MY LIFE WITH MABEL NORMAND, BY BLANCHE SWEET. PART 1.

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Mabel: “Laughing like a drain.”

 

Film star Blanche Sweet, the girl with the silken hair, was a close friend of Mabel until the end of her life in 1930. She made various contributions to the mass of Mabel literature down the years, and these are useful in trying to determine the true character of Mabel. Blanche never wrote an essay on The Biograph Girl, as she knew her, but it is always fun to write one for her, in the first person. So here it is.

My first meeting with Mabel occurred, I think, in 1909 or, perhaps, 1910, when she arrived unannounced at Biograph Studios. She might have been unannounced, but Mary Pickford soon announced her presence to us all, when she began running around the studio shouting at director D.W. Griffith that new girl had arrived, and he had to see her before she changed her mind, and made a run for it.

“Oh, another boring blond I suppose” Yawned the ‘Genius”’

“No, no, she’s very dark, with bush-baby eyes and two-inch long lashes.”

“Are you sure they’re two-inches long?”

“Well, maybe they’re one-inch, but you’ve got to see her!” Said Mary, dragging D.W. by the arm.

Griffith went to see Mabel, and we all took turns at peering at her through the doorway. She was, indeed, stunningly beautiful, and she peered back at us from under her Gibson Girl quiff, as I call it. Mabel had been, as many people know, a ‘Gibson Girl’, but she was, then, very, very shy, and lowered her head, hiding behind the ‘quiff’.

 

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Gibson Girl Mabel.

 

The Nature of The Biograph.

Mabel joined the company, and what a company it was. I’ll just sketch out the atmosphere of The Biograph, in those days. The performers were mainly ex-theatrical players, and their average age was, wait for it, sixteen years. Everyone was very immature, but friendly, and there was the buzz of raging hormones around the place. The older people, Griffith, Kate Bruce and Mack Sennett, tried to control the youngsters as best they could (although Sennett, I’m sure tried to work them up, rather than control them). Misplaced love was in the air, and you couldn’t move a prop or bit of scenery, without finding a ‘spooning’ couple behind it. Certain actors were in demand among the actresses, and Marshall Neilan and Owen Moore were soon ensnared by Gertrude Bambrick and Mary Pickford, respectively. When Gertie married Marshall, I was very angry, as I had eyes on him myself. Many years later, I managed to break them up, and I married Marshall – a big mistake, for that man almost beat me to death, before I saw sense and left him. From very early on, the innocent Mabel came under the sway of Mack Sennett, which surprised us a little, because Mack was regarded as a dangerous idiot that any girl should avoid. There was, however, a persistent rumour that Mack and Mabel had known each other prior to Mabel coming to the studio. This is just one of the many mysteries surrounding Mabel that have never been resolved.

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“Oi, you two! Can’t you read that sign!” Fatty’s Spooning Days.

 

Mabel was not at Biograph long, before it became clear that she had a magnetic personality. She was never alone, and as soon as she walked into a room, everyone dropped what they were doing and flocked to her. I do not mean just men either, for women and girls came to almost worship her. No woman ever resented her, not even the most egotistical and competitive of actresses. The star, back then, was Florence Lawrence, or ‘Miss Haughty’, or ‘High and Mighty’ as we called her. Unbelievably egotistical, even she became bewitched by Mabel, although she left soon enough. Mabel’s ascent from shy little girl to outgoing extrovert was thrilling to see. Something happened, but whether it was her association with Sennett, or her becoming the untameable, daredevil, I do not know, but she became a force to reckon with, at the studio. As Mary Pickford wrote in her newspaper column in 1916:

“There was no cliff so high that Mabel was afraid of it, no water so deep that she was afraid to dive into it, and no bucking bronco too wild for her to ride it.”

Mabel even had the studio supervisor, Wilfred Lucas, quaking in his boots, and Griffith himself dreaded her vitriolic and vindictive tongue. Wilfred she called, sarcastically, ‘The Great Lucas’ and Griffith ‘Mister Johnny Reb’. He was a southern ‘gentleman’, ya know. When Mrs Griffith (Linda Avridson) was writing her book When The Movies Were Young, a few years back, I spent many hours talking to her about the way things were at Biograph, back in the good old days. She told me that her former husband (they separated in 1911), although he seemed to dismiss Mabel’s ridicule, would, when he got home, rant and rave and punch holes in the doors. He hated being derided by a little girl, barely five feet tall. Such was the power of Mabel. Griffith, of course could not dismiss Mabel, as she was, perhaps, the only one who could carry out dramatic tragedy, in a way that would make even Euripides weep. The fact is, she made all of us weep, even when she moved over to comedy. Crying contests? Forget them, Mabel always won. No one can sum up Mabel’s abilities better than Mary Pickford:

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What was Mabel like around the studio? Well, when she got going, it was like a whirlwind had hit. No one was safe from her irreverent tongue, and no-one was safe from her practical jokes. Everyone was subjected to a volley of cussing and swearing, pails of water fell on people as they opened doors, and, if not, crackers chased them around the set. Immediately after Mabel’s funeral I said this:

“Mabel was sweetness itself, but when she opened her pretty mouth, toads came out, but nobody minded”

Producer Hal Roach, who became the butt of Mabel’s jokes in her twilight years added:

“Mabel was the dirtiest-talking girl you ever heard. She brought hordes of girlfriends to the studio, who followed me around the sets, laughing and giggling, as Mabel taunted me mercilessly.” (she called him “that dumb, thick-necked Irishman”.)

Just recently, I read that Gloria Swanson had said “Mabel was crude and vulgar”. Sure, Mabel was crude, but was never vulgar, and, unlike the sweet Gloria, Mabel never went with a married man, never committed adultery, and was never a home-breaker. You stand alone and damned Miss Swanson.

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Women’s Emancipation was a dangerous thing, but Mack made big money from it.

 

The story of Mabel at Biograph is long and convoluted, and could fill a whole book. However, having already said that she was worshipped by her fellow actresses, I need to explain further. Remember, we were knee deep in women’s emancipation, at that time, and it is no surprise that the studio girls were looking around for a    – they found their heroine in Mabel Normand. Mabel was a match for any man, and, importantly, she stood up to all the actors and the management. When Griffith tried to change her name, she simply told him to “Fuck off!” When Marshall Neilan began to pester her, she told him to fuck off as well. Mabel clearly had more sense than either Gertie or I, and she only had eyes for Jack Pickford and Owen Moore, although Mary soon took Owen off the market (for the time being). Anyhow, Mabel gradually became the avatar everyone worshipped, and most of the worshippers became the future stars of Hollywood. You might know some of the names of those that sat at Mabel’s feet – Dorothy Gish, Lottie and Jack Pickford, Gertie Bambrick, and little old me, along with many others.

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Mabel was happiest when Jack was about. Here they are aboard Claude Normand’s motorcycle in 1919.

 

The Biograph management were pulling their hair out, their innocent girls now had a leader in Miss Normand. However, when Griffith set out to take the company to work in L.A. during the winter of 1910/11, he absolutely refused to take her, as she was a bad influence on his girls. Stage mothers too, made representations to the management, saying that they did not want their charges being corrupted by “that disrespectful harlot”. So, it came to pass, that Mabel did not get to go to L.A., but remained in New York, where she joined The Vitagraph, and learned comedy under the great John Bunny and Flora Finch. She returned to Biograph late in 1911, I think, and was with us for a few weeks before we again departed for L.A., this time with Mabel aboard. Part of the Mabel story is what Mabel did at Vitagraph. She did not leave Vitagraph of her own accord – she was, in fact, fired for ‘intolerable and lewd behaviour’. The management took a dim view of her exposing herself to passengers on the adjacent rail-line.

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“They shouldn’t look in my window.”

Before she returned to Biograph, she tried The Reliance, but only lasted 3 hours before grumpy old Hal Reid, father of Wally, and director down there, booted her out for ‘unacceptable behaviour’ (whatever that was). I knew all about Mabel’s ‘behaviour’. At Biograph, Mabel would often walk around the dressing room stark naked, whereas, most of us wore at least some scanty thing to cover our nudity. New girls were particularly shocked at Mabel’s naked presence, and dressed behind the screens. We had chintz curtains up the windows, but Mabel had no fear of drawing them back, and looking out, in her birthday suit, much to the horror of plug-hatted gents and old maids. Mabel, I can tell you, was very voluptuous in those days, and I think she had some pride her body. Mabel made a film for Goldwyn called A Perfect 36, but in those days she was at least a ’38’. For some parts, Griffith would have her lightly ‘strapped down’, but when Sennett directed her he sometimes insisted she be strapped down completely flat. This was done for Tomboy Bessie and Mabel was in black and blue agony afterwards. It was all pointless, for her hips and rear, of a mature female, could not be disguised. For A Spanish Dilemma, Mabel had the idea of leaning forward over a balcony, as she was being serenaded by Mack and Fred Mace, then have everything spill out. Mack went crazy, but agreed that she could, surreptitiously, undo a button on her top, to expose her cleavage. This was much more successful, and wholesome, and prevented a raid by the ‘morals police’.

Going West in 1911/12.

Of course, going out to California was always an adventure, but things were different this time, for we had Mabel with us. There were shenanigans at the rail head, as Mama Pickford demanded that young Jack be taken along with his two sisters. Griffith refused, but as Mary and Lottie prepared to disembark the train, he capitulated, and Mama threw little Jack onboard, as the train began to move. Mary wasn’t too happy to have her little brother with her, but Mabel was delighted to have the little scamp along – he was just fourteen, the same age, in mind at least, as Mabel. Jack and Mabel remained close all of their (somewhat short) lives. Now you’re wondering if they became lovers. Well, it doesn’t matter now, so I can say, categorically, yes. As Mabel later told me, there was no shame in this, as they were both considered minors, in almost any state in the U.S. In any case, Mary was happy to have Jack fondling the fair Mabel, rather than getting up her nose, and cramping her style. On the train, Mabel and Jack ran around like tornadoes, getting up to all sorts of capers, and upsetting  many a bonneted old maid. Griffith was furious with Mack, as, being virtually an item with her, he should control ‘that little minx’. Now, Mabel being Mabel, was drunk most of the time, and many times on that train journey, she staggered into my compartment, swearing like a trooper, and telling me some of the dirtiest joke imaginable.

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Mabel on the booze, or is it gasoline? Anything Once 1926.

 

It is likely that she corrupted more young girls on this one journey, than she did in the rest of her life. Every girl she had contact with was tainted by her, and ended smoking like a chimney, drinking like a lord, and laughing like a drain. Yes, that dirty, hoarse laugh was unforgettable. I did once ask her how she learnt all that stuff, and she calmly said:

“In the reformatory, dear Blanchey”

“Good lord Mabel, the reformatory!”

Yep, that’s right blondie, I was a juvenile delinquent.”

After recovering from the shock, Mabel told me the whole story. We all knew that Mabel had been out of control as a child, and refused to go to school. What we didn’t know was that she’d been picked up by the police on numerous occasions, and her Catholic mother, in her despair, sent her away to a convent. However, this was no ordinary convent, but what is known as a Mary Magdalene Convent, commonly called ‘The Laundry’. These convents had a commercial laundry attached, where they worked wayward girls almost to death, a policy that was intended to ‘correct’ or ‘reform’ them. In Mabel’s case this did not work, but we might suspect it did not work with any of them, and it was in that god-damned place that Mabel contracted tuberculosis.

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A Magdelene Laundry, innocuous outside, but there was much suffering inside.

 

Way out West and loving it.

We were all glad to be in the Golden State, with its constant sun and beautiful light. A couple of years back, before we’d been to L.A., we’d all been captivated by the vision of Alice Joyce necking with boyfriend Caryle Blackwell in Westlake Park, during a Kalem picture. How beautiful that park looked, and how we all clamoured to get on Griffith’s train to the west. Incidentally, if Mabel herself had a heroine, then it was her friend from the Gibson days, Alice Joyce. As Mabel later told me, Alice was a real star, tall and very sensual. If Mabel had any hang up, it was about being so short. Later, she became obsessed with Connie Talmadge, who, as you know, had the longest legs in Hollywood. Oh, if only she could be Alice or Connie, then everything would be just fine, and this brings me to those staunch followers of Mabel in our company. Two girls had thought as Mabel, and decided that if only they could be her, then everything would be fine.

 

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Mabel stands between Anna Q. Nillson and Alice Joyce. Alice and Anna  were real stars, tall, sensual and vampish.

 

Dot Gish and Gertie Bambrick had been billeted with Mr and Mrs Del Henderson, but, on their first day, they flew the coop, and booked themselves into a hotel. Holed up in their room, they prepared to become Mabel, by swilling booze and smoking some cigarettes. Then they, hitched their skirts down, to reveal some midriff, and headed out for the nightlife. They didn’t get far before Del Henderson and Griffith, who’d spent the entire day looking for them, captured the runaways, and returned them to their chaperones.

Such, then, was the Mabel effect, but, while all this commotion was going on, Mabel herself was mostly ensconced with Mack Sennett. Mack, who always complained about the curled up company sandwiches, had discovered that the route to plenty of food was by buying a drink in certain bars, which allowed them to partake of the saloon buffet.

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Chaplin helps himself to some free onions in a bar (Mabel’s Married Life).

This had some relevance for me, as Griffith had decided I was too skinny, and withheld me from certain roles. Talking with Mabel about this, I said I could not understand how she had become so amply ‘bosomed’.

“Bacon sandwiches, my dear Blanche, bacon sandwiches and plenty of them” She replied.

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Everyone flocked to Mabel. 1912.

Now I knew the secret, and I put it to my mother and aunt that I should go to the bar with Mack and Mabel for a good feed. Mother was furious, and forbade me to ever enter a beer-house. Auntie was a bit calmer, but said I should not associate with Mack and Mabel, as they were a bad influence. Instead auntie approached Griffith for extra ‘rations’ as I was threatening to go off with Mack and Mabel. Griffith was horrified that I was associating with those two scoundrels, and decreed that I’d be fed up on bacon and two slices, at the company expense. It worked, and boy did it work. I quickly became a ‘38’. Mabel, seeing me rising, like baked dough, every day, stood before me one afternoon, looked my bosoms up and down, then said “My god Blanche, I could fancy you myself”, and grabbing a mammary in each hand, she worked them up and down, in opposition. Now, if any other girl had done that, I’d have slapped her face, and kneed her somewhere, but you could never get mad with Mabel, she was so disarmingly charming. This was the secret of her success, and I really believe that the things she did were designed to, ever so slightly, humiliate people, sort of put them down, without the person really knowing what was happening.

 

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Blanche demonstrates the power of bacon sandwiches, and just beats Vivian Prestcott in the bosom stakes. Ca. 1912.

 

Filming continued apace, but working in the L.A. sunshine was a delight. There were many funny incidents, one being when a group of Angelenos followed us out to location one day, just to see what we were up to. They watched us in astonishment for a time, as we rehearsed, until a plumpish, middle-aged woman eventually marched towards the leading lady (was it Mary?) and slapped her round the face, screaming “You little whore, I wouldn’t be seen dead doing the things you’re doing, nor would I wear those disgusting, indecent clothes”. As she marched away, Mabel stepped forward and gave the old hag a good old Keystone slam in the chops, which sent her reeling. Several of her companions came forward to help, but Mabel made towards them, now holding a hefty tree branch. The group scooped up the dazed woman and made off. We all fell about laughing, it was so funny seeing all those adults running from, what appeared to be, a twelve-year-old girl. We made a good number of films that trip, some in which I played alongside Mabel. Mabel usually played a ruthless villainess, someone who was always trying to steal other women’s men. However, she often died before the last scene, which greatly annoyed her (see The Eternal Mother).

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Blanche Sweet looks on as Mabel dies in The Eternal Mother 1912.

 

After a few weeks, we noticed that, after work, Mack and Mabel were often nowhere to be found, but we thought they’d just gone off somewhere to be alone (easy enough to do in the suburbs of L.A. back then).  Eventually, Mabel confided to me that they had spent some time trying to waylay Charlie Baumann, partner in New York Motion Pictures, who was then in town, and staying at the Alexandria Hotel. They were attempting to get a contract with Baumann to work over at Fort Lee, New Jersey, where the motion picture industry was then mainly situated.

 

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Mack and Mabel waylaid Baumann here. The lobby of the Alexandria Hotel, L.A.

 

I did not get the full details, but Mabel was apparently well in with Baumann’s daughter, Ada. Mabel brought Ada to our makeshift studio sometimes, and she was quite a gal. Very physical and athletic, she was the East Coast figure-skating champion, and indulged willingly in Mabel’s pranks. I believe Griffith even let her ‘extra’ in a couple of films.

See: MABEL’S FRIENDS: ADA BAUMANN.

Mabel then appeared in her greatest film to date, Mender of Nets, which was very melancholy and fully suited to her talents. As was usual, the film was premiered (if you could use that term) in a theatre downtown. Playing the lead alongside Mary Pickford, Mabel blew Her Highness almost off the set, with her demonstration of what a tragedienne should be. I can tell you that Mary never minded her acting being upstaged, the reason being that she was only interested in the great god money. Mabel called her Hetty Green, the very famous millionairess, and she later introduced her to Charlie Chaplin that way. Anyhow, the pair never shared the lead again.

 

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“He’s mine!” Mabel and Mary fight it out in their one and only bout. Mender of Nets 1912.

 

Leaving the West Coast.

As Linda Griffith wrote of our time in California, it was soon time to pack up our troubles in our old kit bags, and return to grimy old New York. There was a certain melancholy hanging over  the company, as we watched Pasadena disappear behind us, but not for long, as Mabel soon had us in stitches with her crazy antics. We’d already been made aware of her abilities in comedy on the way out, but now she had us totally mesmerized. I just could not believe that the girl, so adept at tragedy, could also be a proficient comedian. Naturally, Mabel had got us all drunk before we were even out of California, and she soon had us eating out of her hand – we were her captive audience, and she was going to milk us for all we were worth. On the way out, Mabel had led us through the train, screaming and hollering, and scaring old ‘biddies’, as we celebrated the New Year. Now there was no holiday celebration, but old maids and plug-hatted gents still cowered in their compartments, terrified of the ‘Mabel Normand Gang’. Griffith was going out of his mind, and Mack Sennett was tearing his hair out shouting “That bitch, I’ll kill her, I’ll fucking kill her”. Of course, with their forthcoming contract at NYMP it was imperative that Mabel remain innocent and demure. Charlie Baumann, I can tell you, was much in love with Mabel, but he would have soon ditched her, and Mack, if any of this got out. Eventually, we arrived back home unscathed, and our noses were soon put back to the grindstone. Things carried on as before, then we got a big shock.

 

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Heading east with a heavy heart, 

 

THE MACK AND MABEL COMEDY UNIT.

Biograph had a relatively new comedy unit, and the director had become seriously ill, so Mack offered his services. He went to Griffith and demanded Mabel, and The Genius breathed a sigh of relief, then handed Mabel straight over to Mack. Was Mabel delighted? She certainly was not, and, for the first time, we saw her break down in tears. We were shocked and horrified, for Mabel seemed as hard as nails, and here she was sobbing her heart out. I said to her “Wasn’t it comedy you really wanted?”

“No, no I want to be a dramatic actress, a star….only a man can be a star in comedy”.

Of course, as far as we knew then, she was right. Flora Finch was a comedy star, but there was something, well, a little bit weird about her. Mabel was beautiful and possessed star quality by the gallon. Anyhow, Griffith would hear none of it, and handed Mabel over without a by your leave. The results? Well, they speak for themselves. Only last week, some of us ‘oldies’ went downtown and re-watched some of Mabel’s Biograph and early Keystone comedies. There was Tomboy Bessie, At Coney Island, Oh Those eyes, and, of course The Water Nymph – all laid on by, guess who? Mack Sennett! Mabel was a delight to see in these films, and Mack had to be congratulated in the way he presented her. Speaking to ‘The King of Comedy’ afterwards, he told me they’d worked their fingers to the bone on the films, as a presentation to the NYMP bosses. Baumann positively drooled over Mabel in Oh Those Eyes (Mabel fully-dressed) and The Diving Girl (for Edwardian times, almost naked) and looked forward to having her over at Fort Lee. It seemed clear to me that Mack pitched Mabel, as the Queen Bee around which happened. Surrounded by men, who were portrayed as incredibly stupid, Mabel reacted, in her own inimitable way, to whatever happened around her, but, when necessary, she could take the lead completely. Mack, naturally, had taken the real Mabel and burlesqued her personality, again in his own inimitable way.

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Three different Mabels. The Diving Girl, Oh, Those Eyes, A Spanish Dilemma. 1912.

The Earth tilts on its axis.

Then came another shock from the Mack and Mabel stable. The pair had signed for NYMP, and were leaving Biograph forthwith. Another series of good films were produced from an office somewhere in Manhattan, under the NYMP banner.  Then shock, horror, it was announced that Mack, Mabel, and other ex-Biograph actors, would be leaving for L.A. to film at the old Bison lot in Edendale. Some of the girls, including myself, arranged to meet Mabel at some place up on 5th Avenue, for a final farewell. It wasn’t a particularly happy get together, and mostly it involved trying to persuade her not to go off with that ‘Hibernian Madman’, Mack Sennett. Mabel fobbed it all off, and suggested we all get very, very drunk, which we did. Mabel’s contention that she would take a shortcut to stardom perplexed us just a little, until she confided that their NYMP and Biograph comedies made more money than Griffith’s or anyone else’s films. Apparently, NYMP had a mole, a spy, in the Biograph head office. Thus, Mabel left us, sadder, but still very much fighting for prominence.

A cage opens and the butterflies flutter out.

So, Mabel was gone, but we girls always eagerly awaited the latest Mabel release under the Keystone name. Like many others, I communicated with Mabel by letter at this time, and it seems that, although elated, there were times when the bleakness of her existence, out in the wild and woolly west, got to her. Edendale was a terribly boring place for a young city girl, and being cooped up with men who were either married or comparatively ancient was getting to her.

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Mabel’s bungalow dressing room.

 

All she had was her work, and the highlight of her day was having dinner with her middle-aged producer every night. She begged us all to come out to her, but it was 1913, before I was able to do so, along with a couple of other ‘coming stars’. We had a whale of a time, and Mabel’s heated bungalow dressing room, replete with garden and bath-tub, had us squealing with delight, but also turning a little green with envy. So this was how a star lived! However, we only spent four days in L.A. , the other ten days were spent travelling on that damnable railway. Mabel was inconsolable when we left, but she had the knowledge that she was already a world-wide star. It was a case of ‘Mabel in Wonderland’ and my god, how we wished to be her.

 

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‘Mabel in Wonderland’.

 

 

Eventually, the inevitable happened, and, one by one, the studios began to relocate to California. Many actors and actresses left for L.A. prior to this, and as Mack later described it “The New York cages were flung open, and the butterflies fluttered out to alight on the new studios in Hollywood and elsewhere.” Inevitably, also, Mabel became the Queen of the movie colony, and she revelled in it.

A tramp happens along.

The greatest thing that happened to Mabel was not Mack Sennett, but Charlie Chaplin. This I know for sure, and they were lovers, as much as Anthony and Cleopatra were lovers. They were soul-mates, and a mirror image of each other. Both, deep down, were melancholy, and both boosted themselves up to succeed in a cruel world. Sennett had never wanted Chaplin, but Mabel was very keen on taking him in at the studio. In 1914, only Mary Pickford had seen him in real life, during 1912, but had not had the gumption to talk to him, as they hadn’t been introduced. She described him as a tousle-haired youth, who had the air of a bohemian poet about him. Mabel was enthralled, but it was she that eventually introduced him to Mary. Of course, it had not always been daises and roses between the pair, and I was in the theater that day when Mabel’s Strange Predicament was shown with Chaplin taking the long first scene, a very strange thing, considering Mabel’s name was in the title. Mabel was stunned and we all let out a gasp.

 

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The opening scene that never was. Mabel’s Strange Predicament.

 

“Mabel, you’ve been had!” I foolishly blurted out. Mabel turned round to face Sennett, who was sitting at the back, and shook her fist at him, while mouthing “Yooou bastard!” We all shouted at him “Shame on you Sennett”, but he was already leaving. Mabel felt completely humiliated among her friends, but it was neither Mack nor Charlie’s fault, it was all down to the bosses back in N.Y. They’d worked out that having a girl as the studio figurehead was not a good idea, and decided Chaplin, a vaudevillian, was a better bet. Mabel steered clear of Charlie for about six weeks, but eventually the big bosses decreed that Chaplin must be admitted to Mabel’s two-reeler, Mabel At The Wheel.  Both Mack and Mabel were furious, but Chaplin came anyway. Mabel told me she did not want the conceited Englisher in the film, which was a short feature with a story line about a thoroughly modern emancipated girl, and she did not want slapstick anywhere near it. Chaplin was a slapsticker, pure and simple. Mabel was determined to be the director, and banned Charlie from wearing the tramp’s outfit, and he could only do the slapstick that she accepted. To cut a long story short, Mabel stopped Chaplin from introducing various bits of silly nonsense, and Charlie, in his ignorance, not understanding the nature of the film, blew up. I have to say I agree with Mabel that slapstick is funny, but hardly suited to a Griffith-trained dramatic actress.

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Chaplin is the perfect gentleman in Mabel At The Wheel.

 

After several of the crew threatened to beat the limey to a pulp, for disrespecting their Queen, they packed up for the day. Ada Baumann was on the set that day (playing Mabel’s friend) and she seems to have squared everything between the studio and Baumann, who was in a mind to shut the lot down. We watched the final film downtown with Mabel, and, I can tell you, a cheering and shouting went up from the Biograph ‘old girls’ when The Keystone girl beat all the men in the Santa Monica 200 mile car race. Even Charlie was smiling, and, after that, he and Mabel were able to get on with some serious movie-making, and not a little ‘necking’ (a little odd as Chas always had a dirty ‘tide mark’ around his neck). It’s suffice to say that Mabel was never happier than when she was with Chaplin. When they weren’t stealing a company car, and heading into town for some fun, they were amusing everyone at parties. Mostly, they were in Mabel’s lovely dressing room, with Mack’s spies listening at the windows. Mabel, of course, taught Charlie everything, as he admitted to me on numerous occasions. Later he said:

“She knew more about comedy than any of us will ever know”.

 

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Mabel loves to wash Charlie’s neck. Tillie’s Punctured Romance.

 

However, in the films, Mabel totally dominated Charlie, and, looking at them now, Charlie looks strangely shrunken, and not a little obscure. Naturally, his slapstick was superb, and he did the world’s greatest drunk, but, being a knockabout comic, he never understood Mabel’s pursuit of the dramatic and tragic roles – her Biograph friends understood perfectly. Nonetheless, Charlie later had to take on many of Mabel’s ideas, if he was to survive beyond his Essanay period, and began to introduce a slightly higher level of melancholy into his films. I once asked Chas why he’d not taken on Mabel’s ideas in full. He replied that full-blown tragedy within comedy would not work. This lay at the heart of Chaplin’s genius – he incorporated a mere background of Mabel’s melancholy into his pictures.

