I first discovered Mabel Normand (who I had never heard of) within the pages of Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography. At first, Chaplin briefly mentions her, then, goes into the famous Mabel At The Wheel diatribe. “Hmm … just another screen ‘bimbo’, methinks”. However, having dismissed The Keystone Girl, Chaplin goes on to talk about her again, and then again, but in an entirely different fashion. Clearly there was something special about this ‘bimbo’, and so I looked her up. What I found was someone who did not fit the Mabel At The Wheel bimbo mould. However, today, the ‘rumour’ of the dumb Mabel persists, and the reason is Chaplin’s comment on her performance in Mabel At The Wheel.
Mabel and Charlie were regarded by the press, as experts on each other, so that in every interview there were the inevitable questions and answers. With so many of these comments it might be possible to determine facts about their relationship. The question is, did Chaplin really think Mabel was stupid, or did he see something in her that led him to form a profound lifelong friendship with her? The answer to this is important, as the future of screen comedy was almost certainly hammered out at Keystone in 1914. In this essay I will list some of Chaplin’s Mabel comments, along with some of the comments Mabel made about Chaplin, and add some brief notes. At the end, I will attempt to draw conclusions about what they thought of each other, and the nature of their relationship.
Mabel in Chaplin’s words.
From Charles Chaplin: My Autobiography 1964
Signing up for Keystone.
“Had I seen a Keystone comedy?” asked Mr. Kessell. Of course, I had seen several, but I did not tell him that I thought they were a crude melange of rough and tumble. However, a dark-eyed girl named Mabel Normand weaved in and out of them, and justified their existence.
Note: Chaplin implies that Keystone used Mabel in cameo roles, to make their films palatable. Mabel also appeared in cameo in Chaplin’s A Film Johnnie and The Masquerader. Chaplin, then, had a preconceived idea of what Keystone was about. He was, furthermore, keen on meeting a real live movie star.
Meeting Mack and Mabel
“I thought you were a much older man”, he (Sennett) said …. Mabel Normand, however, was more reassuring.
Note: Mack, we can be sure, was never keen on having any vaudevillian on-board. His ego had been dented long ago by his failure on the stage. When Sennett first saw Chaplin, he had a panic attack. The Englisher was about the same age as Mabel! He had probably noticed some chemistry between his Keystone Girl and Charlie, and wondered if they would run off together (a common occurrence for leading ladies and men, according to Sennett’s autobiography). Mabel might have heard a little about Chaplin from Mary Pickford, who had seen him in a restaurant in 1912 (she waxes lyrical about the early Chaplin in her autobiography).
Later in his section on Mabel’s Strange Predicament, Chaplin leaves Mabel out of his story altogether. The important thing was to tell readers how great he was, and how rubbish the original director Pathe Lehrman was (Sennett states that he took over direction himself, due to disagreements between Lehrman and Chaplin).
Mabel At The Wheel.
… he (Sennett) assigned me to Mabel Normand, who had just started directing her own pictures. This nettled me, for, charming as Mabel was, I doubted her competence as a director; so the first day there came the inevitable bust up.
Out on location, Chaplin suggested a gag with a hose, but Mabel quickly shut him up; saying
“We have no time! We have no time! Do what you’re told”. That was enough, I could not take it – and from such a pretty girl. “I’m sorry Miss Normand, but I will not do what I’m told. I don’t think you’re competent to tell me what to do”… Sweet Mabel, she was only about twenty at the time, pretty and charming, everybody’s favourite, everybody loved her. Now she sat by the camera bewildered: nobody had spoken to her so directly before. I was also susceptible to her charm and beauty and secretly had a soft spot in my heart for her, but this was my work. Charlie tried to set out his point of view, but Mabel simply said “Very well, if you won’t do what you’re told, we’ll go back to the studio”.
Note: This was Chaplin’s most damaging remark, intended to assure readers that he was a genius, and everyone else, including Mabel, was a dithering idiot. Having got that out of the way he then proceeds to talk in a more sincere and constructive manner. We now know Mabel was approaching 22 at this time.
Charlie faces the boss.
Back at the studio a very mad Sennett burst into the dressing room, and confronted Charlie, threatening to fire him. He stormed back out slamming the door behind him. Charlie arrived at the studio next day expecting to be fired, but Mack took him to one side and said
“Listen, Mabel’s very fond of you, we’re all fond of you, and think you’re a fine artist”. “I certainly have the greatest respect and admiration for Miss Normand,” said Charlie,” but I don’t think she is competent to direct, after all she is very young”.
