OF MARY, MABEL AND HOLLYWOOD MANSIONS.

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Mabel’s  colonial-style house on Melrose Hill.

The Interview.

If you’d been standing on the corner of Melrose Hill and Marathon, Los Angeles, on a certain day in mid-1916, you’d have seen a small Maxwell cabriolet car, drive up Marathon, turn into Melrose Hill, and stop. You might have also noticed the driver, a young girl, apparently aged about twelve, with a mass of golden curls streaming behind her in the breeze, and you’d also, perhaps, note that she’d stopped outside an impressive colonial or sugar plantation-style mansion. Her name was Gladys Smith, usually known by her stage name Mary Pickford, and she’d come to visit her old friend, the sensation of 1916 Hollywood, Mabel Normand. Mary walked up the garden path to the front door and yanked the bell cord, thereby releasing the chimes of old London town’s Big Ben.

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Mary poses in her Maxwell  ‘ladies’ car, for a small fee no doubt, 1914.

As she waited, Mary went over her reasons for seeing Mabel. This was no social visit, for Mary and Mabel rarely met, and, in fact, avoided each other – they were about as incompatible as chalk and cheese. No, Mary was there to interview Mabel for her daily newspaper column, and Mabel really was newsworthy, having just become the first actor or actress to have their name emblazoned above a film studio. Should she, perhaps, curtsy before the newly-crowned Queen of all Hollywood? But now the door swung open revealing Mabel’s Japanese butler, who ushered her in with the words “Madam, you are most truly welcome, M’lady is expecting you.” The butler led Mary into what he called ‘the lounge’ and there was Mabel, sitting on a sofa, wearing…. a filmy negligee. She stood up, the negligee only dropping a couple of inches, as she walked to meet Mary, who she proceeded to hug and kiss. This embarrassed Mary – being hugged by a girl in a nightie was not what she was expecting. She should have known – Mabel was famous for walking around the Biograph dressing room in the altogether – the intention being, as now, to embarrass and intimidate, especially the newer girls, who would disappear behind the screens to change costumes.

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A star at home.

At that point, the butler arrives with a tray. “Tea, M’lady?” asks the butler. Both Mary and Mabel take their tea, but Mary notices a strong alcoholic aroma from Mabel’s dainty cup, “Is that gin?” she asks herself. Indeed, it was, but should Mabel have had asked Mary if she wanted some spirits, she knew she’d turn it down. In fact, Mary was already a secret alcoholic. Now she is staring at Mabel.

“You know, Mabel, you’re just so darned feminine.”

“Of course, Mary, I am female you know.”

“Yes, but look at me, I’m alright until you get down to my boxer’s chin, then it all goes wrong. I’m fat and podgy, and I walk like I’m wearing diver’s boots, while you glide around, as though on wheels. You’re so, so pretty, Mabel”

“Well, if I am, I had nothing to do with it – it’s all down to Mr and Mrs Normand.” Returned Mabel.

In fact, it was said that Mabel, although very pretty on screen, was unbelievably stunning in real life, or radiantly beautiful, as Charlie Chaplin once said.

The pair now began to reminisce about the ‘old days’ at Biograph.

Mary began “Do you remember, when Griffith told me he would never star me in a big film, because I was too fat, and you came over, and slammed him in the chops for being so impudent.”

“Indeed, I do Mary, that man was a phoney – an asshole of the first water.”

“I don’t know, Mabel, how you had the nerve to do such things. You had no stage mother to back you up”

“That’s true Mary dear – but I did have a stage father, Mack Sennett, and if anyone had laid a finger on his Biograph Girl, then he would have punched their lights out. Simple as that.”

Griffith had, in fact, later thrown Mary across the set, leaving her with a suspected broken arm, and had once pushed Blanche Sweet clear off the stage, in a violent temper. Their stage mothers, anxious for the Griffith dollar, said nothing.

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Mack and Mabel.

Mary looked around the room.

“Oh, Mabel, I just love your oriental furnishings.”

Naturally, the furnishings were out of sync with the house, but that was Mabel’s style, heavy and very Edwardian, even Victorian. Thus, it would be for the rest of her life.

“Would you like to have a look round?” Asked Mabel.

“Would I? You bet I would!”

Mary revelled in the opportunity, although, if she’d turned up at Mabel’s house-warming party, as invited, she’d have seen the house already. Mary did not come, nor did she ever come to Mabel’s legendary parties, where she’d have run into the scurrilous, and incorrigible rogues that Mabel liked to party with. She only ever came to a Mabel ‘do’ once, when her mother sent her to find out why, at 4 a.m., her sister, Lottie, had not come home. She found Lottie comatosed on the floor, lying in a pool of vomit, with a drunken Mabel, and her equally drunken gigolos, stepping around and over her. She called brother Jack to help get Lottie up, but the stoned Jack simply shouted “Oh, leave her alone, she’s having a good time, which is more than you’ve ever had!” Like so many others, Mary’s siblings had come under Mabel’s spell at Biograph, and remained the playthings of the Goddess to this very day.

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Interior of Mabel’s house, heavy and very Edwardian.

Mabel led Mary on the tour of the 8-bedroomed, 6-bathroomed pile, redolent of a small country hotel. It was fantastic, and the views over rural Los Angeles, out to the hills, were to die for, as, indeed, was Mabel’s 4-poster bed, surrounded by photos of movie stars. One was missing — Mary Pickford. Mary took a mental note. One day she’d have a place like this, where she could hold court for the world’s greatest celebrities. How had Mabel done this, it cost a lot of money to persuade a Hollywood resident to allow a scumbag actress to rent such a place. “I know”, she thought, “It was Mack Sennett’s doing.” The wheels began to turn – her husband, Owen Moore, was a dead loss, but if she left him, she might be able to marry into real money, or at least double her income. She mentioned nothing of this to Mabel, as she was on far more friendly terms with Owen than his goldilocksian wife. Part of the thinly veiled rift between Mary and Mabel, was due to how Mabel perceived the way she treated Owen. Sure, Mabel was polite to Mary, in public, but, in private, she vented her fury at the ‘prissy bitch’, as she called her. Secretly, of course, and like the other ex-Biograpgh Girls, Mary admired Mabel. Mabel who would accept no bridle, was unafraid of any man, any high cliff, or bucking bronco. If she wanted a role, she took it, if she yearned for any man, she took him as well. Oh to be like Mabel, and party all night, ‘dis’ the director and not worry about letting forth a constant stream of obscenities from her sweet mouth. For all this Mabel received payment in the form of diamonds by the cartload, from the men that fought to know her.

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Caught in a nightdress. Mack Sennett finds Owen Moore with Mabel.  The Little Teacher

 

The pair now got down to the interview, but Mary soon put down her notebook and pencil, and sighed.

“Mabel, you’ve made it.”

“Yes Mary, I think I have.”

“I don’t know how you did it, but you’ve taken on the big shots of the movies and won. The whole world sits at your feet, the first actress (or actor) to have their name over a studio gate. What do you think about that?”

“Well, I’m quite pleased, naturally, but it’s not such a big deal.”

“Not a big deal! Do you remember how Florence Lawrence used to strut around The Biograph, rubbing it in that she was the big star of the movies.”

“Yeah, I remember, helped herself to other girl’s cosmetics, without a by your leave.”

“That’s right Mabel, but she’s all washed up now, and you’re in her place! Then you went and beat me in the Motion Picture Star contest by a whole 100,000 votes last year.”

“Well, Mary, I was top comedienne, but you were top leading lady.”

“Oh lord, do you remember, when you were the great tragedienne at Biograph, how you got all the girls, and no small number of men, crying real tears. You were good Mabel, real good, but I can’t hardly believe that you’re now the world’s greatest comedienne.”

“Yeah, that’s true Mary, but this film Mickey is my last comedy. After this I want to get back to drama and tragedy, of which you’ll see quite a lot in Mickey.”

“I can’t wait Mabel, I’m sure you’ll be wonderful. Remember, how you used to win all our crying contests – you’d be in floods of tears in a split second.”

“I’ve got a confession to make Mary, I used to cheat, by reading the Death Notices in the newspaper, before the contest.”

“Well, you won anyway, and do you remember those great films we made together, where you played the tragic under-dog, and how the crew gave you standing ovations after every scene.”

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Trouble afoot: Mabel catches Mary with her boyfriend. Mender of Nets, 1912.

Mabel did remember, but she also remembered that they only made one film together, ‘The Mender of Nets’, after which Mary refused to work with Mabel again. Mary claimed that she’d suffered nightmares, for weeks following Mender, due to Mabel’s eyes being so scary, after Mary stole her screen boyfriend. Mabel was scary, when in the zone, as Virginia Kirtley and Alice Davenport attested, after Mabel chased them down, and beat them with a stick in Mabel’s Dramatic Career, a film in which she also whacked Mack Sennett in the nose. 300-pound women also posed no terror for Mabel, and she’d glibly flicked Marie Dressler in the nose in Tillies Punctured Romance. Mary was lying anyway, the reason she bailed out of Mabel films, was that Mabel had effectively acted her off the set.

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Alice Howell learns not to mess with the Keystone Girl.

“By the way, Mary, how’s that little scamp Jack getting on. I haven’t seen him for ages.”

Mary’s face hardened, although she tried to hide it. She was certain brother Jack had had an affair with Mabel at Biograph. As far as Mary was concerned, 14-year old Jack had been seduced and bedded by the 17-year old Mabel, and he was now a rampant womanizer, and an alcoholic, all due to Mabel. What she’d forgotten, though, was that both parties would have been regarded as minors in most states, so apart from being slightly immoral, it was not illegal. Mary made her reply:

“Jack is holed up with that Ziegfield dancing whore, Olive Thomas. He says he’s going to marry her – it’s all very disgusting. “

“Oh, I simply love Olive, don’t you? I saw the stills from the film she’s starring in – she’s got to be the most beautiful girl in the world.”

Mabel had completely ignored what Mary had said, and was simply rubbing the salt in. Mary coloured up, but forced herself to remain calm – Mabel had a way of surreptitiously taking people apart, but, if Mary had known that Olive would later be called The World’s Sweetheart, she’d have gone out of her mind. Mary, of course, was merely America’s Sweetheart.

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The ‘IT’ couple: Jack Pickford and The World’s Sweetheart.

Her business completed, Mary said her goodbyes, and departed. As the door closed, Mabel turned to her butler, muttering “Two-faced bitch.” To Mabel, Mary was just that, a fraud, a prim and proper slime-ball, who’d only recently crawled from the gutters of Toronto.

Thoughts on Mabel.

As Mary drove off, she felt herself gritting her teeth. That cow, she thought, did not deserve a posh house and her own studio, and she made a mental note to achieve producer status, and gain a top-of-the-hill mansion that would better anything The Keystone Girl had, and she would not flounce around her pile in a nightie, when visitors were present. Nightie indeed! The memory of her husband putting his arm around nightie-clad Mabel in The Little Teacher, the previous year, came into her mind. Then it hit her – they’d been having an affair! The girl’s trash, she thought, and I’m going to expose her rubbish in my column. “Keystone Girl is a whore” the headline will read. Could she do this? Of course, she couldn’t. Mary was a serial philanderer, a cheap manizer, someone who’d had a backstreet abortion, and was currently in an extra-marital relationship with Doug Fairbanks. Hollywood, let alone the press, would crucify her. Her future career, her own mansion and studio were at risk, if she squealed on Mabel. “Let it go, Mary, let it go.”

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The Pickford wedding cake: 56 Fremont Place.

Mary wrote her story, eulogising Mabel, but she was determined to equal Mabel in the house and studio stakes. The following year, she moved into 56 Fremont Place, a classical villa, redolent of ancient Rome, but this, although impressive, was un-American. Imagine – America’s Sweetheart living in an Italianate house. Things changed, and a year later, Mary is married to Doug Fairbanks, and moves into the fabled Pickfair – Doug’s hunting lodge up in Beverly Hills – the first in that illustrious place. Not only was this house of Anglo-Saxon style, but it was quintessentially Olde English in character, and stood in 18 acres. However, it barely equalled Mabel’s estate house, and the Fairbankses were soon turning it into a 28-room, four-story English country house, with the first in-the-ground pool in Los Angeles.

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Pickfair after Doug and Mary’s reconstructions.

Doug and Mary soon had their own studios, and created their own distribution company with Griffith and Chaplin. Everything was ready for the celebrities, Albert Einstein, Ghandi, Lord Mountbatten that they proposed to have around. Maybe she could even persuade the Prince of Wales to come around for tea. Mabel, though, had moved on. She was working in Fort lee, New Jersey, for Sam Goldwyn in New York until 1918, then chose to rent apartments, when she moved back to L.A., as she could soon be back east. Around 1921, she moved into the bohemian area of L.A., out at 3089 West 7th Street, where she’d be among literary and artistic types. Her house was a rented duplex, with a movie director next door. Such houses tended to be fairly small, and hardly palatial, but, with Mabel in her bohemian period, and still single, she had no need of a huge mansion. The house reminded her of the artists’ loft home she’d lived in Greenwich village, while recovering from a severe illness. Also, around this time, she bought her parents a large Gothic-style house in St. Georges, Staten Island, replete with ‘damsel-in-distress’ turrets, for $20,000 – not bad, considering you’d need a million to buy it today.

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Mabel at her duplex on 7th Street.

Mabel lived on 7th Street, while she was embroiled in the Fatty Arbuckle, W.D. Taylor, and Courtland Dines scandals. Fingers pointed at Mabel, as it was thought that she was present at the wild Roscoe Arbuckle party, where actress Virginia Rappe died, and knew more about the shootings of Taylor and Dines than she’d admitted. On all occasions, Mary Pickford wrote letters of support to the newspapers, on behalf of Mabel and Roscoe. However, following the Dines scandal Mabel had to go on tour, in order to publicise and save her new film, Extra Girl, whose release run was endangered by calls to ban Mabel films. Following the successful tour, Mabel left L.A. on a second tour, this time a theatrical tour for her stage play The Little Mouse, which, although playing to packed houses, was abandoned half way through, but Mabel came back to L.A. clutching a million dollars, to join the more than a million gained from her profits share from Extra Girl. It now became necessary for Mabel to show she’d settled down, and, in mid-1925, she bought a Spanish, adobe-style mansion at 526 Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, for $20,000. Again, the house, although eye-catching, was not palatial, nor pretentious, but, like Mabel, it was petite and beautiful, and oh so Spanish.

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526 Camden Drive, slightly twee and very different.

A worrying time for the ‘silents’.

Following the Dines scandal, the denizens of Tinseltown began to worry about their future careers, as they were now tarnished, and, undeniably, ‘talkies’ were on the way. Doug and Mary were fretting more than most, and, in 1925, pulled up the Pickfair drawbridge, and withdrew from Hollywood society. Henceforth, admittance to the Beverly Hills pile was strictly by invitation only, and, unless you were Charlie Chaplin, a great scientist, a US President, or a member of the English aristocracy, you were not welcome. When Valentino unexpectedly appeared on the Pickfair lawn one day, Doug grabbed ‘the Greasy Greek’ (as he called him) by the scruff, marched him to the gate, and threw him out. He would not have an oily dancing boy, sniffing around his wife. This just about summed up the couple’s problems – neither had been entirely faithful during their marriage.

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Charlie, Mary and Mabel.

In early 1930 Mabel left this mortal coil, a harbinger of the uncomfortable fate awaiting the Hollywooders. Chaplin began his slide into insanity, Keystoners, Roscoe Arbuckle and Marie Prevost, along with Florence Lawrence and Renee Adoree, among many others, breathed their last as the 1930s rolled on. Of the Pickfords, once a tight family group of four, only one, Mary, was left by 1938. The matriarch, Charlotte, had died of cancer, while Lottie and Jack passed on early, as a result, ‘tis said, of their riotous lifestyles. Doug and Mary had separated in 1935, but, by 1939, Doug too was no more. Alone in her hill-top mansion, Mary had begun to go ‘aging silent star crazy’, and was only saved by the intervention of, and marriage to, the understanding Buddy Rogers. Buddy kept Mary on an even keel for decades, until Mary began to lose her mind in around 1960, as the alcohol seeped deep into her brain. By 1965, The Sweetheart had retired permanently to her bed, before dying of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1979.

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Mary with brother Jack.

What, then, of the Hollywood mansions.                

In spite of many people thinking that Pickfair still exists, it has, in fact, been demolished. Who, you might ask, would have dared lay insolent hands on the greatest monument to the silent era? The perpetrator was one Pia Zadora, who bought the house in 1989, for $7-million (the present house is valued at $28-million). Doug and Mary’s English country mansion, was replaced by an ostentatious ‘Venetian-style palazzo’, in other words an Italianate palace, or just what Mary had avoided. Pia had some explaining to do, and she initially claimed the house was infested with termites, which could not be eradicated. However, she later claimed the house had been haunted by the ghost of a woman, sometimes seen as well as heard. The fleeting apparition passed through walls, being apparently attired in a translucent nightdress, and emitting a hoarse, mocking and dirty laugh, reminiscent of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. This does not sound like Mary, but does sound very much like Mabel, perhaps attempting, from the other side, to have Mary’s house knocked down. Nah, there’s no such thing as ghosts – is there?

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Pia Zadora’s version of Pickfair.

Unlike Pickfair, 56 Fremont is extant today, standing proud in its classical magnificence. Mabel’s rented colonial-style house on Melrose Hill, is said to have been demolished, but a remarkably similar house stands in its place. If this is the same house, then the 360-degree veranda has been taken away. 3089 West 7th Street, staked out for 4 years by the press, is now a supermarket, but 526 Camden still stands, currently valued at $8-million. In St. Georges, Staten Island, the Gothic house Mabel bought her parents, still stands, and once again appears to be haunted, by a benign female spirit. Contrary to what many believe, Mabel’s brother, Claude, did not commit suicide in the basement of this house in the 1940s. He cut his throat, at another house, in a fit of depression over the tragedy of his sister’s life. One other Mabel house still stands, the Altadena house, where Mabel holed up during the Taylor murder investigation. The current value is $2.2-million.

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Mabel’s hideout at Altadena.

You do not need to know much about L.A. and its environs, to realise that Mary and Mabel never lived more than a mile a part in that city. And yet, there is no evidence that the pair ever made regular house calls on each other, or attended functions together. When the Mabel Normand memorial plaque was unveiled in 1940, during the Night of a Thousand Stars at Republic Studios, both Mary and Charlie Chaplin were notable by their absence. Outside of stills for The Mender of Nets, it is noteworthy that there is not one  extant photograph of these two premier stars together.

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The  Gothic-style house Mabel bought her parents  on Staten Island.

 

Mary and Mabel really were chalk and cheese. For all of her business acumen, Mary was socially inept, while Mabel was a financial scatterbrain, who was socially adept. Mary had  little in the way of  small talk, and leaned greatly on the men she married, which is why she ditched the somewhat incapable Owen Moore. Doug Fairbanks was not just a tree-swinging ape (as Mabel might have called him) but he also had a marvellous business brain. He was, however a chauvinistic bigot of the first order, and thought nothing of ridiculing and belittling his wife in public.  It was Doug that decided on the visitors that came to Pickfair, and a number of Mary’s old acquaintances from Biograph, were kept away. From the available evidence, it appears that, while small-town American mothers were cooing over lovely couple Doug and Mary, their red-blooded daughters were held spell-bound by Mabel, the emancipated daredevil, who brooked no bridle, always had the headlines, and seemed to have a new man on her arm every week — men that she would regularly discard, along with her empty gin bottles. It is worth considering whether many of the starry-eyed girls that were lured to Hollywood, came there as a result of their perception of the Mabel Normand rags to riches story.  Mabel was, after all, a legend in her own lifetime.

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Mabel goes for a ride after hanging her drapes outside the window.

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No-one has more star photos than a movie star.  Mabel at home in her 4-poster bed.

 

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Relevant  Links

MABEL AND MARY: SO CLOSE BUT SO FAR APART.

MABEL AND ‘EVERYONE’S SWEETHEART’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

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MABEL MEETS ‘TERRIBLE’ TEDDY TETZLAFF.

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“He’s such a hero.” Mabel and Teddy drive off into the sunset.

Teddy Tetzlaff was a famous car racer of the 1910s and 1920s. Although Teddy was a fast driver he inherited the uncomplimentary ‘Terrible’ prefix, because of his predilection for exploding gearboxes and engines. Teddy, although he set the world speed record of 148.80 mph on Bonneville Salt Flats in 1914, driving a Blitzen Benz, he retired from more races than he won. More than anything, Teddy Tetlaff is connected to the Santa Monica Road Races, and via those races to early Hollywood. It was in 1913, at the Santa Monica 200-mile race, that Teddy ran into the Keystone Girl, Mabel Normand. Earl Cooper was the winner that year.

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“Who is this crazy woman?”  Mabel on heat in Speed Kings, 1913.

Racing Automobiles in the early 1900s.

From the early days of the motor car, drivers have wanted to pitch their cars against those of the other guys. The first races were impromptu affairs on the local main street (incurring the public’s wrath) or on some patch of worthless dirt in the countryside. However, it was not long before drivers’ clubs decided they wanted purpose-built race tracks, or races on legally closed stretches of public road. Early on, in Europe, this was happening, the most famous tracks being in Britain, in the form of the banked race track at Brooklands, and the closed road T.T. track on the Isle of Man, both opened in 1907. Due to the existence of these tracks, racing autos were developed in Europe that were sold throughout the world. The Americans lagged slightly behind, but the late construction of U.S. tracks, gave a chance for home-grown race cars to be developed. Their competitors were principally French and Italian cars, like Fiat and Peugeot. Races in those days were long and arduous, as the real intention was to test the car, although, inevitably, the drivers became celebrity heroes, to rival stage and movie stars. Stars of the 1910s were the likes of Earl Cooper and Barney Oldfield, multiple race-winners and land speed record holders. Like Terrible Teddy, Barney and Earl were to become brief movie stars by their roles as ‘leading men’ to Madcap Mabel, a later term for Mabel Normand, but one that the was probably privately used by the racing trio, and many others, at that time.

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Edwardian knockout, Mabel, wants a ride on Charlie Chaplin’s Thor IV motorcycle, which he has carelessly leaned up against his boss’s glamorous racing car. Mabel At The Wheel, 1914.

Race Tracks utilised by the Keystone Studio.

One thing we can say about Mack Sennett and his Keystone Girl, Mabel, is that they were bright and modern, for their time. While their parents grumbled about all the modern gadgets appearing, and  the ‘trollies’ and motor cars that were mowing people down in the big cities, the movie pair were grasping the automobile obsession with both hands. How much love Mabel herself had for the auto is difficult to determine, and she might have become infected with the ‘auto fever’ via Mack, who was, after all, her Svengali. When, in 1909, Mack saw that his boss, D.W. Griffith, had acquired a fancy car, bright red, with white upholstery, he vowed to the impressionable Mabel that:

“When I get famous, I’m going to buy you a peck of diamonds and a slingshot, and we will shoot them at people, and laugh, as we ride around in a Pierce-Arrow car.”  King of Comedy’ 1954.

Mabel, it seems, was unimpressed.

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Griffith in his  swanky monogrammed car.

Anyhow, it came to pass that and Mabel became members of the newly-rich set, and, by late 1912, they were hankering for the biggest, bad-assed cars they could find. Mack moved away from the idea of the stately Pierce-Arrow, and went for the fastest motor available, which was then the 15 litre, chain-drive Fiat. Mabel followed suit and purchased the same model Fiat. It is fair to say, though, that neither Mack nor Mabel raced these cars, which were entered at race-tracks, and driven by nominated, proficient drivers. Mack’s Fiat, when not raced was utilised in Keystone films. Mack and Mabel eventually went on to buy much more prestigious models such as the Packard Twin-Six V-12, and ‘his and hers’ Rolls Royces, although they also acquired newer racers, like the Stutz and Mercer. Mabel wasn’t the tear-ass that she was often painted, and was only booked for speeding once, and seems to have never been involved in an accident (although she might have seen plenty in her rear-view mirror). By 1922, Mabel was always chauffeured everywhere, as it was clear that the cops were out to book ‘the guttersnipe’ for anything they could drum up. Mack crashed his car on numerous occasions, and once killed a pedestrian on the coast road, but later suffered critical injuries, while his friend was killed, in a crash during the 1930s. The friend’s wife had been driving.

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Mabel makes a call on a cell phone, from her Mercer  car at Echo Park.

Keystone cameras were out everywhere in L.A., getting pictures they might use in films, and even mother and baby contests were not immune from the studio’s stunts. Inevitably, they were drawn to the race tracks, such as Santa Monica and Ascot Park Speedway. Playa del Rey boarded track was also used, although it was most notably utilised as background in the flying film A Dash Through the Clouds of 1912. One way that Mack got his cameras into racetracks was through advertising. Race organisers would advertise that Keystone would be giving a demonstration of film-making at their track on a certain day, which increased attendances, and allowed Keystone to film for free.

 

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If the grills at Playa del Rey boarded track, were meant to be hobo-proof, then they didn’t work. A Dash Through The Clouds , 1912.            

Ascot Park was originally a horse-racing track that was later adapted for the new-fangled motor racing. The dirt track lasted for many years, with the liberal application of oil and water, although the races remained shrouded in clouds of dust. Playa del Rey (The Motordrome) was a mile-long wood-boarded track that opened in 1910. It survived for just three years, before it was burned down. The fire was blamed on hobos, living under the boards. The Santa Monica Races only ran on a yearly basis, when the roads San Vicente Boulevard, Ocean Avenue, and Wilshire Boulevard, dirt tracks back then, were closed, creating a triangular course of around eight-and-a-half miles.

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Racing action from  Ascot Park. Mabel’s Busy  Day 1914.

Mabel’s Racing Heroes.

Barney Oldfield, when Mabel knew him, was around 40 years of age, and relatively old, by racing standards. However, he was a formidable competitor, and, although overweight, he made a colorful character, racing with a cigar clenched between his teeth. To Mabel he was a fatherly figure, and one cannot imagine her being emotionally drawn to Barney, although he once rescued her, after a villain had tied her to a railway line, in the film Barney Oldfield’s Race For A Life, 1912. 

