Filmland’s Greatest Comedienne Writes Of Her Striking Career
Star Lifts Curtain on Fascinating Romance of Struggles and Triumph; Tells Girls How to Achieve Success in Pictures
Mabel Normand begins today her life story, written exclusively for The Examiner. And with the fearlessness that always has characterized her, she will discuss the remarkable series of events that have shaped her career and established her in a place unique among American comediennes. Pathos and humor, tragedy and laughter will run through her narrative.
Beginning with her earliest days “in pictures,” her story will portray the beginnings of the industry, in the time of the old Biograph, the Kalem and the other companies that flourished apace, ten years ago. The stars of today were her intimates. With them she worked and played when motion pictures were young. And the roster of “extra people,” then would read today, like a “Who’s Who in Filmdom.”
Miss Normand has something to say, also, to the screen aspirants and especially to the girl who sighs for film celebrity. Her viewpoint is unusual, interesting, and born of wide experience. The unfortunate death of William D.
There is only one Mabel. Her story affords an insight into her remarkable character such as heretofore has been only known to her intimates, as told to Chandler Sprague for the Los Angeles Examiner.
Mabel Normand's Own Life Story!
by Mabel Normand as told to
Filmland's Greatest Comedienne Writes of Her Striking Career
Writing the story of one's life is a perfectly awful thing.
I don't like that way of phrasing it, anyhow. It sounds like I was Methuselah's daughter or some one who had been around this little old world so long that I was about to give the universe the benefit of my vast span of years.
And I've just begun to live.
So let's call it “a few chapters from my life,” and if it will be of interest, I shall be glad. Doubtless there are lessons and morals to be drawn from the lives of all of us. If there is one in mine, I hope it will be of service, not only to you but to me. But I guess we all find it a whole lot easier to point a moral from the errors of some one else, than to profit by our own mistakes.
The Examiner has asked me, before I begin my own story to answer two questions. And they are:
1--Would I advise a young girl to seek a career in motion pictures?
2--And to one who is seeking a career, what is the best road to success?
There it is again, the advice from grandma! Like most professional persons who have passed 18 years (actual), I am a perfect clam about my age. If you have any idea that I am going to step right out here, in print, with a chatty discussion about the year I was born, you may as well turn the page. I prefer to leave such uninteresting details to my girl friends.
But I'm going to try to answer the questions. And to the first one, my answer is “Yes.” I respectfully decline to make the stereotyped reply that this question often elicits from actors and actresses. “No, no, my deah, you mustn't think of such a thing. The hardships we professional people have to undergo, the tremendous amount of talent necessary for success, you've no ideah.” And all this with unutterable lifting of the eyebrows and an air of boredom and disillusionment with all things theatrical.
I think it's a wonderful life. It's hard work, of course, just as it requires hard work to succeed in any other career we may choose. And perhaps it's overcrowded, as they say. But there's always room at the top, according to a good old axiom of the stage.
And if you have confidence in yourself, if you think you have talent for motion picture work, then I certainly would not be one to discourage you. You must be prepared for many disappointments and for progress that seems tremendously slow. Perhaps you won't succeed at all. In fact, you probably won't. But you'll have tried. And that's something. I'd rather have a try at what I feel I can do and what I want to do, even if I fail, than to drudge along at something that doesn't interest me, simply because I'm doubtful if I have the courage to stand adversity.
If you think you have talent for the work, go to it, my child (grandma speaking again). You'll find a lot of people to give you a helping hand over the rough spots. Some of the very finest men and women I've ever met are motion picture actors and actresses. I'd like to stack up their lives, with the good deeds I happen to know they have done, against the lives of some others who are inclined, perhaps, to gaze down upon them from a self-erected eminence.
And to the second question, “What is the road to success?” There is only one answer--work. Work and study, until you have learned the technique of the screen. Contrary to popular opinion, it can't be acquired in a day. And it can't be acquired by running for the dressing room the minute your “bit” is finished. Those whom I have seen climb from mediocrity to stardom have made it a practice to watch their fellow workers, to pick up a mannerism here and a little trick there, to think about them at home and to figure out what made them impressive. That's the way to learn. And to learn is to be successful.
There is no other way in my opinion. You have heard a great deal of talk doubtless, about favoritism and luck being big factors in screen success. Miss Soandso, they tell you, is a star because she happened to be in a picture that was an unexpected hit or because the producer favors her more than other actresses. Don't you believe it. It's the public that makes the stars, in motion pictures. And if the dear old public doesn't like them, they don't become stars, permanently. There may be an element of luck, or of favoritism, in getting a chance to show what one can do. But you must be ready for your chance. You must be prepared, by hard work, to accept the opportunity and ride it to success. Luck or favoritism may be able to make a star, but they can't keep her one. It's the public that does that.
