Charlie Chaplin is known as possibly one of the most famous funny men in film history but what of the woman that helped make him. Mabel Normand was a woman who pushed boundaries in film history in the early 1900s. She was a director, an actress, and quite a controversial figure. Let’s have a look at her career and her downfall.
Mabel Normand was born in 1892 in New York. She was one of the first leading performers to not come from a stage background as she spent her pre-film years as an artist’s model before being picked up by the studios at age 16. She worked as a model for Charles Dana Gibson the creator of the iconic “Gibson Girl” image. She started work at the famed silent filmmakers, Vitagraph studios which were the first studio to ever use stop motion animation. She stayed there for a short period of time but her career wouldn’t really kick off until 1911. That year she starred in D. W Griffith’s film “Her Awakening” where she was noticed by Mack Sennett who would launch her career to its lofty heights and be in an on and off relationship with her for a long time.
Sennett then founded Keystone Studios where he brought Mabel and there she flourished. She soon dropped her role as the bathing beauty and became known as a comedienne. Here she started to direct and write her own work and start working with some pretty major celebrities including Boris Karloff and Laurel and Hardy.
But she is well known for one particular man she mentored and directed wrote for throughout her career, Charlie Chaplin. She even directed his famous character “The Tramp” in his first film “Mabel’s Strange Predicament” however due to scheduling it was released as the second “The Tramp” film.
By this point, she had proved herself to be one of the better funny women of the film industry both in front of and behind the camera. She directed and co-directed around 14 films and wrote most of them with her frequent collaborators Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle. All of these films star her as a version of herself as she goes about all sorts of adventures.
In 1914 She would also star in the first-ever feature-length comedy ”Tillie’s Punctured Romance” alongside Chaplin and Marie Dressler. Dressler too was a big comedienne of the time and would go on play Tillie again in three more films.
Mabel Normand sits happily in the world of early female directing legends alongside other famed women including the rumored first female director Alice Guy-Blanche, Lois Weber, and Frances Marion. However, like most of them, many of her films are lost and she is wholly underappreciated.
Much of this however has a root in the scandals she was embroiled in that helped put an end to her groundbreaking career. Firstly there was the shooting of William Desmond Taylor her close friend in 1922 for which she was a suspect but was ruled out. Then there was the 1924 shooting where Normand’s chauffer shot and killed Courtland S Dines with Mabel’s own gun but the big one was the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle Trials after the death of actress Virginia Rappe.
Whilst not going into the details, as that’s a whole other story the trials were highly publicized. Due to the severity of the allegations even though Arbuckle was acquitted in the end many of his films were banned from the exhibition which affected Mabel’s career quite badly as it meant as they worked together often some of her work couldn’t be shown too.
She continued to be in front of the camera and signed to Hal Roach studios and with the help of some of her celebrity friends including actress and director Mary Pickford, Normand was able to have films released again. All of these later films were written by Stand Laurel just one of the many big comedians she worked with. In 1926 she married Lew Cody a fellow actor.
In 1927 she made her last film One Hour Married written by Laurel. Just three years later at age 37, Mabel Normand died of Tuberculosis. She would be all but forgotten despite her Hollywood star of fame. Chaplin would never mention her as someone that helped through his career. However, in 2010 the New Zealand Film Archive found a print of “Won in the Closet” one of the pieces she both starred and directed in. Thus bringing her talents back to the forefront of people’s minds and showing just how fantastic she was.