MABEL’S HEROINES: HARRIET QUIMBY.

 

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Harriett Quimby is known to many people today as a flamboyant aviator, the first woman to hold a U.S. pilot’s license, and fly the English Channel. However, not many people will know that Miss Quimby was a newspaper reporter and film screenwriter, who made a whole lot of money. She only flew aircraft for about a year, before dying in an air crash. Here’s the story about how Harriet Quimby got involved with the early motion picture industry, and became a heroine to huge numbers of Edwardian girls, and especially to a young impressionable ingenue called Mabel Normand.

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A little girl with two great movie stars. Anna, Mabel and Alice.

 

Gibson Girl Heroines.

As far as Mabel is concerned, her original heroines were the older girls she worked with, modelling clothes for James Mongomery Flagg and Charles Dana Gibson. Anna Q. Nilsson and Alice Joyce, were tall, sensual young women that Mabel looked up to – literally, for Anna and Alice towered over the diminuitive Mabel by five or six inches. Alongside them Mabel looked like a schoolgirl, unsurprisingly, for she was then only fourteen years of age (in the photo above, Anna or Alice could well be Mabel’s mother). Although Anna and Alice later became huge film stars, and her admiration for them grew, Mabel’s head turned towards the new super-sportswomen whose exploits began to fill the newspapers. One of these was Harriett Quimby.

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Harriet’s Story.

Harriet had been in San Francisco from and early age, having been born in Michigan in 1875. Harriet became a journalist, writing for the San Francisco Dramatic Review, and, before leaving for New York in 1902, to become a theatre critic with Leslie’s Weekly, she became quite friendly with Linda Arvidson, the later wife of D.W. Griffith. Eventually, this friendship led to Mabel becoming acquainted with Harriet. By 1906, Harriet had become fascinated with the automobile, as well as travel and many other things, and described in an article, her 100 mph ride in a car race. It was a little after this time that a visit by Harriet to the Griffith household occurred, which Mrs Griffith recorded in her book When The Movies Were Young (1925).

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Harriet( R) in civvies.

By this time the intrepid Harriet had many money-making irons in the fire. One of her schemes involved writing publicity material for ‘The Oriental Hotel’ at Manhattan Beach, which entitled her to summer at the hotel free of charge. It was on her way to the hotel that she called in on the destitute Griffiths at their modest menage. She arrived with several admiring men in tow, driving an expensive Pierce-Arrow car. Miss Quimby was dressed in the most exquisite of Paris fashions, and was a picture of feminine beauty, beautiful enough to cause even Pearl White to eat her heart out. When the wealthy beauty left, D.W. slumped into a chair, sadly observing “She’s a success”. A few years later, ‘tis said that he said something similar, when he saw the name ‘Mabel Normand’ go up on the new studio opposite his own Reliance-Majestic studio in East Hollywood. We might suspect though, that he actually said “My God, the cow’s a success.” They’d never seen eye to eye.

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By 1909, D.W. Griffith was director at Biograph, into whose hallowed ballroom had also come the Staten Island girl, Mabel Normand. By this time, also, came, at irregular times, the rising journalistic celebrity, Harriet Quimby. She’d written several scripts for Biograph, and Griffith considered she should be allowed to act in one of his films. Harriet was given the part of a fisher woman in the film Lines of White on a Sullen Sea.   

 

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Harriet Quimby in Lines of White on a Sullen Sea.

Mack Sennett Gets an Idea.

Harriet would have caused quite a stir among the Biograph actors and actresses at the studio, and one was, undoubtedly, Mabel who did not just wish to worship her, but emulate her, and actually be her. One actor greatly interested in Harriet, was the clowning bufoon, Mack Sennett. He watched her intently, noting how she moved, spoke and acted, trying to get a handle on her popularity.

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It is likely that Mabel was one of the 20,000 spectators, when Harriet Quimby made her professional aviator debut, with a moonlight flight over Staten Island on the night of Sept. 5th, 1911. Harriet had obtained her licence, and Mabel made her mind up, she was going to be an intrepid girl in a flying machine, but also a swimming sensation, as well as every other kind of sensation there was. There were many ‘sensations’ to choose from, for a girl in the new emancipated era. All she needed was someone to tell her how to bring it all together. Mack Sennett was in the wings, and sprang out at the appropriate moment, to coach Mabel in the new art he’d formulated, in which a ‘super’ girl would come into existence, that was adorable, sweet and lovely, but could not be cowed by the even most fearsome bucking bronco, would swim with the fishes, and out-dive a pelican. She’d wear the latest Parisian fashions, glide around like an angel, but would handle a gun like the best of cowboys. She’d exude as much sex as was possible in the Edwardian era, but would remain an innocent ingenue, as pure as the driven snow. Impossible? Not to Mack Sennett, the coming King of Comedy, master of illusion, and chief wizard of smoke and mirrors.

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Mabel Normand, sweet and lovely, with Mack Sennett.

By 1912 Mack was all set to go. After persuading Mabel to drop her dramatic and tragedienne career, which had been predicted to become astounding, Mack brought her into the new Biograph comedies, where she played the lovable, but fickle young girl who would later be colloquially known as ‘Mabel’. Mabel began to daredevil in The Diving Girl and a aviation film called A Dash Through The Clouds. When the pair left to found Keystone, layer upon layer was added by degrees to the Keystone Girl’s already burgeoning persona.

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Miss Quimby makes up before flying the English Channel A scene repeated by Mabel Normand before the motor race in Mabel At The Wheel 1914

An Intrepid Girl over The White Cliffs of Dover.

While Mabel was making her first comedy films with Biograph under Mack’s direction, Harriett was heading for England, where she had an appointment with a green field in Dover and a Bleriot aircraft. The date was April 12th 1912. Attended by Linda Griffith, wife of the Great Griffith, Harriet boarded the plane, and took off for France. She landed in Calais 59 minutes later, averaged around 30 mph for the trip, and became the first woman to fly the English Channel. Harriet was a hero – until news came that the RMS Titanic had sunk. However, Harriet’s feat was enough to make Mack and Mabel consider their own flying film with Mabel as the daring young lady in a flying machine. A Dash Through The Clouds was released in August 22nd 1912, and Mabel was billed as the first girl to go aloft in a flying machine. Total nonsense, of course, but Mabel was probably the first girl to fire a gun from a plane.

 

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First girl to fire a gun from an aircraft. A Dash Through The Clouds.

The End.

It was while making A Dash that, on July 1st 1912, there came the shock news that Harriet had died while flying her new Bleriot plane. She’d been trying to complete a highly dangerous outside loop, or bunt, maneuver, when the aircraft nose dropped, and Harriet’s passenger was ejected from the aircraft. This caused the nose to drop further, so that Harriet, who was wearing an apparently loose safety harness, was ejected soon after. Harriet and her passenger fell more than 1,000 feet into Boston Harbour, and died instantly. The aircraft levelled itself, and almost made a perfect un-piloted landing. When Mabel died in 1930, she was exactly the same age as Harriet Quimby.

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Harriet’s lifeless body is recovered from the harbour.

 

It isn’t known what Mabel’s thoughts were about the events of that fateful day. However, the King of Comedy would have been grateful for the evidence of the great risks his star-of-stars was taking. Mack and Mabel were being ‘bigged up’.

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The Bleriot almost lands itself.

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Mabel:  A magnificent girl in a flying machine.

 

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MABEL’S FILMS: THE GUSHER 12/15/1913.

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Nodding donkeys in California.

This article concerns one particular Keystone film that represents the end of the nascent period of Keystone comedy development, and that of Mabel Normand. Unfortunately, it also marks the end of Ford Sterling’s run at the top of the comedy tree, his place being taken by none other than Charles Spencer Chaplin. In this blog the film will be taken scene by scene, and we shall see if there is anything we can learn from the apparent chaos.

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Soon to walk through the gate, was this guy.

The Gusher was a film released in mid-December 1913, when the concept of the ‘Keystone Girl’ was just about fully developed. The Gusher aptly demonstrates how Sennett had perceived ‘his girl’ from the very beginning. Mabel, of course, already had many of the attributes of The Keystone Girl, but Sennett cherry-picked the characteristics that he required. If we wish to be technical, we can catalogue Mabel’s real-life attributes as follows: Cute, irreverent, sarcastic, vivacious, passionate, fun-loving, melancholy, generous, scatter-witted, brooding, scheming, and, sometimes, lewd. In other words, Mabel was a curious mix of personality traits, and was truly multi-faceted. Sennett had to make certain that only the features of Mabel’s personality that audiences would love and cherish, came to the fore. Mabel could be as cute as she liked, but irreverence and sarcasm had to be pushed slightly to the background. Her passion had to be controlled, and she couldn’t be too vivacious. Her natural generosity could not be used, although being scatter-witted would help her cause. A certain amount of melancholy could be allowed, while scheming and brooding had to be curtailed, although Sennett allowed her to brood briefly (for a split second) in each film. In general, her innocence and naivety, should always be unassailable; this girl had never even been kissed, let alone been courted among the bushes.

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Mabel, Charles Inslee and a very big bow. The Gusher 1913.

The Gusher is just about the epitome of the Keystone Girl, but when it was completed, Charlie Chaplin was about to walk through the gate, Mabel began to kick against the traces. She’d had almost 2 years of being Sennett’s Girl, and now she wanted to be ‘Mabel’s Girl’.  When she’d embarked on her career in comedy, she’d been a respected dramatic actress and tragedienne, and the toast of the company at Biograph. Now she felt like Sennett’s dupe, and slightly idiotic. Her old actress friends, who adored her, congratulated her on her films, but Mabel knew she was under-achieving. A rift was developing between Mack and Mabel, as his Keystone Girl began to push for more melancholy and dramatic effect in her films. The problem was that Mack was clear in his mind that full scale melancholy and pathos would not work in a comedy. However, new types of films were envisioned, with better story-lines, rather than mere situations, and a little pathos. This would not be achieved until Mabel At The Wheel in April 1914.

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New story-based films on the horizon, with Mabel as the hero(ine). Mabel At The Wheel.

What then of The Gusher. There is little in the way of story-line in this picture, and, as usual, Mabel is the hub around which all the action occurred. The important thing was Mabel’s reaction to everything going on. The story is the usual one of girl meets boy (or, in this case, middle-aged man) whereupon a spurned villain muscles in. In Mabel films the spurned villain either ties Mabel to a rail track, or barrel of gunpowder, or, in this film, sets fire to the boyfriend’s oil well. Mabel first appears as a little girl of uncertain years (as usual) with a giant bow in her hair.

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Mabel tries to blow out the fuse on the gunpowder barrel that Ford Sterling has tied her to.

Such things were necessary, as anyone will notice that, in her early films, Mabel was buxom, with a hips, posterior and chest that was definitely not of a young ingenue. In earlier Biograph and Keystone comedies Mabel had actually had her bosom ‘strapped down’ (She was, as they say, ‘a perfect 36’). Mabel acts nonchalant towards the villain that wants to marry her (also as usual), and he stalks off. The villain was Charles Inslee, often confused with Ford Sterling, who played Mabel’s chosen boyfriend in this film. When Mabel’s other suitor happens along she is only a little nonchalant towards him (this can only be expected from a girl who already had millions of fans around the world). Mabel feigns disinterest, but goes off with Ford to, of all places, an oil field. Why an oil field? Simply because Keystone had a wildcat oil well fire film on file, and they wanted to use it. Note that, as Ford and Mabel go off (at a run as usual) Mabel has a little hop and skip in her step. This is all part of the Sennett plan to get people wondering about the uncertain age of his star. “Well, she looks like a young woman, but perhaps she really is a schoolgirl.” Many years later Louise Fazenda was to reveal that Sennett intensively trained his actresses to walk and run in a slightly immature manner (Mack Sennett: This Is Your Life 1954).

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Mabel the hop-skip girl.

Arriving at the oil field Ford begins to tell Mabel the benefits of owning an oil well, in his own inimitable ‘Dutch’ way. Mabel, also in her inimitable way, responds with delight, but instantly becomes tearful, then, just as quickly, returns to ‘jumping and jerking’ excitement. The essence of the Keystone girl was the way she could instantly change facial expressions, in a style that was both believable and natural, but also somewhat immature. Audiences became convinced that, somewhere out in the world, there really was a Keystone Girl, although, in reality, she only existed in Mack Sennett’s fertile mind.

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Mabel seems to fall for Ford’s spiel, then throws a tantrum.

Naturally, as in all Sennett films the villain appears, this time throwing crude oil on the ground, and putting up a sign saying “Oil property for sale.” Ford and Mabel fall for the scam, and Ford runs off to find the owner. He leaves Mabel holding a .45 revolver, to fend off any other prospective buyers. She holds the gun in a limp-wristed manner, although evidence suggests she was actually a very good shot (See Footnote) . Mabel sees off all opposition, as Ford pays over the money. ‘He’s an oil tycoon!’. Unfortunately not, for one of the villain’s accomplices, informs the happy couple that they’ve been conned.

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Mabel gets tough.

The distraught couple return to the the well, where the villain reappears and tries to snatch our Keystone damsel, as Ford leaves to find the him. Fortunately, Ford just happens to have a lump of wood in his hands, and knocks the crook out when he returns. Then, the fake oil well blows – it’s a real well, a gusher! Ford is over the moon, and Mabel gets all hyperactive again. So, it is time for Ford to marry his ingenue. As in real life, Mabel is unsure about this. She may be scatter-brained, but she knows she’s signing up for a virtual prison sentence. When the real Mabel finally married, she refused to consummate the marriage – indeed, she refused to let her ‘husband’ into her house. The real-life Mabel was even stranger than the virtual Mabel of the screen.

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“It’s a gusher!”

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Oh dear, looks like Mabel doesn’t want to get married.

Anyhow the wedding goes ahead, regardless of a another tantrum thrown by the reluctant bride. Mabel soon capitulates, when the groom presents her with flowers and a ‘sparkler’ (so like the real Mabel). As the festivities proceed, however, the villain seizes his chance and chucks a match into the wildcat oil well. The whole lot goes up into a boiling, flaming mushroom cloud. When the blissful couple find out they go crazy, and run to the well, where Mabel goes into full-blown ADHD mode.

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Next time the bitch gets chained to the railway track.

By this point Mack has a complete reel of film (11 minutes) but he needs more to ensure the villain gets his just deserts. He throws everything in his armoury at the scene, Mabel doing her best manic actions, and Ford in a big crazy fight with the villain. It’s still not enough, so Mack calls in his secret weapon, The Keystone cops. The cops steam in with predictable results, and Ford, who has got hold of the villain’s pistol, is firing wildly everywhere, especially at the cops. Mack isn’t finished with Mabel yet either, and gets her doing her trademark gnawing at the villain’s hand (Mabel had the biggest gnashers in the business). Then, he brings in the wind. Now, everyone knows that L.A. is known for light winds, averaging 6 miles per hour, but when Mack turns on his four enormous electric fans, it blows at 20, 25 and even 30 miles per hour. Of course, with a huge oil fire going,, there will be wind, but it’s noticeable that, in Keystones, the wind often blows strong, even in indoor scenes (e.g. That Ragtime Band).

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A windswept Mabel gnaws a villain’s hand off.

More noticeable was the fact that Mabel was always around when the wind was blowing. The inference is that it made her dress billow, and blow between her legs, which was as erotic as Mack could show in 1913. It was reported that sometimes the dress blew up over her head, but you will look for this in vain in the films – what was good for Marilyn Monroe was not good for Edwardian Mabel, and Edwardian family audiences.

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“Look out! He’s behind you!”

Verdict on The Gusher.

To modern audiences this film looks like a very simplistic and silly attempt at being funny. However, for the time, the quality is good, and it is not technically simplistic. Mack Sennett liked to say his films depended on the natural ability of his actors, and he only spent peanuts making them. The evidence from those that watched them being made, suggests otherwise. $1,000 was not enough to make most one-reelers, as Sennett implied. One reason was that multiple takes were made of scenes. If a scene was no good, it never saw the light of day. Clearly, this film did not require the Keystone cops sequence at the end. So why were the cops there? Simple, films were sold by the foot, and if they could extend a film by a few hundred feet, then so much the better. However, the movie-theater owners would be watching the audience, to see if they laughed to the very end. If they did, then the extra film was worth the price. Of course, these days we’re missing the trick somewhat, and don’t understand that 1900s audiences paid for movement, and they expected plenty of it. This was the early days of the moving picture, and people went to cinemas to see action, not dead wood standing about.

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Poor quality, but it’s clearly blowing a gale in the Ragtime Band house, and it seems Mabel’s wearing the same clingy satin dress as in The Gusher. Titillating? Not today, but back in 1913….

 

After seeing this picture the audience would have truly though they’d had their seven cents worth, regardless of what the pompous reviewers said. The ploy of  bringing in the cops at the end of  a film is an old Keystone trick that was even brought into play for Tillie’s Punctured Romance – a full-blown feature. From January 1914, Mabel began her agitation for pictures with better story lines and less slapstick. As already stated above, she achieved that by the time of Mabel At The Wheel, despite the attempts by gagster Charlie Chaplin to throw a spanner in the works. Chaplin tried to portray himself, in his autobiography, as a competent actor with a huge knowledge of motion picture technique. In reality, he was just a funny man from the English Music Hall. So there you have it, one of the last few Keystones showing Mabel, as a crazy, half-witted ingenue. During 1914 the ‘Mabels’ acquired more story line and pathos, with the support of Charlie Chaplin, himself supported by those bosses of all bosses, Kessell and Baumann. To complete the story, Sennett called a halt to pathos, as Chaplin walked out of the gate. In 1915, pathos was mostly outlawed, and replaced by sickly puppy-love scenes with Roscoe Arbuckle. No wonder Mabel went crazy, and eventually, as Mack Sennett told it, ‘ran away’.

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Gazing into those eyes. Valentino and Nazimova.

Footnote: It is known that Mabel  regularly went shooting and horse-riding with Mack Sennett, so it is reasonable to assume that she became a fairly good shot. However, this would be for close up shooting only, for it seems Mabel had, like her mother, extremely poor eyesight. Some people have maintained that her dreamy, ‘suck you in’ eyes were due to her vision being particularly bad, and this might explain why she had problems finding her ‘mark’ on the set. Want to know something? Valentino had those hypnotic eyes too – he was also as blind as a bat.

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MY MOTHER AND I, BY MABEL NORMAND.

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Mabel aged 8 with her father. There is no extant picture of Mabel with her mother.

Many of you will be surprised to learn that I have a mother. Well I do have a mother, and she lives on Staten Island, but has never been a ‘stage mother’. Why? It’s because I hate mothers who fuss over their daughters, and act as their managers and chaperones. I’ve never had a chaperone in my whole life, and I never would. I used to mock those silly little girls at Biograph, whose only words were “Yes mother, no mother.” Jack and Lottie Pickford had a stage mother – their sister Gladys (or Mary as you might know her). Can you imagine, a little ingenue with golden curls, giving you orders? Of course, Jack, and  Lottie, aided by Blanche Sweet (who had a stage mother and aunt) used to counter by saying I had a ‘stage father’ – Mack Sennett. This is true, but at least he was man.

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Jack and Lottie Pickford.

I’ll remind you that I was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and everyone in the neighbourhood, came around to see Mrs Normand’s beautiful daughter, with the two-inch eyelashes (actually they’re only a half-inch long – I’ve measured them). We soon moved to Staten Island where my father had a job as entertainments chief at the Snug Harbour Sailor’s home. I was a strange child, who always glared hard at visitors, and bit their fingers, if they dared tweak my hamster cheeks. As I grew up I became more resentful of people, which greatly upset my mother. Dad simply adored me, and told her that I would grow out of it. I didn’t. When I first went to school, the teacher led me by the hand into the building. I went to escape, and when teacher tried to restrain me, I gnawed at her hand until she let go. Her screams brought the other staff running, and they chased me all over the building. I remained loose until it was time to go home.

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Mabel had her short-lived schooling here.

This went on every day for a week, until the school mistress came around, and told mother they wouldn’t have me at the school anymore. Mother broke down sobbing – what would the neighbours think? To her it was the end of the world. Dad turned to the mistress and said “Now you get the fuck outta here, and don’t you dare put my daughter down again!” He shoved her through the door, then shouted “And don’t fucking come back!” Mother completely broke down, and my eyes welled up with tears. I looked at her with my big doleful eyes and said “Mother, I’m so, so sorry.” And I was, but the problems continued. Years later, I remembered this, and put it into the scene in Mickey, where my guardian, ‘Pops’ Nichols, sends me away.

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George ‘Pops’ Nichols is about to send Mabel away.

