Remembering Mabel Normand, Queen of Silent Slapstick

Mabel Normand died on February 23, 1930 at the age of 38. A film pioneer and one of the screen’s funniest women, Normand was – at the height of her career – moviedom’s queen of comedy. She was so popular, in fact, that she was one of – if not the – first actors to have her name included in movie titles. Mabel starred in about one hundred and seventy short subjects and twenty-three feature films, becoming – among other things – Charlie Chaplin’s mentor. Normand was also one of the movie industry’s first women to own her own studio and she directed herself in several pictures, one of the first to do so. Perhaps most telling as to the level of fame Mabel Normand acquired through her years in the movies, however, were the pallbearers at her funeral: Louis B. Mayer, Judge James, Eugene Pallette, Charlie Chaplin, Sid Grumman, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett, and Samuel Goldwyn. Names so impressive that most are still known today. Sadly, despite her impressive contributions to the film industry, many do not know Mabel Normand, so we honor her life, her film work and the tragedies she lived through.

Mabel Normand was born on November 9, 1892 in Staten Island, New York. Normand was the product of Claude Normand, a carpenter by trade and musician at heart who played the piano at local vaudeville theaters whenever opportunity arose. Sadly, Claude’s dream of being a musician never put food on the kitchen table. In 1885, Claude met and eloped with Mary “Minnie” Drury, a staunch Irish-Catholic girl who was a student of voice. Her love of music instantly connected her to Claude and permeated the home they made for their four children, Ralph, Claude, Jr., Mabel and Gladys. Despite not being the youngest, Mabel would always be called “Baby” by her family. Mabel grew up to be an athlete. She excelled at swimming and diving and, like her father, was an accomplished pianist.

Unlike most of the early movie actors, Mabel Normand never acted on stage before embarking on her movie career. Instead, she made her chops in front of a camera by becoming a model in her early teens. It began in 1906 when Mabel heard that a sewing pattern company was hiring girls to work in the mailroom. Mabel was hired on the spot, but the boss soon told her she was too pretty not to be featured in the company’s fashion magazine. Mabel was not crazy about standing still all day, but was happy to help her family financially. By the age of 14, Mabel was the main earner in her family. What Mabel did not realize at the time was that she now had a career and before she knew it, she was hired as a regular model by prominent New York City artists. It surprised no one when Mabel went into pictures, as a popular model was surely to encounter New York’s thriving movie business.

Mabel Normand’s first known movie appearance was in Vitagraph’s The Indiscretions of Betty (1910) as noted in Steve Massa’s Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy (2017). Vitagraph immediately noticed how the camera loved Mabel and her energy. She was an instant hit and worked regularly at that studio for more than a year before moving to Biograph where she began working with director Mack Sennett who quickly made her his leading lady.

Mack Sennett took full advantage of Mabel’s talents for adventurous, physically demanding roles. The two also broke the mold as to how “ladies” were supposed to act. Mabel wore skimpy bathing suits, got pies thrown at her, and sometimes dressed as a man. During this time, Mabel also made several dramatic pictures with D. W. Griffith, but everyone recognized her best work was in comedy, which is where she made her mark.

Mabel Normand with Mack Sennett

After much success in the Sennett-Normand partnership during which they created memorable comedy heroes Mabel shined with, the two moved to a new venture. In August 1912, Mack Sennett incorporated the Keystone Film Company featuring himself, Ford Sterling, Fred Mace, and Mabel Normand as its stars. Mabel was contracted at $125 a week, an astronomical amount in 1912 (about $3500 today), and could not believe her luck. The Water Nymph (1912) was the first movie released at Keystone starring Mabel Normand with Mack Sennett playing her love interest. Mack and Mabel became the primary duo of their early Keystone comedies, but she was the standout star. Unlike the other comics working at Keystone at the time, Mabel was a natural; she brought with her none of the baggage from earlier stage work. It did not matter that they were throwing her off cliffs, running her over with cars, or drowning her in lakes, Mabel was her own character and audiences loved her. As Betty Harper Fussell states in her book, Mabel: Hollywood’s First Don’t-Care Girl, Sennett built Keystone around Mabel, and when she left, he never could replace her.

As Mabel Normand’s popularity grew, so did her reputation as a party girl. Fussell describes the split that happened between the Griffith girls like Lillian Gish who epitomized grace, and the Keystone troupe, a rowdy bunch of jokesters. Mabel led that group and the fun she had starting in those days would cause heartache in years to come. In the meantime, however, Mack Sennett was relinquishing some of his role in the movies themselves to run the studio, which presented Mabel with opportunities to control her own pictures. Mabel directed movies between 1912 and 1914, many of which are lost. The fact that she is the first woman slapstick comedy director is significant.

