Those who live in New York will know of Cuddebackville in upstate New York. The area around is popular for wildlife nuts and sports freaks from the big city. A few people might know that it was a popular place for film directing genius D.W. Griffith. Having made numerous pictures out at Fort Lee, New Jersey, the genius decided it had been done to death. Audiences knew all the scenery by heart, and it was getting a little crowded, with every film company seeking command of the high bluffs along the Hudson. Consequently, in 1909, Griffith decided he’d wander further afield and try the lonesome village of Cuddebackville, around 90 miles northwest of Manhattan. For the players this was nothing short of a holiday, and to go some place that was a vacation area for the upper middle-class was a novelty for them. A novelty because most of the actors and actresses came from poor backgrounds, and most, like the Pickfords and the Gishes, were stage actors that had toured the U.S., living in cheap joints and travelling vagrant class.
There were a few exceptions, like Alice and Dorothy Davenport, who were from the successful side of the theatre, while the Normand family may also be seen as middle-class, if only because they lived in a house in the leafy suburbs of Staten Island, rather than a grim tenement in the worst part of Manhattan. As Mack Sennett once said “They lived in quiet desperation.” Cuddebackville had been discovered by Biograph’s Mr. Kennedy, an ex-engineering labourer, who’d long before helped build the dam at one end of the D.L. and W. Canal. The films Griffith made here showcased the beautiful fields of waving corn, the turbulent river, the distant mountains and the riverside meadows and cliffs. People worldwide would wonder where these places were – France, Merry England, The Emerald Isle, perhaps? No, sorry, all made in good old New York State.
The trip out to Cuddebackville required good planning, for once out there, it was no easy matter to return to New York for any items left behind and the chances of getting anything other than a can of beans or a handful of rye were slim indeed in Cuddebackville. The route by car was north along the Hudson river, then northwest towards the Orange Mountains. Mr. Griffith, from 1911, always went by his Pierce-Arrow car, monogrammed D.W.G., red and with white upholstery. Few were lucky enough to travel this way, just Griffith, wife Linda, cameraman Billy Bitzer and Frank Powell or Wilfred Lucas. The car was the envy of a certain actor called Mack Sennett. He once told his ‘girlfriend’, Mabel Normand, that one day he’d have a Pierce-Arrow himself, and they’d have so much money that they’d drive around firing diamonds at people from catapults. Mabel replied “Dream on Mack, and by the way, I’m not your girlfriend.” The journey by car took, according to Mrs Griffith, around five hours, which indicates the state of the roads back then. Incidentally, Mabel was once fortunate enough to travel in said car, when she was driven like a queen into Huntington, Long Island to make the film The Diving Girl. Presumably Mack was green with envy. Most rode to Cuddebackville by train.
When the Biograph company set out on their 1911 excursion to the north, the number of actors was fairly large. The list read like a manifest of the stars of the future Hollywood and included Henri Lehrman, Mabel Normand, Florence LaBadie, Marion Leonard, Jim Kirkwood, Blanche Sweet, Mack Sennett, Jeanie MacPherson, Stanner E.V. Taylor, ‘Wally’ Walthall, Wilfred Lucas, Kate Bruce, and a host of others. The train actually stopped at the village, as the place had for many long years possessed a station. However, the number of actors arriving confused everyone. The train conductor could hardly believe the horde of people disembarking at this lonesome place in the woods that, had it been a few hundred miles south, would have been called a ‘hick town’. Surely, they were disembarking at the wrong place, and anyway, who were these strange, painted, overdressed people, whose average age seemed to be around fourteen? There were crazy teenage boys, and excitable young girls, all escorted by older men and women that had no control over them whatsoever. There was one insane, dark-haired girl who seemed to be their ring-leader and she had led the officious conductor a merry dance for the entire four-hour trip. He’d marked her card, and this vulgarian wouldn’t be getting back on the train, at least while he was the conductor. How stunned was he a few years later, when he recognised her as a star in a big Hollywood movie. On that fateful day on the train, he’d run into ‘Madcap’ Mabel Normand.
