Mabel Normand: An Introductory Biography

By William Thomas Sherman

Known during her relatively brief reign and at the height of her popularity by such titles as “The Queen of Comedy” and the “Female Chaplin,” Mabel Normand was an actress and comedienne unique to movie history; most significantly because of the pivotal roles she played both in early film comedy’s development and in the founding of modern film celebrity, and the history of the silent film era in Hollywood can hardly be understood without making an effort to understand Mabel and her place in it. Although for a while she was among the most favorite and praised of film stars, in about the mid 1920’s that career took a pronounced downward turn due to unjustified and, to some extent, malicious scandal being leveled against her. So that it was not until a much later date, starting about the 1960’s, that film historians began taking and evaluating the role she played and her work more seriously. Even so, she has always had her very enthusiastic fans and admirers, even after scandal struck, and to this day she continues to inspire a special devotion in them special, if not entirely unique, for its lasting durability. Hollywood chronicler Adela Rogers St. Johns perhaps best expressed this kind of feeling she evoked, and in some still evokes, when in attempting to describe her she wrote “Not of this world.”

The majority of Mabel’s films were made when Hollywood was in its infancy and movies just dawning as a major form of entertainment, and she arrived on the scene at a time when the movies were, by trial and error, feeling their way into existence. Unlike stage performers up to that time, the new movie stars, because of the widespread distribution of film, obtained a level of public recognition and familiarity known to a relatively small few before then. As one of the screen’s first most recognizable screen stars, Mabel was also then one of the first and most extensively known of modern media celebrities. Further, she took on this new mantle with an independent mindedness and creative self-awareness relatively rare among her contemporaries. Indeed, when it came to bucking stiff convention and bypassing bland conformity, it would be no exaggeration to characterize her as one of Hollywood’s very first rebels – yet a rebel very much with a heart. And though internationally acknowledged as one of the highest touted of movie royalty, she made a point of using that prominence to identify and sympathize with ordinary and common people both in her work and in her well known charitable giving in private life.

As well as evincing on and off screen both a a non-conformist daring and a warm empathy toward others, Mabel was (or at least, when circumstances of the moment were not too trying, could be) a skillful actress and insightful depicter of character. True, later illness and misfortune understandably hindered her from realizing her greater potential. Yet in her relatively short span, she exhibited an impressively wide range of feeling and expression in her performances. Bob Hope once remarked of someone (Lucille Ball) that “to be a good comedienne, you have to be a good actress.” And as comedienne she ranks as one of the very best, even for the very competitive era in which she lived. Like Roscoe Arbuckle, her frequent co-star, were it not for scandal and other personal mishaps, she would rightly be included with Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd as one of the seminal talents of her generation. Her flair for comic invention and the depth of human insight she displayed compare favorably with the achievement of these other now more famous stars in these respects. Yet in terms of sheer funniness, she not only could match, but at times was even capable of surpassing all four – most especially during her days at Keystone and earlier.

According to the family as represented by grandnephew, Stephen Normand, Mabel Ethelreid Normand was born on November 9, 1892, in New Brighton, Staten Island, New York, the youngest of three surviving children. U.S. census records for 1900 and 1910, on the other hand and by mathematical implication based on age, give the birth year as 1893; while accounts published during her lifetime usually report her birth as November 10, with the year listed usually being 1894 or 1895, and the location variously as Boston, M.A.; Providence, R.I. and Atlanta, G.A. Although the specific birth date is perhaps subject to slight debate, there does not seem to have been any question that Staten Island is both the correct site of her birth and locale of her upbringing. The family originally resided on Tysen St. in New Brighton, Richmond Borough but afterward removed to Sands St. in Stapleton where Mabel passed most of her childhood. Her parents were Mary Drury Normand, of Irish-Catholic background, and Claude G. Normand, of French-Canadian extraction (himself hailing originally from Canada.) Claude, in addition to being a carpenter working from home, was an itinerant piano-player who served as a musician for small theaters and clubs when he could. Yet despite his talents, more often than not the family struggled to make ends meet. Of their children, only four survived childbirth: Ralph, Claude, Jr. (also Claude Drury), Gladys, and Mabel; with Ralph dying in his teens of tuberculosis.

