A few years back, an article was posted here, concerned with the primary sources of information on Mabel Normand. It put forward many of sources that are readily available today, but in spite of this, and in spite of extensive bibliographies at the ends of articles, the perennial question received is “Where can I find more about Mabel Normand?” To answer this question, the original article is repeated here.

One of the  questions asked on this blog is “Where does the information, used in these articles, come from? The answer is “From all over” and surprisingly, it is readily available. Mabel always said she was the most photographed girl in the world, but in reality, she was the most written about girl in the world. Clearly then, there is no other actor about whom this series of blogs could be written. In general, the factual information is derived from newspaper archive websites, third party websites, books, and movie magazines. Approximately 70% of the information can be readily found on the internet at the touch of a button (what would we do without it?). There are two types of books featuring Mabel – those wholly concerned with The Madcap herself, and those that mention her. Some of the books that are solely concerned with Mabel, mostly aim at raising Mabel to beyond goddess status, and are, in many cases, almost useless for our purposes. Similarly, there are websites devoted solely to setting Mabel up as the ‘bad girl’ of Hollywood, and, to be honest, none of these are of any of use for genuine research. You can identify them straight away, as they begin with “Mabel Nor mand was a drug addict and died from drug addiction.” Without supporting evidence, these words aren’t worth the ink (or electricity) used to create them. If you are lucky enough, and wealthy enough, you may be able to purchase old movie magazines and memorabilia, but be warned, these are now extraordinarily expensive. Once you have the information, you will need to do something with it. The raw data may be interesting, but for proper research purposes it has to be sifted and weighted. Weighting can be categorised as the process of giving a level of credence to each piece of catalogued information. For instance, if a piece of information comes from just one unverified source, it can only be used with great care. However, there is also a certain amount of subjectivity here, and a researcher must decide whether the unverified data concerned is of such intrinsic value that it can be utilised, without verification from another source. If it appears plausible, then it can be used with the aforementioned ‘great care’.

British boys could be forgiven for thinking Mabel was a schoolgirl.

 One very important factor is the date of the information. In other words, contemporary writing takes precedence over later texts, and, to be honest, anything stated by the silent actors, after the publication of Mack Sennett’s autobiographies, is probably based on events found within the pages of that august(?) work, and, therefore, is of little value. Charlie Chaplin’s references to Mabel are to be treasured, although he does not say nearly enough to satisfy us. Be warned, though, his words are often misquoted. As usual, though, a certain amount of subjectivity is required here, but this is inevitable, and cannot always be avoided. Let’s now look at the available categories of data, and evaluate their worth in the context of Mabel Normand, and the silent movie era in general.

The Internet.

As we live in the era of electronic data (and garbage) availability, we should naturally start with the internet. In the sphere of Mabel Normand, two sites stand out a s being particularly useful. One is the ‘Looking For Mabel Normand’ website, once maintained by the late Marilyn Slater, but continued, apparently, by her son. Although it can be seen as a shrine to Mabel, it is, nonetheless, extremely useful, and is not merely confined to information on Mabel. Marilyn, it seems, personally knew some of the last people on earth to have actually met Mabel i.e. her personal nurse Julia Brew (Benson), and possibly Mack Sennett. The site is a veritable mine of information, and, although it puts Mabel, to some extent, on a pedestal it also offers an insight into her darker side.  William Thomas Sherman has produced a book and internet pdf. called ‘Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of her Life and Films’ which is crammed full of newspaper and other contemporary articles relating to Mabel. Be aware, however, that this work contains thousands of references, which indicate that Mabel was just about the most written-about girl in history. We might call Mr. Sherman’s colossal work ‘the cornerstone of Mabel scholarship’. These two sites are the first ports of call for all things Mabel. Some other sites should be treated with caution. W.D. Taylor, Mabel’s friend who was murdered, is represented by the Taylorology website. Stephen Normand, great nephew of Mabel, has a site called MabelNormand.com. The picture above, is of Stephen with the famous painting of Mabel as ‘Mickey’.


Films are incredibly dangerous things, although never as dangerous as in the days when audiences believed everything they saw on the silver screen — instead we now have conspiracy websites. The difficulty is that the average motion picture story can only have one angle, from it they cannot deviate – there is none of the balance that we find in (some) documentaries. A few Mabel-based films, such as Hollywood Cavalcade (1939) had little effect on Mabel’s professional and personal reputation, although others, particularly ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950) have destroyed Mabel’s reputation, seemingly forever. Richard Attenborough’s film ‘Chaplin’ (1991) was intended to boost Charlie Chaplin’s reputation, but it was necessary to destroy his mentor’s reputation in the process. His mentor, of course, being Mabel Normand. However, nothing in the film’s script related to anything Chaplin said in his autobiography. He never dismissed Mabel’s professional abilities and he certainly never turned a hose on her — if he had, he’d have been immediately beaten to death by the crew. ‘Tricky Dicky’ was also wrong in stating that Mabel never made a film after 1922, and Syd Chaplin would never have dared to ‘dis’ Mack Sennett, as seen in the picture, simply because Mack was his employer! Motion picture documentaries, in general, after 1950, tried to ignore Mabel, even though they showed clips from her films. In the 1980s, a certain Paul Merton attempted to make a series about Hollywood that completely ignored Mabel and Mack Sennett. Never heard of Paul Merton? He was a ten-cent, British stand-up comic of dubious ability. One of the problems for those making Mabel pictures is the impossibility of portraying the multi-faceted nature of the little clown. 

Mabels: Left in ‘Hollywood Boulevard’. Right in ‘Chaplin’.

Hello Mabel

Under this heading come the various short films and cartoons, made with reference to Mabel. During the early 1940s, when Mabel’s name still in the public mind, a short film was produced of the ‘Night of A Thousand Stars’ when past and present movie stars gathered to honour the memory of  “a girl with a golden heart” during the opening of The Mabel Normand Sound Stage at Republic Studios (now CBS). ‘Hello Mabel’ was a song produced by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band in the late 1960s, as a short-lived ‘Mabel revival’ arose on the back of the ‘Mack and Mabel’ stage show. Later, Neill Innes produced the comedy video ‘Hello Mabel’ using the Bonzo’s song as a background. The video demonstrates the difficulty of displaying Mabel’s versatility accurately on film. A single actress can only portray one aspect of Mabel’s screen personality — in this case the cute but scatter-witted Sennett version. Care has to be taken here, though, for this particular girl is clearly taken from Buster Keaton’s 1920 film, ‘Neighbours’. We might question the wisdom of portraying guns in this video. The original ‘Hello Mabel’ was a short film by Mabel, intended as a send-up of D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Lonedale Operator’ starring Blanche Sweet. Mabel’s name seems to have led to a rash of cartoon and other heroines, and the rise in popularity of the name Mabel might have come about in the same way.


Many of the books written about, and mentioning Mabel, come from a time following the publication of Mack Sennett’s and Charlie Chaplin’s memoirs. They also post-date the time of McCarthyism, the expulsion of Charlie Chaplin from the U.S. and the (perhaps unintentional) demonisation of Mabel in the film Sunset Boulevard. It should be borne in mind, also, that all of the surviving stars were well-advanced in years when interviewed by 1960s and 1970s authors. Furthermore, it seems their minds were dimmed by the long-term effects of alcohol. Bereft, to some extent, of their faculties, then, they appear to have regurgitated vast tracts of the works of Sennett and Chaplin, and in particular the former.

Minta Durfee (Arbuckle) said some very strange things, asserting, in an interview, available in transcript form on the internet, that Chaplin was a “dirty commie”, and that Mabel had “swum with dolphins in the ocean right outside her beach house in Santa Monica.” Well, the contention that Chaplin was a communist comes chiefly from the works of writer Hedda Hopper, someone that has little credence these days. She provided no evidence that Chaplin was actually a communist, which puts Chaplin in the same category as ‘Communist’ President Roosevelt – ‘case unproven’. Hedda Hopper also claimed that Mabel was a cocaine addict, and she’d stumbled upon a bag of ‘white powder’ in Mabel’s house. She further says she disposed of it, but this implies she never analysed the ‘substance’. It could have been flour, sugar, or any other kind of powder, but she says that the stuff knocked Mabel unconscious, which seems to rule out cocaine. If it was cocaine, it was no doubt for ‘party use’ and the fact that Mabel’s nostrils never rotted out, suggests that she was not an addict, at least of cocaine. Minta adds something of use to us, which is not found elsewhere – she says Mabel, in 1916, self-medicated for the effects of tuberculosis by taking something she calls ‘goop’ which might have contained an opiate, cocaine, or some other medicinal drug. As far as white powder is concerned, this could, conceivably, have been a certain drug Mabel perhaps took to dull the effects of tuberculosis. Its name is heroin, and, until 1925 (when it was banned) it was considered a safe form of opium. Getting back to Minta’s dolphins, she is clearly remembering a newspaper article of 1917, when it was stated that Mabel was water-skiing and swimming with dolphins off Long Island. In all probability, this was all Goldwyn Studios nonsense publicity. Minta Durfee, by the by, was very excited about being sought out by neo-silent movie fans, and got a little carried away. Other silent movie stars, who’d been forced to work behind department store counters, were only a little less excited by the fuss. Minta was interviewed by Stephen Normand in the early 1970s.

When The Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith. The Bible for those concerned with understanding the silent movie era, and probably the most important work on the subject. Published in 1925 by the wife of D.W. Griffith, the book deals with the very early days of U.S. film-making at The Biograph Studios, New York. We are talking here of 1907 through to 1912. During those years, the cream of later Hollywood passed through the doors of Biograph: Blanche Sweet, Mabel Normand, Mary Pickford, the Gish sisters, Owen Moore, Florence LaBadie, Ford Sterling, Flora Finch, Florence Lawrence, Mack Sennett, Gertie Bambrick and a hundred more. It is Mrs Griffith who first puts Mabel forward as the Queen Bee of the studio, the actresses adoring her and even worshipping this small girl from Staten Island.  She also puts her into the setting where she first began to ‘daredevil’ and lay the foundations for her “astonishing career.” Mrs Griffith tells us the circumstances under which Mabel became the centrepiece, the king pin of the studio and the later movie colony in Los Angeles. There wasn’t an actress in that brownstone building that did not wish to be Mabel. This book is the essential for those that wish to study the early motion picture in the U.S. However, the reasons for the release of the book rather take the edge of its value. The intention was to try to minimise the damage done to Hollywood by the Mabel and Fatty Arbuckle scandals, and so the actors and actresses are presented as pure and innocent, young people whose only vice was a quick sarsaparilla after work. Therefore, a fair amount of reading between the lines is required. Score: 9/10 for sheer effort.

Biograph squaw, Mabel, fights it out with a knife-wielding love rival.

The King of Comedy 1954 by Mack Sennett: We need not look further than Louise Brooks’ ‘Lulu in Hollywood’ to be told that there is only one line of truth in Sennett’s book. The truth is Sennett ‘paid attention’ – to actors and anything that might make a film. The rest of it, the Mack and Mabel love story, the idea that he conned his business partners out of Keystone and much else – is all pure fiction. However, Mack’s book is a good read – he was, after all, the greatest showman on earth — if a disaster as a human being. It seems that Mack knew little about Mabel the person, and relied on her long-term friend and nurse, Julia Benson for his information. “Historically worthless” said the sagacious Miss Brooks. Score 1/10 for truthfulness; 6/10 for ‘reading fun’.

Mack and Mabel in love in 1913.

Charles Chaplin: My Autobiography 1963 by Charles S. Chaplin: If Charlie told us what we wanted to know, and what he knew, then this would be a good book. In general, in the 500 odd pages of his work, he merely lists the celebrities he has met, and some of the child brides he had. He does not mention wife number two, Lita Grey, at all, and fails to mention that he had a well-publicised affair with Louise Brooks, while Lita was at home having their child. We know Chaplin dropped the ‘The Helmet’ when newspapers revealed she’d posed nude for photos. Chaplin does, however, go some way to describing Mabel, which Sennett was unable to do. It’s as though Mack didn’t know her that well. Chaplin could have gone further with the nature of his relationship with Mabel, but as Mack was still alive when he began writing, his hands were tied. He does, nonetheless, give us the best description we have of Mabel’s features and personality. The view given of Mabel by Richard Attenborough in the film Chaplin (supposedly based on the book) is not to be found in Chaplin’s book – ‘Tricky Dicky’ made it all up. Having sketched Mabel out once, Charlie returns to her later in the book. Score 7/10.

Charlie and Mabel in love in 1914.

Love, Laughter and Tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela, Rogers, St. John (1978). Adela was a journalist, who met Mabel in 1915, and remained a close friend until Mabel’s  death. She goes a bit far with her salutation of Mabel who she describes as “elfin, unusually pure” and then claims “we found her under the rose bush.” A bit too mushy, perhaps, but indicates how Hollywood felt about Mabel, back in the day. Score: 7/10.

Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks. This is an interesting book, which is an autobiography, of sorts. Louise, although, by the 1950s, an alcoholic, and crippled with arthritis, does try to be honest, within the limits set by Mack Sennett’s book (yes, Sennett did set the limit, and, yes, nobody went beyond it). This work is not constructed from her original manuscript, which she trashed following the publication of King of Comedy. If the ‘King’ could not dare to tell the truth, then how could she, a mere actress. This is unfortunate, for Louise has a certain knack for getting down to the nitty-gritty. There is no dishonesty about her, and it is a shame that. she only told part of the story. Score: 8/10 for interest value. 

The Keystone Krowd: Mack, Mabel, the cops and the girls by Stuart Oderman. Should be some interesting details here, and there are a few, but, as he says, first-off, Mabel died from drug addiction then we have to be cautious. The last time I looked at Mabel’s death certificate it said cause of death: ‘Tuberculosis’. We should always be wary of muddling the facts – that’s inexcusable, even if a dodgy conclusion is acceptable. Score: 5/10.

Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett by Simon Louvish. A true work of scholarship. Simon Louvish has fully researched his subject, and has not blindly followed the conclusions of others. It really is academic research, but it is also an easy and delightful read. This one is a must. Score: 9.5/10.

The Fun Factory: The Keystone Company and The Emergence of Mass Culture. Another work of scholarship, but this one really does cover the academic ground, and draws conclusions on how Keystone affected the social fabric of the U.S. and the world. A must if you really want to understand The King of Comedy, his films and his clowns. Score 8/10.

Dreams For Sale: The Rise and Fall of The Triangle Film Corporation by Kalton C. Lahune. (1971). Few mentions of Mabel, but tells the story of the company within which both Mack and Mabel had production companies. Both fled, somewhat burned, when said company collapsed. Score: 7/10 for interest value.

The Movie Maker: Charles O. Baumann by Jillian Ada Kelly (2015). The story behind the man and his partner, Adam Kessell, who created Keystone Comedies, within the New York Motion Picture Company. Fascinating, and covers the story of Baumann’s daughter, Ada, who became a friend and confident of Mabel. 7/10.

A Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies, From Nickelodeons to Youtube by Trav S.D. Little here about Mabel, but its value is in the way it is presented. Score: 6/10.

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1957). This book does give some useful insights into the old Hollywood, but she carefully avoids mentioning Mabel too much. Mabel’s name was mud at this time. Score: 7/10.

