Classic historians will tell you that there were only five ‘good’ Roman Emperors. The movie industry, by consensus of the industry itself, produced only one good producer – Sam Goldwyn. So, who was Sam Goldwyn, and in what way was he ‘good?  Goldwyn was born Samuel Goldfish, a Pole, of Jewish extraction, with the name of schmuel gelbfisz. In later years, he would become associated with the Goddess of Hollywood, Mabel Normand, an association that was good (kind of) for both parties. Early on, he moved to Germany, where he learned the art of glove-making, then on to Birmingham, England, where he had problems getting on in his trade, and undertook a host of manual jobs, to which he was totally unsuited. In early 1899, seeking the American dream, he sailed for Canada, from where he simply wandered, like Mack Sennett, across the U.S. border.

Louis Meyers glove factory, Gloversville.

He made tracks for a place called Gloversville, in New York State, where he slotted into his trade of glove-making. Sam, though, was not a brilliant glove-maker, in fact he was never good at making anything. His mind, however, was razor sharp, as indeed, were the minds of some of his religious compatriots, such as Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor, Lewis Selznick, Carl Laemmle, William Fox, who were plotting their futures at this time. “All refugees from the cloak and suit trade” Mack Sennett was later to observe. Curiously, maybe, Sam’s first job in Gloversville was sweeping the floors for glove company, Louis Meyers & Co.  The big problem for Sam was that he was barely able to communicate in English, and those conversing with him, found him not a little comical. Later Sam would use that comicality to his own advantage.

Halcyon days: Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, Sam Goldwyn, Cecil B. DeMille 1915.

It was around this time that Sam began to think that his best bet was to find and marry a rich girl, and of course, wealthy American heiress. This might happen, but for now, he must get back to gloves. At Lehr and Nelson, he became friendly with Abe Lehr, the boss’s son, with whom he would later be professionally involved. All looked well, but Sam was a loser in the love stakes. Just like Mack Sennett, he was an awkward, tongue-tied guy, with clumsy manners, plus a squeaky voice and heavy accent. Eventually Sam got lucky and went into selling, rather than making, gloves. He was a second-rate glove-cutter, but he could sell sand to the Arabs. Making $15,000 a year in the early 1900s was not too bad. In the meantime, by 1904, several of the Jewish clothing sellers, mentioned above, had recognised and entered the nickelodeon business. Bessie Ginzberg was a girl that Sam chased, but as usual he was unsuccessful in his quest for a wife, but Bessie, now Bessie Lasky, invited the glove man to a party, where he met her husband, Jesse Lasky and his sister, Blanche. Both Sam and Blanche gravitated together, having been previously unsuccessful in their quests for a partner. Then, a strange thing happened, Jesse Lasky spoke to a certain Louis B. Mayer about Goldfish (his name in anglicized form). Mayer had once met Sam, and advised Lasky to break up the Sam/Blanche relationship. Goldfish was a bad lot. However, Sam managed to charm Blanche, as he’d later charm the movies, and eventually married her.

Sam amd Blanche.

In July 1912, the glove industry was reported to be riding high in New York, just as a company of greying, middle-aged actors and their small dark-eyed leading lady left the city, bound for the west coast, where they’d set up the Keystone Comedy Studio. Sam was now well-established in Manhattan, and might even have passed young Mabel in the street. Perhaps some ‘Mabel dust’ had rubbed off on Sam, for he now began to develop the charm and engaging personality often ascribed to Miss Normand. Like Mabel, Sam could be aggressive and spew out torrents of cutting invective to his enemies, but he could, like Mabel, easily charm any resentment away. One day, the pair would meet in combat on the battlefields of Hollywood. For now, though, Sam rode high, until April 1913, when Woodrow Wilson all but removed customs duties foreign goods. The home-grown glove business was finished, Sam was finished, and so he followed his compatriots into the sordid nickelodeon business. Jesse Lasky had been in the theatre business, and so he began to sell his idea to Lasky. They decided to make movies, of which they knew – nothing. They met with D.W. Griffith, who straightaway turned down the pair, as they were around $250,000 short of what was needed. Lasky brought in his theatre friend, Cecil B. DeMille, who also knew nothing about films. However, they drew up the plans for a company, with Lasky, and his name, at its head. DeMille was voted director-general and Goldwyn would sell the pictures for the company, undercapitalised at 15,000 dollars.  Their first film was ‘The Squaw Man’, directed by DeMille, which they decided to make in Flagstaff Arizona, to avoid trouble with the Edison Trust. Flagstaff turned out to be most unlike the wild west of the storybooks, so DeMille, following Mack and Mabel’s trail, headed west to Los Angeles. In L.A. he put up in the plush Alexandria Hotel, rented a barn, hired Hal Roach as an extra, and began shooting. Then he wired Goldwyn “47,000 dollars needed to complete picture.” In the event, the film was well received, and became something of an icon. The Lasky company was well and truly in business, and the’ Squaw Man’ was the first full-length feature film made in Hollywood. Wow! Louis B. Mayer and Adolph Zukor, both came forward, and bought the rights to show the film.

Riding on the crest of a wave, Sam was, nonetheless, uneasy. The great Adolph Zukor might have signed to take his films, but Sam wanted to be Zukor. The bald guy had come late to the business, and this affected his psyche and actions for the rest of his life. If Goldwyn became a big-head, then we should not be surprised, but it is a little curious that his book ‘Behind The Screen’ is more concerned with the stars that he bought up, ‘cornered the market in’. In this way, clearly, he directly challenged the greats, like Zukor. Such was his strategy. Sam did, indeed, need a strategy, for Zukor, after pushing the ‘Lasky Feature Play Company’ together with Zukor’s ‘Famous Players Company’ to form the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, Zukor took control. The new company was under the Paramount umbrella, of which Zukor was soon president. Sam regarded this as an affront, as a coup. Inevitably, Sam would bail out as the company chairman, although retaining his stock. This occurred on 13th September 1916, which is also an important date in the life of a certain Mabel Normand, the Queen of Hollywood, whose own film company was about to come crashing down. The two were now about to become inextricably bound.

Mabel discusses music at the Golwyn studio, Fort Lee.

Mabel Normand signed for Sam’s new film company, Goldwyn, an amalgamation of the Goldfish name and his partners, the Selwyn brothers. Quite when Sam first approached Mabel is a mystery, as Sam was not at the centre of Tinsel Town. It must have been at a heavily-attended function, and one would like to think that it was at the very opening party (June 1916) of the Mabel Normand Studio. Only someone like Sam would have had the temerity to approach an actress at the height of their fame, and seek to spirit them away. He would have to have wait until her producers were out of earshot. However, this meant running the gauntlet of the giggling girlfriends that always surrounded Mabel. Sam was well used to being ridiculed, and after saying his piece, would have ignored the laughter and jeers that followed him. Mabel might have made her usual quip about Sam “Look, there is goes, bald as a coot and waddling like a duck.” This would have had everyone rolling around the floor, and disarmed her paymasters, Mack Sennett and the Board of the ‘Triangle’ company. Very subtly, Sam would have indicated that he respected Mabel, and if he ever had his own studio, he’d sign her up.  Whatever she might have said, it was what she thought that mattered. What she thought was that being first into a new studio would be a very good thing. If the Triangle company looked to be tumbling, she’d contact Sam right away. She’d charm her way into his affections, but it was too late, Sam had already charmed her. In fact, Sennett and / or the Triangle bosses, had already put Mabel under surveillance in August of 1916. They suspected Mabel was putting out feelers in the industry, and Kessell and Baumann, at least, put a private detective on her tail. Unfortunately, the detective had ‘turned’ and told Mabel he’d withhold the information from “the New Yorkers” if she paid him $600. He could not have known about the Goldwyn signing, which did not happen until mid-September, so Mabel put him off and called the cops. She then told the blackmailer to come to her Baltic Apartment rooms, where two cops leapt out, Keystone-style, from a wardrobe and nabbed him.

Image: Looking For Mabel website.

By the time Mabel signed, in mid-September, the Triangle company was tottering, although not yet fallen, Mack Sennett was losing his shirt, and D.W. Griffith was soon to walk away, owing Triangle a cool one-million-dollars. It was hopeless, but Sennett, his partners Kessell and Baumann and perhaps Triangle boss Harry Aitken, wanted to scoop Mabel from the ashes, for themselves, should their company fail.

In the spring of 1917, Mabel was sitting in a hotel room in Manhattan, getting ready to join Sam at his Fort Lee studio, New Jersey. However, something was weighing heavily on her. She’d been duped by Sam, who’d already begun to sign numerous stars, his second being Mae Marsh. This would have had Mabel spitting blood, for she regarded little Mae as a ‘blackleg’, somebody that had betrayed her own kind at Biograph, when she’d ‘stolen’ parts from the established stars, Mabel, Mary Pickford, and Blanche Sweet. On top of that Sam was signing established theatrical stars, which would have poured fuel on the flames. For the first time Mabel, had been outmanoeuvred by the sharpest brain in the industry. Mabel, in shades of her coup of the previous year, called a press conference in which she expressed the desire to work for any producer that could afford her exorbitant fee. Sam’s response was immediate. He obtained a legal injunction that “prevented Mabel Normand from working for anyone but Goldwyn Pictures.” The studios froze in fear, but one producer came in on a different angle. Mack Sennett could not make a straight offer, but he sent Mabel an olive branch, in the guise of respected New York attorneys. The attorneys’ brief was to renegotiate the Goldwyn contract to a level that Sam could not afford. This did not work, and Mabel herself threw in the towel at $1,500 a week. She was furious that Mack did not come himself to New York, although Mack was busy pulling himself from the wreckage of ‘Triangle’. Seeing Mabel was in a distressed state, Sam sent her to Florida for a while, to reset for her film work. Mabel sent Mack the following terse message:

Sam, by now, was well on his way to building his empire. His stars came to include Maxine Elliott, Geraldine Farrar, Madge Kennedy, Mae Marsh, Pauline Frederick et al. With all of his preening and cantankerous stars, Sam developed a way of handling them, with a steel gauntlet wrapped in velvet. Miss Normand, naturally, was not at all happy to be surrounded by self-opinionating thespians, and loudy expressed the view “Hmph! Five minutes in pictures and those jumped floozies think they know it all.” Sam was keen to placate Mabel, and he became one of the long list of movie folks that became frequent visitors to her dressing room. Mabel was a great teller of stories and jokes, not all of which were blue. Sam was very interested in two things: a) tales from the period before he had entered the movies b) an insight into the mind and work of Charlie Chaplin. On the first count, he was most receptive to stories that seemed to denigrate the guy that had slighted him, movie genius D.W. Griffith. We can imagine what Sam said:

“Mees Normand, please tell me the story again of when Greeffith was screaming for you, and you were sprawled in a basket of costumes, behind the scenery, calmly reading The Police Gazette.”

It wasn’t so much what Mabel said, but the way she said it. Tales of Griffith were legion, but Sam loved stories, like the day Mabel threw a seventy-dollar diamond bracelet back in Mack Sennett’s face, the recounting of which, always had her rolling around in stitches. The subject of Charlie Chaplin was more serious. Everyone wanted to know what went on in Mabel’s dressing room. Had Charlie and Mabel’s relationship been more than professional? Well, Sam wasn’t interested in that. When Sam finally went to Hollywood, he found that the Chaplin brothers had a studio right alongside his own, out in Culver City. The two men spoke often, and Charlie regaled Sam with tales of his own one-upmanship, and how he’d taught the producers the way to make films. “He simply loves power” Sam later said. Speaking with an intolerably upper-crust accent, and bearing a massive psyche, Charlie had upset many people, who told Sam that Charlie was a loser. He had, they informed him, learned everything from a girl, Mabel Normand by name. Sam quizzed Mabel (was the guy really such a genius?) but her reply never changed:

“Chaplin was as good as some have claimed, but others were unable to see what the fuss was all about. I understood perfectly, when Charlie plucked a violet and smelled it, as he was being dragged along on one leg by Mack Swain.”

Well she might have understood, for such things Chaplin had learned in the Mabel Normand Academy of Arts, down on Allesandro Street. Sam knew the story of how Charlie had treacherously walked out on her at Keystone. Mabel, however, never squealed on Charlie the rat. With his very acute mind, Sam realised that Mabel might be waiting to call in a favour from Charlie. He would not have to wait too long to find out.

Behind the Screen.

The reason we know so much about Sam Goldwyn and his studio, is because he, very early on, wrote a book called ‘Behind the Screen’. As many people know, Sam once said: “No-one should write their autobiography until after they’re dead”, so we should say here that his contribution to the work was his story of the stars, which was written, like Mrs Griffith’s book, to put a human face on Hollywood, following the various scandals. As with Mrs D.W. Griffith, we are greatly indebted to Sam for this cornerstone of movie scholarship, in which he explains his thinking and the characters behind his stars. Mabel Normand, of course, was a big thorn in Sam’s side, but there were others, stage artists, that were, perhaps, much worse — those preening prima donnas that made his sets and stages into gross catwalks, where they paraded and polished their out-sized egos. Sam, we must say, had found them that way, but by his technique of attracting stars, he boosted those egos to ridiculous size. The way he lured big stars, from top dogs like Adolph Zukor, by cultivating their conceit, was undoubtedly a pleasure to witness. At Sam’s warehouse of drama, unfortunately, there waited a shark with big teeth called Mabel Normand. Not for Mabel was handbags at dawn, as a fight between Geraldine Farrar and Pauline Frederick might have been, but instead a cursory glance from those cutting, stiletto eyes, as Mary Pickford called them, allied to some equally cutting invective would have them cowering in a corner, or running petrified to the boss. Sam knew it was hopeless — if he arrived at Mabel’s dressing room, there sat Mabel, sweet and innocent, with eyes as doleful, as those in a Keystone film. “Yes, Mr. Goldwyn, no Mr. Goldwyn”, then, as soon as Sam had gone, the stars were again treated to the wicked, dirty laugh of Mabel, as they performed some dramatic love scene. Heavy screens did not help, for buckets of water rained down from atop the sets, on the likes of Gerry and Pauline, effectively cooling their ardour. It was in 1918 that Mabel’s greatest film, Mickey, was released, and its success stunned the Goldwyn studio. How should they address Mabel now. Perhaps a curtsy and “Your Majesty” would do.

Goldwyn Studios: Mabel and troops on the occasion of the King of Belgium’s visit.

Making Pictures the Goldwyn Way.

Sam Goldwyn’s methods of making films were entirely based on the “Never mind the quality, feel the width” kind of back-street tailor sentiment. He paid vast fortunes for top stories, and equally vast fortunes on publicity and promotion, but forgot about the middle bit — making the films. He was, as we know, a salesman and a businessman, and in these respects he was sharper than any tool in the Hollywood box. Unlike Griffith and Sennett, though, Sam was not a ‘hands on’ producer — he liked to leave the directing to directors and the supervision to supervisors of the calibre of Abe Lehr. Mack Sennett was, in a way, fortunate, for he only ever had one top movie star to contend with. The others, in the main, Mack scooped off the street — shopgirls, typists and street vendors. Many a Goldwyn star was reduced to tears, when they saw how their films had been stitched together. In the earliest days of film, the actors all gathered at the end of the day to watch the rushes, and they would throw in their advice and recommendations from the sidelines. This was the Griffith way, that was taken up by Mack Sennett, and it was rare for a performer to be shocked or humiliated at a premiere, but this happened with Sam. Mary Garden, the Scottish opera singer always blamed Goldwyn for just about destroying her, with her first film. Sam, naturally, was incredulous, and, it seems, could not tell a good film from a bad one. Mabel Normand found herself in a bad situation, when she began to be directed by professional directors. At the Mabel Normand Studio, she had been directed by various directors, until she finally grasped the young and fresh F. Richard Jones. She’d rejected several, including big guy, George Loane Tucker, and it wasn’t entirely because Tucker was an older guy. At Goldwyn, she again came into contact with the big guy. However, Mabel’s and some other Goldwyn stars’ careers weren’t all ruined. They were saved by Sam’s slick promotion, and as far away as Merry England, Mabel had her own comic strip. Jack Pickford, now hired by Goldwyn, appeared with Mabel in the funnies, and Sam was quick to bring the pair together for a photo shoot on Claude Norman’s Indian motorcycle in 1919.

More of Chaplin.

it was in 1919 that Sam began to see more of Chaplin in his office. Was Charlie tiring of his wife, Mildred Harris? Although Charlie was speaking, he seemed somehow distant, melancholy. Sam learned that Mabel was now getting close to Mildred, although they’d been kind of friends for some time. We might wonder if Mabel sometimes appeared in Sam’s office, but only when Charlie was around. Perhaps, she’d always want to speak to Sam about some trivial matter, and would soon turn any serious discussion into a comedy riot. Sam noted that Mabel, although being totally vivacious, always tried to embarrass Charlie. “Oh Charlie do you remember when Sennett asked you if you could ride a motorcycle, and you said “yes”. As the cameras whirled, I climbed on behind, and you went roaring off, completely out of control, and I was cast into a ditch. Didn’t it take half-a- hour for them to extricate you from the cycle, and didn’t Sennett dock $100 from your pay? Charlie would, perhaps, look sheepish, and Mabel would look at him, nonchalantly, and gently say: “You know Charlie, I will be your leading lady, one day.” Sam would smirk at this, thinking he’d like to have Charlie at his studio, but it is clear that Mabel had in mind, an entirely different location. Charlie and Mildred’s first-born was named Norman, although the child lived but a few days. Sam sent his condolences to Charlie, but Mabel arranged a cheer-you-up snowball party for Charlie and Mildred, up on Mount Lowe. Naturally, Sam cautiously quizzed Charlie about his curious love/hate relationship with Mabel, although Charlie remained firmly reticent. Sam, understandably, formed the opinion that the tramp was afraid of the Keystone Girl, something confirmed by the other Hollywooders he spoke to. Eventually, Charlie gave up Goldwyn’s office for the safer, Mabel-free environs of another place — ‘Pickfair’.

In a way, Mabel was a ‘sleeper’ in Goldwyn’s studio, as she was on good terms with most of the producers, even to an extent, with D.W. Griffith. Adolph Zukor and Louis B. Mayer featured prominently on her party list, although Sam was uneasy about both of these producers. He probably sympathised, when Charlie told him that wife Mildred was negotiating a contract with Mayer. Charlie told Mildred the contract was bad, but Mildred insisted it was good, and a close friend had told her this was the case. Well, the friend might have been Mabel, and eventually Charlie had to give up and let the contract stand. Goldwyn was later to say this about Chaplin: “Charlie is no businessman, he just knows that he cannot take less.”

Sam and Mabel love the camera, but Charlie seems unsure.

The Dressing Room Conundrum.

With so many stars, not to mention giant egos, aboard the straining Goldwyn ship, it is unsurprising that the usual battle for dressing rooms developed into a full-scale war. Star studded doors stretched to infinity here, but if an actress got a silver, rather than a gold star on her door, there was hell to pay. In the theatre, a star dressing room did not mean much, except smashed mirrors, make-up smothered walls and rude messages scrawled everywhere — all carried out by stars angry with a failed performance or the sound of “You stink” in her ear. In the movies, failure only came long after the action had been shot, and so, most of the time at least, dressing rooms remained intact, and luxuriously appointed. Some of the big theatrical stars at Goldwyn began to demand bigger and better dressing rooms. Geraldine Farrar and co. made ridiculous demands, to which Sam gave way. Mabel Normand, whose dressing room had been to die for at Keystone, and on Fountain Avenue had been palatial, was soon demanding the same, or more.

Battle for the star dressing room. ‘The Property Man’ 1914.

Calculating the cost of decorating the thespians’ dressing rooms, Mabel demanded that $3,000 be lavished on her boudoir. Sam’s supervisor, Abe Luhr, told him about the demand, and Sam sucked on his teeth. “Best to give it to her boss, or there’ll be trouble.” Said Abe. “Oh, alright” Replied Sam “Anything to keep her quiet.” Theatrical comedienne, Madge Kennedy, soon demanded the same, and Sam suggested she move in with Mabel while the work was carried out. Sam was always trying to soothe the savage breasts of those that had only glared at each other across the lot. So, Madge moved in with Mabel, and never left.

L: Mabel’s Dressing Room. R: Madge and Mabel.

Understanding Mabel.

