MABEL NORMAND | Silent-film star deserved to be heard

Last Updated: June 26, 2023By Tags:

This year the academy award for best picture was awarded to “The Artist,” an irony-free throwback to a past era. 2012 also marks the one-hundredth anniversary of Keystone Film, the studio which many believe epitomized silent film.

In honor of this anniversary Turner Classic Movies has plans in September to air much of the films which not only helped define this genre but also screen comedy in general. Coinciding with this celebration, the Library of Congress will be hosting their own event with the screening of the films of the most influential person at Keystone, and perhaps all of silent film; it’s not Charlie Chaplin, nor Mack Sennett or Fatty Arbuckle but Mabel Normand, a personality of entertainment movie history who has tended to be overlooked. Normand was, long before Lucille Ball, Hollywood’s first comedienne as well as its first female screenwriter, producer and director.

Why have you, likely, never heard of her? For starters, hers was a short life which was over before the arrival of talkies (she died at 37); what’s more, yellow journalism exaggerated her involvement in various scandals. Finally, some of the aforementioned men in her life, who outlived her by three or four decades, omitted her contributions when telling their own stories, maybe due to personal conceit or to the fact that she was a woman. Whatever the reasons, if you don’t know who Normand was, you can discover her history thanks to Turner Classic Movies, the Library of Congress and the various public screenings and upcoming projects organized around this one-of-a-kind figure of American cinema.

Normand’s film career started out humbly. As a former artist’s model who was in Coca-Cola adverts, Normand’s comely face was a shoo-in for the screen, her large brown eyes demanding attention. It’s no surprise that D.W. Griffith hired her as an extra, which quickly led to bigger parts. Those were mostly of a comedic nature, which helped cut a path to up-and-coming director Mack Sennett. As his muse Normand helped Sennett literally create comedy, including standard cracks like pratfalls, car chases and the still-used pie-in-the face gag which she, in an attempt to come up with compelling on-screen shenanigans, improvised off-camera during takes. Whatever Normand did, it worked and Keystone soon became hugely successful, giving her leeway to explore other creative endeavors. As filmmaker she would go on to write scripts, direct shorts and even produce feature lengths. As actress she would eventually move into romantic parts and take on serious leading roles, proving she could be convincing as a dramatic actress, too. Unbeknownst to her, Normand, in a Forrest Gumpesque way, was shaping comedy and cinema for the future generation.

Turner Classic Movies, with the help of film historian and preservationist Paul Gierucki, has put together an extensive panel of restored and remastered prints that give us the best of Normand and Keystone Studio.

The program begins with 1912 titles like “The Water Nymph,” in which Mabel appears in her familiar one-piece tight, black bathing suit, considered racy at the time, and which was perhaps a prototype of Sennett’s future Bathing Beauties. In it Mabel not only gives us a taste of her knack for comedy but also of her athletic ability as diver and swimmer, not to mention her combining sex and comedy decades before Marilyn Monroe did.

Barney Oldfield’s “Race for Life” (1913) features Mabel with her on- and off-screen lover Mack Sennett who rushes to save his Queen of Clowns from an approaching locomotive after Mabel’s damsel in distress gets tied to the tracks. “Mabel’s Dramatic Career” (same year) will both be aired on the Turner network and screened at the Library of Congress. In one of the earliest takes of Hollywood on film Mabel portrays a country girl who makes it in the movies, causing her suitor, also played by Sennett, anguished jealousy as he watches her kiss other men on screen.

Also present in the cast is a rotund comedian who would set the standards for all other fat comics. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle came to Keystone as one of the legendary Kops named after the studio. Yet he was fired from the force after appearing with Normand, rising to not only become a bankable co-star—making him and Mabel the first-ever successful comedy team—but also earning leading-man status.

As some have observed, if the beauty and sweetness of Normand could accept him, so could other women. Turner highlights this obvious chemistry with “Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition,” in which the couple unintentially causes mayhem at the festivities, “He Did and He Didn’t,” a comedy of mistaken identity, and the classic “Fatty and Mabel Adrift,” in which the happy newlyweds’ cottage is cast upon the ocean. By co-starring with Mabel, Arbuckle’s career became as big as his girth and he later started his own studio, eventually hiring a young comedian named Buster Keaton. One could argue that without Mabel there would be no Arbuckle, and without Arbuckle no Keaton and so on, all the way until today’s kings of comedy.