Sam Goldwyn and his stars. Mabel is 5th from left.

Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923). This book, which was co-written by movie big-shot Sam Goldwyn, uses some of Sam’ s own stories of Mabel, as well those by his studio supervisor, Abe Lehr contribution (or Mr. Leer as Mabel called him) is a treasure for those interested in understanding the personality of The Little Clown. I would rate it’s perceived value at 7/10 although it is very rare today, and I have never seen a copy.

List of other publications.

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

The Dream That Came True in Motion Picture Magazine (Dec. 1916).

Madcap Mabel: The True Story of a Great Comedienne by Sydney Sutherland. ‘Liberty’ (1930).

Mabel by Herbert Low New Movie Magazine (April 1931).

Meet The Stars: The Dedication of The Mabel Normand Soundstage 1940. Video included in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol.1. Blu-Ray by Flicker Alley.

Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, by Simon Louvish (2009).  Covers the development of Chaplin’s tramp, from 1914 on.

Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin. by John Bengston (2006). The well-illustrated book looks at the extant locations of old Hollywood. Score: 8/10.

Hello Mabel! by Adela Rogers St. Johns, Photoplay ( 1921).

Private Papers.

By this we mean the private papers of those formerly within the film industry. This applies mainly to the papers of the studio producers. The two main ones are those of Adolph Zukor and Mack Sennett. Zukor kept private letters from Mabel for 40 years, and Sennett provides information on films, their cost, Mabel’s contracts, and some screenplays, as well as other information. They reside in a Los Angeles museum, but are, to some extent, available online. Note that there are no personal communications between Mack and Mabel.


Hollywood Babylon: Any books or articles of this nature are complete junk, and unless you are keen on sensationalism, then the best you can do is throw them in the trashcan.  Some of them masquerade as serious works e.g. ‘The Girl From Hollywood’, but it is clear that the author had a great pile of articles, which he selectively used to construct a sensational story that would sell, and sell well. All Hollywood Babylon has its roots (and not its facts) in the story of Mabel Normand.


Afternoon tea is what every vibrant teenage girl needs.


In the story of Mabel Normand, the Fatty and Mabel series of films are just about the most base, but also the most delightful. In 1914, Mabel had tried some deeper stories, including the Chaplin series, which were just a little too ephemeral for most people, although on the surface they were so much melancholic, and slap-stick nonsense. The ‘Fatty and Mabels’ were to all intents, merely boy meets girl stuff, which suited the Keystone boss, Mack Sennett, for such films were good money-spinners. After a year of these films, ‘Fatty’ Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel were straining to be let loose on some real pictures, and by a little manoeuvring, Mabel managed to get she and Roscoe loaned to the parent company’s studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. There they had a free reign, and made the dramatic-comedy film “He Did And He Didn’t.” In March, Roscoe returned, but Mabel stayed put, refusing to go back. The upshot was the creation of the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, and her own studio.

Returning to ‘Mabel’s Wilful Way’, this was a highly publicised picture, even before it was shot. Although Mack Sennett had been a fugitive film-maker, running from the police and park-keepers across Los Angeles, by 1913 he had enough clout to gain entry to race courses and fairgrounds all over Southern California. The owners and Sennett had a symbiotic relationship, whereby his films would advertise the venues, and his filming crews would be admitted to them for free. As we will discuss at the end, there are surviving newspaper stories about the making of this particular film.

The Film


Mabel Normand                                        Mabel

Roscoe Arbuckle                                        Gad-about

Edgar Kennedy                                           Gad-about

Alice Davenport                                         Mabel’s mother

Glen Cavender                                           Mabel’s father

Joe Bordeaux                                              Cop

Bobby Dunn                                                Ice cream vendor

Billy Gilbert                                                 Black-face

Directors: Mack Sennett, Roscoe Arbuckle

Run-time              11 minutes

Location                Idora Park, Oakland, Ca, U.S.A.

Release Date        May 1st 1915

The Plot

Spring is sprung, and a young girl’s fancy turns to…..parks and boys. Unfortunately, this usually means a day out in the park with Ma and Pa. Poor Mabel, she is a girl of fifteen or sixteen (although actually twenty-three) and she could have so much more fun, without her over-aged parents around. Mabel is clearly a jazz-babe, and hates the classical music being played, as they take afternoon tea in the pavilion.

“This guy’s good for a free ice-cream”

Ma is munching on strong onions and Pa, very laid-back, is swilling spirits. Mabel jumps up and runs out looking for fun, her Empire-waisted, striped dress billowing in the unusually brisk California wind (discussed later). Fatty and his friend are eager to pick up some girls on their day out at the park, and they spot Mabel, at an ice cream stall. They have the perennial problem of two lads, but only one girl. Fatty bamboozles his friend, and makes a bee-line for Mabel, who is eating an ice-cream but has no money to pay. This time her charm has failed her, and the vendor is hopping mad. Fatty smoothly slides in, offering to pay. Realising he has no cash, he opens the till while the vendor’s back is turned, and steals a dollar. Fatty and Mabel quickly grab their cones, and skedaddle before the ice-cream man notices he’s been had. Next we see Fatty and Mabel jumping a barrier and feeding the big, bad bear, something that happens quite a lot in Keystone films. Meanwhile, Ma and Pa are searching for their wayward daughter. Pa runs into Fatty’s friend, under bad circumstances, and a fight ensues. Elsewhere, the lovers have discovered the ‘mountain slide’ where Mabel hurts her bum, and Fatty flies off, bowling over a cop. There is some reverse photography, as the cop sends Fatty flying, back to the slide, where he goes backwards to the top. Mabel jumps on him, and they ride down again. This time Mabel hurts her arm, as often seen in many other films. She runs off, slap bang into Fatty’s friend, who is very keen to be acquainted with her. Fatty is furious, and picks a posy in an attempt to woo Mabel back.

From there on we have a mix up of identities, in which Fatty mistakes Mother for Mabel, Mabel introduces the gad-about to her father, who he was fighting just a few minutes ago, and Mother recognises Fatty as her assailant and beats him with Mabel’s parasol. Fatty and friend are chased from the park by the cop, as Mabel is bent over the counter of a stall, and given a good spanking by Ma and Pa. End of film.

All wilful girls should be spanked.


The thing most striking in this film is Mabel’s outfit. Mabel was noted for her unusual garments, and this one is no exception. Her dress must have caused a stir with the public, as it is unlike anything seen in those times. The waist-line (Empire-line) is located under the bust, with the dress hanging loosely about the body. The material seems to come from an old deckchair, and she wears a very, very short jacket. Her hat is three-cornered, the latest in a line of odd head-wear from the Keystone Girl. All in all, she looks like a girl pirate. Mabel was fond of designing her own clothes, but unlike Mary Pickford, she was no seamstress.

The park location is very atmospheric, with quite a breeze blowing. We learn from the newspaper article that Mack Sennett employed several huge electric fans, which make Mabel’s dress billow like a bell tent in a gale. This, of course, is an old trick of Sennett’s, and when Mabel is around, the fans always blow full-on. Sometimes the dress is blown upwards, and sometimes it is blown between her legs, even in indoor scenes (see ‘That Ragtime Band’ and ‘The Gusher’). Additionally, in this film, the audience gets to see what Mabel wears under her dress, when she is spanked by her parents.

This is all basic Keystone stuff, with boy meets boy, Mabel’s trendy dress blowing around in the wind, a chase, and a mix-up of identities. Whether there’s a happy ending, or not, viewers must make up their own minds.

Mabel loves Fatty (Mabel’s New Hero).


Mabel and lookalikes, 1918.

In 1914, Mabel had been one of the most prominent movie actresses, and the most prominent comedienne in the incipient Hollywood. Coming from the stable of D.W. Griffith and now a leading member of the Keystone troupe, everyone loved her, but some thought there was a problem, with ‘our Mabel’. Charlie Chaplin summed it up thus, in his memoirs. He tells of being assigned to Mabel, for a part in ‘Mabel At The Wheel’. Charlie tried to introduce some gags, but was told “Shut up and do as you’re told.” Charlie, a blatant misogynist, had never been spoken to like that by a teenage girl in all his life. He went into a sulk and downed tools, so to speak. It was then that he realised his mistake, as the crew and cast advanced on him, intending to beat the tramp’s lights out, for disrespecting their queen. Chaplin then goes on to inform us of the reasons for everyone’s reactions.

“Mabel”, Says Charlie, “Was extremely pretty…..light-hearted and gay, kind and generous, and everyone adored her.”

Charlie was wrong about Mabel being a teenage girl, for as we now know, she was twenty-two, so almost as old as himself. However, in the early Keystone days she carried a great weight on her young shoulders. Major Keystone shareholders, Kessell and Baumann, paid her an extraordinary amount of money for her work, but for that amount of dollars, she was expected to not only act, but support the studio, and help with the publicity. In those days she was not a nine-to-fiver. She also had to back another Keystone shareholder, Mack Sennett in various ways, including being by his side at all manner of work-related functions. Early on, they collaborated well enough, but gradually they became more and more distant, as Mack became a tyrant of the Napoleonic variety. By the time Chaplin arrived, Mabel was more  interested in helping the down-trodden extras, crew, and labourers at the studio. To these people, Mabel was not just a studio figure-head, its Cleopatra, but a mother-confessor, probably the youngest in the country, or indeed the world.

Mabel and Charlie are the best of friends

Some of the attributes Charlie alludes to Mabel are, of course, at variance with each other, but there is nothing in the available literature that gives reason for us to think differently. Mabel was unique, a kind that only comes along every generation or so, but some people have assigned other attributes to Mabel, as follows: manipulative, devious, and mercenary. If the last three were true, then no-one said so at the time. In 1914, she was, naturally, the main-stay of Keystone, and feted accordingly, but the affection ran very deep – deeper than her being somebody that created the conditions, whereby everyone would be paid a living wage.

In 1914, Mabel was a legend, within the movie industry, but the legend began, not in Los Angeles, but in New York, the original home of the U.S. motion picture business. It is worth saying that Mabel gave up her career with D.W. Griffith, to chance her arm with a company, Keystone, that as Mack Sennett later put it:

“… had no money, no studio, few actors and one lousy camera.”

Kudos and respect to Mabel. Respect for having been a Griffith actress, and kudos for giving her career up, and taking a risk with Keystone, out in the Wild West.

Keystoners swarm around their Queen in Salt Lake City.

Pre-Keystone Mabel.

After a short stint with Biograph in 1910, she was side-lined by Griffith in mid-training, when she was left behind, as the studio moved to California for the winter. She had been noted, however, for her beauty and unique persona. Arriving at the Vitagraph studio,  she was hardly a shrinking violet, and was immediately noticeable. Larger than life seems to be the correct descriptor for the vivacious Mabel, increasingly so, as she was soon co-starring in John Bunny comedies. Her attraction to men was obvious, but in those days of women’s emancipation, young girls were also drawn to her, often to the stage-mothers alarm, for much as they admired Mabel, they felt that she was heading for a fall, and fall she did, following some actions that caused the Quaker management to fire her. Being just seventeen, we can imagine that being a ‘star’ went to her young head, and she digressed somewhat. Her next engagement, at Reliance, lasted just two hours, after the director found her demeanour unacceptable.

Inevitably, she made her way back to Biograph, where she was welcomed as a named star, an honour that even long-serving child actress, Mary Pickford, did not have. Griffith, naturally, could not now play her as an extra, and set her to work immediately in drama. He began to coach her personally in the dramatic arts, and particularly in facial expressions. The lightning fast changes of expression that she later became famous for, she ascribed entirely to her training by Griffith. It was now that a Mabel ‘set’ began to arise within the studio. Not only did Mabel have her old charm, but she had a charisma that no Biograph actress had possessed since the days of Florence Lawrence – she was a known star, or the nearest thing to a star that could be found in 1911. Now, the reader might have heard that Mabel was not only a minx and a prankster, but was also insolent to the director and supervisor.

Vitagraph Mabel is larger than life.

This is not strictly true, as Mabel was much wiser from her experience at Vitagraph, so whereas she might have spoken of, say, Griffith in a derogatory manner, she did not do so directly to his face. Indeed, when Griffith’s wife, actress Linda Arvidson, later wrote of those halcyon days, she does not mention Mabel as one of those actresses (mainly theatre people) that crossed swords with ‘the movie genius’. It does seem that Mabel was developing veiled sarcasm, or was becoming, as producer Sam Goldwyn later put it, disarmingly charming. This probably, apart from her acting ability, accounts for what Mrs Griffith called her astonishing rise through what were some very impressive ‘ranks’. In point of fact, by 1912, Mabel was at the very core of Biograph, the very fulcrum around which, at least, the social side of Biograph turned. In a way, she became indispensable to the company of players, but some might argue that she had them eating out of her hand. In recent articles, the qualities attributed to Mabel, by Mary Pickford and Mrs Griffith, have been noted but to summarise, Mabel was an all-action girl, unafraid of high cliffs, swirling rapids, and bucking broncos, but still very alluring, kind, and very, very fond of dainty clothes. While men were attracted to her, the actresses worshipped her, and some prayed that they’d wake up the next morning, and actually be Mabel (Mrs Griffith again). One of these actresses was Dorothy Gish, who tried to adopt the Mabel ways with D.W. Griffith, but, without the armoury to convincingly carry it off, she did not attain stardom in the way that her more illustrious sister, Lillian, did.

Sultry Biograph Mabel.

Mabel of the Keystone.

Was Mabel’s taking up with the new, under-funded Keystone a good idea for Mabel. “Emphatically No!” Said the Biograph girls. The whole scheme was utter madness, and led by the equally mad Mack Sennett. They pleaded with her not to go, and quite honestly, Mabel must have given the idea great consideration, especially as Mary Pickford had only just returned from her abortive attempt to break loose with the IMP company that floated on little more than thin air. Mabel’s reasons, we might suggest were similar to Mary’s. This was to be a new company, with just one leading lady, Mabel Normand. There would be no competition, and none of the shenanigans that went on at Biograph. She would be the queen, not down on Broadway, admittedly, but on Alessandro Street, Edendale, Ca. Supporting the whole concern were the highly-respected entrepreneurs, Kessel and Baumann, who made their bones, and a pile of cash, on Times Square (then Longacre). What more could a headstrong, ruthlessly ambitious girl want? Well, $125 a week ($3,000 + today) for starters, her own dressing room, a suite in the Alexandria Hotel, and all the expense account dinners she could handle. Oh, and unbridled use of the boss’s fancy car. Of these things, being the queen of all was probably the most important, and would put her on a level with the great theatrical stars, even perhaps, Lillian Russell. Oh yes, that’s where the early stars were aiming, to be Lillian Russell, for no movie star of magnitude then existed.

In the very early days, the Queen of Edendale did not have a kingdom to speak of. The studio lot was simply that, a dusty (sometimes muddy) couple of acres, upon which were an old bungalow, a rickety barn, and a derelict grocery store. The store building served as the studio front office, while the front of the bungalow became Mabel’s dressing room, sectioned off from the rear, which was, initially, Mack  Sennett’s own office, but which later became the female dressing room. The barn was the communal male dressing room. Electricity had only just began to arrive in Edendale, and it is said that Sennett paid double the normal $800 to get hooked up right away. There were no flushing toilets, as there was no sewage system in 1912, so ‘poo pots’ were the order of the day. Nor did Mabel, then, have her marble bath, but one of those tin things that you see hanging on the backs of doors in the Keystone films, filled from the adjacent well. We are, pretty much, talking of the Wild West, where as Chaplin and Frank Capra described, everything was of wood, and the buildings were sheds, leaning at grotesque angles to each other.