Much happened in 1918, as the Goldwyn Studio did its bit for the war effort. Mabel made ‘Joan of Plattsburg’ and sold a ton of War Bonds in her ‘Buy A Bond and Get a Kiss from Mabel’ stunt. In the movie houses everyone was raving about ‘Mickey’, Mabel’s film of 1916, finally released. Released, but in the middle of the Spanish Flu Pandemic. While Sam’s competitors, just a couple of hundred yards away, were able to push their films through their distribution networks, Sam had to withhold some of his films. The problems deepened into 1919, when he held out against a consortium of producers that wanted to crush the star system. Sam held firm with his all-star outfit, and got a little help from a surprising quarter, when Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin and Griffith created United Artists. The stars were here to stay, and the big-shots didn’t get their star-free monopoly. Sam’s over-leveraged studio continued with his attitude of spend, spend, spend. At one point, he’d been retaining $1,000 a week from Mabel’s pay, towards a trust fund for her, as, due to her extravagant spending, he worried that she might become destitute, should her career end. When Sam was at his lowest ebb, and just about bankrupt, Mabel came into his office and tipped $50,000 worth of War Bonds on his desk, saying “There you are Sam, if this will help, you can have them.” Sam was grateful for the offer, but declined — he was two-million in the red, and 50k would not help much. Naturally, Mabel had also cost Sam money, mainly by her habit of being perpetually late on set, and disappearing for days on end to go water-skiing and diving in Long Island Sound. Abe Lehr (or ‘Mr Leer’ as Mabel said it) called her to his office one day, to inform her that her lateness to the studio had cost the company $36,000. Mabel turned on the charm, fluttering her eyelashes, sitting on his desk twinkling her legs and smiling sweetly. It made no difference, Abe had to report the losses to Sam. Mabel looked hurt, and offered him her new $8,000 car, if he didn’t tell Sam. Abe couldn’t do it. Then, a remarkable change. Mabel’s eyes, once so doleful, glared at him like daggers, going straight to his heart. Mabel made a series of threats, before clearing his desk of papers, phone etc, and launching a paperweight at Lehr’s head. Finally, she broke down in tears, and fled screaming into the corridor. Unwisely, perhaps, Abe followed her, and was met with a cold shower from a fire bucket. Mabel ran into her dressing room, Abe followed, to be met by another shower, this time of perfume from a spray. Mabel’s face hardened, as she said “There, take that stink home to your wife!” Mr ‘Leer’ had discovered what so many had discovered — make Mabel an enemy and the whole world becomes your enemy. Representations to Goldwyn would have been useless, and damaging to his career.

Never mess with the Keystone Girl.

Things did improve for Goldwyn into 1920, although he began to jettison stars, empty out his ‘Old Ladies Home’, as some cruelly said. The stars, naturally, felt betrayed by Sam whose films failed to live up to his advertising. Some stars, like Mabel, he felt he had to hang on to, if only to save face, although she was his greatest moneyspinner. It was while Sam was busy re-financing his business that tragedy hit, with the deaths of Clarine Seymour, Bobby Harron and Olive Thomas. Mabel had been friends with all three, and went into a period of dark depression. Then, news came that Mabel was sick, very sick, a victim of the dreaded Spanish Influenza. Newspapers reported that a priest have given her the last rites. If Sam had any hair he would have pulled it out. Life had dealt him a bad hand. He couldn’t visit Mabel, and all he got were messages from his star’s private nurse. Abe Lehr probably forwarded the view that Mabel was laying it on, was having time off at Sam’s expense. The details of the events that followed are not at all clear.

Mabel signs for Mack.

Some strange goings on.

Mack Sennett says he approached Sam with a wad comprising 30,000 dollars and straightaway asked for Mabel. This was clearly not the way to approach a razor-sharp brain like Goldwyn’s, and Mack would not have been that foolish. Legend has it that Charlie Chaplin became the go-between for Mack and Sam. It is known that Charlie said “Mabel belongs with Mack. They are both as Irish as the banshees, and understand each other perfectly.” With Mabel’s position at Goldwyn looking shaky, it was incumbent upon Charlie to help her out. The thought of signing Mabel himself, would have sent shivers down his spine, but he would certainly help Mack acquire Mabel. Probably, gently and slowly, he put forward the view that Sam could pass Mabel over to Sennett, and save face by making a nice bit of money at the same time. Initially, Sam would have said, indignantly, “Mees Normand ees not for sale!” However, he did warm to the idea of renting Mabel out. Someone then approached Mack, perhaps Charlie’s very forward brother Syd, with the proposition. Mack could loan Mabel for one picture — the price was $30,000. A lot of money, but there was a huge pent-up demand for more Mack and Mabel films. Mack mulled it over. With Mabel he could finally do a big picture, one as big as Mickey, one that would wipe the smirk off the faces of Griffith and Mayer. A feature would cost $200,000, add 20,000 for Miss Normand’s excesses, and 30,000 rental, well, the figures were scary, but he could make a fortune. Mabel feigned disinterest, but Sam was jubilant. “Some deal, eh” He is supposed to have said. In his autobiography, Mack says that he promised Mabel a clean sheet for the film, and she could have as much dramatics and as little slapstick as she wanted, plus 25% of the net profit. He was true to his word, and the picture, ‘Molly O’ was, indeed, great and very much like a production of ten years later.

Goldwyn, Sennett and Griffith come together at the funeral of Mabel Normand. 1930.

The Mabel period for Sam had been troublesome, although she wore her heart on her sleeve, for all to see. Mabel’s excesses and craziness were, to some extent, a tonic for Sam and those around him. Mary Pickford could be troublesome for Adolph Zukor, but there was no merriment in the troubles, and both parties were drained by the confrontations. If Mary did not feel like working, she’d complain that her shoes hurt her feet. Mabel would simply ‘steal’ a company car and disappear, off to lord knows where, which brings us neatly to the subject of Norma Talmadge, Mabel’s long-term friend. At some time in 1918, Joe Schenck, Norma’s husband, approached Sam asking him to give Norma a go at his studio. Joe was already filming Norma at his / Norma’s studio, but thought that Sam could do better. Norma, in those days, was not a big star, so although Joe offered Sam 25% of the profits of Norma’s films, the canny Pole turned him down. Could it be, though, that his deep questioning of Mabel on ‘the good old days’ had brought him to the conclusion that having both Norma and Mabel at his studio was not a good idea. The terrible twins of Vitagraph studios, would probably have carved a swathe through his old thespian ladies, and possibly have crashed his studio. Regret his rejection, though, Sam did, for Norma soon become a huge star. Many of the stars, though, that Goldwyn signed, eventually became a liability. Mae Marsh, who D.W. Griffith, in Hollywood legend, had taken from street to movie-star in just one day, turned out to be a damp squib outside of the Griffith universe. Ditto Blanche Sweet, who, at the Lasky studio, had been unable to function, without the Griffith element. Mabel, of course, never quite threw off the influence of the ‘movie genius’ although quite able to function without him, if given the option of choosing her own director.

Mabel (Left) with the Talmadge sisters (Centre).

Like some eastern European phoenix, Sam, troubled by back-stabbing associates, arose from the ashes, as Mack congratulated himself on securing a meal ticket for the next ten years. Sam’s ride over the next decades would be rough and tough, but always he rode it out as an independent guy, and the inclusion of his name in the film company logo Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer merely signifies that his company was bought out in 1924, to form MGM. Sam was always thought of as the ‘good guy’ of movies, although he was as ruthless as any other producer in the business. However, his manner and his apparent vulnerabilities, such as mixing up his words (Goldwynisms) and his wobbly legs, undoubtedly endeared him to many people. Despite his continual ill-health, Sam Goldwyn lived to be 94 years of age.

The Goldwyn residence on Laurel Lane, Beverly Hills.


Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923).

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

Mabel Normand: A Source Book to her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006)

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

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

Looking For Mabel Normand Site maintained by Marilyn Slater.

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

Mabel Normand:

Personalities I Have Met: Mabel Normand. By Mary Pickford. Syndicated article, July 1916. 

New Year’s Eve On The Train. By Mary Pickford. Syndicated article, July 1916. 

Madcap Mabel: The True Story of a Great Comedienne by Sydney Sutherland. ‘Liberty’ 1930.

Mabel Normand Says Goodbye, by James R. Quirk, Photoplay May 1930.


“He’s such a hunk.”

This film stars Mabel and Charlie Chaplin, and was their first joint effort for some time. While Mabel had been appearing with a selection of leading men, Charlie was turning his attentions to an actress known as Peggy Page, although some researchers identify her as a certain Helen Carruthers. For Mabel, the film is a return to the old motor racing theme, in which the hyperactive, cute, but scatter-brained girl, runs amok at a race track. In this offering, though, Mabel does not for fall for any racing hero, like ‘Terrible’ Teddy Tetzlaff, as in ‘The Speed Kings’ but does run into an aggressive semi-tramp, played by Charlie Chaplin. Many months before ‘Gentlemen’, Mabel had made ‘Mabel At The Wheel, where she played the intrepid girl motor racer, who wins the Santa Monica Race, and in which the roguish Chaplin tries to thwart her drive.

Mabel’s previous hero ‘Terrible’ Teddy Tetzlaff. ‘Speed Kings’.

In this film it seems Mabel held back Charlie’s slapsticking and gagging, as well as banning his tramp’s costume. Charlie, by all accounts was furious, but in order to avoid upsetting his bosses, and a beating by the film crew, he acquiesced, and bowed to the Queen of Keystone. This was to Charlie’s advantage, gave access to Mabel’s dressing-room-to-die-for, trips downtown in company cars, and personal introductions to the big wheels of Hollywood. He was, said Chester Conklin “Mabel’s prize” or as some others put it “Mabel’s lap dog”. Their joint films enabled Mabel to introduce more dramatics into the films, while Charlie could slapstick and flap his big feet to his heart’s content. The ex-Griffith Girl and the Karno’s Music Hall drunk made a fine pairing. Both Mabel and Charlie directed films, but after a while, Charlie began to wander. It seems he realised that acting alongside the Mistress of Mirth was dissipating his screen personality, and he began to feature new actresses, and in particular, Peggy Page. Perhaps, of her own volition, Mabel imposed herself on Chaplin’s film ‘The Masquerader’, by playing a cameo role. It seems possible that Peggy Page was pencilled in by Chaplin to be his co-star in ‘Gentlemen of Nerve’. However, Mabel was Keystone’s ‘Champion Driver’ and so it could be that Mabel pushed to co-star in this picture. Alternatively, the car race film might have been the idea of Mack Sennett, in which case, Mabel had to be in it – the public expected it. We discuss this, as certain scenes in the picture suggest a jubilant Mabel, and a dejected Peggy. Let’s look at the film.


Charlie Chaplin: Mr. Wow-Wow

Mabel Normand: Mabel

Chester Conklin: Mr. Walrus

Mack Swain: Ambrose

Phyllis Allen: The flirt

Edgar Kennedy: Cop

In the crowd: Alice Davenport, Dixie Chene, Peggy Page (Helen Carruthers), Estelle Carruthers, Cecile Arnold, Vivian Edwards, Charlie Chase, Vivian Edwards, Harry McCoy, Wm. Hauber, Slim Summerville et al.

Director: Mack Sennett

Location: Ascot Park and Keystone Studio.

Run Time: 16 minutes

Date Released 29th October 1914

The Plot.

The picture begins with the inter-title: “Mr. Walrus is skittish with Mabel under his protection” thereby immediately indicating that Mabel is a helpless ingenue. Who is Mr. Walrus, perhaps the old guy is her uncle? Quite why Mabel has tropical plant growing out of her hat, is a mystery, but that’s Mabel – designed her own hats. There is immediate trouble at the race track turnstile, as Ambrose tries to molest the innocent Mabel.  The ass-kicking has begun early, but Mabel manages to drag Walrus into the race track, where he is distracted by a flirty woman. Mabel is horrified, as a pure, sweet Sennett girl should be. The older pair continue to mess with each other, until Mabel drags Walrus away, after stamping on the flirt’s foot.

Meanwhile, Mister Charles Chaplin has arrived on the scene and runs into Ambrose, who is still, for some strange reason, hanging around the turnstile. The pair come to blows, and they slapstick like there’s no tomorrow (something they’d continue, long after Charlie had his own studio). Of course, Ambrose is a huge, scary character, and Charlie ends up hiding in a corner from the big guy, and shaking ala Mack Sennett in ‘The Fatal Mallet’. Inevitably, Mabel and Mr Walrus, end up running into Charlie, who has broken into the track, with Ambrose. A fight soon develops between Charlie and Walrus, after Charlie strikes a match on the old guy’s ass, as he bends over. This tickles Mabel, who might just be falling for young Charlie. When Charlie bites Walrus’ nose, Mabel again drags the old fellow off, leaving Charlie to battle it out with some spectators in a little funny action, of the kind at which Charlie excelled. Then, oh dear, Walrus has found the flirt again, just as Chas runs into Ambrose for some ass and belly kicking. Again, Mabel is annoyed as the older pair continue their flirting, but Charlie has also found someone, the lovely and beautiful Dixie Chene.

Charlie sits next to Dixie, who is not keen on the tramp-like guy that takes a crafty sip out of her drink, while she’s not looking. When she discovers what Charlie is doing, she hands the bottle to him, not wishing to drink from the same trough as a dirty hobo. He turns around and offers a drink to Peggy Page, who’s sitting right behind him. Peggy glares daggers at Charlie, and then ignores him. She is very, very annoyed about something, and has to be comforted by her mother, who is sitting beside her. However, mother isn’t just mother for this film, she really is Peggy’s mother, and she is done up to the nines. (We will discuss Peggy and her mother later). Then, who should come traipsing along, but Mabel, who has run away from the flirting Mr. Walrus. Mabel trips over Charlie and Dixie, falls on Charlie’s hat and squashes it. The hat is soon forgotten, as Charlie and Mabel spot a propellor-driven car, and run onto the track to get a view of the aero-machine, much to the annoyance of the inventor, who fires the thing up, scaring Chas and Mabel.

“That scared ’em!”

Back at their seats, Mabel and Charlie begin to get a little ‘friendly’ as it all goes wrong for Walrus, who gets a thump from the flirt, after he makes some indecent suggestion. Arriving back with Charlie and Mabel, Walrus finds Mabel getting a little too amorous with her guy. Charlie is indifferent to Mabel’s advances, but Walrus is furious with his little minx, and pulls her away. Indifferent or not, Charlie flies to Mabel’s defence. He launches a right-hander at Walrus, who ducks, allowing the blow to contact Mabel, who is immediately bowled over. The scene is not as it seems, however, for just before Charlie throws his punch, Peggy grabs the back of Mabel’s dress, and yanks her backwards, so the blow does not connect. Mabel marvels at Charlie’s fighting skills — only a select number of men became the champions of the Keystone Girl. Meanwhile, Walrus has been sent spinning into Ambrose, who begin fighting, and are then rounded up by a cop. Charlie and Mabel laugh, as the other guys are marched off into custody, and Mabel launches a charm offensive on Charlie, fluttering her eyelashes, saying “Give me a kiss me….come on.”

Notes on the film.

You will often read that Gloria Swanson was the first to have an expensive (Paris-derived) checked coa, at Keystone. Here we see Peggy Page wearing a checked coat, at least six months before Gloria arrived. Clothes, of course, were an entry point to stardom for the early actors and actresses. Peggy made several films with Chaplin wearing this trendy coat, and so we might suspect that she regarded it as her key to possible stardom.

Keystone often used events around the studio, as part of their film scenarios. For instance, when Keystone actress Jewel Carmen was caught in a police raid on an L.A. bordello, the whole company departed for Mexico, only returning when the coast was clear. In their next picture, ‘That Ragtime Band’ they used the scenario of a bunch of prostitutes plying their wares at an amateur theatre show. Miss Carmen featured in the film. There seems to be a problem between Charlie and Peggy in this picture. The latter seems to be most upset with the former, and the lady comforting her is, from certain evidence, her mother, Estella.

The Carruthers Family: Estella, Helen and Gladys.

They represent two-thirds of, what has been called, the ‘Carruthers ring’, gold-diggers, hot-foot from Texas. The third part of the ‘ring’ is sister Gladys, who may be in the picture somewhere, or out around L.A. selling dodgy real estate. Mabel might well have ‘stolen’ Peggy’s part, but Peg was back, wearing a grass skirt, in Charlie’s final Keystone ‘His Prehistoric Past’. When Charlie left for Essanay Studios, Peggy, or Helen Carruthers, seems to have followed him, but too late discovered Charlie was at Essanay Chicago. After a couple of bit parts, with Broncho Billy Anderson, it seems, she left for a stage opportunity in Seattle, but finding the show closed down, she went to Portland, swallowed Bichloride of Mercury and laid down to die. Well, she survived, and went on to marry a wealthy German baron. However, during the New York heatwave of 1925, and during the premiere of Chaplin’s ‘Gold Rush’, the baroness tumbled out of a fifth storey window of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and died. She made the headlines, alongside Chaplin’s adulterous affair with Louise Brooks. Gladys and Estella now hit the new ocean cruise scene, and struck lucky, when Gladys married a millionaire in around 1930.


Mabel as usual is wearing her own design of hat and dress in the picture. You will not find these in any contemporary catalogue, and the dresses follow a ‘suffragette’ pattern — straight down, and plain, but for afata bit of lace. When you see Mabel in something ‘girly’ then you often see it worn by another actress in another film, as they usually come from the wardrobe dept. The hats would breach health and safety rules today, with their protuberances and hanging gardens.

Something ‘girly’ for Mabel in ‘The Fatal Mallet’.


A very-much smoothed out Mabel.

This article follows the previous piece ‘Who Made Mabel Of The Keystone’, but concentrating more on discovering the real Mabel under the ‘mask’. Many of the books and websites featuring Mabel Normand, deal with her personality, her lifestyle and so on, and admittedly, this site is one of them. There is another angle that few have covered, and that is the physical Mabel, a subject only partially covered by ‘Who Made Mabel Of The Keystone’. In this article we attempt to discover the true face of Mabel, that is the Mabel, not of the screen, but of the real world – and here’s an odd thing – Mabel claimed that she could walk freely around Los Angeles, without being recognised, and was much surprised that a shop girl seemingly did just that, on the day of the murder of W.D. Taylor. This situation applied to many of the silent stars, the exception being, perhaps, Lilian Gish, who’s distinguishing, and unique features, led to her going everywhere in disguise. Strange creature was Miss Gish, but we’ll leave the subject there. We can categorize the silent stars as gods and goddesses, and it clear that the female was more important to the studios than the male, with the great directors, like movie genius D.W. Griffith, who moulded his melodramatic stories around them.

The unmistakable Miss Gish in ‘Broken Blossoms’.

However, Griffith’s heroines were in no way like real women. In general, they were ‘child-women’, a strange mix of the ingenue and the vamp, which made it essential to look very young, child-like, even when performing adult roles. The inference, and the stark truth, is that the silent stars were a creation, an illusion, a figment of the director’s imagination. Some Mabel fans will be surprised to learn that the Keystone Girl was not the real Mabel. One often reads of her being a mischievous pixie, a sweet innocent, a great beauty, with a childish manner. In reality, Mabel was none of these things, but she was a great actress, someone who could stand on a stage and pretend to be someone else (pixies, by the way, do not exist). For our purposes here, we need to consider only her beauty. By chance of fortune, Mabel was born pretty, which is different to being beautiful. Beauty implies perfection, and perfection limits the character, and roles that an actress can play — Mabel, we know could play many roles. We might also say that beauty saps the personality. While under Griffith at Biograph studios, Mabel played everything from a self-proclaimed prima donna, to a native Indian, to a jealous girlfriend, all far different from the crazy Betty of the Vitagraph, who could actually morph within the scenes of one film.

Morphing Vitagraph Mabel: From ultra trim to more spreading.

Someone once said that all the silent stars look the same. It is true enough that the film-makers were aiming towards an idealised form of a human being, so, actresses at least, were always ethereal, and just a little fuzzy around the edges. Although the studios denied it, an actress was shot with a soft lens, whenever possible. D.W. Griffith liked to use shadow for effect, but for females, this could often make their features slightly coarse and tough, so we might suppose they accounted for this with a soft lens. Keystone never seem to have dabbled in shadow, their scenes being lit with an evenly bright and natural light. Mabel Normand could get ‘fuzzy’ when the camera came close, so sometimes she is being shot through a soft lens. ‘Oh Those Eyes’ 1912, may be a good example. Clever use of make-up would also help here. In this film, although Mabel is meant to be beautiful, she has a head and face, which are unusually large. A disadvantage, it would seem, for drama, but it is noticeable that a clown must always have a large expressive face, whether in a circus ring, or a motion picture.

Judy Canova: Later years, and unveiling the plaque at the Mabel Normand Soundstage 1940.

Mabel met these criteria, as did many other comediennes of the silent screen. Flora Finch, Mabel’s predecessor, had an odd and very long face, culminating in a very square, masculine jaw. Mabel’s successor, Judy Canova, also had a large-boned, unusual face, while Lucille Ball carried this through, to a lesser extent, well into the sound era. You can be sure that if you stood next to Mabel, you would be aware of that almost over-powering face. Indeed, contemporary cartoonists always drew her with a massive head and face, much larger than that of the men around her.

How the cartoonist saw Mack and Mabel.

The film ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’ is notable for revealing many of Mabel’s features, obscured, or smoothed out in so many films. The film is useful in many respects, due to the almost hurried way in which it was completed. Charlie Chaplin was thrown into it to perform as a tramp in the hotel lobby, and, after certain other scenes were shot without him, was brought back as a central character in the picture. In the beginning Mabel is her usual demure, pretty little self, but later she is something of a ragbag. Hurriedly, it seems, she was brought in to do extra scenes with Chaplin. In the film we see something unexpected, for in profile, Mabel has a sort of half-moon face, sometimes called a witches’ face, where the nose is trying to meet the chin. This also features prominently in ‘That Ragtime Band’. Mabel’s mother Mary also exhibits these features, as can be seen in the photo of her (below) at Mabel’s funeral.

Mabel’s mother and Mabel’s Strange Predicament.

