Film star Blanche Sweet, the girl with the silken hair, was a close friend of Mabel until the end of her life in 1930. She made various contributions to the mass of Mabel literature down the years, and these are useful in trying to determine the true character of Mabel. Blanche never wrote an essay on The Biograph Girl, as she knew her, but it is always fun to write one for her, in the first person. So here it is.
My first meeting with Mabel occurred, I think, in 1909 or, perhaps, 1910, when she arrived unannounced at Biograph Studios. She might have been unannounced, but Mary Pickford soon announced her presence to us all, when she began running around the studio shouting at director D.W. Griffith that new girl had arrived, and he had to see her before she changed her mind, and made a run for it.
“Oh, another boring blond I suppose” Yawned the ‘Genius”’
“No, no, she’s very dark, with bush-baby eyes and two-inch long lashes.”
“Are you sure they’re two-inches long?”
“Well, maybe they’re one-inch, but you’ve got to see her!” Said Mary, dragging D.W. by the arm.
Griffith went to see Mabel, and we all took turns at peering at her through the doorway. She was, indeed, stunningly beautiful, and she peered back at us from under her Gibson Girl quiff, as I call it. Mabel had been, as many people know, a ‘Gibson Girl’, but she was, then, very, very shy, and lowered her head, hiding behind the ‘quiff’.
The Nature of The Biograph.
Mabel joined the company, and what a company it was. I’ll just sketch out the atmosphere of The Biograph, in those days. The performers were mainly ex-theatrical players, and their average age was, wait for it, sixteen years. Everyone was very immature, but friendly, and there was the buzz of raging hormones around the place. The older people, Griffith, Kate Bruce and Mack Sennett, tried to control the youngsters as best they could (although Sennett, I’m sure tried to work them up, rather than control them). Misplaced love was in the air, and you couldn’t move a prop or bit of scenery, without finding a ‘spooning’ couple behind it. Certain actors were in demand among the actresses, and Marshall Neilan and Owen Moore were soon ensnared by Gertrude Bambrick and Mary Pickford, respectively. When Gertie married Marshall, I was very angry, as I had eyes on him myself. Many years later, I managed to break them up, and I married Marshall – a big mistake, for that man almost beat me to death, before I saw sense and left him. From very early on, the innocent Mabel came under the sway of Mack Sennett, which surprised us a little, because Mack was regarded as a dangerous idiot that any girl should avoid. There was, however, a persistent rumour that Mack and Mabel had known each other prior to Mabel coming to the studio. This is just one of the many mysteries surrounding Mabel that have never been resolved.
Mabel was not at Biograph long, before it became clear that she had a magnetic personality. She was never alone, and as soon as she walked into a room, everyone dropped what they were doing and flocked to her. I do not mean just men either, for women and girls came to almost worship her. No woman ever resented her, not even the most egotistical and competitive of actresses. The star, back then, was Florence Lawrence, or ‘Miss Haughty’, or ‘High and Mighty’ as we called her. Unbelievably egotistical, even she became bewitched by Mabel, although she left soon enough. Mabel’s ascent from shy little girl to outgoing extrovert was thrilling to see. Something happened, but whether it was her association with Sennett, or her becoming the untameable, daredevil, I do not know, but she became a force to reckon with, at the studio. As Mary Pickford wrote in her newspaper column in 1916:
“There was no cliff so high that Mabel was afraid of it, no water so deep that she was afraid to dive into it, and no bucking bronco too wild for her to ride it.”
Mabel even had the studio supervisor, Wilfred Lucas, quaking in his boots, and Griffith himself dreaded her vitriolic and vindictive tongue. Wilfred she called, sarcastically, ‘The Great Lucas’ and Griffith ‘Mister Johnny Reb’. He was a southern ‘gentleman’, ya know. When Mrs Griffith (Linda Avridson) was writing her book When The Movies Were Young, a few years back, I spent many hours talking to her about the way things were at Biograph, back in the good old days. She told me that her former husband (they separated in 1911), although he seemed to dismiss Mabel’s ridicule, would, when he got home, rant and rave and punch holes in the doors. He hated being derided by a little girl, barely five feet tall. Such was the power of Mabel. Griffith, of course could not dismiss Mabel, as she was, perhaps, the only one who could carry out dramatic tragedy, in a way that would make even Euripides weep. The fact is, she made all of us weep, even when she moved over to comedy. Crying contests? Forget them, Mabel always won. No one can sum up Mabel’s abilities better than Mary Pickford:
What was Mabel like around the studio? Well, when she got going, it was like a whirlwind had hit. No one was safe from her irreverent tongue, and no-one was safe from her practical jokes. Everyone was subjected to a volley of cussing and swearing, pails of water fell on people as they opened doors, and, if not, crackers chased them around the set. Immediately after Mabel’s funeral I said this:
“Mabel was sweetness itself, but when she opened her pretty mouth, toads came out, but nobody minded”
Producer Hal Roach, who became the butt of Mabel’s jokes in her twilight years added:
“Mabel was the dirtiest-talking girl you ever heard. She brought hordes of girlfriends to the studio, who followed me around the sets, laughing and giggling, as Mabel taunted me mercilessly.” (she called him “that dumb, thick-necked Irishman”.)