A few days later, a man came from the School Commission, and made my parents sign an affidavit stating they’d educate me for fourteen weeks a year, on the pain of jail if they failed. Anyhow, mother taught me to read, and father taught me to play the piano. During the day, I drew, painted and wrote soppy love poems. As I grew older, I began wandering the island, swimming and diving in the Hudson river, like some lonesome Huckleberry Finn. Eventually, I began wandering further afield, and caught the ferry to Manhattan, where I roamed the Lower East Side. I felt at home there, watching the street vendors at work, and the gaily painted tarts on the street corners. The police picked me up on numerous occasions, and had to carry me back to Staten Island, kicking and screaming. In the end, the cops warned that, if they picked me up again, I’d be put into a reformatory, and my parents would be prosecuted. My poor parents were at their wits end, and I used to hear them arguing about me at night. Mother said I was going to become a loose woman. Father would say:

“She’s got the wanderlust that’s all – it’s in her, and it’s got to come out.”

 

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Daredevil Mabel prepares for a 50 foot dive in The Diving Girl, 1911.

Then one night, I heard them mumbling something about the priest. I had no idea what it was all about, but the next day our local priest turned up. We all sat down with him, and he turned to me and said “Your parents want you to go into a convent Mabel.” I thought “Convent, nuns, no fucking chance.” The good father calmed me down telling me it was to get me an education. I wasn’t stupid, I’d heard mother and father talking about correction, and I’d heard that bad girls were sent to convents, not to be educated, but to be corrected! About twenty minutes later, two nuns arrived from The Mary Magdalen Convent, in upstate New York. After a tearful goodbye, they took me outside and put me into a carriage. I began to lash out at them, but they fought me hard, and one of them, in a strong Irish accent, told me:

 “Behave yerself bitch, or we’ll feckin’ drown yer in der Hudson.”

Nuns swearing, I couldn’t believe it, but it wasn’t long before they produced cigarettes and started smoking them. On the way upstate one of the ‘sisters’ kept grabbing my arm and squeezing it – hard. When I complained, she said:

 “We’re gonna kill yer, yer little cow, stretch yer out on a rail track and let a train cut you into three pieces.”

“Oh Yeah… just try it!” I replied.

To be brief, I was at the convent for two years, where I slaved in the laundry from dawn till dusk. The nuns did despicable things to us, and kept ranting that we’d all go to hell for our ‘crimes’. They kept calling us whores and prostitutes, but only two girls there had been ‘on the street’. The rest, mostly Irish girls, were simply beyond their parent’s control. However, they really were ‘bad’ girls, and taught me bad things, like dirty stories and songs, and talked about downing bottles of whisky, and becoming gangster’s molls when they got out. I eventually got out, when I became too sick to work. My father took me home, where I spent three months in bed, recovering. At one time they called a doctor out, who pronounced that I was suffering from tuberculosis. I heard him whisper

“She’ll either die, or make some sort of recovery, but she’ll always be an invalid.”

I thought “Invalid, no fucking way!”

I’d recover, get fit and be a champion sportswoman. I did recover, to some extent, and mother sent me off to New York to apply for a job at The Triangle Waist Shirt factory. Fortunately, my aunt stepped in, and said if I went there, the airborne cotton would kill me in double quick time. A few years later, the factory burned down, and 146 girls were killed. Instead I was sent to a department store to be a clothes pattern packer.

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146 died in the 1911 Shirtwaist fire, including these girls, who jumped from the windows.

At the store I saw pictures of beautiful girls wearing beautiful clothes, and asked who they were. The manageress told me they were girls who modelled the store’s clothes. The pictures were paintings by the great artist Montgomery Flagg. Straight away I said “That’s what I want to be – a model”. The woman looked at me, and said “You know what, you could be a model, you’re beautiful.. I’ll ring Mr. Flagg now.” Twenty minutes later I was in Flagg’s studio. He told me he’d hire me for three mornings a week at $1.50 a session. That was good money, but it amounted to only $4.50 a week. He rang around and got me hired by other artists including Charles Dana Gibson, of Gibson Girl fame.

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Mabel Normand, Gibson Girl.

Yes, I hate to admit it, but I was a Gibson Girl. When I got home, mother asked me how the pattern packing had gone. I told her they’d given me a modelling job.

“Modelling! Oh, my God, did you hear that Claude, she’s posing in the altogether for artists” She said, looking over at dad.

 “No she isn’t mother, she’s modelling clothes. Yeah, good on yer girl, no daughter of mine packs shit in a dingy basement.”

I carried on modelling for over two years and made some good friends at the studios. You might know a couple of them – Anna Q. Nilsonn and Alice Joyce. They’re huge movie stars now – I was in awe of them then, and still am today. Anyhow, Alice got work at the Kalem movie studios, and told me to go along. Kalem took me on as an extra. I was dressed up as a red Indian, and got chased up mountains, and chased down again by cowboys for the next few days. However, talking to one of the actors during a break, I was told I wouldn’t get far at Kalem. They employed only tall actresses, who looked like real women. “Sorry Mabel, but you look like a child.” He was right, I was almost seventeen, but looked about twelve.

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Mabel plays an Indian in Griffith’s The Squaw’s Love.

Eventually, I wandered into the Biograph studios, at 11 East Fourteenth Street. Someone grabbed me and sat me in a dressing room to await inspection by the great Griffith. I sat there a while, and then just as I was about to run, a girl with a mass of golden curls put her head through the door, looked hard at me and ran off. Moments later I heard voices coming closer, the girl was pushing a tall man with a hooked nose towards me.

“That’s her Mr. Griffith” The girl said “See, she’s got two-inch eyelashes.”

The man held out his hand and said:

“Hello, I’m Mr. Griffith, the director down here. I take it you want to be an actress.”

“Er, er, yes please Mr Griffith”.

“Good, can you start straight away. I’ve got a part for you.”

“Well, er, yes” I replied.

The girl of course was Gladys Smith, or Mary Pickford, as you might know her. Whenever I meet Gladys, we always laugh about my first day. However, she was not doing me any favours, the part involved wearing tights, and she didn’t want to do it. I’ve never been so embarrassed in all my life. I was page to a queen, played by the world’s first film star, Florence Lawrence.

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Embarrassed page girl, Mabel.

It’s strange to think that less than three years later, I’d eclipsed Florence, and replaced her as the biggest star of the movies. How odd is that? Anyhow I was cringing in my tights on the set, especially as a big, thick-necked Irishman kept grinning at me. His name was Mack Sennett. We did a huge number of takes, and I didn’t get home until one in the morning. My parents were waiting up, and my mother went for me.

“I knew you’d end up a whore in the end!” She screamed.

(Back in the day, good girls were tucked up in bed by 8 o’clock).

Dad cut in “Let her speak, for god’s sake.”

“I worked late and made ten dollars” I stammered.

“And exactly how did you make it, my girl?” She screamed, as she snatched the ten dollars.

“Working in the movies” I calmly said.

“The movies! Oh my god”

She put her hand to her head, and began to fall backwards, and was caught by father. He fanned her with his hand, as she kept repeating:

“I knew it, she’s a harlot!”

Father put her on the couch, and turned to me saying:

“Go on Mabel, get to bed, I’ll look after her.”

I went upstairs and cried myself to sleep. Next day, mother was nowhere to be seen – dad had given her a sedative, and put her to bed. Dad implored me not to go back to the studio, as the shame and shock would kill mother. I did as he said and went back to modelling.

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A chance meeting here changed the course of movie history. 5th Avenue, New York , 1910.

It was about two weeks later that I wandered down to 5th Avenue in my lunch break, looking to get a milk shake. As I went to enter the milk bar, I found myself confronted by Mack Sennett and Dell Henderson, both staring at me with arms akimbo.

“And where have you been young lady, Mr Griffith’s been looking for you all over town” Enquired a grinning Mack.

“Oh… why’s that?”

“Why’s that?” replied Mack “It’s because we had only half finished the scene, and, as you didn’t come back, we had to scrap the whole lot”

Mack and Dell bought me a milkshake (the only thing he was ever to buy a girl) and I explained that mother was the problem. Mack thought we should go to the studio and explain everything to Griffith. This terrified me a bit, as Griffith was just about the God of the Movies. Anyhow we went back to 11 East 14th Street, and Mack gave him the story. Now Griffith always visited the parents when there was a problem, but he was busy every evening that week, so Mack volunteered to go with me to Staten Island. I was dubious, but then a woman of about fifty stepped forward, and volunteered to come as well. She turned to me and said:

“Hello, I’m Kate, Kate Bruce”

Oh my god, I thought, Kate Bruce of theatrical fame, my mother loved her shows many years back. In the event, Mack and Brucie (as everyone called her) made a good impression on mother, and I was allowed to return to Biograph. ‘Brucie’, incidentally acted as surrogate mother to the studio girls, especially Lillian Gish, who was, as we say, ‘a bit wet behind the ears’. Mother was much bowled over by Mack and Brucie, and, as the latter promised to be my chaperone, an agreement was reached. However, I resented being chaperoned, and Brucie soon found herself side-lined by the impossible Mabel.

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‘Brucie’ (2nd left) with Lillian Gish in Way Down East.

I got on reasonably well with my mother for the next few years. I made sure I did not get home too early, and always claimed I had worked late. In fact, I dawdled home via the Lower East Side, so I could get some idea of ‘real’ people. If mother knew I walked to the ferry terminal, instead of jumping the subway she’d have had a fit. Mother hated the city, and I think she only went to Manhattan once, and it scared her to death. Various neighbours and my sister brought it to my attention that mother thought I was doing some ‘whoring’ on the side – a common practice among actresses. I can honestly say that, although I’ve had liasions dangereuses with dozens of men, I’ve never charged for my services. Naturally mother and I became very suspicious of each other.

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Sandwich time out west, 1911. Mack Sennett (Left) Vivian Prescott (Center).

The history books tell that, in summer 1912, Mack, myself and several others signed up for the new Keystone Company. What the books do not tell is that it was very awkward for me to get away to L.A. when the time came. Respectable girls just did not go off to the other side of the country, especially with five middle-aged men! Another problem was that I always gave most of my pay to my mother, but this was going to be difficult from California. I spoke to Mack about the difficulties. He came up with the answers. Firstly, I could wire money to mother from L.A. Secondly, Mack and I would get engaged, or pretend to get engaged, and on top of that we would get a reliable woman to be my chaperone. A few evenings later, Mack, I, and an actress named Vivian Prescott, set off for my home on Staten Island. On the ferry we rehearsed everything. We would enter the house beaming broadly, and Mack would ask my parents for my hand. Vivian would intercede and say we’d make a lovely couple. Fortunately, Mack was Irish-Canadian Catholic and Vivian was Italian Catholic, and a famous stage actress to boot. My Catholic mother approved.  Once that was out of the way, Mack put a cheap diamond ring on my finger, and we were betrothed. After a few minutes, Vivian told mother that all three of us were departing for California at the end of the week, but that she’d offered to be my chaperone. We’d be gone, she said, for three months. There were two lies here. One was that Vivian was not going with us, and the other was that we were going away forever.

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“So long suckers!”

A week later and Mack, Fred Mace, Ford Sterling, ‘Pathe’ Lehrman and a cameraman, with me in tow, boarded the Santa Fe train. As I have related in previous articles we made an incongruous group – five middle-aged men and an apparently twelve-year old girl, travelling sleeper class. The press have quizzed me down the years about the sleeping arrangements on that trip, but I have always refused to talk on that subject. “Use your imagination” I would say while smiling sweetly.

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“I’ll have you locked up, you..you slut!”

The fact is, I slept in a compartment with Mack. Don’t get the wrong idea, the berths were one on top of another, bunk style, and you couldn’t get two dwarfs together in one. Of course the middle-class, plug-hatted men and old maids looked at us accusingly. One particular day I was walking past a compartment, where two old spinsters sat, glaring at me with disdain. I poked my tongue out at them and blew them a raspberry. One of the old biddies jumped up and threw the door open to be met with:

“What’s up dearie, never seen a white slave girl before?”

“You filthy little slut, I’m going to call the police at the next stop!”

I laughed in her face, and dismissed the silly old hag with a wave of my hand.

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Mabel blows a raspberry, while an approving  Charlie Chaplin looks on.

When Mack heard, he got worried, mumbling something about the Mann Act. While we might have been dragged to court, the letter we had from my parents would have got us out of the unpleasant fix.

Out in L.A. I was over the moon to be free of my parents. Our bosses wired our pay over from New York, and dutifully sent my family their share every Saturday, even though I often received nothing. The first two years were manic, and I was usually exhausted by the end of the day. My childhood tuberculosis had returned, and I was often on the verge of collapse.  Don’t believe the stories that Mack and I had a little love nest –  we stayed in different hotels. Mack, I can tell you, was bi-sexual, and I can count the number of times we had sex on the fingers of one hand. In any case, what man would want to make mad passionate love to a limp rag doll –  such was my condition by the end of the day.  I managed  to write home once a week, making up stories about my life in the Golden State. Mother read between the lines, but dad wrote back that he’d heard all about the wonderful life out west, and he was thinking of moving everybody over to California. I stalled him as much as possible, but by 1919 he was more than ready to make the jump. On the advice of my then employer, Sam Goldwyn, I spent $20,000 on a house in Staten Island, to keep my parents there. The house was a story in itself. I asked mother what type of house she’d like. She said she didn’t want anything modern, and Gothic style with lovely ‘damsel in distress’ turrets would suit fine. Oh my god, how could I find that! I consulted Sam, who said he’d used a top architect for his new house in New York, and he suggested I engage him. Of course, Sam was always right about everything, so I did just that. The house turned out, to mother’s delight, to be a fairy-tale castle (or witches’ house as I called it). That darned architect sent me a bill for $5,000! I think  the architect and Sam Goldwyn shared it between them, but it served the purpose of keeping my parents out of my life.

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 Left: Spooky Staten Island house. Right: Mabel, a damsel in distress, swings from a turret in L.A. and not a knight in shining  armour to be seen anywhere (Mickey 1918).

I went to L.A. in 1912, but it was 1914 before I got to travel back to the east coast. I travelled alone, which was a big mistake. I had no muscular Irish-Canadian to help me when reporters and Mayoral representatives besieged the train. In Chicago the Mayor and his party dragged me from my carriage, and tried to parade me through the town to an honorary function. I told the Mayor my mother was very sick, and I could not miss the train. I invited him and his wife into my carriage for a chat. By the time I got to New York my nerves were completely frayed. I moved in to a friend’s apartment on 125th Street, and I wasn’t there long before the phone rang. It was father on the end of the line, asking what time I’d be ‘home’. I told him I’d had it, and I’d be over at mid-day tomorrow. ‘Had it’ or not, me and my friend hit the town that night. I went crazy, I must admit, this town was buzzing, and so different to L.A. in the 1910s, where all there was to do was sleep, and drink yourself into oblivion. It was in a night spot in New York that the famous ‘handbag’ incident occurred. My friend, a huge film star who’ll remain nameless, and I were a little worse for drink, and acting a little silly.  A middle-aged woman, upset that two young floozies were about town without escorts, screamed abuse at my friend, then swung her handbag, later to be found full of silver dollars, at her head. My friend was knocked senseless, but that old crab had made a big mistake, by messing with The Keystone Girl. I snatched the bag from her, and would have beaten her to a bloody mess, if they hadn’t managed to pull me off.  Apparently, the women there thought we were after stealing their husbands. Lord save me, the best-looking one was a mirror image of Chester Conklin!

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 Charlie Chaplin is confronted by Hollywood heart-throb Chester Conklin.

The next day, I arrived at the Staten Island ferry terminal at two in the afternoon, late as usual. My heart sank when I saw a huge banner on the quayside, bearing the words:

‘Staten Island welcomes Mabel Normand home’.

Oh no, here we go again, I thought. Sure enough, the Mayor and his entourage were there to honor me and carry me home. I was greeted by his worship, and placed in the mayoral car. Instead of driving straight to the house, I was driven all around New Brighton, where the streets were lined with cheering crowds. There were cries of ‘You’re our darling Mabel!’, while others screamed ‘Good on yah gal’ and made strange long overarm motions. At my parent’s house I fought my way inside and struggled through the door with huge bouquets of flowers.  I immediately collapsed into a chair, allowing the flowers to drop to the floor. My sister, Gladys, scurried around picking them up. Everyone gave me a welcome hug, then dad stood back and opened a newspaper. The headlines read: 

‘Sennett’s girl intervenes in teen attack by drunken woman.’

The account labelled me as a hero. The paper said Charlie Baumann had told reporters that a girl, not known to his star, had been knocked unconscious by a drink-crazed woman and that I, being a heroine, flew to her aid and knocked the attacker out. Apparently, I was being escorted by an NYMP executive that I’d never heard of. Of course, Baumann wasn’t there, but he, Kessell and Sennett could think quickly on their feet; that’s why they were so successful. I asked dad what all the mayor business was about. He told me there was a battle going on for possession of my body between Staten Island and Rhode Island. 

“Yeah Mabel”, said Gladys “They’re crazy for you on Rhode Island.”

“Right, and I suppose you’ve heard from the Mayor of  Providence”

Dad interjected “S’funny you should say that baby (as he called me) they’ve asked that you attend some honorary dinner or something.”

“I’m going to be a film star” said Gladys, “So everyone will invite me to parties and stuff”.

“Don’t bother Glad, it really isn’t worth it.”

Then mother opened up “You stay away from the movies Gladys, we’ve got enough trouble already with your sister.”

Mother, mother, aren’t you proud of your daughter.” said dad.

“I would be father, if she were a concert pianist or a writer, or an artist. Instead, she’s gallivanting around a screen letting people like that Chaplin guy lift her skirts.”

“Mother that was just a film.”

“I don’t care it’s disgusting, and if you have to fall over in films, keep your legs together, everyone can see your bloomers.”

I didn’t dare tell her that I never wore underwear when working. Out in California it is simply too hot, and pants of any sort would keep the heat well and truly in. Given my line of energetic work, I’d soon pass out. If the camera picked up anything it shouldn’t, Mack would just draw in bloomers on the negative. Of course there is nothing more funny than a girl falling on her back, with her flailing legs sticking out of her skirt. It is by no means erotic.

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Anita Garvin demonstrates the comedy of women’s legs after falling through a car roof in Mabel’s Raggedy Rose 1926.

As you can see my relationship with my mother was not good. I was more attached to my father, who doted on me. His love, though, was sometimes misguided. For instance he once threatened to go to L.A. and punch Charlie Chaplin right back to Old London Town, for besmirching his daughter’s reputation.

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Me at Coney Island.

The following day dad, Gladys, Claude and I went to Coney Island to have all the fun of the fair. Mother stayed at home. She hated crowds, and preferred the fireside to the great outdoors. Afterwards I headed back to my apartment, getting ready to leave for the coast the next day. That evening, Charlie Baumann, his wife and his daughter came over, along with Adam Kessell and a photographer.  After the photographer got some shots of me outside the apartment, we were off to the Rectors Restaurant in Longacre, now known as Times Square. This was the haunt of New York’s Impresarios, and the chef and his staff had all been poached from the Waldorf. Everyone there knew Baumann, whose office was almost next door, and I was clearly present to be shown off.

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How the rich lived: Rector’s Restaurant 1910s.

Numbers of stage and movie bosses came over, and spoke to Baumann, who introduced me to ‘their highnesses’. One of them Baumann called David, and he introduced ‘David’ to me. “Mabel, Meet David Belasco.” David Belasco!! My lord, I’ve just met David Belasco, the great god of the theatre. I shrank with embarrassment, and nearly fell off my chair. When David had made his excuses and left, Kessell turned to me saying “If Belasco ever approaches you directly, let us know straight away. ” I promised, then brought up the question of my pay. “Mr Kessell, I haven’t been paid for five weeks.” “I know, Mabel, but we have a slight cash flow problem at the moment. We’ve formed a new ‘Mabel Normand Memorabilia Company’, selling items with your picture on them:

“Oh yes, and what items precisely?”

“Well, you know, plaques, cups, plates….men’s underpants.” 

“Men’s underpants! Oh no, no, no, Mr Kessell!”

Everyone burst out laughing – I’d been had.

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Mabel with Anything Once Doll 1927.

 

Then Ada Baumann produced a doll from her bag and waved it at me.

“Hello, I’m Mabel Normand” She said.

“Oh, it’s me” I said, as Ada handed me the doll. “Can I keep it?” 

Ada looked crestfallen, but her dad said to her “Go on, let Mabel have it, by next week we’ll have thousands of them.”

“Yes, of course she can have it.”

What I have related about my visit home, would be the way it was every time I went back east. Mother read every newspaper she could find, and even had L.A. newspapers sent out to her at vast expense. Whenever I went back, she would grill me about this man or that man that I was going around with. How come I was going to marry a Keystone supervisor or screenwriter, when I was engaged to marry Mack? Anyhow, how come we hadn’t already got married? These questions were difficult to answer. How could I tell her that Mack Sennett put all those stories in the newspapers, how could I tell her we’d deceived her about getting married? My life was a rat-trap and I was caught.

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“Kiss me Charlie.”