It seems clear that you would not immediately be able to equate the Mabel in the street, with the Mabel of the screen. By chance, we do have a short film clip of Mabel, which although staged, is not well-lit, and Mabel does not have full screen make-up. This can be seen on YouTube in the docu-video /mini-doc ‘Mabel’s Adventures’.

The first part of the clip, set in a garden, is bad, in that there is a lot of shadow on Mabel’s face. However, for our purposes here, this is a good thing, for shadow shows up features very well. Turns out, Mabel really does have a heavy-boned, strong face, with well-defined features. In the second part, the lighting has been better sorted, and Mabel is smoothed out, as indeed, is Raymond Hitchcock, who was getting somewhat ‘craggy’ by this time. This reveals some of the features of The Keystone Girl, such as big eyes, and reasonably long lashes – the three-quarters of an inch, as noted by D.W. Griffith, when Mary Pickford told him they were three inches long. The three-inchers (or two-inchers) only occur in a few films, such as ‘Gentlemen of Nerve’, and ‘Oh Those Eyes’. They are likely false. The eyes are not as large as The Keystone Girl’s, which had, as said in a previous article, been enhanced by the classic silent era make-up. One way of recognising Mabel in films, is by the unexpectedly sharp nose ridge, with, however, a tell-tale fleshy knob, on the end, and the fact that her jaw, in the frontal view, opens out beyond the general line of her face. Curiously, she can make her face very long, in which case the latter feature is somewhat absent.

Mabel and Raymond Hitchcock in their garden scene.
Mabel making best use of her features. ‘Gentlemen of Nerve’.

The mini-doc is the best way to find the real Mabel. This is a one stop location for every known off-screen clip of Mabel. The clip of Mabel on the ship in 1922 is not that useful, as she is wearing a large amount of makeup.

Mabel on the RMS Aquitania. Mini-doc.

The Mabel’s Adventures mini-doc also features Mabel in a swimsuit (below) although we don’t know when it was filmed, or if she went into the water. Make up was applied sparingly here, it seems. Her body is very lithe, and her legs are as thin as we might have expected, but she is also kind of knock-kneed and pigeon-toed, the latter being, according to some journalists, wholly contrived. She has the usual Mabel large teeth, protruding over her bottom lip in the cause of ‘cuteness’ and bush baby eyes, but has little in the way of a bust. Date? Unknown, but perhaps shot in 1914, around the time they made ‘Sea Nymphs’.


Below is another swimsuit picture, just for the hell of it. Nothing can be told from this, as she is tensing her face. However, it is clear that her legs are muscular, rather than just thin. The location is the Keystone pool. When? Perhaps c.1914, as the video above (just a guess, and it might be later).

Photo: ‘The Keystone Kid: Images of Old Hollywood’ (2001).

In Conclusion we might say that Mabel had the necessary features of a clown to be successful in comedy. However, these did not prevent her from engaging in the dramatic, as her selection by D.W. Griffith, for rare stardom, indicates. Her features could be enhanced or smoothed out, as required. One minute she’s a classic silent era beauty, next minute she can be (slightly and rarely) ugly. How thin was Mabel, in reality? Many journalists noted that she was thin, but when, on the few occasions that they said this, they often added “She has been ill, recently.”

Mabel with Fatty in ‘Sea Nymphs’. [LFM Website].

In May 1926, Mabel visited the Mack Sennett studios, and actress Ruth Taylor wrote in her diary (published 1940) that her childhood heroine looked very thin, but she also dropped in the line “She had been very ill of late.” No-one knows that she had been ill, but some observers have noted that she could claim illness and even hospitalisation, when it suited her, during scandals, and at other times, just to get time off work. However, the studio system could have been at the bottom of this. Many studios had the clause “The actress is not to go above 99 pounds.” Quite honestly, even for a girl of five-feet-one, this is a rather unsafe weight. More normal would be 120 to 130 pounds, for a slim female. Mary Pickford’s experience, where D.W. Griffiths kept her out of some films, because she was “Too fat!” tells us something about how the film industry functioned. Mary weighed at maximum 130 pounds. What this means is that we need not pencil in illness or stress into Mabel’s life, the system itself, perhaps, having a bearing on this.

Friends indeed. The Hitchcocks let Mabel drive their Rolls Royce.

Notes on the films.

The ship film dates to June 1922, when Mabel fled the America press for Europe. Her companion was ex-actress Julie Cotterell, who might have shot this film. In the garden film, Mabel is sitting on the lap of aging actor, Raymond Hitchcock. Private films, like this one, were common among the actors, during the silent era, as Hollywood in those days was fairly boring, with few places to go, other than the few theatres and cinemas. The films would be shown at gatherings and parties in Tinsel Town, for everyone’s amusement. We might suspect that this scene was shot in late 1924 / early 1925, when Mabel had gone through three scandals, one being her naming in a divorce case. Now, Mabel never crumbled against the onslaught of toxic verbiage hurled at her, and when brought by subpoena to the Horace Greer trial, actually put the judge on trial. Then, following Mrs Church’s divorce action, Mabel responded with a $500,000 law suit. Raymond Hitchcock, whose lap Mabel is sitting on in the film, is a married man, so she is doing precisely the thing that she is accused of. Don’t worry, though, for Mrs Hitchcock is surely behind the camera. No self-respecting woman would leave their husband alone with the Keystone Girl. The Hitchcocks were long-term friends of Mabel, had helped her out on many occasions, and also put her up in their New York apartment. As in a previous article we might wonder what Mabel is saying. At a guess, she says “It’s a shame……..wife”, meaning, maybe, if Hitchy wasn’t married, then…… There is also something else here, for Hitchcock was in court in 1907, accused of having “criminal intimacy with little girls.” Hitchcock was found not guilty, claiming blackmail, after one girl he had ‘abducted’ refused to testify. Although aged thirty, it is entirely possible that Mabel is playing a ‘Lolita’ role here, thereby cocking another snook at the authorities. In Hollywood, no-one cared who you were, or what you’d done.

Raleigh Evening Times Nov. 3rd 1907.


Worried Mabel in court.

There were two shooting events in which Mabel Normand was embroiled. The Taylor shooting of 1922 was bad enough for Mabel, who, it must be said, had no knowledge of the actual murder. Mabel was just a friend (some say lover) of W.D. Taylor. The Dines shooting was different, in that Mabel was present at the time that the shots were fired, apparently by escaped chain-ganger, Horace Greer (alias Joe Kelly). This is not an article looking to determine who shot Dines on that New Year’s Day in 1924, as Horace Greer admitted the shooting. Why then, did lightning strike, so to speak, twice in one place? This is a complete mystery, but we might suspect that Mabel’s lifestyle had something to do with the events that occurred during her life. In this article we will ignore the Hollywierd stuff, the drugs and the rest, for which there is no evidence. Mabel’s life is very interesting, without these things. Mabel, as everyone knows lived her life very close to the edge, and in the conduct of her career, was very competitive, if not mercenary. You will not find here Mabel the elf, the fairy, nor will you find Mabel the evil schemer, although she pulled off some dramatic schemes, or coups, in her time, in particular against Mack Sennett and Hal Roach.

A lecture from Mack on how to behave?

January 1st 1924.

It is a given, then, that the person who pulled the trigger of Mabel’s .25 automatic pistol was Horace Greer. He made a statement to that effect to the LAPD, and so there is little to be gained arguing that point. Just for the record, though, the pistol fired was one of a pair, and the twin was in Mabel’s handbag (well you wouldn’t walk around L.A. unarmed, would you?). For this reason, some have argued that it was the gun in Mabel’s possession that was fired, but, again, there is no evidence for that, so we’ll just leave it there, and concentrate on the circumstances before, and at the time of the shooting.

Edna, Horace and Mabel make the headlines.

Looking Back.

This particular article could not have been written, if a certain Mrs Ethel (or Edith) Burns, Mabel’s housekeeper or friend, had not made a statement to the press. Her aim was to help Mabel, but to some extent, this misfired, and Mabel had to ‘let her go’. Essentially, she said Mabel was a complete innocent in all of this, and Greer could not be blamed either. The real villains of the piece were Courtland Dines and his (supposed) girlfriend, Edna Purviance, Charlie Chaplin’s screen foil. The couple led Mabel astray, espoused the righteous Mrs Burns, coming around Mabel’s house and tempting her out on the town and the booze for their own amusement. Mabel, of course, was good company, a game girl, always up for a laugh, and she clearly needed no tempting. Indeed, Blanche Sweet later insisted that Mabel had corrupted her, and most of the other actresses at the Biograph studio. However, Mrs Burns painted Mabel, as some kind of paragon, an innocent, very much like The Keystone Girl, in fact. She would never go out on the town all night of her own volition. Unfortunately, the housekeeper said more. After claiming Edna was engaged to ‘Courts’ she went on to say that the guy was going out with Mabel, behind Edna’s back.

The inference was that Courts was seducing her. Mrs Burns laid the ‘innocent Mabel’ on thick, perhaps too thick. She went into ridiculous stories about Mabel being nervous and fretful, when she returned home from the studio. In answer, we might say that all film stars, in an industry where you were only as good as your last film, were nervous, fretful and paranoid. The fact that Mabel “had difficulty sleeping” could have been due to any number of factors. The reason that Mabel fired Mrs Burns was mainly due to what she said concerning the chauffeur. Joe Kelly (Horace Greer) was “a good boy” (from the chain gang) and he was only defending his employer, when he shot Dines. On top of that, Mrs Burns showed the cops around Mabel’s bedroom, and opened the drawer, from which Greer had taken the gun. The LAPD, naturally, raised their eyebrows over a chauffeur knowing his way around madam’s bedroom. Mabel knew what this meant – she was Lady Chatterley, come four years early. Not two years later, there was another casualty of the Dines affair, when Mabel, in a protracted fit of rage, fired her secretary, Betty Coss. There had been a long-simmering argument between Mabel and Betty, over who had hired Greer. Normally, the secretary dealt with such matters, but she totally denied any involvement. Greer had been sent along by the Pierce-Arrow dealership, as Mabel had purchased one of their $8,000 cars. At the dealership, no-one could remember who had sent Greer over. However, around this time, Mack Sennett disposed of his beloved Pierce-Arrow and bought a Packard Twin-Six.

Mabel in court.

We’ll get back to Mr Sennett, later on. For Mabel, the problems created by the Dines shooting were on top of those created by the 1922 shooting of W.D. Taylor. Mabel was not a suspect, but it was widely believed that she knew who the killer was. It soon became apparent that this was yet another love triangle, with the three points being Mabel, WDT, and an actress called Mary Miles Minter. News soon came of a nightdress with the monogram MN emblazoned on it. “Ah” Said the press, but by a strange quirk, the letters miraculously changed to MMM. Immediately, the attention turned to Mary Miles Minter, then to her mother, who, it was claimed, had threatened to kill Taylor. Although the mother, Mary Shelby, had an alibi, via Sennett director Carl Stockdale, the press and the police began to pursue that lady. Unfortunately, Taylor’s valet, Peavy, put the blame squarely on Mabel – she’d wanted Taylor to get her into Paramount Studios, and when he failed, she shot the director.

Mabel with Carl Stockdale in ‘Extra Girl’.

The police (but not the press) ignored this story, for Mabel also had an alibi, and a very strong one, verified by her household staff, and an actor that had seen Mabel and DWT leave the house together, then Taylor return alone. Now, we have to ask what a mere valet (as Mabel thought him) would know about the machinations of the film industry. Well, turns out he had been a valet to a number of movie men down the years, and had picked up details about the way Tinsel Town functioned. It was not unusual for actresses to ingratiate themselves with directors, and even producers. Mabel’s oldest Hollywood friend, Norma Talmadge, had done precisely that, when she married big-shot Joe Schenk, the couple blazing a huge path through Tinsel Town. This is the point where we need to return to 1924, but we must first turn the clock back a few years.

Biograph, Vitagraph and Keystone.

Mabel with Flora Finch and John Bunny.

The earliest references to Mabel in the movies date back to around 1910, when she was a bit-player at Biograph. However, she hit stardom at Vitagraph in 1911, where, by some means, she managed to side-track comedian John Bunny’s foil, Flora Finch (although Bunny had many leading ladies, including Delores Costello). In an interview sixty years later, Constance Talmadge claimed to remember Mabel sliding her way between Bunny and Finch. She did this by joining them at their table during lunchtimes, claims Connie, whose sister, Norma, also became part of the Bunny/Normand set. The odd-looking Flora, of course, stood no chance against the vivacious Mabel, who was possibly seducing John B, and Flora’s career began to ebb away. Mabel was later to say, with some smugness perhaps, that a new comedienne had arrived and pushed Flora aside. In any event, Mabel was to leave Vitagraph for Biograph under a cloud, which, if true, could mean that she had become “All of herself” as they still say out on Staten Island. At Biograph, movie genius D.W. Griffith was pleased to have her back, and gave her co-starring and leading roles.

Mabel stars in Mender of Nets, Eternal Mother and Diving Girl (Biograph 1911/12).

However, there was little chance of seducing DWG, for all of the actresses were clamouring for parts, and the genius cleverly played one off against another. This was an exacerbating situation, and there was soon talk of girls leaving for newly-formed companies, where they’d stand a chance of being Queen of the studio. Mary Pickford had already tried this move with ‘IMP’ but had returned with head bowed, having failed. DWG had a love, hate relationship with Mary, and would shake her violently by the shoulders if she didn’t perform well. Mary wrote that, on one occasion, he’d thrown her bodily across the set, leaving her with a suspected broken arm. By this time, Mabel seems to have taken up ‘mildly’ with Mack Sennett, a big guy that could hold his own against equally big and antagonistic guys like Griffith. Consequently, there is no record of Griffith proffering violence against Mabel, although becoming evermore ‘full of it’ she drove verbal daggers into his heart. Mack, it is known, pursued Mabel, by reason of him needing her for his comedy studio, over which he’d been negotiating with movie big-shots, Kessell and Baumann. Mack showered her with diamonds, which Mabel was not always quick to accept, and Mrs Griffith records that she once threw a seventy-five dollar diamond bracelet back at Mack, just to keep him in his place, so it would seem.

Mack, Mabel and a diamond.

Mack, understandably, was only one of those that sought a way into Mabel’s affections. He did, for his part, manage to pull a coup off against Mabel, when he was made Biograph comedy director, and persuaded Griffith to share Mabel with him. This might have prompted the giving and rejection of said bracelet – Mabel was not amused. Not amused, because she’d become used to calling the shots, and men deciding her future was not what she wanted. The advantage, nonetheless, was constant work, with no long periods watching other part-time stars strutting their stuff on the stage. In a way, Mabel had pulled off a minor coup here, and she apparently saw no reason to get romantically involved with any man, which puts the Mack and Mabel love affair effectively in its box. Mutiny was in the air in June 1912, when Griffith tried to star an actress wearing a grass skirt in Man’s Genesis. Mary, Mabel and Blanche refused to take the part, which Griffith eventually gave to new girl, Mae Marsh. After lecturing the actresses on how to lick the director’s boots, Griffith then gave Mae the lead in his next big picture, ‘The Sands of Dee’. Mabel was quick to make up her mind, and was gone from Biograph, before ‘Genesis’ hit the screens. Mary followed within a few weeks, but those without a movie man to support them, like Blanche Sweet, stayed with Griffith, who himself departed Biograph not too long after.

The Keystone lot, before it was Keystone.

Mary had organised her own little coup, by returning to theatre impresario, David Belaso, but by 1913, had gone for film glory, with Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players. Mabel too, was a winner with Keystone, her rebellious nature being perhaps over the top for tycoons, like Zukor, although they had a life-long friendship (Mabel’s letters to Zukor still exist). Mabel now, had seen nothing but success, and, perhaps, this had gone to her head, just a little bit. Could she walk on water? You bet. Could she wrap Sennett, and his Keystone bosses, Kessell and Baumann, around her little finger? Well, it seemed so. Tough it was, though, in those early days in Manhattan, and thenin  L.A. Badly funded, though making money, the studio, situated in a veritable lumber-yard, stumbled on with the help of Mabel, who was having a third burst of stardom. Life was undoubtedly tough in the wild west for city girl Mabel, but she always seemed to make the best of a not so good thing. No doubt she dreamed of matching the big stars of Broadway – no movie person having yet achieved that level. In terms of the aura of a star, she demanded that a bungalow on the lot be converted into her dressing room. No, she wouldn’t be living in crummy Edendale, she wanted a suite in the best hotel in town, and she would not be coming in by the electric trolley – she wanted to glide in aboard a chauffeured limousine.

“The Keystone Academy, please, my good man”

If the Keystone bosses were a little annoyed, then there was little they could do. Yes, Mabel was a fine actress, but her Griffith and Bunny pedigree brought something even more valuable than hard cash – they call it kudos. No other jumped up comedy outfit could field such an actress. The trappings of stardom were of utmost importance to Mabel, and she seemed less interested in the greenbacks. However, it was important to ask for constant pay rises, just to remind the big boys, as to who she was. Time went on, and Chaplin arrived, who was someone Mabel thought she could do business with. According to Chester Conklin, “Charlie was Mabel’s prize.” Perhaps he was, but knowing the Keystone Girl opened doors in the developing Hollywood, and gave access to the bungalow dressing room, with its heater and electric fan, among other delights. Charlie and Mabel made some good films that year, until he left, perhaps with a slight shove from Mack Sennett. Away from Keystone, Charlie dropped any ideas of appearing with star actresses, and took an unknown, Edna Purviance, into his pictures. What did Miss Normand think about that? Presumably she was not amused, as her pursuit of Charlie continued for the next fifteen years. As for Edna, Mabel took her into her confidence, and befriended her. Later, she would befriend, Mildred Harris, first wife of Chaplin, thereby forming a kind of threesome in the marriage.

“He’s so wonderful’

1915 turned out to be a topsy-turvy year for Mabel. Triumph, when Movie Magazine voted her top comedienne, and despair when Sennett put her into exclusively slapstick films. Mabel could feel stardom slipping away from her, as the Bathing Beauties wobbled onto the lot – her lot. Then the absorption of Keystone by the ‘Triangle’ company brought better things, and a starring role in the feature film ‘My Valet’. It also brought new friends in the form of theatrical actor Raymond Hitchcock and his wife, who buoyed Mabel up during this difficult period. Mabel, though, was not one to sit around when under pressure, and it may be just lucky happenstance, or the machinations by Mabel herself, that ‘Triangle’ bosses asked for Mabel, Roscoe Arbuckle, and a small company to be sent east to the New York Motion Picture Co. in Fort Lee, New Jersey.  Sennett, of course, never allowed his star to leave Edendale, but his acquiescence here, suggests that he was feeling smug about his position. With his new ‘stars’ like Louise Fazenda, Polly Moran, and Ben Turpin, he did not need Fatty, nor Mabel (he thought). His jaw might have dropped, when he read about the fanfare to which Roscoe and Mabel were treated in New York. Syd Chaplin and a small crew had gone ahead, making the complex arrangements and celebrations work smoothly. Syd was highly capable at this type of thing, helped along, no doubt, by the irrepressible Fatty and Mabel. A highlight was a reception at high-class Rector’s Restaurant, attracting the top movie men, and even David Belasco felt compelled to attend.

Rector’s Main Dining Room.

Presumably, Mack’s confidence was beginning to wane, as Roscoe and Mabel completed the feature ‘He Did And He Didn’t’, so different to the now stale Keystone offerings. It was three months later that Mack sent a car to San Bernardino rail station to collect the returning Roscoe and Mabel, but only Roscoe got in that car. Mabel was nowhere to be seen, and had, in fact, stayed on in New York. The telegraph wires glowed red hot between L.A. and New York. “What the hell is going on!” Demanded a now less than confident Mack. Then, a kick in the teeth. Newspapers reported that Mabel has signed for Mack’s old distributors, Mutual, “to do Chaplin films.” The mention of Chaplin was worse than a kick in the teeth, it was a knife in the guts. Mack had misjudged Mabel. It’s possible she had conspired with Triangle boss, Harry Aitken, Kessell and Baumann, along with Mr. Freuer, President of Mutual. One thing seems obvious, Mabel could not have pulled this off on her own.

Roscoe strangles Mabel in ‘He Did and He Didn’t’.

Now, the reader might be wondering what the aim of these shenanigans was. Mack Sennett (borrowing heavily from ‘Triangle’) had built a new studio in East Hollywood, for $100,000, intended exclusively for feature film production. Mabel figured, perhaps correctly, that its use would be shared among the Keystone actors and actresses. She wanted it for herself. With the big bosses lined up against him, Mack had no option, but to capitulate. Mabel would not be working for Keystone, but a new company called ‘The Mabel Normand Feature Film Co’, like Keystone under the umbrella of ‘New York  Motion Pictures’ itself under the ‘Triangle’ umbrella. To put it bluntly, the world went crazy on hearing this news.