Just recently, I read that Gloria Swanson had said “Mabel was crude and vulgar”. Sure, Mabel was crude, but was never vulgar, and, unlike the sweet Gloria, Mabel never went with a married man, never committed adultery, and was never a home-breaker. You stand alone and damned Miss Swanson.
The story of Mabel at Biograph is long and convoluted, and could fill a whole book. However, having already said that she was worshipped by her fellow actresses, I need to explain further. Remember, we were knee deep in women’s emancipation, at that time, and it is no surprise that the studio girls were looking around for a – they found their heroine in Mabel Normand. Mabel was a match for any man, and, importantly, she stood up to all the actors and the management. When Griffith tried to change her name, she simply told him to “Fuck off!” When Marshall Neilan began to pester her, she told him to fuck off as well. Mabel clearly had more sense than either Gertie or I, and she only had eyes for Jack Pickford and Owen Moore, although Mary soon took Owen off the market (for the time being). Anyhow, Mabel gradually became the avatar everyone worshipped, and most of the worshippers became the future stars of Hollywood. You might know some of the names of those that sat at Mabel’s feet – Dorothy Gish, Lottie and Jack Pickford, Gertie Bambrick, and little old me, along with many others.
The Biograph management were pulling their hair out, their innocent girls now had a leader in Miss Normand. However, when Griffith set out to take the company to work in L.A. during the winter of 1910/11, he absolutely refused to take her, as she was a bad influence on his girls. Stage mothers too, made representations to the management, saying that they did not want their charges being corrupted by “that disrespectful harlot”. So, it came to pass, that Mabel did not get to go to L.A., but remained in New York, where she joined The Vitagraph, and learned comedy under the great John Bunny and Flora Finch. She returned to Biograph late in 1911, I think, and was with us for a few weeks before we again departed for L.A., this time with Mabel aboard. Part of the Mabel story is what Mabel did at Vitagraph. She did not leave Vitagraph of her own accord – she was, in fact, fired for ‘intolerable and lewd behaviour’. The management took a dim view of her exposing herself to passengers on the adjacent rail-line.
Before she returned to Biograph, she tried The Reliance, but only lasted 3 hours before grumpy old Hal Reid, father of Wally, and director down there, booted her out for ‘unacceptable behaviour’ (whatever that was). I knew all about Mabel’s ‘behaviour’. At Biograph, Mabel would often walk around the dressing room stark naked, whereas, most of us wore at least some scanty thing to cover our nudity. New girls were particularly shocked at Mabel’s naked presence, and dressed behind the screens. We had chintz curtains up the windows, but Mabel had no fear of drawing them back, and looking out, in her birthday suit, much to the horror of plug-hatted gents and old maids. Mabel, I can tell you, was very voluptuous in those days, and I think she had some pride her body. Mabel made a film for Goldwyn called A Perfect 36, but in those days she was at least a ’38’. For some parts, Griffith would have her lightly ‘strapped down’, but when Sennett directed her he sometimes insisted she be strapped down completely flat. This was done for Tomboy Bessie and Mabel was in black and blue agony afterwards. It was all pointless, for her hips and rear, of a mature female, could not be disguised. For A Spanish Dilemma, Mabel had the idea of leaning forward over a balcony, as she was being serenaded by Mack and Fred Mace, then have everything spill out. Mack went crazy, but agreed that she could, surreptitiously, undo a button on her top, to expose her cleavage. This was much more successful, and wholesome, and prevented a raid by the ‘morals police’.
Going West in 1911/12.
Of course, going out to California was always an adventure, but things were different this time, for we had Mabel with us. There were shenanigans at the rail head, as Mama Pickford demanded that young Jack be taken along with his two sisters. Griffith refused, but as Mary and Lottie prepared to disembark the train, he capitulated, and Mama threw little Jack onboard, as the train began to move. Mary wasn’t too happy to have her little brother with her, but Mabel was delighted to have the little scamp along – he was just fourteen, the same age, in mind at least, as Mabel. Jack and Mabel remained close all of their (somewhat short) lives. Now you’re wondering if they became lovers. Well, it doesn’t matter now, so I can say, categorically, yes. As Mabel later told me, there was no shame in this, as they were both considered minors, in almost any state in the U.S. In any case, Mary was happy to have Jack fondling the fair Mabel, rather than getting up her nose, and cramping her style. On the train, Mabel and Jack ran around like tornadoes, getting up to all sorts of capers, and upsetting many a bonneted old maid. Griffith was furious with Mack, as, being virtually an item with her, he should control ‘that little minx’. Now, Mabel being Mabel, was drunk most of the time, and many times on that train journey, she staggered into my compartment, swearing like a trooper, and telling me some of the dirtiest joke imaginable.
It is likely that she corrupted more young girls on this one journey, than she did in the rest of her life. Every girl she had contact with was tainted by her, and ended smoking like a chimney, drinking like a lord, and laughing like a drain. Yes, that dirty, hoarse laugh was unforgettable. I did once ask her how she learnt all that stuff, and she calmly said:
“In the reformatory, dear Blanchey”
“Good lord Mabel, the reformatory!”
