WELCOME TO THE HOTEL CAUDEBEC: MABEL IN NEW YORK STATE.

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The Caudebec Inn.

Those who live in New York will know of Cuddebackville in upstate New York. The area around is popular for wildlife nuts and sports freaks from the big city. A few people might know that it was a popular place for film directing genius D.W. Griffith. Having made numerous pictures out at Fort Lee, New Jersey, the genius decided it had been done to death. Audiences knew all the scenery by heart, and it was getting a little crowded, with every film company seeking command of the high bluffs along the Hudson. Consequently, in 1909, Griffith decided he’d wander further afield and try the lonesome village of Cuddebackville, around 90 miles northwest of Manhattan. For the players this was nothing short of a holiday, and to go some place that was a vacation area for the upper middle-class was a novelty for them. A novelty because most of the actors and actresses came from poor backgrounds, and most, like the Pickfords and the Gishes, were stage actors that had toured the U.S., living in cheap joints and travelling vagrant class.

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Find yourself a nice spot by the Neversink river.

There were a few exceptions, like Alice and Dorothy Davenport, who were from the successful side of the theatre, while the Normand family may also be seen as middle-class, if only because they lived in a house in the leafy suburbs of Staten Island, rather than a grim tenement in the worst part of Manhattan. As Mack Sennett once said “They lived in quiet desperation.” Cuddebackville had been discovered by Biograph’s Mr. Kennedy, an ex-engineering labourer, who’d long before helped build the dam at one end of the D.L. and W. Canal. The films Griffith made here showcased the beautiful fields of waving corn, the turbulent river, the distant mountains and the riverside meadows and cliffs. People worldwide would wonder where these places were – France, Merry England, The Emerald Isle, perhaps? No, sorry, all made in good old New York State.

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Get lucky and you could ride in DWG’s Pierce-Arrow, like young Mabel here.

The trip out to Cuddebackville required good planning, for once out there, it was no easy matter to return to New York for any items left behind and the chances of getting anything other than a can of beans or a handful of rye were slim indeed in Cuddebackville. The route by car was north along the Hudson river, then northwest towards the Orange Mountains. Mr. Griffith, from 1911, always went by his Pierce-Arrow car, monogrammed D.W.G., red and with white upholstery. Few were lucky enough to travel this way, just Griffith, wife Linda, cameraman Billy Bitzer and Frank Powell or Wilfred Lucas. The car was the envy of a certain actor called Mack Sennett. He once told his ‘girlfriend’, Mabel Normand, that one day he’d have a Pierce-Arrow himself, and they’d have so much money that they’d drive around firing diamonds at people from catapults. Mabel replied “Dream on Mack, and by the way, I’m not your girlfriend.” The journey by car took, according to Mrs Griffith, around five hours, which indicates the state of the roads back then. Incidentally, Mabel was once fortunate enough to travel in said car, when she was driven like a queen into Huntington, Long Island to make the film The Diving Girl. Presumably Mack was green with envy. Most rode to Cuddebackville by train.

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For a time Mabel forsook the Pierce-Arrow for a ‘Roller’.  Don’t know about a catapult, but she sure had plenty of diamonds.

When the Biograph company set out on their 1911 excursion to the north, the number of actors was fairly large. The list read like a manifest of the stars of the future Hollywood and included Henri Lehrman, Mabel Normand, Florence LaBadie, Marion Leonard, Jim Kirkwood, Blanche Sweet, Mack Sennett, Jeanie MacPherson, Stanner E.V. Taylor, ‘Wally’ Walthall, Wilfred Lucas, Kate Bruce, and a host of others. The train actually stopped at the village, as the place had for many long years possessed a station. However, the number of actors arriving confused everyone. The train conductor could hardly believe the horde of people disembarking at this lonesome place in the woods that, had it been a few hundred miles south, would have been called a ‘hick town’. Surely, they were disembarking at the wrong place, and anyway, who were these strange, painted, overdressed people, whose average age seemed to be around fourteen? There were crazy teenage boys, and excitable young girls, all escorted by older men and women that had no control over them whatsoever. There was one insane, dark-haired girl who seemed to be their ring-leader and she had led the officious conductor a merry dance for the entire four-hour trip. He’d marked her card, and this vulgarian wouldn’t be getting back on the train, at least while he was the conductor. How stunned was he a few years later, when he recognised her as a star in a big Hollywood movie. On that fateful day on the train, he’d run into ‘Madcap’ Mabel Normand.

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The Train.

 

As the train pulled away from Cuddebackville, the conductor looked back from his open door, shaking his head, but there was that vulgar girl again, giving him a series of disgustingly rude signs, until he ducked back into the caboose. The restless Biograph crew were met by Mr. Predmore (their hotel’s proprietor) at the station, and he collected the company’s luggage, and put it into his car – the only one for miles around. An covered wagon followed on, taking the studio’s props and costumes. The driver was ninety-years-young ‘Old Pete’, a character you can meet in any town in the world. Full of beans, he would always volunteer to run the girls anywhere they needed to go. His passengers, naturally enough, comprised the most beautiful girls in the world, but when he returned them to the hotel, there was ‘wifey’ waiting to escort the potential lecher home, and save him from those wicked, painted city girls. Today, though, the stars of tomorrow were left to shuffle their way down the dusty track to the 3-storey hotel. Fortunately, the holiday season in Cuddebackville was short back then, and there were no other guests staying at The Caudebec Inn. Nonetheless, with such a large company, there was little enough room. Not only would there be two or three to a room, there’d be two or three to a bed! Some just put up with it, but others, like Mack Sennett, thought they were above such indignities, and grouched very loudly. Everyone was looking to grab a hammock out on the veranda, but these were few and far between. A few enterprising actors, crept off and built bivouacs in the woods, ignoring the threat posed by rampaging bears. Some of the lovers in the party, Jim Kirkwood and Gertie Robinson, Stanner Taylor and Marion Leonard etc. did likewise, although some would paddle off up the river in a canoe, then moor up for an uncomfortable night’s love-making. Mack and Mabel? Well, they were not an item, and Mabel had just the slim Jeanie as a sleeping companion, which was hard luck on her, as Mabel was a notoriously restless sleeper.

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Mack Sennett hassles Mary Pickford in An Arcadian Maid. Cuddebackville 1910.

Work had begun for Griffith and cameraman Billy Bitzer as soon as they arrived. The remaining daylight hours were spent checking out the old established filming sites, and seeing that they had not changed too much, but hopefully they’d find a couple of new ones. Spare seats were occupied by a couple of lucky souls treated to a country ride at the benevolence of D.W. Then it was back for dinner, in the only sizeable room in the hotel – the dining room, with its view over the apple orchard. Meals were prepared by the Predmore’s cook, who was no great shakes. The company preferred the cooking done by Mrs Predmore, but the cook conspired to keep her out of the kitchen. Anyhow, this was fine dining compared with what they got out in California, with dried up sandwiches being the order of the day at their makeshift studio. Except for the big wheels, of course, who tucked into juicy stakes, causing Mack Sennett to grouch very audibly.

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Mack Sennett grouches over the parlous state of Biograph sandwiches. LA 1912.

On the non-filming side, also, trouble was brewing over the illicit crap games being played by some of the company in an outbuilding, in which some actors were losing large sums of money. Griffith stamped it out. More genteel evening entertainments were, as later in Hollywood, a continent away, organised by the players themselves,  principally ‘Wally’ Walthall, singer of southern ditties, Mack Sennett, bass singer, and Shakespearean actor, Arthur Johnson,  on the piano, although the players were surprised to find that Mabel Normand could also ‘tickle the ivories’ to good effect.

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Mabel tickles the ivories for John Bunny.

Unfortunately, Sennett was far from reliable, as the slightest mishap during the day, such as a particularly dry sandwich, or a row with Miss Normand, would render him note-less, and not a do-re-me could be had from the grouching, future King of Comedy. In such instances, Mabel would sometimes step in with her soft, but clear tones. It was Mabel that acquired bottles of gin at the local store, and distributed them among her friends and got a party going one night, rousing a very indignant Griffith from his sleep. To prevent any further clandestine boozing, Griffith would bring in bottles of iced Bass India Pale Ale, imported all the way from Burton-On-Trent in Old Blighty by the store proprietor.

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India Pale Ale: Nectar of the stars.

 

Going Mohican.

Mr Griffith had long ago realised that the good residents of Cuddebackville would provide services at strictly non-New York prices. A crisp five-dollar bill, would serve as inducement to rent a farmer’s apple tree for the day, under which the stars of tomorrow would pet and smooch (no ‘spooning’ permitted back in the day). In fact,  in no time at all, the farming folk would be suggesting props and backgrounds, and as more movie outfits came in, they got lazy and gave up farming altogether! For himself, Griffith always became James Fennimore Cooper-ish, when he arrived in the area, and his mind filled with Indian stories, themselves filled with savage redskins and the last of the Mohicans. The players knew what was coming – the thick, brown greasepaint that turned them into real-looking Indians. A story that DWG had in mind was one where Indians surround a stone blockhouse, with the redskins firing arrows into the house and the whites firing lead shot out. Consequently, he went out looking for a period stone house, circa 1760. Among all the timber buildings around, he did, surprisingly, find such a house. Mr Predmore warned him not to go near the main house. The owner was the wealthy Mr Goddefroy, who didn’t like people and he liked automobiles even less. D.W. and company walked onto the property and fortunately found Mrs Goddefroy who was most amenable. She took them to meet her husband and persuaded him to let them use the old stone building. The Goddefroys also loaned them some thoroughbred horses in place of the old nags they already had. They were set to go with the picture.

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Fennimore Cooper dreaming. Hawkeye and Chingahgook in trouble.

A Mended Lute and a Squaw’s Love.

Now, in 1909, Griffith had filmed the Indian story, The Mended Lute, starring the great Florence Lawrence. Although merely a one-reeler, Griffith threw everything he had at the picture. There was a whole tribe of Indians, and the shots were full to the edges with ‘savages’ and wigwams. Elsewhere, Billy Bitzer shot some amazing scenes of canoes full of redskins careering at high speed over the turbulent waters of the Neversink River. Why the extravagance? The genius was intending to step up a level and produce full length feature films — something barely heard of in those days. Perhaps the film would convince the bosses to go with his idea? However, he had a long struggle before he was allowed to make Birth of A Nation for the Triangle Company. One thing you notice about the Griffith westerns is that they rarely feature cowboys. The reason was that the majority of his film characters were upright citizens or, in the case of the westerns, ‘noble savages’. Griffith thought the cowpokes were disgusting scum, cold-hearted killers who had never heard of socks, let alone worn them. Good god, they drank coffee for chrissake! So it was that in 1911 he set out to shoot several ‘Indians only’ pictures.

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Heap many redskins, much wigwams in The Mended Lute.

Griffith had brought everything he was likely to need way down north. They had wigwams, canoes, feather head-dresses and more bows and arrows than you could never equal with an arsenal of Winchester rifles. Well-behaved horses they had hired from Mr. Goddefroy, and the actors were getting these groomed and ready for the filming. Enter a certain Miss Normand, who had decided it was time to ‘daredevil’. She’d already impressed, and shocked, everyone with her graceful dives into the Neversink from the high bluffs, usually during greasepaint removal sessions in the canal basin (the girls had exclusive use of the one hotel bathroom for this purpose, but Mabel preferred to clean up at the river with the boys). Among the horses the company had was one stallion that could not be tamed, and he could not be approached, not even from the front as he kicked forward with his front legs — he was a real-life bucking bronco. The bravest lads were daring each other to mount this jittery horse, when Mabel walked up, took the horse by his rope bridle and led him from one tree to an adjacent tree. She’d noticed that the first tree only gave partial shade and the flickering of the light through the leaves was making the horse edgy. The second tree offered complete shade, and Mabel calmed him with her soft Brooklyn tones. The lads, of course, were screaming for her to get on the horse’s back. Mabel then employed one of those remarkable athletic feats that she became famous for, and, in one movement, she’d thrown herself up onto the horse. Unfortunately, one foot had hit the horse’s rump and he went crazy. Mabel rode the bucking animal for a good twenty seconds before she was flung ten feet in the air, like a bag of sugar, landing with a dull thud on the ground, among the beast’s flailing hooves. Everyone rushed to her aid, but it turned out she was only bruised — all over. Griffith, naturally, was furious. He’d never heard of a girl riding a bucking bronco, didn’t she know her insides would be shaken loose? Mabel made her typical sneering reply:

“What do you fucking know, you’re just a dumb, hook-nosed fucking Welshman.” 

Everyone sniggered. Well, Mabel’s tirades were like barbs, but it was difficult for anyone, including Griffith, to keep a straight face when confronted with insolence from a pouting five-feet nothing girl. The pout, feigning hurt feelings, was completely disarming. Hovering nearby, though, was Mack Sennett, who was carefully noting Mabel’s irreverent invective, and the pout — if he ever got his own studio, well……..

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Mabel pouts, although the other squaw has just tried to kill her. The Squaw’s Love.

It was that same morning, as Griffith was sitting in his chair, directing a scene on the Inn’s lawn, that an Indian squaw in full Indian regalia came galloping past him bareback, and at high speed, on the stallion. The breeze almost knocked the old guy backwards out of his seat. That damned Mabel had struck again. However, Griffith now had to think about casting the lead for another Indian film, The Squaws Love. Frank Powell and Wilfred Lucas (‘The Great Lucas’ as Mabel called him) both suggested Mabel. Griffith was unsure — he only liked ‘yes’ girls, those that had been trained for the stage, and were used to close direction. Mabel was a rebel, a free spirit, who quite often refused direction, and would not adhere to the mark that Griffith had chalked out for her on the ground. Wilfred Lucas said he would direct the picture, under Griffith’s express supervision. So, Mabel played Wild Flower but it is clear that she had a whole lot of freedom, doing things in a way Griffith would not have allowed. Here we see her falling off a cliff, swimming underwater below enemy canoes to cut their bottoms out, and swimming into the rapids, all done in a seamless, natural way. The film has no hero, just a heroine, and this is very non-Griffith, for his women were always ‘screamers’ that hid behind the dresser whenever there was trouble. In this film it is the men that faint with fear, while Mabel takes it to the enemy, a big knife between her teeth. Wild Flower was, of course, the incipient Keystone Girl. The Indian lover of Claire McDowell, Silver Fawn, in this film was White Eagle, played by 55-year-old real-life redskin, Dark Cloud.

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How to mount a horse Apache-style. Filmed in 1916 for Mickey.

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Portion of Griffith’s expense sheet L.A. 1912.

Heading Home.

Eventually, the holiday ended for the players, and it was time to pack up and return to the city grime. Last to leave was Griffith who had to make up the accounts and pay the hotel bill. Everyone had learned something, but Mabel had learned the most. She’d learned how to captivate and fascinate people. Her final act that week was to develop the Apache horse-mounting technique, which meant running full pelt up to a horse from behind, and leaping onto its back — a very dangerous trick that Mabel was to use in her later best-seller, Mickey. The wheels in Griffith’s head were beginning to turn. Mabel was a completely foot-loose maverick, but he could be onto a winner, if he co-starred her with one of his highly trained, but somewhat stiff, ex-stage stars. Good competition was what many of his stage actresses needed. Consequently, out in California in early 1912, Mabel and Mary Pickford came together for The Mender of Nets. Mary confessed later that Mabel had scared her to death in this film. Mabel was sweetness itself, and usually there was sunshine and gaiety but if she was upset, there was thunder and lightning. In this film she was a woman spurned, and it was  Mary that had caused the spurning, so she received the full fury of Mabel’s vicious onslaught, transmitted bthrough her blazing  eyes. Here’s what Mary wrote in 1916:

“She was dark and the representative type of villainess …… she played the flashing-eyed creature of temperament, whose very looks were stilletos in your heart, and whose movements undulated like a snake crawling through the brush.”

– and –

“We never suspected that that this demure little maiden, who used to peer at us shyly, with great dark eyes, would ever thrill us by her daring feats on the screen. There was no cliff so high that Mabel was afraid of it, no water so deep that she would not dive into it, no bucking bronco too wild for her to ride …… there was no one ever on the screen who could do it more gracefully and with as much poise as Mabel.”

Mary and Mabel never appeared together again.

This was the last film Mabel made in Cuddebackville. When Biograph returned in August 1912, Mabel was on her way to continue her astonishing career on the west coast. The Pickford family were in Cuddebackville that year, but by October, they too had departed Biograph for the last time. Griffith followed very soon after.

Daredevil Mabel

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The Water Nymph. 1912.

 

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The Squaws Love. 1911.

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A LIMEY COMES TO HOLLYWOOD: THE STORY OF SYD CHAPLIN: 1914 to 1925.

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The tramp and the wise-guy. Charlie and Syd.

At Christmas 1914, the well-known comedian Charlie Chaplin left the Keystone Studios, where he’d been for the past year. As Charlie later said, he did not want to leave, but producer Mack Sennett was making his life intolerable, both professionally and personally. About two months earlier, Charlie had, for the first time in some years, written to his step-brother, Sydney, back in London. The letter asked Syd to come and join him in California. The Golden State, said Charlie, was the place to be, with its wonderful climate, beautiful girls and endless financial opportunity. Syd mulled it over – for at least three seconds. He’d read how successful Charlie had become, and how he had a constant supply of glamorous starlets on his arm. Syd was soon on the boat heading west. However, it was for a very good reason that Charlie had asked Syd over. To understand that reason, you need to understand the brothers Chaplin. Charlie and Syd were abandoned by their respective fathers, as children, and when their mother was placed in a mental institution, they were left to fend for themselves on the streets of London. Being the elder brother, Syd took charge of Charlie, and more, or less treated him as a ‘gofor’ – “go for this, go for that.” Eventually, mother returned from the institution, but Syd soon departed for the merchant navy, leaving young Charlie to care for their mother. On returning from sea, Syd got work with the Karno Music Hall Company, and soon found an opening for Charlie. Charlie was never expected to be anything but an understudy for big brother, although he turned out to be very good indeed, and exceeded all expectations. It seems certain that Charlie and Syd were totally different characters, and that, in his early years, Charlie lived in Syd’s shadow. Whereas Charlie was sensitive, passionate and emotional, Sid was much more the wise guy, or what, in England, they called a ‘Flash Harry’. Charlie, in fact, had always been misunderstood, and many people at Karno found him to be egotistical and somewhat ignorant. They thought his reticence with people not a little puzzling. Charlie, though, was not as ignorant as many of them thought. He was, in fact, a very shy man, someone who was a very private person, and did not mix easily with other people. His early experiences with the authorities, his father, and with Sid, made him also somewhat paranoid and distrustful.

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Mabel at a premier





Then, he came into contact with The Keystone Girl, Mabel Normand, at the Keystone Studios. Mabel immediately recognised a kindred spirit in Charlie, for Mabel was also shy and introverted. Nonetheless, Mabel had conquered her shyness and her distrust of people, and had forced herself into being an extrovert, the life and soul of the lot and the wild party. As Charlie was later to relate, Mabel taught him everything about comedy, but she also taught him that, unless he created alliances, his career would be over before it began. Charlie’s year at Keystone consisted of being spoon-fed by Mabel, who introduced him to the growing band of movie people in Hollywood and arranged all of his pay rises with Mack Sennett. No one visited Mabel’s bungalow dressing room more often than Charlie, raising suspicions that they had a very close relationship. The likelihood of this is high, as they were leading man and leading lady together in at least eleven films, and, as Sennett later said, leading ladies were apt to fall in love with their leading men and run off with them.  Here we should note another difference between Charlie and Syd. It is said that Charlie could charm the bloomers off any girl, while Sid was much more the “Get ‘em off” type.

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Mack Sennett  and his protege Syd Chaplin.

Going with Mr. Sennett.

Having laid out the background, we are now in a position, to understand Charlie’s reason for sending his letter to Syd. Whether he liked it or not, Charlie was out of Keystone, and although he expected to be snapped up by another producer, he was unsure if he could cope with mixing with a new group of people. There would be no Mabel to support him, and he really needed a manager, or substitute Mabel, to back him up, or even ‘front’ him. When Syd arrived in Los Angeles, Charlie put it to him that he could, perhaps, become his manager. Syd thought about it, thought some more – then signed with Sennett! Poor Charlie was left on his own, 2,000 miles away at Essanay in Chicago, and he was not popular. First, he upset the boss, Mister George Spoor, then he upset scriptwriter Louella Parsons, then he had problems with his new leading lady, Gloria Swanson. Co-boss, ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson, saved Charlie’s bacon, by getting him out to Essanay’s Niles studio, then to Boyle Heights, L.A., where he inevitably fell into the clutches of The Keystone Girl once more. Meanwhile, Syd was having a whale of a time down Edendale way, sweeping up actresses and extra girls like there was no tomorrow. However, if Charlie had told Syd that Mabel was ‘easy’ then Syd was sorely disappointed. Mabel had been somewhat spoiled by Charlie, and was now more drawn to the sensitive, bohemian and intellectual type. Sure, Syd was great fun, and always game for a laugh, but he was married, vulgar, and, as far as Mabel was concerned, he was strictly out of bounds.

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No chance for Syd here.

Mack Sennett was much more taken with Syd than with Charlie. Charlie had been quarrelsome and complained about having his scenes cut into during editing. Syd just carried on regardless, and was, more to the point, being well paid. Syd was also a man’s man, one of the boys, and it was unlikely that he would fall for just one girl and spirit her away. The Keystone Girl was safe, perhaps, and would not be carted off by the lecherous Syd, which was fine with Mack. In any event, the king of comedy was out to punish Mabel for her indiscretions with Charlie, and for daring to ask for more challenging, dramatic parts. He put her in silly puppy-love films with Roscoe Arbuckle, causing a rift between them that lasted forever. The last punishment and indignation Mack inflicted on Mabel was her subservient (to Mack) role in The Little Teacher 1915. Mabel made a few films with Syd, which was O.K. with her, but it seems clear that he did not have the free access to Mabel’s life that his brother had enjoyed.

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Westlake Park: no better place for melancholy.

Syd in Edendale.

