“Those interested in the personality of Mabel Normand can receive no more illuminating introduction to her than the incident just sketched. There are a hundred tales of this characteristic response to any human appeal clustering about the name of Mabel Normand. One which came directly under my observation relates to a poor girl with a dependent family. The girl was stricken with tuberculosis and, although Mabel did not know her, she became interested in her condition through a friend of hers. Immediately she went to see her, and when she left she pressed something into the sick girl’s hand. It was only after she had gone that the other realized what her caller had left. It was a check for a thousand dollars.
“Nor does Mabel wait for the large demand upon her sympathy. Gifts from her come unprovoked as manna. She is likely to go out and buy a hundred dollar beaded bag for a stenographer in the organization, and just as likely to invest a corresponding amount in remembering somebody whom she has met once and happened to like.”33
While Mabel every now and then came to speak of herself as “bad luck,” she was at least fortunate to have some staunch and loyal friends, such as the Talmadges, particularly Norma, who did stood by her during her various ordeals. Though many did turn their backs on her, including some she was most generous and giving to, not everyone took advantage of her situation, or were intimidated by the smears and mockery leveled at her. Throughout much of her troubles, some of Hollywood’s most prominent notables were there to quietly or vociferously aid her as best, under the circumstances, they could. Needless to add, it speaks honorably and courageously of such that they did not buckle under to the fear and hysteria engendered by the bizarre and sensational criminal events.
Of course, she could not but be grieved, and sometimes angry, by all that had transpired, yet Mabel was fully aware of the injustice of the attacks made against her, and for better or worse, refused to have her life held in check constantly worrying about how others might judge her. In this way, she remained more or less defiant despite the heavy odds against her. Yet for all her some times combativeness, Mabel always remained an extremely kind and generous, if sometimes lonely, person who always tried to keep up a cheery outlook and smile; even though inside she was being emotionally and physically eaten up by the various and combined challenges thrown her way. “I knew Miss Normand,” Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. has said, “She never seemed to allow her personal sorrows and problems to show and be a burden to others. She exuded all the happy charm of a fresh, lovely, bright flower.”34
Mabel made a brief comeback in 1926 and 1927 with a series of two and three reelers produced by Hal Roach and distributed by Pathé. In these she typically plays a poor, overworked waif, who has to contend daily with petty cheats and, as well, a thick-headed father in order to scrape a meager living for her impecunious family. They are Cinderella stories, but with the difference that Mabel’s Cinderella must be wooed to be won, and it isn’t always clear that the different prince-charmings ever manage to succeed. Hers is a rather curious, paradoxical figure in these comedies. There is in her eyes a wary skepticism betokening a more profound sense and understanding of life. And yet at other times, paradoxically, she comes across as silly and light-headed as a five year old.
Though the effects of time and the fragility of her constitution show, she, oddly enough, looks more healthy in these films than she does in The Extra Girl. One usual flaw of her post-1920 films in generally is that she’s simply too old to be playing these little girl roles. Raggedy Rose, the title of one film, aptly describes the impression she sometimes gives. Nonetheless, in most of the films, and considering the enormous pain she was suffering in her private life, she performs effectively enough, if with some stiffness to her movements, as the life-worn, little ragamuffin. The general tone and pacing of these films are far different than anything thing she ever did with Sennett, and are convincing proof that, even at this relatively late period of her life, she could play a greater range of roles than previously permitted by either producers or audiences.
In September 1926, while giving a small party for some friends, she and Lew Cody, her Mickey co-star and chum of many years, to the amusement of guests, acted out a marriage proposal. Following this, he asked her on a dare, to marry him. She accepted, and before (it was said) she could voice other word, he whisked her off to a Ventura Justice of the Peace. By next morning, the two had been made legally man and wife. It turned out, that Cody had proposed to her a number of times before -- and so he later averred --- but she had turned him down. The sudden wedding made front-page headlines and understandably came as a big surprise to everyone.
