22 FEBRUARY 1930. THE DAY SILENT MOVIES DIED.

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Fairbanks, Goebel, Griffith, Sennett, Goldwyn. Honorary pall-bearers in reflective mood at Mabel Normand’s funeral in 1930.

It is common knowledge that the first nail was hammered into the coffin of the silent movie in 1926. This was the year in which Al Jolson’s film The Jazz Singer was released. Reluctantly and slowly, the studios began to ready themselves for sound. Mack Sennett saw it all coming and moved lock, stock and barrel to Studio City, leaving his now worthless Keystone silent stages to slowly rot. It was a case of adapt or die. By 1928, the scene was set for the complete demise of the silent medium, but many still refused to believe it. Typical of these was journalist Adela Rogers St. John, who later wrote that she thought it impossible that the high pantomime of the silent era could be junked so readily, along with the old stages and equipment.

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Keystone becomes a scrapyard. 1929.

At around this time, Mabel Normand stepped out of retirement, and into a movie studio to make a private film for husband Lew Cody. She did not recognize the equipment nor did she understand its purpose. The engineers had taken over, and there were cables running everywhere. Meanwhile, Charlie Chaplin was busy arguing with his team and their backers. If he went to sound he had to abandon The Tramp, the little man that everyone loved. The Tramp, could not, and would not, talk. Others dithered, waiting to see what happened, but it was impossible to only go halfway into sound. What to do, what to do?

 

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Mabel makes a film for Lew Cody in Art Deco surroundings. Dec. 1928.

A Penny for The Ferry Man.

Then it happened, the 22nd of February 1930 arrived, and Mabel Normand, The Keystone Girl, Madcap Mabel, died in a Monrovia sanatorium. Shock ran through the movie colony, the movie headquarters back east, and Europe – in fact the whole world. Mabel hadn’t made a film for three years, but her name was synonymous with silent movies, and the vacuum created was palpable. Could it really be true that the planet’s greatest survivor had passed to the other side? Enough obituaries were gathered by the

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press from the stars of Tinseltown to fill a silent stage. Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, Roscoe Arbuckle, Mary Pickford, Doug Fairbanks, and even young Douglas Fairbanks Jnr., not even born when Mabel started out, spoke of Mabel. Most cut up was Chaplin, who had not made his peace with Mabel before she passed on. She’d paved Chaplin’s path to success, but he’d never managed to apologize for the way he’d walked out on her in late 1914. Mack Sennett realized he’d never really known Mabel, and now it was too late. Roscoe Arbuckle simply wandered off to be alone, muttering that he’d lost his friend. All those silent stars, whose careers were now frittering away, could not have been unaware that it was all over – and there was no way back.

“She was one of the truest friends I have ever known and one of the most remarkable, brilliant and self-sacrificing women any one has ever known. She was a great woman and a great character. 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.”      [Charlie Chaplin].

A Last Call for the Silent Actors

Mabel’s funeral can be seen as the last great event of the silent era. The press were quick to point out, that the big movie moguls, the pioneers of film, that bore Mabel to her grave, were visibly aged, balding and grey. The eldest was D.W. Griffith, the great film-making genius, but his career was already washed up. Then there was white-haired Mack Sennett, whose star-of-stars was that little clown in the casket. Always youthful in looks, The King of Comedy looks strained and tired in the photos. Bankruptcy was already looming for this magician of film comedy, and two years down the line, he’d throw in the towel. Even the King of Swashbuckling, the super-fit Douglas Fairbanks, knew his days were numbered. His career would soon fizzle out, and he would only live another nine years. , With his graying devil’s horns, Charlie Chaplin was one of the younger ones, but even he was now entering middle-age.

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Mabel’s funeral service was held in The Church of The Good Shepherd Beverley Hills. Mabel rests here: Mausoleum, Calvary Cemetery, Boyle Heights.

There is something strangely odd and haunting about the existing photos. All of the honorary pall-bearers appear to be in a dream-like state. Lost In their own thoughts, they seem to be reflecting on something. Perhaps they had become aware of their own mortality. No one really thought that the screen’s most fearless fighter would finally pass away – it was just not possible. But, possible it was, and they could not have failed to realize that an era had passed. Like the dot-com and South Sea  Bubble companies of other times, the silent movies had boomed and finally busted. Where were those young, enthusiastic movie-makers of the early days, average age 17, who took the world by storm in the early 1900s? Some had died, others had been driven insane by booze, drugs or syphilis, while a good number had committed suicide. The remaining silent stars, were entering old / middle age, and were not wanted by the new talkies. Some silent actresses, who’d arrived in the mid-1920s, were able to use their still youthful bodies, to move over to the new medium, but most were finished by the early 1930s. Mabel’s funeral was the silent film industry’s chance to say goodbye – to the public.

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Casualties of 1920: Clarine Seymour, Olive Thomas, Bobby Harron. Olive sent her signed picture to Mabel, weeks before she died.

One of the odd things about Mabel’s funeral, is that nearly all the big Hollywood producers turned out. If Mabel had expired a few years earlier, those producers might not have bothered, for Madcap Mabel was one of a handful of actors and actresses that had held the movie industry to ransom. If a producer decided he wasn’t going to use one of his big stars in a movie, due to exorbitant financial demands, none of the other big stars would take the role.

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All smiles, but Mabel had only contempt for producer Goldwyn (left).

The producer would either reluctantly pay up, or chance his arm with an unknown. D.W. Griffith knew this only too well, as he’d been at the butt end of a strike organized by Mabel, Mary Pickford and others at Biograph. The interesting thing is the Biograph strike was over morality. The Edwardian girls refused to show their legs through grass skirts in Man’s Genesis. Griffith gave the part to new girl, Mae Marsh, thereby creating another storm. Although he successfully steered Mae into a number of big pictures, she was blackballed for years by the Biograph girls, who never forgave her (they never forgave anyone). As the main phase of her career petered out in 1923, Mae made a belated public apology to the girls, concluding with “I was just a lamebrain, you know”.

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Mae Marsh and Bobby Harron. Man’s Genesis. 1912.

The producers knew only too well that they constantly needed new stuff to keep the industry going. Color was one new thing, but its universal use was years away. Similarly, nobody could get sound to work properly. That left sex. The movie companies wanted to use more and more titillation in their films, but the big stars refused to appear naked or scantily clad. Then, just as the big producers were about to join forces, and sweep the old Biograph and Vitagraph girls from the studios, Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks and Griffith created their own distribution company, United Artists. Actors now held the trump card, and the producers could only slink off and lick their wounds. Thus, the old guard gained a further decade at the top, and an even bigger share of the profits (damn them!).

 

Curiously enough, only one big silent feature film was produced after Mabel’s funeral. The film was called City Lights, and it was made by the only man who could get away with such a thing – Charlie Chaplin. He began the film a little after Mabel’s death, and it has been said, by some, that it was a tribute to Mabel. Whereas, Charlie might have considered this, the overwhelming reason was that the tramp could not, and would not, talk. The tramp-like character in Modern Times, did not talk, although the Henry Ford-like character did talk, briefly.

Epilogue.

The fact that Mabel Normand expired at the precise moment that silent movies died is clearly an unhappy coincidence. It is, however, easy to understand why some people read more into the connection than we might expect. Mabel has been reaching out to us from the the grave ever since, so why shouldn’t she have arranged her death to coincide perfectly with the demise of silent pictures? It’s an interesting thought.

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THEY COULDN’T KEEP HER DOWN ON THE ISLAND or “I USED TO BE A STATEN ISLAND GIRL.”

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The tranquil Staten Island North Shore.

Mabel Normand had no birth certificate, so there is no evidence as to where she was actually born. Rhode Island is a possibility, but it could have been Staten Island, where Mabel clearly grew up. Staten Island is a borough of New York, but is separated from the other boroughs by large areas of water. The natural NY partner of Staten Island is Brooklyn, but there has never been a ferry between Brooklyn and Staten Island, and the linking suspension bridge was not built until the 1960s. In order to reach civilization, Mabel used the ferry to Manhattan. Nevertheless, the prevailing accent among newcomers to Staten Island, has always been the Brooklyn accent, immigrants being less in number from Manhattan (the island is far too boring for them). Over the years a specific accent has developed on Staten Island, which is, unsurprisingly, an amalgam of the accents of all the other five boroughs. Mabel, it is said, started out with a Brooklyn accent, and this is supported by those that said her voice was ‘musical’. It seems she progressively dropped this for what the press described in 1924, as a ‘Cavendish Square accent, fully suited to old Lonnon’ (London).

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How New Yorkers see their five boroughs.

Mabel was always called The Girl from Staten Island, but following a certain T.V. series we might today call her A Staten Island Girl (for those in the U.K. The Staten Island Girl is the American version of The Essex Girl).  In fact Mabel, to some extent, was the original Staten Island girl (abbr: SIG) People have said Mabel had too much money, was too trashy, overly made up, and, originally, spoke with an awful accent. However, she never carried a coach bag, nor wore overly high heels (or white shoes), and only ever wore hoop earrings when playing a Spaniard or gypsy.  Of the features attributed to her above, only the accent is really true (the Brooklyn, not the amalgam). Furthermore, Mabel was from the North Shore (New Brighton and St. George’s) and, if what we hear is true, the real Staten Island Girl comes from the South Shore. Why should this be? We might guess that the south is so mind-numbingly remote and boring that the only reasonable route of escape is via New Jersey – home of, guess who, The Jersey Shore Girl (a creation of yet another, somewhat mocking, T.V. series). The South Shore Girl, if correct, is therefore doomed to forever wallow in mediocrity, and remain more orange than Donald Trump.

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Spoof videos: ‘Orange’ SIGs ready to hit the mall. SIG high-heeled catfight.

What is it with Staten Island?

In reality, there is nothing amiss with Staten Island, other than the fact that it is suburban, but suburban with a capital ‘S’ as only an island can be (in the U.K. think Canvey Island in Essex.). First generation Staten Island immigrants are only too glad to escape New York proper, and prize the tranquility of Staten Island, even if they have to commute daily to Manhattan, New Jersey or Brooklyn ($15 to $17 on the bridges!). Second generation islanders, however, find it unbelievably stifling, and they know there is a whole new world, just a ferry ride away. Such was Mabel Normand. While her mother hated the city, Mabel looked over to Manhattan, and saw vibrancy and life (gangsters were looking in the other direction, and many made the trip over, to escape the prying eyes of the cops). Every chance she got, the future Keystone Girl boarded the ferry, and headed for the real Big Apple. Here she mingled with the gangster’s molls, street vendors, and the assorted low-life that inhabited the Lower East Side, although she was blissfully unaware that her future savior, or nemesis, Mack Sennett, was then working the cheap joints down on The Bowery.

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Little Italy 1900s: a more lively location.

 

 

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Mobsters lived here. Former home of Paul ‘Big Pauli’ Castellano, Staten Island.

The East Side excursions would provide her with characters later used in films like Mabel’s Busy Day, Mabel’s Dramatic Career, and Tillie’s Punctured Romance (i.e. Street Vendor, Slavey and Mobster’s Moll). If this means young Mabel was restless, reckless and beyond parental control, then this is the truth. Mabel was uncontrollable, and brooked no bridle. It seems she refused to go to school, but this presented little problem, for she was, with no birth certificate, a non-entity, unknown to the authorities. In any event, the education system was lax, and parents were only required to educate children for 14 weeks annually, in school or at home. Mabel stated that her mother taught her to read, and her father taught her to play the piano. The main problem was that kids found roaming the streets could be rounded up, and forced to attend school. On Staten Island there was little chance of the footloose Mabel (like Huck Finn, spending her time swimming and diving) being captured, but in the Lower East Side this, clearly middle-class, girl would stick out like a sore thumb. That might be how she ended up in a convent school, having been sent away by her exasperated parents. Mabel’s family, by the way, were not wealthy, but neither were they poor. They were quietly lower middle-class, and her father ran the Music Hall at the sailor’s home, Snug Harbour, which residents of S.I. will now know as a Cultural Center and Botanical Garden.

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Mabel’s possible school: PS 17. Music Hall, Snug Harbor.

 

 

Heading Out

It was inevitable that, when the time came, Mabel would find work, not on Staten Island, but in Manhattan. There are several conflicting stories about how she came to be an artist’s model, but become a model she did, and in the lively confines of Manhattan. From what we know of Mabel, she was in no hurry to get home at the end of the day, and would saunter down to the ferry terminal, via no-go areas, like Little Italy, rather than take the subway.

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Moving on to The Biograph, Mabel made an immediate impression on the provincial and Manhattan actresses, with her plain speaking, irreverent attitude, and tricks like smoking, drinking and cussing. The other girls had stage mothers, or chaperones, but Mabel was a true free spirit, who rode bucking bronchos, swam the Hudson River, and engaged in high diving stunts. Consequently, it wasn’t long before she’d gathered a gaggle of admiring teenagers around her, much to the annoyance of the director D.W. Griffith, and the other girls’ mothers. At her next studio, Vitagraph, Mabel only lasted a few weeks before being fired for baring her backside to passing train passengers. A sortie into the Reliance Studio lasted one day, before she was again fired for ‘unacceptable behaviour’. If  Mabel sounds like a Staten Island Girl, then, she should, for she did grow up on the island. In all probability, like an Australian being dumped in New York or London, Mabel over-reacted to her new situation. So what about the Staten Island Girls’ presumed penchant for fighting? Well, Mabel was quick to create an argument with any girl she considered was getting a little swell-headed. She is said to have challenged Marie Dressler to a boxing match, but it is clear that the massive Marie would have flattened the diminutive Mabel with one punch. Mabel always kept close to boxers, and doubtlessly received some training from them, and, perhaps, from ex- lightweight trainer Mack Sennett.

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 Staten Island Girl ready to hit town, 1912 style. Mabel in L.A.

Heading Out For Good.

Things were tough for Mabel, the journey to Manhattan everyday was tedious, if interesting at first. You can only see ‘The Statue’ so many times before you’re bored with its rusting hulk. Much of her time was probably taken up wondering “How the hell am I gonna get outta this place?” These thoughts almost certainly made her increasingly antagonistic, until she momentarily escaped westward, to California, with Biograph. Among the Orange groves Mabel finally found peace, with no hassle, and no parents watching her every move. Here also, Mack Sennett let her in on his plans to run the new Biograph comedy unit, when they returned to New York.