In his later interviews, Syd more, or less, claimed that Charlie had misrepresented Los Angeles, and particularly Edendale, to him. Rather than being a city paved with gold, the place turned out to be paved with mud, and, more often, dust. A city to Syd was a place full of saloons, dancehalls, casinos, French cafes, and bordellos. Except for the bordellos, the other facilities were not numerous. As Mabel had discovered three years previously, the suburbs were simply the pits, a leftover from the old wild west. Quite why city girl Mabel did not make a run for it when she first clapped eyes on the rotting lumber yard that was the Keystone Studio, is difficult to determine. It seems she coped by crying herself to sleep every night. Similarly, Syd would sit in Westlake Park and sob. Neither Mabel, nor Syd, could ever have suffered the ignominy of returning home a failure. But needs as needs must, and Syd put all into his films, and chasing the girls. Syd, however, had to find a character. It had already occurred to him that Sennett based his films partially on the French Pathe brand of comedy, and particularly that of Max Linder. Charlie had chosen to go for a character loosely based on Sennett’s own scruffy character, himself an Americanised Pathe type. Charlie of course added some English tramp elements of his own. Syd chose the Linder route, but added some Music Hall elements. He used this character from early on, and he was adopted into the Keystone pantheon as ‘Gussle’. Gussle was fully developed by the time A Lover’s Lost Control was released in August 1915, and his foil established as the eternal Phyllis Allen. In Lover’s Lost Control it is possible to see that Gussle is very, very French, right down to his ‘upside down’ moustache, which was not entirely the intellectual property of everyone’s favourite Hun, Kaiser Bill. Sharp cuts were made during editing to give the film Sennett’s trademark jerkiness, but the picture has to resort to ‘knicker humour’ in order to get laughs.

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Syd getting very French in A Lover’s lost Control.

Syd is pliable and athletic enough, but clearly lacks the smoothness of movement, and the subtle gestures that Charlie utilised to good advantage. Did Mabel support Syd the way she supported Charlie? Well, Mabel only appeared, it seems, in two of Syd’s films, so she had no real need to help him adapt to movie technique. Perhaps if he’d received help from “The world’s greatest comedienne, who knew more about comedy than any of us will ever know” (quote from Charlie) then he might have stayed on at Keystone. Although he starred in the much-acclaimed A Submarine Pirate, he left just as Triangle took over as Keystone’s distributor. His final act was to be vanguard for the Mabel Normand / Roscoe Arbuckle company stint at the New York Motion Picture Company and Triangle Studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. He fronted this huge publicity splurge, providing great laughs for everyone, especially Mabel. Syd left soon after, and Mabel failed to return to Keystone, only returning to Hollywood when Triangle agreed to set up the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company.

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The submarine pirate gets his just deserts.

From the Edendale swamp to Sunset Boulevard.

Syd, having got movie acting out of his system took up Charlie’s offer of managerial post. He began to negotiate Charlie’s new contract with Mutual, and Charlie would be leaving Essanay under a very dark cloud. The contract price was $680,000 for the year, with a $150,000 signing bonus. Syd received $75,000 from Charlie for negotiating the contract. Then, shock, horror, they read in the papers that a certain Mabel Normand had signed with Mutual to ‘do Chaplin films’. What the f…k! Mabel would command a huge salary. Who would pay? Mutual, Charlie? What of Charlie’s leading lady, Edna Purviance? The pair later breathed a sigh of relief, when they heard that Triangle had given the little clown her own studio down Hollywood way, but the sight of Mabel’s studio with her name on the roof, prompted another “What the f..k!” from the Chaplins. The whole thing had been a conspiracy between Mabel and Mutual’s Mr. Freuler to give Mack Sennett a bloody nose, and an empty wallet.

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Super-cad, Syd, watches Charlie sign for Mutual.

In the event, Charlie ran into trouble with his Mutual films in L.A. Numerous times he was stuck for a story, and wrote frequently to Syd, now in New York. A typical plea was:

“Syd, I’m in trouble. I’ve built a bar and a hotel lobby, but still cannot work out a story. Give me some clues, or I’m finished”

Syd, naturally, was not going to help, unless he was paid. He sat tight and let Charlie stew. Nobody would help Charlie, and, if Mabel could, well, she couldn’t, bound up as she was in her own studio work. Eventually, Syd headed back to L.A., so had obviously been remunerated by someone – in fact, Mutual had given Syd a contract for $2,500 a week. The intellectual collapse became a common occurrence with Charlie, and explains why he was never as prolific, nor as wealthy, as, say, Harold Lloyd. Undoubtedly, Syd was the brains of the Chaplin duo. In terms of business, as Sam Goldwyn once said, “Charlie only knows that he cannot take anything less”. Syd would soon have to deal with his and Charlie’s other problems. Chaplin imitators, peddling Chaplin dolls, plates and pictures, were everywhere – Charlie’s copyright was being infringed, and a certain Stan Laurel was running a stage act called The Keystone Trio in which he played Charlie, an actor played Ford Sterling and his wife played Mabel Normand. On top of this it had been noticed that Charlie and Syd had not signed up for the British war effort. Then there was the U.S. taxman. As 1917 came in, and the U.S. joined the European war, the tax rates rocketed to 77%. Everyone was hiding everything under the table, including Charlie and Syd. The I.R.S. smelled a rat and went after them in 1918. The whole business ran on until 1929, when Charlie finally received a one-million-dollar tax bill. Syd, characteristically, at the time, was found to have overpaid his tax!

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Just like Syd’s. A blue Mitchell with white wheels.

Syd now became deeply involved in Charlie’s tangled financial affairs. He also arranged for Charlie to have the best and most expensive car, a Locomobile with chauffeur, a personal secretary, and valet, along with a butler. Syd bought a Mitchell convertible – dark blue with whites poked wheels. He also involved himself in a women’s clothing business called The Sassy Jane Manufacturing Company. Charlie seems to have also been an investor in the business, which eventually went bust, but Charlie and Syd came out dollars up. Syd now began negotiating a new contract with First National, which was for one-million-dollars, with a 200,000-dollar signing bonus. Around this time also, Syd arranged a managerial position in the Chaplin business for ex-Karno man, Alf Reeves. While Syd was away on the east coast, Charlie had gone into another lazy state, and was struggling to complete his pictures. This was something of a nuisance for Syd, who was having a good time, and was considering setting himself up as agent to the stars, starting with William S. Hart. Meanwhile, both Charlie and Syd had been contacted by their half-brother Wheeler Dryden – both ignored his letters, assuming he could be no possible use to them. Eventually, Syd managed to kick Charlie out of his zombie-like state, and into completing his contract.

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Syd’s house on Sunset Boulevard.

Living on Sunset Boulevard.

Looking to the future, Syd suggested that Charlie build his own studio, and further suggested that it be built on Sunset Boulevard, but the local population rose up in opposition. After a considerable amount of opposition also from the City, the OK was given to the project. There was already a 10-roomed house on the site, which Syd and his wife, Minnie, moved into. Charlie, of course, could have moved in with Syd and Minnie, but probably thought he’d come entirely under the sway of his brother and wife. Consequently, he stayed on at The Athletic Club. There was now the problem of what to do with their mother, who was in a care home back in London. Syd thought about bringing her to the States, but submarine attacks made this implausible for the moment. However, with the new studio up and running, there came a continuous stream of celebrity visitors. As Charlie finished editing Dog’s Life, he was asked to go on a liberty war bond tour across America. Charlie had a choice – do the bond drive, or head out to the mud-filled trenches of the Somme. He chose the former. The brothers made a war bond film, with Syd as the Kaiser, then they went into the successful war film Shoulder Arms, with a drained Charlie being driven to complete by Syd.

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Chas gives Syd  (the Kaiser) a dose of the fatal mallet . War Bond film.

At this point Charlie met and married actress Mildred Harris. Syd disapproved of the child bride, but it also meant that Mabel, as a friend of Mildred, was constantly around to dog the tramp. Syd temporarily disappeared and was assumed to be plotting his return to the screen in his own right, while Mabel always seemed to be present in Charlie’s house, when he returned home. To keep Mildred chained down at home, he’d given her an old flivver of a car that broke down every hundred yards. However, Mabel had no shortage of plush motors, and the two girls were soon gallivanting around Hollywood. Mabel even arranged a snowball party for the Chaplins up on Mount Lowe. In one way, the presence of Mabel might have irritated him, but, on the other hand, with Syd not around, we might assume that Mabel helped Charlie sound out the plots for his films, as his comic abilities seemed to desert him when Syd was absent. Mabel was, after all, “The greatest comedienne that ever lived” (Charlie Chaplin). We might suspect that Syd’s absences when Charlie needed him most, were engineered to convince his brother that he could not live, nor work, without him. Charlie and Mabel had always been a duo to liven up parties, but now their ‘acts’ were even more intense. Mildred, no doubt, was cruising the dance floor looking for a new husband to replace the domestically sad Charlie.

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Mildred with the car she wasn’t allowed to drive.

In 1919, Charlie began his contract with 1st National, just as Syd wrote to his mother’s care home in London, telling them that he was bringing mother to Hollywood. At the 11th hour, Charlie wired Syd:

“Consider will be best if mother remain in England. Some good seaside resort. Afraid presence here might depress and affect my work.”

Other forces had been at work in Charlie’s life at this time. Charlie had been on friendly terms with larger-than-life actor, Doug Fairbanks, for some time, but, with Syd’s frequent absences, he became reliant on Doug for friendship and advice. Mabel was an excellent prop, but, while Charlie appreciated her help, she was, after all, just a girl. In fact, the Hollywooders had, for some time, referred to Charlie as Mr. Normand – not good for the chauvinistic tramp’s fragile psyche. Mabel had introduced Charlie to Mary Pickford, and Charlie had later introduced Mary to Doug, which led to their subsequent clandestine affair. Unfortunately, Mary was to find that there was a third party in their romance – the ever-present Charlie Chaplin. Naturally, a certain amount of animosity developed between Charlie and Mary, which they fought hard to contain.

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Will he sign or won’t he? Mary watches Charlie very closely.

If 1919 was a strange year, then it was a make or break year for the industry. Syd was, at this time, juggling with many balls, such as a return to acting and the incorporation of the first airline company in the U.S. Both of these schemes ultimately failed, but the top dogs of the industry seemed to be coalescing, in order to form a solid unit that would put an end to the ‘star system’ in Hollywood. That meant, of course, no more stars. Syd later claimed that he had devised a scheme that would defeat the big boys, although Doug, Charlie and Mary all claimed it was their idea. The plan was to create a film distribution company to handle the pictures of Doug, Charlie, Mary, D.W. Griffith and anyone else who wished to throw in their lot with them. Who it was that dreamed the scheme up is irrelevant, for the scheme was a resounding success, although it increased the animosity between Mary and Charlie for the next several decades.

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Airline owner Syd with Scottish actor Harry Lauder.

 

A European Tour as tragedy hits Hollywood.

Sydney’s approach to film-making was totally unlike Charlie’s, but in line with his own crazy attitude to life. Charlie was cautious, if slow. Syd began his contract Lasky’s Famous Players with a huge fanfare, and a new method. He would leave Hollywood and film his six reels in France, a place devastated by the Great War. His progress was erratic, and almost as slow as Charlie’s. Looking for a leading lady, he had contenders shot wearing very sheer negligees – as one might have expected. In the end, most filming was carried out in the U.S., but by early 1920, no film was forthcoming, and Mildred was beginning divorce proceedings against Charlie. Almost immediately, Chaplin Studios were sold to Syd – a clever ruse in view of impending alimony. Syd advised that Mildred’s attorneys might attempt to attach Charlie’s new film The Kid, and so they stole away to Salt Lake City, where they cut the film in secret. Turned out The Kid was the most successful film Charlie had produced up until that time.

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When eventually Syd’s film was released as King, Queen, Joker, in 1921, it was a total disaster at the box office, and to cap it all the Curtiss Aircraft Company took Syd to court for outstanding debts on aircraft supplied to Syd’s now bankrupt company. It was also in 1920 that three mysterious deaths occurred among the Hollywood stars. Within a few weeks Olive Thomas, Clarine Seymour, and Robert Harron had all died, causing great confusion in the industry. Before long, Charlie was called in to repay a debt to – Mabel Normand, who had become dangerously ill, the cause partly resulting from the deaths of her friends, and particularly that of Olive Thomas. The stress had apparently aggravated her tuberculosis, and her producer, Sam Goldwyn, consulted Dr. Chaplin. Medics, of course, had examined Mabel and were of the opinion, that she’d die in a matter of weeks. Chaplin thought differently and told Sam that his rubbish films were killing her, or at least exasperating her condition. He prescribed a course of film-making at Sennett Studios, following a period of convalescence in New York. Mabel, naturally, was Charlie’s friend (and mentor), but she was someone Syd had no success with, and she was now irrelevant to his plans. Now it was time for Doug and Mary to marry, both having separated from their respective spouses. Perhaps, thought Syd, Charlie would listen more to him, now that his sounding board, Doug, had got hitched. Charlie did take his prodigal brother back on-board and gave him parts in his films.

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Charlie surrounded by adoring fans in London: What did Syd think of this?

To his credit, it was Syd that finally brought his mother out to California in 1921. Charlie was still ambivalent, and probably hoped that mother would never reappear. Mrs Chaplin’s stay in America, however, was fraught with difficulties, as the Immigration authorities sought to deport her down through the years. By now things were getting sticky for Syd with his creditors, and he was busy hiding his assets in various places, while Charlie headed out to see England for the first time in ten years — Syd saw him off at Los Angeles Station, warning him not to get married across the pond. It was while Charlie was in Europe that he learned of the great catastrophe that that had befallen Hollywood – the Roscoe Arbuckle murder scandal, on which Charlie commented “I can’t believe it” while Syd said nothing.  On his return Charlie made his last film for First National, The Pilgrim, and this was Syd’s last part in his brother’s films.

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Happier times for Fatty and Mabel. San Francisco 1915.

It was in early 1922, as is well-known, the Bill Taylor murder scandal hit Hollywood, but, while colony was rocked to the core, Syd and Charlie seemed unfazed, although fingers were pointed at Charlie, as being the same ‘despicable type’ as Mabel Normand, who’d been, perhaps, in a relationship with Taylor. In 1922 also, Syd again began to assemble a career outside the Charlie Chaplin studio. It seems, though, that he was involved in negotiations to get Sam Goldwyn under the United Artists banner, but this was several years in the offing. Sam was difficult, very difficult, and a unique individual. As the year rolled on Syd was looking towards an acting career with Associated Exhibitors Inc. and had assessed that the company was a better one to go with than United Artists. It may have been because Syd was chasing secretaries at whatever company he tried that he eventually signed with Marshall Neilan Productions at the Goldwyn Studios, where he made several pictures including The Rendezvous and Her Temporary Husband. These were relatively well-received, but it was later put around that Syd had got his 13-year old co-star in The Rendezvous, Lucille Ricksen, pregnant. The WAMPAS baby star, had then become ill while making The Galloping Fish with Syd and Louise Fazenda. She died in 1925, reportedly of tuberculosis. Incidentally, Louise Fazenda, did not interest Syd, but, at around thirty years old, perhaps she was too ancient. In any event, Syd thought she was getting too much of the action. Against all the odds, Syd had now become everyone’s favourite limey. He’d realised, like Charlie and Mabel Normand, that audiences were now demanding subtlety in facial expression and a certain amount of melancholy in screen comedy – the days of pure slapstick were over, except, perhaps, at Sennett studios, with its legion of extras and ‘pulled off the street’ actors.

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Lucille Ricksen in Edgar Takes The Cake 1920.

Syd’s fertile brain was now cranking up again as he formed a new finance company in Delaware that would ensure that the brothers could dodge the tax-man. He was also peddling around some of his old film negatives that he had preserved. He offered to turn them, by adding new footage, into a three-reel film. By now, people were taking notice of Syd and pressmen besieged him for interviews. “What did he think of his new-found fame as an actor?” Sounding very Howard Hughes-ish he replied “Well, acting is O.K. but by its very nature it is subjective and tends to atrophy the brain, rendering a person useless in business – I don’t know what I’ll do next.” Like all coming stars Syd was in demand for modelling certain clothes items and foods. By this time he had a ranch, 25 miles north of San Diego, almost certainly kept in someone else’s name. Syd appeared in another film The Perfect Flapper in which he was not the star — unsurprisingly Colleen Moore did the honours. Meanwhile his wife, Minnie, sued a doctor for the first botched ‘nose job’ in history. During 1924, Charlie had struggled with the Edna Purviance / Mabel Normand / Courtland Dines shooting scandal, and finally had to lay Edna off on a life-long pension. Another scandal for Charlie, in 1925 was the affair Charlie had with Louise Brooks (of nude photos fame) in New York, while his child-bride, Lita Grey, was having their first child. No matter, for, as we might suspect, Syd was looking after Lita back in L.A. Although Syd tried to get Lita into his bed, he was unsuccessful. The reason Charlie was in New York was that he was touting his latest film, The Gold Rush – a Syd beater for sure. However, Syd did not keel over, for he had a new film, Charley’s Aunt, set in Oxford University, England. Syd appears in drag – a very Charlie-like thing to do.

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Charlie and Louise in the doghouse with the press.

So here we leave Syd, after his ten years in the movie business, but how successful was ‘Mr. Charisma’, the man who juggled acting with business, while bedding every actress he could get his hands on? It seems he was successful, up to a point, but, perhaps, only due to his adopted name, and his uncanny ability to walk away unscathed from his bankrupt companies. His half-brother was angry with the world, and wanted to get even, via the vehicle of his peculiar behavior. Syd, riding on the back of Charlie’s fame, was determined to grab whatever he could, and was unconcerned with the wreckage he left behind. As for Charlie, he couldn’t live with his brother, and he couldn’t live without him. The Fairbanks’s (or at least Doug) provided support for a time, but, as early as late 1925, it had become clear that big trouble was brewing at ‘the big house on the hill’. As Doug began to fade, would Syd, perhaps fading himself, drift back into Charlie’s life.

We are leaving Syd at the top of his game, but which way will he fall – down, sideways or on top of Charlie.A future blog will  cover Syd’s topsy-turvy life from the middle of 1925, with everyone wondering if, and when, his chickens would come home to roost. To be continued……

MISS NORMAND’S COURTIERS.

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Mabel’s house on Melrose Hill.

In the annals of Hollywood, no person has had so much written about them by their household staff than Mabel Normand, but only after a series of scandals. Hollywooders have always been keen to let the public know they had a Japanese butler, a French cook, and a liveried chauffeur, but these domestics were sworn to secrecy. Mary Pickford fired her first chauffeur, brother Jack, early on, and employed a peak-capped version. Mack Sennett had the type of liveried servants you see in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, some merely to keep his never-read library of intellectual books in order. His personal masseur and genie, kept Mack’s body in good trim. Mabel ran a different ship, however, for her ‘servants’ were her friends. Going back to her earliest days, it seems Mabel was terrified of being alone, and, consequently, she always sought to live with someone else, at her house, or someone else’s house. For two years she lived with Blanche Sweet and her mother, and at other times, she lived with the Arbuckles at their Santa Monica beach house, or with Raymond Hitchcock and his wife. When Mabel had her only pretentious house on Melrose Hill (a southern estate-style abode) she had enough room to house a whole studio company. We must assume, then, that she had at least a dozen friends, or, perhaps, freeloaders living with her. The term courtiers can be applied to these friends, as the members of Mabel’s household actually worshipped and revered her. Among the Hollywooders themselves, from the earliest time, Mabel was, according to the likes of Dorothy Gish, Gertrude Bambrick, Constance Talmadge, and Madge Kennedy, ‘The Goddess’. Due to the fact that her staff adored, and even worshipped Mabel, they will here be termed courtiers.

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Mabel at West 7th Street with chow dog.

In the 1920s, Mabel moved to her long-term residence at 1089 West Seventh Street in L.A. Although a rather small duplex it made a good central base, located as it was in the literary and bohemian quarter. By this time, Mabel had her own personal nurse, Julia Brew, who, until she married, lived in-house. Mamie Owens was her housekeeper of long standing. Rarely, though, did Mabel engage her staff by the normal channels. A maid might be someone she met on the street, who was on hard times. She might be introduced to someone who was broke, and needed medical treatment. She’d pay their bill, then create a domestic job for her, like ‘assistant housekeeper’. She never, however, took in men, for that would have been risky for the pure and innocent Keystone Girl, although she did aid a few men financially. It is thought that she helped Owen Moore with money, after he’d separated from Mary Pickford, and before their divorce settlement. Mabel once said that “Everything around this house fits someone else”, indicating that the staff had more control of the place than Mabel herself.

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Mabel gets in trouble with  Sennett’s liveried staff.

Some of Mabel’s staff became very concerned for her, and therefore overprotective. Mabel had no husband, and ever since her early Biograph and Vitagraph days, stage mothers worried about her crazy, footloose lifestyle, which risked her physical well-being, and her careless associations with men, which put her reputation at risk. Some of her later staff behaved in an extraordinary manner, hiding scissors in case she ‘bobbed’ her hair, hiding guns, to prevent her shooting herself, and locking doors to prevent her going out late at night.  Here are some of the characters that inhabited Mabel’s house down the years.

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Mabel’s last house 526 Camden Drive, Beverly Hills.

Mamie Owens.

Mamie Owens was the most well-known member of Mabel’s staff. She was an old silver-haired Irish lady, blessed with the Blarney. Irish Catholics were Mabel’s favourite people, and it seems Mamie was the mother of an Irish-American of her acquaintance, and she was a real Hibernian with all the inscrutable manners of that race. It seems that Mamie had been house-keeper and maid to Mabel from as early as 1916. Anyone that came to Mabel’s door would have to run the gauntlet of Mamie, and few ever crossed the threshold. Mabel made threats to Mamie that if she didn’t get her way, then she’d bob her hair. From about 1916 Mabel had wanted to be rid of her ‘Pickford curls’ worn by many actresses of the day, as Mary had been so successful wearing them. This terrified the staff, who thought such a move would destroy her career. Mabel hated banana curls, as they got in the way, and needed a certain amount of care. Mary, of course, devoted 40 years to cultivating her, very complicated, set of curls. In any event, Mamie was very careful not to leave scissors lying around for the impulsive Mabel to find.

Julie Courtell.

Juliette Courtell may 1922

Julie had been an aspiring actress, but gave it all up to become Mabel’s social secretary, whatever that means, in the late 1910s. However, she was chosen, from among a thousand excited hopefuls, to accompany Mabel on her European tour of 1922. She made lots of comments on Mabel during the Taylor shooting scandal, including this one:

She is of an impulsive and unrestrained nature, and as frankly affectionate, and affectionate, as a little boy. If she were to meet Charlie Chaplin or any other old friend right in the middle of Broadway, New York, the fact of the meet so far from Hollywood, would be sufficient occasion for her to rush up, throw her arms about him, and kiss him.”

 

Ethel Burns (sometimes called Edith Burns).

