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Madcap Mabel

The Spunkiest Spitfire of the Silent Screen

By Tom BakerPublished 20 days ago Updated 19 days ago 10 min read
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"Say I like to pinch babies and twist legs, but don't say I like to work." Mabel Normand

Mabel Normand is my fantasy sweetheart.

Little moon-eyed Mabel, the Doomed One, the Madcap that was once proposed to by CHARLIE Himself--and who told the Little Tramp, "Charlie you're not my type, and I'm not your type. It just wouldn't work out." She probably objected primarily because, not only was he short-statured (Mabel liked tall, goonie fellows like producer Mack Sennett and future husband Lew Cody), but Chaplin was also rumored to smell terrible--he probably picked up his poor hygiene while an inmate in an English workhouse. Let's hope he evolved better habits as he aged.

Mabel and Charlie, 1914.

Mabel died of tuberculosis in 1930, in a sanitarium, having made well over a hundred films, broken a million hearts, and been involved in one or two or several hot scandals, including being a suspect in the murder of director and Hollywood chicken hawk William Desmond Taylor (most think it was the irate stage momma of Mary Miles Minter that did it, in a rage over discovering that Taylor was seeing her teenage daughter--but the killer was never apprehended). Before that, Mabel was guilty by association with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who was charged with raping and murdering starlet-turned-call girl Virginia Rappe. (Fatty was acquitted after three trials, but the damage was done. Mabel was nowhere near the hotel in which the knock-down-drag-out Hollywood party, fueled by jazz baby music on the Victrola and plenty of illegal hooch, was held. But she was Arbuckle's frequent co-star, and, well, with the way people thought back then...)

Mabel Normand "Mysteries and Scandals" documentary

Lastly, her driver, Horace Greer, shot millionaire socialite Courtland S. Dines with Mabel's gun, at a drunken soiree with her friend actress Edna Purviance. A drunken Mabel didn't want to go home yet, but Greer insisted, and so, relenting, she got in the car. A drunken Dines moved on Greer. Greer used the Mabel Normand-owned gun he was carrying to shoot Dines, who survived. Greer was found to be a former felon (no background checks on fancy computers in those carefree, wild times--the people then could not have conceived of such a thing). He was acquitted, the shooting being ruled self-defense. Pulp fiction. Hardboiled. Philip Marlowe calling.

(But even worse, of course, was the Taylor murder, which they're still wondering over. Good luck armchair sleuths.)

Early picture at Biograph. Early 1900s.

Mabel had a tempestuous love affair with producer Mack Sennett, who was, like Mabel very Catholic, and of whom Mabel said, "I like a big brutal Irishman who spits and chews tobacco." Or something along those lines. It's said that once, when in a lover's spat on the set of a movie, Mabel, soused off her petunia, made as if to make up with Mack, and went to sit in his lap. She promptly pissed all over him. The girl also often had ice cream for breakfast, by the way.

Mack and Mabel

Their love affair came screeching to a halt when she found out he was having an affair with actress and sex pot Mae Busch. Something happened to Mabel's head (rumor has it that Busch threw a flowerpot at the spunky spitfire), and Mabel spent a while convalescing. Sennett, in an attempt to win her back, built her an entire studio all her own and financed Mabel's Smash Hit of 1918: the movie Mickey, which was perhaps the first blockbuster, and in which Mabel starred, though she didn't direct (she had, under Mack's tutelage, directed several films before, as well as flown an airplane, one of the first). Mabel was a Madcap, but she was also a pioneer.

Unfortunately, Mabel made virtually nothing from Mickey, Sennett having sold the rights; an act for which she never forgave him. At the end of his life, Sennett wrote that his only regret was "Not having married Mabel Normand." She must have been special.

MICKEY (1918) - Mabel Normand

Amabel Ethelreid "Mabel" Normand was born in Long Island New York November 9th, 1892, in a plain two-story house to plain French and Irish people who were Catholic. Very Catholic.

