Her Awakening. Biograph, 1911.
Two Times A Biograph Girl.
The essence of Mabel Normand, so the movie magazines of the 1920s tell us, was ‘Mabelescence’. What was, or is Mabelescence? We cannot really say, for it is an indefinable quality possessed only by the Goddess of Old Hollywood, Mabel Normand. Some called her the ‘It Girl’, she who Elinor Glyn would have said was endowed with the mysterious qualities of ‘it’ whatever that was. In terms of her art, Mabel can be said to have had a naturalistic style that came from within, and once ‘in the zone’ even the loudest of director’s megaphones could not penetrate that sacred aura. Directors could put as many chalk marks on the set as they liked, it mattered not to Mabel, who would, as likely as not, disappear out of camera shot for a second or two. In late 1911 and early 1912, when Mabel was working under D.W. Griffith, he directed Miss Mabel, latterly a Gibson Girl, and Vitagraph girl, with the lightest touch, realising that this girl from Staten Island performed best when left to her own devices, totally absorbed in her character. This is best exemplified in The Mender of Nets, where she is playing opposite Mary Pickford who is clearly taking clues from the director, and hamming it up with Griffith’s own brand of ‘French’ hand gestures, very much redolent of semaphore signals. Later, Mabel would mock these, by introducing them into her films to get a laugh, so if you ever read that Mabel copied Mary Pickford, this is what they mean – but Mary herself derided these ridiculous hand gestures. Mabel had initially trained under Griffith in 1910, but had left in the winter of that year for Vitagraph, where she first attained the 1911 version of movie stardom. The Vitagraph films were much-acclaimed., but critics thought there was too much hugging and kissing in them.
Troublesome Secretaries. Vitagraph 1911.
Vitagraph Betty and Keystone Mabel.
When Mack Sennett became comedy director at Biograph, he knew he had to have Mabel or sink. He’d been at Biograph with the dramatic artist, Mabel, in 1910, but in L.A. in 1911, he was seeing her on the screen in Vitagraph comedies, playing Betty alongside the legendary John Bunny. His dropped jaw said it all, as he uttered those immortal words “My god, it’s Mabel!” Meanwhile, 6,000 miles away, in a London pub, two music hall comics, were discussing a stunning comedienne they’d just seen in a moving picture – their names were Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. “That Betty (Mabel) is a knockout” Said Stan. “Sure is” Replied Charlie, as the cogs in his head began to turn. One day, the future tramp thought, he’d meet with Vitagraph Betty, and make her his own. Almost three years would pass before he met Miss Normand, by which time she’d be a big star, one of the first to set foot on the oiled, dirt roads of Hollywood.
Mabel in glitzy Hollywood, 1913.
It would be another fifteen years, before Stan worked with Mabel as her screen-writer and director. By the time she’d left the Roach studio, Stan had acquired the tools he needed from Mabel, vis-a-vis the ‘head scratch’ and the ‘dumb face’ to form a comedy team with Oliver Hardy. Millions world-wide were now acquainted with Mabel Normand, but she blew into comedy by sheer fluke. At Vitagraph, as at Biograph, she turned heads, not just with her stunning looks, but with her effervescent personality. Mabel was crazy, and future stars, the Talmadge sisters, plus mother, found her fascinating and intriguing, eventually naming her ‘Madcap Mabel’. John Bunny was captivated by the off-screen Mabel as well, and decided to make her the on-screen Betty. Mabel conveyed zaniness with emotion and passion, but could also portray sentiment and kindness, especially to her screen father, John Bunny. She was also fearless in physical action, and on the screen, it was clear she would brook no nonsense. And that face – was it just people’s imaginations, or did she look different every time you glanced at her. In film technology parlance, she had a non-camera-proof face i.e. she looked different, depending on which angle from which she was shot. This made her interesting, but that wasn’t all. She had the unique ability to change her facial expressions, and at lightning speed. This was one hell of an actress, and in drama, her endless expressions were useful, but the speed of change and back again was gold-dust in comedy. As exemplified in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, it is clear that her face, front-on, is completely different to her profile. Full-frontal, when relaxed, her face is kind of fluffy, or as directors call it ‘doughnut’. However, the doughnut can change, using muscle control, to any shape you like. You expect her to have something close to a button nose. The surprise is that, in profile, Mabel has a classic half-moon face with a sharp ridge to her nose and a chin that projects upwards towards the nose, to give the unmistakable ‘witches look’.