In 1914, Mabel co-starred with newcomer Charlie Chaplin who would have a significant solo career in movies. In case you are not aware. The two made eleven pictures together and the story goes that Mabel was the only one Charlie liked on the Keystone lot although he was not thrilled to be directed by a woman. Charlie Chaplin discussed in his autobiography that he fell in love with Mabel Normand, but it was not reciprocated. Chaplin had signed with Keystone in September 1913. He was 24 and knew little about moviemaking. “He couldn’t understand what was going on,” said Sennett, “why everything went so fast, and why scenes were shot out of chronology.” Normand, four years his junior but already the veteran of more than 100 films, became his mentor. (The Guardian)

Mack Sennett finished 1914 with his first feature film, the debut of Marie Dressler in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, which was also the feature debuts of Mabel and Charlie. Tillie was a huge hit and became the first full-length screen comedy to garner two sequels, Howell Hansel’Tillie’s Tomato Surprise (1915) and Harry Davenport’s Tillie Wakes Up (1917). Marie Dressler was on her way to becoming a huge star in her own right as well.

Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle arrived at Keystone in 1913. Although he and Mabel made a few movies together early on, their partnership became official in 1915 creating the most popular boy-girl team in silent comedy. The movies they made together are supremely entertaining, less frenetic than the pictures one thinks of when one thinks of Keystone. Together Fatty and Mabel made thirty-six movies over three years at Keystone and they were the most popular and profitable of all the Keystone shorts. Fatty and Mabel had terrific chemistry together and their styles meshed. Mabel may have had a burgeoning party girl reputation by this point, but her on-screen persona was still that of an innocent girl, which matched perfectly with Arbuckle’s innocent boy. A favorite of their collaborations is Arbuckle’s He Did and He Didn’t from 1916. In this outing, the duo play a rich couple, which was not their usual stint. Roscoe is a doctor who dreams that his wife (Mabel) is having an affair. There are plenty of laughs in this picture, but due to the more serious overtone, you really get a sense of what good actors both were. Another memorable picture, also from 1916, is Arbuckle’s Fatty and Mabel Adrift. As he did often, Keystone regular Al St. John plays a villain. Fatty and Mabel are on their honeymoon when St. John sets their cottage adrift. The couple awakes the next morning to find their house and bed afloat. I believe Fatty and Mabel Adrift is considered the best of their pictures together, offering plenty of laughs.

Arbuckle and Normand in HE DID AND HE DIDN’T

It is really a shame that Mabel Normand is best remembered for her association with Charlie Chaplin with whom she had a lesser chemistry than she did with Fatty Arbuckle. Of the three, only Chaplin lived a full life. He is also the one of the three considered a legend by all.

Mabel Normand suffered a serious accident in 1915, the exact cause of which is not known. What is known is that it came after betrayals of Sennett and Mabel’s good friend Mae Busch. Mabel and Mack had a complicated romance and she was in love with him. It is difficult to say whether Mack Sennett was in love with Mabel or her popularity, but most believe that she had the love of millions of fans, but not of the man she loved.  The tumultuous romantic relationship between Sennett and Normand was the basis for the 1974 musical, “Mack and Mabel,” which features flashbacks from the early days of Keystone to Mabel’s death in 1930. With book by Michael Stewart and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, “Mack and Mabel” starred Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters in the title roles with Gower Champion as director and choreographer.

Having caught Sennett and Busch ‘involved’ was more than Mabel could take. When she recovered her health, Mabel and Fatty finished making Mabel and Fatty Adrift (1915). After that, in late 1915, Mabel and Fatty left Keystone and Sennett to go east to make movies in Fort Lee, NJ. Ironically, Mabel had met Mack Sennett in Fort Lee and in 1912, the two began their partnership when Sennett formed Keystone in the Northern New Jersey town. When Fatty and Mabel returned East, Mack Sennett leased space in Fort Lee for Arbuckle to direct his pictures with Mabel.

While still associated with Keystone on the East Coast, Mabel was ready to move on once her contract expired. Mack Sennett managed to keep her, however, offering to help open her own studio. The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company began production in mid-1916 with what would become Mabel’s most popular movie and the only production from that studio, Mickey. Mabel considered Mickey her best work and it is easy to see why. Mabel uses all her talents for drama and comedy as a country tomboy sent to live with a rich aunt in the city. Mickey also allowed Mabel plenty of opportunity to show her physical prowess as she disrupts her relatives’ rich household. The story here has a rapid pace and before you know it, the feature is over, but there’s fun to be had.

