The Film Comedy of Mabel Normand: 1911-1916

by William Thomas Sherman

(Part 3)

On Screen With Other Famous Laughmakers


"What a lovely memory it is! How the great genius of today crept, humble and discouraged, into my bungalow and told me his dreams and listened to mine; how we planned bits of business and little mannerism's; how he decided to develop the queer shuffling little walk of an old coster-monger he once saw in Whitechapel -- the famous Chaplin walk with the big shoes and little skip and hop when he turned aside.

"Nappy (Mack Sennett) turned him over to me and I directed several of his pictures, in some of which I also played. And while it would be folly and untrue for me to say I am responsible for very much of his present standing as the screen artist beyond compare, yet I'm proud to say that he held my hand while he found his way through the swamp of learning the game. That Charlie is prompt to acknowledge the strength he found in my arm is one of the happy spots in my life." (15)

Until the arrival of Chaplin at Keystone in early 1914, Mabel was without a screen co-star who could artistically rival her with his or her talent. Prior to that, the film characters of her male co-stars were usually nothing more than the simplest of caricatures: oafs, twerps, charlatans, scalawags or rubes. In the Keystone films men are generally portrayed as outlandish buffoons in contrast to the women who, by and large, are very pretty. Mabel's screen gesture's and expressions are far more subtle and understated than either Sterling's and Sennett's; certainly more tender and sympathetic than Fred Mace's. Fred Mace was perhaps more comically adroit than Sennett or Sterling, yet he did not make for a good romantic comic lead (so often required in the stories) and was typically cast in fatherly and elderly types. In that capacity, as say in "The Bangville Police,"he is very funny, and it is regrettable that he had not stayed with Keystone. Sennett and Sterling's gestures and expressions are frequently repeated and limited, in contrast to Mabel's which are varied and numerous. At times, Sterling was a excruciating mimic, provided bouncing energy, and could be quite hilarious and perfect in a film. Unfortunately, however, the Keystone assembly line way of doing things too often is reflected in the quality of his performance.

There's not much special chemistry between players because there is so little subtlety -- at least on the part of the male players Sennett or Sterling. For example, a film like "The Ragtime Band" is an excellent comedy, but it doesn't require very much interaction between leads Mabel and Sterling. The performances are good, but are not dependent on each other. Arbuckle was an considerable improvement over Sennett and Sterling as a comic leading man. Yet it was Chaplin, with his sheer talent and brilliance, who had the power to throw Mabel off balance, making her feel insecure about her superiority. Despite stories and accounts otherwise, Chaplin comes off as very self-confident in his first films. He may have been a shy person off the set, but on it he apparently had little or no inhibitions. With Chaplin then, Mabel was finally confronted with someone who was more than a screen match for her. At first Mabel regarded the English newcomer as someone who needed to learn from her. And Chaplin did learn much from her, including borrowing certain facial expressions from her, such as her look of pouting disdain. Yet as time went on, Mabel herself found that she could benefit from him similarly.

One of the biggest impacts Chaplin had on the Keystone films was that with his arrival the films became less of a group effort. His very clever, well defined and prepossessed Little Tramp stands out in stark contrast to the usual ensemble cast. 16 He almost always seems a step a head of everyone else in his ability to come up with a joke or sight gag, with even Mabel having to take a back seat to him much of the time.

Due to his pronounced individuality and foreign background, Chaplin was considered something of an outsider at Keystone. In fact, probably his only and closest friends during his stay there were Ford Sterling and Mabel , both of whom were instrumental in their support of him during his first months as an unknown quantity at the studio. (17)

One notices in the films of 1914 a certain loss in Mabel's carefree appearance. One can sense some tension on Mabel's part suggesting perhaps the possible strain of Chaplin's presence on her work and then romantic relationship with Sennett. There is more than a little ill-concealed playful flirting between Chaplin and herself in most of their films together. In watching them it is not hard to see that Chaplin's feelings for Mabel went beyond mere acting. Interestingly, audiences of the time (1915-1918) did often tend to think of Chaplin and Mabel as a team, often listing them together as their favorite male and female comedians in movie magazine letters and polls.

