MACK SENNETT: KING OF EDENDALE. PART 4.

 

The continuing story of Mack Sennett.

Mack gets into overdrive

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The future as viewed by Hibernian Mack Sennett.

Mack now had a clear field, which would enable him to get on with building his comedy empire. Messy Mabel was out of his white hair, hopefully for ever. The police were off his back, for the time being at least, regarding the Taylor murder, and he was getting on fine with his distributors. Ahead, in the Glocca Morra mist, was only a rainbow, with a pot of gold at the end. Self-confident and not a little arrogant, Mack thought he could walk on water – and why not? His films were popular in places where they’d never even heard of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, his arrogance had led to many of his stars taking permanent leave of the studio, but, as far as Mack was concerned, they could all go to hell – movie stars were two a penny, and could be plucked off trees, almost too easily. Mack seemed to have developed a nastiness about him, which suggested he would run out of steam and actors before long. Mabel Normand told friends “That man will end up broke and alone.” This was quite a prediction, but, for the time being, The King was riding the crest of a wave. “ I must get out of this rabbit-warren of a studio” He mused. The place was, as Donald Trump might say, “A shit-hole”, and gave him no prestige whatsoever.

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Mock Keystones: both scenes were shot in ‘posh’ downtown L.A.

He’d run out of places to film that he could pretend were the Mack Sennett studios, and he cast about for prestigious premises in the hallowed Hollywood. He had no joy. “What! Keystone Studios?” The real estate agents would bellow, “We don’t want that garbage here!” Then, a miracle happened, and Mack heard about a developer who was opening up part of the San Fernando Valley, and would donate land to anyone willing to build a movie studio there. Mack snapped up 20 acres. Sure, it was way out of Hollywood, but, as before, the mail could easily be sent down to the Movie Land post office, where his letters would receive a Hollywood postmark.

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Dreaming of times past.

Unsurprisingly, Mack was the only taker for a lot at Studio City, every other producer choosing Hollywood, or close by in Culver City. Mack declared his new studio operational in March 1928, with the presentation of a giant pie. However, in that year, it became absolutely clear that the movie business had suffered a massive change. Silent was out, and sound was in, and a cash-strapped Sennett had to dig deep to ensure he could accommodate the new medium at Studio City. His old premises at Edendale, with their open stages, were now obsolete and unsaleable for movie purposes. Mack put his head in the sand, and let the old site fester, as a good home for rats. Unfortunately, the lot became a huge draw for local kids, one of which lost an eye playing there, while another was killed. Mack cared not, until the City authorities took legal action, in order to get ‘The King’ to demolish the ramshackle buildings. As demolition began, Mack presided over the operation, with journalists in attendance. Even Mabel Normand turned up, to rummage through the remains of her old dressing room, from which she retrieved her now-battered world globe, used to identify the countries from which her fans had written to her. Mabel had not been entirely absent from the old studio since 1923, and paid a visit to the place in 1926, when she was, according to Ruth Taylor, mobbed and cheered by the current crop of  actors and actresses. It seems Mack had considered starring a then redundant Mabel, alongside two other ‘old girls’ Gloria Swanson and Phyllis Haver in a new feature film. Sadly, Swanson and Haver were happily employed elsewhere, and, although Mabel was

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The sad remains of Mabel’s old dressing room.

at a loose end, her friends persuaded Hal Roach to sign her – perhaps to save her from a grim fate at the hands of her former tyrant. Soon after, ‘The Little Clown’ married ‘The Butterfly Man’, actor Lew Cody, and Mack never saw her again.

The King’s final days on the throne.

Things looked good through 1928, and Mack became, like many others, greatly indebted to the banks (smart people like Hal Roach and Charlie Chaplin resisted the on-going temptation). It seems clear, Sennett wanted to step up a grade, and become Emperor. Consequently, he borrowed heavily to invest in the ‘Hollywoodland’ venture, and build a replica of Hadrian’s Tivoli palace, atop the hill carrying ‘The Sign’.

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A palace fit for an Emperor.

 

The sudden depression of 1929, hit the King hard, not a little aided by the incompetent management of Pathe, his new distribution company. Mack soldiered on under a new company, Educational Film Exchanges, although, for a time, he only had ‘B’ players on his payroll. During 1930, he was distracted slightly by the untimely death of Mabel.

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The good and the great of Moviedom bear Mabel to her grave. 1930.

Although Mack appeared nonchalant on receiving the news, he seems to have been reflective at the funeral, where with Griffith, Goldwyn, and others he was an honorary pallbearer. Had an era, the golden era of silent films, passed? Indeed it had, but Mack soldiered on, holding on tight, not willing to go down without a fight. He experimented with colour, and went fully into sound, but he was streets behind the new King, Hal Roach, who now had the best players and technical staff. The deposed king must have brooded over the loss of director F. Richard Jones, great friend of Mabel, who had masterminded the Roach takeover (F. Richard died of TB, less than a year after Mabel, and at exactly the same age).

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Hal Roach (R) with mastermind and Sennett defector, Dick Jones.

 

Like a foreshadow of Adolph Hitler, Mack spent hours poring over the architect’s drawings of his Hollywoodland palace, doomed now, never to be completed. The King had one great success in 1931, when he discovered, and fielded, Bing Crosby. No matter that Bing had now left, he hired a greater funny man, W.C. Fields. In fact,  Field’s film The Barber Shop was the last Sennett comedy ever released, and that release occurred on 28th July 1933. Sennett had finally gone bust, partly due to his new distributors, Paramount, going belly up in January 1933. All that was left was for Sennett’s canned films to be released, and to limp along until proceedings were filed for bankruptcy in late 1933, with listed debts of one-million dollars. True to form Sennett failed to attend court, as he had failed to appear over the running down of a pedestrian back in the teens. Mack had tried to gather cash by releasing a feature length film, at a time when shrewd studios, like Roach, had reverted to depression-busting shorts. Sennett disappeared from public view, and Louise Brooks records in her book, Lulu in Hollywood, seeing Sennett sitting, sad and alone, in the Roosevelt Hotel, watching the world go by. Was he musing over the fate of the golden era? Mabel was dead, Roscoe was dead, Marie Dressler was dead, Dick Jones was dead, and Marie Prevost was to die within the year (Phyllis Haver barely survived, only to do away with herself, two weeks after Mack’s death in 1960).

Mack Refuses to go away…

Sennett, then, was beaten. Or was he? When Mack watched the still young and hormonal Louise Brooks, coming and going at the Roosevelt Hotel, he was not idly dreaming. No, the exiled King was planning a comeback, and it seems likely ‘Lulu’ Brooks was at the center of his plans. When he’d come to an agreement with an acquiescent producer, he’d approach Brooks with an offer she couldn’t refuse. Would he say what he had said to Mabel in 1910 – “Hi, I’m Mack Sennett, I’ll soon be directing my own pictures, and when I do, I’ll put you in them”, or would he make the same approach that he had with Gloria Swanson “I’m going to make you another Mabel Normand”. Sennett had had his greatest successes with Mabel, but now he intended to launch a second career based on her memory. He would make film based on Mabel’s life, and use sentimentality to just about force people to watch. He succeeded (almost) by pushing for a film loosely based on the fictitious Mack and Mabel story. The film, Hollywood Cavalcade, was released in 1939, starring Alice Faye. Brooksie had rid herself of ‘that stupid haircut’, and left Hollywood – forever. Like Gloria Swanson, she did not want to be Mabel Normand. Gloria Swanson, however, did appear in yet another Mabel-based film in 1950, called Sunset Boulevard. Gloria played the role of Norma Desmond, a clear reference to the Mabel and William Desmond Taylor story. In between the two films, Mack had supported the new owners of his old studio in their bid to dedicate their new sound stage to Mabel Normand. The former King, it seems, paid for a commemoration plaque, on which were written Mack’s sentimental words eulogizing his former star. The plaque read:

                             WE DEDICATE THIS STAGE TO A MEMORABLE ARTIST

                                              MABEL NORMAND…..

“MAY WE NEVER FORGET HER.

A GREAT SOUL WHO

PIONEERED AND GAVE PURPOSE TO

THE EARLY MOTION PICTURE.

THROUGH THIS NEW ART SHE

BROUGHT LAUGHTER AND BEAUTY

OTHERWISE DENIED MILLIONS

       BURDENED WITH DESPAIR AND DRABNESS.”

                                                                                      REPUBLIC STUDIOS DECEMBER 27 1940

The opening ceremony was no cheapo event. Virtually anyone who was anyone in Hollywood attended, including Judy Canova, John Wayne, Gene Autrey, Bing Crosby, et al. They were joined by veterans of the Golden Era – Mack Sennett, Mae Busch, Louise Fazenda, W.C. Fields, James Finlayson, Chester Cronklin, Minta Durfee, Polly Moran – the list was endless. Mack Sennett gave a sentimental speech about Mabel, although, when he had initially heard of his former star’s untimely death in 1930, he had simply said “This is indeed most regrettable” and continued with his game of golf. ‘The King’ wasn’t finished there, though, and he later published his autobiography, which, he admitted, was unashamedly about Mabel.

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Stars gather at the Mabel Normand Soundstage.

The publication of this autobiography caused the release of a flurry autobiographies from the aging silent stars. Mack had set the goalposts, and the old stars finally knew, with some relief, what they could and couldn’t publish. As for Louise Brooks, she binned her own telling memoirs. It was clear that, if even Sennett could not publish the truth, then neither could she. There were still plenty of old producers about, and plenty of .38s.  The memory of Miss Normand remained the key to Mack’s future, which he had decided lay in T.V. He plugged away at the T.V. executives, for a Mack and Mabel serial, but it was only in the early 1970s, long after Mack’s death in 1960, that the stage show, Mack and Mabel, appeared. Full of stuff and nonsense, it nevertheless served to keep Mabel’s memory alive – and that of her long-time employer we might add.

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Sennett (B) and stars: A: Louise Fazenda, C: Judy Canova D: Charlie Murray, E: James Finlayson, F: Chester Cronklin, G: Minta Durfee.

We might suppose that Mack now entered his final years in white-haired tranquility, but this was not the case. Sure, Mack never gave up hope of regaining a foothold in the media, but there were certain authorities that maintained an interest in the mad ex-director. He was never hauled before any committee to explain his non-conformist views of the past – instead he was investigated by the Revenue Service in the belief that he had millions in un-taxed profits salted away. His numerous trips to Mexico over a period of forty years had aroused suspicion that money was transferred to banks south of the border. However, in 1955 it was finally determined that Max survived on a paltry pension allocated by a movie industry charity. Details of the Taylor case continued to be pored over by various detectives, and if it had ever got out that Mack  admitted carrying out the murder, then Mack would have ended his life, frying in the chair built by his old adversary, Thomas Edison.

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* In the next blog we bring everything together, and attempt to characterize Mack Sennett.

 

 

 

 

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MACK SENNETT: KING OF EDENDALE. PART 3

The continuing story of Mack Sennett.

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Mabel ran away while Mack’s back was turned.

Mack at it again.

As Mabel sat in New York, all was in turmoil back at Edendale. Mack Sennett had two simultaneous problems associated with Harry Aitken’s takeover of the Keystone goodwill. First, he had to ensure that Harry Aitken, with his Keystone name takeover, only received the dregs of the studio’s assets, such as recent low quality films, and third rate extras. Second, he had to keep all his players onboard during his tricky manoeuvrings. Mabel, in the meantime, had ‘run away’, while his back was turned, and Roscoe Arbuckle had now vanished into the Los Angeles sea fogs. Roscoe was gone beyond reach, but he still held hope for regaining Mabel – at some point. He thought about approaching his former queen, and personally pleading with her to return.

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Goldwyn sought an injunction against Mabel in July 1917

Unfortunately, she’d signed with Sam Goldwyn, who now threatened legal action against anyone who attempted to wrest the ‘Queen of Clowns’ from his sticky fingers. After a few sleepless nights, Mack came up with the idea of sending attorneys to New York, to renegotiate Mabel’s contract with Sam. Mack thought that, with Mabel’s agreement, he could push her salary so high ($3,000 per) that Sam would voluntarily relinquish his hold on precious clown. However, Mack had miscalculated, and Mabel broke, after many weeks negotiating, when the salary hit $1,500 a week. Mabel herself had miscalculated – she thought Mack would come to her personally, and woo her back, but this had been impossible. Mabel disappeared into the hoard of preening Goldwyn stars, while Mack trudged on at his studio. On paper, Mack had a good crew – Chester Cronklin, Ben Turpin, Polly Moran, Louise Fazenda, Phyllis Haver, and, briefly, Gloria Swanson. The rest of his all-star company came and went, but Mack carried on making good films beneath his own name, now emblazoned in eight feet high letters atop the Edendale studio. The invigorated ‘Napoleon’ Sennett ruled like a tyrant, sending any tin-type out of the gate, if they dared stand up to him. When Swanson objected to doing ‘108s’ and lying down on a rail-track, he simply tore up her contract. Bebe Daniels realized she would die young, if she stayed with Sennett, and departed almost before she’d started.

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Mack Sennett studios on Allesandros Street.

Stars like Louise Fazenda, and Polly Moran stayed on, but there was a blank space where the comical queen of tragedy, Mabel, had been. Mack toyed with the idea of sound, and colour, but it was far too early for that, and, of course, he still had his Bathing Beauties. He could leave his directors to present the Beauties, while he dealt with the problem of, not just treading water, but of expanding his studio’s horizons. Unfortunately, his chief concern was that as soon as he starred a performer, they left for pastures anew. No-one, it seemed, wanted to stay at the Edendale shanty-town studio, and earn peanuts – it was all too embarrassing. Some of the semi-stars, like Virginia Ketley, Peggy Page, Cecile Arnold, and Peggy Pearce, bit the dust, as soon as they left, but the big wheels, like Roscoe Arbuckle, Louise Fazenda, Polly Moran, and Marie Prevost made good.

The cash starts to roll in, but…

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Mack began to rely more and more on cutting edge technology to add flavour to his comedies. Men began to fly like birds, cars roared off on their own, and any film including an aircraft immediately became good box office. Something was lacking, though, and Mack’s films had become indistinguishable from those of his main rival  –  Hal Roach. The King needed to bring something extra into his pictures – somehow he just had to incorporate true Hollywood dramatics into the comedies and they had to be of feature length. There was only one way to do this – by hiring a proven dramatic performer, Biograph/Vitagraph trained, who could handle comedy. Was there such a person? Yes, there were two, but one was Charlie Chaplin, and he was never, ever coming back. The other was a certain girl with bush-baby eyes, but she was often 4,000 miles away in New Jersey – her name was Mabel Normand. Mack now entered another period of long sleepless nights, wondering why, when Mabel’s Goldwyn films were pants, ex-glove salesman Sam did not let her go. Why didn’t Mabel just walk out, and come home where she belonged? It wasn’t for lack of trying that Mack was unable to drive the unsuited pair apart. When Mack ran into Sam, he would mildly ridicule his Mabel films, although his pride prevented him from asking for Mabel’s return. Sam was smart, though, and, bad as the films were, they made him money – and plenty of it. When Mack ran into Mabel, he would laugh and joke with her about Sam, the bald-headed waddler, but both parties were too proud to make any move towards reconciliation.

