2. The story behind the film and The Mabel Normand Studio.
3. The Film
4. Brief notes on Mickey.
1. In terms of the films of Mabel Normand, one stands out above all others – the strangely named Mickey. Filmed in 1916, it was not released until 1918, and under very strange circumstances. Never before has a film so desired by the public, languished so long before being premiered. We have to realise that Mack Sennett’s contention that no-one wanted the picture, and he had to push for its release, is just one more fairy story from the fertile mind of The King of Comedy. Sure, he plugged the film relentlessly, but its fate, its editing and its release were in the hands of another. It’s a convoluted and complex story, very much like anything else to do with the lives of Mack and Mabel. In the end, the critics called it ‘The Film of The Century’ due to its knocking D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation off its perch as the top-selling film at that time. No-one expected ‘Birth’ to be knocked off its perch so quickly, and we have to wonder what the movie genius thought about that.
The lead up to the film needs to be explained in terms of the creation of Keystone, the arguments between Mack and Mabel over film content, and the ramifications of Keystone coming under the umbrella of Triangle films.
2. The Story Behind The Film.
The Keystone Comedy Company was founded by New York Motion Pictures, Mack Sennett and Tom Ince. The studio began with actors Henri Lehrman, Fred Mace, Ford Sterling, and Mack Sennett, who had all been poached from the Biograph Company, the director of which was D.W. Griffith. Understandably, the actors were somewhat peeved with Griffith who did not give them enough work. However, Keystone’s star trick was Mabel Normand, who’d starred in comedy at Vitagraph, but had become a capable dramatic artist in Griffith films. In general Mabel’s professional trajectory was towards drama and tragedy. Why she went off with Mack’s five-cent company is difficult to determine, but it may be that Mack promised dramatically-oriented comedies.
Mabel slaved to get Mack’s ramshackle studio up and running from early 1912 until late 1913, but there was still no sign of the promised dramatic comedies. Mack had realised early on that drama and comedy, in equal measure, did not work or, rather, did not sell. He did not communicate these thoughts to Mabel, who’d worked herself close to death to get the company off the ground. If she’d have been older, and more worldly-wise, she’d have contracted for a share of the profits, but, being young and foolish, it had not occurred to her. It was not until March 1914 that she managed to get a real story-line into Mack’s slapstick films, upsetting Charlie Chaplin, who had never imagined that a slapstick comedy could have a story. Upsetting also was the fact that the film, Mabel At The Wheel, had no hero, just a heroine.
As related in previous blogs, Charlie and Mabel were to produce eleven good films in the year that Charlie was at Keystone. His Lord Protectors were big bosses Kessell and Baumann, who insisted that Charlie be allowed freedom to produce films. When Mabel was working with Charlie, she had Charlie’s reflected freedom, and she was able to introduce dramatic scenes and melancholy into their pictures. Charlie was, it seems, afraid to follow suit, and stuck more closely to Sennett’s slapstick plans. He did, however, note what Mabel was doing, although he also thought that just a little melancholy was useful, and so, in his later films, he utilised melancholy sparingly, but successfully. When Charlie left, Sennett exerted his power and came down on Mabel like the proverbial ton of bricks. He put her into the Fatty and Mabel series of nonsense films that, although very popular, were an artistic dead end. Huge arguments erupted between Mack and Mabel, and when Mabel was loaned to Triangle in Fort Lee, she ‘ran away’. Calling journalists to her hotel room she declared that she had been signed by Mutual to do Chaplin films. This put Triangle in a panic, and the upshot was that they formed the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, and secured Mack Sennett’s new studio in Silverlake for that company. Mabel swiftly moved into the studio, as the signboards with her name in 5-feet high letters were being erected.
