Family & Companions
Widely considered to be the first major comedienne, and perhaps cinema's first comic star, actress Mabel Normand was rambunctious and non-conformist while exuding an ineffable charm and gentleness on screen. She rivaled her contemporaries Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle as one of early Hollywood's top box office draws, while more often than not starring alongside both. After starting her film career with D.W. Griffith at the Biograph Company, she rose to stardom under the direction of Mack Sennett at his Keystone Studios, with whom she had a tumultuous romance. Because she never received her acting training in the theater - her entire education came on set - Normand was never prone to mugging for the camera like many of her silent film contemporaries, thus pioneering a more naturalistic form of acting. She became box office star with such Sennett film as "At Coney Island (1912) and "The Bangville Police" (1913), while making her mark alongside Arbuckle in "For the Love of Mabel" (1913), "Mabel and Fatty's Simple Life" (1915) and "Fatty and Mabel Adrift" (1915). During this time, Normand also developed into a capable director, and even orchestrated several early Chaplin efforts, including his first appearance as The Tramp in "Mabel's Strange Predicament" (1914). But in the latter half of the decade, Normand became increasingly unreliable due to late nights and drug abuse. In the early 1920s, she became embroiled in three separate scandals, effectively ending her career. Meanwhile, her health rapidly declined from tuberculosis and she died in 1930. Though remembered more for her involvement in the scandals of the early 1920s, Normand possessed both the talent and success to be ranked alongside the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as one of early cinema's finest comic talents.
Born on Nov. 9, 1892 in Staten Island, NY, Normand was raised in poverty in a household headed by her father, Claude, who struggled to maintain work as a carpenter, and her mother, Mary. When she was a teenager, Normand began working as an artists' model and even posed as a Gibson Girl for illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. She soon made her way to the fledgling motion picture business with early appearances in the Vitagraph Studios comedy "Indiscretions of Betty" (1910) and the Biograph Company drama "Her Awakening" (1911), directed by D.W. Griffith. It was at Biograph that she came under the guidance of director Mack Sennett, and soon embarked on a long, tumultuous affair that involved several engagements to marry. First cast as a bathing beauty in films like "The Water Nymph" (1912), Normand displayed comedic abilities and was soon starring in Sennett comedies like "At Coney Island (1912), "Mabel's Adventures" (1912) and "The Bangville Police" (1913), an early Keystone Kops film. Because she was not stage-trained, she developed a more naturalistic method of acting that did not involve histrionic movements and facial expressions like many silent screen stars. With each film, she rapidly became one of the first bona fide comediennes of the silent era, especially in a number of starring appearances alongside Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in such notable shorts as "Passions, He Had Three" (1913), "For the Love of Mabel" (1913), "The Gypsy Queen" (1913) and "In the Clutches of the Gang" (1914), which once again featured the Keystone Kops.
Increasing her stature and creative power, Normand began directing a number of pictures, including "Mabel's Blunder" (1914) and "Caught in a Cabaret" (1914), starting Charles Chaplin. She also had the distinction of starring opposite Chaplin in his first-ever appearance as the Tramp, "Mabel's Strange Predicament" (1914), and continued to alternate movies with the silent era icon and Arbuckle in titles like "The Masquerader" (1914), "Gentlemen of Nerve" (1914), "Mabel and Fatty's Simple Life" (1915) and "Wished on Mabel" (1915). Perhaps her most significant picture with Arbuckle was "Fatty and Mabel Adrift" (1916), which lived on as one of his most accomplished works. In 1916, the actress formed the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company with Adam Kessel and Thomas Ince, with Normand demonstrating an impressive dramatic range in the company's first feature, "Mickey" (1918). By this time, she had signed a contract with Samuel Goldwyn's studio, but began suffering personal setbacks from which she never recovered. Normand had begun abusing drugs sometime in the latter half of the decade, which stemmed from medical use, and became an increasingly undependable performer.
In the 1920s, both Normand's health and career rapidly deteriorated. With "Molly O'" (1921) in release, she found her good friend and old collaborator, Fatty Arbuckle, embroiled in a vicious scandal over the death of would-be actress, Virginia Rappe, which left the comedian to suffer accusations of murder and three trials, which effectively ended his career. Months later, Normand herself was associated with the murder of director William Desmond Taylor in February 1922, with whom she was close friends and shared a mutual interest in books. The actress had been at his home the night he was shot by an unknown assailant with a .38 caliber pistol and was the last person to have seen him alive. Though never a serious suspect, Normand was nonetheless dragged through the mud by an accusatory newspaper industry. Meanwhile, she continued making movies, and had success with "The Extra Girl" (1923), only to find her name tarnished once again when her chauffeur, Joe Kelly, shot and wounded millionaire tycoon, Courtland Dines, with her own gun. Normand tried to rebound by working for Hal Roach in films like "Raggedy Rose" (1926), "The Nickel-Hopper" (1926) and "One Hour Married" (1927) - the latter film being her final production. After marrying actor and childhood friend Lew Cody in 1926, Normand's health rapidly declined. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1928. In September of that next year, she was sent to a sanitarium in Monrovia, CA, where she died five months later on Feb. 23, 1930. She was 37 years old.