by Maria Ogborn
Silent film actress Mabel Normand was a woman of many firsts. The first woman to own her own studio and have her name in a film’s title; the first person to throw a custard-pie on screen; and one of the first Hollywood stars to not have a theatre or vaudeville background. In her short career she became an early film pioneer and helped to shape the film industry.
Born on 10th November 1892 in New York, Normand became a model at the age of 14, posing for artist Charles Dana Gibson, whose pen and ink drawings idealised beauty and femininity. She made her initial step into film at the age of 16, at Vitagraph Studios in New York – the most well-known film studio in the world at that time. In 1911, Mabel joined Biograph Studios, home to future stars Lionel Barrymore and Mary Pickford. Mabel starred in Her Awakening (1911) directed by D.W. Griffith and then in a short titled Tomboy Bessie (1912) in which she plays a young girl who is always getting herself into mischief. In the film she appears to make a direct connection to the audience, ‘breaking the fourth wall’ by looking down the camera, momentarily, to show her annoyance and to share her secret hiding places with the audience. If this is indeed what was attempting to be done, she was possibly the first Hollywood star to do so.
Her performance captured the imagination and heart of one of the pioneers of silent comedy, Mack Sennett, and they began a somewhat turbulent relationship. In 1911, they both relocated to Edendale, California. It was here she made her first film with her name in the title Mabel’s Lovers (1912) for Mutual Film. After the move to California, Sennett began the soon-to-be famous Keystone Studios. At Keystone, Normand spread her wings and became the Queen of Comedy. She became a brilliant slapstick performer, known for throwing herself about, and her talent enabled her to direct (and star in) her first film Mabel’s Stormy Love Affair in 1914. It was also here, at Keystone, that she impacted the life of a man, who would become one of the greatest comedians of all time: Charlie Chaplin.
In the autumn of 1913, Chaplin had arrived in America and signed for Keystone. The vaudeville performer was new to the film industry and it appears that he was struggling. Mabel Normand, despite being younger, took Chaplin under her wing and became his teacher, comedy mentor, and friend. She would go on to star alongside and direct Chaplin in many films, including Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914) in which Chaplin debuted ‘The Tramp’ – who has become one of the most recognisable characters in film history. In 1914, Chaplin and Normand starred in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, the first feature-length film ever made, running at around 70 minutes. This was to be Chaplin’s final film at Keystone.
Mabel now had a new leading man in Fatty Arbuckle, who she starred with, and directed, over the next few years. In 1916, Mabel became the first woman to own her own film company known as ‘the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company’. The studio only produced one film, Mikey, in 1918. It became the highest-grossing film of the year and is considered one of Mabel’s finest films. Shortly after, she abandoned the studio and moved to Goldwyn.
Unfortunately, success had brought with it the perils of fame. She got caught up in the scandal of Fatty Arbuckle, who was accused of murder (he was later acquitted). As well as this, there was another scandal caused by the murder of her other friend, director William Desmond Taylor, by her chauffeur. She was targeted by newspapers, who claimed she played a part in both deaths and that she was a dope addict. Sadly, Mabel’s career never recovered and, despite starring in a few Hal Roach comedies in the 1920s, it was clear that her career had come to an end.
In February 1930, Mabel died of tuberculosis after several years of illness. As a testament to her genius, D.W. Griffiths, Charlie Chaplin, Louis B Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn and Douglas Fairbanks were pallbearers at her funeral. Mabel made over 100 films in her career and in 2009 the National Film Registry added her film Mabel’s Blunder (1914) to their archives. She also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Mabel Normand is often overlooked, partly due to both scandal and her early death, but she was a true pioneer and proved to be a force in ‘the man’s game’ that was the early film industry. Shortly before her death she said ‘If I am lucky, I hope again to make the world laugh as I once did’ and for silent film fans, she has never stopped.
Chaplin, Charles (2003) ‘My Autobiography’
Lefler, Timothy Dean (2016) ‘Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap’
About the Author:
My name is Maria Ogborn and in 2020 completed a MA in Military History from the University of Birmingham. My other love is for silent and early film, especially the work of Charlie Chaplin and comedies of Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers. I have recently written an article for History Today Magazine and begun a blog focusing on military history. You can follow my rambling on Twitter!