It is odd think that Keystone Mabel, also known as The Keystone Girl, appeared on the cinema screen for just three years, between 1912 and 1915. We might increase this time span, slightly, by including her time with the Biograph comedy unit, in which she served as the prototype for the later Keystone Girl. However, there was also a precursor for the prototype, in the ‘Betty’ that Mabel played in comedies alongside John Bunny, at the Vitagraph studios in 1911. Like the Keystone Girl, Betty was vivacious, effervescent and fashion-conscious. She lacked, however, the complexities and subtleties of the later Mabel, and was, let’s say, overly-bubbly, causing one critic to observe “There’s a lot of hugging and kissing going on in those pictures.” He was, naturally, right, but Betty blew onto the early screen like a whirlwind, and captivated the movie-going public, as well as the acting fraternity. The future King of Comedy, Biograph’s Mack Sennett, watched the Betty pictures with great interest, and it is a matter of record that he was made Biograph’s comedy director, just after Mabel arrived at Biograph, in around August 1911. In the first instance, D.W. Griffith, the director of drama down there, recognised that Mabel had talent, but her dark looks were what initially attracted him, and consequently, he put her into ‘bad girl’, tragic, and vamp roles. While many of the golden-haired actresses, like Mary Pickford, shied away from such parts, Mabel almost revelled in them, although, being ‘bad’, she always died before the last scene. Mack Sennett was watching her closely, noting her zany and somewhat outrageous personality around the studio.

Mabel about to engage in a little vamping in ‘The Eternal Mother’ 1911.

In particular, he noted that you could always find her at the centre of a knot actors, a knot which he found impossible to penetrate, as he makes clear in his memoirs. Mabel had a magnetic personality. Almost as soon as Mack was made comedy director, he went to Griffith and sought Mabel on a shared basis. Griffith had no option but to agree, for he did not have continuous work for all of his girls. The likes of Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet, could hang around for days on end, without being put before the camera. As for Mabel, she was not at all pleased, about working with the clumsy oaf Sennett, who possessed little in the way of social skills, and was not well-liked, and even despised, by most of the Biograph actresses. He also had some odd ideas about comedy, and thought he could base his entire film portfolio on cops being kicked in the derriere and hit over the head with clubs.  As it turned out, Sennett possessed an inane knack for knowing what would work on celluloid, and what would not. His later success was to come by using this ability and imposing it, by closely supervising his actors. Supervision was also a major strategy utilised by D.W. Griffith, and Sennett was nothing, if not a willing disciple of the movie genius. What supervision meant was laying out strict parameters for a film, and the way an actor performed within that film. The overall director need not direct every scene, but he would need to brief the actors and proxy director, on what he required. In this article, it will be argued that it was close supervision that created the Keystone Girl from Mabel / Betty and a lack of close supervision that ended the time of the Keystone Girl. We start by looking at Mabel’s concept of a motion picture.

Sennett always knew what would work. Like dressing Mabel up as a schoolgirl.

Getting Mabel Onboard.

It seems that Mabel had thought that she was well and truly rooted in dramatic films under D.W. Griffith, and as she later told it, she was shocked when Griffith agreed to share her with Sennett. She had no interest in Mack’s crazy notion of comedy, but she went along with his ideas. This is where Mack’s supervision came in, and, rather than presenting Mabel as a crazy slapsticker, he made her the pivot, the fulcrum, or Queen Bee of his pictures. She was only slightly dizzy, and not as ‘dippy’ as some people think. This prevented Mabel from tarnishing her reputation as a serious actress (to a point), and gave her some way to express her acting talents. Moving on to Keystone was a different story. Away from Griffith and Biograph, she’d be a sitting duck, a foil, for the excesses of Mack Sennett and his company of clowns. The record, however, shows that Mabel did join Keystone and leave New York behind – almost 3,000 miles behind. This could only have happened, despite the lure of being the sole leading lady, if Mabel had been assured that the move would not harm her career. The assurance, we can assume, was that Mabel would be given dramatic outlets in the comedies, and that, eventually, they would shoot wholly dramatic pictures, alongside the comedies. The well-known arguments arose between Mack and Mabel, when Mabel was constrained in her drama, and the actual dramatic films never materialised. In other words, Mabel was being closely supervised, to ensure she did not drift too far from involvement with the ‘kick ass’ type of comedy. From what Sennett stated in his autobiography, Mabel would always try to circumvent the restrictions imposed by the agreed script, and Mack would have to intervene. From late 1913, Mabel directed the films she appeared in, and it seems possible that some knockabout comedians actually complained to Sennett, about what she was doing. It is entirely possible that they considered their performance was being diluted, by what they might have deemed ‘dramatic showboating’. Henri Lehrman (the ‘fake Frenchman’) was certainly one of these, as was George ‘Pops’ Nichols, although to a lesser extent, perhaps. Lehrman, we know, was the snitch that always ran to the boss with stories about other actors [Sennett’s memoirs]. Furthermore, it is clear that Sennett gave himself roles in the films, cameo and otherwise, that would enable him to keep an eye on proceedings. When things first came to a head in the Fall of 1913, Mack presented Mabel with ‘Mabel’s Dramatic Career’ in which she could be as tragic and dramatic as she liked – within reason of course. In the last scene of the picture, Sennett added something for the vaudevillian who was about to arrive at the studio. The details of that have been covered in previous articles, but the vaudevillian’s name is well known. It is Charles Spencer Chaplin.

The Irish comes to the fore, when Mabel catches her true love, Mack, with Virginia Kirtley. ‘Mabel’s Dramatic Career’.

Slapstick Isn’t So Bad.

By the time that Chaplin came to the studio, Mabel had received her dose of artistic freedom, as far it existed in those days. From what we can gather, from various statements, and a telegram to Sennett by Keystone big boss, Charles Baumann, Sennett “hated Chaplin’s guts.” [Sennett’s Private Papers: Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences]. Someone else, however, thought that he would be of use. We are talking, of course, of Mabel Normand. Chaplin was a newcomer to motion pictures, and had no idea as to how films were made [his memoirs], and this made him someone she could befriend,. Charlie says he detected this, when he first met her. Mabel made a point of befriending theatre people, like the Arbuckles. Her old friends at Biograph had mainly been stage artists, and Mabel knew that Keystone was a hostile environment for thespians. She had plans to take Chaplin under her wing, but she probably had an ulterior motive. Being a new actor on the block, Charlie would, perhaps, put up with more of her ideas than the old timers, like ‘Pops’ Nichols. After just one outing with Charlie, however, in ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’ Mabel suddenly decided to abandon the tramp, no doubt because he was given the opening scene to himself, during which he fell about, drunk, in a hotel lobby (his forte as well as his father’s). There was a two-month hiatus in the Mabel/Charlie relationship, although it is likely that the top management wanted them as a team. Due to a very important two-reeler being readied, it seems the two had to be brought together, perhaps by order of Charles Baumann himself . Mabel had little use for a knock-about comic in this picture, and surely Charlie did not want to be in a film with a heroine, and especially one denoted by the press as ‘The Queen of The Movies’. Furthermore, he had always resented being cast as a villain. Charlie went on strike, was nearly beaten to death by the crew, and soon forced to comply with Mabel’s wishes. To be brief, Chaplin made good from this experience, and he became Mabel’s favourite, or ‘prize’ as Chester Conklin later put it. In their films, Mabel let Charlie slapstick as much as he wanted, while he did not complain about her exercising her abilities as a tragedienne in the comedies. In fact, he would later utilise Mabel’s combination of melancholy and mirth in his own pictures. It is curious to note, nonetheless, that Mabel indulges in more slapstick in the Chaplin films, than she would ever do again. Was this a quid pro quo situation? We will never know for sure, but her knowledge of motion pictures, derived from none other than movie genius D.W. Griffith, would have secretly irked the little limey, who had bombed in the legitimate theatre (although he did meet ‘the most beautiful girl in the world’, Marie Doro). Eventually, bohemian Charlie left Keystone, leaving a vacuum to be filled. Sennett had tired of the tales he’d heard of Mabel and Charlie ‘stealing’ company cars for trips downtown, and hours spent together in Mabel’s dressing room, when they should have been on set. “They’re in love” Henri Lehrman told Mack, according to Mack’s memoirs, and love meant only one thing to Mack – that they might run off together. Now Chaplin was gone, Mack would wreak his revenge on ‘The Queen of The Movies’.

Fatty and Mabel have an argument with a self-driving car.

1915 proved a difficult time for Mabel. Mack was out to show that he did not need her. He brought in wriggling broads, that he called the Bathing Beauties – pretty girls, scantily clad, and with wicked eyes. Then he put her with Roscoe Arbuckle, who had become a veteran slapsticker, over the previous two years. Mack made it plain – there would be ass-kicking, there would be mallets over the head, but there would be no more melancholy or sad endings. Roscoe and Minta Arbuckle sympathised with her, as did thespian Raymond Hitchcock and wife, when they arrived, during that year. Mabel was in a bad place, but whether she conspired with the new management, ‘Triangle’, to move out of Keystone, we do not know for sure. History recalls that, on New Year’s Eve 1915, Mabel, Roscoe, Minta and Al St. John’s mounted the train, and headed east. Their destination was the Triangle and New York Motion Picture studio at Fort Lee, New Jersey. There they would make films, expected to be standard Keystone fare. However, the film ‘He Did And He Didn’t’ turned out to be a unique comedy. A semi-drama, it ended up with Roscoe and Mabel trying to kill each other. With a nod of respect to Sennett, they gave it a happy ending – it all turned out to be a Dallas-like dream. This was Mabel turning the tables on The King of Comedy, but there was more to come. In early March, the company arrived back in California – minus Mabel. What was happening? Nobody knew. Then, newspaper and magazine articles began to appear:


[Source: ‘Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook to Her Life and Films.’ by Wm. Thomas Sherman].

Panic ensued in the Triangle camp. Mabel must not go to Chaplin or Keystone’s former distributor and current enemy, Mutual! No one knew where Mabel was, but somehow, the bosses arranged that she would have her own company, The Mabel Normand Feature Film Co, and it would have its own studio, down in Hollywood, two blocks from her former mentor D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts studio. One suspects a conspiracy here – either Mabel conspired with Triangle boss, Harry Aitken, and Kessell and Baumann against Sennett, or vice versa, we cannot tell, but Mabel reappeared in L.A. a few weeks later, as gay as a wisp (as Mack Sennett later told it). The studio was the new building erected by Sennett on Fountain Avenue, but under the Triangle rules, he was barred from interfering in the new company, although he he had been allotted 25% of the shares (see endnote). Thomas Ince would be supervisor, and would arrange the director. If Mabel smelled a rat here, then she ought to have, for Ince was busy with big pictures,to follow up on ‘Civilisation’ and all too soon, he bailed, and Sennett stepped in. The Queen (and she was Queen, now, of all she surveyed) could probably have screamed, but there was no turning back, this was show business and no show, no business. Then rows began over the choice of director. Sennett brought in four, including George Lane Tucker, and they were all rejected by Mabel. She’d heard of a new super-kid on Alessandro Street, F. Richard Jones, and she demanded him. Mack was against it, for he was now wary of putting young guys with Mabel. In the end, though, Mabel won out, and the result was the acclaimed film-of-the-century, ‘Mountain Bred’ or ‘Mickey’ as it was to become. Was this Mabel’s greatest picture? Probably. It was a dramatized comedy, and although the Keystone Girl was still recognisable within it, there were some new aspects to her character. Jones had walked a tightrope between Mack and Mabel and come up with the goods.

The Mabel Normand Studio. Still standing and making money.

The Advent of The Goldwyn Girl.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) ‘Mickey’ languished eighteen months before release, by which time the Triangle corporation had blown apart, spewing its constituent parts onto the streets of L.A., Fort Lee and New York.  Due to the problems, Mabel was left languishing, after completing her film. Perhaps, held on a retainer by Triangle or Keystone, Mabel considered the situation to be dire enough for her to sign with a company that was months away from its first picture, Goldwyn Films. Mabel was called to New York by Sam Goldwyn in March 1917, and so, Triangle continuing to falter, she arrived in Manhattan, ready to go. Then something happened, and Mabel went cold on the Goldwyn deal. What the something was, we do not know, but the signing of a second star, Mae Marsh, might have caused her to have second thoughts. Again, she called journalists to her hotel room, and announced that she was available to the highest bidder. Mack Sennett, reading of Mabel’s defection, immediately sent lawyers to negotiate with her. Sam was furious with Mabel, and just as immediately, sought a court injunction, preventing her from working for any company, except Goldwyn Films. If he lost Mabel, his studio would not get off the ground, and his backers would withdraw their funding. We will miss out the shenanigans that ensued, between Mack, Mabel and Sam, but it is sufficient to say that Mabel was soon in Florida, making films as The Goldwyn Girl. Now what, or who, was the Goldwyn Girl. Well, the Goldwyn Girl, was nothing like her Keystone antecedent. Mabel, to some extent, was (professionally) out of control.

L: Mabel and some ‘Jinx’ lookalikes admire a cut-out Mabel. R: A cartoonist’s view of the Goldwyn Girl.

Sam was not a hands-on producer like Mack, and left day to day studio business to his supervisor, Abe Lehr, or “Abe Leer” as Mabel called him. Mabel changed directors as often as she changed Parisian frocks, and once more locked horns with George Loane Tucker. George kept at it this time, but, as with all directors, appeals for Sam to intervene fell on deaf ears. He wined and dined Mabel, spent hours conversing with her in the dressing room, and clearly was only interested in her friendship. If that meant a $3,000 dressing room overhaul, or time off water-skiing on Long Island, then so be it. In fact, he formed the opinion that Mabel knew the movie business inside out, and could be left to write and direct her own pictures. This was obviously true, but what pictures would she produce? Comedies, yes, but not comedies as the public knew them – Mabel was no Buster Keaton, producing films by linking endless gags together on a reel. We might describe Mabel, as an ‘anti-gagster’, her time with D.W. Griffith having given her a passion for higher things than slapstick. The Griffith in her, overtook the Keystone, and, although she thought she was being, shall we say, ‘culturally comedic’, the pictures had become flat, and her friends thought she’d lost her spark, and become ‘commonplace’. Here’s the crazy thing, though. The public still raved about Mabel, and could not get enough of her Goldwyn pictures. If they thought a film was lacklustre, then they forgave her, on the certainty that the next one would be better. The effect of the release of ‘Mickey’ while Mabel was at Goldwyn, blew Mabel from Queen Of The Movies to Goddess Of Hollywood. As big stage-star Madge Kennedy told it:

“We were all queens at one time or another, but Mabel was different, she was a goddess”.

‘Mickey’ of course, was the film that pitched Griffith’s ‘Birth Of A Nation’ off top spot, as the world’s biggest-selling picture. What did DWG think about that? Unfortunately, we will never know. Naturally, the motion picture was then rising to great heights, and Mabel rose with it, but it has to be said that Sam Goldwyn was a master of publicity, and Mabel received her fair share of that publicity, as the film industry burgeoned. For every film that Goldwyn brought out, so came a ton of memorabilia, and in-house events, while magazines produced pop-out, paper Mabel film characters that could be tricked out with paper fashions.

Mabel with George Loane Tucker, who fancies he’s a comedian, with that ring in his eye.

On Jack Pickford’s visit to the studio, Sam brought Jack and Mabel together for their first public get-together since their Biograph days, seemingly a thousand years ago. Sam made a big thing of brother Claude Normand coming to the studio, fresh from the Somme trenches, riding his new Indian motorcycle. The public loved the photos shot of Jack and Mabel on the bike. They got so close that an English magazine ran a ‘Jack and Mabel’ cartoon strip, in which Jack and Mabel appeared almost as an item. The world had gone Mabel crazy. In terms of art, however, where did Mabel now stand? With no strict supervision, Mabel had, professionally speaking, dared to walk on water. From what we can see, from the surviving fragments of the Goldwyn films, she had attempted to make dramatic films that had some comedy, within the parameters of the drama. Now, contrary to what many might think, and especially those that have not seen her films, Mabel’s comedy was subtle, and she relied, for comic effect, on ultra-fine facial expressions, and in particular on changes (often lightning fast) of facial expression. In the Goldwyn films she also utilised subtle hand gestures. We might put forward the hypothesis that, in the Goldwyn films, there was no counterbalance to Mabel’s subtlety and dramatics. In other words, she needed a slapsticker, a foil, off which to ‘bounce’. Chaplin, obviously, had Edna Purviance, and he fully understood that without her, he (the melancholic comedian), was nothing. Mabel’s idea that she could go it alone with comic drama, produced films that were not really that funny overall, although she herself did produce some laughs.

Goldwyn Studios: Left. Jack Pickford and Mabel. Right. Charlie Chaplin drops in to Goldwyn’s..

A Sennett Girl Again.

In spite of everything, the Keystone in Mabel was dying. Sam, for his part, was also running into trouble, even though he was making money from Mabel’s films. His ex-theatrical stars weren’t doing so well. People like Charlie Chaplin, were horrified at the films Mabel was appearing in – although they made money now, they were not commercial enough to carry Mabel forward in her career, should the current gravy train end. This, it seems, is what Chaplin told Sam. Sam responded by docking $1,000 a week from her pay, and putting the cash into war bonds – Mabel would not end up on the streets during his watch. However, Sam knew he was going bankrupt. Mabel was a very valuable young lady, an asset, and loaning her out to other studios at a large fee, seemed to make sense. Mack Sennett wanted Mabel back. He had no female star that could hold her own in the area of big feature films – and Mack wanted features, badly. He wanted to hold his own, not against Keaton and Roach, but against the big boys, the Adolph Zukors, the Laskys and the Louis B. Mayers of the industry. Mabel was his passport to that end. It is stated, by Mack Sennett, that $30,000 changed hands, and Mabel was freed to make one picture for Sennett Comedies. What did Mabel think about that? It seems she was not exactly euphoric, and we can imagine that she preferred Goldwyn to control-freak Sennett. In fact, Mabel even offered Sam $50,000 to help him out, which Sam graciously declined. For his part, Sennett did all he could to bring Mabel onside. In his autobiography, Mack states that he promised “to make the films she wanted”, and assured her that he could make films bigger and better than any man alive. Mabel was, it seems, incredulous. The King of Comedy was bound to reassert control, although the resources he proposed to put at her disposal, were colossal. Mabel signed for $3,000 a week and 25% of the net profits of one film. The standard ‘artist supplies costumes’ clause was deleted, and Mabel demanded a dressing room furnished to high standard, with a marble bath installed. A limousine was to be sent daily, to waft her into the studio. Was Mabel grateful? Probably, but she felt a certain contempt for Mack. While she did not treat him with outright disdain, she was very formal with him, as Sennett states in his memoirs. She had never called him Mack, but instead used his real name, Michael. Now he was Mister Sennett.

Mabel’s unusual contract, with actor provides costume clause deleted.

Mack was true to his word, and poured in cash to the tune of above a quarter-million dollars to ensure success [he says]. He also gave Mabel exclusive use of director F. Richard Jones, which undoubtedly made her more amenable. What Sennett did not do, was to give Mabel free reign over the content of the new film ‘Molly O’. The King’s idea was to release Mabel from some of the chains that had held her to the Edwardian Keystone Girl. Actresses were beginning to show more flesh in their pictures, and be more daring in the portrayal of their intimate (screen) lives. If Sennett had showcased Mabel’s derriere in the old films, well, it was now seemly to put a camera up her skirts. Tame stuff, really, but Mabel was very conscious of damaging her reputation, to the detriment of her career (her public knew nothing of her raucous social life, and thought she spent her time talking to her roses, and sipping tea with the vicar). However, she could now actively pursue her leading man, and be shown leering at the guy from around a corner. And, some guy was her leading man – none other than hunk and heart-throb, Jack Mulhall. Way back at Keystone, things had been different. Mabel was never the pursuer, she always had one love, no matter how many guys chased her, and how many ‘ideal’ suitors father brought to the house. Sometimes, though, Mabel was fickle, and played one lover off against another. We might suppose that this appealed to the young girls in her audience, whilst not initiating any particular disgust in their accompanying mothers, and it does appear that Mabel was among the first to bring females, in any number, to the wicked movie houses (her avowed interest in the suffragette movement, might also have helped here). There are, in ‘Molly O’ many attempts to bring drama and melancholy into the scenes. This, however, is fairly well controlled, and we might suspect Sennett’s hand intervening here. When Mabel becomes tragic, you can almost see Sennett cringing on the set, but he allowed plenty enough of it through. In terms of box office receipts, Molly O’ almost matched ‘Mickey’ which was quite an achievement in 1921, when the competition was becoming extremely fierce. Apart from anything else Griffith’s ‘Way Down East’ and ‘The Flapper’ starring Olive Thomas, were still roaming the world’s cinemas.

Olive Thomas.

Following ‘Molly O’ Mabel’s life became very complicated. Mabel signed for another Sennett picture ‘Susanna’ but at Sennett’s New Year’s party, Mabel arrived with someone called William Desmond Taylor. In contravention of producer/employee etiquette, Mabel left early with her man. Taylor had a butler, by the name of Peavey, and when Taylor turned up dead a few weeks later, Peavey pointed the finger at Mabel. Taylor had been a director and ‘fixer’ at Paramount studios, and Peavey told the coroner that Mabel was annoyed at Taylor’s reluctance to get her into Paramount. Here is proof that Mabel wanted out of Sennett Comedies, and, as soon as ‘Susanna’ was completed, she left for Europe. In the surviving portion of ‘Susanna’ we see little of the girl in ‘Molly O’ but a hint of the old Keystone Girl. Very cute, and the man-hunter is somewhat contained. Following the crescendo of criticism, in the aftermath of the Taylor scandal, it was impossible to present Mabel as anything other than a rather elderly ingenue. Mabel did one last film for Sennett, ‘Extra Girl’ made in 1923. The ingenue here, is overlain with a veneer of melancholy and tragedy, so intense that it would make an ancient Greek theatre-goer cry. The film was Mabel’s saviour after Taylor, and aptly followed the story of a (sweet of course) girl, lured to Hollywood by the dream of stardom, where she gets fleeced by villains. As usual, the film has a happy, married, ending. The final inter-title says:

Not exactly Mabel, but it helped stop some flak. Extra Girl, then is a curious mix of the old Keystone Girl, and elements of the Molly O’ girl, woven together, with a bit of magic by F. Richard Jones. It is worth noting that there are a few freshly-enhanced facial expressions here, two of which were later used by someone at the Hal Roach studio. Mabel, as we know, made her next and last films with Roach, but we need not go there. Well, perhaps we do need to go there to finish off the story.

In 1926, Mack asked Mabel to come to Allesandro Street for discussions about a new picture. Mabel went along, but, although her presence caused quite a stir among the young actors and actresses (all childhood Mabel fans), she declined the offer. Instead, she went to Mack’s arch-enemy, Hal Roach. Hal, at that time, was signing ‘fallen stars’ on a pittance, and had signed Theda Bara at $50 a week. However, he had to pay a pretty penny for Mabel. The studio supervisor was none other than F. Richard Jones, and her screenwriter/director, surprisingly, Stan Laurel. There can be no doubt that Jones had much to do with Mabel’s pictures, as Stan would have been as nervous as hell (he’d never worked with ‘the greats’). Jones might have been a fine director, but he was constrained, it seems, by the writ of Hal Roach. Hal produced funny films, but they were just that, funny films. Ninety-per-cent of his pictures were of the gag and slapstick variety, and he rarely, if ever, ventured onto the ground that Mabel trod, at least prior to 1937.

