THE MACK & MABEL STORY: PART 5

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W.D. Taylor                                  Mary Miles Minter                    The Butler: Peavey

Who killed Bill Taylor?

Who killed Bill Taylor? ‘I don’t know’, said Mack Sennett, and neither did anyone else. Some 300 people admitted to the killing, but no-one was ever charged with the murder. The only one without a real alibi was Charlotte Shelby. The ex-butler, Sands, was never found, and Mack Sennett had a good alibi. Mabel was never a suspect, as she would have been foolish to return to Taylor’s house, and shoot him, and, furthermore, she possessed no gun of the right caliber. At least one person had seen her at the house right before the shooting, and her household staff backed her story of going straight home. Charlotte Shelby was the prime suspect all the way through. However, when we look into it, we

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On the job: W.D. Taylor directing

find Mack Sennett had the most to gain from the killing. How sound was his alibi? Thomas Ince claimed Sennett was with him when Taylor was shot. However, Ince was joined at the hip, through business, with Sennett, and it is certain that Sennett had some ‘dirt’ he could dish on Ince. With these facts in mind, Mack’s alibi looks less strong. It is for this reason that police interviewed Mack several times. Later, in the early 1950s, Mack actually admitted killing Taylor, and taking thecontentious ‘Blessed Baby’ letters. He said he did it because Taylor was ‘queer’. Taylor may have been ‘gay’ but this was not the main reason for shooting the director (especially as Mack himself was gay). As Taylor was thought, in the movie colony, to be gay, then perhaps The King believed no-one in the industry would snitch on him. It has to be said, nonetheless, that Mack was drunk at the time he confessed. In his book, Sennett stated that Taylor had stolen Mabel from him with drugs. He says this out of the blue, just like that. You can make of that whatever you wish.

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‘Taylor, what Taylor?’: Mabel poses with the D.A. and Asst. D.A. in 1922

Now, what of Mabel, why was she suddenly so concerned to destroy her photos, and retrieve her letters? Did she have a premonition that the King of Comedy was gunning for Taylor. The police thought she knew that Taylor was going to be killed, and that Sennett was one of the likely killers. Mabel was constantly quizzed, ‘Was there a man who was jealous enough to want Taylor out of the way?’ Mabel replied, ‘No’. When asked if another woman was involved with Taylor, she again said ‘No’. The police knew the correct answers to these questions, and Mabel’s answers at Taylor’s inquest were greeted with derision by the press. ‘She’s a liar’, they said. What else could Mabel say  –  if Mack had killed Taylor, he might come gunning for her. If she’d told on Mary Miles Minter, how could she be sure that Paramount boss, Adolph Zukor, wouldn’t ‘send the boys round’. Mabel had walked into a neat trap, as big a trap as Keystone itself. Sennett now had private guards installed around her house, in order to prevent journalists, and anyone else, pressing Mabel for a story. He got Mabel into a new house in Altadena. The press became evermore confident, and reported all kinds of nonsense.

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Mabel’s Altadena house in the 21st century

The Ramifications of the Taylor affair

Leaving aside the murder itself, what effect did the event, the inquest, and the newspaper reports have on Mabel’s life. The effects were huge and long-lasting. They sent Mabel into a down-hill spiral, arrested slightly by Mack and Dick Jones, who pushed her to continue with Suzanna. Unfortunately, the film was not as successful as hoped, probably due to the ‘Taylor effect’ and calls to ban Mabel’s films. It was even reported that a certain group of vigilantes were going to storm Mabel’s house, knock the hell out of Sennett’s guards, drag Mabel off, and force her to tell what she knew. Presumably, Mack doubled the guard. The papers remained full of anti-Mabel rhetoric – she was ‘a gutter-snipe, who laughingly thought she was an intellectual’. She ‘read Freud and Nietzsche, but the books had scandalous magazines, like The Police Gazette, hidden inside them.’ ‘She couldn’t read, so only ever looked at the pictures in cheap magazines’. ‘Mabel could have lived on caviar, but only drugs, gin and roasted peanuts ever passed her lips’. As an example of Mabel’s stupidity, they pointed to her actions in the early Keystones, and her affair with Taylor, a married man (no-one knew he was married at the time of the murder). On top of this the churches began to attack ‘this sinful woman’.

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A different kind of Mabel leaves New York aboard The Aquitania

On completion of Suzanna, Mabel took off for Europe, and was filmed with an unsurprising sneer on her face as she passed ‘The Statue’. A huge weight was lifted from her shoulders, and she enjoyed life in Paris and London, where she was lionized by the rich and famous. Mabel spent $100,000 on gowns, according to Sennett, but Mabel, in an interview, claimed she bought little in Europe, and preferred American designers. For once, Sennett was probably right. It seems likely that Mabel spoke to French and British movie-makers, and might have considered staying in Europe permanently. However, Mabel would have realized that she would be a guinea pig, as the age of Hollywood stars (like Bebe Daniels and Bessie Love) leaving for the Old World was still a decade away.

After kicking over a good many champagne buckets, Mabel returned to New York, where Sennett claims he tried to reach her. There is no evidence for this attempted contact, and, indeed, Mack had started a new feature film, The Extra Girl, with Phylis Haver as the leading lady. He seemed to have told Mabel that his next feature film would be Mary Ann, and she would star in it. When Mabel heard a ‘Bathing Beauty’ was in her place, she was furious, and rang Mack, demanding the part. Curiously, Mack fired Phyliss after a month’s filming had been completed, and replaced her with Mabel. One can only assume that she had something on Mack, for he had almost certainly dispensed with her services. That something might have related to the Taylor murder. Unbelievably, Mabel signed for a massive (for her) $3,000 per week plus 25% of the net profits.

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Blonde bombshell Phyllis Haver looking very Mabelish

Another shooting clouds the horizon

No sooner had The Extra Girl been released (Nov. 1923), than Mabel was involved in another shooting. This time, someone at the scene admitted the crime – it was Mabel’s chauffeur, the chain-gang escapee Horace Greer. The circumstances this time were slightly different, for Mabel was actually present. Unfortunately, Edna Purviance was present again, only this time as a witness to the shooting. Edna, Mabel and the shot man, Courtland Dines, were drunk, and so the statements they gave were at variance with each other. The press were preparing for another feeding frenzy.

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Edna Purviance

The newspapers were fully reporting the events, as they knew them, but pounced on the way Mabel spoke about those events. ‘I guess someone shot him, mister’, said Mabel when the police entered Dines’ apartment. Oh dear, not a good start. Reports were then made about Mabel’s statements to the police at the station. ‘There seems to be some discrepant of the fads’, she reportedly said. She was, of course, still slightly drunk, and chauffeur Greer stated to police that Mabel was always getting drunk, and, for this reason, he had considered throwing in the job. The newspapers, of course, had to refer to the fact that Mabel and Edna were attired in the usual movie star manner. Gold this, gold that, plush velvet, ostrich feathers etc. etc. A further attack was made on Mabel’s speech on arrival at Dine’s hospital bed. ‘Hoy’s the sweetie’, she allegedly said, in her best Brooklyn voice. Furthermore, Mabel threatened to shoot the chauffeur. Unfortunately, Mabel appeared to have a change of personality at the court hearing, and entered into some eloquent speech on the stand, all given in an aristocratic manner, with a few ‘French’ hand gestures thrown in. The press had another field day – ‘How dare someone who’d crawled from the gutter put on airs and graces in a court of law’. Mabel could not win, whatever she did!

Next Post: ‘Am I downhearted, of course not!’

THE MACK & MABEL STORY: PART 4

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Mack reminisces about Mabel, 1960

Mack and Mabel, head-to-head

Mabel had flown the coop, and Arbuckle could not be found anywhere. There was nothing Mack could do about the fat-man, but he could sure turn the Mabel situation around. Mabel, it transpired, had signed with Sam Goldwyn for $1,000 a week. The details were probably known to Mack, and certainly to Kessell and Baumann, who’d had Mabel under surveillance [Endnote 1]. There was hope in the Sennett camp, for Sam Goldwyn had just started his studio, and was not exactly flush with cash –  put in modern parlance, he was ‘over-leveraged’. Getting Mabel back was going to be a stroll in the park. Mack, with help from Baumann, would set his legal eagles onto Sam, with an aim to ‘spend the pants’ off the producer. Mabel was holed up in New York, and regretting her hasty signing with Sam – perhaps Mack and Baumann could provide her with her own studio again? The press reported that Mabel had stated her intention not to honor the Goldwyn contract, and, in fact, she might sign elsewhere. Sam began legal proceedings against Mabel for breach of contract, while Mack’s lawyers began to get their claws into Sam. Mabel’s contract was unfair, and the coming success of ‘Mickey’ would make her a mega-star worthy of at least $3,000 a week (Chaplin was now on $12,800).

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Mabel’s farewell telegram

Unfortunately,the whole operation to weedle Mabel from Sam came to naught, and Mabel settled with Sam for $1,500 per week. She was sent off to a studio in Florida, to recover her health, which had declined. Clearly, Mabel had wanted her own studio from Mack, but the old triangular premises had been let out to Wm. S. Hart’s cowboy outfit. The Goldwyn deal was the best Mabel could do, and by way of celebration Mabel had her first week’s pay divided into small packets, which were handed out to studio workers. Mabel was on her way to being queen of Goldwyn, but there were princesses and divas in the background, waiting to snatch the  crown.

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Mabel entertains the Goldwyn studio. She had a good, if soft, singing voice

What goes around, comes around

Mack sat in his kingdom at Sennett Studios, hissing through bared teeth. He would get the Keystone Girl back from that darned ex-glovemaker, come what may, but the important thing for now was to get Louise Fazenda, Ben Turpin and all his new gang to work, and, above all, make money. Mabel, meanwhile, was getting to work making some tolerably good films in Fort Lee. The films were based, like so many Goldwyn efforts, on successful stage plays. The plays were little adapted for the screen, and, it seems, Sam had the idea of actually filming plays, as if on the stage. This was never going to work, and Mabel was totally unable to perform dramatics without top-rate direction. The man for the job was Dick Jones, and Sennett had him on a short leash. Sam, undoubtedly, needed Jones, but Mack would ensure that he never got him (he later put Jones on $15,000 a week). Mabel appears to have become very depressed at Goldwyn, her health and work suffered, as the films under-performed in all respects. Sam was shocked. He’d done everything to make Mabel a success, and he’d failed. What could he do but call in

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Charlie with Mabel. He understood her better than anyone.

the doctor – the doctor in the guise of Charlie Chaplin, the world’s leading expert on ‘Mabelescence’. ‘Mabel’, declared Charlie, ‘was the world’s greatest actress, but she could only excel under Sennett – in any other studio she was ‘commonplace’. The doctor had spoken, and, it seems, Sam acted. Mack says he forced Sam’s hand to give Mabel back, but Sam may have, initially, loaned Mabel to Sennett. Let’s say Mack hired Mabel for one film, following which, she signed on a film by film basis on her own recognizance. Sam had bowed out graciously, for above all else he felt for Mabel, and wanted to do the best for her (and save some money along the way).