Mabel was raised a Catholic and is known to have attended Public School No. 17, New Brighton. There was a movie house on Staten Island as early as 1894 that she presumably visited it. Otherwise, relatively little is really known about these earliest years, and most of that is scattered about in contemporary and posthumously published reminiscences and autobiographies.

After being employed for a time at the Butterick garment factory, in 1909 she took up modeling while having aspirations to be a musical and or pictorial artist. Arriving in the morning from Staten Island by way of the ferry, she would spend her day working on and off in various New York City artists and photographer studios. In 1924, she later recalled:

“Up to the time I left school there was nothing eventful or particularly interesting in my life. My mother lived on Staten Island and I attended school, the last few years, at North Westport, Mass., near Martha's Vineyard. Once a month I went home, in charge of a stewardess on the Fall River Line, but I stayed at school, during the summer, studying hard and trying to skip a class and get ahead faster. I was tremendously ambitious in those days. We had very little money and even my occasional trips home were a great expense.
“I wanted to finish as soon as I could, so I could learn more about the things that particularly interested me. I was crazy about music and drawing. I wanted to be a big musician. And I've never really lost that desire. Even up to last year I used to practice six or seven hours a day at the piano, when I could possibly get the time to do so.
“But I didn't get ahead as fast as either my mother or myself hoped I would. Lack of money for proper instruction handicapped me, and when a friend of ours, who was also a friend of Hamilton King, the artist, suggested that I could earn money posing for him, mother finally agreed. I stopped school at Martha's Vineyard, came home to Staten Island and went to work for Mr. King, continuing my studies in drawing and music at night. This was when I was 14 years old. “I became a member of the Art Students’ League, where it is possible to get competent instruction at night at a nominal cost, and I spent all day posing, at first for Mr. King and then for other artists and illustrators.
“Most of the work I did was to pose for heads for magazine covers. And I didn't like it. I hated to stand still. I hated to be simply a means by which someone else was creating something. I wanted to do it myself, but I couldn't I had only the longing, without the ability.
“I received $1.50 in the morning and the same amount in the afternoon for posing. Thirty cents of that went for carfare and ferry fare and I had to spend a little money for lunch. Sometimes, however, I didn't get any lunch. I used my lunch hour instead to pose for a commercial photographer. Wearing a hat or a dress that he wanted to photograph, we models would stand around in front of the camera during the noon hour and he would sell the pictures to trade journals.”

Among the painters and illustrators she posed for were Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the Gibson girl, and James Montgomery Flagg, probably best remembered today for his Uncle Sam Wants You recruiting poster. As well, she stood or sat for many advertising photographers modeling various articles of clothing, while helping to sell everything from soap and necklaces to combs and shoes. In these different sessions, she learned how portray or enact various emotions, gestures, and poses; and which proved valuable preparation for her subsequent work in films.

Sometime in the autumn of 1910, in the wake of fellow model Alice Joyce’s going to work for the Kalem Film Company, and afterwards, as well, at the suggestion of Frank Lanning, a Biograph actor who sometimes modeled as Indians and the like for illustrators, she obtained a job as a bit player at D. W. Griffith’s American Mutoscope and Biograph film company (or Biograph for short) located at 11 East 14th Street in New York, and subsequently participated in small parts in one or two films. It was also at this time that she first made the acquaintance of Biograph actor and recently made director, Mack Sennett. However, when further employment at Biograph that season wasn't available because most of the company had gone West to film in California for the late winter and spring, she went and sought work at the “Commodore” J. Stuart Blackton’s Vitagraph Film Company situated in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.

At Vitagraph she co-starred in a series of comedies with John Bunny and later, in at least one film, Flora Finch. Along with the likes of Max Linder and Bert Williams, Bunny and Finch were among the first widely known film comedians, in addition as well (in their case) to being one of the movie's earliest “fatty and skinny” comedy team. As well as providing her with encouragement and a warm welcome, Mabel received from them instruction on how to act and appear in front of a film camera. Most notably they imparted to her the invaluable understanding that in films natural and understated expression were often more effective than the more loud and formalistic gesturing not infrequently encountered in stage acting of the day.