Mrs Burns was one of those in difficult circumstances that was taken in by Mabel. She created a new post for Ethel – ‘assistant housekeeper’. Mrs Burns main claim to fame was the unauthorised interview she gave to the press, concerning the Courtland Dines shooting scandal of 1924. Mrs Burns intention was to help in some way, but Mabel was furious, and kicked her out, or, in her words, ‘let her go’. Although Mrs Burns praised and eulogised Mabel, she did, in fact, mildly undermine the legal actions being undertaken Mabel’s solicitor’s and the Mack Sennett organisation. However, from our point of view, Mrs Burns statements are a boon. They allow us our one and only peek into the Mabel Normand household. Mabel, of course, was the party girl, Mistress Cool, the gad about town, revered by those that wanted to party till 1939. The assistant housekeeper tells a different story, of someone insecure, someone unusually edgy, someone wracked by periods of intense illness, and who suffered from extreme ‘night sweats’, lack of sleep, and frequently coughed up blood. Mrs Burns reveals that Mabel was completely exhausted after a day at the studio, but always insisted on leaving the house by 8 p.m. Sometimes she did not return home until the following evening. The staff would try to get her stay home and rest, using various ploys, but Mabel would simply go into a rage, and tell them that, if she was that stupid, she’d get her gun and blow her brains out. Mrs Burns had considered hiding her automatic pistol, just in case, but that risked incurring Mabel’s wrath still further. Another consideration was that Mabel often went out alone, wearing expensive furs, approximately $100,000 worth of jewellery, and $1,000 in her bag, making her a prime target on the lawless streets of Los Angeles, although she always packed a .25 pistol.

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Mabel’s .25 automatic.

Mrs Burns had a lot to say about the Dines affair. If she hadn’t spoken out, then, we would never have known that Mabel was seeing Courtland Dines behind girlfriend Edna Purviance’s back. The assistant housekeeper warned Mabel that Courtland and Edna were bad acquaintances, and they were only interested in using her as a foil, someone to amuse them, as they were both perennial ‘sad sacks’. The sad duo had once brought a monkey to the house, much to the delight of Mabel, but the miniature ape left a huge mess and devastation behind him, which the staff had to clear up. As with the Taylor scandal, Mabel had got herself into yet another love triangle, and a whole lot of trouble when her chauffeur shot Courtland Dines. Mrs Burns told that the chauffeur was a good boy, while Mabel painted him as ‘a bad egg’.

Horace ‘Chain-Gang’ Greer: The Shooting Chauffeur.

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Horace Greer (or Joe Kelley as he called himself) was an escaped chain-gang convict, who, somehow, became Mabel’s chauffeur in 1923. He’d been engaged by Mabel’s secretary, the mysterious Betty Coss. Horace had been offered by the Pierce-Arrow company, to accompany the car they’d supplied, but there was a suspicion that he’d been planted by Mack Sennett, one of the prime suspects in the Taylor case. It was young Horace that shot Courtland Dines. Greer was just the kind of guy, and spy, Sennett would employ, someone who would be back in jail, if the right word was given. In any event, it turned out that Greer was infatuated with Mabel, and was prepared to die for her. So it was, that, on New Year’s Day 1924, when he heard that Courtland was holding Mabel against her will, he took her .25 pistol (the twin of the one she carried) from her bedroom, then went to Dines apartment. When Dines opened the door to Horace, and still refused to let Mabel go, he let him have it, severely wounding the millionaire. Horace admitted shooting Dines, but claimed self-defence. Dines later dropped charges against the chauffeur, but Mabel and Edna Purviance had already attended one court session. At the trial, Greer stated that:

 “I like her and all that, and she’s been kinder to me than anybody I ever met. Gave me some platinum cuff links Christmas day. Big-hearted, that’s what she is — always doing something for somebody.”

Naturally, as Greer seemed to know his way around Mabel’s bedroom, people came to the view that they were lovers, and slept together. Following the publication of Dennis Wheatley’s book, some scurrilous persons began calling Mabel Lady Chatterley. The world fell in on Mabel and Edna, and Edna’s career more or less ended there and then, while Mabel was walking on quicksand. There were calls to ban Mabel’s films, have her deported back to Staten Island, and strike her name from Women’s Club’s registers. Mabel, however, survived, while Horace Greer slunk back to New York, and lived the rest of his life in somewhat desperate obscurity.

 

Betty Coss

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Telegram to Betty Coss (Mabel Normand Estate).

Betty Coss was secretary to Mabel from 1922 to 1924. Her duties ranged from answering mail, engaging staff, taking important phone calls, procuring bootleg booze and requested Mabel photos. For some reason, she was caught up in the fallout from the Dines fiasco, and left Mabel’s employ. It seems Mabel had barracked her for employing Horace Greer, which, for an unknown reason, upset Betty. In all probability, she’d neither employed nor vetted the escaped convict. Mabel spent around two years trying to lure Betty back with a stream of pleading and apologetic letters. However the ‘Don’t be a baby’ letter above would not have helped. Eventually Betty seems to have left California for an employer in New York, leaving Mabel with no source of the important bootleg booze, nor equally important cheap photos. In respect of photos, it should be said that stars had to purchase their own photos to send to fans that requested them. It was Betty that came up with the idea of only sending photos only to those that enclosed a stamped envelope. Stars would only receive a photo, if they enclosed one of themselves. It’s strange to think that Mabel was delighted that a photo of Jack Pickford was included when she purchased the gold vanity set of his deceased wife (Olive Thomas) for $1,400 at auction. Being deprived of her virtual right arm (Betty) may have prompted her to marry Lew Cody, as, by 1926, she was suffering severe cognitive problems.

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Letter to Betty Coss (Mabel Normand Estate).

Julia Benson (formerly Brew).

Julia Brew (as she was before marriage) was a nun that became Mabel’s long-term nurse, after treatments for her tuberculosis had done more harm than good. It is not known who it was that called Julia in – it may have been the Goldwyn Studio, a friend, her mother or, perhaps, the local priest. Julia had been trained in community care by the Catholic church, and took on her permanent position, after finding Mabel “A little girl with pigtails, in bed, wearing a flannelette nightdress” – she’d been badly burned on her chest by a carelessly applied mustard plaster.” In a way, Julia brought Mabel back from the dead, although she was the only person to be with her when she died in 1930.

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“I found a little girl with pigtails in bed.”

Right through the 1920s, Julia was at Mabel’s side, and accompanied her on all her promotional tours across the U.S. In 1926, when Mabel had ‘gone over the top’ medically, Julia attended Hal Roach studios, as her permanent medical support. This was not to the liking of Hal Roach himself, who became furious about the number of ‘courtiers’ Mabel brought to the studio (the girls constantly cursed and ridiculed him). Naturally, as a paid employee, Julia did very well out of the association, and Mabel showered her with gifts. When Mabel died, her family allotted Julia $10,000 from the estate, the wisdom of which was later questioned by Mabel’s great nephew, Stephen Normand, who thought that, as a salaried employee, she should have received nothing. In the 1970s, he became furious with Julia, when he realised that she was in possession of some of Mabel’s property. However, at this time, if there had been anything of value, it had long since been disposed of. In 1970 Julia still had a few mementos of Mabel – half-a-dozen blood-soaked nightdresses (weird!).

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Mabel and Julia in 1925.

Adela Rogers St. Johns.

Miss St. Johns was among the few real friends that Mabel had in the journalistic world, and she seems to have been the only journo that could prise Mabel’s sweet lips apart. Her free access to Mabel’s life antagonised many pressmen, who had to rely on studio press releases. Adela stayed overnight at Mabel’s house on many occasions, and gives us an insight into her world. She confirms that Mabel wandered the house all night, so that anyone who stayed there got little sleep. Her book Love, Laughter and Tears (1979) is unfortunately full of references to Mabel being an elf or a fairy, and dwells too much on the Mack and Mabel myth to be of any real use. Her claim that Mabel tried to kill herself by leaping off the Nat Goodwin pier cannot be substantiated, nor can her contention that she was Mabel’s  long-term confidant.

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Adela Rogers St Johns.

Unknowns

The unknowns in Mabel’s life are of interest. Those people she took in might have stayed a few weeks, a few months, or a year. Sometimes they left, carrying away Mabel’s property, and it is strange to relate that she actually took one of these scumbags back into her house.

People who never lived in Mabel’s house.

Husband Lew Cody (would have loved to make an inventory of Mabel’s stuff).

Charlie Chaplin (saw too much of Mabel anyway).

Mack Sennett (barred from the doorstep for many years).

Minta Arbuckle (played host to Mabel over a long period).

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MABEL AND MARY GO NORWEGIAN : ‘THE MENDER OF NETS’ 1912.

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Mary Pickford with Scandinavian pigtails and woolly hat, amid fjord-like scenery.

There is an interesting story, about the way in which the Biograph company obtained stimulating coastal locations, while out in California, in the early 1900s. Most of the material for this story, comes from Mrs Linda Griffith, (wife of D.W.) who wrote the bible of early silent film, When The Movies Were Young in 1925. The amateurishness of the industry at that time, can be gleaned from this one book, but is confirmed by Mack Sennett who said “We all just wandered into the Biograph brownstone, looking for a dollar and dinner.” The important thing was the ‘dinner’; dry, curled up sandwiches, which were all you would get, if the director did not use you that day – at least they sustained life, until you had a part handed to you, on a five-dollar day basis. During this early time, Linda was handed a full $50, to buy attractive clothing for the actresses – from the nearest second-hand shop. It would be nice to think that the ‘pretties’ came from the great Adolph Zukor’s rag stall, but there is no way to prove this. Zukor, of course, was to become the premier producer in Hollywood. Money was scarce at the studio, and Griffith had to look carefully at the cut of his player’s own clothes. If, like Dorothy Davenport, you were a modish type of person, gifted Parisian frocks by globe-trotting relatives, you were definitely in. Mary Pickford was popular with Griffith, but her gingham dresses were homemade by mother. Sometimes they did the job, but, at other times, Griffith would pay $5 or even $10 for the loan of a superior type of dress, or hat, for Mary.

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Her Awakening 1911.

Mabel Normand spent her remaining money, after paying mother, on the best wearing apparel she could get – “Food, who needs it?” She did this for herself, but it gave her parts in films, such as Her Awakening. Mostly, though, Mabel played a low-down, a skivvy, or rag-clad domestic. This, then, was the situation, when the Biograph company set out for a three-month stint in California. Mabel had returned from Vitagraph, as a recognisable actress with a name (the nearest you could get to being a star in those days). Mary had also just returned, after an abysmal time with IMP studio, and both were soon on the train west, along with new girls Lillian and Dorothy Gish, among many others, later to become the foundations of Hollywood. The train journey itself, was an adventure, to be later recalled by Mary Pickford in her newspaper column under the title “New Year’s Eve on the Train” to which Mrs Griffith later added her own thoughts.

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Viking ship in a real fjord.

Eyes to The Coast.

The Biograph temporary studio this year was in downtown L.A. but, due to other companies producing ‘sea’ films, Griffith decided to make much more of this facility on their doorstep. He’d already made Enoch Arden, and other sea films, like The Unchanging Sea the preceding year, and he was pulled to the great blue once more. The company required to fulfil Biograph’s needs this year was vast, compared with the previous year, when Jeannie MacPherson, Mabel Normand and numerous others had been left behind. Griffith now located Blanche Sweet somewhere out on the road, and lured her back for 40-a-week. Griffith had need only for a small number of ‘locals’ this time, and he’d gladly taken little Jack Pickford along for certain pictures, and as a stand-in for the girls in dangerous stunts. From their much-improved new studio, they would set out for their various locations, at the Spanish Missions, the immediate environs of L.A., the desert, and Santa Monica by the sea. The trolley was the quickest, but most uncomfortable way of getting to Santa Monica, but Griffith, Linda, cameraman Billy Bitzer, and right-hand man Wilfred Lucas travelled in D.W’s luxurious, monogrammed Pierce-Arrow motor-car, even though it took longer.

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The Queen arrives. Mabel riding in Griffith’s Pierce-Arrow in The Diving Girl 1911.

Santa Monica was already becoming popular for Angelenoes, at the weekend, but it was a vastly different place to what it is today. It was little built-up, and the beach, up towards Castle Rock, was inhabited by Norwegian and Japanese fisherfolk, who fought tooth and nail from dawn to dusk, until the effects of the ‘gargle’ paralysed them. Now, it seems, the Vikings had failed to conquer the east American coast, but had now come in from the cold, via the west coast! The Scandic invasion of the U.S. was to last a hundred years, but you won’t find many Anna Q. Nilsson’s coming over today. The flow is in the opposite direction, with Americans pouring into Scandanavia, by the tens of thousands. However, the reasons are political and economic, and have no place in this blog (Google it, if you will). Griffith had found the Norwegians to be people he could do business with, while the Japanese proved to be just too inscrutable. He discovered that, for the requisite sum, he could obtain the exclusive use of an entire fishing village, totally emptied, barring a few ‘Vikings’ who hung around for work as extras. There were only a couple of flies in the ointment – the rising stars Alice Joyce and Caryle Blackwell, of the Kalem Company, who exercised their horses on this very stretch of beach. Alice, of course, was very friendly with Mabel Normand, as they’d both been together while modelling, and had both appeared in cowboy films, at Kalem. It was at Kalem that Alice was propelled to stardom at astonishing speed, almost before anyone else, causing Mrs Griffith no little heartache, when she saw Alice and Caryle canoodling in Westlake Park, L.A. in a Kalem picture — before Biograph had ever got there! Mr Griffith was even less pleased, for Mabel had invited Alice into the camp without any consultation with the great man. Players from other studios were regarded, as spies, and arrangements had to be made before ‘the enemy’ were invited over. He was even less pleased later, when Mabel, after a few gins, tried to mount Alice’s horse, and fell off the other side, badly bruising her arm. Eleven years later, she broke her collarbone, trying the same stunt, same worse for booze, on the same beach. Her hospitalisation resulted in the well-known ‘Church’ divorce scandal (there was either fun or trouble when Mabel was around).

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Alice Joyce with equine friend.

The Mender of Nets.

Mr Griffith had a bright idea. He’d put his greatest theatrical pull, Mary, with his greatest tragedienne, Mabel. The two had never performed together before, now they’d appear in a semi-tragic drama. Mary would be the girl who mended the fishing nets, replete with Scandinavian pigtails, a Norwegian, embroidered woollen hat, apron and blouse, donated for a small price by a real-life Viking maid. With Mabel, clad in regulation gingham, providing the tragic element, it was going to be a tough call for drammer-trained Mary, although she just about had the prime part. All of Mary’s training could not make up for Mabel’s naturalness, when performing tragic roles. It may have been for this film that Griffith decided to let Mabel have her head, and wing it.  Mary, however, would receive the full blast of D.W.’s megaphone, should she fail to perform. One can almost hear the genius’ dulcet tones, when Mary drifts off, just as Mabel’s brother leaves to shoot her lover. “Clasp and wring your hands, Mary, claw your face!” Crazy stuff, but these actions would be parodied, burlesqued, and ridiculed by Mack and Mabel in their future films at Keystone.  By the end of the film, Mary had had enough, and she never played opposite Mabel again. Mabel’s eyes, usually so doleful and endearing, could become extremely scary under certain circumstances, as Mary confessed in her newspaper column: New Year’s Eve on The Train (1916), when she said Mabel’s very looks were “like stilletos in your heart”. It was in the following months that D.W. would continually shake Mary by the shoulders, and even throw her bodily across the set, causing her to seek pastures anew, and leave before the end of the year.

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Classic Griffith from Mary Pickford — a long time parodied by Mack and Mabel.

Getting On.

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Never act with babies or animals.

Out in L.A., Blanche Sweet had caught on to acting before the camera, and had filled out on a diet of bacon sandwiches and cream puffs, supplied courtesy of Mr Griffith. Jeannie MacPherson was thinking of leaving acting, and entering the field of screenwriting. Griffith was organising the village for its return to the errant Vikings. Mabel, between bouts of tickling and bouncing Biograph baby Lee Dougherty, was sitting in the lobby of the Alexandria Hotel with Mack Sennett, waiting on the wise-guy owners of New York Motion Pictures. Mack had organised, in the previous year, the founding of Keystone Studios, under the wing of NYMP, and, having found his star-of-stars, he was ready to go. Mack and Mabel would be back on the coast within a few months to create the legendary Keystone studios. Not many weeks later Mary would depart, injudiciously, for a renewed career on the stage, again stalling her rise as a named movie star.

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Mary and Mabel have a slight disagreement in a Norwegian hut.

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Fatty and Mabel’s  luxurious  film-star beach-pad at Castle Rocks in 1915.

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Link: New Year’s Eve on the Train

MABEL ON SUNSET BOULEVARD.     

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The Mabel Normand Studio. On Fountain Ave, not Sunset Boulevard. 2017.

When Mack Sennett wrote his autobiography in the 1950s, he stated that he’d built a new feature film studio for Mabel Normand on Sunset Boulevard in late 1915. This one sentence incorporates two untruths (as Louise Brooks later called them). Firstly, the studio was not on Sunset Boulevard, but on the adjacent, and intersecting, Fountain Avenue. Secondly, the $100,000 studio was not specifically built for Mabel. Mack had tried to insinuate that the new premises were in Hollywood, but its location was just outside Hollywood, in present-day Silverlake, and so the land was a little cheaper. The site was also an awkward triangular shape, which made it cheaper still, and Mack’s contention that it was chosen because his distribution company was the Triangle Corporation, was intentionally misleading. In this blog we look at how Mabel went from almost on Sunset Boulevard in 1916, to in Sunset Boulevard in 1950, twenty years after her death. Confused? Read on, and all will become clear.

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Beyonce leaves the Mabel Normand Studio, now The Mack Sennett Studios.

Background to a Conquest.

The most interesting thing about the Fountain Avenue project, is that Mack intended the studio to house several companies engaged in feature film production. It was not specifically meant for Mabel, and Mack was actively grooming new talent to replace Mabel. Now, we might wonder why Mack would replace his multi-million-dollar star with an unknown actress. The first reason is that Mabel was sick, very sick, with the incurable disease, tuberculosis, and could be expected to die within a few short years. The second reason is that it was possible that Mabel would abscond with some leading man, intent on gaining his own studio. This had almost happened with Charlie Chaplin, who Mack finally, it seems, forced out at the barrel of a .45. In any event, Mabel was not going to allow any actress to occupy her position at Keystone. She’d just about worked herself to death to get the studio off the ground, and had forsaken a large portion of her youth doing so. All she got was her basic pay with no share of the profits for either the films, nor the Mabel merchandise (dolls, cups, spoons, shirts) that the big bosses Kessell and Baumann sold in large quantities to movie addicts. In Anthony Slide’s book, She Could be Chaplin! Mr Slide states that, unlike Alice Howell, Mabel got everything she wanted at Keystone. This statement should read “Mabel took everything she wanted” for thus was the case. When Mabel wanted the studio on Fountain Avenue, she went missing from Keystone, only to hold a press conference in a hotel room in New York, announcing that she’d signed with Mutual to ‘do Chaplin films’. Mabel had been missing for weeks, with Kessell and Baumann’s and Sennett’s private dicks hunting for her across the continent. There she sat, all alone in New York, while she outmanoeuvred the big shots of the movie business – not for Mabel was the idea of hanging around waiting to be given anything – she’d put the wise guys in a position where they’d have to outbid Mutual for her services.When she returned to Hollywood, with her own studio and a massive salary, her peers hailed her as The Queen, the first actress (or actor) to put her name over a studio.

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Mabel at work in the MNS.

Mabel’s studio was not quite on Sunset Boulevard, but someone else had a studio two blocks away. The Reliance-Majestic studio of movie genius, D.W. Griffith, stretched back from Sunset Blvd. to Fountain Avenue. Legend has it that when he saw Mabel’s name go up on her studio, he almost had a seizure, falling back into a chair mumbling “The cow’s made it!” As is well known, there was no love lost between ‘The Genius’ and Mabel. The methods Mabel used to snatch the Fountain Avenue studio were used again in 1917, but, due to adverse circumstances, failed. Mabel made another attempt, in 1922, to snatch the lead in Extra Girl from bathing-beauty Phyllis Haver, and this was entirely successful.

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The good and the great of Hollywood bear Mabel to her grave.

Mabel’s Career post-Mortem.

After involvement in three scandals, Taylor, Dines, Church, and suspected involvement in the Arbuckle scandal, Mabel died in February 1930, from tuberculosis, as had been expected by those most close to her. Mabel was buried by her peers, in the last great funeral/event of the silent era. Her memory was carried forward by a continuing series of eulogies, which carried on until 1940, when a film, very loosely based on Mabel’s character, was released by Republic Studios, called Hollywood Cavalcade. A huge Hollywood party was held, known as The Night of A Thousand Stars, during which an enormous plaque to Mabel’s memory was unveiled, and remains in position today. The studio also did a remake of Mabel’s Sis Hopkins, starring Judy Canova.

So, what was happening down on Sunset Boulevard, now known as ‘the strip’. Well, much of the strip was now under concrete, a far cry from 1917, when Charlie Chaplin was able to acquire a 5-acre patch of orange and lemon trees for a studio. Meanwhile, the memory of Mabel remained strong through the 1940s, and Mack Sennett had long punted the idea of a real Mack and Mabel film. This would have had Mabel turning in her grave, as she definitely would not have wished for an eternal association with Sennett. As early as 1933, after Sennett went bust, he seemed to have had the idea of making a Mabel film, starring Louise Brooks. However, the necessary financial backing was not there, probably due to it being it being too soon to bring Mabel back from the grave.

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Flapper-vamp Louise Brooks.

The idea was eventually taken up by Paramount Pictures, that decided to make the film Sunset Boulevard, more closely based on Mabel’s life. Support came from the old movie moguls, still big in the industry, that had been close to Mabel, especially Adolph Zukor, Chairman of Paramount, and Louis B. Mayer of MGM. Unfortunately, the chosen director was new(ish) boy Billy Wilder, who had decided to make a name for himself in Hollywood.

Wilder had parts of the film re-written, so that it more reflected the most sordid and Roman aspects of the silent era, although it was intended to mainly pillory the producers. As Mack Sennett would have told it, he did not leave off ‘the sauce’. Consequently, all the unproven accusations against Mabel were aired as true. The aging Gloria Swanson was dug out of the woodwork to play the lead, as a 50-year-old, crazy and washed up silent movie star called Norma Desmond – almost certainly a combination of the names Normand and Desmond (Taylor) who Mabel supposedly shot. Norma Desmond was a man-eater, and man killer, who had a passion for young guys. The first choice for the lead was Mary Pickford, who was absolutely horrified by the script, and flatly turned the part down. At first Gloria Swanson also turned the part down, similarly horrified, but the lure of the resurrection of her career was too strong, and she accepted the role.

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Chaplin surveys his  studio site on Sunset Boulevard.