Yep, that’s right blondie, I was a juvenile delinquent.”
After recovering from the shock, Mabel told me the whole story. We all knew that Mabel had been out of control as a child, and refused to go to school. What we didn’t know was that she’d been picked up by the police on numerous occasions, and her Catholic mother, in her despair, sent her away to a convent. However, this was no ordinary convent, but what is known as a Mary Magdalene Convent, commonly called ‘The Laundry’. These convents had a commercial laundry attached, where they worked wayward girls almost to death, a policy that was intended to ‘correct’ or ‘reform’ them. In Mabel’s case this did not work, but we might suspect it did not work with any of them, and it was in that god-damned place that Mabel contracted tuberculosis.
Way out West and loving it.
We were all glad to be in the Golden State, with its constant sun and beautiful light. A couple of years back, before we’d been to L.A., we’d all been captivated by the vision of Alice Joyce necking with boyfriend Caryle Blackwell in Westlake Park, during a Kalem picture. How beautiful that park looked, and how we all clamoured to get on Griffith’s train to the west. Incidentally, if Mabel herself had a heroine, then it was her friend from the Gibson days, Alice Joyce. As Mabel later told me, Alice was a real star, tall and very sensual. If Mabel had any hang up, it was about being so short. Later, she became obsessed with Connie Talmadge, who, as you know, had the longest legs in Hollywood. Oh, if only she could be Alice or Connie, then everything would be just fine, and this brings me to those staunch followers of Mabel in our company. Two girls had thought as Mabel, and decided that if only they could be her, then everything would be fine.
Dot Gish and Gertie Bambrick had been billeted with Mr and Mrs Del Henderson, but, on their first day, they flew the coop, and booked themselves into a hotel. Holed up in their room, they prepared to become Mabel, by swilling booze and smoking some cigarettes. Then they, hitched their skirts down, to reveal some midriff, and headed out for the nightlife. They didn’t get far before Del Henderson and Griffith, who’d spent the entire day looking for them, captured the runaways, and returned them to their chaperones.
Such, then, was the Mabel effect, but, while all this commotion was going on, Mabel herself was mostly ensconced with Mack Sennett. Mack, who always complained about the curled up company sandwiches, had discovered that the route to plenty of food was by buying a drink in certain bars, which allowed them to partake of the saloon buffet.
This had some relevance for me, as Griffith had decided I was too skinny, and withheld me from certain roles. Talking with Mabel about this, I said I could not understand how she had become so amply ‘bosomed’.
“Bacon sandwiches, my dear Blanche, bacon sandwiches and plenty of them” She replied.
Now I knew the secret, and I put it to my mother and aunt that I should go to the bar with Mack and Mabel for a good feed. Mother was furious, and forbade me to ever enter a beer-house. Auntie was a bit calmer, but said I should not associate with Mack and Mabel, as they were a bad influence. Instead auntie approached Griffith for extra ‘rations’ as I was threatening to go off with Mack and Mabel. Griffith was horrified that I was associating with those two scoundrels, and decreed that I’d be fed up on bacon and two slices, at the company expense. It worked, and boy did it work. I quickly became a ‘38’. Mabel, seeing me rising, like baked dough, every day, stood before me one afternoon, looked my bosoms up and down, then said “My god Blanche, I could fancy you myself”, and grabbing a mammary in each hand, she worked them up and down, in opposition. Now, if any other girl had done that, I’d have slapped her face, and kneed her somewhere, but you could never get mad with Mabel, she was so disarmingly charming. This was the secret of her success, and I really believe that the things she did were designed to, ever so slightly, humiliate people, sort of put them down, without the person really knowing what was happening.
Filming continued apace, but working in the L.A. sunshine was a delight. There were many funny incidents, one being when a group of Angelenos followed us out to location one day, just to see what we were up to. They watched us in astonishment for a time, as we rehearsed, until a plumpish, middle-aged woman eventually marched towards the leading lady (was it Mary?) and slapped her round the face, screaming “You little whore, I wouldn’t be seen dead doing the things you’re doing, nor would I wear those disgusting, indecent clothes”. As she marched away, Mabel stepped forward and gave the old hag a good old Keystone slam in the chops, which sent her reeling. Several of her companions came forward to help, but Mabel made towards them, now holding a hefty tree branch. The group scooped up the dazed woman and made off. We all fell about laughing, it was so funny seeing all those adults running from, what appeared to be, a twelve-year-old girl. We made a good number of films that trip, some in which I played alongside Mabel. Mabel usually played a ruthless villainess, someone who was always trying to steal other women’s men. However, she often died before the last scene, which greatly annoyed her (see The Eternal Mother).
After a few weeks, we noticed that, after work, Mack and Mabel were often nowhere to be found, but we thought they’d just gone off somewhere to be alone (easy enough to do in the suburbs of L.A. back then). Eventually, Mabel confided to me that they had spent some time trying to waylay Charlie Baumann, partner in New York Motion Pictures, who was then in town, and staying at the Alexandria Hotel. They were attempting to get a contract with Baumann to work over at Fort Lee, New Jersey, where the motion picture industry was then mainly situated.
