Mabel’s Dramatic Career

11-15 April 2007

In whatever epoch of the picture business Mabel Normand had entered, she would have been the biggest star in it.

– Adela Rogers St. Johns (1)

Seventy-seven years after Mabel Normand’s death, 80 years after her last screen appearance, the woman described as born “knowing more about comedy and comedy routine than any of the rest of us ever learn” (2) continues to elicit passionately proprietary responses. While alive, “our” Mabel – it was always clear you weren’t speaking of Ballin, Taliaferro or Van Buren – was lifted up by the great wave of Hollywood’s fame machine and then dashed down in one of the more spectacular displays of grandstanding moral self-righteousness. Once dead, her critical fortunes continue to rise and fall (Molly Haskell wrote of her performances as “an irritating blend of seductress and practical joker” (3)) and, thankfully, rise again. This year’s Amsterdam Filmmuseum Biennale offered a welcome, though limited, opportunity to again reassess Normand’s career, prompted by the fortuitous discovery of a 1918 feature, The Floor Below.

The Biennale lasted only five days (11-15 April), and with other restorations to highlight there wasn’t time, understandably, for a fuller consideration of Normand’s films, or their impact (another topic altogether that has yet to be explored). What made the event particularly noteworthy was the premiere screening of The Floor Below (Clarence G. Badger), along with the newly found Head Over Heels (Paul Bern and Victor Schertzinger, 1922). Two years ago only one of Normand’s 16 features for Goldwyn were known to survive, but then in the span of just a few weeks two discoveries were announced, Head Over Heels in Massachusetts and The Floor Below in The Netherlands (from the same private collection, now in the Filmmuseum, that brought forth Beyond the Rocks).

It needs to be said at the outset that The Floor Below is no masterpiece. It’s an appealing film but no more, with a weak screenplay rehashing the already old set-up of turning a scamp into a lady. Normand was still fresh from the Mack Sennett lot, and Goldwyn was keen to exchange the smell of custard pie with a more urbane scent, Guerlain rather than banana skin. Normand was being refashioned for the public as a sophisticated comedienne, in sophisticated comedies, though The Floor Below doesn’t quite fit the bill. Oddly enough, the star gets less screen-time than one would expect, but she’s never less than winning, and while Clarence Badger is, at best, a workmanlike director, he allows Normand’s fun-loving personality to shine through.

The Floor Below

She’s mischievous but never cruel, with a puckish look of fun on her face when she’s done something she knows she shouldn’t have – she enjoys herself, and it’s that quality which transmits itself directly from the screen to the audience, forming one of the keys to Normand’s charm. There’s a delightful scene in which she’s hiding under a table, impishly placing toast crumbs on Tom Moore’s feet while he’s speaking with his secretary: it beautifully captures her appeal, highlighting the twinkle in her eye and her sense of playfulness.

As so often happened with movies released in The Netherlands, the Dutch loaded up on lengthy intertitles – 125 of them in The Floor Below – which does nothing for the film’s rhythm. The print however looks beautiful, and the Filmmuseum made the first screening a semi-gala affair at the new Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ; the highly problematic musical accompaniment will be discussed below.

A mystery surrounds Head Over Heels, Normand’s last film for Goldwyn: completed in 1920, the movie wasn’t released until 1922. Sam Goldwyn’s biographer A. Scott Berg, picking up on Normand biographer Betty Harper Fussell, declared “she made Head Over Heels, a film so muddled that Goldwyn could not even release it.” (4) But surely something else was going on, for the film is a very pleasant affair, certainly better than The Floor Below. Goldwyn was in financial disarray in 1920 and in the midst of an unsuccessful power struggle with his board, while Normand was jumping ship to go back to Sennett, so the reasons for the film’s delayed release, and subsequent disappearance, surely had little to do with its quality.

She plays an Italian acrobat named Tina, a livelier figure than her character in The Floor Below, though perhaps as a hot-blooded Neapolitan it was expected that she’d be boisterous. Brought over to New York by talent scout Sterling (Adolphe Menjou, in his second film with Normand (5)), she’s forced to submit to the transformative ministrations of Madame Renee (Laura La Varnie), who wields an enormous pair of scissors with a delicious sense of understated menace. “She’ll be a beauty, if she lives through the treatment” declares the formidable Madame.