The Alessandro street lot (centre right) before it became Bison, then Keystone.

During the creation period of Keystone, Mabel was doted on by the few actors around her, not only because they adored her, but because she was of vital importance to Keystone and their pay checks. Mabel was a precious treasure, but did she lie around, while adoring men dropped grapes into her mouth? Probably, but there was work to be done, and importantly, Mabel sought to avoid the mistakes of her predecessor, and was sure not to lord it over her peers. The connecting door between the actresses’ and Mabel’s dressing room was always open, and on cold mornings the entire company crammed into the Keystone Girl’s boudoir, where sat the only oil heater on the lot. As time moved on, she became the figure-head that drew many young actresses to the studio. Mabel was always kind and altruistic towards the girls, whilst also keeping a watchful eye on them. Any of them having personal audiences with the boss, and Mabel would know about it. She jealously guarded her position, and rightly so, for she’d given up a lot – her best years — to build Keystone, and as she might have added “With my bare hands.”

Charlie Chaplin, of course, was looking forward to meeting up with the Keystone Girl, when he arrived at the studio. However, Sennett had determined that he would not work with her right away, and like Sennett years earlier, he found he could not penetrate the perpetual circle of actors, actresses, and crew members that surrounded her. If Mabel was the king-pin of the studio, then Chaplin discovered this was indeed true. Soon though, Mabel would scoop the lonesome limey up, and weave her magic on him, but not before the tramp had blotted his copy book by disrespecting the Queen, and come close to being beaten to death by the crew.

Charlie wreaks revenge on Mabel, with a pin in the leg.

Whereas, Mabel was of the opinion that she’d built the studio, Mack was of the opinion that he had done the same. In 1915, amid a shower of professional awards, Mabel was bigger than Keystone. She had devoured the studio, no-one could touch her, and Mack began to think they’d created monster, right there on Alessandro Street. She had become too big, bigger than Keystone itself. The King of Comedy decided to clip the Queen’s wings, and began to promote other, cheaper, actresses over her. Although the pair had become estranged, each kept a close watch on the other. Mack had his spies follow Mabel everywhere, and people close to him reported back to her. Importantly, Mabel had become the centre of Hollywood society during the Keystone period, and her parties became legendary. She was, of course, the inventor of the wild Hollywood party. This came about, not just because of her vivacious personality, but because she was just about the first star actress to live full-time in Los Angeles. Hollywood just sort of coalesced around her.

The strain on Mabel in 1915 was palpable, and a lesser personality would have been forgiven for throwing in the towel. Mabel, though, was made of sterner stuff, and the incorporation of Keystone into the Triangle group, gave Mabel the opportunity to weave her spell on the top brass. By some form of black magic, she managed to persuade the Triangle big-shots to take her and a small Keystone company, into the New York Motion Pictures studio, far away in Fort Lee, New Jersey. This inevitably led to Sennett gritting his teeth, over the loss of Mabel for the 3-month stint in the east. Suddenly he realised that he’d been foolish to side-track Mabel, who had now totally outmanoeuvred him, The King of Comedy. As Mack’s hair turned white, and his teeth wore down, little did he know that more shocks were in store for him. Just as Mabel’s three months were up, he was contacted by Variety magazine. What did he think of the news that Mabel had signed for the Mutual company. Well, Mack could say nothing, for he had not known about this, and soon he was wiring the bosses back east, demanding to know how they’d managed to let his star-of-stars slip away. The bosses, Harry Aitken, Adam Kessell and Charles Baumann, denied any knowledge of the signing, and suggested that Mack make Mabel an offer she could not refuse. Nobody today knows what had happened, but it seems likely that there was a conspiracy by Mabel and New York to raise her status and value even higher, and Mack Sennett would pay. To keep Mabel onboard they would create a new concern, The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, to be housed in Sennett’s new 25,000 square feet studio in East Hollywood. As a sweetener, Sennett would receive 25% of the Mabel Normand company. The actors and actresses of Hollywood went crazy, Mabel was the first of their breed to put her name on the roof of a studio, and Mary Pickford waxed lyrical over Mabel’s success, in her weekly news column, but the producers, although beaming down on her at the opening ceremony of the studio, were not quite so sanguine about Mabel. All had been bewitched by the girl from Staten Island, at one time or another, and they all knew that she had engineered an adroit coup against Sennett, and in a way she’d had the New York wise-guys over as well. They also knew that Mabel was now unassailable, no-one could move against the legendary Mabel, without having the whole of Hollywood come down upon them. It would be difficult, but many producers decided to keep the sweet-smiling assassin out of their studios.


However, when the Triangle concern began to show signs of collapse in late 1916, one producer decided he was not afraid to sign Mabel, and indeed, his success was dependent upon getting Mabel’s signature on a contract. Sam Goldwyn was a guy that kind of wandered into movies, and got lucky, when his first film struck pay dirt. After arguing with his partners, he had branched out, and founded his own studio. To get off the ground he needed a star to headline his company, but he didn’t want just any star, he wanted the star-of-stars, Mabel Normand. Received warnings that Mabel was dangerous, so very dangerous, just made Sam more determined. Like so many before him, he delighted in her personality and aura, ignoring the dangers. What were the dangers? Firstly, Mabel had a way of getting what she wanted, by a means that some called witchcraft. In fact she was an adept schemer, who’d got where she was without the support of either a stage-mother or a man. Secondly, woe-betide any producer that attempted to bring in another big star, or promote another actress to stardom. Mabel would either destroy them mentally, or find a way of bursting their bubble. It was unfortunate, then, that Sam’s second signing was Mae Marsh. Mae had been pulled off the street by D.W. Griffith and coached to stardom over the Biograph regulars, such as Mabel and Mary Pickford. Mabel black-balled Mae in social Hollywood for the next ten years. Poor Mae, she was only fourteen, and later said:

“What did I understand then, I was just a lamebrain, you know.”

There are many stories of Mabel at Goldwyn, simply because Sam wrote an autobiography in the early 1920s, in which Mabel figures prominently. In fact, he kind of psychoanalyses Mabel, and tries to drill down into her mind. He does this, while alluding to various incidents around the studio. We can group these as incidents involving other actresses, incidents involving management, and Mabel’s attitude to the pressmen invited to the all-star studio. The fact that this was an all-star studio was the thing that led to Mabel’s war against the other actresses. In the past just one favoured girl would lead Mabel on the warpath, now she was surrounded by stars. Just to make things worse, with the exception of Mae Marsh, they were all former stage artists.  Mabel would invade their sets, and put them off their stroke by various means, such as standing hands on hips laughing, tipping water on them from on high, or simply staring at them. Complaints regularly came to Sam, but his answer was always the same “What can I do? She is Mabel, the movies’ own, the Queen of Hollywood.” Sam might also have mentioned that she was his biggest earner. The supervisor of Sam’s studio was Abe Lehr (or ‘Leer’ as Mabel called him) who took the brunt of Mabel’s idiosyncrasies. It was said, by Goldwyn, that Mabel was “disarmingly charming.” This Lehr encountered, when he confronted Mabel over her lateness and non-attendances. Mabel got to work on him, in a charming manner, but Abe was ready for her. No matter how much she fluttered those eyelashes, and twinkled her legs, Abe was determined haul her up on the $30,000 the company had lost due to her late attendances. Mabel, though, as Goldwyn told it “Knew the business from every angle” and she knew that she brought profit to the bottom line, no matter what the back office accountants said. When Lehr threatened to inform Sam of the losses, Mabel offered him her brand new $8,000 car if he kept quiet. Lehr declined, and then he was confronted with a different Mabel. She let loose a torrent of curses and blasphemies at ‘Leer’, flung a paper-weight at his head, then ran screaming from the room. Lehr unwisely followed Mabel to her dressing room, where he was met with the infamous dirty laugh, and a shower from a perfume spray. Mabel had won the round, and the 30k was never mentioned again. Lehr reported the incident to Goldwyn who simply shrugged and said “That’s Mabel – what can I do.” In fact, Mabel was keeping Sam afloat, as his expensive theatricals lost the studio money at an alarming rate.

In 1919, Sam Goldwyn had the luck to be able to scrutinise two of the strangest Hollywood personalities, at the same time, and over an extended period. Mabel had been in the habit of coming to Sam’s office after work, to presumably keep an eye on him, while he could keep an eye on her. This had been normal practice way back in the Biograph days, and in his book, Sam relates his experiences with ex-Biograph girl, Mary Pickford. He encountered Mary, whenever he called in on the office of producer Adolph Zuckor. Mary, who then worked for Zuckor, seemed to be standing behind Zuckor’s Chesterfield chair, every time he visited. Sam noted that Mary was always fussing around him, shuffling his papers, and interjecting discreetly in conversations. She was, of course, keeping a close watch on her producer, and he obviously gained, by knowing where his million-dollar star was. The other regular visitor to Sam’s office was Charlie Chaplin.  After work, Charlie would visit his brother, Syd, who had a studio on Sam’s lot. He never went home until late, as his marriage to child-bride Mildred Harris, was falling apart. Mabel always made an appearance, when Charlie was around, leading to the suspicion that she had spies in the studio.

Mary P, Ad Zuckor in later years.

Sam had a grandstand seat to the enigmatic relationship between the former colleagues, who many said had been lovers at Keystone. Charlie, although previously talking voluminously (of himself) to Sam, would become reticent, and even withdrawn in the presence of Mabel. Mabel of course, would chatter away in her normal manner, occasionally saying “What do you think, Charlie” and “Isn’t that so, Charlie.” Charlie would mumble something or other, then go quiet again. Sam loved these occasions, and smiled as Charlie squirmed uncomfortably in his chair. It seemed there was some professional competition between them, but while Charlie was resentful of Mabel, she showed no hint of it, although she had some reason to resent Charlie. In reality, they were similar characters, but while Charlie could not hide his character, Mabel was the mistress of secrecy. Both were melancholic by nature, but Mabel’s outward exuberance, for her part, covered it up. For all of his egotism and misogyny, Mabel was more than a match for Charlie, in social situations. In fact, she was more than a match for anyone, but Charlie was also paranoid. He thought everyone had it in for him, was plotting against him, and Mabel had a particular way of speaking, which while bordering on the sarcastic, could not easily be deduced as such. This really upset some people, those that were full of themselves, but it cut deep with the paranoid Chaplin. The Queen of Hollywood would know when the veiled barbs she threw had hurt someone deeply. The next time she met them, she would be as nice as pie, although the offended person would have a bit of the hangdog about them.

“Oh dear” Mabel would say “I offended you, didn’t I? Geez, I  was only kidding, let’s make up and forget all about it.” In a roomful of people with big ears, the offended party would have little option, but to “forget all about it.” As Sam Goldwyn would say “That’s Mabel, what can you do?”

It is often said that Mabel’s Goldwyn films were shadows of the preceding Keystone pictures. This might have been so, but little of this work remains for us to judge. However, at Goldwyn, Mabel’s star shone brighter than ever, due in no small part, to Goldwyn’s steam-train of a publicity department. In the press there was nothing but Mabel, Mabel, Mabel, and if you wanted a Mabel doll, or plate, or cup, then Goldwyn could supply it. For Mabel, the publicity became a little unbearable, as the studio arranged press interviews for her in increasing numbers. In the past, she had arranged her own interviews, with trusted friends at magazines like Photoplay, but now she was expected to speak to all and sundry. Mabel would keep journalists waiting at the lot for several hours, then slip away, without saying a word, although she apologised to a few, and invited them to come to her house in the evening. Several journos arrived at the house, and reported finding Mabel, shall we say, not exactly appropriately attired. If true, then this was designed to put them off their stride, and soon they would find Mabel entering into a monologue, in which she both asked and answered the questions. Then, an alarm clock would sound, and Mabel would say “Your ten minutes, my friend, are over, now please leave.” One guy was told this:

“Please go now, 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 fellow found himself outside the door, and wondering what had happened. Unfortunately, this was all committed to memory, and a few years later, those slighted journos would wreak revenge on their tormentor. For now, though, Mabel was undisputed Queen, ruling social Hollywood, but soon she could drop from the silver screen. Sam Goldwyn was going bust, and was one by one dropping his stars. He’d hung onto Mabel as long as possible, now he would have to let her go. Sam was not, however, going to throw her on the scrapheap. Mabel was a valuable asset, and he proposed to loan her out, until he got back on his feet.

Mabel in the spot outside her house, where bemused press guys would find themselves, after being ceremoniously ‘let out’.

For Mabel’s part, she was gripped with sheer terror, for her old producer, Mack Sennett, had offered $30,000 to hire her for one picture. Goldwyn’s films, compared with Sennett’s were crass, but Mabel was happy where she was, playing the lady of the house, or studio. She tried to fend Sennett off, by offering Sam $54,000, which was more than Sennett was paying, but by 1921, the excess of $24,000 was not enough to finance a picture. It is said that Charlie Chaplin mediated between Mabel, Goldwyn and Sennett, helping secure Mabel $3,000 a week, 25% of film profits, and a plush dressing room with marble bath. No-one knows if Charlie did play a role here, but if true,  it does show that, in fact, he and Mabel’s bond was a strong one, for normally only a husband would negotiate for an actress. Sennett, of course, was keen to acquire Mabel for he was planning on making dramatic-comedies, and only Mabel would do. He had to act quickly, for any of the big drama studios could snap Mabel up. Mabel was on friendly terms with all the producers, except Hal Roach perhaps, and they all adored her, as she kept them amused. However, everyone knew Mabel was problematic, and as Roach later found, she could whip up insurrection on the lot. Everyone withdrew and allowed Sennett first refusal on Mabel. She’d driven a hard bargain, but Mack was happy, which was more than you could say about Mabel. She was polite with The King of Comedy, but was also very formal – things could never be the same again. Except the films, for together they created great things. Charlie Chaplin put it this way:

“It was a matter of understanding. They were both as Irish as the banshees, and Mack got the best out of Mabel’s wayward, rebellious Irish heart.”

What happened next has been the basis of a thousand books. It seemed Mabel was determined to escape the Sennett studio, but the producers of the big studios were reluctant to take on the girl that belonged with Mack Sennett. However, Mabel got close to a top Paramount director called W.D. Taylor in order, Taylor’s butler said, to get into his studio via the back door. In the event, Taylor turned up dead, and naturally, the butler said “Mabel did it.” Did it because Taylor had failed to get Mabel into Paramount. The police thought differently, and although many suspects arose down the years, Sennett was always on the list. The suspicion was that Sennett got rid of Taylor, in order to prevent Mabel leaving his studio. In reality, no-one knows who killed W.D. Taylor, and as one journalist wrote in 1922 “Nobody ever knows who shoots anyone, or why, in Los Angeles.” The police concluded that Mabel knew who had shot Taylor, and the press thought likewise. Actors and actresses came out publicly in support of Mabel, but the producers kept strangely quiet. Mabel made two more successful films with Sennett, then left him for good, after another shooting scandal rocked her life – they never had anything to do with one another again. The producers, who made a big show of cleaning up Hollywood, but while remaining friendly with Mabel, they were wary of signing her. Surprisingly, it seems Mabel was now wealthier than ever, and even made a small fortune, starring in a theatrical show.