A huge party was thrown at the opening of the new studio, where everyone congratulated Mabel on her success, as the first actor or director to put their name over a studio. Sennett didn’t have that, nor did Griffith, nor Adolph Zukor, nor Chaplin, nor Mary Pickford. Every actor was glad, though, that one of their own had ‘made it’. As Mabel busied herself having carpets laid, potted plants distributed throughout, a garden made outside her dressing room and a balcony built overlooking the main stage, Mack Sennett struck. Somehow, he got studio supervisor Tom Ince to relinquish his post, so that Triangle had no choice but to install Sennett. With Sennett around, the filming did not go smoothly. The King engaged several lacklustre directors that were all dismissed by Mabel. The great George Lane Tucker was hired, but left amid problems with Sennett. Eventually, Mack had to hand over his own prized director F. Richard Jones. Thus, began a ten-year association between F. Richard and Mabel.
The production of the film, initially called Mountain Bred, was fraught with difficulties, as four companies, Keystone, Triangle, New York Motion Pictures, and the MNFFC were involved. Mabel became sick several times during the shooting, mainly due to her lung problems, exacerbated by her insistence on doing energetic outdoor scenes, and diving into freezing cold mountain lakes. At one time, someone (Jones or Sennett) kidnapped the negative over payments not received.
Eventually, shooting ended, but there were more problems. Triangle had begun to fall apart, but boss Harry Aitken demanded the raw, unedited film, and also demanded a share in Keystone. Griffith left Triangle owing the company a million dollars, just as Sennett sold the worthless Keystone goodwill to Aitken. The sharks were circling, and, in the melee, Mabel ran away, straight into the waiting arms of producer Sam Goldwyn.
Then, enter the shrewd Adolph Zukor, who became involved with raking over the ashes of Triangle and Mabel’s film. He also, via Paramount, became distributor for the new company Mack Sennett Comedies. The good quality of the finished Mickey was due to Zukor, who had the picture edited almost as a labour of love (original owners Kessell and Baumann had sat on the thousands of feet of raw negative wondering what the hell to do with it). When finished, they named the film Mickey, the nickname of Zukor’s daughter. It was more than eighteen months before the film was released.
The film was released during the last stages of the Great War, and when the world was hit by the infamous flu epidemic, which closed many movie houses and carried off a number of the industry’s actors and actresses – Mabel was lucky to survive her bout of the virus. Miraculously, considering the situation, Mickey was a success, and would eventually gross eighteen-million dollars. The critics absolutely loved it, and Mickey plates, cups, clothing, dolls and who knows what, appeared on the market. Top of the ‘pop charts’ was a record called Mickey that sold in the millions – the world had gone Mickey-mad. However, Mabel was now in a bad place. Her Goldwyn films were raking in the dimes at the box office, but they were not the artistic jewels that Goldwyn Pictures had promised. The critics did not slam them, but marked them as ‘could do better’. Meanwhile, Sennett had the worry of trying to sell six-reel features without his star-of-stars. Any thought of using the Silverlake studio for features left his mind, and the premises were leased to W.S. Hart, and cowboys took over Mabel’s palace of film. The carpets were thrown out into the road, the plant pots were used for target practice, as boozed-up cowpokes swung from the drapes and the Juliet balcony. Mabel’s beautiful Louis XIV dressing room was trashed, and became a tack room for dirt-encrusted saddles, reins and stirrups.
If Mabel was now in an artistically bad place, then so was Mack. How the hell was he going to produce guaranteed, saleable feature films without the star-of-stars, the inimitable Mabel. Sure, he had actresses that could do slapstick, and he had actresses from the theatre that could do all forms of dramatics, but he could find no-one that could blend the two together and make it work. Kessell and Baumann had suggested digging deep, and bringing Chaplin back, but, unfortunately, he would still lack a competent leading lady. Louise Fazenda might do, and Polly Moran might do, but neither had the same poise and timing as his estranged Keystone Girl, which would enable him to encompass the genres in the way that the public were now demanding. Gloria Swanson was a gifted dramatic actress, but when Sennett ordered her to do ‘Mabel stunts’ she simply walked out saying “You could get killed doing that!” The King worked his giant intellect almost to death, trying to determine ways to get Mabel back. It was impossible – Sam Goldwyn would not budge. Meanwhile, Mack’s post bag was building up with letters from movie fans, generally espousing the same view “We want the Keystone Girl back!”