Mabel with Dick Jones at Roach Studios and during filming for ‘Extra Girl’.

Hal was as Irish as Mack and Mabel, but he never understood where they were coming from (Mabel labelled him ‘that thick-necked Mick’). Even with the help of Dick Jones, Mabel never managed to quite pull it all together, as in the Sennett films. There are glimpses of the later Stan Laurel in Mabel’s performance in ‘Raggedy Rose’. Whether this was the way Mabel was going, or Stan or another director, steered her in that direction, we don’t know. However, Stan watched closely, especially when Dick was on set. Many years later, he said he’d learned everything from Jones. He couldn’t say it, but he also learned from Mabel. Remember Stan’s’ hair scratch’ and the ‘dumb face’ – they’re pure Mabel. As for Roach, he took a lot of abuse from Mabel and the ‘girl-gang’ she brought to the studio, and, unsurprisingly, Hal was not sorry to see her go. The conclusion on the Roach year is that Mabel was supervised, but in the wrong way, due to the imposition of the Roach formula, which made all his pictures pretty much alike, regardless of who was in them. In a way, Roach was a gag counter, and Mabel was most unsuited to his studio. Hal is credited with the statement “Mabel’s talent was for a comic situation rather than sustained narrative” which is just the sort of thing we might have expected him to have said, although totally and deliberately misleading (or perhaps he hadn’t seen her feature films).  

A (Laurel?) gag from Mabel’s Roach film ‘Raggedy Rose’.

Summing it all up.

The Keystone Girl was a product of her time. To Mack Sennett, she was entirely necessary to his scheme, but it was probably Mabel that first thought that The Keystone Girl had a limited shelf-life. Whether she also thought that Mack would agree to transforming her into a more dramatic character we do not know, although it seems clear that The King made constant attempts to restrain her dramatic excesses. Mabel’s idea seems to have been to combine comedy and drama in equal measure, which, we might say, was an unworkable notion. You can have a drama with some comedy, and you can have a comedy with some drama, but you cannot have the two in equal quantity, otherwise you are in a kind of no-man’s land, which, naturally, no audience would comprehend. Sennett had an innate understanding of what people wanted, and he knew that what they wanted was slapstick and short, sharp situation comedy. That was 1911 to late 1914. Thereafter, like Mabel, he thought something different should be added. More special effects were needed, more modern machines, and a troupe of pretty girls clad in bathing suits. In late 1916, having partly complied with Mabel’s wishes in Mickey, he foolishly let her walk away. Too late did he realise that, regardless of his crazy clowns and wriggling beauties, he had nothing that could take the fight to the big studios, or tweak the nose of his old master, D.W. Griffith. Some luck, and a wad of dollars, secured Mabel from Sam Goldwyn for ‘Molly O’ in which he allowed Mabel a large measure of freedom, but made sure that some of the Mabel of old came through in the film. After Roach, it was left to Sennett to proclaim “Mabel, I could have made great films for you, greater than any man alive!” Quite possibly, he could have.

Endnote: Sennett contract with Kessell and Baumann for the Mabel Normand Picture Company (MNFFC).

[Source: Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook Her Life and Films]


King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923).

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


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

The Man Who Invented Hollywood: The Autobiography of D.W. Griffith. Edited and Annotated By James Hart. 1972.

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

Looking For Mabel Normandhttp://www.freewebs.com/looking-for-mabel/.

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

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

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

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

The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett by Simon Louvish (2003).

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


The picture above is a still from the film ‘The Squaw’s Love’. This film was made in 1911, out at Cuddebackville, New York State. Mabel Normand (Wild Flower) and Claire McDowell (Silver Fawn) play Indian squaws, who have a misunderstanding about a young brave. and end up having a knife fight on a cliff above the Neversink River. The film was directed by movie genius D.W. Griffith, who called the film “an Indian poem of love”, which fits well with the great man’s concept of the noble savage. The picture, however, was, shall we say, badly put together, in spite of the great director’s supervision. No matter, though, for the young Mabel makes up for any inadequacies, with her charm, alongside her acting and physical abilities. Here we need another “however” for Mabel is stiffer in her actions than we usually see her. We might put this down to Griffith’s direction, as he controlled his players (and particularly actresses) with a ruthless iron touch or grip. Mary Pickford of course, was always somewhat ‘wooden’ in her acting at Biograph. This was mainly due to the Griffith factor, as were those crazy semaphore hand signal that you see her doing in the Griffith films. Having said that, Mabel does contribute a lot of herself to the film, as she would do ever after. Later, Mack Sennett would explain that it was always best to give Mabel a strict scenario, but allow her to do what she wanted within those strict guidelines. Therefore, we must inevitably wonder about that cliff scene, and ask ourselves if Mabel had suggested this scene to Griffith. Like Mabel, Griffith was a romantic, his mind full of noble savages, but two squaws fighting it out on a cliffside? This would be beyond the genius’ contemplation, so it gives rise to the suspicion that Mabel might have asked for that particular scene. As Mary Pickford and Mrs D.W. Griffith would later say: “There was no bucking bronco so wild that Mabel would not have ridden it, no cliff so high that she would not jump off it, and no water so deep that she would not dive into it.” The Biograph people formed this view out in rural Cuddebackville, where city girl Mabel first began to daredevil.

All quiet today on the Neversink River.

Cuddebackville is a small village or hamlet, around 80 miles from New York City. In the 1910s it was a vacation retreat for New Yorkers, and remains so today. For a dreamer like Griffith, the place was idyllic, full of rubes instead of the NYC louts that taunted the actors, and made suggestive remarks to the actresses. Actors in those days were lucky to earn $20 a week, and many were paid $5 a day, but only for the days that they worked, meaning that vacations were an unknown luxury. The sojourns out in Cuddebackville, were indeed holidays, albeit working ones. The Cuddeback Inn, which the company used during shooting was not large, and the likes of Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet shared two to a bed, while Mack Sennett, Jack Pickford and Owen Moore shared three to a bed! The location was, though, all very atmospheric for the shooting of film.

When viewing this film, it seems obvious that Claire McDowell makes a better Indian than Mabel. Claire’s cheeks are slightly hollowed, which gives the impression that she might be a genuine native of the country. Mabel, however, has rather full cheeks, which makes her pretty, but, in her make-up, looking very Moorish, rather than Indian. It was those cheeks that made her pout, when she was being serious, something Griffith disapproved of, although the pout was later to become a weapon in the armoury of the Keystone Girl. A real native American, Dark Cloud, appears in the film.

Left: Mabel gets a little Moorish. Right: About to incur the genius’s wrath by pouting.

Claire, by the way, was in her mid-30s when she made the film, so older than Mack Sennett and DWG, and 17 years older than Mabel (Kate Bruce, of course, was just about the eldest actress at Biograph, having been born before the Civil War. She long served as agony aunt and mentor to the future Hollywood stars, and remained in films until 1931). As far as the story goes, Mabel (the chief’s daughter it seems) is in love with Gray Fox, played by Alfred Paget. Gray Fox asks for Mabel’s hand, but the chief replies by having him banished from the tribe. The Indians carry him off, and give him a good whooping to help him on his way. White Eagle (Dark Cloud), who is Silver Fawn’s love, finds his friend Gray Fox beaten up out on the trail. Gray Fox tells White Eagle to go and bring Wild Flower to him – it seems that Mabel is about to have her first of many elopements. Unfortunately, White Eagle and Wild Flower are spotted making their way through the woods to Gray Fox, and the other Indians, including Silver Fawn, come to the wrong, but logical, conclusion. Silver Fawn grabs a big knife and sets out to get her rival (viewers will note that it is usually Mabel that grabs a knife). She locates Wild Flower on top of a cliff, and jumps her, but doesn’t realise its Madcap Mabel, who fends off her wild swing with the knife. A tussle follows, and Wild Flower falls from the cliff into the river. End of? No not really, for although the river is a raging torrent, Mabel is the Water Nymph, and stays afloat long enough to be rescued by Gray Fox in his canoe. This particular scene is quite dangerous, for the cliff face, which is jagged, is not sheer but sloping. This meant that Mabel had to give a good shove, outwards, to avoid the jagged rocks below. If she’d missed her footing we would never have heard of Keystone Mabel. Now, in Gray Fox’s canoe, we see, I believe, the first time that Mabel goes completely limp, as she slumps into the canoe. Going completely limp is a big deal, for as the Keystone girl, she would do this many times, when knocked out by Fatty Arbuckle, or when she swoons (females were expected to swoon, back in the day). No other actress, not Gloria Swanson, not Louise Fazenda, ever managed to carry this off like Mabel – it does, naturally, require trust in your fellows i.e. they could fail to catch Gloria, but let the Queen of Keystone fall? Unthinkable!

In an ordinary film this would be the end, but although Wild Flower and Silver Fawn make up, the picture takes a new turn. A rival tribe of Indians are attacking the Mabel tribe, and she, of course, leads the counter-attack. No Third Cavalry is required, as Mabel takes the initiative, while Gray Fox becomes paralysed with fear. The incipient Keystone Girl, as we all understand, knows no fear. While her brave holds his head in his hands in despair, Mabel leaps from their canoe, a dagger between her teeth. She swims through the rapids, and finding the attackers’ canoes, she dives underwater, in order to slash the bottoms out of the craft. Mabel makes her way back to her friends, and they paddle off into the sunset, as their rivals’ canoes, along with their crews, sink slowly to the bottom of the Neversink. The final scene is typically Griffith, with Mabel and Claire looking very smug, as their braves paddle them away.

Conclusions on the film.

The first thing to say is that the picture is very difficult to follow, as indeed, many Griffith films are. More intertitles could be used. Mabel delights, as usual, whether or not she makes a good Indian., The final part might have been dreamed up by Mabel herself, as indeed the cliff fight might well have been. The film followed on shortly after ‘The Diving Girl’, making Mabel the all-action girl to the world. However, she was also all-action to the Biograph people, and it seems that it was out in Cuddebackville that the girl from Staten Island began to be known for her thrilling and reckless deeds, as well as the one to get any party going. The legend of the Keystone Girl began right there, in Cuddebackville.

A smug face always earns the approval of Mr. Griffith.


The Man Who Invented Hollywood: The Autobiography of D.W. Griffith. Edited and Annotated By James Hart. 1972.

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

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

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


Much has been made of the Keystone film ‘Mabel At The Wheel’. Charlie Chaplin devotes no less than four pages of his autobiography to the movie, and, indeed, it forms, along with ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’ the foundation of the legend of The Tramp. Richard Attenborough (deliberately?) misread the Chaplin story, and painted Mack Sennett and Mabel as dimwits that had to bow before the greater genius of Charles Spencer Chaplin. Is there any truth in the long-running saga of the tramp, and what, if any, is the significance of the film ‘Mabel At The Wheel’? Let’s dissect the evidence and find out.

What was Mabel At The Wheel?

There are several reasons why this film was significant and important for the Keystone studio, as well as its star, Mabel Normand (ignore the later star role credits to Chaplin). The immediate trigger for the film was probably the announcement that French Comedy film-makers, Pathe, now had a U.S. arm that was about to produce a series of films, starring stage star Pearl White. ‘The Perils of Pauline’ would follow the adventures of a debutante known as Pauline, and Pauline would be a kind of ingenue, but one that wages a war on villains, lechers and assorted ne’er-do-wells. Keystone undoubtedly viewed this as a direct assault on their own all-action ingenue, Keystone Mabel. Certainly, the inner circle of Keystone went into a deep conference – would Pauline steal their audience? Keystone could not take the risk, they had to respond. In the event, Pauline would create her own, completely new audience, comprising those that considered themselves above the Keystone, blue-collar nonsense. However, in March 1914, Keystone was “scairt” as Mack Sennett would say. As for Mabel, she, perhaps, suffered a few sleepless nights.

We have mentioned the inner circle of Keystone, and this includes the company shareholders beyond Mack Sennett – Adam Kessell, Charles O. Baumann, and Thomas Ince. Kessell and Baumann were the New York big-shots that provided the funding that allowed Keystone to be created in 1912. Now, they would have to dig deep to fund something that would take the fight to Pathe, and no doubt, tears flowed and violins played, as they reached deep into their moth-ridden pockets. The reply to Pauline would be no less than a two-reeler, and would present Mabel, full-on, as a girl motor-racer, and a champion for fair play, all whilst maintaining her position as the eternal ingenue. This was a tall order, but the entire resources of the studio were brought together for this one two-reel film, and a two-reeler, we can be assured, was a big deal back in those mean, barrel-scraping days.

Mabel’s Strange Predicament.

A Tramp in Santa Monica.

Miss Mabel Normand was the allotted director for this film, and, as we have seen, she had her whole career resting on this one picture. Furthermore, she had, it seems, been pushing for such a film for at least a year. Her talents had not been taxed since her days with D.W. Griffith, excepting, perhaps, in ‘Mabel’s Dramatic Career’, but then only lightly. Did Sennett gather his cohorts around and brief them as to the significance of this one picture? Most likely he did, and there were probably some glum faces. Actors used to leading roles, would have to eat humble pie and play roles as ‘atmosphere’. To an extent, one of these was Mr Charlie Chaplin. In a series of short films, he’d gained a reputation as ‘The Tramp’. The tramp was a kind of scruffy, Mack Sennett-style character, who had a certain, odd walk that would take the world by storm. Chaplin, of course, was a knock-about comic, who played a drunk for many years in the English Music Hall, and the essence of the tramp is ‘the drunk’ – for the former is invariably (or appears to be) inebriated. Chaplin had been trained in acrobatics and prat falls, by the originator of slapstick, Music Hall impresario Fred Karno. He had, we know, played in the legitimate theatre as an extra to the ‘greats’ such as Marie Doro, billed as ‘the most beautiful girl in the world’. Too often, though, he was told that he ‘stank’ and his lifeline was to be Fred Karno and his troupe of slapstickers.

Marie Doro

During the previous two months at Keystone, Charlie had learned to live without direct contact with the Queen of the studio, Mabel Normand. For certain reasons, Mabel had shut him out, following their film ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’. Now, he was supposed to support his Queen in a film in which he was cast as a villain, wearing a villain’s top-hat and frock coat. Furthermore, he had to suffer the ignominy of appearing in a film that had no hero, but a heroine. Down on location in Santa Monica, Charlie was shocked to find Mabel behind the camera, directing, and she soon started barking orders at him. Charlie offered up some gag about a hose, and in the film ‘Chaplin’, Dicky Attenborough gives Mabel the line:

 “Charlie, this is not a film about being funny with a hose.”

 In all probability, she did say something of that sort, for, in truth, this was not a film about being funny with a hose. By way of explanation, we might say that Mabel pictures, where she had some control, were not like Chaplin, Keaton, or even Lloyd films. The three comedians, in essence, linked gags together to form a complete picture. We might make the later Chaplin a slight exception, for reasons we will see later. In brief, Mabel’s apprenticeship under D.W. Griffith had given her a wider view of film-making, which she sought to bring to her comedy. ‘Mabel At The Wheel’ had a narrative, and the narrative was that a girl’s racing driver boyfriend is kidnapped by a villain (Chaplin), and she takes the drive and wins the race. “Preposterous!” screamed Charlie, we might imagine. “A girl driving a race car – Never!” The sulking tramp, then went on strike, causing the crew and cast to congregate in a murmuring group. As Chaplin tells it, they were proposing to beat him to death, for having disrespected their Queen. However, Mabel stopped them, and as it was late afternoon, suspended shooting. Mack Sennett was furious that thirty minutes of filming was lost, and, we understand, telephoned Baumann, telling him that Chaplin was fired. There were not, however, in 1914, any long-distance telephone lines to New York, so how did Mack make the call? Fact is that, and here we deviate from Chaplin’s story, Baumann was in Los Angeles on business, although he did not go to Keystone.

The Baumanns in L.A.

Supporting evidence for this, comes from the fact that Ada Baumann had a role in ‘Mabel At The Wheel’, and the Baumanns always travelled as a family – expense account holidays, perhaps. We can assume that Chaplin also complained to Baumann, and that Baumann contacted his daughter, to get the full story. Baumann’s decision was that Chaplin would not be fired, but would complete the picture without fuss (i.e. do as he was told). Consequently, the picture was completed, and no animals or humans were harmed. Sennett was put in his place, as was Chaplin, but Mabel now thought she could work with the tramp. The following pictures were unlike any Keystones Mabel had done before. She became very dramatic and tragic, but in some of them, she indulges in more slapstick than ever before. “Was this a quid pro quo situation?” We might well ask. Possibly it was, with Chaplin happy to oblige Mabel with the dramatics, and Mabel happy to help out with the slapstick.

Mabel prepares for the race in her own inimitable way.

That, then, is the story behind ‘Mabel At The Wheel’ and Charlie and Mabel were to collaborate on a further nine pictures that year. Pauline and her perils never did knock Keystone off its perch, but, just in case, Mabel’s next role was as a debutante in ‘Caught In A Cabaret’ alongside Charlie Chaplin.

Further Notes on The Film.

The race-track scenes were shot at the actual Santa Monica races, although some of the grandstand scenes were shot at the studio. The paved road driving scenes are thought to have been shot also in Santa Monica, but this is not necessarily the case (in the film ‘Chaplin’ Attenborough places the race in an orange grove — strange guy!). The Santa Monica races were run almost entirely on oiled dirt roads, and took in San Vincente Boulevard, Ocean Avenue, and Wilshire Boulevard.

Those young fools, they’ll kill themselves.” Charlie and Mabel in ‘Mabel At The Wheel’.

There has been much speculation, as to who drove the race car in the film, Mabel or someone called Fay Tincher. In some publicity shots, the cast includes Fay, who is wearing a race helmet and goggles. This might suggest that Fay, who looked slightly similar to Mabel, did the driving, but from the film this is not at all clear. The driver does, indeed, look a little different to Mabel, and we can only introduce a little logic here in order to force a decision. Does it make sense for Mabel to be driving the car? Well, Mabel directed and acted in the film, which is a tall order at any time. Given that, would Mabel (plus the Keystone partners) be keen to waste, perhaps, a day or more, driving around in circles on a suburban road? The answer is clearly no, especially when we consider that Mabel was just about the movie industry’s top earner at the time (somewhere between $250 and $500 a week). $40 a week was big money for the average actress and extras made $5 a day. Fay’s career almost followed Mabel’s, as she was first signed by D.W. Griffith to play vamps, before moving on to comedy. In the picture below, Fay seems a bit shorter than Mabel, but a little more robustly built.

Still for ‘At The Wheel’. Fay Tincher ctr. with goggles.

Ada Baumann only appeared in this one film, which might make us wonder if she was not a ‘plant’ sent by Baumann to keep an eye on things. At the bottom of all the shenanigans seems to be the fact that Chaplin was Kessell and Baumann’s ‘man’ i.e. they (rather than Sennett) signed him, and they would stipulate what Chaplin did or didn’t do. If this was the case, then it follows that Chaplin had a kind of licence to do what he wanted, but bearing in mind that Sennett had a big baseball bat. It further follows that Mabel might have used that licence for her own advantage, for, as we have already said, she most certainly put on the agony and the style in those pictures with Chaplin. This, of course, all ended with Chaplin’s departure from Keystone.

Mabel gets involved with a little slapstick. ‘Mabel’s Busy Day’.

Just for interest value, Mabel, in an interview, told the following tale about the making of ‘Mabel At The Wheel’. Sennett asked Chaplin if he’d ever ridden a motorcycle. Chaplin replied in the affirmative. However, he had only ever ridden a bicycle, and when the time came to shoot, they put Charlie on the motor-bike, and Mabel hopped on behind. Charlie then roared off totally out of control, and went into a one hundred yard speed wobble. Finally the machine looped — the Queen of The Movies was cast into a ditch, and Charlie, entangled with the machine, skated on for another fifty yards. Once the crew had pulled the bedraggled Mabel from the ditch, they set about extricating the mortal remains of Charlie from a very bent motorcycle. It’s a good story but not necessarily a true one (although we might rather hope that it is true).

Here are some unusual (for Mabel) slapstick scenes that appear in ‘Mabel At The Wheel’:

Bright, young thing, Mabel, is enticed into riding on the back of the suave Chaplin’s Thor-4 motorcycle, but they don’t go far, before Mabel falls off the bike, and into a big muddy puddle. Her Parisian ensemble seems ruined, but no matter, it went on to be ‘ruined’ by several other Keystone actresses in the future. The person who actually falls off the bike is not the loose-jointed Mabel, but seemingly a man (stuntman). Alternatively, was it our robust friend, Fay Tincher? Very muscular was Fay, compared with “very feminine” (as Mary Pickford once said) Mabel. Another reason why it might have been Fay, hurling that monster car around in ‘At The Wheel’.

Charlie and Mabel try to disfigure each others physiognomy in a brick throwing contest. Paul Merton (Birth of Hollywood series) claims that Chaplin gives as good as he gets, but watch the clip below and see what you think.

Chaplin gives as good as he gets.

Charlie and Mabel start another duel, this time using pins to stab each other. Not very funny, you might think, but, as always it’s not what Mabel does, but the way she does it. Watch her eyes, and her very natural reactions (I mean in the film, and not particularly in the clip below).

Unusually, no motor-racing stars appear in this picture, although Sennett always tried to get them involved. Perhaps, Mabel did not want Oldfield, Tetzlaff, or Cooper, stealing her scenes, which, if true, shows what a tightrope Sennett, Kessell, and Baumann were walking, during the making of this picture.


King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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


Fred Karno by Barry Faulkner

Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923).

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

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

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


The Keystone company utilised a large number of locations in and around Los Angeles, as a backdrop to their pictures. The following is a random selection of locations used in the films of Mabel Normand, as well as some pictures important in her life.

The two clips above, show the same place. The left-hand picture, from ‘Mabel’s Adventures’ and featuring a cross-dressed Mabel, depicts the northern side of the Selig studio on Allesandro Street, Edendale. The picture on the right shows what seems to be the same place, but two years later in ‘Tillie’s Punctured Romance’. If this is the same place, then the small shrubs of 1912 have become rampant vines. Barely visible in the first picture is a mass of dirty water by the curb (or kerb as Mr. Chaplin would say). This reminds us that the major L.A. thoroughfares ran in the valleys between the hills, so that during heavy downpours, the rainwater would rush down the hillsides, and fill up the road. Hence, the high curbs seen here, and all over Los Angeles. In 1914, flooding caused $500-million worth of damage across the city, although mostly caused by the un-canalised Los Angeles river. Proof that it does rain in California, can be seen in the Keystone picture ‘Between Showers’ made on a flooded Wilshire Boulevard.

Above: Another studio, this time Keystone, just a couple of blocks away from Selig. The left picture comes from ‘Mabel’s Adventures’ and shows a bungalow (perhaps Mabel’s dressing room) to Mabel’s right and the old grocery store that Keystone used as the front office is behind her. The right hand picture is from ‘That Ragtime Band’ and shows Mabel in front of the ‘grocery store’. The bungalow cannot really be seen here, but the house in the background is farther away than it appears. The building now has a blind, but is that a washing line behind Mabel? There is also a gate behind her, and a fence has also made an appearance, perhaps the one that Chaplin described as being green, in his autobiography. Chaplin states that the studio entrance, in 1914, was via a gate, and up a garden path, then through a bungalow, which kind of fits in with what we see in the second picture. The bungalow and the office appear in so many Keystone pictures that it is impossible to quantify them.