She was a pudgy little thing, quite athletic though; she was an expert swimmer. All of this can be gleaned from a reading of Wikipedia.

Gibson Girl Does the "Flickers"

She began her career modeling as a "Gibson Girl," for the famous artist Charles Dana Gibson, who designed the image of Uncle Sam. Pre-war years. Early 1900s. She was working for meager wages, and occasionally, if you see an antique Coke advertisement, such as the one in the pizza restaurant once frequented by my late grandparents, you'll look up and see an image and recognize Mabel.

When she got hard up for dough, she went to the bottom of the barrel. Skipping prostitution, she descended to what was considered, at the time, even seedier depths: she started in on acting in the "flickers"; motion pictures.

Cheap entertainment it was, and highly disreputable; considered "common" and vulgar. It was stuff for working-class clods, and reputable stage actors and actresses did NOT want it generally known if they were appearing in the flickers to earn extra scratch. Bad for their image was putting it mildly.

Mabel started at Biograph with D.W. Griffith, appearing in ancient films with co-stars such as suicidal actress Florence Lawrence (the "First Movie Star," or the first one to be publicly named, at any rate), and future mega-star Mary Pickford, "America's Sweetheart." None of these films, the ones that survive, would be considered "entertainment" by modern standards; at best, they're museum pieces, antiques. Historical oddities.

Mabel then met Mack Sennett, and the rest, as they say, is history. Falling in love with the handsome, gruff Irishman, Mabel followed him and his Keystone Studios to sunny California, to a place called "Hollywood," a land of tinsel, trash, make-believe, and broken dreams. But it was not quite all that yet.

Sennett helped launch the careers of Chaplin, Keaton, Arbuckle, and of course "Madcap" Mabel Normand. His legendry can be ascribed to the pie fight, slipping on a banana peel, and legions of dopey, mustachioed, "Keystone Cops," falling all over each other in scene after ribald scene. He also produced the first feature-length comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) with Marie Dressler, which also starred both Mabel and Charlie Chaplin, and of course, also featured the requisite Boston Cream pie-throwing fight 'em up.

Lew Cody and the "Little Mouse"

Beset by scandal after scandal (the last of which saw her being named as a co-respondent on a divorce decree, and being blamed by an insane woman for cheating with her husband, whom Mabel claimed never to have even met), Mabel was considered a "cheap Hollywood tramp"; her films were blacklisted across the country, her career torpedoed. She tried, for a time, to make the transition to the stage, starring in a traveling production of a loser play called The Little Mouse, which had folded under a different name years earlier.

Failing as a stage actress, her voice, perhaps, much like Keaton's, not going over well as a vehicle for her performance, (Mabel's acting style was wild, over-dramatized gestures, and comic histrionics, but there's no indication or recording of how she sounded in life, unfortunately), it was even more strange that she married the tall, gangling, alcoholic Lew Cody in 1926, after a drunken night at a party in which she, as the old story goes, woke up "hitched to the wrong post." Cody was an alcoholic as much as Mabel was (rumored) to be a cocaine user (indeed, it is speculated that Taylor may have been murdered by irate drug dealers because of his desire to reform Mabel of her coke habit), but, whatever the case, he and Mabel lived in seperate houses. Her crypt reads "Mabel Cody-Normand." Cody, whose main source of income seems to have been as host of a morning radio program called, ironically enough, "The Breakfast Club," outlived Mabel by four years, dying in 1924.

Mabel and Lew (Right).

Her final films, shot before the encroaching illness that killed her made work impossible, were films shot for Hal Roach Studios, films such as Molly-O (1921, long thought lost), and The Extra Girl (1923). She died in a sanitorium of her tubercular lung on February 23rd, 1930, her age variously given as 36 or 37 (her date of birth is recorded as November 9th, 1893).

At the time of her death, her final years saw her physical deterioration on film: she went from the pudgy, lovable Mabel of earlier years to an exceedingly thin young woman who vaguely resembled ZaSu Pitts. She's interred in a mausoleum across from the equally famous Talmadge sisters (one of whom, Natalie, helped ruin the life of Buster Keaton). Her final resting place is Calvary Cemetery, East Los Angeles.