I did not get the full details, but Mabel was apparently well in with Baumann’s daughter, Ada. Mabel brought Ada to our makeshift studio sometimes, and she was quite a gal. Very physical and athletic, she was the East Coast figure-skating champion, and indulged willingly in Mabel’s pranks. I believe Griffith even let her ‘extra’ in a couple of films.
Mabel then appeared in her greatest film to date, Mender of Nets, which was very melancholy and fully suited to her talents. As was usual, the film was premiered (if you could use that term) in a theatre downtown. Playing the lead alongside Mary Pickford, Mabel blew Her Highness almost off the set, with her demonstration of what a tragedienne should be. I can tell you that Mary never minded her acting being upstaged, the reason being that she was only interested in the great god money. Mabel called her Hetty Green, the very famous millionairess, and she later introduced her to Charlie Chaplin that way. Anyhow, the pair never shared the lead again.
Leaving the West Coast.
As Linda Griffith wrote of our time in California, it was soon time to pack up our troubles in our old kit bags, and return to grimy old New York. There was a certain melancholy hanging over the company, as we watched Pasadena disappear behind us, but not for long, as Mabel soon had us in stitches with her crazy antics. We’d already been made aware of her abilities in comedy on the way out, but now she had us totally mesmerized. I just could not believe that the girl, so adept at tragedy, could also be a proficient comedian. Naturally, Mabel had got us all drunk before we were even out of California, and she soon had us eating out of her hand – we were her captive audience, and she was going to milk us for all we were worth. On the way out, Mabel had led us through the train, screaming and hollering, and scaring old ‘biddies’, as we celebrated the New Year. Now there was no holiday celebration, but old maids and plug-hatted gents still cowered in their compartments, terrified of the ‘Mabel Normand Gang’. Griffith was going out of his mind, and Mack Sennett was tearing his hair out shouting “That bitch, I’ll kill her, I’ll fucking kill her”. Of course, with their forthcoming contract at NYMP it was imperative that Mabel remain innocent and demure. Charlie Baumann, I can tell you, was much in love with Mabel, but he would have soon ditched her, and Mack, if any of this got out. Eventually, we arrived back home unscathed, and our noses were soon put back to the grindstone. Things carried on as before, then we got a big shock.
THE MACK AND MABEL COMEDY UNIT.
Biograph had a relatively new comedy unit, and the director had become seriously ill, so Mack offered his services. He went to Griffith and demanded Mabel, and The Genius breathed a sigh of relief, then handed Mabel straight over to Mack. Was Mabel delighted? She certainly was not, and, for the first time, we saw her break down in tears. We were shocked and horrified, for Mabel seemed as hard as nails, and here she was sobbing her heart out. I said to her “Wasn’t it comedy you really wanted?”
“No, no I want to be a dramatic actress, a star….only a man can be a star in comedy”.
Of course, as far as we knew then, she was right. Flora Finch was a comedy star, but there was something, well, a little bit weird about her. Mabel was beautiful and possessed star quality by the gallon. Anyhow, Griffith would hear none of it, and handed Mabel over without a by your leave. The results? Well, they speak for themselves. Only last week, some of us ‘oldies’ went downtown and re-watched some of Mabel’s Biograph and early Keystone comedies. There was Tomboy Bessie, At Coney Island, Oh Those eyes, and, of course The Water Nymph – all laid on by, guess who? Mack Sennett! Mabel was a delight to see in these films, and Mack had to be congratulated in the way he presented her. Speaking to ‘The King of Comedy’ afterwards, he told me they’d worked their fingers to the bone on the films, as a presentation to the NYMP bosses. Baumann positively drooled over Mabel in Oh Those Eyes (Mabel fully-dressed) and The Diving Girl (for Edwardian times, almost naked) and looked forward to having her over at Fort Lee. It seemed clear to me that Mack pitched Mabel, as the Queen Bee around which happened. Surrounded by men, who were portrayed as incredibly stupid, Mabel reacted, in her own inimitable way, to whatever happened around her, but, when necessary, she could take the lead completely. Mack, naturally, had taken the real Mabel and burlesqued her personality, again in his own inimitable way.
The Earth tilts on its axis.
Then came another shock from the Mack and Mabel stable. The pair had signed for NYMP, and were leaving Biograph forthwith. Another series of good films were produced from an office somewhere in Manhattan, under the NYMP banner. Then shock, horror, it was announced that Mack, Mabel, and other ex-Biograph actors, would be leaving for L.A. to film at the old Bison lot in Edendale. Some of the girls, including myself, arranged to meet Mabel at some place up on 5th Avenue, for a final farewell. It wasn’t a particularly happy get together, and mostly it involved trying to persuade her not to go off with that ‘Hibernian Madman’, Mack Sennett. Mabel fobbed it all off, and suggested we all get very, very drunk, which we did. Mabel’s contention that she would take a shortcut to stardom perplexed us just a little, until she confided that their NYMP and Biograph comedies made more money than Griffith’s or anyone else’s films. Apparently, NYMP had a mole, a spy, in the Biograph head office. Thus, Mabel left us, sadder, but still very much fighting for prominence.