Above: Left, Mabel makes like Lillian Russell, outside the Hollywood Hotel in ‘Tillie’s Punctured Romance’. Right, still doing the stage-star bit outside the Raymond Hotel in Pasadena for ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’. The clientele of the ‘Hollywood’ can be said to have had rather thin wallets, but those of the Raymond had enough cash to fill a railway car. Pasadena, of course, was a 1910s resort for multi-millionaires, Presidents and Rockefeller-types, while the Hollywood Hotel even admitted (shock, horror) movie people. The scene outside the Raymond was shot, when Mack and Mabel were on location in early 1914, but the scene might not have been shot specifically for ‘Strange Predicament’. Keystone often toured the countryside, shooting random scenes that they could use in their pictures. Why Mabel is wearing a dress, in the second scene, that is at least forty years out of date, is a question that can no longer be answered.

A little distant from Los Angeles, but the picture on the left shows Mabel’s childhood home on Staten Island. On the right, Mabel is fourteen and seemingly dreaming of stardom. The house was owned by the Retired Seamen’s Home in New Brighton, that was Mabel’s father’s employer. Father, Claude, was entertainments manager at the home, and we might suspect that Mabel’s interest in acting was inspired by her father’s employment.

Around the campfire at Big Bear Lake, San Bernardino National Park, during the making of ‘Mountain Bred, better known as ‘Mickey’, in 1916. Centre is Mabel, surrounded by the cast, including George ‘Pops’ Nichols, director F. Richard Jones, and Indian squaw ‘Minnie Haw Haw’. The San Bernardino area became very popular for making outdoor pictures, and particularly westerns.

San Bernadino railway station before it burnt down in 1916. This was a commonly used entry and exit point for the Hollywood stars. The fifty mile drive out to San Bernadino, avoided the press men and photographers that plagued the Los Angeles station. The replacement for the old station was built in the revivalist missionary style.The right hand picture shows Mabel, apparently, at San Bernadino. The spray of flowers might confirm this was San Bernardino, as it was customary for the local community to garland those arriving at the station.

Salt Lake City railway station, New Year 1915, and Mabel drinks a “So long” toast to Mack Sennett. From left: Al St. John, Roscoe Arbuckle, an unknown, Mabel and Minta Arbuckle. Right: Mabel gets a ‘snow pie’ in the face from Fatty. The purpose of this journey east was to make films at the ‘Triangle’ company’s studio in Fort Lee, NJ and to highlight that new company’s presence in the movie world. The company had returned by March 1916, minus Mabel, who refused to come back to Los Angeles. She remained in New York, until Triangle had formed the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, and Mack Sennett had handed over his new Hollywood studio for Mabel’s own personal use (the story is a little more complicated, but that will do for now).

Did you know that Fatty and Mabel were one of the first couples to have a Malibu beach home? The scene, above left, comes from ‘Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1915) and was shot at Castle Rocks, on the road to Malibu. The shot on the right is taken from directly above where the house (or shack) stood, and the largest rock in the picture was eventually blown up, as it was “in the way.” Roscoe and Minta Arbuckle did have a beach house in Santa Monica, where Mabel would stay at weekends. Eventually, she came to think she was intruding, and bought her own house, just up the beach. It’s an interesting fact that many actors moved out to Santa Monica, as property was cheaper, to rent or buy, than in downtown or suburbs like Hollywood. Furthermore, there were signs in Hollywood boarding house windows that announced “No dogs, No actors!”

Doug Pullen makes an appointment with the barrier at ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ during the Santa Monica Road Races in 1914, after a front wheel breaks away. Right: Mabel extricates herself from her crashed car in the same year, at another section of the track in the film ‘Mabel At The Wheel’. Pullen has just turned off of Ocean Drive and onto Wilshire Boulevard (believe it or not!). The curve he crashes on was known as ‘Deadman’s Curve’ although nobody ever died there. Mabel’s car appears to be a Stutz, and not the 14-litre Fiat race car that her producer Mack Sennett owned. It was during the making of ‘Mabel At The Wheel’ that Charlie Chaplin went on strike, when his ego was dented, by the discovery that the film did not have a hero, but a heroine. As Charlie recalled in his autobiography, he barely escaped with his life, as the crew were proposed to beat the tramp to death for disrespecting their Queen.

Still on the motor racing theme, demon driver, ‘Terrible’ Teddy Tetzlaff, scares the hell out of Mabel, although the car cannot be moving, as the drive chain that Mabel is clutching at, would have quickly snipped off her trim digits (Publicity Still). Right: A happier moment, when Teddy whisks fashion-queen Mabel away from an arranged marriage with his racing opponent, Earl Cooper (Speed Kings 1913). An interesting choice in hat adornment.

The scene at left comes from the Biograph picture ‘The Squaw’s Love’ of 1911. The scene depicts a knife fight between Indian squaw Mabel and a love rival. This is an early film in which Mabel begins to daredevil. The setting is a bluff above the Neversink river, at Cuddebackville, New York State. Director D.W. Griffith utilised a number of scenic locations in both NYS and New Jersey, between 1907 and 1913. Mabel, of course, became noted for her fearlessness in action scenes, prompting Mary Pickford to later write: “There was no bucking bronco so wild that she would not ride it, no water so deep that she would not dive into it, and no cliff so high, she would not dive off it.”

The picture on the right is a frame from ‘Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life’. It is a rural scene, perhaps shot on the Keystone lot. So many of Mabel’s films were shot in the countryside that her audience must have wondered where this place was. A few might have known it was California, but many would have believed that somewhere there was this real-life hyperactive milk maid, who was always getting herself into crazy fixes. Perhaps some believed that this was their own Russian Steppe, Australian outback, or American mid-west. It could be anywhere, and, strange as it might seem, this could even have been Sunset Boulevard, before it became totally urbanised.

Above, in a publicity still for ‘Susanna’ is Mabel with her favourite director, F. Richard Jones. Jones directed all of Mabel’s big feature films, ‘Mickey’, ‘Molly O’, Suzanna, and ‘Extra Girl’. He also supervised her films for the Roach studio. This shot is taken out on the lonesome trail, somewhere, perhaps in the scrub desert area around Baldwin Lake, close to San Bernardino. Mabel’s last feature film, though, was partially directed and written by Stan Laurel (yes, really!) but supervised by Jones. Apparently, according to Mrs D.W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford, there was no bucking bronco too wild that Mabel would not ride it. Mabel appeared in westerns for the Kalem company and Biograph, but never starred in them, and yes, she was crazy about old Spanish California.

Mack Sennett, Mabel and F. Richard Jones at the premiere of Molly O’ which took place at the Mission Theatre, on Broadway, Los Angeles. The Mission was owned by Mack Sennett, who had recently refurbished the place in a Spanish style. This theatre was one of Sennett’s early tycoon projects, his last being the Hollywoodland development with its Hollywood sign, which helped him into bankruptcy.

The timber, and roofless, building above is 1215 Bates Avenue, Los Angeles. In 1916 it was the home of the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company. Today they call it The Mack Sennett Studio, as you can in the right hand photo, showing Beyonce leaving the building after completing a music video. The longest side of the triangular-shaped building fronts onto Fountain Avenue, which leads, in 150 yards up to the Fine Arts Studio of one D.W. Griffith, one-time mentor to Mabel Normand. Current owner, Jesse Rogg, claims that Mabel still walks those hallowed boards, and her life-size portrait hangs in the foyer.

In the photo above, we see the Ship Cafe in Venice. The left hand picture dates from c.1906, while the right hand picture features Mabel in Venice with the Ship and dancehall in the background. The scene is clearly staged with a painted backdrop, and Mabel appears to be wearing her ‘Oh Those Eyes’ costume, which dates this as 1912, when the Biograph company were in California. This backdrop might have been a standard tourist prop, rather than a Biograph-contrived scene. The Ship Cafe was placed in Venice by Baron Long in 1905. Baron Long, as many will know, was also responsible for the Vernon Country Club, Hawaiian Village, and the Sunset Inn, as well as a racetrack down in Tijuana, Mexico. Curiously, the Ship owned the Biltmore Hotel L.A. Baron Long had been an actor, so he had some affection for the acting fraternity, and the ship became an atmospheric meeting place for the Hollywood crowd. As we might expect, prices at the Ship were a little higher than those seen on cafe menu boards in Keystone films, although the latter are always low-class joints. The Ship, a mock Spanish galleon, burned down and disappeared for good in 1946.

Above are two houses owned by Mabel. Left is her pueblo-style house at 526 Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, bought in 1925. Right is the Gothic-style house that Mabel bought for her parents in 1920, at 125 St. Marks Place, St. George’s on Staten Island. Both were architect designed, and in both cases, Mabel purchased them from the owners that commissioned them, within a year of their erection. The Beverly Hills house is currently valued at $10-million, while the Staten Island house is valued at one-million. The Staten Island house is much larger than it looks, as it goes back a long way from the street frontage. Furnishings and decorations in the Beverly Hills house were heavy and Edwardian, nay Victorian, which surprised press men when they visited — they’d expected to find a place that was very art deco in style. Although the Staten Island house is virtually unchanged, the Beverly Hills house now has a pitched roof, so the flat Spanish job clearly gave problems. Lastly, the proud owners of the St. Marks house have posted photos of the interior of the house, and they say that on some dark nights, if you listen carefully, you can hear a cane tapping up the garden path — Charlie Chaplin come to visit? A tall story, perhaps, but a good one, nonetheless.

The impressive abode of one Alla Nazimova, a famous stage and movie actress, and close friend of Mabel Normand. Mabel was a keen swimmer, but her pool was very small, and not very private. For these reasons, she could often be found in the almost Olympic-sized pool in Alla’s garden. From late 1924, Mabel could be found more and more in Alla’s garden, as she coached Mabel in voice projection, for her upcoming national stage tour, which had been organised by movie and theatre guy, Al Woods.. During this time, Mabel bought the Beverly Hills house, then, in October 1925, she abandoned the place to begin the tour, taking her private nurse, Julia Benson, and Alla with her. Alla returned to L.A. fairly soon, but Julia saw it through. The play, The Little Mouse’, played to packed house, but was lampooned by the critics, so that it never made it to Broadway. However, it was a money spinner, and some claim Mabel made three million, which is difficult to believe, but she might have collected a million, with Woods possibly pocketing twice that. The whole thing seems to been a money-making exercise, as Mabel’s voice was too slight for her to have ever been successful in the theatre. Mabel was still collecting royalties from her last three feature films, but an extra million or so, would make a nice pension, should she never work again. Clearly, she could continue to avoid marriage, being of independent means. Wedlock seems to have been the only thing she ever feared, but, paradoxically, being flush with cash, eventually made her a target for movie gigolos and gold-diggers.

Above we see a scene depicting the massive refurbishing of Keystone in March 1915. Mack Sennett and big boss Adam Kessell keep a firm hold of Mabel, with Ford Sterling far right. Mabel’s last attendance at Keystone is often believed to have been in late 1923, but she last set foot on its Poverty Road boards on May 14th 1926. The occasion was recorded by rising star, Ruth Taylor, in her diary published in the 1940s. Here’s what she wrote:

“Who do you think came to see us today. Why I can’t hardly believe it yet. Mabel Normand herself. She was all they around here told me she would be. They acted like the Queen had come.”

It seems ‘the legend’ had survived the scandals. We know that Mack Sennett had planned a big feature film, and Mabel was there to negotiate a contract relevant to the picture. It seems, though, that the film was for the glorification of Mack himself, and Mabel, and several other stars, turned The KIng down. It was then that Mabel, unexpectedly, signed for Mack’s opposition, Hal Roach. Something else unexpected happened. Mabel upped and married movie ‘clothes horse’ Lew Cody.

Above, 1926 Left: Newly-weds Lew and Mabel. Right: Mabel and Dick Jones surprised outside the Roach studio. Although Mabel was becoming very sick at this time, she was not so sick that she could not work. She did, however, have support from her private nurse, Julia Benson, who seems to be just behind Dick and Mabel in the right-hand picture, judging by the distinctive raincoat and hat that she wore during 1925/6. Dick Jones was Roach’s supervisor at the time, although Mabel was directed by someone whose name has become synonymous with film comedy — Stan Laurel. It appears, though, that Dick got a little too involved with Mabel’s direction, much to Hal Roach’s annoyance, we might guess. Hal never got the chance to bawl Dick and Mabel out, as Mabel brought droves of girl friends and wannabe actresses to the studio, that followed Hal around, hurling insults at him, whenever he appeared. Mabel termed Hal “The thick-necked Mick” and the producer later recalled that Mabel was “The dirtiest talking girl you ever heard.”

A poignant last photo of Charlie Chaplin and Mabel, together in 1928. Back in the day, they’d been bright young things, but one would pass on within eighteen months of this photo, while the other would go not a little crazy. After a year of ill-health, Mabel was back around town around again in this picture, and trying to look as fit as a butcher’s dog, going by her bared breast. Towards the end of the year, Mabel made a short film, on the set of MGM’s ‘Our Dancing Daughters’ which was the big picture of that year. Said to have been a private film, we might suspect that this was a test for a possible move to MGM.

In spite of Mabel being good friends with MGM president, Louis B. Mayer, nothing came of the new career. Although it had been a good year for Mabel on the publicity and social front, by early 1929, she was already suffering from severe respiratory problems. In September, she was admitted to the Pottenger sanitorium on Monrovia. Only Julia Benson and Lew Cody saw Mabel during her lengthy confinement at the establishment. The announcement of her death in late February 1930, came as a shock to Hollywood. Obituaries could be read by the ton, many poignant, like those of Charlie Chaplin and Will Rogers.

The above photo (left) was taken outside the chapel of Cunningham and O’Connor, 1031 South Grand Avenue LA, at the funeral of Mabel Normand. Mabel lies here at the Calvary Mausoleum, Boyle Heights, Los Angeles.

Above shows the opening of the Mabel Normand Soundstage at the Republic (now CBS) studio in Studio City, L.A. in 1940 Unveiling the 300-pound bronze plaque are William Farnham, Mack Sennett and Judy Canova. Around 1,000 stars, young and old, attended the opening party, and, in good Keystone Girl style, much liquor was dispensed by white-coated barmen, from the 100-feet of bar. Visits to the sound stage are by appointment only — there are no regular tours.

John Wayne and Ann Miller fight for possession of Mabel’s ‘Country Kids’ handpump at the MN Soundstage, 1940.

This has been just a quick tour of Mabel locations. How many Staten Islanders will know that 125 St. Mark’s Place was the home of Mabel’s family. The current owner does, but when Jesse Rogg bought Mabel’s studio on Fountain Avenue, he’d had no idea of her connection with the place. Many people believe that Mabel worked at Sennett’s Studio City establishment, but the truth is that she never set foot on the lot. The owner of 526 Camden Drive, Beverly Hills probably wonders why so many people stop and photograph that house’s facade.


The Keystone company at the Floral Parade in Pasadena, 1913.

The Keystone studio was a very strange beast indeed, but its inception was even more strange. However, the new company’s almost immediate transference, from New York to the far west, makes this a most fascinating story. Here’s that story, but, as usual, we must first set out some background.

The original company of the Keystone studio comprised of Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, Henri ‘Pathe’ Lehrman and Fred Mace. All of these were characters that had been part of the Biograph stock company, then making comedy films at 11 East Fourteenth Street, in Manhattan, New York. The odd one out here is Mabel Normand, who was simultaneously making dramatic films, under Biograph’s movie genius, D.W. Griffith. Strange, indeed, is the fact that Mabel gave any credence whatsoever, to the idea of throwing in a good dramatic career, for a doubtful one with a company possessing few actors, one camera, no studio, and virtually no money. The prevailing conclusion has been that Mabel was madly in love with Mack, and would have followed him to the ends of the earth. Total nonsense, of course, and there is no evidence that this was the case. The real answer is more interesting, and a little more complicated.

No. 11 E. Fourteenth Street.

Biograph Studio 1912.

In 1922, when Mrs D.W. Griffith wrote her seminal book on the movie industry, ‘When The Movies Were Young’ she indicated that the Biograph studio was a happy, almost egalitarian paradise. Egalitarian, yes, to an extent, but the players were fiercely competitive, although, they avoided the ‘swollen cranium syndrome’ said to have afflicted the first U.S. film star, Florence Lawrence. In 1912, there were three actresses that were greatly utilised by D.W. Griffith: Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand and Blanche Sweet. Mary was a dyed-in-the-wool stage actress, and very experienced. Mabel had simply wandered into the studio from the street, but had quickly made progress, and during a spell elsewhere, had become a comedy star, which stood her in good stead, when back at Biograph. In dramatic pictures, she played vamps as well as bad and tragic women. Silken-haired Blanche had the potential to outdo any of her contemporaries, and was popular with Griffith, as an example of feminine innocence. However, she blew hot and cold, and could be surly with the director. Both Mary and Blanche were mentally, verbally, and physically abused by Griffith, who saw no reason not to knee a girl off the stage, call her “too fat” or throw her at the wall, if she did not perform as he liked. There is no indication that Griffith ever laid violent hands upon Mabel, but then Mabel was very physical herself, and her cutting and vicious invective (not to mention her evil stare) was said to reduce the strongest of men to a quivering jelly. In other words, it was best not to upset her. These actresses, and some others, had made a pact that they would never disrespect each other, or allow Griffith to work up ridiculous levels of competition between them. This operated reasonably well, until DWG decided that he wanted a girl in a grass skirt to star in ‘Man’s Genesis’. Mary turned the part down, on the grounds that it would harm her image as the eternal ingenue. Both Mabel and Blanche came out in sympathy with Mary, and for exactly the same reason. In a fit of rage, Griffith handed the part to the young and untrained Mae Marsh, who the genius tutored to star in ‘Genesis’ and the following ‘Sands of Dee’. Here then, began the legend that Griffith had taken little Mae from the street to stardom in a single day. The other girls blackballed Mae, and began plotting to vacate the studio for greener pastures elsewhere. Mabel was gone by the summer, but Mary continued until the Fall, leaving Blanche behind to fight it out with new arrivals, the Gish sisters.

Mabel delights in ‘Troublesome Secretaries, 1911.

Mack Sennett Gets Started.

Mack Sennett had walked through the Biograph door in 1907, at just about the same moment as D.W. Griffith. However, although DWG rose up through the ranks, Sennett did not move far. Regarded as a buffoon and a clumsy oaf by the generality of actors, he could not penetrate the adoring circle surrounding the pretty and popular new girl, Mabel Normand, when she arrived in 1910. Shortly thereafter, the company left for their annual sojourn out west, leaving non-stage actors, including Mabel, behind. Out west, in Los Angeles, Mack was not idle, but making contact with New York movie big-shots, Kessell and Baumann, then in L.A. as they organised their new cowboy picture company, Bison. K and B heard Sennett out, and even nodded politely, at his ideas for comedies based around cops and plug-hatted gents being kicked in the derriere. They were, they told Sennett, too busy on other projects at the moment, to consider a comedy unit, but look them up again in about six months. This was what Mack wanted. He now had six months to gather the wherewithal, in order to impress the wide-boys. Then, a bit of luck. While ensconced with other Biograph people in a cinema in downtown L.A., he became aware of a pretty little comedienne playing alongside comedian John Bunny in a Vitagraph picture. He rubbed his eyes – “My God, it’s Mabel!” He looked around, and saw Mary, Blanche and everyone else jabbering away excitedly “It’s Mabel, it’s Mabel!” Indeed, it was Mabel – she’d damned well made it, that’s what she’d done.

That night, Mack discussed the picture, ‘Troublesome Secretaries’ with his room-mate, Del Henderson. Del thought the film great, and Mabel superb. Should Mack contact her, about his ideas, and the tentative contact with K and B? Del thought he was wasting his time. The offers were probably already flooding to her door, and Kessel and Baumann would have been in the vanguard. Mack spent the night composing a letter to Mabel, expressing his eternal love for her – he’d always loved her, he wrote, but with all the crowd surrounding her, he just could not get the words out. Then he copied out a silly poem from the L.A. Times, and added it as a postscript. What did Del think of the letter? He thought it ridiculous, but hell, it was worth a try. The letter was soon rattling its way to Vitagraph in Brooklyn, but in the meantime, Griffith had the dream lover hard at work. Imagine Mack’s surprise when he received the return letter from Mabel. She said she treasured his letter, and thought the poem to be the loveliest thing in the whole world. The future King of Comedy was over the moon, but he’d got a bit over-excited. One can imagine that his was one of hundreds of similar letters received by Vitagraph Betty, with the replies being worked over by a giggling Mabel and her equally giggling friend, Norma Talmadge. As with all the letters, Mabel signed Mack’s version “Your girl Mabel.” Who knows, perhaps Jack Pickford received one, or maybe, music hall man Charlie Chaplin and his understudy, Stan Laurel. Mabel’s secret to success was that she always, in letters, on the screen, or in real life, made a person feel like they were special, the only one.

Mabel with Norma and Constance Talmadge.

Back in New York, Mack had a bit more luck. The comedy director at Biograph had fallen very sick, and Mack was given his job. Time now to expand his CV, by turning out some good comedies. He renewed his contacts with K and B, telling them to watch out for his pictures. Then, another stroke of luck. Mabel, it seems, had been fired by Vitagraph’s Quaker owners, for some pretty unladylike behaviour. A contact with Charles Baumann, resulted in her getting hired by their satellite studio, Reliance. However, Baumann had neglected to tell her that Reliance was about to be sold off, and by the time she got there, new management was in place. The new director soon pronounced Mabel to be crude and vulgar in her conduct, and dismissed her, after just four hours. Inevitably, Mabel ended up back at the door of D.W. Griffith, who happily re-hired her. By doing so, Mabel then fell, unwittingly, into the clutches of Mack Sennett. Mabel was getting leading dramatic parts, but Sennett intervened and demanded that Griffith share Mabel with him. Mabel would be the icing on his cake, when he presented that cake to Kessell and Baumann. Naturally, Mabel was a little resentful about being traded around like so much horse meat, but Mack began to ply her with diamonds, and when Mabel saw diamonds, something happened in her eyes. However, Mabel did not always accept the sparklers, and once threw a seventy-five dollar bracelet back at ‘The King’. His highness sold it on for eighty dollars in good Sennett style. If DWG was playing one actress off against another, then Mabel was playing her own game with the genius and the king. 1911 ended with Mabel having a whole bunch of dramatic and comedy films to her credit, and movie-goers knew her by name, as, although Biograph did not release actor’s names, she was recognised from her credited Vitagraph pictures. As usual, the entire Biograph company left, on New Year’s Eve, for California, where Mack had a meeting booked with Kessell and Baumann, concerning the new studio, and the transference of the old Bison lot, in Edendale, to what would become the Keystone company.

A touch of schizophrenia in the drama ‘Her Awakening’ and comedy, ‘Tomboy Bessie’.

Westward Ho!

