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A book about Mabel Normand's life and work

Timothy Dean Lefler’s new book “Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap” offers a great deal of insight, understanding, and appreciation to one of cinema’s most significant pioneers. When the moving picture was still in its infancy, when narrative cinema was less than a decade old, this pert, cute, talented lady was establishing herself as an actress and comedienne.

When Mack Sennett left the old Biograph studios and formed his own Keystone productions, Mabel went along with him. Their tumultuous romance is extensively covered in Lefler’s book, but he also pays a great deal of attention to Mabel Normand’s continued achievement as an actress who soon became her own director.

Mabel Normand never balked at the dangerous stunts she had to do on screen, and she was just as adventurous in real life. Airplanes were newly invented when Normand became the first woman to be filmed in flight for the Keystone comedy “A Dash Through The Clouds” (1912). In real life, Mabel was so enthused by airplanes she wanted to learn to pilot one herself – something that was unheard of for most men, let alone women.

Her films opposite Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle were extremely popular in the early teens, and evolved in their approach as well. First they focused on Mack Sennett’s perspective of having a great deal of movement within the frame. These knockabout comedies are crude and frenetic, but eventually Mabel’s vision took over and her movies with Arbuckle evolved into slapstick endeavors that exhibited more affection between the characters, and settled into situations rather the merely a series of gags. “Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life” (1915), “Fatty and Mabel Adrift” (1916), and “He Did and He Didn’t” (1916) continue to be exceptional examples of both Normand and Arbuckle at their best.

Before women could vote, Normand extended beyond the usual limitations imposed upon females and was allowed to utilize her creative vision as a filmmaker. Her films with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin benefited from this vision. One film with Chaplin, “Caught in a Cabaret” (1914) is so inspired, it has often been labeled one of Charlie’s own early triumphs, or, at least, a co-directed production between him and Mabel. But it is Normand who directed that movie. Clashes with Chaplin resulted in his nearly getting kicked out of movies before he was able to fully establish himself, but Normand realized his genius despite their professional squabbles, and urged Sennett to allow Charlie to direct his own movies. She was, therefore, instrumental in the very growth of screen comedy.

Lefler’s book is filled with interesting tidbits about the Keystone era. Mabel’s conflicts with stage actress Marie Dressler while filming “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” (1914), a milestone as the first feature-length comedy, resulted Normand challenging Dressler to an auto race, which Marie accepted. It was stopped by Sennett, who didn’t need either of his stars being injured during the filming of an important movie. When Charlie Chaplin, not either of the women, emerged as the star of the feature, the conflict dissipated and the two women buried the hatchet at a chance meeting a few months later. According to the author, the actresses spoke highly of one-another for the rest of their lives.

As the 1910s concluded, other studios became interested in Mabel Normand and tried to hire her away from Mack Sennett. Her and Mack’s romance continued to be disruptive, including a botched attempt at marriage. Sennett gave Mabel her own production company and she produced the feature “Mickey,” which began filming in late 1916, and in which she starred in the title role. Mabel trusted young director F. Richard Jones with helming her feature, and the two became dear friends. The filming of the movie, however, was still difficult. Mabel was often unreliable and irresponsible about punctuality. Sometimes it was illness, other times it was a tangential activity, usually regarding her efforts to keep America out of the war that had been raging in Europe since 1914. She organized marches and protests. November 14, 1916 was designated as Mabel Normand Peace Day.