A cage opens and the butterflies flutter out.
So, Mabel was gone, but we girls always eagerly awaited the latest Mabel release under the Keystone name. Like many others, I communicated with Mabel by letter at this time, and it seems that, although elated, there were times when the bleakness of her existence, out in the wild and woolly west, got to her. Edendale was a terribly boring place for a young city girl, and being cooped up with men who were either married or comparatively ancient was getting to her.
All she had was her work, and the highlight of her day was having dinner with her middle-aged producer every night. She begged us all to come out to her, but it was 1913, before I was able to do so, along with a couple of other ‘coming stars’. We had a whale of a time, and Mabel’s heated bungalow dressing room, replete with garden and bath-tub, had us squealing with delight, but also turning a little green with envy. So this was how a star lived! However, we only spent four days in L.A. , the other ten days were spent travelling on that damnable railway. Mabel was inconsolable when we left, but she had the knowledge that she was already a world-wide star. It was a case of ‘Mabel in Wonderland’ and my god, how we wished to be her.
Eventually, the inevitable happened, and, one by one, the studios began to relocate to California. Many actors and actresses left for L.A. prior to this, and as Mack later described it “The New York cages were flung open, and the butterflies fluttered out to alight on the new studios in Hollywood and elsewhere.” Inevitably, also, Mabel became the Queen of the movie colony, and she revelled in it.
A tramp happens along.
The greatest thing that happened to Mabel was not Mack Sennett, but Charlie Chaplin. This I know for sure, and they were lovers, as much as Anthony and Cleopatra were lovers. They were soul-mates, and a mirror image of each other. Both, deep down, were melancholy, and both boosted themselves up to succeed in a cruel world. Sennett had never wanted Chaplin, but Mabel was very keen on taking him in at the studio. In 1914, only Mary Pickford had seen him in real life, during 1912, but had not had the gumption to talk to him, as they hadn’t been introduced. She described him as a tousle-haired youth, who had the air of a bohemian poet about him. Mabel was enthralled, but it was she that eventually introduced him to Mary. Of course, it had not always been daises and roses between the pair, and I was in the theater that day when Mabel’s Strange Predicament was shown with Chaplin taking the long first scene, a very strange thing, considering Mabel’s name was in the title. Mabel was stunned and we all let out a gasp.
“Mabel, you’ve been had!” I foolishly blurted out. Mabel turned round to face Sennett, who was sitting at the back, and shook her fist at him, while mouthing “Yooou bastard!” We all shouted at him “Shame on you Sennett”, but he was already leaving. Mabel felt completely humiliated among her friends, but it was neither Mack nor Charlie’s fault, it was all down to the bosses back in N.Y. They’d worked out that having a girl as the studio figurehead was not a good idea, and decided Chaplin, a vaudevillian, was a better bet. Mabel steered clear of Charlie for about six weeks, but eventually the big bosses decreed that Chaplin must be admitted to Mabel’s two-reeler, Mabel At The Wheel. Both Mack and Mabel were furious, but Chaplin came anyway. Mabel told me she did not want the conceited Englisher in the film, which was a short feature with a story line about a thoroughly modern emancipated girl, and she did not want slapstick anywhere near it. Chaplin was a slapsticker, pure and simple. Mabel was determined to be the director, and banned Charlie from wearing the tramp’s outfit, and he could only do the slapstick that she accepted. To cut a long story short, Mabel stopped Chaplin from introducing various bits of silly nonsense, and Charlie, in his ignorance, not understanding the nature of the film, blew up. I have to say I agree with Mabel that slapstick is funny, but hardly suited to a Griffith-trained dramatic actress.
After several of the crew threatened to beat the limey to a pulp, for disrespecting their Queen, they packed up for the day. Ada Baumann was on the set that day (playing Mabel’s friend) and she seems to have squared everything between the studio and Baumann, who was in a mind to shut the lot down. We watched the final film downtown with Mabel, and, I can tell you, a cheering and shouting went up from the Biograph ‘old girls’ when The Keystone girl beat all the men in the Santa Monica 200 mile car race. Even Charlie was smiling, and, after that, he and Mabel were able to get on with some serious movie-making, and not a little ‘necking’ (a little odd as Chas always had a dirty ‘tide mark’ around his neck). It’s suffice to say that Mabel was never happier than when she was with Chaplin. When they weren’t stealing a company car, and heading into town for some fun, they were amusing everyone at parties. Mostly, they were in Mabel’s lovely dressing room, with Mack’s spies listening at the windows. Mabel, of course, taught Charlie everything, as he admitted to me on numerous occasions. Later he said:
“She knew more about comedy than any of us will ever know”.
However, in the films, Mabel totally dominated Charlie, and, looking at them now, Charlie looks strangely shrunken, and not a little obscure. Naturally, his slapstick was superb, and he did the world’s greatest drunk, but, being a knockabout comic, he never understood Mabel’s pursuit of the dramatic and tragic roles – her Biograph friends understood perfectly. Nonetheless, Charlie later had to take on many of Mabel’s ideas, if he was to survive beyond his Essanay period, and began to introduce a slightly higher level of melancholy into his films. I once asked Chas why he’d not taken on Mabel’s ideas in full. He replied that full-blown tragedy within comedy would not work. This lay at the heart of Chaplin’s genius – he incorporated a mere background of Mabel’s melancholy into his pictures.
