Saturday Night Spotlight #22: Mabel Normand

Mabel Normand (1892 or 1895-1930) is best remembered as a popular comedienne of the silent screen, but in 1914 and 1915 she directed a number of comedic shorts as well, some of them being the earliest examples of Charlie Chaplin in his “Tramp” character. Normand’s directorial efforts are also overshadowed by the scandals in her life, most notably the murder of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922 (Normand was interrogated since she knew him well), the fatal shooting of millionaire Courtland S. Dines by Normand’s chauffeur in 1924, and finally Normand’s death from tuberculosis in 1930 after years of struggling with alcoholism. Although Normand did not direct any feature films, she was an important contributor to early silent film comedy both behind and in front of the camera. I was disappointed to find that her work was not mentioned in a book I recently started reading, Go West, Young Women!: The Rise of Early Hollywood by Hilary A. Hallett, so this post should serve as a good reminder of – or introduction to – Normand’s place in film history.

Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914) – Here we have the first ever instance of Chaplin’s Tramp, co-starring with Normand in a story written by Chaplin and Henry Lehrman (who also has a small role in the film) about misadventures in a hotel. Some actors who were well-known in both the silent and sound eras appear in the film: Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport (wife of actor Harry Davenport and mother of actress/producer/director Dorothy Davenport) and Al St. John. (You can watch the film here.)

Caught in a Cabaret (1914) – Another short starring both Normand and Chaplin, who collaborated on the screen story, even more character actors are present here: Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport, Minta Durfee (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s wife at the time), Edgar Kennedy, Hank Mann (the boxer in City Lights), Al St. John, Mack Swain (the other prospector in The Gold Rush) and Josef Swickard. (You can see the film here.)

Mabel’s Blunder (1914) – Written and directed by Normand, this short about the romantic entanglements between a woman, her boss, the boss’s son (to whom Normand is engaged, unbeknownst to the father) and the boss’s daughter (whom Normand mistakes for a rival sweetheart) was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2009. There’s a great point-of-view shot when Normand watches the pair through a keyhole, demonstrated by the shape of the frame (as seen above). The short also involves a bit of gender-bending when Normand, spying on the brother and sister, disguises herself as a man and pretends to be the family chauffeur. You might recognize Charley Chase, another famous comedian, playing a friend of the boss’s son, as well as Al St. John as Normand’s brother. (You can see the film here.)

Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco (1915) – Co-directed by Normand and her frequent onscreen partner, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, the short serves as both a fun outing for them and also a documentary-like snapshot of a historical moment. A sad footnote: one of the sites seen in the film, the St. Francis Hotel, was the location where Arbuckle’s career would be destroyed when Virginia Rappe met her end there in 1921. (You can see the film here.)

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