Slate has relationships with various online retailers. If you buy something through our links, Slate may earn an affiliate commission. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change. All prices were up to date at the time of publication.
The following article was adapted from Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century, by Slate’s movie critic, Dana Stevens, out now from Atria Books. You can also see Dana Stevens at one of several upcoming tour dates.
During the 1910s, the same years that silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd were establishing themselves as movie stars, another phenomenon was taking place in the business that would not become visible—or, at any rate, be considered worthy of notice—for about a hundred years. More precisely, a trend that had characterized the medium’s first two decades was in steep decline. Women, who until around 1916 had wielded a degree of power in the film industry unmatched to the present day, were vanishing from the high places they had occupied and being shunted into the narrow space they would be allotted for the rest of the 20th century and into our own.
For that short span of time, though, what now seems like a shockingly high number of women held positions of real creative power in the world of film. Not to say that the gender balance of the industry even then was anywhere near equitable; as a cutting-edge technology with mass moneymaking potential, the new medium remained predominantly the province of men. But a higher percentage of American movies were directed by women in 1916 than has been true in any year since, a bracing reminder that gender discrimination in the film industry is about as old as the Ford Model T and, unlike that long-obsolete vehicle, still rolling.
A telling of the film history that might have been would start with Alice Guy, the French filmmaker who began as a secretary at Paris’ Gaumont studio in 1896. She was only 25 when she made her first film around two years later: a whimsical fantasy called The Cabbage Fairy that was one of the first-ever filmed narratives and also, at a running time of almost one minute, one of the longest yet made. Guy moved to Long Island to launch the Solax film company with her husband and collaborator Herbert Blaché, who would direct Keaton in The Saphead in 1920. By then she had directed hundreds of movies, including one of the world’s first features, a four-reel dramatization of the passion of Christ.
A few years later, Lois Weber became the most successful female filmmaker in early Hollywood and one of the first directors of any sex to receive billing above the title. Weber’s films, with titles like Too Wise Wives, Where Are My Children?, and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, were social-issue melodramas that lent middle-class respectability to such then-sensational topics as birth control, divorce, and “white slavery,” a genteelly racist euphemism for forced prostitution.
Then there was the “serial queen” craze. For a while in the mid-1910s every production company seemed to have its own fearlessly athletic female star: Pearl White at Pathé Frères, Kathlyn Williams at Selig Polyscope, Helen Holmes at Kalem. These prototypical New Women, often using their own first names as their characters’, chased would-be robbers on horseback or leapt from motorcycles onto the sides of moving trains. Holmes, the daughter of a railway engineer, played an indomitable railroad telegraph operator in the long-running serial The Hazards of Helen, also serving as producer, writer, stuntwoman, and animal trainer. In 1916 she told an interviewer for the Green Book that
if a photoplay actress wants to achieve real thrills, she must write them into the scenario herself. And the reason is odd: nearly all scenario-writers and authors for the films are men; and men usually won’t provide for a girl things to do that they wouldn’t do themselves. So if I want real thrilly action, I ask permission to write it in myself.
Holmes’ serials, primitively produced and clumsily paced though they are, remain “thrilly” to this day—not least because, in the few episodes that remain, Helen pursues her dual passions of railway telegraphy and bad guy–walloping with nary a romantic subplot in sight. Holmes may not match Keaton in acrobatic virtuosity, but she’s every bit his equal for sheer physical courage: Watch her ride a motorcycle at top speed off a high pier in The Wild Engine, or dangle over a railroad trestle to land on the roof of a moving train in The Escape on the Fast Freight.
The most powerful woman in Hollywood in the 1910s was unquestionably Mary Pickford, a one-woman media conglomerate who rose from a rough childhood spent touring the country in juvenile dramatic roles to become, by 1916, the highest-paid performer in all of show business. Barely 5 feet tall, with a round angelic face, a childlike frame, and a dense mass of pale-gold sausage curls, she was adored by audiences with a fervency that’s hard to comprehend in our celebrity-sated era. Photoplay critic Julian Johnson, whose long-lived Impressions column was a haikulike tribute to the charms of a different actress each month, compared Pickford to “dawn over a daisy-filled meadow; the spirit of spring imprisoned in a woman’s body; the first child in the world.” But Pickford’s appeal also lay in the implacable force of will she manifested both on screen and off: To quote the besotted Johnson, her “feminine fascination” and “luminous tenderness” were contained within “a steel band of gutter ferocity.” A colleague of Johnson’s at Photoplay, the splendidly named gossip columnist Delight Evans, answered his florid tribute with a simpler formulation: “But one does not understand Mary Pickford. One loves her.”