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During the Chaplin period at Keystone, Mabel was never happier. I really believe that she considered that she actually owned that man, in the same way that Sennett thought he owned Mabel. She did everything for him, and smothered him, again in the same way that Sennett smothered her. Trouble was afoot, however, as, for some reason, studio schedules dictated that Charlie was doing one film, while Mabel was doing another. If Mabel was at the studio, Charlie was away on location. The handiwork of Mack Sennett? Possibly, but Mabel was soon aware that he was taking leading ladies other than herself. Speaking to her at this time, I put it to Mabel that Charlie was drifting away. Mabel was unconcerned, and told me that Charlie was her property, and, under no circumstances, was he was going to ‘drift away’. Sure enough, after the hiatus, Mabel snatched the lead in a succession of Chaplin movies. Various up and coming stars were roughly pushed aside, as Mabel went on the rampage, and re-took control. I think these were the best films they made together, and Mabel reigned supreme. She was never better than in Gentlemen of Nerve, His Trysting Place and Tillie’s Punctured Romance. In two of these films she was all over Charlie, going way beyond the call of duty, so to speak. Chaplin appears genuinely embarrassed by Mabel’s attentiveness, but it seems he was also genuinely fearful for his career and even his life. Mabel was determined to escape the confines of the rat-trap that was Keystone, and Charlie was her vehicle, but in the background a dark shadow was lurking in the shape of Mack Sennett, and he was soon to rid himself of the troublesome limey, for good. I have never been able to understand why Chaplin left at the end of the year. Mabel would never speak of it, but Charlie assures me that he did not want to leave. The whole thing would be a complete mystery, if it were not for the luck of my having several opportunities to speak with Ada, who you’ll remember was the daughter of big bossman, Charlie Baumann. From working in her father’s New York office, Ada learned much about what was going on behind the scenes at Keystone. In September 1914, Baumann wrote to Sennett telling him to get going on a new contract for Chaplin. New York were prepared to pay $1,000 a week, or even a little more. In spite of this, Sennett did not reply until late November, when Baumann threatened to come out to L.A. and take over the contract discussions himself. Sennett called Charlie in to discuss the contract, and he stated that he wanted a straight $1,000 a week. Sennett lied to him and said New York were willing to pay him $500 a week, rising to $750 next year and $1,000 the year after. Charlie said he would think about it. Charlie himself filled in the rest. Sennett opened a drawer in his desk, pulled out a .45 and said “I think negotiations are over, Charlie, don’t you? You’re leaving at the end of the month.”

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“Charlie, don’t leave me!”

It’s a long way to Chicago.

Charlie, then, left at the end of 1914, and the Keystone Boy and Girl had a last, tearful dinner together. However, Chas did not relocate in L.A., but shuffled off into the sunset, in the direction of Chicago. I spoke with Mabel the next day, but she was unconcerned that her mate had distanced himself from her by 2,000 miles. “Oh he’ll soon be back, and he’ll pop up in Hollywood again, like a bad penny.” I asked her if they were intent on getting back together again. “Well Blanche, I didn’t ask him, and he didn’t ask me”. This sounded like we’d seen the last of those Charlie and Mabel films, but Mabel was surprisingly chipper. “He’ll be back, grovelling on his hands and knees, begging me to play his leading lady.” Charlie did come back within the year, but, unfortunately for everyone, he made no contact with Mabel. The reasons were clear. First, Charlie did not want to be shot. Second, Charlie, having received exemplary training from Mabel, had decided he did not need a leading lady, just a stooge, a foil. He’d never further his career while he played Mr Normand to Mabel. He took on a non-actress called Edna Purviance, but it was hard to avoid anyone around Hollywood, and very soon they ran into Mabel.

 

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The long road to Chicago.

 

I was in a cafe downtown one day, with some friends, while Mabel was on the other side, surrounded by some admirers or suitors, when who should walk in but Charlie and Edna. As the couple took their seats, Mabel suddenly stood up, pointed at Chaplin and shouted “Charlie, I’ll be your leading lady yet!” Chaplin was stunned, and Edna looked a bit scared. Then her firm face changed and softened “Come on Charlie, nothing’s that bad, cheer up, old bean”. This was typical Mabel, take someone apart, them smile and say it was all a joke.

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Edna gets a screen test.

This ‘parrying’ went on for years, but, to all appearances they remained committed friends. When Charlie married Mildred Harris in 1918, Mabel instantly set out to befriend the child bride. Soon they they were inseparable, and Mabel became almost a third person in the marriage. Mildred, being around sixteen years of age, had a mindset similar to the twenty-seven year old Mabel. They spent much time larking about, and the threesome were much in demand at parties. In 1919, Mabel arranged a snowball party up on Mount Lowe for the Chaplins, and I think this was to cheer the couple up after the loss of a child. However, the formation that year of United Artists meant that Charlie was drifting gradually off towards the Fairbanks couple, Doug and Mary. Mabel and Charlie, nonetheless, continued on relatively friendly terms.

 

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Hob-knobbing with the Fairbanks set.

Post-Chaplin at Keystone.

It was after Charlie left, late 1914, that things took a turn for the worse between Mack and Mabel. Once the tramp had gone, Mack drew a definite line in the sand, and declared there’d be no more melancholic pictures, and put Mabel with Roscoe Arbuckle to do the country kid lovers series. I enjoyed those films, but they were sickly and far too lovey-dovey. Quite honestly, they were ridiculous, and Roscoe and Mabel were not happy to do them. Roscoe, like Mabel, had been a dramatic (stage) actor, which says it all.

 

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Fatty and Mabel’s multi-million dollar beach-side mansion out at Malibu.

 

Nevertheless, at this time, Roscoe and wife Minta were good friends with Mabel, and Mabel would go and stay with them at weekends, in their beach house in Santa Monica. It was a mere shack, and Roscoe and Mabel’s house in Fatty and Mabel Adrift was based on it. Mabel confided in me that she loved to be with her married friends, because their lives were much more serene than hers. This prompts the question, why didn’t she marry someone herself? Like me, she didn’t want that hassle, but, unlike me, she was  totally a career woman, and did not want to give up a career for the kitchen sink. I eventually capitulated. Meanwhile, back at Keystone, things were hotting up. Furious rows erupted as Mabel accused Mack of holding her career back, while promoting other actresses, specifically the The Bathing Beauties. As things reached a crescendo, NYMP (now under Triangle) asked for Mabel, Roscoe and a small company to be sent to Fort Lee.

 

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Mabel looking particularly gorgeous with Al St. John in Fatty and Mabel Adrift.

If you want to get ahead….run away!

A few of us went and saw Mabel and co. off at the rail station. It was a big event that was plugged heavily by the Triangle, who’d held a big splurge in downtown the previous night. We all got caught up in the general fever, but things were to get more exciting and mysterious. In the weeks that followed we watched the latest Roscoe and Mabels made at Keystone. Fatty and Mabel Adrift was a peach of a film, and Mabel was stunningly beautiful in it, her hair having been done by a professional stylist. Every one of us watching really believed that the pair were in love, such was their acting ability. I later put it to Mabel that perhaps there was some real flicker of love here. She went into a rage like I’d never seen before:

“Roscoe is a married man, and I do not, repeat DO NOT, associate with married men. The shock would kill my god-fearing, silver-haired mother, if she ever found out!”

 

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United in love: Fatty and Mabel.

 

Anyhow, their next film, He Did and He Didn’t, was a real shocker. Made in Fort Lee, and without any Sennett input, it showed Roscoe and Mabel as a married couple. So far so good, but then we were chilled to the bone by what came next. Turns out Mabel was a scarlet woman, and was beginning a scandalous affair with another man. She’d played man-snatching villainesses at Biograph, but she was a young girl snatching boyfriends, not husbands. She did not need, at that time, to play a true vamp. After we’d got over the shock, we realized she could not, effectively, play a true vamp – she was too virginal, too Keystone Girl sweet. To be a real vamp, one must appear an older, and more sophisticated woman, with a burning need to steal husbands. To put it in perspective I’ll repeat what Minta Durfee said of her recently:

“Mabel always looked very, very young. In fact, she looked like a schoolgirl dressed up in her mother’s clothes”

If you’re wondering, then, how she attracted men around her like flies, I’ll tell you – sheer personality, my dears, sheer personality. Mabel didn’t need the sly sideways glance of a vamp, nor the sheer nakedness of a Louise Brooks, she was only ever, just Mabel. Any nudity she indulged in, was merely meant to shock the more prudish among us.

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I think it was around March 1916 that the Mabel Normand company returned  – sans Mabel. Neither Roscoe or Minta would tell me where she was….they claimed they did not know. I wired her parents on Staten Island, but they said they thought she was in L.A. A couple of days later I received a wire from Mabel:

“SAFE AND WELL IN HOTEL NY   CANNOT SAY WHERE

 MACK HAS SPIES IN TELEGRAPH OFFICE”  MABEL

Obviously, it all had to do with Mack. Strangely enough, I ran into Mack, as I went into my studio, the Griffith Reliance-Majestic, the following day. His presence there was unusual, and I assumed he was on Triangle business, Triangle being the holding company for Reliance and Keystone.

“Good morning Mr Sennett”, I said cheerily.

“Don’t good morning me, you devious little slut. Where is she?”

“Where’s who, Mr Sennett?”

“That little bitch Mabel”.

“Oh, are you looking for her? What’s happened?”

“You know very well what’s happened. The cow’s run away, that’s what’s happened!”

“Well, I hope you find her soon Mr Sennett, Good day”, I said, skipping merrily inside.

It was the following day that I saw an article in the L.A. Herald with the headline:

“Miss Mabel Normand goes to Mutual to do Chaplin films.”

Oh my god, so that’s what’s going on, she’s signed for Mutual. But to do Chaplin films, surely not? I rang Edna Purviance; there was no point ringing Charlie, as he never answered the telephone. Edna said she knew nothing of it, but would speak to Charlie next day, get an answer, then “strangle the dodgy bastard”. Soon afterwards, I received a wire from Mabel saying she’d definitely signed. At the bottom of the telegram  it said c.c. Mack Sennett. There’s going to be trouble, I thought.

 

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D.W. Griffith One of the first to be abused by Mabel.

 

Trouble there most certainly was, as the combined forces of Triangle, from New York to L.A., had private dicks trying to track the runaway down. It was more than a week later that I received another wire:

“HAVE SIGNED WITH TRIANGLE  ONE YEARS  CONTRACT WITH MABEL NORMAND FEATURE FILM CO   OWN STUDIO”        MABEL

I did no more, I ran for my nearest movie neighbour, Mary Pickford, down on 7th Street. I banged frantically on the door, until the liveried Japanese butler answered. I barged in, as soon as the door swung open:

“Quick! I must see Miss Mary straight away.”

Mary appeared in the hallway:

“Blanche, whatever is it?”

“It’s Mabel” I stuttered, handing her the wire.

Mary quickly scanned the message, and looked aghast and wide-eyed at me:

“Blanche, do you know what this means? It means Mabel has taken on the biggest men in the industry, and won!”

“Oh my god, OH… MY… GOD.”

“One of our own has made it, Blanche – big time.”

Later, I thought of that little girl sitting all alone in that New York hotel room, as she plotted to conquer the known world. Would I have had the nerve, the temerity? No way.

Next day came another telegram:

“ON MY WAY HOME   GET READY FOR

BIGGEST PARTY EVER”    MABEL

Well we did have the biggest party ever. Just a dozen Biograph ‘old girls’ in a café downtown. As usual, any movie folk around just joined in. We noticed three moguls getting up and leaving. Mabel stood up and taunted them:

“What’s up guys, all getting too hot for you in here?”

She then broke down in hysterics:

“Just the sort of  behaviour you’d expect from those damned assholes.”

 

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“I ran straight for Mary Pickford’s house (mansion)”. Later the  home of Mary Miles Minter.

The Mabel Normand Studio.

Things for most of us returned to normal, as Mabel got on with preparing her studio, down on Fountain Avenue. Things were not quite so normal for D.W. Griffith, as he jealously watched her studio grow from his office window, just across the way. We hadn’t seen Mabel for some time, so Dot Gish and I, and a couple of others, walked across to see her. We knew she was there, by the Stutz race car parked outside. I’m glad to say, Mabel was happy to see us, and got all hyper, as we walked in. The place was soon alive with silly, giggling girls, and workmen with their eyes hanging out on their stalks. One guy took particular interest in Dot’s rear, as he walked by. Mabel kicked him in the ass, then turned to us:

“You have to watch that one, likes pinching girl’s bums”  She said smiling at the guy.

Thing is he smiled back.

“Do the words “in the sack” fit in here somewhere Mabe.” 

“Well, he is quite good, Blanchey.”

We all burst out laughing, and then Mabel did one of her acute facial changes, and glared at me:

“I hope you’re not casting doubt on my purity, Miss Sweet.”

She continued to look at me firmly, then broke down with laughter, and we all doubled over. Then, who should arrive, but Mack Sennett. He strode up to us and said:

“Shouldn’t you girls be at work? I’m sure Mr Griffith doesn’t know you’re here. We have a rule in this industry, you stick to your studio, and we’ll stick to ours”.

“And whose studio is this?” said Mabel crossly, nodding towards the side of the enormous main stage.

We all walked over to where she’d nodded, and found some enormous signboards leaning against the wall. They read ‘The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company’. Lord help me, the letters must have been five feet high!

“You have no right here, Mr Sinnott, now please leave.”

Mabel pronounced Sinnott (Sennett’s real name) with a clipped ‘i’, so it sounded like ‘snot’. Anyhow the ‘Big Fellow’ left, and we were soon, ourselves, sprinting back to the Reliance-Majestic, before grumpy Griffith realised we were missing.

 

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“We were all green with envy.”

 

The weeks went by, and we were kept busy at the Griffith studio, where I now had a new friend, by the name of Bessie Love. Don’t laugh, Griffith gave her the name. Dotty Gish didn’t think much of Bessie, saying she was a wimp, and a crawl ass to Griffith. Dotty and Mabel could sometimes be very similar, in that they could both be deep and brooding, suspicious, paranoid, and downright rude. When the Triangle studios had a get-together at Keystone, Griffith took Bessie along, but he’d already made certain that Mabel was away at Fort Lee. Mabel had a way of taking new girls apart, especially if they were pretty, and therefore a possible threat to her. She’d have made mincemeat of Bessie. Curiously, Bessie lived around the corner from the studio, bang opposite Mabel’s studio. She told me that, one day, when she was coming home, she saw Mabel at her dressing room window. Mabel glared fiercely straight at her, then poked her tongue out at her. She was a little distressed, as she’d grown up with Mabel films, and absolutely adored her. I told her not to worry, and that Mabel did that to everyone. I advised her to return home from the direction of Sunset Boulevard, and go in through her back gate.

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The paranoid, searching faces of Dot and Mabel (age 8).

 

Weeks went by, and we did not see Mabel, but I did read she’d ‘Louis XIV’d’ the studio up, laying carpets throughout, and spending thousands on plants and flowers. Her dressing room was something to die for. Standing on the first floor in the northeastern corner, it had it’s own garden, and a balcony overlooking the main stage. Apparently, the dressing room was filled with 18th century gilded mirrors and furniture, and Mack had bought her a very expensive oriental rug. So lavishly equipped was it, that her Japanese cook could easily prepare elaborate meals for twenty-five people, right there in the dressing room(s). Were we jealous? You’re damned right we were!

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Useful links:

THE STRANGE DEATH OF THE MABEL NORMAND FEATURE FILM CO.

MABEL’S HEROINES: HARRIET QUIMBY.

SOME NOTES ON THE MABEL NORMAND STUDIO.

 

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MABEL NORMAND: QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS.

 

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A very brunette Mabel in Attenborough’s Chaplin.

This site has received many enquiries by email, and less so by comments on the blogs. Of course, making a point on a public forum takes confidence, but it never hurts to send a private email. Here many of the enquiries and criticisms have been rolled up into several example questions.

Q1. In the blogs on this site I have read that Mabel was generous, popular, and a great actress. Elsewhere I have read that she was evil, a murderess and all-round bad egg. How come?

A. You have probably had your mind coloured, not so much by the written word, but by film. When Richard Attenborough produced his movie Chaplin, he painted Mabel as a mindless bimbo, with no talent. Paul Merton had carried out a similar character assassination in his History of Hollywood. As in some previous histories, Merton made an attempt to leave Mabel out totally. The stage play, Mack and Mabel, of the early 1970s did not help, and provoked such anger among Mabel’s relatives, and those that had known her, that a flurry of books, and, later, websites painting Mabel in a different light, flooded the market. The amount of verbiage expended on Mabel, exceeds anything devoted to any other movie personage, but the bottom line is Mabel has been painted out of history. To get a true handle on The Girl from Staten Island, you need to read everything, good and bad. Mabel was probably the most complex character that ever lived, so studying her will never be an easy ride.

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Mabel (left) looks like a schoolgirl alongside these movie stars, including the Talmadge sisters.

Q2. I’ve been interested in the silent movie era for many years, but I find it very surprising that, in these blogs, Mabel is represented as the first film star, the biggest star in Hollywood etc. I’d never heard of her until two years ago, and always believed Mary Pickford held the top place in Hollywood.

A. Although Mabel came to acting later than Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, the Gish sisters and so on, she was the first (marginally) to become a named star. Now, you may have heard that the first movie star was another Biograph actress called Florence Lawrence. This, to some extent, is true, but she never developed the panache and true star status of Mabel. Due to Mabel’s constant ridiculing of the top producers, Mary Pickford, although a serial philanderer, became a safe pair of hands in Hollywood, and that probably explains why she was an acceptable figurehead for the colony (apart from the fact that she was married, and married, moreover, to a highly respected actor). It’s worth noting, however, that Miss Pickford was a recluse by 1925, while Mabel continued in the public limelight, almost up to her death in 1930. Of course, Mabel was the first actor/actress to have her/his own studio. You might even call Mabel the ‘star’s star’ such was the position she held among their peers. Can you get bigger than that? Let’s leave the last word to big star Anita Garvin, who grew up watching Mabel’s films:

She was every bit as popular a star as Mary Pickford, and perhaps even more so.”

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Q3. I am puzzled by the contention that Mabel Normand was adored, worshipped and put on a pedestal by her fellow actresses. Please explain.

A. This is all tied in with the fact that the movie industry was very different in 1910 than it is today. If stage actresses were regarded as scarlet women, then, their movie counterparts were regarded as outright whores. No actress would dare enter any studio, like the Biograph, without looking around to make sure none of their neighbours was in the vicinity. Consequently, the actresses stuck together for moral support, and the Biograph became such a friendly place that everyone was on first name terms. The director, of course, was the enemy, and Mabel was the first (if not the only) actress to sass him, humiliate him, and generally abuse him. As a result, she became the heroine of the studio, but, when she started to daredevil, ride bucking broncos, and perform high dives, they became enthralled with her – she was the embodiment of the emancipated woman. Her personification of the emancipated woman, drew the attention of Mack Sennett, who was shrewd enough (unlike Griffith) to realize there was money to be earned from ‘the coming woman’.  The Biograph girls, who became the later stars of Hollywood, remained resolute against the producers, and took them to the proverbial cleaners. It was not until the silent era ended that the big producers were able to divest themselves of Mabel and ‘those meddlesome women’.

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Close but never lovers.

Q4. How can you be so sure, Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand were not lovers, when most people think they were?

A. It is one thing thinking they were lovers, and another to prove it. The main source of Mack and Mabel, the doomed lovers, was Mack Sennett himself. Ever the showman, he set out to revitalize his career in the late 30s, the 40s, through into the 50s, on the back of Mabel’s memory. This culminated in his autobiography, in which there is no word of truth, according to Louise Brooks. During the 1910s, the indications that Mack and Mabel were an item, drifted from Keystone studios, but this seemed to have resulted from the deft use of smoke and mirrors rather than anything else. Sennett, however, had Mabel followed everywhere, and his private dicks had her under surveillance 24/7, not because he loved her, but because he thought her to be his own personal property. He had created the screen Mabel (so he thought), while Mabel thought Keystone had been created off of her back – as Minta Arbuckle tells us “He worked her almost to death.” Mabel never thought she owned Sennett, she thought she owned someone else. His name was Charlie Chaplin.

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Chas and Mabel. Friends forever.

 

Q5. There seems to be something wrong in these blogs, in that the balance between Mabel and Charlie Chaplin, and some others stars, like Mary Pickford, seems inverted?

A. Presumably you think Mabel has been placed above ‘big’ stars like Chaplin and Pickford. Now, and we have to be quite clear about this, Mabel was not just a slapstick idiot who merely ran around a set kicking people in the ass. She was, unlike Charlie Chaplin, a trained actress, and trained by none other than D.W. Griffith. Although intensively trained, she was also, unlike Mary Pickford, a natural born actress (and an exhibitionist of the first order). Mabel is famous for her lightning quick, and seamless, changes of facial expression. Griffith spent many hours working on this aspect of her performance, but the curious thing is that she needed none of this. The Genius was, above all, a cruel tyrant, and one of his favourite occupations was trying to ‘break’ actresses. He kept on at Mabel, hoping she would crack – she never did. Griffith greatly enjoyed firing pistols over his girls’ heads (the Gish sisters), throwing girls bodily across the set (Mary Pickford), and kneeing them off the stage (Blanche Sweet). Mary Pickford was a trained stage actress, trained by none other than impresario David Belasco. However, Miss Pickford was never a natural actress, and, alongside Mabel, in The Mender of Nets she seems wooden and stiff. Unsurprisingly, Mary never appeared with Mabel again. She later gave Mabel the complement of being the world’s greatest tragedienne, and in her autobiography, Mary admits she was no actress, but scored by spending endless hours on her hair, using three different types of roller, and bearing the pain of sleeping in them. Other actresses, Mabel etc., must have wondered why they’d never thought of that.

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Trouble for Mabel and Roscoe in 1922.

 

Q6. I have read that, when Mabel was in trouble in the 1920s, many actresses rallied to her defence, but the big producers, that had the power to help her, remained silent. This seems not a little odd.

A. Odd indeed, unless you know Mabel’s history with the producers. This may be a longish treatise, but there is no easy answer. The fact is that Mabel had built up a not-too-good reputation among the big wheels of the industry. Firstly, she was known to abuse and ridicule anyone in authority – producers, directors, and probably police officers too. She fell foul, to some extent, of D.W. Griffith, with the powers that be at Vitagraph, and those at the Reliance studio. Of course, she circumvented all of this, by throwing in her lot with Mack Sennett. However, the producers were still out there, and they had grown big, and awaited their chance to strike back. One guy that might have had it in for her, possibly, was Adolph Zuckor, who could have blamed her for the problems created for the Triangle company, by the demise of the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company.

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Mabel with Adolph, the only guy in movies who was actually shorter than her (spoof).

Zuckor, who picked up the pieces of Triangle, was not happy that he also picked up thousands of feet of raw, unedited film, shot for Mabel’s film, initially called Mountain Bred. He spent two years readying the film for release, which obviously cost a huge amount of money and resources. Zuckor probably remembered that Mabel had once threatened to ‘brain’ His Highness, with a heavy book. Fortunately, for him, he made several million dollars from the film, and he named the picture, ‘Mickey’, which was his daughter’s nickname. Beyond the MNFFC, it was obvious that Mabel was a figurehead for the actors, and, to a greater extent, the actresses in Hollywood. Being a heroine to those the producers considered to represent the bottom rung of the industry, Mabel was thought to be a linchpin in the perpetuation of the ‘star system’, which led to mere actors and actresses being paid exorbitant salaries. In her early years with Sennett, she demanded a high salary (although she cared little for money itself), costume money, and even day to day living expenses. Most importantly, she fought the corner for ‘the little guy’ at the studio, forcing Mack Sennett to pay workers sick and holiday pay. She was also entirely responsible for the pay rises Charlie Chaplin enjoyed at Keystone. Naturally, the big guys were fully aware of Mabel’s antics at Keystone, and conspired to keep her out of the top studios. In 1919, with Mabel coincidently side-lined at Goldwyn, the top producers prepared to strike at the heart of ‘the star system’, and sweep the ‘old guard’ stars away. Only the formation of United Artists by Fairbanks, Pickford, Griffith and Chaplin, prevented them from swinging their axe. All four  had been on the producers’ hit list.

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Fairbanks, Chaplin, Griffith, Pickford create United Artists, 1919.

In 1921 everything went awry for Hollywood, when Roscoe Arbuckle was arrested for murder. Later acquitted, it was in early 1922 that Mabel herself came under the scrutiny of the authorities, when her friend (or lover) W.D. Taylor, a Paramount director, was murdered. Neither Zuckor, nor any of his ilk, lifted a finger to help, or defend, either her or Arbuckle. Only Sennett helped, but he always kept one leg astride the fence, just in case everything went against the pair. Zuckor was the first to send a ‘squad’ to Taylor’s house, and clear out any evidence that might go against his studio. Then, he set about clearing Paramount of anyone that had known Taylor. Clair Windsor had only just started at the studio, but Zuckor fired her for having once attended a dinner with Taylor, although he later reinstated her. Of course, he was only trying to keep Hollywood clean, or was he? In 1920, the same year that stars Olive Thomas, Bobby Harron, and Clarine Seymour died in mysterious circumstances, there was something of a scandal, when a call girl, brought to a makeshift party attended by Zuckor, certain other movie moguls and Roscoe Arbuckle, lodged a complaint that she, an innocent girl, had been lured there for immoral purposes.

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1920: A bad year for Hollywood. Left to Right: Clarine Seymour, Olive Thomas, Bobby Harron.

 

Copious amounts of cash then flowed, and the whole ‘problem’ disappeared. Zuckor, then, had no right to criticize anyone, and instead of sending in the Morals Police, under Will Hayes, against Mabel and other stars, he should have set them on himself. In 1924, Mabel was again in trouble, after her chauffeur shot the millionaire boyfriend, Courtland Dines. Things were much worse, and even Mack Sennett, edged away from her. However, Mabel soldiered on, pocketing a couple of million dollars from the Extra Girl profits share, and a nation-wide stage tour. Mack hadn’t totally abandoned Mabel, and he sought to bring her back for a new extravagant feature film. The deal fell through, as Hollywood friends had arranged a contract with Hal Roach for 1926, where she joined Stan Laurel, F. Richard Jones, ‘Babe’ Hardy and Anita Garvin. In 1930, the big moguls had to shut their studios for the day, and eat humble pie by attending the funeral of one Mabel Normand.

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Q7. I see nothing in these blogs that Mabel was a spoiled brat at Keystone that got everything she wanted, pushed other actresses aside, and grabbed the best parts.

