This is the second article in a five-part series – MATRIARCHS – in which Arts Editor Connor Gotto explores some of the forgotten women from across the arts; pioneers of their craft, but so often lost in the shadow of their male peers. Click here to read last week’s look at Queen Guinevere, and her role both during the reign, and following the demise of King Arthur.
The silent-era of movies, in the early twentieth century, is often thought to be as black-and-white as the pictures themselves. Today, features from that era appeal to a very niche audience, and it seems the only commonly referenced star is Charlie Chaplin. But the silence of the movies is purely down to the course of technological progression, and is in no way reflective of the movies themselves, their stars or production teams. The finest testament to this: Mabel Normand.
Born November 9th, 1892 in New York, Normand entered the industry at a young age. Before her on-screen debut in 1910’s Indiscretions of Betty, she worked as an artist model for Charles Dana Gibson – she truly was the original ‘Gibson Girl’! Not just having a natural beauty, though, her aptitude for the screen soon became apparent, with future lover Mack Sennett recognising this following her appearance in Her Awakening as a part of D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Company.
It was upon her relocating to California with Sennett in 1912, and his opening of Keystone Studios, that Normand made the transition from submissive beauty to fiery comedienne; a natural progression, it seemed, as she began to star in several comedy shorts portraying the central character. The two later became the subject of the Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman Tony-nominated musical Mack and Mabel, which made its Broadway debut in 1974, with Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters in the leading roles.
In her second year with Sennett, Normand first worked with the then-unknown Charlie Chaplin in his debut Making A Living – following which, Sennett expressed his wish to let Chaplin go from the company, ultimately opting to keep him at Mabel’s insistence. In the ensuing years, Normand was not only his co-star, but acted as his mentor, often producing and co-directing with him. It was in the Mabel-centered short, Mabel’s Strange Predicament, that Chaplin first appeared in his renowned ‘Tramp’ role.
If her years at Keystone were her ‘development years’, they were all in preparation for 1918, and her signing a $3,500 per week contract with Samuel Goldwyn to open her own film studios in Culver City. It would be here that she would go on to work on her most famous works, including Mickey, which was produced by Mabel and ultimately became the highest grossing film of the year.
Later, her career began to decline, notably due to her involvement in several largely publicised scandals. With a habit of ‘being in the wrong place at the wrong time’, Normand became the last person to see 49-year-old actor and director William Desmond Taylor, who had a strong, unrequited love for the comedienne. Reportedly leaving his house clutching a book that he had gifted her, the two waved and blew kisses extensively as she was driven away in her limousine, before he was shot and ultimately died later that night. It is suspected that this was a result of his involvement with the California police department in tracking down Normand’s drug suppliers (she was a notorious cocaine addict) as he continued to help her kick the habit. Furthermore, the shooting of amateur golfer Courtland S. Dines by Normand’s Chauffer Joe Kelley, with her own pistol, resulted in her making further national headlines.
In spite of this, national newspapers regarded her as a “film queen” – a title well earned. Throughout her career, Normand is believed to have been involved in an excess of 200 projects, both in front of and behind the camera. But whether on or off-screen, what is certain is that she was a master of her craft. Ultimately working until her retirement at the age of 34, Normand sacrificed her work due to ill-health as a result of tuberculosis (which she contracted in 1923, though had suffered on-and-off since the age of ten), and spent her final years married to her Mickey co-star Lew Cody.
On February 23rd, 1930 in Pottenger’s Sanitorium, California, Mabel Normand lost her battle. Despite her cause of death being diagnosed as tuberculosis, her notoriety continues to precede her today. Whether an addict or not – we’ll never truly know – what matters most is her art. Six years ago, in New Zealand, a previously thought to be lost film, 1914’s Won in a Closet, was discovered, giving new hope to the resurfacing of more of Normand’s lost reels.
Whether more will be discovered or not, it remains clear that Mabel Normand was –and always will be – the original silver screen queen.