Mabel Normand was a silent film superstar who broke box-office records, mentored Charlie Chaplin and… disappeared. We investigate the thrilling rise and dramatic fall of a lost Hollywood icon
Words by Tom Ellen
Exactly three months before the Armistice of Compiègne would bring an end to the First World War, police were called to the small town of Bayside, Queens, near Long Island.
It was 11 August 1918. The disturbance had nothing to do with the war, nor with the deadly ‘Spanish flu’ virus that was already creeping through the US. In fact, it was caused by a movie. The silent comedy Mickey had opened that afternoon in Bayside, and excited fans were soon jostling for position in a queue that snaked back three blocks. The cinema played the film on repeat until midnight, but the punters kept coming. Terrified of missing out, the crowd began pushing and shoving, and the cops were summoned to keep order.
It was a good indication of things to come. In an era when even the biggest films lasted no more than a year in theatres, Mickey eventually closed in 1922, having shifted 40.9 million tickets: a box-office record that would not be broken for nearly two decades. Cinema owners nicknamed it ‘the mortgage-lifter’. More incredibly, these unprecedented takings were collected during an international health scare. By the early 1920s, Spanish flu had claimed over half a million American lives, and fear of infection left restaurants, music halls and even churches empty. But still people flocked to see Mickey. A century before Spider-Man: No Way Home, here was proof that a deadly pandemic is no match for an unmissable movie.
The film’s enduring appeal was inarguably down to its star: 25-year-old actor, director, stuntwoman and studio head Mabel Normand. Playing the titular orphan character, Normand flipped gender norms, rejecting the damsel-in-distress leading-lady trope to embody a mischievous, goofy tomboy. Audiences lapped it up: Mickey hats, dresses and lantern slides sold by the truckload, and the film’s theme song shifted 500,000 copies in four days. A new adjective, ‘Mabelescent’, was coined to mean, “bubbly, vivacious, sparkling, in the manner of Mabel Normand”.
Critics were as bewitched as the public. “No creation in drama, fiction, screen, or song has caught the public fancy and been taken to the public heart as Mickey has,” gushed The Tattler. “She will go down in popular history!”
They were way off the mark there. Twelve years later, Normand was dead, her career in tatters following brushes with drink, drugs and murder. Today, her protégés and peers — Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy — remain household names, while Normand is barely spoken of outside silent-film academia.
The story of how Hollywood’s first female comedy star dwindled to a footnote is a strange and shocking one — even if Normand herself seems to have half-expected it. “People enjoy laughter,” she once told a reporter, “but they’re not grateful for it. They forget.”
How right she was.
Amabel Ethelreid Normand was born in New Brighton, Staten Island, to a working-class French-Irish family. According to an early biography of her long-time romantic and creative partner, Mack Sennett, the youthful Mabel was, “Five feet four inches tall… could swim, dive, ride, shoot and played only with boys. She was an arrant tomboy and a jokester.”
At 15, she dreamed of being an illustrator, and decided the best way in was to become an artist’s model. However, when friends from the modelling industry began drifting towards that exciting new medium — film — Normand eagerly followed suit. A photographer she knew put her forward as “the prettiest girl in New York”, and Brooklyn-based Vitagraph Studios signed her. But while Normand had the looks of a romantic lead, her spontaneity, wit and penchant for practical jokes made her perfect for comedy. Over a series of ‘one-reelers’ (15-minute short films), she developed a character called ‘Vitagraph Betty’: a roguish, cross-dressing prankster who was essentially a prototype for Mickey. Audiences delighted at Betty’s scrapes, and the franchise was a hit.
“From the start, she’s so comfortable with the camera,” Steve Massa, silent-film historian and author of the book Slapstick Divas, tells Empire. “Most silent-film actors had come from theatre, so they had to get used to the camera: learn to be more economic and not so ‘big’ in their performance. But Mabel knew the camera from modelling, and she had no stage training to unlearn. Where others were playing to the back row, she was sly, low-key, subtle — and very funny.”
Less low-key and subtle — but equally funny — was her reason for leaving Vitagraph. Every morning before shooting, Normand would endure carriage-loads of commuters gawping at her from the elevated-train tracks outside her dressing room. Like any self-respecting ‘jokester’, she expressed her dissatisfaction by mooning the passengers as they passed. When the railroad company complained, she stood firm, demanding: “What do those dirty dogs want to look in my window for anyway?!” Vitagraph took the question to be rhetorical, and sacked her.