Pickford’s fame was so meteoric and her bargaining skill so legendary that she changed the balance of labor relations in the industry, helping to initiate the era of the movie star as free agent. In 1916, a few months after Chaplin signed a record-breaking contract with the Mutual Film Corporation for $670,000 a year, Pickford walked into Adolph Zukor’s office at Paramount and demanded the same salary, plus half the profits from her films, over which she was to have full creative control. Her total yearly take at Paramount was more than $1 million, or about $18 million in today’s money. Pickford’s massive popularity and formidable bargaining skill, as well as her close association with some of the industry’s most powerful men, allowed her to remain a formidable force in the film industry well after the careers of most of her 1910s colleagues had flamed out.
Any one of these women, and many others—the Russian theater legend turned avant-garde lesbian impresario Alla Nazimova! The writing-directing-acting-producing comedy powerhouse Fay Tincher, promisingly described in a 1918 press release as “a merciless autocrat when she directs men’s activities”!—would merit her own chapter in a fuller account. But when I think of the female talent that was draining from the film business just as Keaton was entering it, the face that comes to mind is Mabel Normand’s: that cameo-ready oval with huge dark eyes; a nervous, gummy smile; and the mobile features of a born comedienne who, if things had gone differently, might have had a life as long and a filmography as lasting as Keaton’s, Chaplin’s, or Lloyd’s.
Normand came as close as any woman in silent comedy to achieving that degree of success and creative freedom. To watch her films now—the majority have been lost, but dozens still survive and are widely available—is to ache for the future she might have had. But in the 38 years she had on earth, over half of them spent in the motion picture business, she got a fair bit done. She was the first star to have her name appear in the titles of her films, the first actress to serve as her own director, and among the first film performers, male and female, to start their own self-named production companies. In her own time, Normand was sometimes called “the female Chaplin”; her more popular nickname, “our Mabel,” gives a sense of the intimate connection she inspired in her fans. In a 1915 poll she was chosen as the top female comedy star, with Chaplin as her male counterpart and Pickford as the favored “leading actress.”
Back before movie actors were credited by name, the teenage Normand had become known as “Vitagraph Betty” for the character she played in a hit series of one-reelers for that company beginning around 1911: The Indiscretions of Betty, Betty Becomes a Maid, How Betty Won the School. The boy-crazy, practical joke–loving Betty delighted audiences, but some critics found her a tad earthy. Her cross-dressing antics in Troublesome Secretaries (1911) drew a comment from one reviewer that “attractive Mabel Normand as Betty is extremely funny,” though he wished she had not been “so free in her hugging and kissing, but had been more refined and dainty.”
After her time at Vitagraph, Normand spent a couple of years working for D.W. Griffith at Biograph, where Mack Sennett was then running the studio’s comedy arm. In addition to starring in a series of action-packed and mildly racy one-reelers for Sennett (The Diving Girl, The Fatal Chocolate, The Fickle Spaniard, Dashing Through the Clouds, Hot Stuff, Oh Those Eyes!), Normand appeared in five melodramas under Griffith’s direction. Often she was cast as the sultry brunette antithesis of the more ethereal blond heroines the director preferred. But Griffith, never a filmmaker known for his sense of humor, disliked the impetuous and impertinent Normand. She had been known to mock the director behind his back on set and to spur other actresses, among them Lillian Gish’s unsaintly sister, Dorothy, into rowdy behavior like going drinking after hours.
In 1912, Normand and Sennett, by then involved in real life as well as the movie business, had left Biograph to launch Keystone, an independent all-comedy studio in the thinly settled Los Angeles suburb of Edendale. During the next five years they churned out hundreds of rough-and-tumble two-reel comedies with a revolving stock company of actors. Performers who launched their careers at Keystone included not just slapstick greats like Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon but also cartoon-faced character comedians with durable audience appeal: Fred Mace with his perpetually exasperated eyebrows, Ford Sterling with his square beard and sputtering rage-takes. Other silent stars who got their start at Keystone were the future sex symbol Gloria Swanson and the popular eccentric comedienne Louise Fazenda, whose pigtailed, gingham-clad rube character was forever getting played by a succession of slick city cads.
