“That woman there is the director of this movie, I said to my wife. “She died a cokehead.”
Almost immediately I got one of those pangs you feel after saying something you shouldn’t have. While it was true the woman who directed and co-starred in the Charlie Chaplin short comedy we were watching – 1914’s Mabel’s Strange Predicament – was reputedly a druggie, my glibness wasn’t fair. Odd how something relatively minor, like a brief flash of guilt, can lead to the strangest of journeys. I was watching Chaplin films at the time because I wanted to write something about Chaplin. I was most certainly not interested in writing about Mabel Normand, the rumored junkie who had been Chaplin’s early director and co-star. Yet not long after I had referred to her as a “cokehead”, I found it was Normand, not Chaplin, who was demanding my attention.
She was pretty, Normand, with her long hair and heavy eyelids. There was also something wholesome and warm in her screen presence. Long story short – I never got around to viewing all of Chaplin’s films. I made sure, however, to view all of Normand’s available films at least once. Frankly, I found there is a lot to write about Normand, up to and including the fact that the “druggie” charge – largely accepted as fact for a century now – stands without a single hint of solid evidence with which to back it up. The quirky silent film star, screenwriter, director, and producer, it seems, was smeared. She herself would have admitted she was no angel – but Normand was eons away from the dark image slapped onto her persona – an image that has lasted for roughly a century now.
“Mabel Normand,” Julian Johnson, an editor of fan magazine Photoplay (1921-80) wrote in happier times, “a kiss that explodes in a laugh; cherry bon-bons in a down’s cap; sharing a cream-puir with your best girl; a slap from a perfumed hand; the sugar on the Keystone grapefruit.” To say Normand did well for herself early on as a silent screen comedian would be an understatement. Indeed, she was an enormous star of the early Hollywood era, a legitimate household name whose fame, wealth, and influence rivaled that of Mary Pickford herself.
To make things even more compelling, Normand – a humble product of the Staten Island shore who hadn’t finished freshman year of high school – had no background in the theater when she started making films. She taught herself comedy, then excelled at it as a part of Keystone Studios’ lineup of off-the-wall performers. What made Normand’s comedies with Keystone so notable (and popular) is that they were, well, insane. People hit eat other with bricks, pies, and bullets. Rarely was someone seriously harmed and rarer still was anyone ever killed. Normand was no diva. She was a performer literally willing to get herself dirty if the part required it for a laugh. My personal favorites of Normand’s Keystone flicks were her films with the insanely underrated and criminally forgotten Ford Sterling. Check out 1913’s The Speed Kings or that year’s A Muddy Romance to marvel at the sheer high-energy, surreal craziness of these two onscreen.
Of course, Normand became more well known for working with Chaplin and the unfairly maligned Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Still, her wide eyes, daring stunts (she was known to do her own), and shocked expressions – replete with a partially open mouth frozen into an oval of surprise – allowed Normand to stand firm alongside any comedian of her era. “Miss Normand’s versatility and daring,” gushed Reel Life magazine, “her brilliant beauty and her wonderful gift for the humorous, make her one of the most fascinating actresses in pictures or the legitimate.”
By the time the world-changing horrors of the first world war had come and gone, the diminutive Normand had opened her own studio and given birth to a feature-length film called Mickey which was released in 1918. It became the number one blockbuster in history until the late 1930s. By adding characterization and a liberal dose of drama to her unique brand of comedy, Normand grew as an artist, as well as a Hollywood pioneer. The young star, who at the age of 14 had been toiling in a Brooklyn sweatshop, became an artistic and pop-cultural force to be reckoned with.
Why, then, is Normand largely forgotten today?
In large part, it has something to do with simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. After the teens of the last century turned the corner into the Roaring Twenties, Normand became a close friend of film director William Desmond Taylor. Although no romance was involved, Normand seems to have viewed the well-read older man as a cultural and literary mentor. One evening, in February of 1922, Normand went to Taylor’s Hollywood home to pick up a book to read. It was the last time she, or anyone else, saw Taylor alive. A short time after Normand and her chauffeur pulled away from Desmond’s home, an assassin entered and shot him to death.
To this day, the identity of the killer remains unknown.
Normand was cleared as a suspect by police, but rumors soon circulated that Desmond had been to “dope” parties and was part of the local drug scene. Since she was not only the last person to see him alive but also a close friend, Normand too became a suspected doper. As everyone well knows today, lies become truth when those lies can advance the careers of some in the media and the reputations of those determined to be movers and shakers.
Of course, Normand did herself no favors by attending a New Year’s gathering a few years later where her new chauffer ended up shooting a millionaire pal of hers named Cortland Dines – with a gun owned by Normand herself, no less. Dines survived, and the chauffer ended up becoming a chain-gang escapee who admitted to acting alone…but there had been booze about at that prohibition-era party. And, of course, there were still those rumors of “doping”. Before she knew it, Normand was seeing her films banned from theaters across America. In a furious act of what we today call virtue signaling, theater owners, politicians, and civic groups quickly and loudly separated themselves from the once-beloved star.
Joseph Walsh of the Motion Picture Theaters’ Association claimed: “we will book no more of her pictures until it is definitively established that she (Normand) was guilty of no wrongdoing in the case.” The mayor of New Britain, Connecticut pointed out to the press how “sickening” it was that a “local theater” had recently shown a Normand film. Theater owners in states across the country decided that Normand should now be persona non grata, lest her immorality infect the impressionable through her innocuous films. Of course, Normand did have her defenders, such as Julia Harpman of the Chicago Tribune, who wrote that “Mabel is charged with many sins of which she was not guilty.” Such a nuanced outlook, however, couldn’t withstand the onslaught of whispers and innuendo.
Normand kept making films until the late ’20s but her glory days were clearly behind her. What’s more, her body was being ravaged by tuberculosis. She ended up dying of the disease in a California sanitarium on 23 February 1930, aged 37. And now she’s forgotten by most. What’s more, accusations of drug use still run wild among those too few who are familiar with her story. Spend even a short time on Google searching for material on Normand and you’re apt to read about her supposed drug habit and wild ways.
Again, Normand herself would tell you she wasn’t a saint, but her public image – first in life, now in death – is nonsense. Here was a hardworking, talented film pioneer who – although she loved gin and playing pranks – was also a woman of faith (she remained a devout Catholic throughout her life) who kept her lavish generosity secret, lest her charity become self-serving. Oh, and she was funny. Very funny. Fortunately, much of Normand’s work is readily available and is well worth checking out.
Just watch out for the flying bricks.
Harpman, Julia. “The Real Inside Dope on the Movie Stars– Mabel Normand the Victim of an Unkind Fate”. Chicago Tribune. 6 July 1924.
Johnson, Julie. Impressions. Photoplay. June 1915
Mabel Normand – Keystone. Reel Life. 16 May 1914
“Theaters of State Ban Discredited Film Stars – Association Votes to Refuse Pictures in Future Where Principals Have Been Involved in Unwholesome Publicity”. The Hartford Courant. 9 January 1924