Finally, the sun comes out

Mabel was back in the old studio, but under different circumstances. Mack was still overall supervisor for the new film ‘Molly O’. Jones was trying out his new ideas for Mabel and incorporating some of her own, where possible. Mabel had demonstrated with He Did and He Didn’t that she was fallible, and that even Arbuckle could not save her from herself. Neither Mack nor Dick were prepared to let her run wild with ideas. According to Mack, Mabel was a scatter-wit, who could cause immense harm if left to roam free. Jones would not have put it that way, but he had a means of coaxing the best out of Mabel, by offering support, and being, as far as possible, the holder of a slack leash. At the end of filming, Mabel and Jones had gone as far as possible with their new ideas, and relished completing Mabel’s transformation in the next film Suzanna.

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Mabel is Suzanna

A black cloud appears

Mabel was at home, at 8.a.m, 2nd February 1922, and had just put on her Spanish-style Suzanna outfit, when the phone rang. It was friend Edna Purviance, who had called to tell her that her next door neighbor, the film director W.D. Taylor, had been murdered. Much has been said about the affair, so I will keep this brief. Mabel was prone to getting involved with various men in the industry, who she thought were of the intellectual type, and, just as importantly, could help her career. The first of these was Mack Sennett (no intellectual), then Charlie Chaplin, followed by a succession of others. William Desmond Taylor fitted this description. He was considered the most intellectual of all the Hollywood folk. However, he was also a top director with Paramount, so was well situated to help Mabel gain access to that studio [Endnote 2]. However, Mabel had been branded a scatter-wit, and to some extent this was true. She probably didn’t understand the trouble this could have caused her under certain circumstances, for instance if Taylor should leave the studio. According to Taylor’s butler, Peavey, an argument had ensued between Taylor and Mabel, and this was over the fact that Taylor had failed to get her signed by Paramount.

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The Taylor residence, close to Mabel’s house, in the Bohemian area of L.A.

Peavey stated that, in a fury, Mabel had torn all her photos down from Taylor’s walls, cut them up, and demanded back her letters she had sent him (the so-called ‘Blessed Baby’ letters, signed that way by Mabel) . He didn’t give her the letters, and Mabel eventually left. The two came together again, when Mabel called to pick up a book Taylor had acquired for her. Mabel left by chauffeured car within half-an-hour, and Taylor was shot around ten minutes later. Peavey claimed Mabel had fired the fatal shot, but there were other suspects. It transpired that Taylor had been having an affair with Mary Miles Minter, a young Paramount actress of the ‘Mary Pickford’ type. This affair had apparently ended when Taylor took up with Mabel, but it was thought it might have begun again, a short while before Taylor was shot. Mary Miles Minter and her mother, Charlotte Shelby, were both suspects. Another was a man called Sands, Taylor’s ex-butler. Among the remaining suspects was a certain Mack Sennett.

Endnotes 

1. It was reported in October 1916 that Mabel had been blackmailed by a certain failed doctor. The doctor stated to police that some ‘people in New York’ had paid him to follow Mabel and collect evidence regarding what she was doing. The doctor decided to hold back the information, and use it to blackmail Mabel. If the story was true, then the ‘people in New York’ could only be Kessell and Baumann, who guessed Mabel was about to decamp.

2. There were several top studios that all actors wanted to get into. One of these was Paramount, and Mabel was probably upset that the company had not head-hunted her. Her friends from Biograph were all at prestigious studios, but it is clear the studios considered Mabel to be too risky.

NEXT POST: Who killed ‘Bill’ Taylor, and how did Mabel weather the storm?

 

THE MACK & MABEL STORY: Part 3

 

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Fatty and Mabel Adrift

‘Goodbye Mack, hope I never see you again’

During 1915, Mabel had co-starred in many films with Roscoe Arbuckle. There was little scope to develop the ideas created with Chaplin, and slapstick had prevailed courtesy of Mack Sennett. There was just time to finish ‘Fatty and Mabel Adrift before the pair left for Mabel’s home town, and Roscoe and Mabel had managed to introduce some new ideas, including pathos and tenderness into the film. Now NYMP was calling, and Mabel was going back to New York for the first time in three years. It appears that Mabel was turning in her crown, as Queen of Keystone, and assumed she was never coming back. Still photos were taken en-route, and published in the press, with a great fanfare. Whether the errant party had them published, or Triangle/NYMP, is irrelevant, but they were almost certainly meant to stick in Mack’s craw. One shot shows Mabel apparently drinking a toast from a (gin?) bottle, and we have to wonder what the toast was. This may be seen as twisting the knife, but after a total of 4 years plus with Mack, we can say she’d picked up some of the ‘King’s’ habits that so appalled the Biograph people.

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Albuquerque: ‘Dear Mack, having a wonderful time. Glad you’re not here’.

Mabel’s stay at the Fort Lee Triangle Studios was relatively un-documented, and so, apart from the films, we have little to go on except the films themselves (Mack leaves this period out of his book completely). However, Kessel and Baumann must have been ecstatic about having the world’s paramount comedienne at their studios, especially as Mabel was also a truly glitzy film star of the first order. The fly in the ointment was that Mack still had Mabel under contract – she was only in Fort Lee ‘on loan’. The films Mabel

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Triangle Fort Lee. It must have been freezing in the winter!

made there were substantially different, and less slapstick dependent, than her Keystone efforts. With ‘He Did and He Didn’t’ we have to think ‘My God, what happened!’ Roscoe is still Roscoe, although toned down, but Mabel is totally transformed. She is now a serious dramatic actress, and carries the part very well. The problem is she is now one of a thousand actresses, who did this type of work on a daily basis. She had become, as Charlie Chaplin later said, ‘commonplace’. Good as the film was, her audiences were probably appalled, where was the Keystone Girl? Furthermore what was everyone’s favorite ingénue doing getting amorous with a man in her bedroom, while wearing a nightdress? From a mass-market point of view, films like this would drain the very essence from Mabel, and end her career. Fortunately, Mabel was later able to combine dramatics with comedy under the special direction of Dick Jones.

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 Mabel, you don’t look alluring at all. Send for Dick Jones! (He Did and He Didn’t)

A Star goes west

Now comes the sixty-four-thousand dollar question, why was Mabel returned to L.A.? No one knows why, and we can only go through the possibilities. First of all, the Mabel/Roscoe company might have only been at Fort Lee on temporary loan. Second, perhaps Roscoe and Mabel were adverse to Fort Lee, which is in New Jersey. Neither was probably too keen on living in N.J., and so they probably had to commute daily from Manhattan, which meant a tedious ferry crossing. Thirdly, Mabel may have persuaded Triangle/NYMP that she could only make good films if she had her own film company. This probably appealed to K&B, who would dearly love to start another ‘Mabel’ company (they already had several). Furthermore, it might ensure that Mabel didn’t ‘bail’, and it would add another studio to the Triangle portfolio.

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Ferries Manhattan and New Jersey. It’s around 6 miles from W.39th Street to Edgewater 

It seemed then, that by the second quarter of 1916, The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company was ready to go. Land now had been sought out for the buildings in L.A., where we suppose Mabel was keen to set up shop. Unfortunately, this involved Mack Sennett, who was clearly one of the best on-the-ground people to carry this out. The other was Thomas Ince, but due to works at his own studios he apparently declined. Consequently,

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Dick, Mabel and Mack in discussion. The studio or the Hall of  Mirrors, Versailles?

Sennett bought the land, and, it seems, put up, at least, some of the money for the building. Presumably, Mack was supposed to send the bill to Triangle, but he never did. Triangle moved quickly to install The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, and only later did they realize they had been duped by Sennett – their precious company was in the clutches of the studio owner, ‘The King of Comedy’. Keystone came in again, when Mabel needed money to feminize the studio. The company loaned her $1,000 to carpet the studio throughout, and build a garden, which the dressing rooms opened out on. Mabel bought in her own gold-plated bits and bobs, distributed pot plants around the site, and installed a jazz band.

Fun and games in an odd-shaped studio

The main problem was now the director. Mabel’s choice was F. Richard Jones, technically and artistically the best. The best was what was needed for Mabel’s idea of uniquely combining dramatics and tragedy with comedy. However, Mack was adamant Jones was not going to direct the new film – he was, in a way, the enemy. This young guy might just run off with Mabel. Numerous aging directors were brought in, but none was suitable, so it was over to young Dick Jones. Jones did a great job with the film, but Mack prevented

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Triangle have a triangle-shaped studio for the MNFF Co.

Jones from editing it. This is all tied in with the shenanigans surrounding Triangle’s drift to insolvency, during which Mack had Jones ‘kidnap’ the film, in order to put more pressure on Triangle. When Triangle finally laid hold of the film it was unedited, and in a terrible mess – it took more than a year to reduce the picture by almost 40%.  The result was a stunning film, Mabel’s best by far, and the picture eventually grossed $18 million. When the dust settled, Mack was left with the Keystone studio plus its stars, and the odd-shaped studio on Fountain Avenue, which never was the Mabel Normand Studio, but part of the new Mack Sennett Studios. Mabel collected her salary, some $1000 per week, and that was that.

Mack set off for New York to settle matters with Triangle, and when he came back he found Mabel had ‘run away’ (as he called it). Where was Arbuckle? He’d skidaddled too! Mack had actually come out of Triangle in better shape than he’d entered, but he’d lost his biggest stars. What would ‘The King’ do? We find out in the next post

THE MACK & MABEL STORY: PART 2

On the job in L.A.