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Barney Oldfield and Mack Sennett rescue damsel in distress, Mabel.

Barney also made brief appearances in other Keystone pictures., usually just waving to the camera. 

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Barney takes the Keystone Girl for a back-roads spin.

Earl Cooper  was a driver with his feet well and truly planted on the ground, and was not at all flamboyant. Earl was fastidious about his racing, and barely participated in the Keystones, and was, in fact, camera shy.  In Speed Kings, Mabel’s father, Ford Sterling, offers her hand in marriage to an embarrassed Earl, but Mabel prefers the outgoing and outrageous Terrible Teddy. This is kind of a reflection of the real Mabel, who, in those days, preferred forceful and colorful men, having not yet developed a taste for quiet, literary types. Even in those early days, Mabel had a reputation for being a ‘manizer’.

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Madcap Mabel chews the ears off a bemused Earl Cooper and mechanic, following their win.

As can be seen in the film Speed Kings, Earl is totally confused by the antics of Mabel’s co-star, Ford Sterling, and shrugs his shoulders then throws his hands up, as Ford exits the shot.

Teddy Tetzlaff, unlike Barney and Earl, was everything that Mabel could wish for in 1913. If Mabel looks smitten with Teddy in Speed Kings, then it is likely she was so in real life. Mabel was passionate and emotional, and very keen on fun-loving, heroic types, although the fact that Teddy was married, certainly prevented Mabel pursuing a relationship. For his part, Teddy was mesmerised by the movie camera, to which even the enchanting Mabel took second place. Mr. Terrible did end up in the movies, chiefly doing the driving in Wally Reid’s motor racing pictures, while his son, Teddy Tetzlaff Jnr. became a noted cameraman. Junior might have taken Mabel’s eternal advice, which was  to never go in front of the camera, but always stay behind that infernal contraption. She gave the same advice to her brother Claude, who also became a cameraman.

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You’re wasting your breath Mabel. Teddy only has eyes for the camera.

Teddy Tetzlaff died in December 1929, some say in a car accident, some say of natural causes. Certainly, Mabel was too critically ill, at that time, to realize her hero had passed on. Mabel died just a few weeks later, joining the long list of her movie, aviation and car racing friends that died young.

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Mabel, who seems to have lost that awful hat, grabs the drive chain in fear, as Teddy ‘floors it’.

One of the questions researchers ask is, “Did prolific man-chaser Mabel ever have a relationship with a married man?”  It is said that she had a relationship with Sam Goldwyn, but nobody ever managed to prove this, or any of the other ‘indiscretions’ allotted to her.  In all probability, Teddy Tetzlaff only benefited from Mabel’s unique ability to make social introductions in Hollywood, and his flamboyance and disregard for danger, ensured that he was always first pick, when it came to car racing stunts and giving advice.  An interesting story is that Teddy was kidnapped and held for ransom in Tacoma in 1912. He was held at a local brothel, but Teddy refused to leave, when a reduced ransom demand was paid. Apparently, he’d been such a nuisance to the kidnappers, smoking all the cigars, drinking all the booze, and ‘interfering’ with the girls that they’d discounted his ransom to be rid of him. He really was the male Mabel Normand (It’s a good story, but one that’s probably pure fiction).

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Mabel with the Hitchcocks and Rolls Royce.

Teddy  Tetzlaff  Important Race/Record Results

1910 202 miles “Free for All” race Santa Monica, averaging 70.8 mph. 1st place.

1911 World Speed Record 100 miles in 1:14:29. driving 49 hp Lozier (average 80.5 mph).

1912  151 miles ‘Ferris Cup’ Santa Monica, averaging 73.27 mph. 1st place.

1912 Indy 500: 2nd place.

1912 Tacoma Race 3: 1st place (5 miles).

1912 AAA Championship: 2nd place.

1912 Montamarathon Trophy Race 250 miles. 1st place.

1914  American Grand Prize,  Santa Monica 404 miles. 1st place.

1914 World Speed Record 142.8 mph driving Blitzen Benz 2.

 

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Teddy’s 1912 Indy-500  Fiat, as it is today.

Teddy’s Films.

1913 Speed Kings

1919 The Roaring Road

1920 Double Speed

1921 Too Much Speed

1922 Across The Continent

1929 The Fall Of Eve

 

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Miss Normand forsakes chain for belt drive.

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Spectators run for their lives as Eddie Pullen’s wheel breaks loose. Deadman’s Curve, Santa Monica. in 1914.

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Mabel extricates herself from her crashed car at Deadman’s Curve . Mabel At The Wheel, 1914.

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Relevant Links:

KEYSTONE’S RACETRACK: SANTA MONICA.

MABEL ON TWO WHEELS.

SANTA MONICA ROADRACES

MABEL’S WORLD: EARLY ROADS IN CALIFORNIA.

Useful Books:

Umbrella Mike: The True Story of the Chicago Gangster Behind The Indy 500, by Brock Yates (2007).

Built to Thrill, by Clive Cussler  (2016).

Built for Adventure: The Classic Automobiles of Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt (2012).

Motorcycle Adventurer: Carl Stearns Clancy: the first Motorcyclist to Ride Around the World 1912-1913, by Dr. Gregory W. Frazier (2010).  (Gives a good comparison between 1900s roads in America, and other parts of the world).

 

 

 

 

 

WHEN THE MOVIES WERE YOUNG: THE ADVENT OF THE BIOGRAPH GIRLS.

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Biograph studios on a calm day

The title of this blog is taken from the 1925 book of that name, When The Movies were young, written by Linda Arvidson (aka Mrs Linda Griffith). One of the first books to be written concerning the movie industry, it was undertaken to fulfil a particular purpose. The date gives a clue to that purpose, for its publication followed a series of Hollywood scandals, involving Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel Normand. Roscoe, of course, was charged with the murder of Virginia Rappe, and Mabel was involved in the shootings of W.D. Taylor and Courtland Dines. However, as the book pertains to the movies of The Biograph Studios, and the events occurring at that illustrious New York establishment, during the period 1907 to 1912, there is no mention of Roscoe (who was then on the stage) although Mabel figures prominently within its pages. The book is written in an engaging style, and is, consequently, something that the reader cannot put down before reading the very last page. This was clearly intentional, for Mrs Griffith wants you to understand how innocent and unworldly the movies, and the players were, in those far off times, and how utterly absorbing the early industry was. It is, however, known that Mrs Griffith actually left Biograph in 1911, so her references to 1912 are, in fact, second, or third hand.

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11 East Fourteenth Street, NY.

What Value Can We Set on The Book?

The book is a mine of useful insider information, about the development of the early American movie industry, and is the natural first stop for anyone learning about the ‘silents’ for the first time. Having said that, we have to remember the purpose of the book, and be wary of the references to innocence and naïvity. Those involving themselves in pictures in the early 1900s were neither innocent, nor naïve – this was a thoroughly cut-throat business, employing carpet-baggers, part-time prostitutes, pimps, and footloose mashers. Later, of course, gold-digging mother and daughter(s) combinations invaded the newly-created Hollywood in droves. Anyone of the sweet innocent type that entered the business would be corrupted, if not in minutes, then in a few short hours. As a historical document, the book, nonetheless, is useful. The early film careers of Gladys Smith (Mary Pickford), Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand, the Gish sisters, Jack and Lottie Pickford, the two Florences, Lawrence and LeBadie, Gertrude Bambrick, Blanche Sweet et al, all destined to form the core of the later Hollywood, are well documented. A number of people, like Harriet Quimby, the aviation record breaker, on the edges of the film industry are also referred to. It further records the trials and tribulations of D.W. Griffith and his long suffering wife. We may as well start with the story of the movie genius, and his spouse.

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Harriet Quimby prepares to fly the English Channel in 1912, Mrs Griffith in attendance.

Mr and Mrs Griffith.

Southern gentleman, D.W. Griffith and Linda Avridson had met in San Fransisco, where they found spurious work in the theatre. Miss Avridson was happy to dub along (as she terms it), but D.W. was eternally angry that the world had not recognised his genius, and, although he managed to earn a little money by writing plays, he often had to undertake humiliating labour in the Californian hop fields. In fact, so angry was our genius that he’d often come home, and vent his fury by punching holes in the doors. On one occasion, Linda had spent hours collected wild flowers to brighten up their bleak apartment, but D.W. threw the lot out, bellowing “We need money, not flowers!” Miss Avridson does not document whether he took out his fury on her, but they’d separated by 1911. In 1906, Mr Griffith set off to find his fortune in New York, leaving Linda, not yet his wife, to follow on later. Being 1906, Linda was inevitably caught up in the San Francisco earthquake, or ‘fire’, as they call it in that city. Homeless and in rags, Linda approached The Red Cross, who gave her new clothes (that didn’t fit), a bowl of soup, and a train ticket to New York. Once in the city, she found D.W. was about to acquire work in the dreaded movies. After marrying, they settled into the Biograph Studio at 11 East Fourteenth Street, but it was to be a year before they admitted to being married (a normal practice back then). D.W., according to his wife, always knew that he would ‘make it’ – somehow, and she believed him, as she believed he was descended from Welsh princes, and his father had been ‘Roaring Jake’ a fierce fighter on the Confederate side in the Civil War. None of this is believed today. ‘Roaring Jake’ turned out to have been a hopeless drunk, and the Welsh lineage is untraceable, as the dynasty had died out 700 years ago.

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Llewellyn, last  indigenous ruler of Wales. Died 1240.

D.W. Griffith is known these days, for the cruel treatment of his actresses. Linda records that he once kneed Blanche Sweet clear off the stage, when she failed to perform to his expectations (Biograph stages were five feet above ground level). Elsewhere, Mary Pickford notes that Griffith regularly shook her by the shoulders, and once threw her across the stage, resulting in her temporary hospitalisation with a suspected broken arm. It seems only two girls stood up to Griffith, one being Mabel Normand, the other Dorothy Gish. Dorothy, as Mrs Griffith remembered, was the greatest fan of Mabel, the girl who took no nonsense from directors or executives. Dotty was the only actress ever to call Griffith “A hook-nosed Kike”, in spite of his Welsh ancestry.

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The Gish sisters have different ideas about  Griffith.

Although Mrs Griffith supports her husband, there are indications that she did not appreciate aspects of his character. D.W. had favourites among his actresses, implying, as is believed today, that he ran the industry’s first casting couch. His attitude towards women was distinctly chauvinistic, and he resented any woman that looked towards directing films. The Griffith’s had a friend from California called Harriet Quimby, the famous lady aviator. According to Mrs Griffith, her flying records were difficult for hubby to swallow, but her success as a screen and play writer, were even more troublesome, at a time when he was struggling, and had not yet become a director. Mrs Griffith recounts that Harriet visited them one day, driving her fancy Pierce-Arrow car, and all furred up, dripping with jewels. D.W. watched her leave, then collapsed into a chair, saying “She’s a success”. Griffith loved to control women, and those that worshipped him most got the plum roles. His favourite was Lillian Gish, who starred in many of his greatest films, but, in 1925, as his ex-wife’s book was released, he dropped Lillian, and starred his girlfriend in his latest film, and there endeth the Genius’ run as great director. He died in 1948 of a cerebral haemorrhage. Linda Griffith died almost exactly a year later, apparently of the same cause.

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Mack Sennett grouches, left, as the rest of the  company devour their  curled-up Biograph sandwiches. Los Angeles, California 1912.

Mack and Mabel.

Mack and Mabel figure quite prominently within the pages of Mrs Griffith’s book, and Mack has an entire chapter to himself. Having eventually risen to the position of producer, he apparently required such treatment. However, Mrs Griffith appears to have had a certain inner loathing for the King of Comedy. Mack, it turns out, was not at all popular at the studio, and was particularly disliked by the girls, for his constant clowning around, intended to put his leading ladies off their stride. Strangely enough, he got on best with Mary Pickford, probably because they had a mutual liking for money, at the exclusion of all else. When he wasn’t clowning, Mack was grouching, usually about the curled-up state of the Biograph sandwiches – he disapproved of the fact that he rarely ate steak at the top table with his director. None of the leading ladies were up to much, according to Mack Sennett, and Mrs Griffith quotes him as saying of Mary Pickford:

“I don’t see what they’re all crazy about her for — I think she’s affected.” Of Florence Lawrence  he said “She talks baby talk.”

Mack, says Mrs Griffith, learned about movie-making by quizzing his director, who gladly gave over his secrets, unlike the later Master of Mirth, who never gave information about his methods. Mack, we know, was a rough diamond, but Linda does not dwell this, as it did not suit her purpose.

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Mabel on baby-sitting duty in the orange groves, California, early 1912.

So, what of Mack’s future star of stars, Mabel Normand, and her ‘astonishing career’, as Mrs Griffith termed it? Much of what she says about Mabel is actually drawn from articles on the future Keystone Girl, by Mary Pickford in 1916. The year 1916 has some relevance to Mabel and Hollywood, as it was in that year that Mabel reached the pinnacle of her career, having been the first player to get her name over a studio. However, by 1925 these articles were generally forgotten, so Mrs Griffith felt able to reuse the material. Mabel had apparently been very shy when she arrived at The Biograph, and had remained that way through into late 1910. Biograph had been a culture shock for most of those that arrived there looking for work and dinner. Firstly, the place was incredibly noisy, as making silent films was a surprisingly raucous business, and the place was jammed to the rafters with people. Biograph had a policy of taking in anyone that walked through the door – every one of them would be useful, one day. Often there was nowhere to sit, except on the floor, and one could only find some personal space behind a piece of scenery, until it inevitably got moved. The overall atmosphere was friendly, over-friendly, according to Mary Pickford, for the players addressed each other by their Christian names! Many newcomers turned right around and walked out of the door. Florence Lawrence ruled in those days, and she made sure everyone understood who was the Queen of Biograph.

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Queen Mabel arrives at Huntington, Long Island in D.W.s  fancy auto. The Diving Girl.

Like everything else about Mabel, her early film career is shrouded in mystery, and Mrs Griffith does not help in this respect. All we can say is that Mabel probably acted as an extra to the known thespians at Biograph, but departed, when the company left to winter in California. Mabel was one of those left behind, and she sought, and got, work at Vitagraph Studios. In her last weeks at Biograph, Mabel had already been clowning around the studio, to some extent, but now Vitagraph gave her a chance at comedy. In just a few films, she’d achieved semi-stardom, but was fired eventually for “unacceptable and lewd conduct.”

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Mabel and John Bunny in Vitagraph’s Troublesome Secretaries.

By August 1911, Mabel was back at Biograph, where it was noticed she’d changed, but, although she more insolent and irreverent than before, her obvious talent, in unique areas, made her very useful indeed. Good theatre-trained dramatic actresses at Biograph, were two-a-penny, but Mabel could take on tragedy and comedy, equally well. She was a natural actress, and, as such, did not take well to the intense coaching that Griffith liked to heap on his girls. It was noted of Mabel, by Mary Pickford in 1916:

“When she came to the Biograph studio we never suspected that that this demure little maiden, who used to peer at us shyly, with great dark eyes, would ever thrill us by her daring feats on the screen. There was no cliff so high that Mabel was afraid of it, no water so deep that she would not dive into it, no bucking bronco too wild for her to ride.”

Mrs Griffith herself noted:

“She was daring, reckless, generous-hearted to a fault, and like a frisky young colt that would brook no bridle.”

Due to her obvious aquatic abilities, the clever Griffith starred her in The Diving Girl and America (and the world) went crazy. Someone else was taking an interest, as Mrs Griffith tells us:

“Even Mack Sennett began to take an interest in the beautiful and reckless Mabel….clever kid was Mabel – and if he should ever be a director of his own —!”

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Mabel is The Diving Girl. 1911.

However, Mack had always claimed that he and Mabel had been close, even before she’d gone to Vitagraph. It was, perhaps, a long exposure to Sennett that caused her to transform into a confident, reckless and insolent dare-devil, and why she clowned around interfering with attempts by Griffith to coach his actresses.  Notably, these are traits often ascribed to Mack Sennett. In any event, Griffith proposed to use Mabel in tragic roles, meaning she often died before the last scene. Now, though, when Biograph headed west in early 1912, Mabel went along with Mary, Blanche, Mack and a large chunk of the company. Naturally, with Mabel along, pandemonium broke out on the train, as Mabel, aided and abetted by the impish Jack Pickford, set about corrupting her young peers, by getting them drunk and disorderly. Old maids swooned under the onslaught, as furious plug-hatted gents tried to contain the young, intoxicated delinquents. “These modern girls, what’s it coming to?” Mrs Griffith mentions none of this, of course, but Mary Pickford innocently recalls it all in her 1916 newspaper article ‘New Year’s Eve On The Train’. Of drinking, Mrs Griffith says this:

“Lemonade and sarasparilla were the refreshments of our age of innocence”

Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she? The heavily-chaperoned Blanche Sweet had a different view:

“On the train, Mabel would come into my compartment and teach me all sorts of tricks, as well as how to smoke, drink alcohol, and swear like a trooper.”

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Linda Griffith

Blanche Sweet was not the only one corrupted by Mabel. Among the Biograph girls, Mabel had acquired the persona of a goddess. Mrs Griffith recalls two actresses that actually worshipped at the altar of the Goddess. Dorothy Gish and Gertrude Bambrick, so admired Mabel that they actually wanted to be her. No sooner were the pair in Los Angeles than they escaped their chaperones, booked a hotel room, downed a whole lot of booze, slipped their skirts to the hips, and hit the town. They were eventually captured by D.W. and Dell Henderson, who’d been looking for them all day and half the night. They were soon returned to their chaperones. In fact, all the girls had chaperones or stage mothers, except the wayward Mabel, who was taken care of by the none too reliable Mack Sennett. Mrs Griffith and some of the actresses had a running bet, as to whether Mack would ever buy a girl an ice cream soda. However, Mabel later claimed that Mack had bought her a milk shake. So as not to appear ‘easy’ she insisted Mack pay to have an egg whipped into the shake. This must have broken the King of Comedy’s heart, as well as his wallet. Nonetheless, Mrs Griffith tells us that Mack once bought a diamond bracelet for Mabel, which set him back seventy-five dollars. He then had an argument with Mabel, and he sold it on for eighty-five dollars. Such it would always be with Mack and Mabel. Incidentally, Mrs Griffith is surely wrong about Gertrude Bambrick  being Dot Gish’s co-Mabel impersonator, for she did not arrive at Biograph until August 1912. Perhaps she meant Gertrude Robinson.

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Mary Pickford meets with the Gish sisters.

 

The Gish Sisters.

Of all of those that became stars in Hollywood, in the post-Biograph period, the Gish sisters are probably the most interesting, if only because the sisters were so different. While Dotty worshipped Mabel, Lillian worshipped D.W. Griffith. No one was more like Mabel than Dotty Gish, with her insolence, her lack of direction, devil may care attitude, and abilities that crossed the borders of  drama and comedy. Lillian was more composed, more loyal, and some said ‘wet behind the ears’. Kate Bruce was the Biograph agony aunt back then, but was much monopolised by the elder Gish sister. Mrs Griffith does not seem to have been too keen on Lillian, as she seemed to be too enamoured of her husband. It’s a curious fact, that when Mary Pickford left Biograph, he made Lillian his favourite and even called her ‘Our Mary’. Doing such with Dotty would have resulted in a punch on D.W.s hook nose. According to many, including Mrs Griffith, Dotty was far and away the more competent and natural actress. As already stated, when the genius had finished with Lillian, he simply discarded her like an empty wine bottle, prompting his own demise.

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Something disturbing about Dorothy Gish’s  face (top left) in this  Triangle photo.  Other stars include Bobby Harron, Doug Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Connie Talmadge, and Constance  Collier.

 

The Best of The Rest.

When you read Mrs Griffith’s book, you come to realise that you have just been reading about the players that made up the core of the later Hollywood. The Biograph and Vitagraph stars eventually percolated into all corners of the newly created Tinseltown, and stayed, it seems, forever. Blanche Sweet, the Gishes, the Pickfords, the Talmadges, Mabel Normand et al, were the royalty that ruled the land of dreams. The Biograph girls had been fiercely competitive, but they formed a tight circle that could resist the excesses of the management. Mrs Griffith recounts that Mae Marsh had received her first big role in a film called Man’s Genesis. However, we have to look to Mary Pickford’s autobiography, to find reference to the way little Mae came to the part. Mr Griffith decided to star Mary Pickford in the film, which Mary immediately realised would involve her wearing a grass skirt. Mary could not, would not, tolerate such a thing, so she convened a meeting with Mabel Normand, Blanche Sweet, Sarah Bernard, and other established actresses, at which it was decided that none of them would accept the part. Griffith got around this by casting new girl Mae Marsh, as leading lady, and, subsequently, allotting to her the lead in The Sands of Dee. Blanche’s grandmother was furious about this, saying:

“This is an insult to our daughters. I don’t see how she could possibly play the part. The girl hasn’t any hair!”

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Mae Marsh, Man’s Genesis.

Hair, then, was important, perhaps the most important attribute, which explains why Mary Pickford endured the fuss and discomfort of sleeping in three different types of roller, every night. It also explains why Mabel grew her hair long, following her observations during her first day at Biograph. Mae Marsh, went on to star in Griffith’s big picture Birth Of A Nation, but this did not prevent her from being blackballed by the Biograph girls, and, consequently, she was not accepted into Hollywood society. It did not matter that you were the apple of your producer’s eye – if you were shunned by ‘the royalty’ your life would be very miserable indeed. There was a sequel to this, however, when, years later, Mae made a public apology for her ‘misdemeanour’:

 

“I was too young to understand – I was just a lamebrain, you know.”

This sent journalists rushing to the doors of Mabel and Mary for comment. Mabel said:

“Oh that, I’d forgiven her long ago.”

Clearly, Mae hadn’t been forgiven, and others, like Louise Brooks and Clara Bow, were later to suffer the cold shoulder from the Biograph and Vitagraph girls. How lucky, then, was the surly and egotistical Charlie Chaplin, who was admitted to the incubator of Mabel’s dressing room, and introduced by the said Mabel to the likes of Mary Pickford. Producers could not make such social introductions – outside their studios they were as powerless as babes in arms.

The list of top stars at Biograph in the early days, reads like a who’s who of the later Hollywood. They included: Florence Lawrence, Dorothy Davenport, Gertrude Robinson, Marion Sunshine, Vivian Prescott, Florence LeBadie, Lottie Pickford, Marion Leonard, Kate Bruce, Dorothy West, and a list too long to be accommodated here. Of the men, there were Jack Pickford, Owen Moore, Lionel Barrymore, Bobby Harron, Marshall Neilan, George Nichols, Henry Waltham, Frank Grandin, Dell Henderson, and another endless list.

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The first  U.S. film star, Florence Lawrence, takes her ‘little’ car for a spin. Whatever car it is, it seems supercharged.  Those ‘Boudicca’s chariot’ axle extensions would be illegal today.

Mrs Griffith makes reference to the Biograph not revealing the names of the players, something she agreed with, especially as it enabled her husband to have the credits all to himself. Of stunts and stuntmen, Mrs Griffith is silent, but Mary Pickford later filled in the details. Turns out most of the girls’ stunts were carried out by little Jack Pickford.

The Old Days End.

It is with much nostalgia that Mrs Griffith writes about the end of the ‘old days’, a mere twelve years before her book was published. Like the later computer explosion and dot-com bubble, the early movie business was full of young people, so young, in fact, that when the silent era ended in 1930, most of them were still only in their mid-thirties. Life-long friendships had been forged amid the ferocious competition, forming the solid, immovable bloc that was to cause the producers so much trouble down the years. Biograph had long vacated the old mansion at 11 East Fourteenth Street, by the time Mrs Griffith’s book was released, but she could still hear the creaking floorboards, and the squeals of laughter as the players clowned around, while moving, painting, or throwing, scenery.

To Mrs Griffith, the old days were that  happy-go-lucky period between 1906 and 1912, when the Biograph girls were happy to pick up five dollars a day, and muck in moving scenery and props. By 1914, we are approaching the era of  big bucks, Hollywood mansions, and scandalous pool parties. The end of the silent era is given as 1929, but the old stars were in trouble by 1927. Lillian Gish was already washed up, Mabel Normand was making lacklustre films for Hal Roach, Mary Pickford had been a recluse for above a year,  and the Talmadge sisters were wondering whether to ride it out to the bitter end, or simply walk away now. Only the younger Hollywood players were able to successfully transition to the talkies, and most of those failed early on.

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Mabel with the impish Jack Pickford in What the Doctor Ordered 1912.

Mrs Griffith mused about the future:

“What then of the days of Doug and Mary….of Charlie Chaplin….of the rescue of a Griffith heroine from an ice-blocked river? Of the storm-tossed career of Mabel Normand? Of the magical city of Hollywood? Of the Hollywooders? Of the exotic and hectic lives of the beautiful stars? All of this will be told of in dusty books reposing on dusty library shelves.”

Perhaps, thought Mrs Griffith, the odd can of celluloid might survive into the future, to be shown occasionally, only to be greeted with roars of laughter, the technique appearing so out of date. Almost certainly, the name of genius D.W. Griffith would be revered down the ages, with the players, half-forgotten, just ghostly shapes on a screen. Naturally, she never envisioned the appearance of the DVD, let alone the Blu-ray, and the whole idea of the silent actors and actresses, living within the circuits of that pernicious, multi-tentacled, electronic animal, the internet, would have seemed absurd. Equally absurd was the idea that only half of the world would still hail her husband as an avant garde genius, the other half thinking he was an evil, chauvinistic bully that never actually invented anything. Such was the hall of mirrors that was, and is, Hollywood.

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Relevant Links

MABEL’S FRIENDS: THE BIOGRAPH GIRLS

MABEL’S FRIENDS: D.W. GRIFFITH

MABEL’S HEROINES: HARRIET QUIMBY.

Bibliography

When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925, new edition,1969).

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

MABEL’S WORLD: FLAPPERS AND MALIBU BEACH HOUSES.

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“First I bought the flapper gear, then I got the beach-house.”