I hope I have answered the questions. I've done the best I know how.
And, after all, answers to questions like those are matters of personal opinion. So, with those few words, I will plunge into my own story, the telling of which will be much easier than trying to hand forth a lot of “highbrow” advice.
Up to the time I left school there was nothing eventful or particularly interesting in my life. My mother lived on
I wanted to finish as soon as I could, so I could learn more about the things that particularly interested me. I was crazy about music and drawing. I wanted to be a big musician. And I've never really lost that desire. Even up to last year I used to practice six or seven hours a day at the piano, when I could possibly get the time to do so.
But I didn't get ahead as fast as either my mother or myself hoped I would. Lack of money for proper instruction handicapped me, and when a friend of ours, who was also a friend of Hamilton King, the artist, suggested that I could earn money posing for him, mother finally agreed. I stopped school at
I became a member of the Art Students' League, where it is possible to get competent instruction at night at a nominal cost, and I spent all day posing, at first for Mr. King and then for other artists and illustrators.
Most of the work I did was to pose for heads for magazine covers. And I didn't like it. I hated to stand still. I hated to be simply a means by which someone else was creating something. I wanted to do it myself, but I couldn't I had only the longing, without the ability.
I received $1.50 in the morning and the same amount in the afternoon for posing. Thirty cents of that went for carfare and ferry fare and I had to spend a little money for lunch. Sometimes, however, I didn't get any lunch. I used my lunch hour instead to pose for a commercial photographer. Wearing a hat or a dress that he wanted to photograph, we models would stand around in front of the camera during the hour and he would sell the pictures to trade journals.
It was there that I met Alice Joyce and Anna Q. Nilsson, who were taking the same means of earning a little extra money. Neither of them, at that time, had been in motion pictures. And so I kept on with the artists and they said I was a good model, easy to draw and adaptable to the costumes in which they portrayed their magazine-cover heroines. Among the artists and illustrators for whom I posed during the next few months, in addition to Mr. King, were James Montgomery Flagg, Charles Dana Gibson, C. Coles Phillips, Henry Hutt, Orson Lowell, J. C. and F. X. Lydendecker, Alonzo Kimball, Haskell Coffin and Penrhyn Stanlaws.
Gradually I acquired a vogue among artists as being a type that lent itself readily to diversified costuming. I found myself more in demand and finally was engaged, permanently, by two of the most prominent, Gibson and Flagg. I posed for Mr. Gibson every morning at his studio in Carnegie Hall and for Mr. Flagg in the afternoon at his
The arrangement was more satisfactory because I knew exactly what I had to do every day, but it didn't increase my wages. I was still getting $3.00 per day, $1.50 from each artist.
I thought it was a lot, however. And it helped. I was able to pay more for my music lessons and thus get better teachers. And I was happy in the opportunities that were afforded me to watch these masters as they worked. When I became tired they permitted me, sometimes, to stand behind them and watch their brush as they retouched and filled in face and figure. It was something I couldn't have bought and I realized its value.
There were periods of unhappiness, however. As I look back at them now I believe they came from the ambitions that always were tormenting me. Mr. Gibson had a number of evening gowns that he used as costumes for his models. They had been given to him by society women of his acquaintance for that purpose and every time I put on one of them it took the place, for me, of Aladdin's lamp. They were very smart, these gowns, made in
I wondered what it would be like to have a wardrobe that would permit giving away clothes like those I was wearing and I used to visualize the parties at which they had been worn, giving myself all the airs and graces that I felt I would have put on and smiling condescendingly at multitudes of suitors in evening clothes with ribbons across their shirt fronts. Very distinguished were all the men of my dream parties, with iron gray hair and manners that included bowing from the waist and much courtly kissing of the hand.
Those days and those dreams left an ineffaceable impression on me. Of late years, since fortune has been more kind, I have been able, occasionally, to give away a dress or a hat. And every time I do it, I get a thrill. The image of me as I was at 14 pops up before my eyes and I realize that no Paris gown, no wonderful hat can ever mean as much to me as did those cast-off things in which I used to flaunt myself before the mirror at Mr. Gibson's studio. Some day someone is going to portray, on paper or on the stage or screen, the nebulous dreams and longings that come to an adolescent girl, poised with diffident foot on the threshold of a broader life. If it is ever done truly it will be a wonderful masterpiece. But it will require, in the doing, a very great artist.