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The King rules at Keystone

On arrival in L.A. it was imperative that the Keystone Company began to make films as quickly as possible. However, Mack told a story in his book that, as the company got off the train, they spotted a Shriner’s march, and immediately decided to make a film based around the gathering. He claims Mabel ran up and down the lines of marchers with a doll, begging the Shriner’s to help her baby. This sounds like a later Keystone movie, although the footage of the shriner’s march of August 1912 might have been included in this later film. The story is almost certainly just another screenplay from the master of illusions. It appears filming began once the company was ensconced on the old Bison lot, although most of the filming took place in nearby locations. We may as well include here the fact that Sennett was not (unsurprisingly) trusted by Kessell and Baumann. Thomas Ince, who had a record of running a studio was asked to look in on Allesandro Street, and get involved in its organisation. For the purposes of this essay, it is worth noting that Kessell and Baumann, on one side, and Sennett on the other, were wary of each other from the beginning. Mabel Normand could, and did, eventually, use this to her advantage in order to skip between Keystone and New York Motion Pictures. Mabel was naïve, but not so naïve as to not understand what bush baby eyes, and fluttering lashes could do to studio executives.

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Mabel in typical Keystone pose

Worries over Mabel

So where are we in terms of Mack and Mabel. Well, in late 1912, Mack was still busy with his studio, and, moreover, fending off Kessell and Baumann. Mabel was tearing around sets, and Echo Park, being ‘Mabel’. Come 4 o’clock she was hatted and furred up, and ready to hit the town – except that Mack was ready to intercept our ‘girl in a hurry’. Rushes had to be viewed, and photo shoots undertaken. By the time this was finished, Mack was ready to leave, and escort Mabel to dinner at The Athletic Club. Hours of fun then ensued, as Mack droned on in his monotonous way, until he eventually dropped off to sleep. This left Mabel twiddling her thumbs, or striking up conversations with Mack’s acquaintances, keeping one eye on Mack, in case he stirred. Things improved somewhat

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The Athletic Club 1912. Hours of ‘fun’ for Mabel

when Charlie Chaplin was invited along to these ‘parties’, but that was more than a year away. The situation was this – Mack was a control freak. He had Mabel trapped in the golden (or driftwood) cage of Keystone, and he would work her to death, or until she had nothing left to give. It has to be remembered that in 1912, if Mabel had escaped, like the ravens in the Tower of London, the whole Edendale edifice would have come crashing down. Consequently, Mack had Mabel watched and followed everywhere. Perhaps Mabel will run off with another producer, or even with a Keystone staff member. ‘Pathe’ Lehrman, director and fake Frenchman, fancied his chances with Mabel, but eventually settled for bit-part actress Virginia Rappe, of Fatty Arbuckle fame. Of course there were always those ‘Mustachio Petes’, Kessell and Baumann — would they lure Mabel back to New York? It is clear that Mack wanted to ensnare Mabel, and he was going to milk the phoney engagement for all it was worth. There was no way out of this for Mabel, unless she wanted to look ridiculous. However, it was early days yet, and Mabel was generally happy with the way things were going, even if it was a little claustrophobic.

Charlie Chaplin happens along

Mabel’s attendance at the court of The King of Comedy, must have become very tedious for her by September 1913, in spite of an income of several hundred dollars a week. Then, things changed. Kessell and Baumann had decided to bring NYMP to the fore by signing stage stars to their studio. For Keystone, they had suggested hiring an English Music Hall comedian by the name of Charlie Chaplin. Charlie was touring the States at the time with the Karno Company, although he was first-rate enough to have his own

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Young Charlie Chaplin

billing.  Mack and Mabel had seen his show, and thought him good, although Mack, being a failed stage actor, was ambivalent.  Kessell and Baumann seem to have signed Chaplin in New York. When he came to L.A. on his Karno tour, Mack and Mabel saw his show, and Mack went backstage to talk to Charlie (according to Mabel). Mack brought him out onto the pavement, where Mabel was waiting. Mabel and Charlie were both very shy and introvert when meeting new people, and, as a result, the meeting was a little awkward. However, Charlie was already a Mabel fan, and Mabel saw something likable in Charlie. The trio went to a restaurant for a meal, where it seemed Mack admitted being alarmed at the fact that Chaplin was a young guy. He wanted older actors, in the vein of Ford Sterling and Fred Mace, but, as Chaplin pointed out, he could make-up as old as Sennett

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Mabel’s Strange Predicament

liked. What really bugged Sennett was the fact that Charlie was about the same age as Mabel. Would Chaplin prise Mabel from the clutches of this middle-aged, white-haired man? Mabel recorded that she and Chaplin were instantly attracted to each other – Mack was a keen observer and always paid attention to everything. He could not have missed the ‘soul mates’ atmosphere between the younger pair. The full story of Mabel and Charlie has been set out in a previous post. However, in brief, it appears that Mack initially kept Charlie away from Mabel  (Mack says in his book, that Mabel refused to work with Charlie). Eventually, perhaps after some prompting from K&B, Mack had to bring the pair together in Mabel’s Strange Predicament. A battle for on-set supremacy ensued, after which the pair were not cast together for two months. Their next film was the ‘Mabel-maker’, Mabel At The Wheel.

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Mabel aboard Chaplin’s Thor IV motorcycle in ‘Mabel At The Wheel’

Some kind of disagreement occurred between Charlie and Mabel, which seems to have prompted Sennett (or given him the opportunity) to contact K&B, with a view to firing the egotistical Englisher. Unfortunately, it was too late, as Chaplin had become a huge star, and one that the ‘Mustachio Petes’ were not keen to lose. Chaplin was staying, and Mack would have to live with him. The tramp was  making as much money for Keystone as old-hand Mabel. It was now possible for Chas and Mabel to fraternize, and discuss stories and gags together, although Mack had them closely watched. Eventually the pair was staying over in Mabel’s bungalow / dressing room after hours, discussing anything and everything. Although the details were never made public, we can imagine they discussed starting their own studio, making films based on the new ideas they had for comedy. Chaplin had this in mind since his Karno days, and, at one time, considered starting a studio. It seems Mabel believed implicitly that their collaboration would continue, but it was not to be. Chaplin left Keystone the minute his contract expired, perhaps under pressure from Sennett, or because his ego convinced him he could go it alone. Mabel recalled that Chaplin kept her fully informed of his extramural negotiations, giving her the impression that she would ‘get the call’ from Chaplin. As we now know, Chaplin threw Mabel over, and looked for a new leading lady outside of the movie community. Perhaps Mabel was too expensive, or too troublesome, or perhaps Chaplin had been warned off by Sennett. In any event, he left with all the ideas that had been fashioned in those long discussions with the Keystone Girl. For ever after, Mabel would shout over to Chaplin in restaurants and industry gatherings, ‘Charlie, I’ll be your leading lady yet!’ This greatly embarrassed Charlie, who, it seems, bitterly regretted the way he’d treated Mabel for the rest of his life. Of all the movie people he was the one most upset by Mabel’s early death in 1930.

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Kessell, Normand, Sterling, Sennett during studio reconstruction March 1915

Onward and upward – but where to?

After Chaplin’s departure from Keystone, Mabel appears to have entered a period of conflict with Mack. Did she think Mack had driven Chaplin from the studio? If he had, then did he now consider himself unassailable, with even more control over Mabel? Things were certainly more strained between them, especially as Mack began to get involved in a massive reorganization of Keystone.  In March 1915, Adam Kessell came to Keystone in order to  supervise its refurbishment. There is a suggestion that Mabel spoke

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to Kessell about leaving Keystone for NYMP. Nothing came from these talks, but the issue was probably put on the back-burner until things were settled as regards the merger with Triangle . By the end of the year things had reached breaking point between Mack and Mabel, to the extent that it was imperative they be parted. Kessell and Baumann acted swiftly, and, by the end of December, Mabel and a small company were on their way to NYMP’s new Triangle facility at Fort Lee, New York.  Prior to this, in October, there had been an occurrence at Keystone, where Mabel received a head injury, caused by a shoe thrown during a wedding scene. We can imagine that this created a situation where Mabel could be absent from the studio, and inform Kessell and Baumann that she was through with slapstick [Endnote].

Endnote:  The accident has been confused by an event which Sennett said, in his autobiography, occurred about the end of June. Sennett claims that he and Mabel had intended to marry on June 4th, a date that Mack always used in relation to poorly remembered events. He claims that Mabel found him cavorting with the actress Mae Busche, and Mabel called the wedding off. Sometime later someone claimed there had been a fracas and Mabel hit her head on the window-sill. 50 years later, an aging Minta Arbuckle said that Mae had hit Mabel over the head with a vase. Notably, there was no mention anywhere in the press about the impending wedding, or head wound, in late June or early July 1915. The evidence suggests that the Mae Busch incident never happened, and that Mabel suffered a minor injury in October.

Next Post: Mabel goes home.

 

THE MACK & MABEL STORY: Part 1

 

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Young lovers Mack and Mabel: Barney Oldfield’s Race For A Life 1912

 

The Background

First, let’s get one thing clear – without Mack Sennett there would have been no Mabel Normand. Similarly, without Mabel Normand there would have been no Mack Sennett, and no Keystone. Here’s the story: Mack and Mabel had been at the Biograph Studio together, but neither was much regarded by the director general D.W. ‘Klansman’ Griffith. Mack was a bumbling buffoon, but one that had a curious anti-social air about him . He was, his peers pronounced, the one most unlikely to succeed [Endnote 1]. Mabel, by contrast, coveted social acceptance at the expense, eventually, of her career. According to Mack, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin, Mabel was the greatest actress of all time. However, the Great Griffith appeared to think differently.

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Biograph Mabel. Left: The Eternal Mother Right: Her Awakening

He had declined taking Mabel to California on Biograph’s first winter trip to the land of orange groves, for reasons only to be guessed at. Mabel, as a consequence, got work at Vitagraph studios, where she appeared in comedies with Flora Finch and John Bunny. Unfortunately, Mabel was fired from Vitagraph, it is said, for ‘mooning’ at train passengers from her dressing room window. She was taken back on by Griffith, and went on the next California trip, where she excelled in tragedies (‘She played a heavy woman’, said Mary Pickford). Mabel put in some good performances out there, but Griffith remained unimpressed. There are probably two reasons for this. One, the other young actresses greatly admired Mabel, and some (like Dorothy Gish and Gertrude Bambrick) actually wanted to be Mabel. This made them rebellious just like their heroine, Miss Normand. Secondly, Mabel had acted Griffith’s greatest star, ‘Biograph Girl’ Mary Pickford, clear off the set in The Mender of Nets. Griffith would never cast them in the same picture again.

