A few years back, an article was posted here, concerned with the primary sources of information on Mabel Normand. It put forward many of sources that are readily available today, but in spite of this, and in spite of extensive bibliographies at the ends of articles, the perennial question received is “Where can I find more about Mabel Normand?” To answer this question, the original article is repeated here.
One of the questions asked on this blog is “Where does the information, used in these articles, come from? The answer is “From all over” and surprisingly, it is readily available. Mabel always said she was the most photographed girl in the world, but in reality, she was the most written about girl in the world. Clearly then, there is no other actor about whom this series of blogs could be written. In general, the factual information is derived from newspaper archive websites, third party websites, books, and movie magazines. Approximately 70% of the information can be readily found on the internet at the touch of a button (what would we do without it?). There are two types of books featuring Mabel – those wholly concerned with The Madcap herself, and those that mention her. Some of the books that are solely concerned with Mabel, mostly aim at raising Mabel to beyond goddess status, and are, in many cases, almost useless for our purposes. Similarly, there are websites devoted solely to setting Mabel up as the ‘bad girl’ of Hollywood, and, to be honest, none of these are of any of use for genuine research. You can identify them straight away, as they begin with “Mabel Nor mand was a drug addict and died from drug addiction.” Without supporting evidence, these words aren’t worth the ink (or electricity) used to create them. If you are lucky enough, and wealthy enough, you may be able to purchase old movie magazines and memorabilia, but be warned, these are now extraordinarily expensive. Once you have the information, you will need to do something with it. The raw data may be interesting, but for proper research purposes it has to be sifted and weighted. Weighting can be categorised as the process of giving a level of credence to each piece of catalogued information. For instance, if a piece of information comes from just one unverified source, it can only be used with great care. However, there is also a certain amount of subjectivity here, and a researcher must decide whether the unverified data concerned is of such intrinsic value that it can be utilised, without verification from another source. If it appears plausible, then it can be used with the aforementioned ‘great care’.
One very important factor is the date of the information. In other words, contemporary writing takes precedence over later texts, and, to be honest, anything stated by the silent actors, after the publication of Mack Sennett’s autobiographies, is probably based on events found within the pages of that august(?) work, and, therefore, is of little value. Charlie Chaplin’s references to Mabel are to be treasured, although he does not say nearly enough to satisfy us. Be warned, though, his words are often misquoted. As usual, though, a certain amount of subjectivity is required here, but this is inevitable, and cannot always be avoided. Let’s now look at the available categories of data, and evaluate their worth in the context of Mabel Normand, and the silent movie era in general.
As we live in the era of electronic data (and garbage) availability, we should naturally start with the internet. In the sphere of Mabel Normand, two sites stand out a s being particularly useful. One is the ‘Looking For Mabel Normand’ website, once maintained by the late Marilyn Slater, but continued, apparently, by her son. Although it can be seen as a shrine to Mabel, it is, nonetheless, extremely useful, and is not merely confined to information on Mabel. Marilyn, it seems, personally knew some of the last people on earth to have actually met Mabel i.e. her personal nurse Julia Brew (Benson), and possibly Mack Sennett. The site is a veritable mine of information, and, although it puts Mabel, to some extent, on a pedestal it also offers an insight into her darker side. William Thomas Sherman has produced a book and internet pdf. called ‘Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of her Life and Films’ which is crammed full of newspaper and other contemporary articles relating to Mabel. Be aware, however, that this work contains thousands of references, which indicate that Mabel was just about the most written-about girl in history. We might call Mr. Sherman’s colossal work ‘the cornerstone of Mabel scholarship’. These two sites are the first ports of call for all things Mabel. Some other sites should be treated with caution. W.D. Taylor, Mabel’s friend who was murdered, is represented by the Taylorology website. Stephen Normand, great nephew of Mabel, has a site called MabelNormand.com. The picture above, is of Stephen with the famous painting of Mabel as ‘Mickey’.