The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company

Now with story and director approval, Mabel had to contend with many productions issues on Mickey. As if Mabel were not busy enough, she signed a contract with Goldwyn Pictures during the shooting of Mickey, which was delayed numerous times due to money and staffing issues. There are opinions that blame Mabel’s erratic behavior for her troubles at her own studio on drug use, but it is possible, as Massa’s book states, that her head injury had a lot to do with stuff she dealt with her entire life life. In any case, ever the trouper, in 1918 Mabel Normand was in full swing finishing seven features for Goldwyn Pictures in a year. In addition, Mack Sennett released Mickey in August 1918 and it was a huge hit. Mabel was at the peak of her stardom that year.

It is believed that Mabel Normand’s infamous drug problems were at their height in late 1919 and into 1920. The timeline coincides with her work at Goldwyn Pictures. Her appearance was deteriorating and everyone noticed. Columnists like Adela Rogers St. John and Louella Parsons reported on it for an audience increasingly obsessed with the evils in the movie industry. What is saddest about this entire thing is that in reality Mabel did drugs, but got better. Yet, she was never allowed to get away from it and any mention of Mabel Normand is still usually followed by mention of her drug addiction. Singer songwriter Stevie Nicks even wrote a song dedicated to Mabel Normand connected to the lowest point in her own life due to drug issues.

Mabel’s movie contract with Goldwyn ended in 1921 in less than amicable terms at which time she returned to work with Mack Sennett who was delighted with the popularity of Mickey. Mabel made Molly O’ as a comeback with Sennett and was feeling good about her prospects, but tabloid fodder about her illness continued. In addition, more scandal and negative headlines plagued her.

In September 1921 Mabel’s good friend Roscoe Arbuckle was arrested for murder. The details of the accusation, the death of Virginia Rappe, and the subsequent derailment of Arbuckle’s career are well known by now. For Mabel Normand, however, nothing was clear except that moralists were blaming Hollywood excesses, the kind she had been accused of, as the cause of an innocent’s life. Mabel worried that one day they would come for her too.

The release of Molly O’ proved promising for Mabel Normand. Her return to Hollywood after her stint in repose was successful with the premiere of the movie attended by big Hollywood players. Audiences turned out too. Mack Sennett could not have been happier with Mabel and was making a concerted effort to woo her any way he could. Unfortunately, he had a rival now, a rival with much more class and sophistication, the kind of man Mabel could talk about art and music with. His name was William Desmond Taylor and he steadied Mabel, allowing her to return to art and painting, both of which she always loved. William Desmond Taylor gave Mabel a renewed interest in her future.

In February 1922, director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered in his Hollywood bungalow. Taylor was not only a good friend of Mabel Normand’s, someone who really cared for her, but she had been the last person to see him alive. Aside from the murderer, that is. Taylor had helped Mabel with her drug problems by sending her east to a drug clinic to get sober. With William Desmond Taylor’s death, Mabel lost a good friend. All reporters who rushed to Mabel Normand’s house after Desmond was found dead wanted to know why pictures of her were all over his bungalow, but Mabel had an airtight alibi. Still, the entire incident fueled more preaching about Hollywood getting what it deserved. Sensationalist stories even hinted that Mabel was a dope fiend and that Taylor was killed by her dealer or that he was her dealer. Unable to take much more of the press, Mabel was able to take a trip to Europe a couple of months after the Taylor story left the front pages and returned rested thinking the worst was over.

Upon Mabel’s return, however, local censorship boards across the U.S. simultaneously pulled Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter pictures off screens. Minter had been romantically interested in William Desmond Taylor. She was a person of interest in his murder because some clothes left in his bungalow had her initials on them. Still, no one has ever been found guilty of the Taylor murder, and yet Mabel Normand’s name was dragged a bit further every time the story appeared in a newspaper.

In January 1923, popular actor Wallace Reid died from a drug overdose. If Mabel Normand is largely forgotten today, Wally Reid is even more so. In his time, however, Reid was known as “the screen’s most perfect lover,” an actor beloved by fans and Hollywood players alike. For Mabel, Reid’s death was more bad news aside from the loss of the man, it meant drug addiction, and its connection to Hollywood, was in the news again. Mabel’s name was invariably mentioned.

