Normand, Mabel (c. 1893–1930)

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Normand, Mabel (c. 1893–1930)

American actress and comedian of the silent screen . Name variations: early in career, worked under name Mabel Fortescue. Born in New York, Massachusetts, or Rhode Island, on November 10, 1893 (also seen as November 2, 1892, and November 16, 1894); died of tuberculosis in Monrovia, California, on February 23, 1930; one of the surviving three children (two girls and a boy) of Claude G. Normand (a stage carpenter and pit pianist) and Mary J. (Drury) Normand; married Lew Cody (a screen actor), on September 17, 1926; no children.

Selected filmography:

Over the Garden Wall (1910); Picciola (1911); Betty Becomes a Maid (1911); Subduing of Mrs. Nag (1911); The Squaw's Love (1911); The Diving Girl (1911); Her Awakening (1911); The Eternal Mother (1912); The Mender of Nets (1912); The Fatal Chocolate (1912); (also codir.) Tomboy Bessie (1912); Oh Those Eyes! (1912); Cohen Collects a Debt (1912); The Water Nymph (1912); The Flirting Husband (1912); Mabel's Adventures (1912); Mabel's Stratagem (1912); The Mistaken Masher (1913); Mabel's Heroes (1913); A Red Hot Romance (1913); Her New Beau (1913); Mabel's Awful Mistake (1913); The Speed Queen (1913); For Love of Mabel (1913); Mabel's Dramatic Career (1913); The Gypsy Queen (1913); Cohen Saves the Flag (1913); The Gusher (1913); In the Clutches of the Gang (1914); Mabel's Stormy Love Affair (1914); (also dir.) Won in a Closet (1914); Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914); (also co-dir. with Sennett) Mabel at the Wheel (1914); (also co-dir. with Chaplin) Caught in a Cabaret (1914); (also dir.) Mabel's Nerve (1914); The Fatal Mallet (1914); (also co-dir. with Chaplin) Her Friend the Bandit (1914); (also co-dir. with Chaplin) Mabel's Busy Day (1914); (also co-dir. with Chaplin) Mabel's Married Life (1914); (also dir.) Mabel's New Job (1914); Gentlemen of Nerve (1914); Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914); (also co-dir. with Eddie Dillon) Mabel's and Fatty's Wash Day (1915); (also co-dir. with Dillon) Mabel's and Fatty's Simple Life (1915); The Little Band of Gold (1915); (also codir. with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle) Fatty and Mabel Viewing the World's Fair at San Francisco (1915); The Little Teacher (1915); My Valet (1915); Stolen Magic (1915); Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916); Bright Lights (1916); Dodging a Million (1918); The Floor Below (1918); Joan of Plattsburg (1918); The Venus Model (1918); Back to the Woods (1918); Mickey (1918); Peck's Bad Girl (1918); A Perfect 36 (1918); Sis Hopkins (1919); The Pest (1919); When Doctors Disagree (1919); Upstairs (1919); Jinx (1919); Pinto (1920); The Slim Princess (1920); What Happened to Rosa (1920); Molly O (1921); Oh Mabel Behave (1922); Suzanna (1923); The Extra Girl (1923); One Hour Married (1926); Raggedy Rose (1926); Should Men Walk Home? (1927).

Considered by some to have been one of the greatest comedians of the silent screen, Mabel Normand was also one of the film industry's early woman directors, taking the helm in many of the early Keystone comedies she made for Mack Sennett, and co-directing some of her later films with Charlie Chaplin, Eddie Dillon, and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Barely five feet tall, with huge dark eyes and curly brown hair, Normand would do anything for a laugh, and is credited with establishing a classic slapstick gesture when she impulsively threw a custard pie at the unsuspecting actor Ben Turpin. The actress, a stickler for detail, also did all of her own stunts, once fearlessly hurling herself off a high cliff into a river to pursue a canoe manned by her supposed enemy. At the height of her success, Normand began to live her personal life on the edge as well, and in the end sacrificed both her health and her career. She died in her mid-30s of tuberculosis.