During the Chaplin period at Keystone, Mabel was never happier. I really believe that she considered that she actually owned that man, in the same way that Sennett thought he owned Mabel. She did everything for him, and smothered him, again in the same way that Sennett smothered her. Trouble was afoot, however, as, for some reason, studio schedules dictated that Charlie was doing one film, while Mabel was doing another. If Mabel was at the studio, Charlie was away on location. The handiwork of Mack Sennett? Possibly, but Mabel was soon aware that he was taking leading ladies other than herself. Speaking to her at this time, I put it to Mabel that Charlie was drifting away. Mabel was unconcerned, and told me that Charlie was her property, and, under no circumstances, was he was going to ‘drift away’. Sure enough, after the hiatus, Mabel snatched the lead in a succession of Chaplin movies. Various up and coming stars were roughly pushed aside, as Mabel went on the rampage, and re-took control. I think these were the best films they made together, and Mabel reigned supreme. She was never better than in Gentlemen of Nerve, His Trysting Place and Tillie’s Punctured Romance. In two of these films she was all over Charlie, going way beyond the call of duty, so to speak. Chaplin appears genuinely embarrassed by Mabel’s attentiveness, but it seems he was also genuinely fearful for his career and even his life. Mabel was determined to escape the confines of the rat-trap that was Keystone, and Charlie was her vehicle, but in the background a dark shadow was lurking in the shape of Mack Sennett, and he was soon to rid himself of the troublesome limey, for good. I have never been able to understand why Chaplin left at the end of the year. Mabel would never speak of it, but Charlie assures me that he did not want to leave. The whole thing would be a complete mystery, if it were not for the luck of my having several opportunities to speak with Ada, who you’ll remember was the daughter of big bossman, Charlie Baumann. From working in her father’s New York office, Ada learned much about what was going on behind the scenes at Keystone. In September 1914, Baumann wrote to Sennett telling him to get going on a new contract for Chaplin. New York were prepared to pay $1,000 a week, or even a little more. In spite of this, Sennett did not reply until late November, when Baumann threatened to come out to L.A. and take over the contract discussions himself. Sennett called Charlie in to discuss the contract, and he stated that he wanted a straight $1,000 a week. Sennett lied to him and said New York were willing to pay him $500 a week, rising to $750 next year and $1,000 the year after. Charlie said he would think about it. Charlie himself filled in the rest. Sennett opened a drawer in his desk, pulled out a .45 and said “I think negotiations are over, Charlie, don’t you? You’re leaving at the end of the month.”
It’s a long way to Chicago.
Charlie, then, left at the end of 1914, and the Keystone Boy and Girl had a last, tearful dinner together. However, Chas did not relocate in L.A., but shuffled off into the sunset, in the direction of Chicago. I spoke with Mabel the next day, but she was unconcerned that her mate had distanced himself from her by 2,000 miles. “Oh he’ll soon be back, and he’ll pop up in Hollywood again, like a bad penny.” I asked her if they were intent on getting back together again. “Well Blanche, I didn’t ask him, and he didn’t ask me”. This sounded like we’d seen the last of those Charlie and Mabel films, but Mabel was surprisingly chipper. “He’ll be back, grovelling on his hands and knees, begging me to play his leading lady.” Charlie did come back within the year, but, unfortunately for everyone, he made no contact with Mabel. The reasons were clear. First, Charlie did not want to be shot. Second, Charlie, having received exemplary training from Mabel, had decided he did not need a leading lady, just a stooge, a foil. He’d never further his career while he played Mr Normand to Mabel. He took on a non-actress called Edna Purviance, but it was hard to avoid anyone around Hollywood, and very soon they ran into Mabel.
I was in a cafe downtown one day, with some friends, while Mabel was on the other side, surrounded by some admirers or suitors, when who should walk in but Charlie and Edna. As the couple took their seats, Mabel suddenly stood up, pointed at Chaplin and shouted “Charlie, I’ll be your leading lady yet!” Chaplin was stunned, and Edna looked a bit scared. Then her firm face changed and softened “Come on Charlie, nothing’s that bad, cheer up, old bean”. This was typical Mabel, take someone apart, them smile and say it was all a joke.
This ‘parrying’ went on for years, but, to all appearances they remained committed friends. When Charlie married Mildred Harris in 1918, Mabel instantly set out to befriend the child bride. Soon they they were inseparable, and Mabel became almost a third person in the marriage. Mildred, being around sixteen years of age, had a mindset similar to the twenty-seven year old Mabel. They spent much time larking about, and the threesome were much in demand at parties. In 1919, Mabel arranged a snowball party up on Mount Lowe for the Chaplins, and I think this was to cheer the couple up after the loss of a child. However, the formation that year of United Artists meant that Charlie was drifting gradually off towards the Fairbanks couple, Doug and Mary. Mabel and Charlie, nonetheless, continued on relatively friendly terms.