As the train pulled away from Cuddebackville, the conductor looked back from his open door, shaking his head, but there was that vulgar girl again, giving him a series of disgustingly rude signs, until he ducked back into the caboose. The restless Biograph crew were met by Mr. Predmore (their hotel’s proprietor) at the station, and he collected the company’s luggage, and put it into his car – the only one for miles around. An covered wagon followed on, taking the studio’s props and costumes. The driver was ninety-years-young ‘Old Pete’, a character you can meet in any town in the world. Full of beans, he would always volunteer to run the girls anywhere they needed to go. His passengers, naturally enough, comprised the most beautiful girls in the world, but when he returned them to the hotel, there was ‘wifey’ waiting to escort the potential lecher home, and save him from those wicked, painted city girls. Today, though, the stars of tomorrow were left to shuffle their way down the dusty track to the 3-storey hotel. Fortunately, the holiday season in Cuddebackville was short back then, and there were no other guests staying at The Caudebec Inn. Nonetheless, with such a large company, there was little enough room. Not only would there be two or three to a room, there’d be two or three to a bed! Some just put up with it, but others, like Mack Sennett, thought they were above such indignities, and grouched very loudly. Everyone was looking to grab a hammock out on the veranda, but these were few and far between. A few enterprising actors, crept off and built bivouacs in the woods, ignoring the threat posed by rampaging bears. Some of the lovers in the party, Jim Kirkwood and Gertie Robinson, Stanner Taylor and Marion Leonard etc. did likewise, although some would paddle off up the river in a canoe, then moor up for an uncomfortable night’s love-making. Mack and Mabel? Well, they were not an item, and Mabel had just the slim Jeanie as a sleeping companion, which was hard luck on her, as Mabel was a notoriously restless sleeper.
Work had begun for Griffith and cameraman Billy Bitzer as soon as they arrived. The remaining daylight hours were spent checking out the old established filming sites, and seeing that they had not changed too much, but hopefully they’d find a couple of new ones. Spare seats were occupied by a couple of lucky souls treated to a country ride at the benevolence of D.W. Then it was back for dinner, in the only sizeable room in the hotel – the dining room, with its view over the apple orchard. Meals were prepared by the Predmore’s cook, who was no great shakes. The company preferred the cooking done by Mrs Predmore, but the cook conspired to keep her out of the kitchen. Anyhow, this was fine dining compared with what they got out in California, with dried up sandwiches being the order of the day at their makeshift studio. Except for the big wheels, of course, who tucked into juicy stakes, causing Mack Sennett to grouch very audibly.
On the non-filming side, also, trouble was brewing over the illicit crap games being played by some of the company in an outbuilding, in which some actors were losing large sums of money. Griffith stamped it out. More genteel evening entertainments were, as later in Hollywood, a continent away, organised by the players themselves, principally ‘Wally’ Walthall, singer of southern ditties, Mack Sennett, bass singer, and Shakespearean actor, Arthur Johnson, on the piano, although the players were surprised to find that Mabel Normand could also ‘tickle the ivories’ to good effect.
Unfortunately, Sennett was far from reliable, as the slightest mishap during the day, such as a particularly dry sandwich, or a row with Miss Normand, would render him note-less, and not a do-re-me could be had from the grouching, future King of Comedy. In such instances, Mabel would sometimes step in with her soft, but clear tones. It was Mabel that acquired bottles of gin at the local store, and distributed them among her friends and got a party going one night, rousing a very indignant Griffith from his sleep. To prevent any further clandestine boozing, Griffith would bring in bottles of iced Bass India Pale Ale, imported all the way from Burton-On-Trent in Old Blighty by the store proprietor.
