Silents are Golden: Silent Superstars – The Marvelous Mabel Normand
If Charlie Chaplin is considered the king of slapstick, then Mabel Normand certainly is its queen. Much-loved by audiences in her day, everyone who knew and worked with Mabel also remembered her fondly, describing her as “wonderful, generous,” “lovable,” and “full of life.” Indeed, she seems to have been all of those things and more. Sadly, her life would be brief, but she managed to live it to the fullest.
Mabel was born in Staten Island, New York, in 1892, the daughter of carpenter Claude Normand and his wife Mary J. Drury. She was a mischievous, impulsive child, and also showed a talent for athletics, spending much time swimming at the Staten Island beaches and eventually earning medals. Other passions included music (her parents were ardent music lovers) and art. She was also a devoted Catholic, saying later in life: “I am a Catholic, but don’t hold that against the church.”
In 1906 the teenaged Mabel found a job in the mailroom for the sewing pattern company Butterick, hoping the extra income would help her parents. Being naturally pretty with dark curling hair and enormous eyes, she ended up working as a model instead, posing for long hours in fancy gowns and hats. One of the artists who captured her likeness was James Montgomery Flagg, famous today for his “I Want You!” Uncle Sam poster.
It was while posing for lantern slides that Mabel became interested in “moving pictures.” Her friend Alice Joyce, a fellow model, started getting small parts in films and invited Mabel to go with her to visit the Biograph studio. Mabel was introduced to director D.W. Griffith (who likely recognized the popular model) and he hired her as an extra for five dollars a day.
She would work at Biograph briefly, leave to act alongside comedian John Bunny at Vitagraph just as briefly, return to Biograph, and finally find her niche in Biograph’s comedy unit headed by the legendary Mack Sennett. This was the perfect fit for the sunny, high-energy Mabel, who had a definite flair for comedy. Her first starring short would be the split-reeler The Diving Girl (1911), capitalizing on her attractiveness and swimming skills.
Sennett’s Biograph comedies were so successful that he decided to take over the old Bison studio in Los Angeles and start his own studio, Keystone. Mabel was one of his biggest talents and would be featured in one of Keystone’s very first films: The Water Nymph (1912).
Over the next few years Keystone became wildly popular, and so did Mabel. She starred in dozens of slapstick-infused shorts alongside fellow comedians Ford Sterling, Fred Mace, and Roscoe Arbuckle, to name a few. She and Arbuckle had a wonderful onscreen rapport and would star in a number of “Fatty and Mabel” shorts.
She and Sennett also began seeing each other – one of the more well-known Hollywoodland romances – and in 1915 the two dynamic personalities became engaged.
But everything wasn’t sunshine and roses. Mabel contracted tuberculosis around 1914, a widespread disease at the time. The illness would plague her on and off throughout the years. Rumors have long circulated that Mabel used drugs, or was even a cocaine addict. If she was addicted to cocaine, it’s been speculated that it was originally prescribed by a doctor treating her tuberculosis, since it was thought to ease bad coughs. (At the time, even heroin was prescribed for some ailments.)
Mabel’s romance with Sennett came to an abrupt end when –as the story goes – she caught him in a hotel with actress Mae Busch. Friends claimed Mae threw a vase at her, causing a bad head injury that took weeks to recover from. In any case, Mabel did indeed suffer some sort of significant injury (the studio claimed she fell) and did break off her engagement with Sennett. Eventually, they would continue working together (Sennett even allowed her to have her own separate studio), but Mabel wouldn’t allow the romance to be rekindled.
By the end of the 1910s, comedy features were in vogue, and Mabel would star in Mickey (1918), which became a smash hit (in spite of the Spanish flu pandemic). Now working for Samuel Goldwyn, she would star in Peck’s Bad Girl (1918), Sis Hopkins (1919), and a number of other features before returning to Sennett for classics like The Extra Girl (1923). By now the public was using a new word: “Mabelescent,” meaning “sparkling and vivacious.” Mabel was making thousands of dollars a week and spent it lavishly, but gave it away lavishly, too. Decidedly unpredictable, she was once known to tip a chef a hundred dollars for a pie.
Adding to her ongoing troubles with tuberculosis were two major 1920s scandals. Director William Desmond Taylor, a friend of Mabel’s, was shot and killed under mysterious circumstances that to this day haven’t been explained, and Mabel, unfortunately, was the last person known to see him alive. Later, another scandal erupted when her chauffeur shot Courtland Dines, actress Edna Purviance’s fiancé, in a bizarre misunderstanding. In both cases, Mabel was innocent of any wrongdoing, but the court trials and gossip took a toll on her career. Not until 1926 would she appear on screen again, this time in a series of Hal Roach shorts.
Also in 1926, Mabel surprised everyone by marrying actor Lew Cody. She and Lew (a witty man and in-demand public speaker) had been good friends and apparently staged a joke wedding at a party. Warming to the idea of marrying for real, they decided to make it official.
While Mabel and Lew’s marriage was shaky at first, they became closer over the next few years – and especially once Mabel’s health began to fail. Tuberculosis finally began to claim her life, and in those final months of suffering Lew would go above and beyond to devote himself to her care. In 1930 she passed away, at age 37.
The girl who “made millions laugh” was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles. And while she was gone far too soon, nearly a century later Mabel Normand is still legendary as one of the great names of silent comedy.
Both Timothy Dean Lefler’s biography Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap and Brent Walker’s mighty book Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory were useful sources for this post. I recommend giving them a read!
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.