The Extra Girl

Originally, this article was to be a much shorter review of the film The Extra Girl, which Mabel made for Hal Roach one hundred and one years ago. It tells the rags-to-riches "small-town girl makes good" story of Sue Graham, who goes from her home in snowy Connecticut or some damn place with her beau traveling not far behind, to sunny Hollywood, to "make it big" in the then-booming and still innocent "Motion Picture Business"; a pathway of pain for countless other young, aspiring hopefuls whose dream guttered like a candle flame and died along with themselves on the fabled Boulevard. Sue ends up in the wardrobe department and then leads a lion around on a leash (a scene whose sudden, dream-like aspect of shock should have delighted the surrealists, in much the same way as they redefined the baffling, absurdist imagery of the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup), to zany, late-stage slapstick shenanigans.

Along the way, Mabel appears in a Little Bo Peep outfit, with a handprint on her ass (pantaloons), again for comic effect. Her Ma and Pa travel to L.A. to take part in a scheme oil business run by a villainous, silent movie blackguard, but Mabel and a gun soon put that business to right. I've seen The Extra Girl several times, which is more than ninety-nine percent of people outside of a university-level film studies course could boast (and then only the professor).

If there is any "reality" to this illusion, this vast unfolding of film we consider our lives, it is in those seemingly-sentient dreams we call our loves; that upon which we lavish our devotion, our desire, that is what to us seems "real"; alive.

Mabel was legendary for her bawdy, vulgar sense of humor (Samuel Goldwyn said Mabel had, "Frogs leaping out of her throat'; Gloria Swanson called her "coarse and vulgar"). She was also legendary for her generosity, and the woman who spent lavishly on clothing (when she reached a point in her career where she could) would also give you, reputedly, the "shirt off her back." Mabel knew what it was like to be poor.

She could drink, curse, and compete any man under the table. She loved to party, to swing; she was an original jazz baby of the Roaring Twenties. (And my, how the Twenties roared!)

Mabel was a pioneer: a woman directing and starring in her films, in an era before women could even vote. Mabel, observed Mary Pickford, knew no fear: "She did all her own stunts." Mabel burned the candle at both ends, like the popular song, her candle blew out long before her legend.

I could say more, but we'd be here until Doomsday.

Mabel is an image, a ghost in the machine. A flickering antique, digitized, her moments of life, lived on the silver screen, are preserved badly. Another permutation of the China Boxes that is our perceptual reality, our self-edited "real world." Everything else about her, beyond her image, is conjecture, illusion, the scribbling of history. But what relevance can that have now, and how much concrete truth is in it, if any? She exists to me in my idea or concept of her.

But that's enough.

Sweet dreams, Madcap Mabel. May history keep you as tightly to her bosom as I do to my dreams.

Suggested reading.

Blum, Daniel C. A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1951.

Fussell, Betty Harper. Mabel: Hollywood's First I-Don't-Care Girl. New York: Limelight Editions, 1992.

Look What Happened To Mabel (From "Mack & Mabel Original Cast Recording"...

FiguresBiographies
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About the Creator

Tom Baker

Author of Haunted Indianapolis, Indiana Ghost Folklore, Midwest Maniacs, Midwest UFOs and Beyond, Scary Urban Legends, 50 Famous Fables and Folk Tales, and Notorious Crimes of the Upper Midwest.: http://tombakerbooks.weebly.com

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  • Marie Wilson9 days ago

    Fascinating! And well written. Thx for info I didn't know about Mabel. As for the WDT murder, I'm sure you've heard of Taylorology? I never got through it all but it's online now and enthralling.

  • A great biog and worthy subject. Seeing the photos reminds me of a photo of my grandmother taken in the 1920s.

  • Fascinating life.

  • I really enjoyed reading this. I found it interesting and boy she really did live quite these scandalous life. I will have to check out some of those early silent films now.

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