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All smiles Sam, Mabel and Charlie at Goldwyn Studios.

Columnist Adela Rogers St. John’s intervened, and pleaded with Mabel to go back to Sennett, before her career was ruined. Chaplin did likewise, but to no avail. Eventually, Sam himself consulted with Chaplin, the world’s leading authority on Mabel. The Little Clown was pining away at his studio, and had become very sick. What should he do? Chaplin didn’t hesitate – “Send her back to Mack.” Thus it was that The Keystone Girl returned home, but there was a small problem. When Mack and chief director Dick Jones first saw Mabel they were shocked. She was emaciated, her eyes bulged, and her teeth protruded – she was a mere skeleton weighing 70 pounds at most. What should they do? They decided to send her back east to recover.

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Mabel and George ‘Pops’ Nichols in Suzanna.

Just like the old times?

Mabel returned from Greenwich Village a few weeks later, fully recovered, and Mack soon had a film, Molly O’, in the can. There followed another film, Suzanna, but before its completion Mabel’s friend Roscoe Arbuckle was charged with murder. Not many weeks later, another friend of Mabel, director W.D. Taylor was shot dead. Under these circumstances no blame could be allowed to fall on any person of standing in film industry. The finger was pointed, at the lower echelons – two actresses. These were no ordinary actresses, but two that had been involved in a love triangle with Taylor. One was Mary Pickford lookalike, Mary Miles Minter, and the other was that perennial element of love triangles, Mabel Normand. Mabel had been the last to see Taylor alive, so suspicion fell on her. It could not be proved that Mary Miles Minter had seen Taylor in the previous six months, so suspicion did not, initially, fall on her.

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Mary Miles Minter

Clare Windsor’s name was mentioned, but she had a good alibi. As Mabel had been been seen publicly with Taylor half an hour before the shooting, it seemed unlikely she was the culprit. Another one who had an alibi was Minter’s mother, Charlotte Shelby. As she was well away from the centre of Hollywood, she became a good scapegoat, but her alibi, provided by friend Carl Stockdale, held. One other prime suspect was Mack Sennett, who also had an alibi. That alibi was provided by Thomas Ince, a business colleague of Sennett. So, there were two suspects with alibis provided by non-independent witnesses. Sennett was above reproach, being at the centre of movie production, so, inevitably, the film industry pointed an accusing finger at Charlotte Shelby.  Being on the edge of Hollywood, she could be safely thrown to the dogs. Some witnesses claimed to have overheard Shelby threaten to shoot Taylor, as he had lured her daughter away, but this seemed an unlikely reason for someone to risk the electric chair – and MMM had gone off with other men in the past. Taylor’s butler, Peavey, had said, at Taylor’s inquest, that Mabel was attempting to persuade the director to get her signed at his studio, Paramount. Mabel denied this, but it is likely this was the case. The Keystone Girl had little interest in men, except as a tool to further her career – “Unusually pure” Said Miss Rogers St. Johns “With no desire, no sex, nothing.” This meant that she had no desire either for Mack Sennett, and, being as fickle as the screen Mabel, she could quite easily walk out on him again.

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Adela Rogers St. Johns.

Mack, who had spies everywhere, would have been aware of what Mabel was up to. He stood to lose a fortune, if Mabel ran away again. Therefore, he remains the prime suspect today, regardless of a weak alibi. Mack’s biographer, after The King’s death, stated that Mack had admitted to the murder of Taylor, giving the reason that the director had stolen Mabel from him with drugs. What better reason for disposing of the gay, intellectual Taylor?

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Phyllis Haver.

After completion of Suzanna, Mabel left for a tour of Europe. On her return, she found she was not penciled in for Mack’s next feature film, The Extra Girl, as she had been told, and things were even worse than that. The shoot for the film was already three weeks in, and the star was Phyllis Haver. Phyllis was much younger than Mabel, and was highly suited to the ‘little girl lost’ part the film required. However, Mabel was livid, and contacted Sennett to find out what was going on.

 

Mack had plenty of excuses, but Mabel had a trump card of some sort, for that same day Phyllis was fired, and Mabel put in her place. Why  was this? We don’t know, but it seems Mabel had something  on Mack, something she’d make public if she did not get her way. If Mack had killed Taylor, then, Mabel would have either known, or believed, it to be true.

Blue skies, turn to darkness

While filming continued on The Extra Girl, Mabel was busy involving herself in another fatal love triangle. Quite why she did these things is hard to understand, but once free of, what we might call, Sennett’s ‘supervision’, she developed risky behaviors. Did she enjoy the risks, did she enjoy the chase, or did she just want to hurt other women? It’s difficult to know. The loss of Charlie Chaplin, as an ally and confidant at Keystone, seems to have hurt Mabel – a lot. She blamed Mack Sennett for driving Chaplin away, and Chaplin for not taking her with him to Essanay. At Mabel and Charlie’s last dinner together, Mabel broke down and cried, but had too much pride to beg him to sign her to Broncho Billy’s outfit. She felt sure the tramp would come to her later on bended knee, begging for her help. He never did, for he had found what he wanted in an office stenographer called Edna Purviance. When Mabel met Edna, she found her to be a ‘game’ girl, and like her friends, Ada Baumann and Mildred Harris, ever ready for a laugh.

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Edna app seems to reach for a gun, as Dines get familiar with Mabel on a yacht trip.

However, when things began to turn bleak for Mabel, she seems to have come to resent Edna’s enviable position as Chaplin’s well-paid foil, a part for which Edna made no effort whatsoever. After some years of friendship with Edna, the latter’s career began to totter, when Chaplin gave her a lead in her own film.

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Chauffeur Joe Kelly.

The picture bombed. Edna was at a low ebb, but had taken the precaution of getting involved with a millionaire oilman called Courtland Dines. What Edna did not know, at first, was that Dines had a penchant for Mabel, and the pair were meeting up behind Edna’s back. Whether Mabel made the advances, or whether Courtland was pushy, and Mabel simply complied, is not known. Certain photos taken on a yacht trip to Catalina Island suggest there might have been some friction developing in the triangle. In any event both Mabel’s chauffeur and housekeeper, were becoming concerned about a situation that was spiraling out of control. When Mabel went to Dine’s apartment on New year’s Day, where Dines and Purviance were apparently drinking heavily, her staff became concerned, as both Dines and Mabel were unpredictable when under the influence of drink. That evening, Mabel’s chauffeur shot Dines with Mabel’s gun, when  Dines resisted the chauffeur’s attempts to remove his now intoxicated employer from the premises. The chauffeur admitted to police that he’d shot Dines in self-defense, but the trial was halted at the request of the injured Dines, and so there always remained a suspicion that Mabel had fired the shots, especially as she had become aware that Dines and Purviance were about to marry. Unsurprisingly, the trio now split up, and went their own individual ways. Edna was basically finished in pictures, while Mabel took up a highly lucrative, if short, role on the stage. Chaplin more or less dismissed Edna, but put her on a life-long pension – after all she had made him a big wheel in pictures.

 

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End of an Era.

In the meantime, Mack had to think fast – he could not employ Mabel again, although it’s likely that he had already considered The Extra Girl to be Mabel’s final fling with his studio. Indeed, it seems Mabel had taken him for a million dollars on the film, something that was unrepeatable. Having rid himself of Mabel, Mack got back to work, building his studio up. The studio was to last until 1933, when the Great Depression, and a perilous association with Paramount, put an end to ‘The Fun Factory’. Mack was still keen to concentrate on feature films through the 1920s, but shorts remained his mainstay. He gradually acquired, and lost, new talent, like Harry Langdon, Billy Bevan, and even Bing Crosby. Of course, competition was stiff, and the likes of Hal Roach kept Mack’s nose to the grindstone. His chief rival in the sphere of big features was Charlie Chaplin, but his films were so infrequent that he presented little real threat to the low-down Edendale lumberyard. Naturally Sennett did not intend to be ‘King of The Shanty Towns’ forever, and he had big plans for a new modern studio in Hollywood, or, at least somewhere nearby.

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* In the next post we finish the Mack Sennett story, then attempt to characterize the enigmatic ‘King of Comedy.’

 

 

 

MACK SENNETT: KING OF EDENDALE. PART 2

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Not all love and roses between Mack and Mabel.

Sennett gets a headache.

At the end of August 1913, Mack and Mabel appeared in a film called Mabel’s Dramatic Career. The film itself was unremarkable, but the ending was very un-Keystone. In the story Mabel falls out with her flame, country boy Mack Sennett. She leaves Mack’s mother’s house, where she has been working as a domestic, or slavey, and heads for the big city, where she becomes a movie star. Years later, Mack is in a cinema, and sees Mabel on the screen, being abused by villain Ford Sterling. When Ford ties Mabel to a barrel of gunpowder, then lights the fuse, Mack pulls a gun, and begins to shoot out the screen. Everyone runs from the cinema, followed by Mack, who determines to hunt the villainous tin-type down. He discovers his man just going into his house – Mack pulls his gun, and pushes the barrel through an open window. Just then, Mabel, who seems to have married the tin-type, appears in the room with their three children, and Mack prepares to shoot them all. A bucket of water, thrown from an upstairs window prevents

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“I’ll kill that tin-type.” Mack and gun in  Dramatic Career.

a mass murder. In no other early Keystone film does a player consider outright murder. However, Keystone had just signed a vaudevillian, Charlie Chaplin, as a number one leading man to replace big star Ford Sterling. When Mack and Mabel first met Chaplin, at an L.A. theatre, it seems Mack was not too happy with his new acquisition. Chaplin was far too young, and he detected some kind of chemistry between Mabel and Charlie. Would they run off into the hills together, or, heaven forbid, to another studio? Perhaps the ending of Mabel’s Dramatic Career, of which Mabel was probably unaware when shot, would warn Chaplin off? Mabel was probably in on the secret that Mack was trying to persuade his partners to drop Chaplin. Consequently, when Charlie arrived, both Mack and Mabel avoided Charlie around the lot. After a month Kessell and Baumann, perhaps, insisted their theatrical acquisition be put to work, and Sennett starred him in two films of dubious merit. In all probability K and B then demanded that Charlie be teamed with Mabel. Mack had no option, but to bring the pair together, in a film called Mabel’s Strange Predicament. I have covered what happened while making this film in a previous post:

FROM MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT TO MABEL AT THE WHEEL.

Suffice to say here, that Chaplin, in tramp costume for the first time, was given most of the opening scene in the film, and several other solo opportunities. Mabel would have been incandescent with rage, when she learned what had happened – seemingly in the cutting room. The film, bearing her name, had been stolen from her. Already Mabel had given her all in the picture, to ensure she was not upstaged by Chaplin, and now Sennett had stabbed her in the back.

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Mabel’s Strange Predicament: Charlie had most of this scene to himself.

We can only imagine the arguments that went on in Mack’s office, although we can be sure that Mabel brought up the fact that she’d left a good berth at Biograph to help Sennett build up Keystone. The upshot was that Mabel and Charlie were not brought together again for nearly two months. When they finally did come together (probably at K and B’s insistence) Mabel ensured she had complete control, by being made director, and stipulating that Charlie be minus the tramp costume. Charlie Baumann sent his daughter, Ada, over to extra in the film, and, presumably, to keep an eye on things. The film was Mabel At The Wheel and there was trouble early on, when Charlie refused direction from Mabel. A furious argument ensued between Sennett, Charlie, and Mabel that threatened the studio’s survival. It seems Kessell and Baumann, having, perhaps, received a telegraphed account from Ada, sent instructions that Mabel and Charlie were to share responsibility for the film, and so everything was calmed down, allowing the film to be completed without further problems. Thereafter, Charlie and Mabel both  directed their joint films  – a total of eleven.

Mack Closes the Door on Pathos and Charlie Chaplin.

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Ada Baumann: Champion Figure-Skater and sometime film extra.

Two things came out of the Strange Predicament and At The Wheel experience. The first was that Mack was angry about K and B forcing him to bring Mabel and Charlie together, which further forced him to have the pair closely watched – at no small expense. Second, Mabel was never able to trust Mack again – he’d edited the first film behind her back, and failed to support her in the second film, instead choosing to roll over before K and B. Mabel now began to put her trust in Chaplin, and the pair became almost inseparable, having long discussions in her bungalow, during and after work hours. When they tired of working, they ‘stole’ a company car and sped off into L.A. for some fun. This hurt Mack deeply, but when Mabel insisted Charlie be invited to Mack and Mabel’s nightly dinners, Mack agreed, probably minding of the old adage ‘Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies even closer.” When old man Mack inevitably fell asleep, after dinner, Charlie and Mabel would skip off to a cinema or a restaurant. Mabel, however, was acutely afraid of Sennett, knowing what he was capable of. Charlie says they kissed just once, then, says she  rejected his further advances. Charlie surmised “…she was much enamored of Mack Sennett.” In fact, she probably feared Mack’s spies would report back to him. However, Mabel and Charlie managed to introduce some pathos into their films, although Sennett increased the violence, in order to ‘keep some balance’. What happened with Tillies Punctured Romance is a bit of a mystery, but it seems that vaudeville star Marie Dressler was given free reign to star in the film, whereas Chaplin seems to have shrunk without his tramp costume. As a petty criminal Charlie is hopeless, but Mabel, as his accomplice, is credible, and, for the first time, she plays a woman of around her own age. Does this tell us something? Perhaps it tells us that Chaplin was on his way out (only two films to go), and Mack feels free to boost another stage star, and to allow Mabel to play something other than a scatter-brained ingenue. She is also free to portray a (slightly) bad woman. Unsurprisingly, Chaplin thought the film had little merit.

 

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Mabel plays a twenty-something in Tillies Punctured Romance.

 

Before the completion of Charlie’s final film, K and B were ready to offer him an unheard of raise to $750 per week plus a share in his film’s profits. In his autobiography, Charlie says he did not want to leave Keystone. Indeed, he would leave the only real friend he’d had in show business (Mabel), for some unknown life in god knows where. Only Carl Laemelle made any sort of offer, but that was way too low. Mack Sennett was in no way prepared to keep Chaplin on, and it may have been Mack that interested cowboy film-maker ‘Bronco’ Billy Anderson’s Essanay company in Chaplin. Mack wanted Chaplin out, and the fact that Broncho Billy offered an unbelievable $1,250 a week plus $10,000 signing bonus, meant Chaplin would snatch at it, relieving Mack of the trouble of drawing the Dramatic Career ’38’ revolver. Charlie said later that he never sought more than a thousand a year, and knew nothing of any signing bonus. The hand of God? More likely the hand of Sennett. In any event, Chaplin was soon gone, and his pathos, and sad bloodhound eyes, with him. Time to roll out the slapstick, with, perhaps, some lovey, dovey stuff thrown in.