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Time to chill out in California, 1912.

Back in 11 East Fourteenth Street, and true to his word, Mack arranged for Mabel (now apparently his girlfriend) to be his comedy leading lady, with the blessing of D.W. Griffith, who was glad to see the back of Madcap Mabel. After making a couple of films, Mack made his master move, and transferred his entire team, including Mabel, over to New York Motion Pictures, who rapidly moved them out to L.A. Finally off the leash, it was over two years before she, briefly, returned to Staten Island. Two years away from mother, and two years away from that god-damned island. Mabel would return to Staten Island on a yearly basis, although it is clear that she often went east several times a year, but always stayed in Manhattan. One reason for this , apart from the obvious ones, was that she was now just about the biggest thing to have hit Staten Island, and the local mayor insisted on meeting her at the ferry terminal, and conveying her in a parade to mother’s house in New Brighton.

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Never mess with a Staten Island Girl (Mabel’s Busy Day).

Things went well for a while, and then other actresses came on to the lot, including the dreaded Bathing Beauties. This brought out the Staten Island in Mabel, and she laid down the law to Mack on how he could use his actresses – she often banned the competent ones from anything other than extra parts in her pictures. As she became more and more incensed by the scantily-clad Bathing Beauties wobbling around the lot, she also became aware that boyfriend Mack was paying interest to certain actresses. It is said that Mabel went for one of them, Mae Busch, and in the ensuing fight, Mabel was hit over the head with a vase. The vase thing is probably false, but there was, perhaps, a fight of sorts.

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Mae Busch and cardboard cut-out of Mabel. The Mabel Normand Sound Stage 1940.

Go East Young Lady.

In December 1915, after many an argument with Mack Sennett, Mabel was compelled to move east, where New York Motion Pictures were keen on having, temporarily, the main company of Keystone, in order to advertise their new links with the Triangle company. Mabel departed with the Arbuckles, Al St. John and others, but the arduous daily ferry journey to NYMP meant she could not live on Staten Island. Of course Manhattan was preferable to Staten Island, but another reason was that Mabel was preparing to decamp, and no top studio man was headquartered on Staten Island (or in Hollywood for that matter).

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An object of envy for D.W. Griffith, The Mabel Normand Studio.

When the time came to return to Keystone, Mabel sat tight in Manhattan, and made it clear to everyone that she was available, at a very non-Staten Island price. On March 17th 1916, Mutual announced they had signed Mabel to co-star with Charlie Chaplin. In sheer panic, at the mention of Chaplin, Triangle and Mack Sennett quickly arranged a new studio, just for her, in Silverlake L.A. – not really Hollywood, but close enough. Mabel rushed back to L.A., but not before she visited Staten Island, where she was hailed a heroine – the first actress to have a studio with her name emblazoned upon it, in eight feet-high letters. Not bad, eh, for a trashy SIG.

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In 1917, Mabel returned to N.Y. having signed for Sam Goldwyn. However, she sat in Manhattan, while Goldwyn and Sennett argued over possession of her body. Again she made little effort to cross over to Staten Island, and stayed in a city apartment. Once she’d agreed to work with Goldwyn, she then commuted daily via the ferry to the studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a journey that Mabel found absolutely horrendous (an impossible journey from Staten Is.). Mabel moved to and fro between Goldwyn’s Studio in Fort Lee, and his other studio in Culver City, L.A., never really settling at either.

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Claude, Mabel and Gladys.

Scrolling forward to 1922, Mabel had restarted for Sennett, but departed for Europe when the Taylor scandal broke. Returning to New York, she once again sat in Manhattan, waiting for something to happen. It was here, in Marilyn Miller’s apartment, that Mabel learned she had been written out of the Mack Sennett film The Extra Girl. Being a feisty Staten Island colleen, she was soon on the long distance phone to Mack, demanding that he fire the actress Phyllis Haver, now in her place. Due to particular circumstances, Mack had no option, but to comply, and Mabel was soon rolling westwards again.

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Witches’ House? No, Mabel’s St. Mark’s Place residence. Staten Island.

 

Following another scandal in 1924, Mabel went on a theatrical tour, during which she had a couple more spells in Manhattan. It was time now to make up her mind, whether to live in New York, or take off for L.A. Mabel had already bought a newly-built house on Staten Island, which she’d acquired for her parents at a cost of $20,000 (current value $1-million), but she did not choose to go there. Without going near the ferry, Mabel set out for L.A., where she bought a house in Beverley Hills, also for $20,000 (current value $5-million). Mabel was settling down, and it wasn’t in Staten Island. She never left L.A. to live elsewhere, and died and was buried in the city. Mabel’s brother, Claude, stayed in L.A. awhile, before moving back to Staten Island, where he committed suicide in 1945. Sister Gladys dallied for a time in L.A., then apparently married, and transferred to Florida – about as far as you can get in the U.S. from New York. Mabel’s mother, who moved to L.A. in 1930, died there in 1932, seemingly without ever returning to Staten Island. She is buried with daughter Mabel, in the mausoleum at Calvary Cemetery.

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Mabel outside her Beverley Hills residence.

In Conclusion it seems obvious that Mabel possessed some of the traits attributable to an inscrutable island girl. However, the kind of stereotyping that created the definitive Staten Island Girl, does not fit Mabel, if it fits anyone at all. Was there an equivalent of the SIG in the early 1900s. Well, there were Kansas girls, with their ‘covered wagon’ accents, fearsome Bronx girls, cheap-rent Five Points girls, and various grades of trailer trash, so perhaps there were Staten Island girls.

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Left: SIG 1914 style. Right: Mabel respected no-one.

 

If there was no Staten Island stereotype in 1910, then we can bet that D.W. Griffith would have created one, as he suffered most from Mabel’s irreverence, foul-mouthed language, and biting sarcasm. Griffith is known to have physically assaulted his actresses, once throwing Mary Pickford across the set, and kneeing Blanche Sweet off the stage. He never, nonetheless, laid violent hands on Mabel – he simply went home and punched holes in the doors. You never messed with Mabel. If she were here today, would she have been plastered with bronzer, worn torn jeans, with a beer belly hanging over the waistband? Probably not, for she was not a gang girl – she was a leader, not a follower. Even today, we don’t know what to make of her. We suspect she was crude and vulgar, a boozer, had droves of sexual partners, and ruthlessly bludgeoned all competition aside. Perhaps Longfellow might have given the answer: “When she was sober, she was very good, when she was drunk, she was horrid”.

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THE SECRETS OF MABEL’S WARDROBE.

 

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This is a short, but interesting exploration of wardrobes in general, and Mabel’s wardrobe in particular.

In the Beginning.

In the early years of motion pictures, as related by Linda Griffith in 1925, actresses were expected to provide their own clothes for the films in which they appeared. Clothes could make or break a film, depending on their quality. And the quality really did matter, for the camera would pick up any low rent ‘shmutter’. Furthermore, the number of acting roles an actress got, depended on how good her clothes were. Jeanie Macpherson, said Mrs Griffith, got more roles than anybody at Biograph, due to her comprehensive Parisian wardrobe. The Pickford and Gish families were fortunate in a way, for both mama Pickford and mama Gish were very good needlewomen, so the girls acquired wardrobes at cheap prices. However, both Pickfords and Gishes could be trounced by better dressed actresses.

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Height of Edwardian cool: Jeanie MacPherson, Marion Sunshine, Blanche Sweet.

If someone had a friend who was going to Europe, they always begged them to bring back at least one Parisian dress. Good clothes could also make money in their own right. If you were wearing something the director needed for a film, he would pay a fee for the loan of it. Some people made more money from these loans, at five dollars a time, than they ever made from performing before the camera. It was a few months after becoming the director at Biograph that D.W. Griffith managed to persuade his executives to stump up cash for an elementary studio wardrobe. Consequently, he sent wife Linda off with 50 dollars to see what she could get from the second-hand dealers. She got a good deal that day, at least a dozen upmarket pieces. Whether or not she got the garments from Adolph Zukor’s rag stall is unrecorded. One garment was a silk and velvet affair, which was consistently fought over by the Biograph girls.

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Linda Griffith; bought Biograph’s first wardrobe.

Mabel’s Gowns

Where, then, was Mabel in all this? Certainly, she was not left behind in the dainty clothes competition, and Mary Pickford later recalled Mabel’s liking for beautiful clothes. It is well-known that Mabel favored up to the minute attire, but quite where she found the money is difficult to determine. We know that some of the artists she had modeled for, allowed her to keep some of the clothes Mabel modeled, so she might still have been able to obtain clothes from this source.

 

mabe34adWith her irregular income from Biograph, it is unlikely that Mabel could afford much in the way of clothes herself, but she could always harass her parents, and when Mabel began to harass, people took notice. As everyone knows, Mabel had a boyfriend at Biograph, by the name of Mack Sennett. Now Mack was known for being tight-fisted, and, according to Linda Griffith, would never buy a girl anything, not even a sarsaparilla. However, when he first met Mabel, he bought her a milk-shake (with an egg in it!). This brought a response from Mabel, which Mack had never got from any other studio girl (usually it was “Get lost, creep!”). Realizing that Mack was on the up, and now regularly earning money, Mabel stuck with him, and acquired various items of jewelery as a result. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Mack also provided some clothing apparel, as well.

Once Mack had become a Biograph director in his own right, Mabel could count on even fancier film costumes – perhaps she even borrowed some of them. One particularly fetching dress with short sleeves, was worn by Mabel in Biograph’s Her Awakening (1911), which is also seen in their later comedy directed by Mack Sennett, Hot Stuff (1912). A slight change, nonetheless probably occurred when she signed with the new Kessell, Baumann, Sennett company, Keystone in 1912.

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Mabel airs a new ensemble during a cameo part in The Masquerader.

Mabel signed to Keystone for the, then, staggering pay of $125 a week ($3,000 + today). The company was fairly strapped for cash, so it is likely that Mabel was required to provide most of her costumes. This was normal practice at that time, for actors receiving large salaries. Few performers made a big deal of this, until income tax came on the scene. The tax authorities refused to consider clothing an legitimate expense, which caused animosity between the actors and producers. An actor could be completely wiped out, financially, in this way. Producers and directors were usually reliant on the vanity of actresses in order to ascertain what costumes their stars actually owned. Coming to the studio attired in some cloth of gold Parisian number was not a good idea.

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Alluring satin dress for Mabel, with fan-induced wind effect.

In any event, the studio executives always had spies reporting back on what their stars were wearing on the previous evening. Louise Brooks recalled that director’s would often remember what they’d seen her wearing, and would demand that they wear that item for a certain scene. Often it was a scene where the garments would be completely ruined. One prized suit (Brooksie loved smart suits) that was trashed had allegedly cost $500. The Oakland Tribune reported on the making of the Keystone film Mabel’s Wilful Way being filmed at Idora Park in 1915. Mabel’s dress was rather unusual, and something you would not have seen on Main Street U.S.A. everyday.

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Mabel in ?pirate’s outfit. Mabel’s Wilful Way.

It was obviously a prized and expensive possession, and when she did repeated takes of sliding down the Mountain Ride, she was heard screaming “My clothes, my clothes!” (Oakland Tribune April 15 1915). By the end of the day, the dress was clearly second-hand, and she seems to have persuaded Mack to take it into stock, for it turns up in a couple of other films. Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered why Mabel’s dresses billow so much in movies that were filmed in light wind Los Angeles, then the Oakland Tribune provides the answer – Keystone used several huge electric fans on location and on set. In fact they make clear that Mabel spent much time in getting her dress ‘to behave’ and not fly over her head. Was this done for titillation purposes, for general atmosphere, or to cool the actors? Probably all three are correct, although, in this film, the director seems to be keen on showing what Mabel is wearing underneath her dress, wind or no wind.

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Ever wondered what Mabel wore under that dress? Here’s the answer.

Undoubtedly, Mabel had many an argument with Mack over her precious clothes. Mabel, however, would buy more dresses to give away to friends than she kept for herself. Usually, she wore a dress once, then handed it to some deserving stranger, before Mack could lay his sticky fingers on it. It is known that Mabel spent over $100,000 on dresses while in Europe in 1922. Some people say her cloth of gold dress alone cost $100,000. A signed photo of this dress turned up on Ebay some time back. Naturally, the producer was as much concerned about the condition of actors’ costumes, after several scenes, as he was about the physical condition of the actors following some crazy stunt. Costumes were as expendable as the actors themselves – both could readily be replaced.

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By the time Mabel came to star in Suzanna in 1921, she had Mack’s clause laying claim to her wardrobe deleted from the contract. Mack was probably furious that he had to bite his lip, as it is clear Mabel was going to be paid far in excess of the $3,000 per week stated in the contract.

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Page from the amended Suzanna Contract.

Goldwyn and Roach Studios.

When Mabel started with Sam Goldwyn in 1917, she had a clause in her contract, which stated that the studio would underwrite the cost of any costume she used in Goldwyn films. However, in all the time Mabel was at Goldwyn, she never submitted one chit for any clothing she’d purchased, but nor did she collect $36,000 in salary that remained outstanding. It seems that the psychological problems she was encountering at the time caused her to ‘forget’ on both counts. Eventually, Sam Goldwyn forced Mabel to take the $36,000 (900,000 today), but he never received a costume bill. In all probability Mabel was not able to take on board the tax implications – the wartime tax rate was 77% of earnings, with an even more complicated situation arising regarding clothing allowances. Mabel’s head was in turmoil from the situation at Goldwyn, her almost enforced split from Sennett, and worry about her brother, away fighting in the mud of the Somme.

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Cloche hats gone mad. Who wouldn’t want to wear this hat?

 

Little is known of the wardrobe Mabel used at Roach Studios, although the short skirts and late 1920s hats she wore, suggest they were studio stock items. There is no indication Mabel ever privately wore above the knee skirts, nor the over-sized cloche hats, coming into vogue in the late 20s / early 30s.

If you want to get ahead, get a hat (and a parasol).

No self-respecting Edwardian girl would be seen in public without a hat. Not just any hat, but one with the broadest of rims, and the largest quantity of flora on top. These were the 1910s equivalent of the 80s big hair and wide shoulders., and, as with the Dallas hair and shoulders, they eventually came to look ridiculous.