Arbuckle’s would not be the only career molded by Mabel Normand.

By 1914 an interesting historical event was about to transpire. Mabel, in an era in which women weren’t allowed to vote, was to begin directing. The Library of Congress has recognized this accomplishment by not only naming one of Mabel’s films, “Mabel’s Blunder,” to their national registry, but also by including Normand’s “Won in Closet” as part of their September screening. In front of the camera for this film, Normand showed off her penchant for screwball comedy long before the likes of Jean Harlow and Carol Lombard ever got close to the punch bowl. Behind the camera, Normand showed the stylistic humor of a Nora Ephron, or a Penny Marshall. Of course, the most significant aspect of Normand’s directing probably came once she offered to work with a young Englishman whom Mack Sennett dismissed as just another theater performer: Charles Chaplin. Like Arbuckle he’d been brought on board at Normand’s insistence as another Keystone Kop. She saw something in him, however, that Sennett and the other Keystone directors hadn’t had the foresight to notice. Chaplin’s first appearance, as The Tramp, was in a Mabel film and many believe that through her direction Chaplin not only became the tramp visually but also emotionally.

Mabel’s alleged suggestion that he wear Arbuckle’s pants to complete his signature outfit may well be the single most important contribution to screen comedy. Was Chaplin a genius? Yes, but without Mabel would we have ever known this? For there is evidence that without Mabel and her influence on Chaplin at Keystone, he may very well have returned to England with his theater troupe and lived out his life as a music hall dancer.

Thankfully Turner recognizes the significance of the Normand-Chaplin relationship by airing “Mabel’s Married Life” a domestic comedy in which Mabel is humiliated when her husband Charlie refuses to defend her honor against a masher and “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” a film in itself historically important as cinema’s first full-length feature comedy in which Normand and Chaplin portray a pair of grifters out to rob a homely woman of her inheritance. The result leads to a frantic chase that would later influence Stanley Kramer’s “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World,” Blake Edwards’ “The Great Race” and Peter Bogdanovich’s “What’s Up, Doc?”

Immediately after “Tillie,” Chaplin, now established, left Keystone for better opportunities. Using the same “six degrees of” theory connecting Mabel to Arbuckle, Keaton and so on, one can only wonder how far-reaching Normand’s influence would go by saying that without her there would’ve been no Chaplin and without Chaplin–

Those who believe this to be an exaggeration should consider the visual evidence at work through Keystone films. Chaplin came there as an extra but left a legend. During that process, who held his hand? Mabel Normand did.

She would soon own a film studio and produce. Turner acknowledges this with the inclusion of 1917’s “Mickey,” which came off of Normand’s production slate. Some have called this story of a poor, backwoods girl coming to live with her society relatives Normand’s chef d’oeuvre, a film rich with a pathos that elicits tears and laughter both. Normand also shows her accomplishments as action star by performing a lot of her own stunts, including dangling off roofs and horseback riding.

Her last film with Sennett was 1923’s “The Extra Girl,” where she portrays an aspiring actress at a movie studio, will also be available via Turner Classic Movies.

Normand went on to make films with other studios, including several features for Samuel Goldwyn. “Head Over Heels,” (1922), in which she juggles three suitors in a classic comic farce, will round out the Library of Congress’s screenings.

She ended her career at the comedy studio of Hal Roach, producer of the “Laurel and Hardy” and “Little Rascal” movies. Unfortunately her personal life suffered from the aforementioned scandals and an early death prevented her from being truly recognized for all her accomplishments.

Turner Classic Movies and the Library of Congress’ upcoming exhibition of Normand’s films as well as a celebration by the New Jersey Fort Lee Film Commission and continued exposure of her work through DVD collections, books and documentaries will eventually put Normand where she belongs, in that most rarefied of places that’s peopled with Hollywood legends.

On a personal note I wrote and produced a short film titled “Madcap Mabel” which examines the highlights of Normand’s life and career. The Library of Congress and Turner Classic Movie exhibits will augment considerably our knowledge of who this silent-era star was. My hope is that one day we could walk into a Times Square or Hollywood Boulevard gift shop and between the Charlie Chaplin lighter, the Marilyn Monroe key chain and the Three Stooges mug, we would catch her image on a souvenir, a clock, for example, as reminder of how time forgot Mabel Normand.

READ other articles by Screen Comment Critic Rudy Cecera