The ‘flapper’, a word of unknown origin, but basically meaning a young, ‘bright’ girl, is much associated with the motion picture industry, as is the Malibu Beach House. Malibu beach houses, however, seem to be a creation of a more modern Hollywood, while the flapper is eternally connected with 1920s Hollywood . Both of these assumptions, however, are, ever so slightly, incorrect (Malibu beach houses is here used as a generic name for beach houses located at, and between Malibu and Santa Monica/Venice, Ca.).

The term flapper, has been around for many centuries, although its actual meaning has changed over that time. For our purposes, we need to consider the use of the word flapper from 1900 onward, noting that most of the early silent movie actresses would not have thought of themselves as flappers, but righteous, god-fearing Edwardian ladies (even if they were not). It was acceptable that some of them were seen as ‘ingenues’ or young virtuous girls that had not yet attained an age where they could put their hair up – for instance Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand (in her Keystone period) and a whole host of others. This, naturally, was a public perception, and ignored the fact that many of them smoked, cussed, drank excessively, and were partial to hopping in and out of bed with the actors and directors. Audiences in the 1910s were totally unaware of their stars’ lifestyles, during a time when the ‘flapper’ was still considered a young prostitute, and a ‘vamp’,an older, more worldly woman was only just acceptable. Overt sexuality, was something that was only seen in the lowest nickelodeons. Mabel Normand is an example of a movie character that was covertly sexual. Mack Sennett presented her as the eternal ingenue, but he ensured that the way she walked, smiled at the camera, ran, and carried herself was mildly provocative. Occasionally, Mack might allow her to be more alluring, and expose her cleavage (as in A Spanish Dilemma).

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“I’m sorry, I have no idea what a flapper is.” Mabel 1914.

Things started to change, as the movie producers began to see sex and bright young things, as a saleable product. They began to push the idea of the flapper, as an emancipated, fun-loving, flirtatious young girl. They also determined to introduce the concept of ‘The Baby Vamp’ – a girl, young in years, who had all the  dangerous sexual allure of an older, sophisticated woman. All of this came on gradually, but, if we want to be more precise, then we might point to Olive Thomas’ role in the 1920 film The Flapper. This is, however, where some blurring occurred between the flapper and the vamp, or more precisely the ‘Baby Vamp’. On top of Olive’s existing titles of ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in The World’, and ‘Everyone’s Sweetheart’ she became ‘The Baby Vamp’, although she died in the same year that The Flapper was released.

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Baby Vamp: Olive Thomas.

In fact, Olive’s mysterious death, along with the equally mysterious deaths of Bobby Harron, and Clarine Seymour that same year, may have, for a while, put a brake on the more adventurous Hollywood stuff. So, when did ‘the flapper’ overtake the thoroughly Edwardian girl, as the femme most likely to succeed?

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Queen of the flappers, Colleen Moore.

Most people would say that the flapper became more prominent, following Colleen Moore’s flapper film Flaming Youth of 1923, and this is probably the best view to take. Although Colleen was not particularly attractive, the part of a skinny girl, in short skirt, sporting bobbed hair, suited her, and suddenly the flapper style was in. However, to say that flapperdom set the world on fire at that time, would be pushing it a bit far. There was reluctance, on the part of the older established Edwardian actresses to adopt the style, and the likes of Mary Pickford and Mabel Normand, at first, resisted the flapper mode. Flappers are associated with the Jazz Age, but the term Jazz Babe, had been coined in the 1910s. When Mabel and Ford Sterling made the film That Ragtime Band in 1913, Jazz was already replacing Ragtime. Mabel, of course, was one of the first Jazz Babes, but it wasn’t until late 1925 that she reluctantly shortened her skirts, bobbed her hair and donned a cloche hat.

 

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Mabel and cloche hat, on the day of  her wedding in 1926.

Mary Pickford held off a bit longer, but there are tales of Mabel’s household staff, in 1923, hiding scissors from her, just in case she bobbed her hair. This might sound a little odd, as Mabel had in that year, appeared in Extra Girl, in which Mabel sports the biggest, longest banana curls ever seen.  The reason is clear; the ingenue style is being parodied and mocked, and the jibe may be aimed at Mary Pickford herself. Nonetheless, the flapper style was much simpler and smarter, while being easier to maintain than the old fussier Edwardian hair and dress styles. Once you’d had your hair bobbed, thrown a skimpy flapper dress, and long string of pearls, over your head, you were good to go. Oh, and don’t forget some very high heels. As stated above, Mabel had even adopted, by 1926, the required fashion accessory of a cloche hat, upon which the Germans, seemingly, modelled their steel helmets.

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Seductress  or flapper? Louise Brooks with Eddie Sutherland.

And, while talking about helmets, we must mention Louise Brooks, whose very hair was ‘the helmet’. Lovely as Louise was, she later ‘disowned’ the helmet, saying, very Jennifer Aniston-like, “That was the world’s most stupidest haircut”. Some see Louise as the greatest of the flappers, and when you see artistic representations of the definitive flapper it is usually modelled on Louise, the reluctant flapper. Ever the individualist, she continued her life with a very long pony tail. Mabel adopted the flapper style, at about the time she began to lose weight and become thinner, due to the progress of her tuberculosis. By 1926, she could use her new gawky look, and exposed legs to comical advantage, and extend her career. In the Roach films, she is seen in some funny situations with one leg, and foot, going one way, and the other going in a different direction. This would have gone unnoticed in earlier films where she wore long skirts.

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Mabel gets gawky in Anything Once. 1926.

In general, the flapper look was for the young, although the adoption of the somewhat silly cloche hat was pretty much universal by the late 1920s. On the average town’s Main Street, you’d have seen most women wearing slightly revamped versions of the old dress styles. Naturally, the bright young things had their own dance called The Charleston, and not many grannies went in for this. One exponent of the dance was Bessie Love, although she was not really billed as  a flapper.

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“There are more cloche hats here than we have in Hollywood!” Dorothy  Mackaill returns to  depression-hit Hull, England in 1931.

 

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Angelic  flapper, Bessie Love, does the Charleston for Dick Barthelmess.

The history of the Malibu/Santa Monica beach house is very interesting. In the early days, when the film studios began arriving in Los Angeles, they were mostly confined to the cheaper areas such as Edendale and certain lower parts of downtown. Generally speaking, Hollywood, Glendale and Pasadena were out. Not only that, but residents of the better areas, would not sell out to ‘the movies’ at any price. For the actors and actresses, the situation was the same as far as lodgings were concerned. Low pay rates meant that, if you worked in Edendale, you lived in Edendale, where there were no niceties, such as drainage, electricity, gas, or paved roads. However, you fell out of bed and into the studio, if you worked at Selig or Keystone.

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They make films here. Semi-rural Edendale, 1914.

One of the lucky ones was Mabel Normand, who, at a starting salary of $125 a week, could afford rooms in a swanky downtown hotel, or the rent for a plantation-style house on Melrose Hill. You could, however, live in Hollywood, at the Hollywood Hotel, if you could stand being closely and constantly watched by the management. Many chose to have their own life out at Santa Monica or Venice, if they could stand life in a shack, and the hour-long trolley ride to the other side of L.A. Some Angelenoes had been gradually building weekend houses out on the coast, and, although fairly rudimentary, actors could sometimes rent them at a low price. So, here we have the beginnings of the famous  Hollywood beach houses. When Minta, Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel Normand, began to hit pay dirt, they decided they’d like weekend beach-houses of their own. Of course, the likes of Mary Pickford and Mabel, knew that Norwegian and Japanese fishermen lived in, and worked out of, the beach-houses, as the Biograph had utilised some of them in their films. The offspring of the Norwegians later got themselves into pictures, while the Japanese got themselves jobs as butlers for the increasingly wealthy movie folk. However, during the Biograph days the Norwegians and Japanese had spent most of their time fighting each other.

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Fishermen’s beach-houses, Santa Monica, early 1900s.

Mabel and the Arbuckles, seem to have acquired beach-houses (or shacks) at around the same time, especially as Roscoe and Mabel loved swimming, and they’d swim from Santa Monica to Venice and back together, every Sunday. Minta did not swim, so stayed home, and got the kettle on. Mabel was often at the Arbuckle’s beach-house, and only used her own, at odd times when she had girlfriends around. Mabel, you might know, never had men stay at any of her houses, just in case they got too settled with their feet under the table. Eventually, it all got a bit much for Minta and Roscoe, as Minta’s relatives would often invite themselves around. Mabel got the hint, and went off to plague other married couples, principally Charlie Chaplin and Mildred Harris.

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Fine dining  down on the beach in 1916 and in 2019.

If you have ever seen the film Fatty and Mabel Adrift, you will have some idea as to the appearance of these beach-houses in the early 1900s. To those that built them, they were virtual palaces, even if they were built from flotsam and driftwood. Eventually, things moved on, and the beach-houses began to be somewhat gentrified, and the number of wealthy people seeking them increased. Demand exceeding supply equals price increase, and those that paid big bucks expected luxury, resulting in the gradual replacement of decrepit lumber shacks with more substantial homes. In the early days it could take over  two hours by road from downtown L.A. to Santa Monica, but now it can take… erm…  just over two hours.

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Fatty and Mabel eat your heart out. This Malibu pad will set you back twenty-plus million.

Flappers and Malibu beach houses, then, grew out of the burgeoning film industry, but although the beach houses remain, the flapper, apart from a half-baked 1960s revival, has not been seen since 1930. We might wonder if they will ever return – as D.W. Griffith used to say “What goes around, comes around.”

Relevant Links

John Bengston,: Old Hollywood :  https://silentlocations.com/2019/02/10/hollywood-snapshots-a-1922-time-machine/

MABEL’S ACQUAINTANCES: LOUISE BROOKS, THE AVATAR THAT FELL TO EARTH. PART 1.

MABEL’S ACQUAINTANCES: DOROTHY MACKAILL

MABEL’S ACQUAINTANCES: LOUISE BROOKS,THE AVATAR THAT FELL TO EARTH. PART 2.

 

Bibliography

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

Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin. 2006, By John Bengston.

 

MABEL AND THE LOUIS B. MAYER CONUNDRUM.

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Louis B. Mayer.

In general, the producers of old (and new) Hollywood are seen as ogres – those whose interests do not reach far beyond nickels and cents. They tended their stars with loving care, until their popularity waned, and the stars found themselves sitting on their backsides outside the studio gate. This is the perennial story, and many would-be stars came to Hollywood with a glint in their eye only to leave with those same eyes filled with tears. Producers, we are told, would only sign those actors and actresses of the ‘mug’ variety, and not just because the gullible type could best play someone other than themselves. They also required those that would toe the studio line, and would not blurt out anything that was detrimental to the company via the press, and ultimately to the paying public.

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“Pretty but dumb.”

This brings us to Mabel Normand, who was gullible enough to immerse herself in any role, but was clearly a prickly customer for studio bosses to deal with. Unusually, she was at the top of her game for eighteen years, and yet she never worked for any of the big studios. The straightforward reason for this might be that her independent manner made her unsuitable for work within a large, impersonal concern. Nonetheless, she survived two terms at Biograph under the callous movie genius, W.D. Griffith, even though she constantly sassed and ridiculed the great man. Clearly, he kept her around for her unique abilities as a tragedienne, but, when Mack Sennett asked for her to join his new comedy unit, he gladly gave her up. At Vitagraph, she had become Vitagraph Betty, and a prime comedienne alongside John Bunny and Flora Finch, although she was eventually ‘let go’ for exposing herself at the studio windows.

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Mabel and John Bunny.  Troublesome Secretaries.

Similarly, she’d only lasted a few hours at Reliance, before dismissal for ‘unacceptable behaviour’. Overall, her language was ‘of the gutter’ with sentences liberally laced with the ‘F’ word, which really was unacceptable in those far off days, when outright cuss words were represented by blasphemies and even euphemisms of blasphemies, such as ‘darned’ and ‘tarnation’. When Blanche Sweet spoke of what Mabel said or did, she always added the suffix “but nobody minded”. She meant, of course, that the players did not mind, but the executives were a just a little furious at her irreverence. In any case, during the early days, performer’s names were not released, and neither did they give personal interviews, so no-one outside the studio need know about this. Later, as the star-system took hold, it was vital to keep actresses, in particular, looking like angelic cherubs that could safely be brought home to mother. Let’s take a look at Mabel’s relationships with the moguls of Hollywood.

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Blanche Sweet: “When Mabel opened her mouth, toads came out, but nobody minded.”

 

Mabel and the big-shots.

Mabel, as we have seen, was the darling of the Biograph performers. When she decided to go off with ‘Mad’ Mack Sennett, to a tiny company with just three actors, one camera and no studio, out in the dusty Wild West, they tried to reason with her, and prevent her from leaving. However, within a year she was the biggest, if not the only, comedy star of that place, now reverently called Hollywood. Most everybody else was back east. Her name became synonymous with Keystone and Mack Sennett, but after a year or so, she was itching to go elsewhere. Mack had a formula from which he never deviated. Sentimentality was out, kicking ass was in. Melancholy, of the Griffith kind, was out, and was only ever included at Keystone for the purposes of sending ‘The Genius’ and his melodrama up. Mabel had been intensively trained at Biograph to carry out dramatic scenes, and this was all now wasted in the cause of slapstick comedy. In early 1916, she bailed out, and went to New York, where she, ostensibly, signed with Keystone’s old distributor, Mutual, now replaced, at Keystone, by Triangle. This might have been just a ruse, but Triangle dragged her back to L.A. where they set her up at The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, in a brand-new studio on the outskirts of Hollywood itself.

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Mabel’s studio on Fountain Avenue.

The opening of the Mabel Normand Studio was the big event of the first decade of American popular films. Not only did the Hollywood performers call to pay homage to the first actor to have their own studio, but the producers likewise attended. Big-shots like Adolph Zukor, might be forgiven for wishing Mabel ill, for she’d once threatened to brain him with a heavy book! What was the world coming to – actresses demanding their own studio, and a thousand a week? Next, they’d be asking the studio to provide costumes! We can imagine the bosses gathered in one corner, glaring over at the actors, plotting to one day spoil their party. It was, however, during the opening party that a certain rising producer, by the name of Sam Goldfish (later Goldwyn) approached Mabel, saying in his best East European English: “Mees Normand, I veery much admire yoour work, and eeef I can eever do anytheeng for you, please let me know.” It is said that Sam was very much in love with Mabel, but this is like saying the sun rises every morning, for almost everyone was in love with Mabel, and those that weren’t adored her.

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Film moguls — Left to Right: Jesse Laske, Adolph Zukor, Sam Goldwyn, Cecile B, deMille, Alf Kaufman, 1916.

Elsewhere on the main stage, Zukor was speaking business with Mack Sennett. Mack was unhappy with Triangle, and was certain the whole rotten edifice would soon come crashing down. He needed a distributor, like Zukor’s Paramount, standing by for when the crash came, so he could still get his films out to the exhibitors. Zukor, of course, paid homage to Mabel, but little is known of what he thought of her. His new signing, Mary Pickford, was present, and would perhaps have been a bit edgy about any attention her star-maker, Zukor, was paying to Mabel. In that same year, nonetheless, Mary wrote of Mabel in glowing terms in her weekly newspaper column. Zukor eventually edited Mabel’s film Mountain Bred, named it Mickey, his daughter,’s nickname, and released it as a world-beater. Zukor, greatly admired her athleticism, despite her illness, and appraised her as:

“A fine athlete [who] could swim, dive, run, jump, box, and—the really important thing—take a fall wonderfully.” 

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Mabel as Mickey.

The star system waxes, wanes, then waxes again.

In early 1917, Sam Goldwyn whisked Mabel away from under the nose of Sennett, while he was occupied with saving his studio from the Triangle collapse. Mabel had done what she had previously done with Mack, when he first began at Keystone. She’d also tried the same with Chaplin, but this had come to naught. Sennett’s saviour was Zukor, who’d judiciously pulled The King of Comedy’s fat out of the fire, by becoming distributor for the new Mack Sennett Studio. While Sam clung on to Mabel, he was also busying himself scooping up all the Hollywood stars.  The big studios, though, had different ideas. They wanted the star-system gone, and they were plotting to put the likes of Chaplin, Pickford, and Fairbanks in their place. No longer were they prepared to have the tail wagging the dog. Unfortunately for them, Chaplin, Pickford, and Fairbanks, joined by Griffith, launched their own distributing company called United Artists. The big-shots retreated, licking their wounds.

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

 

Eventually, Goldwyn was in trouble, the star-system having completely eroded his profits. He handed Mabel back to Sennett, where she immediately began to look for a way out. Although Mabel was now so sick, she could not guarantee to make more than one feature film a year, she began to cast around for a way into a big studio. She got in with Paramount director W.D. Taylor, expecting him to pave her way in. It did not work. On one February night, someone entered Taylor’s house, and put a bullet in him. It looked like Mabel would end her days with Sennett, albeit on some very worthwhile terms. Mabel never stopped looking around for another studio. Pathe were now distributing Sennett films, so no hope there, and, before she could approach the new MGM studios, she was embroiled in the Dines shooting scandal. After completing her film Extra Girl and promoting it nationwide, she was asked to go on tour in a stage play by motion picture and theatre man Al Woods. Although a financial success, and playing to packed houses, the play never gained critical acclaim. Returning to L.A. a million dollars to the better, she bought a Beverly Hills mansion, and briefly retired. Having time on her hands, she began writing letters to, basically, all and sundry, including some to Hollywood dignitaries, and even to obscure shop girls.

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Page 1 Mabel’s Zukor letter.

 

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Page 2  Mabel’s Zukor letter.

 

Adolph Zukor, Syd Grauman and Louis B. Mayer.

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Sid Grauman. He of the mad hair.

She had done the same following the Taylor shooting, and it had been in May 1922, just before she sailed to Europe that Mabel wrote to Adolph Zukor. What actually makes this a letter of some value is the fact that Zukor retained it within his private papers for 55 years. The tone is jokey, but may incorporate some serious business. Zukor, of course, sent his Paramount cohorts to the house of his director, W.D. Taylor, some hours after he was shot. It is thought that they tampered with the evidence in that house, but in what way we do not know. The immediate thought was that they removed evidence connecting Paramount star Mary Miles Minter romantically with Taylor. However, the police found a nightdress with the monogram MMM on it. Zukor’s men obviously missed this, or they had intentionally planted it in a place, where it could be found by the cops. Mabel had arrived on the same morning to recover the so-called ‘Blessed Baby’ letters, effectively her love letters to Taylor. She never found the letters, as someone had stuffed them into one of Taylor’s boots. Were they hurriedly put there by the Paramount men, as the cops entered the house? Further to this, Zukor more or less side-lined Mary Miles Minter, but he also made a move that almost ended the career of Clair Windsor. Having attended a dinner with Taylor, on just one occasion, Zukor proposed to fire her, although he later relented. There was, at the time, a theory that a woman had committed the crime, and, although Zukor at first supported this view, he seems to have later changed his mind. Naturally, his reasons are unknown to us. Could it be that he intended to defend Mabel, and thereby Mack Sennett as well? The whole case was spinning out of control, with Taylor’s butler accusing Mabel, and claims being made that a woman was seen at Taylor’s door at around the time a shot was heard. However, this was an unusually big woman, about the size of Mack Sennett. Mack in drag?

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Mabel with her attorney and the D.A. 1922.

The true nature of Mabel’s letter to Zukor, which should not really have been sent at that time, is difficult to determine. Zukor thought its contents to be ‘friendly’ or he would not have kept the letter. Mabel also mentions Sid Grauman of Chinese Theatre fame, or at least his hair, which she states is similar to hers – wild and woolly that is. Mabel’s friends in Hollywood ran deep and included department store boss Mose Hamberger, as well as Nat Goodwin, known for his famous pier café at Santa Monica. Now we come to someone that we might not expect to be associated with Mabel – Louis B. Mayer. What is the connection with Louis B. Mayer? The connection seemingly came when Mabel worked at, or, perhaps, ran, Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, a studio whose films were distributed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), of whom Mayer was a founder member. Mabel never hit it off with ‘thick-necked’ Irishman Roach, but became (or was already) friendly with Mayer.

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Mabel departed Roach early in 1927, to convalesce from her illness, brought on, probably, by the effects of tuberculosis. However, she never intended to retire from the movies, and remained right there at the centre of Hollywood. She could, of course, have retired, very wealthy, back to Staten Island ensconced in a fancy pad, but she was certain she’d recover and carry on, just as she had in the past. She must have been in talks with MGM, for, in 1928, it was announced that Mabel was making a private film on the set used for MGM’s current film, Our Dancing Daughters, starring Joan Crawford (soon to marry Mabel acquaintance, Doug Fairbanks Jnr). Now if this seems a little unusual, then you’d not be surprised to learn that it was, very, very unusual. Almost certainly, it was Louis B. that approved this use of the set. Stills from Mabel’s film session were published in the newspapers and movie mags, setting her up, potentially, for a new film career. As we know, Mabel died not much more than a year later, but her private film was still very much in the pressmen’s minds. The film set was starkly art deco, and Mabel had, by then, thrown off her Edwardian garb and bobbed her hair. How shocked, then, were the journalists when they were allowed to view the interior of her modern-style Beverly Hills home. Inside, they saw no bright art-deco lounge, but  instead found themselves in a dark Edwardian drawing room, with oriental carpets, heavy drapes and floral patterns everywhere! Mabel had been no thoroughly modern Miss. She was buried in early March 1930, at which a large number of Hollywood producers turned out to be her honorary pall-bearers. One of these was Louis B. Mayer, a big, big producer, and so we have the makings of a conundrum. Were the big boys really against Mabel, or were they among her staunchest defenders?

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A painfully thin Mabel makes her last film, 1928.

 

Time Marches on.

Following Mabel’s death, Mack Sennett’s depression-hit studio bit the dust, while Paramount faltered, and MGM carried on supreme. 1940 saw the dedication of the ‘Mabel Normand Sound Stage’ at Republic Studio, and the release of the film Hollywood Cavalcade, loosely based on Mabel’s life. However, in 1950, a further film was released called Sunset Boulevard, starring an aging Gloria Swanson. This more closely resembled Mabel’s life, and the principle character was called Norma Desmond (seemingly a compound of Normand and Wm. Taylor’s middle name, Desmond). Sunset Boulevard, the street, was by then meant to represent Hollywood, and it was commonly thought that the ‘Mabel Normand Studio’ was located on this road. It wasn’t, of course, and it lay (and still does) on an intersecting road, Fountain Avenue, just outside the Hollywood boundary. The film and its director, Billy Wilder, were much criticised due to the fact that it showed old Hollywood in a bad light.

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Madcap  Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond.

Cracking the Conundrum.

At the of preview of Sunset Boulevard the old silent film producers, many now big wheels in talkies, took exception to way Wilder had portrayed them. None was more enraged than Louis B. Mayer. Jumping from his seat, and staring hard at Wilder, he shouted:

 “ You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!” 

Wilder had taken the worst excesses of Hollywood, without making reference to the best. The film had almost certainly destroyed the reputation of Mabel, beloved and cherished of this parish. What probably upset Mayer the more, was the fact that Gloria Swanson, when interviewed, had said that Mabel had been “Crude and vulgar.” Perhaps Mabel was crude, but the vulgarity must be reserved for Miss Swanson, whose ego rose above her philandering, adultery, and numerous abortions. She would have done better thanking Mabel for revitalizing her dead career.

In conclusion, although it appears that the movie moguls joined forces with the press and authorities in crucifying Mabel, they may, surreptitiously, have been out to defend her, while clearly trying to save their own reputations and studios. Her universal respect within Hollywood, might have stemmed from her gallant and lifelong fight against tuberculosis. However, due to the fact that Mabel was considered to be eternally associated with Mack Sennett, none of the big studio men would ever have considered signing the girl who, after all, had Keystone in her name.

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Relevant Links

THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE TRAMP.

MABEL AND THE DINES AFFAIR.

THE STRANGE DEATH OF THE MABEL NORMAND FEATURE FILM CO.

FINDING MABEL NORMAND IN QUOTES.

 

Bibliography

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

Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook to Her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman.

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

 

 

 

AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A SUPERTRAMP: TALES FROM CHARLIE CHAPLIN. PART 2.

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We left Charlie on his last day in Hollywood. However, it was not to prove the last time he ran into Mabel, who would shadow the tramp’s movements until her death, and, perhaps, beyond.

Chaplin had finished at Keystone, gone to Essanay, Chicago and Niles, but had then been switched to a Boyle Heights studio in L.A., where a certain Mabel Normand was intending to waylay him, and, perhaps, get even with the tramp for his treachery. However, in the rest of his book he only has a fleeting reference to Mabel, in spite of the fact that it would have been impossible to avoid the Queen of Hollywood, so let’s just fill in Chaplin’s blanks here. It was Mabel’s aim to make Charlie feel uncomfortable over his betrayal, although it was clear that Chaplin was in peril for his life from Mack Sennett, and did not want, in any case, to end up as Mr. Mabel Normand. From contemporary press reports, and some insider stories, we can deduce that Mabel would try to embarrass Charlie in any way possible. If he went to any restaurant in L.A., there was Mabel at another table. While Charlie kept his head down, Mabel would wave over to him and sing out “Yoo-hoo, Charlie, it’s me, Mabel.” Charlie had no option, but to acknowledge her. It got worse for Charlie:

Los Angeles times. April 20 1930. Grace Kingsley.

‘The Evolution of the Wild Party.”

“…Mabel Normand, whose death we are now all mourning, was queen in those days. If she was in a café, the party was a success. I remember seeing her one night at [Al “Pop”] Levy’s when Charlie Chaplin was there. She delighted in embarrassing the modest(??), little English comedian. She sat across the room from him and every time she could catch his eye, she would wave gladly and sing out…. “I’ll be your leading lady yet!”

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Spot the stars. Keystoners and others party at Al Levys 1915.