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Broncho Billy Anderson.

Sennett post-Chaplin

Mabel was upset over Chaplin’s departure, and says she had dinner with him on his last night in L.A., and cried. Evidence suggests Mabel expected Charlie to install her as his leading lady at Essanay, but Charlie was not interested in employing an argumentative, egotistical, high-price star. He was looking for a cheap outsider, who could be his foil, rather than his co-star. He found her in Edna Purviance (or Edna Compliance as some wags have unkindly called her).

Unhappy as Mabel might have been, there was work to be done, and Sennett soon put her nose to the grindstone. A new angle was put on Mabel’s films, they were to adopt a naive, romantic quality, the romance delivered amidst a pervading medium of crazy slapstick antics. Roscoe Arbuckle would co-star alongside Mabel, in the series of ‘Fatty and Mabel’ pictures. Pathos was now verboten by order of Napoleon Sennett, and the stars of the new series were to be simple country youngsters who were deliriously in love. Sennett now felt comfortable with having Mabel properly kiss her leading man, although the kiss could not linger (previously only off-center kisses and short pecks were allowed). However, a married couple still could not share a bed, or even a room. Meanwhile, a whole range of new actors and actresses had arrived at the studio through 1914 and into 1915.

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Fatty and Mabel adrift in separate beds.

 

Some of the actresses had star potential, such as Virginia Kirtley, Eva Nelson, Dixie Chene, and Peggy Pearce. Actresses, like Peggy Page, were of the girl next door type, and ideally suited to being a foil for Chaplin. Some actresses, such as Louise Fazenda, came as ready-made stars, but they had their own metier and look, so were but a small threat to Queen Bee Mabel. Mack was determined to make new stars, and Mabel’s position was not sacrosanct, as far as he was concerned. What if Mabel was to ‘run away?’ What if she died? A not unlikely occurrence. The King needed a new Mabel-in-waiting – just in case. He boosted Virginia, Eva, and Peggy, but it was Dixie that he thought could replace Mabel. She looked similar to Mabel, so what if she could be made to act like Mabel? Mack got to work on Dixie, although, when she was in a Mabel film, she was kept in the background or remained seated – quite likely due to Mabel’s insistence, as the tall, gangly Dixie towered over the Keystone Girl. Dixie was eventually given a lead in Their Social Splash in 1915, and tried very hard to be Mabelescent. Mabelescence was not, however, Dixie’s forte, and, being taller than most leading men, meant her career very soon shuddered to a halt.

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Dixie Chene: cute but not Mabel.

Bring on the Bathing Beauties.

During 1915, Mack began to acquire a stable of potential stars that he called Bathing Beauties. Having this pool of actresses to draw from was another stroke of pure genius from the ‘King’. While he used the ‘Beauties’ as a stand-alone comedy team, he could pull any one of them out to train for stardom, at any time. It became normal for Mack to tell an actress, such as Gloria Swanson, that he would make her the next Mabel Normand.

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Anyone could be Mabel, according to Sennett.

Mabel was furious that her studio was filling up with wobbling, wide-hipped, voluptuous belles. She became disenchanted with Sennett, and Sennett became blasé about his number one actress. Things came to a head in mid-1915, when Mabel reminded Mack that they were engaged to be married. Clearly, Mabel’s family had been asking why, after three years, there was still no wedding in sight. The answer was, of course, that neither party wanted to marry, but Mabel was so enraged that she challenged Mack to marry her. Mack, who had his mother on his back over the non-appearance of said wedding, had no option than to agree. However, Mack’s fertile brain went into overdrive, and he conceived a plan for Mabel to find him in a compromising position with actress Mae Busch. It seems Mabel screamed, and fled the scene, but stories that Mae hit her over the head with a vase, and that Mabel later smashed her jewelry with a hammer, are clearly false. Firstly, Mabel could never be made to destroy her diamonds, and, secondly, there is no evidence that she suffered a head injury at this time. She did, however, collect a head injury, later that year, when a shoe, thrown during a wedding scene, hit her.

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Mae Busch in the presence of a cardboard cutout of Mabel Normand: dedication of the Mabel Normand Sound Stage, Republic Studios 1941.

Regardless of his machinations with Mabel, Mack continued with his program of boosting the Bathing Beauties, and putting new actresses into leading roles. Mabel was about to jump ship, but, before she could do so, K and B  transferred the ‘Queen Bee’,  to their Triangle studio at Fort Lee, N.J. This solved the problem for the moment, but when the time came for her to return to Edendale, Mabel holed herself up in New York, and began negotiations with Triangle rivals, Mutual, her aim being to get into Chaplin films. Chaplin was probably not keen, but before the move could be completed, K and B made an offer Mabel could not refuse. Triangle would give Mabel a new studio, with her name over the door, and a new Triangle company called The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company would be created. Sennett would build the studio, just outside Hollywood, and Thomas Ince would supervise. Mabel accepted and returned to the coast, as happy as a leprechaun in the Glocca Morra mist.

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Mabel: as happy as a leprechaun in the Glocca Morra mist.

 

However, Mack soon took over the supervision of the project, and an argument erupted between Mack and Mabel, over the choice of director. Mabel wanted the best, and that meant F. Richard Jones – but there were problems with this. Mack held no stake in the film Mabel was to make, and had no stake in The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company. The King, therefore, had no intention of handing over his best, well-paid director for a film that was not his. Unfortunately, in the end, this is what he had to do. Smart as he was, the film made at the MNFFC, Mickey, was not one that Mack made any money out of. He, and everyone else, was swindled out of any profits by Triangle boss Harry Aitken. Mack was in no way allowed to edit the film, the rushes for which were of enormous length. This out-sourced editing could, perhaps, explain why the film was the greatest one ever made by Mabel Normand. Great or not, due to the failures of Triangle and the manouvres of Harry Aitken, The Mabel Normand Feature Film Co. was no more. Mack came out as sole owner of the Keystone assets, while Harry Aitken received the worthless Keystone name, and cash from the sale of the rights to Mickey. Mack soon had his own name over the door. While Mack was busy rearranging his studio, so that Aitken would get nothing of value, Mabel ran away (as Mack termed it). She’d determined never to never walk through Mack’s studio gates again, and signed for Sam Goldwyn. She re-surfaced in New York.

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*Next post: What Mack did, and didn’t do, next.

 

 

 

 

 

 

MACK SENNETT: THE KING OF EDENDALE. PART 1.

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The King and The Little Clown.

Mack Sennett (born 1880 as Michael Sinnott) was the Irish-Canadian producer, who set up The Keystone Studio, in around July 1912. Mack Sennett was also the discoverer of Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle, and Bing Crosby, among many others. He termed himself The King of Comedy, but many have unkindly called him ‘The King of Edendale,’ after the small, downmarket village, in which his lumber-yard of a studio was located. Yes indeed folks, Mack was no Hollywood producer – he, and his backers, could not have afforded a lot in this middle-class area.

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Edendale and the future Keystone lot (1906).

Sennett’s childhood is reasonably well recorded. When we move on to his adult life, things become more difficult. He claims to have begun his working life, as an ironworker in East Berlin. CT, before departing for New York. He categorized himself as a boilermaker-turned-actor, although, if he ever was employed at the ironworks, it seems he stayed less than a year. Once in New York, Sennett’s presence is nowhere in the early days recorded, although the stage shows he claimed to have appeared in did actually run. The first we hear of Sennett, the named actor, is in April 1907, when he appears low down in the credits of The Broadway show The Boys of Company B. We can only imagine that Mack had spent almost ten years, as a jobbing extra. This meant he must have spent a fair amount of time doing things outside of normal theatrical circles (it is not just female extras who find other part-time ‘work’). What could he have possibly been up to? Well, Mack, we know, was always looking for ways to gain a dollar, if not the main chance. By his own admission, he was once rounded up by the law whilst performing down on the Old Bowery, in a place that we might call a house of ill-repute. The judge let him off on the grounds that he was an idiot, rather than a criminal, a characterization Sennett liked to use of himself for evermore. Actress Linda Griffith claimed he’d once been a boxing trainer.

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The Bowery N.Y. c. 1900

 

Contemporary views of Sennett

It seems clear that Sennett either spent a number of years as an extra, or spent at least some of the time in jail. In fact there are two distinct factions of contemporary commentators on Sennett. One faction found him to be uncouth, and ever ready to obtain money by fair or unfair means, and the other faction thought him to be generously endowed with goodwill. Why the stark difference? In all probability, it depended on what stake a person had in the personality of Mack Sennett. If they had fallen out with Sennett, and left his employ under a cloud, then they were more likely to disrespect him. Others, who still had something to gain from Sennett’s friendship, hailed the King, as a kind of working man’s hero. In later years, old actors and actresses tended to side with Sennett’s accounts of himself. Minta Durfee, who was probably Mabel Normand’s best Keystone friend, saw him as a shining knight with lovely eyes, who would not harm a fly. This can easily be explained by the fact that Sennett lionized Mabel

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The Biograph Studio 11 East 14th Street N.Y.

in his autobiography of 1954, which, by Sennett’s admission, was really a book about Mabel Normand – much to Minta’s delight. She readily absolves Mack, for causing the split between Mabel and Mack, and instead, unfairly demonizes Mae Busch. It is also clear that the sex-bomb avatar, Louise Brooks, had certain knowledge about Sennett that he would not have wanted aired. The publication of Sennett’s autobiography seems to have triggered Brook’s quick disposal of her own autobiographical script in the trashcan. Mack’s view that he, and the other film producers, was a paragon of the industry became unassailable, thereby making the retired flapper’s view untenable. In her later work, Lulu in Hollywood, she merely criticizes Sennett for not doing more to protect Mabel from the aftermath of the Taylor and Dines scandals. She contrasts this with the way Chaplin had treated Edna Purviance after Dines, but Chaplin was a poet and a musician, and, above all, Louise’s one-time lover. Mack, according to Louise, was simply a gross, uncouth tobacco-juice-spitting Irishman, who finished up sad and broke, watching the world go by through the lens of the lobby in the Roosevelt Hotel, in L.A .

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Mack reminisces over mabel in 1960.

When The Movies Were Young

Sennett, it is accepted, was employed at the Biograph studios, located at 11 East Fourteenth Street N.Y. from January 1908, just a couple of weeks after the arrival of the directorial legend D. W. Griffith. We are indeed fortunate in having Griffith’s wife’s account of the period 1908 to 1912 at Biograph published in her 1925 book When The Movies Were Young. Although the aim of the book was to demonstrate how sweet and innocent the actors, actresses and D.W.G. were, it gives us an insight into the lives of Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand, and Mack Sennett. Sennett, she says, was not popular with the studio’s company, and was treated as a bit of a joke, especially by the girls, who resented the bluff Irishman’s manner, and pseudo-comical ways. Mrs Griffith said that he was often grouchy, and thought he was getting a raw deal from The Great Director.

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Linda Arvidson (Mrs Griffith).

He was particularly annoyed by the fact that he was never asked to dine on steaks with the stars, and had to make do with dry, curled up sandwiches: “Steaks that way” he used to say “And sandwiches this way.” Mack’s chance eventually came in February 1909, when he was starred in a Pathe-like comedy called The Curtain Pole. This led to further leading roles in films like The Politician’s Love Story. One peculiar character he played was Faithful, in the 1910 film of that name. This was a particularly strong, if gormless, character, 100 years later to be the basis of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean.

Here are some more Mrs Griffith quotes that she thought summed up the coming King:

On Mary Pickford: “I don’t see what they’re all so crazy about her for – I think she’s affected.”

On Florence Lawrence (the world’s first movie star): “She talks baby-talk.”

Of Mrs Griffith he noted: “Sometimes she talks to you, and sometimes she doesn’t.”

Frank Grandin he called: “Inflated Grandin.”

Of Sennett’s underlying problem Mrs Griffith said: “Beneath all this discontent was the feeling that he wasn’t being given a fair chance; which along with a smouldering ambition was the reason for the grouch.”

“If there was one person in the studio that never would be heard from – well, that person was Mack Sennett.”

Mack, Mrs Griffith said, lacked social grace, and was mostly interested in Pathe / Max Linder type comedy, and policemen, whom he regarded as extremely funny, and very worthy of an onscreen send up. “Who doesn’t love to see a cop get his helmet stoved in?” Asked Mack. Of course, his brushes with the law would have ensured that the ‘King’ held a life-long grudge against authority. As we will see further on, Sennett was to appear in court on numerous occasions.

 

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Grouchy sandwich-eater Mack is about to get a ‘Keystone’ in the behind. Biograph, California 1912

Mrs Griffith implies that Sennett stole all his ideas from her husband, during discussions with The Great Man, while they walked home, through a good half of Manhattan. It is clear, however, that Sennett held different views on the movies than Griffith. For instance, Sennett thought melodrama to be unsuited to the silent media. Comedy, he thought, would always trounce dramatics on the silent screen. At that particular time, we can say he was right. Someone else at the Biograph, also thought Mack was right – her name was Mabel Normand, and she was to become inexorably linked with Mack Sennett.

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Mack and Mabel

Was there ever a love affair between Mack and Mabel, of the type that Mack describes in his autobiography? Mrs Griffith confirms that this was almost the case, but that they argued continually. She claims Mack once bought a $75 ($1,870 today) diamond bracelet for Mabel, but, deciding she didn’t deserve it, he sold it on for $85. Mrs Griffith noted that Mabel was beautiful, but reckless, doing daring stunts, high dives, and riding the wildest bucking bronco. “All this Sennett was noting – smart kid was Mabel – and if he should ever be a director on his own – !” This final statement might just characterize their relationship. It is clear, though, that her Biograph friends (Blanche Sweet, Lottie Pickford, Dorothy Gish and so on) were unhappy about Mabel’s association with the clearly disturbed Irishman. The guy was so obviously a nut, and rather than being Mabel’s lover, he seemed to be her Svengali. Why, then, did Mabel ever take up with Mack, especially as she appears to have had no romantic interest in men. She was, nonetheless, extraordinarily ambitious. The fact that Griffith rejected her, for all but tragic and dying parts in his dramas, left her particularly vulnerable to ‘suggestion’ from the much older, street-wise Sennett. Mack himself, appears to have had no romantic interest in women, and so was not a nuisance to the stunning Mabel, in the way that the other younger, ‘clothes horse’ actors were. Furthermore, Mabel was not able to communicate effectively with her peers (unless she knew them well), and was always happiest among much younger or much older people. Her best male friend at Biograph was 14 year-old Jack Pickford, and she was later very friendly with Mildred Harris, who was 10 years her junior. Later still, she took up with 50 year-old William Desmond Taylor, but she also adored babies, and was often seen in the company of young boys at the races.