A final photo of Mabel with Charlie C in 1928.

It seems, though, that she carried a terrible secret for the rest of her life. Mabel seems to have enjoyed the next few years as a movie, transcontinental socialite, who still took the headlines. By 1926, she was feeling ready to return to the screen, having presumably tired of La Dolce Vita. Mack Sennett tried to snap her up, and although Mabel visited the studio, to a rapturous welcome by the company, she declined The King of Comedy’s offer. Her actress friends, perhaps alarmed by any return to Sennett, sought to get her into the Hal Roach studio. Mary Pickford was a prime mover in this, and Mabel did, in fact, negotiate a good contract with Roach, who had been busy signing up falling stars for 50 bucks a week.. This illustrates well the problem with Mabel, for although her friends were staunchly loyal and helpful, Mabel repaid Roach, or “That thick-necked Mick” as Mabel named him, by turning his studio into a war zone. Roach was ruthlessly taunted by Mabel, who brought droves of girlfriends into the studio, that followed the Irishman around, bombarding him with taunts and assorted cuss words. Everyone sniggered, even Stan Laurel, who always had trouble standing up to Roach. After six months, Roach was unwilling to renew Mable’s contract. Mabel was becoming sick in any case, and would see out much of 1927, very sick indeed, although still visible in the headlines. Friends were worried about her, but she made a remarkable recovery in 1928, and attended many events and premieres. She was, of course, looking to get back into pictures, and made a short film on the set of MGM’s ‘Our Dancing Daughters’. This was billed as a private film, but it seems to have been a screen test instigated by Louis B. Mayer. Mayer had been a close friend of Mabel, and would have supported Mabel’s attempt to get into MGM, although the board later decided against it. A scene in ‘Hollywood Boulevard’ (1950) hints that Mayer was bamboozling her, and upon the film’s screening, Mayer went berserk, threatening to sue the producer, the director and everyone else. Mabel died in 1930, and was given the biggest funeral in Hollywood history. The big-shots of Tinsel Town that carried Mabel to her grave, were under no illusion — silent Hollywood was no more.

The Queen is laid to rest. Honorary pallbearers Doug Fairbanks, Col. Art Goebells, D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett, Sam Goldwyn. Feb. 1930.

Rolling it all up.

What, then, was the problem with Mabel? In general terms, she was too ‘big’. On the screen, naturally, Mary Pickford was just as big, or as Anita Garvin put it, perhaps a little less so. In Hollywood itself, Mabel reigned supreme, and everyone adored her, but some of those admirers (chiefly producers) were not a little afraid of our Mabel. She knew everyone, and everything, even the darkest secrets of the producers, whose lives were, in some cases, more sordid than their minions, the actors. Mabel though, by virtue of her position was unassailable i.e. if anyone ‘disappeared’ her, there would be hell to pay down on Hollywood Boulevard. Mabel’s troubles from 1922 onward could have been averted if she’d spoken up about the murder of W.D. Taylor, but she remained tight-lipped. She was, after all, the embodiment of Hollywood, and would only harm herself by speaking out. The producers, while remaining friendly, were happy to let Mabel to take the rap, so to speak, and while they cleaned up Hollywood, Mabel languished out of work, but they still doffed their caps to the Queen, and it is clear that she never ran out of money.


King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).

Mabelescent: Which Athough Unclassified Typifies the Normand Naivete. By Truman B. Handy, Photo-play World, May 1920.

When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925).

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

Charles Chaplin: My autobiography by Charles Chaplin (1964).

The Dream That Came True in Motion Picture Magazine (Dec. 1916).

The Tragic Side of Mabel Normand – Obtaining an Interview Under Difficulties
By David Raymond. Play World (June 1918).


Who was ‘the girl from Hollywood’? She was, in fact, a piece of fiction, created by the same writer that created Tarzan (he of the apes). His name was Edgar Rice Burroughs, and his Tarzan was fictional, but some of his story is based on real events. Likewise, his ‘Girl from Hollywood’, also has some basis in truth. Before being released as a book, the story was serialised in Munsey’s Magazine, between June and November 1922. The date of the release of the story gives a clue as to its subject. It is based on the murder of W.D. Taylor and the perceived character of Mabel Normand. Burroughs seems to have had a pile of newspaper cuttings, which he used to create the character in his book. In 1922, these stories about Mabel took on a life of their own, and the journalists could not write them fast enough. Needless to say, the public’s appetite for such scandalous material was insatiable.

The printing presses could not run fast enough in the 1920s.

Numerous facts from Mabel’s life were used to compose a picture of her, and present her as some kind of Frankenstein’s monster. However, Burroughs, like many other authors, tempered his story, so that in the end, bad as she was, The Girl from Hollywood could be viewed as a victim of the movie business, rather than a central figure within Hollywood that perpetrated heinous crimes and instigated bad behaviour. Now let’s have a look at some of the facts that Burroughs used, which made his story, and intentionally identified her in the story. We start off with the something that goes right back to the start of Mabel’s career. Mabel had many physical talents, which early on, brought her to a level from which she, an untrained actress, could begin to compete with the trained stage actresses at the Vitagraph and Biograph studios. Her talents included swimming rapids, diving off high cliffs and riding horses at insanely high speeds over rough terrain. The girl from Hollywood was also a keen horse-rider, and so in the first few pages we see a similarity with Mabel. Nor is that all, for the girl, Grace, pines to be on the stage, although mother objects. From what we know, Mabel had wanted to be on the stage, but although supported by her father, it seems Mother was not so keen. This story was not so well known, and it may not be true, but those in the movie industry accepted it as the truth. Known to many was the fact that Mabel (or more specifically the Keystone Girl) had a passion for cuddling young calves, and an aversion to marriage. Later, Grace is depicted as an animal lover in general, which may or may not be consistent with the real Mabel, but is definitely consistent with the screen Mabel. These facts, or factoids, identify Grace with Mabel early on in the book.

Mabel just loves new-born calves.

As the book proceeds, other Mabel facts present themselves. Mack and Mabel were crazy about old Spanish California, and Mabel at least loved Spanish interiors. Unsurprising then that Burrough’s Grace also loved the same décor. It is also a little amusing that Grace does not use any blatant cuss words against anybody, but simply says “You beast!” This is, of course, straight from the Keystone Girl script book, although it seems that the real Mabel might have used stronger language (in a number of Keystone’s, Mabel mouths “You beast” – no sound, remember). Burroughs further endows Grace with ‘selfish egotism’ and a rejection of marriage, something that the press had accused Mabel of, in early 1922. To the press of 1922, Mabel was “bad, bad, bad” and so bad that, unlike many actresses, Mabel never brought her mother out to Los Angeles to share in her success. An actress in Burroughs book, but not Grace, is pilloried for the same neglect, and for the reason that she did not want Mother to witness her ‘Roman’ lifestyle. This ignores the fact that Mabel’s parents might not have wanted to leave their leafy Staten Island suburb, for the fleshpots of Hollywood. In fact, in an interview in 1924, Mabel refers to her mother: “Some people might be surprised to learn that I have a mother. No, she is not a stage-mother, and she cannot come out west, as she has to look after my younger sister.” Her sister was then was at least 25 years of age. Contrary to what some journalists said, there is no evidence that Mabel bought her parents a new gothic-style mansion in New Brighton, just to keep them in the east.

Mabel’s parent’s house, Staten Island

In his autobiography, Mack Sennett states that Mabel was “Piled contradictions upon contradictions, then kicked at them with high heels and knocked them down like playroom blocks.” There is no reason to suppose that Sennett knew, or cared, very much about Mabel’s real-life personality, but he might have read The Girl From Hollywood, in which one character is “bad, bad, bad” as the press told it, while being sweet and generous to her servants. Strangely, she had a Japanese cook, just like Mabel. Drugs, of course, are at the bottom of everything in Burrough’s book, and the Girl from Hollywood has been trapped in Hollywood by unscrupulous film producers (in another piece of ‘Hollyweird’, the author claimed similarly that “The stars are the prisoners of Hollywood”). Unscrupulous was the watchword of the day for the producers who, Burroughs implies, kept their stars on the movie treadmill by plying them with opium, cocaine and heroin. Our great scribe, however, never considered that the stars might have merely have used drugs in social settings, that is at wild Hollywood parties, where there were always silver bowls containing paper twists, concealing a white powder. There is no evidence that producers kept their stars ‘stoned’ in order to control them and contain them. They had far better ways of doing this, which did not compromise their stars’ performance, but frayed their nerves, as they were constantly tailed by the producer’s private detectives. Naturally, some stars kind of ‘disappeared’ and sometimes, it seems, a person involved with a star turns up dead. In the respect, Burroughs does not disappoint.

Bad guys 1930s-style. Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano parties in Hollywood.


This book is not a good work, which is not surprising, for it is one of the first in a great line of Hollywood Babylon publications. At the time of its release, the New York times said “It is without one single redeeming merit.” Burroughs kind of agreed, and once said ‘If people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, then I could write stories just as rotten.” He was all about entertainment, and his stories were just that, entertaining and no more. He latched onto anything that people might find thrilling — an ape boy, or an ambitious girl making out in Hollywood. Mabel, we might assume, would have found the ape boy charming, but a tree-swinging man of the Fairbanks variety, was definitely not her thing. In any case, Hollywood made its money from the sublime and the ridiculous, so why shouldn’t Burroughs have a bite of the Tinsel Town cherry?


The Girl From Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1922.

The King of Comedy by Mack Sennett, 1952.


Mabel takes the wheel of Raymond Hitchcock’s $12,000 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Long Island 1921.

Most people are aware that New York is a collection of islands. Some of the New York boroughs are true islands, while some, like Manhattan have an attachment to the mainland. Mabel Normand grew up on Staten Island, which was a place where those weary of the big city, Manhattan, could find suburban peace. Although not itself a borough, Coney Island was a place that grew up to be a seaside playground for New Yorkers, regardless of the size of their wallets. Beyond that was Long Island, which grew up to be a playground for the more wealthy of New York inhabitants. This meant it was aspirational for many residing in the New York boroughs, and it became aspirational for those making films in the early years. Name-drop Long Island as a location, and ears pricked up. Mention Coney Island, and some would spit on the ground. Movie producer D.W. Griffith always longed for locations, where he would not run into the roughs and dregs of society, who would heckle and abuse his actors in the parks and streets of New York. He sometimes used Atlantic City, on the Jersey Shore, but in the summer, at least, the same New York rough-necks, now on vacation, would gather around him. He later took to filming on the bluffs overlooking the Hudson river at Fort Lee, New Jersey, until it began to be overly-frequented by film crews. From then on, it was remote parts of New York State. However, much closer to home was Long Island, although its residents were distinctly ‘anti-movie’.

Pearl White on the Jersey-side bluffs, overlooking the Hudson River.

Mr Griffith, though, was an acceptable character, with a kind of Shakespearian way of speaking, and an $8,000 motor car. Now, anyone that possessed such an automobile, knew Shakespeare, and wore a top hat, had to be of the better classes. In this way he managed to ingratiate himself with the socially acceptable, and could access the holiday districts of Long Island. This was fortunate for some of his actors and actresses, as it meant a ride in Griffith’s Pierce-Arrow car, out to nice parts of the island, to film in resorts like Huntington. One such fortunate was a young Mabel Normand, who in 1911, arrived in Huntington aboard Griffith’s Pierce-Arrow to make the film that was to seal her destiny, ‘The Diving Girl’. In the first scene, she arrives chauffeured in Griffith’s Pierce-Arrow, looking very smug indeed. And no wonder, for not many eighteen-year-old girls arrived at a classy resort, in an equally classy chauffeur-driven automobile. No doubt, Long Island remained forever in Mabel’s mind, and she was to revisit the island many times down the years.

We’ll forgive Princess Mabel for looking superior, as she rolls into Huntington aboard D.W. Griffith’s glamorous Pierce-Arrow motor-car.

It is highly likely that Mabel had been to Coney Island several times as a child, and one of the first Keystone films, ‘At Coney Island’, was shot at this location.  Keystone’s view of Coney, however, was rather different to that of previous movies, whose films ridiculed lower-class people. The vivacious Keystone Girl, in her top-notch clothes, gave the air of a place where you would not, necessarily, be held up at gunpoint. Later, naturally, Mabel would get away to Long Island, as much as possible. In the late 1910s, while working for Sam Goldwyn at his Fort Lee studio, she would escape the dreaded ferry ride to the studio, and the stifling summer of New York, by diving and swimming in Long Island Sound. Other film people were to do the same, and Charlie Chaplin fled the tortuous New York summer of 1925, for Long Island. He was also escaping the hot publicity surrounding his adulterous affair with the dancer Louise Brooks.  So, we have mentioned Long Island and Coney Island, but what about Mabel’s home island of Staten. This was always the home of her parents, but there were certain reasons why Mabel would only occasionally take the ferry ride to Staten Island. For one thing, the press would stake out her parent’s New Brighton home, whenever they heard Mabel was in the east. Besieged would be an adequate word, and despite all of her ‘front’ and bluster, Mabel was, at heart, a very private person. To make matters worse, the Mayor of New Brighton had a habit of waylaying Mabel at the ferry terminal, and insisted on parading her around town in an open-top car. Eventually, a legend grew up that Mabel had a falling out with her mother early on, and this story persisted into the 1920s, and appeared in many of the disreputable Hollywood Babylon publications of that time.

Left: Trailer trash hit the Coney Island hot dogs,1903. Right: The impeccable Mabel arrives in 1912.

By 1921, the movie people were spending increasingly long periods ‘imprisoned’ in Los Angeles, a trip to the east becoming a rarity. In Los Angeles, you can forget about summer, for the town was hot and repressive at all times, the seasonal Santa Anna winds providing the only relief. Two places provided a breath of fresh air – Catalina Island and San Francisco. At weekends and vacation times, you could find the stars in one of these two places. Catalina Island was where Mabel and Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle shot ‘Sea Nymphs’ In which they both indulge in some comical swimming and diving.

Fatty and Mabel on Catalina Island.

Labour Day 1921, however, found Roscoe in San Francisco. It is likely, but not absolutely certain, that Mabel was in the town as well. During the evening of 5th September, an actress called Virginia Rappe died in the room of Roscoe Arbuckle at the Saint Frances hotel, San Francisco. Some pressmen tried to discover who else was in the room at the time. They got a few names, then some bright spark came up with the notion that Mabel Normand must surely have been there, based on the fact that Mabel was on friendly terms with Roscoe and wife, Minta. This had been true, but when Roscoe and Minta separated, Mabel had little to do with Roscoe, who now hung out with a male-only crowd, to which loose females were sometimes admitted. Now, Mabel was no-where to be found. Nobody knows if she’d been in San Francisco, but a few days later, she turned up in New York. Many of the stars were holidaying in the Big Apple, where the Mary Pickford film ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ was being premiered. At first Mabel did not attempt to hide herself, and indeed, the newspapers were all “Mabel this” and “Mabel that”, with just a few journos probing her whereabouts on the fatal night. This was enough for Mabel, much as she liked being the centre of movie society, she made a run for Long Island. Not the public resort, but the private home of Raymond Hitchcock and his wife. She spent her time water-skiing, diving and swimming in the Sound, but also made a publicly-released film, showing her with the Hitchcocks. A spirited girl, carefree, far from the trials and tribulations out west, and no involvement with the Saint Frances Hotel. This was to be a working vacation, aimed at publicizing her new picture ‘Molly O’, which would have its New York premiere in November. We might presume that Mabel intended to stay on in Long Island, until called back to make her next film in Los Angeles.

