There must have been a tornado spinning into Rhode Island on the fateful day that Mabel Normand was born. From that day on, Mabel seems to have never stopped running, leaving a distinct breeze behind her, wherever she went. It was, then, for no small reason that she became known as ‘The Girl in a Hurry’. Why the hurry? Several reasons have been suggested: Firstly, having suffered, and survived, tuberculosis early on, she thought she could die at any minute. According to another theory she had congenital syphilis. Nonetheless, detailed examination of her early life suggests she had the cognitive problem, ADHD, and no small amount of Autism. She was, however, determined to succeed – at something.
Whatever the problem, Mabel became increasingly uncontrollable, unreachable and feral. It seems she was only at public school briefly, where she was probably too wild to fit in. Her father was in charge of entertainment at the sailor’s home in Snug Harbor, and it was there, perhaps, that she learned to play the piano. Here, she might have developed a passion to be an artiste of some kind. She would also have, no doubt, picked up some unsavoury habits from the inmates. Eventually, it seems, Mabel became completely untamable, and she was sent away, by her Catholic parents, to a convent, not to be educated, but to be ‘corrected’. Mabel had become a juvenile delinquent. Unfortunately, this did not work, and there is every reason to suppose that she became worse, after coming into contact with some wicked and wayward convent girls. Blanche Sweet was to later say that Mabel had ‘corrupted’ all the girls at Biograph, and, although very beautiful and cute, when Mabel opened her pretty mouth, toads came out.
A Model on The Run.
Eventually leaving the convent, Mabel was sent to work in a New York department store. How she ended up as a model is anyone’s guess. Probably, she knew that the department store used artists to paint girls wearing the store’s clothes, and asked about modelling, rather than packing patterns. The dreamy Mabel was soon posing for top commercial artists, and her image appeared in prestigious magazines. Mabel was interested in becoming an artist herself, and seems to have taken art lessons, paid for out of her meagre pay of 3 dollars a day. One thing Mabel later admitted to was stealing things she fancied from the artists’ studios. She had two colleagues in modelling, who later became hugely famous, Anna Q. Nilsson and Alice Joyce. Alice disappeared off the scene for a while, and when Mabel next saw her, she said she’d been appearing in movies at double the pay. Mabel didn’t hesitate, and zoomed down to Kalem Films, and bagged work as an extra. However, the work proved tedious, as it consisted mainly of dressing up as a red Indian, and being chased up steep hills by cowboys. Just for variety, sometimes the cowboys chased them downhill. She returned to modelling, but soon heard there was work at Biograph down on 14th Street, where conditions were slightly better. There are several stories about what happened on the day Mabel arrived at Biograph. Mary Pickford said she saw Mabel waiting in the dressing room, and thinking Mabel might flee, she told D.W. Griffith she was there. Mabel says she did flee, but was brought back by Wilfred Lucas.
The reason why she’d left, she says, was that she’d seen the Biograph Girl, Florence Lawrence, all made up as a queen, and she thought she could not possibly compete with her. Both these stories are probably complete nonsense, as Mabel was an award-winning model, and had an ego at least equal to those of Miss Lawrence and Miss Pickford. She almost certainly began with the idea of acting the established pair off the set. Miss Lawrence soon disappeared from the studio, eventually leaving the movies, and turning up dead after swallowing ant paste. However, Mabel had her first screen role in a Florence Lawrence film, as a page wearing tights. This was most embarrassing for an Edwardian girl, and Mabel was even more embarrassed by a grinning Irishman, leaning against a pillar, who had his eyes fixed on her – his name was Mack Sennett. Mabel was glad to finish her long shift, and left for home, at midnight, clutching her ten dollars in earnings. Arriving home after one in the morning, she was confronted by her irate mother, who banned her from the movies, but snatched the ten dollars off her anyway. Mabel returned to modelling, but there was a chance meeting with Mack Sennett on 5th Avenue, and, over a milk shake (or more likely a beer), he persuaded her to return to Biograph.
A Madcap on the loose.
Increasingly, Mabel began to make herself a nuisance to the management at the company, skylarking around, pulling chairs out from under the director, and using foul language constantly. Having formed a close relationship with Irish clown, Mack Sennett, Mabel’s confidence was probably pushed skyward. Slowly the demure young girls at the company began to fall under Mabel’s spell, so that Mabel clones began to appear everywhere. This worried the management, and Griffith left Mabel behind, when, early in 1911, he took the company to L.A.
Unfortunately, trouble arose immediately, when Mabel fans Dorothy Gish and Gertie Bambrick, slipped their chaperones, and hit the bars of L.A., where they intended to get drunk and raise a ruckus, just like their heroine. They’d even hitched up their skirts to expose their ankles (oh my god!). Griffith spent a whole day hunting them down.