Of course, Chaplin mentions none of this. He does mention, nonetheless, that he and his leading lady, Edna Purviance, were getting romantically attached, but that Edna, unexpectedly, put an end to the whole thing. The mystery is dispelled, somewhat, by the fact that Mabel had, at this time, befriended Edna, and wormed her way into her life. Perhaps, it was something Mabel had said. At the beginning of 1916, Chaplin signed for Mutual for an astonishing $680,000, plus signing bonus, which he proudly acknowledges. He might have acknowledged also that articles were appearing nationwide as follows:

Variety, March 17, 1916

Mabel Normand with Mutual

” It was stated that Mabel Normand had signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corporation on Tuesday afternoon of this week. Miss Normand was closeted with President Freuler for almost an hour late that afternoon, and is said to have affixed her signature to a contract. There is a possibility that she will work in the Chaplin releases.”

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Mabel holds court at  her studio on Fountain Avenue in 1916.

Now, what did Charlie think about that? Well, he had a lucky escape, for Mabel was soon ensconced in The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, under Triangle, with her own studio in Hollywood, over which the name Mabel Normand was emblazoned in five feet high letters. This was the biggest event in Hollywood up to that time, but Chaplin is completely silent on this. He doesn’t seem to have attended the studio opening, and we can imagine the sulking limey pacing up and down his Hollywood pile in a chauvinistic rage. How could a girl have her name over a studio – even he didn’t have that! Chaplin did eventually get some relief, when Mabel was signed to Goldwyn Studios in Fort Lee N.J., 3,000 miles away, in 1917. Chaplin now wandered lonely as a cloud, as the poet might say, but found time to enter some more egotistical nonsense into his book. He has to tell us, of course, that when he went to New York he was greeted all the way by local mayors and brass bands. At the end of 1916, Chaplin signed with First National for $1.2 million, and tells us he bought a $5,000 Locomobile, telling the salesman to “wrap it and send it round.”

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Mabel with  Sam and Charlie  in 1919.

Chaplin makes a great deal of meeting this celebrity and that celebrity at this time, and this takes up most of his book. Then he mentions meeting with Mildred Harris, late 1917, at a beach party given by Sam Goldwyn. Among those present were the beautiful Olive Thomas and others, who would not have included Mabel, as she was still at Sam’s New Jersey studio. Chaplin says that the child actress seduced him – with baby talk. The next part of the story goes unrelated by Chaplin. Well, Mildred was the first of his child brides, and no sooner had he married her, than he caged her within the gilded halls of Castle Chaplin. Unfortunately, by mid-1918, there were three persons in the marriage. Mabel had arrived back in Hollywood, and had soon befriended the 16-year old Mildred, who possessed just about the same youthful mindset as Mabel. When Charlie arrived back from the studio, he was often confronted by the sight of Mabel in his living room. The gilded cage was busted, and Mildred was loose on the town with Mabel, driven around in The Queen’s Pierce-Arrow car, while her allotted $50 flivver stayed in the Chaplin garage. There was little Charlie could do. Mabel’s disarming and charming ways would, like everyone else, leave him lost for words. In any event, to scorn the Goddess of Hollywood would bring the whole place crashing down on his head. Charlie did attend the occasional party, but had never allowed a proper Hollywood party in his own house. With the help of Mabel, Mildred arranged just that, and it was also Mabel that arranged a snowball party for Mildred and Charlie, up on Mount Lowe, in 1919.

Los Angeles Herald, January 21, 1919

Chaplin’s Bride In Snow Battle

How would you like to stage a snowballing party in Southern California? Ridiculous, you say. You’re all wrong, and if you don’t believe it write to Mrs. Charlie Chaplin (Mildred Harris) and ask her about one she and Mabel Normand staged. It was on the top of Mount Lowe, the famous peak of the Golden State, and the two screen queens and a party of friends had a royal time battling with each other. Mrs. Chaplin was captain of one of them and Mabel Normand led the other.”

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Mildred Harris  with  her new chauffeur outside the  Chaplin des res.

By this time, Charlie was much involved with the Fairbankses, Doug and Mary, and, as Mary told it in her book, he would leave one or more of his young, foolish wives with her, while he and Doug went off together in the Beverly Hills. Naturally, Mildred was not her type, but Mabel found her much to her liking. When Mabel’s partying lifestyle was exposed following the Taylor affair of 1922, Mildred publicly defended her. Chaplin said nothing. During this time Charlie became quite friendly with Mabel’s employer, Sam Goldwyn. Charlie admits that Goldwyn had spoken of him in his own autobiography, and reveals:

“Chaplin is no businessman – all he knows is he can’t take anything less.”

Of course, Chaplin goes to great lengths to dispel the business acumen of Mary Pickford. He tells us that at the formation of United Artists (by Fairbanks, Pickford, Griffith and himself) in 1919, he openly ridiculed Mary, who he thought was merely suited to baby-sitting duties for his child brides. Something Charlie never mentions is that he was regarded as an expert on the subject of the enigmatic Mabel Normand. When Mabel fell seriously ill in 1920, Sam called in Dr. Chaplin. He was fearful that Mabel might actually die on his lot.

“Mabel”, said the doctor, “Must be returned to Mack Sennett. Here she is commonplace, and enigmatic. It is a matter of understanding, Mack and Mabel are both as Irish as the banshees.”

Thus it was, that Mabel was returned to Sennett, where she, seemingly, made a full recovery. There was definitely some affection between Charlie and Mabel, but Mabel’s position in the colony meant she could embarrass him at any moment, and send people rolling in the aisles. Chaplin had no answer to this, perhaps because he was not as smart as he thought he was. Hollywood was full of people that would gladly stab the little upstart in the back, and not everyone thought he was a genius. Louise Brooks records having an argument with a friend, when she implied that Hollywood people sat at Chaplin’s feet. The friend replied that this was not so:

“Chaplin”, He said, “Merely goes to where people are already sitting down, and stands in front of them”.

For all his boasting, Chaplin never achieved the affection that was shown to Valentino, Mabel, or, say, Constance Talmadge.

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Charlie meets Ghandi.

One big event of 1921, was the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, where, the actress, Virginia Rappe died during a San Francisco party thrown by Roscoe Arbuckle. Chaplin was in London at the time, personally counting his adoring crowds. However, Charlie publicly supported the ‘innocent’ Roscoe at the time, and in his book, but makes no mention of the W.D.Taylor murder, occurring a few months later, in which Mabel was involved, but completely exonerated. Mack Sennett was the prime suspect, along with Mary Miles Minter and her mother. It was, perhaps, the presence of Sennett’s name in this list that prevented him from mentioning his old employer and his star.

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Lotta talk  about Roscoe.

We now return to Edna Purviance. Chaplin says that, in around 1922, he began to doubt Edna’s suitability to play lead in his movies, due, he claims, to her increasingly matron-like appearance. However, still photos of the time, reveal that she remained a real ‘looker’. Charlie had simply tired of her, and, in common parlance, wanted a ‘new model’, but ditching her would not be easy. Everyone knew that Chaplin owed his position in the movies to his eternal stooge – she who never clamoured for stardom, nor a position of her own. If he actually dumped her, the heavens would open and thunderbolts would fall on his head. Consequently, he sought to ease her into a career of her own. The following account appears in Chaplin’s book among a whole gaggle of nonsense stories. Charlie decided to star Edna in a dramatic film, A Woman of Paris. In reality, the film bombed, as far as Edna was concerned, due to the fact that she did not come up to scratch. On top of that Chaplin tried to introduce psychology and subtle suggestion into a totally silent film. This would have taxed the greatest of actresses, even Mabel with her subtle and sensitive expressions would have struggled.  If he had listened to Mack Sennett’s advice, Chaplin would not have produced a film so nebulous and oblique.

“The silent medium is totally unsuited to the dramatic arts” Quoth the King of Comedy.

Of course, what he was saying was that the silent medium was entirely suited to comedy. Perhaps he was right, for, as soon as sound was developed, the silent drama died, whereas silent comedy continues, if only in short form and pantomime. However, Chaplin, eternally misunderstood, put the blame on the audiences, who, he claims, were not discriminating enough(!).

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Edna eventually departed, according to Charlie, to make a film in Italy, which flopped. He fails to mention, nonetheless, the shooting of Courtland Dines on New Years Day 1924. It seems that Edna thought she was all washed up, and set out to snare millionaire oilman Courtland Dines, and, it is believed, they were betrothed to marry. Unfortunately, as in the Taylor case, this turned out to be a three-way affair. Unbeknown to Edna, Dines was seeing Mabel behind her back. Possibly, Mabel, believing her own career in jeopardy (although having had a success with Extra Girl) had decided to grab the millionaire for herself. Arguments erupted between Mabel and her millionaire, perhaps over the fact that Mabel was coy about marriage. If this was so, then it suggests Mabel’s intention was merely to deprive Edna of Courtland Dines. Rough justice for stealing Charlie Chaplin, ten years previously. On that fateful day in 1924, Mabel’s chauffeur went to collect her from Dines’ apartment, where she was drinking with Edna and Courtland. Courtland made some facetious remark about Mabel, and the chauffeur fired three shots, at him from a gun, one of a pair owned by Mabel. Turned out the chauffeur was an escapee from the chain gang, working under a false name. Edna and Mabel’s lives were raked over during the trial, which resulted in Mabel going on tour to save her film, while Edna sank into obscurity, and was put on a lifelong pension by Chaplin. Over the next few years, Mabel collected a million from the film, then, a similar sum from a theatre tour. Chaplin of course mentions none of this, except the pension in isolation.

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The early days: Charlie and Edna.

Going completely off the rails, Charlie then goes on about being chased around by screen siren Pola Negri, who was out to marry him, but Edna had, it seems, completely disappeared from his mind. During 1924 he had married his second child bride, Lita Grey, whose name he appears to have completely forgotten. In 1925, he was in New York premiering the Gold Rush, and here his memory again failed, and he forgot that, during this time, he had a two-month-long affair with Ziegfield Follies star Louise Brooks, while Lita Grey was in Hollywood having their second child. Chaplin and Brooks got caught out by the press, so Charlie did the honourable thing, and dropped Louise like she was a rabid scorpion. It was a hot year in New York, so Chaplin fled the city for Brighton Beach, while a certain gold-digging Helen Carruthers (remember her from part 1?),  now a baroness, tumbled from a 5th floor hotel window in the city, and was killed. Charlie was lucky, for he was in Mabel territory, but the Queen was busy, 3,000 miles west, buying curtains from her new Beverly Hills abode.

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Mabel outside her Beverly Hills pile in 1925.

 

Regaling us about his life back in Hollywood, Charlie slips back into celebrity mode, and, in particular tells us of his acquaintance with Randolph Hearst, and mistress, Marion Davies. Mostly he talks about Hearst’s wealth, and goes into detail about the palace beach house he built for Marion Davies, out at Santa Monica. He does mention the death of producer Tom Ince, on board Hearst’s yacht at Catalina Island in 1924. Commonly, it is supposed that Chaplin was aboard, when Ince died, and a legend grew up that Ince was shot when Hearst found him with Marion Davies. He had supposed that Ince was Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin denies being on board that day. Staying on the celebrity scene, Charlie goes into his friendship with Albert Einstein, which might seem a curious thing. Did he think some of the scientific genius might rub off on him? Possibly, but the newspapers of the time painted the limey egg-head as more of ‘a jumped-up guttersnipe’. Chaplin also talks of his meeting with Ghandi, as a moment for great celebration.

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One genius — two views.

Amnesia sets in hard.

Everyone knows that Al Capone was jailed for income tax evasion in 1929, but how many know that Chaplin would have preceded him, in 1927, if he had not handed over a million bucks to the I.R.S. Under investigation also, were Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand. Marion Davies was to be given an even bigger penalty in the 1930s. Chaplin forgot all of this. One person that received no mention, at least in the main body of his book, was Stanley Jefferson, otherwise known as Stan Laurel. Stan, of course, was at the Karno Company with Charlie, but the latter seemed to have forgotten that Stan was later in the American theatre, and in Hollywood in the movies. Chaplin never acknowledged any of Stan’s letters sent to him. Stan had, in the mid-1910s, appeared in a theatre group called The Keystone Trio, where he played Chaplin and his friend played Ford Sterling, while his wife played Mabel Normand.

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The Keystone Trio.

This might have irritated Charlie, but his real fear was that Stan might reveal that his characters, such as the tramp, were actually stolen goods. Mabel never chided Stan for his own indiscretions, and when Stan became her screen-writer and director at Roach Studios 1926/27, she graciously donated her ‘dumb face’ and ‘hair scratch’ to him, giving him a second chance at an acting career. As related in Part 1 of this blog, Stan thought Chaplin to be insane, as well as egotistical and downright ignorant. Then, in early 1930, Charlie really did seem to go off his rocker, ranting and raving around his studio, and having retakes of scenes for his film City Lights by the dozens. Something had flipped in his brain, and, although he’d agreed with his backers, to make the film at least a partial talkie, he now asserted that it would be completely silent. His new star, Virginia Cherril bore the brunt of his rages, as he threatened to fire her, implying that he would sign a

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A smug Charlie with his  ‘colleen’ Paulette Goddard.

dark-haired star. What had happened? What had happened was that on 23rd February 1930, right on the watershed between silents and talkies, the last big event of the silent era had occurred, the death of one Mabel Normand. Everyone was shocked, Roscoe Arbuckle went completely silent, Adolph Zukor and other movie moguls slipped quietly aboard the L.A. bound train from New York, and Charlie became inconsolable, and it was some hours before he was able to give his eulogies to the press. It was at this point that Chaplin decided Cherril must go, but too much filming had already been carried out, and he had to keep her on. Chaplin, it seems, had always intended on making his peace with Mabel, but now it was too late. Her tribute was the last completely silent feature length movie – ever. Naturally, Charlie fails to mention Mabel’s death or funeral, at which he was honorary pall-bearer, alongside the other big-name producers.

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The good and the great of Hollywood,  Lew Cody, L.B Mayer, Judge James, E. Pallette,  C. Chaplin, S. Graumann,  D. Fairbanks, A. Goebbel, D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett,and  S. Goldwyn convey Mabel Normand to her final resting place in March 1930.

Chaplin’s tales from the thirties have much to do with the Fairbankses, and other celebrities that he either bowed to, or dismissed as dummies. For instance, Orson Welles wasn’t too bright, Norma Talmadge was hopeless, but he seemed glad that Doug and Mary had split up. They had, like Chaplin, become somewhat reclusive, following the Dines scandal. Charlie might not have known it, but Courtland Dines went crazy in around 1933, and was committed to an asylum. Something left from his book was his involvement with Walt Disney’s cartoon Snow White, featuring a dark-haired star, at a time when blonds were all the rage. Curiously, her features were those of Mabel. Chaplin seemed to have finished with blonds, and cast dark-haired beauty Paulette Goddard to co-star in Modern Times. She could be described as a Mabel lookalike, with a personality that was of the Irish variety (although she was Jewish). She was as sassy, irreverent and impish as Mabel had been. Chaplin made the mistake of marrying his pseudo-Mabel, for she proved as prickly and argumentative, as the real thing, and divorce was inevitable. Paulette had constantly harassed Chaplin to get her into one of the big studios, while ‘resting’ between Chaplin films. However, Paulette did not have the personal charm of Mabel, and when she’d previously pulled the same strokes as Mabel, at Goldwyn’s Studio, Sam G did not respond in the same way that he had with Mabel. Paulette was, nonetheless, considered for the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. She was eventually rejected, on the grounds of “her absurd attitude towards the company executives, the press and the public.” Mabel had walked the tightrope, but Paulette simply dropped off. Eventually, Charlie found his Mabel in Oona O’ Neil, whom he married. Oona had the gaiety of a dark Irish girl, but without the ‘blarney’ of a true colleen, and so, as Disney might have said, they lived happily ever after.

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Mabel and Charlie. Their final photo, 1928.

Conclusions.

Chaplin’s autobiography runs to almost five hundred pages, but at least half of it is filled with nonsense stories and delusions of grandeur. As stated in Part 1, this is not unusual for a Hollywood autobiography, but we might wish that there were more concrete facts and less nonsense. The tales he relates are important to him, so clearing his name in the Joan Barry case over-rides his need to recall his wife’s name and the scandalous affairs with the likes of Louise Brooks. Telling the true story of his relationship with Mabel Normand could have undoubtedly put his life in danger, but he does not say enough to dismiss her totally. Unfortunately, Richard Attenborough (Chaplin) and  Paul Merton (History of Hollywood)  thought he had said enough to crucify her.  We might dismiss their films as being ‘intellectually lazy’, as they failed to take into account Chaplin’s contemporary comments on her talents as a comedienne, and her lifelong struggle against tuberculosis.

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Tramp meets  tramp in The Fatal Mallet.  

Chaplin, of course, thought he was a genius, if not in terms of his professional prowess, then in his ability to convince people that he was, in some way, ‘superior’.  Although Chaplin was a melancholy fellow, little of this shows through in his Keystone films. There was, naturally, little room for another tragedian (or in this case tragedienne) in the Mabel films, at least. Over-riding everything was the need to please Sennett, which brings us to the tramp. Chaplin’s main character had always been The Drunk, a role that he’d inherited from his father.  At Keystone, he found he needed something else, and that ‘something else’ had to get Mack Sennett laughing. Mack Sennett, as we know, had his own unkempt, hobo-like character, so why not imitate this? Consequently, he adopted Sennett’s tight jacket, baggy trousers, and jaunty derby hat, but made him a little more quaint, by adding his master-stroke, the shuffling gait. Chaplin says that he just fell into this role straightaway, and the reason is clear — the tramp always appears to be inebriated.  His actions are those of someone that is either drunk (Mabel’s Strange Predicament), stoned (Mabel’s Busy Day), or just plain out of his mind (A Film JohnnieModern Times).  These kinds of crazy characters have universal appeal and are very funny, and Chaplin never strayed far from the Sennett formula of ridicule and burlesque (still apparent in The Great Dictator.)  Mack Sennett’s ‘dirty shirt’ character, by the way, was always derided by the critics and his fellow actors, but his simple-minded ‘lonesome Luke’ character, Faithful, of 1911, survives today — only now he is called ‘Mr. Bean’.

Beyond Keystone, Chaplin suddenly remembered pathos and melancholy, but he applied it as a veneer to his films, rather than indulging in full-blown, screaming tragedy. Here it must be left to others to determine if  people sat at Chaplin’s feet, or whether he simply  stood in front of those already sitting down.

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Relevant Links:

CHARLIE & MABEL’S RELATIONSHIP: THE TRUTH IN QUOTES. PART 1.

CHARLIE & MABEL’S RELATIONSHIP: THE TRUTH IN QUOTES. PART 2.

Faithful 1911, Mack Sennett

MABEL AND TRICKY DICKY (ATTENBOROUGH).

MABEL AND THE DINES AFFAIR.

Bibliography.

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

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

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

 

 

 

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A SUPERTRAMP: TALES FROM CHARLIE CHAPLIN.PART 1.

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Charlie plays at being a dude in his Karno days.

The  first part of the title of this article comes from a book, written by W.H. Davies, and  published in 1908, with a preface by George Bernard Shaw. Davies was a Welshman, who left his homeland, as a young man, for the United States, where he became a hobo, illegally riding  the railways, to cross the continent. After eventually being thrown from a train by the guards, and losing his leg, he retired from tramping. Hobos of course, led a much more precarious and violent life than the English tramp, and it was these traits that Chaplin incorporated into his own Hobo-Tramp hybrid.

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An avatar at home.  The arresting Louise Brooks.

 

Lies and Misrepresentations.

It was around 1950 that a plethora of autobiographies of the silent stars began to appear. Former star Louise Brooks had prepared a manuscript, detailing her life in Hollywood, and all the bad things that went on in the Town of Dreams. Probably due to the furore surrounding the film Sunset Boulevard, Louise decided to throw the whole thing on the fire. Suspecting that a gun barrel might come through her window one dark night, she embarked on a tamer version of the autobiography, later to be published as Lulu In Hollywood. Then, in 1954, came Mack Sennett’s King of Comedy, which was intended to perpetuate the notion of a clean, innocent Hollywood, and deflect criticism of his Star-of-Stars, Mabel Normand. If people were expecting a warts and all expose, then they were wrong — as Louise said “There’s not one word of truth in the whole damned book.”. Another autobiography, much anticipated, was Mary Pickford’s book, Sunshine and Shadow, published in 1957. Again, there was nothing in the work, which trod on Hollywood’s toes, and, if film-goers were expecting a revelation, then they were mistaken. The public had expected a severe criticism of her ex-business partner, Charlie Chaplin, with his communistic leanings, and passion for child actresses – there was nothing. It was to be 1963, before Chaplin himself published an account of his life. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the book, which gives any new material, or an insight into Hollywood’s inner sanctum. Journalist Adela Rogers St. John’s autobiography, who claims to have known Mabel and Charlie well, adds little, but some quotes from Chaplin, which are of some use, although uncorroborated:

“(Mabel) who was born, Charlie Chaplin once said to me, with the gift of laughter, knowing more about comedy and comedy routine than any of the rest of us will ever learn.”

This is an interesting comment, supposing it is true.

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Charlie with Mary and Doug Fairbanks.

Having said that, some information can be obtained from the pages of Chaplin’s book, by inference and implication, drawn on what Chaplin had written. In other words, by reading between the lines. When Chaplin began his book, probably in 1959, Mack Sennett was still alive, and so there was little hope of learning much about his Keystone days, which is completely true.

What did Chaplin hope to achieve by writing his Autobiography?

The obvious reason for writing the autobiography was to clear his name in regards to his politics, and his involvement with young girls. However, his sheer bloody-mindedness, and burgeoning ego, prevented him from carrying this out in an effective manner. He claimed to be giving a true account of his life, but he left a lot out, and misrepresented the rest. For instance, he totally forgot about his two-month affair in New York with Louise Brooks, even though it was well-reported in the press that this had occurred, while his wife, Lita Grey, was having their child in Los Angeles. Brook’s career in the U.S. was seriously damaged by this, and the allegation that she’d posed naked in photographs did not help. Chaplin dropped her like a hot potato, and, in his autobiography, he’d totally forgotten he’d ever had a wife called Lita Grey. It’s interesting to ponder whether Mabel had a hand in having Louise edged out of Hollywood society. She was, after all, the de facto figure-head of what we might call The Biograph Gang, that intrepid band of ex-Biograph and Vitagraph actresses that decided who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’ in Hollywood. Louise was out, little Mae Marsh (for all her success) was out, and, later, Clara Bow was out. Louise, nonetheless, half-ingratiated herself with Tinseltown, briefly, by marrying ex-Keystone Cop and director, Eddie Sutherland. Louise, as everyone knows, ended up as an arthritic cripple, working in an L.A. department store, and later as a bargain-basement call girl in New York.

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1925 and Louise and Charlie are in trouble with the press.

Smoke and Mirrors.

  1. Early life and madness.

Quite how much of his early life is misrepresented, we do not know. In the 1940s, Chaplin was investigated by the British and American intelligence services, who concluded that he was an Eastern European Jew, that came to Britain as a young boy. Like Mabel, he had no birth certificate, and he was, subsequently, thrown out of America. One thing is certain, and that is that he was very fond of the ladies, and in this, as in so many other ways, he was a mirror image of Mabel, who had a great passion for men. He claims to have been unsuccessful with women, until he created The Tramp, but this is, surely, another load of egotistical nonsense. Mary Pickford was adamant about this; Chaplin was a Butterfly Man for women, and she described his appearance in her autobiography, on the day when she first saw the theatre star, at restaurant in 1912. He had black wavy hair, a sensitive face, small hands, and the air of a bohemian poet or artist about him. She and her friends almost swooned over Charlie, but Mary did not speak to him, as they had not been introduced! As Charlie says in his book, it was Mabel who finally introduced Mary to him, saying:

“Charlie, meet Hetty Green!”

Hetty Green was a contemporary millionairess, that devoted her life to making money, to the exclusion of everything else, and this tells you everything about Mary Pickford.

Other Charlie tales include his non-affair with Hetty Kelly in London, and his love for American actress Marie Doro, which he never pursued. Both of these things are unlikely, except that Marie Doro was then a great theatrical star that might well have rejected the low ‘extra boy’. During Chaplin’s years, at Karno’s Music hall troupe, he had, for three years, a room-mate. His name was Stanley Jefferson (Stan Laurel), and he had a particular view of Chaplin. At some point in 1957, Stan sent a letter to a friend, in which he said Charlie displayed distinct signs of insanity. This, to some extent, aligns with what we know of Chaplin, although today we are more likely to judge him autistic, and, in this case, we really are seeing a mirror image of Mabel, who must surely have been autistic, and probably ADHD as well. We know Charlie’s mother had acute psychological problems, so it seems likely that Charlie hovered on the edge of madness.

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Stan’s letter about Charlie.

  1. Relationships at Karno.

We have already seen what Stan Laurel thought about Chaplin. However, it seems that, at Karno Music Hall Company, he was regarded as egotistical and impossible to get on with. In his autobiography, Mack Sennett tells us Chaplin had been a ‘dude’ before he arrived at Keystone. By this he meant that Chaplin had ideas above his station, and lived, dressed, and spoke like he was some kind of lord. Although the guy was ‘cheap’, he always ensured that he wore a silk dressing gown around his apartment, and was seen playing the violin (he was, apparently, as good on the violin, as Mabel was on the piano, i.e. he was almost at concert standard). It is often said that Chaplin had a cockney accent when he came to Keystone, but it seems that his developed speech had more of the Cavendish Square about it than the Whitechapel High Street. In plain English, he had become a ‘snob’. Overall, Charlie, who after all was the star of Karno, was seen as egotistical and pig ignorant. When he left Karno, according to Charlie, some of the cast told him they had had a whip round for a leaving present, knowing that Charlie would be all excited about getting something for nothing. The leaving present, however, was merely a nicely wrapped tobacco tin containing a few bits of grease paint and a couple of cigarette butts. What it implied was “Don’t come back!”