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Biograph L.A. Left: Mabel loved babies, as long as she could hand them back. Right: Mack never tired of complaining about Biograph food. He’s about to get a Keystone in the rear.

 

Mack and Mabel get together

According to Linda Griffith, Sennett had been studying Mabel closely, and made up his mind that she was perfect for what he had planned. What he had planned was his own studio making comedy films. He had told Mabel ‘When I get my own company, I’m going to make funny pictures and put you in them’. He had said this when he encountered Mabel on the street, after she had ‘run away’ from Biograph following her appearance in just one scene. There can be no doubt that stars lit up in Mabel’s eyes at this news, for this was probably the first and only time any man had had taken an interest in her as a person. Others adored her and loved her, but they had something else on their minds. Furthermore, she realized Griffith was never going to be her patron. When Mack was made director of the new Biograph comedy unit, the great director graciously handed Mabel over Sennett.

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Biograph comedies 1912. Left: The Mabel pout in Oh, Those Eyes. Right: Mack surveys the remains of his bike, wrecked by Mabel in Tomboy Bessie

As we all know, there has been the Mack and Mabel stage show, and there has been Mack Sennett’s autobiography, which could have been titled ‘How I lost My Girl’ (Mabel Normand). The former is based on the latter, and both are hardly worth the time lost in thinking about them. Of course, they are great stories, but they are just that –  great stories. The reality was that Mack wasn’t interested in Mabel in any romantic sense, but in what she could do for him. At the same time Mabel had no deep romantic feelings for Mack. She felt Mack could do something for her. Now Mack, by most accounts, was gay, and had no real desire for women. With Mabel it is difficult to tell, although lesbians did figure among her friends. On balance, it seems she was neutral, and therefore, according to journalist and friend Adela Rogers St. Johns, was ‘unusually pure, with no desire, no sex, no nothing.’ Mabel was, effectively, a latter-day Elizabeth I.

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First Keystone: Mabel flees Mack Sennett. At Coney Island 1912

 

We can see that we are talking about two very unusual people here. They did not fit any niche either at Biograph, or anywhere else in the universe (later they were to bring someone equally as strange into their world – Charlie Chaplin). In another life, Mack and Mabel could have been Bonnie and Clyde – Clyde is thought to have been gay, and, surprise, surprise, Bonnie (an aspiring movie star) is considered neutral. Mack and Mabel, however, did not (routinely at least) shoot people.

A diamond ring, and a ferry ride to a studio.

Linda Griffith has confirmed in her 1925 book, that Mack and Mabel became a loose item. She doesn’t intimate they were lovers, but does say they argued most of the time. In all probability neither understood true love. Mack, she says, bought Mabel a diamond necklace for $70, but Mack being Mack, he sold it on for $85. This brings us to the famous ferry-boat ring, which Mack claims he gave Mabel on the Staten Island ferry (his autobiography). He says he placed the $2 engagement ring on Mabel’s finger, and Mabel was so pleased / stunned that she stood quite still, and went silent for several minutes. The idea that Mabel was still and quiet for several minutes would sound strange to most of us, as it is unlikely that Mabel ever stood still for longer than one second in her life. Would Mabel be delirious over a $2 ($50 today) diamond ring?  It’s highly unlikely that an ex-model and Gibson Girl, like Mabel, would be flattered by a mere cheap trinket, but Mack claimed Mabel wore that ring like a trophy until the day she died.

 

 

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The Staten Island Ferry

 

Well, Mabel acquired a trunk-full of diamond rings, and rarely wore the same one twice, so that part of the story is clearly false. What about the rest of the story? If the ring was handed over just before Mack and Mabel departed west, then the story could be true. True, that is, in this way: Mabel was only about 17 years old (by some calculations) when she went off with Mack. This made her a minor, and consequently, the parent’s permission would be needed. The Edwardian age was still in swing, and the only way that the parents could possibly agree, was if Mack and Mabel were engaged. A ring then, bought as cheaply as possible, was a good idea. There was in force, at that time, a federal law called the Mann Act. Under this act it was illegal to transport an underage female across state lines for immoral purposes, and many would have thought the movies to be immoral.  The parents approval was essential to avoid problems, hence the ferry-boat ride to Mabel’s home and the, soon to be discarded, ring. Mack might have been flying close to the wind, but to this denizen of sleazy joints on the Bowery, bending the law was all part of daily life [Endnote 2]. It is interesting to note that the deprecation of the notion of engagements / weddings was a constant theme in Keystone films. Note also that, in Keystone-world, elopement was better than boring old engagement and marriage.

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The Allesandro Street lot awaiting Keystone

A plan is hatched

It was whilst in Los Angeles with Biograph that Mack had begun to put his plans for a studio into action, by lying in wait in the Alexandria Hotel for two dodgy businessmen by the names of Adam Kessell and Charles Baumann, owners of New York Motion Pictures, and numerous other shady companies. One of their film companies was Bison, which had been situated on Allesandro Street, Edendale . Mack explained his plan for a new comedy film company, and the two partners eventually agreed it could work (This is Mack’s story, which I use here, but it could be that K&B approached Sennett in order to poach Biograph comedy actors). A contract was drawn up in which Mack was to have a third share of a new company to be called Keystone, which would be based at Bison’s old lot. Mack does not seem to have told Mabel about the deal, and, according to Mabel, he told her back in New York that a new movie company called Keystone might employ her. Mabel’s ears pricked up when Mack indicated that she could earn $40 a week. This was Mack’s guess, as he was to get $65 a week for running Keystone. However, Kessell and Baumann were more than keen to have Mabel on board – they had seen her films, and they’d probably already told Mack, ‘No Mabel, No deal’ (what esteem would be bestowed on them by having the most gorgeous girl in the world at their studio). To ensure Mabel signed, they offered her $125 per week (now $3,000 plus) to join them. Mabel signed, and K&B sat back, waiting for the cash to roll in [Endnote 3]. This was probably more than D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford were getting at that time. However, Mabel was dealing with some very dangerous people, and many of the girls at Biograph pleaded with her not to get involved with the crazy Irishman and his murky partners. Most vociferous was Blanche Sweet. However, Mabel was blinded by the thought of instant stardom, and was in no mood to listen. And no wonder – Mabel was to be Keystone’s sole leading lady. How different to Biograph where she was one of a company of a hundred, and vied with Blanche, Mary, and others for parts on a daily basis. Mabel was to become not a star, but a shooting star, narrowly beating Mary Pickford to stardom, and getting her name above a studio quicker than Mary, Mack and even Chaplin.

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‘Mustachio Petes’. Adam Kessell (left) Charles Baumann (right).

‘Go west, young man!’

Keystone’s work began in New York, where they shot single-reelers / split reels in the city, during the early summer. Their first film was At Coney Island, a split reel of gay nonsense, shot at the seaside on July 4th. By August the company had departed for Los Angeles. It is not clear why they left New York in the summer, but it might have had something to do with the availability of a studio (of sorts), as well as a need to escape the long tentacles of Thomas Edison, who held the legal rights on almost all movie cameras. New York based studios did deals with Edison, while fly-by-night operations, like Keystone, left for the west coast, or Florida. The Keystone company that headed into Spanish Mission land, included Mack, Mabel, ex-clown Ford Sterling, the fake Frenchman Pathe Lehrman, and failed dentist Fred Mace. This was to be the core of the madness that was Keystone. The company must have been excited about being on the cusp of film history, and what a strange group these middle-aged guys must have made with a teenage girl in tow. How many eyebrows were raised by plug-hatted Edwardian gentlemen and ruffled ladies on Keystone’s 4,000 mile journey west.

Endnotes

1. In her 1925 book, Linda Griffith was somewhat dismissive of the coming King of Comedy, saying he was grouchy, and complained about everyone and everything. In particular he disliked the fact that, as an extra, he was only given sandwiches, while the stars tucked into steak.

2. When D.W. Griffith took young actresses to L.A., he always arranged chaperones for them. On one occasion Lillian Gish and Gertrude Bambrick took off alone, leaving Griffith to spend a whole day tracking them down. He eventually found them wearing hitched up skirts, and on their way to a nightclub, where they intended to act out being Mabel Normand.

3. According to one report, Mabel had already been employed at a NYMP company called Reliance in 1911. Apparently, she was quickly fired for being ‘unacceptable’. It is not known in which way she was unacceptable, but we can imagine it was to do with her rather odd-ball personality.

Bibliography

When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925)

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1964)

Mabel Normand: Life Story told to Chandler Sprague, Los Angeles Examiner Feb. 1924

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett & Cameron Shipp (1954)

Next Post: Keystone is GO!

MABEL’S FRIENDS: F. Richard Jones

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Dick Jones enjoys the fruits of success at Keystone.

While Mabel was at Keystone, there came to the studio a young man by the name of Frank Richard Jones. Jones was a technician, and had worked in the film laboratory at Atlas Films, St. Louis. However, at Keystone, he soon found himself behind the camera, directing films. It was immediately obvious that young Jones had talent. It is not known at which point Mabel became aware of his ability, as she had not been directed by him at that time, although he may have been involved in her films in some way. Mabel, it should be said, was very good at spotting men that could help her in the future career. On seeing Charlie Chaplin for the first time, she instantly knew he was going places. Charlie also had the right aura about him and Mabel quickly attached herself to the tramp. When

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Dick and Mabel on location for Mickey 1916

Charlie left Keystone, unexpectedly we should add, Mabel might have become friendly with Jones, in a platonic way. Mabel left for Keystone’s parent company at the end of 1915, but she returned in around March 1916, not to Keystone, but to the Mabel Normand Studio, ostensibly owned by the Triangle group, although ownership actually lay with Sennett,who supplied funds that Triangle could not raise. The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company that operated at the studio, belonged to Triangle, but as Sennett owned the buildings and lot, it was inevitable that The King of Comedy would end up running the front-line operations of that company. Consequently, Mack thumped the table, and decreed that he would choose the director for the first film to be made, ‘Mountain Bred’ (later called ‘Mickey’). Mabel had said, from the beginning, that she wanted Jones as director, but Mack held firm. He claimed that Jones was too young, and could not be trusted with such a large and important project. Mack needed Jones at Keystone, and besides, he might run off with Mabel. Remember Mack would not be on site to keep an eye on things. Eventually Mack had to relent and install F. Richard, after the failure of five other directors.

