Decades before the likes of Lucille Ball, there was another comedienne who was every bit as well known and influential–the “madcap” Mabel Normand. She was one of the earliest screen comediennes, and for a time was the biggest. She coached Roscoe Arbuckle and directed Charlie Chaplin when they first arrived at Keystone. She was loved by moviegoers the world over. And yet, strangely, almost no books have been written about her. One “major” biography came out over 20 years ago, and…left a lot to be desired. (References and bibliographies are useful things.)
But cue the trumpets, for at long last a new biography is coming out, the result of seven years’ worth of research by author and enthusiastic fan Timothy Dean Lefler. It’s detailed, it’s sourced, it even has appendices. It gives Mabel the kind of thorough appreciation that’s been needed for decades. Is it, perhaps, definitive? Well, let’s take a look.
Mabel has always been a little remote to me. Unlike stars like Lillian Gish or Mary Pickford, I found Mabel harder to “know” as a person. On one hand, there’s the stories of the party-loving actress drinking and cursing, on the other hand, the former Gibson Girl we see on the screen often appears self-composed and graceful–even when pratfalling. Lefler shows us both of these sides of Mabel, and how they’re linked by a mischievous, warm-hearted nature. Indeed, “mischievousness” seems to be the key to understanding the lively young woman. One journalist said she reminded him of “a dancing mouse; whirling all the time”.
Lefler takes us through her early life and rise from modelling to screen fame, making it clear what a high status she achieved as a film star. Silent fans who know her mainly from those relentless “drug use” rumors will be stumbling upon plenty of enlightening information. How many people today know that her feature Mickey (1918) was one of the biggest hits of the whole era? Or that she once made $4000 a week, more than many Americans made in an entire year? Or that she was so generous that she once tipped a cook $100 for a piece of apple pie?
The book is also packed full of fun anecdotes and trivia about everything from her love of flying in airplanes to her interactions with famous coworkers like Charlie Chaplin and Marie Dressler. (Charlie thought she was the bees knees but Mabel was very clear about not returning his affections.) I was also happy to see some discussion of her Catholicism and the role faith played in her life (being a fellow Roman Catholic). My new favorite Mabel quote is: “I am a Catholic, but don’t hold that against the church.”
The famous “Mack and Mabel” romance is thoroughly covered, as is the most common story of how they ultimately broke up (the hard-to-verify one involving Mae Busch). Mabel had been so beloved by her Keystone coworkers that when she was recuperating from the injury received that evening, comedian Charlie Murray reportedly grabbed the venerable King of Comedy by the shirt collar and told him, “If that little girl dies, you son of a b****, you better not set foot around here.” (Amazingly bold, if true!)
While Lefler takes us step by step through the familiar William Desmond Taylor and Courtland Dines scandals, we see them through the valuable perspective of Mabel’s eyes. (In the appendices he even includes transcripts of her testimonies in court, very useful material for any Mabel researcher.) For the first time we can see–really see–the effect they had on her and her career, and how tragic it was for her to have such an unrelenting stream of bad luck.
For me, the Eternally Picky Silent Fan, there’s a few things I wish had been studied more closely. One thing I was hoping to see was a thorough examination of Mabel’s rumored “cocaine addiction.” Why? Because of all the unsubstantiated rumors about silent stars, it’s one of the most widespread, always at the expense of talking about her work. I’m not kidding. Everyone–including many wonderful film historians–seems to assume she was a cocaine addict, no questions asked, no suspicions of accuracy raised. It’s the darnedest thing. It’s gotten to the point where Stevie Nicks wrote a song she said was inspired by Mabel’s (nonexistent) “death from cocaine” and few people said boo. (Although there’s some hope out there.)
Much of the “proof” for drug use has to do with the way she slowly wasted away for years until her early death–from the slow-working disease tuberculosis. Lefler does address TB’s effect on her health and mentions that there’s no hard proof of her using drugs–although the mention is brief and a bit vague. Oh, for the missed opportunity to investigate this subject even further, and perhaps lay some misconceptions to rest!
There’s also a couple details I found disconcerting, although they pop up in other biographies too. One is the assertion that “Keystone was the narcotic-dealing capital of Hollywood, with cocaine being the main attraction.” While there was probably some use of substances on the lot (which many of the Keystone employees were likely unaware of*), I’m concerned that this is going to give readers the impression that Roscoe Arbuckle, Ford Sterling, Slim Summerville, etc. were all snorting away before the cameras started rolling and having deals go down behind the Cyclorama. Words are strong, folks. I was also sad to see the “Jack Pickford + syphilis + drugs + Olive Thomas” rumors being spread a little further. And yes, the usual anecdotes from Adela Rogers St. Johns and Anita Loos make appearances.
Still, these quibbles aside, there’s no doubt that Lefler’s focus is definitely and appropriately on Mabel–both as a film star and as a human being. This is very welcome. We come away from his book understanding not only how wildly popular she was, but how important she was to Hollywood. And we see her more clearly as the lively, generous soul that she was. There’s still some wiggle room for future researchers (and I would love to see a study of Mabel’s features compared to Mary Pickford’s), but Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap has set a new standard. It was published by McFarland (their order line is 800-253-2187) and can also be purchased on Amazon.
* An Eddie Sutherland quote is the frequent reference for Keystone drug use stories. Sutherland stated that Keystone actor Hughey Fay brought drugs to Hollywood: “He put Mabel on the junk, and Wallace Reid, Alma Rubens. He was the pusher.” However, both Reid and Rubens had been prescribed morphine by doctors for physical ailments, which sadly caused their addictions (morphine prescriptions weren’t unusual in that era). This casts some doubt on Sutherland’s assertions about Mabel. Brent Walker, in his Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory, came to the conclusion that: “…It was probable that…the drug subculture was a minority at Keystone, with most employees going about their business oblivious of, or at least uninvolved with, such activity” (74). This seems more probable–and reasonable–to me.