Perhaps not so surprising, the marriage had problems. Among other difficulties, it is not unreasonable to assume that Cody did not stringently hold to his vows. And even though Mabel could or did know this in advance, still it must only have brought her more grief. The marriage then inevitably wound up becoming an arrangement of convenience as anything else. For the most part, they lived in separate homes and were usually kept apart by conflicting schedules and lifestyles. Yet it did have its benefits. Both shared that lively sense of humor, that had played its part in their tying the knot in the first place. As well as being a very popular Hollywood idol, admired by men and sought after by women, Cody gave Mabel a strength and protection in her isolated life she badly needed. While sometimes presented as a drunkard and a bit of a rascal, which on occasion he perhaps and apparently could be, Cody was arguably a shrewder and even nobler soul than he is given credit. In addition to being a kind of shield to Mabel during her last years, he was one of those who stood publicly alongside Arbuckle when the scorned comedian attempted a comeback in the early thirties.
As for Sennett, he says, at the end of his autobiography, “I never married. There was only one girl.” If finally losing Mabel to Cody in this embarrassing way weren’t enough, he also lost almost the entirety of his massive financial holdings as a result of the crash of 1929 and ended up spending most of the rest of his life getting by on a humble and modest income. Up to his death in 1960, much of his time was taken up in retrospective productions and celebrations of his early career. With almost religious devotion, the one subject he most frequently and tirelessly delighted in raising and reminding people of was his former Keystone star and one time fiancée.
In March and August 1927, Mabel, reported acutely ill with pneumonia, was hospitalized. In November, however, of the same year, she was apparently well enough to make a trip to the nation’s capitol with Cody. Then in December 1928, she was diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis; symptoms of which had been hinted at perhaps as early as Mickey.
She had hoped she could be cured in her home. Yet as her health rapidly deteriorated, she finally consented, in September 1929, to move to a sanitarium in Monrovia, CA. for ongoing medical attention. Nonetheless and after battling the rapacious disease there for five months, she died at last on February 23, 1930, at 2:25 am, conscious to the end. Kept from her the while was that Lew himself was the victim of a heart ailment that in 1934, within just a few short years of her own passing, proved fatal.
I. “Keystone Mabel”
The Film Comedy of Mabel Normand 1911-191635
“Just take Miss Normand at her screen value, and you know her.”
~ James Quirk in Photoplay, August 1915.
As well as being one of early film comedy’s most prominent and familiar personalities, Mabel Normand was also among its most creative explorers and innovators. In many ways she equaled, and in some respects exceeded, the work of her more famous male counterparts. Unfortunately, the subtlety, range and freshness of her brand of comedy has not infrequently been overlooked or made light of; and this, typically, due to the negative notoriety she has received as a result of persistent scandal.
Yet even taking the effect of scandal into account, we are left with the fact that the wide scope of her accomplishment cannot be adequately ascertained by screening a mere few of her films -- which is usually the most a given individual might see of her work. In a career that spanned from 1911 to 1927, she made at least 198 films: that is about 176 shorts and 22 features (four reels or more). During this same period she went through numerous vicissitudes and transformations: both negative and positive, some insignificant, some considerable. The negative changes were mostly a result of personal, as well as public, misfortunes in her life. Yet on the positive side she improved and developed as one would expect an intelligent and usually hard working artist to. The problem, however, was that the negative factors could seriously set back the progress she did make. For example, in the films of her last years she will at times seems devoid of much of that gaiety and quick instinct for irony which lent themselves to making her earlier outings so especially humorous and delightful. But this change came about in consequence of more than just ordinary maturation and development, and was, as well, the result of other factors affecting her, such as health problems, aforementioned scandal, and trends in the film industry.
The younger Mabel then is, generally speaking, noticeably more exuberant than the later one -- to say the least. So even though she progressed in her work, in a general sense there was, simultaneously, a gradual loss to her well-being stemming from external events largely beyond her control. It is the incidental life-affecting factors like these, some of them normal, some of them unusual, which have served to deprive film historians and enthusiasts a more just idea of her talent and ability. Since so much is varied in Mabel Normand’s story that brief assessments about her overall merit and scope as an artist rarely do her justice, and often need to be qualified. There’s simply so much that would seem to require explanation. To attempt now then, many years later, to properly evaluate her requires a bit more than the casual eye and terse reflection which silent film comedy is usually wont to receive.