Two Mabels, one film. Left ‘doughnut. Right ‘witchy’ under the bed.
Often, a stark difference between frontal and profile view is considered a disadvantage in camera work, but Mabel’s positive attributes outweighed the negative. It is also noticeable that Mabel was able to relax her facial muscles to form a ‘full chin’ that filled out the sharp chin in profile. The Normand eyes were as big as a Cheshire cat’s, and as doleful as you like. Her mouth was delicious but we’ll leave the description to Charlie Chaplin:
“She was extremely pretty, with heavy-lidded eyes, and full lips that curled delicately at the ends of her mouth, expressing humour and all sorts of indulgence. She was light-hearted and gay, a good fellow, kind and generous, and everyone adored her.”
Everyone loved Mabel.
At Vitagraph, the bosses had been well-pleased with their new acquisition, and letters about her that filled the studio’s mail, indicated that Mabel was cracking the difficult female market, or more specifically, the young female market. This, naturally, was the secret to Mabel’s commercial success. Self-respecting girls were apt to stay away from movie houses, where drunken layabouts passed their time, and hookers conducted their business. Once cinema bosses realised there was such a thing as the female dollar, they began cleaning up their act. Mabel was partly instrumental in this change, as teenage girls were mightily impressed with the activities of the Mischievous Mabel, the Naughty Normand. For the first time, girls realised that they could be emancipated, and were not tied to mother’s apron strings, until such time mama decided it was right to marry the sweet lad she’d found in the church choir. Mabel didn’t hang around to be married off to anyone, and her chosen ones (for there were many) were the likes of Owen Moore, Lew Cody, Jack Pickford, racing driver Teddy Tetzlaff and Jack Mulhall – all hunks, Hollywood heart-throbs, and ‘clothes-horse’ actors. When not hunting down the men, Mabel was diving off high cliffs, riding bucking broncos, swimming the English Channel, driving fast cars, and flying aircraft as though they were the most natural things in the world.
Mabel simply loves Teddy Tetzlaff (Speed Kings 1913).
The girls hoped, like future movie star Dorothy Gish, that one day they’d wake up to find they were, in fact, Madcap Mabel. The mothers, of course, were not so sure about Mabel, and they preferred the comparative safety of Mary Pickford as role model to their daughters, although the screen Mabel appeared chaste and wholesome enough. However, Mabel’s career ended at Vitagraph, as the Quaker owners felt that she was kinda unwholesome. Consequently, she found herself back at Biograph, where Griffith welcomed her with open arms. Whenever Mabel departed a studio, she left an unfillable lacuna. Griffith had his tragedienne back, but Mack Sennett, now comedy director, had the chance to swoop up the world’s greatest comedienne. The actors and actresses were delighted at Mabel’s return. As Chaplin said, everyone adored her, but not only was the adorable Mabel back, but she was now also that rare being in 1911, a movie star. Unfortunately, for Mack Sennett, Mabel had become the darling of the studio, and it was impossible for him, on the very edge of the Biograph social circle, to break through the crowds that surrounded her. He therefore, went to Griffith asking if he could use Mabel in comedies. Griffith was reluctant, but agreed on the understanding that he could use her in drama, as and when he needed her. Mabel was not amused, but carried on nonetheless. Mabel, then, had a foot in both camps, and she appeared in some riotous comedies, as well serious dramas. Let Mary Pickford describe her, as she saw her in late 1911:
“Suddenly, we realised for the first time what a wonderful comedienne Mabel was. She’d been playing ultra-seriously in dramas. and played the flashing-eyed creature of temperament, whose very looks were stilletos in your heart and whose movements undulated like a snake through the brush. The thousands that have laughed with her on the screen over the last few years of comedy have forgotten that she was once a heavy woman.”
