In her lifetime Mabel Normand only touched briefly on her role in setting up and keeping Keystone Studios going. She was also cagey about the role she played in Charlie Chaplin’s rise in film comedy. As Chaplin would have said ‘Modesty forbids.’ But let’s suppose she had free reign to talk, what would she have said on these subjects.
When you read the title of this piece, you might wonder “Has the Little Clown gone all swell-headed on us?” Well, what I intend to say here is the truth, with no arrogance, self-aggrandizement, nor pomposity.
Keystone has a unique place in the history, not just of American comedy, but of the burgeoning industry as a whole. For that reason, it is worth examining the history of the studio, and the way that great edifice came into being. If you think that Paramount, MGM and the other big studios were the top dogs, they were not even thought of in 1911, when my story begins. Furthermore, Adolph Zukor had only recently walked away from his rag stall, and Sam Goldwyn was still peddling gloves to farmer’s wives across America. I called the former ‘The Poison Dwarf’ and the latter ‘The Waddler’ (Mack Sennett, by the way, I called ‘Nappy’). It is true that companies like Biograph and Vitagraph were flying the stars and stripes for the U.S. industry, even though a certain irreverent, dark-eyed girl, called Mabel, was doing her level best to push them back to the Stone Age. Meanwhile, most of the U.S. studios dealing in comedy had gone under, while trying to fight against the kings of the art, the French studio Pathe.
In 1911 there was only one man crazy enough to think he could take on the French, and produce comedy that would equal Pathe and their star, Max Linder, on the screen. His name was Michael Sinnott (Mack Sennett), and he had a girlfriend called Mabel Normand. Both Mack and I were of French extraction, with a little Irish madness thrown in, and both appreciated the Gallic humour portrayed by Max Linder. Oh, how we prayed we’d one day meet Linder, and so certain were we that we would meet him that we spent our hard-earned treasure on a French phrase book (years later a little Limey called Charlie Chaplin was to do the same thing).
You may know that neither Mack nor Mabel were very popular with the King of Biograph, director D.W. Griffith. He thought Mack was insane, and he thought I was a disgusting and irreverent little girl. Having had to put up with the constant stream of profanities I threw at him, and my penchant for belittling him, and pulling chairs out from under him, it’s not surprising he grew to detest me. For these reasons, neither Mack, nor I, got the best parts. At least we can say we never bowed to the ‘Southern Gentlemen’ and while other girls had stage mothers and aunts to push them forward, I had no such help. I did, however, have Mack, a big, strong man, who’d been a boxer in a former life, and, should Griffith have laid violent hands on me (like he did with Mary Pickford and others) Mack would have instantly knocked ‘The Genius’ out.
As time went on Mack began to get ‘lunatic’ roles, and I became Biograph’s resident tragedienne, who always died before the final scene. In early 1911, Biograph departed New York, to winter in California. Mack went along, but I was left behind, as my mother refused to chaperone me, and Griffith refused to take responsibility for ‘that stupid, reckless girl’. Mack stayed in touch by letter, and advised me to go to Vitagraph, where I could learn comedy under Flora Finch and John Bunny.
This went well, until I was fired for mooning out of the window at passing train passengers. Can you imagine how horrified the church ladies and plug-hatted gents were at seeing a girl’s rear-end before their eyes! I still laugh about it today. In the meantime, Mack had met up with two New York wise guys, in L.A. called Kessell and Baumann. They had a studio in N.Y. named Reliance, and they told Mack I should get down there. This I did, but I only lasted four hours before the director (Wally Reid’s father, Hal) threw me out for ‘unacceptable behaviour’. My mother was livid, as she was relying on my earnings, but I told her I’d left, as the director had tried to molest me (not an unusual occurrence in a 1911 studio). In actual fact, I had told Hal he was “a fucking overweight slob”, and pulled the chair out from under him. Exit Miss Normand.
When Biograph returned from California, I met up with Mack on 5th Avenue for a milk shake. He told me not to worry about the trouble with Reliance, as he had persuaded Griffith to take me back at Biograph. Although we spent much of the next year arguing, we made plans for our futures. Mack gradually ingratiated himself with D.W., and began to turn the great man’s thoughts towards comedy. In early 1912, we were both taken on for the Biograph trip to California. Mack and I were thrown big time into Biograph pictures, in California and back in N.Y. It was after returning to N.Y. that Mack was taken on-board the new Biograph comedy unit. Mack soon recruited me, and we began making comedies. It wasn’t long before the comedy unit director sickened and left. With great delight, Mack took over the job, and I found myself the director’s girl.
