Mabel tells the story of her involvement with Charlie Chaplin in ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament.’
“Welcome to the Hotel California”.
From time to time I am asked about how I got on with Charlie during the making of Mabel At The Wheel. Everyone knows we had a huge bust up while making the picture, but, to be honest, this was when I learned to live with Mr. ‘Big-Head’ Chaplin. The real bust up came about two months before, during the making of Mabel’s Strange Predicament. It happened like this:
Virtuous Edwardian girl in trouble.
Chaplin had been on the lot for about a month. Like Mary Pickford, and all the other actresses, I had been much taken by the young, tousle-haired Chas, who appeared to be a Bohemian poet from Greenwich Village. However, Mack Sennett was not so keen on his new acquisition, and it seemed to be his youth and pseudo-aristocratic manners that riled him. Consequently, I avoided Chas on the lot – Mack was a dangerous man to cross. Word came to me, particularly from Henry Lehrman, that Chaplin was a cantankerous, egotistical fool, which further distanced me from him. However, the powers that be, big bosses Charles Baumann and Adam Kessell, began to dictate that I should be brought together with Chaplin to form a ‘dream team.’ Mack had no option, “Mabel” He said to me “You’re with Chaplin.” And that was that.
Spot the Health and Safety hazards: Keystone set 1910s.
We’d built the set of a hotel lobby, which was to supposed to provide a springboard to a whole bundle of laughs. Unfortunately, for once Mack and I dried up, and could not think of how to begin the film, the story of which was briefly sketched out on the back of an envelope. Charlie was around the lot dressed as a tramp, waiting to be taken to Venice to film ‘Kid Auto Races at Venice’. Mack grabbed the little limey, chucked him into the lobby, and told him to get funny. Charlie obliged, wearing the now famous tramp’s outfit, while he went through an old Music Hall routine. This lasted about a minute and a half. Then Henri Lehrman grabbed him, and the pair, plus a small company, set off for Venice. Mack turned to me and said
“Well, what do you think?”
My immediate thought was to say “He stinks” but it was clear Charlie knew his stuff, and, anyway, he’d received an ovation from the assembled company.
“I think he’ll do” I replied.
“Good” said Mack “I’m going to weave him into the plot.”
“What is the plot, Mack?” I asked.
“The plot is you’re staying at the hotel, and your boyfriend, Harry McCoy, visits, but finds you dressed for bed in another man’s room”.
“Oh no you don’t Mack Sennett” I said “My fans are family people, and they’d crucify me at the box office, if they saw me running around a hotel chasing after men, dressed in a flimsy nightie.”
“Don’t worry Mabe, you’ll be wearing pajamas, and it’ll be a very innocent scenario.”
“It’d better be Mack, or there’ll be trouble.” I gave him a quick flick in the nose with the back of my hand. The very thought of it! The virtuous Keystone Girl, flitting, scantily dressed, in and out of men’s hotel rooms!
Giving Mack a whack.
We began filming straight away, and worked out that I’d got ready for bed, and was playing ball with my dog. The ball goes out of the door, and I go to retrieve it, wearing the said pajamas. My dog then knocks the door closed, and I get locked out, so I have to flee into another room. This much we’d worked out, and we had a couple of minutes film canned before Charlie arrived back from Venice. Mack decreed that the picture would open with Charlie and myself talking in the lobby. I sort of half agreed to this, but went to see Mack later and explained to him that the ‘Blessed Mabel’ should carry the first scene on her own. Mack didn’t argue, and next day drove me to the Hollywood Hotel, where I was filmed entering the lobby alone, something Charlie was completely unaware of. Of course, I realize now how ridiculous this all was, and I subsequently learned that I was not in competition with the male actors, only the actresses (who I later went to war with – big time).
The opening scene as Mabel saw it.
Once filming got going with Charlie, I really had to go to town to stop him from stealing all the scenes. Physically, I kept pace with crazy tramp, but with tuberculosis now taking a toll of my health I was left gasping for breath. I did not let on to Charlie, and it was several months later that he realized I was critically ill. Charlie was very sweet to me from then on. However, on finishing the picture (it was mostly filmed in one day) I crawled into my house on hands and knees, had a hot bath, then went to bed and cried myself to sleep.