Eventually, Mabel arrived back at the Edendale studio, the story of which has been set out in previous blogs. For our purposes here, we need only say that the Keystone Girl was now gone, and a new series of films, directed by F. Richard Jones, put Mabel on a level which Miss Keystone could only have dreamed of. We might mention Extra Girl, which almost, but not quite, hit the same dizzy heights as Mickey in 1923, also directed by movie genius Jones. In terms of money, Mabel only received her normal pay for Mickey, but took 25% of the net profits for Extra Girl, which amounted to around a million-dollars.
Many people have tried to compare Mickey with Gone With The Wind and Sunset Boulevard, but these are films from a different era and a different genre. However, for its sheer power and impact, it clearly equals the former, and exceeds the latter. Why was Mickey so successful? Well, the answer might lie in the cutting, in which Mack Sennett played no part. The editors of the film allowed Mabel’s abilities as a dramatic actress to shine through, and not be obliterated by Sennett nonsense. In Sennett’s defence, we should mention that he’d learned the lesson by the 1920s, and tried to replicate, half successfully, the format of Mickey in Mabel’s last three films for Sennett Studios. Finally, we can say that Mickey has a bewitching charm that few other films possess, enabling it to appear as fresh and enchanting, as when first released. Jones’ contribution to the film cannot be underestimated as he had taken the best of the Keystone Girl, drawn it out and enhanced it, while discarding the rest, something he would continue with right up until Mabel’s last film in 1927. Notably, there are none of the ‘Biograph gestures’ that D.W. Griffith hammered into Mabel and Mary Pickford in their early moving picture days. This is what the press said:
* Mickey” is one of the best program features of its kind released in many months. It is one big laugh from start to finish.
* The W. H. Productions Company announce that “Mickey“ is meeting with great success all over the country, and in many instances is breaking box-office records as well as shattering precedents by the length of the run.
* Proctor’s Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York, a vaudeville house, is running the picture this week as an experiment, as they are said to have never used a feature picture before, and report big business, notwithstanding this is usually a bad week, the one before the holidays.
* In connection with the showing at Proctor’s Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York, the Columbia company carried a “Mickey“ window display in their Fifth avenue store, which is said to be the first time, a photoplay has been so advertised on Fifth avenue.
* The first heard we heard of Mickey was in the Mickey moving picture, and by this time ten million people have seen this wonderful photoplay. The records of box office receipts at Washington prove this. Wherever you have seen ‘Mickey Being Shown Here Today’ in front of a theatre, you have seen lines of people, blocks long, waiting to get in. And why? Because no photoplay yet produced is so filled with adventure, thrills and human emotions as Mickey. One minute you feel a tear coming, but before it reaches your check you are holding your sides with laughter at some funny incident, or holding your breath with excitement at some hair-raising episode. Five hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money, but that is just what was spent on this picture.
* The Mickey song: Within a month a million copies were sold in the West alone, and no end in sight to the demand. Waterson, Berlin & Snyder heard of the song and immediately bought it. The price they paid was well up in the five figures, but when the first order receiver from the dealers were totalled up, they showed over 500,000 copies sold in the first four days.
* Next to our President there is no better-known character in the country today than ‘Mickey’.
3. The Film.
When considering the merits or otherwise of the film, we have to bear in mind that neither Mack Sennett, F. Richard Jones, nor Mabel Normand appear to have had the authority to edit the picture into its final form. However, we cannot tell the full story, as the tentacles that entwined to form the Triangle company cannot be disentangled by us today. Indeed, no-one could do so, nor understand what was going on, at the time. When the company tottered, then fell, everyone was out to grab what they could from the remains. It was in this atmosphere that the Mickey negative was first kidnapped, then fought over, then consigned to a can for eighteen months. Mack Sennett appeared to have started with a 25% stake in the film via Keystone, with New York Motion Pictures bosses Kessell and Baumann holding a larger stake via their Western Imports subsidiary. In the shenanigans that ensued, Mack somehow lost his 25% stake, Kessell and Baumann passed NYMP onto Harry Aitken, and someone, seemingly Adolph Zukor, had the film readied for release, but under the Western Imports banner. It is fortunate that the film eventually appeared in its entirety, for it could have been cut into three or four separate short films.