The ‘The Mabel Normand Feature Film Co. made just one film, the Birth Of A Nation-beating ‘Mickey’. The film was success, but ‘Triangle’ crumbled under the weight of accumulated debt, and, perhaps, the failure of the company’s D.W. Griffith film, ‘Intolerance’. Mack Sennett, also found himself in deep trouble, and lost his rights to the Keystone name, and any control he had over ‘Mickey’. Mabel, it seems, was finished, doomed. There was nowhere to run, no Keystone, no New York Motion Pictures, no Triangle. Mabel went back to where she began, and started to look for a new studio starting up – she was no shrinking violet, waiting to be plucked by some big-shot. She found what she wanted in Sam Goldwyn. Sam had, somehow, found a huge amount of money, in order to start his own studio. Regarded, then, as some kind of strange-talking buffoon, Mabel liked what Sam told her. She would be his only star, and the studio would turn around her. He could only afford $1,000 a week, at present, but later he could treble or quadruple that amount. The months went by, with Mabel biding her time, listening out for other deals. Sennett was now in dire trouble, and no other comedy outfit could afford her. In the Spring of 1917, Sam called on her to take her position at his studio, now up and running in Fort Lee, New Jersey. In New York, she discovered the horrible truth about Goldwyn’s studio. The producer was busy buying up every star he could get his hands on, and they were mainly vaudevillians. From the movies, though, Sam had the aforementioned Mae Marsh, the second star he hired. Mabel decided the Goldwyn deal wasn’t good for her, and, in shades of the previous year, put it out that she’d work for anyone, with enough cash. Sam’s response was to slap an injunction on Mabel, preventing her from working for anyone else. In the meantime, Mack Sennett had risen from the Triangle ashes. He could not make a straight offer to Mabel, but he sent lawyers to renegotiate Mabel’s contract, spend the pants off Sam, and just maybe, grab Mabel for himself. Mabel was indifferent. She was used to knights in shining armour rushing in and saving her, this time she’d miscalculated. Mack renegotiated for $1,500, and Sam kept his tight hold on Mabel. At the studio, although Mabel was at constant loggerheads with the theatrical stars, her star was in the ascendancy. Sam bought in big stories at vast expense, although not enough was spent on the films themselves, but his publicity was brilliant, which kept him, and Mabel, on a par with the big, established companies.

Mack Sennett Comedies.

Sam Goldwyn and some of his stars.

Eventually, the wild spending and the influenza pandemic did for Goldwyn. While engaged in rescheduling his considerable debts, he shed some of his stars. Mabel went into career-saving mode, and put ‘feelers’ out to Mack Sennett, feigned (perhaps) influenza, and recruited Charlie Chaplin to act as middle-man between Mack and Sam. The whole story is convoluted and not at all clear, but it is suffice to say that Mabel signed an extraordinary one-film contract with Mack. Mabel would be paid $3,000 a week, get 25% of the profits, and the usual contract conditions (e.g actor supplies costumes) were removed. The proposed film, ‘Molly O’ would be a feature, comprising drama and comedy, and put together in a way that was more redolent of a 1930s film than one of 1920. The picture did very well, and almost sold as well as ‘Mickey’. Mabel had got on top again, and signed with Sennett to do a film of Old California called ‘Suzanna’. This would build on Mabel’s characterisation in ‘Molly O’ as a capable woman, rather than an ingenue, as she’d been represented in Keystone pictures. There was, though, as Mack Sennett later said, a dark figure in the wings, by the name of W.D. Taylor.

Mabel with Sam and Charlie.

When D.W. Taylor, a Mabel friend of long standing, was shot dead, Mabel stood her ground against her detractors. Her friends in Hollywood came to her aid, and the likes of Mary Pickford, Norma Talmadge, Blanche Sweet and Florence Lawrence wrote letters to the press in support of her – at considerable personal risk, we might add. One effect of the shooting was that Mabel could no longer be portrayed onscreen as a capable woman, or any kind of vamp. For Suzanna, she was put back into the sweet ingenue mould – although she was now thirty years of age. Mack Sennett floundered, and was, indeed, a prime suspect in the case. On the day that Hollywood clean-up specialist, Will Hays, came to town, Mabel left for Europe. Comedian Will Rogers summed up the feelings of Hollywood, when, from a Hollywood stage, he quipped “Two people were shot dead in L.A. today, Mabel Normand must be back in town!” Had Mabel been run out of that town? Well, she made many contacts in Europe, and had plenty of offers from studios out there. If she could buy up good stories, then she could start up her own studio – too late for the U.S. but perfectly feasible in the growing U.K. film industry. In the event she was unsuccessful in her quest to buy up classics, as her friend, English actor Harry Tate, no doubt told her “All bought up by the yankee studios, don’t yer know, old bean.”

Harry Tate.

Mabel retired back to New York to consider her position. For a few months Manhattan became her playground, and every night was party night. Manhattan was full of travelling Hollywood actors that must have corrupted poor Mabel, who was now living in Marilyn Miller’s apartment, Marilyn being based in Hollywood full time, since marrying Jack Pickford. Then, something stopped the party. News came that Sennett had begun a new feature film, starring Bathing Beauty, Phyllis Haver. Mabel had not been contacted about this, and naturally thought she should have first refusal. The film could bring her back into favour, for it told of a poor innocent girl, seeking a life in pictures out in Tinsel Town. All kinds of bastards come out of the woodwork to fleece the girl, but she eventually decides that marriage and children are more important than stardom. Mabel was straight onto Mack Sennett, demanding the part. It seems Mabel might have had something on Mack, for, with three weeks of shooting already in the bag, poor Phyllis found herself outside the studio gate on her backside. Mabel breezed into Mack Sennett Studios, and completed her second-best-selling picture, ‘Extra Girl’. A footnote here. Legend has it that Mack put Phyllis on a life-long pension, in order to sweeten the scrapping of her contract. Less that two weeks after Mack’s death in 1960, Phyllis took her own life. Read into that what you will.

Phyllis Haver. She only had 3 expressions: The “oooh”, “the smile” and “the take it” (Mack Sennett).

Back to 1924.

Mabel was now a resurgent star, although Mack had paid his dues to her, and she was in a limbo, but a very well-oiled limbo. In situations like these, Mabel did what she always did, and hit the party trail. At her rate of spending, the money would eventually run out. Towards the end of 1923, her friend Edna Purviance also ran into trouble, when Charlie Chaplin decided to dispense with her services – she’d reached the end of her shelf-life, Charlie was trading her in for a new model. Edna of course, by her ten-year compliance (no pun intended) had ensured Chaplin’s success (he would have found Mabel a different kettle of fish). In consideration of this, Charlie put Edna on a pension, to be paid for, it seems, by royalties from the film “A Woman Of Paris.” Initially, the film bombed, which wasn’t good for Edna’s career, but the it had numerous releases over time, so Chaplin got the money and paid it over to Edna. In late 1923, however, it seemed Edna was in a panic, and set out to net a millionaire. Still one of the beauties of Hollywood, she soon took up with oil tycoon, Courtland Dines. Out in Europe, Mabel had something of a fling with a sheik, or more specifically, an Egyptian Prince. His King was not happy that Mabel was losing the royal loot on the gaming tables of Monte Carlo, but when he heard Prince Ibrahim was about to marry a scumbag Hollywood actress, the prodigal prince was called home. The situation was worrying for Mabel, although everyone was worried over the coming of talkies.

Mabel, Edna and Courts, frolic aboard a yacht (Catalina Is.)

Under these circumstances, Mabel clearly decided to snatch the millionaire for herself. Why should Edna have two hits – she’d already taken Chaplin from her. The latter nagging problem had been simmering for years, and perhaps now it reached boiling point. However, with ‘Extra Girl’ doing well, and the Taylor affair fading in the public memory, Mabel could afford to go cold on Dines, which is what she seems to have done. Dines was naturally annoyed, as a whole string of men had been in the past. When Edna called on that New Year’s Day for Mabel to go to Cortland’s apartment for drinks, Mabel was dubious, but went anyway, although hung over from the Dines party of the previous night. Her household staff had tried to prevent her from going, as she was listed for an operation the next day, but this had little effect. At Dines’ apartment, Mabel was drunk after a few drinks, and Courtland began abusing her. Edna probably did not know what was going on. Mrs Burns received a phone call, asking her to send the chauffeur over to pick her up. Mrs Burns told Kelly (Greer) that Courtland was holding Mabel against her will. He ran straight upstairs, and grabbed the gun. The chauffeur began shooting almost as soon as he walked into the apartment, then he threw the gun, and departed for the police station, where he claimed self- defence. When the cops arrived and asked what had happened, Mabel simply said “I guess someone shot him, mister.” A typical Mabelism, but Mabel was also to joke with the judge at Greer’s trial, to which she’d been carted under subpoena. The press made much of her French hand signals, and uppercrust accent, “So much like Cavendish Square and redolent of old ‘Lonnon’ town.”

Mabel and Shiek, Prince Ibrahim.

Bringing it all together.

This is a rather lengthy article, but it needs to be, for the events of New Year’s Day, 1924, were simply a culmination of what went before. Mabel loved the chase in her romantic assignations, and had a particular fascination with love triangles. Some newspapers, after the Taylor murder, implied Mabel was ‘She of the thousand lovers’ although they could not possibly have numbered more than a hundred (and perhaps only around eighty in her lifetime). In her dealings with film producers, Mabel was sharp, although money does not seem to have been her prime motivation. Actress Anita Garvin was to say that Mabel had been the biggest thing in Hollywood, and perhaps this was because she was so highly thought of in the industry, and had so many friends to stand up for her, that she walked the tightrope so often. Like her co-star, Roscoe Arbuckle, things were bound to catch up with her. In spite of what some commentators have said, Mabel was never a disgrace to Hollywood. In his film ‘Chaplin’ Richard Attenborough claimed that Mabel never made a film after the Taylor murder, but does not explain how Suzanna, Extra Girl and the five films for Hal Roach came about. Of course, Mabel put on the innocent, and complained that Chaplin looked after Edna Purviance, but no-one looked after her. Well, her friends looked after her, and the fact that Sennett did not look after her is not surprising, since she had made millions from her Sennett films and her nation-wide stage show. In 1924, she featured in a magazine centre-spread article called ‘Would I Have Been happier If I Had Married’. In this she plays at little girl lost, and bemoans the fact that she had no man to stand up for her. The fact is that had she been married, then her affairs would have been adulterous, in which case the husband would not have supported her, but would have commenced divorce proceedings. It was a few months after the Dines shooting that Mabel was named in a divorce case on the grounds that she had “alienated a husband’s affections from his wife.” Mabel, although never adulterous, was an incorrigible flirt, and while in hospital she had been in the habit of visiting the man’s room, bearing strong liquor — hence the divorce case. It is said that Mabel had broken her shoulder, and been hospitalised, after she was thrown from a horse during a shoot. It was Courtland Dines who revealed that Mabel had been blind drunk, and, while mounting the horse, had simply fallen off the other side. It was a topsy-turvy life, with much more to come. Would Mabel have wanted it any other way?


Mabel has just been kissed in the suburbs. Troublesome Secretaries 1911.

Soon after the motion picture arrived it began a thinly-veiled campaign against those that did not conform to the film-makers. ideals They achieved this by lampooning certain groups, although some were groups that had been lampooned for years, centuries, beforehand. Among these were the suburbanites, those that fled the cities for the surrounding, countrified areas. Nothing wrong with moving to the countryside, but to move a mere five or even ten miles, in order to maintain firm financial and social links with the city, as well as enjoy the other benefits, paved roads, water, electricity that must surely eventually accrue, seemed a little two-faced. There had been suburbanites in the times of ancient Rome, and possibly before that. We know this, because the ancient writers spoke of it. There were those with piles of cash that moved out to country estates, the villas, but there were others, less well-heeled, who sought to imitate their ‘betters’ and move just a little outside the city limits. These people were inextricably bound to the city.

Image: Harpers Magazine.

It was this lesser group that received the derision, down the years, and in modern times became the brunt of the cartoonist’s jokes, featuring the famous curtain twitcher, ever aware and fearful of new people that might taint their idyllic suburban life. The modern suburbanite phenomenon penetrated every part of the world, especially in the English-speaking countries. All the cities in these areas suffered from the suburban malaise, virus or ideal, whichever way the observer might wish to view it. Los Angeles, though, where the American film industry eventually made its home, can be seen to have begun as a scatter of suburban ‘towns’ around central L.A. which had been a Spanish Mission or Hacienda. It’s curious to think that the suburban ‘towns’ grew up, due to the people of the towns in the east and mid-west becoming dissatisfied with both the towns and the suburbs. Californian Realtors were more than happy to sell land or new-builds to the aspirational easterners, who would soon realise that the promised roads, drainage and electricity would not be appearing, the agents having disappeared with the loot. 

The roads around your bungalow might be OK, but try getting anywhere.

Let’s return to the film industry and its actors. In the early days, the motion picture actors were stage actors, and as such, were itinerant by profession and nature. Not for them was buying a house, which was the normal prerequisite for entering suburbia. “When you have a house, you collect clutter” Said W.C. Fields. Fields, of course, cruised the theatre circuits for decades. Settling down just did not suit the travelling lifestyle, and many actors were so wrapped up in the life that the thought of being in one place was alien and abhorrent to them. Film producer Mack Sennett was an actor that had grown up on a farm, and so his venom was aimed at country people, that he perceived as dim-witted yokels. His shining star though, Mabel Normand, was a product of suburbia, the suburbia of Staten Island – that retreat of middling bankers, and New York mob bosses. Mabel, it seems, was unimpressed with suburban life, and once she’d established a career in Manhattan, she almost certainly upped sticks and moved to the Big Apple. History records that she hardly ever went back to ‘The Island of The Dead’, although her family remained planted in the borough until 1930.

Mabel bought this Gothic pile in leafy St. Mark’s Place, S.I. for her parents in 1920, but she never lived there herself. It’s far too suburban for a city girl!

 When Mack and Mabel made films for Biograph and Keystone, they did not actually criticise suburbia, but they would feature suburbanites and their fears, which often ran to more than fearing the colour of their neighbours’ curtains, to the fear that roughs and toughs of the big city would come and steal their trappings of suburban life. Such was the basis of Biograph’s Mack Sennett film ‘Help, Help’ in which Fred Mace plays the suburbanite, striding off to work in the city every day, while wifey, Mabel, stayed at home, doing what suburban wives do. Mabel, home alone, is shocked to read in the paper that burglars are at large in the area, robbing the helpless suburbanites. Then, she spots two ‘villains’ outside, and rushes to lock the doors (we know they’re villains by the stubble on their chins).

“It says here, there are burglars in the area”. Teenager Mabel and middle-aged Fred Mace are the idyllic suburban couple. ‘Help, Help’ 1912.

She thinks she’s safe, but, when the drapes start moving, she assumes the burglars are breaking in. Quickly, she phones Fred at his office, which, of course, is five miles away. Fred immediately jumps in his car, along with his office lackeys, but the journey is long and arduous, over some pretty ghastly roads. Meanwhile, the drapes keep moving and Mabel becomes more and more frantic, and she makes a very good job of it, for she was once D.W. Griffith’s resident tragedienne. The frantic, tragic housewife, hiding in a trunk is a memorable scene from the film. This is Mabel at her hair-tearing, Griffith best, and if you think it looks like a scene from ‘The Lonely Villa’, starring Mary Pickford, then you’d be right — Mack Sennett wrote that one too. Naturally, Fred’s car eventually breaks down, but the suburban heroes continue on with their quest, by first stealing a horse and cart, then running the gauntlet of farmers with shotguns that object to the men’s short cuts across their fields. Reaching the house, Fred discovers the family dog behind the curtain, which has caused all the trouble. The day is saved, and Mabel’s reputation, as a complete scatter-wit, is preserved. The moral, obviously, is don’t move to the suburbs, Mrs Jones.

Mabel in a box.

Sennett’s view of the suburbanites is somewhat muted, but let’s look at another Biograph film, from 1904, ‘The Suburbanite’ which really drives the knife home. This was made long before the arrival of D.W. Griffith, so there are no close-ups. The story is of an excited family moving to the suburbs, a move which “will be good for the kids.” A city family are seen walking up the leafy street to their new home in suburbia. What a joyous group they make, heading towards their new life. Soon after, we see the removals van arrives, with the covetous suburbanites’ precious belongings. Unfortunately, the removers came from the same stable as Laurel and Hardy, so when they back their horse and cart up to the house, the suburbanites’ precious furniture tumbles out the back, and smashes on the ground. The remnants are taken into the house, but a workman drops a washtub full of china, with the inevitable results. However, a chest of drawers soon follows, with drawers and their contents scattered around.

The would-be suburbanites arrive, presumably to the twitching of chintz.

The suburbanite is out of his mind, and tells the workmen to leave, which they do after, throwing the furniture out, and at, Mr Suburbanite. Next the kids are out on the veranda, enjoying their new suburban life, but the perils of suburbia soon become apparent, as the kids discover the dreaded mud, and are soon smothered in the stuff. However, the true perils of the suburbs appear soon enough — household staff, or lack of them. No domestic seems to last more than a day, but a new cook arrives, as our intrepid hero strides off to work in the city. He arrives at the rail station, just as the train pulls out, and in his efforts to catch it, ends up sprawling on the platform.

Hell’s Kitchen.

This never happened back in the city! Meanwhile, the mother-in-law has arrived to see how the newly-suburbanised are getting along. Unfortunately, she strays into the kitchen, which of course, is the cook’s domain. All hell breaks loose, and mother-in-law ends up running in terror, from a wayward saucepan. Mrs Suburbanite steams in but is likewise beaten back by a volley of best china. Mr Suburbanite meets the same terror, then, enter the handyman, who gets a pan over the head, as he enters the kitchen. Seems the handyman might have been the cook’s husband, but before she can do anything the cops arrive to take her away. They are, naturally, pretty dumb cops, but nowhere near as crazy as the later Keystone variety. Finally our intrepid suburbanite has had enough, and we next see him he’s putting up a ‘for let’ sign. The whole family then decamp, back the way they came, and are presumably heading back to the dark, evil city, where they can relax in peace.

The cook runs foul of the law.


If we compare these two films, then it is clear that the 1904 picture is more cutting than Sennett’s 1904 version. Sennett, of course, had bigger fish to fry, bungling cops, pompous men in plug hats, preachers, rubes and yokels. Mabel herself seemed to enjoy sending up the scaredy-cat suburbanites, who she seemed to dismiss as an irrelevance, redolent of her own sad life in the dreaded suburbs.

Some observations on the films.

Although the suburbanites walk up the road in a group, at the beginning of the 1904 film, they are mostly shown in-line in the interior scenes. The cameraman is careful to always show the actors’ feet. The kitchen scenes look as though they were taken on a Broadway stage, which is, naturally, the intention of the director. The roads in ‘The Suburbanite’ are paved (if that’s the right word) with loose sand, great for horses, and it damped down the sound of clopping hooves. It’s difficult to know, but the sidewalk seems to be hard-packed sand, with wooden shuttering, serving as the curb. There isn’t one motor car in the picture. Later, Sennett was to make the infernal automobile central to his products.

This article just gives a flavor of the arguments for, and against, suburban living. A host of writing and film-making was to appear on that rare animal, the suburbanite, culminating in the present battle for the hearts and minds of those that cluster around the cities.

Let’s get outta here!

The Suburbanite: released November 1904.


Leading Man: (uncredited) John Troiano.

Director: Wallace MaCutcheon.

Screenplay: Frank Marion.

(Frank Marion later founded the Kalem Film Company).

Production: The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company.


The Palace dressing room of the Queen of Edendale.

When a certain Charles Spencer Chaplin came to the Keystone studio in late December 1913, he found, as he already knew, that the establishment had a King, the King of Comedy, Mack Sennett. What he might not have realised was that the studio also had a Queen, not a queen by marriage (to a king), nor by birth-right, but a queen by popular consent. Her name was Mabel Normand, and she was that strange political anomaly – a democratic queen. Later, of course, at the Goldwyn studios, where every actress was a queen at some time or other, Mabel, as Madge Kennedy tells us, was elevated to the lofty position of Goddess. Mabel’s palace at both studios was her dressing room, or parlour, where she ate, not bread and honey, as in the nursery rhyme, but Carnation Milk sandwiches (if we are to believe the adverts).

What unsettled Chaplin was that The Queen did not rule alongside the King, but was more of an antidote to the excesses of that monarch. Operating from different parts of the studio lot, they only came together, when it was strictly necessary. Mack, though, had certain reasons to keep a watchful eye on his Queen, and eventually built a tower office from which he could, he thought, view the whole lot. Mostly, he could, but Mabel’s bungalow faced a different street, and a new stage also blocked his view of the bungalow. His remedy was to move Mabel to the top floor of the new dressing room block. The Queen was happy to move, for two reasons. Firstly, the actresses that had occupied half of the bungalow had already been moved to the new block, leaving Mabel alone, like some reclusive prima donna. Secondly, more and more nutcases were arriving at the bungalow to woo the Keystone Girl – the house facing directly onto the street. It was to the bungalow that Chaplin had made his regular visits, although, in those days, she did not have the marble bath.

Becoming a Monarch.

Mabel arrives like a Queen in Huntington, Long Island, aboard D.W. Griffith’s Pierce-Arrow, to make her iconic picture ‘The Diving Girl’. 1911.