We’d finished the film very late, so we didn’t view the rushes until the next day. I was somewhat horrified to see that my short scene (13 seconds) with Charlie had been linked to a 50 second sequence of Charlie on his own. I had dinner with Mack that night, and brought up the subject of Charlie’s solo stint.
“Now then, Mack, what’s the idea of Chaplin getting a long scene to himself. I’ve never known a scene that long in my life!”
“Don’t worry, Mabel, the scene will be largely cut.”
“If it’s not Napoleon Sennett, I’ll be round to see you, and it won’t be pleasant”.
Chaplin filming in Venice.
The picture ‘Kid Auto Races At Venice’ was released first, a week or so before our joint film. I went to the theater to see ‘Kid Auto’ with a couple of friends, one of whom was Alice Joyce, the great movie actress, then visiting L.A. A huge number of Keystoners had turned out to watch, including Mr ‘Big-Head’ Chaplin himself. Charlie nodded to me as he made his way to his seat, and I burst out in schoolgirl giggles. Alice was aghast, and watched Charlie walk by.
“Oh my god, I think I’m in love” said Alice.
“In love, with Burlington Charlie from Bow? Don’t be so ridiculous Alice!”
“Oh, I think he must have been a Bohemian poet in a former life.” She cooed.
Mack gathered us all together after the show, and we all went for a celebratory drink at a bar. Chaplin was a success! We sat on a long curved bench, me alongside Mack, and Charlie next to me but a respectful distance away. Enter Alice, who plonked herself right between Charlie and myself. As the evening progressed Alice became ever more animated, chatting away to Charlie, and emphasizing what she said by periodically touching his thigh. I was stunned, and muttered under my breath “Leave him Alice, he’s mine!” But, could I really compete with Alice Joyce? She was real woman, tall, slender and sophisticated – a star of stars Alongside her, and my other friend, Anna Q. Nilsonn, I was just a silly schoolgirl, and, in 1909 New York, Alice and Anna treated me like one. Sure, I had as many fans as them, but they were fans of the dumb Keystone Mabel, Tomboy Bessie. Men, such as Mack, wanted to protect me, smother me, hide me away from the world. Like Alice and Anna, I wanted to have the ability to vamp men, I wanted to be desired by them, and be carried away by some Sheik of Araby. Which brings me to the ‘Sheik’ himself, the Italian dancing boy Valentino. I ran after the latin lover for many months, and haunted him every Sunday at his house. Valentino, however, wasn’t interested, and I spent many days sitting on an upturned bucket in the lover’s drafty garage while he tinkered with his many cars. Of course, Valentino was only interested in proper women – like Pola Negri – real film stars. Every night I went home, cried myself to sleep, and dreamed of Valentino.
Schoolgirl Mabel with Anna Q. Nilsonn and Alice Joyce.
My real persona was brutally brought home to me accidentally by Minta Arbuckle. I was getting ready for a premier in my dressing room at the studio. Minta walked in, and I asked her what she thought of my outfit, comprising a mink coat, sable wrap, very high heels, and a trendy turban. “Oh Mabel” She gasped “You look like a little girl dressed up in her mother’s clothes”. I was devastated, this from my best friend. From that point on I had to realize that I was forever the eternal ingenue.
I must admit that I had a soft spot in my heart for Charlie. People think that I’d seen Charlie in his stage show, fallen for him, and told Sennett to hire him. This part was true, but it was Mary Pickford who’d first told me about Charlie. She’d been in a restaurant in 1912 with some girlfriends, when they noticed a good-looking guy with tousled hair sitting at another table. They mused that he must be a Greenwich Village writer, and, after much cooing and oohing, they asked the waiter who he was. Turned out he was Charlie Chaplin, the famous stage star. Consequently, when Keystone’s big bosses, Kessell and Baumann, began to consider signing a thespian to add flavour to their films, I mentioned Charlie. At that time Mack and I were in K and B’s New York office, and Baumann immediately went through the theatrical mags to find out where Chaplin was. He discovered Chaplin was playing at a New York theatre.