Post-Chaplin at Keystone.
It was after Charlie left, late 1914, that things took a turn for the worse between Mack and Mabel. Once the tramp had gone, Mack drew a definite line in the sand, and declared there’d be no more melancholic pictures, and put Mabel with Roscoe Arbuckle to do the country kid lovers series. I enjoyed those films, but they were sickly and far too lovey-dovey. Quite honestly, they were ridiculous, and Roscoe and Mabel were not happy to do them. Roscoe, like Mabel, had been a dramatic (stage) actor, which says it all.
Nevertheless, at this time, Roscoe and wife Minta were good friends with Mabel, and Mabel would go and stay with them at weekends, in their beach house in Santa Monica. It was a mere shack, and Roscoe and Mabel’s house in Fatty and Mabel Adrift was based on it. Mabel confided in me that she loved to be with her married friends, because their lives were much more serene than hers. This prompts the question, why didn’t she marry someone herself? Like me, she didn’t want that hassle, but, unlike me, she was totally a career woman, and did not want to give up a career for the kitchen sink. I eventually capitulated. Meanwhile, back at Keystone, things were hotting up. Furious rows erupted as Mabel accused Mack of holding her career back, while promoting other actresses, specifically the The Bathing Beauties. As things reached a crescendo, NYMP (now under Triangle) asked for Mabel, Roscoe and a small company to be sent to Fort Lee.
If you want to get ahead….run away!
A few of us went and saw Mabel and co. off at the rail station. It was a big event that was plugged heavily by the Triangle, who’d held a big splurge in downtown the previous night. We all got caught up in the general fever, but things were to get more exciting and mysterious. In the weeks that followed we watched the latest Roscoe and Mabels made at Keystone. Fatty and Mabel Adrift was a peach of a film, and Mabel was stunningly beautiful in it, her hair having been done by a professional stylist. Every one of us watching really believed that the pair were in love, such was their acting ability. I later put it to Mabel that perhaps there was some real flicker of love here. She went into a rage like I’d never seen before:
“Roscoe is a married man, and I do not, repeat DO NOT, associate with married men. The shock would kill my god-fearing, silver-haired mother, if she ever found out!”
Anyhow, their next film, He Did and He Didn’t, was a real shocker. Made in Fort Lee, and without any Sennett input, it showed Roscoe and Mabel as a married couple. So far so good, but then we were chilled to the bone by what came next. Turns out Mabel was a scarlet woman, and was beginning a scandalous affair with another man. She’d played man-snatching villainesses at Biograph, but she was a young girl snatching boyfriends, not husbands. She did not need, at that time, to play a true vamp. After we’d got over the shock, we realized she could not, effectively, play a true vamp – she was too virginal, too Keystone Girl sweet. To be a real vamp, one must appear an older, and more sophisticated woman, with a burning need to steal husbands. To put it in perspective I’ll repeat what Minta Durfee said of her recently:
“Mabel always looked very, very young. In fact, she looked like a schoolgirl dressed up in her mother’s clothes”
If you’re wondering, then, how she attracted men around her like flies, I’ll tell you – sheer personality, my dears, sheer personality. Mabel didn’t need the sly sideways glance of a vamp, nor the sheer nakedness of a Louise Brooks, she was only ever, just Mabel. Any nudity she indulged in, was merely meant to shock the more prudish among us.
I think it was around March 1916 that the Mabel Normand company returned – sans Mabel. Neither Roscoe or Minta would tell me where she was….they claimed they did not know. I wired her parents on Staten Island, but they said they thought she was in L.A. A couple of days later I received a wire from Mabel:
“SAFE AND WELL IN HOTEL NY CANNOT SAY WHERE
MACK HAS SPIES IN TELEGRAPH OFFICE” MABEL
Obviously, it all had to do with Mack. Strangely enough, I ran into Mack, as I went into my studio, the Griffith Reliance-Majestic, the following day. His presence there was unusual, and I assumed he was on Triangle business, Triangle being the holding company for Reliance and Keystone.
“Good morning Mr Sennett”, I said cheerily.
“Don’t good morning me, you devious little slut. Where is she?”
“Where’s who, Mr Sennett?”
“That little bitch Mabel”.
“Oh, are you looking for her? What’s happened?”
“You know very well what’s happened. The cow’s run away, that’s what’s happened!”
“Well, I hope you find her soon Mr Sennett, Good day”, I said, skipping merrily inside.
It was the following day that I saw an article in the L.A. Herald with the headline:
“Miss Mabel Normand goes to Mutual to do Chaplin films.”
Oh my god, so that’s what’s going on, she’s signed for Mutual. But to do Chaplin films, surely not? I rang Edna Purviance; there was no point ringing Charlie, as he never answered the telephone. Edna said she knew nothing of it, but would speak to Charlie next day, get an answer, then “strangle the dodgy bastard”. Soon afterwards, I received a wire from Mabel saying she’d definitely signed. At the bottom of the telegram it said c.c. Mack Sennett. There’s going to be trouble, I thought.