All these talents passed through Keystone’s spacious studio on their way to other things. But Normand, the only female member of the company present at its founding along with Sennett, Sterling, and Mace, was the public face of Keystone. She was also, crucially for the studio’s early success, its public body. Her athletic curves caused a sensation when she appeared in The Water Nymph (1912) sheathed in one of the skintight full-body bathing suits known as Kellerman suits after the vaudeville swimming sensation Annette Kellerman. Normand could swim and dive like a seal, and performed her own stunts in countless water-based pratfalls. Her early aquatic feats made her the first in the venerable tradition of Sennett’s “bathing beauties,” who could be relied upon to periodically interrupt the movies’ action with their narratively unmotivated ball games played in racy-for-the-day beach getups.
Sennett, who sometimes appeared in his own films in the part of an ungainly oaf, was a colorful and eccentric figure, an Irish Catholic immigrant from rural Quebec known for conducting studio business from the e8-foot marble bathtub he had installed in his studio office. Sennett was a masterful public relations mythmaker and a keen spotter of new talent, even if he was too cheap to hold on to his strongest performers for long. But it was Normand’s mischievous, incandescent persona, which translated instantly to the screen, that served as both Keystone’s chief artistic asset and its main marketing draw. In 1915, Julian Johnson—the same Photoplay critic who rapturously praised business whiz Mary Pickford’s childlike freshness—described Normand as “a kiss that explodes in a laugh; cherry bonbons in a clown’s cap; sharing a cream puff from your best girl; a slap from a perfumed hand; the sugar on the Keystone grapefruit.” But behind the camera as well as in front of it, Normand’s role went beyond mere sweetening.
Director as a job title meant something less defined on a 1910s movie set than it does in our auteur-focused age. During Keaton’s years in the late teens at Arbuckle’s studio, the two more or less traded off directorial responsibilities depending on who was in front of the camera. Slapstick comedy “direction” also overlapped with what would now be called screenwriting, given that shooting scripts weren’t used at all for most early two-reelers. Sennett sometimes wrote up rough prose treatments of the storylines of upcoming films, but for the most part, comedies in the teens were something you made by taking a camera to a free outdoor location, working out ideas for gags and chases, then building a plot around them and shooting until you lost the light. Recalling his apprenticeship at Keystone, Chaplin wrote, “All we needed was a park bench, a bucket of whitewash, and Mabel Normand.”
Even at the Buster Keaton Studio a few years later, written scripts would be essentially nonexistent, though Keaton meticulously planned out the set design, action sequences, and general storyline with his production crew and gag-writing team. But at Keystone, two-reelers were churned out in a hurtling rush, often incorporating real-life events like car races or World’s fairs, with Sennett cutting every budgetary corner. Keystone casts and crews were not above sneaking onto the sets of other films in production to steal a scene or two. Normand remembered Thomas Ince, the celebrated producer of grand-scale Westerns, yelling at Sennett through a bullhorn to “get those infernal clowns off my set!” Actors had to hustle and improvise to set their performances apart from the mayhem that swirled around them, as first Arbuckle and then Chaplin managed to do.
By the mid-1910s, dramatic narrative film, now accepted as a “respectable” art form that drew increasingly middle-class audiences, was beginning to be seen as an author’s medium. This shift corresponded with the rise of the feature-length film, which in turn was tied to the emergence of name-brand dramatic directors like D.W. Griffith, Lois Weber, and Cecil B. DeMille. But the de facto “director” of an early two-reel comedy was often the star, the performer whose rhythms set the film’s pace and who had the best sense of how to use the camera to capture his or her comic choices.
