In on the Big Bang: Why I Love the Queen of Slapstick
By Jon BoorstinMarch 11, 2014
THOUGH I HAVE LIVED a long and immersive life in the movies, I was never drawn to the silent era, indifferent to slapstick in particular. Then a few years ago I was drafted to tell the history of American moviemaking for the nascent museum of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and I went in search of lives that told the story of the movies. The lives that leapt out were the pioneers, the ones who made something from nothing. We like to think success was baked in the celluloid, but movies only happened because a disparate crew of bloody-minded rejects fell in love with them. Ignorance was an asset, trial and error the only way to learn.
In 1910 there was no such thing as a movie star, a script, or a studio, and most pictures were 10 minutes long. Yet, by 1920 the movie world as we know it was pretty much in place. Today, their discoveries are so commonplace that we can hardly imagine they were discovered at all. But they launched us into the Age of Images.
The most ruthless were the slapstick guys. Slapstick aimed at the lowest, widest target. It had no pretense to art. It mocked middle-class propriety. It was pure movie. Pure commerce. The perfect place to figure out, for yourself, how pictures worked.
One woman worked alongside the slapstick guys: Mabel Normand. Charlie Chaplin called them Beauty and the Beast. Normand was tiny, five foot one. She was a bareback rider, a high diver, racecar driver, prize-fight fan. She did what men did, at a time when women were supposed to be delicate creatures, and she did it all with an easy, open joy. They called her the “I Don’t Care Girl.” Ten years later they would have called her a flapper, but flappers weren’t invented yet. Men loved her for it, and women found her a liberating friend. The first major actor without stage training, she brought a refreshing naturalism to the screen. Mack Sennett said she was pure emotion. Photoplay magazine said watching her was “a slap in the face with a perfumed glove.”
Normand charted her own way. She was tough-minded, innovative, and demanding. A party girl who always held herself apart. She lived hard. She died the year sound came in, at the age of 37, of tuberculosis. But in her brief, tumultuous life, I found the whole story of American movies. She lived the first turn of the wheel that’s been turning ever since.
Normand grew up on Staten Island. She kept her childhood to herself, her past a mystery. In her early teens she posed for the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. In 1909, at 18, and calling herself 15, she stumbled onto D. W. Griffith in New York, and then failed–opera singer and aspiring comic Sennett. In 1912 she followed Sennett out West to the boondocks of Los Angeles to crank out comedies. The pictures ran half a reel or a reel (a reel then was roughly 15 minutes), and Sennett ground them out in a couple of days. He didn’t bother with scripts. As Chaplin said later, in those days they just ran down to Echo Park with Mabel Normand, a ladder, and a bucket of whitewash.
At the time, comediennes were grotesques, and the joke was that they thought they were beautiful. Normand was perhaps the first woman allowed to be both beautiful and funny. As the Morning Telegraph put it, in 1916:
Philosophers who write on feminine psychology on the women’s page of daily papers tell us we must not expect to find a pretty woman with a sense of humor. […] Your real beauty, these sages declare, is a person of limited moods and those moods are serious ones. Her soulful eyes will still remain soulful even when you are doing your best to get off something really good. […] In living refutation of these theories is Mabel Normand.
Actors were anonymous then. Filmmakers figured if actors got billing, they’d want more money. But Mack loved Mabel. Besides, she was his most valuable asset, and fast becoming among the best-known, best-loved faces on the screen. It might pay off. He put her name on a picture, in the title no less — Mabel’s Lovers.
In 1913 Sennett hired a music hall comic with a great drunk act named Charlie Chaplin. When he almost fired Chaplin for incompetence and insubordination, Normand talked him out of it. She put Chaplin in his very first picture as the Tramp, which she starred in and directed. The Tramp, of course, became the most popular character in the history of movies. Normand was directing films before Buster Keaton was, before DeMille, von Stroheim, Eisenstein, or Abel Gance.
By 1914 pictures had stretched to two reels, and Sennett was using writers, but he wouldn’t let them write anything down. If you couldn’t just tell it, it wasn’t a picture. No one thought a picture could sustain laughs for more than half an hour, but he decided to make a play for the carriage trade with the very first six-reel comedy, ever, Tillie’s Punctured Romance. This one they wrote down.
To hedge his bets, Sennett put stage star Marie Dressler in with Normand and the newcomer Chaplin. Pictures were still the little sister: Normand was paid $250 a week, while Dressler earned her stage rate, $2,500.