  1. Go to Keystone, young man.

One of the abiding mysteries of the Silent Era, is how Chaplin came to be at Keystone. Mack always said that he and Mabel had seen Charlie at a New York theatre, and ear-marked him to replace Keystone star Ford Sterling. Later, Mabel said she could not remember who signed Chaplin to the studio. Chaplin himself stated that he’d been signed by Keystone big bosses, Kessell and Baumann. The latter explanation seems the most likely, although Baumann’s movie and theatre-mad daughter, Ada, might have first spotted Chaplin. One thing seems clear – Mack Sennett did not want the vaudevillian limey at his studio, and for two simple reasons. Firstly, Mack had an intense dislike of theatre stars, having been rejected by the theatre in his youth. Secondly, Chaplin was not just a vaudevillian, he was also a young chap that was a bit too attractive to the ladies. As Mack points out in his own autobiography, leading ladies were oft to run off with the leading man – sometimes to another studio, and he’d already noticed that Mabel was somewhat keen on the limey (perhaps having already heard of him via Mary Pickford).

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An awkward moment as  Charlie Chaplin runs into  Mack Sennett at the funeral of D.W. Griffith.

There is a letter from Charlie Baumann to Mack Sennett dated 4th June 1915, in which he advises Sennett to get Chaplin back – “even if you hate his guts.” This seems to just about sum up the Chaplin-Sennett relationship. According to Mabel, around August 1913, she had noticed a letter in Mack’s office from Head Office in New York, telling him to get down to a certain theatre in L.A. and meet up with Chaplin. The letter was three weeks old, and Mabel knew that Charlie was in town at that very moment. She asked Mack why he hadn’t been to see Chaplin, and, indeed, why he hadn’t told her about the letter. Mack made some excuse, and said he’d forgotten about it. Clearly, he had intended to let Chaplin ‘wither on the vine’.

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Mabel at the wheel  of Mack’ s Stutz race car.

Charlie, Mack and Mabel.

Charlie talks about meeting Mack and Mabel, in a Los Angeles theatre  he was at, in around late August 1913, and after he’d signed in New York. He says that he was just watching a show, but Mack and Mabel claim that he was actually appearing in the show, and Mack went to see Charlie backstage. He left Mabel outside on the footway, due to Mabel being very shy with new people, and she was, in fact, an introvert, which is something we will come to in a moment. Mack brought Charlie out of the theatre to meet Mabel, and a very uncomfortable moment followed, as the two introverts met. Yes, Charlie was also very shy, and if you think Mabel was an extrovert, then she only became outward-going under the tutelage of Mack Sennett. Inside she was introverted, and even timid, according to Mint Arbuckle and Madge Kennedy. Charlie reports in his book that Mabel said little, when the trio went for a meal at a restaurant, in Mack’s racing Stutz, and simply kept her head down, peeking out from under her famous heavy eyelids. Mack must have sensed some chemistry between Charlie and Mabel, though, and, according to Charlie, he said he thought Charlie was too young to be able to replace his other actors like Ford Sterling, who was an ancient 31 years old! (Chaplin claimed he was 45). It must have been obvious to Charlie, as to why he was ‘too young’ but he says that he told Sennett he could make up to look older. The only words Mabel uttered was that she thought he’d do just fine. Mack dropped Charlie off at his hotel, but it is not recorded if Mabel gave him the ‘Mae West look’.

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“I’m gonna kill that Chaplin.”

Charlie admits to feeling a little dubious about going to Keystone, especially as Mack had just made a film in which he sets out to kill a tin-type, who’d run off with his girl. The film was Mabel’s Dramatic Career, and the girl was Mabel. Charlie says he waited outside for two days without entering the lot, and it seems he was hoping that Mabel would be present when he went in. He never saw her, and Sennett later phoned him to find out why he’d not shown up. Charlie made some excuse, and Mack told him to come down straightaway, and they’d be waiting for him. By ‘they’ Charlie assumed he meant Mack and Mabel, which was fine, as his enquiries probably suggested that to meet Mack alone would be… erm…. dangerous for his health. It’s likely that Kessell and Baumann had been telegraphing to find out if Charlie had begun work yet. It is also likely that the telegraph wires between Los Angeles and New York were glowing red hot, as Mack tried to get the limey ‘unsigned’. In any event, for the first week, Charlie was completely ignored by Mack, and, although he saw Mabel around the lot, she avoided looking directly at him. Mack was dangerous to everyone, including his star of stars, who knew of the arguments going on between L.A. and New York.

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Mabel is not impressed by  Mack’s ‘spiel’.

Eventually, Charlie was put to work under Henri ‘Pathe’ Lehrman and George ‘Pops’ Nichols, who in later years often played Mabel’s father. Lehrman, was a prickly customer, who upset everyone, except, according to himself, a certain Virginia Rappe. Pops Nichols was a rough and tough character who brooked no nonsense, but seems to have possessed little intelligence, according to Charlie. Mack and Mabel were away on location at this time, but we do not know where. As far as we can tell, almost the entire company were at the studio, which means it was just Mack and Mabel ‘on location’. It was certainly no holiday, and there is just the slightest hint that they went to meet up with the New York bosses, perhaps about the Chaplin situation. A return trip to New York would take the best part of two weeks, so perhaps they all met up somewhere midway, and a place like Kansas City would seem a likely location.

His new job.

When Mack and Mabel had returned to the studio, Mack was looking to get Charlie into some proper films, and even ones including Mabel – perhaps on the orders of Kessell and Baumann. Something had happened, for, as Charlie says, Mack asked him to contribute to the film Mabel’s Strange Predicament. Naturally, Mack was looking for some help with slapstick gags. He already had his star, Mabel, and just needed someone to provide ‘filler’ to the picture. Although Chaplin gets a bit egotistical about his role in the picture, we have to remember that he was not actually a trained actor, or actor of any kind. He was a knockabout Music Hall comic. Although Chaplin claims that he’d been acclaimed a great actor in the London press, there is no evidence for this today. In fact, he first found prominence as the drunk in the Karno Company. In the event, Charlie did a good job of the first scene in a hotel lobby. He is with Mabel as a drunken tramp-like character in the first ten seconds of the scene, but, when Mabel leaves, Charlie carries on for a further 30 seconds, before there is cut to Mabel and boyfriend for 22 seconds. We then get another 30 seconds of Charlie, before Mabel returns to the lobby. Charlie’s role as the drunk is very good, as we might expect, but in his book, Charlie claimed he had a clear scene of almost 60 seconds to himself. This was not strictly true, and he has missed one small point, and that is that Mabel has her own scene, which cuts into his, and she also appears with the drunk. We do not know if Chaplin did 60 seconds straight off, which was then cut into by Mabel’s scene, or if the 60 seconds was actually filmed in two halves. One thing is certain – Charlie did not expect us to be watching the film a hundred plus years later.

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Mabel goes into  a Griffith routine as Charlie catches her in her pajamas.

After filming, Chaplin says that a row blew up between himself and Henri Lehrman over the fact that Lehrman wanted to cut most of his lobby scene out. He claims that Lehrman had directed the picture, but Mack always said that he directed the film, and, indeed, you can see ‘the fake Frenchman’ (as he was known) as an extra in the lobby scene and outside the hotel. It does seem that Mack thought the scene worth keeping, especially as Kessell and Baumann were watching closely as to how Chaplin got on. It should be carefully noted that Chaplin was fully integrated into the picture, although he just started out as a drunk in the lobby scene, and his integration interfered with the continuity of the film.

Exactly whose idea it was to keep Charlie and Mabel apart for the next two months is not known. However, we might suppose that Mabel herself was annoyed at the slack Charlie was being cut. Inevitably, nonetheless, they had to work together again. As Charlie recalled, the film was Mabel At The Wheel starring, of course, Mabel Normand. Charlie was upset (the poor dear) when he arrived on set and found Mabel behind the camera. It seems Mabel was out to keep Charlie down, and it could have been her that dictated he did not wear the tramp costume. Naturally, the misogynistic Chaplin would not want to be directed by a girl, but when he learned the subject matter of the picture, he went berserk. The story was of an emancipated girl, who takes her boyfriend’s drive in a race and beats all the male drivers. If Charlie thought he was going to slapstick himself into another long scene he was mistaken. In the film Chaplin Richard Attenborough puts these words into Mabel’s mouth:

“Charlie, this is not a film about being funny with a hose!”

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And nor was it. The film had a strong story-line, and was designed to combine drama with comedy. Filled with supercilious rage, Chaplin went on strike and refused to budge until he could get his own way. Mabel was unmoved, and when Charlie began to get a little antagonistic, the crew moved in to punch the limey’s lights out, for having the audacity to disrespect their Queen. Mabel, it appears, stopped them, and ordered a return from Santa Monica to the studio. Chaplin says Mabel was dumbfounded, but it seems clear that she had expected this nonsense, and in fact, had laid a trap for the arrogant limey. If Chaplin had been more astute, he would have noticed a small plain-faced girl among the players. Her name was Ada Baumann, and she was later to be the National Figure-Skating Champion, but she was also the daughter of big boss-man, Charlie Baumann. Baumann himself was in L.A. that day on business, and probably listening out for a call from Ada, apparently a plant, as to what was happening at the studio. He was backing Chaplin against Sennett, who had been getting too big for his boots (in fact they had private detectives watching his every move). When the phone rang, it was Ada, telling him that Chaplin had been fired by Sennett. Baumann swung into action, and began banging heads together. According to Chaplin, Sennett came into his dressing room and more or less fired him. It was the end of the line for Charlie – Sennett had won. Or had he? Baumann seems to have thumped the table, and told Sennett to comply, and he may have even threatened to close the studio. Charlie said he himself remained calm, but this is highly unlikely. Whether he realized he was being used as a pawn in the battle between Baumann and Sennett, no one can say, but the other partners won the chess game against Mack. Chaplin would stay. Nonetheless, Chaplin went into another egotistical tirade, and he claims he told Sennett Mabel was too young to direct. This of course is ridiculous, simply because Mabel was less than three years younger than Charlie, but had been in movies for almost five years. He claims that he persuaded Sennett to let him direct, but it seems that orders to let the limey do so came from on high. Chaplin implied that Mack had no option but to keep him on, because his films were making big money. Mack, of course, did not work like this – if he did not like someone, he simply tore up their contract. Ford Sterling, Fred Mace, and Gloria Swanson all went in this way. The King of Comedy always thought he could simply pick anyone off the street, and hammer them into a star. Did he not do this with Mabel? Well, not quite!

Getting on.

Both Mabel and Charlie were probably glad that the bad vibes had subsided, and they were soon together in Caught in A Cabaret in which Charlie is a tramp-like waiter, and Mabel, unusually, a debutante. So, what does Chaplin say about this association. Well, in his book, he begins with a physical description:

“Sweet Mabel – at the time she was only twenty (twenty-two actually, Charlie), pretty and charming, everybody’s favourite, everybody loved her.”

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? What he was implying was that Mabel was a ‘dumb broad’, a pretty face, and precious little else, meaning of course that HE was a genius. However, this is the genius that didn’t realise that Mabel At The Wheel needed no gagging up. It really was not a film about being funny with a hose. We might forgive Charlie, though, as, at this time, he wasn’t an actor, he was merely a slap-sticker, who had never received any training in the acting discipline. His first films contained little but slapstick, and of a crude and nasty kind. Mind you, he says that he had a lot of great ideas, which he did not use, because the dumb public would not understand them. Well, perhaps we are dealing with an intellectual of the greatest magnitude, after all.

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“We’re going ballistic Mabe!”

There can be no doubt that Charlie had been informed as to the basic premise of the Keystone films.  However,  he said that they used the same old rigmarole of falling off trollies, jumping in rivers, and off of piers.  He mentions the method used in Keystones, such as indicating that someone was going to marry someone else, by pointing at someone, then themselves, then at their ring finger. Chaplin found this to be a joke, and, of course, it was. The joke was on dramatic film makers, and principally on D.W. Griffith, who formulated these methods of silent communication. It cannot be the case that Chaplin did not understand that Keystone’s prime methods were ‘send up’ and burlesque.

Chaplin makes much of the fact that Sennett began to take him to dinner every night, but fails to tell us that Sennett did this for the same reason that he took Mabel to dinner every night – that is, to keep an eye on her. Chaplin says that when Mack inevitably fell asleep, he and Mabel would creep off into the night, and return later to wake him up. Was he oblivious to the fact that, while Mack snoozed, his private dicks were very much wide awake, and tailing the young lovers? To Mabel, this was just a way of poking Sennett in the belly, as were the times when they’d cease work, ‘steal’ a company car and take off for some fun in the city (not mentioned by Chaplin). As Chaplin talks about these things, he uses some strange words that suggest he’d swallowed a dictionary and a thesaurus. On Mabel he said:

“The he-man atmosphere of the studio would have been almost intolerable, but for the ‘pulchritudinous’ influence. Mabel Normand’s presence of course graced the studio with glamour…… she was light-hearted and gay, a good fellow, kind and generous; and everyone adored her.”

How often do we hear the word ‘pulchritudinous’ used in day to day life? How pompous would we sound if we used such verbiage among our friends? Chaplin uses such high-brow nonsense throughout his book. Unfortunately, in this respect, Mabel took up Charlie’s tones, and was greatly criticised in the 1920s for her aristocratic way of speaking – totally unsuited to “someone (or something) that had only recently crawled from the New York gutter”. Charlie, of course, took up many of Mabel’s ways and methods, and more of this later.

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 Life in a dressing room.

In one respect, Charlie was extremely fortunate. He had unlimited access to Mabel’s dressing room, which even the ‘old man’ didn’t have. Mabel’s bungalow dressing room (the envy of her old Biograph friends) was comfortable, heated, ventilated, and just what any pseudo-aristocrat would require. The pair would spend many hours in conference in the dressing room during working hours, but would get together after work, while waiting for Mack to take them dinner (lucky old Charlie – a free meal!). It is known that some people, like Henri ‘Pathe’ Lehrman, were listening at the windows, to try to get some dirt to dish on Charlie. In his own autobiography, Mack said that Lerhman told him Charlie and Mabel were in love, but he didn’t believe it. In all probability ‘The King of Comedy’ did believe it, and renewed his resolve to get rid of Chaplin. Chaplin himself relates this story about his relationship with Mabel:

“Such propinquity (what!) one might think, would result in romance, but it did not; we remained, unfortunately, only good friends.”

He later said: “I kissed her – once.”

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How a star lived in the 1910s. Mabel’s Keystone dressing  room.

Well, we might think more than once, although they had to be careful of drawing the attention of ‘throat slasher’ Sennett. According to Charlie, Mabel said to him:

 “Charlie, you are not my type, and neither am I yours.”

Talk about getting things twisted, Charlie was just her type, as she’d more or less moved away from the hunky, tree-swinging he-men that roamed the Keystone lot. She was no longer a silly 16-year old, and she needed men that were more intellectual, and sans gorilla hands. Charlie may have been fake, but Mabel was smitten by him, and he was smitten by her. It was in May that the pair really got together, and, by that time, Chaplin had been associated with several actresses on the lot. He claims that he and Film Johnnie starlet, Peggy Pierce, became lovers, but for some reason she broke the association off. No doubt he had also had liasons with Peggy Page, Dixie Chene, Virginia Kirtley and others, but, probably, seeing he had a chance with The Keystone Girl herself, he set out to snare her. On the other hand, Mabel, finding him to her liking, decided to snare him.

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Mabel kicks ass. Mabel’s Busy Day.

 

A Busy Day.

Forgetting about whatever else happened in the dressing room, what did Mabel and Charlie discuss in relation to their films? They worked on two films early on, in which they directed each other – Caught in A Cabaret, and Mabel’s Busy Day, neither mentioned by Chaplin, as might be expected, due to the fact that he didn’t direct alone. In Caught in A Cabaret Charlie gets into tramp mode, complete with shuffling walk and a pet dog. The tramp (actually a waiter), of course, is getting more violent and nasty, while Mabel is a gorgeous debutante, on the verge of coming out. The contrast between the lovely Mabel and the tramp could not be more obvious, although Charlie eventually plants a pie in Mabel’s face. Mabel’s Busy Day is completely different, with Mabel as a street-vending girl, and Charlie as a swarve masher. This time, Mabel wears the big shoes, more than a foot long, which she uses very effectively to kick Charlie and the cops in the ass. Mabel, however, cuts a tragic figure, and brings a veneer of melancholy to the picture. Her tattered skirt, overly tight and outdated bodice, along with a pompous hat, send the message that this poverty-stricken girl is trying to keep up standards, and her attempts are highly amusing. Charlie would have understood this perfectly, as he was a melancholy fellow. Chaplin slots in alongside her as the masher, and has some scenes of his own. When released, nonetheless, the film was much-criticised for its excessive violence. The violence was almost certainly inserted by Sennett, in order to neutralise, to some extent, Mabel’s tragedy, and here is a point relevant to Chaplin’s later films.

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A deb meets a tramp  in Caught in a Cabaret

Chaplin did not invent the melancholy he used in his subsequent pictures – he was not a tragedienne, and the idea of pathos had not entered his mind before he met Mabel (who was a tragedienne per excellence). He was extremely fortunate, for if it was not for Mabel, we would never have heard Charlie Chaplin, nor his boots. Nor are the secrets of acting and pathos the only thing Chaplin learned. Critical to his survival in the movie world was a need to get along with people. Mabel had herself learned this, and getting along was the key to her position at the very top of Hollywood. While actors may have to count their audience, keeping in with your peers is even more important. Eventually, Charlie became the life and soul of any party, especially when  his sidekick, Mabel Normand, was alongside him. On a more sour note, right the way through his book, Charlie implies, like Adolph Hitler, that his  intellectual superiority transcended everything.  In fact his later position was based mainly on fortunate circumstance.

Sense and sensibility.

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Mabel shows off her latest self-designed dress. The  Masquerader.

Chaplin said nothing of his later work at Keystone, but things were happening. Mabel had  sort of  monopolised Charlie for several films, but, like a heavy blanket in summer, Chaplin felt smothered. Mabel had, especially when Charlie was without his tramp’s outfit, dominated his presence in the films — he felt like a stooge. Consequently, he had arranged a succession of films to himself. In August, Mabel stepped in and bagged a cameo part in The Masquerader, or, perhaps, Charlie or Mack asked for it. This short opening scene certainly helped give the film a bit of character, and perhaps portrayed the studio in a different vein. During the next few films, Chaplin begins to develop a new leading lady, by the name of Peggy Page, who he omits from his autobiography. Plain looking, but pretty nonetheless, her basic acting skills were just what he needed. Chaplin now had his stooge, and it looked like she’d be permanent. Mabel, however, seemed to have other ideas, and apparently muscled her way into Gentlemen of Nerve. Why should she be concerned about Chaplin films? The obvious reason was that Chaplin was on the way up, and he’d probably told her he wanted his own studio. Mabel too wanted out — she’d had enough of slapstick and send ups of D.W. Griffith. This begs another question, “Why didn’t Mabel move towards getting her own studio?” she would, after all, be voted top comedienne in a few months time, polling many more votes than Mary Pickford, the top leading lady.  The simple answer was — she was a woman. None of the backers of studios, all Victorian men by the way, would accept that a woman had the capability to run a studio. The big actresses of the day were perforce to marry big directors and producers, giving them an edge they would not have previously had. Of course, Mabel herself was fickle, reckless and, to some extent, unreliable, and refused to marry.

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A punch up at keystone’s racetrack.  Charlie does not  send Mabel reeling, it’s Peggy Page (check  coat) that pulls her backwards.

It was against this background that Mabel secured the role of leading lady in Gentlemen of Nerve. In her scenes with Charlie, she went beyond the call of duty, and was all over the limey like a rash. Mack would not have been pleased, and nor would Peggy Page, who was sitting right behind Mabel and Charlie in this scene, with her mother comforting her. As this subject of Peggy (or Helen or Gladys Carruthers) has been covered in a previous blog, I will say little on it here.

THE STRANGE CASE OF HELEN CARRUTHERS AKA PEGGY PAGE.

The shoot passed without violence or the discharge of a pistol Mabel was, possibly, carrying in her bag.

Chaplin’s next film, Dough and Dynamite, he rates as one of his best, and indeed it was. His next film, His Trysting Place, could be said to transcend it. Mabel pulled everything from her armoury for this one, giving an extraordinary display of dramatics and pathos, combined with the famed lightning quick changes of expression. The following film, Tillies Punctured Romance, was without merit, according to Chaplin. This is unsurprising, as, between Mabel and Marie Dressler, Charlie seems curiously diminished and shrunken. If he’d disappeared from the picture, no-one would have noticed. He was clearly out of his comfort zone, although this is the first film in which we can say that Mabel is playing a girl of her own age. The next film, Getting Acquainted, Chaplin  does not mention, and the picture is merely a frolic in the park, in which neither Mabel or Charlie excel. However, Mabel’s face is very busy here, and at one point she  impersonates Stan Laurel’s head scratch, before he’d even invented it!? The next picture, His Prehistoric Past belonged to Peggy Page, who, as leading lady, plays her usual role as a stooge, this time as a Stone Age cave woman, dressed in a grass skirt.  Chaplin mentions that he had a great gag for this film — pulling fur from his bearskin and putting it in his pipe. Well, he was a great gagster. In no way would Mabel have been tempted to take the female lead here, as grass skirts had caused a great furore at Biograph, when Mabel, Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet refused to wear such apparel, and left it to Mae Marsh, who was then forever damned by the royalty of Hollywood.

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Married bliss . His Trysting Place. or Never Mess with The  Keystone Girl.

 The tramp leaves Edendale.

The way that Chaplin came to Keystone is a mystery, but the way he left is even more mysterious. Chaplin gives the simple explanation that Keystone’s bosses would not pay him what he thought he was worth.  He thought he was worth a thousand dollars a week, as he  both acted in and directed his own films. He might further have known that Mabel was getting $500 a week, basically  for just acting (salary notes found in Sennett’s private papers).  Double this and you have $1,000. The New York bosses clearly thought Chaplin was worth this sum, but all negotiations were done through Sennett. Sennett wanted the limey gone, so he made him an offer he could only refuse. The odd thing is that Chaplin says he did not want to leave Keystone, and why would he — he had the undivided attention of The Keystone Girl herself. Negotiations probably ended, when Sennett pulled a .45 from his drawer and said “Charlie, I think discussions are closed.”

Charlie states that he left Keystone without saying goodbye to anyone. Mabel said something different, and claims they had a last tearful dinner together.  Then the tramp was gone, soon to disappear into the deep fogs and violent winds of Chicago.  Charlie himself became morose, argumentative and depressed, but soldiered on, and arrived back in California a little later. In the meantime, Mabel  had begun her new career as a Madcap, becoming violently argumentative and tense, although it was in 1915 that she was voted greatest comedienne, polling more votes than Mary Pickford, who was best leading lady. The whole Chaplin interlude seems to have left her scarred, and her hopes of getting out of Keystone had been dashed. Meanwhile, out at Niles, Chaplin was fashioning a new career with non-actress, Edna Purviance, as his stooge.

We look at Chaplin’s post-Keystone’s life in the next part of the story.

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Relevant Links:

A STRANGE PREDICAMENT: MABEL MEETS CHARLIE CHAPLIN.

MANIPULATING CHARLIE CHAPLIN.

THE STRANGE CASE OF HELEN CARRUTHERS AKA PEGGY PAGE.

THOSE CHARLIE CHAPLIN FEET: STARRING MABEL NORMAND.

Bibliography:

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

My Life in Pictures by Charles Chaplin (1974).

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).

Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks (1974).

 

 

 

 

 

 

MABEL AND PEARL WHITE.

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The hypnotic Miss  White.

There is no evidence that Mabel ever met Pearl White, who  usually worked  in New York and New Jersey, while Mabel was based mainly in Hollywood. However, it is unlikely that they ever wanted to meet, as they were, to some extent, rivals in the action genre of motion pictures. This is the story.

A Shock down Edendale Way.

While Mabel was making her first films, for Biograph and Keystone, Pearl White was a rising star in the legitimate theatre. Both Mack Sennett and Mabel, were great fans of the French film company, Pathe, and based their films on the Pathe comedies released in the U.S., but, early in 1914, as Mabel was reaching the top of her game, it was reported that Pathe had signed the theatrical star, Pearl White, to make action-packed serial movies, with the massive advertising support of the Randolph Hearst Newspaper group. Keystone was thrown into disarray, as Pathe itself was a serious competitor to their studio, but now they wanted to make emancipated female movies, in which girls raced cars, flew aircraft, and jumped out of gas balloons. On top of that, their proposed star was a star vaudevillian.

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Even Chaplin and a motorcycle can’t scare our intrepid Mabel.

 

Could Pathe really push Keystone off the top spot in the action-girl stakes? Sennett couldn’t take the chance; he had to believe that Pathe were a real threat. Sure, Keystone had their own ex-theater stars, like Charlie Chaplin, but a female stage star was a massive danger to Keystone, and to Mabel. The film Mabel At The Wheel, which had long been planned, was rushed into production. Mabel had already played a fearless Harriet Quimby-like amazon in the  short flying film A Dash Through The Clouds, but this new film was to be a two-and-a-bit reeler, and would have a genuine story-line. After some problems with Charlie Chaplin, who did not like being a stooge to a slip of a girl, the film was made, and just beat the first rendition of the Pathe series The Perils Of Pauline into release. However, before we discuss the films, we need to say something about the two leading ladies.

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On two wheels or two wings nothing fazes Keystone Mabel.

Pearl White Background.

The two stars were similar in one particular way – they were both magnets for men. In 1914, when blond Pearl swished onto a Chicago-bound train in her fur coat, and with the air of a star, she was noticed by a certain incipient starlet by the name of Mary Pickford. Mary, seeing Pearl leading a retinue of doting men, decided she wanted to meet that gorgeous creature, and went to leave her compartment for the bar, where Pearl was holding court. Unfortunately, Mary was sitting with her star-maker, Adolph Zukor, who expressly forbade her to meet with Pearl, on the grounds that this woman of loose morals might corrupt her!