You might have read articles in which I said I can’t wait to get home and see my silver-haired mother, and that I visited her whenever I could. The fact is, I avoided going home. Some years I went to New York twice, other years I went three times, but I only went home briefly once a year  at  most. I couldn’t face the arguments. Although I loyally  wrote home once a week, I was only interested in meeting my father and brother on a regular basis. As time went more family ‘baggage’ built up. Things of public interest happened in my life, which sent New York reporters rushing to my parents’ house. By 1916 the house was permanently besieged, much to mother’s annoyance. Somehow, the Mayor’s office always knew when I was in New York, and rang the house to find out what time I’d arrive in Staten Island. The family were, therefore, sometimes aware that I was in the city. In 1920, when I had just returned to the Sennett fold, and was very sick, Mack told me to take a holiday on Staten Island. I returned to New York, but buried myself in Greenwich Village, among the writers, poets and musicians, never setting foot on that godforsaken island. I returned to the coast, fully recovered, and full of intellectual joy.

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Loving it in the Village.

 

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Claude and Mabel.

For my mother, joy had come in early 1919, when my brother Claude returned alive from the battlefield out on the Somme. she was now visibly aging, and at age 50 she looked over 70 and as she neared 60, you’d have thought she was a hundred years old. This broke my heart, as I’m sure it was all the worry over her prodigal daughter that had put the years on her. Claude came over to California just before I moved back to Sennett, and he’d settled in to learning to be a movie cameraman, by the time I’d gone out to Greenwich Village. Before I went, I warned him to stay behind the camera, and to never venture over to the other side. Then, two years after rejoining Sennett, we were all plunged into despair, as I became tied up in the shenanigans surrounding the W.D. Taylor murder. My poor mother was distraught, as hundreds of pressmen, surrounded her house. I did a runner for Europe, but the press had booked themselves aboard the ship, and were soon sending back reports that I was staggering round the ship, stone drunk, and falling off bar stools. When I wasn’t drinking, I was giving diving demonstrations at the pool – in the nude. Reports came back of my ‘manizing’ across Europe with English lords, play-writes and Arab princes, down Monte Carlo way.

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Take your pick Mabel: George Bernard Shaw, Lord Mountbatten, Prince Ibrahim.

Mother had never really got over all of this, when catastrophe struck again after my chauffeur shot millionaire Courtland Dines. The pressmen had barely had time to step off onto the Manhattan landing stage, before they were back on the ferry and surrounding my parents house with a double guard. Dad gave them regular updates, but mother was under sedation for a month. Things looked bleak, and dad advised me to get out of the U.S. and take up the contract I’d been offered by a British film company. Unfortunately, perhaps, I was offered a stage tour, starring a play called The Little Mouse. I played to packed houses, but the play was slated by the reviews, and I pulled out half way through, dejected, but richer by a million dollars. Perhaps I would chuck it all in now, mother thought. My response was to buy a Beverly Hills mansion, thereby making myself a permanent resident of California.

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If in doubt buy a mansion. 526 Camden Drive.

 

The biggest shock came when I got married in 1926. Perhaps I would settle down now, but no, I refused to live with my husband, and just carried on as before. Mother was less than pleased, when I started courting  the press, and the newspapers were again full of ridiculous Mabel stories, put there, this time, by little old me. I was soon back on the screen, but this time with Sennett’s arch enemy, Hal Roach. I made a series of films, that were clearly, to audiences, of the ‘Mabel’ type. When I became desperately ill, my family begged for me to come home to that ‘Island of the Dead’, Staten Island. I refused and determined that I’d either die in Hollywood, or get well, and return to the movies. As I got sicker and sicker, so did mother, and I heard she’d aged by 50 years over the last few years.

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Mabel and Lew, Beverly Hills 1926.

Mother had several health scares in the late 1920s, but I was too ill to go to her. Instead my husband, Lew Cody, came to me … dropped  his acting out on location in Arizona, fearing I was dying. He ran my life, and even arranged for his valet to carry me upstairs every night. Recently, my friends had me admitted to the Pottenger Sanatorium, where I hope I can be cured of tuberculosis. Over the last few weeks, I have had plenty of time to think about my astonishing life, and how that life affected my family. I’d put my mother through hell, something she should never have had to endure. She was a good, religious woman that stayed home and cared for her family. It’s a tragedy that we never had a real mother and daughter relationship – we never once went shopping, or saw a show together. My brother and I had recently tried to get her to move to L.A., but she hates the city, and prefers the relative peace and quiet of Staten Island. If I get out of this place, I’ll settle down, and make amends to my mother. What’s that, you don’t believe me? Well, perhaps you’re right.

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Looking a hundred years old Mary Normand attends her daughter’s  funeral.

The editor continues the story: Mabel died on February 22nd 1930. A week earlier her father had died. The Normand family held a funeral, then immediately took the train to the coast, for Mabel’s funeral. They arrived in L.A. with minutes to spare. Mabel’s mother looked about a hundred years old, and had clearly  been through the mill over the last 37 years. She just had time to get Mabel’s affairs in order, before she too followed her prodigal daughter into the Calvary Mausoleum, aged 62. Her death certificate states that she’d suffered a heart attack. In all probability she died of a broken heart.

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Mother and daughter reunited in death.

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MABEL’S FRIENDS: ADA BAUMANN.

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Ada Baumann, champion figure-skater and film extra.

Ada Baumann has a place at the very heart of Hollywood history. Never heard of her? Well that’s not surprising, as Miss Baumann was not a great actress, nor a director. Her importance lay in the fact that she arrived at Keystone Studios, as an extra, at a very important time for the nascent motion picture industry. You may well ask how a ‘super’ or extra could have a profound effect on the burgeoning  film industry? Well, Ada was no ordinary extra – she was, in fact, the daughter of Charles O. Baumann, one of the big bosses of New York Motion Pictures and the Keystone Studio. A hero of the early motion picture industry.

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Sennett fights Minta Arbuckle for the fair hand of Ada.

Ada At The Wheel.

Here’s the story. As related previously in these blogs. Charlie Chaplin had got going at Keystone in early 1914, perhaps contrary to the protests of Mack Sennett. If Mack had been agreeable to having the new boy around, he soon changed his mind. Chaplin was far too young, he was about the same age as his star actress, Mabel Normand. There could be problems (they might elope, or even run off to another studio). Undoubtedly, Mack tried to dump Chaplin, and the wires between L.A. and his bosses in New York must have been red hot. Eventually, Mack caved in, and used Charlie in a film called Mabel’s Strange Predicament. This was to be Mabel’s big one, but it all went wrong when the bosses allowed Charlie to have an extraordinarily long opening scene – in a film with Mabel’s name in the title! It took two months for Mabel to agree to perform with Charlie again. Realising there could be trouble, Charlie Baumann came to L.A., ostensibly to conclude a business deal in the city. With him came  daughter, Ada, and it seems he insisted she appear in the new film. Mack and Mabel might have been unaware of Baumann’s plan, but Ada was quite a girl, a live wire, and a champion figure skater, who Mack and Mabel undoubtedly knew well. She was right up Mabel’s street, if not Mack’s.

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Mabel with Ada. 1914.

Mabel, as everyone knows, was not a gags comedienne. Her aim was to make dramatic, and even tragic comedies. Charlie was the complete gags man, and when he came on the set of Mabel At The Wheel, he was most upset to find he wasn’t allowed to include a whole lot of his cheap, slapstick gags. Quite frankly too many gags would have ruined the nature of the film, which was about an adorable ingenue, who enters the the Santa Monica car race, and wins by beating all the men. Chaplin, naturally, was out to show the bosses how many gags he had up his Music Hall sleeve – wasn’t this what he was hired for? Yes, it’s true that’s why the New York bosses signed him up, but Mabel thought it was time to progress, and tone down the slapstick gags. Out on location in Santa Monica, Charlie lost his mind, and went on strike for more gags. As Ada looked on (she played Mabel’s friend in the film) Mabel ordered  everyone back to the studio. While the cast and crew were mumbling about slugging the facetious Chaplin, the cars were loaded up and they returned to Keystone. Everyone was incensed that their lovable star had been treated so shabbily, by someone who was, to them, just a mere extra. 

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Mabel’s moment of fame.

Back at the studio, Mack went ballistic, when he heard Chaplin had caused filming to be halted.  He more or less told Chaplin he was firing him, and he must surely have phoned Charlie Baumann, who was a mere eight miles away. It seems Baumann hit the roof, and told Sennett that he had to keep and use Chaplin. Then he probably got the full story from Ada. In Baumann’s mind, Mack was listening too much to Mabel, and Mabel wanted to take the studio in a different direction to what he, and Adam Kessell, wanted to take it. Slapstick and gags he knew made money, Mabel’s dramatic, weepy comedy was an unknown and dangerous area. If everyone at Keystone didn’t comply, he’d shut the whole place down, and start again elsewhere. The fact that he didn’t close Keystone, suggests that Ada might have calmed her father down a bit. Consequently, Baumann told everyone they had to muck in and get along, no matter what. Keystone was saved, and Chaplin eventually found stardom, although the outcome could have been very different.

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Ada (centre) and family hit downtown L.A. in 1909.

So, Charlie and Mabel began to collaborate on the films. Directing together, Mabel was able to inject some pathos into their pictures (e.g Mabels Busy Day, His Trysting Place and Mabel’s Married Life). It is clear, though, that Chaplin didn’t didn’t fully understand pathos in films at that time. His contribution was endless gags, and manic slapstick. As for Ada, she seems to have slid away back to New York, never to return. Whether Mabel realised Ada had been a plant is difficult to discover. It’s possible that they remained friends down the years, and they might have met up on Mabel’s sorties into New York. 

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Minta and Ada cheer Mabel on, as Mack fights it out with dad, Chester Conklin.

Ada is something of a mystery girl, and almost all the facts regarding her life come from one source, a book called The Movie Maker: Charles O. Baumann by Jillian Ada Kelly, the grand-daughter of Ada Baumann. As already said, Ada was a very physical girl, who was to become a national figure-skating champion, and, ’tis said, once competed in the Olympic games. Unfortunately, little more is known of Ada, than that she’d married a Daniel Kelly in 1927. She seems to have remained in the east, but on several occasions, she travelled with her father to L.A.

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Baumann’s partner Ad Kessell (L) with Mabel, Ford Sterling and Mack Sennett.

Charles Baumann of course was a major force for progress in the early motion picture industry.  In the very early 1900s, Baumann had run a bar and billiard hall in New York. This sort of gels with what Mack Sennett said in his autobiograph that Baumann and his partner were mobsters and loan sharks that would break your legs if you didn’t comply with their orders. However, most contemporary observers maintained  the view that Baumann and Kessell were highly respected businessmen, and Charlie Chaplin investigated them to discover if they were good for the money they’d offered him. They were. However, these were dangerous times, with Thomas Edison’s bully boys out to break the heads of any one possessing a movie camera without a licence from him. 

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Edison used hoodlums like this. ‘Lucky’ Luciano hits Hollywood.

Baumann and Kessell were as tough as they came, and undoubtedly hired their own East Side heavies. Their creation of Bison films out in California, might have been as much to avoid the attentions of Edison, as to find good light. It was in 1911, while out in California

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Biograph Mabel in California 1912

with the Biograph company under W.D. Griffith, that a certain Mack Sennett waylaid Baumann, Ada, and Adam Kessell, asking for the chance to form and direct a comedy arm of their New York Motion Picture Company.  Sennett said he could bring Biograph actors with him. Baumann and Kessell mulled it over. Could he bring the Biograph Girl with him? Mack told them the Biograph Girl’s name was Mabel Normand, and, as luck would have it, she was his girlfriend. Baumann and Kessell drooled at the thought of having Miss Biograph at their studio, and Ada was probably was just as excited. Mack was lying, just a little bit. Yes, he knew Mabel, and even had her address, but, all of a sudden, he was keen to be her boyfriend, even though he was twelve years her senior. He wrote to Mabel, then at Vitagraph Studios, telling her of his plans. Mabel was interested, and wrote back. She signed her letter:

“Your girl

 Mabel”

Back in New York, Mack was very keen to get Mabel returned to Biograph. He needn’t have worried, Mabel had been fired for mooning out of the dressing room window, at passers-by. Griffith happily received her back, and Mack took every opportunity to ingratiate himself with Miss Normand. Early in 1912, the company again left for the orange groves, and this time Mabel was aboard the train as it headed westward. The Girl from Staten Island was in her element, and began to corrupt her captive audience, the company girls, over the next five days. Blanche Sweet and numerous others, fell for her japes, jokes, cussing, booze and, shock horror, cigarettes. In L.A. two actresses longing to be their heroine, the daring Miss Normand, left their chaperones, hitched up their skirts and hit the town. Their names were Dorothy Gish and Gertrude Bambrick, but they didn’t get far. Griffith and Dell Henderson rounded them up in hours, and corralled them with their chaperones. Mabel was not out on the town, she was cosying up with Mack Sennett, her future, her mentor, and, sadly, her default manager for most of her remaining life.

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Mack’s concept of Mabel: A little girl with a big bow.

In 1912, Sennett again met up with Kessell, Baumann and their families, once more in L.A. on Bison business. No doubt Mabel was present, and perhaps she and Ada went off alone, while the men talked shop. Mack later confided with Mabel that Bison were about to move out of their Edendale studio, and a new comedy studio would be formed, name to be decided, at the vacant Bison site. Then, something amazing happened. Back in New York, the director of the fairly new Biograph comedy unit, left as a result of ill health.

 

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“Look Mr Baumann, I’m so cute.”

Mack was given the job, and he asked Griffith to release Mabel. Much to Mabel’s annoyance, Griffith didn’t argue – he’d seen enough of Mabel’s irreverent behaviour, and wanted her gone. Mabel later claimed that no-one asked what she thought. Mack placated her. Once Kessell and Baumann had seen their comedies they would pull out the stops to get them on board. The Biograph comedies were pretty amazing, with Mabel presenting her wares for K and B to drool over. In one film she even exposed her cleavage, something she’d never done before, and would never do again. The NYMP bosses took the bait and soon signed Mabel, and gave Sennett a one-third share of Keystone. What did Ada think? She was delighted that her dad’s studio had the daredevil, emacipated Mabel on board. Ada was probably another one of those young girls that actually wanted to be Mabel.

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Mabel lets her boobs swing free in A Spanish Dilemma 1912.

Chaplin left Keystone at the end of 1914, and Mabel was put with Roscoe Arbuckle to do films featuring a lovesick country boy and girl. 1915 was not a good year for Mabel, but before the end of the year Keystone was part of the Triangle group of studios. It seems that Mabel now began to push for a move to the Triangle (NYMP) studios in Fort Lee N.J. Clearly, she must have been in contact with Kessell and Baumann about this, but we have to wonder if she had a ‘hot line’ to Ada. To young girls of Ada’s generation, Mabel was a heroine, and Ada probably wanted her in the East. Baumann would have taken little persuading, as, by having Mabel at Fort Lee, he would be increasing his credibility, and poking Sennett in the eye as well. As infighting broke out in the Triangle camp, the Mabel Normand company left L.A. for New Jersey in the last days of 1915. They were giving up the sun and orange groves for the snow and ice of the east. 

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“Cheers Mack, you won’t be seeing me again.” The Mabel Normand company head east.

Roscoe and Mabel made their best film yet in Fort Lee, He Did and He Didn’t. This picture was completely different than anything that Keystone turned out. Firstly, Mabel was no longer the sweet ingenue, but a scarlet woman, indulging in an extra-marital affair. What did Mack Sennett think about that? He would have been furious, but managed to have the famous ‘dream sequence’ incorporated in the film. Roscoe had strangled Mabel, who then recovered enough to shoot Roscoe. It all turned out to be a dream. Within a few weeks it was time for the company to return to L.A. Roscoe travelled back, but Mabel stayed put, and offered her services to the highest bidder. Then this appeared in the press:

Variety, March 17, 1916
Mabel Normand with Mutual
It was stated that Mabel Normand had signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corporation on Tuesday afternoon of this week.
Miss Normand was closeted with President Freuler for almost an hour late that afternoon, and is said to have affixed her signature to a contract. There is a possibility that she will work in the Chaplin releases.

_______

This was designed to panic Mack Sennett, as it was clearly untrue. Was Charlie Baumann party to the hoax – and the article was almost certainly a hoax. Sennett had almost finished building a new studio out in East Hollywood, which he was keeping for his own use. Did Baumann want to take the studio for Triangle? It’s highly likely that Mabel wanted it. We might suspect a conspiracy between between Mabel, Baumann, the Triangle executives, with, perhaps, Ada as a go-between. Soon, Triangle formed The Mabel Normand Feature Film Co., under the supervision of Thomas Ince. Sennett had to capitulate and Mabel moved into the new studio in early summer 1916. However, Ince, who was something of a double agent, soon stood aside, and Sennett became studio supervisor. By the end of 1916, Mabel was out of her studio, having completed the film Mickey. She ran away again to New York, where she intended to start work at Goldwyn Studios. If Ada’s loyalties were with Mabel, rather than Triangle (with whom her father were now in dispute) then she might have formed the lynch pin that helped Mabel escape Sennett’s clutches, this seems logical, but it is just a guess. 

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Ince, Chaplin, Sennett and Griffith in friendly mood.

Conclusions on the relationship between Mabel and Ada.

One would guess that Mabel and Ada became long-term friends. The fact that she might have intervened in the Chaplin fiasco, would not have changed their relationship. Without someone properly reporting exactly what had happened, the studio could have been closed down by an enraged Charlie Baumann. Ada’s involvement would have helped Mabel, as much as anyone. Was it possible for Mabel to have sat in New York in 1916, defying Sennett, putting out press releases, without also having insider information on what was going on in the Triangle, NYMP and Sennett camps? Absolutely not.

It would have been difficult also, for Mabel to put together a scheme that had Sennett and Sam Goldwyn sidelined in 1917, without some help. We might wonder how arrangements were made for Mabel to sign with Goldwyn in late 1916, when Mabel was in L.A. and Goldwyn in New York. Perhaps there was a go-between and perhaps that go-between was Ada Baumann. 

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Ada and husband, 1927

The contention that Ada and Mabel were friends and, perhaps, co-conspirators is based purely on their personalities, and the mutual respect they probably had for each other. On top of this, Mabel was known to go out of her way to cultivate allies, and what better ally was there than the boss’s daughter? Mabel, however, never mentioned Ada in any of her articles. Nevertheless, contained within the private papers of Mack Sennett are typewritten articles, ostensibly written by Mabel that have handwritten amendments, and these include her so-called personal autobiography of 1924. It seems obvious that Sennett wrote most of the articles attributed to Mabel. Sennett wouldn’t have mentioned Ada – she was as much the enemy as her father.

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Bibliography

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

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

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

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

THOSE CHARLIE CHAPLIN FEET: STARRING MABEL NORMAND.

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Click to hear recording.

When you study the life and times of Mabel Normand, it is not long before the image of Charlie Chaplin looms large in your research. Chaplin, of course, became the greatest and most well-known figure of the silver screen. However, in Chaplin’s story, one other figure of the silent screen looms large – Mabel Normand, the legendary Keystone Girl. Both gained popularity, to some extent, from their feet. Chaplin, naturally, had those feet  stuck in oversize  tramp shoes, which he ably used in his shuffling, feet askew, walk.  Mabel’s walk, utilizing very small feet, was at the other end of the scale, and those half a dozen steps per foot contributed to her cuteness, but were also a little comical in themselves – she sort of tripped along rather than ran. Unlike Chaplin, it seems that Mabel never had a song recorded about her feet. The song was called Those Charlie Chaplin Feet, published in 1915, demonstrating the attention he’d drawn by that time.

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Charlie and Mabel getting on famously.

It is only right, that Mabel should forever be associated with Chaplin, and vice versa, as Chaplin served his apprenticeship at Keystone, under the tutelage of Mabel, undisputed Master (or mistress) of Tragedy and Comedy. In his autobiography, Chaplin said he saw a lot of Mabel at Keystone, but this must be the biggest understatement in history. While Chaplin was reticent about his professional and personal relationship with Sennett’s star-of-stars, Mabel was ever-ready to point out that they got together on a daily basis in her bungalow dressing room, and even implied that their relationship was as much personal as professional. Keystone part-owner, Mack Sennett, erroneously labelled as Mabel’s lover, seems to have encouraged this notion of pupil and teacher, simply because it diluted Chaplin’s persona of ‘Genius’. It is noticeable that Chaplin never denied any of this, but, in Mabel’s lifetime, he remained reticent, and we only have third party quotes, as to his real thoughts on Mabel, other than those publicly made, immediately following her death.

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Mabel in a tragic role in 1912.

Chaplin’s place in Keystone.

When Chaplin arrived at the studio, way out of downtown L.A., in Edendale, he was coming into a hostile environment. For one thing, as there were only a finite number of jobs for movie actors, American-born performers were very much against the number of English Music Hall comedians admitted into the studios. Keystone actor, Fred Mace, was particularly vociferous in his disapproval of American jobs going to foreigners. However, the producers of comedies were particularly keen to acquire the Music Hall veterans, as they carried in their heads a lifetime’s worth of gags. This made the mass production of films both easier and quicker.

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Chaplin really was a star before he was a star.