Not so well known, is another film, a musical, also proposed in 1950 by Sennett. It was called The Keystone Girl, and it was suggested that Betty Hutton would play Mabel. However, she turned the role down, for the part was too small. The film, in fact, hailed Mack Sennett as The King of Comedy, and his character would loom large all the way through the picture. The Mabel role was only a supporting one. As usual, Mack wanted to use the name, but had no concern for the person,  nor her memory. The film was to be made, like Sunset Boulevard, by Paramount, but was never produced. Almost certainly, Adolph Zukor, a close friend of Mabel’s, championed both films, although he was not impressed with Wilder’s portrayal of silent Hollywood. Mabel’s other producer friend, Louis B. Mayer of MGM, went ballistic when he saw the film, and called Wilder a scoundrel that should be run out of Hollywood. Mayer, of course, was one of those pall bearers that had borne The Keystone Girl to her grave, twenty years before. There is, however, a more obvious connection between Norma Desmond / Cecile B. de Mille (who appears in the film) and Louis B. Mayer / Mabel Normand. In 1928, Mayer had staged an elaborate screen test for the sickening Mabel, with a view to getting her into MGM pictures. In Sunset Boulevard, Cecile B. de Mille fools 50-year old Norma Desmond into thinking he will get her back on the screen. This implies that Mayer had been merely stringing Mabel along, when he told her he’d get her into talking pictures. Mabel was only 33 when she made this test, and it was entirely possible that she could return, when she recovered her health. As we now know, she entered the Pottenger sanitarium, where she died a few months later. Her death came as a shock, for everyone, for the general opinion was that you couldn’t kill Mabel with a stick.

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Mabel’s test on the set of Our Dancing Daughters 1928.

As for Gloria Swanson, she will forever be associated with Sunset Boulevard, and her later celebrity derived more from that one film than from her entire silent movie career. Mabel, in a way, created the legend of Gloria Swanson, the actress who once told Mack Sennett “I don’t want to be another Mabel Normand, doing all that dangerous stuff. You could get killed doing that!” Sennett tore up her contract.

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“Hey, which way’s the 101?” Sunset Boulevard east of N. Beachwood Drive, 1900. 

The Basic Plot.

Joe Gillis is a downtrodden screenwriter, who, while being pursued by debt collection agents, stumbles upon an apparently abandoned mansion on Sunset Boulevard. He muses that the house must have belonged to a big movie star, “Someone like Mabel Normand” famous for her swimming pool and marble bathtub.  He is discovered snooping around by Norma Desmond, who is a kind of Miss Haversham character, straight out of Dickens. However, Joe finds that he has stumbled into the real-life Hotel California – he can check out, but he can never leave. He finds Norma, an old silent film star, to be very vampish, and she has a creepy butler, straight out of The Adams Family – “You rang sir?” The butler is former big star Eric von Stroheim. Norma captures hard-up Joe, by offering a roof over his head, and various trinkets, like silk suits, and branded shoes. All Joe is expected to do is re-work a badly done screenplay that Norma has written. Joe obliges, but the script is so bad that he has an impossible task. It isn’t long before Norma and Joe are plunged into the inevitable Mabel-style love triangle, as Joe meets, and falls for, a younger woman. Meanwhile, Norma has made contact with de Mille, by simply driving into Paramount studios, where the surviving old-timers are glad to see her back. The producer, obviously, is utterly confused, but tells Norma he will make her film.

Before long, Norma discovers Joe’s treachery, and shoots him dead, his body falling into the newly-filled pool. The cops cart Norma off, but she thinks they are de Mille’s men, come to take her to the studio. This is one crazy film, about a madcap star.

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“Mr de Mille, I am ready for my close-up.” Mucho mugging.

The Impact of Sunset Boulevard.

Much has been written of Mabel over the last 40-plus years, some good and some bad. However, for 20 years following Sunset Boulevard, the name Mabel Normand could not be uttered in polite society, nor any other kind of society. The name was taboo, so that Mary Pickford could only mention her once in her memoirs, and Charlie Chaplin had to skirt around the subject, and not give his true feelings and observations about Mabel – perhaps because Mack was still alive when he started to write his autobiography.  On top of that, he was in enough trouble with the authorities, and did not wish to speak too much about a fellow socialist. Mack’s own autobiography did not really help, as he persisted with, and enhanced, the Mack and Mabel love story. Mrs D.W. Griffith’s book of 1925, When The Movies Were Young, gives some facts about Mabel that were impossible to air past 1950. At this time, also, Hedda Hoppa was the accepted voice of Hollywood, and it was she that claimed Mabel was a cocaine addict, even though this quick-blast drug was pretty much useless for Mabel’s tuberculosis – if she’d have said heroin, she  might have been more believable, although there is no evidence for this either. Douglas Fairbanks jnr, although he’d spoken glowingly of Mabel in the past, felt unable mention her in his book Salad Days in 1988.

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From the mid-1950s onwards, there was a renewed interest in the silent movie era, but Mabel is conspicuously absent in the plethora of documentaries that the new interest spawned. However, in the early 1970s, following the musical Mack and Mabel, The Keystone Girl came into her own. Many of the old silent actors and actresses began to come out of hiding, and berate the view, given by the musical, that Mabel was a drug-soaked scatter-witted imbecile. Others, though, took the general impression given by the musical, as representing fact, rather than fiction. As a consequence, people like Richard Attenborough and Paul Merton were able to push aside Mabel’s obvious talent, and intimate that Charlie Chaplin had taught Mabel all she knew about films, even though he’d just come into the industry when he met Mabel – a strange reversal of roles and facts.

Some observations on the film: fiction meets reality.

At first viewing, it appears that Sunset Boulevard is a straightforward drama. The film, however, is neither wholly dramatic, nor straightforward, and its nature suggests that Wilder did not intend to denigrate, nor ridicule Mabel. The film is entirely constructed in the same vein as a Mabel film, due to the incorporation of drama, tragedy, comedy and irony, all wrapped up in one very viewable package. In her lifetime, Mabel was unable to fully implement her ideas, due to producer restraints, but the films she made with Chaplin go some way towards indicating where she was trying to go in 1914. She had a little more freedom under Sam Goldwyn, but it is unfortunate that many of these films are now lost. It is worth noting, however, that Wilder’s first attempt at a dramatic opening scene, several dead bodies in a morgue talking to each other, actually bombed, as those watching it ended up rolling in the aisles, consumed with laughter. He therefore switched to a more conventional dramatic opening, and introduced the other elements by degrees in the course of the film. It almost seems as though Wilder had a hotline to Mabel, up on Cloud 9, or that Mabel had infiltrated his dreams, and guided his hand, during the course of production. Overall, Wilder is attempting to throw barbs, not at the silent era and its actors, but at the producers that had crippled so many screenwriters and performers.

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Aerial view of Mabel’s Beverly Hills house, with small pool, alleyway running behind.

Mabel is mentioned twice in the film: Once when Joe Gillis sees Norma’s swimming pool, and says “Jeez, Mabel Normand probably swam in there.” The second time is when Norma Desmond says that, when dancing with Mabel, she kept stepping on her (Norma’s) feet. Many in the audience would have known that Mabel was famous for her swimming and diving skills, although she only had a small pool at her (modest) Beverly Hills house, which was far from being private. Mabel used Alla Navimova’s secluded pool, at her impressive mansion. The reference to Mabel’s dancing was another of Wilder’s jokes. Mabel was known for being a good dancer, almost to professional standard. Unfortunately, we can only see her dancing in a comical way within comedies, but she does appear to have been very proficient.

Norma’s mansion, which was massive, even for a movie star, was, according to Joe Gillis “Full of junk.” This reminds us of the day in 1930, when Mabel’s house, prior to its auction, was thrown open to the press. The journos reported that it was like walking into a time warp, or an Edwardian drawing room. They had expected the place to have been up-to-the-minute and art deco. Mabel, it transpired, was just an old-fashioned girl at heart.

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The heavy interior of Mabel’s house in 1930.

The mentions of Mabel during the course of the film, indicate strongly that she was far from forgotten by the general public. The fact that the film destroyed Mabel’s reputation could not have been foreseen, by either Wilder, nor anyone else. Possibly McArthyism, and the recent expulsion of Charlie Chaplin from the U.S. played not a small part in this process. Both Charlie and Mabel wore their socialist hearts on their sleeves, making them prime targets for the authorities.

This story is, of course, about a silent actress that is unable to let go of the past. She is crazy, and prone to suicide. The question is “Were there still silent actresses that wanted to be stars again?” It seems those that yearned to remain stars, gave up that yearning at least 15 years previously. Those that wished to commit suicide did so in the 1930s, but only because they were destitute. Here we might include Florence Lawrence and Marie Prevost, among many others. A small trickle did away with themselves later, including Phyllis Haver, who killed herself shortly after Mack Sennett’s death in 1960. Although this part of the story gripped the public’s imagination, it is clearly a false premise. Most actresses, like Anna Q. Nilsson in this film, would be happy to accept a bit part, which could get them into T.V. in a small way, and keep the wolf from the door – none of these aging actresses would really have wanted to go through the whole worrisome star bit again.

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Anna Q Nilsson, Mabel and Alice Joyce in their modelling days.

It was intended that Norma Desmond would use foul language throughout the film, but it seems Gloria had it written out. Maybe she tried to distance herself from Mabel, for she later said of her “She was crude and vulgar”, which, by all accounts was true, but, as Blanche Sweet later told it “nobody minded.”

Norma Desmond’s almost triumphal return to Paramount, mirrors that of Mabel’s return to Sennett Studios in 1926. Ruth Taylor, in her published diaries, records:

“Guess who came to see us today? Mabel Normand! Everyone acted as though the Queen had come.”

Mabel was there to negotiate terms for a new Sennett feature, but she’d come under the sway of her new husband, Lew Cody, who seems to have advised her not to do the picture.

Mabel’s love life differed from Norma’s in one way. Norma took a man into her house, whereas Mabel always did her lovemaking at the man’s house. From as early as 1914, Mabel was being watched, not just by Sennett’s henchman, but by the press. What the press wanted to do do was bring the wholesome, innocent and naive idol of the Keystone Girl crashing down. Consequently, Mabel made sure that all men were gone from the house by nightfall. Her household was composed entirely of women, and the chauffeur and gardener lived elsewhere.

It is true, as with Norma, that Mabel showered her acquaintances (male and female) with gifts. However, when a man presented her with an engagement ring, she’d end the relationship there and then, but drop the ring into her purse. Consequently, there is no point in looking for the $50,000 ring that Paul Bern purportedly threw into a certain canyon, after Mabel turned him down. The ring had certainly joined hundreds of others in her jewelry box  trunk.

Norma Desmond had a creepy butler / chauffeur that was totally devoted to her, carried out her orders without question, and had once been her husband. Mabel had a creepy chauffeur too, a young chain-gang escapee called Horace Greer. He shot Mabel and Edna Purviance’s shared lover, Courtland Dines, with Mabel’s gun,  causing a huge furore over how he knew where the gun was kept in her bedroom.

The film Sunset Boulevard made Gloria Swanson, but here’s the strange thing — as she became the centre of attention, she actually began to speak in interviews like Mabel. Mabel’s voice was never recorded, but, in written interviews, she would always pontificate, and say what was wrong with the world, as well as the movie business, and Gloria took it up…….how curious is that?

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1915: MY ANNUS HORRIBILIS BY MABEL NORMAND.

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Time to bring Keystone into the 1910s. Mack Sennett, Mabel, Ad Kessell, Ford Sterling. 1915.

It’s curious to think that 1915 was my seminal year, but, at the same time, it was the worst year of my life. I’d won the Best Comedienne award, and out-polled Mary Pickford by 10,000 votes. I was riding the crest of a wave, after a series of ‘beyond slapstick’ films with Charlie Chaplin (Chaplin was still slapstick, but I complimented him, with my portrayals of tragic wives and poor vending girls / slaveys). However, I fell into deep depression, and even became suicidal in this very year. To properly explain this paradox, I need to start my story in 1912, when I began my association with Michael Sinnott, who you may know better as Mack Sennett.

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11 E. 14th Street. 1910.

Life in the Pressure Cooker.

It was to the Biograph studio in 1912 (or late 1911) that I returned, having become a star in comedy at Vitagraph. I was immediately surrounded by hordes of actors, keen to meet the girl who’d become that rare creature of those times, a named movie star. Mack Sennett, who’d previously only peered at me, suddenly became interested. After some dallying, he said to me:

“Stick by me kid, I’m going to have my own studio, and I’ll make you a star.”

What did I say? I told him to fuck off, in my own inimitable way. I was already a star.

It was in early 1912, just before the studio departed for the winter to the west coast, that Mack cornered me in a milk bar on 5th Avenue. For the first time in his life, the future King of Comedy bought a girl a milk shake. He got to work on me:

“Look Mabel, I’ve arranged a meeting in L.A. with Kessel and Baumann, bosses of New York Motion Pictures. They’re starting a new comedy studio, and I intend to make sure I’m in that studio, as the supervisor. What do you think about joining me?”

“Look me up Mack when you’ve got the studio, until then I don’t want to know.” I replied.

“Mabel, Mabel” he said sidling up to me “I love you, and want to help you get on. Kessell and Baumann want you on board, and unless they get you, the deal is off. This is a once-only chance, Mabel.”

Well, I knew Mack didn’t love me, it was common knowledge that he was gay |(in fact he was bi-sexual). However, it really did sound like a great opportunity, so I said I’d meet with K and B out on the coast, but I made no promise that I’d take the deal. Little did I know that Mack was intending to be a partner in the new company, but I was only 17 and foolish, so made no move to grab a partnership myself. Anyhow we went to L.A. and arrangements were made for the new studio, Keystone, to begin work in around June 1912. Mack was also, at this time, made comedy director for Biograph, and I made films with Mack that would help convince K and B that we were the real deal. It worked, and soon I announced to my Biograph friends that I was leaving for Keystone. The girls were appalled, and begged me not to go off with the crazy Irishman, Mack Sennett. Blanche Sweet, almost in tears, told me I was crazy to make the move, and it would surely wreck my career. Anyhow, on my day of leaving, I brought a case of iced beer and several bottles of gin into the studio, and everyone was happy. However, when the Biograph girls heard that I was off to California a few weeks later, they descended on our makeshift Manhattan studio to try to convince me not to do it. They wined and dined me at Murphy’s restaurant, close by the Jersey ferry terminal, where we’d had such good times in the past, waiting to travel over to Fort Lee, and they all swore their undying allegiance to me. “Don’t do it” Said Mary Pickford and Dot Gish, but I was resolute and unwavering – I was going to the coast and that was that. It wasn’t long after that Mary herself left the fold, but the Gish sisters and Blanche Sweet were not yet viable stars, so stayed on with Griffith.

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A Cunning Plan is Hatched.

Before we headed west, we had to make certain arrangements. Now you might have heard that Mack and I were engaged to marry. Well, this was all stuff and nonsense, but we did arrange a sham engagement. In those far off days, when King Edward was barely cold in his Westminster Abbey grave, it was not considered proper for a young girl to travel, sleeper class, three thousand railway miles with a middle-aged man. Thus, Mack acquired a paste diamond ring, and off we went to see mother. We convinced her we were engaged, and it was alright for me to travel with my future husband. This was all necessary, because if I had not been engaged, the shock of me cohabiting with a man would have killed my deeply religious mother, for sure. If she’d known I’d be with four other middle-aged men on that trip, she’d have had a fit there and then. As it was, on the five-day journey to the coast, we made an incongruous group – five greying middle-aged men with an apparently thirteen-year old girl in tow. We raised some eyebrows I can tell you. One bonnetted old maid mouthed the word ‘whore’ at me as I passed her compartment. I did no more, but lifted my skirts to reveal – no underwear! The poor dear developed palpitations, and had to be stretcher off the train at the next station. Now, I know what you’re thinking “Did Mack and I get it together?” Well, let me tell you something about actresses. We’re a passionate, emotional bunch, and our needs go beyond those of the average female. Without a regular dose of amour, our minds tend to wander. I’ve lost count of the number actresses I’ve know that threw their careers away chasing men, when they should have been working. Mack understood this perfectly, and, although he was gay, he rose to the occasion, and did his duty. Duty, that is, not to me, but to the mighty dollar – he actually intended to work me to death in the pursuit of profit.

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Whatever did Mabel get up to on that train?

 

Life was grim, I can tell you, out in the Wild West. I was lonely and unloved, and the local populace sensed I was an actress, and passed me in the street, as though I emitted some revolting smell. Mack directed me all day, took me to dinner every night, and supplied a form of love. I appeared in seventy films in the first year, and often crawled on my hands and knees up to bed at night, and cried myself to sleep. Plenty of money was being made, but who had it, and who spent it, I cannot tell. However, I was a city girl, and I soon developed an intense hatred for the muddy, boring environs of Edendale. Just when I thought I’d chuck it all in, along came a knight in shining armour – Charles S. Chaplin.

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Keystone in the early days (bounded by dotted lines). Not a good place for a city girl.

Living with The Tramp.

I’ll try to keep this section very brief, although Charlie was to become a key component in my life. I can’t remember who it was that thought to bring Chas to Keystone, but he was signed by Kessell and Baumann, and he was their man, rather than Sennett’s. Mack didn’t want Chas – he hated vaudevillians, and when he saw Chaplin was a young, handsome lad, he worried that he might run off with his greatest asset – me. I looked forward to meeting Chas, as the only actress I knew to have seen him in real life was Mary Pickford, who’d told me he was good-looking, with an air of the bohemian about him. Naturally, I fell for Chas, who was, after all, the only young, unattached fella at the studio. He became a regular visitor to my dressing room, and the other actresses, who were used to wandering in and out of my dressing room at will, knew to keep out, when Chas was in there. Mack, of course, had long ago lost interest in me in any amorous way, and had cultivated an entourage of gay men around him, some of whom appeared in films like Mabel’s Busy Day and Tillie’s Punctured Romance. However, he continued with the engaged to marry nonsense, just to keep potential suitors away from me. On top of that, he had spies out following me everywhere. Chas and I were not just in love, we also enjoyed working together.

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Mabel and Charlie. In love and enjoying working together.

With Chas, I could indulge in my fantasy of incorporating melancholy and tragedy into comedy. My man had the full support of Kessell and Baumann, and so I could do whatever I wanted. However, it did not stop Sennett stepping in, and introducing ridiculous amounts of slapstick. Chas was ambivalent over whether he should stay at Keystone, or leave at the end of the year. I thought it was impossible for him to stay, as Mack made it clear he wanted him out. By November, Chas was on the verge of stardom, and I suggested he should leave, as, being a man, he could demand his own studio. This meant he would need a leading lady, and the obvious choice was yours truly. I demanded that I play lead in Charlie’s final films, just to show him what we could achieve together. In these films, I was all over him like a rash, using all my womanly whiles to charm the limey (see Gentlemen of Nerve). One day Mack called Chas into his office to discuss renewing his contract. Chas was ‘scairt’ I can tell you, and wanted me to go with him and hold his trembling hand. I refused – I had already dealt with all his negotiations with Sennett, and now it was time for the tramp to ‘man up’. Mack asked how much Chaplin wanted. He told Mack $1,000 a week. Mack said he’d only go to $750. Chas started to argue, and Mack went to his desk, reached into a drawer and pulled out his trusty .45. “I think, Charlie, negotiations are at an end” He said, waving the gun. Chas made a tactical withdrawal – he was out of Keystone. All that was left was for us to have a final tearful dinner, and then the tramp was gone.

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All over Charlie like a rash.

What Mabel Did Next.

Chas had told me he was going to start work with Essanay at their Niles studio, but it turned out he went to Chicago, putting 2,000 miles between us. Was this deliberate? Probably. In any case, Charlie soon took a college student, Edna Purviance, as his leading lady. When she came to Hollywood, I befriended her. Did I wreak my revenge on her? Well, not then, but ten years later…….. Anyhow, I considered Charlie to be a coward, by not standing up against Mack, but you can’t really blame him for running away, as he’d just started on his career. It would have been rough justice, if Chas had been shot dead, at just the time that he’d made it.

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Essanay 1915. Chaplin (C) Francis X Bushman (L), G.M. Anderson (R).

As we rolled into 1915, Mack decided that he’d teach me a lesson for my apparent disloyalty, especially as his spies told him I was still mourning the loss of my limey. The King embarked on a program of torture for me, and put me into films, where I played a lovesick girl alongside Roscoe Arbuckle. He added a little (or a lot) of slapstick, and, hey presto, he had a series of money-makers. When we complained about the lack of artistry, Mack simply said:

“Never mind the quality, feel the greenbacks.”

He then raised my pay to $700 a week, but everyone knows that I have no head for money, and the raise had no effect on the way I felt. It seems Mack was out to destroy me, and he brought in droves of new actresses, just as Keystone joined the Triangle distribution company, which was affiliated also to the Griffith company, Ince studios and the New York Motion Picture Company. By the Spring, when Ad Kessell arrived to oversee great changes at the studio, using Triangle money, I was ready to approach him, and ask him for a move to NYMP. Kessell and Baumann had always wanted me at NYMP, and, as my Keystone contract was up at the end of the year, Ad promised to do something to my advantage. In the meantime, the studio was being remodelled. The actresses’ dressing room, attached to my own dressing room, within a bungalow, was turned into a storeroom, and the girls removed to a new two-storey dressing room block. I was left alone and marooned in the bungalow, which was another form of torture. I sidestepped Mack and complained by telegram to my friend, Charlie Baumann’s daughter, Ada, in New York. Charlie wired Sennett to the effect that I had to be given a dressing room in the new block. This was duly done, but I had to share, which was fine by me. The girls’ dressing rooms were located on the upper floor, so the stairway entrance could be guarded, and men turned away. For me, used to having many visitors, this was a problem, but I found that the dressing rooms overlooked the street. This meant I could leave via a well-placed rope, whenever I got bored with working. Actors, like Jack Pickford, or Owen Moore, would throw stones up at my window to let me know they were there, and I’d let myself down the rope, into the street, then skedaddle with my suitor. We’d be downtown within fifteen minutes.

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The new dressing room block at Keystone in 1915.

 

Things went from bad to worse at the studio, as Mack began to coach more actresses for stardom. He also brought hordes of girls to the studio that merely wiggled around the lot, or the beach. He called them the Bathing Beauties. I went crazy – there I was trying to raise the standards at Keystone, and there was Mack trying to drag us back to the Stone Age. Many of the actresses, I’m sure, he found in the bordellos of Los Angeles, and it wasn’t long before I heard he was boasting that he could make a new Mabel out of any one of them. Well, I wasn’t having that, and I launched into daily tirades against Mack, and our arguments could be heard as far out as Echo Park. Louise Fazenda, a capable comedienne, came to the studio, but her comedy was different to mine, and I did not consider her a threat. However, with a little training, Dixie Chene and Virginia Kirtley could easily have been made in Mack’s image. However, Virginia tired of being led by the nose, and left movies for good. Dixie moved up through the ranks, and eventually co-starred with Polly Moran in Their Social Splash, after which she disappeared, and was never heard of again. Eva Nelson wised up and left to marry a millionaire banker. We later heard she’d moved to Hong Kong, where she later contracted Asian Flu, and died. In general, Keystone was a bad place to be, and if you wished to progress, you left the darn place, sooner, rather than later.