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Mickey: On Location                                               Mabel tries a new face

There can be no doubt that the combination of Mabel and F. Richard produced some marvelous work, and that Mabel was transformed from the dizzy, dim-witted ingénue of Keystone, into a more believable young lass struggling against the big, bad world. The aim seemed to be to pitch Mabel somewhere  between Mary Pickford and Pearl White [Endnote 1]. Whereas Jones worked to change Mabel, the star herself may have been reluctant to throw off her Keystone Girl mantel altogether, due to the professional risks involved. In many scenes, Mabel is the dizzy ingénue of old, but Jones was laying a new veneer over the old Mabel. If you look at some photos of the pair, you can see Mabel looking quizzically at Jones, as he tries to press home certain points. In some scenes you can almost see Mabel being pushed into new expressions and mannerisms by Jones, although they are based on the actions of the old Keystone Mabel. There was clearly much more time to develop Mabel’s character, and achieve a fuller personality [Endnote 2 ]. Following Mickey, Mabel departed Triangle for Goldwyn. Jones stayed put.

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Suzanna: I’m not too sure about this, Dick

The next time Mabel and F. Richard met professionally was at Mack Sennett Studios, where Jones directed an ailing Mabel in Molly O’ (1921). Before the film could be released Mabel became embroiled in the W.D. Taylor scandal, although, in the end, box office takings were unaffected. The scandal hit as the pair began the film Suzanna, and there were a few weeks delay, while Mabel recovered from the shock of the murder of friend W.D. Taylor. In Suzanna, F. Richard began to increase the range of Mabel’s expressions and actions, and introduce more subtlety. At the point where Suzanna was finished, Mabel left L.A. for Europe. Sennett had told his star that he was writing a new story for her, Mary Ann, to be filmed on her return. Mabel returned after a few months

 

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Mabel and Dick on the Extra Girl set

of kicking over champagne buckets in France, but remained in New York, where she kicked over some more champagne buckets. It is said she set out again for Europe with a crowd of friends, but this cannot be verified. In any event, while she was in New York she discovered that the next Sennett feature film was not Mary Ann, but The Extra Girl, and this was currently being filmed, with Phyllis Haver as the star. Apparently Mack had tried about six other actresses in the part, to no avail. What happened next is open to conjecture, but it seems Mabel contacted Mack long distance and demanded she get the part (Mack’s own story is unbelievable – he had in fact dropped Mabel, he thought, permanently). Of course all Sennett stories were eminently suitable for Mabel, and she must have wondered why she was being shut out. How could

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The dying Cleopatra in the arms of Philip Graves (Extra Girl)

a big star like Mabel, be ignored for the sake of a Sennett Bathing Beauty, who merely wiggled around, and never went near the water? Although Phyllis had been filming for a month, she was bizarrely dismissed by Sennett. This is very curious, because it was, and is, accepted that Sennett and Haver were lovers [Endnote 3]. However, by some means Mack was forced to fire Haver and employ Mabel, for $3,000 per week and 25% of the net profits. There is no doubt that Haver was a star turn and could have carried the film, so why did this happen? In all probability Mabel had something on Sennett, and this was, perhaps, related to the W.D. Taylor unsolved murder (I will discuss this in a later post).

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Extra Girl again: Mack has a laugh at Mabel’s expense.

Shooting for the The Extra Girl began in 1923, with F. Richard Jones as director. Jones managed to enhance The ex-Keystone Girl’s performance, so that The Extra Girl can be said to be Mabel’s greatest triumph. Unfortunately, there was more cloud on the horizon – Mabel’s chauffeur shot a tycoon by the name of Cortland Dines. After Mabel had finished personally publicizing The Extra Girl, she left Los Angeles for a career on the stage. This attempt to walk the boards ended in failure, and Mabel returned to a new house in Beverley Hills. Here Mabel wandered lonely as a cloud, until in 1926, F. Richard petitioned his new employer, Hal Roach, to sign Mabel. He was supported in this by Lew Cody (now Mabel’s husband), Mary Pickford, and some other stars. Against his better judgement, Hal got some material together, with help from Jones and Stan Laurel, and had stories written for Mabel [Endnote 4].

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‘That’s no pussy cat!’ The Extra Girl 1923

Mabel was becoming sicker and sicker at this time, and was in fact entering her final three years in this world. Unfortunately for Hal, Mabel, with all the in-studio support she was receiving began her old ‘let’s bait the producer’ tricks. When Hal condescended to come to the studio, Mabel would follow him around imitating him, and generally ridiculing him, her speech heavily laced with cuss words.

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Dick, and a frail-looking Mabel, do not seem pleased to see the photographer. Roach Studios.

At the Roach studios, Dick was Mabel’s biggest prop, and was involved, along with Stan Laurel, in directing her, as well as writing scripts. He never gave up coaxing ever more out of the ailing star, and, although the films lack the Sennett lustre, they did well at the box-office, and made money. The first film, Raggedy Rose, was a strange film, in which it seems that Mabel’s slow drift from reality was utilized to good effect. Her co-star, Anita Garvin, is adamant that Mabel was beginning to lose her mind around this time, and drifted all over the set, being unable to find her mark before the camera. It seems clear now, that Mabel’s respiratory problems were limiting the amount of oxygen available to her brain. Although not directing Mabel, Dick (now production supervisor) was probably around to advise on how best to use her on set. The next film, ‘The Nickel-Hopper’, was almost certainly the best of Mabel’s Roach films, and the director was Dick Jones. Mabel was patently ill when she made the film, but her obvious fragility adds to the atmosphere of the picture, although Mabel was no mere ‘atmosphere’ – she was earning $3,000 a week.

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Left: ‘Hope the wife’s not looking?’ Dick with Mabel.  Right: A smug looking Mack with Dick and Mabel. Molly O’ Premier.

Mabel’s next two films were not directed by Jones. They were tolerably good films, though, and again Dick was around in an advisory role. First Mabel made the hilarious Should Men Walk Home , followed by One Hour Married (a lost film) both released in 1927. After this Mabel suffered recurring illness, but managed to visit studios and attend parties on her good days. Mabel died from tuberculosis on 23rd February 1930 at 2.25 a.m. in the Pottinger Sanitorium. The greats of the film industry attended her funeral, along with thousands of ordinary people. Dick Jones did not attend, he was too ill, and, in fact, was dying of tuberculosis. He died on 14th December 1930. Dick was almost exactly the same age as Mabel was when she departed this mortal coil.

Epilogue

Stan Laurel credited Jones with teaching him about comedy, and, indeed, might have advised Stan to adopt the Mabel dumb-face (Extra Girl) and the Mabel hair-scratch (all films pre-1916) in his future acting roles. Jones had left Roach Studios by 1928 to work at Paramount Studios. He then made a ‘talkie’ in 1929 for Sam Goldwyn, Bulldog Drummond, which was highly successful.

Endnotes

1. Pearl White was the star of the adventure series The Perils of Pauline that was a smash hit in the mid-1910s. Pearl was a glamorous star in a way that ingenue Mabel was not, and it was Mary Pickford’s wish to emulate Pearl, whose off-screen persona was that of a diva (to her everlasting regret Mary never achieved that status – you cannot have a diva who looks 12 years old). As stated in a previous blog, Mary’s sister, Lottie, wanted to emulate Mabel (her brother Jack, was also partial to Miss Normand).

2. As Charlie Chaplin reported, there was no time for character development at Keystone. The clarion call was always ‘No time, No time!’ Charlie, Mabel and everyone else had to adhere to Sennett’s wishes on this point.

3. Strangely, within two weeks of Sennett’s death in 1960, Phyllis Haver was found dead – she had committed suicide. It might not specifically have been  Sennett’s death that prompted her action, but the passing of an era. It has been theorized, though, that Sennett had secretly put Phyllis on a sort of life pension, as, by firing her, he had damaged her career. This ‘pension’ obviously ended with Sennett’s death.

4. There was one person that Hal could not afford to lose, and that was Dick Jones. He had to consider the eventuality that Jones might grab Mabel and flee elsewhere (perhaps even, god forbid, to arch-enemy Mack Sennett).

 

MABEL’S WORLD: What Do Silent Films Have To Do With History? Part 2

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A drunken Chaplin in Old Chinatown

In this post I look at the physical world as portrayed by silent films. What we have to remember is that many films tried, where possible, to show the world of the ‘genteel’, presumably to give the film and studio some respectability. To some extent even the comedy outfits did this, although they generally set out to mock the ‘upper crust’. Mabel Normand plays a debutante in Caught In A Cabaret, 1914 but she is the ‘fool girl’ to Chaplin’s devious waiter (otherwise known as the Greenland Prime Minister). There are some interesting scenes in the film, which has Chaplin working in a run-down bar-cum-diner in Chinatown L.A. The scenes of Chinatown are the genuine article, complete with Chinese signs.  The genteel (Mabel and company) arrive in Chinatown to see the slums and the great

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An excited Mabel arrives in Chinatown to the bemusement of the locals

unwashed. The film indicates that automobiles were very infrequent visitors to Chinatown, and the residents seem to be stunned by the appearance of Mabel’s prestige auto among the horse and carts [endnote 1]. The streets are slightly graveled, and large stones abound. Mabel is clearly excited about her visit, but soon changes her mind when she enters the cabaret. She seems to say ‘My god it’s full of Keystone fans!’ The place is clearly of the spit and sawdust variety, with fold up picnic chairs, and other well-worn ‘furnishings’. A shapely, and slightly erotic, Minta Durfee (an employee), starts to strut her stuff to the music, and our debutante is shocked again, not believing anyone would do such a thing. We can safely assume that many of these establishments existed across the USA at this time.