Braving the choppy waters of Long Island Sound in 1921.

Mabel, then, was quite happy in the east, but someone else was not. His name was Mack Sennett, Mabel’s producer. He had been unhappy about his strained relationship with his star-of-stars, who he had bought out of her contract with Sam Goldwyn for $30,000 ($750,000 today). Mabel had wriggled and squirmed, and tried to get the deal with Sennett stopped, then even offered Goldwyn $54,000 to keep her on, but Sam was in big financial trouble, and could not finance another film. Mabel had to go with Sennett, but she drove a hard bargain. $3,000 a week, 25% of the net profits, and a luxurious dressing room, replete with marble bath. Mack acquiesced, and promised to spend $260,000 on the picture – he bowed before the Queen of Hollywood. In return, Mabel was very formal with Mack, although in the Keystone days, they’d been collaborators, and lived cheek by jowl. To cut a long story short, Mack, in the end, had been disloyal to his Keystone Girl, and they’d split in 1915, under unpleasant circumstances. Now, Mack was just Mabel’s employer, and she would treat him as such. Certainly, she would attend his boring Hollywood dinner parties and business functions, but they would never be friends. Mack was like a cat on hot bricks, when his star was out of sight, and her association with Hitchcock unnerved the King of Comedy, as he explains in his autobiography. Consequently, in October, he called her back to L.A. He’d bought a theatre in L.A. called the Mission Theatre, and had decided that Molly O’ would premiere there, before New York. Mabel was disappointed, but business was business, and she returned to the Alessandro Street studio. Leaving lovely Long Island and her friends, for the seething cauldron of Hollywood would be a wrench, but she would soon renew acquaintance with another friend out west, by the name of William Desmond Taylor. The rest is a story of intrigue, murder, and deception which has been amply covered in previous articles, so there is little need to detail this complex matter here. It is sufficient to say, that, although Mabel enjoyed the glittering events of New York movie society down the years, her bolt-hole was always Long Island.

Left: Close and personal in Raymond Hitchcock’s Long Island garden. Right: At the premiere of Molly O’ with Mack Sennett and F. Richard Jones. 1921.


King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923).

Mabel Normand: A Source Book to her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006)


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

New York Morning Telegraph, September 18, 1921 ‘The leading film lights in New York’.

Los Angeles Evening Express, December 1, 1921 ‘Molly O’ Makes Audience Feel ‘Oh, You Molly!’


Relatively few people appreciate silent movies today, and this is hard fact, despite the legions of latter-day ‘silent’ fans. Silent movies are difficult to understand, and if you avert your eyes, to take a mouthful of popcorn, then you completely lose the plot (if you even had the plot in the first place). The simple answer is that people have changed, isn’t it? Well, there is no reason to suppose that Cro-Magnon Man thought any differently to us humans today, so it is unlikely that, in a hundred or so years, our species has suffered any serious evolution. The factors involved here are technical, yes, but also geographical, demographical, and socio-economic. This needs some explanation.

An advancement over the original Edison camera.

New technologies, modern gadgets and conveniences, are associated with the rise of world industrialisation, during the nineteenth century, and movies were no different. However, the rise of, say, the railways was not enough to spawn a full-blown movie industry, even after Edison’s great invention of a usable movie camera. The best example of the spread of both the railways and, eventually, the movies, is found in the United States. The mid-western and far-western U.S. was transformed from the wild place known by Lewis and Clark to a series of rail-heads, and attendant cities during the course of the nineteenth century. However, there was agricultural wealth to be found in the vast regions beyond the cities, and so farming communities and market town grew up, in order to feed the country and the world. In general, the small farms were connected to the markets by very bad roads and mud tracks. Farmers would only travel to the market when absolutely necessary, and the big city, where the produce eventually fetched-up, hardly ever. They were, in the main, isolated, and created their own entertainments. Isolation is two-way, and people rarely ventured into the outback, and this included troupes of theatrical players, who moved from city to city, via the railway system. Rarely did the big troupes appear in the smaller towns with no rail connection, and country people would only travel to see a show, once, perhaps twice, in a lifetime. In the U.S. at least, everything was well set for the onslaught of the movie. A movie, of course, is just a can containing a reel of film, which can easily be carried by one person to wherever there was an audience. Grandpa Clampett, sitting in the backwoods of Tennessee, could easily watch the latest screen-stars, as long as some enterprising fellow was prepared to go fetch the film, and set up a makeshift cinema. There was, very soon, a great appetite for movies in the United States. Elsewhere, things were different. The U.K. had a well-founded, spinal rail system, but it also had numerous branch lines, which spread out to almost every village. Players could travel to almost every place in the country, and it was the Music Hall that became very popular. Indeed, so popular that the film industry had a great and long problem defeating the English Music Hall, victory only being declared in the after World War 2.

Early cinema in the woods (Eastern England).

It is no wonder that film surpassed the theatre as a popular entertainment, so that the big stars of the stage could not ignore the movies, and soon those stars, such as Lillian Russell, were joining the ranks of the movie actors. By the early years of the twentieth century, however, the English Music Hall, and vaudeville was nipping away at the legitimate theatre in the U.S. and threatening to subdue the genre. The Karno troupe was taking the country by storm, with its stars like Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. These were ‘speechless’, slap-sticking comedians, and the comedy movie producers were soon chasing them down. Charlie was bright enough to know that life was easier in the movies, pay was higher, and, in any case, the silver screen would soon sweep the stage away. The town railway stations that brought the theatrical players, and the film cans, need no longer double as hotels for the travelling people, where the Chaplins, the Pickfords, the Gishes, would rest their weary heads. The movies became a double-edged sword, as the new industry stole away not just the audience, but the very actors, and the stages themselves, in many cases, were to be planted with the abominable silver screen. In his autobiography, Mack Sennett voiced his opinion on the growing success of the movies, after 1914. “Young lads and lasses” Quoth the King of Comedy “Now found they had somewhere to go in the evening — the darkened back row of the picture house.”

Theatrical star Lillian Russell; Music Hall stars Charlie Chaplin and Marie Lloyd.

Was the silent movie, then, what people wanted?  Not entirely, for the early films lacked something important – sound. In this respect there is a clear distinction between soundless drama and comedy, which made the former, in some people’s minds, more hilarious than the latter. The theatre critics continuously hammered the work of D.W. Griffith and his fellows, pointing out that the antics of the actors were over the top, and not a little forced. While the public worshipped Pickford, Normand and Sweet, the critics often mercilessly criticised their performances. The drama studios, nonetheless, had an ace up their sleeves, and that was those beautifully crafted photographs, which are now the epitome of the silent era. Later, they would use merchandising (Pickford/Normand dolls, cups, plates) to draw the audiences deeper into their web. Comedy, naturally, was a different matter, for comedy does not rely on dialogue for its kicks. Laurel and Hardy were a prime example. Silent comedy players, they adapted to sound very well, but it is clear that the dialogue merely links the scenes, and sets out the plot. The funny bits are completely silent, apart the incidental pops and bangs. ‘Incidentals’ were always necessary in the silent days, to enhance the action, although appropriate music was played all the way through.

“You too can have your own Mabel cut-out doll set!” [Looking For Mabel website].

It is a curious thing that the silent movie gave opportunities for those that would not survive the stage. Mabel Normand was credited with a voice so weak that her speech would not carry beyond the orchestra. Most of the prominent film stars of the 1910s and 1920s began their careers before 1910, and were able to play the system until the very end. When was the end? 1930, many would say, when Charlie Chaplin made ‘City Lights’, the last silent feature film to be produced. Short ‘silents’ were made occasionally down the years, although most of these were comedies. It is said that Al Jolson’s ‘The Jazz Singer’ (1927) put the first nail in the silent movie coffin, but the stars were worried long before this. Always there had been the horrible thought that some bright soul might marry sound to film. In the early 1920s there were several rumours of ‘talkies’ being developed, and by 1923 many of the old stars were looking for other ways to live in the manner to which they were accustomed. The stars were also under attack by the media, after a series of scandals, which caused many journalists to call for either the movie industry to be closed down, or for a quick introduction of ‘talkies’ so the Hollywooders would have to learn lines overnight, instead of skipping off to “Roman orgies.” The general opinion was that the sound innovators that had effectively been bought out by the silent movie moguls, so that their inventions ended up in the trashcan.

Falling stars? Norma and Constance Talmadge, Mabel Normand, Mid-1920s.

In Conclusion

Show a silent drama movie to a group of modern children, and most will flee in seconds, even a cowboy picture could not hold them. However, show them a silent comedy, and they implicitly understand, although none will watch for longer than five minutes. Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and some Chaplin funnies will get their attention, although the esoterics of late Mabel Normand (and Normand / Chaplin) pictures will not be grasped. Although there is a hardcore of ‘silent’ fans today, many will not understand the rationale of the 1910s audience, who were biding their time, waiting for something. That something was sound.



This is one of those early Keystone  pictures in which the studio brings together the Griffith Girl and the Keystone Girl, in the form of Mabel Normand. Being released in March 1913, the picture was produced a mere six months after Mabel flew the movie coop of D.W. Griffith at the Biograph studio in New York. Still within people’s memory, then, lay the notion that Mabel was, as Mary Pickford later said, “A heavy woman.” What she meant, of course, was that Mabel had been among that select band of dramatic actresses promoted to early stardom by D.W. Griffith that would form the core of the later ‘Hollywood’. Mary Pickford’s words (written in 1916) were meant to illustrate Mabel’s remarkable transition from heavy woman (actually ‘bad girl’ and vamp) to light-hearted, vivacious comedienne. Not quite so remarkable, though, as Mary implied, for Mabel had been starring in Vitagraph comedies in 1911, then later, the Biograph comedies for Mack Sennett.

Why have a steering wheel, when you can have a ship’s tiller?

Following the creation of Keystone, Mabel attempted to keep her drama and comedy running side by side. This allowed her to maintain her credibility as a serious actress, with that credibility picked up, somewhat, by the studio, and without which the Keystone films would have been endowed with junk status. Mack Sennett never had a girl, other than Mabel, that could put over a plot as well – some could be funny, some could odd-looking, some could take the knocks of slap-stick, but none were able to effectively marry the comedic with the dramatic, which is why, in 1921, Sennett could spend $250,000 (6 million-plus today) making ‘Molly O’, starring Mabel Normand, a film which he billed as a drama, bringing him on par with the big studios, like Paramount. In ‘Bangville Police’ it will be noticed that Mabel’s acting is ‘over the top’ but this was normal in silent films, although it is clear that there is nothing ‘wooden’ or forced about the way Mabel carries this out. The Bangville Police, are most certainly the forerunners of the Keystone Kops, but even the latter would be horrified by the parlous state of the Bangville squad car. However, the public would soon demand that they see more of the Kops.

In brief, this is a classic early Keystone film, in which Mabel forms the fulcrum of the story, around which all of the nonsense is spun. On this point, Charlie Chaplin said the following:

“Mabel Normand, who was quite charming, weaved in and out of them [the films] and justified their existence.”


“She provided the pulchritudinous interest.”

Charlie, naturally, steers clear of Mabel’s acting ability, but anyhow, we take his meaning.

The Film.


Mabel Normand: Della

Nick Cogley: Della’s father

Dot Farley: Della’s mother

Fred Mace: The Sherriff

Charles Avery: Deputy

Edgar Kennedy: Deputy

Raymond Hatton: Farm Hand

Director: Henry Lehrman

Runtime: 8 minutes

Release Date: 25th April 1913.

The Story

Della is a bright, young maiden living on a farm in Arcadia, otherwise known as Bangville, and her only wish is to own a little calf, and so she feeds the cow by hand, seemingly in the belief that this will produce a calf. Her idyllic life is interrupted by the sudden appearance of what appear to be burglars (or ‘burglers’). She barricades the door to keep the villains out, just as mother goes to enter, and of course she goes flying.

Mabel in Arcadia.

Della knows who to contact, and phones for the Police. Unfortunately, the Bangville cops, are not up to much, and the sheriff’s undertaking his favourite occupation — sleeping. He soon gathers that something is amiss, and alerts his deputy and a local posse by firing his gun into the ceiling. The deputy and the rest of the make-shift militia soon come running, but falling all over the place, as might be expected. The sheriff and his deputy pile into the sheriff’s dilapidated flivver, and off they go in a series of bangs and infernal explosions. The posse runs off into the landscape armed with assorted agricultural implements. Meanwhile, Della’s parents have reached the barricaded door and they begin to break it down, as Della retreats into a closet. Della is discovered, and she attempts to explain what happened. A noise is heard outside the door, so daddy, gun in hand, opens it, and runs straight into the sheriff. More explanations are made, and everyone runs to the barn, where Della first saw the villains. Of course, there is nobody there, but Della notices a new-born calf in the hay, and everything is forgotten, as Della cradles the calf.

Notes on the film

Much of the picture is shot around the Keystone lot, but there is what appears to be an abandoned mining town, which serves as Bangville town. Built on a hill, it is not like anything found on the Keystone lot, but very much like fake towns built by the Thomas Ince studio, out at Topanga Canyon. In his autobiography, Sennett tells of creeping into Ince’s place, and using his facilities and pyrotechnics. However, the two producers worked closely with each other, so we have might expected mutual consent.

We have already mentioned the work of D.W. Griffith, of whom Mack and Mabel were disciples. Like many other Keystone stories, this one follows those of the great man. Griffith was very interested in Utopia, or Arcadia, where glossamer-clad maidens flitted around, heroines of another age. He never quite, though, achieved the gossamer, as there was not one girl at his studio, willing to wear see-through clothes. He was also interested in the concept of ‘Old Dixie’ which he sometimes confused with Utopia. Many of his films, like this Keystone one, involved young girls trapped in a house, while villains try to break in. Mabel looks pretty scared here, and Griffith always panicked his actresses by firing a shotgun behind the camera.

Left; Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett in ‘An Arcadian Maid’ 1910. Rgt: “Burglars!” Mary Pickford again in ‘The Lonely Villa 1909 (written by Mack Sennett).

Some of the audience might have pitied poor Della (Mabel) here, for in her idyllic life, she is surrounded by old people. However, for later films, Mack Sennett gives her a boyfriend in the shape of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. They lived happily ever after, or so it seems. Again, some of the audience might have found Della a little silly, while others might have claimed the ‘Kops’ to be ridiculous. Another section might have been angry at the way country rubes and bumpkins were portrayed, but Sennett was out to attract the widest audience possible. In other words, there was something for everyone.