In the summer of 1923, Mabel went into the hospital for an appendectomy. Upon release, Mabel continued to work with modest success, compared to previous years. Her film stories were not getting better though. Despite the fact that she was getting older, the movies wanted the same old innocent young Mabel. That was similar to what happened to little Mary Pickford. Anyway, in January 1924 another scandal caused Mabel’s name to hit the headlines. Horace Greer, Mabel’s Chauffeur, shot millionaire Courtland Dines at a party Dines was hosting for Mabel and Edna Purviance. Unfortunately, the gun Greer used to shoot Dines was Mabel Normand’s. She had nothing to do with the shooting, but it was Mabel who suffered the greatest harm. After a jury trial, Horace Greer, whose alias was Joe Kelly, was acquitted of attempted murder while Mabel was receiving requests for explanations from censorship boards.

Adding fuel to Mabel’s tabloid woes was one Mrs. Church who sued Mabel for alienation of affection in the fall of 1924. Mrs. Church’s husband happened to be in the hospital at the same time that Mabel was recovering from the appendectomy. Mrs. Church was charging Mabel with adultery during the actor’s hospital stay, a groundless claim, but which caused even more negative press for Mabel Normand. Clearly, Mabel was a scapegoat for whatever people wanted to accuse her of and she was sick of it. Mabel filed a libel suit against Mrs. Church, but lost the case in court. Meanwhile, the public had had enough of the stories too. They largely stopped going to Mabel Normand pictures. Mabel left to New York to star on stage in a play called “The Little Mouse,” which did not do well. Back in Hollywood, Hal Roach offered Mabel a three-year contract, but it was not enough to revive her career.

Despite all the difficulties she lived through, Mabel Normand’s name is the most famous of the women of silent comedy, but far too many people do not know who she is. Trust me when I tell you that you should, her movies are great, her comedy still fresh. She was a genuine genius of comedy. Her movies – those that still exist – as worthy of your time as the shorts of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. Mabel paved the way in many ways. As an actor, lauded for her beauty, she is a precursor to the beautiful women who excelled at physical comedy like Carole Lombard and Rosalind Russell, to name two. As a director, she made huge strides in slapstick comedy, a genre almost entirely attributed to men. Mabel Normand was directing slapstick comedies long before Chaplin and Keaton. As noted in the Kino Classics release, Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers, it was Mabel who first directed Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp in Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914). Mack Sennett claimed Chaplin learned to direct from Mabel Normand. Though Chaplin later claimed he had “no idea of the character” until donning his costume, Normand recalled evenings spent together planning “little mannerisms” such as “the queer shuffling little walk of an old costermonger he once saw in Whitechapel”. Others have gone further. Film historian Raymond Lee says Chaplin owes Normand his “greatest debt”. “A study of her films, made before Chaplin came to this country, shows entire routines, gestures, reactions, expressions, that were later a part of Chaplin’s characteristics.” (The Guardian) That alone, her role in the creation of one of the most recognizable characters in the world sets Mabel Normand on a plane no one else can touch.

Chaplin and Normand in 1921

Mabel Normand was 38 years old when she died of tuberculosis in 1930, coincidentally as the silent era ended. That is an age when many people are still figuring out what they want to do with their lives. Mabel had demons like most people, and was a complicated woman, like many. According to everyone who knew her, Mabel was big-hearted, trusting, energetic, opinionated, reckless, a prankster, and warm. More importantly, she accomplished an extraordinary amount in a life cut much too short. When those famous men paid tribute to Mabel Normand at her funeral, they were paying tribute to one who paved the way, the Queen of Silent Slapstick.

To end this modest tribute to a film pioneer, I quote popular director King Vidor whose words echoed those of movie audiences the world over in the teens and 1920s, “I fell in love with the movies the day I fell in love with Mabel Normand.”

circa 1926: Mabel Normand

Main references:

Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy (2017) by Steve Massa

Mabel: Hollywood’s First Don’t-Care Girl, the Life of Mabel Normand (1992) by Betty Harper Fussell

13 thoughts

  1. You said “Horace Greer, Mabel’s Chauffeur, shot and killed millionaire Courtland Dines”. In fact, Dines was injured but not killed. He died in 1955 in Denver.

  2. A very good, detailed overview. Better, in fact, than the one I did a few years back. One minor quibble: you call Normand “the first female slapstick director,” although Alice Guy was already directing some comedies for Gaumont early in the century that seem to me to qualify (see for example “The Drunken Mattress,” 1906). Guy was doing other work as well at the time, so she wasn’t perhaps a dedicated slapstick director, but she probably contributed a lot to Normand’s and even Sennett’s understanding of the genre.

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