Keystone big bosses in the east, Kessell and Baumann, had realized that vaudevillians were necessary to give their studios an air of respectability. In public speaking, also, the English, who had by and large cultivated aristocratic accents, would provide kudos to the studios, burdened as they were, with working-class performers bearing awful local and regional accents. Mabel, at that time, had a coarse Brooklyn accent, and, later, Kansas girl Louise Brooks felt that her strange ‘covered wagon’ accent held her back at her studio. The fly in ointment for Chaplin was Mack Sennett, a refugee from the stage, who had an intense disliking for stage actors. He particularly disliked Raymond Hitchcock, the self-inflated thespian, who had once thrown him out of a stage production in New York. Mabel, who was in awe of stage people, became a close friend of Hitchcock and his wife, that were later to hide her at their N.Y. apartment, on the occasions Mabel ran away from Sennett. Sennett, it should be remembered was a Svengali to Mabel, not a lover. The truth is, once Sennett had seen Kessell and Baumann’s new signing, Chaplin, he ‘hated his guts’, as Charles Baumann was to later reveal in a letter to Sennett that still exists among Sennett’s private papers.

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Mabel with Lew Cody (L) and Raymond Hitchcock (R) at a 1926 premiere.

The reason for Sennett’s attitude is plainly obvious. His other main comedians were relatively old men, and those that were not quite so old were married, and had watchful wives working at Keystone. Chaplin was about the same age as Mabel, and so was definitely a threat to Mack’s control of Mabel. Only one person in Hollywood had ever seen Chaplin offstage before 1914. That person was Mary Pickford, who described him years later, as a tousle-haired young man with the air of a bohemian poet or writer. In fact, he seemed to be an actresses’ dream. There is little doubt that, at some point, during 1913, she had made these thoughts known to Mack, and probably Mabel as well. This would have almost certainly alarmed Sennett, although Mabel would have been keen to meet him. At the eventual meeting with Chaplin, Sennett would have detected the natural interest Mabel and Charlie had for each other. In the weeks before Chaplin arrived at the studio, Mack would have been constantly wiring Kessell and Baumann, about preventing Chaplin from starting at the studio. The big bosses, however, knew where they were going – star vaudevillians were the future. Mack could do nothing, but make a film called Mabel’s Dramatic Career, in which he sets out to shoot the tin-type who’d stolen Mabel away. This hopefully would make Chaplin (and Mabel) see sense.

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Mabel and family about to be shot by Mack Sennett.

When Chaplin finally arrived at Edendale, he was kept well away from Mabel, and it is likely that Sennett and others (briefed by Sennett) dripped poison, about Chaplin, into her ear.

The Tramp gets started.

After a few weeks hanging around the studio, while Sennett tried to get him removed, Chaplin was put into a couple of lacklustre films. The studio star-of-stars, Mabel, was inaccessible to Chaplin, until, in February, when Sennett was short of a few gags, he brought the limey onto the hotel lobby set for Mabel’s Strange Predicament, to help in an opening scene. Chaplin, who was on his way to film a nonsense movie called Kid Auto Races At Venice, contrived to appear as a Sennett-style character, like a hobo or tramp. Where he differed from Sennett was in his shuffling gait, much enhanced by some oversized boots. He did a long scene, which pleased everyone, and was then whisked off to Venice. On his return, he did an extra short scene with Mabel, which presumably was meant to be the definitive first scene. In Chaplin’s absence, some other scenes had been shot, but Mack decided to make Chaplin a main character in the movie.

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Mabel meets Charlie – first scene from Mabel’s Strange Predicament.

This can be deduced from the disturbance it caused to the scenes already shot. For instance, when Mabel’s boyfriend leaves flowers in her room, he puts them into a vase that had already contained his flowers in a previous scene. This suggests a change in the story line, that contrived a means of setting up a tramp versus boyfriend scenario, in which a locked-out Mabel ends up being chased by Chaplin, around the hotel in her pajamas. The film was a complete success, and was the best in the ‘What Mabel Did’ series to that date. However, from Mabel’s point of view, she had been robbed of a first scene, and it had been stolen by Chaplin. The first scene shows Mabel alongside Chaplin for less than 10 seconds. For the remaining 50 seconds Chaplin has the floor to himself. It is not likely that Mack made this decision alone, and it seems highly probable that Kessell and Baumann made the decision to give Chaplin the long scene.

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Feisty, pajama-clad Mabel gets into a fight with Alice Davenport and Chester Conklin in their hotel bedroom. Mabel’s Strange Predicament, 1914.

Mabel would have been incandescent with rage. No one should steal a scene from her – the Keystone Girl, the Queen of Comedy, the Star-of Stars. The result was that Mabel refused to work with Chaplin for the best part of two months. She must have avoided all contact with Charlie, for he began to form relationships with lesser actresses, like Peggy Pearce.

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Mabel and Ada. First scene Mabel At The Wheel 1914.

Mabel At The Wheel.

This is the most famous of the Mabel and Charlie films, if only because Chaplin takes great pains to mention it in his autobiography. It was the first film the duo had made together since Mabel’s Strange Predicament, and this only occurred, perhaps, because Kessell and Baumann ordained that Mabel and the ‘coming man’ should be brought together. It appears that Mabel had ensured that no scene would be ‘stolen’ by Chaplin. This she achieved by insisting that she directed, and that Chaplin should appear sans his tramp’s outfit.  Baumann, who was in L.A. on business, countered by sending his figure-skating champion daughter, Ada, along to extra in the film, and report on what went on. Naturally, Chaplin was upset by all of this, especially with Mabel being the director. In his book, he implies that Mabel was too young to direct, but she was only two-and-a-bit years younger than him, and was a true veteran of the movies. At this time, Chaplin was a dyed-in-the wool gags-man, and it is likely that he knew little about straight forward acting, especially in films. Mabel, a Griffith trained actress, as stated above, was keen to have a story-line in her film. This picture was going to be a dramatic comedy, not a situation comedy, where cops tripped over one another, and mindless goons got sprayed with water from their own hosepipe. Chaplin’s gags would be restricted in number.

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Mabel is the darling of the Santa Monica race fans.

The story presented in Mabel At The Wheel is a strong one, the strongest at the studio so far. A middle-class girl with a car racing boyfriend is stalked by an unpleasant, plug-hatted villain, who, after being rejected by Mabel, kidnaps the boyfriend at a race meeting, presumably to prevent him becoming a hero in Mabel’s eyes.

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What he hadn’t reckoned on, was Mabel stepping in, and taking over the drive of, what seems to be, Sennett’s racing Stutz. After attempts by Chaplin’s villainous associates to derail Mabel’s drive, she wins the race. So we end up with a heroine, not a hero – just the right formula for those halcyon days of emancipation. Chaplin would have been livid, and clearly thought he should be the hero, but in this film he seems curiously shrunken, and a little side-lined. Chaplin’s limited slapstick is somewhat neutralised by Sennett’s unkempt, tobacco juice spewing character (a tramp?) who causes a ruckus in the spectator stands, and attempts to abduct Ada Baumann.

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Mack tries to abduct the boss’s daughter.

What is the true story behind the shenanigans that surrounded the making of the film?Firstly, Charlie Baumann must have known there was going to be trouble during shooting, and this would explain Ada’s presence in the picture. She could give an unbiased report of what happened. Chaplin maintained that, when Mabel refused to accept his gags, he went on strike, causing the shoot to stop, and everyone to traipse back to the studio. According to him, Sennett went for him, in the dressing room, back at the studio. He then left, slamming the door behind him. He goes on to imply that, when Sennett called Baumann, to say he was firing Chaplin, Baumann stated that Chaplin had become too popular to be fired over a little tiff. While it is true to say Chaplin was getting popular, he was by no means a star, and was still very ragged around the edges. Chaplin’s claim that Sennett keeled over, and told him he could direct his own films, if he towed the line in the picture, can be taken as pure egotistical nonsense. If it wasn’t for Baumann, swelled-head Chaplin would have been gone from the studio, to sink into eternal obscurity. Sennett probably kept Chaplin on, as Baumann, Kessell and Ince could have over-ruled Mack, and closed the studio, if the problems continued.

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Where Charlie received his lessons. Mabel’s Dressing Room.

The Tramp Toes The Line.

Eventually, Charlie got to direct his own pictures, but he was put under the overall mentor-ship of Mabel. Mabel later said:

“I am proud to say I held his hand, as he found his way through the swamp of motion pictures.”

They co-directed about 11 films, but Charlie could arrive at Mabel’s comfy dressing room at any time, although they would always get together in the bungalow after work, presumably to wait for Mack to finish work, and take them to dinner. As they say, keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer. Mack was fully aware that passionate leading ladies and leading men could elope together, and Charlie and Mabel were more passionate than most. Under the protection of The Keystone Girl, Charlie thought he could get away with anything, and often persuaded Mabel to ‘steal’ a company car, so that they could drive into L.A. for some fun. Make no mistake, Sennett knew what was going on, as he had spies everywhere (so did Kessell and Baumann – they put tails on both Mabel and Sennett). However, Mabel was very much afraid of Mack. If he got any hint that Charlie and Mabel were an item, he’d have ended their careers, and, perhaps, their lives too. Chaplin lived in fear of Sennett all his life, and only published his book, after the ‘King of Comedy’ was dead and buried.

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“Floor it Mabel! The boss isn’t around.”

So, what instruction did Charlie get at the bungalow schoolroom? The most important thing he learned was humility, and how to get on with people. Chaplin was never much liked at Karno Company, and his room-mate, Stan Jefferson (Laurel) said he showed signs of insanity. Fortunately, Chaplin had secured a good teacher. Mabel’s ambition and ego were as big as anyone’s, but she had developed a means by which everyone would love and adore her. At Biograph she’d become the life and soul of the studio, so popular and cherished that even Griffith, who was the butt of most of her jokes, was unable to fire her. Most people know that in later years, Chaplin always made a party spin, even though he didn’t drink. His accomplice was often the ‘demure’ Mabel.

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Chaplin learns the art of carrying babies. His Trysting Place 1914.

Mabel had studied the art of comedy, and had received her training under big comedy stars John Bunny and Flora Finch. As Chaplin was later to say:

“Mabel knew more about comedy than any of us will never know.”

Chaplin, then, was in good hands, but she taught him another genre – tragedy and pathos. In all probability, Chaplin had never considered combining pathos and comedy, but this was Mabel’s ultimate aim. Charlie was a willing learner, and listened well. In their films together, you can often see Mabel go into tragic mode, which her partnership with Charlie seems to have allowed her to indulge in. However, it seems Sennett, who supervised all films, introduced a higher level of slapstick to compensate for the heavy stuff. The two films, Mabel’s Busy Day and His Trysting Place, stand out in this respect. Chaplin learned a lot, but, like Sennett, he knew that audiences would not tolerate high levels of pathos. He would take pathos with him, when he left, but would shrink it to a background medium – this was the key to his later success.

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Tramp versus Hot Dog Lady. Mabel’s Busy Day.

 

The Tramp steps out.

The eleven films Mabel and Charlie made together were successful, although Chaplin must have realized that his personality was drained and dissipated by appearing alongside ‘The Queen of Clowns’. It was clearly evident that, until the end of his Keystone contract, Mabel was always the star. Chaplin had to admit that, when he appeared alone in the first scene of Mabel’s Strange Predicament, his presence was met by the theater audience with – complete silence. Squeals of delight had met Mabel’s appearance. Fortunately, the film schedules permitted him to make films without Mabel’s overpowering presence in them. He chose leading ladies that did not have star status – Virginia Kirtley, Minta Arbuckle, Peggy Pearce and Dixie Chene. However, as Minta later told it, she was not overly fond of Mr ‘Ego’ Chaplin. Virginia Kirtley, Peggy Pearce and Dixie Chene were actresses aiming for stardom, and, consequently, were not keen to be the foils of Chaplin. In fact, Chaplin seems to have struck up a relationship with Peggy Pearce, but this soon turned sour, possibly due to Mabel’s displeasure being made known to Peggy. There is no doubt that Mabel regarded Charlie as her ‘property’.

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My girl Mabel.

Chaplin turned to a new actress on the lot, by the name of Peggy Page, a plain girl, but one that was pretty enough, and had a good body, but was not really a proficient actress. No matter, she was the perfect foil. However, Peggy wasn’t an extra that just turned up at the studio gate. Her real name was Gladys Carruthers, and she had a gold-digging stage mother. The family (mother and two daughters) had arrived in L.A. from Texas where Gladys had married a well-off local man. Strangely, he blew his brains out with a pistol on the wedding night. In L.A. mother conspired to get Gladys into the movie business, and got her into Keystone. Getting in with Chaplin was what mother wanted, and she soon achieved that (she appears in some films). Peggy made more films with Chaplin than even Mabel, and mother was convinced they’d ‘made it’. However, Mabel was not unaware of what was happening, and, towards the end of the year, she grabbed leading lady status from Peggy, and appeared with Chaplin in four consecutive films. Mabel avoided appearing in Chaplin’s last Keystone, Man’s Genesis, as it involved career-destroying scenes wearing a grass skirt. Mabel undoubtedly knew Chaplin was leaving, as, despite the hype put around, he would leave at the end of Sennett’s boot. Why did Mabel want to ingratiate herself with Chaplin? The main reason was that he was a man with ambition, able to clear a path through the jungle of movie-land, in a way that

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Playing up to Chaplin. Gentlemen of Nerve.

contemporary women were unable to do. She had a notion to get in with an actor-director, at the beginning, when it looked as though they’d land their own studio. This she did with Sennett and, later, Sam Goldwyn. However, she missed the mark with Chaplin, and, after having a final tearful dinner with Mabel, he left for Chicago and Broncho Billy. This threw Mabel into a spin, and  her Madcap period can be traced back to this point. Mabel dearly wished to leave Keystone, and start anew with someone that understood her, someone like herself, someone like the melancholy Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin records in his autobiography that he did not want to leave Keystone, and Mabel’s support was one reason. Although Kessell and Baumann intervened, and told Sennett to offer Chaplin the world, he made Charlie an offer he could only refuse. Charlie was also made aware that a gun barrel could come through his window, one dark, stormy night. Mabel was Mack’s property and his alone. Chaplin was also wary of Mabel’s screen magnetism that could stifle his personality. He needed a foil, a stooge, not the star-of-all-stars.

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Peggy Page (Check coat) takes a dim view of Charlie and his leading lady.

Charlie and Mabel post-1914.

Charlie and Mabel were not separated for long. Charlie evidently disliked Essanay’s Chicago studio, and was not pleased with the girl he thought could be his leading lady – Gloria Swanson. Although pretty, she was far too ambitious. He demanded to be sent to the company’s Californian ‘cowboy’ studio out at Niles Ca., a dusty old place almost 400 miles from L.A. There was no comfortable Mabel’s dressing room here, just old shacks, creaking iron bedsteads and faucets that spewed brown-colored water. It was while ‘camping’ here that he found his foil – the beautiful, but dull, Edna Purviance. Chaplin said this of her:

“I doubted whether she could act or had any humor, she looked so serious. Nevertheless we engaged her. She would at least be decorative to my comedies.”

It was inevitable that Chaplin would return to L.A., where he could not avoid running into Mabel. Within a few weeks Essanay had provided another studio in L.A. at Boyle Heights.  Coming within Mabel’s sphere brought problems for Charlie. Whenever she saw Charlie in a restaurant or some other place, Mabel would point over to him and sing out:

“Charlie, I’ll be your leading lady yet!”

indicating that she would never forgive him for his treachery. Mabel could be sweet and adorable, but she held deep-set grudges forever. However, the pair renewed their friendship, and Mabel was over the moon when Chaplin married her good friend and Tinsel-Town live-wire Mildred Harris. Here was a hook  to hang their new friendship on.

Los Angeles Herald, January 21, 1919
Chaplin’s Bride In Snow Battle
“How would you like to stage a snowballing party in Southern California? Ridiculous, you say. You’re all wrong, and if you don’t believe it write to Mrs. Charlie Chaplin (Mildred Harris) and ask her about one she and Mabel Normand staged.
It was on the top of Mount Lowe, the famous peak of the Golden State, and the two screen queens and a party of friends had a royal time battling with each other. Mrs.  Chaplin was captain of one of them and Mabel
Normand led the other.”

Getting back to 1915, Mabel was being hung out to dry by Sennett. There would be no more pathos, no more melancholy. Instead she would do films featuring two lovesick country kids – Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle. Fatty and the Keystone Girl bit their lips, and got on with it. However, things came to a head towards the close of the year, when it was apparent that Sennett was grooming new female stars. On top of this Mabel received a head injury caused by a shoe thrown in a wedding scene, Roscoe sitting on her head, or a vase smashed over her head by another actress. Whatever the cause, Mabel was off, and she arranged a temporary move to the Fort Lee Triangle Studios under direct control of Kessell and Baumann, at the very end of 1915. Arbuckle and a sizeable company went with her. Here Mabel and Roscoe were able to make a film more dramatic than usual,  and poked Sennett in the eye.  When the time came for Mabel to return to Edendale, she went missing. The following statement appeared in magazines and newspapers:

Variety, March 17, 1916

Mabel Normand with Mutual

It was stated that Mabel Normand had signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corporation on Tuesday afternoon of this week.

Miss Normand was closeted with president Freuler for almost an hour late that afternoon, and is said to have affixed her signature to a contract. There is a possibility that she will work in the Chaplin releases.

Did Mabel really think she would make it into Chaplin films? Maybe not, but the article sure put the wind up Sennett, Triangle and NYMP.  By March 24th  Triangle had capitulated and formed The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, which rented the new Keystone studio in East Hollywood, for Mabel’s exclusive use. One of NYMP’s greatest fears was that It couple, Charlie and Mabel, would team up to form a ‘dream team’.

As Mabel’s film Mickey was completed, and, as the Triangle Company fell apart, she took the opportunity to skedaddle, and sign for Goldwyn Pictures. However, like Sennett, Sam Goldwyn began to sign more stars. Mabel fell into constant arguments with the other actresses. By 1920 Mabel’s respiratory problems had worsened and Sam and the whole of Tinseltown feared Mabel was about to die. Then, a certain Mr Charlie Chaplin stepped in, and told Goldwyn that it was imperative he return Mabel to Sennett. Said the tramp:

“Mack and Mabel are both as Irish as the Banshees, they have an understanding. With Sennett, she excels, but anywhere else she  is commonplace.”

Complete nonsense, of course, but Charlie appeared to be right – when returned to Sennett, Mabel made a speedy recovery. The question is, why didn’t Chaplin take Mabel on?” Like everyone else, Chaplin was deeply enamoured of Mabel, and as he became more popular, he felt he could dispense with Edna Purviance, but there were problems. Sennett had a deep disliking of Chaplin – if it hadn’t been for that damned limey, his studio wouldn’t have been turned upside down, and Mabel wouldn’t have ran away. His main thought was “Touch my Keystone Girl, and you die.” Chaplin didn’t want to die. Furthermore, although he had a profound love for Mabel, he wasn’t yet ready to take her on. Ten years later he was ready, but, by then Mabel was dead and in her grave.

Mabel made her first feature film with Sennett Studios, as Keystone was now known, and meanwhile Chaplin had cultivated a strong relationship with Doug and Mary (Fairbanks). Through this, he was able to meet hordes of celebrities, and through this also, he gained some badly needed personal credence. The American press were not pleased with his ‘debauched’ private life and Doug and Mary were clean cut kids, a safe pair of hands. They weren’t, of course, and both had periods of ‘debauchery’ in their lives.

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The Fairbankses at home in Fortress Pickfair.

“A dark figure offstage.” 

As Mabel was in the throws of making her second Sennett film, Suzanna, dark clouds (or a dark figure offstage as Sennett told it) rolled in. Mabel had taken up with a Paramount director, known in Hollywood as W. D.Taylor, but, early in 1922, someone shot him dead. Taylor’s butler, Peavey, was adamant that Mabel had been trying persuade Taylor to get her into the prestigious Paramount Studio. He ranted that Mabel had shot Taylor, when he failed to meet her demand. However, everyone knew that Sennett had ‘spies’ following Mabel everywhere, and he knew what she did, why she did it, and with whom she did it. This made The King of Comedy a prime suspect, on the grounds that his star was about to decamp. In true Hollywood style though, the captains of the industry began to push the blame on others outside of Hollywood. They put the blame on a figure on the very edges of Tinseltown, the mother of Paramount starlet, Mary Miles Minter, another actress who’d had an intense relationship with Taylor. Chaplin kept well away from this mess, as the press were already after him. He was another ‘bad person’, and not only did he know Mabel well, he also knew that other bad boy, Roscoe Arbuckle, just as well. Only two Hollywood figures were brave enough to come to Mabel’s door at this time, Constance Talmadge and, curiously, perhaps, Mary Miles Minter.

Mary Miles Minter talks to Mabel Normand

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W.D. Taylor’s courtyard residence.

