By the time she was signed with Goldwyn’s newly formed production company in July 1917, Mabel had become wan and worn out, ostensibly as a result of bouts of both illness and, by drug abuse. The drug use, somewhat like Wallace Reid’s, was medical in origin and had started with her taking medication to remedy the pain caused from her head injury and other illness. Minta Durfee spoke on this topic in an interview conducted by Hollywood archivist and historian Don Schneider:
“And that is why it is so mean of people to make remarks about her, because I’m telling you, I know this! That she never loved any other man in the world but Mack Sennett. And at the ending of her life, after she had been struck on the head by this Mae Busch, and she had refused to go back into the studio again, because she already had her wedding dress ready to marry, and this woman came and was with us and no one liked her when she came, this Mae Busch, and then at the end of her life, when she finally became tubercular, and I worked in, and played the heavy and finished my four years contract in ‘Mickey’ -- and that little thing would have a hemorrhage of the lungs and then she would take a swig out of a bottle, to stop the bleeding, and the coughing, and do all of her own stunts, nobody ever did any stunts for her, and if you’ve seen ‘Mickey’ you’ll be amazed to see that girl sliding down, where she’d fallen, she’d have been not only killed but she’d been crushed to pieces -- from this mansion where we made ‘Mickey’ over on Western and 24th Street -- and that day, in the morning, she and I were talking, she said, ‘Oh, I better take my goop,’ -- she always called it ‘goop,’ ‘Because I feel like I’m gonna have a little hemorrhage.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘Don’t do your work, don’t do that scene today, do something else dear.’ And she said, ‘Oh, no, that’s the way the schedule goes. No, I’ll do it.’”27
To those who saw her after these accumulated setbacks to her health, her appearance and voice had changed. Very young as she still was, all but vanished from her dusky eyes and smiling countenance were the boundless gaiety and high spirits of previous years.
Besides her severe coughing spells, and the effects of reported fast living, it has come to light in Betty Fussell’s Mabel: Hollywood’s First I-Don’t-Care Girl, that, in consequence of an affair with Goldwyn, she allegedly became pregnant and had a miscarriage. In short, all these problems and misfortunes, for obvious reasons, had a pernicious impact on her health; and help to explain what had happened to her. This said, there is certainly much more that we don’t know about all this than what we do know, and it would be not a little rash to summarily jump to conclusions about what most brought her to this pass.
Although Goldwyn it is said tried to tame her wild habits and smooth off her rough edges, Mabel seemed to have jettisoned some of her earlier diligence and discipline. Eating ice cream for breakfast, playing practical jokes and partying long into the night were only some of her reported antics. It was not unusual for her to often show up late on the set of a film she was working on, and which upset Goldwyn. She was, however, reputed to be one of his most lucrative stars, and for a while her box-office contributions would seem to have more than compensated him for any inconveniences otherwise.
Only one of her sixteen Goldwyn films survives, so it’s naturally difficult now to gauge their quality.28 Contemporary reviewers usually gave Mabel’s performances high marks. The photographic quality of the Goldwyn films, based on What Happened to Rosa, surviving stills and contemporary reviews was superior to the early and late films she made with Sennett. Still, for the most part, the critics apparently found the films as vehicles for her silly and unsatisfying, though there was enough in them to keep them marketable with general audiences. If Rosa can be more or less considered typical of these, their assessments were probably correct. In a New York Times footnote review for Upstairs, for instance, the reviewer writes, “Mabel, under the direction of Victor L. Schertzinger does some of her best pantomimic work. She takes the part of a kitchen drudge who is lured upstairs to the dancing room of a gay hotel. She is in trouble most of the time, and most of her troubles are laughable. There is not enough in this farce, however, to make all of its five or six reels entertaining.”
The independent minded, at times inexplicably eccentric, and “Sennett-free” Mabel of this period was presumably not what the movie going public preferred. At least this is what biographers and historians, with some justification, are wont to assert. In any event, when Goldwyn’s company went under in a takeover, Mabel was forced to leave the studio, as was ultimately Goldwyn himself.
Before the eventual collapse, Goldwyn, contracted with Sennett to have Mabel do the film Molly O’, an opportunity Sennett the while had been waiting in the wings for. It was his intention to play up the nostalgia by bringing back the more down-to-earth, less flighty Mabel of the Goldwyn period. F. Richard Jones directed; using a script (ostensibly) put together by Sennett, who took particular care and pride in the project. Advertising read: “You remember Mickey -- here’s the same trio back again in a picture greater than Mickey!” Its cast included Jack Mulhall, George Nichols, Jacqueline Logan, and Lowell Sherman.
Molly O’ was well received, both by audiences and critics alike, and definitely rates as one of her best features. Sometime in the early 1990’s it was rediscovered in the Gosfilmofund archive in Moscow, Russia, and about a decade later beautifully restored by the film department at UCLA. While it mostly acquits itself as an entertaining, and in its way even great, picture, this is as much due to Jones direction and the ensemble as a whole, as Mabel herself. And though she does shine nicely and handles herself competently in a few spots, her comedy and acting overall are not exceptional or such as to evoke superlatives. Most of the success of the film then, unlike most of Mabel’s previous feature films, lies in the team effort of the cast, rather than a stand out performance on her part.