The choice of leaving date proved to be somewhat unfortunate, considering the nature of some of the men aboard, like Marshall Neilan and Owen Moore. That there would be some revelry was assured, and with a contingent of plug-hatted gents and old maids also aboard, there was certain to be conflict. The young Biograph girls would surely not be a problem, as they each had stage mothers, with the exception of one, Mabel Normand. In her newspaper column of 1916, Mary Pickford recalled the journey west and the company’s celebrations on the train. The toffs and old maids were not amused about these drunken celebrations, and were not enthralled with what they called “painted ladies” dressed in Parisian finery, running through the train. Most, far from being ladies, seemed to be just thirteen years of age, but how precisely did they make the money for those flouncy frocks? Mary gives no more information, but we might suspect that Mabel was the ring-leader, as she usually was. In fact, Blanche Sweet claimed that Mabel introduced her to cigarettes, cuss words, and strong spirits on that 5-day train ride – her corruption was, apparently, complete.

The Baumann family in L.A. 1911. Ada centre, Charles second from right.

In the event, no-one died on the train, and no-one was arrested. After a couple of days, at the Alexandria Hotel, the actors moved out to digs, with DWG carefully placing his young girls with chaperones, and with Del Henderson and wife taking a large contingent, including, it appears, Mabel. Upon the late arrival of Mrs Pickford, Mary and several others moved in with her. In his autobiography, Mack claims that he remained at the Alexandria Hotel, but the costs would suggest otherwise, and he probably moved in with the Hendersons, as soon as there was room. Nonetheless, Mack began to meet with Kessell and Baumann, who were staying at the very plush Alexandria. He would, we might suspect, have brought Mabel along to meet the New York bosses, and it was probably here that Mabel first met Baumann’s daughter, Ada, a very physical girl, just like Mabel. Ada would go on to be a national figure-skating champion, and appear in the 1914 film, ‘Mabel At The Wheel’. It seems unlikely that Mabel was at more than one meeting, and she seems to have spent much of her spare time, with old friend and Kalem star, Alice Joyce. There seems to a suggestion that Mabel had not been told about the future move of Keystone from the mooted location of New York, to Edendale. Mabel would have declined any invitation to sign for Keystone, if she’d have known the location was a two-acre tip, in a run-down area of Los Angeles. For Sennett, naturally, his portfolio of films, many featuring Mabel, would have been his key to the door to Kessell and Baumann’s office, and success. Mabel, K and B probably considered, was no normal comedy actress, but one born of the drama studio of D.W. Griffith.

Way out west: Mack Sennett and Del Henderson. Cowgirl Mabel and a friend.

Sennett might have been disheartened that Griffith was now featuring Mabel in an increasing number of dramatic films. He made an attempt to corral and keep hold of her. This was difficult, for Mabel was now a legend in her own lifetime, not yet so much in the outside world, but within Biograph itself. Men fell at her feet, and became putty in her hands, while the girls, seeing her social success, wanted to befriend her, hoping something would rub off on them. The studio children ran naturally to her, as did any of the actresses that had any worries, making her, probably, the youngest agony aunt in history. “Mabel”, Said Mrs Griffith “Was generous to a fault.” Under these circumstances, Mack had little chance of getting her alone, or working on her psyche. Mabel wasn’t interested in money, but Mack knew that diamonds, furs and tufted limousines lit up her eyes. He’d probably worked out that Mabel wanted to take on the aura of a stage-star, like a motion picture version of Lillian Russell, who she’d undoubtedly seen at theatre opening nights on Broadway. Movie stars proper, clearly did not exist in those days, but, according to Mack, he told her this:

“Mabel, we’re going to be a success, and we’ll have so much money that we’ll drive around in a Pierce-Arrow limousine, firing diamonds at people from catapults.”

Mabel was dubious. Mack was a dreamer, a jerk, and a loser, according to most Biograph actors. However, she liked what he told her, and kept him on the back-burner, just in case. Eventually, the time came to return to 11 East Fourteenth Street, Mabel having several great films under her belt, and Mack ready to go on the Keystone project.

Rectors: Only big-shots dine here.

On The Streets in New York.

Soon after the return to NY, Mack confided to his group of actors that Keystone was a goer. The men jumped at the opportunity, but getting Mabel onboard would be difficult. He broached the subject carefully to Mabel, over a milk-shake on Fifth Avenue. He explained that Kessell and Baumann wanted her in their studio, and she should go to their Longacre office, where they’d explain the situation, and set out her salary. “I’m getting sixty-dollars a week” Said Mack “And I expect you to get seventy, or even eighty dollars.” Giving her no time for contemplation, he led Mabel to Longacre, where K and B welcomed her, and informed her of their offer of one-hundred-dollars a week. Mabel was flabbergasted, and fell silent, but Baumann immediately made a further offer of one-hundred-and-twenty-five dollars a week. Struck dumb, Mabel motioned for him to bring the pen and contract, and shakily signed on the bottom of the page. She’d hit the big time, and the whirl continued with a celebratory dinner at the plush Rector’s Restaurant. Mabel told her friends at Biograph that she was leaving Biograph, for a salary of above a hundred dollars a week. The actors were stunned, but many were dismayed. Mary Pickford, who’d made her own mistake with the nascent IMP company at an earlier time, begged Mabel not to go off with this crazy company, and the equally crazy Mack Sennett. Mary’s mother weighed in and said her piece, as did Blanche Sweet’s grandmother. Mabel, they told her, was in grave danger, going off with a bunch of madmen, and with no stage-mother or chaperone of any kind. There was, of course, some selfishness among the company, as Mabel had been a central point around which the fun revolved. Most came to understand though, that eventually they too would have to leave the highly restrictive Biograph studio, or go down with the ship that would clearly sink. Griffith himself, would leave not long after, but we can imagine that he was furious at losing his most able tragedienne to, of all people, Mack Sennett.

Fickle Mabel gets hyperactive in ‘At Coney Island’.

The Keystone company began to film out on the streets of New York, for they had no studio. One of the pictures they made was ‘At Coney Island’ which depicted a young girl caught up in events around the fairground. In Mack Sennett’s concept, the screen Mabel was the same as the real Mabel that the Biograph people knew so well. Very pretty, a good, agile mover, a little zany, and oh, so fickle. There was another aspect to Mabel, for she brought status and kudos to the new concern, being an actress from the Griffith stable. The evidence indicates that Mabel was promised dramatic roles in the future, once Keystone had established itself, and this would entirely explain why she gave up on her career under Griffith.

Away to Old Spain.

The time in New York did not last long, and if Mabel did not know the truth, then she soon discovered that the company was to move west, and into the now vacant Bison lot in Edendale. Arrangements to move west were complicated and difficult, especially if Mabel had decided she wanted out. There was another problem relating to Mabel. When Griffith moved Biograph west, he made careful arrangements for his actresses (average age 16) to be chaperoned. Parents and guardians had to sign an affidavit to the effect that they agreed with their charges being taken 3,000 miles to Los Angeles. Keystone, clearly, had no suitable chaperones, and by 1912, the Mann Act was in force, making it illegal for anyone to carry an underage (although not exclusively) female across state lines for immoral purposes. In many states underage meant under 21, and the movies could well be considered an ‘immoral purpose’. What to do then? Well, in his autobiography, Mack kind of tells us. He regales us with the the story, clearly false, that Mabel wanted to visit her parents on Staten Island, so Mack went along with her on the ferry. During the ‘voyage’ Mack presented her with a cheap engagement ring, took her into his arms and, in the moonlight, he kissed her. If this sounds a little familiar, then it ought to, for it is a scene straight out of a Keystone screenplay. What probably happened was that they had gone to Staten Island to obtain the parent’s blessing on their (fallacious) engagement, and their signatures on an affidavit. Mack was now clear to take Mabel to California. The bogus engagement, however, was to hang around their necks like an albatross, for the rest of their lives. Incidentally, the notion that Mabel would accept a paste engagement ring from a Woolworth’s store is patently ridiculous. If it wasn’t in a Tiffany’s box, then it would have been “So long, Buster” and we have seen that she’d already rejected a seventy-five dollar diamond bracelet.

Charlie Chaplin is booked for contravening the Mann Act in 1944.

On the train west, the Keystoners must have made an incongruous group — four greying middle-aged men and a seemingly thirteen-year-old girl. No doubt, any old maids on the train would have felt the lash of the Keystone Girl’s tongue, should they have made any unwarranted assertions. It seems, though, that the company made it far enough to receive their customary flower garlands at San Bernardino station, then it was onwards to L.A. and the Alexandria Hotel. As usual, the hotel was to be temporary, but we can imagine that Mabel fought tooth and nail to stay on. A movie star, which is what she most certainly thought herself to be, does not live in digs. Mack Sennett probably had the idea of moving into the squat-like bungalow on the Edendale lot — it was certainly cheap, and such a spider-infested squat, in Niles, was what Charlie Chaplin had in 1915, when he joined the Essanay company. Mabel had probably already realised that she was indispensible to Keystone, and no doubt demanded an apartment in a better area, such as Hollywood or Glendale. Then there was the plush limousine to waft her to and from the studio, along with the fur coat and latest Parisian-style hat, with plenty of fruit salad on top. This lady did not come cheap, and she intended to make herself as expensive as possible. There were, of course, the electric trollies running out to Edendale, but dangers awaited an actress travelling in public, and the public could recognise an actress at a hundred yards. Actresses weren’t exactly popular in Hollywood, Glendale, or Pasadena. The people of these places considered themselves a cut above, and they did not want actresses i.e. whores, walking their stuff around their neighbourhood. Many an actress was spat on while travelling by trolley, or had a handbag swung around their face, by a woman, thinking she was after her man. Beyond that, the general Los Angeles area had the highest homicide rate in the country during the 1910s.

The Edendale lot a couple of years before Bison arrived.

If Mabel had her head full of the Spanish missions, senors and senoritas, then the ‘studio’ out on Allesandro Street, would have been a wake up call. Neither L.A.s Chinatown, nor Mexican quarter looked quite like this. After a full two years of operation, Charlie Chaplin described the place as follows:

“It was a dilapidated affair, with a green fence around it, one hundred and fifty feet square. The entrance to it was up a garden path, through an old bungalow — the whole place looked as anomalous as Edendale itself.” (which meant it looked like an old lumber or junk yard).

From: ‘Chaplin: My Autobiography’ (1964).

It made for a depressing sight, and to prevent Mabel from jumping the next train out, Mack offered part of the the bungalow as her star’s dressing room. He had the dressing room panelled off, and there was a connecting door to to the back of the bungalow, which later became the general female dressing room. However, the door was never closed, and soon, the stock company could be found in both sides of the house. The main thing here was that Mabel had set out the way it was going to be, thereafter. However, she did not have the famous marble ‘Cleopatra’ bath in those days, and everything was rudimentary, even the bath, which was one of those tin things, that hang behind doors in Keystone films. There was no sewage system, but a septic tank, although this was not fed by flushing toilets. Instead, a ‘pot boy’ collected up the numerous chamber pots and took them to the tank, twice daily. Municipal drainage had not arrived in those days, and the company headed for the hills (or hill) behind the studio, when the rains hit, causing the lot to become a lagoon. Most of the time, though, they chewed on the pervading and famous Los Angeles dust. In pursuit of the coveted electrical current, the company paid the city fathers the requisite eight hundred dollars, which ensured a hook-up would arrive in three to five years, but as it arrived at Keystone much sooner, we might suppose Mack slid the city clerk an accompanying wad. The electrical cabling would not support heaters, and there was only one place to find an oil stove, and that was in Mabel’s dressing room, which soon became a resort for everyone on cold mornings.

Left: A cross-dressed Mabel outside the old grocery store used as Keystone front office (note the building’s non-alignment with the street). Right: The bungalow believed to have housed Mabel’s dressing room,with garden out back, and aligned with Alessandro Street.

Well, we know Mabel stayed on, as she appeared in around forty films over the next year. By early 1913, the first articles began to appear, naming her as “The Queen of The Movies” which was wasn’t a bad place to be, although she would not become the Goddess Mabel for a few years. Her place in the pictures, show-cased Mabel, who mostly played the central pivot around which everything spun. A very clever use of her talents by Mack Sennett, and the actors played along with it, realising Mabel was their best advertisement. Beyond that, as Charlie Chaplin later said “She was light-hearted and gay, a good fellow, kind and generous, and everyone adored her.” Mabel, it seems came to terms with living in the wild west, and the fact that everyone doted on her (who were mostly men in the early days) probably helped, but the loss of her old friends probably hurt her more deeply than she let on. Later she would recall crawling into bed every night and crying herself to sleep. On balance, being driven meant that she was unlikely to throw in the towel, and run back east. The stage was now set for Keystone to flourish, although machinations back in New York, meant that stage actors would be regularly sent west to burst Mack and Mabel’s localised bubble, although stirring some deep emotions within Mabel.

What girl wouldn’t want to be Mabel?

We might imagine that Alice Joyce became Mabel’s rock, during these difficult early times. Alice was the first of those stars that we might call truly trans-continental, spending half the year in the east, and half in the west. The Biograph company arrived again in L.A. by early 1913, and we might suppose that the Keystone players renewed acquaintances with the Griffith crowd. It seems clear, however, that the legend of Mabel had survived her departure from Biograph, and some of the new actresses were keen to meet, or at least see, ‘The Legend’. Whether Dorothy Gish or Gertie Bambrick actually met Mabel, or merely viewed her from from across Levy’s Cafe, we do not know, but the pair were sufficiently impressed to decide they wanted to be Mabel. As Mrs Griffith later reported it, Dottie and Gertie slipped their chaperones, booked into a hotel, and made ready to hit the town. They were recaptured by D.W. Griffith and Del Henderson, several hours later, as they left a theatre. Mrs Griffith further relates that they were back with their chaperones in minutes, after hitching their skirts back up, to cover their bared midriffs. So, what was it that inspired the younger girls to worship Mabel? She was, clearly, unspeakably feminine, moved as though on wheels, and in a white sable, glittering with diamonds, swamped by a sea of admirers, she made a picture that was irresistible to wannabe actresses in the early 1910s. Doted on, for sure, by the Keystone actors, Mabel, contrary to what Andrew Slide said in his book ‘She Could Have Been Chaplin‘, was never given anything. Rather, she took what she wanted. There is a distinct and subtle difference.

This has been the story of the founding of the Keystone film company that was to become the home of the Keystone Kops, and the Bathing Beauties, but, in the early days, all had rested upon the shoulders of a small, dusky-eyed girl named Mabel Normand. Her journey through the next three-and-a-bit years would be both exhilarating and heart-breaking, culminating with the eventual severance with Keystone, although the final disconnect with Sennett did not occur until 1924.

Note on Mabel as ‘The Queen of The Movies’: Once this title had been bestowed by journalists, the Keystone studio began to utilise it in their regular briefs to the press. For instance, when Marie Dressler came to the studio, Mack Sennett released a whole plethora of nonsense about war breaking out between stage star Marie and Mabel Normand ‘The Queen of The Movies’. In 1914, Charlie Chaplin apparently directed the film ‘Queen Of The Movies’ in which Mabel played an opening cameo role. Unfortunately, the film has disappeared, but we do know that Mabel was cut from later releases (her cameo in Chaplin’s ‘The Masquerader’ is extant).

A masquerader meets ‘The Queen of The Movies’.


King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

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

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

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

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


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

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

She Could Have Been Chaplin: Alice Howell by Andrew Slide (2016).

Queen Of The Movies. Article from Movie Pictorial. June 13th, 1914.

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

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

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

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


So, who’s in this garden picture, and what is its significance? Well, this is a still from a short newsreel film, showing Mabel Normand, with famous actor Raymond Hitchcock in Great Neck, Long Island, New York State, which was said to have been shot on November 18th 1921. However, contemporary news reports suggest that Mabel was back in Los Angeles before the end of October, so we can assume that the film was released in November, and therefore, shot earlier. It is a curious thing that Mabel’s latest feature film, ‘Molly O’ was released on New York’s Broadway on 20th November, making it equally curious that Mabel was not there for that particular screening. However, the Long Island newsreel film was released just prior to ‘Molly O’ and so it had some impact on the minds of cinema-goers, including the Hollywood movie people who, on November 30th, watched ‘Molly O’ at the Mission Theatre, located on their own Broadway, in Los Angeles.

Mabel with Mack Sennett, Dick Jones (director) at the Molly O’ premiere, L.A.

The clip we see here is part of the newsreel shot in a garden, which we can assume was on the property of her friends, Mr and Mrs Hitchcock (Mrs Hitchcock was Broadway and Film actress, Flora Zabelle). Mabel is seen sitting on Raymond Hitchcock’s lap, and seemingly canoodling with him. Raymond Hitchcock is a married man, which circumstance could have raised a few eyebrows. Until recently, we only had view of this garden scene in isolation, although we might have suspected that ‘Hitchy’s’ wife was behind the camera. This proved to be the case, when the entire film and the associated Gaumont text came to light. However, it is still a shock to see the former ingenue carrying on with a married man, so what’s behind it? The answer was to come in the ‘Molly O’ picture, released two days later, in which Mabel remains as cute (aged 29), and sometimes as tragic, as ever, but does venture out beyond the ingenue, to become a man pursuing, semi-vamp, capable of leering at any guy of her fancy. In the garden scene, Mabel is doing something that the Mabel of old would never have done before the camera. The risk, naturally, was to her reputation as a screen gamin, although it is fair to say that, by 1920, there were plenty of vamps and Salome-lookalikes hitting the screen. With the Roscoe Arbuckle scandal, having occurred on September 5th, we might have thought that Mabel would have been more careful. Care, though, is thrown to the wind, as Mabel looks at Hitchy saying something including the words “It’s a shame” and “Wife” So, here we have a mischievous Mabel, a naughty Normand, although a brief inter-title (too brief to be read properly) states “Mrs Hitchcock is invited too”, suggesting this liaison is not quite what it seems. However, Mabel might have quickly regretted this scene, for within two months, she was to be catapulted into her own scandal, one that was to initiate the multi-million-dollar industry known as Hollywood Babylon, a long-running series of books, films and magazines, portraying the so-called sordid lives of the movie stars. Mabel’s follow-up film to ‘Molly O’, Suzanna, depicts Mabel back in her ingenue role, much to her annoyance, we might suppose, but much safer ground. Here is the URL for the Long Island film:


Mabel and Raymond watch the boats, but what is Mrs Hitchcock watching?

The second part of the film shows Mabel with the Hitchcocks in a spot overlooking the ocean that might be part of the Hitchcock’s garden, or maybe it is elsewhere on Long Island. It is clearly blowing a gale, but records show that the temperature was, unusually for November, in the low 70s F. Mabel is now sporting screen make-up, and looks like the Keystone Girl should look, replete with cupid’s bow, and gay as a wisp. There is not much difference between Mabel here, and the one of ‘Fatty and Mabel in San Francisco’ (1915). It’s interesting to note the difference between Hitchy and Mabel, where comedian Hitch has a rather remarkable countenance, and is prone to pulling amusing faces. Mabel had the unusual ability of being funny, whilst being cute and pretty, which is why some folks place her in a genre of her own.

Rough seas hold no fear for Mabel.

The third part depicts Mabel’s return to a water nymph theme, and shows her walking onto a wobbly pontoon, and diving into a very choppy Long Island Sound. Her movie diving career began in 1911, under D.W. Griffith/Mack Sennett, and in fact, the film ‘The Diving Girl’ of that year was actually shot in Huntington, Long Island Sound. By 1921, there were numerous water nymphs inhabiting the silver screen, not the least being The Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties, and Mabel’s predecessor in one-piece swimsuits, Olympic swimmer Annette Kellerman, still active in pictures during the 1920s and much later. It seemed entirely necessary for Mabel to reiterate her aquatic skills, and there were reports that she’d won several swimming and diving contests out on Long Island. Mabel looks somewhat thin, almost emaciated, in this section of the film, suggesting that she hadn’t quite recovered from the bout of Spanish Influenza that almost killed her. However, she was the consummate professional, so put her in front of a camera……

* For those that like figures, the average water temperature for October in Long Island Sound is around 60-deg F, or 6-deg F less than in Santa Monica, L.A.

Notes on the film.

1. Mabel had been very close to the Hitchcocks, since Raymond first arrived at Keystone in 1915. Although this newsreel film was taken in joyous times, 1915 had not been a good time for Mabel, and indeed, 1922 was to prove another grim year, during which she again fell back on Hitchy and his wife. At various times Mabel had resided with various people, usually a married couple, like the Hitchcocks or the Arbuckles (weekends in Santa Monica), although in 1920/21 she had lived with Blanche Sweet and her grandmother in L.A.. That Mabel was trusted by Mr and Mrs Hitchcock, can be inferred from the fact that they let her drive them around in their Rolls Royce car.

Raymond Hitchcock hangs on grimly as Mabel takes him and his wife for a spin in their ‘Roller’.

2. The garden shots give us a chance to see Mabel without the level of make-up she used in her films. The cupid’s bow mouth is not as pronounced as we normally see it, and her eyes, although large, aren’t as ‘bush babyish’ as they often appear. Her teeth seem smaller than we normally see them, or indeed, as in the ocean view scene. We can assume that a darker lipstick accentuates the teeth — unless she sometimes used false teeth . Here, we have to remember that big eyes and big teeth were the chief requisites for a silent actress. In the first part of the garden scene, Mabel’s face has shadow, which kind of makes her features stand out. Her chin is much more prominent than we usually see it, and her nose has a sharp ridge. Neither of these features are easily observable in the commercial films.

Keystone pool and the rocky Long Island Sound.

3. In the 1920s, U.S. films were still being made in New York, although increasingly being produced in Hollywood. A Hollywood star could meet up with old acting friends in New York, and the city was a popular with actors and actresses ‘resting’ between films, or making the trip to Europe. That’s right, in the early 1920s, Hollywood was a boring place to be, compared with the bright lights of the Big Apple. Mack Sennett, of course, was hard at work in his Edendale studio, and would, no doubt, have been unhappy to see his latest and very expensive acquisition, Mabel, involved with Hitchy, an actor he despised, and had fired at the end of 1915. Way back in around 1905, Hitchy had thrown Sennett out of a play that he was starring in. “Clumsy and useless” Said Mr. Hitchcock. It is worth stating here, that although Mack and Mabel had been on first name terms in 1912, she was now very formal with The KIng of Comedy, and always referred to him as Mr. Sennett.

Raleigh Evening Times 1905 November 1st 1905.

4. So, what do we know about Raymond Hitchcock? Hitchy was a popular vaudevillian comic, who turned to the movies, on occasions. He spent time during 1915 with Keystone, appearing in ‘My Valet’ with Mabel. He was not, however, popular with Mack Sennett, who despised stage actors. In the world of motion pictures, no-one asked who you were, or where you came from, which was just as well, for he was arrested in 1905 for sexually abusing young girls, although they refused to testify against him, and he was acquitted. There is no evidence, by the way, that Mabel had met Raymond Hitchcock prior to 1915.


Mabel adopts the aura of a stage star, at a plush hotel in Pasadena, 1914.

Now, you might have heard of being on Sunset Boulevard, but how can anyone be in this once tree-lined avenue. This article refers to the film ‘Sunset Boulevard’, not the place, although the action in the film, does take place on ‘the strip’. Mabel Normand is in this film, and yet, kind of not. However, the consigning of Mabel’s memory, to the trashcan of movie history, began with this 1950 film. Before we look at the film, we must first look at a bit of history. Unfortunately, this is entirely necessary in order to understand the relationship between Mabel Normand (the most photographed and written about girl in movie history) and this film. If the reader feels competent in the story of Mabel Normand, then they should go directly to the final section: ‘The 1940s and Sunset Boulevard’.