In this the first of two essays, we will attempt a survey of her art and screen technique in that part of her career spanning from her first Vitagraph films in 1911, to her time at Biograph and Keystone, up until her last films made for Triangle-Keystone in 1916. A very good case could be made that this period from 1911 through 1916 was the high-point of her artistic energy and creativity. Be this as it may, it at least serves as convenient framework by which to demonstrate some of the sundry facets of her comic acting and technique. Although she did direct and write a few scripts for some of her own short comedies, it is as a performer that she stands out, and it is in this light that she is perhaps best viewed and considered.36
At her tallest, Mabel was five foot in height, had thick brunette hair and expressive dark eyes. This is necessary to note because being very small and pretty gave her room to behave in ways that otherwise might not be so amusing if someone less attractive or sympathetic did those same things. In the way we might, even gladly, indulge a young child, a puppy or kitten for their somewhat unruly behavior because they are so naturally appealing, so “Mabel” (her comic character) could get away with things which others couldn’t and for similar reasons. The same behavior coming from someone else more full-grown or physically powerful, on the other hand, would probably be less funny, if not outright offensive. “Mabel,” on the other hand, while mischievous (and in rarer instances even obnoxious, see, for example, Mabel’s Wilful Way 1915) never comes across as actually callous or mean spirited. On the contrary, time and again she displays an overt empathy toward her fellow players (in their character roles), and she would, as often as not, apologize to a fellow character after having pulled a prank on them, and with affection and sincerity mean it. If then she does act up or misbehaves, it’s rarely because her heart is in the wrong place.
She first acquired her earliest dramatic education from stage and club shows of various kinds she saw or heard about while growing up on Staten Island, including some presumably in which her father participated in as pianist. Otherwise, before entering films she was employed as an artist’s model in New York City, posing for well known advertising illustrators such as Charles Dana Gibson, James Montgomery Flagg, the Leydendecker brothers, Penrhyn Stanlaws, and C. Coles Phillips, not to mention a number of studio photographers as well. This kind of background certainly had an important impact on her subsequent film acting since modeling required her to assume all kinds of emotional attitudes, and postures. When an illustrator asked her to show longing, sadness, delight or gaiety that was just what she had to learn and give herself to do. It was then in no small part from the training provided by these modeling sessions that she began developing a quick and ready repertoire by which to successfully impart various feelings and emotions.37
After receiving advice and suggestions from studio friends and acquaintances, Mabel moved from modeling into the just burgeoning movie business. It was 1911 and she was about eighteen years old when she was first hired at D. W. Griffith‘s Biograph Company located in Manhattan’s lower east side. Following this very brief, introductory stint, she went to work at the Vitagraph Company in Flatbush only to return to Biograph in late July 1911. She initially made some dramatic shorts with Biograph, some of these directed by D.W. Griffith himself. But ultimately, as events took their course, she ended up under Mack Sennett’s supervision as part of Biograph’s comedy unit. After that, sometime in the Spring of 1912, she, along with Ford Sterling and Henry Lehrman, accompanied Sennett in leaving Biograph to go West permanently to form the Keystone Film Company (a subsidiary of the New York Motion Picture Company based in New York City.)
Her earliest known surviving film is one from Vitagraph, Troublesome Secretaries, and it is with it we can start our survey. Based on that short and still photographs of others from the same company, we know Mabel’s Vitagraph films to have had a drawing room quality and a quaint, turn-of-the-century simplicity about them. One nice example of the latter is a scene from Secretaries where “Betty,” played by Mabel, is walked home along a residential lane by her boyfriend, Ralph Ince. As they stop their stroll, he warily looks about him before kissing her on the forehead. Betty, all this while, coyly giggles at his respectful caution and their mutual audacity. After waving good-bye to each other as they separate, she walks the rest of her way home with this curious look of concern on her face, like someone who, out of bashfulness, is not quite sure whether her romantic inclination has or might not get her into trouble.