The films Mabel made with him are, for a variety of reasons, fascinating to watch, and much of them, hold up very well as entertainment. Probably the best films Chaplin and Mabel made together are "Mabel's Married Life," "A Gentleman of Nerve," "His Trysting Place," and the feature "Tillie's Punctured Romance."

"Tillie's Punctured Romance," released November 14, 1914, was Sennett's big gamble at making the first feature length comedy film. At the time, movies were only beginning to gain some respectability, and casting well-known stage-actress/comedienne, Marie Dressler, as central lead, was thought to be necessary to give it just that. Sennett bought the rights to her previously successful stage play "Tillie's Nightmare" putting and Chaplin and Mabel in supporting roles to her.

One can't but have some strong mixed feelings about this film. The story line is crassly insensitive, e.g. Tillie is the butt of most of the jokes without having much of any redeeming qualities about her. Though rescued by the Keystone Cops, and Charlie, the swindler, and Mabel, the bad girl, get their come-uppance, Tillie loses her love and fortune, with nothing but the lesson gained. It is then a rather cynical comedy then insofar as no one in the film ends up being happy. Marie Dressler's getting kicked around as Tillie, while futilely trying to fight back, particularly as they are the main jokes around which the film is centered, shows poor taste. Marie Dressler, this being her first film, tends to over act, which doesn't help. As well the picture is rather episodic and choppy, and camera movement non-existent.

Yet despite these and other flaws, "Tillie" has much going for it as an entertaining and original film. In trying to bring together Keystone with the well-known stage, Sennett (no doubt unintentionally) created a world almost surreal, never repeated, kind of cinematic vision. Certainly there's no other feature like "Tillie," made before or since, which is a shame as it is a vehicle which presents Mabel in a unique comic light.

In addition, Chaplin and Mabel give lively performances, backed by an energetic cast. Though it is somewhat discomforting to see the two cast in the role of unabashed villains, albeit comic ones, their moments together are often a joy. The film allows her to be silly Keystone Mabel while giving her more space to develop her character. The world of Mabel's later features, by contrast, is much more conventional and "realistic," than the almost fantastical world of "Tillie." She is sexy and adorable all at once. Yet also, her characterization, despite the fast pace of the film's plot, is well developed, emotionally varied, and multi-dimensional. The high tempo of individual scenes seems to suit her performance well, and we can safely assume that music was regularly playing while scenes were being filmed.


Despite his enormous size, Arbuckle did not dominate Mabel's films the way Chaplin did. This is because there's less friction since Arbuckle does not seem to have felt romantic in a serious way about Mabel in the way Chaplin did. One never thinks of Roscoe's "Fatty" deliberately pushing or kicking "Mabel" the way Chaplin's early "Tramp" might. Roscoe and Mabel play together more as jolly chums. As Chaplin and Mabel had some degree of personal involvement it affected their working screen relationship, both for bad and for good, such that it often made them seem to be competing with each other. Roscoe, on the other hand, generally approaches "Mabel" more deferentially, as if she were actually his sister, rather than a potential screen rival or object of off screen affection.

Arbuckle was at Keystone a year prior Chaplin's arrival. During that time, Arbuckle was much the innocent babe, and had not acquired that sometime leer in his look and manners that arguably contributed to his later downfall. He was originally hired to replace Fred Mace, from whom he ostensibly picked up a number of comic mannerisms. Mabel made quite a number of shorts with him, many of which are excellent one and two reelers, the first being "Passions He Had Three," released June 5, 1913. When Chaplin, attracted by bigger money and the opportunity of greater production control, departed Keystone for Essanay in 1915, Mabel and Roscoe were officially re-teamed for a special series together. Not that they had been completely apart all this while, only they had been making less films together due to Mabel's work time being taken up with Chaplin's films.