Mr Griffith had long ago realised that the good residents of Cuddebackville would provide services at strictly non-New York prices. A crisp five-dollar bill, would serve as inducement to rent a farmer’s apple tree for the day, under which the stars of tomorrow would pet and smooch (no ‘spooning’ permitted back in the day). In fact, in no time at all, the farming folk would be suggesting props and backgrounds, and as more movie outfits came in, they got lazy and gave up farming altogether! For himself, Griffith always became James Fennimore Cooper-ish, when he arrived in the area, and his mind filled with Indian stories, themselves filled with savage redskins and the last of the Mohicans. The players knew what was coming – the thick, brown greasepaint that turned them into real-looking Indians. A story that DWG had in mind was one where Indians surround a stone blockhouse, with the redskins firing arrows into the house and the whites firing lead shot out. Consequently, he went out looking for a period stone house, circa 1760. Among all the timber buildings around, he did, surprisingly, find such a house. Mr Predmore warned him not to go near the main house. The owner was the wealthy Mr Goddefroy, who didn’t like people and he liked automobiles even less. D.W. and company walked onto the property and fortunately found Mrs Goddefroy who was most amenable. She took them to meet her husband and persuaded him to let them use the old stone building. The Goddefroys also loaned them some thoroughbred horses in place of the old nags they already had. They were set to go with the picture.
A Mended Lute and a Squaw’s Love.
Now, in 1909, Griffith had filmed the Indian story, The Mended Lute, starring the great Florence Lawrence. Although merely a one-reeler, Griffith threw everything he had at the picture. There was a whole tribe of Indians, and the shots were full to the edges with ‘savages’ and wigwams. Elsewhere, Billy Bitzer shot some amazing scenes of canoes full of redskins careering at high speed over the turbulent waters of the Neversink River. Why the extravagance? The genius was intending to step up a level and produce full length feature films — something barely heard of in those days. Perhaps the film would convince the bosses to go with his idea? However, he had a long struggle before he was allowed to make Birth of A Nation for the Triangle Company. One thing you notice about the Griffith westerns is that they rarely feature cowboys. The reason was that the majority of his film characters were upright citizens or, in the case of the westerns, ‘noble savages’. Griffith thought the cowpokes were disgusting scum, cold-hearted killers who had never heard of socks, let alone worn them. Good god, they drank coffee for chrissake! So it was that in 1911 he set out to shoot several ‘Indians only’ pictures.
Griffith had brought everything he was likely to need way down north. They had wigwams, canoes, feather head-dresses and more bows and arrows than you could never equal with an arsenal of Winchester rifles. Well-behaved horses they had hired from Mr. Goddefroy, and the actors were getting these groomed and ready for the filming. Enter a certain Miss Normand, who had decided it was time to ‘daredevil’. She’d already impressed, and shocked, everyone with her graceful dives into the Neversink from the high bluffs, usually during greasepaint removal sessions in the canal basin (the girls had exclusive use of the one hotel bathroom for this purpose, but Mabel preferred to clean up at the river with the boys). Among the horses the company had was one stallion that could not be tamed, and he could not be approached, not even from the front as he kicked forward with his front legs — he was a real-life bucking bronco. The bravest lads were daring each other to mount this jittery horse, when Mabel walked up, took the horse by his rope bridle and led him from one tree to an adjacent tree. She’d noticed that the first tree only gave partial shade and the flickering of the light through the leaves was making the horse edgy. The second tree offered complete shade, and Mabel calmed him with her soft Brooklyn tones. The lads, of course, were screaming for her to get on the horse’s back. Mabel then employed one of those remarkable athletic feats that she became famous for, and, in one movement, she’d thrown herself up onto the horse. Unfortunately, one foot had hit the horse’s rump and he went crazy. Mabel rode the bucking animal for a good twenty seconds before she was flung ten feet in the air, like a bag of sugar, landing with a dull thud on the ground, among the beast’s flailing hooves. Everyone rushed to her aid, but it turned out she was only bruised — all over. Griffith, naturally, was furious. He’d never heard of a girl riding a bucking bronco, didn’t she know her insides would be shaken loose? Mabel made her typical sneering reply:
“What do you fucking know, you’re just a dumb, hook-nosed fucking Welshman.”
