I’m excited to have a little bit of Keystone month coincide with the Anti-Damsel Blogathon, hosted by The Last Drive In and Movies Silently. This ‘thon is devoted to take-charge women of films, both in front of and behind the screen. And really, who could be more take-charge than the Keystone ladies? Thanks for reading, and I hope you take time to read more of the great posts this weekend!
Everyone has heard the name of the great Mabel Normand–the spunky, athletic gal with Gibson Girl looks and just a touch of wistful grace. Back in the early 1910s “Madcap Mabel” was arguably the Keystone Film Company’s breakout star. Even today, her name is synonymous with the comedy studio.
But Mabel wasn’t the only funny lady at Keystone. There were many gals who worked at the Fun Factory, and there were three in particular whose talents shined almost as bright as Mabel’s. They were fearless, smart, and funny performers–Keystone simply wouldn’t have been complete without them. Let’s shine some spotlights on the considerable talents of Polly Moran, Minta Durfee and Louise Fazenda.
Plucky, tomboyish little Polly Moran quickly became one of Sennett’s most popular stars in the mid- to late-1910s. Her long career would begin on the Victorian stage and end in the television era.
Born in Chicago on June 28, 1883, Moran was being educated at a convent for Irish children when she decided she was destined for the footlights. Leaving school, she started appearing in theaters in the Windy City and worked her way up to being a successful entertainer. She spent some years as part of a minstrel troupe, which was popular enough to perform in Paris and London in 1902, and also performed by herself as an “Irish comedienne.” She toured all over the U.S. and as far away as South Africa.
When Mack Sennett saw her performing in vaudeville at Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theater he lost no time in having her sign a contract. She gamely took part in all the roughhouse antics on the Keystone sets, and in 1917 she had her own series, playing a rootin’ tootin’ character called “Sheriff Nell.” People enjoyed the idea of a funny “lady sheriff,” and Moran was a nice fit for the role.
The first of these was Cactus Nell (1917). It was followed up by Roping Her Romeo (1918), which in turn was followed by several “sequels” including Sheriff Nell’s Tussle (1918) and Two Tough Tenderfeet (1918). These zany Western parodies often co-starred the cross-eyed Ben Turpin–he and Moran made for a surreal pair.
After leaving Keystone in 1918, Moran continued acting for Fox Sunshine and Carnival Comedies. In the late 1920s and early ’30s she and fellow larger-than-life personality Marie Dressler teamed up for several features. Moran would play supporting comic-relief roles in many films up until retiring in 1940, one of her best being in the classic Show People (1928). She would die of a heart disease in 1952, leaving behind husband Martin Malone and adopted son John.
Minta, sometimes nicknamed “Minty” by her former husband Roscoe Arbuckle, is one of the most overlooked actresses of the Keystone company. This amazes me, since she is by far one of its strongest, liveliest performers.
Araminta Estelle Durfee was born on Oct. 1, 1889 to Charles Warren and Flora Adkins Durfee. She was a native of Los Angeles and one of four children. At age 17 she started working as a chorus girl, and by 1908 was starring in musical revues. Around that same time she met fellow stage performer Roscoe Arbuckle. In August of 1908 they married. They would act in the same companies and even get to tour Asia together.
In 1913 they joined Keystone. Arbuckle would quickly become one of its biggest stars, and Durfee was often on hand to be his leading lady. She played a succession of outgoing “pretty girls” who knew how to give a masher a well-deserved sock on the jaw, as well as the occasional chorus girl or cabaret singer.
Durfee was a confident actress with a bright personality; she was equally good alone or alongside other performers. One of my favorite Minta scenes is in Ambrose’s First Falsehood (1914), which has a proto-Sons of the Desert plot. Believing the husband Ambrose to have perished in a train accident, Minta is mourning for him when the funeral director, thinking her vulnerable, makes a move. With barely contained fury she immediately smacks him in the face, shoves him violently out the door, and slams it. Then she goes back to mourning.
Durfee would separate from Arbuckle in 1917, and they officially divorced in 1925, although they remained friendly. They had been unable to have children, and Durfee would never remarry. After Arbuckle’s 1921 scandal broke Durfee traveled to his side almost instantly and was one of the few to publicly support his innocence throughout the ensuing trials.
Aside from her Keystone work, Durfee starred in two-reelers for Truart Pictures in 1919. She would then fall into obscurity, although she would act steadily in both extra and bit parts over the next few decades. In later years she remained a staunch Arbuckle defender, happy to talk to historians interested in her famous husband. She would also give lectures on silent films and conduct interviews, although she apparently had a colorful relationship with the truth. She died of a heart ailment in 1975.
Of all the gals who worked for Keystone, Louise perhaps came closest to equaling Mabel Normand’s popularity. The charming, girlish performer with “elfin features” was one of the most familiar faces of the day, and I dare say she might be my favorite Keystone actress.
The Italian, French, and Portuguese Louise was born June 17, 1895 in Lafayette, Indiana. Her family moved to Los Angeles where her father owned a grocery store. Hardworking from the get-go, Louise would spend her after school hours working various jobs, including delivering groceries around town in a horse-drawn wagon. In 1912 Fazenda decided to look for work at one of the burgeoning movie studios in town. She was hired on at Universal, where she acted in numerous Joker comedies until being snapped up by Keystone in 1915.
Fazenda usually played blue-collar girls who were kitchen drudges or gum chewing cashiers, but she could easily morph into a high society vamp. However, her most famous roles were of “country bumpkins.” She would play these with unpretentious glee in cutely unfashionable gingham dresses and spit curls.
A cheerful, quick-thinking actress who could improvise with the best of them, Fazenda became one of the most well-known faces in Hollywood. Comical photos of her were a staple in movie magazines. She also posed for ads and even contributed occasional articles. After her contract with Sennett ended in 1920, Fazenda continued to act for various studios and made a flawless transition to talkies. Her last film before retiring from the screen was The Old Maid (1939), also starring Bette Davis.
Fazenda was not only a gifted comedienne but an extremely intelligent person who loved collecting art and reading literature (especially Poe and Proust). She also devoted herself to charity work, including helping take care of sick children in hospitals and paying bills for strangers who she heard needed help. She would die in 1962 of a brain hemorrhage, leaving behind her son Brent and second husband Hal B. Wallis, with whom she had a long and happy marriage.
If you’d like to get some glimpses of these ladies’ talents, here’s a few shorts that are available online. Don’t hesitate to search YouTube for more!
This one with Polly is pretty scratchy, but she still shines through. There’s no soundtrack on this one, so play a little Scott Joplin in the background as you watch it (and that’s a little tip from me to use whenever you come across a silent comedy with a terrible soundtrack!).
Minta’s in a supporting role here, but it’s a memorable one (the video’s picture quality is very nice, but you’ll have to keep playing Scott Joplin):
And there’s a nice scene with Louise in the beginning of this short:
I hope you share the Polly, Minta, and Louise love with others so they’ll keep gaining new fans in this Internet age!
My main source for this post, and the others throughout Keystone Month, is Brent Walker’s comprehensive work Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory. It could not be more highly recommended!