Yes, people could laugh for 90 minutes. Sennett’s picture was a grand success. But Dressler sued Sennett, and Chaplin left him for his own deal in Chicago. So Sennett locked in Normand by proposing marriage. Of course, he loved her too. What happened next is cloudy. Normand suffered a life-threatening head injury and spent three months in the hospital. There is speculation Mabel caught Mack canoodling her girlfriend, and the girlfriend, in true slapstick fashion, bashed her on the noggin with a vase. In any case, when she left the hospital, Mabel was through with Mack romantically, but kept making Sennett Pictures. She went off to Fort Lee, New Jersey, a continent away from him, to make them. Sennett never stopped loving her. She used that for leverage.
Normand wasn’t running away from pictures, she was running to them. Fort Lee was still the hub of American picture making, and Los Angeles the outpost. Her audience was tiring of Sennett’s frenetic slapstick, and she teamed up with another Sennett discovery, Fatty Arbuckle, to create a gentler, more romantic form of physical comedy. Their short films made them the most popular couple in pictures.
Meanwhile, D. W. Griffith made The Birth of a Nation, and moved people in a whole new way: the picture stirred violent emotions and sparked furious national debate. It also paid off like a slot machine. Even those who didn’t see movies saw The Birth of a Nation. So far, people had imagined that a night at the movies was a night of vaudeville, a diverting slate of amusements. Now the feature-length picture became the industry standard, and the big killing was the goal. Short films were just an opening act.
So Normand set out to scale that Birth of a Nation peak. In 1916, with Sennett’s backing, but in her own separate studio, she set up Mabel Normand Productions to produce the ultimate Normand picture, Mickey. She was among the very first actors to produce pictures. She was at it three months before Mary Pickford, to my knowledge the only other woman producer in America at the time. Producer Normand went through six directors. She had the talent, and she had the yearning to figure out picture making, and get it right. She had the nation’s attention, and she had the money. But sometimes even all that isn’t enough.
During production, the Mack Sennett Weekly promoted Mickey as a triumph, and declared her the world’s first “super-star.” But Sennett never put Mickey in the theaters. Was it unreleasable? A pawn in Sennett’s business shenanigans? Normand was finally finished with him. In 1917 she signed with Sam Goldfish, who with the Selwyn brothers had formed Goldwyn Pictures in New Jersey. Goldfish hired novelists and opera singers. He was the anti-Sennett, the very definition of class, and he was as smitten with her as Sennett was. Normand held a funeral for slapstick on a borrowed yacht, and buried it at sea.
Goldfish, the self-professed inventor of “glamour,” commissioned silky photos of Normand and promoted her as “Mabelescent.” In Joan of Plattsburg, she took on a part that might have suited her friend Lillian Gish. The orphan Joan, a dreamy scullery maid, reads the exploits of Joan of Arc and hears voices like the sainted Joan. But it transpires that the voices are actually German spies. Joan foils their sabotage and saves the army base.
The movie is not with us, but alas the reviews are. As one reviewer put it, “To expect an actress who has scored her biggest success in broad farce to illuminate the face of a modern Joan with the divine fire of the Maid of Orleans is to look for a miracle.” This reviewer did not believe in miracles.
Goldfish was going broke. His classy writers and opera singers weren’t making money. Comedy then, as now, paid big dividends, and comic Normand was a sure thing. He put her in a series of quickie retreads to stay afloat. Normand played a watered-down version of herself, a sure bet with her loyal fan base. Stifled, she corroded. When America joined the First World War in 1917, drugs came to pictures; Normand developed a cocaine habit to keep herself going. Hopped up on coke, she made six pictures in a year and saved Goldwyn.
Then, in 1918, a lethal flu epidemic swept the country. Globally, it killed more people than all the bombs and bullets and gas of World War I. At its height, when picture houses were only open two days a week, her Mickey was finally released.
The first half of Mickey is a delightful romp, the second half an energetic mess. Normand had the actor’s gift for the moment and a great comedian’s sense of timing, but judging by Mickey, Normand the producer wasn’t interested in the overall shape, or the thematic meaning, of her story. Like her, the picture lived moment to moment, with tremendous energy and pace, and in that way foreshadowed the messy action pictures of today.
Perhaps because Mickey had been made in less troubled times, it had an innocence that beguiled the wartime, flu-plagued audience. It was also the first picture with a merchandising blitz. Woolworth and Kresge declared the country “Mickey Mad” and sold Mickey stockings, shirts, flowers, ice cream sundaes. It was the first picture with a hit song (something of a feat for a movie with no soundtrack) and the sheet music, lantern slides, player piano rolls to go with it. Mickey was the biggest grossing picture of the year. Actual numbers vary, but Sennett claimed that on an investment of $150,000 it made $18 million. Normand, of course, saw none of it.