Normand is quite the Giulietta Masina figure here, her wide, expressive eyes staring out from broad, slightly sickly features. She has one very Sennett moment, on the roof garden of the New Amsterdam theatre, as she jumps on the back of a performing roller skater, but her gift for mimicry is also given full license in an amusing though overextended fantasy sequence in which she imagines herself as a motion picture vamp. There’s a lovely montage centered on a garlic sausage, which brings violins and perfume to her nostalgic senses, while evoking rubbish and Limburger cheese in the offended olfactory glands of her suitor Lawson (Hugh Thompson). The film is unquestionably disjointed, with certain very good set pieces let down by the weak connective tissue, but it’s far from a mess, and Normand is allowed ample opportunity to show off that sense of self-delight that makes such an impression on the viewer.

This sole surviving print of Head Over Heels has an unusual history: the only item in the cellar of a home in Massachusetts after it was sold, it was left there for decades by the new owners, who occasionally opened the cans to glance at its contents. Ironically, this airing of the print probably saved it from decomposition, though when the owner noticed some nitrate damage at the end of a reel he snipped off the frames, and the last few minutes of the film are now lost to posterity. Fortunately the heirs finally agreed to donate the print to the American Film Institute, who transferred it onto safety stock.

The third Normand feature screened in Amsterdam was Molly O’ (F. Richard Jones, 1921). The film marked Normand’s return to Sennett after three years with Goldwyn, and the notoriously penny-pinching Sennett promised to spare no expense. As Sennett himself exclaimed, with his usual hyperbole, “its heroine is so full of ‘pep’ that there wasn’t any actress in the world that could play the part except Mabel Normand, who came back to the Sennett regime a greater, finer, more brilliant and winsome star than ever.” (6) It’s another Cinderella story, about a washer-girl falling in love with a millionaire, and as the film survives today there’s a fair amount of missing footage, filled in by stills and explanatory intertitles. Still, it’s not difficult to see why Molly O’ did such strong business on its release, encompassing comedy and drama in a slickly made production, beautifully shot by Fred Jackman. Plus there’s an astonishing – and utterly gratuitous – finale involving a Zeppelin that has nothing to do with the plot but makes for a rip-roaring ending.

Molly O’

In his invaluable treatment of Normand’s life and career, William Thomas Sherman gives a clear-eyed description of Molly O’ and Normand’s role, accurately discussing the marked play between humor and pathos; (7) Sennett obviously wanted to present the woman he loved with a vehicle that would draw attention to her many talents. Personal troubles and drug addiction had taken their toll: she’s too thin in several scenes, and Sherman is right to detect a sadness in her face, though there’s a ravishing shot of her in semi-transparent white lingerie that makes her beauty stand out. I find it odd that so many commentators remark on her physical loveliness as somehow being in opposition to her talents as a comedienne: “Though recognized as a beauty, Mabel possessed a fine sense of humour and could accept considerable indignity….” (8) [my italics]. There’s something undeniably sexist about such a line, much as descriptions of Normand as a female Charlie Chaplin (or a female Harry Langdon) set up an uncomfortable and incorrect comparison between male genius and female copyist.

No look at Normand would be worth its salt without a consideration of her enormous output of shorts. The Biennale wisely chose a wide range, beginning with the only known print of At Coney Island (Mack Sennett, 1912), the eleventh Keystone release and a terrific record of the famed amusement park (with extensive footage of the Steeplechase ride). The very rare 1913 A Little Hero (George Nichols) gives Normand little to do but features a delightful pooch in a wry variation on Rescued by Rover. Mabel’s Dramatic Career (Sennett), also from 1913, was the sole screened example of her work with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Available in an inferior print on Kino’s Slapstick Encyclopedia DVD set under the title Her Dramatic Debut, the version shown in Amsterdam, from the BFI National Archive, looked gorgeous, offering an enticing, though obviously staged glimpse at behind-the-scenes early movie production.