All this happened before I ever thought of motion pictures. I used to go to see them, with mother, and I was an ardent “fan,” even then. I had my favorites on the screen and D. W. Griffith was my favorite director. In the next installment of this story I want to tell about my first venture in pictures as an extra girl, with the Kalem Company, and of how I first met Mr. Griffith, whose pupil I became and for whose ability and artistry I shall always hold a very great reverence.
Mabel Normand's Own Life Story
"Thrice I Turned my Back on Film Career," Says Star
You never know your luck!
This isn't a very original statement. Something seems to tell me it has been said before, but it illustrates, almost exactly, how I tried to turn my back on what was waiting for me. Three times I tried my foolish best to walk away from motion pictures, and all three times chance intervened and set my feet back on the path illuminated by the Klieg lights. It happened like this:
Last week I wrote of the days when I was posing at the studios of Mr. Gibson and Mr. Flagg, and augmenting my slender wages by parading during the hour before a fashion camera. It was there that I met Alice Joyce, and it was to her that I owed my first chance in motion pictures.
I met her on the street one day, and mentioned that she had not been at the commercial photographer's for some time.
“No, I'm in moving pictures now,” she said. “I'm leading lady for the Kalem Company. We're working tonight. Why don't you come up and see how motion pictures are made? It's very interesting.”
I was on my way to Mr. Flagg's studio, but I went with
They were taking a scene when I went in. I asked for Miss Joyce, but she was acting before the camera. George Melford, who is now with Lasky, was directing, and I was intensely interested in all I saw as I stood there waiting for
Alice the assistant director was issuing a call for “extras” to work the next day on location. Seeing me talking to Miss Joyce he came over and asked me if I would like to work. It happened that I was to have a few days' vacation from posing, and I told him I would like to try it. I was directed to be there at the next morning to start for
“Run,” yelled the director, and we ran. “Stop,” and we stopped.
At first it was all very interesting, and I was filled with shivering enthusiasm. But after a while all the enthusiasm froze up and I concluded that motion pictures would be a wonderful career for an Eskimo lady, but wasn't quite suited for me. I stuck it out for three days, but finally had to admit defeat at the hands of the thermometer. I was supposed to go back to work, anyhow, at that time with Mr. Gibson and Mr. Flagg, so I dropped the motion pictures and I didn't care if I never saw an Indian again. Every time I passed a cigar store I shivered.
And there it might have ended; my “cuh-ree-hr,” as the press agents call it. I might have come to naught, alackaday, but for chance or Fate, or whatever it is that intervenes and shapes our destinies. While I was scuffling around in the snow and trying to keep one jump ahead of Mr. Pontiac and all his relatives I had met Frank Lanning, a very famous actor of Indian characters. We had stood around between pursuits and talked of motion pictures and posing, and how different they were, to which I agreed with chattering teeth. And the next time I met Mr. Lanning it was at what might be called a psychological moment.
I had gone back to posing. I hadn't seen Alice Joyce for four months, and I had no idea of ever again attempting to work in motion pictures. But one morning Mr. Gibson told me he would be busy for some time in litigation that had arisen over a contract. He said he would pay me during the time I was loafing, but suggested that I try to get work with some other artist while I was waiting for him to be free to draw again.
It was just after this conversation and while I was debating what artist to ask for work that I met Frank Lanning on the street. He said he had noticed several things Mr. Gibson had drawn and had recognized me as the model. There was one head in particular that he seemed to admire and he told me that when he saw it on a magazine cover he had made up his mind to hunt me up some time and advise me to make another try at motion pictures.
“I am working for D. W. Griffith,” he said, “and I'm on my way there now. Why don't you come along and let me introduce you to the casting director?”
If Mr. Gibson had not suspended work that day, I probably would have told Mr. Lanning that it was very nice of him to suggest it, but that I thought I'd better stick to posing. You see, I still had ambition to become an artist some day. But I went. He took me to the old Biograph studio, on
The first thing I noticed was how green every one looked. In complexion, I mean. They must have had different lights at the Kalem company because I hadn't noticed it when I watched
I didn't know anything about wigs, then, and I thought it was her own hair.
I stood there watching her, and I shrank back in a corner, with an awed, "Gosh."