Mary Pickford, January 3, 1916.”
Mary should know because when she played opposite Mabel in The Mender of Nets. Mabel played a woman scorned in love, and so wrapped up in the part was she that Mary avoided working with her again – it wasn’t worth the sleepless nights and endless nightmares.
Mabel and Mary. Mender of Nets 1912.
Mabel’s role in The Biograph Comedies.
Sennett’s aim was to present Mabel as a kind of fulcrum around which the actors, and the story span. Her role was to react to what was going on around her, but she was not a foil, as her reactions were central to the film. Most observers say she was the Queen Bee around which the hive, her very kingdom, buzzed. Mack cleverly used Mabel’s natural personality to support the pictures that were, as everyone knows, just a succession of unconnected nonsense scenes. Without the glue, Mabel, they would clearly fall apart. The screen Mabel, then, was the real Mabel, and, to an extent, she played herself. As Louise Brooks reminded us in her 1970s interviews, the most difficult thing in the world is to play yourself. Indeed, Louise was probably the actress most like Mabel in terms of acting performance, as Sennett realised after 1926, when he’d lost Mabel forever. The super-stars were Mary Pickford, the Talmadge and Gish sisters, Blanche Sweet and Mabel Normand. Against all the odds, he, a mere iron-worker and clown, had once held one of them under contract. His mind turned to Louise, who was, unfortunately, then signed to another studio. Fast forward to 1935, when Sennett, washed up and alone, sat in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel, dreaming of bringing Mabel back from the grave. Brooksie, also washed up, was then resident at the hotel, flitting in and out, and The King of Comedy noticed that Louise, now shorne of the famous ‘helmet’ and sporting a pony tail reaching down to her bum (as Chaplin would say) looked remarkably like the young Mabel. There can be no doubt that he would have put her into a ‘Mabel’ picture, if he could have found the finance (the men with the cash thought it too early to bring the Madcap back). Notable Biograph comedies actually starring Mabel were: Tomboy Bessie, The Diving Girl, The Tourists, and A Dash Through The Clouds. In others, like The Fickle Spaniard, and Hot Stuff, we might say that the men provide all the action. The film Oh Those Eyes, seems to have been intended to showcase Mabel’s attributes, including her changeable expressions and, of course, her eyes. Yes, she is the loveliest thing you have ever seen, but this is one of her ‘men are stupid’ films.
Oh Those Eyes. 1912.
The Keystone Films.
During the Biograph days, there were no films with titles incorporating the word ‘Mabel’. Biograph did not permit an actor’s name to be released in any way, and so the ‘Mabel’ in the titles had to wait until the Keystone films. Her name was, however, known from the Vitagraph films, although she generally played the winsome ‘Betty’. This was a natural progression, as Mabel’s audience began to burgeon. Mabel would have her own films, but Mabel was keen to have a dramatic base to the pictures and a strong storyline. This, obviously, had to wait while the studio established itself, building on the previous Biograph comedies as a base. Mabel watched as The Keystone Girl ran, dived, swam, drove and rode to increasing stardom. Wow, even the stars themselves could hardly wait to see the latest Mabel picture on the New York and Los Angeles screens. Mabel herself, though, was awaiting the latest films from Mary Pickford, Alice Joyce and Dorothy Gish. While many stars were dreaming of waking up and finding they’d metamorphised into Mabel, the The Keystone Girl envied the Griffith, Kalem and Vitagraph stars, playing in screen adapted stories of historical importance. Perhaps she would awake and find herself to be Alice Joyce, as Alice awoke to find she was no longer in The Fine Arts studio, but in that lumber yard they called Keystone. Mabel fought long and hard with Mack Sennett to consider dramatic comedy, but, in truth, Sennett could not understand this sentiment. Keystone was on top of the world – they outsold D.W. Griffith at the box office, and Mack’s Midas touch not only propelled his star-of-of-stars to greater stardom, but raked in dollars so fast, that he had to hire educated men to count the stuff. Mabel was far from amused, and entered into a dark depression, which she only left, like any ex-model, as the cameras began to whirr.