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America’s Sweetheart with Adolph ‘Napoleon’  Zukor

Eventually, Adolph left saying he had something to attend to. When Mary later opened the compartment door, she saw Adolph in the bar, sitting next to Pearl, with his arm around her. Mary had spent her Biograph days wanting to be Mabel, but now she wanted to be Pearl! Both of these ladies, then, had a profound effect on the men and women they met. Nonetheless, the two actresses were completely different in background and personality. Born in 1889, Pearl was a farmer’s daughter from Green Ridge, Missouri, who began in the theatre aged six, in some biographies, and in others, aged eighteen. Quite a difference! On the grounds that nobody from a secure background would choose to go into the theatre, we might suspect that she began her career due to the financial circumstances of her family, in which case she probably went into the theatre earlier than age eighteen, perhaps aged thirteen. In any event, she was with the Trousedale Stock Company, by 1907 at age eighteen, and went on the road as a singer. In 1910, with her voice failing, Pearl joined the Powers film Company located in The Bronx N.Y. Here she indulged in some very physical comedy, until spotted by the Pathe Freres company, who signed her up. In 1911 she signed with Lubin Films, and other companies, until she signed with Crystal Films, where she made slapstick comedy pictures, between 1912 and 1914, until returning to Pathe . It was in 1914 that Pearl began the Perils of Pauline.

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Pearl in the later film Iron Claw.

Mabel’s Background.

Mabel’s background was somewhat different to that of Pearl. Brought up on Staten Island N.Y., she lived in a family that was, outwardly, middle-class. Her mother was a deeply religious woman, who was keen on keeping up standards. She was not a lover of city life, and seems to have hidden herself away on Staten Island. She was, also, not a lover of theatrical life. Her father, Claude, was completely different, and came from an acting family. However, he more or less failed in the theatre himself, and ended up organizing musical shows for retired seamen at Snug Harbour, Staten Island. It was he that taught his small dark-haired daughter to play the piano to almost concert standard. Contrary to what Mack Sennett later said, Mabel was keen on getting into the theatre, and become a star to boot. There is little doubt that Mabel was pushed to succeed by her father, and he supported her gaining work at Biograph in 1909, but her mother went crazy when she heard about it. It must surely have been Claude that cleared the way for Mabel to go off to L.A. with the mad Irishman, Mack Sennett, something her mother would never have done alone. Of course, Mabel had never made the grade at being middle-class, never went to public school, and, prior to being sent to a convent, had been wayward and seemingly uncommunicative with her elders. Rumours have persisted that Mabel met Mack Sennett, not at Biograph, but some time before, on the streets of Manhattan, around the seedy area of The Bowery. Most of her early life is a one huge lacuna.

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Mabel’s mother, aged sixty, but looking at least a hundred years old.  Prematurely aged, ’tis said,  by the  crazy life of her wayward daughter.

Mabel and Pearl’s position in Movies.

When Mack and Mabel got together at the Biograph Comedy Unit in early 1912, they intended to more or less copy the films that Pathe had made with Max Linder. There would be one small difference – unlike Linder, whose character was upper-crust, Mack’s characters would be lower class; streetwise toughs, hobos and slaveys. At the centre of the melee would be the screen version of the real-life Mabel, destined to become a rock for the oppressed and the ‘untouchables’ of American society. Pearl would follow the Pathe / Linder model and was presented as a product of the upper echelons of Edwardian society. As Pauline, she was, in essence, what Mabel would have called a spoilt, rich brat. Both would engage in slapstick, and be emancipated, bright young things, who raced cars, flew aircraft, jumped from gas balloons and caught villains. Naturally, Mack and Mabel had been doing this for two years, when Pathe decided to hit back with Pauline in 1914, but if Pathe had decided to steal Keystone’s audience, they would have made Pauline a low-class domestic or shop girl. Rather than meet Keystone head on, they decided to tap a market that was then only rumoured to exist. The word was out that people of the ‘plug hat’ persuasion wanted to watch slapstick movies, but did not want to see films in which their ‘type’ was ridiculed. Pathe took a chance, and created their own market, without encroaching on Keystone’s ground. They were a success, especially as they had come up with the idea of making a serial of their films. “Watch next week for the continuing exciting story….” However, the first films were not exactly cliff-hangers, but Pathe soon caught on, and  began to cut the films just as Pauline was hanging by her fingernails.

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Pathe tapped into a mythical market.

Keystone’s reaction to Pauline.

Neither Mack nor Mabel said much, publicly, about the Pearl White films, but, when they heard about The Perils of Pauline, they were undoubtedly thrust into panic. Bosses Kessell and Baumann, back in New York, increased their clamour for stage artists to be signed, although Mack cared not one iota for vaudevillians, and stood by his claim that he could mould a star from anyone he picked up on the street. Mack responded, it seems, by taking up Mabel’s idea of producing more dramatic films with stronger story-lines. She was, after all, a dramatic actress, trained by none other than David ‘Belasco’ Griffith. Her idea was to produce a film in which a girl (this time lower middle class) undertakes a two-hundred-mile car race, and beats all the male drivers, while she fights off numerous plug-hatted, moustachioed villains, who seek to derail her race. The misogynistic Charlie Chaplin played the chief villain, but his fury at the nature of the film almost closed the studio. The details of this have been set out elsewhere in these blogs, so we need not dwell on the subject here. It is sufficient to say that the film was a resounding success, albeit with the help of some crazy slapstick.

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Pearl could have stepped  straight out of the  1890s  theater.

The Pauline films and, later, the The Exploits of Elaine, also starring Pearl White, were a success, but they never clawed any punters away from Keystone. Pathe had really tapped into a market that was only thought to exist. This is a little like de jevu, for everyone had originally told Mack Sennett that his proposed lower-class audience did not exist.  The names Pauline and Elaine are, naturally, French, with Pauline seemingly related to the Latin Paulinus, while Elaine  is a version of the Greek Helen. This is  not surprising for a French company, and Pearl, in fact, ended her days in France. (see graphs at the end end for name popularity at the end of the blog). Whichever way it might have turned out, the Pathe films enabled Mabel, helped later by Chaplin, to lever her films, partially at least, out of the slapstick swamp.

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Spoilt rich brat Pauline just loves tennis.

 

Comparing the films

Although The Perils of Pauline were, to some extent,  bright and almost up to the minute, the critics were disappointed to see bad photography, bad direction, and contrast and brightness that varied throughout the picture. Pathe made a better job of keeping Pauline in the centre of the frame, than Keystone made of keeping Mabel in the frame at all. Mabel, though, was an actress of the ‘natural’ variety, who was prone to get a little ‘wild’ on the set, but nobody minded. One thing we can say about Sennett is that he always ensured his films were sharp, well-focused, and well lit, but he had the advantage of working under natural light in California, which Pathe, in gloomy New York, did not. The Klieg lights they used, were unreliable, and had the added disadvantage of permanently blinding the performers, and sometimes exploding. The critics berated Pathe for advertising the pictures as cliff-hangers, when they were no such thing. As already stated above, Pathe were quick to bring proper cliff-hangers to Pauline.

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Comparing Mabel and Pearl White.

Like Charlie Chaplin, Pearl White was about three years Mabel’s senior. In fact, Charlie, Pearl and Adolph Hitler were born within a few weeks of each other, in early 1889. Pearl, again like the young Mabel, had a very fleshy face (or fat as she herself called it) which seems to have been a requirement for any actress between 1890 and 1920. The difference was in the way they used their faces. Mabel, of course was the mistress of facial gestures, going from one gesture to another, then another, and back again, at lightning speed. Here’s a press contemporary description from The Albany MY Times, 1921:

Mabel Normand’s Art

MOLLY-O

Mabel Normand ranks closer to Charlie Chaplin than any other comic artist. She has a little walk all of her own, mannerisms of expression that are individually hers. Her features  are plastic. Pathos sweeps across her face like a cloud shadow sweeps across water on a sunny day. Her every gesture means something. Her acting is realism caught by the camera and projected across the screen. 

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The clue to the reason for this almost unique ability, might be suggested by her mouth, which, as Charlie Chaplin explained, “turned up delicately at the corners”. This is non-voluntary muscle control, and hints that she might possess good voluntary control of her facial muscles as well. She did, in fact, have this ability, and it was used time and time again in the films, to the extent that Mabel could change her very appearance. In Mabel’s Strange Predicament, with Charlie Chaplin, her face remains pretty flaccid, and she uses classic Griffith facial expressions, when she is being chased by Charlie, and being affectionate with her boyfriend, where she also uses her protruding teeth to look cute (the goofy look was also popular at the time). However, in Mabel’s Married Life her anger at Chaplin’s supposed infidelity, gives rise to a succession of very quick, facial expressions, which are both scary and funny at the same time. Her face is generally much more taunt in this film. On the lot, and particularly at Goldwyn Studio, she use her facial dexterity, while standing in front of a set, glaring menacingly at any actress she did not like. Once the actress was put off her stride, Mabel would instantly break into a grin, wave it all off with her hand, then walk away, saying “Aw, I was only kidding!” The Mabel ‘effect’ however, lingered in the minds of her competitors.

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Goofy equals cute in Mabel’s Strange Predicament.

 

As seen in the article above Mabel had her own walk, which has been described as ‘moving around as though on wheels’. One thing is certain; both Mary Pickford and Pearl White move like they’re wearing divers’ boots. (Footnote 1).

Pearl was keen on getting on, but seems to have had other interests in various professional and financial fields other than acting. In this she was totally different to Mabel, whose main aim in life was to be the biggest and brightest star in the universe, and her efforts in women’s emancipation and social justice rode on the back of that ambition. One cannot imagine Mabel playing Pauline or Elaine  – they are too bland, too normal,  and far too rich and spoilt. Money per say, was not something Mabel sought or ever fully understood. As long as she had enough to fill her house with fresh flowers, Parisian dresses, and a couple of bottles of gin that was enough for her, and it was not until Sam Goldwyn began deducting 20% of her pay, to buy war bonds that she made any investment at all. Pearl was planning for the day when her stardom finally crashed to earth, and made extra-film moves for business and matrimonial alliances. Mabel waved off the whole idea of marrying a producer, a director, or rich businessman, thinking she could go it alone, and that a marriage would cramp her style. Legend has it that Mabel acquired a whole trunk-full of sparklers, the gifts of unsuccessful suitors, one of whom was Paul Bern, who, after eventually netting Jean Harlow, promptly committed suicide (Footnote 2). Both Pearl and Mabel did some of their own stunts, but not as many as the PR people insisted that they did. Mary Pickford revealed in her autobiography that her younger brother, Jack, did most of the girls’ stunts at Biograph, and, in 1922, a stuntman was killed carrying out a dangerous stunt for Pearl. Pearl, like Florence Lawrence, had damaged her spine in a Perils of Pauline stunt of some kind, fairly early on. There is no evidence that Mabel was ever severely injured in a stunt, but she was hospitalised a few times for injuries caused by a wayward wedding scene shoe, and Fatty Arbuckle sitting on her head. This had more to do, probably, with the old actress’s trick of feigning injury to get a few days off work, than any serious injury.

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Blond bombshell on the loose. “I told you to get that stunt right!”

In the films, Pearl sometimes looks frumpy and even matronly (especially around the hips), while, at other times, she appears slimmer (apart from her face) and slightly athletic. The explanation may, possibly, be found in dieting. Pearl, we know,  was prone to piling on the pounds, prompting her to diet, perhaps excessively. Naturally, to her horror, her face remained as flabby as ever. Another answer is that Pearl may have been padded around the hips, to give her a more rounded appearance. If this was actually done, then it was to give an 1880/90s feel to the Pauline films, and indeed the films do seem to hark back to a more genteel age, before America began its headlong rush into modernity (although the film’s automobiles are contemporary). In contrast, the Mabel films can only be seen as bright and modern. There is, however, a mystery concerning Mabel’s weight. Somehow, between 1912 and late 1914, she lost almost thirty pounds, so that she went from undeniably buxom at Biograph to very slim in Getting Acquainted (December 1914).

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Elaine’s waistband fails to contain her in this  scene.

Pearl left Pathe for Fox Films in 1919, to make more dramatic  pictures.  Mabel had left Keystone in 1916 for the same reason, and got her own studio and film company, The Mabel Normand Feature Film Co., under Keystone’s umbrella company, Triangle. What did Pearl think about that? Well, Pearl might only have been slightly jealous, as she was intelligent enough to know that having your own production company and studio meant lots of hard work, and, eventually, heartache too. Mabel, however, could count on endless help, not just from Sennett, Dick Jones (her director) and Triangle, but from the denizens of Tinseltown, many of whom had been contemporaries of her at Biograph. The Mabel Normand Feature Film Co, we know, did not work out, although it produced the greatest of Mabel’s films, Mickey. Mabel was now in the dramatic-comedy business, and went over to Sam Goldwyn, so as to continue in that vein, ostensibly with the greatest stories. Both Mabel and Pearl got involved with war-related films, either side of 1918, as was expected at that time. Unsurprisingly,  perhaps, Pearl also got herself involved with Charlie Chaplin, but  just how deeply involved we do not know.

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Pearl gets down to work on the  Jersey cliffs overlooking the Hudson River.

It was during her time with Steltz productions, in 1922, that the fatal accident to Pearl’s stunt man occurred, and the public, who’d believed she did her own stunts, began to desert her. Mabel, meanwhile, had returned to Sennett, but, as she made her second feature for him, also in 1922, she was embroiled in the Taylor murder scandal, which almost finished her career. In 1924, after completing her third Sennett feature, Extra Girl, Mabel was caught up in the Dines shooting scandal, which again threatened her career. Pearl retired to Paris, France in 1923, where she suffered a nervous breakdown. She is reputed to have amassed a fortune of two-million dollars by 1924,  and retired totally from films in that year.  Being shrewd in business, she had made money from a successful Parisian nightclub, a resort hotel and casino in Biarritz, and a stable of race horses. Pearl, furthermore, had a 54-acre estate close to Rambouillet. After the Taylor love triangle and murder, Mabel had herself begun to think she should be a little more shrewd.

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Mabel as the Extra Girl.

She drove a hard bargain with Sennett to star in Extra Girl, and signed for 30% of the net profits, on top of her salary. In order to prevent the film becoming a flop, due to bad publicity, she went on a US-wide promotion tour, and eventually picked up a cool million dollars. Unfortunately, this was not enough for her, and she made a play for Edna Purviance’s millionaire boyfriend, Courtland Dines. As stated above, Dines was shot under mysterious circumstance by Mabel’s ex-chain gang chauffeur. Another US tour followed, but this time she was starring in the stage play, The Little Mouse. The tour ended prematurely, but Mabel shovelled another million into her purse. Returning to Hollywood, Mabel bought a house in Beverly Hills in order to appear ‘settled’. Naturally, to appear really settled, she needed to be married, so she took Hollywood heartthrob, Lew Cody, as her husband. It turned out to be the first Hollywood sham marriage. After many months of partying and Hollywood premieres, Mabel returned to films with Hal Roach.

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Pearl takes a friend for a ride.

Out in Paris, Pearl became involved with Theodore Cossika, a Greek businessman who shared her love of travel. Together they purchased a home near Cairo in Egypt, and the pair travelled throughout the Middle and Far East, as Mabel became more and more sick in Los Angeles. She still held the best parties, and attended a multitude of premieres, and even made a personal film at MGM. However, as the cops still investigating the Taylor murder and the dreaded IRS, began sharpening their knives, Mabel outsmarted them all by dying on February 23 1930. Her funeral was the last big event for Silent Filmdom, and she was borne to her grave by the big shots of old Hollywood: Mayer, Sennett, Chaplin, Graumann, Goldwyn, Griffith, Fairbanks, Palette and Judge James et al.

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J. Edgar hits Hollywood.  “The bitch up and died on us!”

 

Pearl had considered getting into ‘talkies’, but a test had found her voice unsuitable. Mabel had also thought of talkies, and her sound test had proved positive. Unfortunately, Pearl was now really beginning to pile on the pounds, and became too bloated for 1930s movies, which were now demanding half-starved screen offerings. The 1890s now seemed a long way off. She had long been hitting the booze, in order to kill the persistent pain from her old spinal injury. In 1938, Pearl passed away from cirrhosis of the liver, caused by chronic alcoholism. She joined the long list of actresses dying young from a life on the ‘gargle’ in the 1930s. They included Lottie Pickford (alcohol induced heart attack), Florence Lawrence (an alcoholic with spinal problems, who actually died from ingesting ant killer), Marie Prevost (a once-obese alcoholic who starved to death, right there in Hollywood).

Summing up.

When Pathe created Pauline, they more or less created a market that had previously not existed. This is undoubtedly why both Pathe and Keystone were able to survive alongside each other.  Many would say that Pearl White was lacking in the features that made Mabel so endearing to her audience.  However, Pathe did not set out to create another Mabel, and, indeed,  Mabel would have been an anathema to those that held Pearl White aloft. In the  Paulines and Elaines it is the Keystone audience that are the villains. There is of course, some comedy in perilous Pauline, but as Mack Sennett would have said “You cannot have drama and comedy in equal measure.” The King of Comedy  also tells us, and firmly told D.W. Griffith, “The dramatic arts are wholly unsuited to the silent medium.” As the Pauline and Elaine films eventually petered out, we can assume that he was right. During the period of  Pauline and Elaine, the massive, and unique, advertising campaign of Hearst Newspapers must have greatly increased box office numbers. One final point. Pearl White was not a blond, she was dark-haired, but wore a blond wig. In the early movies, dark hair was synonymous with evil, loose women and vamps. Pearl did not want this association – Mabel cared not one jot.

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Mabel resides in the Calvary Mausoleum.  Pearl lies under granite in Paris

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Between  1916 and 1918 there was a spike in the use of the name  Mabel (USA).

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The name Pauline  goes from zilch to a staggering 7,000 +  in 1918 (USA).

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The name Elaine was unknown in 1900, but has  a smallish peak in 1918. (USA)

 

Footnote 1: Chaplin realised early on that, like Mabel, he had to have his own little walk. To separate himself from Sennett’s hobo and the Music Hall tramp, he adopted the famous shuffling gait. The real genius of Chaplin was his ability to pick up on the ideas of others, primarily those of a certain Mabel Normand.

Footnote 2: The Dines shooting is even more mysterious, in its own way, than that of W.D. Taylor.  It seems curious that Mabel would be chasing the fiance of another actress, Edna Purviance. Perhaps she really thought she was finished, and should grab her own millionaire. On the other hand it is possible that it was revenge on Edna for having stolen Chaplin away from her. Mabel would hold a  grudge — like forever.

 

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Relevant Links:

W.D. TAYLOR AND MABEL NORMAND. PART 1.

MABEL AND THE DINES AFFAIR.

A STRANGE PREDICAMENT: MABEL MEETS CHARLIE CHAPLIN.

MABEL NORMAND: THE EARLY YEARS.

MABEL NORMAND: QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS.MY MOTHER AND I, BY MABEL NORMAND.

MABEL’S HEROINES: HARRIET QUIMBY.

Bibliography:

Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006).

Pearl White: The Pearless, Fearless Girl by Manuel Weltman and Raymond Lee  (1969).

Pearl White: https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-pearl-white/

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

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

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

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

HOW WE MADE THE KEYSTONES: BY MABEL NORMAND.

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The Keystone lot, pre-Keystone, 1907.

The Keystone films, those half and single reel, then later, two reels of nonsense, probably made more profit than any other films between 1912 and 1916. Forget Griffith, Biograph, Kalem and Vitagraph, our films were made cheaply, and out-grossed nearly everything produced by David ‘Belasco’ Griffith prior to Birth Of A Nation (but I should add that my film Mickey soon blew ‘Birth’ off the top spot). However, when I say ‘cheaply’ they were not made for the one thousand dollars that everyone supposes, with the exception of half reel pictures. When overheads were allocated to the individual films, the cost for ‘shorts’ was two to three thousand dollars, and two-reelers twice that, or more. Features could run to a quarter-of-a-million plus. As you probably know, Mack Sennett and I, began our film careers at Biograph under the ‘great’ D.W. Griffith. I was there for a little money and dinner (Biograph sandwiches) but Mack was there to get on.

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Mack Sennett annoys Mary Pickford in  An Arcadian Maid.

He watched Griffith closely, and questioned him even more closely, planning, plotting to one day have his own studio. However, Mack was regarded as something of a backwoods idiot by his fellow actors, and he had no luck with the actresses, until I came along. On my first day there, I was just a shy little girl, even though I’d been a ‘Gibson Girl’ posing for the greatest commercial artists. Mack homed in on me, and tried to monopolize me. The other girls attempted to put me wise “Keep away from that madman Sennett” they said “He’ll lead you into big trouble.” I didn’t listen, I never listened – to anyone. I think, over time, that I slowly began to take on elements of Mack’s personality, and I became boisterous, insolent to the executives, and something of a daredevil. Mack would say to me “Stick by me girl, I have plans, and I’ll make you a star, bigger even than Florence Lawrence” (the first film star). Well, Mack was thirty years old, brought up in the school of hard knocks, and I was a silly girl of seventeen – what did I know?

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Mabel: I was surrounded mainly by old men.

A studio on the horizon.

Mack, and you might not know this, was a screenwriter. He’d written several scripts for Griffith’s films, including The Lonely Villa, starring Mary Pickford. With his seemingly endless abilities, he became my hero, but also my champion, for when I sassed Griffith, there was little ‘the genius’ could do, unless he really wanted to stand up and fight Mack toe to toe. We spent most of our time ridiculing Griffith, and his over-dramatic films, which, to us, were laughable. Whenever a Griffith film was released, the whole company would troop down to the nearby theater and watch it. Mack would usually come and sit next to me, simply because, if he sat down next to Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet or Linda Arvidson, they’d get up and move elsewhere. We noted the reaction of the audience to the films. There were older women, who loved the drama, and there were shop and market girls who’d dragged their boyfriends there.

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“He’s mine, you bitch!” Mabel fights it out with Mary Pickford. 1912.

 

After a few minutes of Griffith nonsense, the boyfriends, and some girls, would get restless, and start throwing ice creams, cigarette cartons and coins at the screen. I’d say to Mack that I thought this very rude, but he’d say they were right, and he would make films that parodied the Griffith offerings. The toughs of the street would be his audience, along with those that worked hard in the dirty, noisy factories. They’d love to see Griffith burlesqued in comedies, along with cops being hit over the head, and kicked in the ass. Mack explained to me that English Music Hall and French comedy films were the future, but he felt that he could nip American Music Hall in the bud, and beat the French film-makers at their own game, at least in the U.S.

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“Let’s smash the flicks up tonight. They’re showing a Griffith film.”

All of Mack’s ideas were very exciting, and when he was named director of the new Biograph comedy unit, it got even more exciting. Mack demanded me from Griffith, but the other actresses got very uptight, and begged me not to make the move. “You’ve got a great future in drama” they said “Don’t throw it all away with that crazy Irishman, and his madcap schemes.” Again, I didn’t listen, and the films we made for the new unit were nearly always parodies of Griffith films. However, some of the films were a direct jibe at Griffith. We made A Spanish Dilemma, which was fine, as all of us at Biograph were crazy about old Spanish California. Wanting to get up Griffith’s supercilious nose, I suggested that when Mack and Fred Mace serenade me on my balcony, I lean forward and spill out of my unbuttoned bodice. Mack thought it was going too far, and said I should surreptitiously unbutton the bodice, to expose my cleavage (I was a big girl in those days). When Griffith saw it, he almost went out of his mind! Mack told me that our future films would “make the ‘old man’ want to boil himself in oil.”

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Hair-tearing dramatics from Mabel. Help! Help! 1912.


Go west young girl.

We made some good films at Biograph, but Mack wanted to move ahead, and make the films he wanted. By some clever and devious manoeuvrings, he managed to persuade New York Motion Pictures to start up a comedy unit, which they called Keystone. One stipulation was that he had to bring Biograph actors with him, and The Biograph Girl – namely me. New York Motion Pictures rented an office in Manhattan, and we made a few films, before departing for Edendale in sunny L.A. One of these films was Help! Help! which parodied Griffith’s version of The Lonely Villa, complete with crazy dramatics. Some people think that we parodied An Unseen Enemy, starring the Gish sisters, but this was made five months after Help! Help! and seems to have been Griffith’s response to Help! Help! indicating, he hoped, that we wouldn’t beat him down. We made another film, Above The Clouds, in honour of Harriett Quimby, the first woman to hold a U.S. flying licence, and the first to fly the English Channel. Griffith had known her for years, and, according to his wife, was most upset about her success as a screenwriter, her fur coats, and her Pierce Arrow car. We hoped the film would give ‘the genius’ another poke in the eye. Unfortunately, we came to wish we had not made this film, as Harriet was killed two weeks later, when her plane crashed into Boston harbour.

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Harriett Quimby’s lifeless body is carried ashore from Boston Harbour. 1912.

 

Mack’s plans for me out west.

Mack’s plan was that we’d make films that in which everything revolved around a screen version of little old me. He took my contradictions – insolence, hyperactivity, athleticism, sweetness, fickleness, generosity and pig-headedness, rolled them up, burlesqued them, and created the screen Mabel. In the films I’d be the Queen Bee, surrounded by dumb men, who merely hit each other over the head with mallets, and kicked each other in the ass, mainly to gain my affections. This was part of Mack’s plan to capitalize on the craze for women’s emancipation, the other parts being my fearlessness and my seeming ability to drive race cars, fly aircraft, and swim and dive like a water nymph. I would be a heroine to all women, but what about the men, who, Mack surmised, comprised 40% of all cinema audiences? Well I would simply suck them in, using my fluttering 2-inch eyelashes, big doleful eyes, and cute, but ultra-fast, changes in facial expression. I had plenty of ideas of my own in this area, but Mack insisted that I must always be wholesome, endearing and beyond reproach. To my dismay, I was to be the eternal ingenue.

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Oh those eyes. Chaplin cannot resist Mabel’s flutters in 1914.

I have already mentioned that I was not, under any circumstances, to be overtly sexual, and, instead, Mack came up with the notion of the ‘covertly sexual Mabel’. The features of ‘Mabel’ alluded to above, would be enhanced by a few more tricks. My mode of walking and running were to be ‘improved’, by ensuring I never took steps longer than six inches, and, if I broke into a run, I should always lean my body forward, so that attention was drawn to my rump, which was quite ample in those early days. Then came the genius stroke of Mack Sennett. To ensure that I was, to the audience, of ‘uncertain years’, Mack always told me to always skip into a run in the manner of a young girl. Sometimes we would even cut into an incipient run scene, and add a skip into it.