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Mabel and Baby. Biograph, California 1912.

In a sense, Mabel can be seen as naive and gullible, but she was smart enough to know that her future lay with Sennett, and not with Griffith. In fact, Griffith readily handed Mabel over to Mack, when Mack became director of Biograph’s comedy unit. This gave Mack the opportunity to ‘get to work’ on Mabel, and mold her to his way of thinking. A little later, when Mack wangled a partnership in Keystone, Mabel instantly agreed to head off to the coast with him, for the astonishing salary of $125 per week. Blanche Sweet was distraught when she heard about the move, and begged Mabel not to go off with the Hibernian madman. Mabel, however, was very sure of herself, as she would, initially, be Keystone’s only leading lady, and under the protection of Mack. Mack would ensure that no future actress would be allowed equal status with Mabel, nor steal her scenes. She was virtually a partner in the firm, although one without a contract to that effect. Another benefit for the newly-made Keystone Girl, was the placing of 4,000 miles between herself and her pious mother. In respect of Mabel’s parents, Mack was very smart, for he arranged a sham engagement between himself and Mabel, designed to allay any concerns the Normands might have about their daughter’s moral position. This would also obviate the possibility of Mack falling foul of the Mann Act, infringed by carrying a female minor (Mabel) across state lines for immoral purposes (the movies).

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Mack and Fred Mace serenade the voluptuous Mabel in an early Keystone.

 

Mack in Wonderland

Not only had Mack pulled off the incredible act of purloining Biograph’s greatest comedienne and tragedienne, but he’d also  succeeded in depriving New York Motion Pictures (Keystone’s parent company) of Mabel’s presence in Fort Lee. The partners, Kessell and Baumann, as well as Baumann’s daughter, Ada, seem to have adored Mabel, but her retention would have angered Mack, and imperiled the Keystone project. It would be three years before K & B managed to get Mabel back to New York, and then, only fleetingly. Mack had pulled off his first coup, and he did not intend to go any way but upwards.

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Mabel with Ada Baumann in Mabel At The Wheel (1914).

Not only did Mack now have Mabel, but he also had a good number of ex-Biograph actors, as well. He was all set to make the films that would “Make Griffith want to boil himself in oil.”  He  would teach all those that had disrespected him a sound lesson in manners. For the next couple of years he worked Mabel almost to death, making films that earned Griffith-busting amounts of dollars – so many dollars, in fact, that Mack said he had to hire educated men to count them. Where the money went, nobody knew, but it was certainly not spent on the Keystone lot, which was a disgrace, even for Edendale. Meanwhile, Mabel secured a few pay rises, bringing her pay up to an estimated $250 a week by the end of  1913, which ensured she did not have to live in mud-stricken Edendale. Mack lived out of the Athletic Club in downtown Los Angeles, in the same area that city-lover Mabel lived. He had acquaintances at the club, but all Mabel’s old friends were still in Fort Lee – the movies were yet to move lock stock and barrel to Hollywood. Inevitably, Mack and Mabel dined together every night at the Athletic Club – there was little else to do in those days, except take in the occasional show or movie.

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Dined nightly together at the Athletic Club, but did Mack ever give Mabel a ring?

When Mabel could be got out of bed early enough, the Keystone pair would ride horses in the hills, before starting work at the studio. Mabel enjoyed the fruits of being the foundations of Keystone, in terms of salary, horses, and company cars, but, as ancient Roman historian Tacitus might have put it – they were merely features of her enslavement. Indeed, Mack was gradually increasing his power over Mabel, and to ensure he knew where she was, what she doing, and who she was doing it with, he had her tailed by private detectives (or ‘flat-foot store dicks’ as Mabel called them). Then he put a guard on her bungalow dressing room door, but she simply let friends in via the back window. Eventually Mack had her moved to the new first floor dressing room block, with a guard on the only stairs giving access. Mabel rarely gave an interview whilst at Keystone, and, like the other actors, her words to the press were all mouthed by Sennett. Mack was becoming something of a dictator, which prompted Mabel to call him Nappy, short for Napoleon Sennett. There was nothing Mabel could do, but get on with her work, which meant making 40 films a year. Then everything changed.

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Next Post: Vaudeville invades Keystone in the shape of Charlie Chaplin. By the time Chas left at the end of 1914, the whole studio had been turned upside down.

 

 

MABEL’S ADVICE ON HOW TO BECOME AND REMAIN A STAR. PART 14.

 

Back in LA

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Mabel’s new house, 526 Camden. Inset: The surprisingly heavy interior.

On arrival back in the city of angels, I took rooms in the Ambassador Hotel. I renewed friendships with my old movie friends, and mildly began to hit the town. I felt I was slipping back into my old ways, so I bought a house, thinking I would settle down. The house was of a pueblo design, as I had always possessed a passion for olde world Spain. I spent weeks fitting the house out the way I wanted it, with lots of oriental furnishings and fittings. When a certain very expensive Chinese rug was delivered, I heard one of the delivery men remark “It’s hardly fitting for the flapper era, is it?” Well, I’ll have you know I’m an Edwardian (if not Victorian) girl, through and through, and I don’t give a damn for flappers and vamps, nor their sordid era. My style is heavy and chintz and that’s that – the day I die, I’ll still be wearing bloomers.

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Mabel looking very ‘Edwardian’ outside The Hollywood Hotel in 1914.

I invited all my friends to a house warming party, even America’s Sweetheart, but, you’ve guessed it, she never turned up. Nor did Mack Sennett, but, then, he was not invited. Blanche, Minta, Roscoe, Dotty, Jack, Lottie, Marilyn, F. Richard, Florence, Maries P and D, Norma and Constance T, Louise F, Mae (of vase fame) and many others came, and made it a party to remember. Charlie arrived, bringing, not his wife, but a strange and interesting girl called Louise Brooks. Apparently, he considered signing her. I thought, no way, she seemed too much like me, and nothing like Edna Purviance. She would be big trouble for Chas, and I told him so. However, Chas was soon in the party mood, and had us drunks falling around doing charades (Chas did not drink). However, he did an imitation of a Zeigfield dance girl, which had the luscious Louise B in tears. Apparently, she was a former Zeigfield girl. For once, no-one died or even got shot, and the night ended without a police attendance.

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The strange Miss Brooks: Chaplin considered signing her.

 

The months drifted by, and I began to tire of the good life. I had been trying to take it easy, as it was clear my health was drifting away. I came to think I would die pretty soon, and needed to do something. In between getting drunk, I’d fallen into liaisons with a couple of men, but made sure there was no triangle involved. These guys bored me, especially Paul Bern who had pursued me for years. Paul was far too effeminate for my liking, and now, in my state of health I needed a strong man, a rough-edged Irishman who spat tobacco juice. Unfortunately, Mack Sennett was now completely out of my life, although I accidentally ran into him from time to time. I had a fleeting relationship with Valentino. Like other women I was drawn in by those dreamy eyes. He was also an extraordinarily good dancer, equally as good as Roscoe Arbuckle. As far as I knew, Valentino was divorced, so he was fair game. This was at a time when I kept away from home as much as possible, and I went to Valentino’s house on several occasions. Valentino, I should say, paid little attention to me, and seemed somewhat distant. Later, I discovered why – his main passion was motor cars, and movie stars fulfilled no need in him. I discovered this one day, when I called unexpectedly. His housekeeper answered the door, and told me the sex bomb was in the garage. Of course! He had a new car, and was probably going for a ride – perhaps he’d take me along?  My hopes were dashed immediately. There was his new brand-new Isotta-Fraschini, but it was up on jacks, with a hundred dismantled parts lying around. Rudy crawled out from under the car, smiling and covered in grease and oil.

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Valentino at work on one of his cars.

Apparently, he was modifying the $20,000 beast, as he didn’t like the suspension or steering, and the engine needed a tune-up! Well, I spent half an hour sitting on an upturned bucket watching him, then, made my excuses, and left. I am, after all, a film star, and film stars do not sit on tin buckets in dirty, drafty garages watching an oil-soaked eytalian rummaging around under a car. The next time I had anything to do with Rudy, I was blubbing, along with everyone else, at his funeral service in my local Catholic church. Even Gladys Smith (Mary Pickford) showed up, shedding tears behind some huge dark glasses – I never knew she had it in her.

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Mary Pickford, Norma and Constance Talmadge at Valentino’s funeral service.

Eventually, I went into a deep depression, and my worried friends began to make representations to Hal Roach –  “Give Mabel a contract” They said. Chief among these was F. Richard Jones, who was now studio supervisor at Roach. Of course, Roach considered me the enemy, and a possible spy for Sennett (would I give away his studio’s technical secrets?). Further more, I never treated studio heads with respect. Hal wanted me to sign for $1,000 for the first film. Well, I wasn’t having that, and Jones arranged

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Mabel with Dick Jones at Roach Studios.

$1,000 per week for the first film, increasing to 3,000, then 4,000 should the film be successful. It was around this time that Paul Bern really came on to me, and, on bended knee, offered me a huge diamond engagement ring. I turned him down, but don’t go looking in that canyon into which Paul said he threw the ring. I still have the ring – I may turn down a marriage proposal, but I have never been foolish enough to refuse a diamond. In any case, I had began going out with Lew Cody, my old nemesis from Mickey. There was something quite manly about Lew, although he was able to play a chinless wonder, pseudo-aristocratic type, as he did in Mickey. Mack Sennett always

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Mabel with Lew.

said he was the first ‘clothes horse’ actor. As usual, the reason I went for Lew was that he had become every woman’s heart throb. I still hadn’t really grown up, and I found it exciting to claim the man that every woman wanted. The main point, though, is that there was no love triangle involved. After a while, Lew began talking about marriage, but three times I turned him down. It was clear that Lew was out to claim the girl that no other man could. He came along at the right time, just when my failing health meant I had to have help. Whenever he could, Lew came to the studio and supported me, giving Dick Jones a rest from the job. Lew was often on location, and Dick had a hugely responsible job at the studio. On other occasions some, of my friends came and helped out. Problems arose due to my gaining confidence from being surrounded by friends. Of course, I began to upset the producer, that thick-necked Irishman Hal Roach. With my friends, I’d spend hours following him around and baiting him, when he was on the set. He didn’t like my language, which was liberally laced with cuss words. Eventually I married Lew.

Mabe_ Wedd Shower

Mabel’s Wedding Shower 1926.

Oh my god! The Keystone Girl finally married! The Little Clown led to the altar! Well, there was no altar – we’d been married in the dead of night, by a hick minister (yes, he was in his pajamas, but wore his dog collar). I apologize to all my fans that I did not have a big church wedding, Keystone style, but it was all done on the spur of the moment, and as a bit of fun. Lew said we should move in together, as it would save money. He pointed out that all our married friends had huge, magnificent houses, because they’d combined their incomes. I stood firm, and refused to move in with him. I was not interested in big, fancy houses, but I was interested in retaining my freedom. The fact was that Lew

Lew Mabe1

“I’m moving in Mabel.”  No you’re not Lew.”

wanted to sell his mansion, and move into my relatively small house. This meant he’d have access to a huge sum of money, while I kept him in Camden Avenue. I have never trusted any man, and what if he made me disappear one night, and grabbed my assets, which were now considerable? Good as Lew was, I never trusted him, or Mack Sennett, or Sam Goldwyn, or any one else involved in the movies.

 

As far as my films were concerned, the material was not very good. The screenplays were mainly written by Stan Laurel, who was brilliant, but he was hamstrung by Hal’s overall film policy. As studio supervisor, F. Richard Jones did what he could to improve things, and prevented the pictures from becoming completely lacklustre. The three of us spent a lot of time discussing  things like our lives, and how we’d made it in the movies, as well as the technique of making films. As everyone knows, Stan was Chaplin’s understudy at Karno’s, and his room-mate for three years. Consequently,  he had much to say about the tramp. He confirmed what I already knew, that the tramp was a stock Music Hall character. For this reason, Chaplin never complained when Stan imitated him on the stage. I did scare Stan once, when I jokingly grabbed him by the throat, and threatened to punch him for allowing ‘that woman with the big bottom’ to imitate ME in his stage act, called The Keystone Trio. We shared information on The Genius, we, the two

Chaplin_Laurel

Chaplin with Stan Laurel 1911.

people in the world who knew him better than anybody – better even than his long-suffering wives. Stan told me that Chaplin was mean and cheap, and exhibited behavior bordering on insanity. I would agree with this, but I was coming from a woman’s point of view, so was not so harsh on him. In any case, I was aware that I suffered from the same psychological problems as Charlie, although I was not cheap. However, Charlie was not cheap with me, and when we skipped off from Keystone, bored with work, and went  downtown, Charlie always offered to pay, in whatever theater or restaurant we ended up. Stan told me that, in 1917, he’d met up with Charlie, who promised to get him film work. Of course, nothing came of it. Although it was never discussed, I fully expected to get a call from Charlie, to be his leading lady at Essanay. Instead he hired a complete unknown, of questionable talent. I could say that Charlie was mean to me, but I don’t blame him, I was expensive, unpredictable, and as argumentative as he was. One thing Stan was keen on was my dumb face look which Dick Jones developed from my original look in Speed Kings (1913). Dick got me doing this on the set, and Stan used to do it along with me. I wouldn’t be surprised to find Stan using this face, if he ever got back into acting.

eExtra G mack6c1

Stan does the dumb face. Mabel does it nine years earlier in The Extra Girl (1923).

The interesting part of my life was over by 1926. The films I made at Roach, merely ensured that I didn’t fritter away the wealth I’d acquired in 1923, ’24 and ’25. I did make a few moot points in my films, one of which was aimed firmly, at Mack Sennett. In Anything Once! you’ll see me say “I have to be wooed and won – chase me.” This was for Mack Sennett. If he hadn’t treated me like a skivvy, but had wooed and chased me, our lives might have turned out differently. As it was my life and Lew’s were intertwined, although we lived in separate houses. Lew was a rock to me, as I got sicker and sicker, and sent his valet every night to carry me up to bed, and in the morning carry me down again. As I write this in August 1929, I am having treatment for tuberculosis from Dr. Pottenger, who thinks he could get better results, if I was admitted to his sanitarium in Monrovia. I’m all set to move in to the sanitarium next week, with my long-term nurse, Julia Benson, and hope for a positive result. If I die tomorrow, I can say that, against all the odds, I’ve managed to stay at the top for my whole career

Head1a

Mabel was admitted to the sanitarium in September 1929, but X-rays showed she had only part of one lung still functioning. When Mabel asked to see the X-rays, Lew Cody (a qualified doctor) showed her one of a healthy set of lungs, so as not to alarm her. Mabel died on 23rd February 1930 at 2:25 a.m.

MABEL’S ADVICE ON HOW TO BECOME AND REMAIN A STAR. PART 13.