Mack had gone to L.A. but advised Mabel to get over to Vitagraph. Mabel blew into the studio like a whirlwind, and demanded she be put with John Bunny and Flora Finch, so she could learn comedy. Mabel was soon into her stride and made some good comedy films.
Unfortunately, the crazy, high speed behaviour of ‘thousand-mile-an-hour’ Mabel, around the studio, was of concern, and, when she stuck her bare backside out of the window, mooning at railway passengers, she was fired. A letter from Mack Sennett told Mabel that there was work to be had at the Kessell and Baumann company, Reliance. Racing into the studio like a storm, the director down there, Hal Reid, soon found Mabel’s behaviour ‘unacceptable’ and dismissed her after just two hours.
On the return of Biograph to New York, Mack Sennett persuaded Griffith to re-employ Mabel. Reluctantly, Griffith agreed, because he was in need of a tragedienne, and Mabel was the best there was (according to Mary Pickford). The films she made with Biograph in L.A. in early 1912 proved the point, and Mabel had found her metier. However, Mack soon became director of the relatively new Biograph comedy unit, on the return to New York. He immediately asked that Mabel be assigned to him. Griffith did not argue, and handed Mabel over. He could finally be free of the Madcap. However, Mabel was a much beloved member of the dramatic company, and some of the actresses were unhappy that Mabel was going off with that mad Irishman, Mack Sennett. They were even more shocked, when Mack departed to join New York Motion Pictures new comedy arm, Keystone Studios, and took Mabel with him.
More shocks were in store – Mabel, Mack and Keystone decamped for L.A. Blanche Sweet was full of foreboding at the news, and, at the eleventh hour, tried to stop Mabel leaving New York, with the screwball Sennett. It was to no avail. Mabel knew exactly what she was doing, she was going to take a shortcut to stardom, and put her name up in lights before everyone.
Going Crazy in L.A.
The 4-day train journey to California was going to be trouble. With Mabel hyped up at the thought of her new independence, life would be hell for the other passengers on the train. The movie group were indeed lucky that nobody called the police – Mabel, who looked around 13, was being carried across state lines by half a dozen middle-aged men. Mabel cared not.
The first two years of Mabel’s term at Keystone were, quite simply, manic. The studio became her entire life, and there was little time for socializing – indeed in L.A. at that time there was little to do anyway. Social life consisted of horse-riding with Sennett, shooting with Sennett, and dining with Sennett. As more and more actors and actresses came to the studio, Mabel found herself under more pressure – keeping the new girls at bay, while also securing them as allies, against the big bad Sennett. The huge arguments with Mack that had always been a feature of their relationship, began to reach titanic proportions, and Mabel could be heard all over the studio, ranting and raving at her producer, in language liberally interspersed with undeleted expletives.
Mabel claimed that she returned home to Staten Island for the first time in mid-1914. This is unlikely, and a time in early 1915, is more plausible. During 1914, Mabel had to keep an eagle eye on the burgeoning company, and particularly on Charlie Chaplin. After Chaplin left, it was now possible for Mabel to go to New York, and have serious talks with big bosses Kessell and Baumann. She wanted big changes made at Keystone, and she wanted the place smartened up. Mabel was embarrassed by the condition of the studio, as all her old friends were now stars at new, state of the art studios. It seems, though, that she had demanded a marble Roman bath-tub, just like Sennett’s. Mabel probably stayed in Manhattan, and seems never to have stayed more than one night, at mother’s Staten Island house, where huge arguments would have ensued. Once back in L.A. Mabel was followed in a few weeks by bossman Adam Kessell, who supervised the remodelling of Keystone. A new dressing room block was erected, and Mabel got one of the rooms, resplendent with Roman bath (much to Sennett’s dismay).
A Tramp Leaves and A Fat Man Steps In.
Through 1915, Mabel became ever more agitated. Chaplin had spurned her as his leading lady at Essanay, and now she was doing pure slapstick with Roscoe Arbuckle, interspersed with sickly puppy love scenes. Both Mabel and Roscoe were unhappy with their work, and planned to abscond. After a torturous, and upsetting 1915, Mabel persuaded Kessell and Baumann to send them to the new NYMP/Triangle studio at Fort Lee New Jersey. Sennett agreed to lose the Mabel / Roscoe company for two months, but Mabel had no intention of going back to Edendale. Mabel knew there was a new Keystone feature film studio being built on Fountain Avenue, Silverlake, and she was determined to grab it for herself. Although Kessell and Baumann loved Mabel, her behaviour at the studio was disgusting, and she was often late for work, having been out on the town all night. Weighing everything up, they decided that the sooner Mabel was back in Edendale the better. Then, when the time came to return, Mabel was nowhere to be found, and, in an article in the newspapers, it turned out that Mabel had been signed to Mutual to lead in Chaplin films. Mabel sat back laughing, as the bosses of NYMP and Keystone tried to hunt her down. Eventually, Mabel’s mother took a call to the effect that a new company had been formed, The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, and Mabel could have the new studio for her own use. The hurry and rush was over – Mabel had beat every actor in Hollywood to having her name over her own studio. Even Sennett, Griffith, Chaplin, or Mary Pickford didn’t have that!