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Shock and horror in a seedy cabaret

Something that seems extraordinary in the films are the numbers of automobiles on the roads of Los Angeles and New York. For private travel, we can guess that people with the money preferred the ‘horseless’ carriage, which gave them kudos. Horses, however, still abounded, especially ‘out of town’ where autos would soon find themselves bogged down. In the cities, certain tradesmen preferred the good old horse and cart. These included people like milkmen, who had regular customers. The horse would soon learn the regular calls, and stop at the appropriate houses. I am told the horse would know the way to the local bar at the end of the day, and the four-legged friend would later return the sozzled milkman to his dairy [Endnote 2].

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One of the few horse-drawn carts to pass through this scene from Between Showers 1914

There is something else we can deduce from silent films in relation to the genteel. There are many scenes where m’lud and m’lady drink tea, as can be seen at debutante Mabel’s garden party. Now, as we all know, coffee is the beverage of preference in today’s U.S.A., but if we look at the statistics for the early 1900s we find that tea, although in decline, was still more popular than coffee. The autobiographies of the stars also indicate a similar preference. Coffee was the drink of cowboys, and we can assume that the bulk of the coffee was consumed in the mid-west. Tea was more prevalent in the cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, and St. Louis [Endnote 3].

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‘More tea, m’lady’? The deb’s garden party in Caught In A Cabaret 1914

One of the things that stand out about 1910s Los Angeles is the difference between ‘Downtown’ and the outlying areas – Edendale, Glendale, Santa Monica and Hollywood. These places look like something out of the wild west. Indeed, producers like Thomas Ince came to the area simply because it had a ‘cowboy landscape’. Hollywood itself was a middle-class area, and there are many reports of boarding houses having signs saying, ‘No Movies’, such was the residents’ loathing for ‘tin-types’. Various star’s memoirs mention having to find ‘cheap’ lodgings in places like Santa Monica (you’ll need at least $5-million  to buy a house there today). Glendale was also middle-class, and when Mack Sennett tried to buy land there in 1912, he was hounded out, and finally set his studio down in muddy old Edendale (lots could be had for less than $400). Sennett filmed often in Edendale, and one can see how short on amenities the place was in those days. Charlie Chaplin said the place couldn’t make up its mind whether to be an impoverished residential area or a semi-industrial one. It was full of lumber yards and rickety shacks masquerading as stores. Mack, it should be said, declined to live in the inglorious suburb.

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Sunset Boulevard, 1917! Charlie Chaplin surveys the site of his new studio .

Numerous Keystone films show the Edendale ‘highways’ as muddy tracks, or poorly graveled roads. Presumably Mack did most road scenes in the summer. He says in his autobiography that the roads could become flooded, and tells a tale of a diamond festooned Mabel stepping into flooded Allesandro Street, and disappearing down a manhole! It’s a good story, but totally untrue. There was no drainage, so no manholes!

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Some nice autos were around. Mabel with driver (not chain-gang chauffeur Joe Kelly)

What was the average California’s view of the movie folks on their streets? Sennett’s films made in public places, give us a clue. The answer is – complete bemusement. In Mabel At The Wheel, when Mabel and her father get into a fist-fight with Charlie at the races, one guy seated just beside them looks very scared indeed, and, in a previous scene, a lad jumps out of his skin, as Charlie sticks his trusty pin into a fat man’s rear.

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‘What the…..’  Mabel At The Wheel 1914

I will close this post here, as I’m sure many people have made their own observations of the landscape of film. It’s a fascinating activity, you never know what you will find.

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Edendale: Keystone before it was Keystone (centre right)

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Mabel At The Wheel: fella in white shirt wonders what Chaplin is up to.

Endnote 1: Mabel was wont to visit the slums of the East Side Manhatten in her youthful days. A dangerous occupation, but no more dangerous than visiting London’s East End, where she was mobbed and almost killed in a low pub. Ditto Limehouse, where police had to be called to restore order around the Chinese diner the ‘I don’t care girl’ was eating at.

Endnote 2: ‘Tis said that Mabel, in her usual attire of furs and diamonds, would sometimes jump up on the back of a milk cart when she returned from a party in the early hours. Apparently, she didn’t wish to wake the chauffeur for a lift home.

Endnote 3: The American Revolution, of course, was all about tea. Tea was issued to sailors in the U.S. Navy, to avoid the problems the British had with on-board drunkenness. However, the sailors later mutinied when the stocks of tea dried up (blockaded by the British?).

MABEL’S WORLD: What Do Silent Films Have To Do With History? Part 1

An increasing number of people are becoming interested in silent films. The reasons are many and varied, and range from: boredom with modern Hollywood blockbusters, being able to watch a Hollywood film without knowing a word of English, through to the historical interest they possess. Let’s look at the last reason. Can silent films really be seen as historical? Well, the earliest date back over a hundred years, and some people might say that this qualifies them as being part of history. So the films themselves are historical artifacts, and therefore they have an intrinsic historical value. Delve a little deeper, and we find that, due to their being moving pictures, we can see the way people acted, and responded to situations in the early 20th century (they are history in motion). This applies equally to the Keystone-type comedies. The slapstick comedies were

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Chaplin looks shocked at the 1914 theater prices. ‘Come to us’, said Mack Sennett

criticized in their time for being somewhat alien, and not showing people as they actually behaved (Mary Pickford was particularly vociferous on this subject). However, whereas the films may not totally reflect the real world, for slapstick’s main audiences of the 1910s, they depicted the world as they wanted it to be. In particular they enjoyed seeing policemen’s helmets being stoved in by ordinary citizens. They also liked seeing men in ‘plug’ hats being cast as villains, and ridiculed. The heroes and heroines were invariably ordinary people, often kitchen slaveys, tramps, or broom-pushers, put forward as champions of the dispossessed. Although we might feel that many people think the same way today, it is clear that increased prosperity has dulled our senses to some extent.

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Archetypal villain (Ford Sterling ) chains damsel (Mabel Normand) to railroad track

Attitudes portrayed in the films

What else can we discover from silent films? Strangely enough, we can see that attitudes in 1910s U.S.A. were different to today. In particular, in the 1910s, it was assumed that all of the matters underlying the Civil War had been settled. It is for that reason that people were so shocked when W.D. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation was released in 1915. The film was ‘a disgrace’, ‘de-humanised black people’, and ‘created conflict in the community’ etc. The inclusion of the Ku Klux Klan in the film angered people all the more, and actually brought about a revival of the Klansmen, by some mindless portion of the population. Of course, we almost expect racial tension today, but in 1915, we can see that black people were living as normal Americans, and were part of the general labour force. Newspaper columns and autobiographies by movie people suggest that they had black people working for them, albeit in servant’s posts such as butlers, valets, and chauffeurs, but they were not considered to be slaves in any way. In general it was accepted that a valet, whatever their color, could eventually rise in the world.

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‘Coming to your State Legislature soon’ says Mr. Griffith

W.D Griffith is not regarded by many silent film buffs, as he was 100 years ago. Griffith was obsessed by the Civil war, and as a Kentuckian, he always thought the South should have been victorious. This made him bitter, and he was ever-ready to ‘discuss’ the issue. At the time, people were ready to pay him lip service, but nowadays people are not so sure about his character, and for many other reasons than this.

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Kinema fun: Charlie Chaplin stoves a cop’s helmet in. Mabel’s Busy Day 1914

In general, in the 1910s, the Civil War was no big issue for most people. They were far more concerned about surviving on poor wages, and this brings us to Keystone audiences again. For people of the lower class, Keystone pictures were a godsend  – pay 5 cents to see a picture show, rather than pay up to $2, or more, to get a seat in a theater. Cheap music halls, as known in England, were few and far between in the States, so it is little wonder that the movie industry took off in the ‘New World’, and at a greater rate than in the ‘Old’. This brings us to attitudes towards the European countries that were still pouring many thousands of their poor in the U.S (‘Send us your poor’ it says on the Statue of Liberty). In the picture game, most of the early actors were either immigrants themselves, or, due to their low position in life, lived among the migrants in slum, or not so good, areas of Manhatten ( the American  picture industry began in New York). From

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Mabel does ‘fashionable’ as an incredulous Chaplin looks on. Mabel’s Busy Day 191

 

what we can gather, many ‘native-born’ Americans had little idea of what went on elsewhere in the world (for a long time most Americans did not have a passport). The U.S. was isolationist up until World War I, and it was generally the intelligensia and the wealthy that knew of what went on in Europe. The aspiring movie stars were only too aware that Europe (in particular France and Italy) was the home of all things good (cars, fashions and the arts) and as soon they had sufficient thousands of dollars they set sail for the ‘Old World’. The movie moguls were particularly keen on European automobiles, and Mack Sennett possessed high power cars that included  Fiat, Bentley, and Rolls Royce. Unlike his big star, Mabel Normand, Mack was an old man by the time he reached Europe. Actresses we know (like the aforementioned Mabel and Mary Pickford) bought Parisian fashions in Los Angeles / New York, but thought they were being short-changed, and so went to Paris to sample the real thing. Such was Mabel’s desire for French fashion that she thought nothing of spending $100,000 ($2.5 million today) on dresses alone (she gave most of them away). While in England Mabel visited as many literary greats as she could. She was sent for by the King and Queen (Mabel fans apparently) but the Irish intervened again in her life, like W.D.Taylor, and the audience was cancelled (something to do with bombs).

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Louise Brooks: ‘I had a covered-wagon accent

One thing that is obvious is the number of British actors that entered the ranks of the early Hollywooders. There appear to be two reasons for this. Firstly, European actors were keen on getting their hands on some real dough. Secondly, the comedy producers were keen to get at the gag knowledge that Music Hall stars carried in their heads (e.g. Chaplin, Laurel). In fact, the British contingent became quite powerful at that time, apart from the fact that Chaplin was becoming top of the tree. Hollywood, from around 1913, was becoming a magnet for aspiring actors from all over the States. Casting directors cringed, as good-looking actors and actresses spoke to them in the most awful broad American accents. Those with Brooklyn and the so-called ‘covered wagon’ (mid-western) accents were definitely out of favor. ‘What’s the problem if the films are silent?’, you might ask. The reason was that actors were expected to speak publicly, and, worse still, to the dreaded newspapers. As Kansas girl Louise Brooks wrote, if you pronounced ‘milk’ as ‘mulk’  and cow as ‘kee-ow’ you were out.