Mabel’s de facto position at the studio has to be explained, as best it can, by what had transpired at the Biograph studios, back east in Manhattan. Mabel arrived at Biograph in 1910, to work as an extra. The big star then was Florence Lawrence, who had another legitimate theatre girl, Mary Pickford, hot on her heels. However, Miss Lawrence left in disgrace in 1909, which means that Mabel, who appeared in one of her pictures, must have arrived at Biograph in late 1909. In any event, Mabel saw enough of Florence to realise that America’s first movie star had the airs and graces of a theatrical drama queen. Mary had been furious with the prima donna, and it seems that the actresses, who had bonded socially, decided that if they ever ‘made it’ they would keep their feet on the ground, and remain loyal to each other. In these articles they have been termed the Biograph Girls, but toing and froing between studios meant that those from Vitagraph, Kalem and other studios were included in the ‘club’ even before the move was eventually made to Hollywood. The understanding was that the enemies of ‘The Girls’ were not their competitors, but the producers.

Mabel the drama star. 1911.

As far as can be told, no member of this early trades union ever publicly disrespected another member, which was just as well, for there were plenty outside of the industry that wished the performers ill. Penalties for disrespecting a fellow actress could be severe, as Mae Marsh was to discover when she was blackballed for an astonishing ten years, after participating in a scheme by D.W. Griffith to cut the main actresses, Mary, Mabel, and Blanche Sweet down to size. The three actresses had all turned down a part in ‘Man’s Genesis’ which involved wearing a grass skirt – something seen as vulgar, back in the day. Griffith gave the part to new girl Mae, and just to rub the salt in, he starred her in the next big film ‘The Sands of Dee’. From there on she was the darling of DWG, until he decided that Lillian Gish was his favourite dish (later herself ditched for an unknown actress). It is within this background of intrigue that the regular stars (such as they were back then) decided to bail out of Biograph, a company that did not release the names of its performers. In discussions, they probably decided that the best way to known stardom was by signing to a new outfit, run by a guy with good credentials. Consequently, by summer 1912, Mabel had departed for Keystone, followed soon by Mary’s departure. Blanche Sweet, perhaps a little unsure of herself, stayed put, but went with Griffith, when he left Biograph in the following year.

Temptress Mabel lures Blanche Sweet’s man away in ‘The Eternal Mother’ 1912. Some people see some erotic symbolism in this scene.

We are now some way to understanding Mabel’s position at the Keystone studio, although certain facts need to be emphasised. In 1911, she’d been as close to being a movie star as one could be, at that time. The press of 1911, though, were mainly unaware that Mabel had worked at Biograph, before she found fame in comedy at Vitagraph studios in Flatbush. Her move back to Biograph caused a stir within the studio, as her name was now publicly known. It was at this time that Mack Sennett became interested in Mabel, who was a live wire, and highly amusing in everyday life. Mack had just been made director of the studio’s comedy unit, and was keen to get Mabel onboard. Mabel, for her part, was ambivalent, as Griffith was now starring her in dramatic films. Mack showered Mabel with diamonds, not because he loved her, but because he needed her, for he aimed to be a success as a director, and then form his own studio.

The Lady and the Tramp. Mack and Mabel.

Nobody was fooled by the jewels and lunch-time milk shakes he bought the Biograph Girl – they all knew he was homosexual, and on top of that, he had two left feet, and was awkward and unattractive to the opposite sex. Mack knew, however, that when Mabel saw diamonds, something happened in her eyes. On the day he asked Griffith to share Mabel with him (professionally) he presented her with a $75 diamond bracelet. Mabel’s eyes lit up, but when she learned that Griffith had agreed to share her with the Irish madman, she stormed up to him and threw the jewellery in his face. This was to be the last time that Mabel ever turned down a diamond from a guy, and legend has it that she eventually had a trunk full of engagement rings and diamond bracelets. As for Mack, he sold the sparklers on for a profit of $10. Eventually, Mabel settled in to working within a schizophrenic atmosphere, acting in both drama and comedy, for separate directors. In early 1912, while out west in Los Angeles with Biograph, Mack seemingly let Mabel into a little secret. He was negotiating for a studio with New York ‘flickers’ Kings, Kessell and Baumann, and he would require the presence of the Biograph Girl, at a meeting in the hallowed Alexandria Hotel.

Lobby of the Alexandria Hotel, where Keystone was created.

Here is the first indication that Mabel had a hold on Mack. Although Mack was proving himself a capable director, the New Yorkers wanted to know which actors he could bring to the studio party. Mack had told them that he had several actors and one leading lady. Not just any leading lady, mind you, but a star, The Biograph Girl, Vitagraph Betty, call her what you will. The wise-guys salivated at the thought, but claimed Habeas Corpus, ‘show us the body’ – they wanted to see Mabel – this was all too good to be true. Sure enough, Sennett arrived with Mabel, who was, no doubt, a little standoffish. The presence of Baumann’s daughter, nonetheless, probably allayed Mabel’s concerns. Like Mabel, Ada was very physical, although she didn’t dive off cliffs, or ride bucking broncos, but she was a champion figure-skater. The girls struck up a friendship, and Ada later appeared as Mabel’s friend in ‘Mabel At The Wheel’.

Ada Baumann (The Movie Maker: Charles O. Baumann).

It was probably Mabel’s guess that the scheme to found Keystone, would simply die on the vine. How shocked was she, when Mack told her he’d signed for $60 a week to the new Keystone company. “I guess that if you toddle along now to K and B, they’ll offer you 80 bucks” Mack added. So, Mabel went along to upper-crust Longacre, where she’d give the shrewd businessmen a hearing. She was in for another shock – they offered Mabel $100 a week, which news put Mabel’s head in a spin. As she sat speechless, K and B withdrew for a minute to discuss raising their offer. On their return, they made their final offer of $125 a week. Well, Mabel snatched up the pen and, perhaps foolishly, signed on the dotted. Before she could change her mind, Mabel was whisked off next door, to Rector’s restaurant for a celebratory tiffin, with K and B, Ada – and Mack Sennett. It is highly unlikely that Mack had told Mabel that he was now part owner of Keystone, and would share in the profits. We knew that Mabel’s friends were horrified to learn that she was leaving a safe berth at the Biograph, for a company with few actors, one camera, no studio, and a madman for a director. However, Mabel was now the highest paid movie actress, and this meant something – it put her on a level with the big theatrical actors. The real advantage was, of course, not sharing roles on a rota with other actresses. She would be the leading lady at Keystone, and could command anything from the company – the Princess was about to become a Queen. Keystone began by making films in New York, then departed for California in July or August 1912, which posed a problem. Minors (those under 21) in those days, had to be chaperoned, when travelling across state lines, and obviously Mack and his actors were not really chaperone material. Griffith had always contacted girls’ parents, before embarking for L.A. and explained the accommodation arrangements in detail. Tiny Keystone could not make such arrangements, so it is highly probable that the story of the Mack and Mabel engagement, began at this time. Perhaps Mack and Mabel (she’d been living in Manhattan for some time) went to the parents to explain they were engaged, which might have gained their blessing for the trip. Perhaps Mack brought along an older actress, that Mabel would be living with in L.A. (although Keystone only had one actress). Having gained the Normands’ blessing, and perhaps a signed affidavit, the journey west could go ahead. The only problem left was that, as noted during the Biograph trip west that same year, Mabel was apt to go ‘stir crazy’ on long journeys. Nobody knows who caused the ruckus on that New Years’ Eve out of Manhattan, as reported by Mary Pickford, but several people had pointed the finger at Mabel. If trouble was avoided this time, then the group of five middle-aged men, and a seemingly thirteen-year-old girl, must have presented a strange sight to the other travellers.

The Queen on Allesandro Street.

Mabel with Mack Sennett, Adam Kessell, and Ford Sterling. Keystone.

There is a suspicion that Mabel did not know that the new Keystone studio was in the inaptly-named Edendale, in the present outer L.A. suburb of Echo Park. The place was on the extreme edge of civilisation, with no proper paved roads, electricity or drainage, and water was then obtained from wells (and lovely soft water was it too, by all accounts). Mack seems to have made a play at seeking a lot in Hollywood and Glendale, but was inevitably turned away by the posh residents, probably at the point of a shotgun (they could smell a ‘tin-type’ at 200 yards). In reality, it had been long-ago decided that the K and B company, Bison, would give up its cowboy-picture lot on Allesandro Street (now Glenvale Boulevard). City girl Mabel, must have been horrified at the sight of this dale of Eden, which Charlie Chaplin described as:

“…an anomalous looking place that could not make up its mind whether to be a humble residential district, or a semi-industrial one. It had small lumber-yards and junk-yards and abandoned-looking small farms on which were built on which were built one or two shacky stores that fronted the road. The Keystone Studio…..was a dilapidated affair with a green fence around it , one hundred and fifty feet square. The entrance to it was up a garden path, through an old bungalow – the whole place looked just as anomalous as Edendale itself.”

Although Chaplin’s description is essentially correct, he is being disingenuous, as to the nature of the place. The residents had come mainly from the mid-west, and were entrepreurs in a small way. Their forefathers had arrived in the Indian lands, during the 19th Century, seeking a new life, away from the corruption of the east coast. By the early 1900s, the bankers had moved into states like Iowa, waving their mortgage documents, prompting the descendants of the pioneers to head even further west. Chaplin himself understood this, and had previously considered setting up a pig farm in an area such as Edendale. The studio entrance in 1914, was not through the bungalow (Mabel’s dressing room) but alongside the old grocery store that then served as the front office. The bungalow probably became his entrance to the studio, a place which he was to visit hundreds of times during 1914.

Minta Arbuckle poses outside Mabel’s dressing room.

Anyhow, we digress slightly. Picking up on Mabel again, we would understand if city girl Mabel had made a run for it, back to the safety of Manhattan. Why she chose to stay is difficult to understand, for all of her friends were back east, and her only companions were married or middle-aged men. She was to become, for a time, the only movie actress of star status to live permanently in Los Angeles. Presumably, Sennett (and Kessell and Baumann) offered her the known world to stay on. Sennett claims he told her they’d have so much money, they’d drive around in a Pierce-Arrow, firing diamonds at people, from catapults. Well, Mabel loved being chauffeured in glamourous cars, and she loved diamonds, but she wouldn’t be firing them anywhere. As for money, this interested her little, but it did bring her beyond the movie actress bit, and into the realms of the theatrical star. In fact, she seems to have been the first movie person to adopt the aura of a star from the legitimate theatre. We might suspect that Sennett was for saving money, and perhaps suggested some mutual ‘shacking up’ in the inglorious environs of Edendale. Mabel would not have gone for this, and we soon find Mabel living in the bohemian areas of Hollywood, around which the important people of motion pictures were later to coalesce. There was to be no Pacific Electric trolley to the studio every day, but Mack was to send a tufted limousine, to waft her ladyship into his poverty row establishment, the driver of which would spend most of the morning, waiting for Mabel to appear. A nice life, if you can get it — and Mabel got it.

Take your pick: The trolley or chauffeured limo?

The Chaplin Days.

Now we must inevitably return to Mr Charlie Chaplin, for no actor was to become more acquainted with The Queen’s boudoir, than The Tramp. Often Charlie would creep into the famed dressing room, discouraged and despondent, although later on, The Queen would call him into her presence, and, perhaps, demand why he had not been attending her court for a couple of days. Chester Conklin was later to explain their relationship in simple terms:

“Charlie was Mabel’s prize.”

However, here’s the more complete, but complicated, explanation. First, we have to establish how Chaplin first came to Keystone. Sennett said that he and Mabel had seen him in his Music Hall act, in New York. Mabel said, in 1924, that she’d forgotten who had ‘discovered’ him, but she thought it was big boss, Adam Kessell. Chaplin said that the other big boss, Charles Baumann, that signed him on the recommendation of Sennett. This, essentially, made him Baumann’s man, and this we have to bear this in mind during what follows. All of the early Keystone actors had initially been signed by Kessell and Baumann, but on the expiry of their contracts, they’d been signed by Sennett — in other words he owned their souls. Gradually, over time, Sennett began to sign ‘actors’ that he’d pulled off the street. This naturally diluted the influence of the numerous theatrical actors that K and B sent out to Keystone.

One of the many Little Egypts.

Mack hated thespians, probably because he had failed in the legitimate theatre, and was forced to perform in low establishments, where he was arrested on at least one occasion — the place was little more than a whore-house, featuring none other than the notorious ‘dirty dancer’ Little Egypt. In a way, Chaplin would have been an anathema to Sennett, even before he met him. He first met Charlie at the Empress theatre in L.A., where Charlie was performing with the Karno Troupe. He went backstage, while Mabel stayed outside on the sidewalk. Mack brought Charlie out to meet her, and Charlie found her to be much like himself — very shy and reserved with strangers. They probably uttered no more than a subdued “Hello”. Mack suggested they go to a restaurant, to discuss Charlie’s new job. It seems Mack might have noticed some atmospherics between the young pair, and he soon became not a little ‘anti’ towards Chaplin, saying that he’d decided the Limey was too young for his studio. He was, believe it or not, a handsome young man, a bohemian, or as the say in the U.S., a dude. Charlie protested that he could make up older, and Mabel agreed that he could do just that, raising her eyes for the first time, and perhaps fluttering those famous eyelashes. Mack, though, became very formal, and asked when Charlie could start. Charlie apparently said he was free from the first week in September (according to his autobiography). Strangely enough, Charlie didn’t start until December 1913, which suggests that Mack spent some months trying to keep Charlie out. When the time came, Charlie was dubious about setting foot on the lot, and went there twice, without entering. He was right to be concerned, for Sennett had made ‘Mabel’s Dramatic Career’, in which he attempts to kill the ‘tin-type’ that has stolen his girl. On the third attempt, Charlie did go in, but he was met by a very ambivalent Sennett, who mostly ignored him, and had clearly told his actors to do likewise. Mabel, of course, was on his side, but she was nowhere to be seen, her presence only indicated by gangs of actors and crewmen besieging certain sets, and the clamour of scampering feet towards this or that stage, upon which she stood. Once, he managed to force his way to the front of a crowd around her set, but although in plain sight, she failed to acknowledge him.

As she left the stage, he attempted to waylay the Queen, but she was immediately surrounded by excited actors and actresses. It was hopeless — he wasn’t wanted here, and if he could have, he’d have thrown the whole thing in. Of course, like Mabel eighteen months earlier, he couldn’t face the prospect of failure. Things hung by a thread for a month, and whenever Charlie approached Mack and asked about working, he simply replied “We’ll see about that later.” Almost certainly, Sennett was in touch with K and B, trying to get them to ditch Chaplin. Eventually, Mack, Mabel and several actors left for a week’s filming on location. He was then grabbed by the most disreputable of directors, the pig-mannered Henri ‘Pathe’ Lehrman, to make a rubbish film called ‘Making A Living’. The plot was crap, and Charlie’s choice of costume of top hat, frock coat and monocle hardly helped. The only ray of sunshine was having Virginia Kirtley as leading lady — lucky Charlie, but nothing came of their proximity. Indeed, all the actresses kept Charlie at arm’s length. Then, a bit of luck. Mack and Mabel had returned, and were standing outside a hotel lobby set, pondering a story based around the set. Perhaps, this was his chance to catch Mack, while Mabel was around. He stood close by, and, did he imagine it, or did Mabel whisper something to Mack, then nod her head towards him? Mack called Charlie over, telling him to go don a funny costume. Charlie obliged. This was his one and only chance to impress. He’d use a tramp’s costume, similar to that used by Sennett in his films. Knowing Sennett gave all his actors a specific walk, to be used forever after, Charlie decided he’d adopt his own shuffling walk, which he knew from his early Music Hall days. Mack threw him onto the lobby set, and Chaplin went into his drunk guy routine. He put everything into the scene and he was applauded for his efforts.

Hotel capers. Charlie, Mabel and some pajamas.

However, the long arm of ‘Pathe’ Lehrman reached out, grabbed Chaplin by the collar and he was carted off to Venice to appear in a very short nonsense picture called ‘Kid Auto Races’. Back at Keystone a few hours later, Chaplin found Mack and Mabel in a quandary over the hotel film. It wasn’t working too well, and it seems they’d decided to bring Charlie full-on into the picture. Many scenes had already been shot, but the tramp was fully incorporated, anyhow. This meant that some scenes are out of sync, with flowers appearing in a vase, long before Mabel’s boyfriend had put them there. No matter, Charlie and Mabel blended beautifully, and although the film is pure slapstick, it was a harbinger of what they could later produce. However, the clarion call soon fell flat, when Mabel realised that Charlie had been given a 55-minute opening scene, and her scene of her entering the posh Raymond Hotel (in Pasadena, no less) was pushed back to third scene. Mabel was furious, and the Queen was not amused with Charlie, who she refused to work with for almost two months. Neither Sennett, or Kessell and Baumann could change that, and Charlie had to make do with lesser leading ladies, none of whom were interested in The Tramp in any romantic way. He’d disrespected his Queen, and no actress would dare associate with the ‘blackleg’.

“D’ya think she’s a Duchess.” “Nah, just one of those flickers girls.” Mabel on Millionaires’ Row, Pasadena.

Came the day they began ‘Mabel At The Wheel’. This was to be a two-reeler, a rare thing at Keystone in those early days. A two-reeler cost $30,000 to negative stage, and it was difficult to get Kessell and Baumann to fund a 22-minute film. For Mabel, this picture was very important, for it had a story, and although a comedy, it had elements within in it that brought her back to drama. She’d starred in dramatic pictures at Biograph, now it seems her old Biograph friends were all getting multi-reel films. Of course, she wanted little or no slapstick in it, and nor did she want any slap-stickers, like Mack Swain, or Charlie Chaplin monkeying around. However, it seems Kessell and Baumann decreed that Chaplin would be in it, whether she liked it or not, and importantly, whether Charlie liked it or not. They began filming in Santa Monica, with Chaplin like a spare something at a wedding. Possibly, Mabel had ruled that he could not be the tramp, and so he reverted to his ‘Making A Living’ costume, for his role as a villain. However, Mabel, directing the shoot, gave Charlie the minimum of input. It was a case of do this, and do that. Charlie offered some ideas about little pieces of business that would ‘gag up’ the film. Charlie just did not get it, this was not a film about gags, it was a dramatic comedy.

Charlie decides to clear out of Keystone. ‘Mabel At The Wheel’.

Chaplin went into a sulk, the whole idea of a mere girl directing a picture — and that plot, a girl taking on the men at their own game. It was all too much. Now, you might have seen in the film ‘Chaplin’ that Charlie turned a hose on Mabel. Total fiction, of course, for he’d have been immediately beaten to death by the crew. As it was, some of the wanted to punch the Tramp’s lights out, but Mabel stopped them, and ordered everyone back to the studio. Presumably, Ada found a phone and contacted Dad at the Alexandria Hotel. When Sennett rang to say he’d fired Chaplin, Baumann already knew what had occurred. No, Chaplin would not be fired, but he’d damned well shut up and toe the line, there was $30,000 at risk. Chaplin’s career was saved, but, and perhaps he knew this, he’d fallen into the clutches of the Queen. Mabel took the sullen, melancholic Charlie under her wing, and introduced him to something he’d not experienced before — drama wrapped in comedy.

Mabel with Ada Baumann, whose efforts, perhaps, saved Keystone from being closed down by her illustrious dad.

Charlie listened and listened well, but there was little he could do at the time, except be funny. Later, and away from Keystone, well, that was a different matter. For now, he was happy to be, as Rowan Atkinson might say “A lap-dog to a slip of a girl.” Charlie did become Mabel’s prize, but there were advantages, such as hours in Mabel’s dressing room, with its oil heater and ceiling fan, not to mention her bath, which was a tin affair in those days, not the Cleopatra marble bath of later years. Not only that, but Mabel saved the penny-pinching tramp money. For two years, Mack had been in the habit of taking Mabel to dinner at his club every evening, she being happy to be wined (or ginned) and dined at the company expense. Now, she suggested that Charlie be brought along too. Mack was happy to oblige, for he could keep an eye on the young couple. Unfortunately, the King of Comedy always fell asleep after dinner, allowing Mabel and Charlie to skip off to who knows where. On their return, they’d wake Mack up, he being none the wiser. However, others around the studio were jealous of Chaplin’s position re Mabel. Chief among them was the obnoxious Pathe Lehrman, who began whispering poison into Sennett’s ear. Charlie and Mabel were getting it together, Charlie and Mabel were ‘stealing’ company cars, and driving downtown, or to remote locations. Fortunately, Sennett believed Lehrman was in love with Mabel himself, so ignored his clap-trap. What was the truth of it — well, readers can make up their own minds. Certainly, Mabel could take any car she wanted, and no studio guard or chauffeur would stop her. Chaplin described Mabel’s nature and position thus:

“Sweet mabel, she was only about twenty at that time, pretty and charming, and everybody’s favourite, everybody loved her…………. stories went around about her kindness to the wardrobe lady’s child (Bebe Daniels), and the jokes she played on the camera-man….. she was light-hearted and gay, a good fellow, kind and generous, and everyone adored her.”