The only Chaplin-Normand collaboration screened, Mabel at the Wheel (Normand and Sennett, 1914) is an unhappy outing for everyone concerned, encapsulating all the Sennett studio’s weaknesses (disjointed plot, unfunny gags, a wearying freneticism). At the polar opposite of comic inventiveness stands Normand’s last film, and one of the treasures of the Biennale, Should Men Walk Home? (Leo McCarey, 1927). Notwithstanding obvious signs of illness (she was suffering from tuberculosis, plus undoubtedly the lingering effects of a former drug habit), Normand is in top comedic form, capable not just of a physicality that belies her illness, but a delicious sense of timing and a controlled use of facial expressions that come only from years of understanding her craft. Teamed with Creighton Hale (usually associated either with Pearl White’s serials or as milksops in Griffith melodramas but here revealing an entirely unexpected and delightful dimension), she’s a would-be jewel thief crashing a party in order to grab a priceless stone from under the nose of private dick Eugene Pallette. Oliver Hardy, as a timid guest desperate for a taste of punch, is side-splittingly funny, and the whole short moves at a perfect clip – this is the Hal Roach studio at its peak. Sherman’s assessment that the film is of “no great merit” (9) surely deserves a rebuttal, and Normand’s swansong makes her untimely end even more tragic when it’s so clear what she was still capable of doing.

With so few films in the Normand tribute it’s perhaps difficult to fully explain either her stardom or her lasting appeal. “It is the business of life to cherish memories and realize dreams” says the homespun philosopher played by Carl Stockdale in Molly O’, a fitting description of older Hollywood’s memories of Mabel Normand. In a 1928 interview Theodore Dreiser conducted with Sennett, he asked the “King of Comedy” about women and humour:

…in the case of Mabel Normand, it was so elusive and yet so real that while you knew it was there, yet you could scarcely say where it was. Why, that girl could walk down the aisle of a church, in the midst of services, and without offense to anybody, and without any outward sign of any kind that you could definitely point to, could get a laugh, or at least a smile, and from everybody.

‘I don’t know what it is,’ he interjected here. ‘For the life of me I couldn’t tell you how or why. But she can do it.’ (10)

For her contemporaries, praise could never be too great, whether from Marie Dressler, Carl Sandburg, or Pola Negri: “The screen was not to be graced with another comedienne of her talents until the advent of Carole Lombard years later.” (11)

Of course tragedy has a way of colouring perception, and Normand’s life had no shortage of wrong turns and bad luck. From her bust-up with Sennett to drug addiction, the William Desmond Taylor murder, and several other scandals, Normand paid an exorbitantly high price for her fame. In later years contemporaries such as Minta Durfee closed rank in an effort to protect her image, (12) vociferously denying her addictions as if somehow they could scrub her clean and make the self-satisfied moral outrage of a fickle Hollywood and public disappear. Betty Fussell’s book chronicles precisely this aspect of Normand’s afterlife, but Fussell has her own agenda, eager to put the mysteries of Normand’s life front and centre, painting her as an icon of free-spirited womanhood struck down by the guardians of decency: “Mabel had always been a comic scapegoat whose role was to purge the common flesh of its excesses by embodying them – sexually, whimsically, blasphemously.” (13)

Fussell’s annoying habit of constantly putting herself in the picture, plus her relish in the bizarre behaviour of those around her, has an almost Diane Arbus quality in the discomfort level she raises – she details her frustration at the inability to discover the “truth” behind Mabel Normand at the same time that she seems to take an almost prurient delight in precisely that quality of her life and legacy. In his discussion of star image as seen through Normand’s reading matter, Mark Lynn Anderson captures the problem succinctly: “Even while the ‘mystery’ attributed to Normand by Fussell is a further mystification of the star and our interest in her, it also describes the continued success of a psychologising imperative that still subtends our historical inquiries.” (14) Thankfully, enthusiasts and scholars have taken up the call, producing an astonishingly comprehensive, passionate but non-hagiographic picture of Normand on various websites, most notably Marilyn Slater on http://www.freewebs.com/looking-for-mabel/ and William Thomas Sherman on http://www.angelfire.com/mn/hp/.