Eventually the heat against Mabel died down, although the police continued to investigate Mary Miles Minter, her mother, and Mack Sennett. While Chaplin remained aloof, and ran his life from Doug and Mary’s Pickfair mansion, Mabel intensified her relationship with his co-star, or stooge, Edna Purviance. Mabel, as we’ve already seen maintained grudges forever, and her biggest grudge must have been against Edna, the girl who stole Chaplin from her. The story is a confused one. Mabel became overly friendly with Edna at a time when her film Extra Girl was gaining top reviews (late 1923) while Edna was heading downwards. Chaplin wanted to ditch her, but as she was the main contributor to his success (by her compliance). He could not simply discard her. Instead, he intended to give Edna her own career, by starring her in a film called A Woman of Paris. Not unsurprisingly, the film was a flop, but at least Chaplin could say that he’d tried. In the throws of her despair, Mabel was there to help her and support her, as she had supported Olive Thomas’ and Marilyn Miller’s mothers along with many others in the past.

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Mabel and Edna party it up with Court on a yacht.

Along with Edna came a certain oil tycoon named Courtland Dines. Now, it seems, Edna (like many actresses) had decided that marriage to a millionaire was the right way out of the Hollywood pit. She clung to ‘Court’ like a leach, and had convinced herself that an engagement was on the horizon. But, Edna, although beautiful, was  a dull companion. Naturally, our intrepid oilman had his sights set on someone more interesting and lively – Edna’s friend Mabel, the madcap, the elf, the Queen of Clowns. Edna often associated with Mabel with Court in tow, but, unknown to Chaplin’s girl, Mabel was seeing her lover behind her back. Chinese whispers went around among Mabel’s household staff. Their adorable queen was getting herself into another dangerous love triangle. Mrs Ethel Burns, a close friend, and sometime housekeeper, warned her of the dangers of associating with the hot-headed Dines.

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Mabel in Beverly Hills, 1925, with a ‘no-gun’ chauffeur.

 

For whatever reason, Mabel did not listen, and flew into a tantrum, and screamed that, if she was so stupid, she’d blow her brains out with her .25 pistol. The staff remained vigilant, and even considered getting rid of the gun. Then, on New Years Day 1924, a great calamity befell Mabel and her loyal household. Her chauffeur went to pick up Mabel from a small party at Courtland Dines’ apartment, and, after an brief altercation with Dines, he shot at the loud-mouthed oilman four times, with Mabel’s gun. One of the shots pierced Dine’s lung, a wound from which he nearly died. The blame, as well as falling on the chauffeur, fell on Court, Mabel and Edna as well. All three had been drunk, and none of them could give a plausible story. A preliminary examination brought Mabel and Edna to court, but the trial was dropped, as Dines had refused to testify. The case was closed, but the two actresses’ careers were badly damaged. Mabel was able to travel the country, and save her film, but Edna was more or less finished in Hollywood. Her dreams of marriage were shattered, when Dines departed for Arizona without her. Chaplin could not help, but put Edna on a life-long pension. Did Mabel consider all of this sweet revenge, for Edna’s ‘theft’ of Chaplin? We will never know, but Mabel soon went on a national theatrical tour. She made at least 2 million dollars from the Extra Girl and the stage show. While she busied herself buying and fitting out an unpretentious mansion in Beverly Hills, old connections in Tinseltown were breaking down,  the Fairbankses drew up the drawbridge at Pickfair, and the film tycoons consulted on how to get rid of the old Hollywood guard that had behaved so badly, and had held them over a barrel, while they mugged them.

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Chaplin, Pickford, Griffith and Fairbanks create United Artists.

What Chaplin did next.

Chaplin was occupied in 1925 with finishing and publicizing his new film The Gold Rush. Now the black clouds were to descend on the tramp. While in New York, and while his wife Lita Grey, was having his child back in L.A., Charlie struck up  an intense relationship with a young Ziegfield dancer and vamp extraordinaire by the name of Louise Brooks. Their two-month long passionate affair did not go unnoticed, and before long the press came up with a sheaf of photographs showing Louise posing nude. The papers had a field day, and Chaplin dropped ‘Brooksie’ like a hot potato. What did Mabel Normand think about this? Quite frankly, she would have been disgusted, but would have put the blame ‘that whore’ Louise Brooks, rather than Chaplin.

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Louise meets Charlie cartoon 1925.

Chaplin was intent on resurrecting his career, but there is some evidence that the big producers, as well as the press, were out to ‘get’ Chaplin if they could. By the film tycoons, he was hated for being the instigator of the actor’s revolution that produced, with the aid of Doug and Mary, the United Artists production and distribution company back in 1919. thereby stalling their plan of taking the actors to the cleaners.

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‘Old hands’ Charlie and Mabel get together at a premiere in 1927.

Still Hanging on.

Chaplin had little time for Mabel, although they met publicly on various occasions. After Mabel had her ‘sham’ marriage of 1926, and her helter-skelter film making at Roach, the pair’s social circles span in different circles, and Mabel’s respiratory problems became so great that she began to lose her mind, By 1929, she could barely make the effort to socialize to any great extent. In late September she entered the Pottenger Sanitarium, for treatment. She never checked out, and died at the Institute on 22nd February 1930. The Queen of Clowns, who had survived so much in her short life, had passed on. There was nothing left for Charlie to do, but attend the funeral with thousands of others, and, along with the luminaries of the movie business, bear his Keystone Girl to her grave. Not one foot of film was shot that day in Hollywood, and Charlie, Roscoe Arbuckle and numerous others made their obituaries:

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

“Mabel’s illness was of long standing. When I first knew her fifteen years ago, she was suffering from tuberculosis; but so brave was her spirit that she tossed off the threat with a gay indifference.”

Charles S. Chaplin 1930

“I think I just loved her (Mabel). When I was a kid I adored her, I worshipped her. But after I met and worked with her she was just a normal person!”

Co-star, Anita Garvin. 1970

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Gone but not forgotten.

So, Mabel was gone, but was she forgotten by Charlie? Not at all. The fact is he was haunted by the memory and image of Mabel. Nor was he alone, Mabel’s brother and closest friend, Claude, was haunted in same way. Fifteen years later, still in mourning for his tragic sister, he took his own life, cut his throat, in the basement of the Gothic house Mabel had bought on Staten Island.  The Keystone Girl had left this mortal coil just as Charlie was beginning work on the film City Lights. He’d selected his new co-star, Virginia Cherril, a blond, who had seemed ideal to play the blind girl in his picture. However, Chaplin was a changed man. All of a sudden he became cantankerous, obtuse and impossible to work with. He suffered numerous, sleepless nights, and whatever Virginia did, Chaplin was never pleased with her. His star began to stay away from the studio – there were always excuses, she was having her hair done, her mother had died, etc, etc. Chaplin began to rage, and in the end he fired Virginia. His backers and associates panicked, as so much money had already been expended, and if Cheryl was a dud, where could they quickly find a suitable star? Chaplin held his ground, and dropped another bombshell – the film would be silent. The mode of filming had been discussed before hand, and everyone agreed the film would contain at least some dialogue. Chaplin held his ground – the film would be silent, but it was impossible and financially suicidal to change the leading lady, and so Virginia stayed.

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Paulette Goddard.

This behaviour, on the part of Chaplin, was unusual, even for him. His inner thoughts were revealed, as Chaplin set out to produce his next film. His leading lady would be dark-haired, and a gamine to boot. There would no more sultry blonds, who were decorative, but made no tangible contribution. His new girl would be mysterious, lively, and of poor background. In fact, a latter day Keystone Girl that could not be battered down. He chose Paulette Goddard, a girl that he began courting in 1930, and later married. Although dark and full of Irish spirit, Goddard (real name Levy) was of Jewish descent. Chaplin found her ‘gay and amusing’, which all sounds very familiar, as he’d applied these words to another gamine, more than 15 years previously. Like the other girl, she was from the east, had a pronounced Brooklyn accent, and was a scatter-wit with money, bringing $50,000 alimony to invest in a movie con scheme. Chaplin talked her out of it. Paulette turned out to be a creature of whims, just like Mabel, and a rift developed between them, following the release of Modern Times in 1935. Things became more and more strained, and Paulette packed up and left. She realized she’d made a mistake, realized Charlie was impossible. This is where she differed from Mabel – the Keystone Girl would never marry anyone, especially Charlie. They were too much alike. After the early bliss of married life, there would be the clink of cold steel, as he chained her to the kitchen sink. In the vein of Mabel, however, Paulette was dynamite for any big studio. After considering Paulette for the part of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, the Selznick company realized that the outspoken Paulette could harm their public image, as much as that silent star of long ago … what was her name… Mabel something?

Around 1935 alsoSNOW_WHITE_1937tyj35d1, another strange thing happened. Charlie volunteered to help Walt Disney on his animated feature version of Snow White. Chaplin advised on many aspects of the film, and helped bring it success. But, wait a minute, shouldn’t a star character of the mid-1930s be a blond, a Jean Harlow carbon copy?  This cartoon star had dark hair, with heavy lidded, sultry eyes, and a sweet mouth. Her personality was strangely reminiscent of the silent star, popularly known as Madcap Mabel. Against all expectations the film was a complete success. Elsewhere in Hollywood a certain bankrupt producer, named Mack Sennett, was taking note. Since his studio had folded, he’d given many interviews in which he’d referred to his actresses, non-specifically, as his ‘Beauties’. Things had changed; he now had a type that he could could use to forge a new career – a dark-haired beauty, with an engaging personality, Mabel Normand. He’d been watching a sultry, dark-haired actress called Louise Brooks, coming and going from the Roosevelt Hotel. Just perhaps….nah, she wasn’t quite right. Then, using his ‘great intellect’, as Mabel sarcastically called it, he decided he would launch a new career using, not a Mabel lookalike, but the memory of Mabel.

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A dark-haired temptress, but could she be Mabel?

The rest is history. A film, loosely based on Mabel’s character, was released in 1940 by Republic Studios, called Hollywood Cavalcade. Co-incidentally with the release, a party of ‘a thousand stars’ was held at Republic (Sennett’s old studio) where amid an assembly of all the contemporary stars plus many stars of the silent era, the new Mabel Normand Sound-stage was dedicated. A bronze plaque, still extant and weighing 200 pounds, was affixed to the studio wall. Mack Sennett gave a speech saying “We dedicate this stage to the memory of Mabel Normand. Briefly… a little girl with a golden heart.”

The words on the plaque can be seen on the site page for these blogs: ‘The Life and Times of Mabel Normand’.

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Beyond 1940, Mack published his autobiography, a badly concealed memorial to Mabel Normand. He was instrumental in getting another film released, based on Mabel’s life and her ongoing career, if she had lived. It starred ex-Sennett and Chaplin girl, Gloria Swanson, and was called Sunset Boulevard. A very bad stage show arrived in 1970, based loosely on Sennett’s autobiography called ‘Mack and Mabel’. Versions of the play still turn up today on stages around the world. Sennett, having put Mabel’s name out in the modern world, caused many books and songs to be written about her. A short while back, a short film called Mabel’s Dressing Room was released, and, of course, there is the famous 1970s pop song ‘Hello Mabel’. Then, in the early 1990’s, Richard Attenborough, released the film Chaplin in which’Tricky Dickie’ tried to destroy Mabel’s reputation. That bonehead was unsuccessful.

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Gloria Swanson plays a crazy, aging Mabel in Sunset Boulevard. 1950.

Where was Chaplin when all this was going on? Perhaps, because he was promoting The Great Dictator, or to avoid embarrassment, he just did not show at the Republic party. Paulette Goddard appeared in the film, but this was her last appearance for Chaplin. Soon after, Chaplin was considering another film, Shadow and Substance, for which a young dark-haired beauty, of Irish descent, auditioned. Her name was Oona O’neil and she was 17 years old. Irish she was, but although she had the sweetness and gentleness of Mabel, she lacked the drive, ruthless pursuit of fame, and sharp sarcastic wit of The Girl from Staten Island. This, of course, was what Chaplin desired. He soon married Oona, but he would never have married the fearless Madcap Mabel, nor would he have cast her in his films. While Chaplin was now beyond compliant actresses, he certainly did not want a strong-willed gamine as a wife (he’d already tried that). Charlie and Oona remained married until Charlie’s death in 1988. In his later run of films he never cast a blond as leading lady.

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Charlie and Oona.

Mabel Normand undoubtedly used powerful men to further her career, but she never went to the length of marrying them. Mack Sennett held a grip on his little clown for longer than anybody, but there is no evidence they were lovers. Her relationship with Chaplin was more profound, and would have gone further, but for the spectre of Sennett. What would have happened if the two had got together as a team in 1915. We would probably have had films of the like we have never seen. This would have been their legacy, although the genius Chaplin, that we now hail, would not have existed.

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MACK SENNETT’S KEYSTONE GIRL.

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Anyone who knows about American film studios, will understand that every one of them had to have its own ‘Girl’, who represented their films. Vitagraph had its Vitagraph Girl, Biograph, the Biograph Girl, and, of course, at Keystone was the Keystone Girl. Mabel Normand had taken her turn at being the Biograph Girl, and at Vitagraph, she had a special name, Vitagraph Betty. Her enduring name, of course, was The Keystone Girl, by which she was evermore known. The term Keystone Girl is, however, something very different to the other studio girls. Firstly, the only Keystone Girl was Mabel herself, and secondly she represented the actual founding of the studio, and her name became synonymous with Keystone. Keystone, naturally, was a latecomer to the world of films in 1912, when they had but a handful of actors and only one actress, Mabel Normand. The story of Keystone, is just about the story of Mabel Normand.

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Vitagraph Betty with John Bunny in Troublesome Secretaries, 1911.

Background to Keystone.

Both Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand had been performers under the great D.W. Griffith at New York’s Biograph Company. Mack had dreams of being a director and producer with his own studio. Mabel dubbed along like everyone else, but she was incredibly ambitious. She craved stardom, and intended to be as great a star as the original Biograph Girl, Florence Lawrence. To understand the situation pervading at Biograph at the time, one has to understand Griffith and his methods. His real genius was in the way he could fit a performer to a particular role. When he first saw Mabel, he knew he could use her in special roles, as a ‘dark’ or tragic woman. Mary Pickford, he used in more ‘homely’ roles, but, on occasions, he had to cast her in different roles that did not really suit her.

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Mabel and Mary Pickford fight it out in Mender of Nets, 1912.

In all probability he specially chose her, as she was a Belasco-trained actress. While Mabel was a natural actress, who could readily become the person she was playing, Mary (or Our Mary, as Griffith called her) was always stiff and wooden on set, and required ‘shaking up’ or throwing across the stage before she could ‘find’ the character, the shaking and throwing carried out by the kindly Mr. Griffith. Mack Sennett was not impressed, and said of Miss Pickford,

“I don’t see why everyone is so crazy about her, I think she’s affected.”

Griffith needed Mabel for roles requiring a:

“flashing eyed creature of temperament, whose very looks were stilettos in your heart, and whose movements undulated like those of a snake crawling through the brush.”

These words were written in 1916 by Mary Pickford, who’d had the experience of playing opposite Mabel in The Mender of Nets. So fearful did Mabel’s performance make Miss Pickford that she refused to ever appear with her again. For this reason did Griffith keep Mabel around, even though she constantly clowned around the studio, and showed the ‘Master’ little respect. All of this was carefully noted by Mack Sennett. Mabel’s irreverence, and ability to combine darkness and comedy, was just right for what he had planned – if the acting fraternity adored Mabel (and they loved her like mad) then so would the public.

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Everyone loved Mabel, especially those with Mabel eyes..

He required someone who would suit all roles, but could readily become an innocent gamin, as a keystone to his future films. In general he would be burlesquing the real-life Mabel. Specifically, he wanted an actress around whom all the action would revolve. His specialists, Ford Sterling, Fred Mace, Mack Swain and himself would provide the situations (for he planned situation comedy) while a bemused Mabel in her own inimitable way, reacted to those situations. Mabel’s reactions and facial expressions were lightning fast, and her face could easily tell a thousand stories, as quick as he wanted.

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Mabel could give you any number of faces. Oh Those Eyes, 1912.

Capturing the Keystone Girl.

Mabel, it should said, was not there just for the taking. She was about the finest actress that the New York studios ever produced, and, if Griffith resented her somewhat lewd and barely acceptable behaviour then, the other actresses (direct competitors or not) wanted to keep their fiery heroine in-house. Sennett set out on a long-term campaign to ensnare Mabel, and he knew he’d succeeded, to some extent, when everyone one at Biograph accepted Mack and Mabel as an item. However, the road ahead was rocky and, both being as Irish as the Banshees (as Charlie Chaplin would have it) they argued and bickered constantly.

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Mack & Mabel. As Irish as the Banshees, but they argued incessantly.

Mack was lucky, as no other actress would get involved with the crazy Hibernian joker. When the time came for Mack to lure Mabel away to the new New York Motion Pictures comedy unit, the other girls, especially Blanche Sweet tried to make her seek sense. Why did Mabel go away with Mack? Well, it wasn’t just Mack that persuaded to leave Biograph, it was also the combined efforts of the shrewd NYMP bosses, Charlie Baumann and Adam Kessell.   They offered Mabel the princely sum of $125 per week to join the new comedy unit – without Mabel the deal with Mack was off. Mabel mulled it over. She would be the sole actress at the unit, with no competition, and the sky was the limit as far as career advancement was concerned. She could be the second named star of the movies, and she felt that she could eventually be the first to have her own studio. Mabel signed for NYMP under the Keystone brand, and left a vacuum at Boiograph where the life and soul used to be. Sennett, however, was jubilant, and soon left for California, with the naïve Mabel in his grasp.

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Florence Lawrence: the world’s first movie star. Mabel intended to be the world’s second movie star.

Whatever happened in Edendale?

Out on muddy Allesandro Street, Mack set up his makeshift studio, consisting of an abandoned grocery shop, a barn and a ramshackle bungalow. Mabel scored straight away, by taking the latter as her dressing room. However, in other areas she soon found herself hamstrung, as regard acting roles in Mack’s pictures. Mabel had expected the slapstick, but hadn’t realized Mack had planned that she would be an eternal ingenue, depriving her of heavy dramatic roles that she believed could be combined with comedy to form a new genre. At first Mabel accepted that her ideas would not work on screen, and Mack watered them down, so that only a small modicum of tragedy was ever shown. Mack, of course, was always right, and Mabel understood that he knew best how to cast her. However, over time, she realized that she’d made a big mistake by not pushing for a share in the company, like Mack. She’d been young and foolish when she went to California, and didn’t realize that the management would call all the shots. In fact, it is unlikely that she initially knew that Mack had negotiated a one-third share in the Keystone company. Mabel would have  been livid, when she realized she’d been kept out of the picture.

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Mack keeps a firm hold of Mabel, just in case NYMP’s Ad Kessell spirits her away.

From Spring 1914, Mabel was able discuss her ideas with new actor on the lot, Charlie Chaplin, who helped her push for a different perspective in their films. They were not able entirely to dispense with slapstick, but managed to introduce a little pathos into their pictures. In one film, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, Mack even allowed Mabel to play a ‘bad’ girl of her own age. However, it is certain that vaudeville-lovers Adam Kessell and Charlie Baumann were behind the film, starring Stage-star Marie Dressler. In any event, the ‘bad’ girl regresses to the good old Mabel, when she dons a maid’s outfit, and gets involved in some crazy slapstick.

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Gangster’s moll, Mabel, squares up to Marie Dressler in 1915.

As soon as Chaplin was gone from the studio, Mack banged the table and announced “No more pathos!” Mabel was put with Roscoe Arbuckle to do the love-sick country kids film series. Both Mabel and Roscoe got into huge arguments with Sennett over their roles, and Mabel finally did a ‘runner’ while on loan to Triangle in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She was only brought back on the promise that Sennett’s new studio on Fountain Avenue, would be made available for her own exclusive use. She’d have her name over the building in five feet high letters.

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Mack attempted to dictate what would happen in the film. He didn’t intend that Mabel would have his best director, F. Richard Jones, but Mabel managed to prise Jones from Mack’s grasp, and the film took a direction slightly different to that imagined by Mack Sennett, who, although he owned the studio, had to bow to the Triangle company, who owned The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company. There is little evidence for the old-time Keystone Girl in the picture, and out and out slapstick are virtually absent. As the Triangle company began to crumble, Mabel again ran away – to Goldwyn Films. The picture made by Mabel at her studio lay on a shelf gathering dust for two years, until Adolph Zukor gained control of the Triangle company, and set about editing the raw film, which he named after his daughter, ‘Mickey’. Anyone who has seen Mickey, a kind of Cinderella story, will agree that Zuckor and his editors made a good job of the film, and it is certain that it is the greatest film Mabel ever made. Thanks to F. Richard Jones, the old Keystone Girl was drawn out, and extended to become a believable ingenue, a rags to riches girl, way beyond that envisioned by Mack Sennett.

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Mabel runs amok in a posh house. Mickey.