Whatever the manufacturer of the squad car, it is clear that it dates back to the early years of the century, and might be a Pierce-Arrow. This makes it unusual, for ten year old cars were rare, back in the day. Most of them had expired, and saw out their days as chicken coops.


Many people today are aware of who the Keystone Girl was. They may not, however, be aware that she existed only between mid-1912 and late-1915, or just a fraction of Mabel Normand’s career. These were, nonetheless, the nascent years of the U.S. film industry, and indeed, of Hollywood , although Hollywood was not, in 1912, associated with the movie industry. A lot changed between 1912 and 1915, both for Mabel and the film business. So, let’s begin our tour of what Mabel and her friends called in the 1920s, ‘the good old days’, and we’ll begin in mid-1911.

Biograph studios, Manhattan.

In 1911, some of the elements of the later Hollywood were already in place. There were a small number of professional film directors, and an equally small number of actors earning the unbelievable sum of 40 and even 50 dollars a week. Most of these performers, such as Mary Pickford, had come from the stage, and their earnings suggest that producers were coming around to the idea that the business would see unprecedented growth. Towards the end of 1910, a small dark-haired girl, with no acting experience, had wandered into D.W. Griffith’s Biograph studio in Manhattan, daring to think she could cut it among the theatre people. She watched, learned and listened to the stories going the rounds, about stars, like Florence Lawrence, that had blossomed under the Klieg lights, down on East Fourteenth Street. Mabel Normand rather liked what she saw and heard, and determined that she wanted to be a star. A rather arrogant determination, considering her present company. The main weapon in her armoury was her charm, which she used in a disarming way, and which endeared her to everyone, including the haughty theatrical veterans. Unfortunately, the rug was pulled unceremoniously from under her, when the Biograph left for six months filming in Los Angeles. Only the theatre people went west, leaving Mabel high and dry. Unbeaten, Mabel went straight to the Vitagraph in Brooklyn, where she seems to have blown in like a storm. She did a few dramas, but soon the top comedian John Bunny, noticed the dusky-eyed, vivacious Mabel, and co-starred her in his films, to the detriment of veteran comedienne, Flora Finch. Mabel became the talk of the town, of the world, and of the Biographers wintering in L.A. In all probability, this went to Mabel’s head, for she was young and intense, a dangerous cocktail, or so it seems, for after some outrageous and unladylike behaviour around the studio, she was fired by Quaker boss, J.S. Blackton. A personality clash with director Harold Reid (father of Wally) at the Reliance studio pointed Mabel back to Biograph, where D.W. Griffith, spotting her coming through the door, took up his wages book, and entered her name into its pages. Everyone was glad to see Mabel, especially the likes of Mary Pickford, who hated wearing dark wigs to play vamps and ‘bad girls’, parts which she hated. Only occasional clipped texts filtered out concerning what went on in the studio, down through the following years. In 1925, Mrs D.W. Griffith put the statements together, added her own memories, and rolled everything up in a remarkable book called ‘When The Movies Were Young’. For all its flaws, it remains the only record of the early U.S. film industry, seen through the eyes of the actors and actresses. There is one actress central to Mrs Griffith’s story, Mabel Normand, a girl with no acting experience, who took on the veteran theatricals at their own game. Let’s leave Mabel, surrounded by her admirers, for the moment.

Mabel (seated left) with some of the ‘old guard’ from Vitagraph in 1926. Next to Mabel are Norma and Constance Talmadge, Florence Turner. Standing 2nd left: Flora Finch, far right Anita Stewart.

D.W. Griffith ruled in those days, and was smart enough to admit anyone that walked through the door. He needed many extras, but there was always the chance that an acting ‘gem’ would turn up. For those that got no work on a particular day, there was always the consolation of the infamous Biograph sandwiches. Top actors, for the day, dined with Griffith on steaks, which upset those relegated to ‘atmosphere’, such as the awkward country boy, Mack Sennett, who was unhappy about his demeaning roles, and the parlous state of Biograph sandwiches. Mrs Griffith observes that Sennett was a constant groucher, but adds “Now ‘tis said he is worth five-millions!” Mack was, then, an outsider, someone who could never penetrate the burgeoning Mabel Normand ‘set’. Her admirers were the male heart-throbs of the day, and the girls who were later to be the brightest stars of the coming Hollywood. To them “Mabel was the most beautiful girl in the world…. daring, reckless, and generous-hearted to a fault, she was like a frisky young colt that would brook no bridle.” (Mrs Griffith) As Mary Pickford told it in 1916, Mabel was the action girl of the studio, harbouring no fear of high cliffs, swirling rapids, or bucking broncos. Some girls, like Dorothy Gish and Gertie Bambrick adored Mabel so much that they actually wanted to be her. They thought they could act out the part of being Mabel, by acquiring the latest Parisian dresses, downing some strong spirits, and hitting the town. This, Mrs Griffith states occurred in L.A. and she recounts that the pair were rounded up by Mr Griffith and Dell Henderson, after a long search, and returned them to their chaperones. In L.A. in 1912, Mabel was lodged with chaperones, but soon escaped them for an apartment with Alice Joyce. Alice in those days was an old friend of Mabel, an older girl, who had gained the distinction of being one of the earliest film stars. There can be no doubt that Alice, being worldly-wise, a runaway in fact, had a great influence on the way Mabel developed. If the Biograph girls looked up to Mabel, then Mabel looked up to Kalem girl, Alice. Among those actresses working at the Biograph in 1912 were, apart from those already mentioned, Blanche Sweet, Jack and Lottie Pickford, Dorothy West, Florence Le Badie, Dorothy Davenport, Jeanie MacPhearson, Owen Moore, Mae Marsh, Claire McDowell, Florence Barker, Grace Henderson, Kate Bruce, Vivian Prescott, and Kate Toncray.

Mack Sennett bothers Mary Pickford, and Mabel finds a friend in the orange groves.

Mack Sennett was a guy that could never get on with the girls, according to Mrs Griffith, but one day he was made director of the Biograph comedy unit, and he needed a leading lady that could handle comedy. Mabel was the only real comedienne at the studio, and Mack needed her, but he did not approach Mabel directly. He went to Griffith and asked that Mabel be freed from dramatic duties, whenever he needed her. To Mabel’s horror, the genius agreed. She was happy doing drama, and had no intention of doing more than an occasional comedy. She was a victim of her own (comedy) success. From what we can gather from what Mrs Griffith said, the relationship between Mack and Mabel was not a good one. Mack resorted to feeding her with diamonds — necklaces, bracelets and rings. After a while, Mabel’s regard for these things began to dwindle, as a whole host of men were plying her with sparkly things, and Mrs Griffith notes that one day she threw a diamond necklace back in Sennett’s face. The value? $80 or $2,000 in today’s money. Mack needed to up his game, for movie big-shots were about to start up a new comedy studio, and Mack was to be the director. In recent articles, we have already discussed the Mack and Mabel story in detail, and so we will leave the pre-Keystone shenanigans, and say a little more about the Biograph environment.

Mack Sennett seduces Mabel with some candy.

It is often said that Biograph under D.W. Griffith was the incubator for the later Hollywood. Not strictly true, for there were other studios involved, but for Mack and Mabel, this was clearly true. Griffith was a great director, but also a great organiser of people. Mack watched, learned, and committed to memory, the master’s methods. The early Keystone studio would be a microcosm of Griffith’s Biograph. Furthermore, Mabel learned her trade under Griffith, but her ‘Giffithian’ methods would later clash with those of Mack Sennett, when the latter decided to add his own, some would say, warped ideas. Mrs Griffith would later imply that the Biograph was some kind of egalitarian utopia, where everyone was equal, and everyone mucked in, moving and painting scenery, regardless of their status. However, it is clear that the players were fiercely competitive, and any ‘egalitarianism’ was enforced by the studio bosses on the players, via Griffith. No person was ever allowed to become a ‘star’ and leading parts were shared among the actors on a rotational basis. Beyond that, the studio never released the names of actors. In the 1920s, Mabel said in an interview that Griffith, when he was reviewing rushes, would call the whole company to the screening room, calling out “Everyone come and see a great artist at work.” On that day Mary Pickford might be the great artist, while on another, Mabel, then Blanche Sweet. Nobody knew who the next leading lady would be, but Griffith would give a book to an actress to read, in order that she might familiarise herself with the subject matter. The company knew, straightaway, that the person carrying a book would lead in the next picture, and there would be much grumbling and discontent. Things could become very heated, and agitated on occasions. By early 1912, Mabel, Mary and Blanche were the main suspects for leading parts, but when Griffith proposed a film called ‘Man’s Genesis’, the three refused to appear in it, as the story involved wearing a grass skirt, which would have made the film close to pornographic in those days. Consequently, Griffith gave the leading part to a young girl that had been hanging around the studio. Her name was Mae Marsh, someone with no acting experience, and the big three were consequently furious. When Mae was also given the lead in ‘The Sands of Dee’ they black-balled her, and made her a social outcast, only relenting when her career spiralled downwards in the 1920s. So much, then, for egalitarianism. (Photo below: Charlie Chaplin in 1914, with Peggy Page as a cave-woman in a grass skirt. It’s not surprising that Mabel did not appear in this film).

Chaplin shocked by grass skirt

Mabel had been one of the top actresses at Biograph, so it is a wonder that she threw in her lot with what Sennett called, “a ragtag concern with five actors, one camera, and no money.” Sennett, of course, was being somewhat disingenuous, for the new Keystone studio was set up by the highly respected Adam Kessel and Charles O. Baumann, and so was adequately funded, and with good prospects, if Sennett managed the operation well. Some people assume that the $125-a-week turned Mabel’s head, and indeed, this made her the highest paid actress in the business. Certainly, Mabel calculated how many Parisian frocks she could buy with the cash, but her primary concern was the furtherance of her career, which she managed with determination and no little amount of guile. As we have seen, men were a perennial source of diamonds for her, but she never leant on them, never committed to, or married any of them, which was the traditional way that actresses had got along. This makes the notion that Mabel was in love with Mack Sennett, a bit of a nonsense, but as this was discussed in a recent article, we will leave the subject there. Mabel, of course, was central to Biograph, that is the people of Biograph. She made parties swing, but as Charlie Chaplin put it :

“She was light-hearted and gay, a good fellow, kind and generous, and everyone adored her.”

Mary, Blanche and others tried to dissuade her from leaving with the madman Sennett. The whole idea was insane, and would surely fail. However, the most important thing for Mabel, was that she would be the only leading lady, so no worries about the in-studio competition. She rather liked the idea of being queen of the studio.

Chaplin finds Mabel adorable.

Keystone began in New York, but within weeks, if not days, the five middle-aged men, and one teenage girl boarded the train for Los Angeles. Now, we have to say here, that the Los Angeles of 1912 was not the Los Angeles of today, and not because there were fewer vagrants. It was then, clearly, part of the Wild West although the City Fathers had grandiose plans for the future. The place was lacking in cohesion, however, for L.A. proper was the downtown district, although surrounded by small villages, such as Hollywood, Glendale, Pasadena and a host of other small habitations. The City had incorporated these places, but the people in them remained fiercely parochial. Pasadena was, perhaps, the odd one out, for it was a place for wealthy easterners to over-winter – no dogs, peasants, or ‘movies’ please. Places like Hollywood and Glendale were populated by the descendants of the pioneers of the mid-west, who, finding the governmental machine rolling ever closer, had upped sticks, and shifted further west. They were fiercely independent, and did not like strangers poking around, who might, after all, be the taxman. Especially, they did not like movie people, who they considered to be scum from the gutter. Griffith and others had tried to secure interesting locations, but the owners usually greeted them with shotguns. When an owner was offered money, he often spat on it, and threw it back in the genius’ face.

This sort of sets out the scene of the far-off place that Mabel came to in 1912. There was little to do in L.A. compared with New York, and we might mention that the city was the homicide capital of the U.S. in those days. Not that Mabel was in danger from the villains, for she was most decidedly in danger from the local populace that could spot an actress from a hundred yards. Gaudily dressed and with an air above their station, they were often abused and spat upon in the streets, and on the street cars. The women all thought that the movie girls were after their menfolk, and many an actress got a well-swung handbag around the head in those days. Mrs Griffith once recorded that, while Biograph was shooting a mild love scene on location, a woman came up to Mary Pickford, and slapped her around the face, screaming “You little whore, how could you do such disgusting things, and wear such disgusting clothes?” Finding digs was well-neigh impossible for no-one would rent to the ‘movies’, but there were a few hotels that would rent rooms to the acting folk. Santa Monica became a mecca for actors, but only because renting was possible there, and at cheaper prices.

Thus, was the world that Mabel found herself in. Her only friends were the few actors around her, all middle-aged, greying, and mostly married. No doubt she became melancholy away from her life and friends in New York, for we have information that Mack Sennett took to wining and dining her at the Athletic Club every night. This probably kept Mabel on track, but also served to keep Mabel under surveillance, and ensure that she did not make a run for the east. As Mabel later recorded, it was work, work, work, from sun-up to sun-down, and no-one worked harder than Mabel to get Keystone, on its tumbledown lot in Edendale, off the ground. Initially, they had no electricity, no made up roads, and no sewers, which meant no flushing toilets. Mabel was later to say that she cried herself to sleep every night.

Fatty & Mabel find a beach mansion up Malibu way.

There were other small studios in the area, but these employed mainly local people, the easterners being transient. Mabel probably prayed for the Biograph and Vitagraph trains to come west once a year, so she could meet up with old friends. Old friend Alice Joyce, also made the once a year trek with her Kalem studio, and then things would get a little lively around L.A. Depression set in, no doubt, when June came along, but eventually the New York studios began to come west on a permanent basis. The actresses came in dribs and drabs, suitcases in hand, and there was only one person to look up, Mabel Normand, now crowned ‘The Queen of The Movies’. Mabel was wonderful, knew everyone and everything, and she became the centre of the emerging Hollywood scene. Mabel was kind and generous, but was also the inventor of the wild Hollywood party. Years later, Blanche Sweet would explain the wild  party  phenomenon in this way:

“It came about, because the locals kept acting people at arm’s length, would not interact with them, so the actors found their own amusements.”

Mabel helped Blanche, when she first came permanently out west, and Blanche repaid Mabel by putting her up, when she came back to L.A. from Sam Goldwyn’s New Jersey studio. Mabel stayed for around a year, and was finally asked to leave by grandma, who was probably fed up with the strange, nocturnal hours that Mabel kept. Like most actors, Mabel never thought of buying a house, as no-one was sure if they would remain working in California. Mabel, it seems, was not domestically inclined, and loved hotel apartments, where everything was, so to speak, on tap. In 1915, however, she took over a mansion on a hill overlooking Hollywood, one of the first to do so, if not the first. In all probability, she was pressured to take on the house, which was undoubtedly rented, by her new bosses, Triangle Film Distribution. Not long after, she departed for New York, and the house was given up for a Manhattan apartment.

Mansion or gilded cage?