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Dixie does a Mabel, but was not really up to scratch. Their Social Splash.

 

As the months rolled on, Roscoe and I found ourselves at the shit end of the stick, if you know what I mean. I became very sick, with the worry about the direction of my career, and my tuberculosis raised its ugly head again. I began to cough up blood, and there were times when I could not work. One day I was particularly bad, and I thought I was dying. My lungs had been haemorrhaging all day, and I was virtually paralysed. Roscoe came into my dressing room, to tell me they were ready to shoot, and was aghast to see me lying ashen-faced among a pile of blood-soaked handkerchiefs.

“Good God, Mabel you’ll have to go home, you’re really ill this time.”

“Tell the crew to give me fifteen minutes, and I’ll be out to finish the scenes.” I replied.

“I’ll tell Mack to call a car to take you home.”

Roscoe had been gone five minutes, when Mack arrived.

“Don’t worry about those scenes Mabel, you go home, we’ll do the long shots, using Jewel Carmen.”

“Oh no you don’t Michael Sinnott, no one stands in for me.”

“Look Mabel, you’re sick, real sick – if you carry on like this, you’re gonna die.”

“As if you care, you self-centred, thick-necked Mick.”

“Mabel I do care. Look, why don’t you give up this crazy acting game, and marry me. Everyone knows we’re engaged, and I’m earning enough for us to live well on – everything I have, I owe to you. Come on Mabel, what about it?”

“Well, Mr Sinnott, firstly, you do not care about me, and, secondly, I would rather die on the lot, than marry you.”

“Come on Mabel, you know it makes sense, you can rest all day, and we’ll be together all night, Whaddya say?”

“Yeah, you’ll come home at night for sure, after fiddling with them Bathing Beauties all day. Then you’ll be off all night, down the Athletic Club with those dumb pals of yours, while I sit home twiddling my thumbs, and watching the clock go round. I’m the Keystone Girl, you Irish bastard, and the Keystone Girl does not sit at home around the fireplace, waiting for any husband. Forget it Mr. Sinnott.” 

Mack was clearly trying to neutralise me.

“Well, suit yourself Mabel, but the offer still stands“ He said as he went back through the door.

Sometime later, Mack’s mother walked in saying:

Look Mabel, I think you should go home. Don’t worry about the shoot, they can get on without you, for now. For the future, I beg you to marry Mack, you’ll be a settling influence on him, and you will never have to work again.”

There were several reasons why Mrs Sinnott’s remarks did not make sense. The idea that Ma Sinnott had my interests at heart was ludicrous. I know for a fact that she’d voiced the opinion that I was nothing but a cheap prostitute that was nowhere good enough for her son. Furthermore, I suspected that she wanted to marry Mack off, as he was in danger of being labelled a homosexual. I therefore told ‘mother’ that I was quite capable of looking after myself, and did not need to marry her son, nor anyone else.

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Bathing Beauties by the sea on an Ace motorcycle. They could neither swim nor ride a bike.

As expected, Mack now began to turn against me in earnest. He began to fondle his bathing girls in full view of everyone, and courted actresses three at a time. Naturally, I carried on as usual, and went out with a number of young, unattached men that were now coming to the studio. I still had not made a complete break with hard men, tough guy types, like Jack Mulhall, the bull-headed Hibernian. I attended a party, one night in July, and, as was my custom, I went back to a guy’s house. That guy was Jack Mulhall, and, as we were getting ready for a night of passion, who should suddenly burst in through the front door, but Mack. He headed straight for Jack, roughly shoving me aside like a rag doll, in the manner of D.W. Griffith. Jack saw him coming, and landed a punch on Mack’s jaw, which unsteadied him momentarily, but, recovering, Mack swung a left hook at Jack’s head. Jack moved aside, and the blow merely grazed his ear. I now got between them, and begged them to stop. They both realised that if I got injured, they would lose out financially, and so they backed off — money talks. As Mack left via the front door, he looked back saying:

“I’ll deal with you tomorrow at the studio, Jack!”

“Yeah, OK, Mack, I’ll see you down there.”

Next day at the studio, nothing was said, and there was no monkey business between the two Irishmen. However, I’d determined to wreak my revenge on the King of Comedy. A little bird told me that Mack and a certain Mae Busch were planning a night of lust and amour in Mack’s rooms at the Athletic Club. I got myself down there, and managed to bribe the janitor to give me access to the building’s fire hydrant and hose. The fire ladder got me up to the second floor where Mack’s rooms were. I looked through the window, just in time to see the pair getting stripped for action. I let go with the hose, and the loving couple’s ardour was immediately cooled, for that night at least. Mack and Mae heard the cackling laughter of a woman, and realised who had spoilt their night of unbridled passion.

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Mae Busch is interested in the Mabel cutout at the opening of the Mabel Normand Sound-stage. 1940.

It was a couple of months later that I suffered a semi-serious injury at the hands, or buttocks, of Fatty Arbuckle. Now, Roscoe, was an extremely dangerous partner, and, if he fell on you, it was ‘Goodnight Vienna’ and you would leave this mortal coil in a box, six feet wide, and two inches high. On this particular day, we misjudged a stunt, and Roscoe came down bum first on my head, rendering me unconscious. Someone called for an ambulance, but Roscoe and Minta loaded me into their car, and set off for the hospital, at breakneck speed. After a few minutes, I came around, and told the Arbuckles to take me to their beach house at Santa Monica. This they did, then Roscoe got onto the L.A. Times, and informed them that I had a head injury and was not expected to live. This news got into the mid-day edition of the paper, and the newsboys were soon on the streets selling them. “Read all about it, movie star at death’s door” Mack heard, as he filmed on an L.A. street. “Mabel Normand gets head injury, is not expected to live!” Mack almost went out of his mind – he had three unfinished Mabel films, and this could bankrupt Keystone. It was a whole week before I reappeared, having had a lovely time on the beach at Santa Monica. I gave no real explanation to Mack, who was grouchy for the next couple of weeks.

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“A fat guy did it.”

From August time plans had been going ahead to build a new feature-only studio out on Fountain Avenue. Mack, I was sure, intended on getting his floozies out there to make ridiculous 6-reelers, composed of nothing, but these scantily-clad tarts being chased around by Ben Turpin and the like. I intended taking the studio for myself. In November I heard that Kessell and Baumann were ready to receive me, and a small company, back east at the NYMP studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where we’d be on loan for 2 months. This was all in aid of an advertising campaign on behalf of Triangle, and a vanguard, comprising Sid Chaplin, Raymond Hitchcock and others, would set out for Fort Lee in mid-December. At this time, Roscoe and I finished Fatty and Mabel Adrift, and the premiere was downtown, just before Christmas. I watched the film with some friends, Norma Talmadge, Blanche Sweet, Alice Joyce and Dotty Gish. They were amazed at some of the stunts we pulled off, and later, in Levy’s restaurant, Blanche ventured that the 300-pound Roscoe would eventually mess me up real bad. Then Dotty added that I should not have any ideas about getting amorously involved with my leading man, as he’d surely kill me. Well, there was no danger of me copulating with Roscoe, as he was married to my best friend. In any case, I’m an ‘on-top’ type of girl, so no problem on that count. We began a new film, as yet unnamed, in which I played a scarlet woman married to Roscoe, which was unusual, but Mack set out the film’s wholesome parameters. Then, after shooting a couple of scenes, we were off to Fort Lee, the day after Christmas day. As our train rolled east, Roscoe and I hit the bar, while Minta, and a few others went, to the observation car – something about viewing the scenery. However, the journey was not all fun and games, as Triangle had arranged a few stops on the way to meet with local dignitaries. There were, nonetheless, unscheduled stops, where the locals had stopped the train to get photographs of their stars. Roscoe and I seemed equally popular, and for the first time, I realised Fatty was a sex symbol! Somehow, we managed to eventually arrive in New York, where we were met with a great mayoral fanfare, Kessell and Baumann, Sid Chaplin, Triangle boss Harry Aitken, and a host of studio and newspaper photographers. It was a hectic time, and, just as we were about be chauffeured to our hotel, Sid began to come on to me, big time. Now I absolutely adore Sid, who is always good for a laugh, but girls should remain very wary of him. He starts with his hand on your knee, then, before you know it, that hand is up your skirt. I warn all the girls not to be bedded by the tramp’s brother, as those that do so, end up covered in nasty bite marks. Sid is an animal when it comes to lovemaking, and I am very attached to my sensitive parts, and do not want them chewed off by some crazy, ravenous limey. Ada Baumann saved me by diverting me into the Kessell and Baumann automobile.

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Rector’s main dining room.

Later that day we all chilled at Rector’s restaurant in Longacre (Time Square). Roscoe and I discussed a permanent affiliation to NYMP with Kessell and Baumann. The big bosses told me that under Triangle rules, an actor could only move from one studio in the group to another, if the original producer agreed to that move. Mack would not agree with either Roscoe or myself leaving. I later discussed the situation with Roscoe. He said he would not leave Keystone, unless Sennett agreed. I said, “Fuck Sennett”, and told Roscoe I would not go back to the coast, end of story. So it was, that when Roscoe and the others left for California, I stayed on in New York. I fed a story to the press that I was about to sign with Mutual, to make Chaplin films. In a nutshell, the whole of Triangle went beserk, and Harry Aitken ordered Mack to hand over the Fountain Avenue studio to me. A new door had opened, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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Portion of Mack’s will of 1919.

Addendum.

Now here’s a strange thing. In 1919, when I was working for Sam Goldwyn in Culver City, I was told that Mack had made me beneficiary to his will, after his mother. Mack had apparently stated that he recognised my contribution to the success of his studio, and he wanted me to have his entire estate, should his mother predecease him. Well, I appreciated the thought, but I was now so sick that it was unlikely that Mack would predecease me.

Note:  The will still exists among Mack Sennett’s private papers.

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JUST GETTING ALONG: MARY PICKFORD AND MABEL NORMAND.

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A rare still of Mary and Mabel together. Mender of Nets 1912.

Throughout the silent film era, two actresses stood at the very top of the movie tree – Mary Pickford and Mabel Normand. Two totally different personalities, the pair were friends from the very early days at Biograph studios, although they eventually drifted apart, even though they never lived more than a mile from each other. Mabel maintained her friends right the way through, but Mary whittled down her friends to a small group.  Mabel was not on that list, and, after 1920, they only met by sheer chance. Something had happened, but what? Some people like to think that they were enemies by profession i.e. they fought a battle for supremacy in Hollywood, and those that think this, cite a drunken statement by Mabel that Mary was a “prissy bitch”. The fact is that you can call your friend a prissy bitch, but she is still your friend. Strangely enough, Mary knew she presented as excessively respectable, but could not really change that.

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The Pickford extended family.

It is fairly well-known that Mary Pickford and Mabel Normand began in pictures at the Biograph Studio on 11 East Fourteenth Street, New York. Mary preceded Mabel at Biograph by something over a year, and she had formerly been a stage artist of some note. It was Mama Pickford’s fear for the future that prompted her to put her Goldilocksian daughter into films. Life was tough on the road, and Mama was not getting any younger. She realised that if she got sick, the whole of her young family would be imperilled, and for this reason Mrs Smith, for that was her real name, sent young Mary (or Gladys) to get employment with the genius of film, D.W. Griffith. Mabel had been aware of Mary, as her father sometimes took her to the theatre in Manhattan (her mother was the stay at home, religious type and rarely left her house on Staten Island). Mabel of course was a well-known model for artists like Flagg and Gibson, and Mary loved to see her pictures on the covers of magazines.

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Mabel The Gibson Girl.

It was with some surprise, then, that one day Mary saw the apparition of Mabel sitting in the dressing room, where she had been placed by Wilfred Lucas (or The Great Lucas as Mabel later called him) to await an audience with the genius. The astute Mary instantly recognised that Mabel was just the kind of girl that the studio needed. In a studio full of blonds, platinum blonds, and half-blonds, Mabel stood out, and could fulfil roles that the innocent-looking fair-haired maids could not. Grabbing Mr. Griffith, she virtually dragged him to the dressing room, telling him that the girl of the century was sitting in the studio, and she had dark lustrous hair, big dark eyes and eyelashes two-inches long. Well, seeing was believing, and Griffith hired her on the spot. Thus, it was, that Mary Pickford discovered Mabel Normand – and she never received a red cent for it.

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Mabel gives a demonstration of eyelash flutter to Charlie Chaplin.

Life in The Madhouse.

The Biograph studio was a crazy place, full of crazy people. There were, at any one time, something approaching a hundred performers and extras in that four-storey brownstone house, and the noise, from the young excitable players, was tremendous, even during filming. Everyone was known by their first names and the atmosphere was one of friendly competition, and, at first, Mary had been shocked by the familiarity among the inmates. The comradeship was infectious however, and Mary had soon settled in, and become one of the gang. In reality, however, Mary’s concern for money and ‘appearances’, meant that she could never completely fulfil this role. This doesn’t mean that she despised the other players – inside she wanted to be just like her peers, and wished she could ‘chill’, just like her siblings, Jack and Lottie. Meanwhile, at this early period, Mabel was becoming very popular around the studio, and was always surrounded by a throng of actors and actresses. In fact, it was very difficult for someone like Mack Sennett to get close to her. Mack found Mary to be more approachable, and he sometimes collaborated with her on stories. It was Mack who wrote Mary’s biggest vehicle to that date, The Lonely Villa. Of course, Mabel got to see a highly trained actress, when Mary was on the set, but being of the ‘natural’ kind of actress, Mabel could only use a proportion of what she saw. When she began to get leading roles at Biograph (for instance in Mender of Nets) she was usually cast as a villainess or a tragic figure that eventually died. This required natural skills that Mary did not possess. It was later, when Mabel began comedy that Mary took most note of her methods, which she was to use at a much later date. It could be said that Mabel took some dramatic cues from Mary, especially after 1916, when Mary was so big that it made complete sense to ‘ape’ her mannerisms (good or bad). It is, however, difficult to determine how much ‘dramatics’ Mabel took from Mary, as both had been trained by D.W. Griffith.

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Mabel in The Eternal Mother, believe it or not, she’s supposed to be a vamp.

Things changed at Biograph when Griffith left for California at the end of 1910, taking the trained stage actors with him. Many were left behind, including Mabel and the young Jack Pickford. However, Mama Pickford ordered Mary and Lottie off the train. They wouldn’t go unless Jack went too. Griffith relented, as he realised that he could incorporate more stunts into his films – Jack could be a stand-in for the girls. In the meantime, Mabel went off to Vitagraph in Brooklyn. Brooklyn was an awkward journey in those days from Mabel’s home in Staten Island, but Mabel thought it worth it. Quite likely, she found lodgings with another actress, as she developed a habit, even at the pinnacle of her career, of shacking up with other people – single girls, and married couples, mostly. At various times she lived with Blanche Sweet, Raymond Hitchcock and wife, and with the Arbuckles at their Santa Monica beach house.

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Roscoe and Mabel once had a fancy  beach house at Malibu. Fatty and Mabel Adrift, 1915.

A Religious Awakening.

While Mary and co were having a whale of a time, out in California, Mabel was signing a morality clause at Vitagraph, a company set up by puritans, to introduce wholesomeness into pictures. The way Mabel had behaved at Biograph was not acceptable at Vitagraph, where at least one director was a reverend of the church. However, Mabel would not have to curtail herself too much – she’d get into comedy, which gave her some freedom of expression. It wasn’t long before Mabel came to the attention of the other Vitagraph players, and the Talmadge sisters became fascinated with this free-speaking, bronco-riding, cliff-diving emigre from Biograph. Mama Talmadge was also enchanted with Mabel, but told her girls that ‘The Madcap’ would surely come to no good. It was while at Vitagraph that Mabel become a named star, playing comedy alongside John Bunny and Flora Finch. Mabel was riding the crest of a wave, but, all too soon, she came to the attention of the executives for her ‘lewd and unacceptable behaviour’.

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Mabel (left seated) next to Norma and Constance Talmadge.

The puritans fired her, so Mabel traipsed back to Biograph, where she was welcomed back, a star – even Mack Sennett became interested. By this time Mary had gone over to the IMP company, which turned out to be a big mistake, and a move that prevented her from gaining early movie stardom. When Mary returned to Biograph in 1912, she renewed her friendship with Mabel, but this time things were different. Mabel was a named star, the only one at the studio, and would be instantly recognised in the films. Consequently, she was even more of an idol to the players than she had been before. This does not mean Mary harboured any ill-feeling towards Mabel, and, indeed, there was none in the opposite direction. In fact, Mabel’s new fame just made Mary more determined to make it to the top. Mabel, of course, was now getting good parts, and she’d cornered the two Greek areas of the dramatic arts – tragedy and comedy. This left Mary with pure dramatics in which to excel. Later, Mary was to say that she’d co-starred with Mabel in a number of films, but we know of just one, The Mender of Nets. In this film Mabel was the tragedienne par excellence, but Mary acquitted herself well, against a formidable opponent in this area of drama.

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Mary meets Mabel. Mender of Nets 1912.

It was not all roses for Mary and Mabel, at that time. D.W. Griffith was a complete chauvinist that thought he made the films great, and stars were only made at his command. As a consequence, he adopted an overly -patriarchal way with his actresses. If he gave you a part, you had to take it, or suffer the consequences. Mary was given the lead in Man’s Genesis, but refused it, on the grounds that the part clearly required the wearing of a grass skirt. She discussed this with Mabel, who would likely inherit the role. Mabel said she’d refuse it too, and, in fact, all the ‘regulars’ decided they’d turn it down. Griffith handed the role to newcomer Mae Marsh, who also took the lead in The Sands of Dee. The upshot was that Mary and Mabel decided they would leave at the first opportune moment. Mabel was then asked by Mack Sennett, who’d been made Biograph Comedy director, if she’d like to do comedies with him. Mabel was ambivalent, but Griffith turned Mabel over to Mack to do a certain amount of comedies. Out in California in 1912, Mabel did a mix of comedy and drama, and it was during this time that she made Mender of Nets with Mary. As well as getting along with Mary, Mabel was also friendly with brother Jack and sister Lottie. Some people have suggested that Jack and Mabel became lovers, but although they were definitely friends there is no evidence that they were amorously involved. Lottie was one of the group that idolised action-girl Mabel, along with chief ‘Mabelists’ Dorothy Gish and Gertie Bambrick.

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Mary Pickford with the Gish sisters.

Mabel was the first to scat from Biograph, soon after the company returned to New York. Mary left a few months later, to begin her rise to stardom, but made another kind of bad move back to the stage. The theatre was full of big stars, and belatedly Mary realised that it would be easier to get to the top in the nascent world of movies than on the stage. Meanwhile Mabel was making it big time out in L.A. at the new Keystone company, run by Mack Sennett. Mabel, though, was one of the few actresses in L.A. at the time, and she might have filled her lonely hours, by writing back east to her Biograph friends, including, perhaps, Mary. Through 1913 and into 1914, Mary began to get more noticed in her pictures for Famous Players, and her name appeared above the title on cinema notices, and was eventually put up in lights. More of  the east coast actors were now coming to Hollywood, and it was at a movie function that Mabel introduced Mary to Charlie Chaplin. She told Chaplin that Mary’s name was Hetty Green, the money-mad millionairess. Chaplin, it turned out, was to play a big part in the separation of Mary and Mabel. However, in 1914, Charlie had played a part in helping Mabel play the type of roles she wanted. Mabel belonged to Mack, while Chaplin belonged to big boss-men Kessell and Baumann, who together, had a bigger share of Keystone than Mack. Charlie was, therefore, able to have more control over his films than Mabel, but together they had a lot of control over their joint pictures. Sure, Mack still interfered, and introduced more slapstick, but Mabel could blossom out into roles that included tragedy and dramatics. This more or less ended, when Chaplin left, and Mack got a firmer grip on things. The following year, 1915, was when Mabel won the Motion Picture best comedienne and Mary the best leading lady. Chaplin, as best comedian, polled 150,000 votes more than Mabel, who polled 100,000 votes more than Mary (Mary Maurice, incidentally, topped the poll with 2,300,000 votes). It was also in 1915 that things went sour between Mary and husband Owen Moore, who moved over to Keystone, and appeared as Mabel’s boyfriend in The Little Teacher.

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Mack Sennett smashes Mabel’s boyfriend (Owen Moore) in the chops. Little Teacher 1915.

 

Beyond 1915.

In 1916, Mabel had her own studio and production company, The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, under the auspices of Triangle. Mary attended the opening of Mabel’s studio, and then wrote two articles for her newspaper column in which she praised Mabel’s work, her athleticism and her daring. It was during this time that Mary really hit the top of her game. She also became aware of a new actor in Hollywood by the name of Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks was a daring, tree-swinging kind of actor, who stole Mary’s heart. Meanwhile, Mabel had given up ‘he man’ types, and was drifting towards literary men of the bohemian persuasion. Mabel probably thought that there was only room for one daredevil in a relationship, while Mary thought there was only room for one writer – herself. As Mary became more and more enamoured of Fairbanks, she became increasingly dull, and disinterested in being ‘one of the girls’. Fairbanks was a domineering, misogynistic type, and Mary seemed under his spell, so that she inevitably drifted away from husband Owen Moore.

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Clown princes Doug, and Charlie with Mary and  D.W.G at the creation of United Artists.

Elsewhere, a certain Charlie Chaplin was coming under the spell of Doug Fairbanks. Following Charlie’s marriage to Mildred Harris, he and Mildred spent much time with Mabel, and the girls (and other friends of Mildred) more or less henpecked Charlie. Charlie, of course, was not a ‘man’s man’. However, he found friendship and solace with the older Doug Fairbanks, and more so when Doug and Mary married in 1920, Doug, Mary, and Charlie all being divorced from their partners in that year. Mabel, naturally, lost two friends to Fairbanks, while Mary moved into Doug’s Beverly Hills mansion, a good move, perhaps, but it was probably a gilded cage. As soon as Doug and Mary married, Doug wrote out a list of Mary’s friends that could be invited to the house, which soon became known as Pickfair. Many were left off that list, including Mabel. One person who became a frequent visitor was Charlie Chaplin. Doug and Charlie would go off into the hills, leaving Mary at home, all alone, or baby-sitting one of Charlie’s child brides. The formation of the United Artists film distribution company, in 1919, had meant that Mary, Doug and Charlie became inextricably linked.

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It probably wasn’t  quite like this. Charlie, Mabel and Mary.