“Right, let’s all go down and see him” said Kessell.
We went over there that very night, me, Mack, Baumann, Kessell and Baumann’s daughter, Ada. Ada was a lovely girl, very physical, an athlete, and a future national figure-skating champion. For some reason she idolized me, and went all goose-pimply when I told her about Charlie. Mack sulked all night, for he hated all things theatrical, due to having been rejected for the theatre in his youth. The verdict on Chaplin was good, and Kessell said he’d write to Chaplin, and offer him a job at Keystone. Chaplin came, saw and almost conquered.
Adam Kessell, Charlie Baumann, Ada Baumann.
I now return to Mabel’s Strange Predicament, the editing of which was done without my participation. Once again we all went down to the movie theatre to see the film’s first run. Sitting alongside me were friends Blanche Sweet and Dot Gish. Charlie sat at the end of our row, but Mack was nowhere to be seen. I looked around and saw him sitting way at the back. We were all very excited, as the picture was the lead into a planned feature film. The picture began, and it was not me alone, but me and Charlie who appeared together. Then I was seen to walk out of shot, and Charlie continued to perform for another 47 seconds. We three looked at each other, then Blanche exclaimed:
“Mabel, you’ve been had over!”.
And I had. My solo bit outside the hotel was relegated to the third scene, and I’d never been so embarrassed in my life! Right in front of my girlfriends!
I turned round, and shook my fist at Mack, mouthing “Yooou Bastard”
After the show, Mack made a lightning exit, but I caught up with him next day.
“What’s the big idea, Mack?”
“What on earth do you mean, Mabel?”
“You know very well what I mean, Mack, allowing Chaplin to steal my picture”.
“If you mean he had a scene to himself, well, I received orders from on high, from Kessell in fact.”
“That was some first scene wasn’t it Mack. How many feet of film, seventy-five?”
I began to scream and stamp my feet, and I cut Mack off, as he tried to speak.
“Now you keep that bum outta my f……g films, or I walk.”
Mack did his usual and put his arms round me, trying to smother me like I was a child. I pushed that Irish lunkhead away.
“Don’t bother Mack, I’ve heard all those stories you’ve spread around that I am just a dumb broad, that I am naive and stupid. Think a Horse’s Neck is a bit of old dobbin, don’t I? Well, guess what, Michael Sinnott, I suddenly got smart – I’m outta this f….g shit-hole!”
I ran from Mack’s office, but he caught me up, and cornered me. Wrapping me in his arms, he whispered “Mabel, Mabel, we can work this out” Strong as I wanted to be I began to sob, as Mack declared his undying love, and promised he’d sort everything out with Kessell and Baumann. How he did it, I don’t know, but I melted like putty in his arms.
“Don’t worry Mabel, we’ll fix that limey creep Chaplin – permanently”.
The ‘It’ couple take a spin. Mabel At The Wheel.
Beyond Mabel’s Strange Predicament.
Well, we didn’t fix Chaplin, but Mack refused to let him perform with me for two months. Then came the day of reckoning, and Mack called me into the office.
“Sorry Mabel, but K and B are adamant that Chaplin must be teamed with you, you’re gonna be the ‘It’ couple, or something. He’ll play the villain in Mabel At The Wheel”
“O.K. Mack, but I want directorial control and Chaplin is not to wear the tramp costume”.
“Consider it done, Mabel.”
In actual fact I was delighted to work with Chaplin again, but I could not allow him control. Then, who should walk onto the lot, but Ada Baumann.
“Ada” I said “It’s so good to see you again”.
It turned out Ada was in L.A. with her dad, the big boss-man, remember, who was transacting a little business in the town.
“I thought I’d ask Mack if I could extra in your next film, and he said yes.”
“That’s wonderful Addie, you can play my friend.”
Mabel and Ada in Mabel At The Wheel.
