Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mabel Normand.... Staten Island's Forgotten Star

The biggest star in the world today pales in comparison to Charlie Chaplin for his sheer notoriety . “Charlot” was a major star in every country on the planet that could project silent films. Because of the lack of sound Silent Movies had no language barrier and so a star could enjoy universal appeal. Movies in the 1910’s and 1920’s also had little to no competition. They were the only form of mass entertainment. To this day, millions of people who never saw Chaplin in a single film know who he is and immediately recognize photos of “The Little Tramp”. It is very hard to imagine the average movie fan in Samalia recognizing a photo of Steven Segal 100 years from now.

It might surprise you to know that one of the biggest stars of the early Silent Era came from Staten Island. The extraordinarily talented and beautiful Mabel Normand was born in New Brighton on November 9, 1892. She would only live for thirty-seven years but in her short life Normand helped CREATE the language of cinema. A language that we still use today.
To say that Mabel was beautiful, vivacious and talented only hints at the amazing person that she was. Normand was not only a major comedy star who worked along such legends as Chaplin, Arbuckle and Sennett, she was also a writer, director, producer and even ran her own production company for a time. It was a lesser feat for a man to walk on the moon than for a woman to be so influential in the early part of the twentieth century. In fact, her accomplishments were SO extraordinary that I wonder if we can truly appreciate the scope of her impact from our vantage point of 2009.

It was hard enough just being a woman in 1920. Imagine being a beautiful, smart and AMBITIOUS woman trying to be a player in a fledgling industry dominated by men. It is even more amazing that BOTH Mabel and Mary Pickford became serious powers in the young film industry.

Mabel entered film in 1909 at the age of 16. She was an artist’s model, even sitting for the famous Charles Dana Gibson, the creator of “The Gibson Girl”. She soon began to work for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. At first Mabel appeared in film as a bathing beauty but it was not long before Mack discovered her flair for comedy and began to use her as a featured player in his ground breaking shorts. In 1914 she starred with Chaplin in what is considered to be the first feature length comedy, “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” and became an international star.
Unfortunately Mabel would be linked to two scandalous murder cases in the 1920’s that would ultimately impact her career and her health.

Director William Desmond shared her interest in books and the two formed a close friendship. He was murdered in 1922 only minutes after Normand had left his home. She was closely scrutinized by police but never considered a serious suspect.

In 1924 her chauffeur Joe Kelly shot and wounded millionaire oil broker and amateur golfer Courtland S. Dines with her pistol. At the time Dines was romantically involved with Normand's friend and film star Edna Purviance.

Newspapers speculated wildly about Normand given reports of her drug use along with her many past appearances in films with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle who had also recently become enmeshed in scandal in which he was accused of raping and killing a young starlet (Virginia Rappe) during a wild multi day party in his hotel suite. Arbuckle was later found innocent but the excesses of the stars of “Hollywood Babylon” resulted in a public backlash that would hamper or destroy the careers of the stars caught up in scandals that were damaging to the studios for which they worked. Even the great Chaplin would fall victim to scandals involving under aged girls that would culminate in a paternity suit that irrevocably damaged his public image. (Chaplin was not in fact the father of the child but was found guilty despite blood tests proving this).

It made no difference that Mabel had only a passing connection to these murders. By 1924 even the SUGGESTION of scandal was enough to ruin a star’s career and Mabel found herself, while not black listed, certainly in decline.

Mabel would go on making films for Hal Roach (home of Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang) in 1926 and would marry former co-star Lew Cody. However by this time her health was in serious decline. She would pass away from tuberculosis in 1930 at age 37.

While Mabel’s star did not burn long, it burned with particular brightness and her pioneering contributions to the creation of a new art form should never be forgotten.

That's 30!


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