Films are incredibly dangerous things, although never as dangerous as in the days when audiences believed everything they saw on the silver screen — instead we now have conspiracy websites. The difficulty is that the average motion picture story can only have one angle, from it they cannot deviate – there is none of the balance that we find in (some) documentaries. A few Mabel-based films, such as Hollywood Cavalcade (1939) had little effect on Mabel’s professional and personal reputation, although others, particularly ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950) have destroyed Mabel’s reputation, seemingly forever. Richard Attenborough’s film ‘Chaplin’ (1991) was intended to boost Charlie Chaplin’s reputation, but it was necessary to destroy his mentor’s reputation in the process. His mentor, of course, being Mabel Normand. However, nothing in the film’s script related to anything Chaplin said in his autobiography. He never dismissed Mabel’s professional abilities and he certainly never turned a hose on her — if he had, he’d have been immediately beaten to death by the crew. ‘Tricky Dicky’ was also wrong in stating that Mabel never made a film after 1922, and Syd Chaplin would never have dared to ‘dis’ Mack Sennett, as seen in the picture, simply because Mack was his employer! Motion picture documentaries, in general, after 1950, tried to ignore Mabel, even though they showed clips from her films. In the 1980s, a certain Paul Merton attempted to make a series about Hollywood that completely ignored Mabel and Mack Sennett. Never heard of Paul Merton? He was a ten-cent, British stand-up comic of dubious ability. One of the problems for those making Mabel pictures is the impossibility of portraying the multi-faceted nature of the little clown.
Under this heading come the various short films and cartoons, made with reference to Mabel. During the early 1940s, when Mabel’s name still in the public mind, a short film was produced of the ‘Night of A Thousand Stars’ when past and present movie stars gathered to honour the memory of “a girl with a golden heart” during the opening of The Mabel Normand Sound Stage at Republic Studios (now CBS). ‘Hello Mabel’ was a song produced by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band in the late 1960s, as a short-lived ‘Mabel revival’ arose on the back of the ‘Mack and Mabel’ stage show. Later, Neill Innes produced the comedy video ‘Hello Mabel’ using the Bonzo’s song as a background. The video demonstrates the difficulty of displaying Mabel’s versatility accurately on film. A single actress can only portray one aspect of Mabel’s screen personality — in this case the cute but scatter-witted Sennett version. Care has to be taken here, though, for this particular girl is clearly taken from Buster Keaton’s 1920 film, ‘Neighbours’. We might question the wisdom of portraying guns in this video. The original ‘Hello Mabel’ was a short film by Mabel, intended as a send-up of D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Lonedale Operator’ starring Blanche Sweet. Mabel’s name seems to have led to a rash of cartoon and other heroines, and the rise in popularity of the name Mabel might have come about in the same way.
Many of the books written about, and mentioning Mabel, come from a time following the publication of Mack Sennett’s and Charlie Chaplin’s memoirs. They also post-date the time of McCarthyism, the expulsion of Charlie Chaplin from the U.S. and the (perhaps unintentional) demonisation of Mabel in the film Sunset Boulevard. It should be borne in mind, also, that all of the surviving stars were well-advanced in years when interviewed by 1960s and 1970s authors. Furthermore, it seems their minds were dimmed by the long-term effects of alcohol. Bereft, to some extent, of their faculties, then, they appear to have regurgitated vast tracts of the works of Sennett and Chaplin, and in particular the former.
Minta Durfee (Arbuckle) said some very strange things, asserting, in an interview, available in transcript form on the internet, that Chaplin was a “dirty commie”, and that Mabel had “swum with dolphins in the ocean right outside her beach house in Santa Monica.” Well, the contention that Chaplin was a communist comes chiefly from the works of writer Hedda Hopper, someone that has little credence these days. She provided no evidence that Chaplin was actually a communist, which puts Chaplin in the same category as ‘Communist’ President Roosevelt – ‘case unproven’. Hedda Hopper also claimed that Mabel was a cocaine addict, and she’d stumbled upon a bag of ‘white powder’ in Mabel’s house. She further says she disposed of it, but this implies she never analysed the ‘substance’. It could have been flour, sugar, or any other kind of powder, but she says that the stuff knocked Mabel unconscious, which seems to rule out cocaine. If it was cocaine, it was no doubt for ‘party use’ and the fact that Mabel’s nostrils never rotted out, suggests that she was not an addict, at least of cocaine. Minta adds something of use to us, which is not found elsewhere – she says Mabel, in 1916, self-medicated for the effects of tuberculosis by taking something she calls ‘goop’ which might have contained an opiate, cocaine, or some other medicinal drug. As far as white powder is concerned, this could, conceivably, have been a certain drug Mabel perhaps took to dull the effects of tuberculosis. Its name is heroin, and, until 1925 (when it was banned) it was considered a safe form of opium. Getting back to Minta’s dolphins, she is clearly remembering a newspaper article of 1917, when it was stated that Mabel was water-skiing and swimming with dolphins off Long Island. In all probability, this was all Goldwyn Studios nonsense publicity. Minta Durfee, by the by, was very excited about being sought out by neo-silent movie fans, and got a little carried away. Other silent movie stars, who’d been forced to work behind department store counters, were only a little less excited by the fuss. Minta was interviewed by Stephen Normand in the early 1970s.