Chaplin does not record them being more than good friends, but he claims he once kissed her, which must surely be the understatement of the century. Chaplin was more or less paraded around Hollywood parties and functions, by Mabel, where he met those that would be of use to him in the future. Charlie was not really a party animal, but Mabel made it clear that he would have to ‘mingle’ if he was to get on in Hollywood (as the film industry was beginning to be known). Charlie’s escort was the social point around which Hollywood was starting to form. Back in the dressing room, and with Chaplin now bearing a licence from K and B to do whatever he wanted, filmwise, Mabel began to utilise that licence herself, and introduce drama, tragedy and irony into their joint films. Long hours did they spend working on the plots to their pictures, and they directed each other, so as to get the right atmosphere. Chaplin carried on developing the tramp, and his ass-kicking skills, while Mabel pushed her drama and melancholy into the plots. The culmination of this scheme arrived in ‘Mabel’s Busy Day’, where Charlie became as melancholic and tragic as Mabel’s poor coster-girl character, and Mabel kicked Chaplin in the ass, as many times as he kicked her. Their next picture, Mabel’s Married Life’ was in a similar vein, but then something happened. It seems that Charlie began to shy away from Mabel, perhaps suspecting that she was diluting his character on screen. He began to use lesser actresses, safe hands, like Peggy Page. Mabel seems to have given herself a cameo role in ‘The Masquerader’ in which she shared the opening scene with Charlie, then was not seen again in the picture. Two months later Mabel is back with Charlie for ‘Gentlemen of Nerve’. Mabel is all over Charlie, and fluttering her eyelashes at him, for all she’s worth.

In one scene, Peggy Page is sitting behind them, and looks most upset. Possibly, she expected to play Mabel’s role, and is clearly being comforted by her mother. Unfortunately, the Queen is the Queen, and she always gets her man. A week later, and Charlie and Mabel are together for ‘His Trysting Place’ in which the pair are again married, and Charlie plays the (seemingly) erring man. Poor old charlie gets a china bowl thrown in his face, and numerous punches swung at his head. Married bliss. Very soon, they were in Sennett’s big feature film, ‘Tillie’s Punctured Romance’, in which Charlie plays a villain and Mabel his moll. The star was a theatre actress called Marie Dressler. why not Charlie and Mabel? No-one really knows, but perhaps the New Yorkers thought it was too risky. This film was like a stage show, and they might have thought someone from the stage could carry it off better. In any event, Charlie got the smelly end of the stick, and his character did not suit him at all. Later he said the film had little merit. For Mabel, however, she had a chance to shine like never before. She fell into her villainous character easily and seamlessly — the impetuous, money-grasping moll, who’d sell her own grandmother for a fistful of dollars and a bottle of gin. She even had her own close up, which appears to have been the first at Keystone. Later, in her maid’s outfit, she presumably set a few hearts fluttering. The last Charlie and Mabel picture was ‘Getting Acquainted’ in which Mabel reverts to her old, traditional role as the Queen Bee, around which everything revolves.

Some close-up, eh? Mabel the gangster’s moll.

Chaplin’s last Keystone was ‘His Prehistoric Past’ in which the leading lady wears a grass skirt, so it is unsurprising that Mabel was not in the picture. Peggy Page took the lead, being immune to the effects of the dreaded skirt. There was little to do now, but for Charlie and Mabel to have a final, and tearful dinner, before the tramp left for Essanay Studios, Chicago. Charlie was worried about leaving Keystone for a place, where the incumbents might not be as amenable as Mabel. He was right to be concerned, for although one boss, ‘Bronco Billy’ Anderson, was for him, the big boss, George Spoor was not. No-one was keen on Charlie, and the actresses treated him with distain. A certain Gloria Swanson turned down his offer of a leading role, saying she hated comedy. Two weeks later, she signed for Mack Sennett. Defeated and dejected he may have been, Bronco Billy came to the rescue, offering Charlie space at the Niles studio. It was a bit close to Mabel for his liking (just 250 miles) and he dreaded the thought of running into her in, say, San Francisco. He could almost hear her dirty, mocking laugh and the stiletto driven between his ribs. He was a failure, but then, a stroke of luck. Someone suggested a leading lady, a good-looking girl with no acting experience. Her name was Edna Purviance, and she would be Charlie’s rock down the years, much as Lillian Gish was D.W. Griffith’s rock. What did Mabel Normand think of that? We can guess that The Queen was not amused. Mabel by the way, was having her wings clipped, by Mack Sennett. The semi-drama nonsense of the Chaplin days was over, and she was already pencilled in for serial films, featuring the lovesick country kids, Fatty (Arbuckle) and Mabel. Artistically, Mabel was stuck, but she too got some luck, and won the 1915 Motion Picture Magazine ‘Best Comedienne’ competition. By then, Chaplin was back in L.A., at Boyle Heights in actual fact. Mabel wasted no time in renewing her acquaintance with Charlie, which she achieved, seemingly, by befriending Edna. Charlie’s girl was no doubt honoured to meet her childhood heroine, although Mabel’s habit of bawling Charlie out in public with the words: “Charlie, I WILL be your leading lady, one day!” must have been disconcerting for her.

Edna, Courtland Dines and Mabel on a yacht. 1921.

Back at the ranch, or Keystone, the year dragged on in turmoil, as Mabel and Mack fought for control of her films. On top of that, and while stipulating Mabel’s contracted weight as 99 pounds maximum, Mack brought in the Bathing Beauties, resplendent with many pounds of wobbling flesh – they were beauties, but they never bathed, well not in the sea. The Queen was furious, and the company rallied around her. She became very friendly with the Arbuckles, with who she weekended, at their Santa Monica beach house. As more and more of Minta Arbuckle’s family invited themselves over, so Mabel graciously withdrew, and her new confidents were Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Hitchcock, who’d arrived at Keystone from the theatre, just as the studio was becoming part of the ‘Triangle’ film distribution company. Kessell and Baumann’s ‘New York Motion Picture’ company, were also in ,as were Griffith and Thomas Ince. Triangle hit the movie world with several feature-length films, ‘Birth of A Nation’ (Griffith) and ‘My Valet’ (Keystone), the latter starring Raymond Hitchcock and Mabel. ‘Birth’ was a much longer film, and was much applauded by the public, which left Sennett not a little sick. A million dollars had been allocated by Triangle to make ‘Birth’. Sennett made his own arrangements with the company in order to build a dedicated feature film studio, close to the Griffith studio in Hollywood. Except, Mack’s studio was not really in Hollywood, but just across the line in present-day Silverlake. It was about this time that Griffith brought his new starlet, Bessie Love, to Keystone, although he made sure that Queen Mabel was not around, when he did so. By this time, Mabel had no patience for new starlets being paraded around the lot, and particularly sweet, elfin types, like the young Miss Love, who she would have quickly dismantled with stiletto-like stares, or her cutting wit.

So sweet you could cry. The elfin-like Bessie Love.

By December, Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel were heartily sick of their work, but put everything into their latest picture ‘Fatty and Mabel Adrift’. Some way, somehow, it had been arranged that Roscoe and Mabel would go east to New York Motion Pictures, where they’d make the dramatic-comedy, ‘He Did And He Didn’t’. There is something odd about this arrangement, for Sennett had always been clear that he would never loan his star-of stars, Mabel, out to anyone. Perhaps, the Triangle big bosses insisted, or perhaps it was a coup, organised by the still powerful Queen of Keystone, with big boss Harry Aitken and K and B against Sennett. Perhaps, Sennett had felt comfortable in his skin, having acquired many theatrical actors, and up and coming stars like Louise Fazenda and Polly Moran, leaving him feeling he could dispense with Miss Expensive’s services. Whatever the reason, Mabel was never to return to Keystone. The whole organisation, though, was sent into a spin, when, although the Arbuckles and others returned to L.A., there was no sign of Mabel. Instead, newspaper stories told of Mabel, sitting in New York taking contract offers from the big studios. Shock was that Mabel had now signed with Mutual “To do Chaplin films.” The crafty vixen need do no more. While the big-shots ran around trying to get their Queen back, the press was reporting that Mabel was on her way back to L.A. However, she would not return to Keystone, but she would be taking control of the purpose-built Sennett studio in ‘Hollywood’. The world went crazy, as Mabel took her place as the first of her fraternity to put her name over a studio. She was no longer a Queen, but, perhaps, an Empress. D.W. Griffith is supposed to have been seized by an apoplexy, as he saw Mabel’s signs go up, from his office window. Falling back into his chair, he simply muttered “She’s a success!” Not Griffith, not Sennett, or any other former actor, had their name above a studio at that time. As the press said, it was a dream come true.

The story of the Mabel Normand Studio is legendary, although the Empress reigned there but a few short months, from her luxuriously appointed dressing room, with its Juliet balcony overlooking the main stage, and surrounded by a roof garden that could put King Nebuchadnezzar to shame. The collapse of Triangle put an end to the MNFFC, but Mabel still reigned as Queen, until, that is, Sam Goldwyn made her a Goddess.


Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923).

Mabel Normand: A Source Book to her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006)

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

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

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

Looking For Mabel Normand Site maintained by Marilyn Slater.

From Hollywood With Love by Bessie Love. 1971.

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

The Dream That Came True in Motion Picture Magazine (Dec. 1916).

Dreams for Sale: The Rise and Fall of the Triangle Film Corporation by Kalton C. Lahue. 1971.

The Movie Maker: Charles O. Baumann by Gillian Ada Kelly. 2015


Mack Sennett and Fred Mace are rivals for the fair hand of the voluptuous Mabel.

How very surprising you might think, rivals in the Keystone studio. Yes, there were rivals among the players at Keystone, as there was at all of the studios, but this article is more about rivals, as a specific type of Mack Sennett picture. Rivals in what you might ask? Well, rivals for the hand of a fair maid, and more often enough, for the fair hand of Sennett’s star-of-stars, Mabel. Naturally, this story was the bedrock of the Keystone studio, but it began long before the studio’s formation, and probably long before the great bard penned Romeo and Juliet. In the final days before the invention of the cinematograph, the story was still running high in the theatre, and it was inevitable that the thespians would bring the world’s oldest tale to the motion picture. Mack Sennett, a burlesque and low theatre actor, had his own ideas about the pursuit of love and fair maidens, which he brought to the Biograph motion picture studios in New York. In matters of amore, we might think the French were the kings, which they were for drama, but not to the same extent for comedy, although Pathe actor, Max Linder, had a good go at mixing it up, with his particular brand of humour.

Charlie Chaplin attempts to beat the great Max Linder at his own game.

Mack Sennett decided to keep it American, with all-American guys and gals, operating within some French ‘Pathe’ silliness. Mabel Normand was a girl well used to multiple pursuits by rivals in real life, and so she became game for Sennett in his love rivalry pictures at Biograph and Keystone. Mabel’s love rivalry films seem endless – ‘Oh, Those Eyes’, ‘At Coney Island’,’ The Water Nymph’ and the Fatty and Mabel pictures are just a few. So, Mack looked to the U.S. for his inspiration, a place where the town bully expected to get his pick of the local beauties, and love-sick couples found places to sneak off to, and even elope from, arranged Bible Belt marriages. This was all highly amusing to Mack, and it has to be said that Mabel was not a little tickled by the knots of actors drawn to her prettiness, at the Biograph Studio.

Mabel knows how to treat love rivals. ‘Oh Those Eyes’.

To say that Mack Sennett was astute is something of an understatement, for someone who’d trained, not just under D.W. Griffith, but his boy wonder, cameraman Billy Bitzer. Meanwhile, like all actors he watched films, and plenty of them. However, Sennett watched closer than most, beyond the actors to the environment they played in, or the setting or situations in which the directors had placed them. Being a part-time screen-writer, he took careful note of the stories. Love rivalry and harum scarum tales gripped audiences the most, and he wrote both for Biograph. Although Mary Pickford wrote screenplays, her first starring role was in the scary ‘Lonely Villa’ written by our friend Mack Sennett. Later, he would put his star-of-stars, Mabel, in many of these films. However, love rivalry was a staple, so Mack showed more interest in these pictures. A good example of some early love rivalry, is the Edison film, appropriately called ‘The Rivals’ and released in 1907.

The love rivals, very middle-class, and in long(ish) shot only. 1907.

The Rivals.

This film contains all of the elements essential to the Keystones of later years – boy meets girl, rival boy tries to steal girl. Before we begin on the plot it is worth noting a few things about the film. Firstly, the ladies’ clothing is not a little dour, and verging on the old fashioned even for 1907. The clothes are, naturally, reflective of the general audience of the time, who were not a Sennett ‘gutter audience’ but slightly upper crust individuals that would usually patronised the legitimate theatre. Within a few years, Mabel would change all that with her “up to the minute” attire. If Mabel’s frocks and skirts look sharply tailored, like men’s clothes, then there is a reason. As women’s emancipation came in, a group of suffragettes began to design fashions that were more suited to the emancipated girl, one of whom was Mabel. Yes, she did conspire with others to produce these clothes (and hats), although, unlike Mary Pickford, she was no needlewoman. Her clothes were fine, but oh, those awful hats! At a time when hats were getting wider and wider, Mabel went for narrow brims, like men’s hats, with a little fruit salad on top. There were exceptions, naturally, as in Mabel’s Busy Day and Mabel’s Strange Predicament. The bodice she is wearing, for the former, is notable for its ‘leg of mutton’ sleeves, and is around 40 years out of date, and no doubt graced Adolph Zukor’s second-hand stall at some time or other. The reason here is obvious – Mabel is a poor coster girl, who’d wear anything that was cheap. The dress in Strange Predicament cannot be so easily explained. It is a ‘period’ dress, and denotes, maybe, that she is a naughty girl, perhaps, heaven forbid, an actress. The women at the hotel are dressed down, and their clothes are shapeless, indicating that they are suffragettes or part of a religious group.

Spot the join between whole and tattered sleeves. Sennett would have done it better.

After that digression, let’s move on to ‘The Rivals’. The beginning is simple enough, with a young couple coming out of a house, intending to go on a pony and trap ride. Enter ‘Flash Harry’ who has that one accoutrement every girl hankers for – an automobile. Like Mabel, this girl is fickle, and soon goes off with the dream car driver. The loser sets off swearing revenge, and finding the car parked, he engineers a little sabotage. When the lovers return to the car, they find it will not start. However, her hero is not daunted. He throws himself under the car, to do lord knows what. The next minute, there’s an explosion under the vehicle, and our man retreats with his shirt in tatters. However, this has not been well-engineered by the film-makers, as he is clearly in good shape when he jumps back from under the vehicle. The film cuts to the tattered man, long after he leaves the car and his distressed girl. A clumsy cut has clearly been made, which Sennett would certainly have done better. The saboteur reappears on his pony and trap, and rushes to help, by loading the frightened girl aboard and driving off. Like The Keystone Girl, this girl was fickle, and, like Mabel, would soon go off with another guy at the drop of a hat.

Sleeping mothers/wives. Edison and Keystone style. Note that Keystone were not afraid to bring the camera in close.

So, here we have two instances where this film parallels the later Keystones. The love rival knows he can get his girl back, by some means or other. Later, he gives his rival an exploding cigar, which he inevitably gives to the girl’s father, with equally inevitable results. His opponent soon moves in, carrying a bunch of flowers for the girl. The two go off to the park and are soon indulging in some forbidden petting, but the other guy soon sets a policeman on the lovers, and the opponent moves in. To avoid the law the newly reconciled go off to a graveyard, where they can expect to be undisturbed. However, the opposing suitor appears from behind a tombstone, wearing a white sheet, and the gallant lover runs off in terror. For some unexplained reason the winner of the latest bout is now asleep on a park bench. The recent loser runs off, finds an unguarded baby, and puts the mite into his rival’s arms. Naturally, he soon finds the girl walking in the park with her mother, and brings them to the nursing boyfriend.  Everyone, including the baby’s mother, goes for the boyfriend, but a passing boy squeals on the other suitor, who is chased off. Later, on the beach, the happy couple are canoodling as the girl’s mother snoozes. Enter the rejected lover, who wakes the mother with a face full of sand. Finding the fiend molesting her daughter, she chases him of with an artfully wielded umbrella. The girl and her new or renewed lover are soon in each other’s arms in mama’s absence. However, while frolicking in the sea, the New York version of the Loch Ness Monster (or Chinese Dragon) appears, operated by the love rival.

The guy swims for it, while the ‘monster’ gets the girl. There is some suspicious-looking flotsam in the sea — could it really be….toilet paper?Things carry on in this Keystone-ish vein, with guys being pushed into the lake, and the such-like. In the end a military man appears on the scene, who organises a duel between the two rivals. While the shaking duelists stand back to back and ready to pace off, the military guy snatches the girl, and runs off – to a church. Yes, when the rivals catch up to them, they are well and truly wed. It is notable that the whole of the film consists of long-shots, which, of course, were almost compulsory in the early 1900s. For all we know the ‘girl’ could actually be a grandmother.


Jinnie Fraser

Madeline West

Mr. Shelley

Richard Thompson

Mrs William West

William West

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Produced by Edison Manufacturing Co.

Script said to be based on the comic strip Chollie and George.

Putting the film in context:

As we’ve already discussed, this film was among a huge number of love rivalry pictures. Compared with the Sennett examples, it is somewhat bland, and the hot girl looks like your old grandmother, but to Mabel, she was like her mother, or her aunt. Sennett, of course, came along five years later, when audiences were demanding something more. The King of Comedy gave them precisely that, with his ass-kicking actors, and lovely dramatic star from the Griffith stable. What wasn’t there to like. Edison must have gone out of his mind, as he watched the Mad Irishman’s rivalry pictures ‘Oh those Eyes’, Spanish Dilemma’, ‘Hot Stuff, The Water Nymph’ and the rest. “Get Sennett” he probably said, but The King had as many thugs on his books as Mr ‘Wise-Guy’ Edison. He was untouchable. In 1908, Jinnie Fraser moved over to Biograph, and appeared with D.W. Griffith in ‘The Eagle’s Nest’. Madeline West also moved over, and appeared in Griffith’s first picture as director ‘The Adventures of Dollie’. It was a small world, back in the day.

Mack Sennett stands no chance against heart-throb Owen Moore (Little Teacher 1915).


Chaplin surveys the site of his new studio on Sunset Boulevard.

Mid-1910s and Chaplin considers his new studio, out in the wilderness of Sunset Boulevard.

Louise Brooks doing the Ziegfeld dancer walk.

Louise Brooks is known best for her torrid affair with Charlie Chaplin in 1925. An ex-ziegfried dancer, she attempted to continue the affair in Hollywood, but she put the matter aside after Chaplin humiliated her at a party, where he imitated her walk. She never did “that stupid walk again.” In his autobiography, Chaplin forgot all about Louise, and that he once had a wife called Lita Grey.

Oh dear, the press got wind of the affair [Louise Brooks Society].

It seems Mabel bought brother Claude this Indian Scout motorcycle, after he returned from the Great War. This photo was taken at Goldwyn Studios, and created rumours of a love affair between Jack, and spawned an English comic strip, featuring Jack and Mabel.

Dotty Mackaill in Hull, UK in 1930. Count the flat caps and cloche hats.

The film above is of Dorothy Mackaill returning to her home town of Hull, England in 1930. She stayed just long enough to collect her mother, then fled back to Beverly Hills. She retired to Hawaii, where she appeared ocassionally in ‘Hawaii 5 O’. She was known as the ‘most kissable girl in Hollywood’, due to her full lips, suggesting that she’d had the world’s first ‘lips job’. When she died, they sprinkled her ashes in the sea off of Waikiki Beach.

Being ‘kissable’

And cartoon.

The somewhat silly cartoon above was created for Dorothy’s 100th birthday.

Jack and Mabel, again.

The above cartoon was published in a British comic, the writers believing (perhaps rightly) that Jack and Mabel were/had been an item. Not sure if Jack ever played Little Lord Fauntleroy, but he certainly played Tom Sawyer. The speech bubble has been edited from the original (Looking For Mabel website).

Mabel and Lew Cody got married.

Louise Brooks with Dorothy Mackaill.

Darlings of the silent screen, Louise Brooks and Dot Mackaill in ‘Just Another Blonde’ (1926). No sign of the kissable lips in those days.

Polly Moran dances.

Above is from one of Mack Sennett’s craziest films ‘Their Social Splash’ of 1915. Looks like ‘Trailer Trash’ Polly has a pillow under her dress.

Left: Mabel in her V12 Packard. Right: Using the world’s first cell phone from her Mercer Raceabout.
Jack Pickford with Olive Thomas

‘Tom Sawyer’ Jack Pickford with his, then, girlfriend, the beautiful Olive Thomas. Olive tragically died later in Paris, after ingesting drain cleaner.

Left: The iconic picture of Marceline Day, which just about sums up the photography of the silent era. Right: the kiss-curl ingenue, Louise Fazenda. As Mabel once said “If you want to make it, plant a kiss-curl on your forehead.”

The trio at left (Mabel, Anna Q. Nilsonn and Alice Joyce) began their careers as models for the likes of Charles Dana Gibson. The photo dates from the 1920s, when they recreated their modelling days at a fashion show. This particular shot remembers the time, when Mabel beat all-comers for the ‘Fluffy Ruffles’ prize. The two tall, vamp-like creatures flanking Mabel, were hardly contenders for something called ‘Fluffy Ruffles’.

Bessie Love’s Wedding.

More stars than you can shake a stick at. Bessie, Bebe and Blanche were great long-term friends, and both Bessie and Bebe moved to London in the 1930s. By that time they had families, and were no doubt worried about the mob coming to Hollywood, as well as the spate of kidnappings, then in full swing. Blanche stayed on in L.A., where she eventually joined Louise Brooks behind a store counter. Her friends died in London, and were buried there. Bebe’s ashes were eventually shipped back to the U.S., but Bessie remains under a cedar tree in Ruislip Cemetery. The Brits won’t be giving her up any time soon.

