Today is the birthday of Mabel Normand (1892-1930), the godmother of American comedy. Not an actress or performer per se at the outset of her career, she did come from a show business family (her father was a vaudeville musician) and she’d been posing for pictures for several years as a Gibson Girl, which had given her a certain sense of how to carry herself. She would become Mack Sennett’s first major star—one of the few who would prove to be more than just a flash in the pan. In fact, she was so much a star, that in the films of her that modern viewers know best (the ones in which she appears with Charlie Chaplin), she — not Chaplin — was technically the star, at least of most of them. You can tell because her name is often right in the title.
Normand deserves to be much better known today than she is. She is one of Hollywood’s first female directors, and her’s is one of the very few female screen personas (to this day) that is not a mere damsel. She is feisty, independent and has a brain of her own. (For much more on this subject read Chain of Fools!)
If you know the musical Mack and Mabel , you know that she was slated to marry the King of Comedy in 1915. According to the story, she caught him “in the act” with Mae Busch, and after that their relationship fundamentally changed. For here, she went into starring features, first Mickey in 1918, which she co-produced with Sennett, then a series for Goldwyn, and then back to Sennett for a few more features (many of which have recently become available on DVD for the first time). In her final years, beset with scandals (a murder, another shooting, and rumors of her own drug addiction), she lost her popularity with audiences. She made a few shorts with Hal Roach, but there was no hope of a comeback. She contracted TB and died at the age of 37.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc