Female Badasses in History: Mabel Normand (1892-1930)
Author’s note: A friend of mine inspired this post by pointing out in a post of her on another blog the issue of the (non)-canonization of female comedians of the silent film era. Since I view as the purpose of this blog to address exactly such problems, I want to thank my friend for inspiring this post.
Mabel Normand was a silent film actress and comedienne and one of the industries first female directors, screenwriters and producers. Not only did she star in films along side such well-known comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and write and direct several Charlie Chaplin movies, she also owned her own movie studio and can be remembered as one of the most popular and successful movie comediennes of her time.
Mabel Normand was born in New Brighton, New York in 1982. She grow up in extreme poverty and was forced to find work as a model before the age of sixteen. She entered the movie industry in 1909 working for D.W. Griffith’s Biography Company under director Mack Sennett who she was rumored to have an affair with. She left the company in 1912 to work for Sennett’s Keystone pictures. She co-founded the company and soon she became a fixture on the team of actors for Sennett together with two newcomers named Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. She wrote and directed as well as co-starred in several short-films together with the two and Historians agree about it, that it was Mabel that started off Chaplin’s carreer after his initial difficulties with acting for the screen.
In 1914 she and Chaplin starred in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, the first feature-length comedy.
In the second half of the 1910s she left Keystone but with the help of Sennett founded her own movie studio, Mabel Normand Productions. Unfortunately she was only able to produce one film called Mickey because she fell ill with bronchitis and split with Sennett professionally and personally.
In 1918 Mable signed with Goldwyn and went on to star in two very successful films despite the reported problems she and Goldwyn had, partly caused by Goldwyn’s sexist dealings with her, partly caused by her own taste for alcohol and parties.
The early 1920s were not a very good time for Mable. She was involved in two major scandals, the murder of director William Desmond Taylor and the shooting of an oil tycoon by her chauffeur and experienced health problems.
Mabel continued making movies until 1926 but as her health problems got worse, she was forced to retire. She died in 1930 at age 37 from tuberculosis. Today Mable Normand is not only remembered for her contributions as an actress but also as a writer and director. She made crucial contributions to starting Charlie Chaplin’s career and in the creation of his Tramp character. She also was very talented on both sides of the camera, as apparent in her film Won in a Closet, recently unearth by the New Zealand film archive, which she both starred in and directed. She is also a frontrunner in a long list of silent film comediennes that have been almost forgotten today for their contributions to the early movie industry.