A. Unfortunately, you have answered your own question in the last sentence. Yes, Mabel did push actresses aside, and did grab the best roles. The words ‘push aside’ and ‘grab’ tell you that she was never given anything – she TOOK what she wanted. There are two reasons why she should not be pilloried for this. Firstly, this was the cut-throat nature of the business, and, secondly, she was effectively a partner in the Keystone business, and, although she had no share in the company, she considered herself an equal shareholder, alongside Kessell, Baumann, Sennett and Ince. The reason for this is obvious – she’d all but worked herself to death, in order to make the studio successful, and when Sennett came to make his will in 1919, he left all his worldly goods to:

“Mabel Normand, who collaborated with me during the early years of my work, and contributed to my later success.”

Sennett left everything to Mabel, not because he loved her, but because he realized they had conquered the world together, something neither could have done alone.

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“Mabel was crude and vulgar.” Gloria Swanson.

Q8. As I have read that Mabel Normand was a foul-mouthed gutter-snipe, an alcoholic, a philanderer, a murderer, and a drug-addict, I cannot understand how a series of blogs can be constructed, about someone that was bad, bad, bad.

A. This question is similar to number 1, but different enough to require a separate answer. The question about Mabel’s character can be settled with another question: “So What?” Cussing and boozing are common enough, and Mabel only put herself around as a single woman, so the word philanderer does not apply here. As for her being a murderer, we can only say “Prove it!” and there is no proof yet. The same applies to drug-taking / addiction. The real source of this was journalist Hedda Hopper, who was one of the biggest liars in Hollywood, and is herself under present-day scrutiny. Minta Arbuckle claimed that Mabel was taking a ‘goop’ to counter the effects of her tuberculosis, her coughing up of blood being the chief symptom. What was in the ‘goop’ is a matter for conjecture, but, in all probability, it probably contained, as today, either cocaine of some kind of opiate. Heroin? Highly unlikely.

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How the press saw Mabel and co. on and off screen.

Q9. I have read in the blogs that there is a memorial to Mabel someplace. Where is it and can I go and see it?

A. The memorial plaque is quite impressive, being above three feet high,  over 2 feet wide, and weighing in at 300 pounds (solid bronze). It was erected by Republic Studios, successors to Mack Sennett Studios, out at Studio City L.A (now known as the CBS Studio Centre). As to whether the public can visit the studio, there is no information. However, The Mabel Normand Studio, out on Fountain Avenue, Silver Lake, can still be visited, under certain circumstances. Like the Republic plaque, it is very impressive, having a floor space of 25,000 square feet, and a massive basement. Mabel’s dressing room, garden and balcony, overlooking the main stage, still exist in the northeastern corner. The present owner is Jesse Rogg.

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MANIPULATING CHARLIE CHAPLIN.

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“Come on Charlie, kiss me”.

No apologies are due for bringing up Charlie Chaplin in these blogs. Two men loomed large in Mabel Normand’s life story – Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin. The idea that Mabel was a female Charlie Chaplin is erroneous, but she was, perhaps, a female Mack Sennett. Mack Sennett was the patriarchal figure that was held in awe by his employees. However, he was also a competent schemer, and some of his actions are judged to have verged on the criminal. Mabel took on some of Mack’s attributes, but used her hypnotic personality to win allies, and smooth her professional path. It was into this hall of smoke and mirrors that Charlie Chaplin was decanted in late 1913.

Charlie in Edendale.

Chaplin, as many people know, was not an actor, as such. A product of the English Music Hall, he was a gagster, a knockabout comic. The Music Hall in America was virtually non-existent, and the Federal, State and City authorities were very much against these low forms of theatre, with their disgusting acts, relying mainly on cheap innuendo. When Music Hall star Marie Lloyd came to the States in 1913, she was immediately arrested and jailed by the New York authorities, for ‘Moral Turpitude’. This might have worried Chaplin, who wished to stay in the U.S., so when movie men Adam Kessell and Charles Baumann offered him a job with Keystone, he ripped their arms off. Good music hall men were much in demand by the comedy studios, as they carried huge numbers of gags in their heads, and knew which gags would work in a particular situation. Clearly, this saved the wastage of much expensive film, as gags could be thrown in without financial risk.

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Mabel in drama. Finding Mary Pickford in the arms of her boyfriend. Mender of Nets.

Drama and Slapstick.

It was unfortunate that Chaplin came to Keystone in 1913, and not 1912, for the studio was in a state of change. Mack was dreaming of comedy features of an hour-and-a-half in length, while his star-of-stars, the inimitable Mabel, wished to make more dramatic films, with solid story lines. Chaplin had seen the Keystones, and he was under the impression that he could fall straight into the slapstick, and, perhaps, even steal the limelight. He might even snatch the, oh so pretty, Keystone Girl for himself. However, he was in for a shock when he first met Mack and Mabel outside a Los Angeles theatre. Mack was far from friendly, and Mabel seemed distant and ambivalent. They went to a restaurant for a meal, where Mack revealed his reservations about Chas. Although Mack said that Charlie appeared too young, he did not make known his true reasons for thinking him too young. Mack was shrewd and had kept Mabel in a kind of bubble, in which she was surrounded by men that were either married or quadragenarians plus.

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Surrounded by old men. Keystone 1913.

Greatly alarmed was the crafty Mack, when he perceived some chemistry between his young star, and the equally young vaudevillian. Mabel remained relatively quiet during the dinner, but she was someone that wore her heart on her sleeve, and the signals were obvious. Following the dinner, Mack went back to his hotel, wired his New York bosses, and demanded that Chaplin’s contract be rescinded. Meanwhile, Mabel went home, and dreamed of Burlington Charlie from Bow. The only person in Hollywood, who’d seen Chas in real life before that day, was Mary Pickford, and he’d had her and her friends swooning over his bohemian poet appearance, as actresses are wont to do. She undoubtedly reported this sighting to Mabel and, perhaps, to Mack as well. What was going through Mabel’s mind that night? Apart from falling head over heels for Charlie, she probably imagined she could use him to further her career, as she’d used Sennett in the past. If this does not make complete sense today, it made complete sense in Edwardian America, where a woman had to be carried along by a man. The girls at Biograph, on the advice of their stage mothers, put their trust in the studio’s D.W. Griffith, while Mabel took a slightly different route, and put her life in the hands of Mack Sennett. Mabel was a rarity at Biograph, in that she steadfastly refused to change her name, while others changed to Blanche Sweet, Mary Pickford and Bessie Love. Of course, ‘Mabel’ was acceptable enough, and Edwardians knew that it was Latin for ‘loveable’, but Normand, although French, has an air of the un-exotic Anglo-Saxon about it. It is curious, then, that she did not take a fully French name, like Rennee Adoree, which was then still available. Adoree, like Mabel, meaning ‘(be) loved child’ and Renee something similar to ‘reborn’.

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Eventual bearer of a famous name. Renee Adoree

Thus, it came to pass that Hollywood’s greatest star, and the first actress to have her name over a studio, had a very bland and ordinary name. Possibly, Mack had advised her not to listen to Griffith, and may have encouraged her baiting of and irreverence towards the ‘Genius’. Pertinent to the story of Mack and Mabel, is the fact that the other girls at Biograph pleaded with her not to depart for Los Angeles with “that Irish madman.” This might have been sheer selfishness, as no-one wanted to lose the girl from Staten Island, who was the only actress that had stood firm against the tyrant Griffith. However, they could not be blamed for thinking that things could turn out very bad indeed for their friend. In Mabel’s mind, she was making a smart move, and believed in Sennett’s statement that he would make her a star. And he did, in double-quick time. While the Biograph girls were floundering around, and making wrong moves (as Mary Pickford did) Mabel straight-lined to the top, and found herself competing, not against movie people, but the greatest theatrical stars of the age.

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Only the biggest of stars gets to have her own studio. East Hollywood 1916.

Back at the Keystone Studio, Chaplin had arrived, but he was a very worried man. It was clear Sennett hated his guts, and following on from the latest Mack and Mabel film, in which Mack hunted down a tin-type that had run off with Mabel, he could be shot, and, of course, Charlie was there, apart from anything else, to lay insolent hands on Sennett’s star. When Chas eventually dared to enter the lot, he was kept hanging around without a role for four weeks. During this time, he saw little of Mabel, who was kept away from the limey, then both Mack and Mabel were away on location, making Cohen Saves the Flag and parts of other films. Much of this film was made out at Thomas Ince’s studio in Santa Monica, and presumably made use of Ince’s telephone to contact Keystone, with a view to giving Chaplin his marching orders.

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Where it all began. Keystone before Keystone. 1906.

On Sennett’s return, Chaplin was put to work with Henri Lehrman and George Nichols to do a few lacklustre films. Again, he only saw Mabel briefly, and, sometime in February, he saw her on a hotel set in her pajamas banging on a door shouting “Let me in!” Chaplin, for obvious reasons, got very close to the set, wearing a Mack Sennett-like hobo outfit, which he was going to use in a shoot out at Venice. At this point, Sennett called Chaplin onto the set to try a few gags – which is what he was paid for. Now, it would have been interesting to have been a fly on the wall at that shoot, for Mabel’s face would have been a picture. There is no doubt that this film was to be the first of a series in which she would step out as a dramatic artist. The clue is the costume she wears, which is not Edwardian, but historical, and dates back to the mid-19th century, or a little earlier.

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Mabel goes ‘period’. Mabel’s Strange Predicament.

However, Charlie did a good turn on the floor, and after a pat on the back, Charlie was off to Venice to shoot Kid Auto Races At Venice. Shooting at Keystone continued, but not very successfully, and it seems Mabel’s attempt at dramatic comedy did not please Sennett. Mabel would have been distraught, as it seemed now that she’d given up a promising dramatic career for mere stardom. Sure, she was the darling of her Hollywood friends, but none of them would have wanted to ridicule themselves in slapstick comedy. On Chaplin’s return, the plot was rearranged to include the limey, who was needed to gag the whole thing up. Mabel, naturally, was as delightful as ever, but another dynamic was needed. Mabel’s screen boyfriend, Harry McCoy, simply would not do. The rejigging of scenes, led to discrepancies in the finished product, which can still be seen today. Clearly, the Chaplin scenes were inserted among those already finished. The completed film was very good, and Charlie complemented Mabel better than could have been imagined. Unfortunately, the excreta would have hit the fan, when the film was first shown. Although Mabel had seen the rushes, it probably came as a shock, when she saw the film in a downtown theatre with some of her friends. The first scene came on, with Charlie and Mabel in a hotel lobby together. Then Mabel left, and Charlie had 40 seconds of the first scene to himself, and this was bad news, as she’d been made a fool of in front of her friends – her name was in the title but she did not get the first scene. This would explain why Mabel and Charlie did not appear together for two months.

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Luckiest man in Hollywood. Charlie corners Mabel in her pajamas.

There seems little doubt that Chaplin’s first scene heroics were due to the intervention of NYMPs Kessell and Baumann, who seem to have foreseen trouble, when they dictated that Charlie be in the dramatic comedy Mabel At The Wheel. Charlie Baumann was in L.A. on business, as shooting began on the film, and he’d wisely sent daughter, Ada, along as an ‘extra’.  Mabel had been given as much free reign on the contents of the picture, as Mack would allow. She would direct, as she wanted a film, which followed a strict story-line. The background to the film was that of the emancipated woman, a theme that Sennett had built his and Mabel’s reputation on. It is worth reflecting here, upon the general situation in the movie industry at that time. Directors, like southern gentleman D.W. Griffith, hired actresses to beautify his pictures, and he portrayed them as helpless, mindless creatures that needed a man to support them. When Lillian Gish risked her life out on the floating ice in Way Down East it was, significantly, a man that heroically rescued her. This was not the kind of scenario that Mack and Mabel wanted to use, and, indeed, Mabel showed genius Griffith, that wife-beater and serial chucker of actresses, nothing but contempt (much to the amusement of the other girls).

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Mabel directs as an amused Dick Jones looks on (1923)

Consequently, when the egotistical and misogynistic Chaplin walked on the set, he was shocked to see Mabel behind the camera, and giving the orders. When he tried to suggest some funny business, to gag the movie up, he was told to “shut it”. Then she said those immortal words “This is not a film about being funny with a hose!” She was right, this was a film about a girl, and a pretty one, who takes the men on in an arduous 200-mile car race in Santa Monica, and wins. Charlie had no option but to comply, as standing behind Mabel were a host of burly labourers, carpenters and set-shifters, who would have loved to alter Mr. ‘Big-Head Chaplin’s physiognomy.

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D.W. Griffith directing 1920.

This was the essence of Mabel’s success – she could carry everyone on the lot with her, and was not afraid to back the workers against the big-bad producer. Her popularity, however, would work against her as a director. A director has no friends, has to shout and bawl, and crush egos underfoot. Could she really stamp on her friends, those that had raised her to such dizzy heights? In any event, when Baumann heard that shooting had been held up, he read the riot act, ordered that Charlie get off his high horse, and that Mabel to include some of his gags, however much she hated and despised them. It seems clear that the account Chaplin gave in his autobiography, of Mack and Mabel keeling over and handing him directorship is total egotistical nonsense. Chaplin was firmly in his place, was not permitted to wear the tramp’s costume, and had no influence on the story-line of the film, but he could suggest gags, which might, or might not, be accepted by the director (Mabel).

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Mabel and Charlie ride out in Mabel At The Wheel.

Following the Mabel At The Wheel debacle, Charlie was allowed to don his tramp’s outfit, and suggestions (or perhaps orders) came from New York that Chaplin, who was, by no means, an actor of any kind, be given every help to understand the movie business. Mack Sennett would not do this, but Mabel volunteered to take Charlie under her wing. Thus, it came to pass that Charlie was a constant visitor to Mabel’s dressing room, resplendent with its lovely garden. This was most gracious of the Queen of Keystone, but Mabel had an ulterior motive. If she could mould Charlie in her image, and make him see things her way, perhaps they could break out of Jailhouse Keystone, and make Hollywood their playground. Mabel had not started on an equal footing with Mack, and, although she just about worked herself to death, she held no stake in the studio, but she could start all over with Charlie on equal terms.

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Chaplin learned the movie business in Mabel’s dressing room inside this bungalow.

It wasn’t long before Mabel realized that, with Charlie, she was looking at a mirror image of herself. Charlie was self-centred, shy, rather peculiar, and spoke little. This was the Mabel of five years back, but she’d fought against her difficulties, and become the toast of Biograph studios, for whom anyone would die. Charlie was very rough around the edges, and had not been popular at his old Karno Company, so it was hardly surprising that the unwashed limey was not popular at Keystone. In fact, it is said that some members of the company, including Mabel, would waylay Charlie, and throw buckets of water over him, in the hope he would get the idea, and take a bath. He never did, and Minta Arbuckle recorded later that Chas was “Plenty dirty.” However, Mabel began to coach Charlie in the art of ‘getting along’.

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Chaplin and Minta Arbuckle. “He was plenty dirty.”

 Mabel had needed to pay attention to the way that she related to others, and it is likely that she suffered from a manic form of depression, while Charlie seems to have suffered likewise. At this distance in time, it is impossible to discover the underlying causes, but Mabel showed signs of Autism and ADHD. As for Charlie, he appears to have been bi-polar, and Stan Laurel (who was Charlie’s roommate for longer than most of his wives) was convinced he was “insane”. Contrary to what many people think, Charlie did not have a ‘cockney accent’ at this point – he had, in fact, developed a kind of aristocratic, Cavendish Square way of speaking. Unfortunately, his high-handed manner and attitude did not match the accent, and socially he was an outsider. Mabel, for her part, is said to have had a Brooklyn accent, slightly coloured by a smattering of ‘Bronx’. Unsurprisingly, and in very quick time, she began to adopt Charlie’s upper-crust mode of speaking, but never ‘lorded it’ over her colleagues. By 1924 the press could report that Mabel was a fully paid-up member of the ‘Cavendish set’.

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Mabel testifying in court for the Dines’ shooting trial in 1924.

 

Prior to Mabel At The Wheel, Charlie had appeared in several reasonably good films, in one of which Mabel appeared in cameo, as a face on a Keystone poster. In these films, he was put with several attractive leading ladies. Chas began to get romantically involved with one of these, Peggy Pearce, but soon Mabel was ready to strike, and took Chas on board for a leading part in Caught in A Cabaret. For his previous film Twenty Minutes of Love Charlie had been allowed to direct, but this one was a Mabel film, and she was directing. In this film Mabel played a rare part as a debutante, while Charlie played a lowly waiter with aspirations of being the Prime Minister of Greenland, as his calling card clearly said. Mabel was ravishingly beautiful in the picture, and the audience was clearly conned into believing she and Charlie were an item.

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Falling for the Prime Minister of Greenland (Caught In A Cabaret).

In all probability this was what Mabel intended, and it was about this time that Peggy Pearce disappeared out of Chaplin’s life, and, soon after, out of Keystone. It is not clear if Mabel was somehow behind this, but it is true to say that no-one messed with ‘The Keystone Girl’ so there is a suspicion that Mabel was involved somehow. Chaplin, however, had had a pick of beauties for Caught in The Rain, like Peggy Page and the buxom Alice Howell. However, he did his bedroom scene with the 50 year-old Alice Davenport (mother of Dorothy) who was probably not the apple of his eye.

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Charlie meets Alice Davenport.

It appears that Mack Sennett called Mabel and Charlie together for The Fatal Mallet, which was not a film that Mabel really wanted to do at that point. Although hilariously funny, it consisted mainly of Charlie and Mabel getting kicked in the rear, and assorted actors being hit over their heads with mallets. Chaplin is credited as director of this film, which is not terribly clever, and clearly demonstrates that Chaplin was deep in his ‘knockabout’ period. It must be assumed that it was Chaplin’s idea that Mabel appear happy with being fondled by an 8 year-old boy. When Charlie gets upset with his miniscule competitor’s challenge for Mabel’s affections, he drop-kicks the kid and sends him sprawling. This was Charlie’s modus operandum at that time. The eagle eyed might have notice that the letters I.W.W. were scrawled on a shed, indicating, perhaps, that it functioned as a local headquarters for the Industrial Workers of The World, a socialist organization that worried governments all over the world. Charlie, Mack and Mabel were staunch socialists (if not anarchists), although Mack later turned traitor and went over to ‘the other side’.

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Coster girl Mabel gives as good as she gets (Mabel’s Busy Day)

Beyond Fatal Mallet, there was Mabel’s Busy Day, which can be seen as part of Mabel’s new wave movie experiment. Chaplin was joint director, but he must have been surprised at Mabel’s insistence on introducing a high level of dramatic tragedy into the script. The limey probably learned, for the first time, that Mabel was a Griffith-trained dramatic actress and tragedienne (the best there was, according to Mary Pickford). He also discovered that Mabel had trained for comedy under none other than the great John Bunny and Flora Finch. The shock to Chaplin was certainly palpable, and he came to realize that Mabel was not the  ‘dumb broad’ from the Lower East Side, he’d previously supposed. Mabel, when she’d previously played tragic parts (designed to draw attention to social injustice) had usually played a domestic skivvy, or ‘slavey’. In this film we see Mabel as a street vending girl, or coster-girl, as Charlie would have said. As we know Mabel had spent a lot of time walking around the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and the type of girl she played in the film was well known to her. She described the vending girl, as a poor, tragic figure, but one who (in the ‘coster’ tradition) was brimming with confidence, although her clothes were tattered and her leg of mutton-sleeved bodice and pompous hat were cast offs from 30 years earlier.

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Kicked in the ass by Charlie Chaplin boots. Mabel’s Busy Day.

For footwear, she wears enormous shoes, of a type that would make any tramp green with envy. They would also, probably, have turned Chaplin green with envy, and we must here consider whether she stole the idea from Chaplin. If she did not, then we are left with the idea that Mabel created Chaplin’s tramp character that carried him to fame and fortune. Ridiculous? Not really, because when Chaplin came to Keystone, he did not have a character that he could effectively transfer to films. Other Keystoners had developed strong characters. Ford Sterling was the mad Dutchman, who gabbled crazily in double Dutch mime, Mack Swain was the scary, bug-eyed, but soft-centred giant. Harry McCoy drew the short straw, so to speak, and played the bland lower middle-class nerd. Chaplin had nothing except the drunk, who was not really a perennial character. Behind the scenes, Mack Sennett and his subordinates were scrabbling to give the limey a character, not because they wanted to, but because New York insisted.

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Chaplin vs Mack Swain (His Trysting Place).

On the day of shooting Mabel’s Strange Predicament, did Mabel advise the new boy to take on Sennett’s hobo-like character, but anglicised by the addition of the boots of an English tramp? (Footnote). One suspects that Mack and Mabel had more to do with the tramp than is usually supposed. The film Mabel’s Busy Day was met with outrage by the critical press. They got all hot and bothered about the excessive violence (women kicked in the rear, men punched, police officers assaulted / ridiculed, and a mad woman running around with a big knife. We’ve seen that Mabel introduced tragedy and melancholy into the film, so why the violence? It is likely that Sennett introduced excessive violence, in order to balance out the sad stuff. Mabel was wrong, you could not have a huge amount of melancholy in a comedy. 

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Madcap loose with a knife. Mabel’s Busy Day.

Was Chaplin now being drawn, like so many others, into the black widow’s web? Undoubtedly he was, but, while Chaplin received help to immerse himself in the movies, Mabel gained moral support from someone, not so much allied to Sennett, but to the big, important bosses back east. This was crucial to Mabel, for her future career development. The evidence suggests that Kessell and Baumann dearly wanted Mabel at their studio, but for contractual reasons, Mack had complete control of his Keystone Girl. Poor old Charlie was in a strange predicament, floating in the ether, between Mack and NYMP, only being pulled to earth by little girl Mabel. It is highly likely that Charlie was aware of his descent into Mabel’s sticky web, but the advantages were clear – Mabel fought his corner against Sennett, Mabel arranged his pay rises, Mabel brought Charlie to Hollywood society, Mabel did everything except wipe his backside (perhaps).

Immediately following Mabel’s Busy Day, Mabel and Charlie began Mabel’s Married Life, replete with melancholy on the part of Mabel. The sadness comes from Mabel being hitched to a totally useless Charlie, so useless in fact, that, whenever the pair walk in the park, the local toughs kick his hide around. Eventually, Mabel storms off from the park, but buys a rocking punch bag, that looks like Charlie’s main assailant. Back home, she thinks about her hopeless husband, and imitates his shuffling tramp walk. She then, slips into her pajamas, which no doubt delighted her audience. To keep it brief, the rest of the film is just crazy slapstick, revolving around the punch bag, with Mabel unable to provide much melancholy, although there is a little titillating stuff, where Mabel gets caught in her pajamas by two delivery men, and Mabel does a wiggling walk in her jim-jams.

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“He’s hopeless, hopeless. I need a REAL man.” (Mabel’s Married life).

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Mabel does a cameo for The Masquerader.

Moving on, there followed four films, in which Mabel did not appear with Charlie. Probably greatly annoyed, Mabel grabbed a cameo part in The Masquerader, although Chaplin might have asked for this. However, five films followed, in which Mabel played no part. One can imagine that tensions built up within Mabel, as she saw the tramp take on leading ladies like Cecile Arnold, Dixie Chene, and Peggy Page. None of these got closer to Charlie than Peggy Page, and, if Mabel had done her homework, she’d have realized that Peggy hailed from a notorious family of gold-diggers, the Carruthers gang, and her mother and sister were constantly around the studio. One person associated with this family had already died under mysterious circumstances in Texas, so Mabel had to take extreme care. Mabel, of course, was the fearless high diver and rider of bucking broncos, so a gold-digger with a pistol, held no real terrors for her. Mabel took the female lead in Gentlemen of Nerve, a racetrack film, which was right up Mabel’s street, she being, of course, the lover of race car drivers Earl Cooper and ‘Terrible’ Teddy Tetzlaff.

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Mabel goes all gooey over ‘Terrible’ Teddy Tetzlaff (Speed Kings 1913).

Peggy Page (who has been identified as Helen or Gladys Carruthers) was most annoyed at Mabel taking the lead. Sitting in the stands as an extra, she is very displeased that Mabel is all over Charlie, and fluttering those two-inch long eyelashes at him. Unusually Mabel is carrying a small box-like ‘fashion’ bag. Could there have been a small calibre pistol within? Mabel skips Chaplin’s His Musical Career, but returns for His Trysting Place, where she supplies some melancholy in the form of  a harrassed wife. Both Charlie and Mabel are then thrown into the big feature film Tillies Punctured Romance in which Charlie, deprived of his tramp’s uniform, appears much shrunken and uncomfortable between Mabel and Marie Dressler.

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Girl about town and gangster’s moll, Mabel, measures up Marie Dressler (Tillie’s Punctured Romance).

Mabel, however, excels, and, for the first time, plays a girl of her own age, and a crook’s moll to boot. This film much unsettled Charlie, who later said of the movie “It had little merit.” It may have had little merit, but reviewers of the film wrote that audiences went crazy when Mabel finally appeared, walking into camera view through a garden gate. Mabel did not appear in the first part of the film, and we might suspect this was a contrivance of Mack, and, possibly, Mabel to knock the steam out of Charlie and Marie. In spite of what Mack later said, he wasn’t directly responsible for bringing Charlie or Marie to the movies. That was done by Kessell and Baumann – Mack hated vaudevillians with a vengeance.

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Mabel takes the wheel of vaudevillian Raymond Hitchcock’s Rolls Royce. He and his wife were great friends of Mabel. Great friends indeed, if they let her pilot their ‘Roller’.

If Charlie thought he could escape Mabel, he was wrong. In Getting Acquainted, he again played male lead to Mabel, who did the clever stuff, while Charlie got into the slapstick. Basically, the film was about naughty husbands, Charlie and Mack Swain, who run amok in a park. It is notable for Chas and Mabel getting a bit risque, when Chas lifts Mabel’s skirts to knee level. Somehow, Mack let this through, although, normally, he would not permit the Keystone Girl to be so exposed. We might read this, as Charlie and Mabel giving Mack ‘the finger’. So far so good, as far as Mabel was concerned, but she graciously moved aside for Peggy Page in the next film, His Prehistoric Past. The film involved the wearing of a career-destroying grass skirt, so perhaps Mabel was not so gracious after all. No more was heard of Peggy (or Helen/ Gladys) until she turned up in a Portland hospital having, allegedly, swallowed bichloride of mercury. Less than ten years later she tumbled from the 5th floor window of a New York hotel. She’d apparently gained the title of Baroness by that time – now that’s gold-digging!  

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Peggy Page dons the dreaded grass skirt for His Prehistoric Past.

With the completion of His Prehistoric Past, Charlie began packing his bags, and after a final dinner with Mabel, at which many tears were shed, the tramp was gone, not to Hollywood, but to Chicago, 2,000 miles away.

A Study in Manipulation.

