Mabel Normand (not Mabel Norand) was a unique actress in early silent films. She was born (we think) on Staten Island, NY in 1892. A strange girl, who once said that her schoolday friends never understood her. Although on the surface very ameniable and chatty, Mabel seems to have been (like Charlie Chaplin) somewhat dark and introverted, but would, on occassions burst forth from her shell and perform crazy antics and utter endless (sometimes hurtful) witticisms.She was, of course, highly emotional. When not diving into the Hudson river (she was a champion diver) or playing the piano, Mabel would take the ferry to Manhatten, and watch the people of The East Side going about their business (Staten Island was very dull). At age 14, the gorgeous Mabel got various modelling jobs in Manhatten, and even became a celebrated Gibson Girl. Later she heard there was plenty of money to be made in films, and in 1911 wandered down to The Biograph Studios. Mary Pickford saw her arrive, and informed D.W. Griffith, the Great Director, that a stunning dark-haired beauty with big eyes and 2 inch eyelashes was in the studio. Griffith was incredulous aboutthe eyelashes, but immediately engaged her as a page in a scene involving a queen's entrance. Unfortunately, Mabel arrived back home at 3 a.m. and was forbidden by her mother to go back to films. However, a certain extra called Mack Sennett had seen her at the studio, and when he ran into Mabel on 5th Avenue a few weeks later, he persuaded her to return to Biograph. 'One day I'm going to be a director of funny pictures, and I'll put you in them', quoth the coming King of Comedy.
After a couple of months, the studio moved off for the winter to sunny California taking most of the company, including Sennett with it. Mabel, who loved to ridicule Griffith and lead actresses astray, was left behind and went off to Vitagraph, where she appeared with comedians John Bunny and Flora Finch. Later, Sennett again persuaded Mabel to return to Biograph. Griffith used Mabel chiefly in tragedies, where she outshone all the other actresses of the day. Eventually, Sennett was made comedy unit director, and Griffith didn't argue when he asked that the irreverent Mabel be put in his charge. Sennett had begun his Svengali influence on the gullible Miss Normand. In that same year, Mack procured a directing job with a new company, Keystone. He quickly purloined Mabel, and after a couple of films in N.Y., moved the company to L.A. A romance between Mack and Mabel had developed, and they became engaged. This was always a strange affair, which is difficult to understand, especially as it seems Mack was gay. Could it be that Mack was afraid of infringing the Mann Act, under which a person could be charged with transporting an underage female across state lines for 'immoral purposes'? In those days films could be seen as immoral, and the engagement might have squared things with Mabel's parents,at least.
Yes, Mabel was a unique actress, in that she could combine tragedy with comedy, and move seamlessly between the two. Mack utilised these features in a way that no other other producer could manage before or after. He wrote stories that required ultra-quick swiches between facial expressions and moods, something that no other actress could accomplish. Mabel was all emotion. However, she could never carry straight dramatics, as she could not look serious, and when she tried, she pouted. Keystone audiences, nonetheless, loved the Mabel pout, as much as they loved her golfball eyes,fluttery eyelashes and hyperactve movements ('Jittery as a water-bug', Mack said). Straight dramatics are the chief requirement of many storyline features, and when Mabel left Keystone in 1916 her films were lacklustre compared with Sennett's madcap creations. Goldwyn Studios tried its best,but although the stories were meant specifically for Mabel, they never really worked. Compare with Mabel's last Keystone film 'Mickey' which was just about Mabel's greatest picture, and grossed $18million (a record at the time, and the one that made D.W. Griffith want to boil himself in oil).
Inevitibly, Mabel ended up back with Sennett, who, in 1921, wrote a story specifically for the oldtime Keystone Girl (the Keystone title had by then been relinquished by Sennett). The film was 'MollyO' and was almost as successful as 'Mickey'. Mabel's next Sennett creation was 'Suzanna', a story of old California, utilising the spirit of the Keystone Girl, and another success. Unfortunately, during filming, a disaster occurred - director W.D. Taylor was shot and murdered, and Mabel was the last person to seem him alive. All hell broke loose, and Mabel was accosted by police as she went to leave home in her Mexican Suzanna costume. Mabel was the only acquaintance of Taylor to appear on the witness stand at Taylor's inquest. She was totally unsuited to public appearances (she would often grab someone's hand or clutch at their clothing when onstage) and was criticised by newspapers for being jittery and awkward while giving evidence. 'The 'Jazz Babe' was obviously guilty' they said. It should be noted that Fatty Arbuckle's 'murder' trial had occurred at around this time. In any event, 'Suzanna' went on to critical acclaim, and was a complete success.
Depressed and angry, Mabel left the U.S. for Europe, where she met with the high and mighty of royalty and the literary world. She also revisited the slums, by going to London's East End and Limehouse. Sennett claimed he tried to speak with Mabel in Europe about returning to work, but failed. No one knows what really happened at this time, but it seems Sennett started a succession of actresses, including Phyllis Haver, in a feature film called The Extra Girl, around the time Mabel returned to New York. Whether Sennett decided to engage Mabel or whether Mabel demanded the part is unknown, but Mack did fire Phyllis, and hire Mabel. It has been said that Phyllis was Mack's girlfriend, and, indeed, two weeks after Mack died, she comitted suicide. Coincidence? Unfortunately, bad luck reared its head again, as Extra Girl was nearing completion - Mabel's chauffer shot oil tycoon Courtland Dines with her gun, and in the presence of Mabel. Mabel was again in the spotlight, At the chauffer's trial, Mabel was once more in the witness box. Her performance was again criticised in the press, especially as she laid on an aristocratic English accent and made 'French' hand gestures.The trial eventually collapsed, as Dines refused to press charges on the chauffer, a man named Kelly. Unfortunately, his real name was Greer, and he was an escapee from the chain gang! Mabel told Mack she was all washed up, but completed the film, and then went on the stage. Extra Girl is thought by many to be Mabel's greatest ever picture.
Due to Mabel's soft voice and the low quality of the play, Mabel's only attempt at theatricals failed miserably. The world's greatest comedienne went into early retirement, and Mack scrapped the next Mabel film, Mary Ann. The Jazz Babe became somewhat reclusive and morose, but did buy her first Beverley Hills mansion. Salvation came in 1926 when her many friends, including Mary Pickford, pleaded with Hal Roach to sign her to his comedy studio. Mabel made several pictures at the company that spawned Laurel and Hardy, and these were mostly good though not great. One picture does stand out, though, and that is The Nickel-Hoppers. This was directed by F. Richard Jones, also the director of The Extra Girl, Suzanna, Molly O, and Mickey. Jones was a great support to Mabel,and she was often seen walking around the studios holding his hand. Hal Roach, however, detested her vugarity and rudeness, as well as her irreverence towards him.
By 1927 Mabel was truly washed up, due to increasing health issues, that later proved fatal. She had, however, married her' Mickey' co-star Lew Cody in 1926, and he proved a great support to Mabel over rthe next 3 or so years, although they never lived together. Mabel died at 2.25 a.m. February 23rd 1930, aged 37, from tuberculosis, with close friend and nurse Julia Benson at her bedside. Her last words were 'Julia, please don't leave me'. News of her death spread like a heavy cloud through Hollywood - Charlie Chaplin was distraught, Roscoe Arbuckle went unusually quiet and walked out on a party, while Mack Sennett merely remarked 'This is indeed most regrettable'.