The latest short screened at the Biennale for their Normand salute was a fragment from Meet the Stars #8: Stars Past and Present (Harriet Parsons, 1941), made 11 years after her death. It’s a newsreel showing the dedication, on 27 December, 1940, of the Mabel Normand sound stage at Republic Studios. (15) Gathered together for the tribute were Normand’s colleagues from her Sennett days, including Mae Busch, Louise Fazenda, Mrs Wallace Reid, Minta Durfee, Jack Mulhall, Eddie Quillan, Chester Conklin, Eddie Sutherland, and, of course, Mack Sennett himself. Sennett stands, his voice practically breaking and tears seeming to well up in his eyes, and reads the dedication to “the little girl who had the golden heart.” It’s movingly clear, both from this and from the way that Normand’s spirit suffuses his autobiography, that he was still deeply in love. (16) Adela Rogers St. Johns, in her first book of memoirs, sums up her feelings thus

When she was not too long out of her teens, two tragedies caught the beloved little clown and put out the light, laughter and love, and none of these, I weep to say, have been equaled since on our celluloid records. Nor for me, in any other human being. Those of us – the few who are left – who knew her keep saying that. (17)

Mabel Normand of course did not constitute the entire Biennale. The range of discoveries and restorations was surprisingly wide for such a short festival, covering sound as well as silent features. The 2005 restoration print of Friedrich Fehér’s The Robber Symphony (1936) was a welcome opportunity to view this singular work, resembling a music-driven Disney cartoon but with real performers. Made in the UK with a largely foreign cast and crew, the film is a fascinating hodge-podge of Middle European operetta, Expressionism, Surrealism, and probably half a dozen other forms wrapped into a symphonic poem that, for all its flaws, stays with you. Poetically shot by the great Ernö Metzner, who also served as art director, together with Eugen Schüfftan, the film is over-long but rich in scenes – especially those in the snow, with young Hans Fehér and his stand-up piano – that are pure magic. Could Hergé have been influenced by the scenes with two mustachioed bandits for his Thompson Twins?

Garson Kanin’s first go in the director’s seat was A Man To Remember (1938), considered lost for decades until a print turned up in The Netherlands. The Filmmuseum gave a preview of the Biennale at the Rotterdam Film Festival in early February with a screening, repeated in Amsterdam in April and now, I hear, picked up by Turner Classic Movies and already broadcast in the States. In his memoir, Kanin barely mentions the film, though he does say “It was a small, inexpensive film, but, unlike the usual run of B pictures, did not insult the intelligence.” (18) Indeed it does not. Scripted by Dalton Trumbo, the film is a marvellous slice of down-home American social responsibility, about a small-town doctor who cares more about his patients’ well-being than his wallet.

The star is Edward Ellis, not a name most people remember though he was the Thin Man in the first Thin Man mystery (Nick Charles, of course, is the sleuth, not the man of the title). He’s terrifically dry, adept at getting what he wants out of the penny-pinching bigwigs running the town with a truth made softer by wry suggestion. While many have compared the film to Capra, there’s really more Preston Sturges here in the way it wears its left-wing politics with pride, plus of course the fine cast of character actors. Unlike Capra, Kanin and Trumbo don’t tie everything up with a stirring speech – in fact, the film’s most moving moment comes when Ellis, as Dr John Abbott, is so overwhelmed by the town’s appreciation that he can’t speak, except to say “thank you”. The one let-down is the always wooden Lee Bowman, though he’s not in it enough to make much of an impression. And with a running time of just one hour, 17 minutes, A Man To Remember would be a great lesson to those who think even a “small” important film has to extend way beyond the two hour mark.

Such Men Are Dangerous

Another very pleasant surprise was Such Men Are Dangerous (Kenneth Hawks, 1930), screened in its silent version. Warner Baxter stars as Ludwig Kranz, a very ugly, very rich businessman whose wife, played by Catherine Dale Owen, walks out on their wedding night, unable to understand his unromantic nature and uncertain whether she could gaze on his countenance ’til death did them part. On paper (by Elinor Glyn no less) it sounds hopelessly trite, but Hawks gets at the pathos of Baxter’s character and beautifully guides the story away from the ridiculous. There’s a scene when Kranz examines himself in a mirror after he realises his wife has left – he touches his paunch, feels his bulbous nose and facial warts, and the look of horror and sadness as he understands the full extent of his ugliness brings to mind the almost unbearable moment in Oscar Wilde’s tale The Birthday of the Infanta when the dwarf realises his true physical nature.