Normand came not from vaudeville or the dramatic stage but from the world of modeling and advertisement. As a young teenager she had posed for influential fashion illustrators like Charles Dana Gibson and James Montgomery Flagg, embodying the “Gibson Girl” type in all her bicycle-riding, taboo-breaking, suffrage-demanding glory. Normand’s image had sold Coca-Cola, dress patterns, luggage, and lingerie. By the time she made an impression as Vitagraph Betty, she was already a master at deploying the power of her pretty, protean face. But Normand had higher artistic aspirations as well: Born into a working-class French Irish family on Staten Island, she had grown up with dreams of becoming an illustrator and had begun modeling to pay for art classes. Later, when she was rich enough to order frocks from Paris by the dozens and drive a car with a custom makeup table that folded down from the dashboard, she would travel with a full-time French tutor in her entourage and stock her home library with volumes by fashionable thinkers like Nietzsche and Freud.
In late 1913, the trade papers announced that “Mabel Normand, leading woman with Keystone, will hereafter direct every picture in which she appears. Madame Blaché has been the only woman director for some time, but she now has a rival in Normand who will both act and direct.” There’s a healthy dose of Sennett braggadocio in that statement. As we’ve seen, Alice Guy-Blaché was not the only woman holding the reins behind the camera in this era; in fact one of Lois Weber’s most innovative early one-reelers, Suspense, was released that same year, and both Pearl White and Helen Holmes had begun assembling the companies that would launch them as producers of their own action serials the following year. But there was still considerable novelty in the fact of a 21-year-old movie star—famous for her fearless diving stunts and the dark, expressive eyes one columnist described as “luminous orbs”—directing herself on screen. Given how loose the division of labor on a film set was at the time, it’s hard to know exactly how much authorial power Normand had in the hundreds of films in which she appears. She’s credited as sole director on about 16 titles and gets co-directing credit on a dozen more. But knowing how free a hand Sennett gave Normand in the studio’s day-to-day operations, it’s likely she had extensive input on any film she appeared in and many she didn’t.
Arbuckle told a Photoplay reporter visiting the set of one of his productions in 1916 that “Mabel alone is good for a dozen new suggestions in every picture.” Later in the same profile, Normand drove the reporter to the ferry, volunteering the information that she had directed any number of Keystone films (including some of Chaplin’s first on-screen appearances) and adding that she needed to hurry back to the studio to go over that day’s rushes with Arbuckle. This evidence of Normand’s creative clout at the studio notwithstanding, the article concludes on the image of the smitten writer bidding a reluctant goodbye to the “pretty little star,” still hoping to convince her to accompany him back on the ferryboat.
A story about one of Normand’s early collaborations with Chaplin at Keystone offers a telling snapshot of how and why women’s power in the industry waned after the mid-1910s. The title of the two-reeler in question was, appropriately enough, Mabel at the Wheel (1914). In it, Normand’s character, the girlfriend of a race car driver, winds up commandeering his car to win a race in his stead when he’s kidnapped by a gang of villains led by Chaplin.
As the project began, Normand was set to be the film’s sole director. Chaplin, new to films and only two months into what would turn out to be a yearlong stay at Keystone, had not yet committed to the “tramp” persona that would make his fortune, though he had played a similarly costumed character in two of his earlier outings, Mabel’s Strange Predicament (also directed by Normand) and Kid Auto Races at Venice. In Mabel at the Wheel he plays a blustering bad guy plainly copied from the stock character of Keystone co-founder Ford Sterling, who had recently left the company and whom Chaplin had been hired in part to replace.
Normand and Sennett had lured the 24-year-old stage comic into the movies after seeing him perform with Fred Karno’s touring pantomime troupe. By the time of Mabel at the Wheel, he had already worked under several male directors at Keystone and clashed with at least two of them. Only weeks into his time at Keystone, Chaplin was already gaining a reputation for his slowness on set and his perfectionist hardheadedness about doing things his way. These were qualities that would only intensify once Chaplin began making movies for himself. Chaplin’s reputation for foot-dragging was something that Keaton, chained for life to the two-shows-a-day vaudeville work ethic of his youth, would speak of in interviews with dry irony. Asked about his early impressions of Chaplin in 1958, he replied, “I was in love with him, same as everybody else.” But “following The [Great] Dictator,” Keaton continued, “was when he got good and lazy. By the time he’d decide on a subject and make it, it was three years later or something like that.”