Mabel Normand in a nutshell – or 2,000 words.

Historically, there are two Mabel Normands, the real Mabel and the one to be found, since 1922, in the Hollywood Babylon and Hollywierd publications. The real Mabel is almost unknown to us, and we have to compose a virtual Mabel, by reference to, and inference drawn from, the contemporary writings of the silent stars, movie producers, and journalists. We can recreate, to some extent, the Mabel of the 1920s, by recourse to the aforementioned material. Prior to this decade, Mabel had made a feature film in a studio in East Hollywood, under The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, the studio having her name boldly emblazoned on the roof – she was in fact the first movie actor, or actress, to have that glory bestowed upon her (even D.W. Griffith did not have this honour). In 1918, she was making pictures for Sam Goldwyn, when her film from her own studio, ‘Mickey,’ was released to much acclaim, and rapidly swept ‘Birth of A Nation’ off the top spot, as the highest-earning film up to that time. The Goldwyn pictures were not top notch, but it was under Goldwyn, according to big star Madge Kennedy, that Mabel transformed from movie queen to goddess. A goddess to the world, yes, but more importantly, a goddess in Hollywood itself. To the Hollywooders, this glittering creature could do no wrong. On top of that, she threw the biggest and wildest parties, whether in New York or Los Angeles. Generous to a fault, and according to Charlie Chaplin, bringing glamour and fun to whichever studio she was working in, everyone adored her. Some went further, as Mrs D.W. Griffith tells it, and the likes of Dorothy Gish and Gertrude Bambrick, actually wanted to be her. Her ability to do graceful dives, and daredevil ones from high cliffs, as well as an uncanny ability to fearlessly ride bucking bronchos, made her everyone’s dream. To cap it all, she was perhaps the first movie star to take on the aura of a big stage star, and became a prime subject for the press. Inundated with requests for interviews, Mabel did what she could, but those journalists left out, understandably, felt aggrieved at being seemingly brushed aside. This should be borne in mind when we come to speak of the events of 1922.

Mabel outside the Fountain Avenue studio.

Sweeping out of Goldwyn’s collapsing studio, Mabel was bought up by Mack Sennett, anxious to utilise her dramatic abilities in order to compete with the best studios. Kudos was what Sennett desired. Mabel signed to make ‘Molly O’ in 1921, for $3,000 a week, plus 25% of the net profits. Her part was not just an extension of the Keystone Girl of 1912-1915, but a chance to break out of the ingenue mould, and into a more mature character, from which she could unashamedly vamp and leer at men, as well as be just a little tragic. The film did well, but did not out-sell ‘Mickey’. Plans were made to follow up on the Molly O’ character, and perhaps make her even more seductive, in a film called ‘Suzanna’. However, the murder of her friend William Desmond Taylor put paid to that notion, as the torrent of character assassinations against Mabel poured from the newspapers. So now we have the second of the two Mabels, the evil scheming, conniving, drunken Mabel, as described by the press (and all too soon by the purveyors of Hollywood Babylon). Initially, the finger pointed at Mabel, for she was, to some, certainly the murderer, but gradually the accumulated evidence pointed away from her. However, her relationship with Taylor was dragged through the gutter press and the coroner’s court. Wasn’t her monogrammed nightdress found in Taylor’s bedroom, and wasn’t she known as ‘two-gun’ Mabel’? The pistols, though, were of .25 calibre, not the .38 calibre that killed Taylor, while the nightdress monogram turned out to read ‘MMM’ not ‘MN’. The press then changed tack, and decided that Mabel knew who killed WDT, but was keeping ‘schtum’ as to the culprit’s identity. Several things now happened. Firstly, the actors and actresses came out in support of Mabel, writing open letters to the press (the producers stayed relatively quiet, but were secretly trying to relieve their studios of anyone that knew Taylor). The studios then brought in a ‘trouble-shooter’ Will Hays who had instructions to ‘clean up’ Hollywood (or at least pretend to do so). As Hays rode into town, so Mabel slipped out by the back door, via San Bernardino, and was soon in New York and on her way to Europe. That night, comedy cowboy Will Rogers and close friend of Mabel, stood onstage in L.A. and quipped:

“There were two shootings in Los Angeles today – Mabel Normand must be back in town.”

In the aftermath of the Taylor affair came a raft of what became known as, Hollywood Babylon. Books and magazine articles on this new phenomenon filled the bookshelves, a million different versions of Mabel Normand and her outrageous, though very fictional, lifestyle. Mabel, however, arrived back in New York in the Fall of 1922, where she dallied awhile as the talk of the town. The good-time girl was in her element, feted by celebrities, actors, actresses and producers, causing the gossip columnists to just about run out of ink. Half of the movie industry was still based in New York at that time, and Mabel quickly re-acquainted herself with the top guys, like Paramount’s Adolph Zukor, for whom she arranged the biggest, brashest of birthday parties that only Mabel Normand could bring off. One of the girls that worshipped Mabel and sat at her feet, in those days, was a dancer by the name of Anita Garvin, later to star alongside her heroine in the 1926 feature film ‘Raggedy Rose’. It was here, in New York, that Mabel heard that Mack Sennett was starting a new picture, about a country girl enticed to Hollywood, where she and her family are fleeced by crooks. Being the innocent victim was just what Mabel needed, to get her out of the dog-house, but there was already a star in the film, which Sennett had been shooting for three expensive weeks. Mabel was straight on the long-distance phone to Sennett, and somehow, within five minutes and fewer words, the former star of the picture, Phyllis Haver, was sitting on her on rump, outside the studio gate. Mabel breezed into L.A. a few days later, gay as a wisp, ready to make the film, and kick the press into touch. What Mabel had said to Mack in that phone call is known only to them, and the birds. Some kind of threat, perhaps, concerning the District Attorney and a certain W.D. Taylor? We will never discover the truth. All we know is that the film was a complete success, and drew almost level with ‘Mickey’ on ticket sales. Mabel must have made at least a million dollars from that picture, but as she said about Mack Sennett, in her mini-autobiography “I must have made that man millions.” That guy owed her, boy did he owe her.

Mabel in Wonderland. Studio still for Extra Girl.

Mabel now had her pension, should her career end. There was something, nonetheless, that she still had to do. Mabel had been a serial maniser, and the men that associated with her did well from her financially. Everyone knew, though, that when she’d finished with them, they’d be discarded them along with her empty gin bottles. Some took it philosophically, some, like Paul Bern became suicidal, and one, Charlie Chaplin, scarpered while the going was good. In 1922, the press dug this all up, and much was made of the fact that Mabel, for all of her escorts, had never married. Mabel decided to get married, but she enjoyed a good chase, which meant taking another girl’s man – not a husband of course, good Catholic that she was, but a boyfriend was always fair game. Prince Ibrahim of Egypt was a kind of fiancé (Hollywood-style) to Constance Talmadge, but out in Europe in 1922, Mabel travelled France and Italy, with Ibrahim, her ‘personal sheik’, and sheiks were never more desirable than in 1922. Now it was 1923, and it seems that Mabel had her eye on a wealthy oilman, Courtland Dines. Unfortunately, Dines was engaged (again Hollywood-style) to Chaplin’s leading lady, Edna Purviance. Both actresses thought their careers were over, but although Edna had slipped from her perch, the unexpected good reaction to ‘Extra Girl’ caused Mabel to go cold on ‘Courts’ – she no longer needed the guy. They had been seeing each other behind Edna’s back, but when Mabel cold-shouldered him, he became enraged. He was no Paul Bern, and would not blow his brains out, as Bern did later, when he was dumped on by his then wife, the blonde bombshell, Jean Harlow. At a drinking session in Dines apartment on New Year’s Day 1924, Mabel’s chauffeur shot Dines, who was being disrespectful to his employer. The heaven’s opened on Mabel, and she was in real trouble now. However, her friends again came to her rescue, and this time Mabel toughed it out, although she was dragged to court by subpoena. There was no way to escape the wrath of the holier-than-thou press: “Send these guttersnipes back east, where the authorities can keep a better eye on the scum” railed one L.A. rag. Then, a few months later, they reported that Miss Mabel had been named in a divorce case. “Ahaaa” Said the gutter press, “We always knew this ‘ingenue’ was a whore.” They were a bit previous with their comments, for it turned out that Mabel was someone that had alienated a husband’s affections from his wife. Quite simply, like many others that met her, the hubby could not stop talking about her. This, we can say, was the worst scandal for Mabel. Sure, she was an incorrigible flirt, but she’d always been careful not to get involved with married men, and, to this day, there is no evidence that she ever ‘erred’.

So, Mabel was all washed up, or was she? A collaboration with theatre and movie guy, Al Woods, in 1925, produced the stage play ‘The Little Mouse’ in which Mabel would play the lead. This, she hoped, would ingratiate her with the public at large, across America, for the play would tour the country. Another part of her rehabilitation was buying a house in Los Angeles, out in Beverly Hills. One criticism of Mabel, and other stars, was that they had made no commitment to the west – all they wanted to do, was make their cash in California, and return to the bright lights of New York. In the event, the show played to packed houses, although the critics lambasted Mabel for her weak voice, which prevented the show from appearing on Broadway. Nonetheless, Mabel, it seems, made at least another million, and Woods, perhaps four times that amount. Mabel returned to her home in Beverly Hills, again hitting the party trail, and was much seen around town. Her house, it has to be said, was a rather modest mansion, with no turrets, no battlements, and just a small pool. This needs to be borne in mind, for discussions further on. Several things were now happening. She was still receiving film offers from around the world, was bowing to the pressure to marry, and was having more frequent bouts of illness and even pneumonia. In 1926, she turned down a big film offer from Mack Sennett, got married (to Lew Cody) and went into Hal Roach studios where she made one feature and four short films. Becoming extremely sick in 1927, she stopped making films, prompting much concern in the movie and national press. In 1928, nevertheless, she was back on the Hollywood scene again, attending premieres and parties, hiring the Cocoanut Grove for a film premiere party, and making it plain that she was ready to make films. Still married, but living apart from husband, Lew Cody, she seems to have been pushing for Louis B. Mayer to get her into MGM films. Mayer allowed her to use the set of film of the year “Our Dancing Daughters” for a so-called private picture, on the occasion of Lew Cody’s birthday. It is suspected, however, that the film was a screen test for talkies. Was Mayer just playing her along? Well, this has some relevance, later on in the story.

Charlie and Mabel 1928 On the night of Mabel’s death, Charlie said this: “She was the greatest actress the world has ever known, and she knew more about comedy than any of us will ever know. She was one of the truest friends I have ever had, 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 fell very sick in mid-1929, and was in a sanitorium by the Fall of that year. At a big Hollywood bash at Lew Cody’s in February 1930 house, came the terrible news that Mabel had passed away. The party turned into a wake, with everyone telling their own personal stories of Madcap Mabel. Cody was stunned, Charlie Chaplin was shattered, and Roscoe Arbuckle rendered speechless for the first time in his life. A week later, the studios in Hollywood closed, as the cream of the film industry carried The Keystone Girl to her grave. That then was the closing scene for Mabel and the silent movie. There would be only one more ‘silent’ and Hollywood would never again have the centre and focus that it had with Mabel Normand. We are now twenty years away from the release of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ but we cannot go straight there, for a lot relevant to Mabel, or her memory, was to come in the interim.

Immediately after Mabel’s funeral the obituaries still flooded in from the good and great of Hollywood, and beyond. Even her would-be nemesis, Hollywood fixer Will Hays wrote an apologetic obituary to the effect that although he’d never met Mabel, he had never held anything against her, and if she ever thought that he’d had wronged her, then he hoped that, wherever she was now, she could see fit to forgive him.

Sydney Sutherland, director wrote a piece called ‘Madcap Mabel’ giving an honest account of Mabel’s life. However, the stories published in 1930, are too many to mention here, but we must include this from James R. Quirk, founder of Photoplay magazine:

“Mabel Normand was the most extraordinary woman that I had ever known. Certainly, the most interesting and unusual person the screen has ever known. There will never be another Mabel Normand. Few such vivid individualities have appeared in the world, in any metier. Beyond that, the screen world has become too standardised to offer scope and right-of- way for another such character. Generous, impulsive, self-effacing, impudent, untamed, misunderstood and not resentful of that misunderstanding. Daring in spirit, tender, and with the eager curiosity of a child.”

[‘Mabel Normand Says Good-bye’ Photoplay Magazine, May 1930].

Mabel with Dick Jones (L) and Jack Pickford (R).

Mabel’s long-term and final director, F. Richard Jones died at the end of 1930, at the exact age, almost to the day, that Mabel had been when she left this mortal coil. In 1933, Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel’s partner in chaos, Jack Pickford, died. Courtland Dines, in this same year, was committed to an asylum out in Denver, having lost his mind. In Hollywood, Mack Sennett Studios went bust, due to losses associated with the Great Depression, and the failure of his distribution company. Meanwhile the public at large still remembered Mabel, and journalists continued to write of her. Noting this, Sennett seems to have decided that Mabel, or her memory, could give him a start to a new career. He began to hawk his ideas around the various studios, and kept a careful eye out for a washed-up actress that could play Mabel. Being ‘washed-up’ was important, for it meant the actress would come cheap, and easier to sell to the studios. A Mabel-lookalike was going to be difficult, but it seems, by 1935, he’d hit upon dark-haired Louise Brooks, who he had noticed flitting in and out of the Roosevelt Hotel [her book ‘Lulu In Hollywood’]. Irrespective of Sennett’s machinations, Mabel’s name remained in the public memory, although she was now Mabel Normand, but in her heyday, a simpler “Mabel” did the job for the headlines. When Republic took over Mack’s Studio City premises, the deal came with something else – Mack himself. The King of Comedy presented his idea for a remake of his ‘Molly O’, which the studio duly considered. In the end they came up with a picture verging on the Hollywood Babylon, but with a moral attached. As a concession to Mack, the lead character was name ‘Molly Adair’. The film was entitled ‘Hollywood Cavalcade’ but then the studio adopted a Mabel theme, with a remake of her ‘Sis Hopkins’, starring Mabel’s successor in comedy, Judy Canova. It is not clear who came up with the idea, but at Christmas 1940, the studio laid on a lavish party for the new film and the opening of a new stage – The Mabel Normand Soundstage. This was a big event, with a thousand stars, both past and present, attending, including new boy on the block, John Wayne. Mack Sennett and William Farnum read eulogies to Mabel’s memory, and Judy Canova unveiled the Mabel Normand plaque, an ostentatious affair in bronze, and weighing a full 300 pounds.

Opening the Mabel Normand Soundstage, 1940.

The 1940s and ‘Sunset Boulevard’

The opening of the MN soundstage created a real-life stage for Mack and his Kops. Mack’s, Mabel’s and the Kops’ fame increased substantially, with Mack becoming more emboldened, regarding a full-blown Mabel picture. In 1949, he almost pulled it off. Paramount had accepted a script for a potential film called ‘The Keystone Girl’. The star role was presented to Mary Pickford, who flatly turned it down, as did Betty Hutton. Both realised that the Mabel part was very small — the film in fact, was all about Mack Sennett. While Sennett scratched around for a new star, Paramount came into possession of a new screenplay. ‘Sunset Boulevard’ would be sort of about Mabel, but would have a little more ‘bite’. It would, it transpired, unashamedly be ‘Hollyweird’ in concept. Not that this was the intention of the producers, who saw it as a story about the movie scene of years before in which they could be portrayed as masters dealing with recalcitrant actors. However, the writer had intended this to be an indictment of the Hollywood’s maltreatment of screenwriters, and so the allotted director, Billy Wilder, was left juggling with an anomaly, between the two different views. On his own volition, he decided to concentrate on the madness, the craziness of the silent era. Former silent star, Gloria Swanson was signed for the leading role of Norma Desmond, she being the only one to seriously consider the part, by virtue of the fact that she was stone broke.

“I guess Mabel Normand is back in town.” ‘Hollywood Boulevard.”

Where is Mabel in the Film?

Mabel Normand turns up, by name, early in the film, when screenwriter, Joe Gillis, looks out of the window of the Sunset Boulevard mansion, and sees the swimming pool. “Hell” He says “Mabel Normand must have swum in that pool, ten thousand midnights ago.” Immediately, we are aware that the name Mabel Normand meant something to the mid-twentieth century public. If it were otherwise, then why mention her? Later on, Gloria herself says that she danced in reviews “with Mabel, although she kept stepping on my feet.”

[FromMabel Normand: A Source Book to her Life and Films‘]

The name Mabel Normand was associated with castle-like homes and vast swimming pools. Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth. Even Mabel’s Beverly Hills home was a modest affair, and the small pool was little used due to its lack of privacy, arising from the fact that an alleyway ran along one side of the garden and the road another. No, the scandalous pool, existed in Alla’s Garden, and was owned by Alla Nazimova, a stage and movie star. The story was that outrageous lesbian parties were held here, complete with backlit nymphs flitting around the pool. There is no evidence, however, that this was the case, and Mabel’s connection with Alla was that she used Alla’s pool, when Alla was coaching her for speaking on the stage. As regards dancing with Gloria Swanson, there is nothing to suggest that Mabel and Gloria ever got together. Gloria was a Bathing Beauty, while Mabel was not, and Mabel left Edendale for good, soon after Gloria arrived. However, it suited Billy Wilder for Gloria to intimate that Mabel could not dance, even though the accounts we have, suggests that she was a very competent dancer. Mabel, however, never appeared engaging in anything but comedy dancing, making it possible that Wilder did, in fact, believe that Mabel could not dance very well. By the way, Mabel moved very well, and it is said she glided around, as though on wheels.

Mad! Norma Desmond.

The chief character in the film was Norma Desmond, a washed up, aging silent actress. Instantly, there is a reference to William Desmond Taylor, a friend of Mabel that was murdered, and naturally the name Norma could refer to Normand. The scene is set, then, for a resurgence of Mabel, but in a very bad way. Norma Desmond, as we might expect is crazy, which ties in nicely with ‘Madcap Mabel’, and the film suggests Norma is a avid drinker, as per Mabel who was partial to the odd drop of the gargle. Norma also appears to be partial to men, for when screenwriter Joe Gillis accidentally stumbles onto the decrepit Desmond mansion, she immediately takes a shine to the young guy. Such a shine that she ‘captures’ him, traps him in her mansion with the help of her butler. Naturally, there is always a creepy butler in a creepy old mansion., and Eric von Stroheim is the creepiest of them all — “Yoou raang madam?” The Hollywood mansion is reminiscent of the Hotel California – you can check out, but you can never leave. After a while, Joe forms the opinion that Norma is a latter-day Miss Havisham, straight out of Dicken’s ‘Great Expectations’. As everyone knows Miss Havisham had reason to hate and inflict pain on men, which is exactly what Mabel did, although the pain was unintentional — she was merely protecting herself and her career, which would surely have been curtailed if she had married. Turns out Norma has a reason for wanting Joe around. She is working on a script for a film, which she believes will get her back on the screen. Is Mabel in this notion? Well, Mabel was known for collecting stories that might be useful, and when in Europe, she courted all the great writers, like Barrie, Wells and Burke. It seems she did hawk certain stories around the studios, and so there may be some connection. although somewhat tenuous. While Mabel was keen on capturing men, her story differs from Norma’s, in that she never let any man stay over in her house, as this could bring bad publicity, and in any event, once a guy got his feet under her table…..

The post-W.D. Taylor view of the movie stars.

Norma decides at one point to cheer Joe up a little, after his new luxurious lifestyle makes him just a bit morose. She does this by putting on a little Keystone-inspired Bathing Beauty review, and this is where she mentions Mabel. Of course, there was no reason to pull in Mack and Mabel, but it was done, nonetheless. It seems ironic that Mack made the move to get Mabel back on the screen, but in doing so, he turned everything against himself and Mabel. Billy Wilder making his mark again. The well-known statement by Koe Gillis “You’re Norma Desmond, you used to be in silent pictures, used to be big.” Equally well known is Norma’s reply “I am big, it’s the picture that got small.” This might just refer back to the Mabel of 1928, when, after many months out of the public eye, due to serious illness, she came back onto the Hollywood circuit, appearing, to the Hollywooders’ delight, at numerous functions and premieres. Mabel used to be big in pictures, but now the pictures had got small. Not that small, however, for Mabel hired the Cocoanut Grove to host the premiere party for one particularly big film.

Norma the bathing beauty.

For Charlie Chaplin, there was no escape from the rampaging Mabel, and she cornered him at one function, for the last photo that would ever be taken of the partners in comedy. The release of MGM’s ‘Our Dancing Daughters’ in the same year, gives another link with the ‘Sunset Boulevard’ of twenty-two years later. In ‘Sunset’, Cecil B. DeMille is seen pandering to Norma Desmond’s demands for her to appear in a film she’d written herself. Naturally, he has no intention of putting Norma back on the screen. In 1928, Louis B. Mayer (head of MGM) had allowed Mabel to use the set of ‘Our Dancing Daughters’ (the biggest film of the year) for a ‘private’ film. Some people have forwarded the view that the film was actually a screen test for talkies, but that Mayer had no intention of signing her. At the screening of ‘Sunset’, Mayer went crazy when he realized he was in the picture. Like so many he’d been a long-term friend of Mabel, and he raged that Billy Wilder should be run out of Hollywood. At the end of the film Norma shoots Joe Gillis, who is planning to run off with another dame. Who else supposedly shot her lover ( or two) when they ditched her for a younger star? Well, Mabel Normand, of course, she who filled the mid-1920s with her amorous exploits, which always led to someone being shot. Without evidence, of course, but what the heck, when you need to sell newspapers, and second-rate movies, like ‘Sunset Boulevard’. Curious that ‘Two-Gun’ Mabel had no shortage of men, even though they knew the penalty was death by bullet. That, we can say, was the essence of Mabel Normand, much beloved by the Hollywooders, and a goddess to the old Biograph girls.

Mabel films on the set of ‘Our Dancing Daughters’.

‘Sunset Boulevard’ marked the end of the old movie and the beginning of the new. In a way, the 1930s had seen an extension of the silent film, with the notable addition of sound. During the 1940s, new ways were made to portray stories on celluloid, and by the early fifties, Mary Pickford could say that people should not watch her old movies, because they were junk — the latest methods of production had consigned them to the trash can. Despite this, by the mid-1950s, there was a renewed interest in the old silents, and, with comedy, some people began to applaud the works of Lloyd, Arbuckle (who wasn’t mentioned in ‘Sunset’) and Buster Keaton (who had appeared in the film as one of the aging ‘waxworks, that also included Mabel’s old modelling friend, Anna Q. Nilsonn). Now absent was Mabel Normand, from this new age of enlightenment. “Oh no, we could not include her in the film documentaries, not after we’d seen Sunset Boulevard. Let’s not say she was bad, let’s just leave her out, and intimate that she was a lousy actress.”

Jack Mulhall explains Mabel Normand to Mack Sennett.