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What teenage girl would not want to wear this hat today?

 

More often than not Mabel was seen wearing a hat in her films. Where she was hatless, she sometimes had a bow in her hair (not too often, thank god), which was clearly meant to signify she was an ingenue.

Parasols were an essential item for a girl about town, and highly useful in California, where they could protect a star’s delicate skin from the sun. Often, though, they were used to beat off unwelcome visitors.

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Parasols: Useful for looking demure or poking fat men.

It would be possible to write a whole book just on Mabel’s and other actresses’ wardrobes. The financial aspect, with its ramifications for taxation and producer’s budgets would, itself, fill one large chapter.

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Two dresses worn by Mabel in films. The one on the left was  never seen again, but the one on the right was later worn by several other actresses. 

 

If you like this blog, please  press the ‘like’ button. If you have any issue with the facts, in the blog, or their interpretation, please comment below.

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THE MYSTERIES OF MABEL’S DRESSING ROOM.

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Shot from the short film Mabel’s Dressing Room.

A dressing room is a dressing room, right? Yes, but not when it’s the dressing room of one Mabel Normand. I’ll explain. In a normal studio, a dressing room is where an actress dresses for her various scenes. However, Mabel’s dressing room at Keystone was a little different, for it could be said that the studio was run, not from Mack Sennett’s office, but from the said dressing room. We’ll get to the reasons for this in a little while, but it is worthwhile running through the history of this hallowed edifice. When the band of around half a dozen, who made up the Keystone company, arrived at the lot on Allesandro Street (now Glendale Boulevard) there was little more than an old bungalow, a small barn (or shed) and a derelict grocery store on the site.

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Left: Mabel’s Dressing room, Keystone. Right: dressing room, Moulin Rouge.

The previous movie inhabitants, Bison, had little use for buildings, as they made cowboy pictures. Going by what had happened at other movie studios out west, the barn was probably going to be a communal dressing room, with a section boarded off for Mabel, the only female. Mack would have the bungalow for an office. However, perhaps demonstrating the power Mabel already wielded, she ended up with half the bungalow. The other half became a communal dressing room for the other actresses that would later arrive. For now, it was probably Mack’s office.

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Peggy Page about to enter the star dressing room. The Property Man.

Some general notes on dressing rooms.

Some actresses have detailed what a dressing room was like in their memoirs. Mary Pickford described several in her book Sunshine and Shadow. At Biograph, the actresses’ dressing room was communal, on an upper floor of 14 East 14th Street, N.Y. and a dull dreary place it was. Real stars, like Florence Lawrence, mixed with the common rabble, although she was somewhat aloof, and helped herself to other actresses’ cosmetics, without challenge. While in the theater with David Belasco, Mary was given the star dressing room, but was heartbroken when she found it in a very sad condition, with broken mirrors and filth lying everywhere. Mary knew exactly how the room got like that, for she’d previously witnessed rampaging actresses throwing make-up around, smashing fittings, and writing obscenities on the walls. In Chaplin’s The Property Man (1914), which is a send up of theatrical folk, the star dressing room is a tip, with graffiti on the walls. The management’s view was that the ‘stars’ got what they deserved. Mabel endured the communal dressing rooms at Biograph and also Vitagraph, where she got so fed up with the railway passengers looking in her window, as they passed by, that she mooned at them out of the window (she got fired). In later years, the stars were given their own personal dressing rooms on studio lots, at considerable expense (decorating Mabel’s dressing room at Goldwyn cost Sam Goldwyn $2,000 in 1918).

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Battle for the star dressing room. The Property Man.

Some Secrets of Mabel’s Keystone dressing room.

The most important thing on Mabel’s mind in 1912, was, probably, getting her dressing room in order. This room gradually changed from a rather bare space to a sumptuous (for the time) living room. Whether a  marble bathtub was installed at that time is not known, but there was certainly one in her later room, within the  actresses’ dressing room block built in 1915. We might think Mabel was a prima dona, and to some extent she was. However, her door was always open to any of the company that wished to see her. The only one excluded was Mack Sennett, who was required to make an appointment. The dressing room was Mabel’s retreat from the rigors of work, so Mack was kept out, and left knocking and shouting at the door, while ‘the queen’ reposed within. On one occasion, Mabel opened the door to Mack, while wearing a ‘Way Down East’ moustache, saying “I’m sorry but Miss Normand is unavailable at the moment, would you mind calling back”. She then slammed the door in his face.

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Charlie and Mabel: just about shared a dressing room.

Charlie Chaplin said of Mabel “She was light-hearted and gay, a good fellow, kind and generous; and everyone adored her.” Mabel really was the Queen of Keystone, and she held court in her dressing room. Anyone wanting to discuss a grievence with the studio, would seek a consultation with Mabel first, and, should Mabel agree there was grievance, she’d speak to Sennett about it. In particular, Mabel became a soft touch for those requiring a supplement to their pay. Nonetheless, Mabel took up many diverse issues with the management, including sick pay, dangerous working practices, and the general bad treatment of workers. It was not unusual to see a stream of Keystoners marching from Mabel’s dressing room towards Mack’s tower office, with Mabel at the head of some protest or other.

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The Queen Bee and entourage, en-route to Fort Lee December 1915.

Many callers at the Queen Bee’s abode were simply malingerers, who had become bored with working. Mabel’s bungalow was the only comfortable place on the lot, and was, unusually, equipped with an oil heater. Thus, Mabel had a diverse range of visitors from carpenters and electricians to extras and stars. Roscoe Arbuckle was a constant visitor, although one that was closely watched by wife, Minta Durfee (he was an incorrigible visitor to the female dressing rooms, according to Henri ‘Pathe’ Lehrmann).

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Fatty and Mabel.

Charlie Chaplin was the most well-known and most frequent visitor to the Queen Bee during 1914. Chaplin found Mabel’s dressing room a haven from the boss, who really did not like theatrical types, and was very suspicious of the limey. According to Mabel, they discussed their films, and how they could improve their comedy. They would usually get together in the dressing room after work, presumably as they waited for Mack to finish up, before he took them both to dinner. When they got bored with work, they’d depart the dressing room, steal a company car, and head into L.A. As Mabel’s dressing room was the only private space on the whole lot, people have naturally wondered what else went on in the place. It is clear, though, that Sennett was astute enough to realize that his highly emotional stars could form passionate bonds, and even elope, perhaps to another studio. He therefore had Mabel constantly watched, and almost certainly had spies listening at her windows.

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Charlie and Mabel soon became the best of friends.

We can, therefore, be certain that nothing ‘untoward’ ever happened. But why did Mack seemingly turn a blind eye to the relationship between Charlie and Mabel? Why didn’t he slug (or plug) Charlie and throw him out? Quite simply Mack was not the boss – real power resided in Kessell and Baumann’s Longacre office in far-off New York. K and B had decreed that stage-star Charlie be given every accommodation in order to shine, and the two ‘wide boys’ had as many spies on the lot, as Sennett. Mabel was a willing go-between, and this was fortunate for Chas, who was a pure gags man, who’d totally misconstrued the Keystone films.

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Trouble brewing for Mack, Mabel and Charlie (The Fatal Mallet).

He’d thought they were a series of gags, ‘a crude melange of rough and tumble’, sewn together in some makeshift way. However, Mack was an ardent student of Griffith, and there was always a story – of sorts, and Mabel provided a little femininity and decorum. Mabel’s dressing room served as Charlie’s schoolroom, where he could learn the art of movie-making, and step down from his self-built pedestal. All of this, however, occurred after the bust up during the making of Mabel At The Wheel. This had been predicted back in Longacre, especially as Mack intended Mabel to direct, and Charlie to be deprived of his tramp outfit. Baumann appears to have sent his daughter, Ada, along along to report back on the fireworks predicted to erupt. The result is well-documented, and needs no reiteration here, but it seems possible that Ada Baumann smoothed everything over, and prevented K and B from taking drastic action, such as closing the studio. Enter then, the dressing room period, which Mack had to go along with. Of course, Chaplin  eventually left, without taking Mabel with him, as she’d expected. This caused an undercurrent of animosity between them that lasted until Mabel’s death, but that, as they say, is another story.

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Sweet Mabel: Everyone adored her.

Later dressing rooms.

The new actresses’ dressing room block was built at Keystone, sometime in 1914. There was only one entry point for the upper storey, and that was via a set of stairs that could be easily guarded. Mabel was given one of these upper storey rooms, as the old bungalow had become a target for nuts coming in off the street. The new room, however, backed onto the street, so it was possible for Mabel to escape Keystone-style and unnoticed, via a rope whenever she wanted to.

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Keystone dressing room block with Sennet and Adam Kessell in the foreground. Mabel is far right on the veranda, wearing the frilly dress.

The Mabel Normand Studio.

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The Mabel Normand Studio — Dressing room arrowed. 

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In 1916, Mabel was given her own studio on Fountain Avenue, in what is now Silverlake. Although a timber building, Mabel  had it carpeted throughout, and pot plants soon appeared everywhere. She had a particularly unique dressing room on the site. This was on the upper floor, with a long patio area in front which formed a balcony overlooking the main stage. Undoubtedly, the dressing room was superior to anything she’d ever had before, and was probably the hub of the studio. Even Mack Sennett turned up with an expensive oriental rug for her bodoiur. One advantage of the studio was that it was clearly visible from the Reliance-Majestic studio, where her old antagonist, D.W. Griffith reigned as director. As Griffith had once told Mabel she would never make an actress, one can only imagine his face, when the huge sign boards bearing the words Mabel Normand Feature Film Company went up on her new studio.

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Goldwyns

When her studio came to an end, Mabel left Hollywood to work for Sam Goldwyn in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The change was complicated, and there were plenty of shenanigans, as moves were made to retain her by Sennett, and Kessell and Baumann, running Keystone’s holding company, New York Motion Pictures. Due mainly to problems with film distributors Triangle, neither Sennett nor K and B could mount a challenge to Goldwyn, and she started work with him in August 1917. Crushed at the way things turned out, Mabel soon fell into arguments with Goldwyn and his preening ex-theater stars. When certain other stars got luxurious dressing rooms, Mabel demanded the same for herself. Sam was forced to pay over $2,000 for an up-rated dressing room for Mabel.

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Mabel’s luxurious Louis XIV dressing room at Goldwyn Studio.

Back at Sennett’s

When Mabel returned to Allesandro Street in 1920, it is highly likely that she took up residence at her old dressing room in the female block. Now Sennett was even more paranoid about Mabel’s whereabouts and her friends. His spies were probably out in force, and had ears clamped to the thin walls of Mabel’s dressing room. Outside of work, he knew she was seeing W.D. Taylor, although we do not know if he did something about it. In any event, Mabel left after less than four years.

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With Dick Jones

Roach Studios.

At Roach Studios in 1926, we can be certain that Mabel’s intention was to put on the ‘movie star’ bit, as much as possible.  She could not have been happy about working with  her, and Mack’s, old enemy, ‘the thick-necked Irishman’ (as she called Roach). Mabel made herself as obnoxious as possible, when Roach was around, and almost certainly demanded a dressing room fit for a star. Roach would have had to comply, and the dressing room would have to have been large, as the sickening Mabel was now constantly surrounded by a considerable entourage, including her full-time nurse, husband Lew Cody, and an assortment of  girlfriends, well versed in the art of cussing (these days we might call them ‘The Staten Island Mafia’). We can imagine that Mabel’s old friend F. Richard Jones, now Roach studio supervisor, was a frequent visitor to the Queen Bee’s hive.

Epilogue

Mabel’s dressing rooms were important to her, but they were also of importance to the early motion picture, for without the incubator of Mabel’s Keystone dressing room, there’d have been no Charlie Chaplin. Mabel’s dressing room was open to all, except the most preening of studio stars.

Bibliography

  • Mabel’s Dressing Room
  • Charles Chaplin: My autobiography by Charles Chaplin (1964).
  • Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).
  • Looking For Mabel Normandhttp://www.freewebs.com/looking-for-mabel/. Site maintained by Marilyn Slater.
  • Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).
  • When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1924).

 

THOROUGHLY EDWARDIAN MABEL.

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Mabel’s ‘pueblo’ at 526 Camden Drive. Inset: the over-the-top living room.

When Mabel Normand died in early 1930, her family put her Beverley Hills house up for auction (Sold for $20,000, now worth $8-million) . The press were invited round to view, and comment on the property. Most reporters noticed the house was built in the ‘pueblo’ style, so was it was totally in line with the southwestern United States, if somewhat avant-garde. Once inside, however, the journos were shocked to find themselves in an Edwardian drawing room, filled with an immense amount of high-value clutter. What they had expected to see was something more modern and, perhaps, art deco. It seemed Mabel had not been a thoroughly modern girl, but had remained rooted in the distant past.

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Mabel fettles Mack Sennett’s chain-drive Fiat in 1914.

Mabel was born in the Victorian era, but made her bones during the reign of Edward VII. America was a different place then, and although a little freer-speaking, the country looked outward towards Europe. In thought, the U.S. was aligned with the Anglo-Saxon territories, but fashion was Parisian, and quality automobiles were often Italian. The country at large thought of itself as being politically isolationist, although the government had other ideas, even in the 19th century. For some years, the U.S. had been pushing westward into the Pacific to rid itself (it said) of the Spanish menace. As a consequence of the perceived isolationism, it came as a shock, in 1917, when the government announced it was sending a vast army of its citizens to Europe, to die in someone else’s war. What is noticeable today, is that Americans never now speak of any part of the post-1917 era, as the Georgian or Elizabethan Age. The country has moved on, grown up.

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“Sausages!” Mabel’s Busy Day (1914).

Thus, was the pre-WW1 world that Mabel Normand grew up in. There was little in her life that could be seen as typically American, and American culture, as we know it today, barely existed at this time. Sure, baseball was coming on, and Coca-Cola, even milkshakes were becoming popular, but other aspects of later American life were absent. For instance, the term ‘hot-dog’ for a bread roll, with a sausage in it, had not yet been usurped from the Germans. In Mabel’s Busy Day (1914), the vending girl clearly shouts “sausages” not “hot dogs”. Tea was still the nation’s favourite tipple, and up and coming starlets would not have been seen dead drinking coffee. This was the drink of uneducated cowboys, although the real favorite of the actresses was probably gin (the public, however, were not supposed to know this).