When The Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith. The Bible for those concerned with understanding the silent movie era, and probably the most important work on the subject. Published in 1925 by the wife of D.W. Griffith, the book deals with the very early days of U.S. film-making at The Biograph Studios, New York. We are talking here of 1907 through to 1912. During those years, the cream of later Hollywood passed through the doors of Biograph: Blanche Sweet, Mabel Normand, Mary Pickford, the Gish sisters, Owen Moore, Florence LaBadie, Ford Sterling, Flora Finch, Florence Lawrence, Mack Sennett, Gertie Bambrick and a hundred more. It is Mrs Griffith who first puts Mabel forward as the Queen Bee of the studio, the actresses adoring her and even worshipping this small girl from Staten Island. She also puts her into the setting where she first began to ‘daredevil’ and lay the foundations for her “astonishing career.” Mrs Griffith tells us the circumstances under which Mabel became the centrepiece, the king pin of the studio and the later movie colony in Los Angeles. There wasn’t an actress in that brownstone building that did not wish to be Mabel. This book is the essential for those that wish to study the early motion picture in the U.S. However, the reasons for the release of the book rather take the edge of its value. The intention was to try to minimise the damage done to Hollywood by the Mabel and Fatty Arbuckle scandals, and so the actors and actresses are presented as pure and innocent, young people whose only vice was a quick sarsaparilla after work. Therefore, a fair amount of reading between the lines is required. Score: 9/10 for sheer effort.
The King of Comedy 1954 by Mack Sennett: We need not look further than Louise Brooks’ ‘Lulu in Hollywood’ to be told that there is only one line of truth in Sennett’s book. The truth is Sennett ‘paid attention’ – to actors and anything that might make a film. The rest of it, the Mack and Mabel love story, the idea that he conned his business partners out of Keystone and much else – is all pure fiction. However, Mack’s book is a good read – he was, after all, the greatest showman on earth — if a disaster as a human being. It seems that Mack knew little about Mabel the person, and relied on her long-term friend and nurse, Julia Benson for his information. “Historically worthless” said the sagacious Miss Brooks. Score 1/10 for truthfulness; 6/10 for ‘reading fun’.
Charles Chaplin: My Autobiography 1963 by Charles S. Chaplin: If Charlie told us what we wanted to know, and what he knew, then this would be a good book. In general, in the 500 odd pages of his work, he merely lists the celebrities he has met, and some of the child brides he had. He does not mention wife number two, Lita Grey, at all, and fails to mention that he had a well-publicised affair with Louise Brooks, while Lita was at home having their child. We know Chaplin dropped the ‘The Helmet’ when newspapers revealed she’d posed nude for photos. Chaplin does, however, go some way to describing Mabel, which Sennett was unable to do. It’s as though Mack didn’t know her that well. Chaplin could have gone further with the nature of his relationship with Mabel, but as Mack was still alive when he began writing, his hands were tied. He does, nonetheless, give us the best description we have of Mabel’s features and personality. The view given of Mabel by Richard Attenborough in the film Chaplin (supposedly based on the book) is not to be found in Chaplin’s book – ‘Tricky Dicky’ made it all up. Having sketched Mabel out once, Charlie returns to her later in the book. Score 7/10.
Love, Laughter and Tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela, Rogers, St. John (1978). Adela was a journalist, who met Mabel in 1915, and remained a close friend until Mabel’s death. She goes a bit far with her salutation of Mabel who she describes as “elfin, unusually pure” and then claims “we found her under the rose bush.” A bit too mushy, perhaps, but indicates how Hollywood felt about Mabel, back in the day. Score: 7/10.
Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks. This is an interesting book, which is an autobiography, of sorts. Louise, although, by the 1950s, an alcoholic, and crippled with arthritis, does try to be honest, within the limits set by Mack Sennett’s book (yes, Sennett did set the limit, and, yes, nobody went beyond it). This work is not constructed from her original manuscript, which she trashed following the publication of King of Comedy. If the ‘King’ could not dare to tell the truth, then how could she, a mere actress. This is unfortunate, for Louise has a certain knack for getting down to the nitty-gritty. There is no dishonesty about her, and it is a shame that. she only told part of the story. Score: 8/10 for interest value.
The Keystone Krowd: Mack, Mabel, the cops and the girls by Stuart Oderman. Should be some interesting details here, and there are a few, but, as he says, first-off, Mabel died from drug addiction then we have to be cautious. The last time I looked at Mabel’s death certificate it said cause of death: ‘Tuberculosis’. We should always be wary of muddling the facts – that’s inexcusable, even if a dodgy conclusion is acceptable. Score: 5/10.
Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett by Simon Louvish. A true work of scholarship. Simon Louvish has fully researched his subject, and has not blindly followed the conclusions of others. It really is academic research, but it is also an easy and delightful read. This one is a must. Score: 9.5/10.
The Fun Factory: The Keystone Company and The Emergence of Mass Culture. Another work of scholarship, but this one really does cover the academic ground, and draws conclusions on how Keystone affected the social fabric of the U.S. and the world. A must if you really want to understand The King of Comedy, his films and his clowns. Score 8/10.
Dreams For Sale: The Rise and Fall of The Triangle Film Corporation by Kalton C. Lahune. (1971). Few mentions of Mabel, but tells the story of the company within which both Mack and Mabel had production companies. Both fled, somewhat burned, when said company collapsed. Score: 7/10 for interest value.
The Movie Maker: Charles O. Baumann by Jillian Ada Kelly (2015). The story behind the man and his partner, Adam Kessell, who created Keystone Comedies, within the New York Motion Picture Company. Fascinating, and covers the story of Baumann’s daughter, Ada, who became a friend and confident of Mabel. 7/10.
A Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies, From Nickelodeons to Youtube by Trav S.D. Little here about Mabel, but its value is in the way it is presented. Score: 6/10.
Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1957). This book does give some useful insights into the old Hollywood, but she carefully avoids mentioning Mabel too much. Mabel’s name was mud at this time. Score: 7/10.
Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923). This book, which was co-written by movie big-shot Sam Goldwyn, uses some of Sam’ s own stories of Mabel, as well those by his studio supervisor, Abe Lehr contribution (or Mr. Leer as Mabel called him) is a treasure for those interested in understanding the personality of The Little Clown. I would rate it’s perceived value at 7/10 although it is very rare today, and I have never seen a copy.
List of other publications.
Mabel Normand’s Own Life Story by Chandler Sprague. Los Angeles Examiner (February 17, 1924).
The Dream That Came True in Motion Picture Magazine (Dec. 1916).
Madcap Mabel: The True Story of a Great Comedienne by Sydney Sutherland. ‘Liberty’ (1930).
Mabel by Herbert Low New Movie Magazine (April 1931).
Meet The Stars: The Dedication of The Mabel Normand Soundstage 1940. Video included in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol.1. Blu-Ray by Flicker Alley.
Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, by Simon Louvish (2009). Covers the development of Chaplin’s tramp, from 1914 on.
Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin. by John Bengston (2006). The well-illustrated book looks at the extant locations of old Hollywood. Score: 8/10.
Hello Mabel! by Adela Rogers St. Johns, Photoplay ( 1921).
By this we mean the private papers of those formerly within the film industry. This applies mainly to the papers of the studio producers. The two main ones are those of Adolph Zukor and Mack Sennett. Zukor kept private letters from Mabel for 40 years, and Sennett provides information on films, their cost, Mabel’s contracts, and some screenplays, as well as other information. They reside in a Los Angeles museum, but are, to some extent, available online. Note that there are no personal communications between Mack and Mabel.
Hollywood Babylon: Any books or articles of this nature are complete junk, and unless you are keen on sensationalism, then the best you can do is throw them in the trashcan. Some of them masquerade as serious works e.g. ‘The Girl From Hollywood’, but it is clear that the author had a great pile of articles, which he selectively used to construct a sensational story that would sell, and sell well. All Hollywood Babylon has its roots (and not its facts) in the story of Mabel Normand.