In 1954, Mack Sennett went on ‘This Is Your Life’, where only Jack Mulhall had the gall to mention Mabel. Mean-while, Billy Wilder and Gloria Swanson were rising to new heights. To put it simply, Wilder and Swanson rose to new levels, but only on the back of Mabel Normand. As Gloria once told it, Mack Sennett had once said to her that he’d make her the new Mabel Normand. Gloria turned him down, as she didn’t want to be killed doing reckless stunts and slap-stick, completely missing the point that Mabel never indulged in reckless stunts. What she performed were physical feats that required skill in some cases, and a great amount of preparation in others. Swinging from a roof gutter 50 feet above the ground (‘Mickey’) required, not bravado, but preparation to ensure that the gutter was not a gutter, but a reinforced section of steel that could support a ton or more. Ditto, falling off a jagged cliff, where the main requirement was the strength and agility to surreptitiously push away from the cliff, so as to land in the water below, and not on solid rock (‘The Squaw’s Love’). As for slap-stick, Mabel rarely indulged directly in this nonsense, and most of what she did consisted of fainting into the arms of her fellow actors. Gloria also did this, but insisted that a mattress be laid for her to fall onto, should the adjacent actor fail to catch her. Of course, it was inconceivable that no-one would catch the falling Keystone Girl, but Gloria? Well, who knows.

The whole plot of ‘Sunset Boulevard harked back to the life and scandals of Mabel Normand. Here we have covered many of the obvious perceived similarities, between Normand and Norma. However, there are numerous superficial similarities that are too nebulous to mention here. Watch the film, and nevertheless, you will find them.


Sunset Boulevard 1950. Paramount Feature Film.

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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


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

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

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

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

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

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

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


Ince, Chaplin, Sennett and Griffith get together at Keystone.

In the previous article, we followed the life of Mr. Griffith up to the release of his sensational film ‘The Birth of A Nation’. Money had been free-flowing for the production, from movie big-shot Harry Aitken. Later in 1915, Griffith came under Aitken’s new company, Triangle , but there were some annoying trivialities that he had to deal with, by being a part of the new group. One was an obligation to visit other studios within the group for publicity purposes. In August 1915, the Keystone studio was celebrating its third year of existence, and Triangle were keen to bring the various parts of the group together for the party. In attendance would be Mack Sennett, Thomas Ince (Ince Studios), D.W. Griffith, and it was said that Charlie Chaplin (now with Essanay) would make an appearance. Ince commanded no little respect from DWG, as Ince was then making an astounding half-a-million dollars a year. Meeting with Sennett was always a fretful time for Griffith, but they usually managed to get along — somehow. His sidekick, Mabel Normand, was a different kettle of fish, and he dreaded meeting the girl with the doleful eyes that could instantly turn to daggers. Word was out, though, that civil war had broken out between Mack and Mabel. Mabel, it seems, was on the warpath over film content, and the changing nature of the studio, which was filling up with the wobbly Bathing Beauties. Mack had now broken Mabel’s links with dramatic acting, and put her into very lucrative, nonsense films. Griffith had always got a little puffed up when he saw Mabel performing in the old Griffith manner in the Keystone films, although he also realised that she was sometimes ‘sending him up’. However, Mabel, he was told, would stay in the background, if she appeared at all on that anniversary day.

Doug and sweet, sweet Bessie: On the lot.

The celebrations at Keystone went well enough, but Griffith had other things on his mind. He was working on a new picture, ‘Intolerance’ which would build on new ground broken in ‘Birth of A Nation’. However, the story would be angled differently, and would avoid the ‘political’ problems of ‘Birth’. In fact, it would allow him to put forward views that people had misunderstood in the previous picture. His backers were happy with the concept, and more than happy that no-one would be upset this time around. The film would cost around half-a-million-dollars to produce, and would further include dramatic sets of a kind never seen before in Hollywood. During this time, Griffith signed the ingenue of all ingenues, Juanita Horton, who, for reasons known to himself, he renamed Bessie Love. Bessie, of course, was the Doris Day of the silent era, and as such was probably not welcomed by Dorothy Gish, but was, fortunately, befriended by another Griffith star, Blanche Sweet. Someone else was to come along to the Griffith’s Fine Arts Studio, Douglas Fairbanks, who took a shine to young Bessie, although nothing came of that, as he eventually latched on to a certain Mary Pickford. Griffith was called back once more to Keystone, on the release of Sennett’s feature, ‘My Valet’. D.W. could not, or would not, go himself, so he sent Bessie along with a chaperone. The chaperone had clear orders to ward off any Keystone lechers that approached his protégé. Again, Mabel Normand was not in residence, so Bessie was neither given the ‘evil eye’ treatment, nor corrupted in any way. Bessie, who then lived close to the Mabel Normand Studio, makes the point in her autobiography (‘From Hollywood With Love’) that they had immense trouble finding their way from Hollywood to Edendale, not knowing in which direction to go. As every Angeleno understands today, navigating the city remains a nightmare. In the event, Bessie only appeared in one small part in a Griffith picture, that being ‘Intolerance’. It seems the girl “so sweet you could cry” was too sweet, and Griffith could not truly characterise her.

Triangular Pictures.

The sets for ‘Intolerance’ were absolutely enormous, especially the Great Wall of Babylonian set for Belshazzar’s feast. This was erected on the lot of the Fine Arts Studio in East Hollywood, about 200 yards from where Mack Sennett was erecting his own feature film studio on Fountain Avenue. It was while Griffith was filming on ‘The Walls’, and Mack was finishing the Fountain Ave studio that, in Mack’s words, “Mabel ran away.” She’d run straight into the arms of Triangle’s arch-enemy, Mutual Films, and signed to appear in Chaplin pictures. While Griffith tittered and smirked, the machinery of Triangle ground into action, and Mabel was soon back, and in sole possession of the Fountain Avenue studio, with her own Mabel Normand Feature Film Company. Within the studio’s 25,000 square feet she’d make her own feature film. It was while filming in ‘Babylon’ that Griffith had a minor fit, as he saw Mabel’s name go up atop her studio. He uttered something like “The cow’s made it” as he slumped back into a chair. Inevitably, the invitation came to attend the opening of the Mabel Normand studio, where he’d have to endure the sly looks of Mack Sennett, along with those of Mabel and her girlfriends, most of whom were ex-Biograph girls. Fortunately, the producers had the floor of the main stage to themselves, as Mabel and the Biograph old girls departed for dinner, in her luxuriously-appointed dressing room. The room overlooked the main stage, from whence they all, no doubt, scoffed at their pretentious producers below.

Jesse Rogg, Fountain Road studio owner, runs into Mabel Normand in the foyer.

The Griffith picture was released in September 1916, to a great and expensive fanfare. ‘Intolerance’ received great acclaim from the critics, for its historical value, and clever use of the camera and effects. The public, however, were confused by the film, which ran several intense themes at the same time. Consequently, the lavish creation lost money, and Griffith left the company owing around a million dollars, which he was to repay down the years, via the easy payment scheme. By this time, however, the Triangle group was in dire straits, impoverished partly by the massive expenditure on ‘Intolerance’. The film had been preceded by the Ince production, ‘Civilisation’ which was very Griffithian in concept, but was much less expensive to produce. It has been suggested that, perhaps, ‘Civilisation’ had stolen’ Intolerance’s’ thunder. Having said that, Griffith might have inadvertently given the Ince crew some pointers in film-making. In the previous article mention was made of Mack Sennett’s comment that “Griffith was the first person to realise that he was a genius.” What he meant was that Griffith was so sure of himself that he informed all and sundry about his brilliant methods. Sennett had intensely grilled him on his modus operandi, and as a consequence, the latter’s photography and scene layout were as superb as his former master’s. No other comedy studio could better Sennett on photography, not even ‘Pathe’ with their expensive ‘Perils of Pauline’ series of pictures. Naturally, having a Griffith girl in residence at Keystone also helped. Mabel Normand knew the movie business from every angle, Sam Goldwyn was later to say.

A good time was had by all, down in ancient Babylon. ‘Intolerance’ 1916.

Leaving the Sinking Ship.

As DWG left ‘Triangle’ the whole over-leveraged structure had just about collapsed. However, when they’d released ‘Intolerance’ in September 1916, the company was already creaking. Sennett and Ince were making plans to bail out, with as many assets as possible. Someone (perhaps Kessell and Baumann) put Mabel Normand under surveillance, fearing that she was planning to go elsewhere. What they did not know was, that immediately she had finished filming ‘Mountain Bred’ (later ‘Mickey’) she had signed for Goldwyn Pictures. Mabel’s film was to languish for well over a year before it was released, the reason for the delay being political and the problems involved in its editing. The film received by the bosses in New York, appears to have been a jumble of thousands of feet of raw footage. There had been “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians” some would say, and indeed, supervisors and directors came and went with astonishing rapidity at the Mabel Normand Studio. By June 1917, Mabel had now disappeared into Sam Goldwyn’s New Jersey studio, while Sennett fought for possession of her film and his studio. In a way, Griffith had a much easier time, by simply walking away.

Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin and Griffith create United Artists.

Unfortunately, he had the million hanging around his neck like an albatross, while Sennett eventually fought himself out of his situation, and into a studio sporting his own name, although he’d clearly lost his Griffith girl – for now. Ince, an accomplished skirmisher, probably came out best, and joined up with ‘Paramount-Artcraft Pictures’, which is where Griffith had also landed. He didn’t dally long at Paramount, though, nor did he linger at his next stop, ‘First National’. In late 1919, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford persuaded Griffith to join them, and Charlie Chaplin, in the independent film distribution company, United Artists. Fairbanks was a relative newcomer to motion pictures, but he’d learned fast, and like his would-be wife, and ex-Griffith girl, Mary Pickford, had been very sharp with money. Griffith, naturally, did not care too much for finance, and Chaplin also had little to do with running the company. The load pressed down hard on Doug and Mary, and by the 1930s, Mary was doing all the heavy lifting alone, and imploring Chaplin to agree to sell up. Griffith, however, did manage some notable films under United Artists, including ‘Broken Blossoms’ and ‘Way Down East’. Both of these starred Lillian Gish, who’d been Griffith’s mainstay for many years, following Mary Pickford’s departure from Biograph in 1912. Mae Marsh, who Griffith had, supposedly, taken from street to movie star in a single day, had now, kind of fallen by the wayside. Lillian Gish is notable for playing the innocent imprisoned by a drug-infused Chinese, in ‘Broken Blossoms’, while she is also known as the girl on a floe in the ice-blocked river of ‘Way Down East’.

Lillian Gish is the girl on the ice-floe in ‘Way Down East’.

Fighting For Life.

Although ‘Broken Blossoms’ and ‘Way Down East’ brought Griffith more success, it was clear that competition was becoming fierce, with new conglomerations of film companies coming along almost daily. This fight, Griffith was prepared to take head on, but in 1921, there came along a direct challenge from, of all people, Mack and Mabel. Mack had, at vast expense, bought up Mabel Normand from the dying embers of the ‘Goldwyn’ company, and his intention was to return big-time to the feature film business. His scheme, though, was not to produce a straightforward slapstick comedy, but a comedy set within a dramatic background. Mabel was willing and able, but if Mack thought she was firmly back in the fold, then he was wrong. She treated Mack with some disdain and formality, then broke accepted industry protocol by arriving at a party thrown by Mack, accompanied by a director from another studio, and with whom she left early. His name was William Desmond Taylor of the Paramount organisation, and he would soon turn the movie business upside down, or at least his killer would. Sennett’s picture was entitled ‘Molly O’ and The King was later to say that it was the best film he ever made.

Prior to Molly O’s release, Griffith had continued his Chinese underworld theme with ‘Dream Street’, based on stories in the book ‘Limehouse Nights’ by John Barrie. Not many months after the film’s release, came the Roscoe Arbuckle trial, where ‘Fatty’ was accused of the manslaughter of a young actress. The case shocked many in Hollywood, as most of the movie people had skeletons of some kind in their closet. It might have been the Arbuckle case that took the edge of ‘Molly O’s box office receipts, although the film did well enough, considering the fierce competition. Griffith had almost certainly watched ‘Molly O’, and paid close attention to Mabel’s performance. He might have noticed the actions of a Griffith girl, but he probably also noticed that Mabel had come out of the ingenue mould, and was now even leering at men. This wasn’t in the script of the Griffith girl. Lillian Gish writhing around a bed-post was one thing, but leering? However, the acting was well-executed, but what the heck would come next? Well, for Griffith it was, in December 1921, ‘Orphans of The Storm’ where he brought Lillian and Dorothy Gish together for an ‘Unseen Enemy’ type picture. The film did not go down well — it was too late for that kind of stuff, and it would be many years before ‘Home Alone’ changed that.

Home alone in ‘Unseen’ Enemy 1912.

William Desmond Taylor was shot dead on the night of 1st February 1922. Who killed WDT? “I don’t know” Said Mack Sennett in his 1954 autobiography.  Sennett was, of course, in the early days of the case, a prime suspect. Nonetheless, in those early days, there was another suspect – Taylor’s butler, the black guy Peavey. Now, Peavey had his own suspect, Sennett’s star-of-stars, Mabel Normand. Griffith probably thought that, like so many, the prime suspect was Peavey, and not just because he’d ‘fingered’ Mabel. Mabel had a cast-iron alibi, but Peavey, being an Afro-American, was a suspect in many people’s eyes, perhaps even in the eyes of DWG.  Following this scandal there was a rash of anti-Hollywood press articles, and a rush by authors to produce what has now been known as ‘Hollywood Babylon’. Some books released made direct reference to Mabel Normand’s life and lifestyle. The book ‘The Girl From Hollywood’ by a popular author, used some innocuous Mabel facts, to covertly identify her. Probably, Griffith himself began to consider jumping on the ‘Babylon’ bandwagon, although he would avoid direct reference to movie people. The actors and actresses, Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, Norma Talmadge included, however, hit back at their detractors in the press. Griffith kept quiet, not wishing to draw attention to himself. He did, though, take note of what was going on, and he had the bare bones of a film in mind. What he’d had in mind, before the release of Molly O’ and the Taylor murder, we do not know, but after these two events, he seems to have come up with what he thought was a winning plot.

Butlers: Left, Griffith-style and Right, Henry Peavey.

‘One Exciting Night.’

Griffith’s new film would be outside of his normal sphere. In fact, in a way, it fell into the remit of Mack and Mabel, as a dramatic comedy. That’s right, it seems DWG intended to beat them at their own game. He’d probably been shocked at the relative success of ‘Molly O’ but this picture would be a means of hitting back at those two comedy upstarts. Using certain well-contrived scenes, he might also pay them back for their years of insolence, and he might even, surreptitiously, feature them in the film. He would not use the delicate Miss Gish in this picture, but instead cast a lesser actress, by that time his mistress, Carol Dempster. The plot was based on the mystery and spooky old house theme that had already been used in some films and plays. Of course, a spooky old house, and a mystery, requires a butler, so Griffith introduced one in the form of English actor Percy Carr, suitably blacked up, to perhaps, vaguely represent W.D. Taylor’s butler, Peavey. He would also present black actor Porter Strong as servant Romeo Washington. Romeo might just be seen as the forerunner to the wide-eyed Afro-American actor ‘Rochester’ of the 1930s. Irma Harrison is the maid, who is much taken with Romeo, and indulges in some very Keystone activities with the guy, such as playing ‘footsie’ with him.

Griffith indulges in some ‘black’ comedy. One Exciting Night.

Indeed, some observers have come to the conclusion that the slap-sticking pair are actually meant to be Mack and Mabel. The maid is a little ‘dusky’ and it might be that Mabel, given her French origin, was herself somewhat dusky, but to be honest, we don’t know. Without evidence from Griffith himself, we can only say that the two are Keystone-like characters, although he might be indicating that Mabel had been mesmerised by Sennett’s ‘party tricks’. Griffith does also, perhaps, indicate that he disapproves of Mack and Mabel’s use of eyes to indicate mood. Griffith’s method was to use the whole face as an measure of fear, passion, love and hate. However, this view would ignore Mabel’s own intelligent use of lightning-fast changes of facial expression, which Mabel graciously admitted were instilled into her by Griffith. At this point it is probably worth looking at the situation in Hollywood, as it existed during DWG’s making of the picture. The Taylor case was still running full-steam, and Mabel had seemingly completed her film ‘Suzanna’, which was devoid of the new, slightly naughty Normand of ‘Molly O’, and saw a return to the mischievous ingenue of yore. In June 1922, as Mabel slipped out of L.A. for the east, via San Bernardino, a certain Will Hays arrived in the city on his much vaunted ‘clean up Hollywood’ campaign. The big producers and distributors had brought Hays in, seeing the ex-Post Master general as a safe pair of hand that would not implicate them in any Hollywood Babylon stuff. Griffith himself, as a relative minnow in the non-directing side of the film business, probably had some fears that Hays might just come a-visiting him in New York, but he was no doubt satisfied that, now coming to fruition, was his prediction, of ten years earlier, that Mack and Mabel would fall on their ignoble backsides. Mabel, it appeared, was gone to Europe for good, where she’d undoubtedly sign for some French, Italian or British studio. As for Sennett, well without Mabel, his sorties into drama were over, and good riddance, as far as Griffith was concerned. All that DWG needed to do now was go down to the dock and wave Mabel off. Common sense over-ruled such bravado, though, as the devious Mabel had a way of turning any situation to her advantage. The thought of him ending up standing alongside the grinning ‘Hollywood bad girl’ in a surreptitiously snapped press photo, probably filled the genius with complete horror.

The Keystone pair were now the least of Griffith’s worries. His notion of a comedy within a drama, might make a fortune, or it could completely bomb. There was also the growing problem of what to do with his star-of-stars Lillian Gish. Miss Gish had her feet planted well under the table at the studio, and was exacting a high price for her services. The ‘ice queen’ meant nothing to him personally, and he was very much romantically involved with his star of ‘One Exciting Night’ Carol Dempster. By starring Carol, he was keeping all profits within the family, so to speak, so why hang on to the ageing Lillian? Every producer in the country was thinking of dumping their big stars, or ‘old girls’ for newer, greener, and cheaper models. Zukor was at it, Mr ‘all-star’ Goldwyn was at it, and word was out that Chaplin was about to ‘rest’ Edna Purviance. However, it turned out that Griffith was right to worry about his new picture for it was not that well received, and we do not know what Mabel, now returned to New York, and undoubtedly watching the premiere, thought of the new-style Griffith picture. Probably, she found it highly amusing to see the master floundering around in a sea of comedy-drama, as she threw virtual (or real) peanuts at the screen. With the film, Griffith had made a tentative return to his racist ideas of 1915, so we might suspect that a proportion of his audience were unhappy with this, especially as the genius was not hiding behind history, as he had been with ‘Birth Of A Nation’. Racial stereotyping for cheap laughs is what it was, this time around. Elements of Taylor’s butler, Peavey, are incorporated into the film. One element is that Afro-Americans are terrified of ghosts and dead bodies, and in the film, Romeo tries to flee from the house in terror, after being told someone had been murdered there. Peavey, we remember, was kidnapped at night by some press guys, and taken to a cemetery, where he was confronted, not by the ghost of Christmas Past, but by the ghost of William Desmond Taylor (actually a journalist wearing a white bedsheet). Peavey simply laughed a walked off. Griffith’s film can be seen to have fallen just as flat.

What Griffith Did Next.

What Griffith did was begin work on ‘Mammy’s Boy’ a film that he never completed. He then began ‘The White Rose’, which saw Mae Marsh back in the Griffith fold. Mae, who’d been in the doldrums for some years, began to flower again. When released, in May 1923, it was well-received. The studios were now beginning to cull their old stars, but were also ensuring that the new stars had a limited shelf life. Griffith was still hedging his bets with Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh against Carol Dempster. A new film from Sennett, ‘Extra Girl’, came along in the Fall of 1923, but its uniqueness, meant that it did not trouble the former mentor of Mack and Mabel. Yes, contrary to everyone’s predictions, Mabel was back, having somehow removed the lead of ‘Extra Girl’, Phyllis Haver, from the star role, and planted herself in Phyllis’ place. Presumably, DWG wondered what was going on here, but whether he thought Mabel had something on Mack, perhaps regarding the Taylor case, we do not know. At this time Charlie Chaplin released ‘A Woman Of Paris’, starring Edna Purviance, and in which Charlie did not appear. It seems ‘pension’ film for Edna, as Charlie planned to drop her from his studio. Unfortunately, without Chaplin, the film floundered, which prompted Charlie to put her on a pension, and re-release the film over time, in order to recoup the losses. Could Griffith undertake a similar scheme for Lillian Gish? Quite frankly, Lillian was a true star, and, as far as Griffith was concerned, she could make her own way in the world. Mabel Normand, of course, had been a close friend of Edna Purviance for years, and must have pitied her, for ‘Extra Girl’ was raking in the bucks, at a pace close to that of ‘Mickey’. However, there was more trouble ahead for Mabel, Edna and Hollywood. Edna had latched onto a millionaire oilman, Courtland Dines, something waning silent stars were to do more of, over the next few years. However, although Edna and ‘Courts’ were considering marriage, it seems there was someone else interested in Mr. Dines – Mabel Normand. Perhaps, fearing for her future (unfounded as those fears were) she made her own play for Dines, and the pair had many secret liaisons, according to Mabel’s housekeeper. Everything ended at Courtland Dines’ L.A. apartment, on New Year’s Day 1924, when an enraged Dines launched a verbal attack on Mabel, and was shot by her chauffeur. It appears she had gone been going cold on the oilman, as it became clear that ‘Extra Girl’ was a success. Well, that was the end of Mack and Mabel, wasn’t it? As individuals, naturally, that was the end of them, but both continued on, along separate routes. This time, it is unlikely that Griffith paused to smirk, as he had concerns of his own. What the devil was going to happen now? The talkies were looming, and he had no plan should the sound movie take over, while he was mid-picture. He’d already had one sortie into sound, but abandoned the idea. Sennett, he might have guessed, had attempted to get sound into Molly O’ but had also failed – DWG had to take things step by step, but expecting to be wiped out at any minute.

DWG hunting redcoats, while on location for’ America’.

Griffith’s next film was ‘America’ but this time the film nation was embroiled in the Revolutionary War, which, for him, was a much safer territory than the Civil War. However, he had to make it clear that the Iraquoi Indians were traitors by siding with the British and killing innocent Americans. He forgot, seemingly, that the native tribes owed allegiance to themselves, and not to any particular country of the pale-faces. The film met a modicum of success, unlike his next venture. Leaving the Civil War behind him, Griffith took note of something else happening in the world. The great republic of Germany was suffering outrageous inflation, following the defeat of the Great War, which was leading to civil unrest in the country. Looking from afar, it seemed that civil war had broken out, and Griffith might have mused on the fact that a ‘strong man’ could eventually emerge in Germany, perhaps a Germanic version of his own ‘Roaring Jake’. It is possible that Griffith was using the plight of the dispossessed Germans to whip up some sentiment for them in the USA. In the event, the film ‘Isn’t Life Wonderful’, starring Carol Dempster and Neil Hamilton, was something of a flop. Possibly, it was too early for such a premise as Griffith proposed – that would have to wait until the 1930s. Possibly, Griffith felt quite smug when Herr Hitler made an appearance, to the unexpected applause of many American and British folk.