As is well-known, we didn’t get far into the picture before Chaplin blew up, over my not including any of his gags. Unexpectedly, the future super-tramp sat down and went on strike (I was a member of The Industrial Workers Of The World, but I never struck but once – under the great D.W. Griffith). To be honest I was rendered dumb, and just sat there wondering what to do, and, more importantly, wondering what would happen. I almost went into a trance – this was serious. Could it be that The Keystone was going to fail after less than two years? I could see the newspaper headlines in the mists of my mind: ‘Keystone Goes To The Wall’ and in the mists I could see Griffith gloating over those headlines saying:
“I told those two nincompoops they would never make it”.
I began to shake like a leaf, but was brought around by Ada’s voice
“Come on, Mabel, don’t worry, it’s not that bad”.
I partly opened my eyes and told her:
“You don’t understand Ada, the loss of even one day could ruin the studio. Kessell and your dad could throw in the towel and shut us down.”
Ada took my hand, and reminded me that we’d almost completed a day’s work, and was sure that we could sort everything out. Of course Ada was fond of me, but she was also fond of Charlie, and was, furthermore, the boss’s daughter.
Charlie refused to budge from the curb he was sitting on, so I told the company to load up and drive back from Santa Monica, where we were filming, to Edendale. We arrived back about an hour early, and I was soon surrounded by the entire company, who were baying for Chaplin’s blood –I was, after all, their Queen Bee. Mack rushed from his office to find out what had happened.
“The little limey refused to work” I said.
Mack flew into the dressing room, where Chaplin had gone, presumably to collect his stuff and clear out. We could hear Mack screaming and hollering at Chaplin, then he stormed out, slamming the door and saying:
“That ass-hole’s out of here! Mabel, Ada come into the office with me.”
Ada put her arm around me as we walked to the office, with me muttering:
“We’re all washed up, it’s over, all because of me.”
“It’s not your fault Mabel, don’t worry yourself, I’ll sort everything out with dad.”
We got in the office, and Mack got straight on the phone to Baumann:
“I told you the limey was no good, now he’s lost us a day’s work, and I’ve fired the big-headed bastard!”
The shouting match went on for about five minutes, until Mack turned to Ada, and said
“Your dad wants to talk to you.”
Ada took the phone, and Baumann was obviously asking what had happened. Eventually Ada said:
“It’s no big deal dad, just a storm in a teacup. I’m sure it can all be smoothed over.”
Mack went back on the phone, and was soon looking like a schoolboy being told off by the headmaster.
“Ok, Ok, I’ll unfire him.”
Mack hung up the phone, and turned to me saying:
“Mabel, you’re to direct jointly with Chaplin.”
We all breathed a sigh of relief, including Mack. The day was saved, and Griffith never got to read those headlines [Footnote].
Charlie and Mabel being just as friendly as pie.
Chaplin and I did become a team, and we spent long hours discussing the future of motion pictures. Naturally, everyone wants to know exactly what went on in Mabel’s dressing room. Well, I for one am not telling, such things are private and personal. Nor is it any use asking Charlie – he’s not telling either.
In the following years I came to regard Chaplin as a close friend, even though he chucked me over (professionally) for Edna Purviance in 1915. I never really blamed Charlie for this, but held a deep resentment towards Edna. In a moment of madness, nine years later, I got my own back on Charlie’s foil, ending her career and prospective marriage. Unfortunately, I ended my own career at the same time. That, however, is another story, for another day.
Footnote: The presence of Ada Baumann in this particular film is puzzling, as it seems she never appeared in a picture again. Could it be that she was a spy for her father, a plant sent in to ‘keep an eye’ on things? There is evidence that Baumann had Mabel tailed by ‘private dicks’ in late 1916, when the Triangle Company was collapsing, and The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company had been terminated. It was suspected that Mabel was about to jump ship (she was!).
Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006).
King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).
Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).
Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).
When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1924).
Mabel Normand’s Own Life Story by Chandler Sprague. Los Angeles Examiner (February 17, 1924)
Looking For Mabel Normand: http://www.freewebs.com/looking-for-mabel/. Site maintained by Marilyn Slater.
Charles Chaplin: My autobiography by Charles Chaplin (1964).
The Movie Maker: Charles O. Baumann by Jillian Ada Kelly (2015).