Beyond Mickey

Unfortunately, under Goldwyn, Mabel prospered financially, but, deprived of stories suitable for the screen, and a dearth of good direction, her films lacked the impact of Mickey. By 1921 she was Sennett’s girl again, showered with money and commanding the services of the great F. Richard Jones. Again, the Keystone Girl was extended, even her extensive range of facial expressions were increased and refined. Mabel was not completely happy, however, and began to associate with those that could help her into one of the big prestigious studios. One ‘helper’ was Paramount Studios director, William D. Taylor, who was mysteriously shot dead in 1922. A further shooting in 1924, also involving Mabel, ostensibly finished her association with Mack Sennett, although, after a spell onstage, she was pencilled in for a new extravaganza from Sennett in 1926.

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Mabel with husband and ‘Butterfly Man’ Lew Cody in 1926.

This film never materialized, and contacts were severed with Mack, when Mabel married ‘Butterfly Man’ Lew Cody. In 1926 also, Mabel made a series of five films for Hal Roach. By then F. Richard Jones was Roach’s studio supervisor, which meant Mabel’s films were tolerably good, rather than disastrous. Avidly watching Mabel’s antics around the studio was a screenwriter called Stan Laurel. Stan was later to make a name for himself, as an actor alongside Oliver Hardy, utilizing a selection of Mabel’s facial and other gestures. As for Mack Sennett, the next time he had anything to do with his Keystone Girl was when he, and other Hollywood notables, bore Mabel to her grave in February 1930.

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“Sorry Ollie!”

Was there ever really a Keystone Girl?

Undoubtedly there was a Keystone Girl, but that person was a figment of Mack Sennett’s imagination. His ‘girl’ was a virtual Mabel, a heavily burlesqued version of the real thing. The real Mabel was a combination of many things, she was, at once, naïve, irreverent, fickle, but adorable and disarming. Blanche Sweet, Gloria Swanson and Hal Roach said she was vulgar, and crude, but, as Blanche recalled, everyone adored her anyway. D.W. Griffith overlooked her obvious abilities, and allowed Mack Sennett to lure her away to his land of make-believe, where he made her a veritable Mabel in Wonderland, a bemused, naïve girl lost in a world populated by cruel and beastly adults. As with the Biograph girls, her fans loved and adored her – forever.

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Stars past and present dedicate the Mabel Normand Stage, Republic Studios 1940.

Mack Sennett wrote the final words on Mabel Normand, in his autobiography of the early 1950s. From that time onward, no-one ever deviated much from the Sennett script, not even Charlie Chaplin. Adela Rogers St. Johns, self-styled friend of Mabel, adopted Sennett’s tone on Mabel, and even elaborated on it. “Mabel only ever loved but one man” quoth Miss St. Johns “Mack Sennett.” In her book, Lulu in Hollywood, Louise Books is quite clear, there is not one line of truth in Sennett’s autobiography, and she implies that it was the King of Comedy that finally destroyed Mabel, not ice-cream breakfasts and late nights, as he had claimed. Mack Sennett’s story of Mabel’s life has prevailed down the years simply because, as Sennett well understood, everyone loves a fairy tale. We would all love to believe Mack’s story of his devotion to Mabel, “A little girl with a golden heart” but it is simply not true.

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The Keystone stars swarm around their ‘Queen Bee’, Mabel. Christmas 1915.

Addendum

There are some interesting facts about Mabel’s association with Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin. The story of Mack and Mabel, contrary to that purveyed in the stage play of that name, is one of betrayal, rather than undying love. Without Mabel, Keystone would never have got off the ground, but Mack showed his appreciation by grooming other female stars – new, or standby Mabels. This all came to a head in 1915, but, by then, she’d already been betrayed by Charlie Chaplin. After Mabel helped him with his career, Chaplin simply left Keystone, without offering to take her to his new studio, as his leading lady. Neither Sennett, nor Chaplin made their peace with Mabel in her lifetime, although a 1919 will by Sennett was found in his private papers following his death. In it he bequeathed his entire wealth “….. to Mabel Normand, who collaborated with me in the early years of my work, and contributed by her efforts to my success.” It was Chaplin who was most grieved by Mabel’s untimely death, and gave more obituaries to the press than anyone else. However, years before he’d told Mabel “I’ve saved several thousand dollars, and I owe it all to you. If you ever need any of it just shout, and I’ll come running.”

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Chaplin gets acquainted with The Keystone Girl.

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LIVING IN AMERICA BY MABEL NORMAND.

 

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Mabel saves the flag.

During the years that I have been The Queen of Clowns, I have been asked for my opinion on everything from the clogging of our roads by motorized traffic, to the rise in coffee use, and the prevalence of Parisian fashions. I have always declined to comment, because the questions were too pointed. However, in a global sense I am sort of qualified to answer the question “How has America changed in the twentieth century.” You may know that I grew up in the Victorian era, but made my bones in the Edwardian age. These terms themselves hark back to an age when America followed Europe, in cultural terms at least. It’s interesting to note that, following the death of the old British king, Americans would never dream of saying we are now in the Georgian Age. That’s because the United States has moved on, and no longer follows Europe.

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When I was a girl, my mother always wore black, as did her relatives – they were like American versions of old queen Vic. My aunts’ living rooms were always dark and heavy in style, and often contained a glass case, in which lurked strange wax flowers. Me being me, I always prised the cases open, while no one looking, and took a handful of flowers and picked them to bits. Unlike older women today, aged aunts back then, wore what looked to  be a puritan bonnet, and high laced boots. Whatever we girls wore, our clothes were always covered by a stiff and scratchy starched apron. How I hated those old-fashioned, scratchy puritan aprons, and I’ve lost count of the number of them I pushed into the trash bin. I cannot blame the older women, for, in those days the streets were muddy and dirty, meaning you absolutely had to wear boots, and frequent changes of apron kept one always looking neat. These days only slaveys and carpenters wear aprons, and how many ‘bright young things’ of today, would wear lace-up boots, in preference to impractical, Parisian designed shoes?

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Down on the Bowery Late 19th Century. 

So, in the 1890s we all lived lives that were subject to a pervading medium of Victorianism. Sure, the Folies Bergère provided a little Parisian light relief, when it reached Broadway, but you could see an American version in the low-class joints on the Bowery. How do I know – well, my father sometimes took me on the ferry to Manhattan, where he paused to look at the posters outside the ‘low’ theatres, and talked to the ‘girls’ outside. The girls made a great fuss of me, and some brought out make up and tried to ‘make me up’. Dad always stopped them saying mother would kill him. Later, when I asked him why he stopped them he replied “Those girls are ‘trash’ – stay away from them.” I couldn’t understand why, as they were very pretty, and wore beautiful up-to-the-minute clothes. I thought “That’s what I want to be when I grow up – trash.” I didn’t then understand how heavily made up they were, and that the clothes belonged, not to them, but their pimp. This area hasn’t changed much since that time, and the girls still patrol that street. By the way, a short time later, a certain Mack Sennett worked these joints, and became a regular at the police courts. Was he a ‘pimp’? Possibly.

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Meet the girls. 

With the exception of the Bowery girls, things have changed a lot since those days. The number of electric trolleys on city streets has multiplied exponentially, and it’s true to say they made Los Angeles and Hollywood. Without them, the actors and actresses would have not have survived out west. Let me take you back to 1911, when I first came out to California. In those days, the studios were straight out of the Wild West, and the performers were paid Wild West money. The well-paid ones earned, perhaps, $50 a

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Fatty & Mabel’s house, Malibu 1915.

week, but the extras and non-stars were lucky to make 15. They could not afford to live in Hollywood, Glendale or downtown. They needed the trolleys to get to where they did live, which was out on the coast at Santa Monica, Malibu, or in the seedy areas of L.A. Believe it or not, these areas were low-rent back in the 1910s. One could, of course, live near Keystone, in Edendale (Echo Park), but, I tell you, back then that place was an unhealthy mudhole, although Louise Fazenda and Gloria Swanson saw no wrong in the area. In those days, however, if you were recognized as an actress, while riding the trolley, you were spat on by the passengers. Fortunately, looking only about 12 years old, I seemed to be a girl on her way to school.

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Pacific Electric trolley dodges the mud in Highland Park L.A. 1908.

In general, all of the actors thought they would earn a mere crust at their profession, then, when the movies inevitably collapsed, they’d be back where they started, as street vendors, labourers, shop girls, and whores. The miracle of the movie business was that it carried on, and a few us of went on to make a million. We really were the harbingers of the new America. You can visualise the changes in our films. We drove fancy cars, flew through the clouds in aircraft, lived in mansions, and wore furs (not really good for the Southern California climate). We knew nothing of wars, and peace brought with it huge financial benefits. The movie industry was booming from 1910, and, in America, began to accelerate, as Europe became embroiled in its war, and the French, British and Italian studios were wiped out. Taxes in the U.S. were light, and no-one bothered to chase you for it, anyway. The shock came in 1917 when we entered the war and tax rates leapt to 77%, and suddenly clever accountants were in great demand at the studios. Miss Normand and messrs Chaplin and Sennett made regular cash deposits at dodgy Mexican banks.

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Early days at The Biograph. No-one thought the movies would last.

I’ll now answer some of the questions the press always asked me. Did I wear imported Parisian shoes and clothes? Well, I had to answer ‘no’ even though all my clothes were specially ordered from Paris. Did I prefer tea or coffee? Again, I had to lie, for The King of Comedy only permitted me to drink tea from dainty cups in my films, and alcohol and coffee were definitely out. The stage mothers at Biograph were absolutely horrified that I consumed alcohol and coffee in equal measure! Their efforts to keep me away from their angelic girls, failed miserably.

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“More tea, m’lady.” The deb’s tea party, Caught in a Cabaret 1914.

How old am I? Well, a woman has to have some secrets. In New York I’m always pursued by young scallywags who want to know my age. Over in London they were even worse “Oi Mybel, ‘ow old are yer!” Finally, what about the rise of the automobile? Well, I say good for it! Much better than getting covered in mud waiting for the trolley. All we need now is for the Federal Government to build more of the interstates they keep on about, and for the L.A. city council to spend some of that ‘road money’ they charge the housing developers (the U.S. needs to catch up with Europe, and install good, smooth  roads nationwide). My mother would disagree with this – she thinks all the infernal cars, trolleys and subways should be scrapped to make room for …. horses!

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Living it up in Limehouse.

Getting back to America, post-war, the country entered a short period of stagnation, but the studios were relatively unaffected by the downturn, although some studios, laden with debt, like Goldwyn, almost went bust, when the influenza epidemic hit us. We were soon in the Roaring Twenties, and things looked good for me, until my world crumbled following the Taylor scandal in 1922. I decided this was a good time to visit Europe, but, before I went, I was briefed by England’s greatest, Charlie Chaplin. “Mabel” He said “You will see poverty in London of the like you will never believe.” This took me back a bit, as I only knew the London of Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge and Horse-guards’ Parade. Of course, I had heard of the slums in the East End and Limehouse, but Charlie reckoned that grime and poverty were everywhere in the capital of the world. I took Californian Jack London’s 1903 book, The People of the Abyss, about the London slums, with me.

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Jack London on Waikiki Beach, Hawaii.

I had written to Jack in about 1912, asking to meet him. That letter followed Jack to Chicago, New York, and finally Hawaii. I received his reply a year later, in which he said he’d gladly meet me, if I travelled Hawaii! He told me he’d written his book to warn America about the evils of empire-building, and he reckoned the parlous state of the English worker was due to the great expense of maintaining the Empire, which put the country into debt, reckoned in the billions of dollars. His advice to our Federal Government, was to refrain from prosecuting wars abroad, and to desist from building an empire. He claimed that our occupation of the Phililpines, was an exercise in empire-building, not to baulk a Spanish invasion, but to acquire useful bases from which to control the Pacific. I had no idea! I looked at my globe – Manilla was over 10,000 miles from the White House! He also told me that a huge war was brewing in Europe, into which the U.S. would be drawn. Following that war, we’d spread tentacles across the world, build an empire, then, collapse exhausted from the ‘English Disease’.

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Mabel loved children, but never had any of her own. His Trysting Place, 1914.

He further predicted that, within a hundred years, a group of so-called republicans would persuade the people that only they could save America. The republic would be dismantled, and a dictatorship would replace democracy. I could hardly believe it, but sure enough, 4 years later, my brother Claude, and thousands of other Americans, were marching into the thick, dark mud on the Somme. Then I really began to worry about the future, and decided I would never have children, and made plans to enter politics, to help bring about social change. The thought of English workers toiling 12 hours a day with nothing to sustain them but black bread and enormous quantities of third rate beer appalled me. Could this really be the lot of the Americans?

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Poor street-girl Mabel causes a little amusement at the races.

Getting back to basics, the American economy continued to grow, but the poor still existed. There were the occasional reports of people starving to death, right here in Los Angeles, and there were orphans on the streets. Who was outright starving I did not know, but I did my best for the orphans I saw selling newspapers on the streets. The first of them I found sleeping under the Motordrome board track, Playa del Rey, while we were filming out there. I regularly took them on top of the boards to watch the motor races, until the place burned down in 1913. From then on I took orphans to Santa Monica, or some other track. One pressman surreptitiously watched us much later in 1921 at Ascot Park Speedway and reported:

“Suddenly the orphan boy exclaimed “Gee, look at all the film stars, there’s Wally Reid.” To which a peanut munching Mabel replied “Yeah, aren’t they funny!”

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Racing at Ascot Park. Mabel’s Busy Day 1914.

Changes came aplenty down the years. The movie actors upped sticks and moved out – not back east, but to a new movie enclave in the Beverly Hills. With much reluctance, I followed them, and bought my own unpretentious movie mansion. Around early 1929 we heard there could be imminent economic collapse in the U.S. My old friend, Chaplin, warned me to cash in all my investments. I had none. I thank god I will not be around, when the real collapse comes. Chaplin thinks things will be dire. I leave it to others who will come later, to write the final chapter of the American Dream.

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MABEL AND THE DINES AFFAIR.

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Loud mouth and Braggart, Courtland Dines.

In early 1922, W.D. Taylor, a close friend of Mabel Normand, was shot dead at his courtyard house in Los Angeles. Mabel, who had just started to make her second film for Mack Sennett Studios, was the last person to see Taylor alive. The press coverage and public interest was huge, and fingers were pointed in Mabel’s direction. Quite what happened that evening, no-one knows, but Mabel had to  depart for Europe in June to get the braying pack off her. Returning to the U.S. in September, she found that her studio had given the leading part in the feature film Extra Girl to actress Phyllis Havers. In no time at all she had Haver fired from the picture, and herself installed in the lead. The most popular explanation for this unusual move was that Mabel had something on producer Mack Sennett that prompted his decision. Nobody knows what that ‘something’ was, but it may have involved the Taylor murder, for which Sennett was a prime suspect. Mabel now found herself in a good position at the studio and things looked rosy.

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Mabel publicity shot for Extra Girl. 1923.

Storm and Shadow.

The film Extra Girl proved a great hit, and money was to shower down on Mack and Mabel, who had a 25% share of the profits. Around the time Extra Girl was released, Charlie Chaplin’s resident leading lady, Edna Purviance, starred in her only solo Chaplin release called A Woman of Paris. Sadly, for Edna, the film bombed, but Mabel, who’d known her for many years, brought her closer and consoled her. In the final months of 1923, the pair were, outwardly, good friends, and Edna introduced Mabel to her latest love interest, Courtland Dines, a wealthy oilman, playing the field in Hollywood. Dines was a party lover, but he was also loud-mouthed and came over as obnoxious to many people. He was particularly loathed by Mabel’s housekeeper Edith (or Ethel) Burns, as he came to the Normand household regularly with his betrothed, Edna Purviance.

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Mabel, Edna and Court frolic aboard a yacht.

However, Mrs Burns knew that ‘Court’ was taking Mabel out behind Edna’s back. Many arguments ensued between the housekeeper and her employer, as Mrs Burns knew that Mabel’s last bout of trouble had been due to a love triangle. Already deeply upset by the Taylor murder, Mabel resented the housekeeper’s attempts to keep her on the straight and narrow, telling her that if she (Mabel) was so stupid, and couldn’t look after herself, then she’d blow her own brains out with the pistol she kept in her bedroom. This threw Mrs Burns into a panic, and she discussed with the chauffeur, Joe Kelly, the possibility of taking the gun, and getting rid of it. However, this, they decided, would not work, as the pistol was one of a pair, and no-one knew where the twin was kept.

See: MABEL’S FRIENDS: MRS BURNS.

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Mabel’s .25 pistol.

Before proceeding with what later transpired, it’s worth noting that Edna Purviance had played a big role in the direction of Mabel’s career nine years previously. It seems that when Charlie Chaplin left Keystone studios at the end of 1914, Mabel had expected him to take her with him, to co-star in his Essanay studio films. Chaplin did not do this, but instead, took on an unknown stenographer, Edna Purviance. The fact that Mabel was enraged at Chaplin’s treacherous actions, is indicated by the way Mabel (particularly if drunk) would stand up in a restaurant or theatre where Chaplin was, point at the tramp, and scream:

“Charlie! I will be your leading lady, one day!”

thereby embarrassing ‘His Greatness’. In the light of this, it is surprising that Mabel formed a friendship with Edna Purviance, and this should be borne in mind, when reading the following.

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Another Christmas, another year. Mabel makes her last film, at MGM in 1928.

On New Years Day 1924, Mabel was busy at home, taking down her Christmas tree. Sometime in the early evening, she took a phone call from Edna Purviance asking her to come over to Courtland Dines apartment for drinks. Mrs Burns tried to stop Mabel from going, as there had been a party at Dines’ apartment the previous night, and Mrs Burns thought Edna and Court would be hung over, and the latter might become aggressive, as he usually was after a night on the booze. Furthermore, Mabel was due to enter hospital early the next day for an operation, and Mrs Burns thought she should stay home and have an early night. However, the hyperactive Mabel thought differently, and called for chauffeur Joe Kelly to fetch the car round. Kelly obliged, and took Mabel to Dine’s apartment at 325-B North Vermont Avenue, a little over a mile away. On arrival at the apartment, they were met by Dines, who became rude and threatening towards Mabel. There was some discussion about a Christmas present for Court, which Mabel hadn’t brought with her. Mabel asked Kelly to bring the present with him, when he called to pick her up later. This is the most coherent and plausible scene testified to by  the witnesses. What happened next depended upon which witness the police spoke to.

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Dines’ Apartment on Vermont. 1924.

 

The Chauffeur Loses His Mind.

It was a few hours later (the precise time is disputed) that Mabel rang home, and, according to Kelly and Mrs Burns, asked to be picked up, and that Kelly should bring Court’s present with him. Mrs Burns, who took the call, warned that Court was in a terrible mood, and she thought he would attempt to hold Mabel against her will. Kelly claimed that Mrs Burns urged him to take Mabel’s gun along for defence against hot-head Dines. According to Kelly, he knew exactly where the gun was – in Mabel’s lingerie drawer, in her bedroom. Other evidence suggests Mrs Burns brought the gun from the bedroom and slipped it into Kelly’s pocket, as he left for Vermont Avenue. Again, from here on the various testimonies are confused.

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Joe Kelly AKA Horace Greer.

 

Kelly claims that, when he arrived at the apartment, Court was reluctant to admit him, but eventually allowed the chauffeur through the door. Kelly then went over to the sofa, where Mabel was sitting, looking the worse for drink. Kelly said words to the effect that she should come home straightaway. Court meanwhile was whispering something else in her ear, but Kelly got Mabel on her feet, and led her to the door. At this point Dines became aggressive, and, according to Kelly, he suddenly grabbed a large whisky bottle from a table, and went to ‘brain’ the chauffeur with it. According to Kelly, he pulled the gun in self-defence, and put three shots into Dines. He then fled the scene and went directly to the University Police Station, where he turned in the gun, and admitted what he’d done.

The Cops and the Press turn up.

Kelly was taken into custody, while the police set off for Dines’ apartment. Here they found Dines collapsed, with two women crying over him. On asking what had happened, only Mabel replied, saying, rather jokingly:

“I guess someone shot him, officer.”

Court was sent off to hospital, while Edna and Mabel joined Joe Kelly at the cop shop. The two women were too intoxicated to say much of any value, although they both denied everything that Kelly said. Mabel said she went to Dines’ place at 8 p.m. while Kelly claimed it was 8.30 p.m. Mabel also denied phoning for a ride home. Edna’s story was vague and indefinite. Kelly’s statement made sense, considering his employer was well intoxicated at the time Dines was shot. Mabel, it seems had cobbled together some sort of story that went against that of Kelly. There were a few problems for Mabel in Kelly’s statement. First it implied that Mabel was a hopeless alcoholic, who needed her staff to look out for her. Secondly, there was the inference that Kelly knew his way around her bedroom.

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Mabel in her bedroom with film star photo collection.

 

Dines’ belligerent behaviour might stem from the fact that he considered Mabel to be under the control of her staff, while he probably thought that she should have a man around the house, preferably someone like himself. Many had thought this way about Sennett’s girl, perhaps even Sennett himself. Kelly had been interviewed and employed, not by Mabel, but by her secretary, Betty Coss, on the advice of the Pierce-Arrow

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Chaplin gives Edna a screen test.