Mabel, as we have seen, was a master of manipulation. Her astonishing rise to the top, within the embryo motion picture industry, was due, partly, to her ability to carry everyone with her. She’d captured hearts and minds and minds at Biograph, made everyone love her, but when she went to Vitagraph, her ego began to expand exponentially, giving her the idea that she was untouchable. Consequently, she became very, let’s say, delinquent, but when she began exposing herself at the windows she was fired by the management. Her friends might have found it a giggle – her paymasters did not. A few hours at Reliance ended in dismissal for ‘unacceptable behaviour’. Returning to Biograph, she was older and shrewder, if not a little bolder. She now knew what she could and couldn’t get away with, and she promoted herself as a wild child, but one that was god-fearing and wholesome by nature.

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Mack & Mabel as the cartoonist saw them.

She threw her lot in with Mack Sennett, while other actresses clamoured to climb onto D.W. Griffth’s casting couch (and if they didn’t their stage-mothers threw them on). Mabel did not ignore ‘the genius’, she sassed and ridiculed ‘old hook-nose’ as she called him. Although Sennett was a svengali-like figure, it is likely Mabel manipulated him for her own purposes. She intended to rocket to the top, and Mack would help her. Thus, it came to pass that, by 1914, they were the biggest couple in Hollywood. There were, however, problems, mostly due to Mabel considering herself a partner in the business, but suddenly realizing she was just an employee. She’d concentrated on being a star, but now understood that this was not enough. Chaplin had understood, and now he’d gone on to pursue wider horizons. Why was Chaplin able to move on, as actor / director / producer, after just one year in the movies? The answer, of course, is that Chaplin was a man, and, therefore, acceptable to the producer society that controlled the industry. More specifically, he was a man that could have given Mabel a route out of the rat-trap that was Keystone. There is no doubt that Mabel felt betrayed, after all the help she’d given Charlie, he’d dumped her – without ceremony. 

We do now need to consider Chaplin’s point of view. In his autobiography he says that he did not want to leave Keystone, even for more money. Why should he leave, when he had the attentions of the most desirable girl in the world, who, furthermore, spoon-fed him, and even arranged his pay rises? There are two answers. Firstly, Charlie felt smothered by Mabel (as Mack smothered her) and, alongside her, he looked curiously shrunken, and irrelevant. If he took her with him he’d be a mere foil to Mabel. The second point is that, from Mack’s point of view, Chaplin WAS leaving, if not of his own accord, then at the point of a gun barrel. Kessell and Baumann had authorized Sennett to make an offer of $1,000 a week to Chaplin, but Sennett made the contract so convoluted that Chaplin had no option but to turn it down. 

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Big boss Adam Kesssell visits Keystone in 1915 to ‘tidy the place up’. Left to Right: Mack Sennett, Mabel, Adam Kessell, Ford Sterling.

When Chaplin left, Mabel was furious, but blamed Mack more than Charlie, who had now escaped Mabel’s wrath by making sure he went out of L.A., indeed, out of California all together. This threw some other actresses that tried to follow him, and they went, in error, to Essanay, Niles, instead of Essanay, Chicago. Mabel really blew up, when Charlie (after trying Gloria Swanson), engaged a non-acting college girl, called Edna Purviance, to be his permanent leading lady. Edna was in HER place! Of course, Charlie inevitably returned to L.A. and here his problems really began. Whenever Charlie was out in a restaurant, or other public place, Mabel would stand up, point to him, and shout “Charlie! I’ll be your leading lady yet!” Naturally, everyone present would fall about laughing – Chaplin had few, if any, friends in the movie colony, while Mabel was universally adored, and could get away with anything. In any event, Mabel kept Charlie close, and when he married her new friend Mildred Harris, Mabel just waltzed into their life, without a ‘by your leave’. There were always Mabel parties to attend, including one snowballing party atop of Mount Lowe. It seems Mabel had instructed Charlie well, in the art of socializing, for they often formed a comedy duet to keep folks jolly at parties. There is a story that Charlie once met Mabel in the strongroom of a bank, where they both had safe deposit boxes. Charlie is said to have told Mabel:

“Mabel, I’ve made several thousand dollars, and I owe it all to you. If you ever need any of of it, just shout and I’ll come running.”

Things ran this way for many years, with Chaplin constantly aware of his treachery, but unable to make his peace with Mabel. When Mabel ran into big trouble and health troubles at Goldwyn, Charlie stepped in and declared that Mabel had to been sent back to Sennett, and this was done. In the general run of things, Charlie and Mabel often saw each other, even after he’d joined the ‘Fairbanks Set’. However, Mabel could not forget the way Charlie had thrown her over, and, in 1924, she had her revenge, when Mabel’s chauffeur, using Mabel’s gun, shot the millionaire boyfriend of Charlie’s star, Edna Purviance. Edna, whose career was just about over, was left high and dry.

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It was a closely guarded secret in Hollywood that Mabel had been behind Chaplin’s success. One Tinseltown wag said this about Chaplin:

“They say people sat at his feet, whereas, in reality, he went where people were already sitting down, and stood in front of them.”

This was reported by his ex-lover, Louise Brooks, who, naturally, could find no fault with the philandering limey.

Charlie and Mabel drifted apart as Hollywood became more ‘cliquey’ although the press and public never forgot the Keystone Girl and her Tramp. At a premiere in 1928, the press had their last opportunity to photograph the pair for posterity. Within a year, Mabel had entered a sanatorium, where she died three months later. The whole of Hollywood was distraught, and especially Charlie. There was no opportunity to make it up with Mabel now, all he could do was help bear his Keystone Girl to her grave, and make numerous heart-felt eulogies in her memory:

“She knew more about comedy than any of us will ever know” 

“When I first knew Mabel sixteen years ago, she was already suffering from tuberculosis, but so great was her spirit that she tossed aside her difficulties, with a gay indifference.”

Following Mabel’s death, Chaplin never used a blond in his films again, and he married two of them. Pure coincidence of course, but then……

 

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Footnote: The American hobo differed from the English tramp, in that the hobo did not, generally, walk the distances that the tramp did. As the distances the hobo covered were so great, he travelled (illegally) by railroad. Consequently, he did not require the big, flappy shoes of his English counterpart. Anyone wearing oversize shoes would appear fairly normal east of New York, but highly comical to the west of that city.

LADY NORMAND’S LOVER(S).

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In 1929, Mabel Normand’s astonishing career and life were coming to a close. There was, however, just time for the public to make a connection between Mabel and a certain Lady Chatterley, who appeared within the pages of Dennis Wheatley’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in that year. Finally, here was a peg on which to hang the life of Mabel Normand. A peg, because the media had long sought a name which explained the actions and persona of ‘Madcap Mabel’. Prior to 1924, the press had already hinted that Mabel, due to her numerous relationships with men, might not have been as ‘pure’ as her studio’s publicity indicated. This article on the subject is written the way Mabel might have done so in 1929.

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I am asked about my relationships down the years with various men. Yes, there have been a lot of them, but I am not ashamed of anything I ever did. I was never a whore, as some have implied, for I never charged even one red cent for my ‘services’. It should be remembered, also, that I never went with any married man – unlike some, I am not a home-breaker. Having said that, I have needs like any woman, but being sensual and passionate, I perhaps have needs greater than most.

Let’s go back to the beginning. I grew up on dull old Staten Island, with deeply religious and strict parents. When they sent me to school, I quickly became bored, and only lasted a week, before being booted out. My parents could do nothing with me, and I wandered the island lost in my dreams. By the age of twelve, I was dreaming of meeting with great artistic and poetic men, and, thinking I might meet with Paul Gaguin, I began to get the ferry over to Manhattan, and wandered among the artist’s lofts of Greenwich Village. It wasn’t long before the police began picking me up and bringing me back to Staten Island. When the School Commissioners came around and threatened to prosecute for my non-attendance at school, my parents, in their panic, ordered me away to a convent. If they thought it would change me, they were wrong. In fact, I met some very naughty Irish girls there, who, to be honest, corrupted me.

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Life in the Convent.

They talked endlessly about men they’d known, how much liquor they drank, and they stole the nun’s cigarettes. Yes, the nuns were as bad as anyone else, and they were somewhat partial to the ‘gargle’, bottles of which sometimes ended up down our own throats. A few of the girls were classified as ‘street-walkers’. I was only there for eighteen months, before I contracted tuberculosis, and was sent home. On my recovery (if you can call it that) I again began to wander the streets of Lower Manhattan. I was now drawn to the area around Five Points and the Bowery, areas the Irish girls had talked of. I was drawn to the low theatres on the Bowery, and often talked to the ‘ladies’ that hung around the theatres. I was captivated by the ‘ladies’ with their beautiful clothes and painted faces. There were plenty of men around, and one day one of the men, who the ladies called Mack, came out of a theatre. “Who’s this, then”, said Mack looking at me, “One of your apprentices?” “Nah, course not, she’s a good girl”.

“Fancy a milkshake” said Mack.

Well, I felt honoured, and immediately followed him to a milk bar. He handed me the shake, and, me being me, I said “Can I have an egg in it” (I have never been cheap). Mack seemed a bit flabbergasted, but paid for the egg to be whipped into the shake anyway. I felt like a queen – a man, who seemed about twenty-five, had bought me a drink. Wow! In talking to him, it turned out he was working the theatres, but did extra work in the movies. “Did I know what the movies were?”

“Well, yes” I said, “I’ve seen two films actually – can you get me into pictures?”

“Whoa, hold on there, young lass, I doubt you have any acting experience.”

He then scrutinized me closely.

“My god, you’re a knockout” He said.

“Can you get me into the theatre Mack?”

“Absolutely not, those places are dens of iniquity, and you would do well to keep away from those girls – they’re trash.”

“Well, that’s what I want to be – trash.”

“No you don’t” He said “I can get you a job modelling for artists, where you can learn to pose. Once you’re trained, I’ll get you into the flickers. If you go too early into films, you’ll be painting and shifting scenery the rest of your life. I’ll get you into modelling, and then we’ll see”

Mack was right, as he’d always be right in the future.

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The Bowery, 1890s.

I began modelling against the will of my mother, who’d arranged a job for me in a department store. Mack kept a close watch on me over the next year, and I would meet him on the corner near Biograph Studio every night, where he was now employed full time. We were just about girlfriend and boyfriend by now, but I must tell you that Mack was bi-sexual, and, although you might have heard that we made mad, passionate love all the time, this was not the case. If you want a number, then I’d say we had sex less than half-a dozen times over the next few years. What did I do, as a passionate girl, for relief of my passion? I made out with the artists who painted me. Shocked? You shouldn’t be – I’m as entitled to copulate as anyone else.

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Hitting a low theater. Mack and Mabel.

As time went on, I began to get restless, and when my modelling friend, Alice Joyce, got work in cowboy films, I went along as a ‘super’. I can tell you that cowboy films are hard work, and running up and down hills, dressed as an Indian, while being chased by cowboys is not easy. When I told Mack, he went crazy:

“Cowboy films! Cowboy films will ruin your career – no good studio will take you, after you’ve been in the ‘cowboys’.”

“Let me go to Biograph” I countered.

Mack was now in a very good position at Biograph, and so he agreed I should go to the ‘Griffith’ studio, but no one should be aware that we knew each other, either intimately, or at all. This was normal practice at the studios, where everyone was fighting for their roles. I discovered that D.W. Griffith and his wife Linda had kept their union secret for more than a year from the other actors. One thing about those studios was the young age of those that populated them. In 1910, Mack Sennett, and D.W. Griffith were about 30, while Kate Bruce was 50. Everyone else was aged between fourteen and seventeen, and to say that love was in the air, would be an understatement. There were hordes of eligible men, and guys like Marshal Neilan and Owen Moore were soon scooped up by Gertie Bambrick and Mary Pickford respectively. Much to Mack’s chagrin, I myself played the field. You may have heard that I became much enamoured with Jack Pickford, who was about fourteen in 1909/10. The affair has followed me down the years, as I was seventeen by that time. This plain fact meant, according to the 1920s press, I was definitely a loose woman of the worst kind. Several times down the years, evil people pointed the finger at me. What they forgot was that Jack and I were both ‘minors’ as far as most of the states in the U.S. were concerned. They would have been better concentrating on the fact that I was a minor when I was carried, by five middle-aged men, across numerous state lines to L.A. in 1912. In 1917, I was applauded by the press for taking young street orphans to the motor races. Five years later, they pilloried me for it, saying I had some ulterior motive. I was, after all, the worst kind of gutter-crawling prostitute. 

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Jack and Mabel in What The Doctor Ordered.

Mack Sennett was keen that I should always be seen as an innocent ingenue. He would even measure the distance between the top of my heels and the hem of my skirt. If it was more than 3 inches he’d order the wardrobe lady to alter it. When the press began to get wind that I was running around with multiple men, Mack would stick an article in the newspapers, saying I was going to marry some Keystone executive or other, and I would be trading the film set for the fireside. As time went on Mack took on my publicity big time. He tried to prevent me talking to journalists, so that when on the few times I spoke to them at home, they were shocked at what they found. They expected to find an animated doll, dressed all in lacy baby blue, but found little old me, wearing something sheer and filmy. Of course, they would print exactly what they saw, and Mack would go out of his mind when he read the articles.

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Mabel loved filmy things like this silk camisole.

As you can imagine I eventually got bored with being ‘Miss Goody Two-Shoes’, and tried to break out of Mack’s constrictive mould. We had endless arguments, mainly due to the fact that, while the Bathing Beauties were wobbling around the lot, with everything hanging out, I was trussed up like a Christmas turkey. I don’t think he ever understood I was a grown woman, but when I made films with Charlie Chaplin, we would get a little more risqué. Mack scrutinised our films closely. When we decided that for Mabel’s Married Life, I’d wear a nightie (which is what married women do), Mack ran on the set screaming for us to cease and desist. He put me in pajamas, and threw our double bed out of the set. For Mabel’s Busy Day, I wore a long, tattered gingham skirt, which, when I kicked Charlie in the ass, rose up, exposing my legs. Mack looked at the rushes and grumbled somewhat. We thought he’d accepted the fight scenes, but when we watched the release downtown, we were horrified that Mack had drawn in bloomers to cover the upper reaches of my legs. It was quite embarrassing, as my friends all giggled over my wearing granny’s pants. The film Getting Acquainted, where Charlie lifted my dress with his walking cane, caused more commotion. Originally, Charlie lifted the dress way above my knee, but Mack ordered another take in which Charlie lifted the skirt to a point  on the knee.

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Naughty, Charlie, very naughty.

Charlie Chaplin, now here’s a perennial subject for the journos. What actually went on between Charlie and me, during all those hours we were ensconced in my dressing room? Well, you will have  to use your imaginations. Suffice to say we were both sensual and emotional beings – get the picture? Mack was so concerned he put private dicks on my tail, and various forms of low life hung about under my windows, waiting to hear something that they could take to Mack, and get a feather in their collective caps. Sometimes we get together these days, and we talk about those happy days, when we were free, bright young things, stealing company cars, and running all over town, getting our kicks wherever we could. One day we went to a baby show, and, while a mother was distracted, we swapped her baby for one of a different hue. We left pretty sharply as the mother returned, and began screaming. When other actresses began to clamour to be Charlie’s leading lady, I pulled rank on them, and, of his last five Keystones, I played the lead in four of them.

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Mabel and Charlie lived for kicks in those early days.

I fixed them all pretty good, and none of them ever crawled their way to stardom. Chaplin, of course, eventually did the dirty on me, and left Keystone, leaving me high and dry. I was furious that he did not take me with him to Essanay Studios, but it would never have worked. Mack would have hunted us down, and killed the pair of us. A while later, I became incandescent with rage, when it was reported that Charlie would marry his new leading lady, Edna Purviance, and I put it around that The Keystone Girl was gunning for her. Edna gave up on her romantic ambitions, and remained merely Charlie’s leading lady. However, as I have related in other articles, I did wreak my revenge on that jumped up college girl, about ten years later. Obviously, Charlie and I talked about marriage, but that would have been a failure, as we were too alike.  We were both unpredictable, egotistical and downright rude. The main reason I never married anyone is that I value my freedom, and all of my married friends had their wings clipped by their husbands. Charlie turned out to be worst of all, and if I’d got hitched to him, I’d have been chained to the kitchen sink, my career ended.

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Mabel’s lot if she’d have married Charlie.

Beyond Chaplin, there was Roscoe Arbuckle. Mack had the idea of bringing us together for the lovesick country kids series. My ideas for melancholy and tragic comedy were shoved casually aside, but, although popular with the audiences, both Roscoe and I thought they were silly and pathetic. While I worked with Chaplin, we were not allowed more than a quick peck for a kiss, but with Roscoe, we came very close to a full Hollywood kiss. Throughout 1915, we were both considering leaving The Fun Factory – it was no longer any fun. Unfortunately, we made such a good team that everyone thought we must be in love. Much as I liked Roscoe, he was a married man – married to my friend Minta. Sure, I went to the couple’s beach house at Santa Monica every Sunday, and swam to Venice pier and back with Roscoe, but any idea that we stopped off at some lonely beach somewhere can be quickly forgotten. Towards the end of the year, Roscoe manage to fall on my head, and put me in hospital for a week. Roscoe was a dangerous 300 pound partner, and we usually contrived that I fell on his belly, and bounced off.

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Roscoe was a dangerous partner.

You might remember that in 1915, I was very much involved with Owen Moore, who was now at the Keystone Studio. There were rumours that we were ‘getting it together’ but I can assure you that, as he was then married to Mary Pickford, we did not ‘indulge’. Then, a year or two later the innocent Mary began an affair with that self-centred asshole, Doug Fairbanks. Owen became ‘fair game’ and I soon took him into my bed, or rather, I took him into his bed. Owen was a lovely man that Miss Pickford did not deserve, and we always remained good friends.

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Mack Sennett is not amused, when he finds nightie-clad Mabel with Owen Moore.

For various reasons, I began to have far too many arguments with Sennett. As early as March 1915, I had discussions with big boss Adam Kessell, about leaving Keystone for the New York Motion Pictures Studio at Fort Lee. He and his partner, Charlie Baumann, were lecherous old guys, and I knew they craved to have Miss Mabel at their studio. It was eventually arranged that Roscoe and I, together with a small company, would be loaned to NYMP (under Triangle), for three months, and we’d leave L.A. just after Christmas. It was here that me and Roscoe made a totally different film He Did and He Didn’t, in which I played a naughty wife, and for the first time vamped a man. Unfortunately, when we viewed the rushes, Minta made it clear that I could not effectively play a vamp, and even suggested the film would destroy my career. Well, the film did reasonably well, but critics said I should avoid any future vamping roles. I was furious, it seemed I was doomed to be a silly ingenue for the rest of my life. On top of that, people were saying that off-screen I looked like a girl dressed up in her mother’s clothes. I sometimes wonder if it was this that urged me on to have multiple affairs – was I trying to prove something? Anyway, I had more admirers than I could handle, so that role made no difference to my popularity.

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Rampant wife, Mabel, gets naughty in her nightie. He Did and He Didn’t (1916).

In March 1916, as Roscoe and co returned to L.A., while I sat tight in a New York hotel room as I negotiated with Mutual Films. I demanded I be put into films with their new signing, Charlie Chaplin. Mutual (or was it me?) put an article in the press to the effect that I had signed contracts. NYMP and Sennett went ballistic, and I soon found my way back to L.A. where my own studio awaited me. 25,000 square feet, all for little me – I was the toast of all Hollywood. I know what you’re thinking “Why was someone so unreliable, unpunctual and downright crazy given a studio. In my defence, I’ll say we made such a great film there that it outsold D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation at the box office. Incidentally, Griffith was green with envy when my name went up over the studio, which was within sight of his own establishment. Surprisingly, he turned up at my opening party, with his latest acquisition, Bessie Love, on his arm. Of course, he had to come over and introduce his new actress, or slave:

“Mabel, this is Bessie Love” crowed Griffith.

“Pleased to meet you, Miss Normand” said Bessie, curtsying, as one would before a queen.

My god, she was beautiful, a veritable angel.

I thought quickly, and said to the angel, as I nodded towards Griffith:

“Have you tried his bed yet, deahrie”.

D.W. went purple with rage, and stormed off with Bess.

I shouted after them:

“You ought to do what I did, Miss Love, or what ever stupid name he’s given you, and tell that asshole to fuck off.”

My friends went into convulsive giggles, and Dorothy Gish actually wet herself. Blanche Sweet was not amused, as she had struck up a friendship with ‘the angel’ at the studio.

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The Queen hold court at The Mabel Normand Studio, East Hollywood.

Coming to my life at my studio, I was often absent from the lot, and was always late, so that actors and stage hands were left hanging around on full pay. The problem was, I had no-one on-site to keep me focused, and I never turned down a party invitation. If I met some handsome hunk at a party, like Jack Mulhall, I’d usually go back to their place. Next day, I would crawl out of their bed, the worse for drink and all-night rutting, then make my way home, where my panicked household staff would endeavour to get me into a fit state to go to the studio. The chauffeur would get me there as early as 3 p.m. All too often I would simply not turn up. Now you’re thinking “What about F. Richard Jones?” Dick, I can tell you was a dish, and Mack, quite frankly, suspected I wanted him as director for some ulterior motive. Did we get together, so to speak? Yes, many times down the years, but only when Dick was ‘between wives’.

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Mabel and F. Richard. On and off lovers.

When Keystone’s parent company Triangle began to collapse, towards the end of 1916, the Mabel Normand Studio was lost. It was around the middle of the year that I had begun to court a certain producer called Sam Goldwyn. When I say ‘court’ I mean in a professional way, in spite of what you might have heard. Sam was a funny, bald-headed jerk, that waddled like a duck, and spoke with an odd accent. I was the most eligible maiden in Hollywood, and could have whichever handsome, eligible actor I chose, so why would I bother with a gormless goon that couldn’t string two words together. On top of that he was married, so I didn’t have an abortion, after falling for his baby, as everyone supposes. I signed for Sam in around September, and that had to be done in an out of the way place, as Mack, Adam Kessel, and Charlie Baumann were having me tailed, certain that I was planning to run.

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Strangely, one of the ‘tailers’ came to me offering the information he’d gathered for $300. I immediately called the cops, who arrested him, and told me that certain New York wide-boys had employed him. Obviously Kessell and Baumann, I thought. In March 1917, I cleared out of L.A., and, having not heard any fresh offers from K and B or Mack, I went to New York, where I prepared to start at Sam’s new studio. As I did with Mack, and as I tried to do with Charlie, I had attached myself to a producer just starting out, so that I would be his star-of-stars. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way, and I suspect our lack of copulation was behind that. But what could I do, I was a good Catholic girl, and could not commit a cardinal sin before god. On top of that, if my friends found out I was romantically involved with ‘The Waddler’ I’d have been laughed out of Hollywood.

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Mabel and Sam ‘Waddler’ Goldwyn.

I became very depressed at the studio, and began to seek solace in the company of men. By 1919, I was again very friendly with Jack Pickford, but he was now married to the astoundingly beautiful Olive Thomas. Who could compete with Ollie, the most beautiful girl ever, and the World’s Sweetheart to boot? Olive tragically died in 1920, and Jack himself sought solace from his old friend Mabel. Meanwhile I sat with Ollie’s distraught mother every Sunday, down on the beach at Santa Monica. Whilst at the studio I went through Goldwyn men like there was no tomorrow. Directors and actors by the dozen, everyone but the boss. Paul Bern was a particular problem – he would not have it that a night of unbridled passion meant nothing, beyond the moment. He pestered me beyond belief, about getting married till in the end I had to tell him to fuck off. More of Paul Bern later.

Eventually, it all went wrong at Goldwyn, and Sam rented me back to Mack. Mack, of course, was jubilant, and gloated visibly. His face changed, though, when I demanded his contract be changed to give me preferential terms. “

O.K. Mabel, have it your way, Said Mack, “But the company now own your soul.”

“Yeah, in your dreams” I replied curtly.

No-one would ever own my soul, no producer, no director, no man. I was no Lillian Gish or Bessie Love – if they wanted my mind and body, they would have to fight for them!

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Signing for Sennett 1920.

Film-wise, everything went swimmingly at Sennett Studios, but I needed an escape route out of that place. I began to play the field among the influential directors at prestigious studios. Romance was one thing, but I needed to get into a real studio, like all my friends. Sennett’s was the pits, and I felt like a laughing stock. At some function or other, I met with William Desmond Taylor, who was a lovely gentleman with aristocratic manners. He was also the most respected director at Paramount, and so I set to work on him. He already had a steady girl, the blond bombshell, Mary Miles Minter. It wasn’t difficult to elbow Miss Minter out of the way, for she was a silly little girl, while I was, by then, a sophisticated, well-spoken woman, and very much in demand. No contest. I shared Bill Taylor’s bed many times, but somehow I could never get any commitment from him, about a contract with Paramount. It was years later I’d learned that Paramount boss, Adolph Zuckor, had forbidden any executive to sign “That goddamned minx.”  He was still greatly annoyed that he’d inherited my picture Mickey as thousands of feet of raw, unedited film, which took two years to organize and release. The great Adolph had, also, once propositioned me:

“Mr Zuckor” I said, smiling sweetly “I do NOT fuck with bald-headed dwarfs, especially those sporting dodgy accents,”

This was the truth, for I had my pick of the most handsome leading-men in Hollywood.

Returning to Bill Taylor, there followed argument upon argument with Bill, and then we all learned he’d been shot dead.

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Mary Miles Minter.

It was that day in 1922 that the press really came after me. There was talk of love letters found that had been sent by me to Bill. There was another actress involved called Mary Miles Minter, driven from Bill’s arms by the sweet Mabel. Did Mary shoot Taylor in revenge.? Did her mother shoot him? How about Mack Sennett – perhaps he was jealous? Whoever shot Taylor, the shrapnel fell on me. I was a gutter-snipe, and so sexually rampant that I would elbow any woman aside to get my hands on their man. Taylor’s butler was adamant that I’d shot him because Bill taken up with Mary Miles Minter again.

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After months of damnation, I finally fled the U.S. and shipped out for Europe. I talked to many people on the ship, but, as soon as they found out who I was, they sort of disappeared. Unknown to me, reports were telegraphed back home that I was drunk every night, fell off bar stools, swam in the pool naked, and made a grab for every man in sight. Total nonsense, I think, for I was truly the worse for the ‘gargle’ most of the time. However, things were a bit different in England. The Taylor murder had been reported there, but the fierce personal denigration of  Mabel, was absent. Personalities like George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells queued up to meet me, and I received the usual offers of marriage. While I turned down the marriage offers, I kept the diamond rings that accompanied those offers. Then, after gallivanting with various members of the aristocracy, and (reportedly) swimming naked in a baronet’s pool, I was off to the flesh pots of Paris. Keeping well clear of the ‘Dead Rat Club’ (where poor Ollie Thomas had been, just before her tragic death) I hit the town with a bevy of eligible men, and eventually settled on my own personal Shiek. Well, a Prince actually, Prince Ibrahim of Egypt, who I had met back in Hollywood. We drove all over the wonderful roads of France, and eventually found ourselves in Monte Carlo, where we squandered the Prince’s $200,000 yearly allowance at the roulette tables. What a time we had, but when ‘Princey’ wired home for more dough, he was summoned back home by the King (his uncle).