The way the author recounts the story of “Mickey” is especially fascinating. At about the time filming completed in 1917, Mabel became preoccupied, as America was about to enter what would become known as World War One. Financial troubles forced Sennett to buy his way out of the Triangle Corporation under which Mabel’s production company operated. His investors did not like “Mickey” when it was screened for them, so it was shelved indefinitely. An upset Mabel then left Sennett and signed to make films for Samuel Goldwyn. Fate intervened during the summer of 1918 when a theater manager who badly needed product went to the film exchange that was holding the shelved “Mickey.” Desperate for product, the manager took the film and showed it at his theater. It became an immediate hit, and soon lines stretched for three blocks to see “Mickey.” To appease his customers, the theater manager ran the film all night long, but the crowds kept coming. Police had to be called to send people home. This success at one theater extended to others as the film was finally in general release. According to the author, women especially responded to the film because they were tired of being portrayed as “helpless virgins, exotic vamps, or mindless jazz babies.” In 1918, the war would still be going on until the Armistice in November. Things had changed. And a tough, spunky, tomboyish representation of women was what female moviegoers responded to. The moviegoing culture had changed. The author indicates that “Mickey” generated $18 million at the box office when admission tickets were only ten or fifteen cents. This would be the same as a movie earning $12 billion today!

Mabel used the success of “Mickey” to get better pay and more creative control over her film projects at Goldwyn’s studios. Her films for Goldwyn were all hits, but the actress, still only in her 20s became a combination of overwork, irresponsibility, and indulgences, including a cocaine habit. When she left Goldwyn in 1921 after three years of box office hits, the producer, often addled by her difficult behavior, admitted, “in spite of everything, she was easy to forgive.”

Mabel returned to Sennett with the hit feature “Molly O” (1921) and her stardom continued. Sennett agreed to allow her to work with her favorite director, F. Richard Jones, and to have Jack Mulhall as her leading man (despite the fact that Mack did not like him).

The 1920s were not good to Mabel Normand. First, she was hurt by the scandal that destroyed the career of her friend Roscoe Arbuckle. Women’s groups and other such organizations balked at the sordid Hollywood lifestyles that were becoming known, and Mabel joined director William Desmond Taylor in his battle for filmmakers to have full creative freedom. Mabel and Taylor became friends. And when the director was shot dead in February of 1922, Mabel was the last to see him alive. The resulting scandal hampered the box office of Normand’s film “The Extra Girl” (1923), despite it being one of the best movies of her career. It would also be the last film she would make for Mack Sennett. That same year, Mabel was devastated by the death of another friend, actor Wallace Reid.

Shortly after the Taylor scandal, Mabel was preparing to make another movie when her chauffeur shot her friend, playboy Courtland Dines. Although she had nothing to do with this shooting, her connection to the shooter (it was her gun) resulted in her being interviewed by police. This added yet another scandal and the actress who had been a top star only a couple years earlier was now unemployable. She was off-screen for three years. Fortunately, her director friend F. Richard Jones became an executive at the Hal Roach studios and got Mabel a job working in shorts there. According to the author, Normand, cleared of all charges and away from scandal, had money, friends, and could have retired. Going from being one of the biggest feature film stars to making shorts was a comedown in Hollywood. But she was determined to leave on her own terms, and accepted the job with Roach. Her films there were hits, and have some historic significance beyond her contribution. One was written by Stan Laurel and featured Oliver Hardy. A year later the two would team up and make movie history. Normand enjoyed working in the Roach comedies and was more responsible and cooperative than she’d ever been. Getting caught up in the happy spirit of working at this studio, Mabel was even joking about her recent scandalous past. At one point when a gunshot rang out on a nearby set, she turned to the others and said, “Ok, I had nothing to do with that!”

But as the 1920s wore on, Mabel Normand, though just past 30, was feeling the ravages of the emotional stresses, physical ailments, and indulgent lifestyle she had undergone for the past two decades. She died of tuberculosis in February of 1930. Among those at her funeral were Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle, Mack Sennett, Harold Lloyd, Marie Dressler, Mary Pickford, Ford Sterling, and Ben Turpin. Many openly wept.

Mabel Normand is among the most fascinating, attractive, talented, and significant actors and filmmakers of the silent era. Lefler’s book is deep, enlightening, informative, and fulfilling. He includes far more details than this review can provide, and explores other aspects of her life that paint an even clearer picture of who she was as a person, as well as a performer and director. “Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap” is one of the finest books ever written on an actor or filmmaker. It is most passionately recommended for all libraries, research centers, film buffs, and anyone interested in silent comedy history.

James L. Neibaur
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