In most of her Vitagraph shorts, Mabel plays “Betty,” an essentially well behaved, yet somewhat lively and mischievous, girl whose calculated pranks cause all sorts of vexation to Bunny’s bumbling, typically distracted and upset, stodgy codger. These are more refined comedies compared to the ludicrous, farce brand of film that would become Mabel’s stock and trade, and were favorably received. That Vitagraph cast Mabel as a comedienne reveals that it did not require Mack Sennett to first spot or attempt to make most of her talent in this respect, and almost immediately after hitting the screen she began to gain public interest as is shown in “letters to the editor” of that time.

However, not desiring to remain teamed with the aging Bunny (and who, incidentally, would die only a few years later in 1915) and, at the same time, on the continued entreaties of Mack Sennett, she left Vitagraph and returned to Biograph in the Fall of 1911. Sennett, an Irish-Canadian from Richmond, Quebec whose family had moved to Connecticut when he was young, had started out as an ironworker. Yet gifted with a sonorous bass, he had dreams of working in musical theater. His voice subsequently landed him a place in the chorus of stage shows and less respectable burlesque in New York City. Working in these part time jobs acquired for him a number of valuable theatre, and later film, contacts. From initially being employed as an extra at Biograph, he proceeded to work there as an actor, then as sometime-scenario writer, and finally director, sometimes employed in the capacity of all three.

Although she was given substantial parts in several of his one-reelers, Griffith was in no hurry to employ Mabel regularly. One of the reasons for this is that her tendency to be more joking than was normal for his players ill suited the poetic and more serious sorts of films he was interested in producing. Evidently also, since she was popular with his other actresses, he felt that her more carefree disposition might have an undesirable influence on them if he gave her too much prominence as a player. So that by downplaying Mabel, Griffith, it might with reason be said, was prudently suppressing a potential distracting influence on his female players. Meanwhile, Sennett, in the background, and more disposed to comedy, was forming plans of his own to make expanded use of her talents and abilities.

Even at early on as this, Mabel was thought well of and even looked up to by a number of aspiring actresses just entering the business. Griffith's first wife, Linda Arvidson, in her personal history, When the Movies Were Young, tells of two such -- 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.”

While then he had good reason to discourage her from becoming a role model (if not an actual rival to his own influence of his female company members), Griffith had little, if anything, to complain of when it came to her effectiveness as a dramatic actress, and her Biograph films The Squaw's Love, The Mender of Nets, and The Eternal Mother, all of which Griffith directed himself, are miniature masterpieces for which she shares much of the credit. So much so that some audiences took it for granted that she was one of Biograph’s leading players even though she was at yet only an apprentice and budding actress just learning the trade. Many of the mannerisms and the technique she first utilized she acquired under Griffith’s tutelage and direction. Indeed, it was out of this Biograph training that there soon bloomed forth nuances in gesture and expression which before long gradually became her own. Whether as a love smitten Indian maid sabotaging enemy canoes; or the other woman taking responsibility for her guilt; or a dying mother leaving her child, her expressions and emoting, while occasionally heightened with conventional stage mannerisms, are, nevertheless, moving and credible. She sincerely feels what she is doing, and in a manner relatively free of artifice and affectation, and will slide and glide from one emotion to another with ease and in attuned complement to her fellow players, who seem not a little energized by her presence. In this way an astonishing amount of feeling is extracted from the most fleeting of moments. Yet as somber and serious as she could be, there is sometimes this bubbly warmth and good humor about her that she seems to have difficulty suppressing.

Added to this were her athleticism and swimming abilities and which found their way into many of her films, beginning with those made at Biograph. In The Squaw’s Love, for instance, she portrays an Indian maid who, in an intrepid act of desperation endangers her life to save her paramour, an Indian brave. Besides swimming in a cold, rushing stream, the role required her to engage in a hand-to-hand struggle and then be thrown off a steep cliff into the water below. The filming of that particular scene, by the way, is one of the very first times ever that multiple cameras were used on a single sequence. As would often later be the case, no double was used, and she shows herself given to boldness even to the point of risking serious physical injury.