Having achieved the ultimate goal, you’d suppose that Mabel would settle down. It made not a jot of difference. Mabel was the same old Mabel, rushing hither and thither, staying out all night, and, at one time, disappearing for a whole three weeks. The film Mabel made at her studio, Mickey, turned out to be the greatest film ever made by a comedy company. However, internal troubles at Triangle caused Mabel to consider her position, and despite being watched by the management, she ran away again to New York, where she intended to start work for Sam Goldwyn. The whole Triangle set up was now at each other’s throats, and nobody had time to bother with Mabel. This time Sennett could do nothing, and Mabel disappeared into Goldwyn Pictures.
Life With The Glove-maker.
Mabel started as the one and only star, but soon other established stars began to fill the stages. The second actress Sam signed was Mae Marsh, who Mabel had a falling out with at Biograph. As stars like Madge Kennedy and Geraldine Farrar arrived, Mabel flew into a complete rage, and began to ridicule and abuse Madge and Gerry on the set, standing legs wide apart, hands on hips, guffawing loudly, while rocking on her heels. When artists put up screens to keep her out, Mabel simply climbed onto the top of the sets, and launched a barrage of foul language at them, from on high. When an actress had her dressing room redecorated, Mabel demanded a $2,000 refit for her own dressing room. The executives weren’t free from the madcap’s antics either, and she hurled constant abuse at them, and even sprayed them with perfume. Naturally, most of the problems resulted from Mabel never coming to the studio before 2 in the afternoon. At one time the studio manager had calculated that the studio had lost $36,000, due to Mabel’s lateness. Mabel replied by offering him the new Pierce-Arrow car she had on order. The executive refused, and when he next opened his office door, a pail of water mysteriously fell on his head.
In sheer desperation Goldwyn sought advice from Charlie Chaplin, who knew and understood Mabel better than anyone. The conversation went something like this:
“Charlie, I need help, I just don’t know what to do about Mabel, she’s refusing to work with the directors, except George Loane Tucker.”
“Well Sam, just hand him over to her”.
I can’t do that Charlie, I need George to save my lacklustre films, and he also writes many of the scripts”.
“O.K. throw Mabel out.”
“Come on Charlie, you know I can’t do that. All those cameramen, electricians, carpenters and and young actors that dote on her, would kill me in seconds. Help me, you owe it to me. It was you that unhinged Mabel, when you walked out on her at Keystone.” Take Mabel on, and throw that useless Edna Purviance out”.
” Edna’s far from useless, old chap, she’s compliant and the world’s greatest foil. There’s only room for one ultra-ego at my studio, and if Mabel came, well, there’d be big trouble. Mabel’s a colleen, so get that Celtic Dick Jones in to direct her, he understands her.”
“Very funny, Charlie, you know Dick Jones is unobtainable, you’ve tried to prise him from Sennett yourself.”
“Then send her back to Sennett, with the stipulation that she must be directed by Dick Jones.”
“You know Charlie that might just work.”
The Luck and Misfortune of The Irish.
Mabel was now going out of her mind, but the situation was only saved by Charlie Chaplin. Mabel, of course, demanded a mountain of cash from Sennett, much more than the $3,000 per week written into the contract in 1921. For the first time ever in the history of Sennett Studios, Mabel demanded that the clause, making her responsible for costume costs, be struck from the contract. And so it was done.
Mabel, as everyone knows, took a thousand lovers, but her craziness led her into several love triangles, one fatal. Her competitive spirit was unleashed when she took director W.D. Taylor, as a lover. By doing so she was standing between Taylor and another actress, Mary Miles Minter.
However, Mabel’s desire to get into Taylor’s prestigious studio, Paramount, was another reason for the affair. During the Taylor inquest (someone shot him) and the ensuing Courtland Dines trial (someone shot him) the real manic personality of Mabel was revealed to the world. Her career was only saved by the representation of fellow actresses, who vouched for her humanity, generosity and naivity.
Running For Europe and a New Start.