Biograph vamp. Mabel in The Eternal Mother 1911.
It wasn’t until part way through 1913, that Sennett felt the studio to be strong enough to risk some melodramatic interludes in the pictures. Mabel was, as D.W. Griffith had noted, a natural tragedienne, so it was this genre that he’d allowed Mabel to bring into the films. After all, the ancient Greeks understood well that the line between comedy and tragedy is but a thin, translucent veil. There was something else that pleased The King Of Comedy. Many of his films parodied or burlesqued those of Griffith, in the sense that he used the ridiculous Griffith hand gestures and contorted facial expressions, to make a mockery of the great ‘genius’. He wanted Mabel, therefore, to be tearing at her hair, slamming her fists together and raising her arms to the heavens in epic tragic scenes. This Mabel did not object to, as she’d long ridiculed Griffith, and, any way, this was still current movie practice. Mabel used melodramatics and tragedy to good effect in Mabel’s Dramatic Career, in which she, a poor domestic slavey, suffered under an uncaring employer, and was later tied to a barrel of gunpowder by a top-hatted villain. Having seemingly found happiness in marriage, her old employer decides to shoot her, her husband and her children through an open window.
There’s nothing like a Griffith heroine in a Keystone comedy. Mabel’s Dramatic Career.
From early 1914, Mabel was making films alongside Charlie Chaplin. Mabel developed her ideas at this time, and passed them on to Chaplin, who utilised them in his later films. Things stagnated somewhat, during 1915, when, at the top of her game, she found herself in some artistically challenged, but lucrative films, with Roscoe Arbuckle. The best of this series was ‘Fatty And Mabel Adrift’ the last to be made at Keystone L.A. In January 1916, Fatty and Mabel produced the unique melodramatic comedy, ‘He Did And He Didn’t’. Here, Mabel and Roscoe, reveal their dramatic talents, which they use to great effect. However, the picture reveals a chink in Mabel’s armour, in that she cannot effectively play a vamp, or even a naughty housewife. This is probably why D.W. Griffith never put her in vamp roles, except once in The Eternal Mother, where comedy overwhelmed her vampire efforts. She found the whole concept of acting out the role of a man-eater to be highly amusing, as she was a real-life vamp, and her roles, even as an innocent ingenue, had men sighing for her.
Fatty and Mabel Adrift.
The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company.
Mabel’s greatest film was Mickey, undoubtedly, her greatest effort. The film was made in 1916, by The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, at her studio on Fountain Avenue, Silverlake L.A., but wasn’t released until 1918. In her determination to make Mickey a success, Mabel went through several directors including the great George Loane Tucker. Eventually, she settled on the young, dynamic director, F. Richard Jones, who she more or less monopolised for the rest of her career. F. Richard, beginning with Mickey, began a process of teasing out the very best of Mabel’s acting ability. In particular, he concentrated on her unique ability to manipulate her facial muscles to emphasise various moods, and enhanced these where appropriate. In general, he enriched what was good, and dismissed what was not good. This was important for feature films. In a 6-reel film, you could not use ‘filler’ scenes, and everything had to be of the best quality. Every film that F.Richard directed for Mabel was a blockbuster.
With Dick Jones and at a premiere with Dick and Mack Sennett.
The first association with Jones, ended when Mabel left the MNFFC to join Sam Goldwyn Pictures. As with Sennett, Mabel was Sam’s first leading lady, and it seems she thought Sam would provide films with the same impact as those by Keystone. This was not to be the case, although as the movie industry progressed, Mabel’s fame progressed with it. This was mainly due to Sam’s incredible publicity machine, which put all his stars into the limelight. Mabel believed Sam, when he said he’d buy the best stories from the most famous writers, and the best stage shows. He didn’t lie, and he spent hundreds of thousands on the stories. However, he spent little on adapting the stories into screenplays, and Mabel was soon arguing frequently with her directors.