Undoubtedly the silent version is the superior film, undisturbed by verbal explanations that probably tip the balance. Owen, a stiff performer at best, is certainly preferable in silence, and even Bela Lugosi’s character, a plastic surgeon named Dr Goodman (though credited as Dr Erdmann in the sound release) surely benefits from a lack of sound. He’s surprisingly effective in a small role, and Baxter, a generally unsung actor, is especially sensitive and fine. Beautifully lit, with lots of shadows and highlights, the film was marred by tragedy when the director, Howard Hawks’ brother Kenneth, was killed in a plane crash during the shooting of an aerial sequence. This was Hawks’ third film as director, offering a tantalising glimpse at a burgeoning talent cut short at the age of 31. He left behind a widow, Mary Astor, who wrote movingly, and discreetly, of his death in her two books of memoirs.

Worth mentioning as well was the screening of Jacques Feyder’s ravishing L’Atlantide (1921), one of the finest film versions of an Edwardian-era adventure story (the novel was written by Pierre Benoit). Taking full advantage of location shooting in northern Africa, Feyder crafted a splendid tale full of exoticism and desire, certainly influenced by Cabiria and in turn undoubtedly a template for She and similar tales of exploration in which a queen’s insatiable lust leads men to their doom. No wonder L’Atlantide broke box office records on release, and achieved an astonishing success again when re-screened in 1928 and 1932. (19) MK2, with Lobster Films, used the Filmmuseum’s print for their beautiful DVD release, in a boxed set with Pabst’s 1932 talkie.

Der Mandarin (Fritz Freisler, 1918) is something of an oddity, sandwiched like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari between scenes in an asylum, though here the message is clearly that a profligate life leads to madness, and deserves punishment. The film is notable for some nice trick photography, though one of its chief interests, as Österreichisches Filmmuseum director Alexander Horvath stated at the screening, is what it says about a newly emasculated Austria. Considered a key lost film for decades, a print turned up in an Italian-American collection, from where it entered the George Eastman House archives, and has now been handsomely restored in Vienna.

Also coming from the Österreichisches Filmmuseum’s archives were two Dziga Vertov films, Entuziazm (Enthusiasm, 1930) and Odinnadtsatyy (The Eleventh Year, 1928). Enthusiasm is a fascinating attempt by Vertov to adapt the new sound technology to his editing aesthetics; though many contemporary critics complained of a grotesque montage of noises, his experiments are completely within keeping with his well established sensibilities. The Vertov retrospective held at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in 2004 again proved just how invaluable it was for any proper appreciation of the revolutionary director, as many of the shots in Enthusiasm can be recognised from his earlier films.

The Eleventh Year

Although I admire The Eleventh Year, I could only make it through 30 minutes. The problem, as is so often the case with silent film accompaniment in Amsterdam, was the music. For the Vertov they brought in a Finnish grunge band called The Cleaning Women (I passed on the chance of hearing them in Tromsø with Battleship Potemkin). Call me old-fashioned, but when the bass is turned up so high that my trousers shake, I seriously question whether the images on screen are being treated as anything other than “cool” stage effects. My main reason for preferring traditional musical accompaniment for silent movies is that the score, ideally, joins with the image to create an organic whole, seemingly guiding the movements on screen rather than acting in opposition to them. So often with new scores the music merely antiquates the film, screaming at the audience that the movie is old, but the score is oh so contemporary.