Note: Sennett got a kick-back from his partners telling him under no circumstances was he to fire Chaplin, as he was making the company lots of money (they did not care for Mabel’s feelings, as they did not think she would walk out on them). When Sennett told Chaplin he was fond of him, he was lying, as Sennett hated Chaplin’s guts (as revealed in a later letter from Kessell and Baumann to Sennett). Paradoxically, Mabel really was fond of Chaplin, and, for reasons explained below, needed him to stay.
A Description of Mabel
The ‘he-man’ atmosphere of the studio would have been almost intolerable, but for the pultchritudinous influence. Mabel Normand’s presence, of course, graced the studio with glamour. She was extremely pretty, with heavy lidded eyes, and full lips that turned up at the corners of her mouth, expressing humour and all sorts of indulgence. She was light-hearted and gay, a good fellow, kind and generous and every one adored her. Stories went round about Mabel’s generosity to the wardrobe woman’s child, of the jokes she played on the cameraman. Mabel liked me in a sisterly manner, for at that time she was very much enamoured of Mack Sennett.
Note: Truly, everyone loved Mabel, and Chaplin realized Mabel was more than a pretty face. If Mabel had deep feelings for Chaplin, then she had to hide them, for Mack had spies everywhere. It was understood that Mack and Mabel were sort of an item, although this can be better viewed as a sentimental attachment, due to the fact that they had started up together.
A Famous Trio Ride Out
Because of Mack I saw a lot of Mabel; the three of us would dine together and afterwards Mack would fall asleep in the hotel lobby, and we would while away an hour at the movies, or in a café, then come back and wake him up. Such propinquity, one might think, would result in a romance, but it did not; we remained, unfortunately, only good friends.
Note: Mack probably adhered to the proverb ‘keep your friends close, but keep your enemies even closer’. Mabel was a friend, and Charlie was definitely an enemy – he came from the stage for god’s sake! Mabel was smitten by theatrical people, and it could be that Charlie was at dinner by special request of Mabel. Mack was seen as a terrible social bore, who talked ‘shop’ all day and all night.
The following happened at a charity event in San Francisco.
She (Mabel) looked radiantly beautiful, and, as I placed her wrap over her shoulders, I kissed her and she kissed me back. We might have gone further, but people were waiting below, outside in the car. Later, I tried to follow up the episode, but nothing ever came of it. “No Charlie, she said good-humouredly, I’m not your type, neither are you mine.”
Note: This is often taken to mean a personal rejection of Chaplin. However, Mabel thought it wise to reject all suitors. However, Adela Rogers St. Johns once stated that Mabel was “unusually pure – with no desire, no sex, no nothing”, giving yet another explanation for her universal rejection of suitors. Mack, though, was different – he made no romantic demands on her.
From Photoplay, June 1929
The Butterfly Man And The Little Clown By Adela Rogers St. Johns:
Mabel Normand was the greatest comedienne the screen ever knew. I would not dare to make that statement upon my own opinion alone. I heard it said first by Charlie Chaplin. No one, I think, would dispute his authority. I have heard it said often since by those who should know.
Note: Those that think Chaplin never appreciated Mabel’s ability should think again.
When Chaplin learned of Mabel’s death he said,
She was one of the truest friends I have ever known and one of the most remarkable, brilliant and self-sacrificing women any one has ever known. She was a great woman and a great character.
Note: need I say more?
Mabel’s illness was of long standing. When I first knew her fifteen years ago, she was suffering from tuberculosis; but so brave was her spirit that she tossed off the threat with a gay indifference.
Note: He says more on this point than Sennett, who claimed Mabel brought about her own death by eating ice-cream for breakfast. Minta Durfee said that Sennett would have worked her to death if he could (recorded interview 1974).
In later years, this malady was aggravated by grave troubles and worries. Mabel was the Patsy who got the blame for what other people did. She suffered humiliation and disgrace in silence when she could have set herself right — by “telling on” someone else.
Note: I wonder who the someone else was? It couldn’t have been Sennett, could it? As Louise Brooks said, Sennett could have done more to defend Mabel from the press feeding frenzy after the Taylor shooting. He could have defended her like Chaplin defended Edna Purviance. (Lulu in Hollywood).
* This concludes Charlie’s comments on Mabel. In the next post we look at Mabel’s comments on Charlie, and try to understand what it all means.