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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Monday Glamour Starter --- Mabel Normand

Mabel Normand was another of ghostly figures that inhabit (mostly) bad prints of silent era movies. She was the Queen of Keystone comedies at a time when most of laughs arose from people stuck in the rear with pitchforks or getting eyes sprayed by milk from a cow’s udder. Even in the face of today’s unbridled vulgarity, Sennett’s bunch could write the book on screen scatology. Mabel truly was a rose among unsightly thorns. Her leading men actually look dirty, their hair a mess with teeth like something inside a shark's mouth. Interviews suggest most played themselves. Like a luckless character out of the wild west, which is really what Hollywood was in those days, Mabel kept adding layers of scar tissue until finally collapsing under weight of it all. Judging by punishment she took both on/off the screen, it’s amazing she lasted until 1930, but why did this beautiful and talented girl have to play tackle dummy for seeming all of an industry’s worst excesses?

Modeling in New York led to supporting work in Biograph shorts D.W. Griffith directed, but Mabel wasn’t his kind of virginal type, though instinctive talent was obvious to those who cared to look. Fellow beginner Mack Sennett saw potential, and moved her west to help launch his Keystone operation, where one-reel (or less) farcing were done off the cuff and future comedy stars seemed to step off each passing streetcar. Charlie Chaplin was one of these --- so was Roscoe Arbuckle. Normand teamed with each, and both benefited. She got banged around a lot, but was young, and so took blows handily. Where pain lingered, there was always something from the pharmacy to quick-fix her. You had to be tough in Mabel's racket. She did 53 comedies during a first Sennett season, then became engaged to Mack in 1915. There was a real beauty and beast thing happening here, for Sennett could look positively demented where stood before a camera (he acted in a number of shorts). Nuptials eve found Mack repairing to Keystone employee Mae Busch’s apartment for a bracer, this doubly ironic as it was Mabel who got the woman her Sennett job. Mack and Mae had shucked outer garments and initiated love’s oldest ritual when Mabel suddenly caved in the front door and loosed the hounds of Hades. According to legend, Mae crowned the Keystone Queen with a handy vase and nearly killed her. Trade scribes cooked up varied explanation for Normand’s extended absence, but those in-the-know saw the incident as opening bell for Mabel's slow march toward oblivion. Headaches and sinus trouble resulting from the melee now joined occasional lung hemorrhages that caused Mabel to cough up blood between car chases and tosses off the pier. Druggists gave her all-purpose "goop" (her term) to take the edge off, though even cough syrup laced with opium, which this presumably was, couldn’t relieve the effect of tuberculosis, which she likely had. Mabel's was a killing pace, but an insatiable boxoffice demanded she maintain it, her relationship with Sennett meanwhile and forever compromised. He tried to do penance with the gift of a studio all her own, but after only one feature, Mabel left for Samuel Goldwyn’s company (only to return to Sennett employ a few years later).

Mabel’s screen specialty was tomboys or live wires that flouted Victorian convention and enchanted audiences. She longed for something more elevated, but raucous comedy was how they liked her best, and in that category, she had no peer. Off-camera pursuits showed less caution. Wild parties enhanced with bootleg hootch and "nose candy" were vices of choice among Hollywoodites bored with monotony of shooting formula stories over and again. Mabel’s myriad of health concerns were easiest forgotten with the help of a hip flask or narcotics fix, and who could blame her? She was well so little of the time --- why not take the fun where she could get it? Her link, if remote, with a series of movieland scandals was appallingly bad luck, but damage was considerable and lasting. First came the Roscoe Arbuckle mess. Mabel had co-starred with him, so that was enough to implicate her. The assignment of guilt by association became popular sport amongst yellow journalists of the day, and when director William Desmond Taylor
was found dead with a bullet in his back on February 1, 1922, it looked as though the whole industry was headed down for the count. Moralists incensed by the Arbuckle case noted Mabel as having been the last person to speak with Taylor before the fatal shot rang out --- inevitable letters and affectionately inscribed photos provided damning coda to the investigation. Normand was hounded by interrogators, both official and press appointed, for the rest of her short life, all because she knew Taylor and happened to be returning books to him on the day of the murder. It seemed Mabel had taken up permanent residence behind the eight ball.

Always check those references before you hire. Mabel Normand didn’t, and consequently found herself with a chauffeur who’d recently sprung himself from a chain gang, effected a name change, and was now driving Mabel along Hollywood’s party circuit where alcohol and drugs loosened tongues and shortened tempers. On one such occasion, Edna Purviance’s escort made some indelicate remarks about Mabel while in his cups and the chauffeur took after him with Normand’s gun. The shooting, while not fatal, inspired the press to administer a worst beating yet to Mabel’s reputation, proof again of what a violent and unpredictable town Hollywood could be. Natural attractions of the place were such that anyone, regardless of questionable character or background (often criminal), could insinuate him (or her) self into Hollywood social circles and prey upon its most prominent members. Roscoe Arbuckle, Clara Bow, and Mabel Normand were among silent headliners who were felled by ill-advised association with such riff-raff. In the wake of condemnation from a public that had once idolized her, Normand tried the New York stage, but a weak voice wouldn’t carry beyond ten rows, much less expert pantomime better suited to a camera's scrutiny. Her final season in films was spent with Hal Roach's company, where an initial contract calling for eight features and eight shorts was scrapped after the first five entries due to worsening health and declining popularity. This was 1926-27. She had gone into the hospital with bronchial pneumonia and lung complications. Her long suspected tuberculosis was confirmed around this time. Continued work of any sort was now out of the question. She summed it all up in a February 1927 diary entry, which simply read Who Cares? Her funeral three years later (at 37) was attended by virtually everyone who had pioneered the silent film industry. Many of them no doubt pondered how things might have been if only they’d taken a little better care of Mabel.


Blogger convict 13 said...

Wonderful blog once again. Mabel surely had a very sad decline, such a shame for someone who was so alive in front of the camera. It seems that Mabel was guilty of just knowing the wrong people and for being trusting. Everytime I see Mae Busch I always think of that vase flying through the air.

7:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Early film historian Tony Slide contends that Mabel actually walked in on Mack Sennett with Del Henderson in bed - which provides an equally valid reason why Sennett would give Mabel her own film studio...

11:29 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

It’s certainly a puzzle as to why Mabel “became the patsy for everyone else’s wrongdoing” as Charlie C told it. One reason might be that Mabel was always around town (seemingly with a different guy every night), playing The Queen Bee to her peers. She was rarely on location, so she was, by default, the most visible star in Hollywood. This annoyed the press down the years, as Mabel rarely gave personal interviews, and they often had to accept written texts from the studio. Some journos undoubtedly wanted to knock ‘The Queen’ off her pedestal, and when the opportunity came, in 1922, and again in 1924, they went for the jugular. There are, as with everything Mabel, numerous other theories. Naturally, all of the silent stars’ careers had begun to wane by 1927, but it was recurring bouts of pneumonia that finally knocked Mabel off the set. At the time of her death she’d just about coughed up most of her lung tissue, the proof being the still extant blood-stained nightdresses that her nurse, Julie Benson, for some morbid reason, hung onto for decades. In the light of this, is it likely that Mabel was snorting coke, as some say? More likely, if Minta Arbuckle was right, she was probably using heroin, which was considered a safe form of opium, until 1925. Heroin will eventually kill you, but so will tuberculosis. It’s an interesting fact that Mabel’s funeral was the last big event of the silent era. We will never see her like again. thekeystonegirlblogs.

6:47 PM  

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