The story so far: Mabel had returned to New York from her European tour in September 1922. She’d been in touch with Mack Sennett, and had coerced him into giving her the star role in his feature film, The Extra Girl. Now she was on her way back to the coast.

RMS_Majestic,_1x

Mabel arrived home on the RMS Majestic

Going for a Million

The first thing I did when I got to LA was to visit my attorney to draw up a draft contract for Mack – yes I was going to dictate the terms. I also took the precaution to lodge a sealed letter with the attorney, to be opened in the event of my death, then I set off for Allessandros Street. I did consider going into the studio in disguise, knowing I’d be mobbed, but thought it might be good for Mack to witness the adulation I received.

KS_Gate

I parked my car on the street, and walked in through the gate. The gate man bowed low saying “My lady, you are most truly welcome”, then, pretended to roll out a carpet on the ground. I pretended to lift the carpet, and look underneath, as the last time someone laid a carpet for me, I went straight through into a man-hole. I can’t remember the name of the film. I didn’t get three steps in, before a crowd of actors, carpenters and cameramen swarmed around me. “Glad you’re back, Mabel”. Of course, the studio had a whole new set of actresses, and, as in 1916, they all flew straight to me, bombarding me with questions. Fortunately, Mack had been keeping a lookout, and beckoned to me from his office window. Like the Pied Piper, I walked to the King’s tower, trailing a sizable mob. Once inside the office Mack immediately produced his contract, but I countered with my own version.

“Here’s the contract” I said.

Mack looked stunned, but took the paper, and glanced at it.

“Twelve thousand a week, and 33 per cent of the net profits! You cannot be serious Mabel!”

“I’m perfectly serious, old bean.”

“But Mabel, we’ll be bankrupted.”

“You know very well Mack that my films cost less to make than any others. All I need is a park, a policeman, and myself.”

“They only cost slightly less, Mabel!”

“Well, you can take it or leave it, Mack, as you’ve always told me.”

“O.K., I’ll leave it.”

“Very well, then, I’ll make a visit to the District Attorney – and don’t get any ideas about bumping me off. I’ve left a letter with friends, to be opened, should I  have a sudden “accident.”

Mack Sennet Normand1

Signed in blood for a million.

Check Mate! Mack had no option, but to agree, and I left the office all signed up, and feeling very smug. However, it wasn’t long before my house was broken into, and the contents rifled. Roscoe Arbuckle and Minta Durfee had their homes burgled, and Charlie Chaplin’s studio office was turned upside down. Mack’s goons found nothing.

Of course, I was only too aware of what Sennett had done, as soon as I’d left the U.S. on the ‘Aquitania’. Basically, he’d abandoned me, thrown me to the dogs, thinking I was all washed up, after the Taylor affair. Well, that asshole had made his fortune off of my back, and now he was going to pay. The studio on Fountain Avenue – The Mabel Normand Studio – it should belong to me. I paid every cent of its build price by hard graft, and risking my neck, jumping off cliffs, doing 108s, and falling in front of trains. The Extra Girl was my payoff, and I was determined to make a million from it.

M FRich

Mabel with F. Richard Jones.

Becoming the Extra Girl

Mack was sensible enough to assign director F. Richard Jones to the new picture. It was just like old times, with F. Richard squeezing the last ounce out of me in front of the camera, and doing all he could to get me killed by a rampant lion, a runaway train, or a wayward pitchfork. We were as happy as young lovers, and we almost died laughing when he told me he’d wangled fifteen thousand dollars a week out of old Napoleon Sennett. He was worth every penny.

Extra_Lion

Extra Girl: Mabel meets lion.

Everything was going swimmingly, and I’d renewed my friendship with Edna Purviance. Poor Edna, Chaplin had finally given her a leading part in her own film, but the film had bombed. Charlie had put his name in the credits, but was nowhere to be seen in the movie. We’d watched the film downtown, but when the audience realized Chaplin wasn’t in it, well, they ran riot. Edna was distraught, her career, she thought, was over. Over the next few weeks, I kept close to Edna, as Chaplin began to distance himself from her. My own film, released a week before Edna’s, had been a complete success – poor, poor Edna.

A Triangle and More Trouble.

For some weeks, Edna had been getting very much enamored with a millionaire by the name of Courtland Dines – she was very serious about him. Of course, as with W.D. Taylor, I got drawn into yet another love triangle. Why do I do it? I don’t know, perhaps I like to hurt people. I was soon seeing Courtland behind Edna’s back, just candle-lit dinners and stuff like that. Courtland would come around my house with Edna, annoying my housekeeper Ethel Burns with silly behaviour and giggling, sometimes bringing Courtland’s pet monkey. Ethel would frown and fume when Courtland came around alone and took me out. “Mabel” she would say “I don’t like those two, they’re just using you to get laughs, and Courtland should not be taking you out, when he’s engaged to Edna.” Foolishly, I didn’t listen.

Extra_Jones

Mabel the Extra Girl with F. Richard Jones.

The weeks slipped by, and my new film seemed to be doing fine, as the public memory of my involvement with the murder of Bill Taylor receded. Nobody talked of getting my films banned, and the future looked rosy. Christmas came and went, and on New Year’s Day, I stayed at home taking down my tree and decorations. I had no intention of hitting the town that night, as I had an operation booked at the hospital for the next day. However, during the evening Edna rang, asking if I’d like to go over to Dines’ place for a few drinks. I said I would, and asked Ethel Burns to get the chauffeur to bring the car round. Mrs Burns was not happy, and tried to stop me from going. Here I have to explain something about the relationship I had with my staff. Some of them have thought I was a soft touch, and took me for a ride. Others had come to me, because they’d seen me on the screen, and adored me, thinking I was the lovable, but scatter-witted, ingénue portrayed in the films. Mrs Burns was one of the latter type. She was always fussing over me, and treated me like a child – I’m sure she had a hotline to my mother. I had a huge bust-up with her one day, when she tried to stop me going out, because I was developing a cold. I went crazy, and began screaming, and stamping my feet, just like The Keystone Girl of the movies. Then I told Mrs Burns, and – the other staff, who’d gather round, that, as I

Hor_Greerx

Joe Kelly: Chauffeur with a gun.

was so clearly stupid, I was going to shoot myself with the pistol I kept upstairs. This sent them into a blind panic, and, as I ran up the stairs, they all jumped on me, and Mrs Burns told me to calm down, or she’d phone the asylum. The end result was that I eventually went out, wearing a ten-thousand dollar fur coat, and dripping with jewelry – something else that worried Mrs Burns. She thought I’d surely be mugged. On other occasions, I did not threaten suicide, but merely said I was going to bob my hair, and this also sent Mrs Burns into a spin, and set her seeking out, and hiding, all the scissors in the house. One day, I threatened to cut my ¾ inch-long eyelashes (Edna claims they’re 2 inches), which appalled everyone, but it’s like this – my eyesight is bad, and I need glasses for reading, which those ridiculous eyelashes make impossible to wear. Like Valentino, my dreamy eyes are a result of bad eyesight, and not some inner erotic magnetism. Oh yes, I knew Valentino, and better than some people think. I’ll tell you all about it – some day.

Triangles1

Triangles

Dodging Bullets

Getting back to my story, I arrived at Dines’ apartment on Vermont somewhere between 5 and 6 ‘o clock p.m. The chauffeur, Joe Kelly, later said that I told him to call back for me. To cut a long story short, the three of us got very drunk on the booze stored in the apartment. None of us could remember exactly what happened, but Joe Greer claimed Mrs Burns told him that I’d phoned saying I was ready to come home, but added that Courtland Dines would not let me go. Mrs Burns told Joe to pick me up, but suggested he take my gun for self-defence against Dines. Joe’s story is that he entered the living room of the apartment, took hold of my arm and edged me towards the door. At this point, Dines grabbed hold of a bottle, and took a swing at him. Joe took the gun out of his pocket and put three slugs into Dines. The next thing was Joe flying out of the door, having thrown the gun. I’ll spare the details, but the sobbing Edna and I ended up at the police station with Kelly, while Courtland was committed to hospital.

Dines Gunx8

Mabel’s .25 pistol.

 

After the shooting, all hell broke loose in the press. Again, to keep the story short, I’ll give you the basic details of what was said.

1. I was again involved in a shooting, and scandalous behaviour.

2. I, and the other 3 witnesses, had all told different stories.

3. While Edna was sobbing, I made light of the whole affair. When the police arrived, and asked what had happened I replied “I guess someone shot him, mister”. When we visited Dines in the hospital, Edna rushed in and said, “Oh, daddy, how’s the sweetie.” Apparently, I said “Oh deah, hoy’s the sweetie then? in a mocking sort of voice.

4. The press and the churches, said all my films should be banned, and said, again, that I should  be given a truth drug.

5. They claimed I had told Kelly to “Let Dines have it”, or that I’d pulled the trigger myself. The press gave out my address, and soon my house was surrounded by ‘sight-seers.’ They added that I, and all the other ‘Hollywooders’ should be sent back east, where the authorities could ‘keep an eye on us’. Alternatively, the entire industry could be sent to Europe, where the whole unsavory business began.

6. I was a loose woman who was not above putting herself around with the hired help. How exactly did Kelly know his way around my bedroom? (where he found the gun). A few years later they began calling me Lady Chatterley.

7. When I was in the witness box, I effected an aristocratic English accent, and made ‘French’  hand gestures. What right had I to lord it over the Courts of Justice, when I had only, just recently, crawled from the gutter?

8. The three of us were no better than children, and the press printed photos taken on a friend’s yacht to prove it. They said we seem to have been acting out crude little plays, one of which involved Courtland baring my leg and Edna pulling out a gun. Was this carried out for real on New Year’s Day?

9. Edna was desperate to ingratiate herself with millionaire Dines, as her career was failing. The vivacious Mabel, was an obstruction to her plans.

10. Some journalists made the point that blood was only found on the bed sheets, and the only place where a bottle was found was in the bedroom. Therefore the whole thing happened in the bedroom. There were lots of theories as to what had occurred, but one of them had me calling home for my gun, then shooting Dines who was in bed with Edna. They said I later paid Kelly (Greer) to take the rap. Others made the point that any of the  people present could have shot Dines – including Dines himself.

_Dines_rep

Of course, I was upset by the newspaper attention, and I was annoyed at the claim that I was a fallen woman, no better than a prostitute. As I expected, this upset my very religious mother, who truly believed I was having affairs with the staff and lord knows who else. Eventually, Edna and I managed to get our stories to gel, but by then, Courtland had declined to prosecute Joe Kelly. Joe Kelly, it turned out, was actually Horace Greer, an escaped chain-gang convict. This was the second guy I’d been involved with, who masqueraded under a false name – W.D. Taylor had really been Wm. Dean-Tanner.

Yacht_DinesY

Frolics on a yacht.

Going for Another Million

Following the Dines affair I never saw, nor spoke to, Edna again. We were now both refugees from the film industry, and had to carry on as best we could. I was able to muddle along, and, indeed, earned lots of lovely money, while Edna was left high and dry, and struggling with low grade parts. Chaplin had to lay her off, but paid her a pension for life. This was only right, as Edna’s compliance with her role as a foil to Charlie’s tramp made Charlie what he is today. If he’d have taken up with me, as I had once expected, things would have been very different – we would have soon been at each other’s throats. I am neither compliant, nor unambitious.

_Mab DAa1

Posing with the D.A.

One day Sennett phoned me, but I refused to speak to him, so he sent F. Richard around. He told me that, in order to save my picture, I would need to go on tour, plug the film, and melt everyone’s hearts with sweetness. This I did, in the company of my live-in nurse, Julie Benson. Let’s be honest, I had around three-quarters-of-a-million dollars riding on it. Fortunately, the appearances and talks I did achieved the impossible, and I soon had more money than I could count, from the highly successful film.

However, in September 1924, my demons reappeared again in full force. A Mrs. Church named me as co-respondent in a divorce petition. I’d met Mr. Church while I was in hospital, after falling from a horse, and breaking my arm (drunk as usual). We did have the occasional chat, and shared some booze, but nothing else happened. After threatening her with a law suit, Mrs. Church withdrew my name from the petition.

Mabel_Lit Mouse

What to do now? That was the question. While in England, in 1922, I’d had talks with a British film company, who offered me a year’s contract with option. I wouldn’t have been the first Hollywooder to work in Europe, and I suspect, the way it’s going, there’ll be many more. However, an American theatrical promoter contacted me about doing a stint on the stage. He offered  me a contract for two-million dollars, to do a stage run in a play called The Little MouseWell, I’d always been the little something, or other, so this was ideal, and the two million would be, erm, handy. For the last few months, I had got very friendly with Alla Nazimova, a stage star turned movie star. Being ‘between jobs’ I had plenty of spare time, and spent it visiting Alla at her fabulous home, Alla’s Garden. One of the advantages was that Alla has a huge secluded swimming pool, which I din’t have

Alla Naz Hse

Alla’s Garden

at home (I had previously possessed a small pool, but it was not particularly private). Alla was also known to be a lesbian, so perhaps I could avoid any further ‘man trouble.’ I discussed with her the possibility of going onto the stage. I thought my voice to be too weak, but Alla thought it was fine, and gave me some lessons in voice projection. As a result of these discussions, I signed with Al Woods to  star in The Little Mouse. Alla volunteered to tour with me as my coach and companion. After renting out my new house, we managed to get the tour underway, but rehearsals suggested my voice would not carry to the entire audience. Al Woods thought I should carry on, and I did. However, the play was slammed in the reviews, and critics noted that my voice was weak. The whole tour folded less than half way through, and I withdrew, with a re-calculated payment of a million dollars.

From my story, you will see that life never settled down after the Taylor murder. I still ran close to the wind, and took risks, by threatening the evil Mack Sennett, and getting involved in another dangerous love triangle. Was I a loser? The reader can judge, but in a couple of years I’d made two-and-a-half million dollars by sticking my neck out. Not bad for an uneducated waif, who’d crawled from the gutters of Staten Island!

Image_Mabel2a

 

In my next post, you can discover if I became a sad recluse, or again took life by the horns.

Bibliography

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

Mabel Normand Sourcebook

 

 

MABEL’S ADVICE ON HOW TO BECOME AND REMAIN A STAR. PART 12

Aquatania_Mabe

As previously related, Mabel had left the United States for Europe, in order to escape the hellish situation, following the murder of Bill Taylor. She shipped out on the R.M.S. Aquitania, sister ship of the ill-fated Lusitania. Mabel had an ‘arranger’ Perry Charles sail ahead of her, and her travel companion was Juliette Courtell.

In the old world

I spent many weeks in England, and on the continent, seeing everything that one should see, and meeting everyone of note. I was even invited to meet the King and Queen of England, but it was my bad luck that a constitutional crisis arose, just as I was due at the palace. A government minister had been assassinated by the Irish Republican Army, so that was that. This event brought back to me the murder of Mr. Taylor, as he was, himself, Irish. I remembered reading that the British Secret Service  had taken an

Aquitania Pool

Mabel spent a lot of time here.