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“More tea, m’lady?” The deb’s garden party: Caught In A Cabaret 1914.

Of course, drinking tea from dainty cups was (as in Mickey) the occupation of the aristocracy, and it was little wonder the ‘tin-types’, so recently crawled from the gutter, according to the press, were keen to show their gentility. In the Keystone films, Mabel is often depicted as a ‘slavey’ dressed in rags, but on the occasions she was well-dressed, she wore up to the minute Parisian fashions. The elaborate dress she wore for the film Mabel’s Strange Predicament was particularly over the top, and probably hugely expensive. Reaching down to the ground, it is obvious Mabel would not be doing any madcap stunts, and these were reserved for later, when she had donned her pajamas.

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Queen of Cool: Mabel airs her Parisian ensemble and fashionable dog in 1914.

So obsessed were some elements of the early film industry with hiding women’s ankles that Florence Lawrence (the first movie star) was forced to wear a down-to-the-floor dress in the Pawns of Destiny  scene (1914) where she carried a man down a blazing set of stairs. Inevitably she caught a foot in the hem of the dress, and she was catapulted down the stairs, breaking her neck, which more or less ended her career. Peggy Pearce’s dress in A Film Johnnie is so long and dragging that it looks positively dangerous. Then we come to hats, or ‘those awful hats’ as D.W. Griffith termed them. No movie star would be seen without the broadest of hat rims, topped off with a virtual botanical garden. If the hat was smaller, then the largest ostrich feather(s) that money would buy protruded from the top.

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Phantom hat snatcher lifts woman from movie theater. Those Awful Hats (1909).

Being Edwardian.

Exactly what does being Edwardian mean? Many of the underlying movements and concepts that represent the period 1900 to 1920 are well known. They include progressive movements, like trade unionism, women’s suffrage, and the rise of certain religious sects. There also arose seemingly contra-movements, like anarchism, and  Marxism. At the same time came the automobile, soon to be moving on from being an expensive status symbol, to a  democratic mode of transport. Other items worth mentioning are the telephone (long distance from 1915), the phonograph, and, of course, the motion picture. All of this, however, was laid, like a veneer, over a pervading medium of Victorianism. 

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Peggy Pearce and a lethal dress. A Film Johnnie 1914.

One example is the prudishness that was left over from the previous century. Positively, no woman would be seen with a skirt hem above the ankle, and it was not acceptable (or cool) for her to be smoking onscreen. When Mabel moved from modelling to movies, her first assignment  was to pose as a queen’s page, wearing tights. So embarrassed was Mabel that she did not return the next day, and it didn’t help that a certain uncouth Irishman had kept grinning at her. His name was Mack Sennett. Eventually, Mabel did return, but, a year or so on, she, Mary Pickford, and a couple of other actresses went on strike over D.W. Griffith’s attempts to put them in grass skirts. This they regarded as unwholesome and immoral. Mabel, of course, was the 1910s version of ‘the coming woman’, and privately pursued all the vices available – smoking and cussing like a trooper. One vice she didn’t indulge in, according to Adela Rogers St. Johns, was sexual activity. Whether she did or didn’t, is not really known, but nothing close to this was ever seen in her films. Mabel was never usually seen in a nightie, but in some films she wore pajamas. However,  in The Little Teacher 1915 she is seen wearing a very Victorian nightie, after her clothes became soaking wet, following her jump into a river to save a child (some child – it was Fatty Arbuckle!). It was with Arbuckle, and away from Sennett, that Mabel was able to play a naughty married woman attired in, oh my god, a nightie (He Did and He Didn’t) .

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Mabel nighties: He Did & He Didn’t, The Little Teacher.

The nighties, however, reached the floor, and were indistinguishable from a lacy dress . At home, things were a little different, and Mabel was apt to flit around in something a little filmy. Mary Pickford recorded seeing this in 1916, and Mary Miles Minter saw her similarly attired in 1922, when her house was full of policemen. 

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“My bonnet’s bigger than yours.” Fan accosts Dorothy Mackaill in Hull, UK (1931).

 

Mabel post-1925.

Following Mabel’s involvement in the Dines shooting, she appeared to give up on the movies, and, after a short spell on the stage, she retired to her new house in Beverley Hills. However, she did not give up thoughts of coming back, and after talk of a new feature with Mack Sennett, she finally signed with Hal Roach in 1926. Naturally, the country and the movies were deep in the ‘flapper’ period, and the Mabel of the screen had to be updated. Her old director, Dick Jones, was at the studio (why else would she have not signed with Sennett?), where he was now overall supervisor. Almost certainly, Dick had persuaded Mabel ‘to get with it’ and Mabel appeared in Anything Once, wearing an above the knee skirt, and one of those new fangled, ‘German helmet’ bonnets that made all women look as alike as peas in a pod. The short skirt added a new dimension to Mabel’s comedy, and she could now foster a ‘gawky’ look, when her legs went in different directions. As she had shed a fair amount of weight, Mabel now had the appearance of Louise Fazenda’s Maggie from the Keystone films. Louise, by the way, had become a bit plumper, and more round, by this point.

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‘Gawky’ Mabel in Anything Once (1926).

In the interests of comedy, then, Mabel was willing to change, although she remained antagonistic towards those ‘flappers’ like Clara Bow and Louise Brooks, who flaunted their bodies, and fraternized with married men (Rogers St. Johns’ words still ring in our ears “She was unusually pure”). A number of the ‘new’ screen stars felt free also to flaunt their regional American accents, previously rejected by the old guard silent actresses. Although silent in their films, it was noted by the press that many silent stars effected aristocratic ways of speaking in public. Mabel was particularly damned for this, at the trial of her ‘shooting’ chauffeur Horace Greer, where she used a mode of speaking that was “A real Cavendish Square breadth of accent, so like dear old Lonnon”. (Los Angeles Herald June 17, 1924). It was noted that Mabel also used ‘French’ hand gestures of a type not becoming of an American citizen. This they thought inconsistent with her origins “in the gutters of New York”. Although there are no recordings of Mabel’s voice, it seems she originally had a pronounced Brooklyn accent.

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Mabel in Court.

Mabel’s new persona did not extend to her private life, and she carried on as before, except at public appearances. As noted by her peers, her voice was slightly hoarse, which probably made her sound a little like Frank Costello. No wonder she changed!

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Left: Hooped dresses 1860s. Right: Hooped Mabel as The Extra Girl.

Mabel, it has to be said, was, initially, a thoroughly modern girl. She was at the cutting edge of modernity, doing all the things that liberated girls did (or wished to do) during the early 1900s. However, like her mother (and probably everyone else), she seems to have eventually become locked into a time warp. Furthermore, Mabel always had a keen sense of history, being particularly interested in old Spanish California – hence, perhaps, the style of house she bought (the house she bought in New York was kinda Gothic). Mabel said one curious thing – that she admired the clothes worn by the old women of her childhood. If this is true, then it means she appreciated best the fashions, not of 1900, but of the Civil War period – voluminous, hooped skirts, bustles, and old maid’s bonnets. Mabel termed herself a ‘Jazz Babe’ but the jazz she was talking about was actually Ragtime, to which she applied the more modern term.

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Stephen Normand with one of Mabel’s psychology books.

Mabel became an avid reader, and there is no evidence that she was illiterate, as many have said. Sure, she did not attend public school, but she did receive tuition from her mother. It appears she preferred writers that had begun their literary careers in the 19th and early twentieth centuries, such as J.M. Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, Stevenson, Freud, Gautier, and Thomas Burke – all avant-garde in their day. By the 1920s, while still popular, these authors had become just a little ‘tired’.

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Mabel gets Victorian and genteel in the Drake household. Mickey 1918.

 

In Conclusion, Mabel was a thoroughly modern girl in the 1910s, but became something of an anachronism over time. Her adherence to old concepts, such as purity, dated writers, long skirts and so on, was incongruous within the world of ‘The Bright Young Thing’. However, ‘The Bright Young Thing’  was, obviously, a creation of the producers and the press. For many young starlets, such as Ruth Taylor and Anita Garvin, Mabel was still their heroine, until the very end.  Two later talkie films seem to have been loosely based on Mabel’s life, concentrating on her (possible) struggle to come to terms with latter day Hollywood. One was Hollywood Cavalcade (1939) and the other Sunset Boulevard (1950).

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Bibliography

Stephen Normand: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HihcRxLzdoM

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

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

Looking For Mabel Normandhttp://www.freewebs.com/looking-for-mabel/. Site maintained by Marilyn Slater.

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

Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory by Brent E. Walker (2016).

 

 

 

MABEL AND ADELA ROGERS ST. JOHNS.

 

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In regard to her relationship with Mabel and Mack Sennett, Adela is something of an enigma. Adela always claimed to be a close friend and confidant of Mabel, but the Little Clown (an Adelaism by the way) rarely mentioned her, and there seems to be no photo of them together. Mrs Rogers St. Johns made some big claims, and insisted that she was the first person contacted by Mabel, following the W.D. Taylor murder. She also claims she held Mabel’s hand as she lay dying in a Monrovia sanatorium. The latter is grossly untrue, and the former very unlikely. However, much of what Adela said, forms the basis of what people think of Mabel today. The idea that Mabel was sweetly innocent, an other-worldy pixie, or fairy, one and who only ever loved one man, comes straight from the pen of Adela. Let us lay out the facts of the ambitious Adela, and try to separate the myth from reality.

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Adela with some ‘greats’, including Harold Lloyd.

The Adela Story

Born in 1894, Adela was two years younger than Mabel, but, at that time, she would have thought she was exactly the same age as Mabel (a movie star never reveals her real age). Her father, Earl Rogers, was a criminal lawyer. Due to her father’s friendship with William Randolph Hearst, Adela managed to find a job with the Hearst Group, as a reporter, in 1912. Starting in San Franscisco, she eventually found herself at The Los Angeles Herald. This was 1913, but Adela was soon employed by the new movie magazine, Photoplay. This enabled her to rub shoulders with the emerging stars, which she regarded as a pleasure, rather than a job. After years of circulating with the Hollywood rich and famous, she left Tinseltown to Hedda Hopper, and became a political journalist in Washington D.C., until 1948, when she gave up reporting altogether. Unlike Hedda Hopper, Adela never built up a movie star, then threw them to the dogs. Adela married three times, and died in 1988, aged 94. Her book Love, Laughter, and Tears: My Hollywood Story was published in 1978.

Adela comes to Keystone

Adela Rogers (as she was then) first met Mabel at Keystone, while on a reporting mission. Mabel was the first movie star she had ever met, and The Queen of Keystone (who Adela always called ‘our madcap mischief-maker’) made a huge impression on Adela, as did her boss, Mack Sennett. Mabel and Adela allegedly hit it off straight away, and the two were almost the same age. Somehow Adela managed, that day, to cut through the adoring throng that always surrounded Keystone’s Queen Bee, and it may be that she had been granted a special dispensation, as she also interviewed the boss, Mack Sennett. Mack Sennett greatly appealed to Adela, and she later said that if she had not met Sennett that day, instead of her intended target, D.W. Griffith, her whole perception of the movies would have been different. There was nothing like a day at ‘The Fun Factory’, with crazy ex-ironworker Sennett and his star-of-stars, Madcap Mabel, both a  little eccentric, and as Irish as the banshees. Not for her was that haughty technician, that flawed genius of the motion picture, D.W Griffith.

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Mack, Mabel, Adam Kessell, Ford Sterling (1915).

Like Mabel, Adela was a somewhat emotional person, and wrote emotively about everything, including Mabel, over whom she waxed lyrical in the pages of the Los Angeles Herald and Photoplay. Although essentially a journalist, Adela also wrote novels and screenplays. Being of a young age, and somewhat malleable, Adela was mightily impressed by the six-foot Sennett, with his luxuriant head of hair, already turning white. Mack even had a personal masseur, Abdul The Turk, and a bathtub  nine feet long (“big enough to drown in” said Adela).

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Marble bathtub at Keystone during demolition. This one was in Mabel’s dressing room.

The important thing about Adela was that she wrote a great deal of what we know about Mabel. Although much of what she said was written in an emotional and almost heart-rending style, it does appear some writing was based, albeit loosely, on fact. Some of what Mack Sennett wrote about Mabel in his autobiography also originated from the pen of Miss Rogers. Sennett, it has to be said, knew little about the real Mabel, and did not understand her in the way that Adela and Charlie Chaplin did (although Adela often used Chaplin’s quotes to illustrate the essence of Mabel’s personality). Many of the words and phrases used by a large number of people since, were actually coined by Adela. They include ‘The Little Clown’, ‘The Pixie’, the “Queen of Clowns” and ‘Not of this World.’ The term ‘Mabelescent’ was coined by Norbet Lusk in 1923. The advantage Adela had over, say, Charlie Chaplin, was that, according to her, she sometimes stayed at Mabel’s house overnight, after having been with her all day. This gave her a glimpse into Mabel’s day to day life that few others ever had (supposing it to be true). Mabel never had a live-in lover, nor a real lover of any kind, but lived alone with a few household staff. In fact, it was Adela who told us that Mabel was ‘unusually pure with no desire, no sex, nothing.’ Mabel, it turned out, slept little, and guests also got little sleep, as Mabel wandered around the house all night, like the restless spirit she was.

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Being Mabelescent.

Mack and Mabel

Now for that old Mack and Mabel thing. Adela did her level best to bring this to the forefront and keep it there. “She only ever loved one man, and he only loved one woman” quoth the ebullient Adela in her book. If this sounds like it came direct from Sennett’s book, then –  get ready –  it did. One of the problems with most Hollywood autobiographies is that they were written after the publication of Sennett’s book. The reason was that everyone was waiting for a Hollywood producer to release a book, which they could themselves use as a template. In other words they were afraid to publish, until a top guy had spilled the beans. Sennett never dished the dirt, nor, indeed said anything of much value (“worthless” said the forthright Louise Brooks). At the time of Sennett’s book release, Louise had an autobiography ready to go. However, when she saw what Sennett had, or hadn’t, written, she lost her nerve, and dumped the entire manuscript in the trashcan. She later produced the set of essays encapsulated within the book Lulu in Hollywood, which are merely watered down versions of chapters in her original manuscript.

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“Not a line of truth in it!” said Louise Brooks.