On the set of Mabel at the Wheel in 1914, Chaplin came up against an obstacle he could not surmount: the humiliation of being directed by a woman, and a young, attractive and unusually powerful one at that. For a scene in which his character sprayed the racetrack with water to slow down Normand’s speeding car, Chaplin suggested a bit of business with the hose: What if he were to step on it by mistake, examine the nozzle to see what the problem was, and then spray himself full in the face?
As any half-competent film historian will recognize—and as Normand, who had by then made dozens of comedies, surely understood—this was quite literally the oldest joke in the business, having been used by the Lumière brothers in 1895 in one of the first moving pictures ever projected to an audience. (The brothers themselves copied the idea of the hose prank from a French newspaper comic.) When Normand rejected Chaplin’s idea—“We have no time! We have no time! Do as you’re told!” she cried, according to a lengthy and unwittingly self-incriminating anecdote in Chaplin’s autobiography—the studio’s new hire sat down on the curb and refused to work, shutting down production for the rest of the day.
Telling the story 50 years later, Chaplin recalls with unabated resentment that taking orders from his more experienced co-star “nettled me, for, charming as Mabel was, I doubted her competence as a director.” To be rushed by a male authority figure was one thing; only a page earlier, Chaplin had described veteran Keystone director George Nichols rejecting his gag ideas with the identical phrase: “We have no time, no time!” But to hear those words from the mouth of a 21-year-old girl playing opposite him as a spunky ingénue—and one who in the end defeats and spurns his own unsympathetic character? “That was enough,” writes Chaplin simply. He told her as much in so many words: “I’m sorry, Miss Normand, I will not do what I’m told. I don’t think you are competent to tell me what to do.” After the day’s shoot wrapped early, the crew, loyal to Normand, was furious: “One or two extras, Mabel told me afterwards, wanted to slug me, but she stopped them from doing so,” remembers Chaplin, providing evidence of her fair treatment of him even as he looks for an opportunity to pout. Back at the studio that night, while the comedian was removing his greasepaint, Sennett burst in and read him the riot act, taking Normand’s side: “You’ll do what you’re told or get out.”
Chaplin rode the streetcar home that night with a fellow Keystoner, speculating fretfully about the firing they both assumed was imminent. But the next day when he arrived at the studio, Sennett was conciliatory, encouraging him to “swallow his pride and help out,” including doing his best to get along with Normand. To add insult to injury their conversation was conducted in Normand’s dressing room, which was empty at the time because, writes Chaplin, “she was in the projection-room looking at the rushes”—as directors will do. Though Chaplin professed “the greatest respect and admiration for Miss Normand,” he did not apologize for his treatment of her the previous day, nor did he hesitate to reiterate to his new boss (and Normand’s then-fiancé!) his doubts about her basic competence—based only, he assured Sennett, on her extreme youth. (Normand was three years younger than Chaplin, and had about five years’ experience in filmmaking to his none.)
Chaplin’s telling of this story implies that the reins of the film in production were handed over to him by Sennett then and there, and also that he negotiated the right to direct himself in his next picture on the spot. In fact, Sennett himself seems to have taken over the direction of Mabel at the Wheel, sharing on-screen credit with Normand, and for the next several films she made with Chaplin, she continued to be credited as either the director or co-director. But though Chaplin’s framing of the story, like much of his autobiography, may err on the side of self-aggrandizement, his larger point stands: By the time Sennett took over Mabel at the Wheel, Normand’s real turn in the driver’s seat was almost up, while Chaplin’s was just beginning. After a number of successful directorial outings, some on her own and some in collaboration with Sennett, Chaplin, Arbuckle, or Nichols, Normand would receive her final behind-the-camera credit around a year later, on the also-appropriately-titled Mabel Lost and Won. By 1916, she was telling a Photoplay reporter—the same one who clung to the hope she’d skip out on work to join him on the ferry—that she had once been a Keystone director herself, but now preferred to focus on acting.
Whether or not the conversation between Chaplin and Sennett in Normand’s dressing room really happened as Chaplin describes it, his recollection of the Mabel at the Wheel incident—which takes up three solid pages of his autobiography!—shows clearly how and why the film industry began closing its top ranks off to women just as it became clear this new business was shaping up to be big business. In a pithier example of the same phenomenon, Sennett’s memoir erases the incident completely. Speaking of Mabel at the Wheel, he recalls simply, “I directed that one, and Mabel Normand acted in it.”