 

interest in the case, and I now began to wonder if he was involved, somehow, in the Irish troubles. Perhaps he was a gun-runner, or fund raiser, for one side or the other? Had the Brits bumped him off? As a woman of Irish descent, and Catholic, how safe was I – would they rub me out too? I put it all aside and carried on, but, before I left for the States, I. R. A. leader Michael Collins would be assassinated by his own forces, not far from the Blarney Stone.

POW_MBatten

Prince of Wales in S. Diego                              Chas (L) and Mountbatten (3rd L) on the Pickfair lawn

 

I had been introduced to The Prince of Wales in San Diego in 1920, but I was not invited to the private Hollywood functions he attended. Naturally, he was more interested in meeting Charlie, Doug and Mary, than the world’s greatest comedienne. It seems he’d been told to avoid ‘The Edendale  Madcap.’ How  convenient was it that I was away in New York, when Lord Mountbatten visited Chas, Doug and Mary at Pickfair (I later saw the film Chaplin made).

Tay_Collins

Left: W.D. Taylor Right: Michael Collins

In London, I was visited by several literary notables and lords. I was glad to see J.M. Barrie, and I wasted no time in discussing his novel The Little Minister with him. Would he assign the film rights to me? I was, apparently, too late, as a film company had already acquired those rights. This old man, with a shawl round his shoulders, did, however, make up my fire, much to my pleasure. I visited H.G. Wells, but I took my friend along, as H.G. was a well-known ravisher of young females. However, I did ask him about his much-publicized relationship with Margaret Sanger, the American champion for women’s sexual liberation. With a wry sideways smile he told me they’d both practised what they preached. If he was expecting me to be embarrassed, well I wasn’t (I think I might have blushed just a little bit). He then regaled me with tales of his meetings with Charlie Chaplin, Doug Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford. Again with a wry smile, he told me America’s Sweetheart had set his heart aflutter. I got a little annoyed, and told him my close friend Olive Thomas had been The World’s Sweetheart, and  would have knocked prissy Gladys Smith off her perch, had she lived. I’d always secretly believed that America’s Sweetheart had

Olive T Jack Picka

Olive with husband Jack Pickford

something to do with Ollie’s early and tragic demise. While in London, I was courted by several English lords, one of whom invited me to his stately home. His wife, the marchioness, looked at me circumspectly, in the manner of Mrs Drake in my film Mickey. I heard she got a little hot under the tiara, when I gave a diving demonstration in the pool. She was even more put out, when I started drinking gin by the bottle, and got very, very drunk. I’m afraid I was a bit too familiar with the Lew Cody, chinless wonder types, who were present.

What did I think of Olde England? Well, I went all over, and I would say the U.S. is edging in front in many areas. Where England and France excel is in the state of their roads. They’re like billiard tables compared with the potholed, muddy tracks back home.

NEWSBOY Lond

As a goodbye to old England I paid a visit to an East End pub, on the recommendation of Charlie Chaplin. When I see Mr. Chaplin again, I’ll make him eat his walking cane – I was almost killed in the pub, when I was recognized, and a huge crowd surged forward, almost trampling me underfoot. I wanted to meet with Thomas Burke of Limehouse Nights fame, but he was abroad, so I settled for a visit to London’s Chinatown – Limehouse. We hired a cab to take us there from The Ritz.

Chinatowns

Left: Limehouse Right: Mabel alights in Chinatown, L.A. (Caught in a Cabaret, 1914)

“Take us to the slums” We told the driver.

“Which ones” He asked.

“The ones in Limehouse” we retorted.

The driver shook his head sadly, then set off. Twenty minutes later the cab pulled up.

“Is this it?” I  asked.

“It’s just down there a bit” He answered.

Turns out he was too scared to go in there – stayed on Poplar High Street. “Wait here until we get back” I said.

As we walked away I heard him mumble:

“They’ll get their bloomin’ froats cut.”

Three Colt.jpg

Only mad dogs and Englishmen venture here.  Three Colt Street, Limehouse.

We sauntered down into the slums, and my furs and diamonds caused some consternation among my friends, who thought we’d be robbed. (I’d walked the streets of Los Angeles for many years, and had only been held up once). As we walked down, we began to gather a jabbering crowd, and after a while we started hearing some whispering, like:

“It’s Mybel, I tell you it’s Mybel!”

“Mybel! – it cawn’t be.”

We were soon being jostled by the crowd, and then ran into a British copper.

“Right lady” he said “Get into that cafe real quick.”

As we went in through the door, I turned, smiled, and waved to the pursuing crowd. Immediately, they began shouting that old line:

“How old are yer Mybel?”

“Is Mybel yer real name?”

“What’s it like in America, Mybel”

Inside the cafe we found the atmosphere  was as thick as pea soup, and there was the sweet sickly smell of opium in the air. However, I did not see Fu Man Chu nor Quong Lee, but there were plenty of Chinese, some wearing the traditional ‘pointy’ hats. I have to tell you that the Chinamen were nowhere near as threatening as those in Los Angeles. When we made Caught in a Cabaret in Chinatown, L.A. we’d eventually been chased out by our oriental friends wielding knives and meat cleavers – they were fed up with the movie people portraying them as villains.

When we left the cafe, we were met by an ecstatic mob, who began cheering, and repeating over and over “How old are you Mybel?”. It was like being in the U.S. again with everyone asking my age. Minta Durfee once told me that it was all due to my looking like a young girl dressed up in her mother’s clothes. I was devastated, but it explained why I was never able to convincingly play in a ‘vamp’ role. I asked our friendly cop how we could get to the notorious slum rookery of Jacob’s Island, only to be told that the area had been razed soon after Dickens had written of it. The crowd was now over a hundred strong, and the cop began to push us back to our waiting car.

Mabel C and Prince

Prince Ibrahim seems unimpressed with Mabel’s driving skills.

It was soon time to leave foggy London, and I had intended to return to my ancestral home in Ireland, so I could kiss the Blarney Stone, but there wasn’t time, and Ireland was a dangerous place to go in 1922 (civil war brewing). Instead, I headed for my other ancestral home – France, by aircraft. I was very excited about hitting Gay Paree, and looked forward to scooping up a barge-load of French fashions, and perhaps meeting a foreign prince. Well, I did buy some genuine French clothes (as opposed to U.S. copies) to the tune of $30,000, and did meet an Egyptian Prince – one who had not been mummified (luckily the discovery of Tutankhamun was still months away, so I could not be accused of jumping on the band-wagon). My prince, Ibrahim, and I had lots of fun gallivanting around the clubs and casinos of France, and Monte Carlo. I spent lots of his money, and acted as his unofficial chauffeur until he finally cried enough, and reinstated his usual driver. I told him that, although I had to look through the steering wheel, rather than over it, this was not dangerous – he didn’t believe me. While I was in Paris, I avoided going into that trendy nightspot ‘The Dead Rat’, for it was soon after leaving this club that poor Olive Thomas met her untimely death. In the end my ‘sheik’ came up with a marriage proposal, which I declined, as I did not wish to be another addition to his harem, somewhere out in the shifting sands of Egypt. As with all my other suitors, the prince left me with a lovely diamond ring. I then took a short trip into Italy, and Spain, where a few U.S. film companies had already made films, and I formed the idea of

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Mabel in Deauville

making one of my own out there. It had been the Hollywood vacation season in Europe, and the Dolly sisters, and Marie Dressler were out there, among others. I also had the chance to try out my pigeon French on the great Max Linder. Everyone will know that Max was a great French movie comedian, on whose humor Mack Sennett based his Keystone comedies. Although I regaled Max with my rendering of “Bonjour monsiuer” and “La plume de ma tante…” Max didn’t understand a word of it. “Let’s speak English” He said. Then it was out to Berlin, and back to France. After a short while I left France for Southampton, England.

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Mabel and luggage

I set sail from England on the brand new liner RMS Majestic (formerly SS Bismark) boarding very late as usual, and I almost had to swim for the ship. Inevitably, I had to give diving demonstrations in the ship’s pool, but in general I managed to keep my head down, and avoid people who might want to kill me with questions about Bill Taylor. Reports that I was drunk for most of the trip, and fell off my bar stool are untrue. I was intoxicated for only part of the journey, and reports that I swam in the pool naked, while drunk, are exaggerated.

Home Again

Once back in New York, I received the shock news that my aide, Perry Charles, had issued a writ against me for unpaid expenses totaling $3,000.  Even worse, the court had attached all my luggage, containing tens of thousands of dollars worth of French frocks. I quickly paid Charles off, I can tell you – much of that luggage was presents for friends. I stayed in New York for a few weeks, in Marilyn Miller’s apartment. Marilyn was in L.A. where she’d been married off to my friend Jack Pickford by Jack’s sister, America’s Sweetheart, while I was in Europe. How convenient that I couldn’t attend the wedding, but, of course, I was never welcome at Pickfair. Marilyn’s mother, Ada, stayed with me in the apartment, and told me the whole sordid story about the way ‘the sweetheart’ had taken over the wedding arrangements, and had ignored Ada’s request to hold the ceremony in New York. Ada refused to attend the wedding, but Miss Smith (as I always called Mary) sent her a film of the wedding. We ran the film, and to be honest, I felt quite sick, when I saw the preening Gladys Smith stealing the scene from Marilyn and Jack. This was not the first time I’d sat with a sobbing mother, because of that damned madonna. I’d done the same when Ollie Thomas died, as a result, I’m sure, of the sweet Gladys getting between her and brother Jack. I resolved never to be in the same room as ‘the sweetheart’ ever again – otherwise I would probably lay violent hands on her evil personage.

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Scene-stealer Mary Pickford lures Charlie Chaplin into a sham marriage at Marilyn Miller’s wedding.

 

The Extra Girl

It wasn’t long before Marilyn phoned the apartment long distance. Had I seen the newspapers? Well, I confessed I had not, and Marilyn wasted no time in telling me that Mack Sennett had commenced a new feature film called The Extra Girl starring Phyllis Haver. What! Of all the scheming, two-faced scoundrels. Mack had promised that he’d star me in his next feature film, Mary Anne – now it turns out he’d had another feature up his sleeve all along. Mack had been shooting the film for three weeks, and I instantly contacted that ‘Shylock’ by a long-distance phone call.

“Ah, Mabel” He said “I’ve been trying to contact you for weeks.”

“Don’t give me that Nappy, you could have wired or phoned me at any time. You could have even have sent a letter.”

“Mabel I told you, I had you penciled in for Mary Anne.”

Don’t want it Nap – I want The Extra Girl!

But Mabel, be reasonable, we’re three weeks into the shoot.”

You owe me, Nap, and I want that picture – now you go tell that blonde tart she’s fired.”

 

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I couldn’t say too much as there were clicks and whirrs on the line that told me the police were still tapping Mack’s phone. They had been, since the shooting of Bill Taylor. I’d protected Mack by telling the cops that he was not jealous of my relationship with Taylor. Of course, Mack had been very concerned that Taylor would lure me away to the Paramount studio. Mack’s alibi, given by his associate, Tom Ince, was unacceptable to the cops, and to me. Did Mack kill Taylor, and ruin my life in the process? Whatever the truth may be, I needed one last bite of the cherry to put myself in a financially sound position. I told Mack that either he gave me the part, or I cleared his way to the electric chair. Needless to say, I was soon on my way to back to Edendale, to begin shooting The Extra Girl.

One should never give up the fight to remain a star, even if the police and the world are against you, and, if you have to trample other actresses underfoot, or threaten producers, to get on – well, c’est la vie.

Addendum

Mabel ends this part of her story, but we know a little more now about the Taylor affair, than Mabel did at the time of her death in 1930. The case had never been truly closed, and on the day before Mabel departed this mortal coil, the police began a major effort to solve the Taylor murder. They planned to re-interview Mack Sennett, Mary Miles Minter, and her mother. As Mabel’s defenses were down, she was marked to be interviewed, and it had been proposed she be given the newly-developed ‘truth drug.’ The case has never been solved.  Mabel seems to have had a penchant for strong Irishmen, and we might wonder what would have happened if she’d ever met with Michael Collins.

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Michael Collins with colleen and Mabel look-alike Kitty Kiernan.

Phyllis Haver followed the rest of Mabel’s opponents into a patchy career, after her enforced exit from the Sennett fold. Sennett later claimed that he’d fired Haver, as she couldn’t carry the part in the way he’d envisioned it. However, the part was made for Haver, who was much younger than Mabel, and much closer to the starry-eyed youngster of the story. It has been said that Haver was Sennett’s lover, and she left after a tiff with the producer. A curious twist to the tale came in 1960, when Phyllis committed suicide 14 days after Sennett died on 5th November. Mabel would have been 68 on 10th November. More curious is the fact that Phyllis appeared in a film called Up in Mabel’s Room, and played ‘Shanghai Mabel’ in What Price Glory?

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Phyllis Haver

 

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MABEL’S ADVICE ON HOW TO BECOME AND REMAIN A STAR. PART 11

 

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Heading East.

Back in New York and very alone.

I was staying with my actress friend in New York waiting for Sam Goldwyn to slug it out with Mack Sennett in a battle for Habeas Corpus –  my body. I was quite confident, but that confidence deserted me when my friend departed for L.A. after a couple of days. I was left alone in a huge apartment, and I felt worse than I did in the N.Y. hotel room last year, when Mutual, Triangle and Mack Sennett fought for possession of my soul. I contacted home and got my sister, Gladys, to come over for a few days. She was there in a shot, thinking some big movie stars might show up. She was out of luck, as I dare not tell any tin-types where I was. Fortunately, my brother Claude was still about, but in a couple of months he’d be in Europe tasting, not French wine, but French mud out on the Somme.

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Oh to be in New York, now that spring is here.

Mack Sennett had been in New York a few days before, and we’d passed, like ships in the night, somewhere around Chicago, going in opposite directions. I wished I could have given him a wave from the window – can you imagine his face when he realized his Keystone Girl was riding out of his life. When he got to L.A. he would also discover that Roscoe had bailed as well. However, I was depending on Mack to fall into the trap I’d set him. The plan was that I would sit in New York, and issue a bulletin to the newspapers that I’d signed with Goldwyn for a thousand a week, but was prepared to work for others. In other words I didn’t really want to work for the balding ex-glove salesman, and if Mack cared to woo me, he could win me. The first thing that happened was Sam slapped a writ on me. However, I learned from journalists that Mack had engaged lawyers in New York to negotiate a new contract with Sam at $3,000 a week. He neither phoned nor wired me. I met his lawyers, but Mack did not deign to appear himself – he had bigger fish to fry with Triangle. I was very off with the lawyers, as I was trying to convince them (without saying so) that I would go to Sennett for a suitable salary. The lawyers made me understand that no studio would touch me while Sam had a law suit in place. However, F. Richard Jones had wired my parents that Mack was intending to spend the pants off Sam, so that he’d drop me, leaving Mack to scoop up his Keystone Girl for a pittance.