The broken love affair between Mack and Mabel was the cause of all Mabel’s later problems according to Adela. If we accept this, then it raises the question of why this was the case. Broken relationships were the norm in Hollywood, and actors and actresses had no problem getting into new relationships, and marrying 3, 4 and even 5 times (including Adela). The reason for Mabel being different is revealed in another observation by Miss Rogers St. Johns. She claimed Mabel was “not of this world.”

“She was a pixie an elf, one of the little people.”

“She fell in love with a mortal and that brought her under the sway of Melpomene, who wove the web of tragedy.”

“Mabel Normand, whom he (Mack Sennett) loved all his life – and yet he was to destroy her, as mortals always do, the pixies and elves and fairy folk.”

Of course, there are no such things as pixies, nor elves – although we’d like to believe in them. There are only strange people that do not fit in. People like Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin. In modern parlance they were autistic, which is one step below Adela’s other favorite subject, Clara Bow, who was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. As far as the facts are concerned, we have to believe Miss Rogers St. Johns’ stories woven around Mabel, but only where they make logical sense. Adela claims that there was no Madcap Mabel, until Mack Sennett had decided to dump his betrothed for another woman, the actress Mae Busch. After this Mabel began to lose her mind, and became a kind of Miss Havisham, setting out to punish those around her, and herself, by madly pursuing a series of love triangles. Mainly designed to hurt other women (e.g. Mary Miles Minter, Edna Purviance,) she received as much hurt herself from these adventures, especially from the triangles involving W.D. Taylor, and Courtland Dines. Mabel was “as Irish as the Glocca Morra mist,” said Mack Sennett, and woe betide those that mess with a colleen.

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Never mess with a colleen: Mabel’s Busy Day.

Talk of Suicide

After Mack apparently threw Mabel over on the eve of their wedding for Mae Busch, Mabel went completely off the rails, and drifted into a deep depression. There was, according to Adela, no vase smashed over Mabel’s head, but there might just as well have been. Adela insists that Mack tried to make it up to her, but Mabel refused to forgive him. Much as Miss Rogers St. Johns apparently tried, she could not get Mabel to forgive Mack, although she did tell Adela  “I have forgiven him – but.”  Adela just didn’t get it – Mabel had to be wooed and won, had to be chased. Mack was no chaser, no wooer – he just sent messages by third parties, and, when Mabel ran away to Sam Goldwyn, he left her sitting in a New York apartment, after she had reneged on the Goldwyn contract. Instead of approaching her directly, Mack sent lawyers to re-negotiate her Goldwyn contract. If he’d gone himself things might have, would have, turned out better, and Mabel could have avoided almost four years of misery at the Goldwyn Studio. Both were too bull-headedly Hibernian to give way.  Mabel never had any intention of working for Goldwyn, but that was the sad end result.

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Did Mabel really jump off this pier?

Adela does not say when it occurred, but possibly sometime after 1917, Mabel got up from a table at  Nat Goodwin’s café, said “What’s the point?” then walked to the end of the Santa Monica pier and threw herself off . Others at the table, including Adela, soon set out after her, and arrived at the end of the pier in time to see Mabel jump. Adela claims it was then that Mabel received the head injury that laid her low for several weeks. So we have a head injury that was caused in an attempted suicide bid, by a vase smashed over her head (Minta Durfee), or by a shoe thrown in a wedding scene (Mack Sennett). There is no evidence for the injury occurring at the time Mabel discovered Sennett with another woman (or a man as some say) in July 1915, but only in October of that year, when the newspapers announced the accident had occurred at Keystone. It is logical to believe the latter, as such mishaps were frequent at the studio. However, we cannot rule out attempted suicide, as Mabel often confessed she felt suicidal at times. Mabel’s gun-toting chauffeur, Horace Greer, later claimed that Mabel’s housekeeper had told him that Mabel often threatened to kill herself with her own pistol. At other times she merely threatened to bob her hair. Adela’s idea that Mabel became suicidal over her rejection by Sennett, and her inability to forgive and forget is an interesting one, for it seems Mabel never forgave anyone. After Mae Marsh broke ranks with the Biograph girls in 1912, and starred in the ‘immoral’ film Man’s Genesis, Mabel never forgave her. Equally, when Chaplin left Keystone, and did not take her with him, she never forgave him either. Nor did she ever forgive Edna Purviance for taking her rightful place as Chaplin’s leading lady. In the latter case, the end result was someone getting shot, and two actresses losing their glittering careers.

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What Mabel said to Chaplin.

Getting an interview with the Keystone Girl.

How strong a bond did Adela have with Mabel? Well, Adela claimed to be her best friend, which is a bit strange, if Mabel was in the habit of trying to ‘top’ herself, when she was out with Adela. Another problem with this ‘friendship’ is that Mabel was very wary of reporters. In general, she left publicity to Mack Sennett, who was less likely (unlikely) to blurt out anything that was harmful to Keystone. Only occasionally did Mabel give face to face interviews, but she developed a method of giving away nothing, and probably after some rigorous coaching from the boss. The discussions Adela claims to have had with Mabel, are not like anything recorded by others. Here is Mabel’s usual plan for dealing with journos: 

1. Always turn up late, and then avoid the reporter around the lot, so that he eventually goes away.

2. If the journo finally corners you, pretend you will be busy for another 20 minutes or so.  If he persists, have the office tell you there is an important phone call.

3. If all else fails, tell the pressman that you only have time for a ten minute interview, then set your alarm clock.

4. When the interview begins, do all the talking, ask the questions, then answer them yourself. Do not let the guy get a word in.

5. When the alarm goes off, stand up and say “Please leave now.” Then add something crazy and wistful like “I am having a chocolate cake delivered, and in times of great sadness, or great joy, I seek solitude.”

6. This will put the journo on the back foot, and so much so that he’ll run for the studio gate. He’ll never come back.

Of course the journo might print something to the effect that you’re raving mad, thereby increasing your mystique in the public’s eye!

One thing Mabel dreaded talking about was her early life. In order to put the journos off the track, she said she was born of wealthy stock in Atlanta, or from a political family in Philadelphia. She named several other cities as her birthplace. Mabel had no birth certificate, so it was impossible to pin her down, but Adela claimed that she was an orphan, and slaved in a factory from age 8. It is more or less accepted today that Mabel was born in New Brighton, Staten Island in 1892, but her early years remain obscure. Mack Sennett tried to find more information, but failed.

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91 Tysen Street, New Brighton, S.I. where Mabel probably spent her early years.

Adela’s Journalism

It is important in our quest to lay out what kind of journalism Adela wrote. Initially, she was a journalist per se, but from the time she joined The Los Angeles Herald, and especially after she went to Photoplay, she was concerned with recording the thoughts and actions of the film colony. More than that, as her bread and butter depended on it, she set out to write what fans were interested in, and, where possible, defending Tinseltown from destructive attack. In general, she wrote for women, and women at that time were attuned to the new feminist ideas then coming into vogue. Therefore, while writing about the swashbuckling male heroes of the screen, she also, we might say, jazzed up the careers and personalities of the actresses. While female fans might sigh for the actors, they wanted to be the actresses, and Adela would tell them what it was they wanted to be. Before Pauline (The Perils of) and Elaine (The Errors of) there was Keystone Mabel, the reckless girl for whom the wildest bucking bronco, the fastest aircraft and the highest cliff held no fear. While holding her own against the men, she could wear the latest Paris fashions, high(ish) heels and a hobble skirt. It’s no wonder performers of the likes of Dot Gish, Lottie Pickford, and Gertie Bambrick prayed that they could one day be like Mabel. On the defensive side, Adela would reveal Mabel’s more human and feminine side, thereby warding off allegations of Miss Keystone being, perhaps, too masculine in her outlook.

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Dot Gish and Gertie Bambrick: according to Mrs Griffith they both wanted to be Mabel.

Such then, were the aims of Adela, but to implement these, it was not necessary to befriend Mabel, and stay with her, or dine out with her. In fact Mabel was probably a little afraid of Adela. Mabel had, at one time, worried herself sick, when the artists she had modeled for began to speak publicly about her, as well as the other models turned actresses, like Anna Q. Nilsonn and Alice Joyce. She needn’t have worried about Adela, who did not even reveal Mabel earned $17,000 a week, until long after she had died – the tax man would have been very interested in this [Footnote]. 

Conclusions

Did Adela ever know Mabel, as well as she claimed? It seems unlikely that she knew her enough to socialize with her, and to be admitted into her inner thoughts. Mabel was only too aware that to spill her heart out to a journalist was tantamount to cutting her own throat. Once a Hearst woman, always a Hearst woman, and this was probably Mabel’s motto. Newspaper owner, William Randolph Hearst, was only too happy to label an actress a whore, a murderess, a drug addict. He was a destroyer of people, and try to destroy Mabel he did – eventually. Some of what Adela wrote, if she didn’t invent it, came from Mack Sennett’s back office.  Mabel was not called the Queen Bee for nothing – one would have a hard job penetrating the buzzing throng that always surrounded her, and there was little chance of gaining exclusive access to her ear. Nor would Adela have been able to penetrate the Pottenger Sanatorium, where Mabel lay dying in 1930. Very few people were admitted, especially those that might report that Mabel was now totally emaciated, and weighed under 45 pounds. It is on record that only her nurse, Julia Benson, was present at Mabel’s death. Then we have Charlie Chaplin. Adela admits in her book that Chaplin contributed greatly to her knowledge of Mabel. The notion that Mabel was a pixie, or a fairy with gossamer wings, and could be hurt by mortals, is pure Chaplin. 

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Charlie and Mabel in Tillie’s Punctured Romance.

The Tramp was, furthermore, the accepted expert on Mabel, and was consulted by Sam Goldwyn, before he decided to release her back to Mack Sennett. When Chaplin wrote of Mabel in his biography, he chose his words very carefully, so that we only read what Mabel herself would have wanted us to read. And there is our problem, it was Chaplin who knew and intuitively understood Mabel, but he never told us exactly what he knew.

Footnote: For Mabel’s financial and tax affairs see: 

MABEL’S WORLD: WHERE’S THE MONEY? Part 1

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Bibliography

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

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

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

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap by Timothy Dean Lefler (2016).

Looking For Mabel Normandhttp://www.freewebs.com/looking-for-mabel/. Site maintained by Marilyn Slater.

 

 

 

 

 

 

MABEL AND THE WOBBLIES.

 

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Who the hell were the wobblies?

Wobblies was (is) a name applied to a kind of world-wide trades union, founded in 1905, called the Industrial Workers of the World. The story goes that the name Wobblies was applied accidentally by Chinese IWW members who could not pronounce the letter ‘W’ properly. Their version of WW was wobblyou, wobblyou – hence ‘Wobblies’. Often termed a Marxist outfit, the IWW believed that industrial workers should take over the means of production. Once in charge of production, the workers would then enjoy some kind of joyous panacea, and share in the profits.

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Mack and Charlie enter a Wobblies meeting house(?) Fatal Mallet 1912.

Wobbly Mabel.

Mabel comes into this, because of her well-known, socialist , almost communistic, views. How she came to hold these views is open to question, but she was certainly, along with Mack Sennett, a supporter of the Wobblies. The evidence can be seen in some of Mabel’s films, where the letters ‘I W W ’ (sometimes ‘W W I’) are scrawled on walls and / or sheds e.g. The Fatal Mallet (1914). When the letter ‘I’ is in the wrong position, staunch followers would still recognize the sign, and, let’s be honest, most of Sennett’s audiences were blue collar industrial workers of some kind. We must admit that the sign could not have been scrawled without Sennett’s approval. Here we have a neat paradox, for Sennett was surely a money-grabbing capitalist of the kind detested by Marx and, indeed, Dickens (Mack’s studio was truly Dickensian). Up to a point this was true, but we must remember that Sennett was also, once, an iron-worker, slaving in the putrid heat of a metal factory, way out east.

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IWW Suffragette.

No workers were more prone to industrial agitation than the iron-workers, and the young Sennett must have picked up some socialist ideals from the men allied to the emerging trades unions. Once ensconced in the theatrical ghettos of New York’s Bowery, he seems to have developed some deep resentment towards the ‘fat cats’ operating in the performing industries (calling them ‘arts’ would do the ‘real’ arts a great injustice). He probably also built up some animosity for the authorities that hauled him before a judge on a couple of occasions, for appearing in obscene productions.

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Not a place to hang around. Dyson Street in the Bowery area.

Mrs Griffith was adamant in her book that Sennett was a difficult guy to get along with, as he always suspected that the Biograph autocrats were having him over. Only one person ever had anything to do with Mack, and that was a young-looking 17 year-old called Mabel Normand. The pair became bonded in some way, and it seems Mabel leaned on Mack’s more experienced shoulders. Much of what Mabel said and did at Biograph and Keystone appears to be based on the thoughts and actions of ‘Chairman’ Mack Sennett. Although Mabel was in awe of Sennett (according to Adela Rogers St. Johns) she undoubtedly had socialist tendencies before she met ’The King’. Mabel had always wandered the streets of New York’s East Side, and must have been affected by the poverty she saw. Furthermore, it has been said that she’d slaved in a factory, where she contracted TB, before getting into modelling.

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A hazard of walking the East Side. You could end up dead in a barrel.

Again, it is Adela Rogers St. Johns that informs us. However, we know that Mabel was something of a ‘naughty girl’, and this behavior might be tied into the accepted view that Mabel attended a Catholic convent school. She might not have been there for purely educational purposes, but more for reason of reform. In this case, she might have been put to work in what was known as a Mary Magdalene laundry. These places were truly horrific sweatshops, but it is wrong to imagine they were intended for incorrigible prostitutes. The majority of the girls had merely got beyond the control of their parents, and needed ‘rectification’. It does appear that Mabel was either expelled from public school on Staten Island, or refused to attend the establishment. If Mabel was at a convent, then we need look no further for the source of her irreverence for ‘superiors’, her foul language, and, perhaps, her socialist bent (all of these she might have acquired from the other, even more incorrigible, convent girls). 

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“What’s that damned Mabel up to now?”

The Keystone Agitator.