“Betty,” a character Mabel often played in her Vitagraph comedies, was a young foil to John Bunny‘s bumbling and struggling elder, and was in some ways the precursor to “Keystone Mabel.” Though different, they do share certain similarities. Both “Betty” and “Mabel” are playful and tend to a bit mischievous, as well as being attractive to men. The difference is that “Betty” is generally more submissive and subdued than “Mabel,” who is ordinarily more rambunctious and free spirited.38
While replete with vitality in most of her earliest films, she appears more circumspect and demure (relatively speaking) in those made in the East. When, however, in the winter of 1911 she first went with the Biograph company on its annual winter-spring trip West, southern California, with its sunshine and orange groves, seems to have stirred in her a greater sense of freedom and independence such that she comes across as more self-assured and confident than previously. At first Mabel’s performances and mannerism were for the most part conventional and very much in keeping with D.W. Griffith’s school of acting, such as certain stock expressions used to convey various emotions and demeanors. Yet with time, she utilized and built upon this experience to develop and create styles and approaches of her own.
A number of Mabel’s Biograph films are dramas directed by Griffith, including Saved From Himself, A Squaw’s Love, The Eternal Mother, and The Mender of Nets. Certainly, it is interesting to see what Griffith was able to bring out in her performances; and grave moments of tender sympathy or sadness, such as these films call for, are otherwise essentially absent in these early years of her career. Yet this observed, most of the films she appeared in at Biograph were not dramas, but rather farce-comedies, and these latter done under the direction of Mack Sennett.
The Biograph and Keystone comedies, as has been pointed out, had their conceptual origin in stage burlesque, newspaper comic strips, circus acts, and French film comedy – as well as not infrequently being in their way satires or takes offs on certain Biograph dramas. Moreover, the characters of these scenarios were usually intended as somewhat absurd caricatures rather than realistic personalities with the films being almost invariably ensemble pieces with little or no development permitted of individual characters.
Even though Mabel herself was a leading star in her Biograph and Keystone comedies, neither she nor any of Keystone’s other players – or, for that matter, directors -- ever enjoyed much production control or say about how films were to be made. This was the result of tight management Sennett exercised over production; a factor which finally led to Chaplin and Arbuckle‘s, not to mention Mabel’s, later departure from Keystone. These then are shorts with a few relatively big name stars, but no main star who had an independent say about the films content and how they were to be put together. It is true that around 1915 and 1916 that Arbuckle, both as star and director, was granted a certain autonomy, yet having to finally answer to Sennett still had a restrictive effect on his creativity and inventiveness while working with the company.
In an interview she did in the late twenties, Mabel described the “Fun Factory’s” cost conscious and assembly line production methods this way:
“So we, like other companies, would stop in the middle of one (film) and start another, simply rearranging the props, pulling a pair of overalls on over my frock, putting a cop’s cap on Fatty Arbuckle, and having Ford Sterling or Charlie Chaplin chase us around in front of the camera.
“There’d be no script, no plot, no idea of what we’d do when we started -- and no title. All we needed was 600 or 700 feet of film showing us doing something and 300 or 400 feet of educational film to tack on it, such as how sheep are sheared or olives canned.” 39
While it is not true that all Keystone films were made without any written scenario or script, it is correct to say they were often as impromptu as planned out in nature. When written scenarios were used, they were frequently modified during the course of shooting, as well as in editing. It was not until 1915 and 1916, however, that advanced planning proper of individual films became possible. Yet despite the ad hoc planning and skimpy budgets, making these comedies day in and day out did require a not inconsiderable amount of toil and effort. When Chaplin returned to Hollywood to get his special Oscar in the seventies he visited with Minta Durfee and in chatting with her recalled what hard and regular work it was making those early films.40
“Mabel was a comedienne, and he [Sennett] built everything around her. He would have worked her to death twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.”
~Minta Durfee quoted in The Keystone Krowd by Stuart Oderman, p. 115.
