The greatest screen comedienne of the silent era, Mabel Ethelreid Normand was born in Staten Island, New York, on February 9, 1982. Given almost no formal education, she started working in her early teens for the Butterick dress pattern company, but soon her beauty attracted the attention of several commercial artists including Charles Dana Gibson. Her image was used to sell young women soft drinks, cold cream, and a host of other products.
At the suggestion of a friend, she decided to try film acting, largely because it paid more than modeling. Hired by the Biograph studio, Normand appeared in her first short in 1910. She soon developed a romantic relationship with Biograph director Mack Sennett and started working for his new studio, the Keystone Film Company, two years later. At Keystone, Normand became a staple in Sennett’s slapstick comedies. It is fabled that she invented a favorite Sennett bit when, during filming, she once impulsively slammed a pie into costar Ben Turpin’s face. Petite, pretty, and spirited, Normand became one of the studio’s bestknown stars.
Using her infiuence over Sennett, she insisted that she have a say in directing her own films. She essentially codirected a series of successful pictures with fellow star Charles Chaplin. Among them were Mabel at the Wheel (1914), Mabel’s Busy Day (1914), and Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1913), in which Chaplin debuted his famous “Little Tramp” character. When Chaplin insisted on complete control over his movies, Normand found a more fruitful collaboration with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Together, they directed seven popular “Mabel and Fatty” comedies.
Wanting more exposure in full-length films, Normand persuaded Sennett to found the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company in 1916. The company’s first effort, Mickey (1918), showcased Normand in a different type of role. She played a young orphan mistreated by others in her town, a part that resembled those that had made her screen rival MARY PICKFORD a star. Mickey proved incredibly popular and made millions, little of which Normand saw. Furious at Sennett, she left to work for the Samuel Goldwyn Company.
Without Sennett at her side, Normand’s tendency for high living grew more destructive. She spent her money extravagantly, loved all-night parties, and freely enjoyed drugs and alcohol. Her recreational habits had already begun to interfere with her work, when on February 2, 1922, they seemed to threaten her very career. On that night, director William Desmond Taylor, with whom she was romantically involved, was murdered. Normand was the last to see Taylor alive, and though she was cleared of any direct connection with his death, rumors spread that he had been protecting Normand from a drug dealer who was blackmailing her.
Coming on the heels of the 1921 Fatty Arbuckle scandal, during which her former co-star was accused of murdering a starlet, the incident fueled a popular backlash against Normand. Three years later, she was involved in a second scandal, when her chauffeur shot an oil millionaire in a dispute over her. This time, the bad press destroyed her career. Amidst several failed comeback attempts, Normand eloped with actor Lew Cody in 1926. His alcoholism appeared to increase her own alcohol problem. Her health failing throughout the rest of the 1920s, Normand died of tuberculosis on February 23, 1930, at the age of 37.
Fussell, Betty Harper. Mabel. New Haven, Conn.: Ticknor & Fields, 1982.
Sherman, William Thomas. Mabel Normand: A Source Book to Her Life and Films. Seattle, Wa.: Cinema Books, 1994.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914). Image Entertainment, DVD, 1999.