Women’s History Month: Marvelous Mabel Normand

By Joan Amenn

“The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”

-Lao Tzu

There are many forgotten faces in Hollywood who once captivated audiences. Few were more groundbreaking than Mabel Normand who starred, directed and produced silent films when the medium was still experimenting with what it could do. So much of what she and her professional, sometime private, partner Mack Sennett accomplished has now become standard, even cliché in film comedy. That she did so much in so few years is as dizzying as the breakneck chase scenes they would become recognized for in one of their more successful film series.

mabel normand portrait

Mabel was born in Staten Island, New York in 1892 into a financially struggling family. She was quickly recognized for her beauty and became a model for artists which eventually brought her to the attention of Charles Dana Gibson. He was famous for his idealized illustrations of women which developed into early fashion icons. Mabel would become one of the faces of the “Gibson Girls” who appeared on magazine covers such as “Harper’s Weekly” and postcards. But she was destined for bigger and greater things in the new fad that was known as the “flickers,” silent motion pictures.

“There are many forgotten faces in Hollywood who once captivated audiences. Few were more groundbreaking than Mabel Normand who starred, directed and produced silent films when the medium was still experimenting with what it could do.”

At the beginning of the industry, film production was based on the East Coast of America. Although film studios clustered in the greater New York area, there were also studios in Jacksonville, Florida where the consistent sunshine was greatly appreciated. Mabel was encouraged to try out for roles and was soon working at the Biograph Company which was founded by William Kennedy Dickson, a former engineer at Thomas Edison’s laboratory. The list of Biograph’s employees in the first decade of the twentieth century reads like a Who’s Who of film legends. Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith, as well as Mabel all, got their start at the New York City studio but then, Biograph moved to California in 1910. Mabel didn’t join the exodus, but she did find a love and business partner in another Biograph alumnus, Mack Sennett.

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Raymond Hatton, Mabel Normand, and Ford Sterling in Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913)

Mabel opted to continue to work in New York for a company named Vitagraph where she learned the essentials of playing for laughs from an old stage comedian named John Bunny. It wasn’t long before Mack Sennett returned to New York to convince Mabel to give Biograph another chance. A comedic duo of legend was born from these two recognizing in each other ambition and a love of mischief. Sennett and Normand soon departed New York for sunny California to build their own Keystone Studios. Even though Sennett raised the money for it, he considered Normand an equal partner and treated her so. Together, they would discover and launch the career of a film icon.

At the new Keystone Studios, Mabel started writing her own scripts and Sennett launched the Keystone Cops. Together they created the first chase scene on film and Mabel was the first to ever be on the receiving end of a flying custard cream pie. The Keystone Cops became a successful series of films, but the duo decided to do some talent searching for their productions. Eventually, they would start the careers of Gloria Swanson, Harold Lloyd and Roscoe “Fatty Arbuckle, who would become especially close friends with Mabel. None of these would have the spectacular success as their discovery from England, Charlie Chaplin.

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Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle and Mabel Normand in Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916)

Although Chaplin is famous for the creative control he insisted on over his films, Mabel actually directed him when debuted in the Keystone Cops. The first appearance of Chaplin’s famous alter ego, the Little Tramp, appeared opposite Mabel in “Mabel’s Strange Predicament” at Keystone. They would go on to team up in more films including the first American feature-length comedy, “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” (1914) directed by Mack Sennett.

By 1915, the relationship between Sennett and Normand had soured and she left the studio briefly only to return to open her own production company with a separate studio in her name under Keystone in 1916. Mabel Normand Studio’s first feature, “Mickey” (1918) was a huge success and even spun off a hit song published in sheet music. But Mack and Mabel were not to be and by 1918 Normand left Keystone to sign a contract with Samuel Goldwyn. Even though she was now making more money and even had a brief romance with Goldwyn, Mabel’s life began to unravel. She started showing symptoms of the tuberculosis that would eventually kill her which affected her ability to work and her appearance on screen.

mabel normand
Mabel Normand, JOAN OF PLATTSBURG, Goldwyn, 1918, **I.V.

In 1922, her friend director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered and she was the last to see him alive. Although she was not accused of any wrongdoing by the police, the newspapers dragged her reputation through the mud. She was devastated and between her health and her emotional state, stopped working for a time. Mack Sennett stepped in to the rescue and together they made the feature, “The Extra Girl” (1923). It did well but by this time Mabel was done with the film business. She made a few short films with Hal Roach, but her health was failing. She died in 1930 at only thirty-seven years old. Mack Sennett mourned for her for the rest of his life.

Many of Mabel Normand’s films no longer exist but there are still some to enjoy available on the Internet. This link is to a very well done site that was created with the blessing of Normand’s great-nephew and has a catalogue of her films: http://themabelnormand.com/

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