Over the years I’ve researched and written extensively (“Silent film star deserved to be heard,” ScreenComment, 2012) on the underrated work of silent movie actress Mabel Normand, Hollywood’s first film comedienne and female director. I’m now happy to report that she is finally being recognized for her many accomplishments. During November 11-12 the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, located in Fremont, Calif., will be hosting a retrospective of this early film pioneer. Normand, who was born on New York’s Staten Island, started as an illustrator’s model. She posed for several artists and was even one of the first spokeswomen for a new drink known as Coca-Cola. With her large, expressive eyes and a hunger for life she quickly took to the new medium of moving pictures.
Her first acting job was with the legendary director-producer D.W. Griffith. While working at his Biograph studio in Manhattan she met a young filmmaker named Mack Sennett. Her work and support helped him form Keystone, the biggest and most famous comedy studio in the world. They soon moved to California and the rest is history.
Normand was Keystone’s biggest star. She was the studio’s resident romantic leading lady, damsel-in-distress and comedienne. She took pratfall after pratfall as her own stuntwoman, dangled from trees and threw the moving pictures’ first pie-in-the-face. Along the way, she took silent-movie legend Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle under her wing and appeared in films alongside him. Fatty owes his stardom to Normand.
Mabel most notably encouraged Sennett to hire an unknown music hall performer named Charlie Chaplin. She went to bat for the young Englishman, and when Sennett clashed with him, she ended up directing Chaplin. His first film featured him in his trademark Tramp outfit and there are those, including this writer, who believe that Mabel’s direction helped influence not only Chaplin’s look, but also the famous walk that went along with it.
Hollywood scandals, for which Mabel was an innocent bystander, and ill health, ended Mabel’s life in 1930 at the age of 37. Later, the notoriety of the very people she helped would overshadow Normand’s contributions to the moving pictures.
The Niles event begins on November 11th (just one day after what would have been Normand’s 125th birthday) with screenings of Normand’s film shorts, including 1912’s “A Dash Through the Clouds” in which Mabel bravely flies in an airplane. Also being screened is 1916’s “Fatty and Mabel Adrift” where she and the aforementioned Arbuckle portray a married couple and one of Hollywood’s first comedy teams. This will be followed by Normand’s 1923 classic feature “The Extra Girl,” for which she ironically portrays a small-town girl who travels to Hollywood with hopes of becoming a motion picture star.
On November 12th Normand’s later work with Hal Roach will be showned, with the 1926 short “The Nickel Hopper,” a film that also stars then unknowns Oliver Hardy and Boris Karloff. All films will be accompanied with live music.
The event also includes screenings of two original films written and produced by yours truly. The 2010 short “Madcap Mabel” is a biographical period piece that has made several film festivals, including Official Selections in Clearwater, Yperia and Hoboken. The 2013 short “Mabel’s Dressing Room” premiered at the Coney Island Film Festival and is a comedy that shows a typical day on the Keystone lot with an interesting and surprise ending. Both films, which were previous screened at the Darien Arts Center, pay homage to Normand’s life and career.
One of the planned highlights will be a book signing event with author Timothy Dean Lefler. He’ll be promoting his Normand biography “Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap.” So if you’re in the area of Fremont, California in mid-November, stop by Niles for some fun and history.
“A Mabel Normand” weekend will take place at the Niles Museum, 37417 Niles Boulevard, Fremont, California 94536. For information, contact the museum at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rudy Cecera is senior contributor to ScreenComment and screenwriter. He has written extensively about Mabel Normand (@rComWrit22)
SEE ALSO: “Madcap Mabel” on IMDB, “Mabel’s Dressing Room” (IMDB