Company. No-one at that time knew that Joe Kelly was, in fact, Horace Greer, an escapee from the chain-gang. At the first interview, Edna had little to say, and appeared to be completely confused. Her job with Chaplin was clearly on the line, and, unlike Mabel, beyond Chaplin she had nowhere to go. In fact, she was now all washed up in Hollywood, and any chance of marrying her millionaire was probably gone. The press noted that Edna was dressed in a cloth of gold evening gown, gold satin slippers and gold silk stockings, with a wrap of gold and green, and Mabel was a Gainsborough picture in black velvet–and plenty of ostrich feathers on her hat. The pair were taken to the hospital to see Dines, who was shot through the lung and ear, but was still very much conscious.

 “Oh, daddy” said Edna “Is my sweetie hurt.”

Mabel followed with:

“Lo, Hoy’s the sweetie then” in a sarcastic tone of voice. “All my fault. Say, he told everybody I saw the shooting. Huh–and if he says it again I’ll take a couple shots at him.”

Mabel pushed Edna out of the way and repeated that it was all her fault. Some of what she said, reminds us that Mabel was not the sharpest tool in the box, when it came to social diplomacy, especially as the cops were present.

Of course, the press were ready to believe that Mabel was somehow behind the shooting, and had a closer relationship with Kelly than she had admitted, but Mabel put up a form of defence:

“Blah, blah” Said Mabel. “Slush, the poor boob was nuts. He was only one of the servants, and he was treated like one. Why, I didn’t even treat him like–well I’ve had a lot of good chauffeurs. And good gawd, I didn’t even hire this egg. My secretary did that.”

On the subject of the gun Mabel stated:

“Well my gawd,” she said, “I didn’t know how he had it. He says he got it out of my room. What business had he in my room–my bedroom? Say, I hope I drop dead if this ain’t the truth–that man had been in my room only twice that I know of–once to fix my curler and once to fix an electric plug. Honest. Somebody gave me that gat to shoot bottles with. I broke a lot of nice mountains, but I had a lot of fun. And he says I was in the room when he cut loose with the gat, and he wasn’t shooting at bottles,either. I wasn’t in the room at all. I was in Edna’s room. She was putting on her evening gown and it wasn’t hooked up and I didn’t want this egg to see her. Then all of a sudden bang, bang, bang.”

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Of course, none of this did Mabel any good, especially as some of the phrases she used were not from the American West, but somewhere further east like ‘Old Lonnon Town.” She appeared to have adopted an aristocratic mode of speaking. A mere movie star putting on airs and graces; this would not go down well with the public. No one would believe that the gun, though of smallish calibre, was a ‘gat’. Nor would they believe Mabel was a poor shot, considering the amount of practice she’d had.

Edna made some comments on the actions of Kelly:

“Why, that chauffeur just came in the door and started shooting. That’s all there was to it. No argument or anything so far as I know.”

However, she said Dines was in the bedroom, getting changed, when Kelly shot at him from the living room.

At this time, Charlie Chaplin was besieged by the press.

“Is Edna going to be fired?”

“No” replied Charlie “But she was not going to be in the next film, anyway.”

It seems Edna was already for the chop.

In another interview, Mabel bemoaned the fact that she and her neighbour in the duplex were besieged by sightseers, waiting to get a glimpse of the gun-toting star.

“And it’s all over nothing at all, that I have yet been able to find out.”  said Mabel.

Mabel also added that she had little occasion to speak to Kelly, just a few words, “Take me here, take me there.” She denied that Kelly was infatuated with her enough to shoot someone. Interviewers noted that Mabel had used archaic and Shakespearean terms like ‘forsooth’ that had not been used in America for more than a hundred years.

Edna, in an interview, was quizzed about some stills from a home movie, made on Dines’ yacht, that had been published in a magazine. The press were particularly interested in one picture, which showed Dines pulling a splinter from Edna’s bared leg. For some reason Mabel is lying on the deck, and appears to be pulling something from her coat – a gun perhaps?

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Mabel goes for her gun as Court examines Edna’s bared leg.

While Mabel was in hospital for her planned operation, she suddenly went into relapse, and and it was reported she was in a state of collapse, on January 9th. In the meantime, various states began to ban Mabel Normand films. ‘Mabel was bad, bad bad’. In late January, Mabel was off on a tour of the country to promote The Extra Girl.

The Trial Of Joe Kelly.

At the preliminary trial, things worsened for Mabel. She was the first witness to appear at the arraignment of Horace Greer (Joe Kelly) on January 22nd. Mabel’s testimony could be said to have done her little good, as she remained jokey and a little sarcastic throughout.

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Mabel mugging in court.

The trial began proper on 17th June, but Mabel only took the stand in the afternoon, having been brought to court by subpoena. Unfortunately, she used her newly acquired aristocratic accent again. The press crucified her – “how dare a ‘vulgarian from the gutter’ come to a court of law and put on airs and graces!”   She accentuated her account with gestures, or mugging, fully suited to a star of the silent screen. Although Edna and Mabel’s stories had now gelled somewhat, there was a curious mix of ‘definite’ and ‘do not know’. Greer refused to testify, as some portions of his police statement had been withheld, apparently to protect certain members of the movie industry. Unfortunately, he also said he would not testify, as he did not want to get his employer into trouble. His defence, then, were clearly trying to shift the blame onto ‘bad girl’ Mabel.

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A worried-looking Mabel in the courtroom.

As the trial continued, the defence for Greer referred to the party organized by Edna, Mabel and Court, as a Roman saturnalia, at which Courtland posed as a Roman gladiator in his undershirt. He further ridiculed the testimony given by Miss Normand and Miss Purviance, adding:

“But the stars have got their punishment and the only lesson that a jury can teach such dark stars is by acquitting this boy”

Greer was acquitted on June 20th, due to Dines’ failure to testify, but was immediately arrested for contravention of the Wright prohibition Act. Dines announced he was glad the thing was all over. No doubt he was, because there were dangerous people lurking in the movie industry, and if they lost money, then anything could happen.

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Mabel and dog at 3089 West 7th Street.

In the end, Greer was gone from the Mabel household, Mrs Burns was ‘let go’ and, eventually Mabel’s secretary, Betty Coss, (who’d employed Greer) walked out after some fierce arguments with the star-of-stars.  Mabel bought a Beverly Hills mansion, took to a short stage career, had a sham marriage, then did a year’s filming at Hal Roach Studios. Greer disappeared, and apparently settled in New York. Dines, sans Edna, retired to Colorado, where he was committed to an asylum for the insane in 1933. As Mabel staggered on, Edna’s career withered on the vine, and Chaplin awarded her a life-long pension, for services rendered.

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The media’s view of  Mabel.

What Happened on That Fateful Day?

The Taylor affair of 1922, was a mystery, but the Dines affair, being very complicated, was worse for Mabel. The mystery is, of course, why was Greer acquitted, when the case had attracted so much public attention? Let’s look at some of the theories put forward for the shooting of Courtland Dines.

1.  Greer was infatuated with Mabel, and took offence, when Dines was ridiculed her. This is not as crazy as it sounds, for there were millions of people around the world that loved her. Nor was that love confined to fans in remote parts, who had never met her. Chaplin later recalled that everyone at the Keystone adored her, and when he once criticized her, there were many that were ready to punch his lights out. It is well-known that her staff were ever ready to defend their diminutive boss, and could find no fault with her. Many of the old Biograph girls, ostensibly her competitors, publicly defended her after the Taylor and Dines affairs. Mabel craved love and affection, and she endeavoured to make everyone feel special, including Horace Greer.

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This happens, if you ‘dis’ Mabel. Fatal Mallet.

 

2. Greer was a ‘plant’ put into Mabel’s household in order to bring her into disrepute. This also sounds far-fetched, but there were those at the top of the movie industry, who wanted Mabel gone. To some she was an embarrassment, and her continual attempts to get signed by big studios like Paramount, had the bosses worried. It has been been said that big boss, Adolph Zukor, had threatened to fire any Paramount executives that signed her. Mabel, we know, had been big trouble for the studios since she entered the industry in 1910. Perhaps Zukor, or one of his ilk, had planted Greer, or had had Taylor killed two years before. Beyond this there was the L.A. police, who would gladly have liked to get Mabel on a drugs or booze charge. Then there was the Federal Secret Service to whom Mabel may have seemed to be a subversive. She was, after all, a committed socialist, perhaps a communist, or even an anarchist. Good God, this Irish girl could even be a Fenian. The fact that she was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) meant she was a danger to the establishment, should she ever, as she planned, run for public office. Like Charlie Chaplin, Mabel believed she was constantly tailed by various detectives and spies. The fact that Greer ‘retired’ from crime after this incident, does suggest that he acquired some money, about this time. The view that someone ‘paid him off’ is no mere illusion.

 

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“Hmm, I don’t know much about pistols.” Mabel in court.

3. Mabel was adorable, but she bore grudges – forever. She bore a grudge against Mae Marsh ever since Mae was given the lead in Man’s Genesis in 1911, over Mary Pickford and herself. It is possible she bore a similar grudge against Edna Purviance, who had become Chaplin’s leading lady, leaving Mabel to stew at Keystone in pure slapstick. Make no mistake, Mabel was quite capable of cosying up to people, while plotting their eventual downfall. She seems to have had little trouble spiriting W.D. Taylor away from competing actress, Mary Miles Minter in 1921 / 22. Even Mack Sennett said that, somewhere deep inside, Mabel was dark and brooding.  Could she, in a fit of passion, or intoxicated with drink, have shot Dines, in order to deprive Edna of her millionaire? Edna had already had one top guy – why should Mabel let her have another? Alternatively, did she get Greer to shoot Dines? The existing police evidence suggests that the shooting happened in the bedroom, rather than in the living room, as the participants  had stated. Were Court and Edna in the bedroom together, when Greer, or a disgruntled Mabel, fired the gun?

4. Mack Sennett was a prime suspect in the Taylor case. Could he have had something to do with the Dines shooting? Did he suspect that Mabel might go off with the wealthy Dines? Married to a millionaire, she would have no need to work, and that would put Mack in a fix. Plenty of actresses had done precisely that in the past [Footnote]. It’s not beyond reason to think that Greer was another of Mack’s spies, promoted to assassin when the need arose.

The whole affair remains a complete mystery, but the most likely scenario is that Greer, infatuated with Mabel, fired the shots. However the suspicion of a vengeful Mabel, or Mack Sennett, who had Dines and Taylor shot, remains to this day.

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Footnote: Keystone actresses, Eva Nelson and Helen Carruthers, both snared wealthy men, and left the movies for good. Eva married a wealthy banker, and departed for Hong Kong, where she soon died after contracting Asian Flu. Helen married a Dutch Baron, and lived the high-life in New York. One night, in 1925, she toppled from the 5th floor  window of an N.Y. hotel, and was killed.

THE STRANGE CASE OF HELEN CARRUTHERS AKA PEGGY PAGE.

Bibliography

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

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

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

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

 

 

FROM GIBSON GIRL TO MADCAP MABEL.

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Left:Mabel aged 13 . Right: Biograph Mabel, as Muriel Fortescue.

 

Mabel Normand’s early days are shrouded in mystery. She had no birth certificate, and even today her place of birth cannot be traced. However, when she began to gain fame, the residents of Rhode Island claimed her as one of their own. In popular folk-lore she was born in Provident, Rhode Island. Wherever she was born, it seems she grew up on Staten Island, where her father gained work at Snug Harbour sailor’s home. Few people appear to have known her in New Brighton, and it seems clear that she only attended school briefly. There are hints that she didn’t really fit in, being unable to integrate in the normal way. Like Charlie Chaplin, she carried some psychological problem all her life – those terrible twins ADHD and Autism fit her character best. Something of a tearaway, she ran amok on Staten Island, like some kind of female Huckleberry Finn, swimming and diving in the Hudson River, until she was sent away to a convent at an early age.

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Left: Models, Mabel with Anna Q. Nilsonn and Alice Joyce. Right: As Gibson Girl.

Gibson Girl.

Endowed with tremendous ambition, the limited evidence suggests she dreamed of being an actress, although she would have liked to have been more artistic – a painter or a musician. In any event, she eventually found herself modelling for artists. By posing for Charles Dana Gibson, Mabel became a ‘Gibson Girl’. In the studios she wasn’t above stealing items – usually bright, shiny things. Her friends in modelling were two later giants of the silver screen, Anna Q. Nilsonn and Alice Joyce. As her two elders entered films, little Mabel followed them. Soon Mabel turned up at Biograph Studios, where D.W. Griffith signed her up.

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In L.A. with Biograph 1912

At Biograph.

Mabel’s career at Biograph brought a mixed bag of reactions from the director. D.W. Griffiths, and the actors and actresses, who were to form the core of the later Hollywood stars. Griffith recognized her potential in terms of good looks and emotion. Mabel was a beauty among beauties, but, unlike Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet, she could be passionate and emotional on set, while revealing both of these attributes in lightning quick changes of facial expression. However, it was difficult for Mabel to remain serious, unless playing a part that involved total personal immersion in the character portrayed. This meant, in the main, tragedy and pathos. The other girls were fully aware of her acting prowess, although they were also aware of Mabel’s clowning around and sarcastic remarks to the director. In order to put the director in his place, Mabel began to corrupt the other actresses by introducing them to booze, tobacco, lewd jokes and various tricks. The ‘tricks’ were alluded to many years later by Blanche Sweet, although she does not elaborate on what the ‘tricks’ were. In any event Mabel’s clowning and her diving prowess, along with her ability to ride bucking broncos without fear, led to a form of heroine worship at the studio. Mabel’s abilities did not go unnoticed either by a certain actor named Mack Sennett. Mack, a veteran of the lewd joints down on the Bowery, had plans to become a director, and make his own films. So it was, then, that Mack ingratiated himself with Mabel, telling her he’d make her a big star. However, most of the Biograph girls had a dislike for Mack, and Mabel was no exception, but, there was just a chance that he could deliver. Consequently, Mabel kept Mack close, but, in doing so she entered a relationship where there would be constant arguments and fierce disagreement. There was no romance, as people later implied, but actor and actress had a vested interest in each other.

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How to kid the audience you’re an item.

In early 1911, Mack was away with Biograph in L.A., although Mabel was left behind in New York. The Biograph Studios closed for 3 months, and Mabel, on Mack’s advice, perhaps, found work at Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn. Here she learned comedy under John Bunny and Flora Finch. Mabel returned to Biograph on the company’s return, having been fired from Vitagraph for ‘lewd behaviour’, and she became a member of the small and unique band of actors and actresses that would become the Hollywood stars of a few years later. In early 1912, Mabel and the Biograph company once more set out for L.A. While Mabel played good leads in the films, Mack busied himself persuading two New York wise-guys, then in L.A. to allow him to form a comedy unit, under the wing of their motion picture company New York Motion Pictures. The start date would be some months away, so Mack and Mabel returned with Biograph, where, by luck, Mack was made director of the new comedy unit. He had several male leads to choose from, but needing a leading actress, he asked Griffith for Mabel. Mabel was ambivalent, but thought she might give it a try. Whether Mabel was doing the right thing or not was a point for conjecture at the time and still is today. The actors and actresses at Biograph thought that taking up with ‘bad lad’ and lunatic’ Mack Sennett was a bad idea. She was giving up a good berth, as a Biograph dramatic actress, for the unknown and precarious position of comedienne. At the time, film comedy was dying out, and Mabel was reliant on Sennett to turn comedy around. If he bombed, she would go down with him. However, Sennett told Mabel that she would be the only female star of the unit. This would be an advantage, as one of the disturbing things about the acting profession is the tremendous amount of competition involved. Mabel would have the freedom to be herself without outside hinderence, and being herself was what Mack had planned. The real-life Mabel, but subject to a little Sennett burlesque.

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One of Mack’s burlesques of  Mabel. Tomboy Bessie, the 20-year old schoolgirl.

 

The Keystone Girl

Mabel didn’t stay a Biograph comedienne for long, as, after a couple of months, the call came from New York Motion Pictures. Mack, Mabel and as many Biograph actors as they could persuade to join, were to be the core of NYMP comedies, based, for the time being, in New York. Another NYMP company, Bison, was departing their studio in L.A. and it was planned that the new company, now called Keystone, would take over the premises. The Keystone company arrived on Allesandro Street, Edendale in about August 1912. The actors included Fred Mace, Henri ‘Pathe’ Lehrman, and Ford Sterling, as well as Mack Sennett. Mabel was the only actress, and, aged 19, was allotted a bungalow on the site, as her dressing room. Unusually for that time, Mabel was unchaperoned, which was just as she wanted it. Problems probably occurred on the 4-5 day rail journey to the coast, where a bored Mabel, who looked about 12 or 13, would have run amok among the passengers. One can easily imagine passengers approaching Sennett, and telling him ‘to keep his child under control’.

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Head west young lady!

The films the company made at this time were good, considering what was then available. The duo Ford Sterling and Mabel Normand were becoming famous in slapstick, and everybody adored the mad Dutchman alongside his oft-times bride. Into 1913 they continued the slapstick, sometimes bringing in motor-racing celebrities like Barney Oldfield and ‘Terrible’ Teddy Tetzlaff. Mack acted in many of the Keystones, keeping an eye on things, but also keeping an eye on his precious star, Mabel. Mabel acted, had dinner with Mack after work, then went home. In the morning she rode horses with Mack, before starting work, if she could get up that early. Remember, these were the days before the whole film industry moved west, so most of her movie friends were on the east coast. There was nothing but work and Mack, plus the middle-aged actors, and actresses she played alongside. There was nothing wrong with this crowd, but Mabel must have felt somewhat beleaguered in what must have appeared to be a home for pre-geriatics. Mack was twelve years her senior, and thought and acted like the thirty-something he was. Mabel accepted that Mack was always right, knew what stories to use in the films, and could deal with the press and the big wheels of the industry.

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Mad Dutchman Ford Sterling courts The Keystone Girl in The Gusher 1913.

She had great respect for Mack, and let him organise her life. It could not, however, have escaped her notice that her genial benefactor was also a control freak. Edendale, in those days, could only be described as a hick town, full of easterners who were looking for peace and quiet – most of them were against the ‘movies’ although, being less well-heeled than those in Hollywood and Glendale, some residents eventually became employed at Keystone. Edendale remained, however, a quiet backwater for many years.

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Allesandro Street, Edendale before Keystone. 1906.

It was many months before new, young blood arrived at Keystone, and one young couple Mabel got on well with was the Arbuckles, Roscoe and Minta. Firm friends, Mabel would visit the Arbuckles at their Santa Monica beach house every Sunday. She also became very friendly with Raymond Hitchcock and his wife, perhaps indicating that she liked the idea of married life. Nonetheless, it seems she preferred the freedom of single status. Mack liked the idea that he and Mabel were an item, which increased his control over her. There were, of course, advantages for Mabel not to dispel the myth. As her patron, Mack had brought her to stardom, and for some time he ensured that no other actress would challenge her as ‘The Keystone Girl’. Any ambivalence Mabel had about Mack was put to one side, as the duo stormed to the top of motion picture comedy. Then, something unexpected happened. What happened? Charlie Chaplin happened!

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Happy Times. Charlie and Mabel  in a candid shot.

Love and depression.

The coming of Charlie Chaplin to Keystone studios, in late 1913, must have been a revelation for Mabel. Here was an actor about her own age, malleable and keen to learn the art of movie-making. He was a vaudeville star, and this made him O.K. in Mabel’s book. They learned they were similar souls, when they first met on the foot way, outside a Los Angeles theatre. Neither were very good at meeting new people, and the words said were few and mumbled. However, it seems Mack Sennett, who didn’t like stage actors anyway, detected some chemistry between them, and sought to have his bosses fire the Limey before he started.

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Mack and Charlie on almost friendly terms at D.W. Griffith’s funeral (1948).

His fear, of course, was that the pair might abscond together – a not unusual occurrence in the acting community. In a nutshell Mack was unable to prevent Chaplin’s presence on the lot. He did manage to keep Charlie and Mabel apart for several weeks. Due, presumably, to interference by Mack’s New York bosses, the pair were brought together for the film Mabel’s Strange Predicament. An argument seems to have taken place after Chaplin got 55 seconds of the opening scene to himself. A further two months went by, until New York again ordered Charlie and Mabel to team up in Mabel At The Wheel. Another argument blew up, as Chaplin was hamstrung by not using the tramp’s outfit, and Mabel being director. It seems the New York office threatened to fire the lot of them, and Mack, Charlie and Mabel were soon appearing together in films.

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Mabel gets a punch in the face from Charlie. Mabel At The Wheel. 1914.

Although Mack positively detested Chaplin, he could do nothing about the pair getting together in Mabel’s dressing room. Nor could he prevent them from skipping off work, and heading into L.A. in a studio car. In the evening, when white-haired Mack was dozing, the youngsters were running around town, and during working hours Mabel introduced Charlie to tragedy and melancholy, which was her forte before comedy (we have no information as to whether they were lovers or not). Mack, nonetheless, was fully aware of what was going on, due to his extensive chain of ‘spies’. Unfortunately for Mack, there was little he could do, for New York had HIM under surveillance, and those bosses in the east could readily over-rule him and even drive him out. A stalemate therefore existed between Sennett, bosses Kessell and Baumann, and Chaplin.

