Tomorrow’s Mr. Selfridge will feature a visit from silent film star Mabel Normand. She eventually directed her own films and opened her own film studio. Here’s more from The Encyclopedia of World Biography:
Actress and comedienne Mabel Normand’s most important role involved her contribution to the development of film comedy. Those who came after, such as Lucille Ball, owe her a large debt.
Normand proved far ahead of her time. She was an independent, successful woman in a male-dominated industry, and she exercised a great deal of control over her own career. She also developed gags, wrote scripts, and even directed some early silent films. But this comedy star’s life was filled with tragedy. She became enmeshed in scandal, indulged far too much than was good for her fragile health, and she died young.
Normand was one of the film world’s first celebrities. She had a rebellious nature, and this non-conformity made her a “star” before that term came into common use. Like modern celebrities, her involvement in career-destroying scandals unfairly amounted to little more than guilt by association.
Born in New York City
The screen’s first true female comedy star was born as Mabel Ethelried Normand on November 11, 1892, in Staten Island in New York City, New York. She was the youngest of four children born to Claude G. Normand and Mary Drury Normand. Her parents were French Canadians, and Claude Normand struggled to make a living to support his family. He worked as a carpenter but also played piano in clubs, small theaters, and movie houses.
As a young teenager, Normand toiled as a factory garment worker. In 1909, the seventeen-year-old Normand found work as a model. Painters and illustrators were attracted to her dark curled hair that framed her round face and large, expressive eyes. At the time, such attributes epitomized the current conception of beauty. Famous artists she posed for included Charles Dana Gibson, who created the “Gibson girl look,” and James Montgomery Flagg, the man who created the famous Uncle Sam “I Want You” military recruiting posters.
Moved from Modeling to Films
Normand was friends with Alice Joyce, a fellow model whose beauty led her into film work. Normand followed her into the burgeoning industry and worked as an extra in films produced by the Kalem Film Company, an early East Coast-based movie production studio. Soon, she made the acquaintance of Frank Lanning, an actor who worked at Biograph Studios. Lanning convinced her to change studios, which proved to be good advice, as Biograph boasted the talents of D.W. Griffith, the pioneering film director who would later produce the movie industry’s first feature films, (The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance). As such, the company attracted the best of the early film industry’s talent.
Normand worked as a “bit” player in Biograph productions. More importantly, she met Mack Sennett, an actor and scriptwriter who would later become known as the silent film era’s “King of Comedy.” Normand entered into a professional and romantic relationship with Sennett, who helped pioneer the art of silent film comedy, a genre where Normand would achieve her greatest success.
As film production was at the time centered in New York, Normand also found work with the Vitagraph Film Company, which was located in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. There, she co-starred in a series of comedies with John Bunny, one of the first film comedians. In these productions, she served as Bunny’s “foil,” portraying a young, mischievous girl whose misbehavior caused great consternation for the much older Bunny. Laughs were created by Bunny’s reactions to Normand’s wild pranks.
Followed Sennett to Keystone
In 1911, Sennett convinced Normand to leave Vitagraph and return to Biograph. But Sennett soon left Biograph to establish Keystone in 1912 in California, the state where film production was swiftly migrating, and Normand joined him. Keystone became known as a “slapstick” comedy studio (where the Keystone Kops originated), and Normand became one of its stars, along with comedians such as Fred Mace and Ford Sterling. Sennett and Normand’s romantic relationship developed, and Normand also began directing films for Keystone.
Normand’s on-camera presence was far more compelling than her directorial work, however. She became very popular with the public, and she was a tireless actress: she would appear in more than 100 two-real comedies for Keystone. Still, she would not only star in but write and direct films like Mabel’s Married Life, Mabel’s Busy Day and Caught in a Cabaret, all made in 1914. She also directed the earliest films of Charlie Chaplin and productions starring popular, rotund comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Indeed, Normand and Arbuckle formed one of the movies first popular screen comedy teams. Further, the popular “Fatty and Mabel” series of shorts, as well as the films that featured Chaplin, advanced Sennett’s reputation as a film producer and a comedy genius.
Meanwhile, Normand began suffering personal turmoil. Her relentless work schedule began taking a physical toll. Also, her relationship with Sennett began to flounder. They had set a wedding date in 1915, but the marriage never happened. Reportedly, Sennett’s true love was his film work. Also, he engaged in dalliances with the young starlets that worked for his studio.
Headed her Own Studio
Perhaps to alleviate her disappointment in him–as well as repay her for the success she brought him–Sennett offered Normand her own production company with its own studio, which was located next to his Keystone studio. Normand was only 24 years old at the time, so this represented a considerable career advancement. But only one feature film came out of Mabel Normand Productions. It was titled Mickey, and it was a sentimental melodrama (with comedic touches) in the Victorian style so favored by Griffith. While it displayed Normand’s considerable charms, its release would be delayed, due to post-production problems and distribution issues. This story of a poor girl who enters high society was produced in 1916, but it wouldn’t be released until 1918. It was a big hit, but Normand didn’t earn any money from it. Also, by this time, she had left Sennett’s organization. Sennett was making good money from his films, but his stars didn’t share in the profits. As such, performers moved to other studios, which left Sennett without his most valuable assets.