Sunset Boulevard 1907.

Another early scene from The Strip. Well, it was the Wild West, after all.

Hell’s Bathing Beauties ready to rip up the town in Santa Monica, 1920s.

They were plenty meaty in those days, much it seems, to the annoyance of Mabel Normand.

Another mad scene from ‘Their Social Splash’. Dixie Chene has just been discovered, on the eve of her wedding by the boyfriend, in her boudoir, with a man who has his hand up her skirts. Typical craziness from Sennett, who had visions of turning Dixie into the new Mabel. Not for the first time, he failed (the man, by the way, was trying to retrieve a wayward mouse).

Nuff said about Chaplin.

Flappers: Colleen Moore and Louise Brooks.

Just when you thought it wasn’t safe to go to the flickers.

Mack Sennett is pensive when confronted by Jack Mulhall on the This is Your Life program. He just wanted to thank The King of Comedy for introducing him to Mabel Normand. Jack owed Sennett a slug in the jaw from thirty-plus years back.

The wedding of Marilyn Miller to Jack Pickford at Pickfair, which caused no little trouble in 1922. The first Marilyn’s mother knew about the wedding was when she received an invite from Mary Pickford. When Mabel arrived back from her European tour, a month later, to take up residence in Marilyn’s New York apartment, she found Marilyn’s distraught mother there. Not for the first time, did Mabel find herself consoling a distraught mother. It was from Marilyn’s apartment that Mabel organised the coup that saw Phyllis Haver ditched as star of ‘Extra Girl’ and Mabel put in her place.

Bessie Love, the Doris Day of her age, at a premiere.

Judy Canova in a re-make of Mabel’s Sis Hopkins, and unveiling the plaque at the Mabel Normand Sound Stage in 1940.

Advertising ‘Those Awful Hats’ a film by D.W. Griffith.

Mabel Normand and Lillian Gish have different views of Owen Moore.

Two students of Mabel Normand: Charlie Chaplin and Bebe Daniels. Bebe’s mother was the wardrobe lady at Keystone, and Mabel took Bebe under her wing, although, like Charlie, she soon flew the coop.

The famous Villa Capistrano, with commanding views over Silverlake.

Bebe Daniels gets a bit Mabel Normandish.

Mabel outside the swanky Hotel Raymond in Pasadena.

In early 1914, Mack and Mabel were on location, somewhere in the L.A. area. When they returned, presumably with this scene, it was used in ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’. However, although this was clearly meant to be the opening scene, that scene was taken by new boy Charlie Chaplin. Charlie tells us, in his autobiography, that his presence on screen was met with stony silence. Opening scenes, using well-known Keystoners, were utilised to get audiences in the mood, and Charlie reports that when Mabel appeared, everyone began cheering. Nobody knows why she’s wearing that Victorian dress. In 1914 only a period actress would be wearing it.

Clarine Seymour and Bobby Harron. They died tragically young in 1920.
The atmospheric Selig Studios, outside which Charlie, Mabel and Fatty made many a picture.
The cartoonist’s view of Keystone and its secretive, white-maned owner.
The end of Keystone, with Mabel’s marble bath about to come crashing down. 1928.

Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Disney’ house on Summit Drive, close to Doug and Mary’s house, but far enough from Mabel in the Bohemian district of L.A. that he wouldn’t be tormented by the Madcap. The house, still standing, is a studio sham, built in wood.

Another oddball scene, this time from ‘Mabel’s Busy Day’. That bodice with the leg -o’-mutton sleeves must be forty years out of date. And oh that hat, Jeez!

Here we leave old Hollywood, and return to the even crazier reality of today.



Photo: Looking For Mabel Website.


This is the final article in a series, in which the final years of Mabel’s life are played out in the words of Gladys Normand. She never said these words, and in fact she rarely spoke publicly on any subject, but using the evidence for Mabel’s life, and Gladys’ whereabouts at specific times, it is possible to set out what she might have said.

The Final Two Years.

The following year Mabel was about town again, and grabbing the headlines. She often acquired photos of big stars for me, and wrote one day about a photo she had for me of her old co-star, Charlie Chaplin. When the picture came, it was of Charlie and Mabel together at a premiere – the first for over ten years. Ma and Pa were not happy that her bosom was exposed, but I realised that she was just indicating that she was fit and raring to go (in films, that is). With Mabel not working, it was inevitable that there’d be fireworks, with wilder and wilder parties becoming the norm. She often hired hotels, and clubs, like The Cocoanut Grove, on a whim, and for the most frivolous of reasons.

The Cocoanut Grove.

Out of the blue, we read that Mabel was in Manhattan. Then, the unexpected — a phone call from her inviting us to a big birthday party she’d arranged for movie mogul, Adolph Zukor. My parents declined, they just could not face the pomp and circumstance, played out at a plush Manhattan establishment. I went, along with a friend, as brother Claude was still in L.A. Just as quickly, as she came, Mabel was gone from us, but we received a visit from her oldest friend, film star extraordinaire, Alice Joyce, who bore a copy of a short film Mabel had made at the MGM studio. We were aghast to see that it had been filmed on the set of “Our Dancing Daughters” – the biggest picture of 1928. Alice explained that the press had been told that it was a private film, but it was in fact a screen test, for ‘talkies’.

Mabel’s ‘screen-test’

Apparently, Louis B. Mayer was keen to get Mabel into drama with sound. Mother doted on Alice, a tall girl, a goddess with a heavenly presence, and we always had the best silverware out, and angel cake, when Alice called. The upshot was that Mabel was about to embark on a new career – in talkies. Unfortunately, it did not turn out that way. Mabel fell very, very sick in early 1929. Letters from Mabel, suggested she was well enough, but the newspaper headlines were full of foreboding. By September, Mabel had been diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis, and we received her letters c/o The Pottenger Institute, where she was undergoing treatment. Her stay was protracted, and it was in January 1930 that we received an unexpected long-distance phone call. I took the call. “Who is it?” I asked. “Mary Pickford.” came the reply.  “Mary WHO?” “Mary Pickford.”  Well, I was flabbergasted. “Listen Gladys, it is Gladys, isn’t it?” I replied in the affirmative, and Mary began her piece. She wanted to tell us that neither she, nor any of Mabel’s friends, had seen Mabel for months, and everyone was barred from visiting her. Did I know anything about what was going on? I confessed I did not. “Well in that case I hope you don’t mind if I make some inquiries of my own.” Naturally, I was shocked, but I was told not to worry, as Mary was sure everything would turn out not to be above board, and that was that.

The following week, we were confronted with a new problem. Father, now above eighty, had fallen seriously ill, and the prognosis was not good. By early February, he was hospitalised, and died there, two weeks later. No sooner had we arranged the funeral, than news came, from Lew Cody, that Mabel had passed on. He said he was making arrangements for the funeral in L.A., but he understand

he said that the family might not make it in time, given dad’s impending funeral. We left it at that, and prepared for dad’s funeral the next day. No sooner had I put the phone down than it rang again, and I was stunned to find a certain Charles S. Chaplin at the other end. Charlie offered his condolences, and said that he would give any help that we needed. Then, he said he had Mary (Pickford) with him, and she wished to speak with me. Mary came on, again offering her condolences, and offering positive help. Firstly, Mabel must be buried in Hollywood, at least for now. A wealthy socialite had offered her own tomb in the Calvary Mausoleum, and it would be wise to accept that, for the moment. Mary and Douglas Fairbanks would make all the funeral arrangements, and she’d already booked train tickets for us to travel west, immediately after dad’s funeral. It would be a close-run thing, but, if the train was running late, she’d have an aircraft standing by in Arizona to fly us in the last few hundred miles. She told us not to worry about hotel rooms, she’d arrange those too.

The Chaplin Field, 1920s.

As it turned out, we arrived in a station beyond Flagstaff, with 200 miles to go and only three hours to do the run into L.A. Mary’s pilot was waiting for us, and bundled us off the train and out to a very make-shift airfield, where we bundled into the aircraft. Away we went, over the mountains, with mother hanging on with white knuckles. Then, the big drop down to L.A., where we landed at the former Syd Chaplin field, at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax. We were met by Lew Cody, and Mabel’s old director, Paul Bern. There were only twenty minutes to go, and mother and I, with Lew and Paul, were rushed to Lew’s fancy Locomobile. Paul told us that every studio in Hollywood was closed that day, and as we approached the undertaker’s chapel, we noted the sidewalks, crammed with Mabel’s fans, and of course ‘rubber-neckers’. Outside the chapel, the sidewalk was roped off for an entire two blocks either side. Once we’d left the car, a couple of cops ushered us inside. We’d noted a low hum from the crowd, as we exited the car, but generally they were incredibly respectful. Inside, we were immediately confronted by a mound of flowers at the altar which covered the casket, and a chapel completely filled-out. Lew held mother’s arm, while Paul held mine.

Paying their respects: Doug Fairbanks, Art Goebell, D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett, Sam Goldwyn.

We both stumbled as we approached the casket, and mother collapsed on her daughter’s coffin, followed by myself. The sound of sobbing came from behind us. It was Mary, sitting in the first row, and she was shortly followed by Connie Talmadge, then sister Norma. Normally, Connie beat everyone to the sobbing, except for Mabel, of course. The Reverend Father Michael Mullins, of The Church of The Good Shepherd, Beverley Hills took the service, and when he finished the pall-bearers and honorary pall-bearers rose, and the casket was carried out. The honorary pall-bearers were a who’s who of Hollywood: Sam Goldwyn, Mack Sennett, D.W. Griffith, Adolph Zukor, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Louis B. Mayer, Judge James, Eugene Pallette, Sid Graumann and Art Goebbel. As the honorary pall-bearers lined up, the casket was slid into the hearse, just after the ropes were slipped and the crowd allowed to move forward. All were quiet and respectful, although the crowd exceeded that at the services for both Wally Reid and Valentino. Will Rogers had publicly appealed for calm before the funeral, and it seems everyone took that to heart. A service had been running concurrently at the Church of The Good Shepherd, for the overspill of studio people, but the service at the mausoleum was to be private, with just mother, myself, Claude, Paul and Lew in attendance. At the Calvary gates, the cortege was at a crawl, there were so many people packed up against the fence, and the hearse almost disappeared under the flowers thrown onto it.

The Mausoleum. Lew with mother, me peeping over Lew’s shoulder and Paul the other.

After a short service, Mabel was committed to the crypt, to await the completion of her tomb. In fact, there were two adjacent tombs, for the socialite’s husband had also given up his eternal space, so that mother could later lie alongside her daughter. We were driven back to Lew Cody’s Beverly Hills house, where we met with the other mourners. Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, Sam Goldwyn, Mary Pickford, with Jack and Lottie, Norma and Constance Talmadge, and God knows who else, offered their condolences. Sennett was pretty matter of fact, but Charlie seemed distant, dewy-eyed, and visibly upset, distraught I would say. Adolph Zukor told us he’d saved the dozens of letters Mabel had sent him down the years. He would never give them up, but he’d send us copies. It had been an arduous few days, so we made our excuses, and left for the hotel. Mary came out with us to the car, and said she’d come to see us at eleven the next day. She had some news for us. Outside the Ambassador, we found the place encircled by movie fans and press guys, but with the help of our driver, we forced our way through the throng, and retired early, exhausted.

Lew Cody’s house.

We were up with the lark, the next morning, and had breakfast sent up, as there were numerous press guys skulking around downstairs. At the stroke of eleven, came Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks, via the back door, and they were shown to our room. Mary told us of her twenty-year long friendship with Mabel, and how she wished she’d been able to see Mabel before she died, but nobody was allowed into the sanitarium. At the end of our talk, Mary warned us that Lew Cody intended to take legal action in order to secure a share of the estate. This was news to us, as Mabel had not left anything for Lew in her will except one solitary dollar. Mary then told us that Lew, thinking us ‘green’ would take whatever he could get, by using clever lawyers. She added that when the time came, if it came, she’d engage her own ‘clever lawyers’ to see Lew off. On the subject of paying Mary back, she said:

“Mabel was the truest friend I ever had, we go right back to the days of D.W. Griffith, and I will do anything to help her family out. I have plenty of money, more than I could ever spend, so there’s no need to pay me back.”

Doug smiled, and told us he was worth twenty-million dollars, and together they were the richest people in the world (they were!). We should not think of paying them back, but if they were ever short of a dollar or two, well, they might come a-calling. Their parting advice was to go to Mabel’s house and sort things out there. We could move in, or stay put, in which case Doug and Mary would foot the hotel bill. Mary gave us the key, which she’d got from Cody, at least Doug had got it, after he’d twisted Cody’s arm up his back.

We spent the next few weeks sorting out the house, which we decided to sell. The place was packed out with Mabel’s possessions, even though Lew Cody might have been dipping in. We put Mabel’s mounds of correspondence into storage, along with her Packard V12 car. The maid and the butler stayed on, as caretakers, and we gave the maid an assortment of Mabel’s numerous Parisian dresses. We continued at the Ambassador, the reckoning paid by Mary, who we visited frequently at Pickfair. There we came in regular contact with Charlie Chaplin, who often went off with Doug into the hills, when they weren’t clambering all over the roof. Charlie always seemed to be a bit distant, and a little reserved in our company. One day we heard Mary discussing Charlie’s latest film, ‘City Lights’ which Charlie wanted to be silent – the only non-talkie produced after Mabel’s death. Mary said it was commercial suicide, but Charlie then said a strange thing:

“Mary, how can I make it talk, now Mabel’s gone. It would be like trampling on her memory.”

“Charlie, if the thing bombs, your backers will sue you for millions.”

“Damn the backers, and their millions, this is my life, my business, I’ll do what I want – even fire Virginia Cheryl. I’ve had it with blonds, they dilute the very atmosphere of a movie!”

“Charlie, don’t do this” said Mary, hushing her voice “You’re already three weeks in, it’s too late to change.”

We later read that Charlie had, indeed, tried to fire Virginia, but was stopped by his board. However, he would not give way on the silent thing, and the picture never talked. This, however, was the last time he starred a blond for twenty years. It was months later that Mary explained the whole plot to us. Charlie and Mabel had been very close and inseparable back in the day. Mary told us how those two youngsters,  bright young things, alter-egos, had organised the charades at every Hollywood party, driven gay and carefree around L.A. and Santa Monica in a ‘stolen’ Keystone car, and snuggled up at night in the back row of the Empress Theatre. One was always ready to help the other. Mabel helped Charlie through his later marriage problems and Charlie helped her through her various illnesses. They were the eternal double act. We had for some time suspected this was the case, but Mary told us more. When Mabel died, the shock hit Charlie like a bolt of lightning, his hair turned grey overnight, and he was struck almost dumb. He’d virtually lost his right arm, Mabel was gone, before he could tell her what he wanted to tell her. In particular, he’d never quite managed to apologise for walking out on her at Keystone. This was unfinished business, and now it was too late.

Those carefree days of yore.

Time went by, but the winding up of the estate went relatively smoothly. The estate was worth $73,000 net. However, things changed swiftly. After we’d done all the donkey work, Lew slapped a writ on us for $50,000. The fifty thousand represented a Trust Fund set up by Sam Goldwyn, and continued by Mabel. This was not a current entity, as it had been broken up, and was represented in the estate assets. In other words, Lew wanted $50,000 of the $73,000 that we held. Mary was soon in touch, saying she had an attorney on the case. “Lew will never have one dollar of your money” Said Mary — and he didn’t. After one court hearing, Lew withdrew, licking his wounds. Mother kept hold of the money, but we couldn’t decide whether to stay out west, or return east. Mother thought the L.A. climate was doing her some good, but, after a few months, brother Claude, wife Winifred, and daughter Mabel, returned to the St. Mark’s house, as he had a cameraman’s job in Manhattan.

In 1932, mother became sick, worn out I guess, by the trials and tribulations of her recalcitrant daughter’s life. She died shortly thereafter. Lew Cody soon followed mother to the grave, and Courtland Dines, who had been shot by Mabel’s chauffeur, was committed to the madhouse. Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel’s favourite director, F. Richard Jones, soon went to join Mabel, with Jones at exactly the same age as Mabel had been, when she passed on. No small number of the old silent people began to ‘disappear’. The silent movie scene had been a club, with everyone knowing everyone — they’d all grown up together. The new talkie lot were not clubbable, and were very cliquey.

“Do you think there’ll ever be movie stars, Mary.” “Not a chance, Mabel.”

The 1930s were very strange, as Mabel obituaries and articles kept appearing, and two films with Mabel affinities appeared in 1939 and 1940. In the latter year, I attended the opening of the Mabel Normand Soundstage. I turned down the studio’s request that I make a speech, but I did meet my talkie idol, John Wayne, oh, and Mabel’s replacement at the top of the comedy tree, Judy Canova. Minta Arbuckle, Jack Mulhall, Mack Sennett and Chester Conklin regaled me with tales of Mabel from the distant past. I left with a warm feeling in my heart. Life was on hold, somewhat, during the war years, then, catastrophe befell us. As McCarthyism swept across the country and Hollywood, I learned that brother Claude had taken his own life in New York. The tragedy of his sister’s life, I believe, finally became too much for him to bear, and he left this mortal coil, to join her. His home had been a shrine to Mabel, with every part packed with Mabel’s things. His wife made a pile of the last vestiges of Mabel’s possessions, with a view to burning them, and ridding herself of the memory of “That damned witch.” Her daughter stopped her, before too much was lost, and a few things were passed to me. Events now began to hot up for ‘evil communist’ Charlie Chaplin, then the witch-hunt was carried to Mabel’s memory, in that disgusting picture, ‘Sunset Boulevard’, in which they conducted damnatio memoriae upon Mabel’s name. In his fury, Louis B. Mayer, for return, damned those responsible, but the damage was done – Hollywood Babylon had finally triumphed. In one more unspeakable act, Charlie Chaplin was run out of the U.S. by the bigots in Washington. The dice had been rolled, and settled, where it settled.

“I know this is a dream Mabel, but can you slow down?”

This is my story of sister Mabel, but it also the story of her companion in mirth, and alter ego, Charles, Spencer Chaplin. I often wonder if Charlie, sitting alone, old and grey, in his Swiss chateau, ever thinks back to the girl he once knew, long ago, before the Great War, before any of those black clouds rolled in on them. I’m sure he runs the movie in his mind on moonless nights – on his romantic, imaginary screen – a young girl and a young man, gay as the Glocca Morra mist, carefree, and cruising the tree-lined boulevards of the City of Angels, in Mack Sennett’s ghostly limousine.


In a 1970s interview, Minta Durfee said that Mabel once told her:

“If people think I’m beautiful, then I had nothing to do with it, but if I ever amount to anything, I’ll take a little credit.”

Mabel, it seems, was under no illusion that someone else was responsible for how she turned out – Mabel the person, Mabel the gad-about-town, Mabel the movie star. However, some would disagree with this sentiment. Take the following from that odd stage show ‘Mack and Mabel’. These lyrics were sent to me by William Thomas Sherman (Mabel Normand Sourcebook) and were something I’d long forgotten about:

Look what happened to Mabel!’


See that fascinating creature
With perfection stamped on ev’ry feature
She was plain little nellie
The kid from the deli
But Mother of God, look what happened to Mabel!

From now on this pile of flesh’ll
Be considered somethin’ pretty special
And Miss B. L. T. Down
Is the toast of the town
Mary and Joseph, what happened to Mabel!

Ev’ry gesture and position that she takes
Is smart and meticulous
Talk about the magic that the camera makes
But this is ridiculous!

Hold your tongue and hold your snickers
For the new enchantress of the flickers
Is that plain little Nellie
The kid from the deli
So rattle me beads
Look what happened to Mabel!

Someone who was plain as mutton
On the screen is cuter than a button
And the girl with the pickles
Who hustled for nickels
Is somethin’ to see. Look what happened to Mabel!

Yesterday a tip collector
But today just turn on that projector
And Miss Avenoo R
Is a regular star
Holy Mother Machree, look what happened to Mabel!
Up to now I really never knew that I
Could be so ambitious
But suddenly I know I have to say goodbye
To bagels and knishes

[Frank, Fatty & Andy]
Oh St. Aloysius

I know that you might think I’m balmy
But the queen of the corned-beef and salami
Is a glamorous goddess
Who’s bustin’ her bodice
Oh! Jumpin’ St Jude

[Frank, Fatty & Andy]
Look! Look! Look!
Look what happened to Mabel!

The lyrics are not that interesting, in that they perpetuate the myth that Mack Sennett made Mabel Normand a star. Fact is, she was already a star, and a star under D.W. Griffith and comedian John Bunny, but the writer is also confusing Mabel with Bonnie Parker, who was a waitress and wannabe movie star. However, the verse “But the queen of corned beef and salami, Is a glamorous goddess, Who’s bursting her bodice” is of interest. My understanding of this, is that the writer is not alluding to the waitress of the deli, serving corned beef and salami, but that she herself is a concoction of scrawny corned beef and salami, transformed by Mack Sennett into a voluptuous screen goddess, who’s bursting her bodice. There is of course no evidence for this magical transformation by The King of Comedy, but it is clear that the movies are a medium for illusion. By this we mean that the movie-makers can kid us that a) girls can fly b) cars can drive themselves c) wayward bath tubs can navigate the roads.

A Flying Mabel, self-driving car, magnet auto.

Beyond this, pretty, but ordinary, girls can be made into gorgeous, bosomy, unbelievably beautiful movie goddesses. A major part of the illusion was the well-crafted studio still photographs, without which the film industry could not function for long. The movie studios produced many of these, but the stars also sought their own, from outside photographic studios, and specifically for the fans. So, we are now, a small way to understanding how a star could be made, or concocted. Before we proceed any further, we must understand that The Keystone Girl was no different to any other actress in the way she was brought to the screen. Many tricks of make-up, light, shadow and other stratagems were used to produce ‘her’ — her being the different Mabel’s that appeared under the unique circumstances of the different films. So, let’s look a little deeper into the elixir that produced the Mabel of reel life, as opposed to Mabel of real life.

Not what we thought they were.

We must firstly, touch on the subject of the use of ‘doubles’ in the film industry. It is fairly well understood that doubles were used frequently in the movies, but only under certain circumstances. In regard to Mabel Normand, a number of people have formed the view that there were spoof Mabels, presumably appearing via some rota system. A smaller number of people claim that Mabel never actually existed, and there were any number of ‘Mabels’ that appeared under the generic name ‘Mabel’. These are interesting theories, but when we weight the evidence, we find this theory to be well down our list of possibilities, and we have to jump through many theoretical hoops, before this route can be explored. However, the ‘doubles’ theory is interesting, so we will return to it later.

Film-making methods according to Mrs D.W. Griffith.

Mabel of the Vitagraph.

Readers of these blogs will be familiar with Mrs Griffith (nee Linda Avridson) who wrote the seminal book of the movies ‘When The Movies Were Young’ published in 1925. Within those hallowed pages, Mrs Griffith gives us many details about the nascent stars of the Biograph studio, including a very young Mabel Normand. However, our author is not entirely concerned with personalities, and tells us quite a bit about methods. This is what she tells us:

In the early days, no-one really knew how to construct a movie – there was no handbook, or manual that could tell a director how to go about his business. D.W. Griffith can be seen as one of the first to make a scientific approach, and widely disseminate his methods. In those days, nonetheless, the process was fairly rudimentary, as there was little cash available to a director. Scenery was often produced, painted, and moved by the actors themselves. Yes, Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand lugged scenery around, although it seems that big theatrical stars, like Raymond Hitchcock, refused to ‘muck in’. Props and costumes were in short supply, and the first Biograph costumes only arrived when D.W. gave his wife $50 to go down to the second-hand shop and buy some suitable clothing. Prior to that, the studio relied on the actors to supply their own clothing.

The Property Man.

Consequently, those players that spent their money on clothes (or had fingers nimble enough to make them) would get the majority of parts. The “modish” Dorothy Davenport was guaranteed good roles, and Mary Pickford likewise, due to mama slaving away at her sewing machine. Make-up was tremendously important, and poly-chrome film dictated that a particular kind of mask-like make-up be used. The actors would need to be proficient at applying the make-up, as there was no Max Factor in the very early days. It went like this – Griffith would give a person his/her role.

Max Factor with Mabel 1921.

That person would go away and make up, to give the character that Griffith demanded. If the make-up was lacking in effect, the player would be sent off to try again. They would not be given a further chance, and failure would lose them the part. Mrs Griffith tells us that the worst guy for making up was Henri ‘Pathe’ Lehrman, who eventually gave up acting for directing and producing. Notably, he never himself produced a viable screen character. In his autobiography, Charlie Chaplin states that Mack Sennett thought he looked too young, but Charlie replied that he could make up older. We take his point, but Sennett not knowing that an actor could not be made up to look older? Total nonsense. More likely, he was concerned that Chaplin would run off with his star-of-stars. Mary Pickford related an interesting story in her autobiography. The penny-pinching starlet once went for the first movie star, Florence Lawrence, after she’d sneakily used ‘Blondilocks’ make up. This confirms that the players had their own make up, which they jealously guarded. Later on, of course, Max Factor came to Hollywood, and one of his early clients was a certain Mabel Normand.

Mabel, 1922. Made up for a long shot, rather than a close-up?

Beyond Biograph.

The main aim of a player was to formulate a recognisable character, but one that could be modified as and when required. Charlie Chaplin reports readying himself for the axe in 1914, as he hadn’t managed to create a recognisable character. The tramp saved his bacon, and he never quite abandoned the little guy. Although everyone at Keystone had an identifiable character, that character could be subtly changed. As we are speaking of Mabel here, let’s consider actresses. During the 1910s, and the 1920s the important facial features were the eyes and the teeth. Whether it was by D.W. Griffith decree or not, all actresses had to have an air of vulnerability, including the movie genius’ heroines. First an actress needed big bush-baby eyes, and if a girl had big round eyes to begin with, this was useful. However, those eyes had to be elongated, in a slightly oriental style. This was easily achieved with eye liner, and shadow on the lids helped make the eyes appear even larger. Mabel, of course, only needed to elongate her eyes, but she didn’t spare the shadow.

Doug with Joan ‘The Eyes’ Crawford.

Miracles could be achieved, even with small eyes, as Doug Fairbanks Jnr informs us in his book, ‘The Salad Days’. In the late twenties, he was married to Joan Crawford, and Doug states that her eyes were small and mouse-like, but she had a technique that transformed them to extra-large. On the screen, she always tried to look upwards, to enhance her eyes further. Fortunately for Joan, her mouth was wide, although some deft work with lipstick, gave her an ear to ear grin, like a Cheshire cat. Her teeth were fairly large, but the contrast created by dark lipstick gave the illusion of even bigger teeth. A trick many actresses used was to bite their lower lip with their upper teeth, which brought the teeth to the fore. All of these magic tricks seem to have been used by Mabel, although there is evidence that she wore false teeth occasionally, not to enhance her beauty, but to be comical. In fact, in ‘Gentlemen of Nerve’ (1914), many of the cast are clearly wearing false, comedy, teeth. There is an oriental guy (apparently) who has shovel teeth, but is clearly having trouble keeping them in. Charlie and Mabel are also wearing them, and Charlie seems to fiddle with his, to indicate they are false, and also amusing. In one shot, Mabel’s gnashers are huge, and the size of her gums, points squarely to them being false. A good time was had by all, while making this picture.

False teeth are the order of the day in ‘Gentlemen of Nerve’ 1914.

Now, let’s pursue the subject of false bits and bobs a little further, and talk about that ubiquitous movie material, padding. Many people point to the fact that Mabel was voluptuous in her younger days, and thin and flat-chested later on. The simple fact is that Mabel, like other actresses, could go up and down at will. However, following the scandals it was probably prudent for her to appear thin, and even ill, during the 1920s. We might suggest, though, that Mabel was always thin.

A Spanish Dilemma

Whenever we see Mabel’s legs, they are always very thin, and do not really match her body. Her body, as we know can, on occasions be fulsome, and at others, not so. In ‘Helen’s Marriage’, she is buxom, but in ‘Getting Acquainted’ she is slim and without bust. In ‘The Diving Girl’ and The Water Nymph, she has a bust, but also broad hips, which are unexpected. All done by the strategic placement of padding, perhaps? There have always been simple methods for enhancing the cleavage, and Mabel used these from time to time, and especially in ‘A Spanish Dilemma’. A thin girl, naturally, is very useful, as she can be forever ‘enhanced’, while a fat girl is, forever, a fat girl.

Bumping bosoms in ‘Helen’s Marriage’ and going flat in ‘Getting Acquainted’.

Strangely enough, Doug Jnr knew all about padding as well. He refers to Billie Dove, who, he claims, everyone called ‘the bosom’. It seems, every actor wanted to be her leading man, so they could find out which bits of her were real and which were not. Now, we need to discuss the humble corset. Mabel advertised these early 1900s necessities, but we may be reluctant to believe that she needed them. However, when you see Mabel with that classic hour-glass figure, you can be sure she’s wearing a corset. Take ‘Troublesome Secretaries’ for instance. In an early scene, she’s wearing a flouncy dress, and appears to be ‘letting it all hang’, an illusion created by the flouncy stuff under the dress. Later, when she goes to meet her boyfriend, she has a sub-twenty inch waist, and smooth wide hips. Smooth, yes, but you can just see the foundation underneath.

Troublesome Secretaries: Trim Mabel and wider Mabel.

Eyelashes can be genuine, if reasonably long, although there is always room for enhancement. This may be the case with ‘Gentlemen of Nerve’. When Mabel flutters her eyelashes at Charlie Chaplin, you’d swear they were three inches long. Those lashes were also out in ‘Fatty and Mabel Adrift’. When Mary Pickford saw Mabel for the first time, in the Biograph office, she ran for D.W. Griffith, saying that a dark girl had arrived, who had two-inch eyelashes. Griffith went to see Mabel, but found her eyelashes to be only three-quarters of an inch long – still mightily extensive.

Real or false? The eyelashes that is.

Now, what about hair. Well, it’s plainly obvious that hair can be changed easily and often, by virtue of wigs and coiffuring. Mainly, we are here concerned with the advent of banana or Pickford curls. The ‘Blondilocks’ curls were not entirely original, but they made Miss Pickford extremely wealthy. In fact, so successful were the curls, early on, that every actress eventually had to have them. Mabel had hers by 1912, but we have no information as to whether they were real or not – they could have been hairpieces, but as Mabel often wore them up, we might suspect that they irritated her, in which case they were real enough.

“Cut those banana curls off will you”

Mary continued with her curls, long after Mabel and co had their hair ‘bobbed’. We know Mary suffered much for the cause of banana curls, and we know she used three types of roller in her hair, and that she kept them in overnight, regardless of the discomfort (it was fortunate that she wasn’t a night owl). In ‘Extra Girl’ Mabel has ridiculously long curls, as she is meant to be an aspiring starlet lured to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune. Mabel could have told her not to bother, as, guess what, all the top spots were taken by the original stars, many of whom continued until the demise of silent film. Here we might also mention eyebrows, a subject dear to Mabel’s heart. Forever asking “Who does your eyebrows” we might suppose that this hair was a problem for her. Indeed, one person has suggested that Mabel had ‘murderer’s eyebrows’, that is they met in the middle. However, we have nothing to confirm that this was the case.

Lovely Mabels, created by attention to the hair (among others things).

The Keystone Walk.

At the Sennett studio, not only did everyone have a character, but they were also expected to develop a unique walk. Chaplin, of course, had the flat-footed walk of the tramp. If a player didn’t develop a walk, then Sennett would give them one, which they might not like. In general, the girls were trained in a hop-skip walk, or ingenue walk. Louise Fazenda became the hop-skip girl of Keystone, under the tutelage of Sennett, as she confessed at the latter’s ‘This Is Your Life’ show. Mabel had also become a part-time hop-skip girl, in the early days, skipping into a run, like a young child. One good example can be seen in ‘The Gusher’ of 1913. Sennett, it seems, always got his actresses to lean forward when they ran, to accentuate their posteriors. He had an obsession with the derrière, which, male or female, was there to be kicked (false bottoms used). Sometimes Mabel is speeded up when walking, to give her a funny, jerky motion. However, Mabel had her own kind of impetuous walk, which she clearly preferred, and is used to good effect in ‘He Did and He Didn’t’ which Sennett had nothing to do with.

Skipping to it, in ‘The Gusher’ 1913.

How To look Cute.

Looking cute is essentially looking vulnerable. Even Griffith heroines had to have some vulnerability, and perhaps it was the movie genius that thought up the idea of the vulnerable ingenue, but we can guess that he was probably not the first. We have already covered some of the items under this heading, eyes, walk and co, but we might also add, keeping your mouth slightly open, the lips slightly parted. At rest, when there is no activity, Mabel did this, presumably to give a general air of vulnerability. (The queen of vulnerability, of course, was Lillian Gish, and it seems, not just in pictures. Of Lillian, ageing actress Kate Bruce, according to Linda Griffith, once said “This girl needs to be protected from the world, she’s so innocent and so young”).

Looking cute behind the camera.


Time now to return to the issue of doubles. We have already covered the general use of doubles in the film industry, and we must now be specific. Here we are in a little more trouble, for few in the movies have ever admitted to using doubles, and for obvious reasons. Occasionally we find evidence that an actor was replaced by a stuntman for a dangerous scene. There is, however, no evidence for an actor being regularly replaced by a double. Of course, if an actor was to be indisposed, then a double might be brought in, but usually only for long shots. The kind of films that Keystone produced were of the ‘serial’ variety, where the audience became well-acquainted with their favourite star, and would not be fooled for one moment by a dastardly double — they’d soon demand their seven cents back. In any case, paying a double and a star for the same work, would be an anathema to any self-respecting, money-grabbing producer. Note here, that a contracted actor could not be stood down, without pay, by a producer, while he substituted a cheaper extra. Sure, a producer could stand a star down, but to avoid legal action, he’d have to pay that star. The only option he had was to tear the contract up, but he’d still need a valid, legal reason to do so. It is also unlikely, that if a star refused to work on a particular day, the producer could dock a day’s pay, as stars were paid weekly, Florence Lawrence being the first to receive weekly (rather than daily) pay, way back in around 1909. Specifically, concerning Mabel, Minta Durfee once said “Sennett would have worked her to death if he could have.” The detailed subject of contracts is interesting, but a little too complex to discuss here. Suffice to say that the original stars (Mabel, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish etc) came to have different, more advantageous contracts to those that came a little later.

Spot the Mabel (left), Jewel Carmen (right). ‘Ragtime Band’ 1913.

Let’s suppose for a moment that Mabel had a double, who would that person be? Well, certainly, Keystone good-time girl, Jewel Carmen, would be a candidate. Although a blond, she could pass for Mabel, at least in the middle distance. Norma Talmadge, although she never worked at any studio where Mabel worked (except Vitagraph in 1911) was a dead ringer for Mabel, perhaps even in a close up. Another possibility is Mabel’s sister, Gladys, who looked similar to Mabel, but a shade less pretty. Gladys might have doubled for Mabel, as the driver of the race car in ‘Mabel At The Wheel’ although it is commonly accepted that Fay Tincher took this role in the picture. The evidence we have suggests Gladys was rarely in Los Angeles. Nonetheless, little has ever been written about Gladys, which leads us to suspect that she, and perhaps her mother, spent many years in California, relatively invisible. In this case, she was in a position to double for Mabel, although we should not assume that she actually did so. No Keystoner ever mentioned Mabel having a double, and Minta Arbuckle (Durfee) claimed she did all of her dangerous stunts.

Cast of ‘Mabel At The Wheel’, ‘Double’ Fay Tincher at centre.

 Natural Factors.


Mabel was the actress with the amazing plastic face. One of the most noticeable features of Mabel is her ability to change facial expression, apparently several times per second. Furthermore, she did not have a camera-proof face, but a face that looked different from different angles. The best place to see this is in ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’ where from the front her face appears podgy and fluffy, like a doughnut. Later, in profile she has a half moon, witchy face, with nose and chin seemingly about to meet. This is also obvious early in ‘That Ragtime Band’ when she turns her head. From the front image, you could swear that she had a pug nose and no chin, so it is a bit of a shock to find, in profile, her nose and chin are so angular. Partially this is achieved (perhaps not intentionally) through Mabel’s uncanny ability to control her facial muscles.

Left: Podgy-faced Mabel. Right: Angular-faced Mabel under a bed.


Contrary to the general conception, Mabel’s natural movements were not jeky, and she did not have St.Vitus Dance, or any other nervous disorder. In general, Mabel had an enviable smoothness and naturalness to her movements, and when you have that, you can do anything. Jerkiness can be added by simply speeding up the film, and cutting in the right places.

Supernatural Factors.

All of the factors we have discussed will have needed to be organised by someone with a commanding hand. At Vitagraph it would have been John Bunny, for the drama and comedy at Biograph, D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett respectively. We should not labour the point that Mabel directed herself at Keystone, as beyond a certain point, such a thing becomes impossible. Mabel was always directed by her co-star and vice versa. Yes, even Charlie Chaplin needed direction, and had a whole string of directors down the years. However, overall there was the all-pervading hand of God. Well, not exactly God, but Mack Sennett. Endowed with an uncanny knack of knowing what would work and what wouldn’t, Sennett controlled and supervised everything — stories, actions, hairstyles and just about everything else. When he thought it was needed, he’d change Mabel’s naturally feline movements to a jerky caricature of her real self. He’d suggest a little padding here, a tweak to her hair there, or a little shadow on her face. The innocent Keystone Girl could change, simply by putting a gun into her hand. Just to add a bit of titillation, he could show a glimpse of Mabel’s legs, right to the very top. These were glimpses, and they often consisted of just one frame, so that the beholders didn’t know if they’d seen what they thought they’d seen.

Fooling around with Raymond Hitchcock.

Bringing It All Together.

Although Mr and Mrs Normand might have created the real-life Mabel, someone had to add to her considerable talents. Having been a model, though, Mabel was well able to present herself in a way that suited the current conditions. Possessing a non-camera proof face was to prove a valuable asset for Mabel, and the chief weapon in her armoury of versatility. Mabel was always Mabel, and she had no need for impersonal long-term characters, like the tramp, the shiek, or the vamp. The drawback, naturally, was that people might take the view that she had a long-term double. Possibly, she did use the occasional double, but no more often than other performers. Chaplin and Durfee are adamant — Mabel refused a double, even when she was sick, or a stunt was dangerous. The Keystone Girl, early on, was the joint creation of Mack and Mabel. The Mabel of later years was the joint creation of Mabel and director F. Richard Jones.

Swinging from the gutter in ‘Mickey’.

Now, look at the garden film clip above. This is the only known half-candid representation of Mabel, which, by good fortune, was found beneath a nonagenarian’s house upon his death, and published in the docu-video ‘Mabel’s Adventures’ (You Tube). A short scene from ‘Caught In A Cabaret’ is left in for comparison. The earlier clip, showing Mabel on the ship, is different, in that Mabel is clearly expecting to be photographed publicly, and has prepared for it. Her make-up, though, is perhaps, more suited to a long shot, so it seems she was not expecting a close up. In the the second clip, light comes from an angle, and there is a modicum of general shadow (the latter being an anathema to Mack Sennett). The first part is terrible in terms of professional lighting, but the second part has Mabel better lit. One thing that is evident is the lack of the features of the Keystone Girl, except the heavy eyelids, which are shadowed. No attempt has been made to make the eyes themselves larger, but they are big enough by normal standards. The mouth is less wide than we might expect, and there is no evidence for the Keystone Girl’s characteristic of the curling up of the corners of the mouth, although a little shadow does produces a crinkling down. The teeth are not as prominent as we might expect, but darken the lips, and the contrast would make them appear larger. The nose is angular, and is slightly bulbous at the end, so there is no doubt this is Mabel Normand, but she is not the screen Mabel. She looks like a normal person, which is, of course, what actress Anita Garvin said, when she finally met her childhood idol, her Goddess (Interview in The Mabel Normand Sourcebook).

An unexpected Mabel.

The shot above comes from ‘Tillie’s Punctured Romance, made in 1914. We might call this an extreme close-up, which has changed Mabel’s general appearance, by the use of light, which is again extreme (so extreme that she probably saw stars for for many minutes afterwards). Everything is leached out, hair, eyes, lips, in the effort to show this is different Mabel, Mabel the gangster’s moll, Mabel, the pretentious fashion queen from the trailer park. Butter wouldn’t melt in he mouth, but, touch her man……

At the wheel of the Hitchcock’s Rolls Royce.


Before we leave the garden clip, we might want to understand what is going on here. The guy whose lap Mabel is sitting on is actor Raymond Hitchcock, and the year, at a guess, is somewhere around 1922/26. Mabel had become very involved with the Hitchcocks in 1915, and again after the Taylor scandal of 1922. It was after this time that Mabel was labelled ‘bad, bad, bad’ and what is going on here is related to that. Mabel is playing the naughty girl with a married man, as a kind of impromptu scene. However, Mabel fans need not worry, for Hitchcock’s wife is almost certainly behind the camera — she might have allowed Mabel to drive the family Rolls Royce, but what wife would allow her husband to be alone with the Keystone Girl? We would like to know what Mabel is saying, but the only readable word is ‘wife’ at the very end of a sentence, which may tentatively be construed as “It’s a shame — wife.” This would be consistent with what we have said above. These little private films were not unusual in Hollywood, where, back in the day, there was little to do in the daytime. Just prior to the Dines shooting, Mabel made a short film, with Edna Purviance and Courtland Dines. The film has disappeared, but there are some extant stills that were published in an L.A. newspaper. One picture shows Edna (Courtland’s girlfriend) on the floor, apparently reaching into her coat for a gun, as Mabel lifts her skirt, so that ‘Courts’ can examine her leg. Turns out this was another of Mabel’s love triangles, according to her housekeeper, but eventually it was Mabel’s chauffeur that shot Courts.

Reach for your gun!


This article is not meant to be an exhaustive catalogue of film-making techniques, and the reader can find many books and internet sites specifically concerned with the way cosmetics and other tricks were used to create the illusions of the silver screen.


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

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

Mabel Normand: A Source Book to her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006)

Looking For Mabel Normand Site maintained by Marilyn Slater.

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).