Mabel Normand is the most famous female name in silent comedy, but her films are rarely screened and her talents have been taken for granted. In a career that lasted 17 years she was a comedienne, athlete, screen beauty, film director, and the first slapstick comedian to make the leap from shorts into feature films. Today, like her friend and frequent co-star Roscoe Arbuckle, she’s better remembered for the scandals she was linked to than for the joy that she brought to movie audiences.
She was born on Staten Island, New York, in 1892, and began modelling as a teenager. From there it was a small step to the fledgling film industry, and by 1911 she was appearing in Vitagraph comedies with John Bunny and D.W. Griffith dramas at Biograph. A personal and professional relationship with Mack Sennett led to her becoming his leading lady – first in his comedies at Biograph and then at his own Keystone studio. Although she had no formal acting experience, the camera loved her spontaneity and spunkiness. With the screen persona of a beautiful, fun-loving imp, she more than held her own in roughhouse antics with the likes of Ford Sterling, Fred Mace, and Sennett himself. Soon she was directing many of her own shorts, one of only a handful of women to do so, and when she worked with Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle they were able to slow down the breakneck Keystone pace and concentrate more on characterization.
After she had a rift with Sennett in 1915, he set up the Mabel Normand Feature Film Co. to keep her at the studio. They began production on the feature Mickey (1918), but before it was released she had jumped ship and was working for Samuel Goldwyn. From 1918 to 1920 she made 16 features for Goldwyn, most of them variations on the Cinderella story of the poor working-class girl who wins her Prince Charming by the end of the film. At the same time her personal life became unmoored and erratic, said to have been the result of drug use.
In 1922 she became part of one of the biggest scandals to ever rock Hollywood – the murder of popular director William Desmond Taylor. Although not implicated in the murder, Mabel had been involved with Taylor and was the last person to see him alive. Her career was seriously damaged by the rumors and stories that blazed all over the newspapers at a time when she had just returned to Sennett and finished the picture Molly O' (1921). Bravely, Sennett kept her working and produced two additional films, but another scandal involving a drunken party and a shooting effectively brought her film work to a halt in 1923.
The last leg of her career began in 1926, in a series for the Hal Roach studio. F. Richard Jones, one of her favorite directors, was in charge and guided her along, while surrounding her with strong comedy pros like Oliver Hardy, Jimmy Finlayson, and Max Davidson. The result was a charming group of films, but Mabel’s lifestyle had taken its toll. Tired and ailing, she retired in 1927, and died of tuberculosis in 1930 at age 37.
Mabel appeared in nearly 200 films, of which today half are missing – mostly her mature work and features for Goldwyn – leaving her reputation to be based on her ragtag Sennett shorts. But in the last few years lost features such as The Floor Below (1918) and Head Over Heels (1922) have miraculously been found and preserved, while others, like Molly O’, have been restored. Hopefully, as these titles begin to be made available and circulate, it will lead to a re-examination of her place in silent comedy history, and a greater appreciation of her work and accomplishments. - Steve Massa