would end up penniless on the street. Having stored wealth in Hollywood meant only one thing – she’d become a target, a target for those that wanted to relieve her of her cash. In 1926, she seems to have agreed to a part in Sennett’s next big film, but then something strange happened. Mabel upped and married her former co-star Lew Cody. Next thing Sennett knew, Mabel rejected his new picture. Confused and down-hearted, Mack later said:

“After Mabel became Mrs Cody, I never saw nor spoke to her again.”


Lew and Mabel on Lew’s doorstep.

Mabel, the eternal spinster, never consummated the marriage, nor did she admit Cody to her house. Mabel was in an anxious state at this time, having suffered three huge scandals in succession, but it was normal for an ex-Biograph girl to consult her old friends from the Griffith studio. Perhaps they concluded that the very broke Lew was after Mabel’s money. The fact that Mary Pickford stepped in later to kind of head Lew off at the pass, does suggest that Mabel was advised to forget about Lew. In 1927, while still at the Roach Studio, Mabel became desperately ill. She had to give up work, but by 1928, had seemingly recovered. During 1928 and half-way through 1929, she was often seen around town and was regularly attending premieres. She made a short film at MGM and appears to have been getting ready to take the lead in a talking picture. Then, in mid-September, she had a relapse, and Cody and nurse Julia Benson, insisted that she go into the Pottenger sanatorium to receive treatment. This made sense, but instead of being there for a few weeks, it seemed that the length of the stay was open-ended. Mabel began to protest, and demanded to go home. The doctor, Lew and Julia decided she should stay. Unfortunately, the X-rays taken at the clinic no longer exist, but Lew claimed they were pretty bad – so bad that he only showed Mabel X-rays of healthy lungs.  Naturally, suspicion arose that he had shown Mabel pictures of heavily diseased lungs, while her own lungs were not quite so badly damaged.

_Mabel N funeral1bs3

Doug Fairbanks, Col. Goebells, D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett, Sam Goldwyn, Sid Graumann, Charlie Chaplin, L.B. Mayer, Judge James and Eugene Pallette pay their respects at Mabel’s funeral.

When Mabel eventually died, the news sent a shock-wave through Hollywood. The last they’d heard, a series of blood transfusions had virtually cured her, and so her subsequent demise made everyone highly suspicious. However, Lew contacted the family on Staten Island N.Y. with a view to making funeral arrangements. He discovered that Mabel’s father had also just died, and the journey to the west coast, in time for the funeral, seemed impossible. Consequently, Lew announced that it was unlikely that the family could make the funeral. This is where Mary Pickford seems to have stepped in. She contacted the family and told them that she would make any arrangements required, at any cost, to get them to the coast in time for the funeral. In the event, an aircraft had to be hired in order to bring the family the last two hundred miles or so. At the funeral, everyone was surprised to find the casket lid well and truly screwed down, with nobody, not even the family, allowed to view the body. Lew announced that Mabel had weighed only 45 pounds at death, and no-one would be allowed to view the body – the shock would almost certainly kill Mabel’s ailing mother. There was more suspicion, but Lew, being Mabel’s legal spouse, could over-ride everyone, including the family. It was at the funeral service, attended by thousands, that for the first time ever, Mary Pickford began to cry before Constance Talmadge. This indicates how upset Mary was at Mabel’s untimely passing.. The internment, attended only by the family, Lew Cody and Paul Bern, took place at the Calvary Cemetery, Boyle Heights, where the family discovered that the name on Mabel’s tomb was cut as Mabel Normand-Cody.


Valentino’s funeral: L-R Mary Pickford, Norma, Constance Talmadge.

After The Funeral.