Everyone sniggered. Well, Mabel’s tirades were like barbs, but it was difficult for anyone, including Griffith, to keep a straight face when confronted with insolence from a pouting five-feet nothing girl. The pout, feigning hurt feelings, was completely disarming. Hovering nearby, though, was Mack Sennett, who was carefully noting Mabel’s irreverent invective, and the pout — if he ever got his own studio, well……..
It was that same morning, as Griffith was sitting in his chair, directing a scene on the Inn’s lawn, that an Indian squaw in full Indian regalia came galloping past him bareback, and at high speed, on the stallion. The breeze almost knocked the old guy backwards out of his seat. That damned Mabel had struck again. However, Griffith now had to think about casting the lead for another Indian film, The Squaws Love. Frank Powell and Wilfred Lucas (‘The Great Lucas’ as Mabel called him) both suggested Mabel. Griffith was unsure — he only liked ‘yes’ girls, those that had been trained for the stage, and were used to close direction. Mabel was a rebel, a free spirit, who quite often refused direction, and would not adhere to the mark that Griffith had chalked out for her on the ground. Wilfred Lucas said he would direct the picture, under Griffith’s express supervision. So, Mabel played Wild Flower but it is clear that she had a whole lot of freedom, doing things in a way Griffith would not have allowed. Here we see her falling off a cliff, swimming underwater below enemy canoes to cut their bottoms out, and swimming into the rapids, all done in a seamless, natural way. The film has no hero, just a heroine, and this is very non-Griffith, for his women were always ‘screamers’ that hid behind the dresser whenever there was trouble. In this film it is the men that faint with fear, while Mabel takes it to the enemy, a big knife between her teeth. Wild Flower was, of course, the incipient Keystone Girl. The Indian lover of Claire McDowell, Silver Fawn, in this film was White Eagle, played by 55-year-old real-life redskin, Dark Cloud.
Eventually, the holiday ended for the players, and it was time to pack up and return to the city grime. Last to leave was Griffith who had to make up the accounts and pay the hotel bill. Everyone had learned something, but Mabel had learned the most. She’d learned how to captivate and fascinate people. Her final act that week was to develop the Apache horse-mounting technique, which meant running full pelt up to a horse from behind, and leaping onto its back — a very dangerous trick that Mabel was to use in her later best-seller, Mickey. The wheels in Griffith’s head were beginning to turn. Mabel was a completely foot-loose maverick, but he could be onto a winner, if he co-starred her with one of his highly trained, but somewhat stiff, ex-stage stars. Good competition was what many of his stage actresses needed. Consequently, out in California in early 1912, Mabel and Mary Pickford came together for The Mender of Nets. Mary confessed later that Mabel had scared her to death in this film. Mabel was sweetness itself, and usually there was sunshine and gaiety but if she was upset, there was thunder and lightning. In this film she was a woman spurned, and it was Mary that had caused the spurning, so she received the full fury of Mabel’s vicious onslaught, transmitted bthrough her blazing eyes. Here’s what Mary wrote in 1916:
“She was dark and the representative type of villainess …… she played the flashing-eyed creature of temperament, whose very looks were stilletos in your heart, and whose movements undulated like a snake crawling through the brush.”
– and –
“We never suspected that that this demure little maiden, who used to peer at us shyly, with great dark eyes, would ever thrill us by her daring feats on the screen. There was no cliff so high that Mabel was afraid of it, no water so deep that she would not dive into it, no bucking bronco too wild for her to ride …… there was no one ever on the screen who could do it more gracefully and with as much poise as Mabel.”
Mary and Mabel never appeared together again.
This was the last film Mabel made in Cuddebackville. When Biograph returned in August 1912, Mabel was on her way to continue her astonishing career on the west coast. The Pickford family were in Cuddebackville that year, but by October, they too had departed Biograph for the last time. Griffith followed very soon after.