Mabel as Mickey.
Trouble brewed with the studio supervisor, Abe Lehr, who Mabel called Mr. ‘Leer’. It is Mabel’s confrontations with Lehr and Goldwyn, which, paradoxically, built the legend of The Keystone Girl, principally because Sam and Abe recorded the shenanigans between themselves, and Mabel, in Sam’s autobiography – one of the first from Hollywood. From what Abe and Sam said, we can deduce that the Mabel of the screen was very close to being the real Mabel. Like The Keystone Girl, Mabel ran through the usual sequence, when confronted with something a little uncomfortable. Abe Lehr told Sam the following tale. Mabel had been turning up hours late at the studio, and was often Absent Without Leave, which he estimated had cost the studio $30,000. Abe suspected that Mabel had a new flame, and he confronted her one day in his office, telling her that the studio came before her love-life, her hairdressing and her eyebrow plucking. Mabel went into the first stage of her sequence, which involved sitting on Abe’s desk, twinkling her legs, as Mack Sennett called it, and bringing those dark, saucer-like eyes and two-inch eyelashes into play. Abe was mesmerised, but stood his ground. Noting Abe’s intransigence, Mabel offered Abe her newly-delivered car worth $8,000, if he didn’t tell Sam about the losses. Abe was unmoved, so Mabel went into her second phase. Abe ducked as a heavy book just missed his head and a paperweight clipped his ear. Within seconds, Mabel had cleared Abe’s desk of anything throwable, and was now screaming a torrent of abuse and threats at her supervisor. Abe ignored the threats, and Mabel went into phase three. She burst into tears, began sobbing, then ran from the room screaming. Now, Abe made a mistake – he ran after Mabel, and was immediately met with two gallons of water, hurled from a fire-bucket. Undaunted, he pursued her into her dressing room, only to run into a massive plume of perfume spray. If Mr Leer had been under any illusions, he now understood that Mabel was The Keystone Girl. This was reinforced next day, when, as he opened his office door, a bucket of green dye fell on his head. He ran for his desk drawer, where he kept his hankerchiefs, and was lucky to spot two electrical wires leading to the metal handle of the drawer. The Naughty Normand had struck again.
Mack Sennett Studios.
With Sam Goldwyn.
1920, found Mabel prostrate at home, with the death rattle in her throat. She’d been struck down by the third incidence of the Spanish flu pandemic, and the virus was ravaging her already damaged lungs. Sam Goldwyn had postponed the shooting of Mabel’s current picture, which was fortunate, as Mabel’s weight was below 60 pounds – not enough to sustain human life. A stream of movie star visitors came to the house, but Mabel, in and out of a deep coma, barely noticed. Charlie Chaplin came daily, one day finding a priest administering the last rites over his former lover. However, he was certain that Mabel was becoming more lucid, and one day she’d opened an eye and said “Fuck off Chaplin.” Charlie realised then that she was recovering, and went to see Sam Goldwyn. Charlie told Sam that he must release Mabel, as his lacklustre pictures were killing her. “Why not send Mabel back to Sennett – she will only die if she stays here.” Sam was unsure, but told Chaplin to go see Sennett, and tell him he can have Mabel back – the price was $30,000 (around a million today). A few weeks later, Mabel arrived at the Mack Sennett studios, where her Pierce-Arrow car was met by the entire adoring studio company. Mabel exited the car at Mack’s tower office. She made it up one flight of stairs, but had to be carried up the next by her chauffeur. Mabel was brought into the office and sat in a chair opposite a horrified Mack Sennett and F. Richard Jones, who saw a walking skeleton before them. Quickly, Mack got Mabel to sign a letter of intent, then he gave her a copy of the contract to take away, and sign if she was happy with the terms. Mack himself, carried Mabel back down the stairs, and he returned to Dick Jones, ashen-faced. Sitting down he looked at Dick.