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Mabel and her Prince, putting it about.

The King had heard Ibrahim was about to marry a movie star – and he was. After my problems at home, I decided I would do what any washed up actress does … marry a millionaire! Several things stopped me. Firstly, Ibrahim had no money of his own, and depended on the King for his dollars (or pounds). Secondly, Charlie C (who knew everything) warned me that the Egyptian monarchy was a new institution, and would shortly topple, with a few heads being shorn from their bodes. Later, I discovered that Mack Sennett had offered my hand in marriage, if Ibrahim invested in his studio! What a heel that Sennett was. I realized that bastard thought I was just an animated doll, like in his films; his to do with whatever he pleased.  Unfortunately, Ibrahim thought that, after a few hours in the sack with his star, we would automatically marry. Oh, I almost forgot that I had competition for Ibrahim, in the form of Constance Talmadge, that tall, sultry Queen of Stars. Everyone knows she is my closest friend, and I am thankful that I never had to fight Connie over a mere man.

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Constance Talmadge.

I may not have fought with Connie, but I had one hell of a fight with Sennett, when I got home from Europe. He’d engaged Phyllis Haver to star in his latest feature film. I phoned Sennett from New York, telling him I wanted the part. 

“Well Mabel, you weren’t around….”

I cut him off “Mack you bastard, I saved your neck by keeping my mouth shut over Bill Taylor. Now, I either arrive in L.A. to do Extra Girl, or I go see the D.A.”

Lo and behold Phyllis disappeared off the lot, and I started as the Extra Girl. 

It was while making the Extra Girl that I began to hang out with Edna Purviance and her millionaire boyfriend, Courtland Dines. Edna’s first solo film attempt, minus Chaplin, was a flop, which made me smile, as the Extra Girl looked to be a success. However, it was clear that beyond Extra Girl, my own prospects looked bleak. What did I do? I made a play for Dines, of course. I began to see Courtland, behind Edna’s back, and even stayed overnight at his apartment. Mrs Burns, one of my housekeepers, was furious with me:

“No good will come of this Mabel” She said “Seeing Courtland, when he’s betroved to Edna, will destroy you and your reputation.”

As usual, I didn’t listen, and when I was over at Dines’ apartment for a few drinks, with him and Edna, I felt Dines was elbowing me aside, and, when the pair went into the bedroom together, I went crazy, and phoned my chauffeur to come and take me home. When he entered the apartment, Dines began to shout obsenities at us, and Kelley, the chauffeur, pulled the pistol that I owned, and shot Courtland three times. Kelley was arrested, but my name was dragged through the mud again. Dines revealed that he’d had no intention of marrying Edna, and he did take me out several times, unknown to Edna. This was bad enough, but Kelley said that he’d taken the gun from a drawer in my bedroom.” Aahaa”, said the press, he knew his way around the pure Mabel’s bedroom, and the gun was in her lingerie drawer (it wasn’t). She must be a loose woman that was fornicating with the hired help. The fact that I’d bought him expensive presents did not help. I must point out here that both  Kelley and I were unmarried, so it concerned no-one what we did or didn’t do. Nor did it concern them what I did with the gardener.

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Alla’s house and garden.

By the time the Dines affair had finished with me, I was a mental and physical wreck.  Not only that, but I was finished with men. Now you might have heard that I was lesbian. This is untrue. However, during 1924, I sought the companionship of Alla Nazimova, a known lesbian. The main reason I took up with Alla was that she had a large and well-concealed swimming pool. I had a small pool that, due to the number of gloaters and sight-seekers, was now far from private. Beyond that I had known Alla for some years, and respected her talent as a stage and film actress/director. I had been approached by stage people with a view to get me into the theater, and Alla seemed the right person to help me. Now, you might wonder why I was using Alla’s pool, when that facility was known to form the centre-piece for scandalous lesbian parties. Did I attend  any of these parties? The answer is yes, a couple of them, but what happened there I cannot say, as I was usually stone drunk. What I can say is the most beautiful girls in the world attended those parties, and, under those circumstances, a girl’s head can be turned.

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One of Nazimova’s friends was the wife of Rudolph Valentino, Jean Acker, and you might be wondering why I never got together with Valentino, the actress’s dream. The fact is, I did. Even before he made The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, I had an interest in the hypnotic Italian. However, my interest was much increased, in March 1921, when the film was released. I chased Valentino down, but I could never bring him to earth. Eventually, I cornered him at his house, but he seemed more interest in tinkering with his cars than any film star. After sitting in his draughty garage for two days on the run, watching him spanner his car to death, I gave up on the Latin Lover, and walked away – forever. It seems, just like me a few years later, he’d had it with women and become celibate. By the way, at the time I chased him, Valentino was separated from his wife, and on his way to divorce.

When I took to the stage, after coaching by Nazimova, I toured around the U.S. with my personal nurse, Julia Benson. Now, some people have inferred that, because Julia often slept in my room that we were lovers. This is total hogwash, and, as I was often very sick, I needed a nurse very close by. It’s true that Alla accompanied us for some time, but those that think we were a lesbian threesome are simply wrong.

After finishing my stage tour, and greatly enriched by a million dollars, I bought my adobe-style house in Beverly Hills. It must have been around this time that I was seeing Paul Bern again. Now Paul was a strange guy, even more emotional than Charlie Chaplin. I went around with Paul for some time, then, cometh the day. He went down on bended knee, handed me a ribboned box and asked me to marry him. Of course, as usual, I turned him down flat. He colored up, and began ranting about me being ‘so difficult’. I told him that I was not being difficult, just telling him I did not want to marry –  anybody. He stormed off, raving about ‘being ‘led up the garden path’. Poor Paul, I fear he will one day go completely insane, and perhaps, even kill himself. So now you know the story, and, if you’ve heard he threw the engagement ring into a canyon, then you’ve heard wrong. I still have that $20,000 diamond in my safe deposit box, where it joined the other fifty I’d acquired (lucky me!).

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The Little Clown and her Butterfly Man.

Paul Bern, then, had gone, but I had great need of another man, due to my deteriorating health. Over the years, I’d had much to do with Lew Cody, who’d been my leading man in Mickey in 1916. I’d renewed my acquaintance with Lew in late 1925, then, at a party, he proposed to me, and, out of fun, I accepted. Why wouldn’t I accept, Lew was THE Hollywood heart-throb, and we girls called him ‘The Butterfly Man’. So, having captured my ‘butterfly man’, what next? Well, nothing. It was all a bit of fun, and Lew certainly wasn’t moving in with me. However, I realized that I needed Lew’s support as my physical and mental health deteriorated. There was no time to lose, I had to get back into acting and make more films. Lew, F. Richard Jones, Constance Talmadge and Mary Pickford, among others, bombarded Hal Roach with demands that he sign me to his studio. It seemed I was like a raven in The Tower of London – if I disappeared the whole of Hollywood was sure to fall. Indeed, it wasn’t certain that Hollywood would persist beyond 1926. However, in that year I made a cache of films with in-studio support from Lew, F. Richard Jones, Anita Garvin, and Stan Laurel. I began to get sassier and sassier by the day, even though I was becoming increasingly ill.

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Teaching Mr. Laurel

Just to prove I wasn’t finished, I brought droves of girlfriends, mostly young actresses, to the studio, and we filled the place with laughter, or cackling, as Hal called it. Just to put that ‘thick-necked Irishman’ in his place, we followed him around, harassing him and hurling abuse, which comprised mainly of cuss words, at him. No-one laughed louder than Stan Laurel, Chaplin’s old croney, as Hal had kept him script-writing, rather than acting. Incidentally, Stan asked me for advice in comedy, and I gave him that advice, which he intended to use in a new comedy double act, that he hoped would include Babe’ Hardy. I wish Stan the best of luck.

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Mabel with F. Richard during the making of Extra Girl.

You might have heard that Dick Jones and I were often seen around the studio holding hands. This is true, but he was, in fact, just holding me up. You might also have also heard that we were seen kissing, but I can tell you, it was just that. By degrees, I was becoming a limp rag doll, and hardly in a condition to get together with a man. However, by 1928, I had a man in my bedroom, but only long enough to lay me down, after carrying me upstairs of a night. He was the valet of Lew Cody, my husband, who I never allowed into the house. Although my condition was becoming critical in 1928, I had a positive test for the ‘talkies’ and was in demand by several English and French film companies (Bebe Daniels tells me that she and Bessie Love are seriously considering shipping out to London – for good). It was vital that I appeared in public to let everyone know I was still around, and I attended all the premieres and Hollywood functions I could. At one premiere, the press were clamouring for a photo of me with Charlie Chaplin. Their insistence perplexed me a bit, until I heard that everyone thought I’d die by the end of the year, so this was the last chance, they thought, to snap me and Charlie together.

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“No Charlie….not here.

“Most of you will know that my personal appearances have declined during 1929.  However, although I am not seen in the flesh so often, I am a frequent visitor to the Hollywood pages of the magazines and newspapers. Some of those articles were placed by me, but so many were placed by those that wished for my return to the screen. My secretary is working harder than ever to answer enquiries and well-wishes by the truckload. I know this to be true, as the secretary has asked for a raise! My latest news is that I will enter the Pottenger Sanatorium, at the end of September for treatment. When I exit that place, I expect to go on the rampage again –  after legally dumping Lew Cody, that is!

Summing up my life   

In conclusion, I maintain that I have nothing to be ashamed of in my life. My films were never anything other than wholesome, and, if I put myself about a bit, so what? It is my business, and mine alone. You may notice that I did not mention Mr and Mrs Church in the above text. This is because I regard the Church Affair of 1924, as a storm in a gin glass. Yes, when I was in hospital in 1923, I did go into Mr Church’s room to share a bottle of booze with him. The fact that I was in my nightgown, is irrelevant, as what else does one wear in hospital? What wasn’t known, at the time, was that the nurses were also invited in for a drink. Of course, this was against hospital rules, and Federal law. I have every sympathy for the nurses, but the Feds can take a run and jump. Cheers!

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Making her last film on the MGM set for Our Dancing Daughters. 1928.

Naturally, during most of my life so far, I have been criticized for not getting married. I had valid reasons for not getting hitched, including the fact that I value my freedom. Furthermore, as some people have guessed, I am infertile, due to my long-term tuberculosis. Observers might wonder why I did not procreate, and, as my professional appeal depends, to a small extent, on my sexuality, that appeal could be diminished if it transpired that my reproductive organs did not actually function. The fact that I would make the worst possible mother, is another reason, even if the child was adopted. I have a recurrent nightmare in which I have a child, who comes home from school, points at me accusingly, and says:

 “You’re Madcap Mabel, aren’t you?”

Naturally, I wake up shaking, and in a cold sweat. Cinema-goers do not understand the constant fear that a star lives in.

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THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE TRAMP.

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The shanty town that was Sennett Studios Circa 1917.

Who are these characters – did they crawl out from a Walt Disney fantasy? They might well have done, for their story is unique, a once in a millennium fairy tale. The characters here were three of the strangest people ever to inhabit the movie business, so it is a bit astounding that the odd trio were thrown together, by mere chance, at the strangest, most ramshackle studio in the motion picture industry, situated in the most run-down part of the dusty Spanish Wild West. Our characters are: the Lion, the ruthless, relentless Irish-Canadian ex-boxer and iron-worker, Mack Sennett; the Witch, the bewitching Irish colleen and queen of the screen, Mabel Normand, and the Tramp, the downcast Limey and Vaudevillian drunk, Charlie Chaplin. From their base at the poverty row studio in dusty Edendale, they conquered the world with films that made them the stars and kings of Movie-land, and supplied their bosses, Adam Kessell and Charlie Baumann with untold riches.

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“There’s gonna be a fight!” Mack, Mabel and Charlie in The Fatal Mallet.

Signing the Tramp.

The meeting of the three was fortuitous, and, like the ‘Louisiana Purchase’, it was not preordained. However, as with the Louisiana Purchase, it led on to higher things and greatly affected the environment in which it occurred. The mystery has always been, how did Chaplin actually come to be at Keystone? Mack and Mabel had started out as one-sided partners in their studio, one-sided because, while Mack was a part-owner with 33% of the shares, Mabel, being young and silly, had not contracted for a partnership with over-bosses Adam Kessel and Charlie Baumann. Still, they discussed business together, when they dined nightly together at The Athletics Club in downtown L.A. One discussion they had was about who they would replace Ford Sterling with, when he left Keystone. At some time, they had seen the Karno Comedy Music Hall show in New York, and thought the star of the show, Charlie Chaplin to be just what they needed.

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Karno companies set off for the Music Halls. London, 1909

History records that they contacted Kessel and Baumann in New York asking him to track Chaplin down and sign him up. Chaplin, in his autobiography, does not mention any involvement by Mack and Mabel, but states that he got a wire from Baumann, out of the blue. He subsequently met up with the New York wide-boys, and signed with them. It is noticeable that without Mack and Mabel’s involvement, the story still works, and makes complete sense. In any case, Mack detested stage stars, having been passed over by Vaudeville in his youth. Mack may have seen Chaplin onstage, but it is unlikely that      he wanted the Music Hall comedian around. In all likelihood, Kessell and Baumann, or perhaps, one of their relatives had seen Chaplin perform, and they may not have told Mack, before they signed him. Chaplin was ambivalent about the movies, and was worried that he’d be leaving regular employment on the stage, for the insecurity of pictures, a relatively unknown art medium. He was, of course, a gags man, not an actor as such. He deferred for a while, then quickly signed when offered two-and-a- half times what he was getting on the stage. K and B used the same technique on Mabel in 1912. After a few half-hearted preliminaries, they suddenly offered her $125 a week, which sent the Biograph Girl (as she was then) scrabbling for the pen. Little did she know how intermittent her future Keystone pay would be.

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To sign or not to sign…..

Mack becomes unsure.

In the lead up to Mack meeting Charlie at a downtown L.A. theatre, that Mack began to have severe reservations about the Englisher. The mention of the name seemed to have sent Mabel into a spin, and well it might have, for her friend, Gladys Smith (Mary Pickford) had told Mabel she’d seen Charlie, in a restaurant in 1912. She, and her friends, had thought the tousle-haired youth to be a Greenwich Village bohemian poet or writer, such was his aura. We can imagine that Mabel tied down in the Wild West, with mainly middle-aged and married men for companions, got quite excited about the arrival of the 23-year old bachelor. If Sennett had detected this, then he would have great reason to worry. Leading men and leading ladies often ran off together, and, in this case, they might run off to a rival studio.

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Would they do a runner?

On Chaplin’s part, he had seen Keystone’s movies, and was aware that most of them centred around a pretty girl that anyone would die for. In his autobiography, Chaplin said Mabel “weaved in and out of them, justifying their existence.” He was, of course, trying to dismiss Mabel as an actress, by suggesting she was just a glorified extra. He knew, however, that Mabel was the centrepiece of her films, and everything happened around the Queen of the Hive. In fact, he almost certainly fell for Mabel, long before he ever met her. Within his overblown ego, he probably thought he’d soon show how great he was, take over the studio, and grab Mabel for himself. It seems possible that Kessell and Baumann had instilled in Chaplin the notion that Sennett was a dumb, up-country farm boy, a hick, a bumpkin.

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For some reason, Charlie was looking forward to meeting the girl in the films.

Mack was determined to keep the vaudevillian out of his studio, as he’d done in the past with other stage people. Nonetheless, it was around early September 1913, that Mack and Mabel met Charlie at a Los Angeles theatre, where he was performing with the Karno Company. Mack went backstage after the show, and left Mabel outside on the pavement, she being very shy about meeting new people. Anyhow Mack soon brought Charlie out to meet Mabel, but he, being as shy as Mabel, stuttered over his words, as Mabel stuttered back. Mack, nonetheless, probably detected some magnetism between them and determined he’d keep the young upstart out. In that same month he began the film Mabel’s Dramatic Career in which a tin-type steals Mabel away from him. Mack inserted the final scene, showing himself shooting the tin-type (Ford Sterling), Mabel and their children.

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Mabel and family about to be shot by Mack Sennett.

Mabel wouldn’t have necessarily known about this scene, and was probably shocked when she saw the finished film in a Los Angeles cinema. No doubt Chaplin saw it too, and, as he said in his autobiography, prepared to walk away. After a few days of non-appearance, Mack phoned Charlie asking why he hadn’t turned up. Charlie made up some excuse, and got his courage up enough to enter the Lion’s den. Sennett seemed curiously nonchalant, and kept Chaplin waiting around for weeks, picking up his pay for nothing. Of course, Mack was beavering away trying to persuade his bosses to ditch Chaplin. Kessell and Baumann reacted by ordering that the Limey be put to work. Mack put Charlie in two nonsense films Making a Living in which he was something of a stooge, and Kid Auto Races at Venice, his first appearance as the tramp.

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“Where’s that Chaplin!”

Chaplin’s first weeks at Keystone must have been a complete shock for Chaplin, as he’d completely misconstrued the work the studio did, and he’d completely misconstrued Mack and Mabel. Contrary to what Chaplin had thought, the films were not just a melange of crude rough and tumble, in which Mabel weaved in and out. Mostly, they made a social statement, for Mack and Mabel, believe it or not, were socialists. The brief stories were up to the minute, and represented what was going on throughout the U.S. at that time, particularly as they related to what might be called the ‘proletariat’. Chaplin seemed to have the idea that the films were turned out for under a thousand dollars apiece, but only really basic shorts, such as his Kid Auto Races, could be made at this cost – overheads were extremely high.

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Joined at the hip. Mack and Mabel.

Behind the creation of Keystone, of course, was the story and Mack and Mabel. They were joined at the hip, due to their struggles to form the studio out of nothing. Although not a partner in the business, like Mack, Mabel worked hard to make sure the place succeeded, and seems to have considered herself a partner in all but name. It is said that Mabel got everything she wanted, but the reality is she took what she wanted. Chaplin’s biggest mistake was that he thought Mabel was a ‘dumb broad’ when in fact she was a schemer of the highest order. If she had wanted to, she could have arranged Chaplin’s disappearance from Movieland – for ever. Instead, she took Chaplin into her dressing room and boudoir, where she trained him in the art of movie-making. Naturally, this could have been due to pressure from the New York office, but the young pair were definitely fond of each other.

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The place to be: Mabel’s dressing room.

Chaplin maintained that he’d turned the tables on Mack and Mabel during the making of Mabel At The Wheel, when he’s got into an argument with Mabel over some silly gags. This incident was not recorded by other sources, but, if we accept Chaplin’s story, then this is another case of him underestimating Mabel. The Keystone Girl was moving away from pure slapstick and into dramatic comedy, which at the time was a new concept. Chaplin, being a gags man, and not an actor, would not have understood this, and, being a chauvinist, he would not have accepted that a female could be the hero(ine) of a film. Obviously, Mabel had become wary of Chaplin, when he’d been given a long opening scene in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, and it seems she had refused to work with the Tramp (as he now was) for two months. Chaplin’s view that he had knocked Mack and Mabel off their perch during the making of Mabel At The Wheel is mere chauvinistic nonsense, and it is clear that Kessell and Baumann had ordered Chaplin into the film, and, to ensure that things were carefully watched, Baumann’s daughter, Ada, was brought on-board as an extra. Overall, the stakes were high, as it seems the New York bosses were ready to close the studio if those involved did not behave themselves. Chaplin, of course, was a stooge to Mabel in this film, and he had to accept that.

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Mabel about to right her crashed car and win the race.

Presumably, Mack was now forced to bite his tongue, and could no longer demand Chaplin’s dismissal. He’d have to wait until the limey’s contract ended at the end of the year. Chaplin had to be given space to develop, and Mabel was not slow to offer her services to help him. There was nothing Mack could do about this, except have the pair closely followed and watched. Every night Mack took them to dinner, but when the ‘old man’ nodded off, Charlie and Mabel went off and hit the town (or something), returning an hour or so later to wake him up. When Charlie and Mabel got bored with work they’d leave the lot, ‘steal’ a company car and roar off downtown. Being an actor, rather than a producer, did have some advantages.

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Mabel, in her Parisian finery  about to enter The Hollywood Hotel in Mabel’s Strange Predicament.

So, while Mabel and Charlie were frolicking, what was Mack doing. His nose was being well and truly held against the grindstone by New York, but he was also gritting his teeth about that asshole Chaplin. However, he had to give Chaplin his chance, and he was turning out to be a pretty good director, particularly when teamed with Mabel. The Keystone Girl helped Charlie in one particular way. At Karno’s he had not been particularly liked, and his room mate, a certain Stanley Jefferson (Laurel) later said he “showed signs of insanity.” His persona had not improved at Keystone, and Mabel had to teach ‘the ego’ how to get along with people. Mabel taught well, and before long no party could swing without the tramp, especially if he had Mabel at his side.

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Charlie and Mabel at work.

So, from around April 1914, Mabel worked hard on Chaplin in order to turn the strange limey from a slapstick gags-man to a fully fledged actor. She directed him where he appeared alone in their films, and, after much instruction, he began to direct her. It is difficult to overstate how close they became at that time. However, schedules dictated that the two would often appear in different films. This caused problems for Charlie, but more so for Mabel. She had devoted much time and effort to training Charlie up, and she was sure as hell that no other actress was going to ‘lift’ him and use him to their professional advantage. Various actresses had to be watched – Dixie Chene, Virginia Kirtley, Peggy Pearce, and a certain Peggy Page, alias Gladys Carruthers.

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“Kiss me Charlie. Come on.” Gentlemen of Nerve.

Miss Page was the most dangerous, as she belonged to an experienced gold-digging family that had already disposed of one person in their pursuit of easy cash. As Charlie came to use Miss Page more and more, so Mabel became more concerned about her, and began to carry a small rectangular bag that is thought to have concealed a small pistol, perhaps a derringer. At this point she grabbed Charlie for her leading man in four consecutive films. In Gentlemen of Nerve, Peggy Page and her mother appear very close to Charlie and Mabel as extras. Mabel carries her bag continuously in the film, in which she is all over Charlie, as a clearly upset Peggy looks on. As for Charlie, he was in a can’t win situation. Get too close to Mabel, and he could be gunned down by Sennett. Ignore Mabel, and he could end up staring down the barrel of her gun. No-one messed with the King and Queen of Keystone, and, much as Charlie wanted to stay at the studio, it was clear he had to leave.

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Never mess with The Keystone Girl.

The Departure of Chaplin.

While Sennett rejoiced at Chaplin’s  departure in December 1914, Kessell, Baumann and Mabel were not happy about it. All three had invested time and money in the limey, and they were not happy that he was leaving. It seems K and B told Mack to offer him $1,000 a week, but Mack offered him a complicated contract that Charlie could only refuse. Furthermore, he probably warned Chaplin to keep away from Mabel, and make no attempt to contact her in the future. He still had the Mabel’s Dramatic Career gun. At the end of December, Charlie was anxious to escape for the Essanay Studio in Chicago. Mabel, however, lured him to a final dinner in Los Angeles. It was to no avail, and, after the shedding of a few tears, Charlie was gone, anxious to put two thousand miles between himself and Sennett’s .45.

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Mack, Mabel, Adam Kessell and Ford Sterling. Keystone revamp 1915.

When Chaplin left Keystone, it was like a shutter had come down between Mack and Mabel. The Keystone Girl had spent time and probably money on Chaplin, and he had walked out on her. Future occurrences, such as Mabel standing up in  a restaurant, pointing at Chaplin and screaming “Charlie, I’ll be your leading lady yet!” suggests she had expected Chaplin to take her with him to Essanay.

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“I’ll be your leading lady, yet”

In those days it was essential that an actress ally herself to some man, in order to get on, and Mabel wanted to get on. She also wanted to get out – out of Keystone, and away from her svengali, Mack Sennett. If  Mabel thought Charlie would call her, and offer her a role as his leading lady, she was mistaken. From Chaplin’s point of view, Mabel always shone over him in their films, and now he was looking for a foil, a stooge, and he found her in Edna Purviance, a good college student, but a lousy actress. Mabel had her revenge ten years later, when her chauffeur shot Edna’s intended millionaire husband, Courtland Dines.  In the meantime, Mabel began to chafe at the bit, as Mack put an end to her idea of introducing dramatics and tragedy into comedy (which she had managed to do with Chaplin’s help) and put her with Roscoe Arbuckle to do films about a lovesick country couple, which included much canoodling, but also a huge amount of silly slapstick. However, just to prove that Mack was always right, Mabel was voted the greatest comedienne in that year (1915) and polled as many votes as Chaplin (best comedian) and 90,000 more than rising star Mary Pickford.

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Mabel and Roscoe. Lovesick country kids.

 

It made no difference, and at the end of the year Mabel ran away to New York on a Mutual contract, to make films with none other than Charlie Chaplin. In blind panic, Mack dragged her back to her own studio in East Hollywood, to make her greatest film, Mickey. She was the first of the acting breed to have her own studio, with her name emblazoned above it in five feet high letters. All of Hollywood attended the studio’s opening, including Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, and a certain Charles Spencer Chaplin, who was just a little green around the edges.

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Nonetheless everyone bowed before her majesty, but only a year later, she ran away again, this time into the open arms of Sam Goldwyn. While Mack fulminated in his tower office, spitting tobacco juice, laced with venom, and unable to do anything, Mabel renewed her relationship with Charlie. Although now a big star, Chaplin was still looked at with some circumspection by the established order in the movie colony. That established order was composed chiefly of ex-Biograph and ex-Vitagraph performers, and their queen elect was Mabel Normand. What better way of getting a foot in the door of Hollywood society, than by being seen with the Queen. Thus it was, that Charlie and Mabel became an item at Tinsletown parties, even after he married Mildred Harris.

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Looking like a girl in her mother’s clothes, among these film stars, it is hard to believe now that Mabel was the toast of all Hollywood. 1926.

They became a threesome, and they were the life and soul of Hollywood, and even held a snowballing party up on Mount Lowe in 1919. It was about this time that Charlie, Sam and everyone else began to worry about Mabel’s health. She was losing weight fast, and appeared to be dying. Everyone in Hollywood knew that Mabel has tuberculosis, and it appeared she was now entering her final scene. What did Mack Sennett think about that?  Mack, as usual, was nonchalant, if he couldn’t have Mabel,then no-one else would. Sam, having millions of dollars invested in Mabel sought help from the doctor – Dr. Chaplin, the world’s leading expert on Mabel Normand. Charlie decreed that she be sent back to Sennett, on the grounds that they were both as Irish as the banshees, and understood each other so well. It seems Sam had thought Charlie should take her on, but Charlie knew well that he could not be in a position where he came under the spell of the Queen Witch. Thus it was that Mabel went full circle back to Sennett Studios, where her return was hailed by all the young actresses, and especially by Mack Sennett. He’d won his long-running battle against Goldwyn and Chaplin.