In essence the film is a Cinderella story — a girl from the backwoods makes good in marriage and wealth. The ending is corny enough, but the build up is fascinating. Mabel is cast as more than a Cinderella, she is a heroine, and a step up from the one we see in Mabel At The Wheel, that film being Mabel’s first tentative move towards a full-blown story-based feature picture. Mabel plays Mickey, a free-spirited backwoods girl, who grows up with her gold-mining guardian Joe Meadows (played by George ‘Pops’ Nichols) and his Indian squaw, Minnie Haw Haw (Minnie Devereaux). The spirited Mickey causes many a problem for Joe, but Mabel has introduced an element of melancholy, which to some extent pervades the picture. As one critic said “One minute you’re beginning to shed a tear, but before it hits your cheek, you’re splitting your sides with laughter.” Thus, for the first time, Mabel was able to show her talents as tragedienne and comedienne. Eventually, another miner arrives in the area, searching for mining prospects. This miner, Herbert Thornhill, is played by Wheeler Oakman — a heart-throb in the vein of Owen Moore. Mickey is smitten with Herbert, who has spied on her while she was swimming and diving — apparently in the nude. When Joe realises Mickey’s infatuation, he cannot deal with it, and decides to send her away to her only known relatives, the very posh Drakes, living in New York.
The first part of the film runs breathtakingly fast, following Mabel’s journey through pathos and comedy (but not slapstick). There is Mabel running around the backwoods, rescuing a cat from an old mine, escaping a mad storekeeper who’s trying to shoot her dog, hiding under a man’s bed (who also nearly shoots her), diving off a cliff and tearing through woodland pathways on her horse. Her usual method of mounting her horse is by a Redskin leap onto the animals back from behind. If audiences thought they were going to get a breather in the next part, they were mistaken.
When Mabel arrives at the Drake mansion, she is dressed, unusually, in an outfit straight from ‘Mrs Prim’s School For Young Ladies’. Mrs Drake doesn’t realise that Mickey, although she owns a gold mine, does not possess a red cent. However, Joe lets it slip that the mine’s a dud. After Joe leaves, Mrs Drake turns on Mabel, and puts her to work as a slavey. Life as a domestic does not suit Mickey, who is soon behaving like the real-life Mabel — sliding down banisters, destroying party cakes, and using high-class furniture as gymnastic equipment. In the meantime, Mabel is being watched by the lecherous Reggie Drake, played by Lew Cody. It is now that we find out that the lecher’s sister, Elsie (Minta Durfee), is being pushed by Mrs Drake to marry wealthy miner Herbert Thornhill, who just turns out to be Mickey’s admirer from the backwoods encounter.
When a party is thrown at the big house, Mickey decides to steal a frock from Elsie Drake, and attend the party. While she is in the bedroom, Mrs Drake brings Reggie to the room to sleep off an overdose of booze. Mabel hides, then she decides to have a little fun and wakes the dozing boozer with a whack on the head. Once woken, Reggie decides he might like to ravish the fair Mabel. After chasing our chaste heroine around the bedroom, she leaps from the upstairs window, slides down a canopy roof and a column, straight into the arms of — Herbert Thornhill. Herbert leads Mabel into the party, where Mrs Drake and Elsie are stunned to see Mabel all dressed up. By a subterfuge they are able to lead Mabel upstairs, where they defrock her and roughly tear the tiara from her hair. Here, just enough of Mabel’s upper body in view to keep the boys happy. At this point the Drakes decide to be rid of the feckless Mabel, and pack her off to the railway station with the housekeeper. In the meantime, Mrs Drake receives a wire, stating that Mickey’s mine has struck gold. Instantly, she calls for Mickey to be brought back, and sets Reggie on course to charm Mickey into his arms. Using a bogus loss of wealth as an excuse, Herbert has pulled out of the romance with Elsie and now turns his gaze to Mickey. Mabel regresses to The Keystone Girl, and decides that Herbert is the one for her. You can almost sense a Sennett ladder-borne elopement coming on.