Lew now busied himself with Mabel’s affairs, but Mary Pickford was not through yet. She arranged for the family to stay in Los Angeles for the foreseeable future, and further arranged an attorney to help sort out Mabel’s affairs from their side. Lew had only been left one dollar in Mabel’s will, and it was important to ensure that he did not get his sticky mitts on anything more. As the estate was being settled, Lew made an application to the Court for Mabel’s $50,000 Trust Fund, which his lawyer said was outside of Mabel’s estate. The family disagreed and fought a legal battle with Cody. The whole thing was very complicated, as, at some time in 1925, the fund had been liquidated and the money used to make further investments, although the specific investments could not be identified. It appears that Cody received nothing. However, Lew had ample time to pry into Mabel’s assets. The family thought that certain valuable items had disappeared from her house, but could not prove it. There was also the matter of cash and jewelry in safe deposit boxes, the location of which no-one knew. The family lived in L.A. for many years, although Mabel’s mother died in 1932, of a broken heart it is said. Claude, Mabel’s brother, committed suicide at his New York home in 1945. Sister Gladys lived many years in L.A., before marrying and moving to Florida.


Mabel’s will of 1927.

What Was Going On?

There is no smoking gun here, that could tell us if there were any underhand dealings taking place. There were, undoubtedly, deliberate attempts to ‘cage’ Mabel in the sanatorium, and, if so, then Mabel’s nurse comes under suspicion. The family allotted her $10,000 for services rendered, which seems to annoy Mabel’s great nephew, Stephen Normand, today. He tells the story that Julia Benson took some of Mabel’s possessions in 1929, an unknown quantity of which she sold on. Strangely, she had held onto some bloodstained nightdresses belonging to Mabel. Naturally, both Lew and Julia had motives for ‘bumping’ Mabel off, although it cannot be proven that they conspired to do so.  There was, however, plenty of opportunity to feed Mabel some poison or other. Julia’s contention that Mabel was speaking right up until her death is really not credible, if she had wasted away to 45 pounds. For the last few days, at least, she must have been in a coma, and, as is usual in these cases, she just slipped away.


Something that could have ended Mabel’s life was an overdose of morphine. Morphine is a top-level painkiller, given to patients suffering from a fatal disease. As the disease worsens, more morphine is given, until the dose is eventually and inevitably fatal. This is normal medical practice. Sennett’s idea of Mabel dying from ‘bad lifestyle’ is merely a diversion, and it is possible that her working conditions between 1912 and 1915, could have adversely affected her already fragile health. All we can say is that Cody never gave up on getting his hands on Mabel’s loot, although he quickly followed her to the grave, clutching the one-dollar that Mabel had bequeathed him.


Claims on the estate: Note $10,000 paid to Julia Benson.


Mabel Normand poems

By James R. Quirk:

Mabel Normand
By Margaret E. Sangster

Beneath the gallant sparkle of her laughter,
There always lay the hint of wistfulness,
As if she knew that storm must follow after
the brightest day … Perhaps her soul could guess
That tragedy was waiting, eager handed,
To block her path, to stay her dancing feet,
To leave her lonely, pitiful, and stranded…
Yet who shall say her life was incomplete?
For, oh, she brought swift smiles to sorry faces
She taught a weary-hearted world to sing;
Her presence lent new grace to lonely places,
She had the radiance of waking spring.
Behind her mask of comedy, she waited
For every hurt the future held in store;
She gave herself to all, nor hesitated …
And died when she, at last, could give no more!


Short, Short Story

By Mabel Normand.

I’m bad, bad, bad!

But I’ll really keep my engagement.

If there was one sprig of poison-ivy,

In a field of four-leaf-clovers,

I’d pick it up.

If it was raining carbolic acid,

I’d be the dumb-bell sponge.


Los Angeles Times, February 24, 1930: Hollywood Touched As Gay Spirit Passes
By Edwin Schallert
Mabel Normand is dead!

Will Rogers’ syndicated column, February 24, 1930
Poor little wind-tossed Mabel Normand died. She has given the world much laughter, and strangers and friends much financial aid. I hope no one writes of her — only the ones that had met and known her. Her last press notices would be beautiful.

Variety, February 26, 1930 OBITUARY Mabel Normand.

Los Angeles Times, February 27, 1930 The Heart of Mabel Normand, By Jennie Van Allen.

Probate Records, County of Los Angeles: Last Will and Testament of Mabel Normand.

Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett (2003) by Simon Louvish.