This, you might think, should have finally freed Normand to do her own pictures. Instead it locked her into doing Mickey over and over. Sam Goldfish changed his name to Sam Goldwyn and moved the company to Los Angeles, which war and a winter coal shortage had finally made the center of picture making in America. With the destruction wrought in Europe, American pictures were now dominant worldwide.
When Goldwyn had sucked what he could from drugged-up Normand, he sold her contract back to Sennett for a mere $20,000. But she was far from finished. With the support of charismatic director William Desmond Taylor, she entered a sanitarium and pulled herself together.
Taylor, the three-time president of the Motion Picture Directors’ Association (which later became the Director’s Guild), was a cultivated man, and Normand was insatiably curious. She’d always read; now, alongside Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Police Gazette, she was reading Aldous Huxley and Oscar Wilde. She read Plato, Freud, Henri Bergson on laughter. And she resurrected her career; apparently she had made her peace with being a movie star, even if that meant making the same picture over and over.
But then her luck turned sour. Innocent Normand was caught in the middle of a series of scandals that tainted the movies and forced the picture community to police its morals. In 1921 Fatty Arbuckle was accused of rape, falsely, but the charge ruined him. When Normand came to her friend’s defense, audiences couldn’t separate her from her on-screen husband, and she almost went down too. The next year Taylor’s corpse was found staring at his living room ceiling, shot in the back. Normand was the last person to see him alive. And then her chauffeur shot her lover, by some accounts out of jealousy; he used a gun owned by Normand. She wrote a poem in her private diary, “If there was one sprig of poison-ivy / In a field of four-leaf-clovers / I’d pick it up. / If it was raining carbolic acid, / I’d be the dumb-bell sponge.” But she never felt sorry for herself in public. Her pictures weathered boycotts, and her career survived. Normand carried her own load. She had the strength to keep going.
Normand made her last pictures in 1927, the year before talkies. Film historian Kevin Brownlow picked 1927 as the greatest year for movies, ever, but he wasn’t talking about hers. In 1928 tuberculosis exiled her to a sanitarium. Loyal fans sent flowers. In the fall and winter of 1929, radio stations signed off every night, in the new medium of sound, “To you, Mabel Normand, out there in the hospital, good night. Get well soon, and make some more comedies for us.” February 23, 1930, she died.
Those are the bones of Normand’s story. Normand’s friend and rival Mary Pickford had an acting career even more constrained than Normand’s, but she was a canny businesswoman, supported by a strong mother and a man who was the love of her life. Normand had none of these things. Normand had the movie star’s gift for belonging to the people who watched her on screen, but off screen she always held something back. Everyone wanted something from Normand, and she knew it. She was extravagantly generous, she had a glorious life in pictures, she drank deep from every cup, and yet it was a sad life because Normand was alone, as only movies stars can be alone, and while she lived her life on movie sets, six long days a week, she never made the movie she deserved to make.
Even that yearning, that disappointment, was the shape of the future. Normand is forgotten, but she was the first. She invented comic stardom. She began when movies were eight minutes long and made up on the spot and nursed them through the $18 million Mickey. She knew the throwaway delights of slapstick, and the frustrations and satisfactions of trying for greatness. Her fans embraced her as their free and easy model of the modern woman. They loved her even when she was a coke addict and tainted by rape and murder. Mabel Normand is the movies.
Most of Mabel Normand’s movies are lost. Mickey is available, as is all her work with Chaplin (including Tillie’s Punctured Romance) on Chaplin at Keystone, A 4-Disc Collection of 34 Restored Films, Flicker Alley, with notes by Jeffrey Vance. Expertly curated and meticulously restored. Marilyn Slater curates the Looking for Mabel Normand website, full of Mabel photos and arcana, and William Thomas Sherman has posted the Mabel Normand Source Book, a revealing collection of contemporary articles. Betty Fussell’s biography Mabel tells the framework of her story and lays out all the reasons Mabel remains a mystery.
© Jon Boorstin
Jon Boorstin is a writer and filmmaker who works in a broad range of media. His novel The Newsboy's Lodging House won the New York City Book Award for historical fiction. He made the Oscar®-nominated documentary Exploratorium; wrote the IMAX film To the Limit, winner of the Geode Award for best IMAX film; and wrote and, with director Alan J. Pakula, produced the thriller Dream Lover, winner of the Grand Prix at the Festival du Cinéma Fantastique in Avoriaz, France. He is the co-creator of the television series Three Moons over Milford, a comedy about the end of the world. Boorstin has written a book on film theory titled Making Movies Work and has taught film at USC, the American Film Institute, the Hamburger Filmwerkstatt, and as a Fulbright professor at the National Film Institute in Pune, India. Boorstin’s new novel Mabel and Me was published in April.
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