Following the first shooting Mabel departed for Europe, but controversy followed her. Newspaper reports had her falling off her bar stool when drunk, swimming in a ship’s pool naked, and doing the same in lord’s pool. The crazy Mabel was going to dangerous parts of London, like the East End and Limehouse. Mabel was losing the plot. However, she was still hitting the town, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Rome, Monte Carlo. Her escort was a real life royal – Prince Ibrahim of Egypt. Arriving back in New York, Mabel jumped the gangplank, ready to run to Hollywood, if necessary. However, she’d heard some bad news. A big Sennett feature film was being shot, and she was not playing the lead. She was straight on to Mack Sennett long, demanding the part. Hugely agitated and irritated, the hyperactive Mabel screamed down the long-distance phone at Sennett – “I want that part!” Mack prevaricated at first, but soon gave in, when Mabel threatened him with something.What it was, we don’t know, but we might suspect it was to do with the Taylor case. Mabel raced to the coast in a very agitated state, she’d just learned that Mary Pickford had married her friend Jack Pickford off to Marilyn Miller while she was away. The other actress, Phyllis Haver, had fled the scene before Mabel returned.
Having completed the film Extra Girl, from which Mabel would make a million dollars, we might think that Mabel would settle down, slow down. She didn’t. Instead she involved herself in another love triangle, got drunk as often as possible, and broke her collar bone falling from a horse when ‘legless’. The latter event would come back to haunt her later, but another shooting, resulting from the triangle brought her into a legal mess, once more. Statements made to police by her chauffeur and housekeeper, gave an insight into Mabel’s life. She was a manic depressive who raced around at supersonic speed, slept little, ate little, but drunk a lot. When she wasn’t giving money away, she was threatening to shoot herself.
Mabel’s storm-tossed life continued. Instead of curling up and dying, she raced into stage work, touring the country in the show The Little Mouse. Well-attended, but slammed by the critics, the play ended half-way through the tour. Mabel picked up a cool million from the work she’d carried out, then returned to the coast, where she bought a Beverly Hills home, and seemed to settle down. However, within days of first putting her feet up, she was out on the Hollywood circuit again, partying and forming liaisons with various movie men. The whirlwind had hit town once more, but suddenly Mabel did a Peggy Sue and got married. A shock-wave passed through the movie colony. The Madcap married? Surely not! However, if groom Lew Cody thought he was moving in with Mabel, then he thought wrong, He was told to ‘fornicate off’.
The Final Act.
Everyone in Tinseltown became worried for Mabel’s sanity and well-being, and friends like Mary Pickford, Constance Talmadge and Dick Jones bombarded producer Hal Roach with demands that he sign Mabel up. To his ever-lasting regret, perhaps, he did exactly that. Too late did Hal realise his mistake – Mabel had friends at Roach Studios, including the General Supervisor, Dick Jones. She soon recruited screenwriter Stan Laurel and Anita Garvin into her fold, or gang. Then droves of Mabel’s friends arrived and Hal became beleagured, as they pursued the ‘thick necked Irishman’ around the studios, cursing him, belittling him. Then, in early 1927, Mabel became too ill to continue. Friends tried to get her to look after herself, but, between recurring bouts of illness, Mabel continued hitting the town and partying all night, and she even took a voice test for the talkies. However, in September 1929, her ‘friends’ cried enough, and carried her kicking and screaming, to a sanitarium in Monrovia. Thirty years later this same thing was to happen to Mack Sennett. By December, it was clear there was no hope of recovery, but Mabel was kept locked down in the sanitarium. Mabel Ethelreid Normand died at 2.25 a.m. on February 23rd 1930, weighing just 45 pounds, her brave heart having been stilled. Her funeral was, along with that of Valentino, the largest ever seen in Tinseltown, and she was borne to her grave by the good and the great of the movie industry.
Legacy of a Madcap.
So Mabel died and was forgotten, or was she? The name Mabel Normand had become toxic, and could not be uttered in polite society. Yet, Mabel still exists deep in the psyche of Hollywood, and she remains ‘Hollywood’ in all but name. The archetypal Hollywood star is bad-ass, wealthy beyond belief, fills the air with blue language, and is usually canned, out of her mind. She is Mabel Normand, the first true Hollywood star. Two big films with characters based on Mabel, Hollywood Cavalcade and Sunset Boulevard, the latter starring Gloria Swanson (she who was put forward by movie moguls as the safe, inert face of Hollywood) were produced in 1940 and 1950. “Mabel Normand was crude and vulgar” declared the ‘innocent’ Miss Swanson. Many people today bemoan the fact that no plaque exists for any Hollywood star. There is, however, such a plaque. It is located on a sound stage at the place known as Republic Studios, and is three feet high and cast in bronze. Set up at ‘the gathering of a thousand stars’ in 1940 , the text begins “TO THE MEMORY OF A GREAT ARTIST…. MABEL NORMAND.” Not bad for a delinquent convent girl.