From 1912 to 1915, Mabel had an increasingly up and down relationship with Mack Sennett. There were several reasons for this. Firstly, buoyed up by the success of the studio, Mack began to forget about his egalitarian roots at Biograph, and began to act like an Ottoman Sultan. He began to lord it over those that had helped create Keystone in the early days, treated newcomers to the studio with disdain, and would never renew their contracts, even if he lost money. Mabel had become a ‘mother confessor’ at the studio, despite her young age, and would fight against Sennett, if she thought someone was being put down. The boss hated to give pay rises, and it was Mabel that secured several raises for a certain Englisher named Charles Spencer Chaplin. Mabel was not afraid of Sennett, for she knew where he came from, and knew he was, basically, a ‘jerk’. “I must have made that man millions” Mabel once said, drawing attention to the fact that it was by her hard work and loyalty that Sennett had got where he was. It does seem, also, that Mabel thought she had been deceived when she first took up with Keystone.

Mack and Mabel, at it again!

It seems possible that there was a promise made by Kessel and Baumann that Mabel would be allowed to continue with dramatics, within the comedies, and that eventually Keystone would produce full-on dramatic films. This was all very slow in coming, but in 1914 came an opportunity for Mabel to take the initiative, and bring drama, tragedy and melancholy into her films. The catalyst arose when Charlie Chaplin came to the studio. Chaplin was a quick learner, but although he was feted by Kessel and Baumann, he was much disliked by Sennett and the rest of the company. Mabel was the type that took in waifs and strays, and she realised that this strange, though good-looking, little man was someone worth collaborating with. In the past, Mabel’s attempts to ‘showboat’ in a dramatic way, elicited complaints to the management from her co-actors. With Charlie, she could do what she wanted, as the little guy had no political power at Keystone – his masters were 3,000 miles away in New York. Mabel was altruistic, but maybe also a control freak, if a comment by Chester Conklin is taken into account. “Charlie” He said “Was Mabel’s prize.” Indeed, Charlie was paraded around town by Mabel, but although Charlie was a staunch misogynist, he accepted this, as a way to get on. Other benefits included access to Mabel’s dressing room, and trips downtown, whenever the pair tired of working, something Charlie would never be able to get away with on his own, and especially as it involved ‘stealing’ a company car. Were they lovers? In all probability, yes. Mabel, of course, was linked to a whole string of men, during her Keystone years, and Charlie was but one of them.

The Chaplin interlude lasted but a year, and Mabel said she shed tears when he left. Unsurprising really, for she was signed to Sennett, rather than Kessell and Baumann, who had held Chaplin’s contract. This was to be a bitter-sweet year, during which Sennett stamped his authority on film content, and brought in girls to distract Mabel, and presumably, put her off her dinner. They were known as the Bathing Beauties. However, Hollywood was marching on, and Mabel marched with the burgeoning film colony. Now under the umbrella of the, seemingly, wealthy Triangle company, Keystone and Mabel received massive publicity coverage. Part of this publicity was the aforementioned movie mansion on Melrose Hill. In the summer came Mary Pickford to see the pile for herself, and she wrote a piece in her weekly newspaper column, in which she waxed lyrically about the place, and congratulated Mabel on her success. Well she might have congratulated her old friend, for in movie contest, run by Photo Play, Mabel collected tens of thousands more votes than Mary to take the honour of top comedienne. Meanwhile, Mabel starred in various films, but became best known for the ‘Fatty and Mabel’ pictures, which were soppy, silly, but hugely popular. There were some nonsense going on between Mack and Mabel by the Fall of 1915, although it seems they were no longer in direct communication.

Mabel Normand studio 100 years on.

Mabel was unhappy that Mack was promoting actresses over herself, and that these were essentially lowly paid, but jumped-up extras. From Mack’s point of view he could dispense with the very expensive Keystone Girl, and replace her with well, a bevvy of cheap Keystone Girls. Mabel was finished, or so it seemed, but Triangle called Mabel, Arbuckle and a small company to Kessell and Baumann’s New Jersey studio, to make films, as a kind of gigantic publicity stunt. Mabel left Los Angeles as the Keystone Girl, but when she returned, three months later, she was not the Queen of The Movies, but the Empress of Hollywood, installed in her own Tinsel Town studio, with her name in five feet high letters, the first of her kind to have that honour. The days of the Keystone Girl were over — for good.


Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923).

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).

When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925).

Mabel Normand: A Source Book to her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006)


The Man Who Invented Hollywood: The Autobiography of D.W. Griffith. Edited and Annotated By Ja

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

Looking For Mabel Normandhttp://www.freewebs.com/looking-for-mabel/. Site maintained by Marilyn Slater.

Charles Chaplin: My autobiography by Charles Chaplin (1964).

The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett by Simon Louvish (2003).

From Hollywood With Love, by Bessie Love, 1977

The Dream That Came True in Motion Picture Magazine (Dec. 1916).

Dreams for Sale: The Rise and Fall of the Triangle Film Corporation by Kalton C. Lahue. 1971.

The Movie Maker: Charles O. Baumann by Jillian Ada Kelly (2015).


During the 1910s nothing excited the world more than the incredible flying ‘string-bags’ then lifting intrepid adventurers aloft, and into the ozone. On the rise, at the same time, was the concept of women’s emancipation, and it was not long before the wise-guys of the business world began to meld the two things together. Aircraft demos were very popular at local fairs and big shows alike, and just to add spice to the show, some bright spark came up with the spectacle of a man walking an aircraft wing in flight. This was soon trounced by the even more spellbinding notion of ‘a girl on a wing’, and male wing-walkers were soon out of work. This is the background against which Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand came up with the flying adventure film ‘A Dash Through The Clouds’. Mack and Mabel were thoroughly modern, and grasped the new world with alacrity. Cars, motorboats, gramophones, aircraft, mechanical and electrical devices of all kinds were their forte. We could be forgiven for thinking that Mack and Mabel invented the association of the female with dangerous pursuits, such as motor-racing and the piloting of flying machines. Indeed, when they made ‘A Dash Through The Clouds’ Sennett actually promoted Mabel as the first girl to be carried as a passenger in a plane – completely wrong, of course, for Mabel was a few years too late, and in  fact, one American woman had actually gained a pilot’s licence, and flown the English Channel alone in 1912, the first woman to do so. The woman’s name was Harriet Quimby, and her achievement probably put the idea of ‘A Dash’ in the Keystone heads.

Harriet Quimby powders her nose before flying the Channel. 1912.

Harriet Quimby was not unknown to Mack and Mabel, for she occasionally visited the Biograph studio, where they worked. Harriet was a long-time friend of director D.W. Griffith, and his wife, Linda Arvidson, and she was a stage actress, sportswoman, screenwriter and magazine author. In her book ‘When The Movies Were Young’ Mrs Griffith tells of how Mabel was worshipped by the other actresses, for her formidable acting and sporting abilities. However, it is fair to say that Mabel looked up to Harriet Quimby, and if the other girls wanted to be Mabel, then she wanted to be Harriet Quimby. Harriet Quimby was the girl that made D.W. Griffith collapse. In 1908, the Griffith’s were living in a crumby flat in Manhattan, when Harriet came to visit them. This wasn’t the Harriet they’d known back in the earthquake-devasted San Francisco. She turned up in the celebrity car of the day, a V12 Pierce-Arrow, wearing expensive furs, dripping in jewellery, and with two doting men in tow. After a cup of tea and a catching up of news, Harriet left. D.W. watched her go from his window, then fell back into a chair. “She’s a success” gasped the movie genius. He had not, then, found success. It was, however, in 1909 that Griffith gave Harriet her only (bit) part in a movie called ‘Lines of White on A Sullen Sea’. The film ‘A Dash through the Clouds’ was released on June 24th 1912, just one week before Harriet was killed, after falling from her aircraft over Boston Harbour. Philip Parmalee, the pilot of the plane in the film, had died in a crash just three weeks before the release. This does show that Mabel was indeed as intrepid as Mack Sennett billed her in the publicity releases for the picture.

1. Harriet Quimby’s’ lifeless body is carried from Boston Harbour. 2. In film star mode. 3. In ‘Lines Of White On A Sullen Sea’ 1909.

The real Mabel Normand turned out to have taken on-board some of the persona of Harriet Quimby. In the film this is made very obvious, although Mack Sennett has worked his own magic, by making ‘Josephine’, the heroine of this film, a little silly, a little bit scatter-brained. This naturally, makes her more saleable to the male audience, while still maintaining her attractiveness to the female viewer. One of Sennett’s strength was knowing what would work (and make money) and what would not, or so we are told by Charlie Chaplin in his memoirs. In the clip above you see Harriet using a powder compact before flying. Mabel does exactly the same thing before racing a car in ‘Mabel At The Wheel’.

The Film


Mabel Normand                      Josephine

Fred Mace                                Arthur (‘Chubby’)

Philip Parmalee                        ‘Slim’ (aviator)

Jack Pickford                            Mexican boy

Kate Bruce                                Mexican woman

Grace Henderson                    Mexican woman

Alfred Paget                             Mexican man

Writer: Dell Henderson

Director: Mack Sennett for the Biograph studio.

Run-time 12 mins

1st Release: June 24th 1912

Filmed at Playa del Rey and other locations

The Plot.

Josephine is the young wife of a somewhat older ‘Chubby’. The young girl is very skittish, and wants to fly in that new contraption, the aeroplane. At the airfield, Chubby finds Josephine a little too interested in Slim, the demon aviator. There is more, however, for Josephine wants a flying lesson with Slim, and hops aboard the dangerous looking wood and canvas device. Chubby almost has a heart attack, for Josie is in deep trouble, and she will surely be killed in the inevitable crash. He realises he will never find another young and pretty wife, and will have to accept a woman who’s a mirror image of himself. Slim and Josie, though, are soon aloft and heading for the wild blue yonder, seated on what appear to be two dining room chairs, with the legs cut off. Chubby is left pulling his middle-aged hair out, and begins hopping up and down, as Josie waves back from the ascending bi-plane. Josie rubs it in by dropping a note, weighted by a coin or something, to hubby, which advises him to have flying lessons. When the plane returns, Chubby is very angry, but Josie just fobs him off.

Next day, Chubby rides off to his work, selling chewing gum down in the Mexican quarter. Josie is a lady of leisure, so immediately heads for the airfield, where she demands another flight, while flirting with Slim. Meanwhile, Chubby is down with the Mexicanos, where he has an eye for a certain lady from south of the border. The Mexican guys regarded this as an affront, and set out to teach the lecherous Chubby a lesson. Chubby runs for his life, and gives a Mexican lad a note telling Josie he needs help. The note is, naturally, comical and reads:

April 15th 1912

Dear Josephine


Yours Sincerely


Josie has no idea where Chubby is, but grabs two .45 calibre pistols, and commandeers Slim and his plane for some rescue work. Off they go, and by good fortune they spot hubby being pursued by rampant Mexicans. Chubby runs into an old shed, as Josie opens fire on the bad people, with Slim doing likewise. Hubby is reunited with wifey, but they do not live happily ever after. Chubby has not come up to scratch, and Josie disappears into the sunset with Slim and his flying machine.

First girl to fire a gun from an aircraft.

What is this film all about?

There are several themes going on here, simultaneously. The aircraft is not really necessary for the base theme, which we will get to shortly, and can be seen as Sennett’s usual attempt to introduce modernity wherever possible. The base theme is the intrinsic premise set out by D.W. Griffith that men are hopeless while women are heroines, who, by the way, determine which man they will go with. Mack and Mabel were willing disciples of Griffith. Another theme running here, is the concept of Mexicans being bad guys, and you can almost hear them say “We don’t need no stinking badges.” This, of course, was the time when Pancho Villa was running amok in the border-lands, scaring the citizenship witless. Griffith himself was to make a film in which bandito Villa actually appears. Another theme, the persona of Mabel, runs in all of her films. In the end, the film is about nothing in particular, and the confusion created in the minds of the audience, by the proliferation of images, serves to convince them that they’ve had their money’s worth. At seven cents a pop, we can guess that they had spent their cash wisely.

Pancho Villas does not need any stinking badges. 1911.


The first thing to note is that Mabel exudes the same crazy persona, and is wearing the same clothes, as in several other Biograph pictures made at that time — ‘The Tourists’ for example.

The later Hollywood heart-throb Jack Pickford is a boy in this film. He appeared in several Biograph movies with Mabel, such as ‘What The Doctor Ordered’ but the notion that they were once lovers, cannot be substantiated.

In one scene in particular, we can see the wooden slats of a large building. This appears to be the Playa del Rey board racing track, which burned down the following year (caused by careless vagrants, it is said).

Mabel is wearing a hobbled skirt for the flying scenes, that is, a rope tied around her legs in order to preserve her modesty. Occasionally, Sennett does allow views up said skirt, but not in this picture.

Note that the aircraft has only one engine, although it has two propellers. One long drive belt thrashes away behind the pilot’s head, while the engine does the same behind Mabel. The plane seems to be of Wright Brothers construction.


In his 1954 autobiography, Mack Sennett, self-styled King of Comedy, implies that he created the legend that was Mabel Normand. For her part, Mabel said in 1924 “I must have made that man millions.” No love lost, then, between The King and Queen of Comedy, but who was responsible for whose success? Well, strangely enough, we could end the argument here for in 1919 Sennett made a will in which he leaves all of his property and personal possessions to his mother, Catherine Sinnott. Then he adds:

 “If my mother predeceases me, I give and bequeath all the property provided in this paragraph to MABEL NORMAND of the City and State of New York who collaborated with me during the early years of my work, and contributed by her efforts to my success.

So, things aren’t quite as simple as they seem. In 1919, Sennett was able to say that Mabel collaborated with him in the early days, and contributed to his success, but was later to say something a little different. Late 1919 was a strange time,  for Mack had heard that Mabel’s current producer, Sam Goldwyn, was in serious financial trouble, and that it might be possible to snatch Mabel from Goldwyn’s clutches. Mabel, then, was back on his mind. He was, of course, riding the crest of a wave of success, with his Bathing Beauties and peculiar, funny men. There was, nonetheless, something missing. His was the ‘Funny Studio’, a crazy, crazy place, but without a huge star, he could not make films that would give him the kudos to hold his head high among the big drama studio bosses, the Laskys, the Zukors and the Mayers. Mabel had been one of the original big stars, still hailed as such in Hollywood, but she had also studied and played in drama under the movie genius, D.W. Griffith. 1920 will be the point we are aiming for here, but first we must dissolve scene back to 1907.

The crazy place known as Keystone, or here, Mack Sennett Studios

It was some time in 1907 that a Canadian country rube, Mack Sennett, walked into the Biograph studio, New York, looking for work, at just about the same time as a southern gentlemen by the name of D.W. Griffith. Griffith quickly moved up the ladder, while Sennett did not. Griffith was made director, Sennett was scrabbling for bit parts. Mack was clumsy in both movements and manner, so that few people, especially leading ladies, wanted to act alongside him. By 1910, he was getting somewhere with comedy roles, just about the time that a dusky-eyed, dark-haired girl walked into the studio, looking for fame and dinner. Her name was Mabel Normand, and everyone was stunned by her unique looks, and her personality that made her glow brighter than the most blond of blonds. Mack wanted to get to know her, but he knew he could never penetrate the star hunks and heart-throbs that always surrounded her from day one. Anyhow, he was hopeless with girls, but on location the athletic Sennett ran after-work massed cross-country runs, and nobody could keep up with him, except one small, dark-haired girl, that could run like the wind, and vault the highest of five-barred gates. Back at the hotel, bass-singer Mack would serenade the assembled company, incidentally finding that young Mabel was also a gifted piano player. Was there nothing the girl could do? Well, she could not sew a doily, but she was a fine horsewoman, a strong swimmer, and fearless cliff-diver. Mack took note of the dusky Mabel. If he ever got his own studio, well……

Mary Pickford and Mabel have fallen for the same man in ‘Mender of Nets’ made in Santa Monica, California in 1912.