When looking at the film made at the creation ceremony of United Artists, it seems clear that Doug is the leader of the pack, and Mary and Charlie are mere followers, or even disciples of the great man. They’d become ‘extras’ in the movie that was Doug Fairbanks. Doug’s orchestration and control of Mary and Charlie continued into the 1930s, and evidence of it can be found in the Doug and Mary world tour of 1921, Marilyn Miller’s wedding to Jack Pickford of 1922, and any time the trio were publicly filmed. On the world tour, Mary appeared as a silly little girl, totally dependent on Doug, and when things got a little too hectic in a big crowd, Doug picked Mary up, and balanced her precariously on one shoulder, in good tarzan style. While this made Doug a he-man, Mary was terrified, not so much of the crowds, but of being dropped by Doug. After the tour Doug and Mary were interviewed by the press, but Doug treated Mary like a scatter-brain in front of the camera. Mary, of course, was 30 years old at the time, and not a child. Doug himself was not just an athletic moron, but was the real brains behind United Artists, although he was steeped in prejudice and arrogance.

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Pickfair: A gilded cage?

Marilyn Miller’s and Jack Pickford’s wedding of 1922 is of interest. Jack and Marilyn were great friends of Mabel, but she learned of their marriage while in France, and was not happy that they’d had a proper wedding, while she was away. The newspaper photos showed that Doug and Mary were central in the wedding proceedings, with Charlie Chaplin standing in as chief jester. In any case, when Mabel returned to New York, she headed straight to Marilyn’s apartment, as Marilyn had given Mabel the key, before she went away. She was surprised to find Marilyn’s mother there, as she’d assumed she was still in Los Angeles. Marilyn’s mother explained the whole sordid story. Basically, the Fairbankses had taken over the wedding arrangements, leaving Marilyn’s mother out of the equation. Marilyn’s family thought the wedding should have been in New York, where they all lived, and where many of Jack and Marilyn’s friends resided. Marilyn’s mother received an invitation from Mary in the post, but she simply threw it into the trashcan.

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The Mary and Charlie show: Marilyn Miller’s wedding at Pickfair.

 

Mabel stayed with her for above a week, not daring to leave her alone. Nor was this the first time she’d sat with a mother bereft with tragedy. Two years before, she’d sat every Sunday on the beach at Santa Monica, with the mother of Olive Thomas, following Ollies’s tragic death. Again, the Pickfords had been involved, but perhaps not Doug. Whether Doug was aware that Mary was writing an open letter to the newspapers, in support of Mabel, following the W.D. Taylor murder is not known, but Mary was very supportive. Naturally, the events surrounding the murder affected everyone in Hollywood, including Doug and Mary, and helping Mabel would also have helped themselves.

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Maybe Bessie Love would have made a better partner, but then, she didn’t have the wherewithal of Mary Pickford. The Griffith Triangle Studio 1916.

The relationship between Mabel and Mary prior to 1919/1920 is pretty much known, but how much Mabel was involved with Doug Fairbanks at that time is unknown. Doug was involved with Triangle through Griffith, at the same time that Mabel was part of the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, also under Triangle. The lack of familiarity between them might suggest that they were not keen on each other, especially as Mabel was no longer drawn to tree-swingers and lantern-jawed Irishmen. Probably they simply ignored each other, whenever possible. There are no still pictures of the two together, but there are none of Mary and Mabel together either. As we know Doug and Mary lived in a Beverly Hills mansion, a type of place Mabel avoided, after she’d set up for a time at a rented mansion on Melrose Hill in 1915. Chaplin was led by the nose by Doug Fairbanks for a number of years, but at least Doug was a man. Mabel was always fond of linking arms with Charlie in public, until, in the end, he was in danger of becoming Mr. Normand. He did not want to be seen as the lap dog  to a slip of a girl with curls. Perhaps that is also why Charlie and Mary were often at loggerheads. Did he think Mary was getting between himself and Doug? Mary summed up Charlie thus: “…. that obstinate, suspicious, egocentric, maddening, and lovable genius of a problem child, Charlie Chaplin.”

While Mabel became mainly concerned with literary folk, Doug and Mary began to court celebrity. The celebrities included Albert Einstein, Ghandi, Lord and lady Mountbatten, and other assorted titled peoples. Doug and Mary, of course, were supporters of the Fascists in Germany, much to the distaste of Charlie, and probably Mabel, as well. One problem with Mabel that Doug probably recognised, was that Mabel would not stand for pomposity, bigotry and self-importance, making her unsuitable to be in the same room with jumped-up celebrity, Albert Einstein, or the pompous Lord Louis Mountbatten. Mabel was sure to say or do the wrong thing, hence no Mabel at Pickfair. As time went by, though, Doug and Mary became more and more reclusive from Hollywood, and by 1925 they were regularly pulling up the Pickfair drawbridge. Mary had herself, told many people to come around whenever they liked. One day they were sitting outside the house, when Rudolph Valentino suddenly appeared on the lawn. Doug sprang from his deckchair, grabbed Valentino by the collar, and marched the “greasy dago” down to the gate and threw him out.

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A Marxist and a fascist goose-stepping out on the Pickfair lawn.  Far left: Charlie Chaplin. Third from left: Lord Louis Mountbatten. 1930s.

The Final years of the 1920s.

Following the scandals associated with Mabel, she’d completed her last film with Sennett, then went on a stage tour of the U.S. Returning to the coast, Mabel was perforce to buy a Beverly Hills house, in order to show that the ‘bad girl’ had settled down. Unfortunately, Sennett again laid claim to Mabel, and planned a super-feature for her in 1926. Mabel considered accepting, but then, out of the blue, married ex-Keystone star Lew Cody, and she decided Sennett was taboo – Mack had to give up. Many producers were ready to scoop Mabel up, but were unsure if Mabel and Mack would get together. A flurry of letters by Mary Pickford, Norma Talmadge, Blanche Sweet and others, to Hal Roach, convinced the Irish comedy producer that it was sensible to sign Mabel, and poke Sennett in the eye. Hal thought of Mabel, as a falling star that could be acquired at a peppercorn price. After all, hadn’t he signed mega-vamp Theda Barra for $500 a week? Unfortunately, for Hal, Mabel came with a super-star price tag, and life for the Irishman would henceforth be ‘uncomfortable’. Below is an open letter published, after Mabel had signed with Roach

Open letter from Mary Pickford April 1926.

Welcome back to the screen, Mabel Normand! Your return makes us all happy for you have the gifts, the training, the personality and the technique, the one which is so sure that it does not show.

You have that rare thing, that possession above price, Mabel Normand, the charm of personality! Ever since I first saw you on the screen I have tremendously and sincerely admired your gifts and abilities as an artist. These with your kindly heart and mind make you the screen’s very own and we all are proud of your splendid work.
This is a wish, thus publicly expressed, for newer and bigger success to you, and it is a wish that everybody that I know sincerely shares.
The best o’ luck, Mabel

Mabel died in February 1930, just as the final curtain fell on the silent movie. At the funeral, Mary came close to beating Constance Talmadge with the tears, the first time anyone had been close to displacing Connie. It was not just the silent movie that had died, though, for Mary and Doug’s marriage was also now slowly dying. Was there any point in carrying on as the ‘It couple’? To be honest, the whole thing had been a sham – just a way of creating a dynasty that would keep them in the public eye forever. Both Doug and Mary entered into extra-marital affairs, and while Doug was out on the town hitting the booze, Mary was often at home, drinking herself into oblivion. They still appeared in public, and still entertained celebrities at Pickfair, but they were ‘has beens’, just interesting windows into the past. Inevitably, they became estranged, and divorced in 1936. Both remarried, and Mary found Buddy Rogers, who was to be her rock, until she died in 1979.

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Fortunately, Mabel was never out on the town with Albert Einstein.

Interesting facts about Mary and Mabel.

Mary was known for her golden banana curls from the earliest days. So much success did she reap from the curls that everyone began to copy the style. Mabel, when she first came to Biograph, had a coiffuered style, befitting of the Gibson Girl that she was, and did not want to change to a Little Lord Fauntleroy hairdo. Mabel’s curls first appeared under Mack Sennett, so he obviously considered them advantageous. Mabel, however, had an intense dislike for them, and found curls to be something of a nuisance, and piled them up on top of her head wherever possible. Mary’s curls, though, were different to those of everyone else, as she used three different types of curler to achieve the effect of big curls, small curls and wavy top. Other actresses used rags to make the curls, but Mary had the rollers in overnight, with, as Claire Windsor told in an interview, her hand between her head and the rollers, while she slept. This apparently caused some damage to the nerves in her hand. When Claire told Mary she admired her acting, Mary said “Don’t be silly, my success is all down to my hair.”

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Mary Pickford. Too fat, according to D.W. Griffth.

Mary Pickford was a capable seamstress, although in her Biograph days, her mother had made her dresses. When mama’s time-knurled digits began to give out, Mary began to make her own frocks. Again, Claire tells us that, when she worked for Mary, she thought nothing of getting down on her hands and knees to alter Claire’s dresses. Mabel, of course, did not know one end of a needle from the other, and bought Parisian frocks by the half-dozen, wore one, and gave the rest away. If you think some of Mabel’s dresses are unlike anything in contemporary catalogues, then you’d be right, for she sometimes designed, but did not make, her own clothes and hats.

At Biograph, D.W. Griffith often criticised Mary, and told her she was too fat. Mary was always ‘chubby’ and once said her head was too big for her body, her arms were too long, and her legs too short. Mabel was, naturally, that rare thing, a perfect ‘36’. In her autobiography, Mary recounts how Griffith would shake her by the shoulders, and one day hurled her across the set, leaving her with a badly bruised arm. Blanche Sweet received similar treatment, but tough guy Griffith avoided Mabel — her vindictive tongue alone could turn the strongest man to a quivering jelly.

Mary was part of a close-knit family, but by 1938, her mother, brother and sister were all dead, leaving her alone in the world. Doug Fairbanks died in 1939. Mary retreated to Pickfair, with new husband Buddy Rogers, who kept her on an even keel for many years, and covered up her secret drinking. By the late 1960s Mary was losing her mind, and she spent her remaining years in bed.

It is probably true to say that Mary was a star of Hollywood, but that Mabel was a star in Hollywood — it was Mabel’s peers that put her on a dais in the temple of Hollywood.

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BATTLE FOR A STAR: MACK SENNETT VERSUS SAM GOLDWYN.

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One of the few times Mack and Sam were photographed together. The funeral of Mabel Normand in 1930. Sam can just be seen next to the hearse, with Mack alongside him [Others are D.W. Griffith, Col. Art Goebel, and Douglas Fairbanks Snr].

Mack Sennett and Sam Goldwyn were once involved in a battle royal for a star, and her name was Mabel Normand. Unbelievably, Sam, for a time, came out the winner, but there were extenuating circumstances that led to his very pyrrhic victory. The most important part about this tale, is that Goldwyn and Sennett were very different personalities, the original chalk and cheese. Let’s look at who they were, and how they came to Tinsel Town, or ‘Mudsville’, as it then was.

The Star-maker and the Glove-maker.

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Mack and Mabel in the happy times. The Floral Festival, Pasadena 1913.

Mack Sennett called himself ‘The Star-maker’ and there is no doubt that he made stars of many of the people that he dragged off the street. His contention, nonetheless, that he made Mabel Normand a star is, as Louise Brooks once said, a complete fabrication. In a scene from his great extravaganza, not a film but his autobiography, he would have us believe that, on a Staten Island ferry, one moonlit night, he took the Biograph Girl in his arms and vowed that he’d make her a star. Total piffle, said the incredulous Miss Brooks, for Mabel was already, at that time, a star of great magnitude, and the only named star at the Biograph studio. He claimed he’d given Mabel a cheap engagement ring, but this ignores the fact that Mabel already knew the difference between diamonds and paste. If he’d given her this ring, then it must, surely, now lie at the bottom of the Hudson river, where Mabel would have certainly thrown it. The relationship between Mack and Mabel is well-documented by Mrs Griffith (wife of the great D.W.). She records that Mack, far from wooing Mabel, tried to buy her compliance in his crazy scheme of film-making. Mrs Griffith assures us that Mack, who saw Mabel drifting away at the eleventh hour, tried to keep her onside with a seventy-dollar ($1,900 today) bracelet.

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The popular view of Mack and Mabel. They spent most of their time arguing.

She then sums Mack up, by saying that, when he was offered eighty-five dollars for said bracelet, he immediately relaxed his grip on the glittering prize. In brief, Mabel went with the Keystone set-up for completely different reasons, that did not include love. Mack was to run his studio, not with a rod of iron, but a baseball bat. If you crossed him, you cleared out quick, before he got a grip on the bat. Charlie Chaplin was a different kettle of fish altogether. His close relationship with the Keystone Girl, made him Mack’s biggest threat, so Charlie almost certainly left at the point of Mack’s 45-calibre revolver. Mabel’s rise from ‘Hollywood Bad Girl’ to the paragon of motion pictures, though, in the 20 years following her untimely death, was entirely due to Mack’s untiring efforts, but these were efforts to put himself on a pedestal, rather than Mabel. In the 1930s, the silent stars dropped out of favour, so it was with some surprise that a thousand Hollywood talkie stars, and aging silent stars, found themselves at Republic Studios in 1940, to not only open the Mabel Normand Sound Stage, and celebrate her life, but to erect the only plaque to a movie star in the whole of Hollywood.

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That plaque was (is) solid bronze, three feet high, and weighed a staggering 300 pounds. Mack was flying high, and in the late 40s, persuaded Paramount to make a film called The Keystone Girl, starring Betty Hutton, as Mabel. The film, was dropped when Betty learned that she would not be the star – the actor playing Mack Sennett would head the film credits. Paramount picked an alternative film called Sunset Boulevard. The film damned Mabel’s memory forever, but allowed washed up silent star Gloria Swanson to extend her career – forever. The sacrilegious act that the film’s director Billy Wilder committed, did not, however, go unnoticed by the old silent producers headed by Louis B. Mayer, who swore that he’d drive the infidel out of the movies. As an example of Mack’s character, he said nothing. At that time, though, when McCarthyism was in vogue, and Chaplin had been booted out, there was little Mack could do, except prepare to be investigated by McCarthy and the I.R.S. and probably the F.B.I over the dormant Taylor murder case.

Sam Goldwyn (or Goldfish) was an entirely different character to Mack Sennett. The only thing that linked the two was their mode of entry into the U.S. via the Canadian border – they’d both simply walked over the line. Mack was Irish-Canadian, Sam was a Polish-Jew. Mack cut his teeth in the iron works, and down in the low-class theatres (more correctly termed joints) of the East Side’s Bowery. Sam was a glove salesman of considerable ability, who had once tried to make gloves. He was hopeless, but managed to persuade a Mr Lehr to make them for him. Lehr (or ‘Leer’ as Mabel called him) later became Sam’s studio supervisor. Sam was, essentially, a loner, a renegade, someone who would chance his arm on any scheme. He’d been involved with a large number of movie big-shots, before he finally, to everyone’s surprise, went on his own. This seemed like lunacy.

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Sam had no studio, no camera and no performers, and it all seemed hopeless, didn’t it? Well, no, actually. Sam had a secret, and a very special secret – he had letter of intent signed by, of all people, Mabel Normand. Yes, she of The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, she of the title of Best Comedienne 1915, and the most desirable maid in Christendom. This was Sam’s passport to – money, and lots of it. Bankroll Sam, and he could add studio, cameras, lights and everything else. The main point was he had the star, correction, THE STAR! Just one question – how did Sam get his hands on, of all actresses, the Keystone Girl? Sam had made his initial move at the opening ceremony for The Mabel Normand Studio. Convinced that the distribution company, Triangle, would fail, taking Sennett, Griffith, Ince, and New York Motion Pictures with it, Sam told Mabel that, if the pack of cards should collapse, he’d sign her up for a new studio he had in mind. When the prophesy came true, Mabel signed the letter, and by November had signed the contract. It was around this time that Mabel came to realise that she was being tailed by various goons, hiding behind sunglasses — hired separately by Mack and Kessell and Baumann of New York Motion Pictures.

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Mabel’s picnic.

Away To The Jersey Shore.

It was in the Spring of 1917 that Mabel quietly boarded a train for New York. She was going to set up in the city, before starting at Sam’s Fort Lee studio. She had reservations though. It transpired that Sam was not going to run a studio with one big star supported by a team of also-rans. The Pole had signed Mae Marsh, glittering star of the Griffith Studio, and not someone Mabel or the ‘old girls’ from the Biograph academy were particularly keen on. Sam’s plans now became clear – he would buy up rights to successful stage plays, and bring equally successful stage artists to play in movie adaptations of the plays. This obviously sent alarm bells ringing in Mabel’s head, and, additionally, there was no guarantee that the glove-maker could deliver well-adapted stage plays. Mabel didn’t panic, she merely announced in the press that she would work for anyone with the necessary finance to pay for her services.

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Sam strikes back.

She’d signed with Sam for $1,000 a week, but only on the understanding that she’d be the sole star name. As far as Mabel was concerned the contract was null and void. Sam, though, thought differently, as the ‘one star only’ clause had not been written down. The friendly Pole, therefore, obtained an injunction, preventing Mabel from working elsewhere. This was bad news for Mabel, who’d been bitten for the second time. It had been within her grasp to be a partner in the Keystone, when it was first formed, as the two wise guys, Kessell and Baumann that had founded the company had stipulated that Mabel had to be part of the package Mack Sennett brought to the company. If Mabel hadn’t been young and foolish, she could have contracted for  one-sixth of Keystone – as it was, when she entered New York in 1917, she owned little more than the coat on her back and one battered suitcase. She’d given her best years to building Keystone, and had nothing to show for it. However, for Mack it was not all roses. He’d lost his biggest star, but, so involved was he in holding onto what he had that he could not pursue Mabel. Mack lost the Keystone name to movie tycoon Harry Aitken, but retained the studio on Allesandro Street, and the Fountain Avenue studio, previously housing The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company. However, Mack could not simply snatch Mabel, due to the injunction, but he could renegotiate Mabel’s contract – and make the price so high that Sam would relinquish his hold on her. Mack was never able to attend to the negotiations himself, but sent lawyers instead, which displeased Mabel. When the contract price reached $1,500 a week, Mabel pulled out, and settled for the 1,500, leaving in the first instance for Sam’s Florida studio.

 

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Mabel tells Mack she’s gone — for good.

 

As we can tell from Mabel’s telegram, she was not pleased that Mack had not pursued her with more vigour. However, Mack had done what he could could, under the circumstances, and he knew Sam was smart with a capital ‘S’. Mabel had sleep-walked into the situation, again not realising the importance of solid contracts, and relying on promises. Of all the movie-moguls, Sam was probably the most astute, but he was also the most pig-headed and obstinate, remaining a lone producer for most of his career. In terms of reverence among the Hollywooders, he was right up there with Mabel, but for slightly different reasons.

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“What’s with your eye, George?” Mabel with director George Lane Tucker at Goldwyn, NJ.

Mabel settled down to life as a Jersey shore girl, but Sam was to discover all too soon that she was a Staten Island girl at heart, and chaos soon ensued at the studio. Mabel would disrupt the scenes of the swell-headed theater and opera stars that Sam brought in, and those that thought they could shut Mabel out were wrong – suddenly buckets of water would reign down on their heads from the open tops of their sets, and loud jazz music would drown out their soothing classical strains. Executives that warned Mabel off,  became victims of Mabel’s schoolgirl pranks, like electrified doorknobs, and liberal sprayings of strong perfume. By this time, of course, Mabel had become unassailable, but, in any event, Sam was infatuated and fascinated by her. Mabel was a Hollywood treasure, although it was difficult for any other producers to lay hands on her. Simply, they had all been involved with Sennett in some way or other, and respected his right of ownership over his Keystone Girl, but Sam was a maverick, as stubborn and bull-headed as any Irishman, and he didn’t care how many goons or hit squads Mack sent around. He also knew that, although actors and directors could be ‘blown away’, producer on producer was verboten.

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Young Mabel lookalikes in Jinx costumes, are entertained by Mabel and her  Jinx paper cutout, Goldwyn Studios, 1919.

Money For Old Rope.

The general opinion of the movie critics was that the Goldwyn pictures were badly presented, despite the volume of talent that filled them. Although meant to be plays projected onto the screen, the films came over as slightly below par. Mabel, however, was able to transcend the lack of artistry, and increase her standing in the world of films. This was mainly due to Sam’s insistence on a huge publicity campaign accompanying each film, and the public loved it. When Mabel presented her brother Claude with a new Indian motorcycle, Sam’s photographers were there to record the event, and snap Mabel aboard the bike with heart-throb Jack Pickford. Mabel’s innate love of children, and the way children were naturally drawn to her, meant Sam would often put Mabel with youngsters for photo sessions. When the film Jinx was released, dozens of Mabel-lookalikes were brought to the studio, and photographed wearing checked ‘Jinx’ costumes. At Christmas 1918, Mabel hosted an orphans party at the Fort Lee Studios, which was a massive, highly publicised extravaganza. Just to make sure Sam’s head didn’t inflate too much, Mabel’s seminal Triangle feature, Mickey, was released in the same year.

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Of course, Mickey was the picture that out-grossed D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation, and this decreased Sam’s theoretical hold on The Keystone Girl, and increased the likelihood that Mack might snatch her back. There was no way Sam, with his current set-up, could hope to match the charm, magnetism and sheer artistry of Mickey, but he wasn’t beaten yet. He would turn the producer/actress relationship upside down — henceforth he’d give Mabel everything she desired, along with things she’d never even thought of. Mabel’s lateness at the studio cost the company above $30,000, Sam ignored it. Her japes and jokes cost Sam more money, and brought complaints from the executives and other actresses — Sam ignored them. One actress decorated her dressing room at her own cost — Sam paid thousands to bring Mabel’s dressing room up to an even better standard. Directors were afraid to report Mabel to Sam for indiscretions. As Mack described it, Mabel was swinging the rope, and Sam was jumping.

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The Class of 1919/20.

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Charlie and Mildred.

Early in 1919, Mabel had returned to L.A. and was based at Sam’s Culver City Studio. It seemed she’d tired of Fort Lee, especially as the movie industry itself was increasingly shifting west. Probably, Mabel was keen to be at the center of things, and did not want to miss out. Most of her friends were now in Hollywood. Mildred Harris had married  Charlie Chaplin, and Mabel wasted no time in getting involved with the couple, as she had with others in the past, and would in the future. Early on at Keystone, she’d befriended the Arbuckles, and spent much time at their beach-house in Santa Monica. When things got bad between Mack and Mabel, in 1915, she’d hidden out at the beach-house for over a week. Later, when she’d ran away to New York in 1917, Raymond Hitchcock and his wife had put her up for a while. The curious thing about Mabel was her dislike, or fear, of living alone. She loved the apparent security of her married friends lives, but refused to marry herself. For two years she’d lived with Blanche Sweet and her mother. It’s possible that Mildred and Charlie accepted Mabel as a levelling influence, as things were not good between them. Being a party animal, Mabel was able to organise functions for the couple, Charlie being socially inept, and Mildred being a little too young. It was to be Mabel’s renewed contact with Chaplin that led towards Mabel’s departure from Goldwyn and re-arrival at Sennett Studios.