In January 1912, Griffith took the main Biograph company, including Mabel, to Los Angeles for filming where the company would remain, as was usual for such trips, up until about June or July (arriving back in New York by or before the end of the latter month.) Immediately after filming The Mender of Nets (in mid January), Mabel was transferred to the newly created Biograph comedy unit headed by Sennett. The latter by this time, in addition to being a full-time director, was now her chum and sweetheart. When one considers the prominent role she subsequently played as Keystone’s main star attraction until Arbuckle and Chaplin came along, there is little doubt that the idea for the Biograph comedy unit came from Sennett but who built the idea around the conception Mabel’s being the comedies’ star attraction – which she in fact was. That all of her male co-players of that early time, such as Sennett, Fred Mace and Ford Sterling, were, by comparison, less frequently mentioned in film promotion and reviews further confirms this. The Biograph and later Keystone comedies therefore, and in a very importance sense, could only have been possible with Mabel. It might be argued that Sennett could conceivably have used another pretty girl in the headline capacity in her place had she not been somehow available for him. While not entirely implausible, the difference as it was is that Mabel possessed an initiative and sense of audacity and adventure essential to Keystone’s development. And in taking on very risky stunts – not least of which taking on the role of centerpiece for a fledgling film comedy enterprise -- she became a decisive factor in setting the tone for and maintaining the impetus of the harum-scarum type of action sequences that later burgeoned in the twenties. Although Sennett could and did pressure her in the direction of thrills and daring, he would otherwise, to say the least, have had a daunting challenge in finding someone else to carry out that primary vision as diligently and enthusiastically as Mabel proved she could.

Sennett’s Biograph comedies, in their more fresh and simple quality, today sometimes make better viewing than many of the Keystone films. In part, this is may be attributed to Griffith’s more staid and humanizing influence that in some ways can be seen as tempering both Sennett and Mabel’s boisterous and frolicking natures. One of these Biograph comedies, A Dash Through the Clouds, has Mabel aloft in an aeroplane; off to rescue her chewing-gum peddling boyfriend, played by Fred Mace, from some incensed natives hailing from the “Mexican quarter.” Although the close ups were done on the ground, in the long-shots she is seen actually taking to the skies in a Curtiss-Pusher aircraft, flying over a rural hinterland in what is now part of urban Los Angeles. A funny, albeit brief, moment comes at the end of the reel where, with matter-of-fact aplomb, Mabel snubs her cowardly beau after having retrieved him from the irate natives. Waving her hand and tossing her nose up in the air, she leaves him to take off into the skies with her new boyfriend, the aviator. What is of particular note is Mabel's making amusing and giving character to an otherwise tenuous comic situation by means of a coquettish mannerism that reveals both her antic feistiness and affectionate warmth.

Other comedies she made for Biograph in 1912 and which stand out from among the rest are The Diving Girl; Hot Stuff; Oh, Those Eyes; The Brave Hunter; The Fickle Spaniard; Tomboy Bessie; and Katchem Kate.

Kalton C. Lahue, in his Kops and Custards makes the observation: “(Mabel’s) success was in the fact that unlike other comediennes of the time, she did not strain for effects. They came naturally by an infinite number of tiny shifting facial expressions that more than adequately conveyed what she was trying to tell her audiences. In this respect, her bubbling personality dominated her on-screen performance.” Being usually better than the material she had to work with, and of imaginatively improving on such with improvisation and an inborn comedic flair are some of what made Mabel so successful on screen, and we see this method and approach forming itself very early on.