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Chaplin: crawled from the gutter

This became especially important after 1920, when scandal enveloped Hollywood, and actors were labelled ‘gutter-snipes’. English elocution teachers were brought in to ‘cure’ the gutter-snipes. Brooksie was lucky, she had friends to help her, but Colleen Moore was sent to a language teacher by her studio. First day, she knocked on the teacher’s door, the school m’am answered and looked down her nose at Colleen, saying, ‘Y-O-U are Colleen Moore?’ ‘Yes ma’m’, came the reply. ‘And they pay Y-O-U ten-thousand dollars a week?’ Colleen: ‘No ma’m, they pay me twelve-thousand-five-hundred’. First day Colleen learned to say ‘f-at-h-er’, second day she learned to say ‘m-o-t-h-e-r’. Of course, Charlie Chaplin had a cockney accent, but he soon developed an aristocratic way of speaking. Although he was a confirmed dude, the press constantly lambasted him as being the worst kind of ‘slum-land scum’. His friend, Mabel Normand, ran into big trouble at the trial of her chauffeur, an escapee from the chain-gang, when she adopted an English accent on the witness stand, and made French-style gestures with her hands. The press had a field-day – what was someone, who’d crawled from the gutter, doing putting on airs and graces in a court of law? What does all this tell us? It tells us that society was much more class conscious in those days, than today.

* Having dealt with the  ephemeral world of silent films, I will proceed to cover the more material world illustrated by silents in my next post.

MABEL’S FRIENDS: Louise Fazenda

 

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Louise at work in Down on the Farm (1920)

There are forgotten stars and there are truly forgotten stars. One of the latter is Louise Fazenda.  She was the savior of Keystone Studios, when Mabel Normand departed for the Triangle group’s studio in Fort Lee, N.Y. Mack Sennett was fully aware of the talents of the comedienne with a Portuguese ancestry. As things became more strained between The King of Comedy and The Keystone Girl, Mack acted and procured Louise from Joker Studios. He now had a ‘spare Mabel’ should the real one ‘disappear’.

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Louise was only of part portuguese descent, and her supposed ancestry reads like a map of Europe. However, it seems Louise herself was born in Lafyette, Indiana, perhaps in 1895. Her family moved to L.A. when Louise was quite young, and she, consequently, attended school in that town. As she grew up she did a range of menial jobs, such as washing dishes, delivering groceries, and making cakes and jellies for sale, all in order to bring badly needed cash into the family. Apparently, she became quite the little businesswoman. Young Mabel, by comparison, was holding out for an artistic, or literary opening, and eventually settled on modelling, but modelling for the great commercial artists such as Dana Gibson. Clearly her family, although relatively poor, could indulge Mabel in her high-brow dreams. Her mother was not keen on the movies, but when she saw the fistful of dollars Mabel brought home on payday, she changed her mind.

Mabel, as everyone knows, was the Queen of Keystone, but  that title was never passed to Louise. However, Louise was a very down-to-earth star, and would not have sought out accolades. While that other local Keystone star, Gloria Swanson, was seeking divadom, Louise remained just Louise. To Keystone Louise really was a local girl. She lived 400 yards from the studio, on Montana Street, just behind the Triangular Garage, the scene of so much Keystone automobile carnage. Only a few tin-types actually lived in Edendale, not even studio boss Sennett resided there. One who did was Coy Watson, and Coy Watson jnr., and the latter, in his book ‘The Keystone Kid‘ had much to say about his boyhood days, when he, and his family, were on friendly terms with the Fazenda family

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Louise as portrayed in an English cartoon strip

(i.e. Louise and her French mother). Coy lived around 200 yards from Louise and about the same from Keystone. The Fazenda’s were very friendly with everyone, and Louise would buy the Watson children presents at Christmas. She would also phone to wish them all a Happy Christmas. By return, the Watsons would do things for Louise. Coy records that his father managed to surreptitiously discover the date of Louise’s birthday, and her favorite cake. When the birthday came, Mrs Watson made a banana cream cake, and Mr Watson and kids drove it round to Louise’s house. Unfortunately the intrepid driver took a corner too fast, and the cake arrived looking decidedly second-hand, and Keystone-ish. On delivery of said cake, everyone, including Louise, acted as though nothing had happened. After singing ‘Happy Birthday’ the Watsons sheepishly departed, but not before Louise had bounced the younger children on her knee, especially Louise, who was named after the actress.

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Keystone’s a rat-trap and Louise is caught

Mabel and Louise

As we have seen, there was a vast difference between Mabel and Louise, although both were star turns, Louise was much more the shrinking violet, on the surface at least. Both were altruistic, and would help anyone, although Louise was more accessible locally. This is because Mabel never lived in boring old Edendale, she’d already done boring on Staten Island. No, Mabel preferred the company of Bohemian types, and lived in areas of L.A. and New York where artists, writers, and other intellectuals were to be found. Mabel was a true diamond studded (but not vain) star, while Louise was more the homely type.

In terms of their profession, their presentation on the screen was completely different. Mabel always played ‘Mabel’, and was always recognizable as such. Louise played a variety of characters, and was always given the make-up of a clown. This was clearly the way Sennett wanted her, but we should not judge him too harshly, as The King had an uncanny knack of knowing what was right for his films. Perhaps he thought Louise was a bit too homely to be shown as she was on the silver screen. It was said at the time, that Louise was extremely attractive in real life, but the camera didn’t quite pick it up.

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Playing a member of the Simpsons family: Louise and chewing gum in Hash House Fraud 1915

Louise isn’t known for anything except the quality of her work. She never mentored the world’s greatest comedy actor, never mixed with the high and mighty of the arts, won the heart of The King of Comedy, or got involved in politics as Mabel did. Nor did scandal ever besmirch her character. Louise was solid, steady and reliable, and maintained an impeccable reputation, despite her exploits on  the screen.

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Louise in the talkie ‘Second Hand Kisses, 1931

How did Mabel get on with Louise? Well, we have no record of any great falling out between the pair, and can only assume they regarded each other from a distance, even if in the same room. In the press, Louise said Mabel was a ‘scarlet tanaga,’ a brightly colored bird that struts its stuff from branch to branch. Mabel once said, ‘If you really want to be a comedian, all you need to do is paste your hair down over your ears and leave a little loop on your forehead’. Whether this a jibe at Louise, or not, is difficult to determine, but this is Louise’s character on-screen. Of course there was nothing Louise could do about the way she was presented, but she eventually tired of it, and moved on from Keystone. Physically, at 5-feet six-inches, Louise towered over the 5-feet half-inch Mabel, and so she was never the ‘little’ anything, and was nearly always the awkward, gawky ‘Maggie’ at Keystone. However, once clear of Keystone she could play any character, and indulge in straight  dramatics. Mabel had difficulty with straight dramatics, but was the mistress of comedy and tragedy.

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1941: Dedication of the Mabel Normand Stage. Louise Fazenda is front left. Also  present are Mack Sennett, Minta Durfee, Chester Conklin

Later years

After leaving Keystone in around 1921, Louise went into vaudeville for a year. For the remaining years of the silent era she quietly made films for most of the big companies, while the likes of Marie Prevost, Mabel Normand, Mary Miles Minter, and Edna Purviance had their careers dulled by scandal. Importantly, she managed the transition to ‘talkies’ very well and was  in great demand. She was very much in the vein of Laurel and Hardy, but with less slapstick. Louise played various characters in numerous films in the 1930s, the last in 1939, after which she retired and became an art collector.

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Left: A 22 years old Louise with Slim Summerville.     Right: Farm girl Louise

In 1954 Louise appeared on This Is Your Life to pay tribute to Mack Sennett, where she thanked ‘The King’ for teaching her so much. She then did a skippy sort of walk Sennett had taught her. Mack must have thought this to be an affront, and he failed to mention Fazenda in his autobiography released later that year, except he recalls Louise coming to the This Is Your Life program to pay homage to his great self. Typical of the way Sennett treated his female stars!

Louise married producer Hal B. Wallis in 1927, and they stayed together until her death. They had one child, Brent, who abandoned L.A. for psychology in Florida.

Louise Fazenda died unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1962. She had made 300 films.

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THE STRANGE DEATH OF THE MABEL NORMAND FEATURE FILM CO.

Introduction

 

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The odd-shaped Mabel Normand Studio today

Most silent film buffs will know that the Mabel Normand Studio still exists bounded by Fountain Avenue, Effie Street, Bates Avenue in  L.A. Still in use as a film studio (but strangely called the Mack Sennett Studio) the building has had a much longer life than The Mabel Normand Feature Film Co. that occupied the wooden premises for not above a year. The story behind the formation of the MNFFC is difficult to uncover, and the story of the dissolution of same is even more difficult. Let’s see what we can do.

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How strange is this? Like a ship’s bow. No wonder the plot was cheap!

Background: Sunshine and Shadow

Mabel Normand was the leading lady at the Keystone studio – she had been with Mack Sennett since before the studio was founded in 1912, Things were pretty rosey for Mabel, although there were problems developing between Mack and Mabel, of a professional and personal nature. Charlie Chaplin arrived at the end of 1913, and Mabel began to sense that Chaplin might disturb the status quo, although she undoubtedly liked the young vaudevillian on a personal basis (Mabel had a soft spot for performers who had been on the stage). Problems erupted immediately between the egotistical Chaplin, the company and Mabel. However, the air was cleared by April, and Chas and Mabel formed a close relationship. In fact Chaplin began to loom larger in Mabel’s life than supposed boyfriend Sennett. For reasons that are not at all clear, Chaplin departed Keystone at the end of 1914. Mabel clearly began to fall apart at this time, but carried on, while coughing up blood from her damaged lungs [Endnote 1]. Psychologically Mabel was damaged, by the departure of her friend Chaplin, and the increasing control that Sennett exerted over every part of her life. The Keystone Girl had to do Mack’s bidding, dine with him every night, attend functions with him, and allow him to handle all her publicity, including so-called personal interviews. There is some talk that Mack was supplying Mabel with drugs, but the evidence is lacking.

