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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
MABEL NORMAND

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1917 Mabel Normand Kromo Gravure Trading Card (rounded borders)1915 Mabel Norman Felt PennantIn an era that had the first ever movie stars, publicity, media and ad people were fond of coming up with defining characteristics for all of their favorite divas of the silent screen. Mabel Normand quickly became “The Queen of Comedy”, and for many years was considered the funniest woman working in the movies. In fact, many considered her the “male Charlie Chaplin” – considering Chaplin is still one of the most legendary comedians, this was not such a bad label to have! One has to wonder why Mabel is not as much of an enduring icon as Chaplin is; as with many of her peers, hers is a story that deserves to be told, and remembered.

Mabel Ethelreid Normand (according to most sources) came into this world on November 16, 1894 in Boston, Massachusetts, just one year before the movies made their first appearance in Paris. She spent her formative years learning in a convent in the small town of Westport, and may have never left this course her life was taking her on if her parents hadn’t decided to move to New York City. But they did, and Mabel, in her early teens, took to big city life like fish to water; it wasn’t long before she was itching to perform, to act. Then again, it may have been genetics: her parents were longtime performers in the vaudeville circuit, and Mabel grew up around outgoing, exhibitionist personalities.

In 1911, when Mabel was almost 17, she had her first chance to try out the newly popular medium of the movies; her first film was called “Saved From Herself” (of course, as with most of the great silent stars, her filmography is a little vague: some sources have Mabel beginning her career in 1910, with a film called “Indiscretions of Betty.”)  She was in the right place at the right time, as many of the emerging motion picture companies were trying to establish reputations; most of the real competitors were in New York, and all of them needed talent to support their endeavors. Biograph and Vitagraph studios, among the most successful at the time, discovered Mabel, and effectively jumpstarted her career in the performing arts.

While the studios were looking for great beauties, they were also keeping an eye out for great talent and/or potential. In Mabel, they found an instinctive knack for great comedic timing, and exploited this talent from the start. The same year she started acting in the movies, she made an astonishing 25 films: highlights include “A Tale of Two Cities”, “Piccola”, “Why He Gave Up”, “The Diving Girl”, and “How Betty Won the School.” Mabel was extremely busy making a film every couple of weeks, even though the films at that time weren’t quite as long as they are today. These early works were mostly one-reelers (a little over ten minutes long), but in an age when the movies were so young and when much experimentation was the order of the day, a lot of effort was required to make these films engaging. Mabel excelled at this task.

1916 Mabel Normand MJ Moriarty Playing CardThings were going really well for Mabel, but greater things were in store for her. As one of the best comediennes working in motion pictures, she soon caught the attention of Mack Sennett, the legendary comedian and director who would turn Mabel into a bonafide star. Alongside Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, Sennett ultimately went down in history as a maverick that helped define the first generation of cinematic comedy. At the time he met Mabel, however, he was just starting out as an actor, and recognized in the young ingénue a career soulmate. Luckily for both of them, soon-to-be world-famous director D.W. Griffith came along, snatched up Biograph, and moved the company to Los Angeles. All three of them were on the brink of unfathomable success, although they didn’t know it yet. Remember, the movies were just starting out – no-one knew quite how big they were about to get.

They should have. While Chaplin and Keaton might be the best remembered stars, Mabel was able to outshine them when she was at her best; she was unmatched for her comic time, dexterity and sheer abrasive humour. A slight eye movement or subtle facial expression might be enough to induce peals and peals of laughter. Her performances had depth, and were made up of layers of expression; but when it came down to it, she was plain old hilarious, the kind of funny that reaches you in the gut. In many ways, she remains unparalleled for these talents.

Mabel Normand as featured on the cover of the August-September 1974 issue of Films in Review

Like today, things moved quickly in the showbiz world. Just one year after moving to L.A., in 1912, Sennett decided to leave Biograph, and he took Mabel with him. With her under his tutelage, he created Keystone Studios, and made Mabel one of his A-list stars. That year, she acted in a staggering 50 films, including the classics “The Water Nymph”, “The Engagement Ring”, “The Tourists”, “Neighbors” and “A Midnight Elopement.” Mabel was as funny as they got, and this endeared her to audiences tremendously. Her characters were also highly adventurous, which provided some relief from the waifs and lovestruck women so often gracing the screen in those days (and today – some things never change!).

Mabel continued on her acting streak through 1913 and into 1914, when she made no less than 73 one-reeler short films. Perhaps she was burning herself out too quickly with her ambition and seemingly ceaseless energy: in 1915, she drastically cut her workload to only 20 films (try to imagine any of today’s stars making nearly that many films today!). Although she was slowing down, however, Mabel was working with all the right people and creating a legend out of herself, whether she knew it or not. In addition to working under Sennett’s brilliant direction, she also started working with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, one of the greatest funnymen of all time. Some of their comedies include “Fatty and Mabel’s Married Life,” “Fatty and Mabel Adrift”, and “Fatty’s Tintype Tangle” – all were unequivocally, wildly successful. The fact that their real names 1917 Mabel Normand Kromo Gravure Trading Cardappear in the films is a testament to just how popular these two stars were with audiences.

In 1918, Mabel made her first full-length feature film, “Mickey”, which would prove to be a seminal movie in her career. It not only catapulted her further into fame and validated her as the greatest working comedienne of the day, but it also did wonders for Sennett’s studio, which had been suffering financial difficulties. The iconic Samuel Goldwyn company took notice of Mabel after seeing “Mickey”, and signed her on for the then-fantastic price of $3,500 per week. But it seems they may have “discovered” her a little too late.

Mabel was enjoying every minute of her success – to the extreme.  In addition to being very generous, she was an infamous partier, and craved the life all-night extravaganzas and cocaine could provide her. Her career started to go downhill, although she didn’t realize it at first. Into the 1920s, Mabel continued to work, but not as much as before, and not with the same verve and enthusiasm she brought to her earlier efforts. Soon enough, she became embroiled in the infamous William Desmond Taylor murder scandal, and this was enough to tarnish her image completely in the eyes of a public not used to star scandals.

In 1921, Mabel made a film called “Molly O”, and then slowly started to retreat from the public eye. A few years later, she got tuberculosis, which was still a dangerous and sometimes life-threatening disease. Mabel didn’t die, but she was left weakened and uninspired. Her last film was 1927’s “One Hour Married”; she then all but disappeared from a world which had embraced her and her vitality with open arms. She died three years later, on February 23, 1930, in California. The movie idol and comedienne extraordinaire, who was once described as “not of this world,” was just 35 years old. She never had a chance to dabble in the talkies.

Her legacy can be best described by these words, by D.W. Griffith’s first wife, Linda Arvidson, who described the influence Mabel had on silent film stars Dorothy Gish and Gertie Bambrick: “They had an idol they would emulate and wanted to be alone where they could practice. The idol was Mabel Normand. Could they be like Mabel Normand, well, then they would be satisfied with life. So bright, so merry, so pretty; oh, could they just become like Mabel!...Yes, Mabel Normand was the most wonderful girl in the world, the most beautiful and the best sport. Others have thought of Mabel as these two youngsters did. Daring, reckless, and generous hearted to a fault, she was like a frisky colt that would take no bridle. The quiet and seemingly demure little thing is the one who generally gets away with things.”
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Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen each month in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.  Tammy invites you to write her at stonetamar@hotmail.com with any questions or comments on her column.

Other Mabel Normand Pages:

Denny Jackson's Mabel Normand Page -- One of Motion Pictures Earliest Actresses!
Mabel Normand Home Page -- Comprehensive web site dedicated to silent comedienne Mabel Normand.