Mabel was known as many things Star-of-Stars, Queen of  Comedy, Madcap Mabel and so on, but Mack Sennett tells us that she was also a staunch defender of worker’s rights. The rights of Keystone workers, that is. Of course, Mabel’s privileged position at the studio enabled her to have it out with the boss, if she felt he’d infringed worker’s rights. One old carpenter is recorded as having been off work for many weeks, after falling from a stage roof he’d been working on. Mabel was furious that Mack had not been to see the man, and had stopped his pay. She tore into ‘The King’ in a blind rage, then went round to the carpenter’s house, and paid him his missing wages from her own money. Mabel broke down later, when she received a pillowcase from the man’s aging wife, which she’d embroidered with her own arthritic hands. Mack always dreaded hearing a furor outside his office, for he knew it was Mabel on the warpath, probably leading some workers’ deputation or other. Whenever she thought Mack was short-changing Charlie Chaplin on his pay, she’d brow-beat him into giving Charlie a pay rise. Outside of Keystone Mabel was known for her socialist views. She would often express those views in the media, and had even thought of running for mayor, on a suffrage ticket.

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Get me a raise, Mabel, or I’ll stick this pin in ya leg.”

Charlie Chaplin fell into a maelstrom of socialist, anti-establishment fervor when he entered Keystone. At the time, even the boss held radical views, so it is likely that Chaplin’s own views were strengthened by this environment. Forty years later, Mack was to distance himself from Charlie, by saying in his autobiography “I know nothing about Chaplin’s politics.” Minta Arbuckle Durfee (one-time Chaplin leading lady) was in no doubt Chaplin was a ‘dirty commie’. However, by the time she said this (1970s) she was a sad old woman, who relied on half-remembered newspaper reports rather, than her own dimly-recalled experience, and seemed totally unaware that Chaplin was, at that very moment, being welcomed back into the fold, and given an Oscar.

Mack Sennett: Socialist or evil capitalist?

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There is no doubt that Sennett had socialist views, even after he created Keystone. At some point these views were put on the back burner, and he preferred to be seen as an example of capitalistic endeavor. It is no surprise that this occurred around 1917, when two things had happened. Firstly, the U.S. entered the Great War, which necessitated everyone coming together. Secondly, in this year, The Russian Revolution took place. Both of these things affected the Wobblies, and their support began to somewhat bleed away. It was no longer O.K. to knock the establishment, and even that consummate non-active communist, Chaplin, had to drop his idealism for the moment, and go on a War Bond selling tour with Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks. Mabel did the same, but her fear of crowds meant that she sold  ‘For a Kiss’ War Bonds in various theaters. The U.S. national office of the IWW was raided by Government agents in September 1917, and charges of sedition were laid against the organization.

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Public enemy sells Liberty Bonds. Charlie Chaplin, New York 1917.

There is one group that Sennett liked to ridicule, and that was the Freemasons. Their associates, The Shriners, have appeared marching proudly in the Keystone films. In his autobiography, Mack tells of upsetting a Shriners’ march in L.A., using an ‘impoverished’ Mabel as the stooge. Nonetheless, Sennett seems to have later become a Freemason. By disguising and hiding himself from the establishment, Sennett managed to remain beyond reproach, apart from an Income Tax investigation in the mid-1950s. Chaplin was hounded by the authorities for years, and had a million-dollar tax demand slapped on him in 1929. In the late 40s, his Wobbly past caught up with him, and he was exiled from the U.S. for ‘un-American activity’. As for Mabel, had she lived, she would eventually have been caught out on some half-baked ‘un-American’ charge, but not before, perhaps, fighting against Franco’s Fascist forces in Spain. It is worth noting that Sennett terms himself ‘a competitive socialist’ in his autobiograhy.

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Poor lorn mother, Mabel, pleads for help from the ‘holier than thou’ Shriners.

 

Whatever Happened to The Wobblies?

The fact is that nothing happened to them. Their fortunes waxed and waned down the years, but they never went away. In the last few days they have hit the headlines, due to an I.W.W member, Anna Campbell, being killed in Afrin, Syria. In the U.S. they have just settled a law suit against Ellen’s Stardust Diner for half-a-million dollars. Curiously, with the rise of Trump, their U.S. membership has increased exponentially. Now, isn’t that strange?

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IWW School, Minnesota.

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MABEL NORMAND: THE FEMALE CHAPLIN?

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Many would say this was one of the most ridiculous assertions ever made in the history of the movies. Could Mabel, the greatest comedienne and tragedienne of the motion picture, have been a female Chaplin? The statement implies that Chaplin came first, and Mabel followed on. Was this the case?

1914: Charlie Chaplin happens along.

When Chaplin passed through the gates of Keystone, he was walking into the strangest couple of acres in the world. Even for 1914, the studio was archaic and primitive – as Chaplin explained, it had all the appearance of a low-rent lumber yard. However, once inside, he soon found that the inmates were about as weird as he was. He could have been forgiven for thinking he was in the Hotel California, or the Munster’s residence, for everyone, from the boss downwards, was slightly peculiar. Of course, he had already met Mack and Mabel, but he found the former somewhat ‘anti’ and the latter so reserved that he could not get a handle on her. Nonetheless, he was smitten by the girl from Staten Island, and Mabel seems to have had a soft spot for Charlie, even before they had ever met. As already related, the pair only formed their life-long friendship after a period of animosity and mistrust. Chaplin came to have free access to Mabel’s dressing room, which took up most of an on-lot bungalow, and was comparatively luxurious. 

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Mabel’s Dressing Room.

We are not privy to what happened in Mabel’s dressing room, but Mabel did reveal that they had long discussions about the direction screen comedy should take. Sometimes they would slip away from Sennett’s spies, ‘steal’ a company car, and drive into L.A., just for kicks. It seems likely that most of Mabel and Charlie’s discussions occurred in the late afternoon, as they waited for Mack to emerge from his office. Mack would take the younger pair to dinner every night, at the Athletic Club, but they would skip off to a movie, when the ‘old man’ inevitably fell asleep. Clearly, Charlie and Mabel were together for a lot of their waking hours. As for what they did during their night time hours, well, we’d better not go there, and, anyway, we do not have any evidence as to what went on. Mabel lived in a hotel apartment, and Charlie lived at the Athletic Club, where Mack could keep an eye on him. 

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“Hey, Mabel, let’s pinch Mack’s Fiat.”

The Charlie and Mabel Interface.

It is irrelevant as to who suggested Chaplin be employed at Keystone. It may have been Mabel, it may have been big boss man Charles O. Baumann, or, less likely, it was Mack Sennett. Probably it was Baumann and partner Adam Kessell who realized the studio needed a theatrical star to give their company some kudos. Chaplin was far from unknown, as Sennett was later to state. He was a star of the English Karno company, then touring the U.S, but he had his own star billing. Mary Pickford already knew of Charlie, when she first saw the bohemian-like, and unkempt Englisher in a restaurant in 1912.

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We might guess that she passed on some details of Chaplin on to Mabel. Mabel held a great reverence for theatrical actors, who she considered to be above mere movie folk. Sennett, however, had bombed in the theater, and had an intense dislike of stage types. From her experiences at the Biograph, Mabel would have been keenly aware that theater folk had problems coping with the methodology of film production, and, as a former photographic model, she had no problem slotting in, while swelled head stage actors, even Mary Pickford, became distressed and argumentative. She seems to have set out to help Chaplin pass seamlessly into pictures, when he finally came to Keystone. As we all know, Chaplin turned out to be the most egotistical and arrogant actor ever to enter the Fun Factory.

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He was furious when he realized he couldn’t immediately get to grips with movie-making. Initially, Mabel was unable to help Chaplin, as Sennett kept him away from his most precious asset, and when they first came together in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, a huge professional gulf developed between Mabel and the new boy. Mabel now demanded that the Englisher be kept out of her films, and two months elapsed before they were together again on the same set. As I have related in Mabel’s Story, an even bigger falling out occurred during the making of Mabel At The Wheel. The standoff between Mabel and Charlie could have destroyed the studio, but, to keep it brief, the pair buried the hatchet. Thus, began the golden period of Mabel / Charlie collaboration.

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Pathos and Comedy.

It has often been said that it was Chaplin who first brought pathos to comedy. This notion was brought about, principally, because Chaplin was a melancholy fellow, and no doubt he was. However, it is clear that total comedian Chas, had no idea how to combine the two seemingly different emotions, even supposing he had ever thought of it. Probably, he hadn’t thought of it, but someone at Keystone had. Her name was Mabel Normand, and she was, first and foremost, a tragedienne. Not only was she a tragedienne, but she was the greatest purveyor of tragedy, according to ‘America’s Sweetheart’, Mary Pickford. At The Biograph, D.W. Griffith reserved Mabel for tragic parts, in which she usually died. “Mabel” said the Great Griffith “You are a tragedienne, and you will never, ever, be a comedienne”. How wrong can a director be? In 1912, way out west in California, Mabel thrilled her peers with comedy routines of a kind that they had never before witnessed.

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Mary Pickford talks about Mabel in 1912.

Mabel trounced everyone in the comedy contest they’d contrived, and later that same week she blew ‘America’s Sweetheart’ clear off the set in the rather tragic Mender of Nets. In the girls’ crying contests there was never any winner other than Mabel. Thus began the legend of the unapproachable, but reckless, Mabel – the girl who rode bucking broncos bareback, dived off cliffs for kicks, and could make anyone cry, as well as make them laugh. And it was not any audience that raised Mabel to such heights it was, uniquely, her peers.

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Happy times in the orange groves. 1912

When Mack and Mabel set off to found their own studio, and make comedies, Griffith watched them go, while sniggering into his beer. “They’ll be back” he mused. Well, they never came back, and D.W. (as Mack Sennett tells it) soon felt like boiling himself in oil. Mack and Mabel were a success, but their early comedies were slapstick, and limited to the outrageously hilarious. Nonetheless, it has to be said that Sennett had a good handle on comedy, and knew what his audiences wanted. He once famously said to Griffith that the silent medium was unsuited to drama, but totally suited to comedy. Was he right? Well, Chaplin always agreed with this, and made the last big feature film in the silent medium as late as 1930. Many short, silent / pantomime comedies have been made since, and they are at least the equal of talkie comedies, proving that Sennett’s intuition was correct. For this reason, it is unsurprising that Mabel went to L.A. with Mack, and trusted his intuitive understanding of the movie business.

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(L) Mabel in the tragedy Eternal mother and (R) Her Awakening.

Changing the Comedy Scene.

We can be sure that Mabel agonized over Keystone’s direction in comedy. Almost certainly she felt constrained by the shackles imposed on her by ‘King of Comedy’, producer, Mack Sennett. However, Mack had rescued Mabel from the situation at Biograph, where she was tightly closeted, until brought out to play a tragic part, which inevitably ended in her death before the final reel (or final scene as it was in those early days). Adela Rogers St. Johns was adamant “Sennett built ‘A World of Make Believe’ around Mabel”. Consequently, Mabel was reluctant to kick against the traces. In any event, would the public really accept tragic comedy? Almost certainly they would not, and apart from a few small ventures into comic-tragedy, the genre remained a pipe dream.

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Mack saved Mabel from professional death at the hands of D.W. Griffith.

 

Interestingly, as I have said in previous blogs, we do not see Chaplin’s melancholy side, until Mabel’s Busy Day, almost 6 months into Chaplin’s stay at Keystone. Of course, Chaplin is only melancholy for around 5 seconds, while Mabel cuts a tragic and pitiable figure throughout. I have also said, previously, that Sennett had to apply an antidote to the melancholy in the form of increased violence. Following this, Mabel was able to introduce melancholy and pathos in a couple of her films with Chaplin e.g. His Trysting place, where she played the downtrodden wife. A melancholy Chaplin is a rare animal during this period.

Beyond Chaplin.

Chaplin left Keystone at the end of 1914. Who knows why, for he was doing well at The Fun Factory and was taking a huge risk by leaving, although at the last minute he grabbed a $1,250 a week contract at Essanay. Charlie and Mabel dined together on the night he left, and, Mabel later said “We shed a little tear“. With Chaplin out of the way, Sennett put Mabel with Roscoe Arbuckle on a ‘no pathos’ ticket. The films became gooey and lovey-dovey, with Roscoe and Mabel playing love-sick country kids. Sennett combined the puppy love with animal scenes and some gratuitous violence, creating a situation from which both Roscoe and Mabel were soon plotting to bail. Sennett and Triangle retained Mabel with The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, but Roscoe moved on to what was, essentially, his own studio. About this time, 1916, Mabel was interviewed by Mary Pickford for her newspaper column. Mabel expressed her wish to move on to drama, and Mary reminded her of how great she had been in the Biograph tragedies.

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Gooey but popular. Fatty and Mabel adrift 1915.

It was in 1916 that The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company failed, and the Triangle experiment spectacularly began to collapse. Mabel fled the coop, and foolishly signed with Sam Goldwyn. Sam had promised Mabel the known world, and intimated that he’d provide good dramatic stories with some comedy thrown in. By March 1917, Mabel had realized that the newly-formed Goldwyn outfit was a loser, and refused to start work, sitting instead in New York, awaiting better offers. An expected offer from Sennett never materialized, as Mack was too busy sorting out the Triangle mess, to travel to New York. As Sam had threatened to sue anyone that signed Mabel, she reluctantly started work at Goldwyn’s. The big question that must be asked is, why didn’t Chaplin scoop up Mabel in 1915 or 1916? The obvious answer is that Mabel was too expensive, too argumentative, and, more importantly, too darned good! Chaplin was astute enough to realize that he needed, not a leading lady, but a foil, a stooge – someone who could  not compete with him, and would make him shine like the star he wasn’t. He hired an office girl called Edna Purviance at for a peppercorn rent. Undoubtedly, Mabel realized a liaison with Chaplin would never work. They were too much alike, too egotistical, too temperamental. Chaplin made the right decision and Edna Purviance (or Edna Compliance as some call her) ensured that Chaplin was boosted to stardom. Mabel’s contribution to the Chaplin story was her pathos and melancholy.

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An impossible photo: Charlie, Mary and Mabel.

There is evidence that Charlie  bitterly regretted having thrown Mabel over at the end of 1914. A biography of  Sam Goldwyn, suggests that Charlie was responsible for persuading Goldwyn to release Mabel back to Sennett in 1921. It seems Charlie was regarded as the world’s expert on the enigmatic Mabel.

 Was there ever a Female Chaplin?