“What do you think Dick, she looks like the living dead – she’s got a xylophone for a chest.”
“Well, we can’t photograph her looking like that, perhaps we should try one-reelers first.”
“No way do I put her in anything but features, she’s just cost me $30,000!”
“Send her back, boss, and save 30k.”
“Sam Goldwyn will never have her again, even if I have to lose 30-grand. She’s mine….mine, understand!?”
“In that case, Mack, I suggest you send her back to New York, until she’s filled out a bit.”
Thus it was, that Mabel returned to Mack’s office to sign the contract, and where Mack swallowed hard as Mabel demanded 25% of the profits and $3,000 a week. If Mack had been more alert, he’d have noticed Mabel wink at Dick Jones as she signed. Two days later, Mabel departed for New York, where Mildred Harris had arranged for Mabel to stay in her apartment. In the event Mabel moved into a loft in Greenwich Village with some friends. Mabel was happy, her roots were among the artists, so what better place for an ex-Gibson Girl to convalesce?
Mabel returned to the coast, as gay as a wisp, and ready to roll. Her new film was Molly O’, a Cinderella story about a poor Irish girl that eventually gets the man and the cash. The film represents Mabel’s return to drama, for this is a dramatic film, with a little humour slipped in. As so often, George ‘Pops’ Nichols plays Mabel’s Irish father, who, as always, loves to take his belt to his wayward daughter. Again, Dick Jones has stepped in to enhance Mabel’s good points, but for this film, and ever after, Mabel goes nowhere near the water, nor a high cliff, nor the bare back of a galloping stallion. The stunts are replaced with scenes of Mabel dancing. She is fully a Griffith maiden, but the film, if dialogue was added, would pass for a 1930s drama.
The dancing was something which fans always requested, although a certain measure of comedy was added to it. Result: a sell-out, and a cool million into Miss Normand’s safe deposit box. Problem: Leading man Jack Mulhall, who Mabel fell for. For the third time, Mack was losing his girl. Sennett socked Jack in the jaw, but had to confront him 25 years later on the ‘This is your Life program’. Mack looked pensive as Jack walked up to him. Jack shook his hand, and said:
“I’m as thrilled tonight, as when you chose me to be the leading man to Mabel Normand, of beloved memory, in Molly O.”
Jack walked away without throwing a punch.
In 1922, they began Mabel’s new film, Suzanna, a tale of Old Spain. Mabel and Dick were preparing to get to grips with the new plot. However, one day, as Mabel got into her Mexican costume, the police arrived and carried her off. People watched, as a girl in a patterned poncho and sombrero hat was put into an LAPD car. “Well, just what you’d expect from a diego.” Said some observers. What had happened was that Mabel’s lover, William Desmond Taylor had been shot dead, and Mabel, for that day, was the prime suspect. A huge battle developed between the Hollywood stars and the press that tried to crucify her. This overflowed into the film, and Mabel was shown as defensive, but vulnerable. However, there are some quips in the film which relate to the Taylor murder. At one time, on a lonesome trail, Mabel picks up a horseshoe, and looks through it with a wry grin. Then, she tosses it away – “I don’t need luck!” She seems to say. Once again, Jones gets Mabel dancing, although the sequence is speeded up for comedic effect. This film is not a drama with added comedy, it is comedy that incorporates some drama, which was entirely necessary, considering Mabel’s private problems.