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Epitome of success: Sam Goldwyn, Mabel, Charlie in 1919.

At Sennett Studios, Mabel stood aloof, and made all sorts of stipulations about her professional and social relationship with the King of Comedy. Henceforth she would only sign film by film, she’d receive 25% of the net profits, and her pay would be $3,000 a week in the contract, but $10,000 in reality (income tax, you know). Beyond that Mack would pay for all costumes, and if any of her own very expensive clothes were damaged on the lot, he would reimburse her. Mack was not to enter her dressing room, except by prior appointment, and loose agreements were that she would not appear on the lot before mid-day, and she would have two hours ‘bathing time’ in her marble Roman bath every day. The witch had cast her spell, and there was nothing Mack could do about it. While Mack was ‘verboten’ at Mabel’s dressing room, she held a daily ‘witches coven’ there, to which only friends and actresses of her choosing were admitted, cackling away  at Mack, no doubt.

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Sign, sign and sign again. 

It had been around 1920 that Charlie and Mabel started to drift apart, as Charlie began to spend more and more time with Doug and Mary Fairbanks. The trio spent a large amount of their time pursuing celebrities outside of Hollywood, and Doug and Mary’s ‘Pickfair’ estate filled every weekend with media people, royalty and even scientists – the kind of people Mabel would call boring. Mabel was never invited up to Pickfair, but then she would not have wanted to rub shoulders with goose-stepping fascists like Lord Louis Mountbatten, and social bores like Albert Einstein. Doug, Mary and Charlie, in turn, would not have risked ‘Madcap Mabel’ upsetting their posh guests, with her acid tongue, and vulgar gestures. However, the partial separation of Charlie and Mabel would not have troubled Mack Sennett too much, or at all.  He was too much concerned that Mabel, with her high-priced and short-term contracts, could flee the coop at any time. He doubled the guard on his prized star, and had her followed everywhere. Eventually, news reached his ears that she was running around with a Paramount director, and was pressing him to sign her to the studio. After a few months, the director, W.D. Taylor, turned up dead, shot by someone unknown.

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Goose-stepping on the Pickfair lawn.

The prime suspect was Mack Sennett, followed by actress, and Taylor’s other lover, Mary Miles Minter, along with her mother. Following on from the Arbuckle/Virginia Rappe murder affair, things looked bleak for Mabel, and she made a run for Europe. When she returned, she found her two close friends, Jack Pickford and Marilyn Miller, had married, and Mack Sennett had begun a new feature film, starring someone other than herself. After Mabel had finished ranting about Chaplin and Mary Pickford taking charge of Jack’s wedding, and not inviting her, she launched an onslaught against Sennett. Calling the studio long-distance from New York, she demanded the star role in the new film Extra Girl. The exact details of the phone call are unknown, but, as Mack had been shooting Phyllis Haver in Extra Girl for three weeks, it must have been something very potent, and probably related to the Taylor murder.

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A little old for the part, but Mabel makes a good job of the dying Cleopatra. Extra Girl.

In any event Haver fled the studio, and Mabel arrived back in Los Angeles, as “gay as a wisp.” Without pausing to barrack Charlie and Mary, Mabel threw herself into the film. The picture was readied for release in late 1923, just as Chaplin star, Edna Purviance, bombed in her first solo role in Woman of Paris. Mabel took it upon herself to comfort Edna, during the period of her career’s decline. This was not unusual for Mabel, as she’d comforted Marilyn Miller’s mother over her daughter’s wedding that she was not invited to, and Olive Thomas’ mother following Ollie’s tragic death. Edna had a fiance, millionaire Courtland Dines, who Mabel conspired to meet behind Edna’s back. Perhaps it was revenge for Chaplin’s treachery, or perhaps it was that Mabel, who had her own career problems, fancied having a personal millionaire to bank-roll her very expensive life-style. However, arguments ensued, and Dines ended up being shot by Mabel’s chauffeur, with her gun. This seemed to spell the end for Mabel, but she still had a huge, regular income from Extra Girl. She then went on a nationwide stage tour, from which she made a reputed million dollars. Then, while she was busy building a house in Beverly Hills, Chaplin, was now putting himself about, while promoting The Goldrush.

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 As his wife Lita Gray, was in L.A. having his child, Chaplin was striking up a relationship in New York with a Zeigfield Follies dancer called Louise Brooks. The press were quick to cotton on, and made interesting reports on Chaplin’s affair. Digging into Brooksie’s personal life they unearthed a cache of nude photos of the demure Louise, and published them. Louise was all washed up, for the moment, and Chaplin suffered the same judgement by newspaper, as Mabel and Roscoe Arbuckle had. They were all bad, bad, bad. Chaplin dumped Louise. Meanwhile, back on the ranch, at Keystone, Mack Sennett was doing very well, thank you. Chaplin could stick his head up his ass, but he would get Mabel back once more.

 

1926 was the year that silent movie makers seriously considered they might be dethroned by the talkies. Sennett was considering moving to new premises more suited to modern movie-making  premises, as Chaplin became ever-more moody, at the thought of being forced out of pantomime. However, Sennett  had no intention of putting all his eggs in the talkie basket at this point, and began contemplating a huge silent extravaganza. The aim was to put himself on a pedestal, and act in the picture, which would feature all his old stars. Gloria Swanson and many others secretly met ‘The King’ to talk contracts. Mabel was sent for, and brought to the studio, that had been pre-warned of her arrival. As Mabel was driven onto the lot, her car was forced to stop, as a huge throng of actors and actresses surrounded the vehicle.  Mabel had no option, but to get out and meet the crowd. She was greeted by the strange sight of slight young actresses, pushing burly carpenters, electricians and labourers aside to reach their heroine. “Pleased to meet you Miss Normand”, “So happy to meet you Miss Normand.” Mabel had never been called Miss Normand so much in her life, and did she imagine it, or did some of them actually curtsy? Ruth Taylor, destined to be a huge star, wrote this in her diary:

“Who do you think came to see us today? Mabel Normand! Why I can’t hardly believe it yet. Mabel Normand herself. She looked thin and has been ill, but she was all they told me around here she would be. Everyone acted like the queen had come.”

 

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“Come on Mabel, you want to be in my film, don’t you?”

The film came to nought, perhaps because Mabel had already signed for Hal Roach. Unfortunately, for Hal, Mabel was still the irreverent, crude and vulgar elf of days gone by, and she mocked her producer mercilessly, as her script-writer, and Chaplin colleague, Stan Laurel, looked on with great amusement. Mabel worked on into 1927, as Charlie Chaplin now fell into a whole load of trouble. The taxman came calling, and the tramp was forced to stump up a million dollars in back taxes, followed very soon by Al Capone and Randolph Hearst mistress, Marion Davies. Mack and Mabel now began scurrying around, trying to cover their own financial tracks. While Mack began playing the big investor, accruing land and assets everywhere, Chaplin advised his old friend, Mabel, not to be lured into investments, as he was sure there’d be a depression. From now on, Mack was not a part of Mabel’s life, but she and Charlie continued their friendship. Mack had more or less drifted away from Charlie and Mabel, and lived essentially in a parallel universe. Everything was now money, and The King of Comedy forgot all about his former life as a socialist and Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) member, alongside Charlie and Mabel.

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The I.W.W. meet here on the Keystone lot. Fatal Mallet (1914).

Mack was sitting pretty for the time being, and, as Chaplin began City Lights, the tragic news came that Mabel had died. Charlie and Roscoe Arbuckle were distraught, while Mack, playing golf like the newly rich, simply said “This is indeed most regrettable.” So there endeth the story of Mack, Mabel, and Charlie. Well, not quite. Mack went on to buy up California property and oil wells like a man possessed, and front the consortium that started to build the Hollywoodland estate, which proceeded not much further than putting up the famous sign. As for Charlie, he was finished with blonds, and fired Virginia Cheryl after City Lights, and put Edna Purviance on a pension. The film was to have been dubbed as a talkie, but Charlie seems to have become a haunted man at this time. Mabel had passed on as the filming proceeded – how could the film now be anything other than a silent? For his next film, Modern Times, he determined to have a dark, mysterious gamin, as his leading lady, someone as close to being Mabel as possible. He found that gamin in Paulette Goddard, a dark-eyed girl, as Irish as the banshees, although she was, in fact, Jewish.

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Paulette turned out to be everything that Mabel was, and we might wonder whether he thought she was Mabel re-incarnated. Determined not to make the mistake he’d made in 1914, when he dumped Mabel, he married Paulette. Unfortunately, in his middle-aged foolishness, Charlie had made a big mistake – Paulette turned out to be every bit as intractable and untameable as Mabel. Charlie lost his appetite for movie-making, but Paulette demanded, like Mabel, that she be given endless work. At his wit’s end he farmed Paulette out to other studios. She screen-tested for the dream part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, for which she, and Mabel, would have been highly suited. Arguments ensued, though, among the studio executives – Paulette was disrespectful, somewhat crude, and very, very outspoken. Her attitude to the press was insane and absurd. She could bring the studio into disrepute, just like that girl of a few years back – what was her name? Madcap Mabel, or something (Footnote). Eventually, Chaplin divorced from Goddard, but, seemingly unable to shake off the dark-eyed colleen bit, he hired Oona O’Neill, but instead of casting her, he married her. As charming as a leprechaun, she was  every bit as sweet as Mabel, but lacking the madcap spirit and insanity of the girl from Staten Island. They lived, as they say, happily ever after. 

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Paulette Goddard, Louise Brooks.

As Chaplin toyed with his ‘lookalikes’, a certain aging Hollywood producer sat in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel in L.A. pondering how he had ended up broke. His name was Mack Sennett, and his future had been predicted years earlier by a little, wide-eyed colleen. “That man will end up broke and alone” professed Mabel Normand. Yes, Mack was broke and he was alone. Alone with his thoughts, so often about the girl that was his star-of-stars, but was now gone. What had happened, how had it all ended like this? Of the gay young couple, that taunted D.W. Griffith, and rambled into the Wild West to make crazy pictures, one was in her grave, and the other was all washed up, and moving like a shadow from hotel to hotel. Perhaps, Mack was aware of what Chaplin was up to, with his Mabel incarnations. Perhaps he could relaunch his career off the memory of the Keystone Girl. He had the girl that could play Mabel – her name was Louise Brooks, a fallen movie star, that he’d watched closely, as she’d flitted in and out of the Roosevelt.

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The Roosevelt Hotel.

Mack peddled his ideas around Hollywood, and some producers feigned interest, but it was clear that the movie moguls were only prepared to bury Mabel, who had been a thorn in their sides for years, and then stamp the earth down hard, so she could never return to plague them. Then, something strange happened – the company now ensconced in the Sennett Studios out at Studio City, agreed to make a film called Hollywood Cavalcade, based loosely on Mabel’s life. For the premiere, they held ‘The Night of a Thousand stars,’ which all the modern stars attended, including John Wayne, Gabby Hayes and Judy Canova, alongside the surviving silent performers. A new sound stage had been built, and dedicated to the memory of Mabel, then commemorated by a huge 200-pound bronze plaque as the party went on.

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The stars gather to pay homage to Mabel. Republic Studio 1940.

The dedication party was a success, but the film was not terribly good. Mack needed to try harder. Moving on ten years, to 1950, the film Sunset Boulevard was released. This more accurately represented Mabel, but it showed her as she might have appeared and behaved at the age of sixty. Anyone that had known Mabel, would have realized that the idea of being a a silver-haired granny, replete with rocking chair by the fireside, would have been an anathema to Mabel. Her portrayal as being sexually-overactive was, however, correct. The star was Gloria Swanson, but her only contribution to Mabel’s memory was this statement “She was crude and she was vulgar” Not an inaccurate resume for a girl whose speech was littered with the ‘f’ word, and who was fired for her tendency to ‘expose’ herself publicly from the windows of the Vitagraph studio. 

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Swanson plays ‘the madcap’. 1950.

 

As the silent movie era began to become popular with the 1950s public, many old stars began to consider writing autobiographies. Their problem was one of how to characterize the silent movie industry. Following Mack’s memoirs of 1954, it was all clear  – tell it as it wasn’t. Paint Hollywood as a community of innocents, pure as the driven snow. Do not demonize the producers, especially Mack Sennett. Charlie Chaplin could be slightly ridiculed, but do not blacken him too much, as everyone could be tarred with that brush. Consequently, all subsequent autobiographies were written in a neutral style that refrained from criticizing anyone. The exception could have been Louise Brooks, who wrote a warts and all account of Tinseltown, but, not wishing to sleep every night with one eye open, she put her manuscript in the trash-bin, and later published the more benign Lulu in Hollywood. Even Chaplin wrote while tightly shackled. More than anyone, he could have told the true story of Mack and Mabel, but Sennett was still living when he began writing, and he still had that gun from 1913. Mack had the last laugh in the early 1970s, when the sterile Mack and Mabel stage show was launched. Based largely on Sennett’s own account, it fell completely for the Mack and Mabel love story, and Sennett’s contention that Mabel was a scatter-witted dummy. In any event it set the tone for the way Mabel was viewed for the next 40 years, which is preferable to the 50s and 60s when her name could not be uttered, and she was entirely written out of film history.

Summing up The Keystone Trio.

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Charlie and Mabel, 1928. Little more than a year later, he and the other film moguls bore Mabel to her grave.

The term Keystone Trio was coined by Stan Laurel in 1914, when he brought a Mack, Mabel and Charlie stage show to theater audiences. This undoubtedly helped to spread the name Keystone to cultural groups that would not be seen dead in a cinema. Stan said something of interest about Chaplin. He said that, when he roomed with him, Chaplin showed clear signs of  insanity.  In fact, Mack and Mabel showed signs that they were not normal in their behaviour. Like Charlie, they seemed to have split personalities. Mack was seen as a great patriarchal figure, but he was also ruthless, and dangerous for those that, in his eyes, had crossed him. Mabel was similarly disposed, and some think that, having met Mack at a young age, she was corrupted by him. However, some incidents from her early life suggest this was not the case. What is clear, nonetheless, is that without Mack, there would have been no Mabel, and without Mabel there would have been no Mack. Similarly, without Mack and Mabel, and especially Mabel, there would have been no Charlie Chaplin. Being arrogant, egotistical and a member of the great unwashed, his career could not have been launched from any other studio. Would any other actress have taken the time to introduce Chaplin to comedy laced with melancholy, or the secrets of socializing in Tinseltown?

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Stan Laurel’s Keystone Trio.

Footnote: 

Paulette, like Mabel, had worked for both Sam Goldwyn and Hal Roach. She drove them both crazy – was it really possible that The Madcap had returned to torment of them?

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FROM NEW YORK TO L.A. TO WEST DALLAS.

 

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Anything you want, they’ve got it right here in West Dallas.

Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, as everyone knows, were the comedy couple that wandered out of the east to set up the famous Keystone Studios on the wild edge of Los Angeles. For many years they travelled back and forth between New York and Los Angeles, but West Dallas, the lawless Texas town? It does seem that at some time they visited Texas, and they might have actually been to Dallas, but it is extremely unlikely that they ever entered, or had heard of, West Dallas. What then is the connection? The answer lies in the personalities of Mack and Mabel, as we know them. Firstly, the pair were said, by some, to have been lovers. Others have judged them to be partners in crime. Whether either of these things are true, it is certainly correct to say is that they were part of the new wave that brought moving pictures to just about every town in the U.S., if not the world.

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Even Charlie Chaplin queued up for Mabel films.

The town of West Dallas was, in reality, a shanty settlement attached to the city of Dallas, with early beginnings, but really got going, paradoxically, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It’s other name of ‘Cement City’ really says it all, although West Dallas in the 1920s and 1930s mainly consisted of grim wooden shacks, a sort of downmarket Edendale, the place where Keystone Studios was located. Growing up in West Dallas (although not born there) were two kids by the names of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. They were part of the first ‘film generation’, those that grew up with the motion picture. As preachers, women’s groups and the cops wrung their hands, those that could not afford the theatre (and some that could) flocked to the ‘flickers’. Like Mack and Mabel, Bonnie and Clyde are said to have fallen in love, although both Clyde and Mack seem to have been homosexual or at least bi-sexual. Anecdotal evidence suggests that both Bonnie and Mabel were heterosexual, and possessed, perhaps, heightened ‘sexual interests’.

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Getting ready for the next scene: Bonnie & Clyde.

Trying to be Mack and Mabel.

The evidence we have suggests that Bonnie and Clyde were, like all kids, greatly interested in the products of the movie industry. In his teens, Clyde considered himself a sort of Billy the Kid, while Bonnie had dreams of being a film star, so whereas Clyde was drawn to Bronco Billy type films, Bonnie was more interested in the melodramatic products of, say, D.W. Griffith. However, Keystone films were liked world-wide, and certainly, from Bonnie’s point of view, Keystones and Goldwyn comedies would be notable for the mysterious and pretty star that appeared in them, Mabel Normand. We should not underestimate the effect that Mabel had on young girls, indeed, the fact that even top Hollywood actresses looked up to her, suggests that her appeal was universal. Every day that Bonnie opened a newspaper, there would have been Mabel, doing this or doing that. Miss Normand was going to enter a car race, Miss Normand would give a diving demonstration, and watch this space for more of Miss Normand’s poems. Unsurprisingly, then, Bonnie wrote poetry, and craved movie stardom. In fact, Bonnie really did have star quality, and could have made it in pictures.

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Bonnie Parker: aimed for fame and stardom. She found it.

If Bonnie, and perhaps Clyde had chosen that route they could have become actors, but circumstances ruled that they hit the road, and rob banks. They lived out of their cars, often travelling a thousand miles a day, and sleeping wherever they ran out of fuel. Not really a movie star life, or was it? The excitement and pseudo glamour of racing around with guns and front-paging every newspaper would have given them the buzz of stardom, without bowing to any arrogant, money-grabbing producer. Here we need to consider the lives of Mack and Mabel. It was not written in stone that they would become big in the movie industry, and they could well have become partners in crime under different circumstances.

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Mack Sennett with his star-of-stars.

Mack Sennett always portrayed himself as an amiable buffoon, but he was in fact a ruthless wide-boy that grew up in the school of hard knocks. He’d grown up in a Canadian agricultural community, but they could not keep him down on the farm. First, he found himself in an iron works in the U.S., then he moved on to the low theatres and bordellos of New York’s Lower East Side, immersing himself in the seedy side of life. Mack himself admitted he’d been arrested in a low theatre on the Bowery, where the main attraction was the notorious dirty-dancer Little Egypt.

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Little Egypt.

He maintains the judge let him off, after he told him he’d only been the rear end of a pantomime horse. Was he, then, perhaps, some kind of a criminal, a pimp? It is likely he was not ‘kosher’. Bonnie and Clyde met at a mutual friend’s house, but the accepted story for Mack and Mabel is that they met at Biograph Studio. As written in a previous blog, this is probably not true, as Mack was regarded as a dangerous madman at the studio, and Mabel would have heard enough to convince her she should not align herself with the crazy Irishman. Due to the fact that Mabel probably wandered Staten Island and the Lower East Side in her youth, and almost certainly did so when modelling, it is not beyond the bounds of probability that she met Mack on the street. From then it was all downhill, or uphill, whichever way you look at it.

 

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Bonnie and Clyde versus Mack and Mabel.

Mabel wasn’t the only one that wanted to be an actress. Bonnie also had aspirations in the acting line. Unlike Mabel, Bonnie had a full-blown compliment of movie dreams in her head, put there by Keystone and the other film studios. None of the big actresses of the 1910s and 20s originally had a notion of what a film star should be – they had to make it up from scratch. Although Clyde was only about Charlie Chaplin size, 5 feet 4 inches, he was a vicious gunslinger, like the ones he’d seen in Tom Mix movies, or in Public Enemy.

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He had even come close to shooting his own brother, Buck, on numerous occasions. However, Bonnie was also very nasty, especially to some of the women they met with on the road. When Clyde dragged a man, who’d been following them, out of his car, and slugged him, Bonnie decided to show how tough she was, and began pushing his female companion around and made cruel wisecracks about her. Blanche Barrow recalled that Bonnie once shot a woman standing at the roadside in the arm. While making a getaway from one particular town, a woman was seen hanging from Clyde’s car, shooting wildly into a crowd, yelling “That’ll learn ya!” Mabel also had a nasty streak, and ruthlessly put down any actress she thought might dethrone her. Did she ever shoot anyone?

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Blanche Barrow in  movie star outfit. Main Street, Dallas

We can’t be sure if she plugged anyone, but she always packed a Colt .25 automatic pistol, although this was as necessary an item in homicidal Los Angeles, as it was in West Dallas. Of course, people sometimes got shot when benign elf Mabel was around. This poses the question “Did Mabel get her vicious streak from Mack in the way people say Bonnie got it from Clyde?’ Mack Sennett was a hard man, and he scared the beejebaz out of men much bigger than Charlie Chaplin. Could it be that Mabel, like Bonnie, wanted to show how tough she was, alongside Mack? The answer is yes and no. Her vicious tongue lashings she gave out to executives at Biograph Studios might possibly have not occurred if it wasn’t for the presence of her protector, Mack. Perhaps this was learnt behaviour that she carried with her to Goldwyn and Roach studios, although Mack himself was not immune from acidic attack. It is possible that the ruthless streaks in Bonnie and Mabel were benign, until they met up with their catalysts, Clyde Barrow and Mack Sennett.

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What girl wouldn’t want to be Biograph Mabel.

One thing is certain about Mack and Mabel, and Bonnie and Clyde, and that is that they both eventually caused public outrage. So much outrage, in fact, that in 1922, the press called for the Hollywooders to be sent back east where the authorities could keep a ‘closer eye on them’. In 1933 they called for Texas to be fenced in, so that the villains couldn’t get out and terrorise the rest of the country. Naturally, these outburst followed prominent murders and shootings in the 20s and 30s.

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To some extent, it was money that lay behind all of the violence. With Bonnie and Clyde it was storm into a bank, bang, bang, grab the loot and run. With Mack and Mabel it was somewhat different. The money-making process was very complicated, and, as Mack Sennett once said, “It was difficult to know how much money was being made, who made it, and who had it.” The whole movie industry was full of clever crooks, carpet-baggers and downright villains. People somehow drank poison, got shot, or just plain disappeared. The stars themselves were a valuable commodity, and had to be closely watched, just in case they were thinking of going over to the opposition. When Mabel struck up a friendship with a Paramount director, he was conveniently shot dead, before he could get her into his studio. When things got tough for Mabel, she attached herself romantically to Edna Purviance’s millionaire boyfriend, who, for some reason, was shot by Mabel’s chauffeur using her gun. All very complicated and the circumstances surrounding the two shootings remain a mystery today.

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Mabel packed the twin of this .25 pistol, used by her chauffeur to shoot Courtland Dines.

Conclusions

Under different circumstances Mack and Mabel could have been Bonnie and Clyde. The time in which Mack and Mabel operated was a time of optimism, when anything was possible, and this was totally different to the pessimistic period in which Bonnie and Clyde found themselves. Mack was the guy who wanted to ‘make it’, and drive around in a Pierce-Arrow car, “firing diamonds at people from a catapult.” Mabel just wanted to be ‘someone’, a shining star in some way or other. One can easily see Mack as a mobster, with Mabel as his moll. Mabel made a good job of being Chaplin’s moll and partner in crime in Tillie’s Punctured Romance. However, Mack and Mabel found themselves in the new medium of motion pictures, meaning they became involved in the shenanigans associated with that industry, rather than the day to day ‘bang, bang’ stuff. However, as Sennett himself said “we had to employ educated people to count the money we made”, but it is clear those educated people also strove to create illusions that prevented their paying audiences from discovering the truth behind those vaunted producers and stars. Possibly, they also laboured to keep anonymous those ‘wide-boys, principally from New York, that financed the seedy world of the ‘flickers’.

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A wide-boy steps out with his moll. Charlie and Mabel in Tillie’s Punctured Romance.

Under different circumstances, Bonnie and Clyde could have been Mack and Mabel, if they’d come along at the right time. However, deep in the 1930s depression, there was little hope for anything, but to struggle to survive. Clyde seems to have wanted to act out the baddies he’d seen on the screen, and Bonnie and sister-in-law, Blanche Barrow, acted out their parts. Both wanted the film star look, and Blanche was finally arrested in her Ruth Elder / Carol Lombard outfit in 1933.

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Blanche Barrow captured in her Carol Lombard outfit.

 

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Bonnie and Clyde’s last ride.

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Bibliography

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1924).

My Life with Bonnie and Clyde by Blanche Barrow.

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

 

 

MABEL NORMAND: THE FIRST FILM STAR.

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How the cartoonist saw Mabel in the 1910s.

Followers of the silent screen and followers of Hollywood in general might disagree with the implication of this title. Wasn’t it Florence Lawrence who was the first film star? Strictly speaking, yes, but she never properly cultivated the aura of a star, and nor did she last very long (Footnote1). Mabel was the first bad-ass, irreverent, overly-wealthy, overly-dressed, over-sexed movie star. As Mabel once said

 “I was the first, I had no-one to look to, no-one to copy.”

Her legendary persona lingered in Tinseltown long enough for her character to be revived in the film Sunset Boulevard in 1950. However, we know little about how her inordinate personality developed during her early years, as her childhood days are a complete blank. There is a suspicion that it was Mack Sennett who filled in her public personality, and, naturally, he had a great interest in her career.

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Mabel by artist James Montgomery Flagg.

Making the Keystone Girl.

It is almost certain, given the evidence, that Mabel, by some means, became a model in Manhattan at the early age of 14. She modelled for those great artists of the 1900s, James Montgomery Flagg and Charles Dana Gibson, but the idea that she was sent to the artists, by a department store manageress, after she applied for a job packing patterns, does not sound plausible. It all sounds like a scene from a Mack Sennett film – a Cinderella story. The truth might lie in the fact that Mack and Mabel probably knew each other before Mabel arrived at Biograph Studios, where she supposedly began her astonishing career. Mabel it seems, roamed the Lower East Side from a young age, and found the Bowery area, where cheap show-biz joints and brothels abounded, of great interest. Maybe, it was down on the Bowery that Mabel ran into Mack, moonlighting from Biograph, for Mack was known to work those dens of iniquity in the early days. Mack, though, in his autobiography makes a great attempt to gloss over his role down on the Bowery. He had to admit he’d been run before the courts on at least one occasion, but he says that, although he was found, during a police raid, in a house of ill-repute, frequented by the notorious Little Egypt, he was merely playing the back end of a pantomime horse! This reminds us that shows were put on in places which were, essentially, whore-houses, and, let’s be quite frank about this, The Ziegfield Follies, through its sister attraction, The Frolic, was a place where clients could ‘meet’ the dancing girls. Mack, although a pantomime horse and a sometime boxer, was probably a small-time pimp, ever on the lookout for pretty girls.