In terms of Chaplin’s particular post-Keystone comedy, we can say there was no female equivalent, simply because no actress had a leading man of the foil variety. Mabel had tried for a genuine, full blown tragic-comedy, but it is clear that no producer was willing to lay his money on it. Chaplin, furthermore, only ever used Mabel-like melancholy sparingly.

If anyone was the female Chaplin, it was Mary Pickford, but not in the field of acting. Shrewd and clever with money, Mary ‘Hetty Green’ Pickford was every bit as canny in business as ‘Moneybags’ Chaplin. This was important, as it freed Pickford from the need to be a competent actress, or a good mover, on the screen. This she left to  Mabel Normand, her sister Lottie, and her brother Jack.

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SILENT MOVIES: THE ERA OF THE CHILD-WOMAN.

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Advent of the Child-woman.

For quite a few years now, commentators on the period of silent films have alluded to the fact that many of the female stars were not women, but ‘child-women’. At the present time, we make a distinction between young performers (child actors) and late / post-teen performers (adult actors). So what exactly is a child-woman. Strictly speaking, a child-woman is a woman advanced in her teens, or twenties, who is portrayed as a child-like personality of uncertain years. So uncertain is her age that it is often difficult to say if she is pubescent or post-pubescent. The most obvious examples are Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand and the Gish sisters. Before we discuss the careers of these actresses, we should ask ourselves if teenage girls in, say, 1910 looked less mature than those today.

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Biographers, including Mack Sennett and Vivian Prescott devour their free sandwiches.

It is certain that individual human development is dictated by nutrition, so periods of low nutrition and, indeed, starvation, will delay development. It seems to be the case that Clara Bow, like Charlie Chaplin, suffered periods of actual starvation in her childhood. So short was her family of food that they had many days when they were too weak to get out bed. Of course, once given the opportunity of regular sustenance by the studios, Clara blossomed out of her boyish body, but her height, like Chaplin’s, did not increase. At the Biograph, most of the actresses were aged between 13 and 17, and came from what we might call the lower, undernourished classes. Consequently, a proportion of them were probably pre-pubescent, at least to start with. The average height of a sixteen year old girl in those days was a little over 5 feet, although if we took the median height this would obviously be lower. Plenty of the Biograph girls, such as Mary Pickford, were below average height, and this fits in with Mary’s precarious early years. Mabel was bang on the average height, and this might be explained by her non-theatrical and (lower) middle-class background. Blanche Sweet was, like so many, from a theatrical background, and so wasted was she that Griffith ordered her to be fed up on bacon sandwiches and cakes. The results were dramatic. The Gish sisters led an awful early life, and they remained small, and childlike all their lives. One of the attractions of the Biograph was the availability of free food, even if it was only curled up sandwiches.

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Blanche Sweet demonstrates the power of bacon sandwiches.

As Mack Sennett later said “We worked for a dollar and dinner.” This perk, in the early days, led young, non-star stage actors and superannuated actors, into the movies (stage actors in their prime were noticeably absent). Some actresses came to be criticized by W.D. Griffith for becoming ‘too fat’. This charge he leveled at Mary Pickford, and he seemed to prefer waif-like specimens that he could abuse and throw around. He once threw Mary across the set, almost breaking her arm. Later he kneed Blanche Sweet clear off the stage in a fit of fury – the stage was 5 feet off the ground. He would certainly have come unstuck if he had tried this on fiery colleen Mabel, especially as her boyfriend happened to be an iron-working ex-boxer.

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What about The Gibson Girl?

Although this is a logical question in relation to our subject, it is clear that the girls  painted by advertising / magazine cover artist Charles Dana Gibson were, with their hour glass figures,  truly women. It is correct that Mabel Normand, at age 14, was a Gibson Girl, but Gibson appears to have used her face, with the addition of a ‘Gibson Curl’. The bodies he painted could well have been ‘generic’. However, there is said to have been a sculpture in San Francisco (1915) that had Mabel’s nude body incorporated into it – the head was of Audrey Munson (the girl on the Mercury Dime). Is it really possible that the ‘unusually pure’ Keystone Girl would pose naked? [Footnote]. Mabel’s other painter, Montgomery Flagg, painted an idealized Mabel. Neither Gibson nor Flagg were interested in the child-woman, simply because their clients  were not interested.

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Mabel with two truly Gibson types: Anna Q. Nilsonn and Alice Joyce.

 

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Child-Woman Mary Pickford.

The child-woman in the movies.

As we have seen, the actresses of the 1910s were small in height, and at least some of them had delayed development. If directors and producers were looking for females over which the average leading man could tower, then these child-like women were ideal. However, it seems the studios wanted to go further than that – they actually wanted to ensure that actresses were child-women. Why this should be, is difficult to determine today, when the ‘Lolita’ look is long out of vogue. Perhaps the audiences themselves demanded this. In the 1910s we are still in the Victorian / Edwardian era of Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan (often played by a girl) and Tom Sawyer (once played by boy-man Jack Pickford). Childhood was valued by people of this period, and it was only natural for the studios to blur the boundaries of childhood and womanhood. This was all aimed at families, not just men who desired women. Women were much taken with the child-woman, and their eternal youth made female film-goers want to be them. Children were delighted by them – after all they were seeing themselves on the screen.

It cannot have escaped the reader that the studios were forced to use what they had. There were, initially, no stage actors in their prime within the movie business. Child-women played young females, while superannuated actresses (e.g. Kate Bruce, Alice Davenport) played their mothers. We might say that child-women came about due to the popularity of the childhood concept, and the lack of actresses in their prime.

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Left: 31 year old, flat-chested Mabel gets a telling off from dad. Right: Mabel unstrapped.

The Child-Woman at Keystone.

Almost all the young women at Keystone were portrayed as child-women, and their screen mothers were all aging actresses. Their fathers were sometimes old actors like George ‘Pops’ Nichols, but often they were young actors made to look older (notice the difference here – young women were never (usually) made to look older, only younger). 

Mack Sennett’s star-of-stars and primary child-woman was Mabel Normand. Ever the ingénue and mischievous gamin, Mabel was entirely capable of playing a woman of her own age, and, indeed, had done so at Biograph, and also later in Tillies Punctured Romance. However, Sennett planned that his Keystone Girl would be the eternal child. He took all of Mabel’s child-like features, and enhanced them. In particular he encouraged the pout, which Griffith had discarded and even banned. He’d found that, annoyingly, when Mabel tried to be serious, she pouted.

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Mabel Normand: Queen of the Pout.

Of course, there was nothing serious about Keystone comedies, so Sennett welcomed the pout and he ensured that Mabel’s lips were always parted. Both these features made Mabel appear childishly cute and vulnerable. It was director F. Richard Jones, who finally stamped out the pout, and developed Mabel’s already complex series of facial expressions. Mabel had, on occasions, made a gesture in which she tightly closed her mouth, when emphasizing some point. She does this when speaking to Teddy Tetzlaff in Speed Kings, again in His Trysting Place to express anger at Chaplin, and years later in The Extra Girl. In this film, Jones combines this expression with a dumb-face look for comic effect. Later still, when studio supervisor / director at Roach Studios, he passed this gesture on to Stan Laurel, a career saving move that ensured the success of Laurel and Hardy for 20 years.

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Hauntingly sad and disturbing, but still a child-woman (1926 with Dick Jones).

In some films Mabel does look somewhat ridiculous in child roles. In Tomboy Bessie (1912), she plays the role of an 11 year-old schoolgirl. However, although strapped down in the chest area, it is apparent that she has the hips and rear of a fully adult female. In those days, Mabel was buxom, as can be seen in A Spanish Dilemma (1912), where she reveals her ample bosom. It was not possible to disguise her womanly attributes. It is clear, however, that Mabel was uncannily light on her feet, and could be extraordinarily alluring, when running around cutely in a slightly hobbled skirt (a normally hobbled skirt would be very dangerous for someone as active onscreen as Mabel). Nonetheless, we cannot imagine a modern director dressing her up in a fur coat and hat, as in Fatty and Mabel’s Wash Day, where the diminutive Mabel looks, as Minta Arbuckle tells us, like a young girl dressed up in her mother’s clothes.

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Not exactly a schoolgirl. 1912

Sennett cleverly used topical social ills in his pictures. One of these ‘ills’ was the forced marriage of young, apparently underage, girls. Elopement of the child-woman, facing an unwelcome marriage, was a frequent theme in Keystone films. Mabel herself escaped  a vast number of forced marriages, by eloping with her true sweetheart – often via a well-placed ladder.  This subject was very popular with early cinema audiences, who would cheer for the errant child-woman and fellow-eloper, as they made their escape. What we know of the real Mabel was that she smoked like a chimney, swore like a trooper, and drank (gin) like a fish. However, she is never seen smoking, drinking or cussing in her films – nor did she ever do so in front of children. It is no use raking through her films to see if she utters any obscenity – it’s been tried by expert lip readers, and the only expletive she uses is the word “beast”, aimed at Mack Swain (Getting Acquainted 1914).

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No chance of a forced marriage for Mabel: “I’m marrying Fatty”

It is clear that Sennett had many social themes in his repertoire, including the plight of poor, downtrodden girls, forced into domestic slavery (at home or elsewhere) or sent out on the streets to beg or sell some highly unsanitary food items. In Mabel’s Dramatic Career, Mabel is a domestic ‘slavey’ lifted from drudgery by a kindly (really?) movie industry that propels her to stardom. Street-vending (coster) girl Mabel is a tragic, and pitiable sight in Mabel’s Busy Day. With her torn skirt, overtight and old-fashioned bodice, ridiculously pompous hat, and oversize tramp’s shoes she is a vision of poverty and melancholy. Mabel had seen this girl down in New York’s East Side, and portraying her on screen was clearly Mabel’s idea, with support from Chaplin. The fact that this was one of the most violent films to come out of Keystone was probably due to Sennett’s intervention. The film plot had Dickens written all over it, and it is conceivable that this movie laid the foundations for the sad tramp developed in later years by Charlie. If this so, then Mabel was entirely responsible for Chaplin’s later success. 

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Poor, poor coster-girl Mabel. If she goes home empty-handed she will be cruelly beaten. Should she throw in her lot with this dubious swell, Charlie Chaplin?

 

Beyond Mabel, there are many child-women in Keystone’s films. Two that stand out are Louise Fazenda and Vivian Edwards. Louise was real star, who should not have been subjected to the child-woman process. However, on the understanding that Sennett knew best, Louise had no option but to comply. ‘The King of Comedy’ ensured that Louise always appeared ultra-cute and vulnerable. He gave her the actions and movements of a young girl. Apart from making Louise sweet and demure, he coached her in a kind of hop-skip walk. Her screen name was usually Maggie.

Downonthe fmFazenda

The sweet, but dumb, country girl Maggie (Louise Fazenda).

Vivian Edwards was slightly different, in that she was usually presented as a dumb brunette, except in one picture. In Ambrose Wilful Way, she played Pansy, a rather immature girl of the child-woman type. Curiously, Louise Fazenda plays her mother, but the film is notable for its rather immoral nature. Presumably, Sennett found it highly amusing, but it seems Vivian was later deemed too tall to play a child-woman proper.

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Left: Pansy plays with her paper boat.  Right: The villain lays lecherous hands on Pansy.

 

The Demise of The Child-woman.

Away from Keystone, the child-woman reigned supreme, as exemplified by Mary Pickford. However, during the 1920s the flapper type and the vamp were becoming increasingly popular. Although the flapper can be seen as a bizarre extension of the child-woman, the vamp was more sophisticated and more mature than the child-woman, so that even Pickford eventually threw in the towel. Neither Mary or Mabel could convincingly play a vamp. ‘America’s Sweetheart’ had her tresses shorn in the late 20s, but it was to no avail – the child-woman, and the actresses that played them had gone – forever.

 

Twinkle_Twinkle_Little Star

……

Footnote: Audrey included the story, within a life story published in a magazine in 1921. This might represent a kick in the teeth for Mabel, at a time when the Arbuckle scandal was in full flow. Mabel had previously been presented as virtuous, wholesome and clean in all ways, so this story was surely aimed to dispel the myth. Audrey’s reasons for wanting to ‘dis’ Mabel are difficult to determine, but her own career was in decline (she’d appeared naked in a film) so she possibly wanted to take someone down with her. Not too long after the story, Audrey is said to have become a drug addict, and tried to commit suicide. In 1931 she was committed to a psychiatric institution for schizophrenics, where she stayed for 65 years (!!). Perhaps the insanity explains her outburst. Finally, there was no reason why Mabel’s body should have been required – Audrey’s own body had been perfectly adequate when represented on numerous public statues, and official coins.

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Bibliography

Looking For Mabel Normandhttp://www.freewebs.com/looking-for-mabel/. Site maintained by Marilyn Slater.

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

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

MABEL’S STORY: ME, CHAPLIN AND A STRANGE PREDICAMENT.

Mabel tells the story of her involvement with Charlie Chaplin in ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament.’

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“Welcome to the Hotel California”.

From time to time I am asked about how I got on with Charlie during the making of Mabel At The Wheel. Everyone knows we had a huge bust up while making the picture, but, to be honest, this was when I learned to live with Mr. ‘Big-Head’ Chaplin. The real bust up came about two months before, during the making of Mabel’s Strange Predicament. It happened like this:

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Virtuous Edwardian girl in trouble.

Chaplin had been on the lot for about a month. Like Mary Pickford, and all the other actresses, I had been much taken by the young, tousle-haired Chas, who appeared to be a Bohemian poet from Greenwich Village. However, Mack Sennett was not so keen on his new acquisition, and it seemed to be his youth and pseudo-aristocratic manners that riled him. Consequently, I avoided Chas on the lot – Mack was a dangerous man to cross. Word came to me, particularly from Henry Lehrman, that Chaplin was a cantankerous, egotistical fool, which further distanced me from him. However, the powers that be, big bosses Charles Baumann and Adam Kessell, began to dictate that I should be brought together with Chaplin to form a ‘dream team.’ Mack had no option, “Mabel” He said to me “You’re with Chaplin.” And that was that.

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Spot the Health and Safety hazards: Keystone set 1910s.