Trouble there most certainly was, as the combined forces of Triangle, from New York to L.A., had private dicks trying to track the runaway down. It was more than a week later that I received another wire:
“HAVE SIGNED WITH TRIANGLE ONE YEARS CONTRACT WITH MABEL NORMAND FEATURE FILM CO OWN STUDIO” MABEL
I did no more, I ran for my nearest movie neighbour, Mary Pickford, down on 7th Street. I banged frantically on the door, until the liveried Japanese butler answered. I barged in, as soon as the door swung open:
“Quick! I must see Miss Mary straight away.”
Mary appeared in the hallway:
“Blanche, whatever is it?”
“It’s Mabel” I stuttered, handing her the wire.
Mary quickly scanned the message, and looked aghast and wide-eyed at me:
“Blanche, do you know what this means? It means Mabel has taken on the biggest men in the industry, and won!”
“Oh my god, OH… MY… GOD.”
“One of our own has made it, Blanche – big time.”
Later, I thought of that little girl sitting all alone in that New York hotel room, as she plotted to conquer the known world. Would I have had the nerve, the temerity? No way.
Next day came another telegram:
“ON MY WAY HOME GET READY FOR
BIGGEST PARTY EVER” MABEL
Well we did have the biggest party ever. Just a dozen Biograph ‘old girls’ in a café downtown. As usual, any movie folk around just joined in. We noticed three moguls getting up and leaving. Mabel stood up and taunted them:
“What’s up guys, all getting too hot for you in here?”
She then broke down in hysterics:
“Just the sort of behaviour you’d expect from those damned assholes.”
The Mabel Normand Studio.
Things for most of us returned to normal, as Mabel got on with preparing her studio, down on Fountain Avenue. Things were not quite so normal for D.W. Griffith, as he jealously watched her studio grow from his office window, just across the way. We hadn’t seen Mabel for some time, so Dot Gish and I, and a couple of others, walked across to see her. We knew she was there, by the Stutz race car parked outside. I’m glad to say, Mabel was happy to see us, and got all hyper, as we walked in. The place was soon alive with silly, giggling girls, and workmen with their eyes hanging out on their stalks. One guy took particular interest in Dot’s rear, as he walked by. Mabel kicked him in the ass, then turned to us:
“You have to watch that one, likes pinching girl’s bums” She said smiling at the guy.
Thing is he smiled back.
“Do the words “in the sack” fit in here somewhere Mabe.”
“Well, he is quite good, Blanchey.”
We all burst out laughing, and then Mabel did one of her acute facial changes, and glared at me:
“I hope you’re not casting doubt on my purity, Miss Sweet.”
She continued to look at me firmly, then broke down with laughter, and we all doubled over. Then, who should arrive, but Mack Sennett. He strode up to us and said:
“Shouldn’t you girls be at work? I’m sure Mr Griffith doesn’t know you’re here. We have a rule in this industry, you stick to your studio, and we’ll stick to ours”.
“And whose studio is this?” said Mabel crossly, nodding towards the side of the enormous main stage.
We all walked over to where she’d nodded, and found some enormous signboards leaning against the wall. They read ‘The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company’. Lord help me, the letters must have been five feet high!
“You have no right here, Mr Sinnott, now please leave.”
Mabel pronounced Sinnott (Sennett’s real name) with a clipped ‘i’, so it sounded like ‘snot’. Anyhow the ‘Big Fellow’ left, and we were soon, ourselves, sprinting back to the Reliance-Majestic, before grumpy Griffith realised we were missing.
The weeks went by, and we were kept busy at the Griffith studio, where I now had a new friend, by the name of Bessie Love. Don’t laugh, Griffith gave her the name. Dotty Gish didn’t think much of Bessie, saying she was a wimp, and a crawl ass to Griffith. Dotty and Mabel could sometimes be very similar, in that they could both be deep and brooding, suspicious, paranoid, and downright rude. When the Triangle studios had a get-together at Keystone, Griffith took Bessie along, but he’d already made certain that Mabel was away at Fort Lee. Mabel had a way of taking new girls apart, especially if they were pretty, and therefore a possible threat to her. She’d have made mincemeat of Bessie. Curiously, Bessie lived around the corner from the studio, bang opposite Mabel’s studio. She told me that, one day, when she was coming home, she saw Mabel at her dressing room window. Mabel glared fiercely straight at her, then poked her tongue out at her. She was a little distressed, as she’d grown up with Mabel films, and absolutely adored her. I told her not to worry, and that Mabel did that to everyone. I advised her to return home from the direction of Sunset Boulevard, and go in through her back gate.
Weeks went by, and we did not see Mabel, but I did read she’d ‘Louis XIV’d’ the studio up, laying carpets throughout, and spending thousands on plants and flowers. Her dressing room was something to die for. Standing on the first floor in the northeastern corner, it had it’s own garden, and a balcony overlooking the main stage. Apparently, the dressing room was filled with 18th century gilded mirrors and furniture, and Mack had bought her a very expensive oriental rug. So lavishly equipped was it, that her Japanese cook could easily prepare elaborate meals for twenty-five people, right there in the dressing room(s). Were we jealous? You’re damned right we were!