Unfortunately the Amsterdam Filmmuseum is potty for these sorts of scores. The opening night screening of The Floor Below featured specially commissioned music by Fay Lovsky, who relied on soundscapes to maddeningly comment on the most innocuous elements in the film. Typewriters, telephones, footsteps, scuffles, snores: we hear them all, but to what end? It simply calls attention to the fact that we can’t hear the actors speaking – is this what accompaniment is supposed to do? Lovsky’s score overpowered the fragile film, competing with it for laughs rather than underscoring the gags that are in the movie to begin with. But Lovsky and the Cleaning Women (and Henny Vrienten’s horrible soundscapes for Beyond the Rocks) aren’t the only culprits: Rainer Hensel’s score for Such Men Are Dangerous began with dark undertones and never wavered, flattening the film with deeply-bowed notes that failed to resolve. At least the music for L’Atlantide was relatively innocuous, rarely melding with the film but inoffensive. The question that always remains is do these scores turn audiences on to silent cinema, which is what their commissioners argue, or do they merely create one-off “happenings,” viewed as a hip way to spend an evening? I’m all for turning silent films into something chic, but surely audiences guided towards an appreciation of a movie’s inherent qualities become the repeat customers. Why antiquate a film when you can celebrate its modernity, and revive the era’s artistic wonders?


  1. Adela Rogers St. Johns, Love, Laughter and Tears. My Hollywood Story, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, 1978, p. 69.
  2. Ibid, p. 28. St. Johns is quoting from a conversation with Charlie Chaplin.
  3. Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape. The Treatment of Women in the Movies, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1974, p. 63.
  4. A. Scott Berg, Goldwyn. A Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1989, p. 90. Betty Harper Fussell, Mabel. Hollywood’s First I-Don’t-Care Girl, Ticknor & Fields, New Haven, 1982, p. 118.
  5. Normand gave Menjou his first important break when she cast him in What Happened to Rosa (Victor Schertzinger, 1921). Like most people who worked with her, his fondness is unreserved: “Mabel Normand was one of the sweetest people who ever lived”. Adolphe Menjou and M. M. Musselman, It Took Nine Tailors, Whittlesey House, New York, 1948, p. 82.
  6. Quoted in Simon Louvish, Keystone. The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett, Faber and Faber, New York, 2003, p. 172.
  7. William Thomas Sherman, Mabel Normand. A Source Book to Her Life and Films. Revised Fifth Edition [online version link to: http://www.angelfire.com/mn/hp/], 2006, pp. 48-51; see also Sherman, “Mabel Normand’s Molly O’”, Slapstick! Magazine, no. 9.
  8. Glenn Mitchell, A-Z of Silent Film Comedy, B.T. Batsford, London, 1998, p. 186.
  9. Sherman, Mabel Normand, p. 58.
  10. Theodore Dreiser, “The Best Motion Picture Interview Ever Written”, Photoplay, vol. 34, no. 3, August 1928, pp. 32-35, 124-129, quoted in George C. Pratt, Spellbound in Darkness. A History of Silent Film, New York Graphic Society, New York, 1973, p. 191.
  11. Marie Dressler, My Own Story, Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1934, pp. 169-70, pp. 243-45; Carl Sandburg, Chicago Daily News, 26 December 1923, quoted in Sherman, Mabel Normand, p. 230; Pola Negri, Memoirs Of A Star, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, 1970, p. 236.
  12. See the Minta Durfee interview at http://www.angelfire.com/mn/hp/minta1.html; also Fussell.
  13. Fussell, p. 187.
  14. Mark Lynn Anderson, “Reading Mabel Normand’s library” in Film History: An International Journal, vol. 18, no. 2, 2006, pp. 215-16.
  15. Wikipedia’s entry on Herbert J. Yates notes that the sound stage, now the CBS Studio Center, is where The Mary Tyler Moore Show was shot – if true, it’s a lovely link back to Normand.
  16. Mack Sennett and Cameron Shipp, King of Comedy, Doubleday, Garden City, 1954.
  17. Adela Rogers St. Johns, The Honeycomb, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, 1969, p. 104.
  18. Garson Kanin, Hollywood: Stars and Starlets, Tycoons and Flesh-Peddlers, Moviemakers and Moneymakers, Frauds and Geniuses, Hopefuls and Has-Beens, Great Lovers and Sex Symbols, Viking Press, New York, 1974, p. 21.
  19. Jean A. Gili and Michel Marie (eds.), Jacques Feyder (1895, hors série, October 1998), pp. 205-06; see also Michel Marie, “Un lupanar oriental aux confines du desert. L’Atlantide dans la production cinématographique française des années 20”, therein, pp. 59-66.