By January 1915, when the "Fatty and Mabel" series started, production values had improved considerably. As for Mabel, she seems noticeably more self-assured and confident on screen than before. At the same time, this matureness tends to make her actions less spontaneous. She is still as pretty, if not prettier, than before. On this point, it is hard to say which specific film year was Mabel looked her best starting in 1912 up through 1915, because each has its strong points depending on how one looks at it. For, though her appearance did naturally change over time, Mabel, throughout her both very happy and at the same time turbulent life, almost always possessed a cheerful, sympathetic quality about her. Pictures of her spanning these years evince steady emotional growth, yet at the same time there is always a certain quality of childlike innocence about her.

In the "Fatty and Mabel" films the two title characters have a penchant for mischief, at the expense of conventional respectability, usually a Keystone Cop or Mabel's parents. In "Wished on Mabel" and "Mabel's Wilful Way," "Mabel," at the park, runs away from her parents respectively to play with flirting Roscoe. Their misbehaving idea of fun is feeding a bear an ice cream cone, and going down an amusement park slide. Yet slight as it sounds, this kind of portrayal foreshadowed of some of the youth rebellion that would erupt in the Twenties.

"Fatty and Mabel" films, in fact, are somewhat risqué, even by present standards, dealing as they do with marital infidelity, in particular "Mabel and Fatty's Wash Day," "Mabel, Fatty and the Law," "That Little Band of Gold." This, of course, was nothing new itself, and went back to the Lumiere and Pathé comedies of France It was also done in at Keystone in films like, "Mabel's Strategem," "Mabel's Married Life," "Getting Acquainted." What is unusual in addition is that the philanderers are comic book "Fatty" and girlish "Mabel," their childlike qualities comically at odds with their serious adult behavior.

In "Wash Day" Roscoe plays with Mabel's undergarments on the clothes line. As well in "Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life" there is a suggestive sequence where she shoots milk from a cow's udder at him through a hole in a fence through which he is peaking. These gags reflect an openness and defiance which some understandably would have found troubling.

They are, in any case, the exception. Most of what is in the 1915 Fatty and Mabel series is done in innocent taste, and otherwise remains innocuous fun which all can enjoy.

After the Fatty and Mabel series, Mabel briefly had a new co-star in Owen Moore who appeared with her in "Mabel Lost and Won" and "The Little Teacher." Moore was a change from past co-stars insofar as he played a dapper leading man in contrast to the preposterous characters of Sterling, Chaplin and Arbuckle. This allows Mabel at the same time to be more ladylike and refined.

"The Little Teacher," with Owen Moore, is an odd three reeler which has Mabel in the role of a school teacher minding a rowdy class of students. Though extremely raucous with Arbuckle and Sennet in the cast, "The Little Teacher": is still pleasant just for seeing Mabel play a more quiet role like that of a country school teacher.

In the summer of 1915, Sennett and the Keystone company, along with D. W. Griffith and Thomas Ince became part of the New York City based Triangle Picture Corporation. The formation of Triangle Corporation was a calculated and well-mounted effort to improve the quality of films, while simultaneously attempting to more strictly control distribution and exhibition. The Keystone comedies made after this date consequently became known as Triangle-Keystone films.

She made five films for Triangle-Keystone, "My Valet," "Stolen Magic," "Fatty and Mabel Adrift," "He Did and He Didn't," and "The Bright Lights." Three of these films, "My Valet," "Fatty and Mabel Adrift" and "He Did and He Didn't," are known to survive and all are exceptional for their relatively lavish production values. "My Valet" features, popular stage actor-comedienne, gone Hollywood, Raymond Hitchcock, He in turn is supported by Sennett, Mabel, and Fred Mace who returned to Keystone after a failed independent venture. It was one of the first films put out by the Triangle company and proved to be something of a minor box office success. (18)

Not everything, though, had worked towards the better. In 1915, Mabel had gone through at least two very serious accidents and mishaps, one involving a serious head injury, and, the other, of course, her break-up with Mack Sennett. By 1916, she looks obviously more pallid than before. She's retains her loveliness, but that luminous gleam of youth has clearly started to fade. But if by 1916 Mabel had begun to look drawn and weary, so, of course, also had the world.