But if Vitagraph couldn’t see Normand’s full potential, Mack Sennett definitely could. An ambitious director from Canada, Sennett was gobsmacked by Normand’s versatility. Here was someone that could play both bombshell and clown — often in the same movie. Throw in her bravery and physicality (she did all her own stunts, from cliff dives and soaring in biplanes to larking about with live bears), and Sennett was convinced this girl could be a superstar. The two became romantically involved, and when Sennett moved to California in 1912 to launch his own studio, Keystone, Normand went with him.
Today, Keystone Studios is best remembered for the Keystone Cops series — a cartoonish franchise featuring a bungling police force — but in the mid-1910s it was a training ground for silent comedy’s biggest names. Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd and many more cut their teeth on Sennett’s lot. But Normand was the leading light: the “sugar on the Keystone grapefruit”, as playbills dubbed her. Her popularity was such that, within months of setting up shop, Sennett was inserting her name into the film titles: Mabel’s Blunder, Mabel’s Stormy Love Affair, Mabel At The Wheel.
Slate film critic Dana Stevens — whose book on Buster Keaton (Camera Man) also examines Normand’s career — breaks down her unique appeal to Empire: “She’s certainly a physical comedian and she can do pratfalls, but her humour isn’t stunt and gag-based, like Chaplin’s or Keaton’s. It’s character comedy — Mabel does things in an unexpected way for the gender roles of the time. She’s fiercer, braver and funnier than you’d expect a pretty girl in petticoats to be.”
From the get-go, Keystone was a guerrilla operation. Sennett was an advocate of cost-cutting and spontaneity, so if word got out that a barn was on fire or a lake was being dredged somewhere in Los Angeles, he would dispatch a camera crew to shoot Normand howling before the flames or trudging through the mud, and they’d work a plot around it later. “At the start of the day, you wouldn’t necessarily know what movie you were making,” Stevens says.
“You made it up as you went along.” It was improvisational comedy on a grand scale, and Normand was usually behind the best ideas. As her Keystone protege Charlie Chaplin put it, “All we needed was a park bench, a bucket of whitewash and Mabel Normand.”
Sennett was well aware how vital Normand was, and in 1913 he placed an ad in the trade papers: “Mabel Normand, leading woman with Keystone, will hereafter direct every picture in which she appears.” Roles were more fluid in the silent era, and “director” certainly didn’t imply the levels of technical expertise it does today, but it was still a remarkable thing for a 21-year-old woman to be in control on both sides of the camera. “She was inventing a new way of being a movie star,” says Stevens. “She was so interested in all aspects of filmmaking that she went beyond being just this desirable, funny woman to become a creator of her own content, in a way that was only possible — especially for women — for a very brief period.”
When Chaplin arrived at Keystone in September 1913 — a veteran of stage comedy but still finding his feet in movies — Normand took him under her wing. She directed him in several capers and helped develop his iconic ‘Little Tramp’ persona, giving the character his first outing in Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914).
She was creating comedy history elsewhere, too. ‘Firsts’ are difficult to pinpoint in the silent era, since so many films are lost, but Normand is generally thought to be the originator of the custard-pie-in-face gag, and the first ever actor to break the fourth wall. So, not just no Chaplin without her: no Krusty The Clown or Ferris Bueller, either.
The comedic fourth-wall break — later requisitioned by everyone from Oliver Hardy to Tim from The Office — became Normand’s trademark, and goes some way to explaining her popularity. With one exasperated shrug or mischievous grin to camera, she made the viewer complicit in her antics. “Audiences felt like they knew her,” says Massa. “She became known as ‘Our Mabel’.”
By the time Mickey was bulldozing the box office, Normand was a bona fide megastar. Sennett had bumped her from director to studio head — opening the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company in 1916 — and she was a staple of the Hollywood gossip columns, where her hard-partying antics were legend (during one lunch, she made the excellent order of “nine martinis and a baked Alaska”).
At the decade’s end, all seemed rosy: the Great War was over and Normand was slapstick’s hottest property. But behind the scenes, the wheels were coming off. Drugs, illness and scandal were all set to turn America’s Queen Of Comedy into a very public pariah.
The first seeds of Mabel Normand’s downfall were sown one evening in September 1915.