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Mabel with Julia Brew in 1924.

Things began to change for Sam, as the war and the subsequent influenza epidemic began to wipe out his profits. In a period of gloom, the public was not prepared to seek out picture houses that had stayed open, and watch gloomy drama, but they were prepared to go out and watch Mabel’s comedies. As a result, Sam began to cut his dramatic stars’ pay and benefits. Renegotiated contracts were worth less, and costume and travel allowances were terminated. Mabel, however, always a big earner, remained untouched. Then, in 1920, Mabel contracted influenza, which aggravated her tuberculosis, and put her close to death. On top of that, her friend Olive Thomas, wife of Jack Pickford, died after inadvertently swallowing drain cleaner, sending Mabel into a downward spiral. It may have been Norma Talmadge, Charlie Chaplin, or Sam himself that engaged a private nurse, Julia Brew, so that Mabel could keep working. Soon after, Sam records, Mabel entered his office, and tipped out $80,000 worth of bonds and jewelry out of her bag and onto his desk.

“There you go Sam — if this is of any help to you, my love, take it.”

Sam did not take it, it would not have helped — Sam was two-million in debt. The bonds had come from a trust fund set up by Sam to ensure spendthrift Mabel did not end up on the streets.

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Goldwyn Studio, Culver City.

Winners and Losers.

As 1920 rolled into 1921, it became clear to Sam that he could not carry on with his all-star team, and he began to jettison stars. Mabel was now unsustainable, and much as he regretted it, he’d eventually have to let her go, . In any event, his Goldwyn Girl was still sick, and Sam was concerned that she might die, while under his contract (by this time Mabel had already been given the last rites on two occasions). In desperation, he contacted the world expert on all things Mabel — Charlie Chaplin. Charlie told him straight:

“You must send her to Sennett. It’s a matter of understanding, they are both as Irish as the banshees, and compliment each other perfectly. At Sennett she will flourish, anywhere else she will become commonplace.”

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Sam, Mabel and Charlie on the Goldwyn lot.

Sam, naturally, was unsure. Could he really pack Mabel off to his arch-enemy? In reality, he could not send her anywhere else. The big studios would not touch Mabel, while Mack maintained an interest in her. Mack had already sensed blood, and had made representations to Sam for Mabel’s return. Sam came to a decision — he’d cancel Mabel’s, contract leaving her free to sign with the Irishman, the price being a mere $15,000. Mack was shocked, but a quick calculation convinced him that he could claw back the cash easily, from just one film. He had a feature film in mind, Molly O’, which required a star performer of the greatest magnitude, and none of his stock company could genuinely fulfill that role. The public were eager to have a new Mack and Mabel film, and the picture would be a blockbuster for sure.

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Mabel with her Rolls Royce.

So it was that Mabel meekly arrived on a July day in 1921, at the Sennett studios, Allesandro Street, Edendale — except there was nothing meek about her arrival. She was carried through the gate in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, together with her lawyer, and a liveried footman. After allowing sufficient time for her fans, the entire Sennett company, to assemble, the queen stepped forth to the obvious joy of the actors and actresses. The studio had been without a real figurehead since 1917, now they had Mabel. Mack rapidly appeared, intent on stealing the thunder, but had difficulty in extracting his new star from the throng. Once ensconced in Mack’s office, it was down to business around Mack’s board table. Mack wasted no time, and pushed the contract across the table. Mabel pushed it aside, and the lawyer placed Mabel’s own contract down. Mack glanced at it:

“Five-thousand a week, Mabel, and 30% of the profits, you must be joking!”

“I kid you not, Mister Sennett, you can take it or leave it, and my name is Miss Normand to you”

Mack read some more.

“Sorry Mabel, there’s something missing — our standard terms are that the actor supplies their own costumes, and pays for their own transport costs to all locations.”

“Not this baby, my old chap.”

The lawyer intervened:

“Mister Sennett, Miss Normand is an actress of the topmost quality, and I’m sure you understand that she attracts the highest rates of pay, as a consequence.”

“Yes, but good god, this could bankrupt us.”

“Take it or leave it, old bean, take it or leave it.” Replied Mabel.

Mack was in a fix: “Well, I think this can all be sorted out amicably, but the final say must lie with our chief director and supervisor, Dick Jones.”

He sent out a call for Dick Jones. Mack had noticed that Mabel did not look at all well, and wanted Dick to see her. Dick was somewhat aghast at Mabel’s appearance, but managed to conceal his emotions. Dick ran through a few things with Mabel, and made it clear that she’d have to go through the standard insurance medical examination, but he was sure Mabel would pass the test. Mabel signed a letter of intent, which was contingent upon the medical and a redrawn contract.

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How the young actresses saw Mabel Normand.

The contract Mabel’s lawyer received stated that the start day of the contract would be five weeks hence, should Mabel pass the insurer’s medical. The terms stated that Mabel should immediately go to New York, where she could rest up in order to recover her health. The medical would take place in Manhattan. Mack realised that if she stayed in the party-strewn environs of Hollywood, she would not recover. The lawyer returned the contract with modifications. Briefly, Sennett studios would pay all costs involved in travelling to and from New York, and cover all living costs while there. Sennett agreed, but stipulated that Mabel must stay with her parents on Staten Island. This would be cheaper, but also ensure that she did not have easy access to the flesh pots of Manhattan. At any one time, there were a host of Hollywood actors in New York, and Mack did not want Mabel associating with the likes of Jack Pickford or Marilyn Miller. In the event, Mabel ended up in Greenwich Village, among the bohemians, artists, and literary people. She gave up the gin and the ice-cream breakfasts, and passed the insurer’s medical, returning to L.A., as Mack Sennett told it, as gay as a wisp. Mack would not have an easy time.

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Alterations made to the Molly O’ contract.

 

Epilogue

Life for Mack was far from easy, when Mabel arrived back  at the studio, for she immediately demanded her old dressing room, which had been occupied by another actress for a couple of years. She also insisted that Mack install a marble-lined bath, then, just as arrangements had been made for the other actress to move out, Mabel decided to share it with her. To keep Mack on his toes, Mabel insisted that she would only sign contracts on a picture by picture basis. Mack Sennett had won the battle, but he had not won the war. In a few short years, Mabel would be lost to her ‘svengali’ — for good.

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Mabel’s marble bath, before the studio’s demolition brought it crashing down.

 

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[Continuing Story] MABEL MEETS A HENDERSON: CARL STEARN CLANCY’S EPIC RIDE TO HOLLYWOOD VIA JAPAN.

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A Lonesome Henderson in the Sierras.

This is the continuing story of Carl Stearn Clancy’s round-the-world ride to Hollywood.  In the previous part he described how he met Mack and Mabel in California, then continued to New York, with a determination to later return to the orange groves, and stake a claim to the Tinsel Town lifestyle. We begin with Clancy’s ride to Portland, with Hollywood boy, Bob Allen aboard their trusty Hendersons..

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The journey from Oakland to Portland was the worst I’d ever experienced in my life. When a mere three miles from Oakland, our club friends abandoned us to our fate and the Oregon Trail, which by the way, is designated The Pacific Highway (we were, by the way, unaware that the Lincoln transcontinental highway was then under construction).  Some highway – we soon hit deep sand, and were often bogged down and smothered in the clouds of dust, stirred up by prairie schooners (horse-drawn wagons, to you and I). The land around was completely flat, but when the road hit a ranch, it simply stopped, leaving us to skirt around in the scrub, until we found the sand road again on the other side, many miles distant. Eventually we reached the foothills of the Sierras, and began a gentle climb, until we hit the mountains proper, and then our troubles started. The inclines were incredibly steep and slippery, and my old model struggled, but Bob’s 1913 model had a stronger transmission and sometimes he had to tow me.

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A Henderson loses the battle against mud.

The problem was that, when you went up, you came down again, slipping and sliding, barely able slow the speed, and heading for the lake that inevitably sat at the end of the descent. Bob luckily had both a front and rear brake. We did a lot of pushing in the mountains! After several days we made it to a lonely settlement, scarcely worthy of the name town. The large gas cans we carried were just about empty, and we eagerly tanked up — at 26 cents a gallon. We had an interesting talk with the garage owner. We said we were surprised at the lack of Red Indians in the mountains, as we knew that the intrepid Lewis and Clark had been helped by them in their 1801 transcontinental trek. The owner explained:

“Well” He said “Buffalo Bill took half of them, and the rest made off for Hollywood, to perform in them thar cowboy films.”

My L.A. friend, Bob, smiled, and I told our man that we’ heard the mountains groan eerily in the middle of the night. He told us it was the mountains ‘speaking’, or at least the silver in them. It seems that sometimes the lode groans, and sometimes it clangs, like a hammer on an anvil.

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Springtime in the Rockies

We continued on to Portland, with the bad roads causing us mischief. First my head-race collapsed so that the handlebars locked, but we solved that by removing the bearing race, inserting a long bolt and securing it by bending it around. Then Bob’s front fork snapped and had to be secured by two plug wrenches wired together. The small towns were a problem to us, as every time we parked up, something got thieved from the machines. At one time we abandoned the trail and rode along the sleepers of a railway line, but eventually reached The City of Roses, Portland. Away, then, to the Rockies, and the Continental Divide. Finally, we hit the real Wild West at Butte Montana, where every other man was drunk, and almost nobody spoke English. We shot out from Butte like scalded cats, mainly because prices were so extraordinarily high, due to the large wages earned (and drunk) by the copper miners.  From there we reached Yellowstone, but were barred from the park, as motor traffic was  not then being allowed through. It was about twenty miles from Chicago, that we hit unexpectedly bad roads. After leaving Bob in Chicago, I visited the Henderson factory in Detroit, and it was onward to the good old well-surfaced roads of New York.

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Visit Yellowstone, but don’t bring a motor (1913).

Hollywood Beckons

I was glad to be home, but my euphoria lasted all of five days. I had to admit it – I had the wanderlust. During that time, I began to wonder what Walt Storey was up to. Walt, you will remember, was the companion who abandoned me in Paris for the good life at Pathe Films. Now he was with Pathe, would he come to America? Pathe were here already, and they’d formed an all-American studio, which had begun making the Perils of Pauline films, aimed at wiping Mack and Mabel clear off Sunset Boulevard. Bob Allen wrote to me from Hollywood, suggesting I should come out there. In the meantime, I received a beautifully written letter from Mabel, via my publishers, replete with some poetic verse. Enclosed in the package was a complete reel of 35mm film. I hurriedly borrowed a projector, and ran the picture. There was the film of our meeting with the bikes, but there were also snips from other Mabel films, including clips of Minta and Roscoe Arbuckle, Chester Conklin and Mack Swain. Apparently, Mabel had stolen the negatives, and had them printed downtown. This was shocking enough, but there was also a check for $500!

“I thought you might be short of cash after your round the world trek, so here’s what I would have contributed, if I had known you, before you went away.”

I’d heard that Mabel was generous to a fault, but this was ridiculous (apparently her lowest tip to a waiter was $10!). Anyhow, I began to write travel stories, which I thought might interest Sennett. I sent several out to him, two of which he accepted, and sent me a check for $60. A good start. Meanwhile, I had been catching up on the Keystone films. One of them stuck in my mind, Mabel’s Dramatic Career, in which Mabel abandons her love, country boy Mack Sennett, for a tin-type played by Ford Sterling, who puts her into pictures. Some years later, Mack discovers that Mabel is a movie star, which greatly upsets him. Then the unbelievable happens, and Mack goes after the tin-type with a .45 revolver, and discovers, to his horror, he’s married to Mabel, with whom he has had three children. Mack pushes his gun through the open window of their house, determined to kill them all. Of course, comedy overtakes, and Mack is stopped by someone emptying a chamber pot over his head from above.

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Virginia Kirtley dares to mess with the Keystone Girl’s man. Mabel’s Dramatic Career.

The film puzzled me greatly, for nothing of the like had happened in a Keystone before. Then I remembered back to the café argument between Mack and Mabel over Chaplin – could it be that the film was a thinly-veiled warning to Chaplin not to get too involved with The Keystone Girl? Chaplin eventually went to Keystone, but, as he later told me, he was initially too afraid to go through the gate, being certain that Sennett would immediately ‘blow him away’. Anyhow, Chaplin came to Keystone, and made very good films, eleven of them with the Keystone Girl. He was incredibly funny as the drunken tramp in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, alongside the indefatigable, pajama-clad Mabel. Then there was Mabel At The Wheel, which was a comic-drama type film, in which Mabel played a motor-racing heroine, and Chaplin played a Mustachio-Pete type villain. From my point of view, the film was great, with plenty of views of the top race cars sliding around. Chaplin, though, looked very small in this film, and his performance was, shall I say, lacklustre and somewhat ridiculous. Chaplin was badly squeezed I thought, between Mabel and Marie Dressler, in Tillies Punctured Romance, and, again, Mabel outshone him. Charlie told me, years later, that the film had little merit, but Mabel, as a gangster’s moll, broke new ground in this picture. Later Chaplin bought the rights to the film, and put his own name at the top of the cast list. An egotist? Well, everyone has to make up their own mind about that.

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Charlie chases Mabel in her pajamas. Mabel’s Strange Predicament.

 

1915 was a curious year for me. I was selling more stories and adaptations to studios in Hollywood, New York and on the Jersey shore. I’d even penetrated the British market, to a small extent. I also came under pressure to marry a debutante, the daughter of my father’s business partner, a multi-millionaire. In defiance I became engaged to my childhood sweetheart, the daughter of a car salesman, who I shall call Delia to save her from embarrassment. Delia was a bike fan, but also the world’s greatest Mabel fan. Girls of course made up more than half of Miss Keystone’s fan base, and few went over to Pearl White’s Pauline. In late 1914, Chaplin left the Keystone fold, and Mabel began to appear regularly with Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. These were based on Roscoe and Mabel being love-sick country kids, something I found somewhat distasteful, but which the girls, including Delia, found to be right up their street. On top of the love-sick stuff there was slapstick galore, something which I’d thought Mabel was moving away from.

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The Fatty & Mabel films. Great fun, but not exactly art. Those Country Kids .

During the year, I’d sent Sennett an adaptation of an early D.W. Griffith film called The Little Teacher. He was delighted by anything that tweaked the genius’ nose, and he made a good job of this one, as far as slapstick’s concerned. Again, this seemed to go against the tide, as far as Mabel was concerned, and I’d intended it to be a comic-drama. I later found that this film caused the greatest row ever, between Mack and Mabel, and began their descent into estrangement. I can see three possible reasons for the arguments.

  1. Sennett deviated from my script, in which I intended that Mabel’s personality would come to the fore (in fact Mack Sennett usurped the leading role).
  2. Mabel wanted to insert a scene, in which she dives eighty feet from a bridge into the Hollenbeck Park lake, to rescue a drowning Arbuckle. Mack refused, on the grounds that she’d kill herself. Mabel insisted, on the grounds that Mack was destroying her career, so she might just as well be dead.
  3. Mabel wanted Keystone’s new signing, Owen Moore, in the film. Mack knew that Owen had recently become separated from spouse Mary Pickford, and was consequently just about back on the market – the pair officially divorced the following year. This might have rattled Mack. Having got shot of Chaplin, he had to worry about Mabel running away with heart-throb Owen. This, I think is the first time we see Mabel in a nightdress, being fondled by – Owen Moore!
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Mabel’s pupil prays as ‘teacher’ dives from the Hollenbeck Bridge in The little Teacher.

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Caught in a nightdress — by Mack Sennett. The Little Teacher.

 

Link: The Little Teacher 1915.

“Go West, Young Man!”

In early 1916, my fiancé, and I agreed to moving out to the San Francisco area. The movie industry was gradually drifting away from the east coast, and we’d tired of the Atlantic weather. It was palm trees here we come, and we chose to reside in Santa Clara, which was close to just about everything, including steamships out to the Pacific. Mabel had been in New York for a couple of months, but, unsurprisingly, we hadn’t seen her, although it was reported that she was not returning to Keystone, and staying on in New York. To do what, we wondered? We boarded the California-bound train, having sent the Henderson onward by freight. At Chicago we read in the paper that Mabel had signed for Keystone’s old distributor, Mutual, apparently to do Chaplin pictures! This meant, of course, that she would soon be back in Hollywood, but I had visions of Sennett, stalking around with that old .45. It was, I think, in Salt Lake City that we picked up another paper, in which it was said that Keystone’s new distributors, Triangle, had signed her for a new company called The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, and she’d be in Hollywood within a week, to take possession of a brand new studio on Fountain Avenue, East Hollywood. Oh my God, history was being written, and we’d be there to witness it!

Motography, May 6, 1916

“Mabel Normand, the former Keystone comedienne, is ready to start her new work as an aspiring dramatic star with ‘Triangle’. Miss Normand is to have her own studio, a four-acre tract midway between Los Angeles and Hollywood, and will have her own company of players who will be used as her permanent supporting cast in each of the plays in which she will appear. The director for Miss Normand has not yet been named. Each player will be under the personal supervision of Ince and will be released as a Triangle-Kay Bee subject.”

 

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Reopening of Mabel’s studio in 2014 (main stage).

I set to work immediately I arrived in California, and began punting around for freelance work with newspapers and magazines, and I also sketched some ideas for documentary films and sent them to Sennett for his thoughts. One was a film about shark fishing, another about whales, and something on Hawaii (who knows we might get a free holiday). Sennett replied very quickly and said he might use the shark fishing idea, but we were shocked to find he’d enclosed an invitation for three people, to the grand opening of The Mabel Normand Studio, RSVP, along with the letter. Well, we were stunned, but surprised that Sennett had anything to do with this studio – we’d heard Tom Ince was supervising. Evidently, Ince had dropped out and Sennett took over. We wondered what Mabel thought about that. We were, however, over the moon, naturally, and I wired Bob Allen in Hollywood telling him that he could come to the opening, if he so wished. Bob of course, did not refuse, and invited us down to his house in Hollywood. A week later, and we set off for the Mabel Normand Studio. We arrived just as the stars were going in wearing their best finery, and Delia got panicky. “Oh, God, I don’t fit in here.” She said. I replied “Don’t worry about that, no-one expects you to be a star.” Bob, of course, was keen on getting close and personal with The Keystone Girl, or was she now The Mabel Normand Girl? On entry, a Japanese butler bowed and took our coats. Mack Sennett was greeting everyone, and he instantly recognised me, shook my hand, then led us over to where Mabel was amongst a throng of giggling girls. I recognised most of them as sirens of the screen. Mack said:

 “Mabel, you remember our Mr Clancy, don’t you?”

“Of course I do, how are things going for you nowadays?”

“Just fine, Miss Normand, this is my fiancé, Delia Cooper.”

“Oh, you’re getting married, I’m so pleased for you.”

With that she threw her arms around the astonished Delia, and embraced her saying:

“I always think a single girl is like an empty jug, don’t you?”

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Mabel at work on the M.N.S. main stage.

I learned later that this was typical Mabel behaviour. Mabel recognised Bob and shook his hand. Then Sennett took mine and Bob’s arms saying,” let’s go see the men.” Delia tried to follow, but Mabel caught her arm saying “Now you stay with us girls, my dear.” Delia told me later that she was trembling before the massed company of stars, and wished for the floor to open up and swallow her. Mabel introduced her ‘friends’ in the following way:

“This is Blanche, this is Dotty, this is Norma, this is Connie (sisters you know), this is Lottie, this is Gladys, sorry Mary, this is Minta, and this is our new girl on the block, Bessie… and so on”

Delia filled the rest in herself: Sweet, Gish, Talmadge, Pickford, Durfee, and Love….

I was introduced to quite a few producers, and naturally I was touting for future business. Bob kept looking over to where the girls were, and was getting restless. Then there followed the opening ceremony, and Mack Sennett and Mabel made a long, combined speech, after which the cameras moved in, and suddenly a girl was brought either side of me, and told to put their arms around me and kiss me. Well, an electric shock went up my spine. The kissers? Norma and Constance Talmadge! Following this, the ‘girls’ departed for Mabel’s first floor dressing room, taking Delia with them. A few minutes later, Blanche Sweet appeared on Mabel’s balcony overlooking the main stage (where we were) and gave a rendition from Romeo and Juliet. Bob and I circulated for about two hours, by which time a lot of squealing and giggling was coming from Mabel’s dressing room. To keep it short, I rescued Delia from ‘the girls’ as I did not wish to hang around to see the objects of my long-term desire, lying around dishevelled, among the erstwhile contents of their own stomachs. Mabel was ‘well gone’ by the time I pulled the tipsy Delia away, and plenty of the starlets were somewhat hazy, among the full and empty gin bottles.

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Dick Jones and Mack Sennett  in discussion with Mabel in her Louis XIV dressing room.

The next day I asked Delia what had happened in the dressing room, and she told me that the actresses seemed to be sincere, and close-knit friends, and Mabel took pains to make sure Delia was not left out. Bessie Love seemed out of the loop, but Mabel made her feel welcome, calling her “My little Pixie.” Downstairs, we’d had beer and sandwiches, but Mabel’s Japanese cook had prepared a meal for 25 girls, using the dressing room facilities. Most of the conversation was about the producers that they, and especially Mabel, ridiculed mercilessly. The great Griffith was a “hook-nosed Welsh windbag”, Sam Goldwyn was “that bald-headed, Hungarian goulash that waddled like a duck” but Mabel saved her venom for Sennett. Once, she looked over the balcony, pointed at Sennett, saying “Look at him, a fucking jumped-up Napoleon – a thick-necked, ignorant fucking MICK!” Then she turned to Delia saying “Sorry, Delia, for pointing.” The dressing room itself looked as though it had been stolen from the Palace of Versailles, the floor covered by an expensive oriental rug. The place was huge, as big as the average apartment, and richly furnished. Outside, on a veranda, was a rose garden, where Mabel grew her own plants. Overall, Delia found the actresses to be totally different to what she’d expected. She thought they were overly familiar with each other, and hugged and kissed more often than Americans ought to. She was also  somewhat distressed at Mabel’s habit of putting her hand on her leg, when she spoke to her. The girls slouched and sprawled in their chairs, with their legs an unladylike distance apart. It was all too ‘French’ for Delia, but it did prove that they were, after all, human beings and not avatars dropped from heaven.

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Way Down East.

Over the next couple of years, I continued to send stories to Sennett, and, in the meantime, I increased my connections with other producers. My screenplays got more and more attention from the studios, and I became an adviser to some of them, ferreting out suitable locations. Then, Mabel ran away, straight into the welcoming arms of Sam Goldwyn. She’d relocated to New York / New Jersey, and before long, I myself became a regular trans-continental traveller. Come June 1917, and Uncle Sam came a-calling, and I was shipped out along with Mabel’s brother, Claude, and a million others, to get the mud of the Somme between our teeth. In the run up to the war, Mabel had led a national anti-war campaign, but now she was on the campaign trail to sell war bonds with the famous ‘Buy a Bond, And Get A Kiss From Mabel’ Tour. She sold as many bonds as Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks combined, and was all ‘kissed-out’ by  the end.