Sennett’s newfound patience with Chaplin, it turned out, had an economic motive. The morning after Chaplin’s and Normand’s on-set row, Sennett had received a telegram from the money men in the studio’s New York office, pressuring him to keep the Chaplin product coming, as the studio’s new acquisition was fast becoming a box-office draw. Other companies would soon come sniffing for Chaplin, and by the end of that year he would sign the first in a series of evermore-lucrative independent film contracts.
In a long serial interview given to Liberty magazine in 1928, two years after Normand had retired from pictures, and published after she died in 1930, she describes working with Chaplin in terms almost identical to those Keaton would use in recalling his process with Arbuckle: “We reciprocated. I would direct Charlie in his scenes, and he would direct me in mine.” But if Arbuckle and Keaton had a relationship in which the pupil quickly became his mentor’s equal, Normand and Chaplin had one in which the student effectively usurped the teacher’s place in the middle of an early lesson and got her demoted, while the principal (Sennett) nodded tacit approval. You could argue that Chaplin’s innate gifts were so ready to flower at that moment that further apprenticeship was unnecessary. But you might also maintain that in 1914 Normand’s gifts were at an equally crucial place in their development, and that undermining this young female director’s authority on set and in private with her producer-boyfriend was one of the most damaging things a rising star of the company could do. The reciprocity of relationship taken for granted in a partnership between two men was simply not guaranteed in the same professional relationship across genders.
In justifying his kneecapping of Normand to his reader and himself, Chaplin’s memoir strikes a half-apologetic if gratingly condescending note: “I also was susceptible to her charm and beauty and secretly had a soft spot in my heart for her, but this was my work.” Fifty-plus years after those words were written and more than 100 since Normand was subordinated on her own set, the obvious comeback still presents itself: What about her work? How might film history have been different if, after an apprenticeship with D.W. Griffith and a long collaborative relationship with both Sennett and Arbuckle, Mabel Normand had gotten the chance to direct and star in exactly the films she wanted to make, with the cast, crew, and stories she chose, the way every male comedian of her stature in her generation got to do?
That this never happened is not solely the fault of an increasingly patriarchal system of power transmission within the film industry. There was also Normand’s own chronically ill body, presented in the press as continually beset by vaguely defined maladies, while behind the scenes she struggled with the chronic tuberculosis that would kill her at age 37, and with an addiction to both alcohol and the opium-laced cough syrup she referred to as “my goop.” There may have been other drugs in the mix as well; it’s impossible now to conclude whether years of persistent tabloid innuendo about the “inside dope” on Normand’s fragile physical condition had any basis in fact. But there’s no doubt that in her later roles she seems altered, her face thin and drawn, her movements stiffer and more cautious.
Something else may have happened to shake Normand’s power at Keystone between 1914 and 1916, when her name dropped off the directing roster and became associated with leading ladyhood alone. According to a much-retold and possibly apocryphal story—albeit one recounted in credible detail 70 years later by Normand’s co-star and close friend Minta Durfee, the first Mrs. Roscoe Arbuckle—one afternoon in mid-1915, only weeks before her long-scheduled wedding to Sennett was set to take place, Normand walked in on Sennett in flagrante delicto with the newly hired bathing beauty Mae Busch. In the melee that ensued, Normand sustained a serious blow to the head, allegedly after Busch flung a vase in her direction.
Sennett’s blustering as-told-to autobiography offers a heavily sanitized version of this tale, in which he and an unnamed actress were simply having dinner to discuss her upcoming role and Normand, misunderstanding, stormed out and faked an injury afterward, going so far as to come to set the next day with her arm in a sling. The gossip columnist Adela Rogers St. Johns, who was as given to fabrication as she was fixated on her subjects’ suffering, claimed in her own memoir that she and Normand were having dinner at a seaside restaurant when the actress, distraught over Sennett’s cheating, attempted suicide by throwing herself off the Santa Monica Pier.