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Mabel demonstrates her prowess as a hop-skip girl.

Eventually, I was to be trounced in the skip-and-run stakes by Louise Fazenda, who was, of course, the Queen of all Ingenues. She’s fully welcome to that title, I do not want it. Another trick Mack had was ‘strapping down’ in which yards of material were draped around my bosom, and tightened so as to flatten everything out. You can see this clearly in Tomboy Bessie, where I played a ten-year-old girl. It was all to no avail, as I clearly had the hips and behind of the twenty-year old woman I was. All I got out of it was a lot of bruising and pain, and fright, when I learned Mary Pickford’s mother had contracted breast cancer, after the lid of a trunk fell onto her chest as she reached in.

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If you want to be cute, put a big bow in your hair, and keep your mouth open.

I checked myself every day, after that. Occasionally, Mack would halt filming, and order the wardrobe lady to put a huge bow in my hair, so I appeared more ‘cute’. Often, I would pull it out and throw it, but Mack’s idea was to send up Griffith, who always identified ‘good’ girls with a bow in their hair. The audiences implicitly understood this pun. Mack, everyone had to concede, knew what would work and what would not. No matter what great feats I achieved in the films, Mack always insisted that I had an air of vulnerability, which is why, as you’ve probably noticed, I always had my mouth slightly open, and feigned being pigeon toed. You could not get anymore cute than that! One thing I am always asked about is the level of the wind seen in our pictures, even in indoor scenes. Of course, our sets were open to the elements, but most people will know that the average windspeed in Los Angeles is only 6 miles per hour, whereas in the movies it is often blowing a gale.

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Ever wondered what Mabel wore under her dress?

Now, you might think the idea was to keep the actors cool in the 100 degrees heat, and this is true. However, the main reason was ‘atmosphere’. In those days people paid their 7 cents, to watch moving pictures, and they expected movement in every corner of the screen. One of the things they liked to see move was The Keystone Girl’s dress, and the more it billowed and rose up, the better they liked it. In order to improve on this effect, I sometimes wore a satin or silk dress that would ripple and be blown between my legs, where the material would cling. This was as far as we could go with titillation, as the exposure of bare flesh was verboten, except in swimming scenes. The three films, Mabel’s Wilful Way, That Ragtime Band, and The Gusher are the best examples of this method. Like all our methodologies, we kept them very secret. However, a rogue journalist reported that we’d used four 6-feet wide fans, when making Mabel’s Wilful Way, and further reported that I’d struggled to keep my dress and petticoats from flying high in the helter-skelter slide scene (we made six retakes of that scene).

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Mabel demonstrates the power of the wind out west.

 

You might be wondering how we got permission to use some of the public locations that appeared in our films. Mack would approach an amusement park or race track operator, and suggest they advertise that Keystone would be making a film at their venue on a particular day to increase the attendance. Thousands more punters would arrive on the advertised day. Then he’d contact the newspapers and tell them what was going on. Often, they’d obtain tickets to the venue for a cheap price, and offer one ticket for every newspaper bought. Venue owners were happy, newspaper proprietors were happy, and we were happy.

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A good day out, but someone spilled the beans.

 

Changes afoot.

The strait jacket into which all the Keystone actresses and actors were put, began to tell after a year or so. I had huge arguments with Mack, over the formula of our films. I, being a fully-trained dramatic actress, began to feel that I’d made a huge mistake, leaving legitimate movie-making behind for a life of slap-stick at Mack’s University of Nonsense. I became morose and depressed, and told Mack I’d had enough of life in the wild and woolly west – I was, after all, a city girl, born and bred, and the boredom of outer Los Angeles, and the lack of friends of my own age, was doing my head in. At Biograph, we were all fun-loving teenagers, but here all my associates were either ancient or married. In order to placate me, Mack asked what I wanted to put into the films. I told him I wanted to combine comedy with dramatics, or, to be specific, tragedy. I had, as you know, been the Queen of Tragedy under D.W. Griffith. Mack, naturally, thought this was nonsense, but, after some thought, agreed I could be a tragic figure in some films, but told me tragedy and comedy in equal measure would not work. As a result, I appeared in some films, as a poor, rag-clothed slavey or street vendor, but full-on tearful and hair-tearing tragedy was banned. To prevent me getting evermore melancholy, Mack took me to dinner every night. This was the only highlight of my day, if you can call it that. I had nothing but work, no friends outside of the studio, and the studio people went home to their wives and husbands every night. I had no boyfriend, I’d left the likes of Jack Pickford, Owen Moore, and Marshall Neilan, behind in New York (Footnote 1). I made a pathetic sight, crawling into my hotel room every night on my hands and knees, totally exhausted and bruised all over by the nature of my work. Getting kicked in the ass numerous times every day, hurled along the pavement, thrown off cliffs and half strangled is not good for your well-being. Anyhow, by the time Charlie Chaplin came along, we had upped our game, but if I could not have total tragedy, then I wanted more drama, and a good story-line.

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Mabel is a tragic domestic slave in Mabel’s Dramatic Career, 1913.

 

Changing bit by bit.

By early 1914, I began to get things going my way, as the studio was now on a firm footing. I was still Keystone Mabel, but, as a rising star, I had more say in what I did. I discussed my ideas with people like Minta Arbuckle and former stage-star Raymond Hitchcock. Minta was worried, and warned me not to push Sennett too far. Raymond was a perfect gentleman, and, being a thespian, completely agreed with me. He’d once thrown Mack off a play he was starring in, and always looked forward to twisting the knife in the boss’s back. As for Chaplin, I fell in love with him, solely on the description by Mary Pickford, who told me she’d seen him in a restaurant in 1912 (actresses you know). However, when Charlie arrived, Mack kept him away from me, while he persuaded the New York bosses, Kessell and Baumann, to ‘let him go’. He objected to having a virile young man so close to me – we might run off together! Eventually, we had to be brought together, though, in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, in which Charlie chases me around a hotel, wearing pajamas. Charlie asked why I was not in a nightdress, as this would have a greater visual impact, and perhaps he could lift the hem of the nightdress with his cane, and get a laugh. He was told not to mention this to Mack, as he’d surely be fired. As you know, there was a big bust up over Charlie getting a long opening scene in the film. Due to that opening scene, I refused to work with Charlie for around two months.

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Go for it! Chaplin launches Mack’s Thor IV motorbike, with Mabel on the pillion.

The Terrors of Pauline.

In February 1914, Mack’s spies in the Pathe Freres studio (every studio had their spy network), informed him that the American-based French film company was about to begin a serialized movie story called The Perils of Pauline in which a stage-star turned film actress, Pearl White, would be fronted in a dramatized versions of what were, frankly, Mabel films. Were we ‘scairt’? You bet we were scairt! A dramatic stage actress in part-comedy, action films involving car racing, aircraft, and climbing down a 300 feet long rope from a gas balloon? Well, that could knock us off our perch, and put my year-long run as a film star to an end! Mack lost sleep, wondering how we could counter the formidable duo of Pathe and Pauline.

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‘Mabel’ is decanted into a muddy puddle, from the back of Chaplin’s motorbike.

 

I gave him the answer “We must have good stories, and introduce more dramatics, while toning down the slapstick. Mack agreed, and we produced the idea of Mabel At The Wheel, in which a middle-class, emancipated girl (we’d heard Pauline would be upper middle-class) would drive in the Santa Monica 200-mile car race and beat all the men, as well as defeat a whole bunch of villains. When Kessell and Baumann heard it would be a two-reeler, they insisted that Charlie be included. However, I made two stipulations. One, Charlie would not wear the Tramp outfit, and Two, I would be sole director. This was agreed, but Baumann sent his daughter, Ada, along to extra in the film and keep an eye on things. After one small disagreement with Charlie, the film was made and was a complete success. I have to admit that the stunt where I fall off the back of Chaplin’s motorcycle into a big muddy puddle, was carried out by a stunt man, and it is only too obvious that it was a man. A copy of the first ‘Pauline’ was smuggled out to Mack, and we all watched it in the rushes’ projector room. Well! We all wondered what we’d been afraid of, as the photography was lousy, and Pauline turned out to be flabby around the edges, and a mere replica of a Griffith Girl, in terms of acting. I’d never laughed so much in all my life, especially at the fact that the perilous Pauline was merely a spoilt, rich brat, although Mack pointed out that the scenery was more detailed than ours, and we’d have to up our game. What level of threat did we figure Pauline was? Answer: No Threat!

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‘Spoilt brat’ Pauline cannot stand losing at tennis.

By mid-April, Charlie had joined me, directing the films we appeared in. I very soon lured Charlie into my lair, or dressing room, where we discussed the pictures we would make, among other things, which are private and personal. Charlie thought my ideas to introduce melancholy and tragedy were good, but he himself would stick to slapstick, in order to appease Sennett. Consequently, Charlie wove himself around my characters, but I would not do him the disservice of saying he was my stooge. When we undertook a joint picture. I told Charlie how I’d play my character, who might be anything from a debutante to a tragic domestic slave, or ragged hot-dog seller / coster-girl. He would, then, play an almost anti-character to me, usually a penniless tramp, who was brash and not a little nasty. As he never stopped telling me, while I could play anyone I liked, he had to constantly keep Mack onside. Not strictly true, but I got his point.  Everyone noticed that the films I made with Charlie were different to what went before, but if we thought we could be a bit more, erm, friendly in the films we were wrong. Kissing was not permitted, just the merest peck, even when we were clearly married. There was no marriage bed, and if Charlie pushed for a full kiss, I had to turn away and offer my hand.

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“You may kiss my  hand, Charlie.”

After a few months, it became apparent that Mack was constructing the film schedules to prevent Charlie and myself from getting together. He claimed that he needed to spread us over the films, so that half of the pictures had one or other of his big stars in them. Getting fed up with seeing Charlie take other leading ladies, I went to Mack in around September 1914, and demanded I to work with Charlie. He gave me a cameo part in Charlie’s The Masquerader. Big deal! Anyhow, after much cajoling, Mack agreed to pair us for a series of films. This upset his usual leading ladies, especially Mama Page (or Carruthers) and daughters, who were ‘gold-diggers’ that could get a little rough. In the event, Charlie left Keystone, and moved far away — two-and-a-half thousand miles away actually, to Essanay, Chicago. I never forgave him for walking out on me.

 

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The film Fatal Mallet will give you an idea as to what went on at Keystone. Mack Sennett, seeing that our films, like Caught In A Cabaret, were getting slightly dramatic, he decided to show us what a good film consisted of, and brought us together for a film composed merely of Mack, Charlie and Mack Swain, hitting each over the head with mallets and bricks. They were, of course, fighting for the fair hand of The Keystone Girl, who did little more than respond to the boys’ activities, with standard Griffith actions. Charlie and I were outraged, and demanded extra scenes. One was that the fair maiden (me) had to be kicked in the ass and hit with a brick. Another was that I should be fondled by an eight-year-old boy, while the chaps were occupied fighting each other. This came about, as there were numerous rumours in the press that I’d had an affair with the then  thirteen-year-old Jack Pickford at Biograph. I thought the scene would give a poke in the eye to those that sought to rubbish me. Good idea? probably not.

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Is this the luckiest kid in Hollywood? The movie mags thought so. Fatal Mallet.

Charlie added the scene where he finds me with the boy, and drop kicks him out of the picture. It was he that also proposed we might chalk the letters I.W.W. on the door of a shed, to give the impression that the ‘Industrial Workers of the World’ trades union had a meeting place on the Keystone lot. The studio was a hotbed for socialism, but within a few years Uncle Sam would be after our hides. Charlie and I, were forever at loggerheads with Mack, particularly over the introduction of tragedy into the films, Mabel’s Busy Day being notable for this. He often threatened to take a part in our films, and show us how it was done – me and Charlie, who were now the biggest stars in the universe! I think not.

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Seditionists meet here on the Keystone lot.

1915 and all that.

Following Charlie’s departure, I was teamed up with Roscoe Arbuckle, and all of a sudden we could do sickly love scenes, and get married. However, we always slept in separate beds, and, unbelievably, in separate rooms! Mack, I can tell you, had little idea of married life, and I tried to tell him that married people slept, at least, in the same room. Those men married to actresses insisted upon this, so they could keep an eye on their wive. We actresses are a fickle and flighty lot, and cannot be trusted. It was around this time that Mack began to experiment, and it was not just with the bathing beauties. We had houses that could float on the ocean, cars that could drive themselves, and explode, propelling yours truly into the air. I can tell you how the latter was done; I was suspended on wires. I also know how the car drove itself, but if I told you, Mack would have to kill you. The floating house? I have no idea how that was done, as I wasn’t there at the time. How did Fatty manage to lift the left front of a car with his bare hands ? Again, I was not there, but when I watched the film, Fatty and Mabel Adrift, downtown with Alice Joyce, she noticed the ghost image of someone around the rear opposite corner of the ‘flivver’, who seemed somehow to push the rear down, making it look like Roscoe had actually lifted the front up. Apparently, they hadn’t quite erased the other guy from the negative. You may have noticed in some Mabel and Charlie films, where I indulge in high kicks, you can see right up my skirt, but Mack was vigilant, and would draw in bloomers, if there was too much flesh on display (I never wore such prudish garments, honest).

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Just how did Fatty lift a car with one hand?

Towards the end of 1915, things began to get very technical, so that bathtubs could drive down the road, cars could blow apart in collisions, without anyone getting hurt, and men could fly. Anything could be made to appear or disappear, while vehicles could climb vertical house walls. All this nonsense was beyond me, and I departed Keystone at the end of the year. At the Mabel Normand Feature film company, in 1916, we used a few simple optical tricks. Yes, it really was me swinging from a house gutter in Mickey, but the bit where I run up behind a horse, and jump on its back, is a split scene. A stunt man ran up to the horse and jumped. The scene was then stopped. I was then filmed riding off

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Mabel does a ‘108’ over Roscoe in 1915.

on the horse. It was Triangle boss Harry Aitken that ordered I was not to do the stunt, as if I got killed the company would lose half-a-million dollars. You might ask, who did the stunts at Biograph Studios? Well, for us actresses, it was little Jack Pickford, making himself some pocket money! Much has been said concerning whether actresses did their own stunts at Keystone. In general, the girls did not do their own stunts at the studio, and were, generally, exempt from the dreaded ‘108’ (Footnote 2). However, I did some 108s, especially with Roscoe, as he made a soft landing place. On the other hand, he was a dangerous partner, and once put me in hospital, when he fell on my head. I am told that Mack Sennett once went to Gloria Swanson, and said “Do these stunts, and I’ll make you the next Mabel Normand.” Miss Swanson screamed in reply “I do not want to be the next Mabel Normand – a person could get killed doing that stuff!” Mack tore up her contract, but she had done one 108,  although she’d insisted that she fell back onto a mattress!

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Mabel gets airborne as her car explodes.

I’ll wind it up here, as I have no knowledge of the high-tech stuff that Mack indulged in post-1916. When I returned to Sennett in 1921, I refused to have too much technology in my films, and, consequently, I was never privy to the Sennett ‘secrets’. O.K., I’ll talk about the lion in Extra Girl (1923), as everyone asks about this, and it is not really technology, but technique. Did I really take a lion for a walk on a leash? Yes I did,  but I was assured he was a very friendly lion. However, me not believing there was ever a friendly lion, I had director Dick Jones standing by with a very sharp pitchfork. It was of course crazy, because you never turn your back on a lion, not even a ‘friendly’ one. Unfortunately, Dick moved during the lion scene, and startled Leo, who jumped on my back, then floored me, in an effort to escape. Dick lunged at him with the pitchfork, but missed, and spiked me just where the flesh is deepest over the bone.; I spent a week in hospital .  We actresses will do anything to get off work.

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Leo discovers Mabel in her hideout.  Extra Girl 1923.

 

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Footnote 1: Let me make it clear here that at the time I am speaking, Marshal had not yet married  Gertie Bambrick, and due to Miss Pickford’s extra-marital affairs, her estranged husband, Owen Moore, became ‘fair game’. Jack, of course, did not marry Olive Thomas until 1916.

Footnote 2: A ‘108’ is a stunt, where an actor is hurled backwards with his legs thrown back over his head, and lands on his back, usually in a cloud of dust.

Links:

MABEL’S HEROINES: HARRIET QUIMBY.

THOSE CHARLIE CHAPLIN FEET: STARRING MABEL NORMAND.

PERSONALITIES I HAVE MET, BY MABEL NORMAND * MARY PICKFORD.

MABEL’S FRIENDS: F. Richard Jones

 

 

 

 

“GET MABEL!” THE CAMPAIGN TO UNSEAT A GODDESS.

 

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The goddess Mabel.

If you’d glanced a newspaper, or one of the newly-created movie magazines in 1914, you’d be sure to find Miss Mabel Normand splashed all over the front page. If you were lucky, you might find a discreet column about Mary Pickford, the stage actress, now in the movies. Eventually, however, Miss Mabel became a little too big for her size 6 (U.S.) shoes, as far as the authorities and press were concerned, and, as Cato The Elder might have said, “Mabel must be destroyed!”. Mabel had always been mistrusted by the authorities. This jumped up denizen of the gutter, this anti-war, social justice campaigner, and leader for women’s emancipation, had, by 1916, become an overly powerful, popular figure, perceived as a threat to the establishment. What made it all the worse, was that the actresses of Hollywood, with few exceptions, had, themselves, elevated Mabel to the status of Goddess. However, before going further, we need to look at the pervading background to the world into which the American movie industry was born.

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1900s America.

The United States at the turn of the century, was a place on its way to industrial and political greatness. Contrary to the notions of the philosophical Founding Fathers, the republic had now become, not an isolationist, agricultural panacea, but an industrial and economic giant, intent on gaining worldwide influence. There were problems though. To expand, the country needed people, and millions of them. The people would need to be brought from the old western monarchies, the Middle East and the Far East, as well as places nearer home. All this worried the various presidents, ensconced with their advisers in the Washington Oval Office. Some imbecile had inscribed on ‘The Statue’, the words “Send us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”, and this is what America was getting. There were the Russians and Eastern Europeans, a Slavic and (it was thought) naturally criminal race that was composed mainly of Catholic and Jewish refugees escaping the Tsar. Then there were the Italians – Neapolitan and Sicilian ‘razor boys’ who’d cut your throat for fifty cents, then send you down the Hudson, nailed firmly into a barrel. They owed their allegiance to the Mafia and the Pontiff, sitting on his throne back in Rome.

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Mess with the Mafia….end up here.

The immigrants, traditionally, had been of Irish extraction, an apparently innocuous race, with their amusing sing-song version of English, and passion for fighting, drinking and hard manual labour. They were usefully anti-British, but were a little too keen on the Pope, and the ‘gargle’. Those in authority were, despite the British wars, Anglian in descent, culture and outlook, and looked at aliens with a certain amount of circumspection. The President’s men were, overwhelmingly, of the Protestant religion, and worried over, or feared, the Jews and the Catholics in their midst. Contrary to what the average American thought or wished, their government was not as isolationist, as they had supposed. The Yanks were abroad in vast numbers from the Phillipines to the west and to Asia and Africa to the east. American embassies were everywhere, including places like Turkey, the smaller ones staffed by those intrepid clerks of the Empire, the British. Of course, if you had an embassy in a place, you’d have people banging at your door for entry to your country. As a result, Mohammedans and Hindus found themselves in The Land of The Free. The seaboards of America were porous, like a sieve, with immigrants pouring in at points other than Ellis Island. The land borders were even more porous, with Mexicans being sucked across by the needs of California, and the other agricultural southern states. Invasion by Mexico was a continual concern, but, in the meantime, the likes of Pancho Villa were riding into the U.S. stealing horses and killing American citizens. On the other hand, the American embassy in Mexico was essentially running the country. Up in the north, the border was not well policed, in spite of the remote possibility of invasion by the British. Indeed, both the Irish-French Catholic, Mack Sennett, and the Jewish Pole, Sam Goldwyn, had simply wandered into The States via the Canadian border. As time went on the U.S. Government had even more to worry about with various Russian anarchist groups and Irish-led Trade Unions coming to the fore.

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Coming to your town soon. Pancho Villa.

 

Mack and Mabel.

It was into the American maelstrom that Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand were thrown. Mack was certain he would eventually ‘make good’ in America, and, after learning the ropes in an iron-works and down in the seedy joints on Manhattan’s Bowery, he entered the movie industry at Biograph Studios. Mack came with a kind of chip on his shoulder, at being rejected by the legitimate theater, and, after years of being a low-life, he’d become an aggrieved socialist, and, it seems, a member of the Industrial Workers of The World (I.W.W.). It was while at Biograph, that a pretty, shy girl by the name of Mabel Normand came to the studio. Mack, never a hit with the ladies, instantly moved in on her, and, finding her young and malleable, began to mould her into the shape he wanted. The shrinking violet became a dare-devil overnight, a feisty animal that had no qualms about sassing the executives and their director, a certain D.W. Griffith. As Mary Pickford later said “There was no cliff so high, she wouldn’t dive off it, nor bucking bronco so wild she wouldn’t ride it”. Both Mary and Linda Griffith documented the change in Mabel, and when the ‘greats’ of the movie industry speak, we have to listen. Mack, then, imbued Mabel, already somewhat hyperactive and insolent, with a new confidence, but he did not stop there. When the Biograph company left for the winter season, without Mabel, he advised her to get into the Vitagraph Studio and learn comedy from the experts. This she did, and appeared in comedies with John Bunny and Flora Finch, as Vitagraph Betty. Her tenure was relatively short, though, as she was soon fired for ‘impertinent and lewd’ conduct. After a few hours, at Reliance Studios, she was also ‘let go’ for ‘unacceptable behaviour’, by which time Biograph had returned, and the company re-engaged Mabel, much to the pleasure of the acting fraternity down there.

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The Keystone Girl with her stage father, Mack Sennett.

Post-Biograph.

If Mabel had stayed at Biograph, her life might have turned out completely different. Instead, she went off to California with the ‘Irish Madman’ Sennett. The light for film-making out there was good, Edison’s camera bullies were thin on the ground, and you could get away with things that would have been impossible in well-policed New York. As an accomplished actress, Mabel needed no training for film-work, at the new Keystone studio in Edendale, a district of Los Angeles. She did need to appreciate, nonetheless, Sennett’s ideas for success. Firstly, Mack had realized that women’s emancipation could be a route to his only god – money. Mabel would be the epitome of the new woman, a feisty girl who feared no wild horse, high cliffs, or burly men armed with blackjacks. She would be quite able to compete against men in 200-mile car races, fly an aircraft, and climb down hundreds of feet of rope from a runaway gas balloon. Mothers would be fearful – but their daughters! Oh, how badly did they want to be Mabel! Of course, parents had to be placated, and Mabel always had to appear pure and wholesome, although Mack would often introduce some innuendo, like views up Mabel’s skirt of her bare legs in Mabel’s Busy Day, but, when you looked next time, she was wearing all-concealing bloomers. “Did we imagine that?” thought the lads in the audience – but it was too late, the scene had passed.

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What, no underwear?                                         Thank god for bloomers.

This became Mabel’s life, walking the tightrope between decency and life on the other side, down in Hollywood. Mack’s publicity machine had hit the ground running, when the company landed in L.A. in 1912. If Mabel was reported around town with too many different men, Mack immediately put out a statement that “Miss Mabel Normand is going to marry this man or that man, and will forsake the movies for the fireside”. There was no counter-statement put out when, inevitably, this did not happen. For a long time, Mack had insisted that Mabel dine with him every night, in order to keep an eye on her, and give the impression they were lovers, and that they might even marry. Mabel, of course, was not a one-man girl, and neither did she desire a chaperone. She was as flighty and fickle, as the screen Mabel, and, so much so, that in the nascent Tinseltown, out in the dusty wild west, this committed city girl, became bored, restless, argumentative and even aggressive.

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Will someone please save me from this mudhole!?

 

Life in the fully-formed Keystone.

As Keystone became established, Mabel did not tone down her full-on attitude, and constantly sassed her producer, as she’d sassed D.W. Griffith back in New York. The same string of offensive expletives still issued from her sweet mouth, whenever Mack disallowed some of her ideas, or began to groom other actresses for stardom. It became ever harder to keep the real Mabel confined within the constraints of the screen Mabel, and this did not go unnoticed by the newspaper men, and the newly introduced movie magazines. However, very soon, almost the entire companies, of the old Biograph and Vitagraph, were now ensconced in Hollywood. Suspicious as they were, the journos could find no-one who would dispel the ‘Mabel illusion’. It was to be 40 years later that Gloria Swanson told the world “Mabel was crude and vulgar”. Maybe this was true, but in the mid-1910s it was just a rumour. For all the world knew, Mabel was a sweet ingenue, surrounded by dumb men that spent their time kicking each other in the ass, or hitting each other over the head with mallets – when they weren’t chasing our little dear for her affections, that is. How many mothers of Mabel fans, knew that Mabel drank like a fish, smoked like a chimney, and swore like a trooper? How many knew she was an inveterate ‘manizer’? None, it would seem.

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Mabel on location with the company. How many would dish the dirt on her?

Time went on at Edendale, but Mabel began to change. Not in her personality, but in the way that she viewed her producer, and the films she was making. Inside the ingenue, was a mature woman and a dramatic actress struggling to get out, but during 1915, following Chaplin’s departure, she and Roscoe Arbuckle were forced to make slapstick pictures with a veneer of sickly puppy love smeared across them. However, once temporarily removed to New York Motion Pictures, Mabel and Roscoe made the dramatic comedy, He Did And He Didn’t, replete with sex, intrigue and nurder. Moving on from there, Mabel, by a bit of clever manoeuvring, managed to secure Keystone’s new Fountain Avenue studio for herself. It is difficult now, to imagine the wave of elation that went through the ranks of the Hollywood proletariat (the actors and actresses) as they witnessed one of their own, in a position normally reserved for the holier-than-thou producers. We can well imagine the likes of Adolph Zukor, incandescent with rage, while D.W. Griffith cried into his beer, as he watched Mabel’s name go up on her studio, not 200 yards from his own Majestic-Reliance studio.