The Keystone Comedies

While there are conflicting versions respecting how the Keystone Film Company got started, it exceeds our purpose to adjudicate between them here. Suffice to say that starting near the end of 1911, and probably before going West for January-June shooting with Biograph, Sennett made arrangements which were finalized in April 19l2 to form it in cooperation with Adam Kessel and Charles Baumann of the already well established New York Motion Picture Company – and who, in effect, became his bosses. It was then sometime in late June or late July that Keystone was formally outfitted and brought together, with filming starting that summer in New York. Then in August, Keystone’s troupe, at that time consisting of Sennett, Henry Lehrman, Ford Sterling, and Mabel, went to Los Angeles and took charge of the old Bison film facility there. Others of Griffith’s actors, including Fred Mace and Del Henderson also and subsequently moved over from Biograph to be employed at Keystone.

Somewhere beforehand, Sennett had managed to convince Mabel to relinquish her reliable and steady job at Biograph to come work for his nascent company. He later ascribed this impracticality and seeming rashness on her part to naiveté. Yet a desire for more freedom and autonomy, not to mention an already comfortable working relationship with him, was presumably a factor as well.

Griffith himself, while far from being elated over Sennett’s prospective idea of comedy for the masses (and, as well, probably not too pleased at seeing so many players leaving Biograph more or less all at once) was, nonetheless, ostensibly amicable and gentlemanly about their departure; no doubt recognizing that Sennett and company were an ambitious force in motion that simply could not be held back. And although usually glossed over by film historians, Griffith commendable forbearance and Sennett’s enterprising attitude should perhaps be seen as one of Hollywood’s finer moments; for how awkward or souring might things have turned out had Griffith forced Sennett and the rest to leave under the cloud of his disapproval. Sennett owed Griffith a great deal, but we never hear of the latter ever taking credit or making mention of the fact.

For Sennett, the Keystone films were first and foremost moneymakers. Unlike Griffith who had hailed from the legitimate theater, he had practically no interest in creating a meaningful artistic vision. In fact, most all of the innovative ideas attributed to him, such as the gag surrounding a group of bumbling cops, could be seen in comedies of European film-makers prior to Keystone's inception. The extraordinarily influential Bathing Beauties were unique to Keystone. But even that idea, at least according to Fred Balshofer, came from Henry Lehrman, not Sennett. And, as noted earlier, most of what Sennett knew about film making itself came from working with Griffith; which shows in his films. Sennett’s prowess and somewhat serendipitous achievement rather lay in his collecting together these ideas and methods from others, and putting them together in one package. He was keen to innovation, if not so innovative himself, and perhaps more importantly, usually had a knack for spotting comic talent -- if not for keeping and developing it. For it was his players and gag creators, not so much his directors or cameramen, who made his films the more popular and better remembered comedies of that very early era. His biggest mistake ultimately was too often taking these talents for granted, and (so it is averred by contemporaries) unnecessarily hampering their individual creativity -- this, ostensibly, in the interest of company centralization and uniformity.

Under each title–heading of a factory short it explicitly read “farce-comedy,” and the Keystone comedies, it should be noted, are not technically comedies, but farces, where ludicrous replaces realistic, and preposterousness and exaggeration overshadow wry wit and subtlety. 4 to 6 or possibly more short films are what usually made up a theater program at this early time. However, when features started arriving, short films then became more like appetizers (or occasionally desserts) to the main course, and thus took on a subordinate status with the big stars gradually desiring to move over to features.

The camera work sets, and production values of the Keystone shorts are sometimes extraordinary for their crudeness and simplicity even for their time; especially when one considers what had been accomplished elsewhere in these areas by then. A good illustration of the latter is the comedies put out by the Lumière company in France, particularly those of Max Linder; which conspicuously influenced Sennett. Notwithstanding, Keystone's comedians were frequently able to rise above the restrictions of the material and props they had to work with (not to mention Sennett himself), and bring about exciting and mirth filled, if not so much laugh provoking, films. There is typically a certain merriment and natural jollity to them, and it is these qualities overall, rather than the humor outright, which better earns for them their lasting merit.

Not counting Mickey, it was in the better of the Biograph and Keystone shorts that Mabel's screen personality was most winsome and effulgent. That she was unencumbered by those personal misfortunes and health problems which would subsequently debilitate and ultimately destroy her was obviously one factor contributing to this. Yet, in addition, it was an especially ambitious and pioneering time. And with almost each new movie being filmed, some little history was being made; nor were the early filmmakers ignorant of or oblivious to this.