“Mabel” Mack said to me “We need to work hard on our films – I’ve spoken to Kessell and Baumann, and they’ve agreed to form a new comedy unit, led by yours truly, as long as our Biograph comedies turn out good.”
During the making of these films, it became obvious that ‘Mabel’ had to be central to the scenes, as this would make them more palatable to Kessell and Baumann, who were avidly watching. They intended to put a clause in Mack’s contract that Mabel had to be part of the package Mack brought from Biograph. I was made the Queen of the Hive, around whom everything revolved, and my bust (I was voluptuous in those days) became critical to almost every picture. Mack spent as much time organizing the exposure of my cleavage, as he spent directing behind the camera. This was a tricky affair in those far off Edwardian days, as a certain exposure was good, but too much was bad taste.
After several films, Kessell and Baumann were ready to go, and soon Mack and Mabel were employees of the new Keystone Company, with me on $125 per week, and Mack, as director, on $60 per week, together with a share of the profits (he held 33% of the shares). We stole Ford Sterling, Pathe Lehrman and others from Biograph, and had a rudimentary office in Manhattan. Using me, as a center-piece, was a masterstroke by Mack. We needed no exotic locations, just me, a park and a policeman. As Griffith had discovered, we were big money-makers. Now Mack began to agitate for a studio in L.A. where filming weather was better, and there were plenty of usable parks, and empty countryside. Once K and B had agreed, we were off to the land of orange groves. However, many of my Biograph friends were unhappy that I was going 4,000 miles with that ‘mad Irishman’ Mack Sennett. Blanche Sweet was particularly vocal in her disapproval, but for 125 a week, I was out of there – no Griffith, no mother, nothing to hold me back.
We arrived in L.A. after a rail journey in which I angered all my fellow passengers with my uncouth behaviour. As I have previously related, the snobs on the train were disgusted that a girl, seemingly about 13, was travelling sleeper class with 5 adult men. Fortunately, no-one called the cops. We booked into the Alexandria Hotel, and then I got my first shock. The studio was not in downtown, but miles out in Edendale, a wild-west type area, which, I was told, was dusty in summer and knee deep in mud in winter. There were no made up roads, no electricity, and no drainage. I immediately turned on my heel, and headed back to the rail-head. Mack caught hold of me, and placated me with stories that K and B had lodged 800 dollars with the city for electrical connection, and the roads and drainage would be coming soon.
I reluctantly agreed to go and take a look. We rode out to Allesandro Street on the trolley, and alighted in a sea of mud (there are summer rains in L.A.). The so-called studio was a field, or yard, of around 4 acres on which stood an abandoned grocery store, a barn, a corral, and a rickety bungalow. There was no fence, and I turned, and began to run in the direction of L.A. Mack again caught my arm, saying:
“Give it a chance Mabel, have a look around”.
I looked, and did not like what I saw. We went to the bungalow, which looked like something Wyatt Earp had lived in. Half the windows were hanging out, and when we opened the door, the whole rotten thing fell straight in, sending up a thick cloud of dust.
“Don’t worry, we’ll fix it up and live here … save the trolley fare from L.A.” said Mack.
My reply was curt:
“Now you listen to me, Michael Sinnott. The Keystone Girl does not, and never will, live in a shed. Nor does she fornicate in such a place. I’m a good Catholic girl, Mack, and I decide where I live, and I decide who I sleep with. That does not mean a thick Irishman like yourself, in a shack like this.”
Like Dick Whittington, I turned again, and, once more, Mack caught hold of me, saying
“O.K. Mabel, you stay at The Alexandria, and I’ll fix this up as an office.”
“Whoa, hold on a minute, mastermind” I said. “You fix half of this up as a dressing room for me, and I want thick carpet throughout, Louise XIV fittings, a stove, and an oven. Oh, and a bathtub, and walnut paneling on the walls.”