Whoever’s story, if anyone’s, is true, Normand did suffer a head injury that year serious enough to put her in the hospital for several weeks, while the press hyperventilated as if in training for the decade of Mabel Normand scandals still ahead. “MABEL NORMAND FIGHTING DEATH” blared a story in the Los Angeles Herald that attributed the wound to an unspecified on-set accident. (To contextualize the drama of that headline, it’s worth noting that earlier that year Photoplayers Weekly had run a story headlined “MABEL NORMAND SEIZED BY OCTOPUS” as well as an item that had the star single-handedly killing a 5-foot rattlesnake while picking flowers in a Los Angeles canyon.) Other trade papers gave the details of the supposed accident: While filming a wedding scene with Arbuckle, Normand had been hit in the head with a thrown boot. To add to the confusion, in an interview the year after the mysterious incident, Normand appeared to make light of the whole affair, explaining that her hospitalization had been the result of an on-set accident in which “Roscoe sat on [her] head by mistake.”
The proliferation of contradictory stories combined with Normand’s coy deflection make it seem likely that whatever took place late that summer was something both she and the studio wanted to keep under wraps. At any rate, this period seems to mark the end of Normand and Sennett’s romantic involvement, which, as both acknowledged, was rocky to begin with. Though Sennett continued as her producer until 1918 and returned to making films with her in the early ’20s, the severing of that connection may also have handicapped Normand in her rise in the film world (just as earlier female creators, including Lois Weber and Alice Guy, had at first found their professional fortunes tied to those of their producer husbands or partners).
Then came Normand’s peripheral involvement with a series of film industry scandals in the early 1920s. Though she had nothing to do with the 1921 hotel party that led to the death of actress Virginia Rappe and the three trials and eventual acquittal of Roscoe Arbuckle, her longtime partnership with the beloved comic at Keystone associated her in the public’s mind with the unwholesome off-camera doings of Hollywood funmakers. Less than a year later came the killing of the director William Desmond Taylor, a friend of Normand’s whom, by pure chance, she had visited at home on the evening of his still-unsolved murder, leaving only minutes before a neighbor overheard the shot that killed him. In 1924, with the Taylor murder still being periodically combed over by a sensation-hungry press, she was back in the tabloids when her chauffeur shot the oil-tycoon heir Courtland Dines after a long day of partying at which Normand, Dines, and Chaplin’s leading lady Edna Purviance were all present. Though the second shooting was nonfatal and Normand was cleared of all wrongdoing in both cases, the Taylor and Dines stories dominated headlines for months and permanently stained Normand’s reputation.
Just like Keaton, Normand was in many ways her own worst enemy, as self-destructive and impractical as she was gifted and driven. But unlike him, she was not protected by the system that began to emerge in the mid-1910s, which allowed stars like Arbuckle and Chaplin (and, in a rare feminine exception, Pickford) to act as free agents determining their own projects and salaries. Normand’s self-named company would produce only a single film, Mickey. That feature sat on the shelf for nearly two years because of financing problems and production delays. But when Mickey finally did come out it, it was a surprise hit. In a wave of popularity reminiscent of the “Chaplinitis” craze of 191516, Mickey hats, dresses, and dolls flew off the shelves as young female audiences flocked to identify with Normand’s rags-to-riches tomboy heroine. This being the days before licensing or organized product tie-in campaigns, the studio saw no profit from these self-started ventures; even as Mickey played to packed houses and inspired a hit song of the same name, the Mabel Normand Film Company was going bankrupt.
Sennett never quite got the hang of structuring a full-length feature, and Mickey plays like a series of two-reel comedies placed end to end, some more effective and original than others. But Normand’s presence—rambunctious, goofy, mercurial, uncontainable—runs through the indifferent action and tepid romance like a silvery thread. As with a surprising number of Normand’s films—or maybe not so surprising, given the time she was working in—the story is built around other characters’ attempts to limit and constrain her character’s freedom. In one of several climactic scenes, the dauntless Mickey poses as a male jockey to ride a racehorse to a near-spectacular finish—until, tellingly, she falls off her horse just short of the finish line, necessitating a rescue from a huge crowd of onlookers that includes her father and her most ardent (and ultimately victorious) suitor. Watching this scene, it struck me that the crowd rushing to care for the helpless Mickey also serves as a stand-in for the audience. Normand was the Marilyn Monroe of the early silent era, one of those tragic, funny, evanescent women a whole generation of viewers wanted to step through the screen and save. In the last two years of her life, spent in and out of a TB sanitarium, a nightly radio show signed off every night by wishing her good health, wherever she was.