Facts about Normand's early life are obscure; she was born around 1893 in New York, Massachusetts, or Rhode Island (her mother had family in Providence), one of three children of an itinerant vaudeville pianist and a working mother. A rumor once surfaced that she was educated in a Massachusetts convent, but that is highly unlikely. As Mack Sennett once observed, "Her formal education was as sketchy as shorthand." When she was in her early teens, the family moved to Staten Island, New York, and Normand went to work as an illustrators' and photographers' model. She posed for famous artists Charles Gibson and James Montgomery Flagg, who did covers for such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post, and appeared in numerous advertisements, including some for Coca-Cola. At 16, encouraged by a friend, she applied for film work at Biograph, then located on East 14th Street in New York City. There, she met producer-director Mack Sennett, who not only hired her on the spot but became her on-again, off-again paramour for years. Their tempestuous relationship was the subject of the 1974 musical Mack and Mabel, starring Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters . By the time she appeared in The Diving Girl (1911), clad in a daring pair of black tights, she was an unqualified star. When Sennett left Biograph in 1913 to join the Keystone Film Company in California, he took Normand with him. At the new studio, Normand encountered Charlie Chaplin, who appeared with her in some 11 pictures, including Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914), in which he introduced his famous Little Tramp character. Although Normand was frequently called a "female Chaplin," it may well have been that Chaplin was a "male Normand." "Perhaps [Chaplin's] greatest debt is owed Mabel Normand," writes Sam Peeples in Classic Film Collector. "A study of her films, made before Chaplin came to this country, show entire routines, gestures, reactions, expressions that were later a part of Chaplin's characterizations."

The successful six-reeler Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) was Normand's last picture with Chaplin, after which Sennett starred her with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in the successful "Fatty and Mabel" comedies. By 1916, however, Normand was pressing for better parts, and Sennett responded by setting up the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company for that purpose. The first production under the new company was the feature film Mickey, which Sennett shelved until 1918, although it contained Normand's best performance to date. Portraying a country tomboy up against high society, she delivered a delightfully layered performance, proving that her talent went far beyond slapstick. When it was finally released, the picture was an enormous financial success, although Normand received little of the take.

In the meantime in 1917 Normand moved to the Goldwyn studios, becoming one of its first name stars and earning a reputed four-figure weekly salary. Over a three-year period, she made 16 feature films for Goldwyn, including The Venus Model (1918), Peck's Bad Girl (1918), Sis Hopkins (1919), and The Slim Princess (1920), none of which were as successful as her earlier short films. Separated from Sennett for the first time in seven years, Normand acquired an increasingly extravagant lifestyle that included all-night parties and alleged drug addiction. She also became more and more undisciplined and difficult to work with, frequently causing costly production delays. When Sennett requested that she be released from her contract to make another picture with him, Goldwyn, who supposedly was also in love with the star, let her go. Together again, she and Sennett made Molly O (1921), which seemed destined for even greater success than Mickey until Normand's fast living unexpectedly caught up with her.

On the evening of February 2, 1922, the prominent director William Desmond Taylor was found shot to death in his Hollywood bungalow,

following a visit by Normand (as well as a separate visit by Mary Miles Minter ). Normand was reportedly romantically involved with him. As the murder investigation got under way, it was rumored that Taylor had been killed because he was protecting Normand, who was being blackmailed for drug addiction. Although there was never any proof of the accusations, and the murder remained unsolved (though many think the killer was Charlotte Shelby , Minter's mother), the case led to public outcry and a brief banning of Normand's films.

Sennett stood by Norman during her ordeal and starred her in two films, Suzanna (1923) and The Extra Girl (1923). The latter had just been released, and Normand seemed on the brink of a comeback, when a second scandal erupted. This time, Normand's chauffeur, Horace A. Greer, shot wealthy Hollywood millionaire Courtland S. Dines, supposedly with Normand's gun. The actress' career was further damaged and never got back on track.

In 1925, following vocal coaching to try to improve her tiny voice, Normand made her stage debut in The Little Mouse, which never made it to Broadway. She then went to work for Hal Roach, making several two-reel comedies, but they never caught on. On September 17, 1925, Normand unexpectedly eloped with actor Lew Cody, who had played the villain in Mickey. Stephen Burstin characterizes the marriage as a "spur-of-the-moment stab at happiness." Just two years later, however, doctors discovered that the actress had tuberculosis, and she spent the next three years in and out of hospitals. Up until her death, Normand was haunted by the murder that destroyed her career. "Do you think God is going to let me die and not tell me who killed Bill Taylor?" she asked a friend from her deathbed.

Sixty-seven years after her death, Normand's English great-nephew, the Reverend Stephen Normand, sold the star's remaining effects at auction in London. The collection, which fetched $5,000, included around 100 photographs, Normand's small pocket address book and, most curiously, three carbon typescripts, with hand-written changes, of Mack Sennett's autobiography King of Comedy (1954). As for Normand's tarnished image, her great-nephew said: "She was actually a very kind and generous woman. I have spoken to many scholars and people who have known Mabel, and no one has a bad word to say about her. She became entangled in some famous scandals of her day, but she was simply someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time."


Acker, Ally. Reel Women. NY: Continuum, 1991.

Burstin, Stephen. "Mabel Normand's Remaining Effects Examined," in Classic Images. No. 267. September 1977, pp. 22–23.

Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. Vol. 16. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

suggested reading:

Fussell, Betty Harper. Mabel, 1984.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Normand, Mabel (c. 1893–1930)

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