Mabel had spoken and so it was done. While I lived in plush surroundings at the Alexandria, Mack had to move into The Athletic Club, in order to save company money. It cost Keystone $160 for the first few weeks, to keep me in splendor and booze at the Alexandria – I was worth every penny.
In 1914, Charlie Chaplin said to me, as he first looked around the lot
“What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this.”
Well, Mr. Chaplin didn’t know the half of it. By 1914, with my constant bickering the lot had been transformed. It was still a dump, but an atmospheric dump. Charlie found out what living in a shack was like, when he moved into a cowboy shed on the Essanay lot, with the very eccentric cowboy Broncho Billy (G.M. Anderson). There was no electricity, no drainage, and sand came out of the faucets. All for a lousy $1,000 a week paycheck! Without me, the Keystone would have been a horrific place in which to work. In 1914, big bossman Charlie Baumann sent his daughter Ada to Keystone, and I pointed out to her all the crappy things about the studio. She reported back to dad, and, in early 1915, his partner, Adam Kessell visited us, with the express intention of kicking Sennett’s ass.
He berated old ‘Nappy’ in front of the assembled company, and pretty soon the place was spruced up, and a new impressive Spanish-style frontage was erected, together with a more civilized dressing room block for the actresses. Previously the girls had changed in an old rickety barn, before Mack moved to the old grocery store, freeing up half the bungalow for them. I felt such a heel, as I dressed in relative luxury in my bungalow, but I could only invite so many of the actresses over to my dressing room. It was all so embarrassing, and I always tried to keep my friends (all big stars with prestigious studios) away from the lot. They believed the Keystone hype, which showed the lot as a bona fide studio, somewhere in downtown. Remember, I was the biggest star in the universe in 1915, but if my admirers had discovered I made my films in the municipal dump, I’d have become a laughing stock.
All of the changes at Keystone happened because of the constant threats I made to leave the company. Why didn’t I leave, early on? Mainly it was due to the pleading of most of the company, who believed the studio would topple if I left. Chaplin’s excuse for not taking me with him to Essanay, was that I was like a raven in the Tower of London – if the ravens left, England (or in this case Keystone) would be no more.
The main problem at Keystone was that I had no right of say in the company affairs. If I had held shares, I could have influenced company decisions. But I was young and foolish, and full of excitement at leaving home for the coast. Financial matters were far from my mind. The only influence I had was my own presence, and I used it to influence everything at the studio. I made myself popular with the actors and actresses, and took up their concerns with the management. When the stock company and extras complained about being fed dry and curled up sandwiches, I ordered Mack to build a canteen, or commissary as we called it back in the day.
“A canteen, Mabel!” howled Mack.
“Yes” I said “But not an ordinary canteen, I mean a proper restaurant, with chefs and dickie-bowed waiters.”
Again, Mabel had spoken, and so it was done.
The restaurant proved a big hit, and I’m sure actors stayed put more often than they would have done. I further ordered that Mack dole out sick pay, and holiday pay for the workers – not the stars. By this means, I became the heroine of Keystone, and therefore indispensable for preventing dissent. Of course, I stayed in touch with Ada Baumann, who ensured that problems were communicated to her dad.
As 1915 went on, the assimilation of Keystone with other studios under Triangle became to take effect. Sennett became snowed under with the formation of Triangle, and his lack of control at Keystone became obvious. He had no time for me, and my improvements began to disappear. Under Triangle it would be difficult for Mack to hide the fact that the studio was controlled by a mere slip of a girl. That asshole began to create more obedient Mabels from the sluts and harlots he called Bathing Beauties.
I persuaded Kessell and Baumann to bring me, and a company of actors, to Triangle’s Fort Lee studio in New Jersey. This was a temporary situation, intended to promote Triangle, but I had no intention of returning to Edendale. When the time came to go home, there was no sign of little Mabel. Then a piece appeared in the newspapers, stating that The Keystone Girl had skipped the coop, and gone over to Mutual and Chaplin. Panic ensued, as Kessell and Baumann, and Mack Sennett realized they were screwed. They bought little Mabel back with a $100,000 studio, all for herself, in East Hollywood. They paid me a huge salary, which I used to make the studio fit for habitation. There were carpets throughout, pot plants, balconies on the dressing rooms, and fresh flowers every day. I’d brought Keystone into the modern world. Sennett, however, lost his grip, within a year, and the Keystone fell flat, as Mabel made good her escape, for the second time.