In the final part of the film the pace increases even more. Reggie tries to make some bucks by getting Herbert to bet on his horse at the races, but he’s told his jockey to throw the race. Being the heroine she is Mickey rides the horse herself, and tries to win, but she is thrown off and gets injured. A few weeks later the lecherous Reggie decides to have his way with Mickey in a lonely house on the Drake estate. Mabel again escapes onto the roof and ends up swinging from the gutter, until pulled in by the gallant Herbert, who has knocked Reggie out. Mabel and Herbert marry and live happily ever after, aaahhh…
4. Notes on the film.
Mabel was not a location girl, so full marks for spending a whole week in the National Park without her bright city lights.
Mabel gleefully discarded her banana curls for this picture.
Our little dear was very sick when she did the swinging from the roof scene, and Minta Arbuckle tried to dissuade her from doing that scene. Minta also tells us that Mabel suffered numerous lung hemorrhages during the making of the film, and had to have a drain tube fitted into her back. The roof wasn’t as high as it seems on the film, but still thirty feet above the ground. The mountains in the background make the building seem very tall.
Minta also stated that it upset her to see Mabel dressed in rags, but it is evident that she frequently moved from ragamuffin to debutante.
The huge cameo brooch that Minta wears in film is an intaglio of herself, given to her by husband Roscoe. Apparently it cost $900 ($20,000 today).
Although New York figures in the film, it was shot entirely in California. Some people say that they have observed palm trees alongside the ‘NY’ roads in several shots.
It is said that Mabel disappeared for three weeks during shooting. The reason is not clear, but she was driven away one afternoon by a friend.
A life-size picture of ‘Mickey’ used to hang in Mabel’s house, which later passed to her brother and is now said to be in the possession of Mabel’s great nephew, Stephen Normand.
Mickey’s ravisher was played by Lew Cody, who Mabel eventually married in 1926. Mack Sennett maintained that Cody stole Mabel from him, and turned her against him.
Sennett tried to make his peace with Mabel by presenting her with a very expensive oriental rug for her dressing room in the Mabel Normand Studio. On the opening day, Mabel’s Japanese chef prepared a meal for twenty-five people using only the facilities in the dressing room. Mabel had a rose garden outside her dressing room, and some days she would not come onto the set until she’d pruned her roses.
Much to Mabel’s annoyance, she was not allowed to ride in the picture’s horse-race, by order of the Triangle bosses. In her lifetime she suffered several horse-riding injuries, a broken collar-bone, in 1923, being the result of riding whilst drunk.
Mack always claimed that the studio was on Sunset Boulevard, but it was actually on the parallel road of Fountain Avenue, not in Hollywood but Silverlake. Mabel’s near neighbour was her old employer D.W. Griffith, whose Reliance-Majestic Studio was just two blocks away in East Hollywood. It is said the genius almost had an apoplectic fit when he saw Mabel’s five-feet high name boards go up on her studio.
There were several other Mabel feature films planned after Mickey, but the collapse of Triangle put paid to that. Mabel never mentioned the film in any interviews, demonstrating that, perhaps, the whole fiasco had upset her deeply. The Triangle Company that had begun on the crest of a wave, ended up at the bottom of the ocean, and there were no real winners — except perhaps the wily fox Adolph Zukor and his daughter, Mickey.
Charles O. Baumann: The Movie-Maker by Jillian Kelly (2015).
Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006).
Dreams for Sale: The Rise and Fall of the Triangle Film Corporation by Kalton C. Lahue. 1971.
King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).
The Dream That Came True in Motion Picture Magazine (Dec. 1916).