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Battle for a clown.

 

After many weeks of negotiations, Mack’s lawyers had upped my pay to $1,500, but Sam had issued his suit for breach of contract. We were never going to get $3,000 now – I lost my nerve and signed the new contract with Goldwyn Pictures. Mack was gutted, he’d lost, but, more importantly, I’d also lost, and was about to enter the most miserable period of my life. The King of Comedy began to put it about that we’d been in love, that I had pulled out of our engagement, and run off into the arms of another man, to wit, Sam Goldwyn. It’s true that I had involved myself with other men, in particular Charlie Chaplin, but only because Mack was messing about with other actresses, and boosting their careers – at my expense. We were never truly in love, or engaged to marry.

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Bought with a ring.

The engagement was a ruse to convince my parents that Mack was a fit person to carry me off to the other side of the continent. Later, when I challenged Mack to marry me, he got out of it by setting up the fake romance with Mae Busch. In reality, we were partners, but I was foolish enough not to get the partnership set into a contract. Mack made millions off my back, and used me as a doormat. In later years, Adela Rogers St. Johns begged me to forgive Mack, and marry him. Like so many others, Adela just didn’t get it – there was no love affair, only a loose business agreement, which Mack reneged upon. He had embarked on a plan to create a new, less-expensive Mabel. Some years later, after ‘The King’ had forced me to suffer years of humiliation at Goldwyn, he realized that Dixie Chene, Phyllis Haver, Louise Fazenda, and even Polly Moran could not be Mabel. Only then did he crawl out of the woodwork, and seek me out.

Telegram fr Mabel to Mack July 24 1917

Mabel’s very formal wire to Mack stating she’d signed for Sam.

 

Looking back to the Mabel Normand Studio.

In my lonely weeks in New York, I had plenty of time to ponder the way my studio was won and then lost. It seemed like a Keystone farce, and I recalled all the films we’d made with the words ‘Lost’ and ‘Won’ in them. Both Mack and I imagined life as a series of wins punctuated by losses. The biggest loss of all, obviously, was the Triangle Company.

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Now I don’t profess to be Albert Einstein, but I knew enough to realize that inside fighting and internal coups had caused the organization to collapse. Harry Aitken was out to screw everyone, Kessell and Baumannn were fending Aitken off, while trying to make a fast buck, and Mack sat on the edge of it all, with Adolph Zukor, getting ready to pick up the pieces. Aitken ended up with the worthless Keystone name and goodwill, and Zukor struck like a rattlesnake, and devoured Triangle. His parent company, Paramount, became Mack’s distributors, and the Paramount name appeared with Mack’s on the old Keystone gate. Yes, Mack had retained the studio buildings, and all the actors and actresses – Aitken got only the goodwill (oh, and the Keystone signboards, which Mack sent him – Aitken was not impressed). However, Aitken picked up all the profits made by ‘Mickey’. When Mack opened the newly named Mack Sennett Studio, he had the temerity to send me an invitation to attend,  but there was

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no way he was going to parade me in front of his twelve foot high name. In the midst of all this my film ‘Mountain Bred’ had its name changed to ‘Mickey’. As I had related previously, Mickey was the nickname of Zukor’s daughter. Pure coincidence? I don’t think so. Anyhow, neither Mack, Dick Jones, nor myself had anything to do with the film after it was shot. We didn’t even get to view all of the rushes, and we were not allowed to edit any part of it. It is said that Aitken had the film edited, but I believe it was completed under Zukor, and he made a darned good job of it. He reduced the 25 reels of raw film down to 6 reels, and it took two years to do it. I’m told that, when released, the picture made 18-million dollars, more even than Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. I’ve further been told that when Griffith saw the film, he felt like hanging himself. I tell you, there was stuff in that picture that even the Grand Master hadn’t thought of; so much for a genius.

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I am told that Mack negotiated for 25% of the profits of Mickey, while the rest went to the Keystone Company, which Aitken had come to own, significantly, before the profits were shared (it has been said that Aitken somehow swindled Mack out of his 25% as well). I, as usual, received only my salary. Let me make it clear that I received nothing for all the Mickey memorabilia produced (dolls, records, shirts, glass slides etc, etc.) by the parent company.

Onward and Downward

By August 1917, I was firmly a Goldwyn Girl. However, I was not The Goldwyn Girl, as when I first signed, so I was not all alone in Sam’s huge barn of a new studio in Fort Lee. As with Mack, Sam had told me that I would be his big star and he would only sign second-rate leading ladies and bit-part actresses. Like Mack, he was lying, and his real plan was to corner the market in top stars, including those from the theater. My privileged position soon vanished, and the studio filled with preening stage stars. On top of that, Sam promised me good stories that suited my style. That never happened, and soon I found myself in rubbish films, the plots poorly adapted from novels and stage plays. Nothing made sense any more, and I soon got involved in disagreements with the likes of swell-headed Geraldine Farrar, and diva Madge Kennedy. Sam never told me that the second star he’d engage was Mae Marsh.

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Mabel and Madge Kennedy in a  rare friendly moment.

She’d been my arch-enemy since the Biograph days, when she sold her fellow actresses down the river. I warned Goldwyn not to bring her near me. I requested a transfer to L.A., then later asked to return to Fort Lee. I became ill on numerous occasions, and eventually began to fade away. I was losing my mind, so that I forgot to cash my pay checks. At one point I had many thousands of dollars-worth of pay outstanding. Sam called me into his office, and told me that, as I didn’t cash all my checks, and blew my money when I did cash them, he was going to invest a portion of my pay in war bonds. He told me there would be tax benefits. He was right – the way I was going I would end up on skid row. I ended up with a trust fund worth $50,000, and I am proud to say I kept those bonds all my life [Endnote].

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Mabel with Sam G. and Charlie.

Saved from a fate worse than death.

My life at Goldwyn was difficult, but tedious, and I had no control over what the other actresses did (Jack Pickford was about my only Goldwyn friend). At Keystone I had some clout, and was protected by Mack – to some extent. The Mabel versus the rest of the studio stories are legion, so I will spare readers the details, and refer them to the many newspaper reports. Suffice to say I was desperately unhappy, my films were lackluster, and I now became dangerously ill, pushed over the edge by the death of my friend Olive Thomas at the tragically young age of 22 years. My weight began to fall below 80 pounds. One day Charlie Chaplin came to a studio party at Goldwyn. He was shocked at what he had heard, and how I looked. We couldn’t talk at the studio, so we arranged to meet at my house. He turned up on time, and went straight to the point:

 “Mabel,” he said, “you’ve got to get out of Goldwyn’s, or you’re finished. Those pictures are destroying your career – you need to track down all available copies, buy them up, and burn them. If you need more money to do that, I will help.”

Then, he told me Goldwyn had asked him for advice concerning my future. Charlie, of course, was the world’s leading expert on that inscrutable subject, Mabel Normand.  He let me into a secret –  Mack and Sam had been discussing the future direction of my career, and Sam had almost agreed to loan me out to Mack.

“For god’s sake Mabel, agree to work with Mack,” continued Charlie, “If it doesn’t work out, then think of something else. I have to tell you, Mabel, that none of the big studios will touch you. Adolph Zukor has issued a declaration that he’ll fire any of his minions that hire you.”

Of course Charlie was right, he was always right.

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Artists’ studios, MacDougal Alley, Greenwich Village. 

The Wanderer Returns.

So I was saved – by the tramp. I kept quiet about what I knew, and eventually Sam broached the subject, and I acted un-phased and a little blasé. Mack began phoning my house, but Miss Normand was always ‘unavailable’. Eventually, Mack sent one of his lackeys around with a letter stating I was to attend the studio for discussions, and a SCREENTEST. A screentest! I’d never had such a thing in all my life. Dick Jones conducted the test, and advised Mack I needed rest, as I was not photographing well. When I saw Mack he told me he had a brilliant story for me, but warned me it was my last chance to stay at the top. He recommended I leave L.A. for a few weeks, to recover my health, and he suggested I go to Staten Island, and stay with my family. I was on salary straightaway, but instead of going to Staten Island, I headed for Greenwich Village. I stayed with some movie friends who’d dropped out of Hollywood. They never drank, or partied, and held symposiums with assorted poets, writers, artists and musicians. It was just what I needed, and I also adopted a vegetarian diet. As I sat in the village, feeling very Bohemian, my health slowly improved, which was just as well, as Mack called me back to L.A.

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Mabel as Suzanna. ‘Pops’ Nichols is dad, again.

Back in Los Angeles, I was visited by several friends, including Adela Rogers St. Johns. Everyone was stunned at how well I looked, and Adela wrote an article, to that effect. At the studio, now called Mack Sennett Studios, I was again mobbed by the entire company who were delighted to see me back. The studio had had no real figurehead, since I’d left, so everyone was hoping I would inject new life into the studio – and their pay-checks. The first film I did was ‘Molly O’ directed by Dick Jones, which received no little acclaim – some said it was as good as Mickey. I was paid $3,000 per week for the film, although Mack had spies out trying to discover what I had in my wardrobe (I had contracted to supply costumes, if they were suitable). Next we did Suzanna, which was a story about Olde California, a subject dear to our hearts. My old Indian friend, Minnie-Haw-Haw from Mickey, along with the ‘brave’ Black Hawk, was in the picture, and we had a swashbuckling Doug Fairbanks type to jazz up the story. As usual, George ‘pops’ Nichols played my father, and Dick Jones was director.

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Courtyard bungalow of W.D. Taylor.

 

Another Irishman walks into my life, and out again.

As everyone knows, a movie star’s career is up and down – just ask Gloria Swanson and Bessie Love. I had been lucky, and I’d been at the top for twelve years without a fall. However the manure hit the fan, part way through Suzanna, when my Hibernian literary friend, the director W.D. Taylor, was shot dead. All hell broke loose, as I was the last person to see him alive. There followed a press feeding frenzy, which drove me close to suicide. Women’s clubs tried to have my films banned, and priests vented bile on me from their pulpits. Mack Sennett went into a blind panic, and put an armed guard on my house, then moved me out to Altadena. The flames were fanned by the effects of the Arbuckle scandal, which began in late 1921. In the meantime we had to finish the film, and this was released just as the madness began to die down a little.

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The house in Altadena

Eventually, I decided to fly the coop, bail out of the U.S., and head for Europe. I left the press, Mack Sennett, and the movie industry to sort out the Taylor mess without me. Who killed Bill Taylor? I don’t know, but I put some of the blame on Mack, and demanded $5,000 from him towards for my trip. He didn’t argue, gave me the money, then told me he had a great film for me when I got back. It was to be called Mary Anne – another Cinderella story. I set out for Europe on the RMS Aquitania on 22nd June 1922.

Endnote: The trust fund created a massive problem after Mabel died. A legal battle for ownership of the fund ensued between the family and Mabel’s live-out husband, Lew Cody. It is not known what the outcome was.

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* Readers will see that my insistence on Mack wooing me back to Keystone, and his failure to respond, resulted in my having to suffer several miserable years at Goldwyn. In my book, we were both guilty of being too pig-headed, and I’d made a huge miscalculation. Unfortunately, Mack and I were as Irish as the Glocca mist, and for the second time, Charlie Chaplin had rescued me from a fate worse than death. In the next post I will tell how I fought for my career, but my passion for ‘love triangles’ eventually contributed to the demise of that career.

SOME NOTES ON THE MABEL NORMAND STUDIO.

DREAM THAT CAME TRUE page 83

The studio is located on a triangular plot of 0.6 acre bounded by Fountain Avenue, Brae Avenue and Effie Street. The owner and builder of the studio was Mack Sennett. He broke ground for the studio in September 1915, suggesting it was never specifically intended for Mabel Normand. It seems the cost was $100,000 (2.5 million today).

The sign today says Mack Sennett Studio.

The building was never officially known as the Mabel Normand Studio – people (including Mabel) just assumed that was its name.

By sheer good fortune, the building still exists today.

The reason the studio became a reality is that, with the coming of the Triangle Company, and it’s apparent wealth, Sennett and his partners were given the opportunity to make more feature films, aside from his slapstick shorts. What better way to do this than have a bespoke studio, away from slapstickville, and devoted entirely to feature production. It did not matter what the studio was called, but Mabel’s name carried weight, and, vitally, ensured she stayed onboard. The project eventually failed, simply because Triangle failed.

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Mabel Normand Studio today. Note how the land rises.

Mabel has a sound stage named after her at the old Republic Studio, Studio City, formerly known as The Mack Sennett Studio (strange, eh). Studio City is north of Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley.

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Dedication plaque of the Mabel Normand sound stage, at Republic Studios.

Two blocks west was the Fine Arts studio where director D.W. Griffith worked. The Fine Arts Studio was just inside East Hollywood, the Mabel Normand Studio was just outside, in present-day Silverlake. Land was considerably more expensive in Hollywood than in Silverlake, and lesser movie people lived on this part of Fountain Avenue, but moved onto the Hollywood section if, and when, they became stars.

The approximate length of the three sides was 242 feet x 212 feet x 112 feet. The height was 22-30 feet, due to being on a hill.

The total available floor space is around 25,000 square feet. Basement: 14,085 square feet: Stage: 6,000 square feet; Photo Studio: 2,000 square feet. Other facilities include a carpentry mill.

The studio was built on a slight hill, the north-western corner being around 10 feet higher than the south-eastern corner. This gave the space for the building’s massive basement and sub-basement.

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You have to go up for the ground floor (Bates Avenue).

The dressing rooms were on the upper floor of the short eastern side, and each opened onto a balcony, overlooking the main stage. Mabel’s was on the north-eastern corner. The balconies acted as small gardens, and gave views over the main stage. Vines were grown up netting on each side of the dressing rooms, which enhanced the garden appearance, and kept the wind at bay.

In Mabel’s time, the studio was carpeted throughout, there were pot plants distributed around, and fresh flowers were delivered daily. Apparently, Mabel’s dressing room was a sight to behold. When Wm.S. Hart and his cowboys took over, they threw the lot out through the door.

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Cowboys live here under a new soundproof roof. 1930s.

 

The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company had no connection with the studio building in which it was housed. It was a Kessell and Baumann company, or, more correctly, a Triangle company. It is assumed that the MNFFC leased the premises from Mack Sennett, although the exact details of the set-up are unknown.

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Originally the main building did not terminate in a sharp point, and a couple of large timber sheds occupied the narrow end of the site.

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Wood-shop at the pointy end.

 

The Studio Today

Many Angelenos are unaware that the Mabel Normand Studio still exists. One of those was the present owner, Jesse Rogg. Although living just a few blocks away, he was unaware of the history of the slightly industrial-looking building on Fountain Avenue. However, he realized it was going to be a great creative space, in which to make music videos, do photo-shoots, and hold a variety of functions.