We’d built the set of a hotel lobby, which was to supposed to provide a springboard to a whole bundle of laughs. Unfortunately, for once Mack and I dried up, and could not think of how to begin the film, the story of which was briefly sketched out on the back of an envelope. Charlie was around the lot dressed as a tramp, waiting to be taken to Venice to film ‘Kid Auto Races at Venice’. Mack grabbed the little limey, chucked him into the lobby, and told him to get funny. Charlie obliged, wearing the now famous tramp’s outfit, while he went through an old Music Hall routine. This lasted about a minute and a half. Then Henri Lehrman grabbed him, and the pair, plus a small company, set off for Venice. Mack turned to me and said

“Well, what do you think?”

My immediate thought was to say “He stinks” but it was clear Charlie knew his stuff, and, anyway, he’d received an ovation from the assembled company.

“I think he’ll do” I replied.

“Good” said Mack “I’m going to weave him into the plot.”

“What is the plot, Mack?” I asked.

“The plot is you’re staying at the hotel, and your boyfriend, Harry McCoy, visits, but finds you dressed for bed in another man’s room”.

“Oh no you don’t Mack Sennett” I said “My fans are family people, and they’d crucify me at the box office, if they saw me running around a hotel chasing after men, dressed in a flimsy nightie.”

“Don’t worry Mabe, you’ll be wearing pajamas, and it’ll be a very innocent scenario.”

“It’d better be Mack, or there’ll be trouble.” I gave him a quick flick in the nose with the back of my hand. The very thought of it! The virtuous Keystone Girl, flitting, scantily dressed, in and out of men’s hotel rooms!

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Giving Mack a whack.

 

We began filming straight away, and worked out that I’d got ready for bed, and was playing ball with my dog. The ball goes out of the door, and I go to retrieve it, wearing the said pajamas. My dog then knocks the door closed, and I get locked out, so I have to flee into another room. This much we’d worked out, and we had a couple of minutes film canned before Charlie arrived back from Venice. Mack decreed that the picture would open with Charlie and myself talking in the lobby. I sort of half agreed to this, but went to see Mack later and explained to him that the ‘Blessed Mabel’ should carry the first scene on her own. Mack didn’t argue, and next day drove me to the Hollywood Hotel, where I was filmed entering the lobby alone, something Charlie was completely unaware of. Of course, I realize now how ridiculous this all was, and I subsequently learned that I was not in competition with the male actors, only the actresses (who I later went to war with – big time).

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The opening scene as Mabel saw it.

Once filming got going with Charlie, I really had to go to town to stop him from stealing all the scenes. Physically, I kept pace with crazy tramp, but with tuberculosis now taking a toll of my health I was left gasping for breath. I did not let on to Charlie, and it was several months later that he realized I was critically ill. Charlie was very sweet to me from then on. However, on finishing the picture (it was mostly filmed in one day) I crawled into my house on hands and knees, had a hot bath, then went to bed and cried myself to sleep.

We’d finished the film very late, so we didn’t view the rushes until the next day. I was somewhat horrified to see that my short scene (13 seconds) with Charlie had been linked to a 50 second sequence of Charlie on his own. I had dinner with Mack that night, and brought up the subject of Charlie’s solo stint.

“Now then, Mack, what’s the idea of Chaplin getting a long scene to himself. I’ve never known a scene that long in my life!”

“Don’t worry, Mabel, the scene will be largely cut.”

“If it’s not Napoleon Sennett, I’ll be round to see you, and it won’t be pleasant”.

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Chaplin filming in Venice.

The picture ‘Kid Auto Races At Venice’ was released first, a week or so before our joint film. I went to the theater to see ‘Kid Auto’ with a couple of friends, one of whom was Alice Joyce, the great movie actress, then visiting L.A. A huge number of Keystoners had turned out to watch, including Mr ‘Big-Head’ Chaplin himself. Charlie nodded to me as he made his way to his seat, and I burst out in schoolgirl giggles. Alice was aghast, and watched Charlie walk by.

“Oh my god, I think I’m in love” said Alice.

“In love, with Burlington Charlie from Bow? Don’t be so ridiculous Alice!”

“Oh, I think he must have been a Bohemian poet in a former life.” She cooed.

Mack gathered us all together after the show, and we all went for a celebratory drink at a bar. Chaplin was a success! We sat on a long curved bench, me alongside Mack, and Charlie next to me but a respectful distance away. Enter Alice, who plonked herself right between Charlie and myself. As the evening progressed Alice became ever more animated, chatting away to Charlie, and emphasizing what she said by periodically touching his thigh. I was stunned, and muttered under my breath “Leave him Alice, he’s mine!” But, could I really compete with Alice Joyce? She was real woman, tall, slender and sophisticated – a star of stars Alongside her, and my other friend, Anna Q. Nilsonn, I was just a silly schoolgirl, and, in 1909 New York, Alice and Anna treated me like one. Sure, I  had as many fans as them, but they were fans of the dumb Keystone Mabel, Tomboy Bessie. Men, such as Mack, wanted to protect me, smother me, hide me away from the world. Like Alice and Anna, I wanted to have the ability to vamp men, I wanted to be desired by them, and be carried away  by some Sheik of Araby. Which brings me to the ‘Sheik’ himself, the Italian dancing boy Valentino. I ran after the latin lover for many months, and haunted him every Sunday at his house. Valentino, however, wasn’t interested, and I spent many days sitting on an upturned bucket in the lover’s drafty garage while he tinkered with his many cars. Of course, Valentino was only interested in proper women – like Pola Negri – real film stars. Every night I went home, cried myself to sleep, and dreamed of Valentino.

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Schoolgirl Mabel with Anna Q. Nilsonn and Alice Joyce.

My real persona was brutally brought home to me accidentally by Minta Arbuckle. I was getting ready for a premier in my dressing room at the studio. Minta walked in, and I asked her what she thought of my outfit, comprising a mink coat, sable wrap, very high heels, and a trendy turban. “Oh Mabel” She gasped “You look like a little girl dressed up in her mother’s clothes”. I was devastated, this from my best friend. From that point on I had to realize that I was forever the eternal ingenue.

I must admit that I had a soft spot in my heart for Charlie. People think that I’d seen Charlie in his stage show, fallen for him, and told Sennett to hire him. This part was true, but it was Mary Pickford who’d first told me about Charlie. She’d been in a restaurant in 1912 with some girlfriends, when they noticed a good-looking guy with tousled hair sitting at another table. They mused that he must be a Greenwich Village writer, and, after much cooing and oohing, they asked the waiter who he was. Turned out he was Charlie Chaplin, the famous stage star. Consequently, when Keystone’s big bosses, Kessell and Baumann, began to consider signing a thespian to add flavour to their films, I mentioned Charlie. At that time Mack and I were in K and B’s New York office, and Baumann immediately went through the theatrical mags to find out where Chaplin was. He discovered Chaplin was playing at a New York theatre.

“Right, let’s all go down and see him” said Kessell.

We went over there that very night, me, Mack, Baumann, Kessell and Baumann’s daughter, Ada. Ada was a lovely girl, very physical, an athlete, and a future national figure-skating champion. For some reason she idolized me, and went all goose-pimply when I told her about Charlie. Mack sulked all night, for he hated all things theatrical, due to having been rejected for the theatre in his youth. The verdict on Chaplin was good, and Kessell said he’d write to Chaplin, and offer him a job at Keystone. Chaplin came, saw and almost conquered.

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Adam Kessell, Charlie Baumann, Ada Baumann.

I now return to Mabel’s Strange Predicament, the editing of which was done without my participation. Once again we all went down to the movie theatre to see the film’s first run. Sitting alongside me were friends Blanche Sweet and Dot Gish. Charlie sat at the end of our row, but Mack was nowhere to be seen. I looked around and saw him sitting way at the back. We were all very excited, as the picture was the lead into a planned feature film. The picture began, and it was not me alone, but me and Charlie who appeared together. Then I was seen to walk out of shot, and Charlie continued to perform for another 47 seconds. We three looked at each other, then Blanche exclaimed:

“Mabel, you’ve been had over!”. 

And I had. My solo bit outside the hotel was relegated to the third scene, and I’d never been so embarrassed in my life! Right in front of my girlfriends!

I turned round, and shook my fist at Mack, mouthing “Yooou Bastard”

After the show, Mack made a lightning exit, but I caught up with him next day.

“What’s the big idea, Mack?”

“What on earth do you mean, Mabel?”

“You know very well what I mean, Mack, allowing Chaplin to steal my picture”.

“If you mean he had a scene to himself, well, I received orders from on high, from Kessell in fact.”

“That was some first scene wasn’t it Mack. How many feet of film, seventy-five?”

I began to scream and stamp my feet, and I cut Mack off, as he tried to speak.

“Now you keep that bum outta my  f……g films, or I walk.”

Mack did his usual  and put his arms round me, trying to smother me like I was a child. I pushed that Irish lunkhead away.

“Don’t bother Mack, I’ve heard all those stories you’ve spread around that I am just a dumb broad, that I am naive and stupid. Think a Horse’s Neck is a bit of old dobbin, don’t I? Well, guess what, Michael Sinnott, I suddenly got smart – I’m outta this f….g shit-hole!”

I ran from Mack’s office, but he caught me up, and cornered me. Wrapping me in his arms, he whispered “Mabel, Mabel, we can work this out” Strong as I wanted to be I began to sob, as Mack declared his undying love, and promised he’d sort everything out with Kessell and Baumann. How he did it, I don’t know, but I melted like putty in his arms.

“Don’t worry Mabel, we’ll fix that limey creep Chaplin – permanently”.

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The ‘It’ couple take a spin. Mabel At The Wheel.

Beyond Mabel’s Strange Predicament.

Well, we didn’t fix Chaplin, but Mack refused to let him perform with me for two months. Then came the day of reckoning, and Mack called me into the office.

“Sorry Mabel, but K and B are adamant that Chaplin must be teamed with you, you’re gonna be the ‘It’ couple, or something. He’ll play the villain in Mabel At The Wheel”

“O.K. Mack, but I want directorial control and Chaplin is not to wear the tramp costume”.

“Consider it done, Mabel.”

In actual fact I was delighted to work with Chaplin again, but I could not allow him control. Then, who should walk onto the  lot, but Ada Baumann.

“Ada” I said “It’s so good to see you again”. 

It turned out Ada was in L.A. with her dad, the big boss-man, remember, who was transacting a little business in the town.

“I thought I’d ask Mack if I could extra in your next film, and he said yes.”

“That’s wonderful Addie, you can play my friend.”

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Mabel and Ada in Mabel At The Wheel.

As is well-known, we didn’t get far into the picture before Chaplin blew up, over my not including any of his gags. Unexpectedly, the future super-tramp sat down and went on strike (I was a member of The Industrial  Workers Of The World, but I never struck but once – under the great D.W. Griffith). To be honest I was rendered dumb, and just sat there wondering what to do, and, more importantly, wondering what would happen. I almost went into a trance – this was serious. Could it be that The Keystone was going to fail after less than two years? I could see the newspaper headlines in the mists of my mind: ‘Keystone Goes To The Wall’ and in the mists I could see Griffith gloating over those headlines saying:

“I told those two nincompoops they would never make it”.

I began to shake like a leaf, but was brought around by Ada’s voice

“Come on, Mabel, don’t worry, it’s not that bad”.

I partly opened my eyes and told her:

“You don’t understand Ada, the loss of even one day could ruin the studio. Kessell and your dad could throw in the towel and shut us down.”

Ada took my hand, and reminded me that we’d almost completed a day’s work, and was sure that we could sort everything out.  Of course Ada was fond of me, but she was also fond of Charlie, and was, furthermore, the boss’s daughter.

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Charlie refused to budge from the curb he was sitting on, so I told the company to load up and drive back from Santa Monica, where we were filming, to Edendale. We arrived back about an hour early, and I was soon surrounded by the entire company, who were baying for Chaplin’s blood –I was, after all, their Queen Bee. Mack rushed from his office to find out what had happened.

“The little limey refused to work” I said.

Mack flew into the dressing room, where Chaplin had gone, presumably to collect his stuff and clear out. We could hear Mack screaming and hollering at Chaplin, then he stormed out, slamming the door and saying:

“That ass-hole’s out of here! Mabel, Ada come into the office with me.”

Ada put her arm around me as we walked to the office, with me muttering:

“We’re all washed up, it’s over, all because of me.”

“It’s not your fault Mabel, don’t worry yourself, I’ll sort everything out with dad.”

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We got in the office, and Mack got straight on the phone to Baumann:

“I told you the limey was no good, now he’s lost us a day’s work, and I’ve fired the big-headed bastard!”

The shouting match went on for about five minutes, until Mack turned to Ada, and said

“Your dad wants to talk to you.”

Ada took the phone, and Baumann was obviously asking what had happened. Eventually Ada said:

“It’s no big deal dad, just a storm in a teacup. I’m sure it can all be smoothed over.”

Mack went back on the phone, and was soon looking like a schoolboy being told off by the headmaster.

“Ok, Ok, I’ll unfire him.”

Mack hung up the phone, and turned to me saying:

“Mabel, you’re to direct jointly with Chaplin.”

We all breathed a sigh of relief, including Mack. The day was saved, and Griffith never got to read those headlines [Footnote].

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Charlie and Mabel being just as friendly as pie.

Epilogue.

Chaplin and I did become a team, and we spent long hours discussing the future of motion pictures. Naturally, everyone wants to know exactly what went on in Mabel’s dressing room. Well, I for one am not telling, such things are private and personal. Nor is it any use asking Charlie – he’s not telling either.

In the following years I came to regard Chaplin as a close friend, even though he chucked me over (professionally) for Edna Purviance in 1915. I never really blamed Charlie for this, but held a deep resentment towards Edna. In a moment of madness, nine years later, I got my own back on Charlie’s foil, ending her career and prospective marriage. Unfortunately, I ended my own career at the same time. That, however, is another story, for another day.

Footnote: The presence of Ada Baumann in this particular film is puzzling, as it seems she never appeared in a picture again. Could it be that she was a spy for her father, a plant sent in to ‘keep an eye’ on things? There is evidence that Baumann had Mabel tailed by ‘private dicks’ in late 1916, when the Triangle Company was collapsing, and The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company had been terminated. It was suspected that Mabel was about to jump ship (she was!).

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Bibliography

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

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

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

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

Looking For Mabel Normand: http://www.freewebs.com/looking-for-mabel/. Site maintained by Marilyn Slater.

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

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