She looked like all seven of the Sutherland sisters, and I said to myself, as I watched her: "You don't belong here, Mabel. You haven't hair like that. Your eyes are only about half as big as hers are and your lips aren't as full and red as hers. You won't have a chance of making good alongside anyone like that. You'd better stick to posing."
So I began to edge toward the door. I watched Miss Lawrence and Henry Walthall for a few minutes longer. I saw a man directing then whom I presumed to be Mr. Griffith. I noticed that Mr. Lanning was busy. And I “ducked.” For the second time I was running away from fame and fortune, as the story books call it.
But I didn't get far. I was half-way down the stairs when a voice hailed me from the top. “Just a minute, please,” it said. And the owner of the voice descended. It was Wilfred Lucas, famous Broadway star, who was Mr. Griffith's right hand man. I had heard of him, but I had never seen him before.
“Would you mind waiting a moment,” he said. “Mr. Griffith noticed you standing there and he would like to speak to you. Can you come back for a minute?”
So I climbed the stairs again, Mr. Lucas leading the way. And I have thought of those stairs often as epitomizing my life. I was going to D. W. Griffith. I was climbing. And I've tried, ever since, to keep on climbing. But the unkind knocks that Fate has dealt me have so depressed me mentally, at times, that I feel again as if I were, in spirit, descending those stairs, going away from Griffith, going away from everything that I prize in life, and waiting for the helping hand, the friendly encouragement that would buoy me up, turn me around and start me climbing again.
When we reached the studio Mr. Griffith was still busy, so we stood there and I told Mr. Lucas why I had become discouraged and started away. I pointed out Miss Lawrence's hair and eyes and told him I was afraid I didn't have the right complexion. “My hair doesn't come down to my feet,” I said, and he chuckled. But he didn't undeceive me. He left me to find out all those things for myself. I knew I had pulled a faux pas of some kind, however, and I was extremely uncomfortable. Mr. Lucas had the carriage of the successful actor. It awed me and while he was very kind he couldn't put me at my ease. Many time since then we have laughed at our first meeting.
Whenever we see each other nowadays I call him “The Great Lucas,” and he grins reminiscently.
For twenty-five minutes we stood there until Mr. Griffith finished and went to his desk in a corner of the studio. Then Mr. Lucas led me over. I shall never forget Mr. Griffith. Already he was one of the most important men in motion pictures, but he was as kind and simple in his talk with me as a man could possibly be. His voice charmed me, particularly. It had a timbre and a gentleness that encouraged me.
He asked me my name and if I had had any experience in motion picture work.
“No, sir,” I answered.
“Then how did you happen to come here today?” he said.
So I told him that I had been posing for Mr. Gibson and Mr. Flagg, that I had met Alice Joyce and had fled from great gobs of Indians during three days with the Kalem company. That was where I had met Mr. Lanning, I told him, and that was how I happened to come to the Biograph studio.
He asked me if I would like to work with his company. I had noticed as I watched them all before the camera, how like a happy family they seemed. Every one was friendly with every one else, they all seemed to admire and respect Mr. Griffith, and I thought it would be nice to be with them. And, besides, Mr. Griffith could make any one ambitious. He was so kind-hearted that I believe if he were talking with someone who was absolutely impossible as an actress, he would make her feel that if she worked real hard, she would make good.
So I told him I would like to try it. I don't believe they took “tests” in those days. Or maybe they didn't want to waste any film on an “extra.” Anyhow they didn't turn the camera on me but just told me to go downstairs and get dressed and made-up. This was early in the afternoon and I phoned Mr. Flagg that I couldn't come to pose for him that day and I started right in to work under Mr. Griffith.
And the first thing I discovered was that my dress would consist of doublet and tights. It was a costume picture and I was to be one of six pages, in a court scene. Mrs. Ada Ebling, the wardrobe woman, helped me into the costume. It was the first time I had ever worn tights and I was scared stiff and embarrassed almost to the point of tears. I guess she took pity on me because she gave me a long cloak, before she sent me upstairs. She told me to keep the cloak around me until it came time for me to go before the camera.
But I'm afraid this installment is getting to long. I guess this is a good place to stop. Next week I'll tell you how I got through my first real picture and how for the third time I abandoned the work, went back to posing and tried to run away from what life was holding out to me.
Mabel Normand's Own Life Story
Film Star Tells How She Started as Tragedienne!
“Please stand out there and stop hiding.”
This was the first individual direction I received in motion pictures.
It was hurled at me by an assistant director for D. W. Griffith and it was the final touch necessary to complete one of the most thorough cases of camera fright in my experience.