At Keystone, Mabel did direct a few short films herself, and did so competently, yet she never had pretensions to being a film making pioneer or genius. Nevertheless, she often did markedly influence those she worked with and was quite original and resourceful as an advisor and collaborator. In an article for Picture-Play, April 1916, Arbuckle, in answering how his films were put together, was quoted as saying “As we go along, fresh ideas pop out, and we all talk it over. I certainly have a clever crowd working with me. Mabel alone, is good for a dozen new suggestions in every picture.”41
Mabel’s talent, however, lay in her being an imaginative screen performer, and less so a cinematic visionary -- as such. While one could cite a number of reasons, perhaps the best single explanation for her limiting herself is that she simply didn’t possess the pride of great ambition to do more. Although she was naturally intelligent to the point of manifesting a kind of spontaneous and intuitive genius, her formal education was very limited and she did not have a manager like Charlotte Pickford to plan and organize her career and activities. In consequence of which, she appears to have been usually inclined to let others, and who she felt knew more, take the lead when it came to larger matters of production. On the other hand, however, it may very well have been (knowing what else we do know about her) that she did try and aspire to do more, but that the politics of business forbade it.
Her initial co-stars, both at Biograph and Keystone, were Sennett, Fred Mace and Ford Sterling. Dell Henderson was not part of the founding Keystone troupe, but he did figure prominently in Mabel’s early Biograph comedies.42 He usually, and without deviation, played a mild mannered, gentlemanly fellow. Sterling was featured more in her Keystone films than the ones made with Biograph. Mace and Sennett, on the other hand, were regulars in both the Biograph and early Keystone comedies. Following these, it was later Chaplin and Arbuckle who shared center stage with her. Other Biograph and Keystone stars who appeared prominently or frequently with her were Nick Cogley, Alice Davenport, Charles Avery, Al St. John and later Owen Moore. But it was the six first mentioned here -- Dell Henderson, Fred Mace, Mack Sennett, Ford Sterling, Roscoe Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin who most often served as her screen foil or partner.
In the Biograph and Keystone films, Mabel played a relatively broad range of roles and types. To illustrate, the following is a list of some of them -- along with the names of a nominal few of the films in which those roles appeared. Naturally, it wasn’t unusual to combine a few of these in one film; for example, the spoiled daughter is also a flirt in What the Doctor Ordered and The Speed Kings.
* Coquette: Oh, Those Eyes, A Dash Through the Clouds, The Ragtime Band, Caught in a Cabaret, Mabel and Fatty’s Wash Day.
* Spoiled girl: Hot Stuff, The Furs, The Ragtime Band
* Teasing and mischievous daughter or sister: Troublesome Secretaries, Tomboy Bessie, Hide and Seek
* Motherly sister: Hide and Seek, The Fatal Mallet, Mabel’s Blunder
* Restless tomboy: The Brave Hunter, What The Doctor Ordered, The Speed Kings, A Muddy Romance, Mabel at the Wheel
* Termagant or silly housewife: His Trysting Place, Mabel and Fatty’s Wash Day
* Jealous girl friend or wife: The Fickle Spaniard, His Trysting Place, Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition
* Newly wed bride, That Little Band of Gold, Fatty and Mabel Adrift
* School teacher: The Little Teacher
* Somebody’s playful, hard to control daughter: Tomboy Bessie, The Speed Kings, Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life, Mabel’s Wilful Way
* Male impersonator: Subduing Mrs. Nag, Katchem Kate, Mabel’s Strategem, Mabel’s Blunder
* Secretary: Mabel’s Strategem, Mabel’s Blunder
* Scheming bad girl: The Furs, Tillie’s Punctured Romance
* Society girl or debutante: Caught in a Cabaret, Their Social Splash, Mabel Lost and Won
* Bathing beauty: The Diving Girl, The Water Nymph, Mabel’s New Hero
* Flirtatious spouse: Getting Acquainted, Mabel and Fatty’s Wash Day, Mabel, Fatty and the Law
* Farm or country girl: The Bangville Police, Those Country Kids, Fatty and Mabel Adrift
* Serving maid or working girl: The Fickle Spaniard, Mabel’s Dramatic Career, Mabel’s Busy Day
* Alternately tender and irresponsible mother: His Trysting Place
* Damsel or comic heroine: Barney Oldfield’s Race for A Life, Cohen Saves the Flag, Mabel At the Wheel, Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life.
