by Darlene Eliopoulos
Darlene Eliopoulos is a life-long writer who believes in the magic of film. She tells stories with an inclusive lens for both the creative and corporate worlds. She writes for Fortune 500 companies, as well as small businesses, and local politicians. She has been a ghost writer for several CEOs. She is an independent film producer, collaborator, and director. She is married to her best friend, and is mom to two favorite human beings. She is also caretaker of a house that belongs to a nine-pound cat.
Her name may be unfamiliar to some today, but in the 1920s when Hollywood was still adding tinsel to the town, Mabel Normand was an “It Girl.” Just over five feet tall, Normand had a crown of dark curls and huge luminous brown eyes that spoke volumes in her silent-film world. Normand was no Greta Garbo or Mary Pickford. On screen Normand was an expressive, pie-in-the-face, prat-falling comedienne. In her personal life, she was an animated free spirit, who cursed, smoked, and drank bootleg gin.
Born in Staten Island, New York possibly in 1892, Normand was one of three children in a working-class, Irish-French-Canadian family. One of the lesser-known things about her is that she was an accomplished pianist, taught by her father, Claude. Normand’s formal education was limited. She was a brief resident in a convent school. After returning home, Normand had a knack for being in the right place to get noticed. She modeled as a Gibson Girl at 14. She worked as an extra for the Biograph Motion Picture Studio with D.W. Griffith, later responsible for the controversial “Birth of a Nation” film and who was said to have slapped Normand on set. She later acted for Vitagraph Studios where she met Mack Sennett, who formed Keystone Film Studios and created the Keystone Kops.
In 1912, 20-year-old Normand moved to Los Angeles with Sennett, 32, and became Sennett’s main focus professionally and personally. In 1913, a young Charlie Chaplin was hired by Sennett. Shortly after hiring him, Sennett deemed Chaplin unimpressive and prepared to fire him. Normand apparently saw something in Chaplin that Sennett didn’t. Normand convinced Sennett to keep Chaplin and she became his mentor. Chaplin flourished under Normand’s guidance and they were a hit with audiences. A tenseness developed between the two the following year when Chaplin balked that Normand, a woman, would be directing him in “Mabel at the Wheel” (1914). Normand won the battle. That same year, Normand made 34 films. She and Chaplin would star in and co-direct at least a dozen films together. In his autobiography, Sennett said that Chaplin learned to direct from Normand. Whether it is true or not depends on whose autobiography you read. In 1915 Chaplin left Keystone to strike out on his own. After Chaplin’s departure Normand began working more with “Fatty” Arbuckle. Together the duo made between 16 and 32 films.
Despite her accomplishments, Normand was underpaid compared to other actors. Chaplin was making $1,200 per week after leaving Keystone. Mary Pickford, who was signed with Adolph Zukor at newly formed Paramount, earned $10,000 per week. Arbuckle left Keystone in 1917 and formed his own company and began working with Buster Keaton. In 1919, he signed a million-dollar contract with Paramount.
Normand earned $175 per week at Keystone but was encouraged by Sennett to write, direct and create “The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company.” The first film they made through the new studio was “Mickey,” but it was not released due to issues between Sennett and other stakeholders. Normand and Sennett hit a bitter spot when he was allegedly caught cheating after proposing. Normand licked her wounds by sailing abroad. She was rumored to have a cache of engagement rings, collected from men around the world. One of those men was the crown Prince Mohammed Ali Ibrahim of Egypt, who also commissioned Atkinson Perfumes to create the scent “Oud Save the Queen” for Normand.
While in Europe, Normand made connections and was assured that if things didn’t work out in America she would have a career in Europe. She returned to the States and signed with Sam Goldwyn for $1,000 a week. Sennett tried unsuccessfully to win her back. When Normand wasn’t receptive, he tried to replace her with newer and younger actors. Sennett also managed to get control of “Mickey,” and Normand returned. “Micky” was released in 1918 and became the most successful silent film in history. It was the first film to have merchandising. Despite much of the merchandising having Normand’s likeness, she received no compensation for it and no back-end money on ticket sales. “Mickey” grossed over eight million dollars and remained the number one ticket-selling film until “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was released in 1937. Despite not directing “Mickey,” Normand stopped listing herself in the Los Angeles telephone directory as an “actress” and listed her occupation as “director.”
In 1919, it was said that Normand expressed disappointment that Chaplin didn’t make her his co-star when he created United Artists with Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks. Chaplin’s autobiography downplayed Normand’s role in his earlier success. However, when Walt Disney was in film development with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he asked Chaplin’s input on Snow White’s physical features. Chaplin convinced Disney that Snow White should have dark hair and large dark eyes like Normand.