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Mack and Mabel. Don’t worry, they never married.

His intentions were purely professional, for Mack was homosexual, or, at least bi-sexual. It’s possible that he saw Mabel walking around peering into the theatres, and maybe talking with the ‘girls’ outside. However, he would have realized that Mabel was a middle-class girl, who had deeply religious and strict parents, and was not really whore-house material – she could be dangerous. Mack, who was twelve years Mabel’s elder, might have taken her under his wing, for if Mabel was intent on securing theatrical work in a house of ill-repute, then he needed to sideline her, and get her in somewhere that would give her exposure, but preserve her nominal innocence. This would not be because Mack was altruistic, but because Mack’s fertile brain was forever looking for some angle, for the main chance. Mabel would need ‘posing’ instruction, but it was vital to preserve her purity, and that meant at least semi-respectful employment.

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Dodgy bar on the Bowery. Barney Flynn’s.

This is possibly how Mabel got into modelling, but models and actresses were known to make money ‘on the side’. If Mack was on the ball, he would introduce her gradually to the low theatre, but avidly guard her against evil forces. We can imagine that Mack had been learning the movie game for some time, before he brought Mabel into a studio. At the time Mabel walked into the Biograph studio no-one would know that she and Mack were known to each other. This was not unusual, for actors who brought their wives and girlfriends in were frowned upon. Linda and David W. Griffith didn’t reveal they were married until they’d been at Biograph for a year. If Mack and Mabel had known each other for a couple of years prior to her appearance at Biograph, then, it is no surprise that Mabel went off with Mack to California, against the good advice of the other Biograph actresses. They had a clever ploy, did Mack and Mabel. Mabel told her friends that Mack was a frustrated Napoleon, without the intellect to actually ‘make it’, while Mack told his friends that Mabel was scatter-witted and illiterate. However, Mabel was not so scatter-witted. Her aim was to beat all of the Biograph girls to stardom, and Mack would help her. Mary Pickford had thought this way, and walked out on Biograph, but was unable capitalize on her new situation, and it was 1914 before she got her name up in lights, courtesy of Adolph Zuckor.  

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Watching Mabel die is Blanche Sweet, one of those that advised Mabel against  going out west with ‘Mad’ Mack Sennett.

A Star is Born in Faraway Los Angeles.

While Pickford made a series of bad moves, Mabel had astonished her compatriots by rapidly climbing to the greatest heights ever seen in the movie industry, and nobody begrudged her that station in the industry. She was a star to eclipse all stars in the nascent movie business. No one had then seen anything like it, and, as Mack beavered away on her publicity, his star was seen all over town, with her fur coats, stoles, Parisian dresses and shoes, dripping with diamonds – a lighthouse in the muddy environs of Edendale. Mack described her as entering the studio gate in the morning (or more usually the afternoon), her head held high, wearing the obligatory furs (even though it was a hundred degrees), her chauffeur in front carrying her trunk, her accountant behind her carrying her account books, and her gardener bringing up the rear, carrying her costumes. No one minded, and actors and actresses flocked to her, Mabel the Queen of the Hive, and the person that gave their studio kudos by the truckload. The ‘Queen’ held audiences in her luxuriously appointed dressing room, dispensing justice for those who’d been wronged by the management. It was here also that The Keystone Girl was wooed by those legions of men that wanted to know her better. It was here that lovesick fans from around the world would leave packages containing engagement rings and sickly love notes, outside her door. Mabel became a white stone millionaire. The curious thing to us today, is that Mabel, and many other early movie stars were, and looked, incredibly young, in fact like schoolgirls. This might tell us more about the time that the films were made, rather than the actresses themselves – audiences back then liked that sort of thing, when Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan Tom Sawyer, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook were necessary reading. However, as Minta Arbuckle tells us, in real life, Mabel looked even younger, and, when out on the town, she appeared to be a 13 year-old girl, wearing her mother’s clothes. This never bothered Mabel, nor, apparently, the droves of  suitors that pursued her. Unfortunately, wherever Mabel went in the world (where she was soon recognised) she was accompanied by shouts of “How old are you Mabel?” Such is the cross a star bears.

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A film star at home.

Giving the producer the ‘bird’.

In 1914, Charlie Chaplin crept to Her Majesty’s door, looking for solace and a way to understand the movie business. The Queen never turned anyone away, and Charlie became a regular at Miss Normand’s boudoir. Here he learned that a star must always show some humility, and even more generosity towards humanity, except, of course, for producers, who were low-life that should be exterminated for the good of mankind. Mabel had no compunction against humiliating even the highest of movie moguls, calling Mack Sennett ‘Nappy’ and throwing heavy books at the head of the Emperor of Film, Adolph Zuckor – he who was worshipped on bended knee by Mary Pickford and lord knows how many crawling stage mothers. Sam Goldwyn was given the name ‘The Waddler’, and his executives fared little better. When one of Sam’s minions had words with Mabel over her punctuality, Mabel sprayed him with perfume, and when he opened the door to his office next day, a bucket of water mysteriously fell on his head. Nor was the great genius himself, D.W. Griffith spared humiliation and vicious sarcasm from Mabel. While the bright young things put up with Griffith’s mental and physical abuse, Mabel would put his actresses off, as the genius coached them, by prancing around behind Griffith in a clown’s outfit. Any complaint from the Genius, was met with a torrent of abusive language from the adorable Mabel. Mabel did not always survive her antagonistic ways, and two studios fired her for ‘lewd and unacceptable’ behaviour. However, Mabel had a disarming way about her, and no-one could be angry with her for long, and she was ‘unfirable’ at Biograph, where any move against her, would be met with stiff resistance from the Biograph girls, to whom she was a goddess to be worshipped. However, Griffith breathed a sigh of relief, when Mack Sennett prised her away from Biograph. Four years later she was to haunt the ‘Great Director’ again on the hallowed turf of Hollywood. In the meantime, Mabel and Charlie were leading Mack Sennett a merry dance out in the Dale of Eden. Charlie, of course, was under the divine protection of Mabel, and, with the Queen of The Hive, he could do things he would not dare do alone. Spending long hours with Mabel was bad enough, for Mack was hard put to find enough spies to listen at Mabel’s dressing room windows. Worse, though, was the fact that the young pair would often creep off the lot, ‘steal’ a studio car, and hit downtown, looking for a bit of fun. Mack soon realized that the best way to keep tabs on the suspected lovers, was to take them to dinner at the Athletic Club every night. Chaplin was agreeable, as, if nothing else, he was cheap. However, when Mack inevitably fell asleep after dinner, the pair would abscond, and… erm… go elsewhere, then return an hour later, to wake the boss up.

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“They’re in here alright boss – fetch the gun.”

As Charlie learned the movie game, Mabel seems to have made up her mind that he was her own personal property. Having made more than half a dozen films with the Limey, she suddenly realized that Chaplin was beginning to use other actresses as his leading ladies. It is difficult to understand today how much of a ‘catch’ he  was seen to be. Charlie had, as Mary Pickford tells us, the aura of a Greenwich Village writer or poet about him. Unlike his compatriots at the studio, he was no he-man, his hands were small, and matched his passionate and emotional persona. He really was the male version of Mabel. Once Mabel realized that Chaplin was interested in Peggy Pearce and Virginia Kirtley, she took action and Peggy, who’d struck up a love affair with Charlie, suddenly decided to drop him. Mabel was a dangerous person to cross, and one glare from her bush baby eyes, was enough to send rampant actresses scurrying for cover. However, Chaplin soon acquired another foil, another Peggy, who had strong support from her gold-digging mother and sister. The family name seems to have been Carruthers, but Helen or perhaps Gladys, used the stage name Peggy Page. Peggy had only a modicum of acting ability, but was good-looking enough to play stooge to Chaplin. Mabel acted swiftly, and cornered the market in Charlie, taking him as leading man in four consecutive films. Not only that, but, just in case anyone had doubts about who owned Charlie, Mabel was all over the Music Hall genius on the screen. Never had cinema audiences witnessed so much eyelash fluttering and innuendo on the silver screen. When Peggy and her mother played extras in Gentlemen of Nerve, it is clear they were upset at Mabel’s amorous cosying up to Charlie. The Carruther family may have been experienced gold-diggers, but they’d clearly lost the battle for Charlie. Mabel was, however, magnanimous in victory, and threw Peggy the lead part in Chaplin’s last Keystone, His Prehistoric Past, where she wore the career-destroying grass skirt. See: THE STRANGE CASE OF HELEN CARRUTHERS AKA PEGGY PAGE.

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Bush Baby eyes meet Cod’s eyes. Cartoon of 1918.

 

A Tramp’s eye view of Mack and Mabel.

It’s interesting to remember that Chaplin was not an actor as such, when he came to Keystone. He was more of a gags man, almost a stand-up comedian. What Chaplin actually thought was going on at Keystone, and what he proposed to do there, are things that only the man himself knew, although he understood that he’d come into close contact with every man’s dream – The Keystone Girl. In all likelihood he thought that Mack Sennett was the country hick of his films, while Mabel was a scatter-wit that ran around the screen like a demented whirling dervish. Their films were crudely constructed and without story lines. How shocked was the egotistical Chaplin, when he found Keystone was ruled, not by a King, but a Queen. Their process of film-making was highly technical and pragmatic – there was no such thing as a quick movie. He was even more shocked to find that the Queen of Comedy was moving away from slapstick. Mabel intended to shift over to more dramatic films with a solid story line. In his confusion Charlie failed to understand that the film Mabel At The Wheel was not about “being funny with a hose.”

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Mabel At The Wheel. not a film about being funny with a hose.

Don’t believe what you see in the film ‘Chaplin’. If Charlie had really turned a hose on Mabel, he’d have been instantly beaten to a pulp by the crew and cast. The underlying story of At The Wheel was strong, and Mabel was to be the heroine that beat all the men in a prestigious car race. While top car racers, like ‘Terrible’ Teddy Tetzlaff, Earl Cooper, and Barney Oldfield queued up to appear in Mabel’s films, Chaplin went into sulk mode. How could a woman be the hero of a film, and how come Mabel could drive, when he, a man, couldn’t? He’d badly under-estimated both Mack and Mabel. Mack was smart, something the egotistical limey was not. He understood that the era of women’s emancipation had begun, and he was smart enough to know there were big bucks to be made from women’s suffrage. If Chaplin didn’t like playing second fiddle, then he could take a run and jump. The incident during the making of Mabel At The Wheel, merely confirmed that Mabel really was The Queen, and the numbers of crew and actors lining up to punch Charlie’s lights out for disrespecting their heroine, reinforced that confirmation.

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Not as dumb as Chaplin thought. Mack and Mabel.

Charlie Chaplin passed through Keystone like a ship in the night. He left with the knowledge that tragedy and pathos could be combined with comedy, an art he learned from the Queen of Tragedy, Mabel Normand. There is a notion that Mabel was going to leave with Chaplin, but Charlie figured he needed a stooge, so he engaged an office girl called Edna Purviance. An action of treachery against Mabel, who clearly expected to leave with Chaplin. Unfortunately, with Mabel at his side, he would have been the stooge. For the next year, Mabel would do the ‘country kids in love’ series which was all a bit bland compared with what Mabel and Chaplin had planned. However, it was in 1915 that Mabel was voted the top comedienne, out-voting Mary Pickford, and polling only a few less votes than her former pupil, Charlie Chaplin. Unsurprisingly, Mabel began to fall out with Sennett, who wished to keep his Keystone Girl in sweet and lovely roles, with no chance of playing tragic characters or vamps. The very idea! His ingenue could never be seen in any ‘impure’ role. However, although arguing more and more with Mack, Mabel was still the darling of the studio, as far as the actors and actresses were concerned. 

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Bug-eyed girls flock to Mabel at Goldwyn Studios.

Children on the lot flocked to her, and she was very kind to the wardrobe lady’s daughter, a certain Bebe Daniels. Bebe never appeared in a Keystone film, and it’s likely that Mabel warned her not to stick around Edendale’s municipal dump too long. Indeed, Mabel herself was not around much longer, and fled the coop, while on loan to New York Motion Pictures in early 1916. Mack Sennett had always said that Mabel was scatter-witted and dumb, but, on this occasion, his star-of-stars completely out-manoeuvred Mr Smart-Ass Sennett. She cleverly arranged a meeting with Mutual Films executives, arch-enemies of Keystone’s new distributors, Triangle. After verbally agreeing a deal, Mabel put an article in trade magazines stating that she would star in Mutual pictures, alongside the company’s new acquisition, Charlie Chaplin. Blind panic ensued at NYMP and Keystone, as bosses and executives attempted to track Mabel down, and make her an offer she couldn’t refuse. This was a critical stage for the new Triangle company, and they could not afford to lose the star that made more money, and whose films cost less than those of anyone else, including that pseudo-genius, D.W. Griffith. What did they offer? Firstly, and most importantly, she was to have her own studio, and secondly a Chaplinesque salary to go with it. The studio, on Fountain Avenue, L.A., was amazing, comprising 25,000 feet of floor space, a garden, and a star’s dressing room on the first floor, with a balcony overlooking the main stage. After Mabel had carpets laid throughout, and flowers strewn everywhere, a party was held at the studio, for everyone that was anyone in Hollywood. Even Griffith himself walked over from his Reliance-Majestic Studio, two blocks away. He’d watched Mabel’s name go up on the studio the previous week with well-clenched teeth. “The bitch had made it.” Soon after the throng had gathered at the studio, Mack Sennett, ever the showman, and his side-kick, Abdul, turned up with a very expensive oriental rug for Mabel’s Louise XIV dressing room. There was much excitement among the Biograph ‘old girls’ as they were treated to dinner in Mabel’s huge dressing room. Later, the major producers were taunted by the sniggering girls, as the powerful men were forced, to pay homage the Queen of Hollywood. They would never forget the humiliation, and would seek revenge years later. See: THE STRANGE DEATH OF THE MABEL NORMAND FEATURE FILM CO.

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Left: The Queen holds Court in her Mabel Normand Studio dressing room (L). Royal advisers are F. Richard Jones and Mack Sennett. Right: Today’s owner, Jesse Rogg, gives an interview.

As the Triangle company began to teeter on the edge, and the Mabel Normand studio closed, Mabel was getting ready to run. Mack, Adam Kessell and Charlie Baumann had private dicks following Mabel day and night, trying to discover which producers she was meeting. The tailing came to a head, when one of the ‘tailers’ approached Mabel saying he’d give her the info he’d gathered for a mere $500. The guy was eventually arrested as he took the money from Mabel. His employers, known to be New Yorkers, were never found.

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Many studios were interested in hiring Mabel, but the big players were wary of the sarcastic wit and scorn of the Keystone Girl. She might humiliate them in public! A certain producer known as Sam Goldwyn, who was head over heels in love with Mabel, and was starting a brand new studio, took her on. He’d acquired the hottest property in Hollywood by telling her she would be his only star. This meant more to Mabel than the paltry $1,500 a week he was going to pay her. Mack Sennett, meanwhile, attempted to get Mabel back, by trying to spend the pants off Sam, and set big tooth New York lawyers on Sam, that set out to renegotiated Mabel’s contract for a higher price. Mabel, who was upset that Mack didn’t personally deal with the situation, capitulated, fell into Sam’s arms, and that was that.

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Goldwyn’s: 3rd right, Mabel, Sam Goldwyn, Geraldine Farrar, far right Florence Lawrence.

No sooner was Mabel’s signature on the contract than Sam reneged on the verbal part of the deal, and began to sign up every star he could get hold of. Unfortunately, the first star he signed was Mae Marsh, the little star of Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation. At Biograph she had been given a plum role in Man’s Genesis, over the other established actresses, such as Mary Pickford, Mabel and Blanche Sweet, who’d refused to go on screen wearing grass skirts. The empowered Biograph girls black-legged Miss Marsh, like, for ever. Although Mae’s career rocketed, she was forever a social outcast in the later Tinseltown. Many years later she apologized to the ‘girls’ saying “I was just a lamebrain, you know.” This ostracization is symptomatic of the way Hollywood developed over the next eighteen or so years. The early studio girls, especially those from Biograph and Vitagraph, held the silent motion picture industry in their grasp. They demanded huge amounts of cash for their services, while refusing to bare all before the camera. When the likes of Louise Brooks and Clara Bow later came along, the Hollywood Royalty branded them ‘whores’ and refused to attend functions where they were present, and nor were they invited to any private parties. (Footnote 2). The movie moguls were ready to pounce on the stars in 1919, but the formation of United Artists by Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks and Griffith held them off until 1930.

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Hard luck for the big studios as Fairbanks, Chaplin, Pickford and Griffith form United Artists.

Getting back to Goldwyn’s, the number of signed up stars began to burgeon, as Sam began to attract more and more theatrical stars. Mabel became particularly irked by Geraldine Farrar, Madge Kennedy, and Pauline Frederick, all refugees from the stage. Now, although Mabel was very keen on stage actors, she did not extend her friendship to actresses, who might, after all, be a threat to her position. In the end Mabel over-reacted to the situation, and began to sass both the actresses and the company executives.

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Jack Pickford and Mabel on brother Claude’s motorcycle. Goldwyn 1919.

While stars were performing on set, Mabel would put them off by standing feet wide apart, arms on hips, rocking on her heels, as she laughed and guffawed at her victims. No-one was going to dethrone the Queen of Hollywood. Some actresses tried to screen off their sets from the prying eyes of Mabel. No matter, for Mabel simply clambered up on top of the stages, and hurled abuse down from on high. Insolent executives found themselves doused in perfume, and sometimes, when they opened their office doors, buckets of water fell on their heads. Studio supervisors tried to keep Mabel out, when they were having important discussions, by locking their doors, but Mabel simply forced open the transoms above, and cackled loudly at the influential visitors within. Sam Goldwyn was exasperated, but his exasperation turned to dread, when Mabel fell ill, and seemed to be dying.  He called in the man who knew Mabel better than anybody, Charlie Chaplin. Dr. Chaplin prescribed a long course of Mack Sennett, and so it was that The King ended up back with his Queen. The mischievous elf was to become the Keystone Girl again. Except she wouldn’t, things were different now.

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Mabel, Sam Goldwyn, Charlie Chaplin 1918.

The Golden Years of  Madcap Mabel.

Mabel had been able to cultivate her movie-star image at Goldwyn, regardless of the stiff competition. The studio had to big her up in their publicity, and when Mabel demanded a $3,000 refit of her dressing room, Sam rolled over on his back, and so it was done. Sam, however, was usually in New York, while Mabel was usually in Hollywood. The producer was therefore unable to polish Mabel’s growing ego on a regular basis. Mabel, feeling alone and dejected, behaved accordingly. Without either Mack or Sam’s personal support, Mabel had become prey for the numerous pressmen able to infiltrate the studio. Mabel did everything to avoid them, often making early morning appointments, but not turning up until three in the afternoon. It was while working at Goldwyn’s that the famous Tragic side of Mabel Normand or ‘Alarm clock’ interview occurred, at four in the afternoon. Prior to the interview Photoplay were told this: “Miss Normand will act precisely as if she never had been interviewed before, and will blush and simper and beg you to publish her latest photograph. In fact, Miss Normand will not be herself at all, for she knows that you will much prefer to write of her as an animated doll squeaking opinions someone else has thought for her, tucked in a doll’s house and wearing doll’s clothes, lacy and baby blue.” Then there was a list of stipulations about what the interviewer could and could not ask. They were something of an intended joke, and the pressman was wondering if he should attend Miss Normand’s house at all. She was clearly insane! Somewhat afraid, the pressman was admitted to Miss Normand’s abode, where the star set an alarm clock for ten minutes – ten minutes where Mabel asked the questions and answered them. Most of the questions the timid journalist asked went unheard, as Mabel entered a monologue, and finally went into a speech about the benefits of chocolate cake. At that moment the alarm clock sounded and the star-of-stars stood up, “Your ten minutes—” Miss Normand announced, smiling cordially and rising to her full height of five feet, “are up. Please go. I must be alone when the chocolate cake arrives. With great sorrows or great joys I seek solitude. I am not like other girls, you understand.” The gob-smacked journalist began to retire, and backed away from the star, as one usually does when in the presence of royalty.

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Mabel eats the chocolates from a cake in Mickey.

Mabel now left this all behind, as she re-entered the sphere of Mack Sennett. Goldwyn had introduced her to big story films, but they had been poorly adapted for the screen, which diluted the original art. Now, at Mack Sennett Studios, Mabel would get big-name stories, adapted fully to the screen, and directed by big-name director F. Richard Jones. Of course, Mabel did not thank Sennett for, perhaps, rescuing her. Mabel was more standoffish than she’d formerly been with The King. In fact Mabel was very formal with the person who’d  been her partner in comedy and, they say, her lover. She called him either Mr. Sinnott or Michael Sinnott, and never did she call him Mack Sennett.

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Mabel as Molly O in 1921.

She was the star, and Mack should understand that. Of course, in newspaper articles she called him Mack Sennett, but the fact is that Mack was now exclusively writing her publicity material. Many of the interviews Mabel supposedly gave, have been found in Sennett’s private papers, as typewritten scripts, with hand-written amendments. This included Mabel’s so-called autobiography of 1924. The press were full of reports that Mack and Mabel were reunited, but Mabel had no intention of ever being the dim-witted Keystone Girl again. Now she wanted to be seen as a dramatic actress, that appeared in comedies. In fact, she wanted to be like her friends, all by now big dramatic artists. No longer would Blanche, Mary, Alice, or Constance laugh continuously through her films, which would, henceforth, be costume dramas, and she wouldn’t be paying for the costumes, Mack Sennett Studios would.

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A star reborn. Mabel, Mack and Dick at the Molly O premiere.

Mabel was not, as some thought, well-settled at the Edendale studio. Mack had, years previously, moved his star from her vulnerable bungalow, and into a new well-guarded 1st floor female dressing room block. Mabel reoccupied her old dressing room, resplendent with marble Roman bath, and woe betide anyone who had the temerity to disturb the star-of-stars while she was bathing like a Byzantine Empress. If the cast were waiting on her appearance on set, then so be it. They were, after all, being paid, much to the chagrin of Sennett. The King himself dare not disturb the Queen at her toilette, for fear of her acid tongue. One story is that Mack dared to knock at the door one day, and was met by the sight of Mabel wearing a comedy mustache “I’m sorry, but Miss Normand is unavailable just now, please call back” she said, then slammed the door in his face. On another occasion, the studio supervisor, getting no answer at Mabel’s door, forced the thing open, fearing she’d drowned in the bath. What he found was a wide open window with a rope hanging from it down into the street ….. “Mabel’s escaped he screamed!”

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Mabel’s dressing rooms: 1. Keystone 2. Goldwyn 3. Her marble bath during demolition.

The question is “Why didn’t Mabel ever get into one of the big prestigious studios?” Well, it wasn’t for want of trying, but, probably, unknown to Mabel, the movie moguls did not want her – they only wanted ‘yes girls’ and Mabel was an ‘I don’t care girl’. Once in the studio, Mabel would soon corrupt the young actresses, and the studio would have an insurrection on their hands.

Mabel Attempts an Edendale Break-out.

At the end of 1921, while making Suzanna, she made an attempt to gain entry to Paramount Studios via a director called W.D. Taylor. Unfortunately, the big boss-man, Adolph Zuckor, had threatened to fire any of his subordinates that tried to sign Mabel. Zuckor knew the fury of the then Keystone Girl, when she’d tried to brain him with a heavy book. Mabel lured Taylor into a passionate affair with her, but the director was powerless to get her into his studio. While Mabel went into hysterics, there were Sennett men that were tailing her 24/7 (Mabel was a 24-hour girl). Mack would not be pleased that his girl was trying to escape his clutches, and Taylor soon turned up very much dead.

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The murderer was never found, but 25 years later a washed-up producer, initials MS, admitted to the killing. While Mabel received much support from her friends in Hollywood, the press now had a reason to pillory her, something they’d wanted to do for years. Mabel was a scarlet woman, a whore from the gutter, a devious heroin addict, and one that spoke with a plummy aristocratic accent, totally out of keeping with her origins in the trash-filled gutters of New York. True, Mabel was devious, and although a man-eater per excellence, she was no whore – she never once went with a married man, and neither did she charge for her ‘services’. Undoubtedly, Mabel was fortified by certain drugs, like any other person suffering from a fatal illness, but there is no evidence that she was addicted to heroin. Her chief problems stemmed from the fact that the big studios did not back her up, and seemed to be stoking the developing the fire. Another actress Mary Miles Minter, also involved with Taylor, was put on the back burner by Paramount, while Claire Windsor, who’d attended just one function with Taylor was fired, but later reinstated. On top of this, Zuckor sent a deputation to Taylor’s house very early on, to remove any incriminating evidence. As stated above, the big studios had it in for Mabel, and it is possible that Zuckor, or someone of his ilk, actually arranged for Taylor’s demise. As the press, the church, and the women’s clubs raged against Mabel, she made arrangements to leave Hollywood, before the industry’s great clean-up specialist, Will Hays, arrived with his broom. 

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“Oh dear, and we thought they were such  virtuous little cherubs.”

Shipping out to Europe.

After finishing Suzanna, Mabel made a run for Europe. As she left in one direction, Will Hays arrived from the other. In Europe, notable persons, great writers, princes and anyone that was someone queued up to meet Mabel. The Queen received the usual gifts of diamond rings, but she had no intention of marrying anyone – the rings joined the trunk-full she had already accumulated. In France she wrote her own screenplay, by gaining her own personal shiek, Prince Ibrahim of Egypt. The Queen and the Prince hit Monte Carlo, where they caused quite a stir, and filled the newspapers. Having helped the Prince spend his fortune at the roulette tables, Mabel departed, when the words ‘marriage’ came from the prince’s lips. Mabel would never marry anyone, and she certainly wasn’t going spend her life in a harem out in some faraway, dusty desert.

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Trappings of a star: A prince and a Rolls Royce.

Numerous journalists had jostled for position on Mabel’s ship on the way out, and were now accompanying her home. Stories were wired back of how Mabel was permanently drunk, fell off her bar stool, and swam naked in the ship’s pool, as indeed she had supposedly done, at an English lord’s mansion. Just to stir the media up all the more, Mabel arrived home with twenty pieces of luggage, and wearing an enormous diamond, presumably an engagement ring. When quizzed about it, Mabel said she’d just liked it, and bought it. Then, on reflection, she said D.W. Griffith had given it to her for being such a good actress. Mabel and Griffith, of course, were very reluctant acquaintances. The dazzling clothes she’d brought back from Paris, at a cost of $100,000 stunned everyone.

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Mabel arrives home.

