Monday, July 4, 2011

Mabel Normand: Paying the Price

Eighth in a series about strong women in film. Strong women are independent, beautiful, sexy, feminine and just want everything in life that a man wants and believe that they have every right to have it!

Mabel Normand: A Breath of Spring
Being beautiful is not easy (or so I've heard), nor is being funny. Being funny, smart, beautiful and a woman, too? Those wonderful ladies who mange to pull it off surely belong among the rarefied company of angels. 

"Say anything you like, but don't say that I like to 'work.' That sounds like Mary Pickford, that prissy bitch. Just say that I like to pinch babies and twist their legs. And get drunk" - Mabel Normand to reporters.*

Before Carole Lombard, Judy Holliday and Lucille Ball, there was the talented, sassy and funny Mabel Normand. Mabel was the trailblazer who opened the door (and let in some fresh air) for all of the delightful ladies who followed. It is to her that they (and we) owe a debt for all of the female cinematic beauty and laughter that has come since. Unfortunately, trailblazers don't have those who have gone before them to lean on for advice and counsel. Movies were new in the early teens and even 20s and they were making it up as they went along. Mabel embodies all of the excitement, energy and joy of those early days. Sadly, the pitfalls were new and deep. Being free is not always easy.

Mabel was born Amabel Ethelreid Normand in 1892 in Staten Island, New York into poverty. Growing from tomboy into a beauty, she became an artist's model at age 16. Charles Dana Gibson, the creator of the "Gibson Girl," knew a beauty when he saw one and  the lovely young Mabel was one of his models. Mabel sat for a variety of artists during her teens, her lovely face gracing advertisements for all kinds of goods.
Mabel as a Gibson Model
In 1910 Mabel and fellow model Alice Joyce, decided to give the fledgling movie industry in New York City a try. Mabel landed first at Kalem, next at Biograph and ultimately at Vitagraph. In 1911 She returned to Biograph and D.W. Griffith at the urging of Mack Sennet. While not Griffith's biggest star, Mabel learned her craft and developed a reputation as a high-spirited, fun-loving and big-hearted girl. She is credited with being the  first person to throw a pie in film. Everyone loved Mabel.

Mack Sennett:
Mabel's Mr. Big
Mable's beauty, sense of fun and athleticism earned her a lot of time in from of Griffith's camera. But, the "Mr. Big" in Mabel's life was Mack Sennett, and when Mack, already in California with Griffith, decided to strike out on his own and form the Keystone Studios, Mabel was right at his side. While at Keystone Mabel was co-starred with a new fellow by the name of Charlie Chaplin (who she convinced Sennett to keep employed after a shaky start). She and Charlie made many short films together and, while during this period Charlie was not quite "Chaplinesque," Mabel is wonderfully natural and adorable, but always a strong and self-assured presence. At this time, Mabel was also directing a fair amount of her films, as well as starring in them and has the distinction of being one of the very few people to have directed Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin is reported to have had a brief romantic interest in Mabel, but she was much too strong and feisty a woman for Charlie. Well, you can't blame a guy for trying.
Mabel with Chaplin & Marie Dressler in "Tillie's Punctured Romance"
Mabel's biggest film with Chaplin was the feature-length hit "Tillie's Punctured Romance," also starring Marie Dressler.
Mabel was a fine swimmer and diver and  audiences
loved seeing her in action in her one-piece suit!
Mabel's most important co-star at Keystone was Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. The Fatty and Mabel comedies presented both at their most delightful and were tremendous hits with the public.
Roscoe & Mabel - so cute, so young, so funny
Even better things were to come. "Mickey," one of Mabel's greatest feature length hits was released in 1918 to an adoring public. Not only did they fall in love with "Mickey", but the title song was also popular. "Mickey" was the only film made by "The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company," a company set up by Sennett (probably to protect him from some convoluted business dealings at Keystone).
The world fell in love with Mabel as "Mickey"
Things were going swimmingly for Mabel at Keystone and her engagement with Sennett was announced, but the marriage never took place. It's alleged that Mabel caught Mack cheating (probably with Mae Busch) and it was all down hill from there. The actual break-up occurred in 1915, but they continued to work together. Sometime before "Mickey" was released to the public, a final break resulted in Mabel leaving Keystone and Sennett for Samuel Goldwyn.

From then on, things did not go well for Mabel. The time spent working for Goldwyn was not a happy one for Mabel. While Goldwyn presented Mabel in some very fine films, her personal life was falling apart. Goldwyn paid Mabel a much better salary than Sennett and she began spending that salary on drugs. On top of this, Goldwyn fell deeply in love with Mabel and pursued her relentlessly. While Mabel seemingly did not care for him, she did engage in an affair with the producer. The result was a stillborn child, another broken relationship and a further deterioration of her health.
Beautiful and Troubled Mabel Normand
At this point, Mabel's private troubles began to overshadow her professional life. While she did attempt to improve her mind and launched a determined self-improvement campaign, her well-known "in the wrong place at the wrong time" role in the William Desmond Taylor murder scandal in 1922 almost wrecked her career (along with that of Mary Miles Minter). While Mabel was never a real suspect, information about her drug addiction and her good friend Taylor's efforts to get her away from the drug pushers made the headlines that never seemed to go away. 