It seems that Griffith had exhausted all of his modernist ideas, and decided to return to his roots. Such was ‘Sally of The Sawdust’, distributed now by Paramount, Griffith having departed from United Artists. He brings in W.C. Fields for the ‘all the fun of the circus’ picture, which immediately indicates that this is a comedy, and one which clearly brings a different kind of risk for DWG. Again, the genius fails to deliver in the realm of Mack and Mabel, and perhaps, due to vaudevillian Fields not really clicking with the silent medium. That ‘clicking’ would come in the sound era, and particularly with Mack Sennett. Sennett, as his contemporaries pointed out, had an innate understanding of what would work, and more importantly, what would not work in comedy. We have now arrived at the point of no return for the silent movie. 1926 was the year when it became plainly obvious that the talkies were no longer a minor irritation, but a stark reality. Many producers, however, could not grasp the fact that movie-goers had, all along, been waiting for sound to come along — seems they’d merely tolerated the silents. Silents and talkies would not play side by side, but instead, talking pictures would sweep the old stuff into oblivion.  The chief problem now was finance, for wiring up for sound would be extremely expensive, and the old open-topped studios would have to be replaced. Sennett was one of the believers, but the expense was prohibitive, for a poverty row studio. He was, of course, able to continue with his comedies fairly comfortably, as in its purest form, comedy does not require sound. Indeed, Sennett had stated fifteen years previously that “The silent film is not the correct medium for drama.” It was the adoption of sound, though, that eventually drove Sennett from his municipal tip of a studio, into modern facilities at Studio City. Charlie Chaplin, though, had caused quite a stir with his fully silent ‘Gold Rush’ in 1925, and was to persevere with silents and semi-silents for many years into the future.

‘Shot from Topsy and Eva.’

For Griffith, it was a matter of digging in his heels and doing what he knew best. ‘The Sorrows of Satan’ was to be Carol Dempster’s last picture, for after Griffith threw Lillian Gish overboard, we can say that Griffith and Dempster went down with the ship, although by marrying a wealthy banker, Carol Dempster became financially secure. The ‘satan’ film, nevertheless, did well enough to keep Griffith afloat. The next involvement of Griffith was with ‘Topsy and Eva’ in 1927. The film was released through United Artists, and was mainly directed by ex-Keystoner, Del Lord. The screenplay was based on the stage-show, which was itself based on characters from ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. The Duncan sisters had starred in the show, but acquiring them for the show, and keeping them at it, proved difficult. With its illustrious background the picture should have been a success, but it was not that well-received by the public. It was now clear that the Midas touch was deserting the great man, and he must have pondered the fact that some of his former disciples were still holding their own in the business. Mack Sennett was still going strong, and was worth a reputed 18-million dollars. His tragedienne lady of long ago, Mabel, was still a financial success, regardless of the fact that she had been, in the main, doing shorts with the Hal Roach studio (at vast expense to Hal we might add). If DWG thought Roach was the pits, then he also thought that Roach’s supervisor and former Keystone director, F. Richard Jones, was responsible for the Roach studio’s increasing success. What could the ‘genius’ do now? Not much, except keep plugging away, and that is exactly what he did.

The ‘Oooh’ girl Phyllis Haver.

If Griffith had thought there would be divine intervention, then in 1928, he was to be disappointed. The sound of studios being converted for sound, was heavy in the air. Mack Sennett was installing himself in Studio City, leaving his rotting Edendale edifice behind in Edendale. “Free scrap!” said a sign on the front wall. The year brought ‘Drums of Love’ and ‘Battle of The Sexes’. The former was based on an opera, and starred Mary Philbin and Lionel Barrymore, but the picture was not that successful. The latter was a remake of the 1914 film, starring Lillian Gish. This new version featured Phyllis Haver, a star in her own right, after being pushed out of Keystone in 1923. Phyllis had been Sennett’s bright young thing, with ‘the oooh’, ‘the smile’, and ‘the take it’ (according to the King of Comedy). In this picture, she endures the old Sennett “mouse up the leg” trick, and is presented vamping a guy in a very ‘filmy thing’. Dramatic-comedy, and it did not match the mistress of this genre, but it did allow Griffith to limp on into 1929, which brings us to ‘Lady of The Pavements’, the title of which needs no explanation. This was a romantic-drama, but again, it was not as successful as hoped. It seemed as though the old silent crowd were no longer wanted, but come 1930, there was little to do than lay the silent movie to rest, along with his ‘old girl,’ Mabel Ethelried Normand. Only one silent feature film would appear that year – ‘City Lights’ by Charlie Chaplin. And it follows that Griffith’s next film would be full sound. It was entitled ‘Abraham Lincoln’, perhaps a belated recompense for ‘Birth Of A Nation’ and it was much safer ground for DWG. Consequently, it was well received by the critics, but the fierce competition meant that its success was limited. What Griffith needed was a more up-to-date theme, albeit based on a 19th century story. He got together a screenplay based on a French novel. Some reviewers said that the film latched onto the contemporary arguments for and against Prohibition. The film was called ‘The Struggle’ and brought the last role for the aging actress and Biograph girls’ agony aunt, Kate Bruce. For Griffith, it was his last major involvement with the film-making business, although he had contributed to a talking film, made for the re-release of ‘Birth Of A Nation’ in which appeared as himself. According to accounts, he now began to hit the booze more regularly, and became not a little morose. Like many of those from the silent era, he discovered that he’d been working, all these years, towards his own demise.

Fairbanks, Goebell, Griffith, Goldwyn, Sennett, lay Mabel Normand and the silent movie to rest.

By the time of ‘The Struggle’ the Great Depression had truly arrived, and every producer of motion pictures was considering his position, as regards expenditure. One of the biggest spenders was Paramount, who were still lashing out on Byzantine lobbies and plush seating for their cinemas. If Mack Sennett had allowed himself a quiet chuckle, at Griffith’s fall from grace, then he’d been just a little previous. Unsurprisingly, Paramount (Sennett’s film distributors) went down with a crash in 1933, taking the ‘King’s’ studio with it. Sennett, the proud multi-millionaire, then involved with building ‘Hollywoodland’, finished up with a big zero, to the giggles of the surviving silent performers, and probably of those lately dead, as well. Mentor and disciple, though, rode out their demise in separate ways. Griffith, still not a poor man, sat back on his laurels, waiting for someone to request his services. Sennett, who must have hidden away at least a million, was still planning a comeback as a producer. To his satisfaction and opportunity, Mabel Normand was still a name on everyone’s lips, so it made sense for him to maintain her memory to his own advantage, by making a film about her, which, of course, would really be about him. As Sennett watched the talent go in and out of the Roosevelt Hotel lobby, Griffith was, seemingly, striking lucky — slightly. He got to direct some earthquake scenes for the film ‘San Francisco’ although without credit. He was, however, presented with a special Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Sennett’s abandoned Edendale studio. By 1933, though, he was also out of his Studio City base.

In 1939, he helped on two Hal Roach films. He only helped, however, on screen tests and cast selection, and when the Roach films were released in 1939, he asked for his name to be removed from the credits. Still, Mack Sennett wasn’t giving up, and managed to influence the Republic picture, ‘Hollywood Cavalcade’, which told of a girl, not called Molly O’ Dair, as in Molly O’, but Molly Adair. Sennett might have also persuaded Republic to recreate Mabel Normand’s ‘Sis Hopkins’, starring Judy Canova. Whether Griffith attended the lavish party accompanying the attendant opening of The Mabel Normand Sound Stage, at Republic studios, we do not know, but we must assume that he did not stay long among the modern stars, like John Wayne and Judy Canova. Griffith had now drifted from the memory of all except his closest associates, although he was sometimes invited to watch his old stars perform in modern films. He was still around, waiting for the call, and it was while leaving the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, perhaps to a business appointment, that he had a cerebral hemorrhage and died, aged 73. Those that hadn’t noticed Griffith, over the last couple of decades, now realised that the book on the silent era was had well and truly closed. Without him, we might never have known Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand, Blanche Sweet, Mack Sennett and Thomas Ince, and, in a roundabout way, we might never have known Charlie Chaplin. Arguably, more than anyone else, he made the motion picture respectable to a once incredulous population. Attendance at the great man’s funeral service, however, was light, although Sennett, Chaplin, Gish and Pickford did attend. He was laid to rest in old Dixie, close to Louisville, Kentucky, in a grave later marked with a memorial stone provided by the ‘Directors’ Guild of America’. The memorial stone was erected in 1950, at a service attended by Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish.

Left: Chaplin and Sennett at Griffith’s memorial service. Right: Pickford, Gish and Barthelmess in 1950.

That Sennett went on to write his much-vaunted (but deceptive) autobiography, appear on ‘This Is Your Life’, and receive awards from some film organisations, would not have pleased the movie genius, nor perhaps his cameraman, Billy Bitzer.


So, what are we to make of D.W. Griffith, the young lad that wandered, like many others, out of Dixie into the Golden State, but who had to make a further journey east to find fame and fortune, only to be drawn west again, by the lure of the burgeoning Hollywood. Many will tell you he was a self-centred and violent man, an egotist, a racist, a misogynist and a dreamer that produced nightmares. Others will say he was a great innovator, a genius, and that he was a man of his time. All will agree that he brought the motion picture to a level that it would not have reached for another decade, without his involvement. This is perhaps why he petered out a little early. Quite simply, his work was done, and he had nothing left to offer the world of motion pictures.

One Question.

If D.W. Griffith was around today, what kind of film would he make? Perhaps it would run like this. The United States is tearing itself apart, as the President sits, beleaguered, in the White House, with hordes of anti-racists, socialists, and anti-fascists hammering at the door. Just as it all looks hopeless, a ghostly apparition appears from a discarded statue of Robert E. Lee — it is Robert E. Lee himself, galloping a spectral horse out of Virginia woods, hordes of Teutonic knights following him. These are no knights in shining armour, though, for they wear bed sheets and pillow cases. How does it end? We will never know, for that film has yet to be made, but well we might wonder.


The Man Who Invented Hollywood: The Autobiography of D.W. Griffith. Edited and Annotated By James Hart. 1972.

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

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

From Hollywood With Love by Bessie Love 1977.


A picture is just a picture, but some will say that a picture is worth a thousand words. Probably, they are right, but some pictures tell a whole story. Take the picture above, which shows a rather smug-looking girl, sitting back in a plush automobile, seemingly attended by half-a-dozen adoring men. Who is the girl? Is she, perhaps, a movie-star? If you thought that was so, then you’d half-way to being right. Half-right, because when the 1911 film, from which this clip was produced, there were no real movie stars. Half-right, again, because the smug girl is girl is on the cusp of becoming one of the first American movie stars. Her name is Mabel Normand, and the car she is riding in is a Pierce-Arrow Model 48, just about the most desirable motor vehicle of the age, with a price tag of $5,000 ($125,000 today). Young Mabel has just been wafted into Huntington, Long Island to make the Biograph picture, directed by Mack Sennett, ‘Diving Girl’. However, there is more to the motor car than just its maker, for the owner, in all probability, was the legendary movie genius, D.W. Griffith. No wonder she is smug, and sitting back like a queen.

Left: Griffith in his motor, now bearing the monogram ‘DWG’. Old Redondo Hotel.

The Biograph Company was located in Manhattan, New York, and, in 1911, Huntington was the playground of well-heeled New Yorkers. The road Mabel travelled over, was freshly laid by William K. Vanderbilt, whose Vanderbilt Races used the road as a racetrack. From the film we can deduce that the hotel the car pulls up to, is a posh establishment, overlooking Long Island Sound. This is no Coney Island, nor is it, Atlantic City, where you could find the ‘plebians’ strongly in attendance. The other Biograph girls might have been just a little envious of young Mabel. It should be noted that the expression on Mabel’s face, is something that turns up in a later Mabel film, The Squaw’s Love, directed by Griffith. At the end of that film, Mabel and co-star Claire McDowell are paddled off by Indian braves, looking very smug indeed. This is typically Griffith, but at the end of ‘The Diving Girl’ Mack Sennett has Mabel waving goodbye to the camera, which is typically Sennett. Mack and Mabel’s Keystone Girl always communicated directly with the audience. For Griffith, the screen served as a division between action and audience.

Mabel attracts some admirers in ‘The Diving Girl’.

Now, in the film, Mabel is a spirited young lass brought to the resort by her uncle, who is acting as her chaperone. Unbeknown to him, Mabel plans to meet up with a group of high-spirited young lads and lasses, and get involved with some equally spirited water sports. Possibly, Mabel’s smugness comes from the fact that she is plotting something. In her later role as The Keystone Girl, Mabel’s stories often involve escaping the over-powering attentions of her parents and chaperones.

We will leave our picture there, but for those interested in such things, here’s a photo of a restored Model 48 Pierce-Arrow automobile. It is the car the car that the much-acclaimed Harriett Quimby drove, when she visited Griffith, and which caused the master to turn green with envy. Later, Mack Sennett would tell Mabel “One day we will have so much money that we’ll drive around in a Pierce-Arrow, firing diamonds at people from catapults.” Such was the Pierce-Arrow effect.

Below: Mabel waves goodbye from Huntington.


Apologies to those that think this is an article about Mr. Griffith’s greatest film, ‘The Birth of A Nation’. In essence, it is about the man himself, and his contribution to the American film industry, and the United States. In the main, the facts are drawn from Griffith’s first wife’s seminal account of the early movie industry ‘When The Movies Were Young,’ published in 1925. She was, probably, the only person qualified to write both of her husband’s directing abilities and his private persona. For those that think the above title is a misnomer, then they should ponder on the fact that Griffith never gave up fighting the American Civil war. That this is so, can be drawn from the title of Griffith’s greatest film, for most people will know that the ‘Nation’ was born on 4th July 1776, not 1861 or even 1865. Quite what he meant by ‘The Birth of A Nation’ is difficult to determine. In all probability, he meant the birth or creation of a nation divided, for this is what the film meant, that a nation once united, became ripped asunder in 1915, and by this very film. As we will see later, Griffith himself would have disagreed with this view. Anyhow, we begin this article, where Mrs Griffith begins it, in Northern California during the early 1900s.

Linda Arvidson.

It was in San Francisco, a couple of years before the great fire, that David Wark Griffith met Linda Arvidson, later to be Mrs Griffith. Mr. Griffith, then, was a struggling stage actor, who seasonally bore the ignominy of slaving in the hop fields, just to make ends meet. An ignominy, because Mr Griffith was no mere mortal – he was, he said, descended from the ancient Welsh kings. This is where, however, in common with those that seek to rise beyond their station, he made his first mistake. A mistake, as the Welsh, patently, had no Kings, but Princes, a term derived from the Latin Princeps, a ‘Leader’. A leader, of course, is not a King, but someone bestowed with an honorific title, due to their great prowess, or leadership skills. The difficulty was passing the title down from Prince to son, as the son might not be universally accepted. Therefore, the Welsh in America (mainly in the south of the continent) would not have accepted Griffith as a their hereditary ‘Prince’. Later on, we will discuss his claim to be the son of from the great Confederate warrior, ‘Roaring Jake’. For now, let’s continue our story of Griffith and Arvidson in the Golden Gate city. Linda’s closest friend in those days was the formidable Harriett Quimby, upon whose life story, Mack and Mabel later based elements of their screen character, ‘The Keystone Girl’. Like Mr. Griffith, Linda and Harriett were also struggling in the theatre, and Harriett, clever girl, hit on the idea of inviting critics to San Francisco’s Carnegie Hall, where they’d give a recital at a massive cost to themselves of $40 ($1,000 today). The scheme got them noticed, but did not improve their work situation. Harriett left for New York, where she gained success as a critic, screenwriter, girl aviator, and the first female to fly the English Channel. About this time, Linda appeared in a play with a certain ‘Roaring’ Lawrence Griffith – roaring, because of his rather loud voice. Lawrence was, naturally, David, and the two got together, becoming quite close. There was, in those days, little sign of the genius in Griffith, except he had an ability to write scripts and little plays. Linda was also picking up work for Fred Belasco, brother of David Belasco, although the impresario did not think her worthy of her 35-bucks-a-week. Meanwhile, Mr. Griffith had the luck to play Alessandro in the play ‘Ramona’ out in Los Angeles, but he and Linda would meet up and have frequent outings to the beautiful environs of the San Gabriel Mission, where Biograph, and other studios, would later film their ‘Old California’ pictures.

Postcard of San Gabriel Mission.

It was in early Spring 1906 that DWG was offered the chance to travel out east, to play a lead part in a touring play. It was too good to turn down, and Linda was left behind in San Francisco. Not long after, at eighteen minutes to five on the morning of 18th April, Linda’s house began to shake. The earthquake had struck, leaving her and her sister with little more than the clothes they stood in. A letter from Griffith somehow reached her, and climbing aboard a refugee train, wearing Red Cross-donated clothes, she departed for Boston to meet up with her future husband.

New York and Early Days at the Biograph Studios.

11 East Fourteenth Street.

Now married, the happy couple travelled to New York. Happy, yes, but broke. They were soon forced from their hotel to nasty little sublet, costing $25 a month. They were happy enough, though, in their hovel, and both secured work in a Thomas Dixon play, Dixon being fresh from his success with something called ‘The Clansman’. Thereafter, DWG began to create plays, he dictating, as his wife typed the script. It was while at this crumbling abode that Harriett Quimby came to visit. She arrived, unannounced, in a Pierce-Arrow limousine, accompanied by two adoring men. Fashionably dressed, and sporting a mink coat, she was a picture to behold. She stayed awhile, reminiscing of ‘the old days’ and then left, the happy couple watching her go from their kitchen window. Mr. Griffith looked kind of grey, stepped back, then slumped in chair “She’s a success.” He muttered wistfully. Eight years later, he would utter those same words again, as, gripped with apoplexia, he watched from his Fine Arts studio, as they fixed Mabel Normand’s name to the roof of her studio in East Hollywood. Life can be cruel at times.

Well, Mr and Mrs Griffith were in and out of work for some time, although hubby did sell one of his scripts – for a welcome $700. Nevertheless, they were scraping the bottom of the barrel. The next sale was of a poem, for the princely sum of $6, followed by $70 from ‘Cosmopolitan’. Then, up and down the east coast went DWG, appearing in this little play and that little play. When things got bleak, Mr. Griffith thought of going into the canned food business, but resisted the thought – he knew nothing of such things, except the cooking of meat, at which he was something of a master. Eventually, the situation got bad enough for DWG to consider something he’d heard about, but never seen – moving pictures. “Just get down to 11 East Fourteenth Street, and they’ll put you in pictures straight away” A friend told him. So it was that Griffith joined the long stream of actors that had pulled up their collars, tilted their hats forward, and ran up the steps of 11 East Fourteenth, hoping that no acquaintance had seen them. Linda followed on later, but it was to be a year before the couple revealed they were married. Naturally, our man was not happy to stay in the dreaded ‘flickers’ earning an all-year round $5 a day, and so he constantly flitted in and out of his theatrical agent’s office. After a while, though, he began to fit in with the Biograph furniture, and earned an extra $15, here and there, for screenplays. The studio, of five storeys, however, was often packed with the dregs of the acting world, and those that hung around longest, were those that were unwanted in the theatre. For those that stood or sat around on floor or stairs all day, there was the reward of the famous dry, curled up Biograph sandwiches – good sustenance for those without money. This was before Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand, Florence LeBadie, or the Gish sisters had arrived, and there was only one other future Hollywood producer in the place – the clumsy, buffoonish Mack Sennett, whose one claim to fame was complaining about the parlous state of the aforesaid sandwiches. “Made and poisoned by a sand witch” grouched the future King of Comedy. Oh yes, Sennett grouched, and was still grouching when his future star-of-stars, the ‘Sand Witch’ of the Coles Philips drawing, arrived a few years later.

Mack Sennett objects to the parlous state of Biograph sandwiches.

Eventually there came the day when, due to a lack of good people, DWG was selected to carry out directing duties. At first reluctant, he took on the role, and made the gypsy picture, ‘The Adventures of Dollie’. This was more than acceptable for a first try, and Griffith was given a year’s contract at $45 per week, plus royalties, which the first month amounted to $400. The only other Biographer on contract was Billy Bitzer, the legendary cameraman. In those days, a young Bobby Harron was the prop boy, Wilfred Lucas was supervising, and the old mansion’s ballroom was the actual studio, with DWG’s desk in the corner.In the basement were three small dressing rooms, a darkroom, and the cavernous cellar held the props and costumes, such as they were in those days. Extras were paid $3 a day, and everyone mucked in to paint and move scenery. It was in these early days that Griffith began to formulate his method of ‘types’. He studied his company, and put each of them into a category of character type. By this way, he could pull the character he required from a virtual drawer, as and when required. Beyond that, he began to make actresses, rather than actors, the centre of his pictures. Marion Leonard played the more zesty, adventurous female, while Mrs Griffith performed the role of the put-upon wife, who often died before the last scene. Eventually, a blonde, horse-riding wonder-girl came to the master’s attention. Her name was Florence Lawrence, and he moved heaven and earth to steal ‘Florrie’ from the Vitagraph Studio. Installed in the brownstone mansion of 11 East Fourteenth, Miss Lawrence soon found her place, as Griffith fawned over her, so that the new girl became just a little swell-headed, and so much so that she was moved to put new arrival, Mary Pickford, into her place. It would be a few years before Lillian Gish took Florence’s place at the master’s table. By then, Miss Lawrence had long since been fired, for seeking employment at another company, within the Edison Trust. It was during Miss Lawrence’s tenure that Griffith began to suggest that his wife might wish to give up the flickers, and stay at home. Now, Mrs Griffith did not desire to be the person standing outside the brownstone’s windows, peering in, so as to see what hubby was up to, so she stayed on.

Mack Sennett and Mary Pickford in ‘Won By A Fish’ 1912..

So, what the of ‘America’s Sweetheart’ Mary Pickford. Well, she did well enough under Griffith, being a protege of the great David Belasco. Nevertheless, we must wonder why she never appeared in any big Griffith picture. We are talking here of the likes of ‘Man’s Genesis and ‘The Sands of Dee’, although these were ‘shorts’ by later standards. Miss Pickford became very ‘picky’ about the films she would perform in. When Griffith asked Mary to take the lead in ‘Man’s Genesis’ she refused, as it meant wearing a grass skirt, and running around barefoot. Mabel Normand and Blanche Sweet were doing leads at the studio in those days, and in line with Mary, they too refused the part. In his fury, Griffith picked out a young girl, Mae Marsh, who had been hanging around the studio for some time, and made her the leading lady for ‘Genesis’, then pencilled her in for ‘The Sands of Dee’. Mutiny was now in the minds of the Biograph girls, and shortly thereafter, Mabel left for Keystone, and Mary joined David Belasco, then Adolph Zukor. Blanche stayed with Griffith, still being a little unsure of herself. Too often, though, had Mr. Griffith laid violent hands on his actresses. The genius was often seen shaking Miss Pickford by the shoulders, in order to instill some ‘life’ into her, his hands often creeping up in the direction of her neck. Then, one day, after giving the girl a good shaking, he threw her bodily across the set, fortunately leaving her with just a badly bruised arm. Likewise, Blanche Sweet was violently kneed off the stage once or twice, when she failed to perform as Griffith expected. We have seen how Mack Sennett became the chief ‘groucher’ at the studio, and he had little respect for Miss Pickford. “I don’t see why everyone’s so crazy about her” Quoth the future King of Comedy “I think she’s affected.” He did, however, write the story for the first film that Mary starred in – ‘The Lonely Villa’. Sennett called the thespian turned tin-type, Frank Grandin, ‘Inflated Grandin’, and don’t ask what he called top stage actor Raymond Hitchcock.

Pearl White has the dramatic Palisades as a background.