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‘Cheers Mack, I won’t ever see you again’. Mabel celebrates in Alberquerque en-route to New York December 1915

The scene was all set for an enormous bust up between Keystone and its biggest star. One thing that truly hurt Mabel deep inside, was the fact that several Keystoners had left to form their own units within big motion picture companies. Ford Sterling and Pathe Lehrman had eventually failed, but Chaplin had straight-lined to mega-stardom, and a mega-salary. Furthermore, Mabel had clearly expected Charlie to make her his leading lady at his new studio. This never happened, and Mabel was clearly upset and felt abandoned by Chaplin. It seems that Mabel might have discussed leaving Keystone for the parent company New York Motion Pictures with NYMP boss Adam Kessell, when he came to Keystone to supervise the rebuilding the studio in March 1915. However, nothing came of this at that time. By the end of 1915, the situation between Mack and Mabel was so bad that there was no way out, other than to put Mabel with NYMP at their new Triangle facility in Fort Lee, New Jersey. On December 30th, 1915 Mabel, Roscoe Arbuckle, Minta Arbuckle and a large company left L.A. for new York. Mack was undoubtedly furious, while Kessell and Baumann were clearly delighted at having the world’s most eligible actress at their studio. Mack consoled himself, like Professor Frankenstein, by creating a new Keystone Girl, in the guise of Louise Fazenda. A great comedienne, Louise was never crowned queen by the massed company of Keystone, and, to be honest, the down to earth Louise wouldn’t have wanted it.

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Left: Louise Fazenda as, the reluctant bride    Right: A more demure Louise

The sojourn at Fort Lee was not to last, for reasons not clear. Mack wanted Mabel back, but Mabel for her part might have been overwhelmed, or even intimidated by the massive Fort Lee facility. The place was so unlike the homely studio at Edendale. Furthermore, Mabel almost certainly disliked the ferry journey from Manhatten to Fort Lee every day. Mabel, unlike her mother, was a big city girl, and could never live in New Jersey. In fact her favorite place was none other than the very Bohemian Greenwich Village. Mabel, it seems, was about to run, and something had to be done. Mabel clearly couldn’t go back to Keystone, with its new pseudo-queen holding court there. The Keystone Girl herself might have provided the answer, ‘Give me my own studio, away from Mack and all those backside-kicking, degenerate thugs that populate his crumby lot’. The combined bosses of Triangle acted swiftly, and came up with the idea of The Mabel Normand Feature Film Co., whose base would be The Mabel Normand Studio, built on the cheapest lot they could find – hence the odd-shaped, and therefore almost useless, patch between Fountain Avenue and Bates on which the (still extant) studio was planted [Endnote 2]. For Mabel it might have been important to get her name above a studio before Chaplin reached that stage. She managed to achieve that.

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The Mabel Normand Studio resplendent with roof garden

The studio arrives

In his autobiography, Mack acts the benevolent businessman, and claims he set up the studio for Mabel for philanthropic reasons, and that Mabel was overcome with emotion when he handed her the key. It is unlikely that Mack handed over the key, and Kessell and Baumann, along with Thomas Ince probably had more to do with the handover, if there was an actual ‘handover’. Mabel was an actress pure and simple and had no need of a key, and, furthermore, she was always late at the studio. Mack made many strange statements, I call them Sennettisms for they are the rantings (if that’s the right word) of a showman par excellence. It does appear that K & B and Ince tried to keep Mack out of the loop, but Mack was having none of it. Hadn’t he discovered Mabel, hadn’t he erected the pedestal on which she stood, and hadn’t he ‘raised her from a kitten?’ The King of Comedy was determined to be part of the show. The Triangle group was already in financial trouble, and, in reality, was unable to fully fund the ‘Mabel’ project. Mack filled the dollars gap, and began a hatchet job on the Keystone assets and income stream. He was determined that the MNFF Co.  film, Mountain Bred (later called Mickey) would succeed and be the film to defeat Birth of a Nation, and make D.W. Griffith want to ‘boil himself in oil’. K&B were busy in New York, and it is highly unlikely that Ince could spare enough time from his massive facility at Inceville to be too bothered with the strange triangular shed on Fountain Avenue. It seems that Mack had pulled off a master-stroke, as the Mabel Normand Feature Film Co. now fell completely under his day to day control . Triangle were patently not in a position to transfer the company to another site – Sennett had them over a barrel! It is for this reason that some researchers have come to the conclusion that Mack wanted to ‘spike’ the project and kill the MNFFC ,so he could bring Mabel back to Keystone. However, in this essay, I will adhere to the view that Mack wanted the project to succeed, but under his terms.

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Dick Jones and Mabel discuss a moot point. Mabel doesn’t seem too sure about whatever Dick’s saying

The Mabel Normand Studio lives!

Mack, by devious means came to run the MN Studio, and the MNFFC, but he had to tread carefully with the highly emotional Mabel (although the studio is called by us the Mabel Normand Studio, it was only the feature film company that bore her name). At first he tried various directors, but Mabel from the start had wanted F. Richard Jones. Mack, although he knew Jones was a ‘winner’, thought Jones like Chaplin, to be too close to Mabel’s age. He might run off with Mabel. In the end Jones didn’t run off with Mabel, but he did abscond with the film negative, of which more later.

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Mabel holds court at the MN Studio

So what of the studio itself? Well, Mabel had wished, and that wish had been granted, so Mabel, being Mabel, began to fill the building with carpets, and fresh flowers, then ordered that the dressing rooms should open onto a fragrant garden. Mabel was able to indulge because of the delays in getting a full-time director – while Mack was tearing his hair out, Mabel was arranging her dressing room and talking to her plants.

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The resident jazz band at the MN Studio

Then, enter the great savior F. Richard Jones. Work began and Jones started to direct and coach Mabel like she hadn’t been coached and directed since the Great Griffith. This was not gonna be one of your old ‘Keystone Kops’ jobs, Mickey was going to be a great picture with stunning locations. Unfortunately, Mabel had a relapse in her health, and was off work for several weeks. Various other occurrences halted work, such as Mabel breaking her arm falling from a horse. At one point Mabel had a friend visit her at the studio. Mabel got into her car, and wasn’t seen again for 3 weeks. This obviously led to problems for Jones who had no-one to direct. Perhaps this is why Jones found his bonus had dried up. He replied by kidnapping the film negative (a trick he learned from Sennett).

Filming Mickey

Filming Mickey

Sennett sent out private detectives to hunt Jones down, and the film was returned, but, here the problems started. It seems Mack, or Triangle, was not going to allow Dick or Mabel anywhere near the film again (question: did Mack persuade Jones to steal the film, so he could exert pressure on K&B and Triangle?). The pair understood the story and the scenes that had been shot, so they should have supervised the cutting and editing of the film. Triangle were soon to find the film was a mess, and twice the length it should have been, Triangle would have to stand the considerable editing costs. However, it appears Triangle intended holding the film release back to put pressure on Sennett, who they felt had swindled them when he sold the Keystone brand name to them. They thought they were getting the ‘stars’ but it seemed that Sennett had them under personal contract. They also plainly resented Mack’s interference with the MNFFC. Sennett retained both the Keystone and Mabel Normand studios. Unable now to use the Keystone name, he re-named the studio The Mack Sennett Studio, and let out the MN studio. Mack had come unstuck, but glued himself together in double quick time – he was making cash, but he’d lost his 25% of the takings of Mickey by default (Mabel had never contracted for a percentage). And what of Mabel? Well, Mabel ‘ran away,’ as Mack tells it. Jones was going nowhere, Mack needed  him like he needed cigars, and Jones stayed on at an

 

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Cowboys move into the MN studio. Carpets and flowers out of the window!

enhanced salary. What stuck in Mack’s craw was that he’d lost his studio’s cutest trick, ‘Madcap Mabel’, to Sam Goldwyn. Undeterred, Mack set big-teeth lawyers and Charles Baumann onto Sam in New York. Mabel sat in her N.Y. apartment while her self-made contract was unraveled by legal eagles, and reassembled with a figure of $3,000 per week in place of the $1,000 Mabel had signed for. The idea was to ‘spend the pants off’ Sam. The plan failed when Mabel unilaterally signed a new contract for $1,500 per week (her equal, Chaplin, was on $12,800 per week by this time).

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Mabel’s ‘I’ve signed’ telegram to Mack

The Mabel Normand Feature Film Co. had gone, Mabel had gone (for the time being) and Triangle had gone. What was left? The old Keystone Studio, re-branded as Mack Sennett Studios, that’s what, the studio that was waiting to accept its biggest star back on board in about 3 years time.

This has been a whirlwind tour of the shenanigans that surrounded The Mabel Normand Feature Film Co. No-one can ever hope to discover the true details of what went on, and it may be that it was simply a matter of one set of crooks versus another set of crooks. Harry Aitken of Triangle proved to be the biggest crook, followed closely by Charles Baumann, and Mack Sennett. The whole story will probably never be told.

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Goldwyn or Sennett, that is the question

Endnote 1In a 1970s interview, Minta Arbuckle stated that Mabel frequently coughed up blood, and that her ‘goop’, as she called her medicine, helped relieve the symptoms (of tuberculosis). Mabel, she says, was often very ill at this time, but insisted on carrying out her own stunts e.g. hanging by her fingernails from a roof gutter 50 feet above the ground, and sprinting onto a horse’s back from behind. Charlie Chaplin confirmed that Mabel was suffering from tuberculosis as early as 1914.

Endnote 2: Kessell and Baumann were already experienced in running ‘Mabel Normand’ companies, that were concerned with merchandising, but also with reissuing Mabel’s films.

Interesting facts:

There are no records relating to Mickey in Mack Sennett’s papers.

Mabel Normand was not the de facto producer at the MN Feature Co.

Mabel Normand did not direct Mickey, although she undoubtedly discussed things with Dick Jones.

Mabel Normand had nothing to do with setting the company up (although she might have suggested it). Nor did she put up any of the finance, except, perhaps, for the carpets and pot plants. Maybe that’s why she took a $1,000 loan from Keystone at this time (Mack Sennett personal papers).

The Mabel Normand Studio is a film studio again, although, strangely, it’s now called The Mack Sennett Studio. There is a Mabel Normand stage, but it is located at the old Mack Sennett studios at Studio City.

According to Sennett, Mickey grossed $18,000,000, making it the biggest grossing film up to that time.

The film generated a massive array of Mickey merchandise,including dolls, photos, sundaes, records, shirts, socks, and even a special song, called ‘Mickey’. Mabel received nothing from these spin-offs.