In 1921, after spending a lot of Goldwyn’s money and making several successful but unfulfilling films, Normand returned to Keystone for a renegotiated $3,000 per week and 25% of the profits. In November that year, the film “Molly O” was released. It was a hit and almost as successful as “Mickey.” Normand is said to have earned one million dollars from the film. In his 1954 autobiography, Sennett said it was the one film he wished he could have redone as a “talkie.” Some of Normand’s best work had been with Chaplin and “Fatty” Arbuckle. In September of that year, Arbuckle was charged with the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe. It resulted in Bible Belt theaters refusing to show Normand and Arbuckle reels even after he was acquitted. In today’s terms, Arbuckle was cancelled. Normand lost a bit of her shine through association. She was also battling health issues. She had suffered tuberculosis as a child, and it reoccurred several times. Additionally, she had caught the Spanish Flu and become very ill. Her weight had fluctuated like her health and she was waif-thin.
Having never finished school, Normand made up for it by reading the Classics. She had formed a friendship with film director, William Desmond Taylor. He had an extensive library and habitually loaned Normand books. In February 1922, Normand came by to get two books. Taylor’s butler found him shot dead the next day. Luckily for Normand, several neighbors told police they witnessed Normand drive away and saw Taylor go inside his bungalow. After being questioned and released by the police, a shaken Normand became the subject of gossip and ridicule. Taylor’s murder has never been officially solved. Sennett and Charlotte Shelby, the mother of Mary Shelby [Miles Minter], a teenage actor infatuated with Taylor, both gave deathbed confessions to his murder.
During the investigation, gossip rags claimed that Taylor died because he tried to get Normand off drugs and a greedy drug dealer killed him in retaliation. The rumor that Normand was a cocaine addict has endured for over a century. In 1985, Stevie Nicks sang about Normand and cocaine use. No one from Normand’s era has ever reputably claimed to witness her using or buying drugs. The linking of Normand and Taylor was resurrected with the 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard.” The main character’s name, “Norma Desmond” is a combination of Normand and Taylor’s names. Mabel Normand is mentioned three times in the film. The character is not a depiction of Normand but is a combination of several other actors from the era.
Normand’s last film with Keystone was in 1923, “The Extra Girl.” It was in some respects ahead of its time, being about the pitfalls of Hollywood. In a 1927 “Picture Play” interview, Chaplin noted that “Numa” a lion featured in the film, was led around on a short rope by the fearless Normand. Stories of her bravery were not as popular as scandals. The idea of any publicity being good publicity hadn’t caught on yet and trouble just seemed to find Normand. In 1924, Horace Greer, a.k.a. Joe Kelly, Normand’s chauffeur, who was alleged to have been in love with her, shot millionaire and amateur golfer, Courtland S. Dines, three times with Normand’s pistol. Thankfully Dines lived. Kelly turned himself in to the police. The scandal led to theaters pulling Normand’s films and she was banned in Ohio by the state film censorship board. A few months later Normand was named in a divorce suit for allegedly tempting a woman’s husband while Normand had been in the same hospital. The suit was dropped but Normand was attached to another scandal.
In 1925, a more settled Normand bought a modest mansion on North Camden Drive in Beverly Hills and dodged bad press. Unbeknownst to the public, Normand’s health was deteriorating but she continued doing her own film stunts. She had signed with Hal Roach Studios. While at a party, a drunk actor named Lew Cody proposed to Normand. Also drunk, Normand accepted and they eloped that night. The two remained married despite Normand publicly saying she wanted a divorce. During this time, Normand had begun to receive treatments at Pottenger Sanatorium in Monrovia, for the tuberculosis.
In September 1929, Normand entered Pottenger’s and would not leave. On February 10, 1930, after asking for and receiving the last rites, Mabel Normand passed away. Cody learned the news while at a party. Normand’s pall bearers included Sennett, D.W. Griffith, Chaplin, and Goldwyn. The next and last silent film to be made in that era starred Charlie Chaplin.
In her will, Normand left Cody one dollar. Her estate included several homes and a large sum of money and jewels which all went to her mother, Mary Normand. Unbeknownst to Normand, while she was in Pottenger’s, her father Claude had died. On the heels of the Depression, Normand’s vast collection of jewels was sold for pennies on the dollar. Ten years later, still wracked with grief over his sister’s death, Normand’s brother, Claude Normand, committed suicide. His wife, in turn, burned all of Normand’s remaining possessions and any memorabilia about her.
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