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During the aftermath of the war, in France, in December 1918, I was fortunate enough to see the final release of the film Mickey, which Mabel had made at her Mabel Normand Studio. Later, on my return to New York, I found everyone singing and whistling the song Mickey, which some wise guy had released, and made himself a million bucks. Mickey was the sensation of the century, and movie tycoon, Adolph Zukor, later told me it had grossed eighteen-million dollars. On another front, I received divorce papers from Delia’s attorney – we’d been struck with the Hollywood disease – distrust. Delia cited various affairs with different New York Follies Girls, including Olive Thomas, and Marilyn Miller. All I can say is “Chance would be a fine thing!” I now became involved with Sam Goldwyn of duck-walk fame, back in New York, and it wasn’t because Mabel was still at the studio, although I did run into her often. Importantly, I met a certain Will Rogers at Sam’s studio, a vaudevillian cowboy turned film actor, with whom I would have a lucrative business relationship later.

Link: The ‘Mickey’ song

 

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Will Rogers.

He’d also done shows at The Follies on Broadway. On the Mabel front, there was the perennial problem of getting near her, for, as usual, she was always surrounded by doting beauties, and no small number of beasts. Another actress, called Geraldine Farrar, thought she could form her own rival ‘gang’ in the studio. Geri, though, cheated somewhat, as being a lesbian, she brought her ‘acquaintances’ in from outside, who we called ‘Geri-flappers’. No-one knows who balanced the bucket of water, laced with green dye, on Geri’s dressing room door, but she blamed Mabel for ruining her $3,000 Parisian dress. The Goldwyn Girl was hauled in front of Judge Sam, who demanded an explanation. Mabel sat up on Sam’s desk, and twinkled her legs and fluttered her eyelashes. Sam still demanded an explanation. With no more ado, Mabel reached into her bag, drew out $5,000, and threw it across the desk, saying “If she’s that fucking hard up, she can fucking well have this!” Mabel, I can say, was like a child in a sweet shop where money was concerned, and gave more away than she ever spent on herself. Even more improvident was Jack Pickford, Mabel’s old partner in crime at Biograph – little Jack Pickford, no longer little, and the heart-throb of Hollywood. I can remember the day Jack joined us at the studio, and Mabel was as excited as a small girl who’d just met Tom Sawyer. I always say that Mabel only ever loved one man – Charlie Chaplin, but Jack ran him a close second. It was on that very day that Mabel’s brother Claude came to the studio, like me, fresh from the war. It was his birthday, and Mabel had a present for him – the latest model Indian V-twin motorcycle. We were all jealous, I can tell you, and the studio capitalised on the meeting of Jack, Mabel and Claude.

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Love on an Indian, with Jack Pickford.

The photographers put Jack on the bike, with Mabel behind, her adoring arms wrapped around the younger Pickford. Some people say they renewed their relationship at this time. Total nonsense I say, for Jack was then married to Olive Thomas, and Mabel adored Ollie, who was, furthermore, her friend. This bike meet reminded me of the time that Chaplin was asked by Mack Sennett, if he’d ever ridden a motorcycle. Charlie lied, and said he had. The scene was set up with Charlie at the handlebars of the Thor IV, with the precious Mabel on the back. Charlie got the machine going for a few yards, then cracked the throttle wide open. The thing reared up, and went into a hundred-foot wobble, before crashing to the ground at fifty per. Mabel was flung like a rag doll into a ditch, and they later found Charlie’s mortal remains, wrapped up in the remnants of the cycle. Afterwards, Charlie claimed poverty, and Mabel gave him $50 to replace his wrecked frock coat. Charlie never contributed anything towards replacing Mabel’s $1,000 suit, which demonstrates, I suppose, how cheap Charlie really was. Claude, it turned out, had got himself a job as a cameraman. Mabel warned Claude and I against ever being tempted to go in front of the camera. Our lives would be hell, and it was far better to shoot a camera, then return home, content with a few dollars. I took her advice.

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Mabel and Charlie experience motorbiking. Mabel gets dumped in a puddle.

 

Goldwyn was a strange bird, a loner, who never learned to speak English properly. He brought in stars at vast expense, stage plays at equally vast expense, and he spent a fortune on publicity. He spent little on adaption for the screen, and I had untold arguments with him about skimping on the screenplays. All the Goldwyn stars suffered, although Mabel pulled through unscathed, but only due to her unshakeable fan base. Was Mabel still the Queen? I put the question to Madge Kennedy, who shared Mabel’s exotic dressing room at Goldwyn for three years:

“Carl, we were all Queens, at one time or another, but Mabel was different – she was a Goddess.”

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Madge Kennedy with Mabel. Goldwyn Studio.

My conclusion about Goldwyn, is that he staked everything on publicity, and it is clear that most of the photos and articles of Mabel date, not from her Keystone days, but from her time at Goldwyn. It was in 1919 that the big producers had plans to put an end to the Biograph and Vitagraph Old Girls’ hold on Hollywood power. The girls and their male counterparts had forced up pay to unsustainable levels, and the big-shots intended to collectively end the star system for good. They were thwarted, at the eleventh hour, by that creation of Chaplin, Pickford, Griffith and Fairbanks, the United Artists distribution company. Goldwyn remained in favour of the star system, so there were now five studios against the big boys.

Tinsel Town Beckons Again.

I was now pretty much established, and well known, in the movie industry, and the future looked good. I’d got in with Pathe, and was to eventually become Editor-In-Chief of their newsreel division.  This meant I got close (but not personal) with the gorgeous blond Pearl White, a dark girl who wore a blond wig. Mabel left for Goldwyn’s L.A. studio, and I followed, for another stint in Tinseltown. 1920 turned out to be a bad time for the Hollywooders, for, in that year, we lost Clarine Seymour, Bobby Harron and the Queen Flapper, Olive Thomas. Mabel was most distressed by Olive’s untimely death, and became dangerously sick.

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One of Mabel’s prized, signed photos of Ollie that graced her living room.

Doctors pronounced that she would die within weeks, a victim of Spanish flu, which had caused a resurgence in her tuberculosis. Someone engaged a private nurse, actually a Catholic nun, by the name of Julia Brew, and Mabel recovered. It was in early 1921 that Mabel had suddenly disappeared from Goldwyn, and re-emerged at Mack Sennett Studios. It transpired that Goldwyn was afraid Mabel might die under his contract, in which circumstance fingers would certainly be pointed in his direction. To his credit, Sam had created a trust fund for Mabel with 6-week’s pay that Mabel had failed to collect, and he’d thereafter stopped $1,000 a week from her salary, which he added to the fund. His fear was that the spendthrift Mabel would end up penniless on the streets, should her career falter. In around August 1921, I was sitting in Levy’s L.A. café with my latest girlfriend, when a sudden commotion occurred behind me. A knot of people had gathered and others were leaving their tables to join the throng. I heard the words “Mabel, Mabel, Mabel” Mabel was back in town, fresh from Greenwich Village, where she had been recovering from another illness. Then, we were decanted straight into the Fatty Arbuckle murder scandal, and no sooner than we’d recovered from the shock, than Mabel was involved in the W.D. Taylor murder. For myself, I’d got involved deeply with writing for Will Rogers, who’d taken Hollywood by storm. Will’s live shows were popular, and he’d determined to say something about the Taylor shooting, as he thought Mabel was being given a rough ride. What he’d planned, I thought, would not work in the right way. At the show, he ran onto the stage and started thus:

“There were two shootings in downtown L.A. today – Mabel Normand must be in town!”

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The audience was in stitches with laughter, including Mabel herself. Will designated me his permanent writer, and we got along famously. Will Hays came to town to clean the place up, and everything carried on as before, except some of the press were labelling Will Rogers ‘The most dangerous man alive’, due to his much-publicised political views. In the meantime, I made the film The Headless Horseman with Will, a film I both wrote and produced. I then departed for Europe, in around September 1922, my ship passing Mabel’s as she returned from her own European tour. I spent several weeks seeking out location in England, France, and Italy. I was back in Naples, Italy in February 1923, searching out suitable locations for a love story and a gangster film. While there, I took a holiday and wrote the adaptation for Six-cylinder Love, which was shot and released that year. I’d also met up with Robert J. Flaherty, and worked on his film Nanook of The North, and organised its release by Pathe, as the first feature-length documentary. A down point was when I heard that one of the Henderson brothers had been killed testing a prototype bike – the ‘Ace’. The old Henderson set-up had passed to Excelsior. I continued as a consultant for various studios, and had just about as much work as I could handle, including advising on the Wally Reid car-racing films, as well as on some Sennett motorcycle scenes. Edna Purviance’s A Woman of Paris, and Mabel’s Extra Girl were released that year, and, while Edna’s film more or less bombed, Mabel’s film was hailed as the equal of her first feature, Mickey.

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Sennett was shooting motorbike scenes long before I came to California. This one, involving an Indian V-twin, is from Love, Loot and Crash 1915.

What happened then? Mabel’s chauffeur shot Edna Purviance’s millionaire boyfriend, Courtland Dines, that’s what happened. All hell broke loose again, and Mabel made a run for the stage. Al Woods, who was producing Mabel’s play, rang me, and said that Mabel had requested that I look the script over, and make any adaptations necessary to suit hers style. Well, I’d adapted plays for film, but I’d never adapted a stage play for the stage!

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Mabel in ‘Extra Girl’ costume with her dog.

Anyhow, I had many deadlines running at the time, so I had to decline. Mabel went off on her nationwide tour, supported by her nurse, and screen and stage legend, Alla Nazimova. The show played to packed houses, but the critics lambasted the play itself, which needed some serious work. As I moved into a new house on Vine Street Hollywood, Mabel moved from her bohemian pad on West Seventh, clutching the 3-million she’d made that year, to a movie star mansion on Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, which cost an astonishing $20,000. Just to prove she’d settled at the fireside, she bought a pair of slippers and a rocking chair. No longer would she be the gad-about-town. This lasted about three minutes, before complaints rolled in to the BH Police office about riotous parties on Camden. I attended some of them, but found that teetotaller Charlie Chaplin and myself were the only sober ones in the house. That’s Hollywood, folks!

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It’s a trendy pueblo-style house for Mabel.

To be Continued: The next instalment will follow later, in which Clancy tells of how he forged a successful link with Will Rogers, and how he bridged the change from silents to talkies.

Bibliography

Motorcycle Adventurer: Carl Stearns Clancy, The First Motorcyclist to Ride Around the World. 1912 -1913 by Dr. Gregory W. Frazier (2010).

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

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

Relevant Links:

THE STRANGE DEATH OF THE MABEL NORMAND FEATURE FILM CO.

SOME NOTES ON THE MABEL NORMAND STUDIO.

 

TOO MANY INDIANS BITING THE DUST: THE SQUAW’S LOVE.

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One of the big topics for Amer-Indians in the Twentieth century, was the way they were portrayed in motion pictures. They were always the uncivilised, vicious savages that killed and scalped the white man. Notably, the palefaces always won in the end, after the ‘savages’ had bit the dust. While Biograph’s Griffith can be praised for his film The Squaws Love 1911, in which there are only red men (or whites reddened up) it is notable that the ‘savages’ fight each other, without any prompting from the palefaces. As usual, then, Griffith is using minorities as figures to be feared, distrusted and somewhat hated. The film itself, has just about everything an audience could want – love, violence, comradeship and mild savagery. For those that had followed the career of Mabel Normand at The Vitagraph, this film was manna from heaven. Mabel, suitably darkened up, is the star of the show, even though she is the smallest in the cast, and, we must say, she is simply lovely as the classic Indian squaw. What the audience did not generally realise, though, was that the average Indian squaw looked nothing like Mabel. Anyone that has seen Minnie Devereaux (Minnie Ha Ha) will know what this means. Of course, Mabel began in pictures playing an Indian at Kalem, but these movies included the dreaded cowboys that chased them uphill and down dale all day long. It was exhausting, dusty, and unpleasant work, and Mabel soon returned to the more sedate career of modelling. We can presume that she jumped at the chance of this particular role, however, as romance, jumping off cliffs, and swimming in Cuddebackville’s swollen, rock-strew Neversink River were just her thing.

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Mabel and Minnie Ha Ha.

Mabel, as everyone knows, was the action girl of Biograph, and as Mary Pickford said in 1916:

“There was no cliff so high that Mabel was afraid of it, no water so deep that she would not dive into it, no bucking bronco too wild for her to ride …….. and no-one could do it more gracefully and with as much poise as Mabel.”

We can imagine that the whole company turned out to watch the memorable action scenes in this film.

Out in Cuddebackville

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Peace and tranquility in Cuddebackville.

The film is tied in with D.W. Griffith’s decision to abandon the old Biograph stomping ground of Fort Lee, N.J. which he thought to be played out by 1909. Cuddebackville, New York State, had everything; rolling green fields, mountains, rivers and crags. Thus, was Cuddebackville chosen for film work, just as Griffith ended his first year of directing. The information on producing films in this new location comes from Linda Griffith’s book of 1925, When The Movies Were Young, a volume worth keeping on your coffee table. One advantage of Cuddebackville was that it was relatively free of tourists, meaning getting lodgings was easy, and they would be little disturbed by ‘rubber-neckers’. However, when the much-enlarged company arrived on their third visit, the little village was shaken to the core by the appearance of this gang of strange, painted acting folk. Griffith was driven from the rail station to the Cuddeback Inn, while the hoi polloi jumped the luggage wagon or walked behind. Among the hoi polloi was master-bassist Mack Sennett, who, along with Wally Walthall, and Arthur Johnson, supplied the evening entertainment — when he wasn’t grouching.

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The Cuddeback Inn 1909

The Cast: In this film, Mabel plays the squaw White Flower, Alfred Paget is Gray Fox, Dark Cloud: White Eagle, Claire McDowell: Silver Fawn, Wm. J. Butler: Father, Kate Bruce: Mother. Lesser Indians: Edwin August, Donald Crisp, Grace Henderson, Wilfred Lucas, Dorothy West.

Interesting facts about the cast: Alfred Paget was an English actor, who’d fought in the Boer War. Dark Cloud was a genuine red Indian, who’d fled the reservations for the movies. Claire McDowell remained in movies for another 30 odd years, and appeared in 350 films. Wilfred Lucas was a prolific Biograph actor, who became Griffith’s right-hand man, and it was ‘The Great Lucas’, as Mabel called him, who prevented Mabel from running away on her first day at the Biograph. Kate Bruce was the ‘old maid’ at the studio, and was informal chaperone and agony aunt to the fledgling starlets. She appeared in 300 films. Dorothy West, appeared in 126 films, and her career ended in 1916. Mrs Griffith told her husband that Dorothy was too ugly to be in movies:

 “My dear” said the genius “Our cameras are now so good they make everyone look beautiful.”

 

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Mabel Normand in The Squaw's Love (1911)a

The Film.

The plot is as follows: White Eagle is in love with Silver Fawn. Wild Flower is the daughter of The Chief, and she is in love with Gray Fox. As is usual in Mabel films, the Chief is none too happy about the love affair, and sends Gray Fox away, after an Indian posse give him a good beating with staves. Gray Fox meets up with White Eagle, who is away hunting. White Eagle agrees to go and meet with White Flower, and bring her to Gray Fox. Unfortunately, Silver Fawn sees White Eagle and White Flower going off into the woods together, and, being suspicious, she follows. White Flower and Silver Fawn, armed with a big knife, fight it out on a cliff, and White Flower gets thrown over the cliff and lands in the raging river, where she is rescued by Gray Fox (who is on the run from another Indian group) in a canoe, just as she enters the dangerous rapids. The old chief, is furious that the two lovers are together again, and he orders their deaths. In the meantime, Silver Fawn has learned the truth about White Flower and White Eagle, but now, the four friends are being pursued by the execution party in canoes. While the men faint away in fear, Indian brave White Flower, leaps into the river, with a knife between her teeth, and slashes the pursuers canoe open, and sinks the vessel. An interesting scene occurs towards the end of the film, when Mabel is paddled off in a canoe, and is filmed with a smug, satisfied expression on her face, indicating, perhaps, that she’d achieved the status of Queen, not of the Indians, but of Biograph.

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A self satisfied Mabel is paddled off into the sunset (note Claire’s Indian profile).

Summing up the film.

This was never meant to be a great film, but merely one of the hundreds of ordinary short films produced by Biograph. Griffith called the picture an Indian love poem in pictures. Well, that’s a big claim to live up to, but he achieved this by casting a lead who was actually, herself, poetry in motion. Mabel Normand always glided rather than walked, but in this film her separate movements are seamless, which is obviously what you would expect from a noble savage. She jumps in and out of canoes in one unhesitating movement, and almost seems to pour herself into the boats. If this seems easy, just try hauling yourself from a river into an almost two-foot high boat. It can be done, but there would not be anything ladylike, or indeed, gentlemanly about it.  There is little to say, about Mabel’s fearlessness and ability in the water, as this is all well documented. Did Mabel make a good squaw? In Griffith-world, yes, she did. Griffith wasn’t looking for authenticity, he already had a real-life Indian on board, but Mabel had certain features that qualified her for the part. Knowing that whoever played the part would be ‘blacked up’, he needed someone whose personality would shine through, and Mabel had big white eyes and big white teeth, like torches in the night. Well, Mabel was often the hissing Biograph villainess, someone who’d steal your boyfriend, and jam a stiletto between your ribs, but in this film, Griffith chose Claire McDowell to pursue Mabel and run her through. Naturally, Miss McDowell was no looker, but she made a more plausible Indian for this reason (definitely more plausible than Stanhauser’s Pochohontas, Anna Rosemond).

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Mabel looks more Italian or Moorish than Red Indian.

The Critics View: How did the critics perceive this film? Beyond praising Mabel, they found the whole thing laughable, and the lack of inter-titles made the film confusing and somewhat unintelligible. Many could not understand how Indians could be fighting Indians – where were the palefaces? The fact is that, by 1911, we are beyond the period of the Indian wars, and very few film/theatre critics had been to a reservation, let alone seen a redskin in his natural environment, and, consequently, did not understand that the native Indians were not a nation. Historically, they were constantly at war with each other, and we need look no further than Francis Parkman’s book, The Oregon Trail of 1849, to find Indians making internecine war. Parkman points out that the plains Indians had little access to timber, and once a year they’d trek to the Black Hills to gather poles for their wigwams and other necessities. The problem was that the Black Hills were visited by many tribes, and if one tribe caught a member of another tribe in the hills, they’d be immediately dispatched. The Crow were particularly fond of burning their enemies on bonfires.

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Mabel pouting alongside Claire McDowell. It was the pout that Griffith disliked, but it became an important part of Mabel’s armoury at Keystone.

Mabel’s Performance: Who was it that got thrown off the cliff? Was it really Mabel? Mary Pickford always maintained that her brother Jack always did the girl’s stunts, but in this film, it looks as though Mabel really did launch off that cliff. Conversely, in Mabel At The Wheel (1914) it is plainly obvious that it is a man that falls off the back of Chaplin’s motorcycle.

In a way, the stolen love tale is similar to many other Mabel vehicles at Biograph (Mender of Nets, Eternal Mother etc), but Mack Sennett later kept her away from love triangles on the screen. It seems, however, that illicit love was in Mabel’s blood, for, once temporarily away from Mack, she played a scarlet woman in He Did And He Didn’t alongside Roscoe Arbuckle. Of course, her off-screen love triangles eventually hit the headlines big time. In the event, we can probably say that Mabel’s appearance in the film saved it from being a ‘bomber’. It does take, however, more than big eyes and big teeth to make an Indian.

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Beyond the call of duty?

Interesting thoughts.

Mabel’s falling off a cliff scene is not just dangerous, but beyond what was either required or necessary. The scene itself is dangerously complicated, and we have to wonder why Griffith did not opt for the classic cowboy jump-off-a-cliff scene, where the pursued simply runs off the edge. The risks can be easily calculated, and there is a mere ten-percent risk of death. In Mabel’s scene, there is a less than evens chance of survival. The problem is that when Claire pushes Mabel, she does not actually jump or fall into the river – she spends an inordinate length of time trying to regain her footing, before finally pushing off into space. It’s this scrabbling around that makes the scene risky, as there is no guarantee that Mabel will not accidentally fall and be dashed to pieces on the cliff face – that final well-timed push was absolutely necessary. Of course, Claire would have had to remain calm throughout, and be sure that Mabel would not panic and make a grab for her, thereby taking them both to their inevitable deaths. It is clear, though, that Mabel, even at this early stage, was the consummate professional, and her all-action reputation, among the other actresses, possibly stemmed from this film. Her timing and poise were simply perfection.

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“I might be interested — if you come back with a big diamond  from Tiffany’s.”

Quite why Griffith took such a complicated, convoluted story and committed it to silent film, without adequate inter-titles is a complete mystery. The reason isn’t that we’re so dumb today, as the critics at the time could not work the plot out at the one viewing. Griffith seems to have screwed up, perhaps thinking that his genius would inevitably shine through. However, with Mabel riding the crest of a wave of popularity from Vitagraph to Biograph, she was quite prepared to give all, for this love and war picture.

It has been said that there are underwater scenes of Mabel swimming deep in the river with a knife between her teeth. On the available DVD version, it seems this footage does not appear. Mabel, of course, was always equally at home in the water, as on land, and, like a female Huckleberry Finn, she abandoned school, not for the Mississipi river, but for the Hudson.

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There’s man’s work to be done, send for Mabel. The Biograph Girl gets a knife between her teeth.

It has always been a mystery as to why Griffith handed his greatest tragedienne and action-girl, Mabel, over to Mack Sennett’s comedy unit. The answer may be found in this film. In some scenes, she is the classic Griffith girl (think Gish and Sweet) but, in other scenes, she seems to have taken control, so that her personality shines through, and we might suggest that certain details of the cliff fall scene were her idea. The chauvinistic Griffith found Mabel difficult to handle on set and on location, but Sennett simply let Mabel be Mabel during the shoot, then made cuts in the middle of her scenes during editing. It was less trouble that way.

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“Take the bitch, I don’t want her!”

What did Mabel think of the film? Well, Mabel was the consummate tragedienne, and we might suppose that the tragic story of Running Bear and Little White Dove, where the lovers are swept away by the raging river, would have suited her better.

Link: ‘Running Bear’ song.

Technical stuff.

The Squaw’s Love 1911

Producer: The Biograph Company.

Director: D.W. Griffith.

Writer: Stanner E.V. Taylor.

Release date: 14th September 1911.

Original running time 17 mins. DVD 12 mins.

Camera: Billy Bitzer.