In June 1922, Mabel fled the country to avoid the adverse publicity, although Suzanna did good box-office. In England, Mabel met the authors, like H.G. Wells, G.B. Shaw and others, who she thought might provide her with good stories. She left England for France, with a draft contract from the ABC Studio. In France, she led the gay life, with her own personal Sheik – the wealthy Prince Ibrahim of Egypt, but also received offers from French studios, and later from Italian and German outfits. So Mabel had options. A millionaire, film contracts, and a possiblity of screenplays for her own company. Her Prince was called home by his King, who’d heard he was about to marry a scumbag Hollywood actress. End of Sheik. Mabel hit the Deauville races and the gaming tables in Monte Carlo, but by early September, she was on her way home. Back in New York, Mabel made no attempt to contact Sennett. Everyone thought she was in Staten Island, but secret arrangements had been made for her to use Marilyn Miller’s apartment in Manhattan. Mack began a new feature, Extra Girl, starring Phyllis Haver – Mabel it seemed was gone…. for good. Mabel, though, was far from gone, and spent $20 on a long distance phone call, in which she made a series of threats against The King of Comedy, which she would turn into reality if she did not get the part. Mabel needed this part to rehabilitate herself with an accusing public.
Extra Girl 1923.
The press, the women’s clubs and the church were screaming accusations in her direction. “Mabel is a murderer, Mabel is a whore, Mabel is an altogether bad egg.” The story of Extra Girl was one of a young girl, lured to the bright lights of Hollywood. Eventually, she gives up the bright lights for marriage to her childhood love. Naturally, Mabel would have done no such thing, but the film was received with great applause, and Mabel walked away with another million bucks. The story of Extra Girl is dramatic, but Sennett and Jones have brought back the lovable Keystone Girl for this picture. Her fans were delighted, as this was just what they wanted. Dick Jones, nonetheless, is not found wanting, and has again enhanced and smoothed out the Keystone Girl of old, and brought her into the roaring twenties. Impetuous references to the Taylor case are numerous in the film, and her fans thought that giving a finger to the authorities was the right thing to do.
Dying in the arms of Ralph Graves. Extra Girl.
As adulation for Mabel continued through late 1923, everything looked fine, but disaster struck on New Year’s day 1924, when Mabel’s chauffeur shot oilman and playboy, Courtland Dines. Present at the time was Mabel and her friend Edna Purviance. The newspapers were instantly on to the story, and soon realised that, as with the Taylor case, there was a love triangle, behind the shooting. ‘Courts’ was the fiance of Edna, and the press soon discovered that Courts had been seeing Mabel behind Edna’s back. The fury against ‘bad girl’ Mabel erupted again. Mabel dug her heels in, and went on a nation-wide tour, promoting Extra Girl, and this proved successful. Unfortunately, waiting in the wings was a certain Mrs Church, who, in September 1924, named Mabel in a divorce petition. This struck Mabel in the heart, although she was not named as co-respondent, but as someone that had ‘alienated her husband’s affections’. Now everyone knew that Mabel was bad, bad, bad.
Bad girl out for a ride (Looking For Mabel Normand website).
Stagestruck and Hal Roach.
No future films were planned, but impressario Al Woods contacted her, with a view to putting her into a stage show. The play would tour nationwide, but, although the stage-play was not good, Al was sure that Mabel’s name would bring packed houses. And so, Mabel was the road again, but her voice did not carry beyond the orchestra, and the tour was ended after a few weeks, although audience numbers were high. Mabel’s pay? Another cool million. Back in L.A. the good-time girl decided to put her feet up, buy a Beverly Hills mansion and disappear. Her friends advised her to marry and give up the wild parties. Mabel did marry in 1926, but did not live with her husband, and, of course, continued partying like there was no tomorrow. Naturally, Mabel soon became morose and discontented with her work-free life, especially after a feature film role with Mack Sennett fell through. Fearful for Mabel’s mental health, Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet and F. Richard Jones contacted Hal Roach about her going to his studios. Jones was, by now, Hal’s studio supervisor, and pushed for Mabel to be signed. As a result Mabel went to Roach Studios, where a certain Stan Laurel was elected her screen-writer and director. Hal at this time, was buying up falling silent stars at a cheap rent, and got Theda Bara for $50 a week! Mabel, however, was a little more expensive and came with a price tag of $1,000 dollars a week for the first two weeks, then $3,000 a-week, rising to $5,000 a-week thereafter. Roach might have been smug about capturing Sennett’s Keystone Girl, but he would soon realise the that handling the little clown was not going to be a walk in the park. Mabel initiated insurrection in the studio and her supporters were young, new actresses, old acquaintances, Stan Laurel, the and, importantly, F. Richard Jones. Hal was beleagured, as Mabel and her friends followed the ‘Thick-necked Mick’ (as Mabel called him) around the studio, hurling vulgar abuse at him. Hal later said: “She was the dirtiest-talking girl, you’d ever heard.”