The last three films Mabel made for Keystone, and her last as well with Arbuckle, were high budget two and three reelers. Two of these, "Fatty and Mabel Adrift" and "He Did and He Didn't" are memorable films, though memorable for entirely different reasons, and represent the fascinating culmination of the two stars' successful teaming together.

"Fatty and Mabel Adrift" is one of the most well-known of Mabel's films, and one most frequently replayed for audiences. Its welcome reception over all the years speaks for itself.

"He Did and He Didn't" is very much unlike anything else Arbuckle or Mabel had appeared in up to this time, and one is hard put to call it a comedy. The story is one which only could be told through the medium of film due to it's use of a dream sequence of two of its characters. In this somewhat somber and unusual film, Mabel plays the wife of affluent doctor, Arbuckle. An old childhood beau of Mabel's, William Jefferson, stays for dinner and the night, with the result that unvoiced feelings of jealousy are aroused in Arbuckle. "He Did and He Didn't" hen involves dream sequences which the viewer at first is lead to believe are reality. Roscoe in a fit of jealous rage strangles Mabel. Thinking her dead, he leaves the room. She awakes and taking a pistol fires at him as he goes down stairs. It turns out, however, that this is all a bad dream which both Arbuckle's and Jefferson's characters are having simultaneously. The film ends with everybody being alive and well, and Mabel found to be sleeping soundly and snugly in her (separate) bed, unaware of all that has transpired. Seriously addressing the theme of jealousy as it does, the film may contain be an indirect statement by Arbuckle to Mabel, on her and Sennett's situation, it's hard to say. The film is more nightmare-like than a comedy, and, in retrospect, only becomes more so when we recall the harsh difficulties that would in later years beleaguer both Mabel and Roscoe. Suffice to say, it is a strange, if novel, film.

Becoming ultimately disenchanted by Sennett, his almost tyrannical supervision and demanding production methods, Mabel left Keystone in early Spring 1916. Over the half decade, Sennett had grown to take her for granted, both personally and professionally. It was only when she was gone that he was made to realize this fact. He subsequently lured Mabel back by offering her own picture company and studio. The result was the feature Mickey which turned out to be a surprise runaway hit. With its release, as well as that of a number of Goldwyn pictures, the days of Keystone Mabel drew to a close, while that of Mabel Normand, feature film star, had begun.

The personal romance of Mack and Mabel itself ended sometime back in 1915. And from then on Mabel made it plain that it would be strictly business between them. Yet while marriage between them wasn't to be, their professional marriage was, after all, an overwhelming success.19 For without Keystone, there would not likely have been that tide of great comedians that followed upon it into the teens, twenties and thirties. Keystone and its people, directly or indirectly, spawned the careers of Chaplin, Arbuckle, Turpin, Keaton,20 Lloyd, Hal Roach, Our Gang.....the list goes on and on. And without Mabel, it is not likely Sennett would have had any Keystone. She, more so than himself, was the key ingredient to its comedic success, which is why really Keystone effectively folded when she left. Creatively, Sennett himself largely borrowed from the work of others, perchance envisioning himself as the Belasco of film comedy.

Mabel Normand, however, was a true original.


1 In this essay, Mabel Normand is referred to simply as Mabel as it gives a sense of her egalitarian nature: a quality which manifested itself in her films, as well her public and private life. Yet since the character she plays in many of her films goes by the name of "Mabel," the name Mabel will refer to Mabel Normand the person, while "Mabel" (in quotation marks) denotes the film character.

2 omitted

3 The Betty of Mabel's Vitagraph films would seem to have been something of a take off on the "Betty" of a Pathe' series of comedies under that name. In the Nickelodeon of July 1, 1910, the following Pathe' advertisement appeared:
"Introducing Our New Comedienne!"