After the Taylor murder and the resulting bad publicity for Mabel, her films were banned in many states. Taylor's death and the 1921 Arbuckle scandal fueled the arguments of those who saw Hollywood as the sin capitol of the nation.

She returned to Sennett where she was given another opportunity to shine. As the little wardrobe girl who doesn't make it in the movies, she got to show her comedy skills in 1923's "The Extra Girl," as as she unknowingly leads a lion around the studio, thinking she has the studio dog on a leash.
Sennett had hoped things would get back on track again both professionally and personally with Mabel, but it was not to be.

In 1924, Mabel and her good friend, Chaplin leading lady Edna Purviance, were getting ready to attend a New Year's Eve party at the the home of their mutual friend, Courtland Dines. While it's not 100% clear what happened (there appeared to be a lot of drinking going on), what is known is that Mabel's chauffeur, Horace Greer, shot Dines with Mabel's pistol. Greer, an escapee from a chain gang, said he was defending Mabel's honor. Dines was only wounded, but Mabel's career was almost dead. Her films were again banned in many states.

The misfortunes of 1924 were not yet over. During the filming of "The Extra Girl," Mabel fell off a horse and broke her collarbone. While recuperating in the hospital she met a patient by the name of Norman Church. Mrs. Norman Church later claimed that Mabel and Church had an affair while together in the hospital! Mabel sued for libel and lost the case. Although Mabel proclaimed her innocence, I kind of hope that one is true (what a way to get healed!).

After her brief reunion with Sennett, she went to work for Hal Roach and continued to work from 1926 - 1927, all the while looking pale, worn and older than her age. Roach considered her "the wildest girl in Hollywood and the dirtiest girl you ever heard." By now, however, the jolly Mabel that audiences loved was gone. Stories of her drug addiction were rampant. Sadly, Mabel was not only addicted to drugs, she also suffered from tuberculosis.

Finally, Mabel's health could not withstand the pressures from within and without, and she passed away at age 37 on February 23, 1930 (managing to fit a marriage to actor Lew Cody in before her death). She was a grand gal who paid the price for an undisciplined life and suffered because she had no one to guide her through such uncharted waters. 
The pall bearers at her funeral included Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, L.B. Mayer, Sid Grauman, D.W. Griffith, Sennett and Goldwyn. Both Sennett and Goldwyn never forgot her.  Goldwyn remembered her generous spirit.  When his studio fell upon hard times, Mabel gave Goldwyn $50,000 in Liberty Bonds to help him through the crisis. Goldwyn also claims to have witnessed Mabel giving $1,000 to a "poor girl stricken with tuberculosis." For Goldwyn, who evidently never stopped caring for her, Mabel was "a creature of impulse." Sennett remained a bachelor. He later said, "I never married. There was only one girl"

Mabel Normand left behind a legacy of skill and joy that is as fresh today as it was 100 years ago. Cheers, Mabel!

For more information about Mabel and her friends, check out this handy page full of great links:

* by the way, Mabel and Mary Pickford were actually very good friends. This was just Mabel being Mabel.


Will said...

here we go... Thanks again for remembering Mabel. I think Mabel would have a good laugh knowing we are talking about her 80 years after her passing. I have done so much research on her I feel I know her. Just think of who her pallbearers were. Who could say that? She was loved by all who knew her. Onstage she could pull off comedy with the best and they were the best! It's sad that she left at a young age but I also feel it appropiate that silent film died about the same time. Thanks

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Bill. I think you're right - Mabel would get quite a laugh out of it (in between helping out all of her pals in heaven). I am sure she gets new fans (both here and in heaven) every day!

Robin@DecoratingTennisGirl said...

Very interesting post about Mabel. Always glad to learn more about her.

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Robin. She deserves as many roses as we can throw at her.

Diane said...

I didn't know much about Mabel. You always inform me about people that I would have loved to know. Thanks Flick Chick.

FlickChick said...

I would have loved to have known her, too. Everybody loved her, it seems.

Page said...

This was such a beautiful tribute to Normand. Of course my heart breaks every time I think about her wasted talents and then her career being cut short to her eventual tragic end of days. Very interesting info regarding her funding Griffith and others.

A uniquely gorgeous woman with a generous soul. Kept silent but not forgotten!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Page. It is a heartbreaking story, especially when you think of all of the joy she brought to people.

Jan Miner said...

You "had" me with that quote about Mary at the beginning. So funny! But oh my, what a tragic story. Very, very sad. Great article, Flick Chick!

FlickChick said...

Thank you. Mabel's tale is a sad one, but compelling.