Opinions differ on exactly what happened, but the general consensus is this: the night before she was due to marry Sennett, Normand caught him in bed with her close friend, the actress Mae Busch. Tempers understandably flared, and Normand suffered a serious head injury. How is unclear: varying reports have accused Busch of hurling a vase at her, Sennett of throwing her downstairs, and even Normand of attempting suicide. What is clear is that she severed all personal ties with Sennett from then on. “She didn’t even want to speak to him,” Massa tells Empire. “She let him produce her films, but romantically there was never anything again. He set up the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company partly to stop her leaving.”
It was a bold move — but unsuccessful. The two shot Mickey together in 1916 (her new studio’s only release), but Normand’s ongoing head trauma delayed its opening. By the time the film emerged, she had jumped ship to Goldwyn Pictures (later to become MGM). Massa notes that “her behaviour became more erratic after the head injury”, and her time at Goldwyn certainly bears that out. Wild drinking sessions meant she frequently arrived late on set, and when a producer reprimanded her, Normand responded by smearing the man’s jacket with lipstick and telling his wife he’d been seen leaving a brothel.
Rumours of her cocaine use swirled around Hollywood, though it’s thought she may well have been prescribed the drug for pain relief. It was in 1921, though, that the real trouble started. That September saw Normand’s frequent co-star, ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, accused of the rape and manslaughter of actress Virginia Rappe. Though he was eventually acquitted, his films were banned — meaning some of Normand’s best work disappeared, too.
Five months later, a second scandal hit: the (still-unsolved) murder of William Desmond Taylor, a director friend of Normand’s, whom she’d visited at home an hour before his death. “There was never any thought that Mabel was involved in the killing,” says Massa. “Taylor was probably bumped off by drug [dealers]. But people were puzzled. They thought, ‘She’s such a good girl, how could she be caught up in this?”’ It was the height of prohibition, and the press dubbed Hollywood ‘Sin City’. And ‘Our Mabel’ — the cheeky, funny girl-next-door — was suddenly linked to its most prominent sinners.
A third crime — at which Normand was actually present — sounded the death knoll for her reputation. In 1924, her chauffeur shot and wounded an oil broker Normand had spent the day drinking with. The bizarre incident was leapt on by journalists, and US censor boards blacklisted her films.
Meanwhile, it was around this time that tuberculosis — the disease that would eventually kill her — started to take hold. Enfeebled by illness and stained by scandal, her career sputtered to a halt. By 1927 she’d made her last film. By 1930 she was gone, aged just 37. Chaplin, Sennett and Arbuckle were pallbearers at her funeral. In Hollywood, the era of sound film (‘talkies’) had begun, and Mabel Normand was already on her way to being forgotten.
The question is: why? Her untimely passing aside, how has such a pioneering figure fallen so completely off the radar? “Sexism is part of it,” Stevens says. “As Hollywood started to accrue money and power [in the mid-1910s], men began taking over the important roles.” Stevens cites a bust-up between Normand and Chaplin on 1914’s Mabel At The Wheel: the pair disagreed over a gag and Chaplin stormed off, supposedly humiliated at being out-ranked by a woman. Sennett — having received a call from Keystone financiers emphasising the Little Tramp’s value — sided with Chaplin. By the time Mabel At The Wheel came out, Sennett had assumed directing duties from Normand, and Chaplin had a deal to direct his own pictures. “Around 1916, Mabel stops directing and becomes just an actor,” says Stevens. “Maybe she thought it wasn’t worth it.”
Massa suggests another theory for her faded reputation: “In 1949, a critic called James Agee wrote a famous piece about silent comedy for Life magazine, which established the ‘Big Four’: Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon. He didn’t talk much about Mabel, which was unfortunate. She should be up there with them. She should be remembered.”
It’s hard to disagree — largely because, despite her vast influence, Normand has no modern-day equivalent. A strikingly glamorous comedy star who did her own death-defying stunts? Normand was essentially Rita Hayworth, Kristen Wiig and Tom Cruise rolled into one.
“I’ve risked life, limb and peace of mind in innumerable ways,” she once said. “And all to make people laugh.” It doesn’t need to have been in vain. Most of Normand’s surviving work is up on YouTube, just waiting to be rediscovered. Have a look sometime. You’re in for a wild, funny, truly ‘Mabelescent’ ride.
Empire, April 2023