The Keystone lost its way from 1917 to 1920, when it proved almost impossible to make decent feature films without Mabel. Stars came and went, as conditions deteriorated at the studio. In 1920, I spoke with Charlie Chaplin on several issues. He was dismayed at how Keystone (now Sennett Studios) had deteriorated, and he was dismayed at how my health and well-being had deteriorated. He begged me to return to Sennett, and I gave it a lot of thought. Unknown, to me my producer Sam Goldwyn had consulted Charlie, as he was at a loss to know what to do with me. His stories and screenplays, straight from the stage, were unsuited to me, and he was in danger of becoming the person that destroyed a great star – not good. Mack Sennett was ready to go, with a new Cinderella story for me, so off I went, but director F. Richard Jones thought I needed a good rest before we began shooting. Naturally, everyone at the studio was glad to see me back as their figurehead, but I was immediately sent east to Staten Island to recuperate. I made a slight detour to Greenwich Village, where I had Bohemian friends, who were keen to help me. I shared in their vegetarian diet, went to bed early, and they forbade me to touch the gargle.
I returned to Sennett, gay as wisp and ready to start work. I set to it, and worked hard, as I’d contracted for a share of the profits. Going to work was a pleasure, as everyone was so friendly, and too lovely for words. They knew I brought prestige to their studio. I conferred only with F. Richard, and told Sennett to stay away. He obeyed like a begging dog, but I knew he still had private dicks tailing me, and always knew where I was, and who I was with. Some people say Mack saved me from disaster, and that may be true, but I say I saved his studio. There was stiff opposition out there, like Hal Roach, but the big studios were fielding glamorous stars in comedies. There was only one person that could stall them at the box office – me, Madcap Mabel.
As most people know my time with Sennett ended in 1924, after people I knew started turning up either dead, or near-dead. Sennett helped me out greatly, putting armed guards on my house, and moving me out to Altadena. It was all too much, and after collecting a million for my film Extra Girl, I bailed out for the stage, and picked up another million. Mack kept phoning me to come back, but I’d had enough, and so, in 1925, I bought a house in Beverly Hills, intending to settle down. I kept a fairly low profile, but, getting bored, I considered an offer made by Mack Sennett. He wanted to make a film starring a whole load of his former stars. The idea would have renewed interest in his studio, and would also helped me back onto the screen. I returned to the studio for talks, and this time everyone went crazy:
Mabel’s back” they thought “Everything will be alright now.”
I feel sick that we could not make it work, but the actors and actresses he wanted to use were now big stars, and commanded huge fees. I wanted $15,000 a week and 25% of the profits, and I can tell you that stars like Gloria Swanson most certainly wanted the same. Mack was gutted, but even if I worked for nothing, he still could not have afforded it. Following this, I signed with Roach Studios, where F. Richard Jones was now studio supervisor. The loss of F. Richard was a mortal blow to Mack, who was now involved in complicated financial maneuvers. On top of this he had to rebuild for sound. He built a new sound stage out at Studio City, and let the old Keystone place rot.
Already deep in financial trouble, two local children were killed while playing on the Keystone site, and Mack was sued for tens of thousands. The City ordered that the studio be torn down – another massive expense. Ever the showman, Mack brought journalists to the lot, to witness the tearing down, and one of them invited me along. We wandered through the wreckage, and Mack came up to me saying:
“Mabel, Mabel how did it ever come to this? Things could have been so different”
Now, Mack had treated me like a doormat for years, but I shed a sentimental tear with him – the old times were clearly over. All I salvaged, from the wreckage of my former dressing room, was an old world globe that I used to spin, trying to find the places from which fans had written me. Later, F. Richard asked me how it all went with Mack.
“That man” I said “Will end up alone and broke”.
Addendum: I cannot remember when I heard about it, but it became known to me that Mack Sennett had left all of his worldly possessions to me in his will. For your information, he gave the reason that I was entirely responsible for his, and his studio’s success. [Up to date note: the will still exists]
* Sorry about the length of this section, but I’ll move on to Charlie Chaplin in the next part.