" 'Rebellious Betty' is the first of a series of Pathe comedies'"

"We have already advertised the fact that Betty was coming, an now she is here an appears before you in the first of a series of comic films which should be a big feature in any house. Betty antics and pranks are distantly fresh and laughable, she is a mischievous an willful tomboy, who shrinks at nothing so long as she can get her own way. In this first film she succeeds in upsetting half a dozen people, destroys an artist's masterpiece, jumps upon and rides away with somebody else's bicycle, which she afterwards abandons for a horse, and finally knocks off the head of the butler. All these things she does simply because she has been refused the privilege of accepting an invitation to go for a motor ride. (897 feet)." (See also The Nickelodeon (later changed to Motography), August 1, 1910)

"Pathe Betty" then was very probably a major inspiration for "Keystone Mabel." Also it should be noted, that while Mabel's Betty was the most famous, she was not the only Vitagraph Betty. After she left, Vitagraph retained Betty as a stock character as late as 1917, different actresses at different times having taken on the comic role.

Although the Vitagraph film Indiscretions of Betty (which has been attributed---and probably wrongly ---to being one of Mabel's films), predates the Pathe' announcement above, contemporary descriptions of the plot to Indiscretions show it to have been a drama, rather than comedy. So the name "Betty" in its title is probably a coincidence.

4 Of course, Sennett did have a good sense of humor, and was not without his own pronounced ideas of what made for good comedy. A rare and revealing expostulation of these is found in "Mack Sennett-Laugh Tester," by Harry Carr, Photoplay May 1915.

5 "Madcap Mabel Normand - The True Story of a Great Comedienne," Part II, Liberty Magazine, Sept. 13, 1930

6 As related to me by Don Schneider concerning Minta Durfee's story of Chaplin's brief visit reported to him by her.

7 "Mabel Normand had no illusions about her talent as a director. As she told Robert Florey in 1922: 'It would be pretense to say that the comedy chases in which I appeared with Charlie and Roscoe were directed by a director truly exercising his métier. The director, as we know him today, was then virtually non-existent. The films which I directed or appeared in were made without any directorial technique or photographic artistry. No one thought it necessary to explain to the cameraman what was wanted, and nearly all the scenes were taken in long shots. Our pictures were a group effort, and our comedy evolved out of suggestions made by everyone in the cast and crew....'
"On directing Chaplin, Miss Normand said: 'We reciprocated. I would direct Charlie in his scenes, and he would direct me in mine. We worked together in developing the comedy action, taking a basic idea and constantly adding new gags. Each day Charlie would come to the set brimming with new ideas, which he would act out for me. I would add my suggestions, and soon we were ready for a take. Some of our films took only a few hours to make, others occupied us for as much as several days.'" From Hollywood: The Golden Era, by Jack Spears

8 W. C. Fields fans will perhaps Henderson as the flask-toating mayor in Your Telling Me.

9 Dramatic Mirror, June 19, 1920

10 Don Schneider interview with Minta Durfee transcript, Reel 3A, July 21, 1974 (unpublished; in author's possession)

11 "Madcap Mabel Normand," Part I, Liberty, Sept. 6, 1930

12 New York Telegraph, Feb. 13, 1916

13 For more about Mabel and music see pieces in Motion Picture Magazine, Oct. 1915, Los Angeles, Sept. 12, 1919, Dramatic Mirror, June 19, 1920, Gary Post Tribune, Feb. 3, 1922 contained in this volume.

14 Los Angeles Times, Oct. 1, 1916

15 "Madcap Mabel Normand," Part II, Liberty, Sept. 13, 1930

16 Those interested in tracing the genesis of Chaplin's tramp character might do well to have a look at the Biograph short The Tragedy of A Dress Suit (1912), which stars Ford Sterling and Mabel. In this film there are some aspects of Sterling's character, both in appearance and gesture, which bear an uncanny resemblance to Chaplin's early tramp.

17 My Autobiography, Charles Chaplin

18 A nitrate print still exists of My Valet with the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York.

19 Perhaps, it was exactly because their professional marriage in comedy was such a glorious success that real life marriage between them was impossible.

20 It was Arbuckle who brought him into pictures, as Buster himself later proudly avowed.

Copyright 1994 William Thomas Sherman. All rights reserved.

Used with permission of the author

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