Worked for Goldwyn
By the time that Mickey was finally released, Normand had already started working for producer Samuel Goldwyn, at his Goldwyn Studios. In 1918, she signed a five-year contract. Her first feature was Joan of Plattsburg. During this period of her career, her personal problems began emerging. Earlier, during the filming of Mickey, she fell ill with bronchitis. Now, she was staying out late at parties and indulging in alcohol and cocaine. Her professionalism suffered. After all-night parties, she showed up late for work and unprepared to perform in front of the camera. Often, she missed work for days at a time. Still, she made eighteen films for Goldwyn.
But when Sennett asked Goldwyn if he would release Normand from her five-year contract, Goldwyn readily agreed. Normand returned to Keystone. Back at her former studio, she made one of her most popular films, Molly O’, released in 1921. With the movie a hit, Normand was still at the height of her popularity, but her health problems were beginning to show in her face. Not only was she indulging too hard, she was also suffering the onset of tuberculosis. She medicated herself with strong cough syrup that made her appear drunk.
Suffered a Series of Scandals
In 1922, the first of several scandals that would destroy her career occurred. Normand had become involved with William Desmond Taylor, a director who worked at Paramount. Taylor was a handsome, talented Hollywood bachelor, and he was having affairs with other young stars, including Mary Miles Minter. Normand claimed that her relationship with Taylor was merely a friendship.
On February 1 at 7:05 p.m., Normand arrived at Taylor’s bungalow and was seen leaving at 7:45 p.m. Only a few moments later, Taylor was shot in the chest with a single bullet. The shot was fatal. The murder was never solved, but Normand was considered a suspect, as were Sennett and Minter, among others. But police determined that Normand didn’t kill Taylor. Still, her connection to the murder harmed her career and contributed to her downwardly spiraling health.
Normand described for United Press reporters her relationship with Taylor and what she knew about that night. “I have known Mr. Taylor for years. There was never any love affair existing between us–never! I loved Mr. Taylor simply as a good comrade–a pal with whom I could discuss subjects in which we were mutually interested. I seldom saw Mr. Taylor except at a gathering of friends, it’s true. But I frequently conversed with him over the telephone. As a general rule, this was merely to ask certain questions regarding the subjects in which I am interested.”
About the night of the murder, she was adamant that it had been the first time the two had ever been alone, and the only reason she saw him was to borrow a book that she particularly wanted to have. He had it at his house, and she stopped there on her way home to pick it up. She contended that he walked her to the car, visited for a minute or two, and then let her go home, as she was tired from a long day and an early day planned the next.
Minter’s career was destroyed, but Normand continued working. She began another film called Suzanna, but she reportedly looked haggard. Around the same time, her former co-star and old friend Arbuckle went on trial for rape. Though he was exonerated, his career was also finished, and many states banned the showing of his films. As Normand appeared in many of them, she also faced banishment. Again, it was guilt by association.
To get away from the turmoil, Normand sailed to Europe in late 1922. She returned in February 1923. The rest did her well. She appeared revitalized and began another film, The Extra Girl. The movie received good reviews and performed well at the box office. By the end of the year, however, she experienced yet more trouble. At a New Year’s Eve party in 1923, her chauffeur shot and wounded the host, millionaire Courtland Dines, with a gun owned by Normand. The incident created more negative headlines, and more of Normand’s films were banned in numerous cities. Her film career appeared finished.
Health Continued Declining
By this time, Normand and Sennett ended their long association. To continue working, Normand took to the stage, but her attempt was unsuccessful. In 1926, friend and former director Dick Jones convinced Hal Roach, who headed Roach Studios, to sign Normand to a three-year contract. She was ill, but managed to make five films in five months. Health problems continued, though, and she became too ill to complete her contract. The five films she made for Roach would be her last.
In 1926, Normand married actor Lew Cody. The couple eloped to Ventura, California on September 17. They were married by a justice of the peace. Sadly, Normand would continue her hard partying. Indeed, her marriage to Cody was unconventional. They lived in separate homes and never as a married couple. They discussed annulment, divorce, and even living together, but nothing happened. Cody continued with his acting career and eventually made the transition into sound pictures. Normand’s film career was over.
Died of Tuberculosis
In 1927, she was treated in a hospital for bronchial infection. Physicians discovered an abscess in her right lung. Following her release Normand’s health continued failing. Two years later, she entered a sanitarium to be treated for tuberculosis. She passed away six months later, on February 23, 1930, in Monrovia, California. She was just 34 years old.
Normand appeared in about 230 films, but less than fifty appear to have survived the ravages of time that destroy old film nitrate. During her career, she was admired by woman for her talent and independence. A new generation is beginning to realize this unique actress, as film historians continue positively evaluating her career and accomplishments.
In 1974, a Broadway musical production, Mack and Mabel, portrayed Normand and Sennett’s relationship. Normand was played by Bernadette Peters. In the 1992 Academy Award-winning film Chaplin, starring Robert Downey as the famous screen clown, Normand was portrayed by Marisa Tomei. In 2010, in Madcap Mabel, Penelope Lagos portrayed the screen comedienne in the first film about Normand’s life.
“Mabel Normand.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Vol. 31. Detroit: Gale, 2011.Biography in Context. Web. 10 May 2014.