Hal Roach “She was the dirtiest-talking girl you’d ever heard.”
“As filming began, it was clear that the ailing Mabel needed a lot of support. It was difficult to keep her within camera range, and a hacking cough interfered with the schedule. Stan, Dick and husband Lew Cody, combined to help Mabel, but her basic ability hadn’t deserted her. The films, then, were successful, although they lacked the lustre of the Sennett pictures. Dick, continued to adapt Mabel to the changed circumstances, which helped dilute the effects of the Laurel screenplays that were alright, but not brilliant. The public, however, loved the pictures, and loved the fact that Mabel was back. In Raggedy Rose, Mabel gets knocked out by a wayward boot, just like she did in the Sennett films. In general, however, they lack the Sennett touch, although they are funny, as befitting stories from the pen of Stan Laurel. Later Sennett was to say:
“She shouldn’t have left me. I could have made her good films, better than any other man could have made them.”
There is nothing particularly new in these films, and they more or less follow the Roach formula. Inevitably, Mabel appears with a gun, just to keep her detractors happy. To keep her detractors happy, also, sheappears as a kind of preying mantis, who hunts down a man, and strips him virtually naked.
One Hour Married 1927.
In late 1926, Mabel began suffering severe respiratory problems, and she did not take up her option to re-sign. For almost half a year her wings were clipped, as she fought off pneumonia, bout by bout. Surprisingly, Mabel recovered, and was again hitting the parties and premieres, much to her fan’s delight. Moving into 1928, Mabel seemed to be everywhere, around town, and in the newspaper headlines. The headlines can be summed up as “What Mabel did” and “What Mabel did next.” Arriving at the premiere of ‘Lilac Time’ the press pushed Mabel and Charlie Chaplin together for their final photo, with Mabel baring her bosom to show just how fit she was. Fit enough, it seems, for old friend Louis B. Mayer of MGM to give her a test for talkies in this year. The aim seems to have been to show that Mabel could still cut it in movies, and what the company did, was make a short film on the set of the big MGM film of that year, ‘Our Dancing Daughters’. Mabel had a copy of the film made and gave it as a present to husband Lew Cody. It’s whereabouts today are unknown. The silent movie era ended on February 28th 1930, the day they buried the Keystone Girl.
Filming on the art-deco set of Our Dancing Daughters, 1928.
Her Best Films.
It is, naturally, impossible to decided which of Mabel’s films were de facto better, although we can say which were the most popular. The main thing to remember, is that Mabel never had a film ‘bomb’ — not at Biograph, Vitagraph, Keystone, The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, Goldwyn, Mack Sennett Studios, nor Hal Roach Comedies. Artistically, we must inevitably look to the feature films. The battle today is between Mickey (1918) and Extra Girl (1923), both highly popular with the contemporary public, but produced, surprisingly, in different circumstances. Mickey was produced at the tail end of the development phase of Hollywood movies, while Extra Girl was produced during the so-called Golden Era of silent pictures. Extra Girl is technically a more advance picture, but nothing can approach the sheer charm of Mickey and Mickey herself. Charming also were the Fatty and Mabel shorts, but these were, in reality, junk, although they were popular in 1915, and still are today. The difference is that 1915 audiences thought that Fatty and Mabel really were love-struck country kids.
New Years Eve On The Train, 1916, by Mary Pickford. The Times-Democrat , Lima, Ohio.
Madcap Mabel: The True Story of a Great Comedienne, 1930, by Sydney Sutherland. ‘Liberty’ .
Personalities I Have Known: Mabel Normand, 1916, by Mary Pickford. Syndicated column.
Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006).
King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).
Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).