 

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Holding court at The Mabel Normand Studio: Mabel 1916. Jesse Rogg 2014

Jesse purchased the studio in 2012, for $3.3 million, and soon discovered the building was a mine of historical artifacts – everything from Mack and Mabel photos to ancient arc lights, to old theatrical draperies. Historical backdrops were everywhere, including those from Michael Jackson’s Remember The Time video that was, it seems, filmed at the studio. Keep a look out, you might spot Beyonce at the studio. It appears that the Grammy Awards were held here in 2015.

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One noticeable thing about the studio is that it seems much larger on the inside, than on the outside. In fact the interior space is absolutely enormous. When you think it was built to house just one company of players, it seems a little over-the-top. One of the stages is a ‘proper’ sound stage, but the whole building is now roofed over. Originally, the stages were open to the sky, with muslin and silk installed to diffuse the natural light. Large objects can be brought into the building via a massive ‘elephant door’ on Bates Avenue.

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One of the studio’s stages.

The studio can be rented  for $250 per day, but be careful what you do, Mabel apparently still walks these floors, keeping an eye on things. There are plans to revamp Mabel’s dressing room to the way it was when she occupied it. See links below for more information.

Links:

SLHC Interview with Jesse Rogg

Beyonce leaves Mack Sennett Studio

The Mack Sennett Studios

 

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Beyonce has left the building!

 

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Opening The Mabel Normand Stage at Republic Studios 1941. L to R:  Louise Fazenda, M. J. Segel, Mack Sennett, Judy Canova, Wm. Conklin, Charlie Murray, James Finlayson, Chester Conklin, Minta Durfee.

 

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The MNS by night.

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The Hall

 

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Stage 1 dressing room

 

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The Basement.

MABEL’S ADVICE ON HOW TO BECOME AND REMAIN A STAR. PART 10.

5

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Things heat up

The weeks leading up to the completion of the Mabel Normand Studio were a complete whirl. People claim I was on-site every day, but that’s a fallacy – I just did not have the time. An avalanche of letters from all over the world came to my house, and of course the demand for signed photos went through the roof – I’d become a woman’s woman, and every girl and her mother wanted a part of me – Mabel Normand, the girl who’d made it in a man’s world, a producer/director, studio owner and clown of all clowns. I had to engage a second secretary just to handle the mail, and it was she who decreed that we’d only send photos, if the requester had included a stamped, addressed envelope. Actors and actresses would only get a signed photo if they sent one of themselves, and the size of photos we sent was halved. It broke my heart to do this, but all the money in the world would not buy  the hundreds of thousands of pictures that the American, European, Antipodean and Asian fans demanded. As well as the postman, a twice-daily car arrived from Keystone with yet more mail. Where were all the bills? I don’t know, they got lost in the general melee. My secretary and maid shared the job of answering the phone that rang again as soon as it was put down.

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Mabel Normand! Mabel Normand! Mabel Normand!

 

The hands of the ‘hello girls’ at the exchange must have seemed like blurs on their switchboards. All my friends rang offering congratulations – others that could not get through turned up on the doorstep. One such was Charlie Chaplin, along with his sidekick Edna Purviance. Charlie came in and slumped down in a chair.

“My god Mabel you’ve made it!” he said.

“Yes Charlie, I think I have.”

Edna gave me a hug saying “Congratulations.” Of all the people that visited, it was Charlie I would have liked to talk to, but word was out that he and Edna had something going, so I was denied a good honest talk with my old pal. Everyone said I should hold a party to celebrate, but I was already partied out by the workload, and I promised I’d have one at the studio when it was finished.

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The Mabel Normand Studio: Mabel and Jazz band.

 

Well, eventually the studio was finished, and I went down there to deal with the finishing touches. Mack turned up like a bad penny, and I told him to get lost.

But, but.. it’s my studio.” He stammered.

Look Mack, I’ve got a year’s lease on the place, and that means I decide who gets in. Haven’t you noticed whose name’s over the door?”

Mabel, Mabel, be reasonable, we have to talk about the official opening of the studio” He replied.

Already decided Mack, I’ve sent invites out to all my friends.”

“Yes, but what about Kessell and Baumann, Harry Aitken, and all the other Hollywood producers?”

“Up to them Nappy, but my party comes first.”

“I’ll arrange the official opening” said Mack “I presume you will deign to appear?

I might do, old chap, but then Miss Normand might just be otherwise engaged.”

I then asked Mack for a $1,000 dollar loan, which shocked him to the core.

“But Mabel, you’ve already had a loan, all of which you gave away.”

“Yes Mack, I gave it to those poor workers of yours, who slave all week for a pittance. Don’t you know they’ve got families to support?”

“Of course I do, Mabel, that’s why I pay them wages, like 10 dollars a week.”

“ ‘Tain’t enough Mack, ‘tain’t nowhere near enough. D’you know the carpenter, Harry, who broke his leg last year at your lumberyard of a studio?”

“Well, yes, vaguely” came the reply.

“He’s 72 years old and you sent him up twenty feet onto a roof to saw some lousy wood, and he slipped off. You stopped his pay, and didn’t even have the decency to pay his medical bills – you heartless bastard.”

“He went up of his own free will, Mabel.”

“He went up there because he had no option. He earns so little money that his wife has to patch up their clothes with her crippled, arthritic hands. Yes Mack, I’ve been round there, which is more than you ever did!”

Mack’s great intellect seemed to desert him, and he was struck dumb.

“Go on, get out of here Mack Sennett, you make me sick!”

The King of Comedy turned and sheepishly slunk away.

“Don’t forget the thousand!” I shouted after him.

Mabe-at-home1

“Now, who deserves to come to my party.”

 

The Studio Goes Live

Day came when we were ready to put the studio to work. We already had some film canned, as we’d been shooting on location for the film called ‘Mountain Bred.” I invited all my friends, and you’ve never seen such an excited bunch, as this lot when they turned up, each bearing a gift for my studio. Even Mary Pickford was pushing the boat out. She turned up without husband Owen Moore, and for once she was one of the girls.

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Mabel with Owen Moore (The Little Teacher, 1915).

However, I did notice she was constantly gravitating towards an actor called Doug Fairbanks, and began to encircle and even monopolize him. Of course, I constantly got between them, and even became a little angry, as Owen was one of my oldest friends. I gave everyone a tour of the studio, and my Louis the Fourteenth dressing room. They all gasped at the gardens outside the dressing rooms, and my balcony overlooking the stage. Blanche Sweet then treated us to a rendition of Juliet from said balcony. They were all further amazed at my Japanese chef’s ability to cook a meal for everyone using the facilities in my dressing room.

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Dick, Mabel and Mack talk things over in the plush surroundings of  Mabel’s dressing room.

 

There was only one thing that spoiled the day – Mack Sennett, whom I had not invited, but turned up anyway, along with his Terrible Turk, Abdul, bearing an expensive oriental rug for my dressing room. Naturally, I asked him why he’d turned up uninvited. He then made the shock revelation that Harry Aitken had appointed him studio supervisor! Tom Ince had apparently pulled out. I told Mack

“If  you ever commit a murder, I bet Tom Ince will supply an alibi.”

I didn’t know how prophetic those words would one day seem. Mack was not the only bad penny to show up. D.W. Griffith came the two blocks from the Fine Arts Studio. No problem, as I was going to enjoy rubbing the Master’s face in it. Who had their name over a studio door? Not Griffith, not Sennett, not Pickford, not Chaplin – it was little old me! I had another shock in store – who did Griffith have on his arm? That little elfin-faced newcomer, Bessie Love. “I’m so pleased to meet you, Miss Normand” squeaked the elf. Did I imagine it, or did she sort of half curtsy? I then remembered a recent headline in a movie magazine. It read

“The Gorgeous Miss Love – cuter even than Mabel Normand.”

I instantly realized the strength of the opposition, and when I heard Mary Pickford later say Bessie looked just like her, I thought to myself “Forget it sweetheart, she’s far prettier than you, and will soon knock you off that flimsy pedestal you stand on.” Later, I puzzled over the way Bessie’s career constantly waxed and waned. One day the answer dawned on me – she just was not forceful enough. While I toughed it out alone in the world, Bessie had any number of stage mothers and aunts – she actually became the fluffy bunny she appeared to be.  For my part, if I’d have known she’d one day pose fully naked I’d have slapped her face there and then.

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Bessie gets naked.

 

As for Griffith, I learned something interesting that day from his former wife, Linda Avridson. Apparently, he’d watched my studio grow day by day from his office window. When my signboards finally went up, and I arrived, all furred up, in my Packard twin-six he sighed wistfully, saying:

She’s a success.”

How we giggled, the Great Man had been humbled by that very disrespectful girl he thought would never make it. One up for Mabel.

It wasn’t long before the core of the old Biograph set-up (myself, the Gish sisters, Blanche Sweet and Lottie Pickford) gravitated together, talking, as always, about the ‘good old days.’ Most of the stories involved The Great Griffith in some way, like the times I used to dress up as a clown and ape his motions, as he directed some actress or other, like the time Dot Gish refused to change her name, and called Griffith a “hooked-nosed kike.” This brought us onto the subject of professional name changes. “What’s all this Bessie Love mularkey, I asked the Gishes.

“Oh, that’s not her real name, it’s the stupid monicker Griffith gave her” said Dotty.

“That’s ridiculous, he’s got her eating out of his hand” I said.

“It’s worse” stated Dotty “He calls her Mary or ‘Our Mary’ round the studio.”

“The cheek of it” I replied “He thinks she’s his new Pickford!”

“Yeah, she’s a wimp, won’t stand up for herself. I got hold of her and gave her a good shaking one day, telling her to stop being so pathetic.”

“What happened?”

“Her aunt rushed to her rescue.”

“Oh, leave her alone” broke in Blanche (she’d apparently become friendly with the elf).

“That man Griffith will fall one day” I observed “Watch out Lillian, he’ll dump you one day, and that’ll be the day he falls on his ass.” (he did dump her later, and he hit skid row).

Of course we reminisced about our many adventures, and our first amazing trips out to California.

“You know Mabel, I was  innocent, and as white as the driven snow before I met you”  said Blanche “It’s true for everyone here, you taught us to drink, smoke and swear like stevedores.” Look at Dotty, she worshiped at the altar of Mabel Normand, and got into a lot of trouble with Griffith over it. How did you learn all that stuff?”

“I’ll tell you the truth – I learnt it in reformatory” I replied.

“Reformatory!” Good god Mabel!”

“Yep, that’s right Blanchey, I was a juvenile delinquent. I tell you, I was picked up so many times by the cops that my parents packed me off to a Catholic convent school,  where I learnt evil things from the wicked Irish girls.”

End of conversation.

 

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Goldwyn aka ‘The Waddler’

I cannot tell you how empowered we all felt that day. The greats of the industry, the producers, the directors, the hangers-on were having to pay homage to an actress who’d raised herself to their level. All the top guys were there, including Sam Goldwyn, the bald-headed producer with the squeaky East-European voice. “Oh my god, look out he’s coming over” said Lottie.” I looked behind me and sure enough ‘the bald bloke’ (as Chaplin called him) was waddling our way. We tried to stifle our sniggers, as Sam took my hand, kissed it, saying “Forr you ay am verry harpy Miss Norrmand. Eef ay can eever do anythang forr you, joost let me knaw.” I thanked his kind words, but, as he waddled away we all creased up and burst out laughing. Where was Mack Sennett? He’d spent virtually all his time with big producer Adolph Zukor, who, as usual, had a young lady with him. Eventually Mack came over with Zukor, and said

“I think you know Mabel, don’t you, Adolph”

“Indeed I do Mack, the last time I saw Miss Normand, she threatened to brain me with a heavy book.”

Zukor quickly introduced his companion

“Miss Normand this is my daughter, her name’s Mildred, but we call her ‘Mickey.’

Well, Mildred seemed like a game girl, so it’s no wonder they called her Mickey. Unknown to me at the time, Mickey was to have a profound effect on my film, while her dad would have an even greater effect on Keystone, and, indeed, Triangle.

On location Mickey

On location for Mabel’s film.

 

Making inroads into ‘Mountain Bred.’

Everyone worked hard on the film, and we made decent progress, but getting it right proved difficult. None of the first three directors knew me, or how to direct me. I dismissed two, and one left disillusioned, then, Mack capitulated, and brought in F. Richard Jones, if only because his own name was now linked to the film.

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Up on the roof.

F. Richard worked me almost to death, and I loved it. He worked mostly on my actions, movements and facial expressions. All those things I did as the Keystone Girl, he took, and improved, refined, expanded or shrunk. The result was amazing, and I knew this would be the best film I’d ever done. As was to happen many times over the years, Jones almost killed me several times with stunts, like hanging onto a roof 40 feet off the ground by my fingernails. Poor old Minta Durfee, she was often paralysed with fear, as I galloped horses through the woods, sprinted onto their backs from behind, and dived off 50 foot cliffs.

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Dick and Mabel: just good friends.

 

Everything looked wonderful as we completed the picture, and we had ideas for more feature films, based on famous novels. And then – nothing. Everything fell apart, Triangle began to totter, and Mack was running around trying to make a fast buck in the melee. Don’t ask me what was going on, I was just an actress stuck in the middle of the shenanigans. Someone had kidnapped the film negative, law suits were issued against Harry Aitken, Harry Aitken threatened to sue Mack, and Mack threatened to sue F. Richard. Meanwhile, Griffith paid Aitken a million dollars for his failed film, Intolerance, and fled Triangle like a bat loose from hell. In early September, I bailed out, and took Sam Goldwyn up on his offer, and signed for his new film company, while Mack was in New York slugging it out with K & B and Harry Aitken.

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At the beginning of August 1916, someone in New York had put a tail on me, but the private dick doing the tailing, came to me saying he’d give me the information he’d collected for 600 dollars. It occurred to me that either Kessell and Baumann, Harry Aitken, or even Mack Sennett were behind the surveillance. All were dangerous people, so, as I didn’t fancy getting rubbed out, I went to the cops. The cops  hid in my closet, when the blackmailer called for his ill-gotten gains. They jumped out, just as I handed the money over – it was like a scene from Keystone’s Sleuths. The ‘people in New York’ never found out that I’d signed for Goldwyn, but they were too busy fighting each other to be bothered with me.

By early 1917, I’d left the coast for New York, and holed up in a friend’s apartment, waiting word from Sam to start work, or Mack to come crawling on his hands and knees, begging me to go back to Edendale. This ploy had worked well last year, but would it work now? I had eventually lost the battle for the Mabel Normand Studio, but I was determined to win the war.

Mabel_Cart

 

Bibliography

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

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

The Dream That Came True in Motion Picture Magazine Dec. 1916.

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

* In my next post I tell of how I got Mack Sennett and Sam Goldwyn at each other’s throats, and how things went so horribly wrong that I entered the worst, most unhappy period of my life.