In New York, Mabel stayed at Marilyn Miller’s apartment, she having just married Jack Pickford (often believed to have been Mabel’s on-off lover). It was here Mabel heard that Mary Pickford had married off her two friends, ostensibly, behind her back. Already furious, at not being at the wedding, Mabel then heard that Mack Sennett had begun a huge feature film starring Phyllis Haver. She immediately flew into full-blown film star mode, and made an expensive long-distance call to Edendale. The details of the call are unknown, but it seems something about the Taylor murder was mentioned, and shortly thereafter Miss Haver was packing her trunk, and running out of the , studio gate.

Mabel breezed into Los Angeles a few days later, and, according to Mack Sennett was, “as gay as a wisp.” She went straight into the new film Extra Girl, as three weeks worth of pre-shot film went into the trashcan. Mabel had won this battle, and as her new film was released in late 1923, she renewed her friendship with Charlie Chaplin’s leading lady, Edna Purviance, whose own solo film had just bombed. Edna, perhaps realizing her career was just about over, was chasing after millionaire, Courtland Dines. However, Mabel was not just in the background, Thinking her own career was near its end, Mabel began seeing Dines behind Edna’s back. Undoubtedly Mabel, the great film star, thought she’d win the million dollar prize over Edna, who was dull and uninteresting alongside her. No one really knows the details of what happened next. What happened was that Mabel’s chauffeur, an escaped convict, shot Dines, leaving him close to death. One theory is that Mabel, fearing Edna would marry Dines, ordered the gun-toting chauffeur (who was of course in love with Mabel) to shoot Dines, depriving Edna of her millionaire (Goddamn it, she’d already take Chaplin from her). The big problem was that he’d used Mabel’s own gun.

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This Parisian dress caused much astonishment in 1922.

Again all hell broke loose in the press, and this time it was all much worse. The two shootings proved that Mabel really was possessed by demons, and the fact that her chauffeur knew his way around her bedroom (where he’d got hold of Mabel’s gun)  proved that she was unchaste, and had no compunction about having sexual relations with the ‘help’. For all the furore, Mabel was determined she would not run away. She appeared at the trial of the chauffeur in all her movie star finery, speaking in riddles, with an aristocratic accent that would be becoming of an English lord. She was going to take the film star bit to the extreme, and damn what the establishment thought. Curiously enough, her fans never deserted her, and, after buying a house to prove she’d settled down, she was off on a multi-million dollar stage tour. The press homed in on her everywhere she appeared, and, although becoming very sick, she revelled in the attention, and played to packed houses. The critics, however, lampooned her play, which had run, in a previous life, to empty theaters. For one reason or another, she pulled the plug on the play herself, and settled the tour for a payment to her of a million dollars. Retiring back to Beverly Hills, she sat back and laughed at those that had tried to finish her, and, although bringing in profits shares from Extra Girl, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars a month, she was still out on the social and press circuit.

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Mabel attends a premiere with Lew Cody and Raymond Hitchcock , 1926.

Were there offers of motion picture work? There were indeed, and, in particular, two British studios offered to sign her. However, Mabel decided she wasn’t going to be driven out of ‘the land of dreams’. In early 1926, Mack Sennett came a-calling, offering a part in a new feature film. When Mabel called at the studio, she was besieged by the actors and actresses, many who were new to pictures, but were not so green that they did not know who Mabel Normand was, and she was a childhood heroine to most of them. Ruth Taylor wrote this in her diary: 

May 16. Guess who came to see us today? Mabel Normand! Why I can’t hardly believe it yet. Mabel Normand herself. She looked thin and she has been ill, but she was all everyone around here told me she would be. Everyone acted like the queen had come.” 

The film came to nothing, but Mabel was about town with old friend Lew Cody, commonly known as ‘The Butterfly Man’. The new union was much appreciated in Hollywood, the most eligible leading man and leading lady, attending big premieres downtown. The pair caused a sensation, when they finally married. A sham marriage for sure, but it kept Mabel, and, probably Lew as well, honest, at least in the public eye. In 1926 also, representations from Lew Cody, F. Richard Jones, Mary Pickford and others persuaded Sennett’s arch enemy, Hal Roach, to sign Mabel, for $1,000 a week, rising to $3,000. Naturally, even at a thousand a week, Mabel was still a star, and she swept into Roach like a supernova. Mabel’s old friend and director F. Richard Jones (Roach’s studio supervisor) and Stan Laurel took Mabel, who was now very sick, under their wing, and actresses like Anita Garvin gave her the goddess treatment.

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Mabel and Dick Jones are not amused about being seen hand in hand at Roach in 1927.

Everyone was glad to have an actress of her magnitude at their studio. Mabel, as well, brought droves of girlfriends to the studio, who, at Mabel’s instigation, followed Roach around the set, ridiculing him and sneering at him. Mabel called him “That fucking thick-necked Mick.” Roach later recalled that Mabel was “The dirtiest-talking girl you ever heard.” However, nobody minded, as Mabel was also the most disarming girl anyone had ever know. Stan Laurel wrote most of the scripts for Mabel’s films, and directed alongside Dick Jones. Mabel left the studio, due to declining health in 1927, leaving enough of herself behind, to be picked up by Stan Laurel (a serial Charlie Chaplin impersonator) for him to renew his acting career. Think Stan Laurel’s dumb face and head scratch. If anyone owed Mabel Normand something, it was Stan Laurel (oh, and Oliver Hardy).

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Mabel ‘imitates’ Stan. 1922 and 1914.

Early in 1927, Mabel left Roach Studio – for the fireside, yeah? Not a bit of it, although a millionairess, Mabel had no intention of walking away from pictures. During 1927 and 1928, she out and about, seeing and being seen. Increasingly, she had bouts of illness, but between bouts, she made appearances at numerous public functions and premieres. She also had a positive test for the ‘talkies’ and, in December 1928, made a film for Lew Cody on the set of Our Dancing Daughters.

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Mabel filming on the set of Our Dancing Daughters, 1928.

Through 1929, due to her continuing poor health, Mabel finally began to fade from the scene. However, due to intense public interest, all things Mabel continued to appear in the press, and just as often as the latest celebrity, Al Capone. Mabel was still the star. In Hollywood no one was greatly concerned, as Mabel had been at death’s door many times down the years, and she could, would survive. She had to pull through, as everyone knew the glitz would fall from the colony, as soon as Mabel departed. In September, she was admitted in a serious condition into the Pottenger Sanitorium, to be treated for tuberculosis. There is no doubt that she expected to recover, as she would not leave her home to die elsewhere. However, by December ’29 Mabel was pleading to go home, but, for whatever reason, those charged with her care, ignored her. Mabel’s great nephew, Stephen Normand, has forwarded the view that those ‘holding her hostage’ were busy plundering her possessions. 

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No frumpy bloomers and gingham dresses for a star. A silk camisole worn by Mabel.

The Death of a Star.

Mabel died at 2:25 a.m. on February 23 1930. However, although her earthly body was gone, her heavenly presence or avatar lived on. The shock through Hollywood was palpable. If there was a definitive sign that the silent movie was gone forever, this was it. Everyone now knew it was all over, there were to be no more silent films – except one. Charlie Chaplin had begun to make the film City Lights, and, although it was meant to be a talkie, then later a dubbed silent, it was released as a silent. Chaplin, of course, had been closer to Mabel than anybody, and was deeply troubled by her passing. Many others gave eulogies and obituaries, and on the day of Mabel’s funeral, all the studios closed so that everyone could attend the service.

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Who conveys a star to her tomb? The stars and captains of the movie industry, of course.

Characterizing Mabel Normand.

As with Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett, it is virtually impossible to get an absolute handle on the Keystone Girl. If Chaplin was baffling and distant, then Mabel remains more baffling and more distant. She has been described variously as an elf, other-worldly, ruthless, generous and  hugely ambitious. Mack Sennett maintained that she had no ambition to be an actress, but early information for Mabel suggests that was the way she wanted to go. She had a driving ambition, and her father’s failure to make it on the stage, probably meant that he instilled her with his own ambition.

Mabel, then, was born to be a star. Initially she might have been working her way to the stage, via modelling. Fate intervened, and she ended up at Biograph studio. Here she was really gripped by ambition, and, it seems, after a humiliating role under Florence Lawrence, she determined to knock the star off her perch. In this she might have had help from the other ‘new girls’ at the studio. We know that Mary Pickford was less than pleased with the attitude of ‘high and mighty’ Miss Lawrence. We also know ‘the girls’ were drawn together as an informal trades union, and their vendetta against Mae Marsh might not have been the only time they enforced their joint will. The actresses were, nonetheless, individuals in competition with each other. While some sucked up to the management, Mabel took the opposite route, and made herself popular with the actors and actresses by sassing the executives, and generally being fearless in her pursuit of individuality. Of course, many would say that Mabel was under the divine protection of ex-boxer and iron-worker, Mack Sennett, but at least Mabel had the gumption to secure the person that could most help her. In a nutshell, we can say that Mabel was ‘The People’s Star’ from day one.

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The photo everyone wanted. Charlie and Mabel, 1928.

We do not know what made Mabel the way she was. Possibly, like Charlie Chaplin, she suffered from a psychological and personality disorder. Nevertheless, everyone was drawn to her, and she took on the aura of a magnanimous star, under the guidance of a not so stupid Mack Sennett. If the term ‘magnanimous star’ term  appears a contradiction in terms, then Mabel can be seen as that – a contradiction. It was the various contradictions that made Mabel the unique star that she was. Everyone was busy trying to understand who she was. Audiences asked of the screen Mabel, “Who is she, how old is she, how can she be fickle one minute, and then tied in love with one man the next?” Did she really glide around as though on wheels, even when at full pelt, and was she actually pigeon toed?” These were the mysteries that drew the audiences back to her films time and time again, even when she was being pilloried by the press and the women’s clubs. Natural acting ability was only part of the equation, and what she did off-screen excited the fans as much as her on-screen performances. To say she was the complete star is probably a gross understatement. 

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Pigeon-toed or just being cute? 1922.

So what relevance has Mabel had over the last 100 years? Well, her relevance is that every bad-assed, self-centered, generous, and ever-visible star is based on Mabel, although it is still a crime to actually utter the words ‘Mabel Normand’, and, while individuals might want to be her, the studios really don’t want another Mabel. She was the first, and she tried hard to be the only. One curious fact is that actresses with star quality at Keystone  never really made it during the time that Mabel reigned at that studio. Louise Fazenda, Polly Moran, and even Marie Dressler were only able to truly flower in leading parts, after Mabel departed at the end of 1915. Their leading roles at Keystone ensured later success elsewhere. It seems that Mabel was somehow able to ‘fix’ them. Nothing was said at the time, probably because everyone at Keystone adored Mabel, and furthermore understood her greatness as an actress. However, we have to consider that she carried out hatchet jobs on Virginia Kirtley, the two Peggys, Pearce and Page, as well as Dixie Chene – all capable actresses in their own right. This is the other side to the mischievous elf. It is also clear that she began to realize that male performers were not a threat to her, as evidenced by the time she devoted to Charlie Chaplin, in order that he find his way through “the swamp of motion pictures.”

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A Battle of the Actresses? Peggy Page (check coat)  Dixie Chene (next to Mabel) and Cecile Arnold (wide brimmed hat). Gentlemen of Nerve 1914.

Today, only the great weight of material about Mabel survives to indicate how ‘big’ she was in the 1910s and 1920s. As Anita Garvin later said “She was on a level with Mary Pickford, standing, perhaps, even a little higher.” Looking back, Mary Pickford seems a somewhat cold and distant figure, whereas Mabel was, and is, right in your face.

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Footnote 1: From the accumulated evidence offered by Mary Pickford and others, it seems Florence wore her fame like a queen’s crown, but she lacked respect for her fellow performers. Mabel appeared as an extra in her first film, in which Florence was the star. When Miss Lawrence finally fell out with the Biograph management, no-one backed her up. It was probably then that Mabel realized the importance of showing humility and generosity to her fellow actors.

Footnote 2: Louise Brooks, who’d once tried to prise Charlie Chaplin from his wife, was smart enough to marry into the Hollywood royalty. She married director Eddie Sutherland, who had once been a long-serving member of Keystone. This allowed her access to the periphery of the Hollywood royal circle, but, when the pair split, it was all over for Brooksie in Hollywood, and she was soon on her way to Germany to play Lulu.

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LITTLE  KNOWN FACTS ABOUT MABEL NORMAND.

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The house on Tysen Street, Staten Island, where Mabel grew up.

1. Mabel’s origins and date of birth are unknown. She did not have a birth or baptismal certificate.

2. She was born in either Rhode Island, Boston, Philadelphia, Staten Island, Atlanta, or Quebec.

3. Mabel did not attend school for long. Possibly she spent about a week at Public School No.17, in New Brighton, Staten Island.

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A star in waiting. Mabel, aged. 10

4. No one seems to have known Mabel on Staten Island. One very old woman came forward in around 1970, saying she knew Mabel as a girl. However, her description of Mabel was too much like Mack Sennett’s autobiography version to be believed.

5. Mabel started out as a model. Later, she trained as a dramatic actress under D.W. Griffith at Biograph. She re-trained for comedy at Vitagraph under the great John Bunny and Flora Finch. The rest is history.

6. Mabel was fired from two studios in her early career – Vitagraph and Reliance, both times for ‘unacceptable’ and ‘lewd’ behaviour.

7. Did you know Mabel is the darling of the occultists? There is a certain group that think she is not dead, but un-dead. She still, apparently, walks this earth, sprinkling ‘Mabel Dust’ into people’s eyes as they sleep. If you’re lucky, she might even come to you in your dreams. When you think about it, is it possible that so great a spirit could really be quenched by mere death?

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Mabel Normand lives here: The Mausoleum, Calvary Cemetery, Boyle Heights, L.A.

8. Mabel’s spooky, Gothic-style house still stands in the St. Mark’s area of Staten Island. The present owners say the place is haunted by a friendly ghost. On dark, moonless nights, they sometimes hear the sounds of a cane, tapping its way up the garden path. Charlie Chaplin coming to visit to visit his Keystone Girl? Incidentally Mabel’s brother, Claude committed suicide in this house, which he’d turned into a shrine to Mabel, in the mid-1940s. Apparently, he was overcome by the tragedy of his sister’s life.

9. Before entering the movie business, Mabel was a model for top artists like James Montgomery Flagg and Charles Dana Gibson. Her colleagues were the later, big-time movie stars Anna Q. Nilsonn and Alice Joyce, who the diminutive Mabel beat for the 1908 ‘Fluffy Ruffles’ modelling prize.

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Modelling for Coca Cola.

10. Although present day film buffs bemoan the fact that there are no blue plaques to honour the stars in Hollywood, there is such a plaque at the old Republic Studio. It is solid bronze and weighs 200 lbs. The final words on the memorial read:

“SHE BROUGHT LAUGHTER AND BEAUTY OTHERWISE DENIED MILLIONS BURDENED WITH DESPAIR AND DRABNESS”         Republic Studio. Dec. 27 1940.

It is dedicated, of course, to the memory of Mabel Normand.

11. Mabel had many titles assigned to her during her astonishing career. They include The Biograph Girl, Vitagraph Betty, Madcap Mabel, The Little Clown, The Girl in a Hurry, The Keystone Girl, and The Water Nymph.

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12. Everyone knows that Mabel had millions of fans worldwide, but it is less well known that her greatest fans were the girls at the Biograph, those silver screen nymphs that went on to become the great stars of Hollywood. They included Blanche Sweet, Dorothy Gish, Gertrude Bambrick, Mary Pickford, and anyone who was someone in Hollywood. They adored her pluck, her courage, and the way she sassed the management.

13. Mabel had her own heroines. The first of these was Alice Joyce, who she worked with as a model. Alice was tall, womanly and mysterious, and was someone the much younger Mabel looked up to.

14. Charlie Chaplin and Mabel remained great friends during her lifetime. The Mabel and Charlie duo were essential to get a party going, although Mabel was usually plastered, while Charlie remained sober – he didn’t drink. Often, if they got bored at Keystone they’d ‘steal’ a company car, and drive into L.A. to have a little fun.

15. Mabel received a lot of flak from the W.D. Taylor murder of 1922. Did you know that Mack Sennett admitted, to his biographer in 1950, that he’d shot Taylor?

16. Mabel bought two houses, one in Beverly Hills and one on Staten Island. They cost $20,000 each.

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Still good friends in 1928.

17. Mabel died in 1930, aged 37 and 3 months. Her closest friend for 15 years, director, Richard F. Jones, and her greatest heroine, Harriet Quimby, died at exactly the same age. How bizarre is that?

18. Mabel hated travelling. It was fortunate, then, that her unique work rarely involved going on location. All she required was a park, a policeman and herself.

19. The ‘Madcap’ was a committed city girl. He mother was exactly the opposite, and rarely left the leafy suburbs of Staten Island. It seems her father was the driving force behind Mabel.

20. When the World’s Sweetheart, actress Olive Thomas, died aged 24 in 1920, Mabel set out to buy her gold-plated vanity set at all costs. She outbid all the top collectors at the auction of Olive’s effects, and acquired the set, and a photo of Jack Pickford, for $1,400 ($35,000 today). The reserve price was $600. In photos of Mabel’s dressing room at Goldwyn, the vanity set can be seen on her dressing table, alongside Olive’s photograph.

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Mabels Dressing Room with Olive’s Photo on wall.

21. At the instant Mabel died, 2:25 a.m. on February 23nd 1930, the silent movie died. Only one ‘silent’ was made after that date. Appropriately, it was Chaplin’s City Life. Mabel’s funeral was the last big event of the silent era, following which, everyone knew ‘the game was up’.

22. Mabel died weighing 45 lbs. All that remained of her time in Pottenger’s Sanitorium were several blood-stained nightdresses, originally in the possession of Mabel’s personal, long term nurse, but whereabouts unknown today. For obvious reasons, Mabel’s casket remained firmly closed during the funeral service, and any accounts that the casket was open were clearly false. It is unlikely that the family ever viewed the body.

23. There is no existing recording of Mabel’s voice. There were two known to have existed – a sound test in 1928 or ’29, and a recording of her singing with Mack Sennett. She is said to have had, originally, a pronounced Brooklyn accent, and her voice was described as ‘throaty’. Like Helen Kane/Betty Boop, but without the squeak. She seems to have dropped the Brooklyn accent by degrees, so that, by 1922, the press was able to ridicule her for her pompous aristocratic accent “so reminiscent of Old Lonnon Town.”

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Mae Busch inspects a cardboard cutout of Mabel.  Republic Studios 1940.

24. There is no evidence to support the popular story that actress Mae Busch once smashed a vase over Mabel’s head. Contrary to some opinions, they were always good friends, and Mae helped unveil the Mabel Normand memorial, at the Republic Studio in late 1940.

25. Was Mabel a drug addict? It’s a matter of “you show the evidence, and we’ll believe it.” There is no evidence for this, and one source was journalist Hedda Hoppa, who was just about the most unreliable witness ever to walk the hallowed pavement of Hollywood.

26. Mabel died from drug addiction. Well, the same applies – prove it. Her death certificate states the cause of death as tuberculosis, and the diagnosis we know was carried out in the correct manner – by blood test.

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No-one, in this queue knew how sick Mabel was when she made the film.

27. Mabel self-medicated for her tuberculosis. Minta Arbuckle records that Mabel was constantly coughing up blood in 1916, for which she took a ‘goop’. What was in the ‘goop’? Probably it had an alcohol base, to which was added a little cocaine, and perhaps, an opiate of some sort. This was standard stuff at the time, and still is today (on prescription). Comedienne Polly Moran later recorded seeing a tube sticking out of Mabel’s back, which was draining a lung. Charlie Chaplin, who knew Mabel better than anyone, stated that she was suffering from tuberculosis as early as 1914, but “so great was her spirit that she tossed her illness aside with a gay indifference.”

28. Mary Pickford and others claimed Mabel had 2-inch long eyelashes. The truth is they were only ¾ inch long, long enough to prevent her wearing glasses. Mabel seems to have had poor eyesight, which might explain her sultry, hypnotic eyes.

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Mabel flutters her 2-inch eyelashes  (well one-inch anyway).

29. No one knows what caused her unique and peculiar personality. It is difficult to reconcile the shy little girl, described by Mary Pickford, who could not deal with meeting people, with the boisterous, vitriolic Madcap Mabel of a few years later . Theories abound – Mack Sennett walked into her life, she was maltreated as a girl at a convent, she suffered from ADHD and Autism. The combination of ADHD and Autism would certainly account for her contrary characteristics of scheming but altruistic, withdrawn but manic, devious but naive.

30. Mabel was the first actress (or actor for that matter) to have their name, in five feet high letters, over a studio. The studio still exists on Fountain Avenue, Silverlake L.A. She was the first actress, destined to reach the top, that was named by her studio (Florence Lawrence was the very first, but she had soon fizzled out).

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“Made it!”

31. Mabel cared not a jot for money. At Goldwyn’s Studios, she did not pick up her pay checks for many months. Of course, when Mabel did collect her pay, she usually blew it, or simply gave it away. Fearing that she would end up penniless, Sam Goldwyn started to hold back some of her pay to put into a trust fund. In 1919, when Sam was going bankrupt, Mabel offered him the trust fund, along with a heap of jewellery to help him out. Sam turned her down – he was in debt to the tune of millions of dollars and eighty thousand dollars would have been of little help. Mabel’s family liquidated the trust fund after she died. Its total value was $50,000 ($1.25 million today).

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32. In spite of the story put out by Richard Attenborough in his film ‘Chaplin’, Mabel didn’t cease to make films after the Taylor shooting of 1922. In fact, she made around $3 million between 1922 and 1924, when she picked up her profits share for the films Suzanna, Extra Girl and stage play The Little Mouse. She ended her career at Hal Roach Studios in 1927, where a certain Stan Laurel was her script writer.

33. Mabel bought her first Beverly Hills house in 1925, not because she was wealthy, but to prove she’d settled down after the scandals. Prior to that she’d lived in rented houses, duplexes and hotels. In the early days of Hollywood, performers thought they’d soon find themselves back in New York or Fort Lee N.J., so they never invested in property. The first to dare to was Douglas Fairbanks, who bought the famed ‘Pickfair’ in 1918. It was the very first movie mansion in Beverly Hills. Mabel’s rented colonial style home on Melrose Hill was a match for mock-Tudor Pickfair, although it didn’t sit within an 18-acre estate. The Keystone Girl’s most famous house was 3089 West 7th Street, which was besieged by the press during the scandals of 1922 and 1924. She’d also lived lived on the second floor of the Baltic Apartments, 1127 Orange Street, Hollywood during 1918, and had a brief sojourn at 1159 Altadena Blvd. whilst she was ‘in hiding’.

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Mabel’s impressive colonial style house in Hollywood, 1915.

 
Of Mabel’s Melrose Hill home, Mary Pickford said:

“Last summer I went to visit her in her beautiful little bungalow in Hollywood, and found it one of the most artistic little precede-on-the-top-of-a-hill homes I have ever seen.”

Daily Talks by Mary Pickford, 1916.

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It seems Miss Pickford was so impressed that she soon married Doug Fairbanks, and moved into her own ‘precede on top of a hill’ home. 

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Young lovers or just good friends? Jack puts snow down Mabel’s back, 1912.

34. Mabel once arranged a ‘snowball party’ for Charlie Chaplin and wife, Mildred Harris, up on Mount Lowe, where she’d had a snowball fight with Jack Pickford in 1912 for the film What The Doctor Ordered. 

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A star knows she’s arrived when she gets her own cartoon strip, especially when Jack Pickford appears alongside her.

35. According to producer Hal Roach, Mabel was the dirtiest-talking girl you ever heard (she usually called him ‘That fucking thick-necked Mick’).  Blanche Sweet once said, “When Mabel opened her mouth, toads came out.” Gloria Swanson claimed Mabel was “Crude and vulgar.” There is no doubt that her sentences were liberally laced with the ‘F’ word. As Mabel once told a reporter

“I am not like other girls, you understand.”

36. The last living person to have known Mabel was Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. who said of her:

“I knew Miss Normand, and she never allowed her personal sorrows and problems to show and be a burden to others. She exuded all the happy charm of a fresh, lovely, bright flower.”

Doug Jnr. died May 7th 2000. He was interred with his father at the Hollywood Forever cemetery, in Hollywood.

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You won’t find this dress in any 1910s catalogue. Hollywood Hotel, 1914.

37. Mabel loved beautiful clothes, especially those designed in Paris. She’d spend tens of thousands of dollars on designer dresses, wear one, and give the rest away. Unfortunately, she had a habit of designing stuff herself, an occupation for which she had little talent. She designed a whole range of ghastly hats, of which the worst was that used in Extra Girl. An over-the-top dress that she wore in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, cannot be traced in any 1914 catalogue, so this must have been one she designed herself, or found in an early Victorian closet.

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Anyone would love to own a hat like this.

38. Mabel’s ideas for lower-class and ‘slavey’ characters, were dreamed up among the vast throng down on New York’s Lower East Side. In later interviews, Mabel gives credit to D.W. Griffith, for prompting her to get out and observe people in their own environments. In all probability, however, Mabel was already doing this in the early 1900s, as it is known that she often crept out of the parental home, and roamed Staten Island, as well as Manhattan. Mabel developed some strong lower-class characters between 1912 and 1927. Memorable ones are the girls in Mabel’s Dramatic Career, Mabel’s Busy Day and Raggedy Rose. A staunch defender of the poor working girl, Mabel’s zenith would undoubtedly have come during the Great Depression of the 1930s, had she lived.

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Poor hot-dog seller Mabel gives Charlie Chaplin a good kicking.

 

39. Mabel mentioned D.W. Griffith in another interview, in which she said that the ‘Genius’ was responsible for developing her trademark lightning quick changes of facial expression. Rather than trying to help Mabel, Griffith was probably trying to ‘break’ her. He soon discovered, however, that Mabel was unbreakable.

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How to ridicule a genius. Mabel and D.W. Griffith.

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MABEL’S HEROINES: HARRIET QUIMBY.

 

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

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

 

Gibson Girl Heroines.

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

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Harriet’s Story.

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

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Harriet( R) in civvies.

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

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

 

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Harriet Quimby in Lines of White on a Sullen Sea.

Mack Sennett Gets an Idea.

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

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

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Mabel Normand, sweet and lovely, with Mack Sennett.

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

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

An Intrepid Girl over The White Cliffs of Dover.

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

 

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

The End.

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

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Harriet’s lifeless body is recovered from the harbour.

 

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

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The Bleriot almost lands itself.

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Mabel:  A magnificent girl in a flying machine.

 

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MABEL’S FILMS: THE GUSHER 12/15/1913.

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Nodding donkeys in California.

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

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Soon to walk through the gate, was this guy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mabel the hop-skip girl.

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

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

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

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Mabel gets tough.

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

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“It’s a gusher!”

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

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

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Next time the bitch gets chained to the railway track.

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

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A windswept Mabel gnaws a villain’s hand off.

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

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“Look out! He’s behind you!”

Verdict on The Gusher.

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

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

 

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

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Gazing into those eyes. Valentino and Nazimova.

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

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