Given these various roles, who then was “Keystone Mabel?” The first film in which “Mabel” is used in the title is Mabel’s Lovers, released November 4, 1912. This was followed by a good many more films so denoted, lasting up into 1916. “Mabel,” then and as such was the character who took on these roles and guises: e.g. “Mabel” as girlfriend, “Mabel” as race car driver, as spouse, as daughter, etc. In other words, she was, generally speaking and most of the time, essentially the same exaggerated female, “Mabel,” albeit in different roles and situations. While there is at times a sensuality about her played-up for comic situations, such as bathing beauty settings, more frequently her character is an undaunted tomboy or demi-tomboy who spars, competes against, or else engages in some kind of playful frolic with villains, suitors, or childhood chums in one absurd circumstances of one kind or other. Yet though a tomboy, hers is a girlish sort rather than a boyish or more masculine kind – and which contrasting girlishness (i.e. contrasting to her male, hyper-activity) is all part of the humor of it. Although we speak of “Keystone Mabel” here, in the common parlance of the time she was known first as the “Biograph Diving Girl” or “Diving Girl,” later as “The Keystone Girl,” and then “Keystone’s Mabel” or “Keystone Mabel.”
Rather than flee from a dangerous situation, her character will sometimes, out of naiveté or innocence, turn about to face it. In The Brave Hunter, for instance, she encounters a large circus bear on the loose. Though at first startled, rather than run she looks into the bear’s eyes and starts playing with him. Such gumption was not uncharacteristic of her in real life, as recounted by Minta Durfee in the early 70’s to interviewer Don Schneider:
“...[S]he came down every Sunday and she and Roscoe would swim from in front of our house, to the Venice pier and back again, at 11 o’clock every Sunday morning.
“So one Sunday morning they came back, and instead of the two of them getting out of the water immediately and coming up on the sand, there was something going on, you couldn’t make up your mind just exactly what it was, but I could see her arm over something, and I don’t know what it was over, and nobody else did. Some people were standing, and of course all the strolling people on the strand, naturally came every day -- it became a regular excitement on Sunday, to see these people dining, all these stars, and people from the theater, and they were all standing there, and nobody could make up his mind what it was that was going on out there.
“Well, what it was, as they were swimming back, from the Venice pier, up came a dolphin, and instead of Mabel being frightened like anybody would, -- because none of us knew anything about dolphins in those days -- she just put her arm over the neck of this dolphin and he swam right along with them.
“And do you know, every Sunday, for nearly a year, he came and swam with them, down and back, until one day they came back and then he disappeared, and they never saw him again. Isn’t that interesting? Isn’t that wonderful?”43
Occasionally, “Mabel” will herself be acting or putting one over on some one else within the story. In a film like Oh, Those Eyes and Tomboy Bessie, for example, she plays someone who is play-acting in order to mislead another or others characters. In such situations, she is essentially and really a naive coquette seemingly sure of herself. Yet when thwarted, vexed or exposed, as called for by turn of events, her confident facade drops off into tears and dismay or else laughter at the incongruity of things.
In a later interview, Mabel provided some thoughts on her comedic characterizations and the use of subtlety in a farce.
“Try to burlesque somebody. You’ll notice that you probably do it with the sort of a brush that the bill-board posters use while small boys admiringly surround them. But you won’t appear as clever to grown-ups as the poster-pasters do to the younger generation. Your brush is too thick, too wide, too everything. Burlesque is a delicate art, believe me. I’m no highbrow, as I said before, but I know that. And I know too, that when you make fun of people you have to mimic them with just the slightest exaggeration in order to be really funny. If you overdo it, you ruin, you ruin your performance, and it’s pretty hard not to overdo your act. You have to watch every gesture, every action, no matter how small. A careless lifting of eye-brows may spoil a perfectly good hand-gesture. Watch your step all the time, and watch everything else you have about you, too. If you seem to have any idea that you’re playing at something, you won’t get across.”44