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Adam Kessell, Charles Baumann and Baumann’s daughter Ada, who played as a extra, and kept a close watch on Mabel and Charlie, during the making of Mabel At The Wheel.

During 1914, several things might have occurred to Mabel. It was clear that Charlie was somebody she could do business with. In 1912 she’d gone off with another actor to found Keystone, and her dream of stardom was fulfilled. Beyond that time, though, things had gone somewhat awry. Mack, although as possessive as ever, was beginning to consolidate his position as producer, by ensuring he always had another star to fall back on, should Mabel ever cease to be around. This meant that any of the new actresses at Keystone could be elevated to the position of ‘Keystone Girl’. Why, then, shouldn’t Mabel depart the studio before Mack, by some devious means, pushed her out the door? Charlie was keen to get on, and, being a man, he had more chance of getting a controlling role elsewhere, so it made sense for Mabel to stay close to Charlie. The pair made around eleven films together, but there were other treacherous actresses keen to get in with Charlie.

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Mabel gets fresh with Charlie, as an unhappy Peggy Page (check coat) looks on.

 

Actresses like Minta Arbuckle, and eternal mother Alice Davenport, were unambitious, but the new, younger set were keen to get on. As Charlie moved to directing his own films, he chose to have more acquiescent, compliant leading ladies in his films. He tried competent performers like Peggy Pearce and Dixie Chene, but Sennett appears to have earmarked them for individual stardom. Eventually he settled on Peggy Page (AKA Helen Carruthers), an ambitious extra, with an equally ambitious mother and sister. The Page (or Carruthers) gang, had been ruthless in their pursuit of riches, and they, seemingly, pushed hard to ingratiate Peggy with Chaplin (Mabel wasn’t the only one to recognize that Charlie was ‘going places’). See: The Strange case of Helen Carruthers. As time went on, Peggy, who was pretty but plain, appeared often in Chaplin’s films. This enraged Mabel, who was engaged in fending off Peggy Page and Dixie Chene, and there is evidence that she became a little deranged and entered a period of manic depression.

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Peggy Page shows a  leg to Chaplin. The Property Man.

 

Madcap Mabel.

It was at this time also that fierce arguments ensued between Mack and Mabel. She wanted Dixie Chene’s and others wings clipped. She also wanted to play female leads with Chaplin. However, it is likely that Chaplin felt he was a little diminished appearing with Mabel, who was of course, the star of all Hollywood. Mabel then snapped up four Chaplin films on the trot, much to the annoyance of the Page gang. Peggy appeared with Charlie in his last Keystone film, Man’s Genesis, which obviously meant wearing a grass skirt, something Mabel would never do.

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“Don’t you ever lift my skirt again”.  Charlie and Mabel in Getting Acquainted.

Unfortunately, this last appearance did Peggy no good, as Charlie left for Essanay’s Chicago studio without her. Much to Mabel’s annoyance he left without her as well. As Charlie strode on to greater things, it looked as though Mabel was stuck in the Edendale flea-pit. On the night Charlie left, he and Mabel had a final, tearful dinner, and then the tramp was gone. We know Charlie did not want to leave, but it seems Sennett did not want him to stay either. Mack’s excuse to his bosses was that Chaplin asked for too much money – $1,000 a week. Publicly this was a huge sum, but, privately, stage stars had demanded, and got,  much more. The publicised papers of Mack Sennett, show that, at around this time, he was paying vaudevillian Raymond Hitchcock more than $2,000 a week. Mabel was on 500, Arbuckle got $350, and Chaplin had 300, at the time he left. A telegram from Charles Baumann, found also in Sennett’s private papers, reveals that The King of Comedy “hated Chaplin’s guts” and could have done for Charlie, as with W.D. Taylor eight years later, Chaplin could have found himself at the wrong end of Sennett’s gun barrel.  No doubt, Charlie would have liked to have taken Mabel, but the risk was great,  and, in any case, he would have ended up as sidekick to the Keystone Girl. He wanted someone fresh, a blond non-actress who would bring beauty, but at the same time be his stooge. Peggy could not be the former and Mabel could not be the latter. The job fell to office girl Edna Purviance.

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Edna Purviance.

Now, it seems, Mabel was becoming afraid of Sennett, and when The King barked the order “No more pathos”, she and her new co-star, Roscoe Arbuckle, obligingly fell into slapstick, this time tinged with lovey-dovey nonsense. Mack knew best, but Roscoe and Mabel were angry at being cast as soppy, country lovers. Time went by and Mack began to  cultivate new stars, like Mae Busch. This angered Mabel, and it seems there was some altercation between Mack, Mabel and Mae. There is no evidence of any violence occurring, but the three undoubtedly had ‘words’. Quite rightly, Mabel considered herself a founder member of Keystone, and expected star treatment ad infinitum. Being very young, and very foolish, when she went to California, she had not considered any binding contract with the company that would give her a say over how the studio was run. She was a minion, albeit a very special one. This is the time when contemporary journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns says that Mabel began to break down, and become morose. Adela claims Mabel threw herself from the Nat Goodwin pier at Santa Monica, in a fit of despair, intending to take her own life. Whether she began taking drugs at this time is unclear, but the stress could have made her illness worsen. Charlie Chaplin claimed that Mabel already suffered from tuberculosis in 1914, and Minta Arbuckle said she was treated for internal bleeding by 1915. Evidence from comedienne Polly Moran suggests had had a lung drain inserted in the same year. Mabel began to lose her mind, and the antagonism building up at the studio prompted Kessell and Baumann to transfer Roscoe, Mabel and a small company to Fort Lee N.J. just after Christmas 1915, on a temporary loan basis. One of the films Roscoe and Mabel completed in Fort Lee was He Did and He Didn’t, a film far removed from country kids puppy love, in which Roscoe and Mabel kill each other. This gave Sennett something to think about, and he ordered that scenes be inserted, which gave the idea that it was all a dream. Of course the deaths of Roscoe and Mabel, would have put an end to further Keystone Roscoe and Mabel love pictures.

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Roscoe strangles Mabel in He Did & He Didn’t. 1916.

When Roscoe returned to  Keystone, Mabel stayed on in New York, from where she intended to singe the King of Comedy’s beard. Her scheme was part madness, part bravado, and part inspiration. She issued statements to the press that she’d henceforth be making films for Mutual, the distributor that Keystone had just dropped, but had just signed Charlie Chaplin. Mabel knew Keystone had a new studio, built exclusively for feature films, and something that Mabel wanted for herself. In blind panic, Kessell Baumann and Sennett got in touch with Mabel, offering the new studio for her exclusive use, and a good story, Mickey, for her first feature film. There doesn’t seem to have been a pay rise included, but this was of little concern for Mabel. She arrived back in L.A. as gay as a wisp, and was soon filling the new studio with oriental carpets and flowers.               SOME NOTES ON THE MABEL NORMAND STUDIO.

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In her studio, now with her name 6 feet high letters on top, Mabel got down to work. Unfortunately, there were problems from the start. Sennett himself was not meant to interfere with the running of the studio, but the original supervisor, Tom Ince, put in place by Keystone’s new umbrella company, Triangle, pulled out. Arguments began to develop between Mack and Mabel, principally about the chosen director. There was a series of unsuitable directors, but the one Mabel liked most, George Loane Tucker, left early on. Mabel demanded Richard F. Jones, Mack’s star director, and one so expensive that Mack wanted to spread him thinly over his various pictures. Mabel went into manic mode, and Mack eventually capitulated. However, Mabel remained somewhat manic and nervous, making her ill and dependent on a ‘goop’ (as Minta Arbuckle called it) to contain her frequent lung hemorrhages. Mabel was often late arriving at the studio, and would sometimes disappear during the day. She once left for home, and didn’t return for three weeks. Although greatly loved at the studio, it was clear to everyone that she was going crazy. There was, of course, the problem that neither Mabel and F. Richard Jones, were allowed a say in the final editing of the picture. This was to be done by Triangle itself.

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Mabel cliff-hanger in Mickey 1916.

As filming drew to a close, the Triangle company began to crumble, and in the ensuing melee, Mabel disappeared and turned up in New York in March 1917. Apparently, she’d signed for Goldwyn pictures, which could be seen as a crazy move, due to Goldwyn being a new studio. Mack tried to get Mabel back, but with the infighting inside Triangle, there was little he could do. Unsurprisingly, things did not go well at Goldwyn. Mabel made plenty of films, but was seemingly going insane – she was screaming obscenities at the other actresses and the executives, and had an erratic attendance at the studio. Sam Goldwyn consulted Charlie Chaplin, who knew Mabel best, and had possibly contributed to her descent into insanity. Charlie recommended Mabel be returned to Sennett, and so it was done. However, this did not solve the whole problem, and Mabel remained outwardly insane. There were various strange happenings, until, in 1922, her partner in a love triangle was shot dead by an unknown assassin.

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Extra Girl Mabel 1923.

This sent Mabel into a crazy downhill spiral, arrested somewhat, by a tour of Europe, followed by a lead role in the feature film The Extra Girl. The last days of filming, saw Mabel embroiled in a further love triangle that resulted in another shooting. This was widely reported in the press, and the newspapers were full of ‘Madcap Mabel’ stories. Mabel was a drug addict, Mabel was an alcoholic, who’d broken her arm falling from a horse while drunk, then started an affair with another patient while in hospital. After a spell on the stage, during which she was vague, distant and barely audible, she began writing strange letters to people she didn’t know, and spoke in an comprehensible way to interviewers. Then, out of the blue, she got married, but refused to live with the groom.

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Mabel with husband Lew Cody and Raymond Hitchcock at a premier, 1926.

With the help of Hollywood friends, she signed with Hal Roach studios in 1926, where co-star Anita Garvin reported she was losing her mind. Mabel left Roach in 1927, but she never disappeared from public view, still voicing crazy views in the press, and appearing at public functions. She only faded from view, when she entered a sanitarium in September 1929. Her reappearance in the newspapers, in February 1930, was occasioned by her death and subsequent funeral.

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Mabel Normand’s last ride, February 1930.

Was there a Madcap Mabel?

Undoubtedly there was a Madcap Mabel, but the real question is, was she always ‘mad’ or did particular circumstance or acquaintances drive her insane. Here are the theories:

1. Mabel was born with a psychological illness, which increasingly impinged on her actions and ability to think rationally. Her apparent inability to fit in with her peers on Staten Island, leading to a lack of schooling, as well as her propensity to give things away, but also to steal things, does suggest a certain degree of Autism. Present-day parents might recognize her other attributes of hyperactivity, rudeness, and couldn’t-care-less attitude, as features of ADHD and Autism. Being sent away by her Catholic parents to a convent, perhaps for ‘correction’, might have led to her being corrupted by more wayward girls. Certainly, she later introduced the Biograph girls to alcohol, tobacco, swearing, and other crude indulgences. Mabel would, however, have also been naive, which might have led to her unwisely throwing in her lot with Mack Sennett. As Blanche Sweet was later to say, her rush to the coast with Sennett was an irrational move.

2. The circumstances Mabel found herself in, could have caused her to become unhinged. There is no doubt that Mack Sennett exerted a large element of control over Mabel, and there is some regret in Mabel’s story that she ever got involved with comedy. She was, after all, a Griffith trained actress and a very fine tragedienne. Her teaming up with Charlie Chaplin allowed her to put her acting skills to increased use. Sennett’s insistence, after Chaplin’s departure, that melancholy was basically out of the script, would almost certainly have upset her. Furthermore, Chaplin’s departure, without taking her as his leading lady, was probably a rejection too far. From what Chaplin said of Mabel in her lifetime, but particularly after her death, suggest that he bitterly regretted the way things had turned out. Although circumstances dictated that he could not take Mabel as his leading lady, he must surely have wondered if things would have turned differently for them both, if he had taken her with him.

3. There are many stories about Mabel having had tuberculosis, and Charlie Chaplin’s, Polly Moran’s and Minta Arbuckle’s statements seem to confirm that she had the disease by 1914. This could have been responsible for her sleepless nights and night sweats, attested to by Mabel’s housekeeper, Ethel Burns, and those that stayed at her house overnight. This would also account for her late arrival at the studios and behaviour at work. On the other hand, it could be indicative of the drugs used to treat whatever illness she had. Whatever was the case, Chaplin later put forward the view that Mabel only continued in pictures by sheer will-power.

Any of the above could be true, but the fact is that Mabel became increasingly irrational, and possibly insane, in the years leading up to her death. She was, however, never as bad as aging silent actress Norma Desmond, portrayed by Gloria Swanson, in Sunset Boulevard. The film was, supposedly, based on the Mabel Normand story, but one thing we can be sure of, is the fact that Mabel would not have wanted to grow old. To become a legend one has to die young.

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CONFESSIONS OF A JAZZ BABE BY MABEL NORMAND.

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Mabel and jazz band at The Mabel Normand Studio in 1916.

Many of you will know that I have been known as the ‘Jazz Baby’ for many years. What is a Jazz Babe? Well, I don’t exactly know, but, not long after Ragtime transformed into Jazz, around 1915, the press gave me the moniker ‘The Jazz Baby’. Exactly why, I cannot explain, but Mack jumped on the name straightaway, and he began to bill me as ‘The Jazz Babe’. It’s a ridiculous term, but I was the first of a long line of stars to whom the name was applied. Jazz, naturally, was a modern, avant-garde form of music, and Mack and I were seen as thoroughly modern, and representing the new era of high technology – The Jazz Age. In our films, we were always seen flying in aeroplanes, driving smart, high power cars, and we always seemed to be on the new-fangled telephone, and playing phonographs. Having plenty of spare cash (people thought) we could afford to ride thoroughbred horses in the hills, and waste valuable ammunition on target practice with the best guns available.

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Off to Santa Monica, win a race, then back to Charlie for dinner.

 

We really were ‘bright young things’, long before the barely clothed flappers adopted the term. Our audiences were the poor, downtrodden working class, and they loved to see me attired in the latest Paris fashions, wearing fur stoles, and dripping in diamonds. More than anything they loved my Cinderella characters, who went from mind-numbing poverty to riches and up-to-the-minute clothes in one short reel. Most of them did not know my real-life story of how I went from being a poverty-stricken delinquent, packed off by my parents to a convent for ‘correction’, to a top artists’ model, and, before long, a movie star. The fact that I appeared to be an emancipated young woman, a former Gibson Girl, who rode bucking broncos, did high dives, and swam the Hudson River for kicks, did my image no harm whatsoever.

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Motion Picture 1915.

If anyone had told Mack and I that we’d end up fabulously wealthy, living in mansions out among swaying palm trees, in the warm clime of California, we’d have called them a liar. Back in 1900s New York, and working for a dollar and dinner, Mack had told me how he’d dreamed we’d one day be rich beyond our wildest dreams, and drive around in a Pierce-Arrow car, firing diamonds at people from catapults. Of course, I called him a hopeless dreamer, but the dream really did come true. I bought my Pierce-Arrow, then moved on to a Rolls Royce. As D.W. Griffith was to bemoan, I was ‘a success’. He should know, my studio, with my name emblazoned on it in six feet high letters, could be seen from Griffith’s Fine Arts Studio, and his stars passed by every morning and night. At this time, I was voted best comedienne with almost 2 million votes. Charlie Chaplin got a similar number of votes as top comedian, while Mary Pickford languished on 1.5 million votes (best leading lady). My teacher in comedy, Flora Finch, polled slightly less than America’s Sweetheart, but the poor dear fell to earth soon after.

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Mabel gets a ride in D.W. Griffith’s Pierce-Arrow. The Diving Girl 1911.

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 Jazz Babe gets loose in a ‘Roller’.

It seemed like, in no time at all, everyone loved The Jazz Babe, and I was soon looking for a globe, so I could see where my millions of fans were. England, Ireland, Holland, Siberia, Hungary, India, China, Australia, New Guinea – where were the places that hadn’t heard of Keystone Mabel? Those places that worshipped Jesus Christ, perhaps, but there were many places where they worshipped Mabel that had never heard of Jesus Christ. One fan in London regularly sent me English comics that carried Mabel cartoon strips, and my friends and I spent many hours laughing at the strange English humour. They also carried cartoons of Charlie Chaplin and Louise Fazenda, which made them even more interesting. One comic ran a Mabel and Jack cartoon series, in which it was intimated that Jack Pickford and I were an item. How they knew Jack and I had had an affair, I do not know.

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A young-looking Jack Pickford courts his Jazz Babe.

One of the downsides of fame is the appearance of stalkers and lurkers – nutcases, who arrived at my dressing room unannounced. Rarely were they from L.A., the only place on earth where a movie star can go unnoticed – in fact Angelenos wished we’d all pack up and clear off. Many a star-struck guy turned up with a sparkling gift, which he’d leave outside, when I failed to open the door. Usually there was a note saying he’d left a diamond engagement ring, and would I please marry him. I’d never reply, but I’d keep the diamond anyway. I’ve now got a whole trunk full of engagement rings!

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1913: Mabel meets the band in That Ragtime Band, later called The Jazz Band Leader.

Eventually, Mack began to worry about my safety, as my bungalow dressing room was almost on the street – he dreamed one night that his prized possession had been kidnapped. Coming in next morning he ordered me into the new secure female dressing room block, into which no man could get, and, more importantly, no actress could get out. The Jazz Babe had had her wings clipped.

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Dressing room block at Keystone.

In 1916, I’d contrived to have my own studio, at the expense of Mack Sennett and the Triangle Company. Out on Fountain Avenue, the Jazz Babe reigned supreme in her luxuriously appointed kingdom. I was the first to bring a full jazz band onto a set – previously small classical orchestras had soothed actors jangled nerves. Not for Madcap Mabel was such limpid music, I liked it good and loud! Then, enter one Sam Goldwyn, a clever, but incredibly boring, producer. He wanted a Jazz Babe on his sets and on his arm, no matter how mad she might have been. I was his first signing, and Sam had the pleasure of stealing away the world’s greatest comedy star, if not star – period. Things began to go awry, when other actresses arrived claiming the title Jazz Babe. Geraldine Farrar and Madge Kennedy had small classical bands on their sets, but I soon shut them up with the twelve-piece jazz band on my set.

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Sam Goldwyn gets between Mabel and Geraldine Farrar.

Drifting along at Goldwyn’s, the Jazz Babe began to tarnish a little, but my move back to Mack Sennett produced delight among the players at the Edendale studio, and great expectation among Miss Mabel’s fans. The Jazz Babe also returned big time to the Hollywood social scene, with everyone watching what thoroughly modern Mabel would do next. However, this was also the time when the Jazz Babe was just about wiped out. Following the Taylor and Dines shootings, I was vilified by the press, the Catholic church, and the women’s clubs.

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Every Jazz Babe needs her own horse. My Valet.

The journos cocked a snook at my various names, Keystone Mabel, Vitagraph Betty, Old Dreamy Eyes, and they particularly sneered at The Jazz Babe. One comedian stood up and said “How d’ya know when the Jazz Babe’s in town” Answer: “When six people turn up dead on Wilshire Avenue.” It was all very unfair, and I began to distance myself from the Jazz Babe image – this was best left to the young flapper brigade. I wouldn’t be joining them, with their huge cloche hats and disgustingly short skirts. I decided to hit the stage, and tour the U.S. Unfortunately, the stage-play ended prematurely, and I found myself back in L.A. where I bought a house, and filled it, not with jazzy art-deco, but with books and Victoriana (well, that’s what the press called it, but it was all Edwardian, and harked back to the early days of the Keystone Girl).

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Then, in 1926, I hit the screen again in Hal Roach pictures. On day one the studio supervisor, F. Richard Jones, came to me and said “Mabel you need to get with it, here’s a cloche bonnet, now go to wardrobe and find a very short skirt. Well, I nearly died of embarrassment on the set, but it had to be done. The movie press were delighted, but I was appalled to see the headlines “The Jazz Babe returns”. Oh my god, not that again! In 1927 I left movies for good, hung up my flapper skirt, but kept the hat. In 1928, a journo came to my house to interview me. As soon as he walked in, he stopped dead in his tracks, and looked all around my Edwardian drawing room. He was completely befuddled by the scene, and wrote in his column:

“If you ever visit Mabel Normand’s up-to-the-minute house in Beverly Hills, be prepared for what you’ll see inside. Rather than a jazz-age, art deco pad, you’ll be greeted by – granny’s parlour!” [Footnote]

Well, that’s only his opinion, but it’s clear that they had the wrong person when they called me The Jazz Babe. They were thinking of someone else all along.

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Mabel becomes a flapper in Anything Once, 1927.

 

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The heavy interior of Mabel’s house on Camden Drive.

Footnote: Just think of Norma Desmond’s house in the 1950 film, Hollywood Boulevard.

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