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.