Unfortunately, Mabel was not on the list to go west to California for the Biograph six month sojourn. As Mack, Mary Pickford and co. boarded the west-bound train, Mabel headed to the Vitagraph in Brooklyn. Out in Los Angeles, the whole company were hearing of a new comedy sensation, Betty, making films for Vitagraph. One evening they got to see ‘Betty’ in action in a downtown L.A. movie theatre.

“Oh, my god, it’s Mabel!” Someone blurted out.

Mack took a double-take – it was her alright, but she was a star act, one of a select three actresses, at that time.  In his book, Mack states that he had been in love with Mabel, and was devastated when she did not come out to L.A. However, in her 1925 book ‘When The Movies Were Young’ Mrs Griffith states that Mack was not keen on girls, and girls were not keen on him. He was, nevertheless, a keen student of Mr Griffith, and understood that silent motion pictures revolved around the female, rather than the male. There are two reasons why this was important to Mack at the time. Firstly, he had just begun talks with big-shots Kessel and Baumann about starting a new comedy studio, while around the same time, he was close to being made director of the new Biograph comedy unit. Now he positively ached for possession of the new sensation, Mabel Normand. He knew she could launch his career skywards, and perhaps he really could get possession of this precious treasure. Immediately, he sat down and penned a letter to Mabel, declaring his undying love for her, and attached a little poem, stolen from a newspaper column. Would he get a reply? Strangely enough, Mabel’s reply arrived two weeks later, in which she thanked him for the lovely poem, saying it was the “most beautifulest” poem in the whole world. She signed the letter “Your Girl Mabel.” A fabrication by Sennett, naturally, as the use of the (non)word ‘beautifulest’ is designed to show Mabel as naive, and dumb, perhaps even semi-literate. Furthermore, Mabel was a relatively young girl, catapulted to fame, and might have found amusement in signing all letters to fans “Your Girl Mabel.”

The Biograph company returned to New York in the summer of 1911, and were soon surprised to see Mabel walk through the door. Mabel had been fired for some unladylike behaviour at Vitagraph, and Griffith took her on, right away. It was Vitagraph’s loss and Biograph’s gain. The genius put her into drama, but Sennett, now comedy director, immediately demanded a share in the body and persona of Mabel. In other words, he wanted to use her in comedy, on request. Griffith had to agree, but by her later account, Mabel was furious, as in no way did she want to have anything to do with Sennett, the rube with two left feet. In the end, it seems that Mabel did very well, with a foot in both camps. She continued with her previous action-girl image, by making films like ‘The Diving Girl’ and ‘The Squaw’s Love’ but was also starred in moralistic dramas, like ‘The Mender of Nets’ and ‘Her Awakening’. Sennett tells of wooing Mabel with milk-shakes on 5th Avenue (where else?) although Mabel had clearly passed the milk bar / bobby-soxer stage.

On the 4th January 1912, the full company of the Biograph arrived in Los Angeles. The young actresses were lodged with chaperones, although many of them gradually drifted away to lodgings. Mabel went off to stay with a young Kalem actress called Alice Joyce, then the nearest thing to what later became known as a Hollywood star. This gave her freedom to do what she wanted, for she was an active girl, and not the scatter-wit that Sennett painted her to be. A spin-off of this, was that Sennett could not get to her after working hours. There came the day, though, when Sennett needed to speak urgently to Mabel. Charles Baumann was in town, and about to clinch the deal with Sennett for the new comedy studio. Mack had promised to bring several prominent comedy actors with him, which was fine, but Baumann rested the deal on the acquisition of the talk of the town, Mabel Normand. “No problem” Said Mack “I can bring her along, in fact she is my girlfriend.” Baumann’s daughter, Ada, probably scoffed at the latter, but if Sennett could deliver, then the deal was clinched. The whole future, then, of film comedy in the United States, rested upon the signature of one small, dark-haired girl. Sennett was manic, he had to bring Mabel to Baumann.  Mabel would have been evasive, non-committal. As a young girl, she might have been excited at the thought of being sole leading lady within a new studio, but as the now shrewd, and older young woman, she no longer wore her heart on her sleeve. If she wanted advice, well she had Alice Joyce, three years her senior, a ‘runaway’ who’d made it to the top by sheer effort and clever manoeuvring. In all probability, she told Mabel “Don’t commit, keep your options open.” No doubt, Mabel went along, met Baumann, and had some girl-talk with Ada. Maybe she signed a letter of intent, just about worthless in those days. The main thing is that Sennett would stand to be made or broken on the whim of Mabel.

Things became hectic back in New York, when in Mack’s rush to make films for Biograph, Kessel and Baumann decided it was time to exchange contracts. His men, Ford Sterling, Henri Lerhman, Fred Mace and co. were ready to jump ship. Not so, Mabel. Her friends were adamant, the whole scheme was sheer madness, and would surely fail. Mary Pickford told Mabel of her experiences with IMP, a new studio that bombed, leaving her broken and dispirited. Mack responded by showering Mabel with diamonds, which Mabel took without committal, but one day she’d had enough of Mack’s pestering and threw a $2,000 (today’s money) bracelet back in his face. In the end, though, she agreed to meet Kessel and Baumann, and hear them out. Mabel was hustled into the wise-guy’s Longacre (Times Square) office, where she was sat in an overly high chair, her feet swinging clear of the ground by several inches. The bosses’ desk was on a raised dais. This was the old trick of making Mabel feel like a schoolgirl, confronting the school board commissioners. Mabel wasn’t phased, and ‘ummed and ahhed’ as the pay offers rose to ever greater heights. When the offers hit $125 a week, Mabel snatched up the pen and signed.

“Why don’t you take the money Mabel?”

In his autobiography, Mack says he did not understand why Mabel chose to go with a new concern that had five actors, one camera, no studio, and no money. He is right in implying that the Keystone company was unlikely to succeed, but only if it did not have star acts. Keystone had two such acts, Ford Sterling and Mabel Normand, and we so must assume that success was, kind of, pencilled in. Ford had been a long-established clown, and everyone loved him. His leading lady, Mabel, had been adored and known by her work at Vitagraph. Only actors that had been at Vitagraph and a few other studios, were known by name. Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet and most of the Biograph company, were unnamed and unknown, except by those that recognised them from their stage performances. Mabel brought credibility and even a ready-formed fan-base to Keystone, but what did Mabel gain from the exercise? Well, the $125 a week made her the highest-paid actress in the business, but more importantly, she would be the sole leading lady, meaning she would not have to fight for roles with dozens of equally ambitious actresses. The question is, was this enough? The answer is probably no, and if Mabel did not fully understand why, then her friends at Biograph would have told her. Keystone was a dedicated comedy concern, and she would have no chance to use her dramatic skills, so that she would soon be forgotten as a ‘heavy woman’. The later Keystone films prove that Mabel was not immersed in slapstick, and although a central pivot in the films, she was not actively involved, generally,  in butt-kicking, clubbing or pratt-falling, although she did occasionally bite people. Such activities would have damaged her reputation as a dramatic artist. We must imagine that Mabel demanded, and received, some assurance that there would be occasional strong storylines, and opportunities to use her skills. In fact she might have even been promised feature-length dramatic pictures. What Mack was leading to, in the above-mentioned extract, is that Mabel did it all for love – of him. In ‘When The Movies Were Young’ Mrs Griffith makes it clear that no girl would ever have anything to do with Mack Sennett, and so it is unlikely that there was any love between Mack and the most popular girl at the studio. Admittedly, there is evidence that some people, from the early days of Keystone, believed that Mack and Mabel were an item, although neither Mack nor Mabel implicitly implied this was the case. For the sake of brevity the possible reasons for this error are explained in the Footnote.

Dramatic Mabels. ‘Her Awakening’ ‘The Squaw’s Love’ ‘Mender of Nets’ (Biograph)

on that subjectIt is clear that a certain situation had developed at Keystone, whereby Mabel was not just regarded as an actress, but queen of the studio. She had far more say in the way things ran than the average girl of her age, and some suggested that she had a share in the company. This was incorrect, but some of the bad things that happened later, would not have happened if Mabel had been a shareholder. Being young and foolish at the time she signed for Keystone, she had not thought of demanding a share in the company. When Charlie Chaplin happened along, in early 1914, he found a studio that seemed to worship and run to the whim of a mere girl. Mabel seemed to have a lot of sway over Mack Sennett, which caused Chaplin to think they were in an amorous relationship. In fact, Mabel was the king-pin of the studio, and as a Griffith-trained actress, she brought prestige and kudos to what would have been a mediocre movie producer. Chaplin’s reaction to Mabel’s reign at Keystone was covered in a previous article, and so we will be brief on that subject.

1914 On

It is clear that by late 1913 that Mabel, now known as the ‘Queen of The Movies’, was a little unhappy that good dramatic roles, in semi-comedies, were not coming through. Sennett sought to placate her, by making the film ‘Mabel’s Dramatic Career’. Not exactly dramatic, it showed that the studio was ready to relaunch Mabel. This would not be easy, as although Mabel was adored at the studio, many were secretly concerned at the direction she taking some films, and told Sennett what they thought. After a difficult start with Chaplin, he and Mabel began to collaborate on films. Being the new boy, and not particularly liked, Charlie was not in a position to argue with Mabel. As a consequence you will see, in their joint films, Mabel getting very dramatic and Charlie getting more into slapstick, although sometime they cross over. The Charlie and Mabel pictures were very good for Keystone, but Mabel wanting more, kept demanding feature films. Eventually, a feature was shot, but Charlie and Mabel were not the stars. While Charlie was side-lined with a role he didn’t like, Mabel had the chance to play three versions of the same character, and acquitted herself well. By the end of the year, Charlie was gone, and now Mack Sennett began to assert his authority. He put Mabel with Roscoe Arbuckle together to do cheap comedies that, nonetheless, were big money-spinners. He forgot all the promises of drama made to Mabel, and began to turn the studio into a ‘funny farm’ where odd-looking guys, and wobbling Bathing Beauties roamed the lot. By mid-1915, he’d taken full control – it was almost as though he was punishing Mabel for the Chaplin interlude. Things got very strained by the end of the year, and we might suggest that on the lot,  pro-Mabel and pro-Sennett factions developed, with the newcomers going along with Sennett, and the old stalwarts backing Mabel. The whole studio would have blown apart, if Keystone’s new film distributors, Triangle, had not got Mabel, Roscoe, Minter Arbuckle, Al St. John, and a few others out of there. The day after Christmas found the small company on the eastbound train, heading for the Triangle studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, for a loan period of three months. For Sennett, it was a chance to regroup and set his plans out, without interference from Mabel and her allies. On the other hand, he was undoubtedly concerned that Mabel might never return. In brief, he was not so confident that he could go it alone, minus the girl with the ability to turn bad films good. Nevertheless, he continued to build up his army of Bathing Beauties and skew-eyed actors, although he certainly had some sleepless nights.

Mabel stops over at Salt Lake City.

If Sennett had expected a Mabel-inspired coup, then he turned out to be right. In March 1916, the errant company arrived back in Los Angeles – minus Mabel. Mack had his Packard Twin-Six, at the San Bernadino station, together with a posse of photographers, in order to meet Mabel. Had she gone on to L.A? “No” Arbuckle told him “she’s still out east, and she ain’t coming back.”  Mack didn’t have time to faint, a press guy was under his nose “What have you got to say about Mabel Normand signing for Mutual?”  Mutual? Mack knew nothing about Mabel signing for Mutual, but the journo waved the telegram in his face. Mack had plenty to think about on the fifty-plus miles journey back, and Pickles the studio cat made a quick escape, as Mack stormed through the gate, where he found another telegram, this time from Charles Baumann. This read something like the following:



Mack replied:


New reply from Baumann:


Obvious reply Mack




So, the deal was done. Mack’s new studio had cost $100,000 (2.5 million today) but the thought of making some big bucks appealed to him. However, Mabel smelled blood, and demanded the studio be carpeted throughout, with pot plants and fresh flowers everywhere. She wanted a dressing room to seat 25 people, set in a garden, and a marble bath, just to finish off. Crowning the studio was Mabel’s name in five feet high letters, the first of her profession to have that honour. Although Mabel had her own studio, she was never to have political influence at  Keystone again. After making one film, Mabel left her studio to join the new Goldwyn concern. When she returned to Sennett, she kept a wall between herself and the King of Comedy. Mack gave her everything she wanted, and tried to recreate ‘the old days’, but it was too late. In a kind of masochistic way, he probably longed for the old fights, the arguments, the tense encounters. Eventually, of course, they parted company, and in no amicable way.

Bringing It All Together.

There is no evidence that Sennett created Keystone by himself, and Mabel was instrumental to his success until 1917. He received a huge boost of prestige when Mabel’s blockbuster, ‘Mickey’ was released in 1918, by which time she was working for Sam Goldwyn. Mack’s success after 1917 was entirely due to his own efforts, but he soon realised that, without Mabel, he was stuck with the ‘Funny Farm’ image. His reacquisition of Mabel in 1921 did result in increased kudos for The King, but with Mabel no longer being a political power, she considered herself a ‘floating’ actress. She would only sign on a film-by-film basis, and would not tie herself to the Sennett image. Mabel cut all ties with Sennett in 1923, and although he had stars come and go, his studio never again had a figurehead of the like of Mabel Normand. In his autobiography, Sennett pines “Why did she leave me? I could have made good films for her, better than any other man.” Probably, he missed the point.

Mabel is not overly-excited about signing for Sennett in 1921.


There is a theory that the Mack and Mabel love story came about due to a peculiarity of the Law. Mabel was, in legal terms, a minor in 1912. Under the recently passed Mann Act, it was made illegal to carry a minor (or any female) across state lines for immoral purposes., and in 1912, film-making was still, to some extent, regarded as immoral. In her book ‘When The Movies Were Young’ Mrs D.W. Griffith makes it clear that all girls were allocated chaperones, by Biograph, and express permission obtained from parents to take their daughters off to California. Early Keystone consisted of five middle-aged men and one underage girl, so there was no person that could act as chaperone. Mack and Mabel could have got married, and made things legal, but it seems clear that they did not wish to do that. They could, however, have simply gone to the parents, saying they were engaged to marry, and would they give them their blessing. We can be sure that, if the parents agreed, then Mack got a written affidavit to carry with him to California. Mack, indeed, did tell of a trip to Mabel’s Staten Island, during which he gave Mabel a cheap engagement ring. We know there were later repercussions, when Mack and Mabel’s parents queried why, after three years, there had been no wedding. During those three years, though, Mabel had been publicly associated with a number of men.


King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925).

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

Charles Chaplin: My autobiography by Charles Chaplin (1964).