Among Mabel's very first starring Keystone vehicles, and one of the few earliest Keystones to survive, is a split-reeler entitled The Water Nymph, shot in Venice, California. It is a re-doing of the successful Diving Girl that she made at Biograph under Sennett's direction. Adorned in black tights, she is the premier Sennett bathing-beauty, “the beautiful diving Venus” (states a trade ad); a sort of kittenish version of the then buxom screen idol Annette Kellerman. Stunning some spectators as she takes dives off the boardwalk, Ford Sterling, as Sennett’s father is seen foolishly trying to flirt with her, much to Mack and Mabel’s bemusement. The film isn’t terribly much, but it and others of that time, inspired by and hearkening to the Lumière comedies, did set a standard of light, comic sensuality that introduced to the public that grouping of would-be sweethearts and antagonists which were to become a key ingredient to many a Keystone scenario.

From diving girl, Mabel went on to play damsels, sweethearts, tomboys, school teachers and debutantes. Yet not unlike the way Chaplin invented his tramp character, Keaton his “Stone Face,” and Lloyd his bespectacled “Harold,” she concocted and devised her own special persona “Mabel.” Now in order to avoid any misunderstanding, let's here note that “Mabel” with quotation marks refers to Mabel the comic creation, not necessarily Mabel Normand the person; though it's easy to see how the two might be confused for not infrequently they overlap.

“Mabel” was an irrepressible mad-cap who, in various films, rode fast horses bare-back, went up in hot-air balloons, was tied to train tracks, engaged in brick throwing fights with villains, got dragged by a rope out of a drained and muddy lake, and rescues her would be rescuers. While these kinds of action thrills were to be found in serials such as Ruth Roland’s, it was a bit different to be combining these with overt comedy. Initially, Mabel hesitated little in putting her own safety on the line for purposes of providing others a thrill or laugh. And, for a while at least, a good gag or thrill was worth the risk. But injuries from these stunts later on understandably jaded and quelled such enthusiasm.

Screen history’s first thrown pie-in-the-face is accredited by Sennett and other Keystone members, to Mabel, but, not surprisingly, the gag appears at least as early as the 1905 Ben Turpin film Mr. Flip (it is Turpin as a flirt who gets the pie in the face); so that the story of Mabel out of hand inventing it simply isn’t true. Minta Durfee, one of the Keystone actresses later recalled an incident in which Mabel “tossed” a blueberry pie at a prop man who had made a pass, and possibly it was on the basis of this incident that later attributions were originally made.

The earliest film in which pie throwing appears in a surviving film of Mabel’s is The Ragtime Band where two pies are thrown. Rather pointedly, one of those to “get it” is Mabel herself. This is very like her in that in this and other comic situations, she's just as capable of taking it as of dishing it out. Other 1913 comedies with her also of special note generally are The Bangville Police, The Ragtime Band, A Muddy Romance, Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life, A Strong Revenge, The Speed Kings, Mabel's New Hero and Zuzu the Band Leader.

Somewhat surprisingly to Sennett and company, who understandably were not so very sure and confident of their initial efforts, the Keystone films were quite popular and sold well; so much so that soon some of Sennett's players began insisting on augmented salaries. Not able to come to terms of his liking, veteran Fred Mace left the company in April 1913. Shortly afterward, Ford Sterling, Keystone’s then top male comic, was threatening to walk out to try and make it on his own; which he afterwards did. Both Mace and Sterling would afterward have grounds to regret their decisions; for both of their solo efforts ended in failure. Not only was this unfortunate for them, but it was also bad for Sennett since it encouraged in him the misguided notion that his stars could not make it successfully without him -- an attitude that, by constraining the company’s creativity, only inhibited Keystone's greater success.

It was amid this atmosphere of transition and employee dissatisfaction in late 1913 that it became necessary for Sennett to find and hire a replacement to make up for his impending loss of Mace and Sterling.

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