Normand’s career was far from over when she stopped taking a credited role behind the scenes. But from the mid-1910s onward, she fashioned herself a movie star, an object of the camera’s gaze rather than a guider of it. After Mickey, she signed with an up-and-coming producer named Samuel Goldfish (soon to change his name to Goldwyn, of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) to make a string of forgettable light comedies in between posing for studio glamour shots. According to more unverifiable rumors, she also may also have gotten pregnant by Goldwyn, resulting in either an abortion or a late-term miscarriage; at any rate, the fact that her new producer was in constant pursuit of Normand is documented in several sources.
Normand’s last feature film was The Extra Girl, directed by Sennett in a late-career attempt to remake himself as a director of sensitive romantic comedies. Its story, perhaps more than in any film Normand made, stands as an ironic commentary on the actress’s short-circuited career and life, even though the trajectory of the main character is very different from her own. In what was essentially a remake of the 1913 Keystone one-reeler Mabel’s Dramatic Career—Sennett loved nothing if not recycling old material—she played an ordinary girl who longed to go to Hollywood and get her start in the movies. In Mabel’s Dramatic Career, the fictional Mabel, a lowly scullery maid, had been successful at turning herself into a version of the real-life star, much to the chagrin of her spurned country-boy suitor (played by Sennett). The Extra Girl ends on a less triumphant note: After struggling behind the scenes as a wardrobe assistant, Normand’s character, Sue Graham, eventually gives up her dreams in order to marry her childhood sweetheart (Ralph Graves). The last scene jumps ahead by several years to show Sue as a contented young mother, watching an old screen test of herself on a home projector with her husband and child. In the film’s last line, she cradles her toddler in her arms, saying, “Darling, hearing him call me ‘mother’ makes me happier than any career ever could.”
Normand continued working into the ’20s, ending her career making two-reelers at the Hal Roach Studios, soon to be the home of Laurel and Hardy and the Little Rascals. Of the few films that survive from this period, at least one, Should Men Walk Home?, is quite good, even if her deteriorated physical state is detectable under the clown-white makeup she adopted in this period. But as Normand’s sporty Gibson Girl persona was replaced in popular taste by the sleeker, more jaded flapper type, demand for her particular brand of impish charm decreased. Her last released film, the now-lost short One Hour Married, came in 1927. The previous year, increasingly impaired by both tuberculosis and dependence on alcohol, she impulsively married the comedian Lew Cody, a good friend of Buster Keaton’s, her former Mickey co-star, and a fellow full-time drinker. The pallbearers at her funeral in early 1930, including Cody, Sennett, Griffith, Chaplin, and Arbuckle, were a lineup of fellow luminaries from the silent era that had just passed. All of them—even the disgraced Arbuckle, whose career had been cut short by scandal when he was just 34, and who would die of heart failure at 46—got longer lives and more chances at self-reinvention than she did.
In that long 1928 interview for Liberty magazine—a conversation that was as candid as it was, in all likelihood, because Normand knew she was running out of time—she described her first memory of Sennett at Biograph in far less romantic terms than those he would use in speaking of her for the remainder of his long life. The second sentence of his autobiography, written almost 40 years after their breakup, reads, “Once upon a time I was bewitched by an actress who ate ice cream for breakfast”; in the book to follow, he returns again and again to his regrets about never having set up housekeeping with the elusive Normand, at one point observing that “maybe I wanted to marry a wife and not an actress.” For her part, Normand, opening up to the film journalist and future Warner Bros. animator Sidney Sutherland, seems less focused on romantic than professional regrets. She recalls how on her first day on a Griffith film set, she found herself in costume as a page, “holding up the train of a noblewoman.” “My silk-clad legs embarrassed me, and while I was rehearsing I noticed a stocky, red-faced Irishman leaning against the wall, looking at me and grinning.” When she looked back after shooting the scene, Sennett was gone. “I remembered his face, though, and years later I made a tremendous fortune for that Irishman.”
From Camera Man by Dana Stevens. Copyright © 2022 by Dana Stevens. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.