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“Look out the window, Mr Griffith, Mabel’s got her name over the new studio”

That bitch had made it, but as the euphoria continued among the actors, there were those that plotted to bring the insolent ‘guttersnipe’ crashing down. Articles by Mary Pickford and Adela Rogers St. Johns, elevated The Keystone Girl to the level of a Goddess, and every newspaper and Magazine had to pay her homage. But the homage was mere lip service – how dare this uneducated illiterate, who, for all they knew, had formerly been a prostitute, dare to take on the mantle of a Captain of Industry. Mabel cared not, as the denizens of Tinseltown poured into her studio for the official opening. No producer dared to turn down his invitation, but it was clear that these studio heads were huddling together, hatching some kind of plot against the jumped-up actors, who might soon be demanding $20,000 a week, and their name over a studio gate. They must be stopped, and Mabel had to be destroyed.

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What the director saw.

 

Four years with a bald-headed ‘waddler’.

When the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company floundered, after little more than six months, Mabel found herself out on limb. However, those that sought her demise were out of luck. Although no longer in employment, Mabel still filled the front pages of the newspapers, with stories emanating mainly from herself. In early 1917, the movie industry was rocked to discover Mabel, who’d signed for the new company Goldwyn, was sitting in New York offering her services to the highest bidder. Goldwyn immediately slapped a writ on Mabel, and threatened to do the same with anyone that sought to sign her. Thus began the period with the producer Mabel called ‘the waddler’, after his mode of walking. The stories Goldwyn supplied Mabel were not entirely suitable and badly adapted to the screen. However, the Goldwyn publicity machine was second to none, and raised Mabel’s status still further. Nonetheless, stories filtered out that Mabel was insolent to the company’s executives, and hurled constant abuse at her fellow actresses. She was often late, and sometimes never turned up at all, but, when she did condescend to appear, she brought a jazz band with her, which caused havoc with activities on the other sets. All of this interested the pressmen, but they were unable to obtain corroboration from inside the studio.

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Mabel during filming at Goldwyn.

Only one actress would speak out “We have all become Queens of Hollywood”, declared Madge Kennedy, “But Mabel is different, she has become a Goddess”. And that was that. Fully aware that she should not overexpose herself, Mabel avoided too many personal interviews, and only gave a couple a year. Many a journalist spent hours waiting for Mabel to arrive at the studio, but, when she did, usually at around 2 p.m., she’d often tell him to come to her house that evening. When the journo dragged himself to either Melrose Hill or Seventh Street, he might find her there, if she hadn’t already hit the town, and the gin. Often an interview consisted of Mabel setting an alarm clock for ten minutes, during which she’d ask the questions, and answer them. On one occasion, she ended the interview with this statement “Your ten minutes are up, please go now, I am having a chocolate cake delivered, and in time of great sorrow or great joy, I crave solitude”. Weird stuff, but the journo was lucky to be admitted to the house, as Mabel was careful not to allow men into her abode, and there is no record of a man ever staying overnight. Some pressmen had even begun to stake her house out, in order to catch her ‘at it’.

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Madge Kennedy with her Goddess.

Mabel tries to stop the war and become mayor.

As U.S. involvement in the European war drew ever closer, it was inevitable that those already holding strong political views would oppose the move. Naturally, millions of ordinary Americans were against the war, which was no concern of theirs. Mabel, however, took things further than most. She led anti-war demonstrations, and began the ‘Dig for Peace’ movement, and, while everyone was listening, she announced her intention of standing for L.A. Mayor, on a women’s suffrage ticket. At around the same time, a certain Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov (Lenin) arrived in Moscow, to oversee the dismantling of the Russian monarchy. The Bolshevik success stunned the world, and the U.S. Government was thrown into panic. Were there Bolsheviks in the country, and, if so, would they join forces with the socialist trade unions, such as Mabel’s beloved I.W.W.? You could not trust the I.W.W.

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Had not Irishman and founder I.W.W. member James Connolly, left the U.S. to lead the 1916 Post Office rising in Dublin? For that matter, where was Connolly’s compatriot in socialist crime, Jim Larkin? He was abroad somewhere in The States, stirring up insurrection, no doubt about it. The establishment spotlight swung onto prominent Irish and Russian folk. What about Mabel Normand, and Mack Sennett, both as Irish as the Glocca Mist. What about Charlie Chaplin – who was surely a former denizen of Eastern Europe, and probably Jewish? All three were staunch supporters of the I.W.W., Larkin and Connolly. In the event, the war came, and almost 4 million Americans were shipped to Flanders, including Mabel’s brother, Claude. Chaplin, of course dodged the British draft, and Sennett was too old for U.S. conscription at the time, being above 30 years of age. However, the war clipped Mabel’s political wings, and she eventually became the ‘Buy a War Bond For A Kiss’ girl, touring the theatres to sell bonds, on the promise of a peck on the cheek. A curious thing happened in 1918, when Mabel met the wife of former president Woodrow Wilson, Edith, in her box at the Knickerbocker Theatre, Washington. Mabel’s latest film, Joan of Plattsburg, had been presented as a fund-raiser for ‘The Children’s Year Campaign Committee of the Council of National Defense’, and Mrs Wilson wanted to meet her. The reason this is curious, is that the Council of National Defense were out to destroy organizations such as the I.W.W. and seek out seditionists (like trade unionists). For the time being though, Mabel was in a safe position, but the women’s clubs that supported the Council of National Defense, would later turn on the Keystone Girl. There is an abiding rumour, by the way, that Woodrow Wilson had something to do with the 1917 death of Hollywood star, Florence LeBadie, thought to have been Wilson’s mistress.

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Mabel flies the flag at Goldwyn.

Beyond the War

During the war, the money-making activities of Hollywood were much curtailed, and it was difficult to release a normal, non-war, film at that time. Many studios were beginning to go broke, and, under these circumstances Adolph Zukor of Paramount, decided to release Mabel’s Fountain Avenue film, Mickey, which he’d ‘inherited’. The world had waited a long two years for this, and everyone went Mickey-crazy, despite the influenza epidemic that had hit the entire globe. There was Mickey merchandise (dolls, cups, shirts, socks etc) everywhere, and someone penned a best-selling song about the girl from the backwoods, Mickey.

Mickey song

If such a thing was possible, Mabel soared to new heights, as the film snowballed and out-grossed Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation. Lucky old Mabel, but she saw not a penny of the profits. Rather than toss Mabel a few dollars, Zukor, and his ilk, began to seriously plot against the actors. It was now necessary to cut their massive salaries, and tie them into more restrictive contracts – the star system would soon be dead. Or would it? Almost immediately, Chaplin, Fairbanks, Pickford and Griffith began forming their own distribution company, United Artists. Zukor, knowing the game was up, offered his services as president of the new company, but was politely told to ‘fornicate off’.

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“Never mind the snow, they’re showing Mickey downtown!”

Following the war, things looked bleak for Mabel’s studio, Goldwyn. Sam Goldwyn began to cut the pay of his ex-theatrical stars and make other economies. In this climate, Mabel stuck out like a sore thumb, spending money like water, not making a stake in California, by buying a house and settling down, and not marrying. This did not look good, while he was cost-cutting, and the producer had serious words with his star. Mabel responded by failing to draw her pay check for several months, which left an embarrassing surplus in his wages account that was subject to war-time tax at 77%. Goldwyn put Mabel’s accrued money into government bonds, and would, in future, put part of her weekly pay to bonds as well. His fear, of course, was that Mabel might end up penniless on the streets, which would be an even greater embarrassment to him. Then, tragedy struck Tinseltown and Mabel. In 1920, three young stars died in mysterious circumstances. Olive Thomas, wife of Jack Pickford, died in a possible suicide, Bobby Harron, a Biograph friend of Mabel, blew his brains out, and another friend, Clarine Seymour died of something, perhaps, drug or drink related. Adolph Zukor, already twitching from having to pay off prostitutes that he, Roscoe Arbuckle, and others had been caught with, brought in well-spoken director William Desmond Taylor to conduct a service for the fallen stars, hinting that Hollywood was being well-policed by itself. Clearly, though, the knives were out to bring Tinseltown to book, in the near future.

Back to Sennett.

At Goldwyn, things were not going well for Sam, who, although Mabel had offered to hand over $50,000 to help him out, was weighed down with 2 million dollars debt. On top of this Mabel had become sick, very sick. Possibly, this was a psychological problem, but Sam did not understand his goddess, and, in fact, had himself suffered a nervous breakdown. He brought in the only man in the universe that understood Mabel, Charlie Chaplin. Dr. Chaplin gave his diagnosis and advice “Mabel must be returned to Sennett – it’s a matter of understanding, they’re both as Irish as the Banshees.” Thus it was that Mabel, much to the delight of the Sennett actresses, arrived back in Edendale (Sennett’s resident comedienne, Louise Fazenda, disappeared about the same time). Before she got to work, though, she’d have to convalesce, back east on Staten Island. However, the press were on ‘Mabel Alert’, and had staked out her parents house in St. Georges, so she spent a few weeks in the bohemian artist’s lofts in Greenwich Village. Mack Sennett had private dicks trailing his star of stars, but, since the recent Wall Street bombing, by suspected anarchists, the likes of Mabel and Chaplin (who’d met with Jim Larkin in Sing Sing prison) were under government surveillance. Mabel soon returned to the coast gay as a wisp and ready to work. She’d completed her first film Molly O, when Hollywood was rocked by the death of actress Virginia Rappe, at a Labor Day party given by Roscoe Arbuckle in Chicago. As the press went after Arbuckle, they also began to wonder who else had been at the party. The name Mabel Normand came up, and there were calls to have her interrogated. It is still not known if Mabel had been spirited out of that hotel, and driven at speed back to L.A., 250 miles away. However, it was soon to be Mabel’s turn to stand accused.

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There’d be no more of this misogynistic nonsense from Mack. (Mabels Busy day 1914).

Mabel began at Sennett’s lot from a position of power. Only she, as Mack later said, could make anything of the film Molly O’.  Her contract was unusual to say the least. She stipulated that Mack had to supply all costumes, and would only use her own clothes if circumstances absolutely required it, and by her express agreement. (Footnote 1). She would, furthermore, only sign on a film by film basis, and she would have exclusive use of director F. Richard Jones, the studio’s greatest megaphone man. This was problematic for Mack, as Jones, who’d directed Mickey, was now virtually studio supervisor. Mack often used him as a ‘firefighter’ to sort out pictures that had ‘gone wrong’. On the plus side, he’d won the hottest property in Hollywood.

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Alterations insisted on by Mabel for the Molly O’ contract.

The old Keystone Girl had now gone. Instead, Mack now had a woman with her own mind, who spoke to and treated him, very formally indeed. Mabel no longer cared about the private dicks that Mack had tailing her, and would wave to them across the street. If Mack had concerns about who she was meeting, then he could go take a run and jump. However, Mabel had become involved with someone very dangerous indeed. His name was William Desmond Taylor, an Irishman, who directed at Paramount Pictures, and the same guy that spoke the service for the three fallen stars of 1920. Nobody knew anything about him, except that he’d once worked the gold fields in the Klondike. He was a man of apparent good breeding, who spoke with authority and in a ‘Cavendish Square’ manner. He knew all the great authors, and became a magnet to the young, silly girls coming into Hollywood. Mabel was now thirty, but she was also drawn to the Irishman, who was just about old enough to be her father. She had competition in the form Mary Pickford lookalike Mary Miles Minter, who’d been a child star.

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The Taylor residence.

The fact that she was years younger than Mabel, didn’t bother the girl from Staten Island, and she had every confidence that she could lure any man away from any girl. When Mack found out, he began to twitch. Would Taylor get Mabel signed to Paramount? He spoke to Adolph Zukor, who confirmed that his company wouldn’t touch the insolent Mabel with a barge pole, especially as she’d once threatened to brain him with a heavy book. Would she marry the Irishman, and become beyond Mack’s control? It was under these circumstances that D.W. Taylor was shot dead on the night of February 1st 1922. Mabel had been the last person to see him alive, and Taylor’s butler, Peavey, maintained that she had done the deed. However, Mabel was soon exonerated, and suspicion fell on Mack Sennett, Mary Miles Minter, and on her mother.

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Society breaking down!

The press, under pressure from someone, would not let their rabbit, Mabel, go. It was all the fault of this part-time whore, who claimed to be so pure, but had grabbed another woman’s man, often slept with him, and had a filmy nightdress on stand-by at his house. The women’s clubs became outraged, and clamoured for Mabel’s films to be banned. There was much to-do about Mabel’s  love letters to Taylor, which were amusingly signed ‘Blessed Baby’. Mabel had gone to the house the day after the murder, and tried to retrieve the letters, while the house was full of cops. Several newspapers reported that some of the cops were actually British Secret Service men. Now, what would they be doing in L.A.? Could Taylor have been an I.R.A. supporter, a gun-runner? Was Mabel a closet Fenian, and did she support the I.R.A.? There was, after all, a civil war currently underway in Ireland. For some reason this all disappeared from the  press, and eventually the blame fell on Mary Miles Minter’s mother, which was very convenient, as she was about as far from the centre of the movie industry, as you could get. Some swore they’d heard Mack Sennett’s wallet creaking open. It transpired that Taylor’s real name was William Deane Tanner, and that he’d abandoned his wife back east. What did happen to the ‘Blessed Baby’ letters, that, some say, turned up later stuffed into one of Taylor’s boots.? Adolph Zuckor’s minnions had been to the house, almost before the police had arrived, and, apparently, cleared out any ‘incriminating evidence’. In the event, Will Hays was brought in from Washington to ‘clean Hollywood up’, and arrived in L.A., just as Mabel left for a European tour.

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Will Hays dives in to save the producers.  The artists have already sunk!

Over there.

It seems there were as many pressmen and spies on the ship, as genuine passengers. News was sent back that Mabel was man-hunting, swimming nude in the ship’s pool, and falling, blind drunk, off her bar stool every night. However, in England, authors, playwrights, lords, and minor royals queued up to meet her. She visited London’s East End, and the Chinese district, Limehouse, of Limehouse Nights Fame. In both places she was nearly crushed underfoot in the clamour to meet her, although she was incognito. Many could not believe just how small The Keystone Girl was. The same cries followed her as everywhere else ” ‘Ow old are yer, Mybel”. Departing England, she went to France, where she met up with Prince Ibrahim of Egypt, and helped spend his King’s money at the roulette tables of Monte Carlo. The king soon called Ibrahim back home, when rumors surfaced that he was about to marry a notorious actress.

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“So long suckers!” Mabel leaves New York.

Back in the U.S.

Mabel arrived back home in early September 1922, but was unable to go to Staten Island, as the pressmen knew she had returned, and laid siege to the St. Georges house. She stayed at Marilyn Miller’s apartment in New York, Marilyn then being in L.A., having just married Jack Pickford. It was here Mabel heard that Mack had started a big feature film starring Phyllis Haver. She immediately placed a long distance call to Sennett, and gave him an ultimatum, “Either fire Haver, or I go see the D.A. ” Clearly, this referred to the Taylor case, and Haver was unceremoniously let out the gate. Mabel breezed through the same  gate five days later, to take up the role of Sue Graham in Extra Girl. Naturally, Phyllis, much younger than Mabel, was more suited to play a little girl lost in Hollywood, but the film was a success, and Mabel, receiving 30% of the profits, made a million dollars from it. Not so lucky was Charlie Chaplin’s leading lady, Edna Purviance, who’s first solo film, A Woman of Paris, had just bombed. Mabel, who’d known Edna for some years, was quick to console her, but it was later suggested that Mabel really had her mind set on stealing her millionaire boyfriend, Courtland Dines. It was on New Years Day that, as Edna, Mabel and Courtland were having drinks at Courtland’s apartment, Mabel’s chauffeur, Joe Kelley, burst in and tried to remove Mabel, who was quite clearly drunk. When Courtland objected, Kelley shot him three times with Mabel’s gun. As with the Taylor shooting, it was difficult to understand exactly what had happened. However, it soon became clear that Kelley was, actually Horace Greer, an escapee from the chain gang. The elements of this case, created a situation far worse for Mabel, as she’d been at the crime scene, and Dines had been shot with her gun. Evidence volunteered by Greer, further revealed he’d taken the gun from a drawer in Mabel’s bedroom.

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A Goddess at home.

Instantly, the press were onto the fact that Greer knew his way around Mabel’s bedroom, and the journos figured that the chauffeur was a frequent visitor to Miss Mabel’s boudoir. Clearly, Mabel was sharing her bed with the hired help. This was all too much for the women’s clubs, who now came out fully against Mabel, as clergymen ranted from their pulpits against her, and the whole of evil Hollywood. The press piled on the pressure against Mabel, and producers began to shy away from their more exuberant artists. Mabel was a witness at the trial of Horace Greer, at which she was very jokey, and spoke with a ‘superior’ accent, which the press took up, and used as a club to beat her. Mabel took off again, but this time to save her investment in Extra Girl, by doing a publicity tour at theaters right across the country. In spite of calls to ban Mabel’s films, it seems the public still adored her, and box office returns were good.

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An about turn.

After returning to L.A., Mabel considered taking up an offer from a British company, as Sennett decided to stand her down for a couple of years. However, stage and film king, Al Woods, came to Hollywood, bearing the gift of a nation-wide stage tour. This was just what Mabel needed to re-ingratiate herself with her public, and make 2-million dollars to boot. Problem was, her voice was weak, but, after much instruction from ex-stage star Ala Nazimova, she hit the road with her personal nurse, Julia Benson, whose attendance she needed around the clock. The show, although playing to packed houses, was severely criticised by the press. Firstly, Mabel could not really be heard beyond the orchestra, and, secondly, the play had already flopped under several different titles.

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Al Woods had simply used Mabel’s name to get the play going again. When Broadway turned the show down, Mabel decided to abandon the play half way through the tour, much to the disappointment of millions who wanted to see The Keystone Girl, in person, in their town. On the upside, Mabel returned to L.A. clutching a million dollars, Al Woods himself having made a tidy sum. In terms of publicity, the play had been a success, but Mabel needed to demonstrate she’d settled down. She bought a house in Beverly Hills for $20,000 (yes, that’s right, thousands, not millions), then went for a sham marriage with Lew Cody. Half the press now had to shut their mouths; the other half clamoured for all the new Mabel stories that issued forth from Beverly Hills, and from Hollywood actresses themselves, who were asking that everyone should give Mabel a chance. There followed an abortive film with Mack Sennett, then a stint with Hal Roach Studios, where her old director, Dick Jones, was now studio supervisor, and Stan Laurel, her screenwriter.

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Mabel’s Roach Studio  gang. (L) Dick Jones (R) Stan Laurel.

The End of an Era.

Most of the publicity put out for Mabel at Roach, came from Mabel herself, and the quantity of it kept her detractors heads down. A little over a year later, with her health issues threatening to overwhelm her, Mabel withdrew from acting to concentrate on getting well, but not before she’d bequeathed her well-developed ‘dumb face’ and ‘head scratch’ to Stan Laurel. A washed up and middle-aged actor called Oliver Hardy, was given a part playing the drums in Mabel’s The Nickel Hopper, and later joined Stan in a comedy duo that requires no elaboration here. Mabel, of course, never did settle down, but continued to populate the headlines, throw all-night parties, and got seen about town, between ever more frequent bouts of pneumonia.

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Left: Last public photo of Charlie and Mabel. Right: Mabel before the camera again.

Mabel attended all the big premieres, and was snapped with the ‘big boys’ of the movie industry. In 1928, she was pushed together with Charlie Chaplin, at a premiere and photographed. It was the last chance saloon, everybody believing that Mabel would pass on pretty soon. In the same year, Mabel was loaned the set of Our Dancing Daughters by MGM, specifically by Louis B. Mayer, for a private film. Anyone that has seen Our Dancing Daughters, cannot help noticing that it appears to mirror the Mabel / Edna love triangle leading to the Dines shooting. Mabel attended her last premiere in 1929, and entered the Pottenger Sanitorium in September of that year. X-rays revealed she was running on a quarter of one lung, so Lew Cody, a qualified doctor, realizing the gravity of the situation, showed an X-ray of a person with healthy lungs to Mabel, when she asked to see the picture. On the day she died, the D.A. ordered that Mabel, Mack Sennett, and Mary Miles Minter and her mother, be interviewed again over the Taylor murder. At the same time the Revenue service, who’d recently prosecuted Charlie Chaplin, began to build a case for tax evasion against Mabel and Mack Sennett. So, in death, Mabel had cheated all those that sought to run her to earth.

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Now they knew the silent movie era was dead.

Mabel Post-Death.

The last Hollywood funeral of the silent era, was held in March 1930 for Mabel Normand, deceased, of this parish. All of Tinseltown’s actors, directors and producers attended, along with thousands of private citizens. The priest giving the service, requested that no-one that didn’t know Mabel should speak of her, and this request was obeyed. The eulogies numbered in the hundreds, and the worst that anyone said of her was by Hal Roach. “She was the dirtiest talking girl you could ever know” and that was it. As the talkies rolled in, any thoughts of pillorying Mabel were forgotten, and her memory drifted away with time. Until 1940 that is, when a film, Hollywood Cavalcade, was released that was loosely based on Mabel’s life.

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How the cartoonist saw actresses in the 1920s.

Concurrently,, a huge party was thrown in Hollywood, The Night of a Thousand Stars, at which The Mabel Normand Sound Stage at Republic Studios was dedicated with a 300 lb bronze plaque to Mabel. Mack Sennett had pushed for both the film and the sound stage dedication, but the film was a very poor representation of Mabel. In the event, the world moved into the Second World War, and Mabel was put on the back burner.

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John Wayne, Judy Canova and the Keystone Cops turn out for the dedication of Mabel’s Stage.

However, in the late 1940s, Mack Sennett began to draw up his autobiography, and again pushed for a film about Mabel. The idea was taken up, and a new film, Sunset Boulevard, including more elements of Mabel’s life, was begun. The finished product, directed by Billy Wilder, infuriated some the old silent movie producers, now presidents of the big movie companies, with its portrayal of old Hollywood as a den of iniquity. Particularly annoyed was Louis B. Mayer, who, as we’ve seen, had been very close to Mabel. After the first showing of the film, Mayer walked up to Wilder and simply said “You bastard!” This really put an end to Mabel’s memory returning to the fold, especially as the star of Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson, had stated that Mabel “was crude and vulgar”, which was a bit rich from a philanderer, and someone who thought little of having backstreet abortions. Mack Sennett’s autobiography drew some support for Mabel, but his inability to criticize the darker side of Hollywood, made his views redundant. The new Hollywood, fearful for the corruption of the current crop of actresses, painted Mabel from the picture. The purge of Hollywood by the McCarthyists, furthermore, damned Mabel’s memory forever. That socialist, Stalinist Charlie Chaplin had been flushed out of his den, and now his co-conspirator, the disgusting Mabel Normand, should have her memory driven into the earth, never to rise again.

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Sunset Boulevard.: Miss Swanson gets to play a star,  the aging and naughty Mabel Normand.

 

The Resurrection of Mabel.

In the early 1970s, the play Mack and Mabel appeared in theaters across America. Loosely based on what Mack Sennett had said in his book, the play, naturally, was a travesty of the truth, with Mabel portrayed as a scatter-witted drug-addict. This angered many Hollywood stars that had known Mabel, who hit out at the lies perpetuated in the play. Some old stars, like Minta Durfee, Douglas Fairbanks jnr. and Mary Miles Minter,  had already spoken well of Mabel, but were now galvanized into saying more. Others, too young to have known Mabel, but related to those that had known her, took up the mantle (Footnote 2). In the almost 50 years since the original Mack and Mabel ran, many writers have produced books and websites voicing contrary opinions, although some, like those in Adela Rogers St. Johns’ Love, Laughter and Tears were simply ridiculous. Against this, there were those that wanted to continue to portray Mabel, as the bad girl of Hollywood. Richard Attenborough in his film Chaplin showed Mabel as a dumb prima donna, while Paul Merton’s History of  Hollywood  attempted to leave Mabel out completely. Put the blame on Mabel they said.

In Conclusion.                

Many people will recognize Mabel in the stars that followed the silent era. Any actress  that wanted to appear independent, bad-assed, lecherous, and foul-mouthed, had a ready-made prototype to follow. If this is less so today, then it because Hollywood itself is less so. However, as Tinsletown falls away into the abyss, we still have, by good happenstance, many of the films from the silent days, the Golden Age of Film.

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Footnote 1: Producers in those days insisted on actors and actresses meeting a proportion of their films expenses. The normal practice was for the performer to supply costumes, except ‘period’ stuff, and it was no use turning up in some cheap old rags, as the camera was very sensitive to ‘schmutter’. Louise Brooks stated that she once lost a whole week’s salary, when, in one scene, her very expensive suit was destroyed in a mud bath. Studios were keen to say they were paying this baby star, or that baby star, $12,000 a week, but the artist was lucky to see $1,000. Established stars appeared to earn less, although much of their salary was paid ‘under the table’ for income tax purposes. It is interesting to note that the Revenue Service disallowed clothing expenses.

Footnote 2: Angela Lansbury absolutely loved the play and swallowed the story of the bad Mack alongside Mabel, the innocent fairy, hook line and sinker. Mabel’s niece, actress Mabel Normand, and great nephew Stephen Normand could see no good in it. Miss Lansbury liked the fact that the play combined comedy, love and tragedy, but seemed blissfully unaware that Mabel had, herself, combined these three elements in her films.

Links

LITTLE  KNOWN FACTS ABOUT MABEL NORMAND.

MABEL AND THE DINES AFFAIR.

WHO THE HELL IS PAUL MERTON?

W.D. TAYLOR AND MABEL NORMAND. PART 1.

MABEL AND TRICKY DICKY (ATTENBOROUGH).

MABEL NORMAND SOURCEBOOK.

Bibliography.

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

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