Mr. Griffith went from strength to strength, especially after he was freed from the obligation of making one-minute films for the dreaded Mutoscope, which consisted mainly of scantily dressed women prancing around before the camera. A big event occurred one day, when Griffith called his wife over to his desk. Handing her $50, he told her to trawl the second-hand stalls for used ‘smutter’ that the actresses could wear on screen. This was the beginning of the studio’s wardrobe, before which reliance had been placed on the players’ own clothing. Something else was changing. Griffith was tiring of working in public parks, and other New York locations, where rubber-neckers jeered at the company, and louts made vulgar suggestions to the actresses. Hearing of good scenery across the Hudson River, in New Jersey, he decided to make regular sorties over to the Palisades and other places that could pass for the Wild West, or Mexico. More New-Yorkish was the Jersey Shore, where the company made great use of Atlantic City and its environs. Weather by the ocean was unpredictable, but Mack Sennett would lead the younger players on long cross-country runs, jumping walls, gates and hedges, when camera work was impossible. Only two people could stay with super-fit Sennett, Dell Henderson, and a dusky-eyed girl by the name of Mabel Normand. Unfortunately, Atlantic City was New York’s playground in the season, and city folk on vacation are infinitely worse than when back home. Eventually, Edgewater and the Palisades filled with other film companies, vying for space in the choicest places. Griffith had already tried out the area, way up in the north of New York state, but heard of great scenery, on the Neversink River, out towards the Canadian border, around 80 miles from New York. Its name was Caddebackville and it had a fine inn, The Caudebec. The company arrived by train, leaving the conductor stunned at the sight of the outrageous heart-throbs and gaudy, over-dressed painted ladies. “Hell, who were these people?” Mr Predmore, inn owner, drove Griffith and his favoured personages to the inn, while the rest wandered down on foot. The inn was moderately large, but so was the company. Only Griffith and his wife would have a good room. The actresses would sleep two to a bed and the actors three to a bed. It was a crazy few weeks, during which Mack Sennett grouched and stormed around the inn, furious at sharing his bed with snoring bedfellows. Some chose to stretch out on the veranda, while the lovers in the group purloined Biograph canoes, and paddled off to secluded riverside spots, oblivious to the danger of bear attack. Mary Pickford and Owen Moore were not among them, for Mary had to do her hair, using, Mrs Griffith tells us, three types of roller, the whole process taking an hour plus, after which came the beauty sleep, with a hand carefully placed between head and rollers.

Great Falls, Paterson N.J. Florence Lawrence in ‘The Mended Lute’.

It was out the banks of the Neversink River, in 1911, that a young Mabel Normand first began to daredevil. Mary Pickford described the Mabel of those days in 1her newspaper column i 1916:

“There was no cliff so high that Mabel was afraid of it, no water so deep she would not dive into it, no bucking bronco too wild for her to ride.”

Mrs Griffith added:

“Even Mack Sennett began to take an interest in the beautiful and reckless Mabel, a slim figure in black tights doing daredevil dives, or lovely graceful ones.”

Someone else was also taking notice of the slim and reckless Mabel – D.W. Griffith. Originally, Mabel struck him as someone for tragic and ‘bad girl’ parts, but it seemed that Mabel could fill the action-girl vacuum left by Florence Lawrence. A cowgirl, yes, but dark-haired Mabel would also make a fine native Indian. Taking the lead in ‘The Squaw’s Love’ Mabel swims underwater (a first on screen?) to slash some canoes, and falls from a cliff, while fighting off a knife-wielding love rival. However, things were not all plain-sailing in the idyllic surroundings of Cuddebackville. One night, Griffith was rudely awakened by the sounds of a wild party in the room below. Storming downstairs, he burst into the room and confiscated all of the whisky and gin from the tipsy revellers. Furthermore, he banned the numerous crap games that went on, and brought in prohibition, nine years early. To calm any possible riot, he had crates of India Pale Ale delivered, thinking back, no doubt, in his romantic mind, to the glory days of the British Raj. Ninety-year-old Pete was the local guy hired to take the actresses, in their finery, out to the shooting locations. On his return, his wife would whisk her fine figure of a husband away, before the bad city girls could have their wicked way with him.

The Caudebec Inn.

Always, when Griffith returned from his sorties up-country, he fell into a whimsical, despondent mood. Mack Sennett had asked him “Boss, do you think there is anything in these moving pictures, do you think there is any future in them?” Griffith replied that there was a future for the director, but not for the actor. Now, though, he wasn’t so sure. He was firmly stuck with the damned flickers, and his only way out was to save his money, and buy a ranch, somewhere out west – even a pig farm was better than the movies. Then there were his young, delinquent charges, those scallywags that disobeyed his orders, and mocked him behind his back. He felt like an old schoolmaster, spinning an empty prayer-wheel – damn them, didn’t they know he was descended from the Welsh Kings of old? At home, he’d run out of doors to punch holes in, and of his wife’s flower arrangements to throw out of the window. Anyhow, work still beckoned. From 1910, Griffith had been taking the company to Los Angeles, for a short season that became increasingly long down the years. On New Year’s Eve 1910, he’d taken a company out west, comprised mainly of those with theatrical experience. The likes of Jeannie MacPherson and Mabel Normand were left behind. Left behind, also, were Mrs Pickford, and her 13-year-old son, Jack. Ma’ Pickford begged Griffith to take him, along with sisters Mary and Dotty. The great man ignored her pleas, so she ordered her daughters off the train. A quick conference decided that Jack could go along at a pay rate of fifteen a week. Ma’ ordered her girls back onto the train, and with the carriages now moving, she threw little Jack aboard.

Biograph out west.

It was while out in Los Angeles that the entire company watched Vitagraph’s new comedy sensation on the screen. There were gasps of “My God, it’s Mabel!” Taking a special interest was Mack Sennett, who had begun some long and torturous negotiations with movie big-shots, Kessell and Baumann, over a new comedy studio. Taking an interest too, was D.W. Griffith. Mabel was quite a girl, and ooh so pretty. It seems Mack did not hang around, and, if we can believe his autobiography, he wrote to Mabel at the studio, professing his new-found love for her. Mabel wrote back, signing her letter “Your girl Mabel.” If he was overjoyed, then he shouldn’t have been, for Mabel could have written many letters, to many men, signed this way. Perhaps Charlie Chaplin, or perhaps Tom Moore, then not married to Alice Joyce. In any event, Mack made a note to look Mabel up, and buy her a milk-shake (although Mrs Griffith stated she thought that he never would). If Griffith was planning to head-hunt Mabel, then he needn’t bother, for Mabel came to him in the Fall of 1911. Fired by Vitagraph, for some ‘unladylike conduct,’ she was now back on the market. Biograph snapped her up, and Griffith felt a little smug, for someone else had also returned – Mary Pickford, following an ill-advised sortie elsewhere. Mabel and Mary became the master’s day to day stars, along with Blanche Sweet. Sennett, of course, had already begun to come on to Mabel, buying her various ‘shiny’ things. Then, he was made director of Biograph’s director of comedy, which did not mean much to Mabel, until Mack went behind her back, and asked Griffith to share her with him. To Mabel’s disgust, Griffith agreed, but Sennett began to feed her sweeteners in the form of expensive diamond bracelets and rings. The relationship, however, was explosive, and, as Mrs Griffith records, Mabel once threw a $70 bracelet back in Mack’s face – he sold the sparklers on for $80. So it was, that Mabel began appearing in Griffith drama and Sennett comedy. This carried on through the usual Biograph sojourn in California, where Mack Sennett spent his spare time at the Alexandria Hotel, finalising the details of his new career, at an equally new studio called Keystone. It seems possible that there was a secret battle going on for Mabel’s services, with Griffith giving Mabel good roles in drama. Griffith managed to can a bunch of good pictures in California, including ‘The Mender of Nets’ where Mary Pickford and Mabel Normand co-star for the first and only time. For this film, Griffith rented part of a Norwegian fishing village in Santa Monica, and contrived the picture to appear as if shot in a fiord. It seems he also rented some Scandinavian clothes and pigtails for Mary.

Mary Pickford going Norwegian in Santa Monica.

The fly in the ointment appeared in late Spring 1912, when the aforementioned affair of the grass skirt came to a head. Mary, Mabel and Blanche decided they’d abandon Biograph, as soon as possible, and join one of the new companies just coming on stream. Mabel was gone, with Keystone, by the early summer, and Mary followed two months later. Blanche, though, still unsure of herself, stayed with Griffith. We might suppose that Griffith was furious at losing his little dark-eyed tragedienne, although he never showed emotion. What did he say about losing five of Biograph’s players in one stroke? Probably he said “Damn fools, they’ll soon fall on their backsides, and come crawling back.”

California 1912: ‘Enhanced’ Vivian Prescott and Blanche Sweet / Mabel Normand and friend.

The Movies Grow Up.

The reason that Mack, Mabel, Ford Sterling, Fred Mace and Henri Lehrman never came back, was due to the fact that the film industry had changed, by organic process, rather than technical progress. Quite simply, there was an increasing demand for films, and Sennett filled the rising demand for comedy. This of course, does not entirely explain their success, which although Sennett was a loon and a buffoon, might be due to the fact that he, and Mabel, were disciples of Griffith. Mack had carefully watched the master’s every move, and that of his brilliant cameraman, Billy Bitzer, while Mabel had benefitted from the direction of a movie genius. Small wonder, then, that they found immediate success, and never turned back.

Harriett Quimby powders her face before flying the English Channel.

Linda Griffith had walked out on her husband towards the end of 1911. We will not speculate as to why, but simply note that fact. It seems that she joined Harriett Quimby on at least some of her aviation exhibitions around the American continent. Harriet, by the way, had appeared in one Griffith film, ‘Lines of White on A Sullen Sea’. On 12th April 1912, Mrs Griffith had been one of Harriet’s ‘hand maidens’ as she prepared for her historic flight from Dover to Calais. If the date is familiar, then it should be, for the RMS Titanic had its fateful encounter with the iceberg on that very day. Harriett was, consequently, wiped from the front pages by this sad event. Harriett died on 1st July 1912, when she was ejected from her Bleriot aircraft over Boston Harbour, just as the Keystone company began work. Harriett’s nose powdering scene above, seems to have been replicated by Mabel in her car racing scene in ‘Mabel At The Wheel’ although the release date of Mabel’s film, suggests this is mere coincidence.

‘Mabel At The Wheel’

By the time Mary Pickford left Biograph for the last time, Griffith had a new set of actors and actresses to replace the leavers. The Gish sisters and Gertrude Bambrick had arrived in around August 1912. Mr Griffith was immediately interested in the sisters, and asked them where they came from. “Dayton, Ohio” replied elder sister Lillian. Griffith scrutinised them, then remarked “Yes, I thought you were Yankees.” Young Dotty immediately shot back “Yes, and I thought you were a hook-nosed Kike.” Griffith was unmoved, as Dotty screamed “Come on let’s go, this man’s an idiot!” Like Mabel Normand, Dotty could launch a vitriolic attack on those that disrespected her. However, Mabel’s verbal assassinations were well-considered and well-aimed, while Miss Gish would simply ‘go to it’. The Gish sisters, naturally, had no notion of the terms ‘yankee and ‘johnny reb’, as although the Civil War was vaguely taught in schools, itinerants, like theatre folk, never or rarely, attended these establishments. When DWG put the sisters in their first film ‘Unseen Enemy’ he ran around the set firing a gun into the ceiling, just to get them in a terrified state.

DWG with his stars, the Gish sisters.

Gertie Bambrick was a girl that had been brought to Biograph by her sister Elsie, but having found the place to be just awful, she turned to beat it. Griffith, noticing a potential star, beckoned to her with his forefinger and, getting all Shakespearian, he said “Youth, I would speak with thee.” Well, Gertie thought the guy to be exceedingly strange, but asked him who he was. “My name is Griffith” The man said “I’m the director down here.” He immediately put Gertie, who was a dancer, into pictures. In the studio, Gertie noticed an acquaintance, Blanche Sweet. “Hello Sarah” Said Gertie. Blanche was actually Sarah, and she totally ignored Gertie, until Griffith stepped in, and made Blanche acknowledge her old adversary from the theatre. In general, the new crowd at Biograph, except the irascible Dorothy Gish, were more malleable than the outgoing lot, such as Jack Pickford and Mabel Normand.

The Gish sisters in ‘Unseen Enemy’ 1912.

The year end trip to California was much quieter in 1912. Those that had caused the near riot on the way out in 1911, had left the studio, allowing Griffith some relaxation, after the hard work of organising the trip. Among the necessary tasks was visiting the parents of every girl he was taking, and explaining the position regarding chaperones, although a few ‘stage mother’ were coming out at their own expense. With the Mann Act now in force, which forbade carrying an under-age (i.e. under 21) female across state lines for immoral purposes, it was necessary for Griffith to collect signed affidavits from the parents, for some courts might view the movies as an immoral purpose. Alert readers might wonder how a group of middle-aged men of the Keystone company, had been able to transport the under-aged Mabel Normand 3,000 miles without apprehension. Presumably Sennett had a signed permission from her parents, perhaps signed on the assumption that he and Mabel were about to marry. This might explain why the story of their engagement that hung around their necks, like an albatross, for many years. In 1912, Mrs Dell Henderson acted as chaperone to several actresses, as did Biograph’s universal stage mother, Kate Bruce. It was Kate who once said of Lillian Gish “You know, this girl needs to be protected from the world, she’s so innocent and so young” What younger, more forward, sister Dotty thought of this is not recorded.

Dell Henderson and Mack Sennett in Comrades

It was Dorothy Gish and Gertrude Bambrick that gave their chaperones the slip, booked into the Angelus Hotel, and, as Mrs Griffith tells it, thought they’d play at being Mabel Normand. Dotty and Gertie had not then met Mabel, gone now to Keystone, but this does show that the legend lived on in Biograph folk-lore. The girls bought some booze, which they quickly swilled, then, slipping down their skirts to reveal their midriffs, they headed for a show, intending to hit L.A.s nightspot later. Unfortunately, or fortunately, Mr Griffith and Dell Henderson re-captured them, as they left the theatre at 10:30 that night. Their spell at emulating Mabel Normand was over. Mrs Gish was called west from New York to take charge of the prodigal Dotty and Gertie.

Between making films, the company also watched them. Coming from New York were the films of nascent stars like Alice Joyce, some shot not far from the picture house where they sat. From those films it was possible for those new to Los Angeles to find their way around the city using Alice’s pictures. Alice petting with her boyfriend in Westlake Park was, it seems, a popular scene. Alice’s friend, now a local L.A. girl, Mabel Normand, was showing everywhere, and those that did not run into her, took the trouble to find her (perhaps to Griffith’s annoyance). By this time, Biograph’s temporary downtown studio had more of a quality air about it, but there was the perennial problem of louts scaling telegraph poles, in order to shout abuse over the fence at the players. Marshall Neilan and Gertie Bambrick began to get together out west, and, of course, eventually married. Gertie’s rival, Blanche Sweet, would pick up on Marshall, where Gertie left off, many years later. As usual, Griffith returned east, having sent a number of good films back to New York.

A scene from another west coast film ‘Enoch Arden’, based on the Tennyson poem

Enroute to ‘Birth’.

Back in New York, DWG began to rethink his position. Should he stay or should he leave? Did Biograph think so much of him? He’d made plenty of good films, and offers were coming in from all over. Even Kessell and Baumann came a-knocking with news of their new drama film company. However, he now had a complete suite of Biograph players. Sure Dotty Gish was tetchy, but her sister was conscientious, malleable and he had her down for greatness. Gertie was his favourite for the moment, but there was also Mae Marsh, and the moody Blanche Sweet, who blew hot and cold. In any case, he dealt directly with the stage-mothers, that would ensure that their daughters would tow the line, follow the money. The men could do what they liked, could leave if they didn’t agree with him — as long as they didn’t take any of his girls. Ever the pragmatist , he realised that Biograph was the place to be — for the moment. “For the moment” was dependent on getting through to management, the idea of making feature films. Damn it, the Europeans were already at it. By shear persistence DWG got his way, and the first Biograph feature was produced — at vast expense, we might add. its name was ‘Judith of Bethulia’ starring Blanche Sweet and Harry B. Waltham, but including the entire company. Oddly, Griffith’s finest film to date precipitated the master’s departure from Biograph. The company were holding up the release of the picture on the grounds that the public would not sit through such a long picture, and more hurtful was the fact that funding was withheld for future features films. Griffith decamped, in October 1913, taking the heart of Biograph’s stock company with him, to the Mutual Company. ‘Judith’ was released in March 1914, the late release preventing the errant director from receiving any royalties for the film. Keystone, DWG would know, was also part of the Mutual film distribution group. Mack and Mabel had not disappeared into some cinematic black hole, and were shooting their own prelude to a feature, the two-reeler ‘Mabel At The Wheel’ as ‘Judith’ was released. The picture had a solid story plus a Griffithian heroine, and the genius undoubtedly noted that Sennett had incorporated elements of the Griffith Girl into his own Keystone Girl. Kept very much aloof from the severest slapstick, Mabel Normand was, to some extent, carrying on as at Biograph, although giving her former mentor a virtual slap in the face, with the Griffith-induced semaphore hand signals, so disliked by most actresses. For the moment, though, Mack and Mabel were not treading on his ground. That would come much later.

Griffith’s new studio was known as the Reliance-Majestic, but would later get a much grander appellation, The Fine Arts Studio. Griffith continued to turn out good films through 1914, including a picture about Pancho Villa, starring the Mexican bandit himself. Villa, of course, began as a hero to Americans, but after he crossed the U.S. border and began killing its citizens, that view changed. Leading light of Mutual was Harry Aitken, who, in 1915 formed the ‘Triangle’ company that was to incorporate The Fine Arts studio, Keystone, and the Ince Studio, as well as some Kessell and Baumann companies. The financial web of ‘Triangle’ is difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle, and it is best to view the company as a kind of Ponzi scheme, in which the same couple of million dollars circulated among the various companies, with any new money disappearing into the ether. The Mutual people claimed that Aitken stole the original stake money from their company. In any event, ‘Triangle’ appeared to have money to burn, and began to finance big Ince and Griffith pictures. Being a comedy company, Keystone would have to wait, but Sennett did manage to produce a three-reel feature called ‘My Valet’ starring Raymond Hitchcock, Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand. Sennett does, nonetheless, appear to have received cash to build a features-only studio in East Hollywood — total cost $100,000.

Massed hordes of black union soldiers flee in terror from the ‘clan’.

The brilliant film for Griffith was ‘Birth of A Nation’, based on the Thomas Dixon Jnr’s ‘Clansman’. This was released on 21st March 1915, and was a resounding success in some ways, and a failure in other ways. The film, telling a story of the Civil War, starred Henry B. Waltham, Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh. It is said to have made 15-million dollars, which should have been an all-time record, but that record was broken by, of all companies, The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, in 1918 (of which more later). The picture received accolades, but also plenty of criticism. In particular, the critics said the film was racist, and treated black people as savages, or animals, incapable of human emotions. The view was forwarded that Griffith had brought to the fore, old divisions that no longer existed. Griffith, they said, was attempting to revive old institutions of the Civil War era, such as the Ku Klux Klan, by 1915, a dead organisation. Griffith’s intention was that the South had been badly mistreated by the North, after the former had lost the war. The land of southern whites was confiscated, and turned over to black men. State legislatures were also taken over by the black men, who abused the laws and institutions of the south. Quite what Griffith hoped to achieve, by this film, is unclear. Perhaps he wanted some kind of reparations for the southern families dispossessed, and the towns and cities that the ‘yankees’ had totally flattened. That much damage was inflicted by the North is beyond doubt, but, where they could, the South attacked Northern assets and infrastructure. Confederates attacked St. Albans, Vermont, just twelve miles from the Canadian border in 1864, and burnt the town down. In general though, the North caused more damage to the South, bearing in mind, of course, that the South also damaged its own assets.

White folks amused by dancing ‘mulattos’.

That Griffith changed the name of his film from ‘The Clansman’ to ‘The Birth Of A Nation’ does indicate that he wanted this to be seen as history, rather than a mere salute to the ‘Klan’. He does seem to imply that the Civil War resulted in a ‘reconstruction’ which is a sort of justification for the title. Many of his historical facts cannot be challenged, and to an extent, he is stating the truth, but his portrayal of blacks behaving like drunken animals in the state legislature building, set many people against him. Griffith argued back, sheltering, in a way, behind the film’s name. In the glare of publicity, he remained as aloof as he had always been. Mack Sennett said in his autobiography that “Griffith was the first person to realise that he was a genius.” Well, following ‘Birth’ many thought Griffith to be a genius. Down the years, Griffith talked much of ‘Birth’ and the Civil War, primarily because he was asked so often about the subject. In 1930, the film was re-released, and a short film of Griffith talking was made. In this, Griffith espouses the view that “The Ku Klux Klan was entirely necessary” which 15 years on from the picture, is astounding. Many critics have pointed to Griffith’s somewhat pompous and almost aristocratic accent, which, they say, lends towards his conceited, high-brow attitude. It is, however, unfair to single out Griffith, or any individual in motion pictures, for criticism on this point. By the early 1920s, film studios were sending their Bronx, swamplands and ‘covered wagon’ accented stars to English schoolma’ms for elocution lessons. Indeed, Mabel Normand seems to have almost lost her Brooklyn accent well before 1920, perhaps by contact with Charlie Chaplin, already cultivating the speech of the aristocrat, or, as the Americans say it, the dude. The following is taken from a press article covering the trial of Mabel Normand’s chauffeur in 1924:

Source: The Mabel Normand Sourcebook by Wm. Thomas Sherman.

Griffith, then, was part of the rule rather than the exception. The rule was for motion picture people to rise above the mire in which the press had placed them. Many of the stars had never been formally educated, and, therefore, claimed that they’d attended convent schools. As with the elocution lessons, studios rushed to get their actors versed in reading and writing. Only one silent actor ever claimed to come from the gutter, and that was Charlie Chaplin, who was quite proud of the fact that he had risen by his own efforts. Griffith, of course, claimed something quite different — he was born of Kings. He was, also, born of ‘Roaring Jake’ who, under investigation, turned out to be more of a ‘Whimpering Jake’, a drunken wife-beater and a coward. Like so many movie producers and directors, he seems to have been, to a great extent, self-educated, reading the greatest works he could find. Is it possible to separate the actors and actresses from the great directors and producers of the silent era? Well, in a way, they were set apart by a kind of natural selection. The big-shots of the movies became captains of industry, which put them above the acting fraternity. In other words, it was unlikely that a captain of industry would ever be hauled before the courts, and the judges of the press, in the way that Mabel Normand was, although many of those ‘captains’ committed worse, and genuine offences.

Coming to your legislature soon.

Finally, given his background, Griffith is entitled, to some extent, for his views on the outcomes Civil War, although he should not have hidden his opinions behind the shield of his film’s title. Perhaps, he should have entitled it ‘The Klansmen’. D.W. Griffith’s life did not end with ‘The Birth of A Nation’, but until his death, the film coloured that life. He was, naturally, fully entwined with Hollywood and the Hollywooders, which makes his story linked with those written of in this series of articles. For that reason, we will carry the story and legend of D,W. Griffith over into a future article.

They’re after your women!


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

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

https://archive.org/stream/MabelNormandASourceBookToHerLifeAndFilms/MNSB7_djvu.txtLove, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).