As I told you last week, I had been engaged by Mr. Griffith as an extra in a costume picture. I was supposed to be a page and the costume consisted of doublet and tights. Wrapped in a cloak that had been lent me by the kind-hearted wardrobe woman, I had waited for some time the call for the pages to take their places. Then I dropped the cloak and stepped out to spend a very miserable hour.
There were six of us pages. We were to make a frame for the entrance of the leading actors, and then follow them out. I was supposed to stand near a post. But I stood behind it. Anything to get behind something. I thought everyone was looking at me. As a matter of fact, no one was paying the slightest attention to me, but I felt certain I was the focus of all eyes. Instead of feeling like one page, I felt like a whole book, with every leaf fluttering.
And it was because I persisted in trying to slip behind this post and in standing on one foot like a bashful pelican that the exasperated assistant director felt constrained to utter harsh words.
But I got used to it after a while and when we were told that we were to work that night and receive a “double check” I was glad. It meant $10 instead of the usual five-dollar bill. I didn't think about my mother worrying.
But when I got home to
I never expected to face a movie camera again. But Fate must have decided otherwise. It was three months later that I met, in the Forty-second street subway station, Henry Walthall, Mack Sennett and Del Henderson. They had been working for Mr. Griffith the day I had page-fright, and I had been introduced to them.
All three of them, when they encountered me in the subway station, put their hands on their hips and just stood still and looked at me.
Finally Mr. Sennett said:
“Where in the world do you live, young lady? We telephoned all over
“I hope Mr. Griffith wasn't annoyed,” I said.
“I fear he was annoyed, just a trifle annoyed,” said Mr. Sennett, grinning at the others. “But why didn't you come back?”
And so I told them about how late I got home and how mother didn't like the hours and concluded I had better stick to posing. We stood there quite a while talking. And they bought me a malted milk shake, with an egg in it.
I remember that because I had been contemplating such a purchase myself, but I couldn't afford the egg. Anyhow, the upshot of the conversation was that they enthused me all over again with motion picture work. They said they would explain it to Mr. Griffith and told me to ask my mother if I couldn't come back to the studio.
I did and she consented finally. I went back to see Mr. Griffith and he didn't even mention the late unpleasantness, but gave me a job working as an extra girl at $25 per week. Mother had made up her mind, I guess, that I was slated for motion picture work. This was the third time I had tried to turn away from it and each time I had been brought back through an accident. So she gave in and accepted the inevitable.
And thus began my happiest days in pictures. Those old Biograph days! Will they ever be equaled, I wonder, for their effect on the industry and for the atmosphere that surrounded that little group? I doubt it.
Every once in a while, nowadays, I meet a member of the old company. And we talk about something that happened then. And we sigh.
"The old days," we say, in unison. “What wonderful times we had. What a lot we learned and how happy we were while we were learning. If those days could only come back!”
To one who was not a member of that company, it is difficult to portray just what made it great and just what gave those days their thrill. In a sense, we were pioneers and for that reason perhaps many of the unpleasant things one meets in studios nowadays were lacking. We were all friends and equals. There was no “up-stage” demeanor. No one ever thought of himself as out-ranking someone else in the company. We didn't realize we were making movie history and that we were destined to be the stars of today. Yet almost every member of that Biograph Company, the "White Company" of the industry, has a name with which to conjure today.
And the reason, I believe, lies in the invaluable training we received at the hands of Mr. Griffith. With the exception of Mary Pickford, we were shifted around, from lead to extra, and back again to lead, so that we became capable of meeting any situation, playing any part. Mary was the star. At that time she was called the “Biograph Blonde.” Perhaps you remember that title. And she was wonderful to all of us. I have never seen in any studio a person so universally beloved as was Mary.
But she was the only star. All the rest of us girls, and most of the men, climbed the heights one week and played a leading part, only to be cast for a very tenuous bit of atmosphere, the next week. It was wonderful training. It prevented us from getting “swelled heads.” And
“Come up and look at a great artist.” And up we would troop.
Perhaps it was I that was the artist. Perhaps it was Blanche Sweet or Priscilla Dean or Florence LaBadie or Jeanie MacPherson. But we'd all go up anyway, and watch the picture. And Mr. Griffith would comment on it, showing where it was good and where the technique of the “great artist” was a bit faulty. And if we were inclined to get a bit chesty, someone would say, "Watch the old cranium and don't let it enlarge, my dear. Remember I was a great artist two weeks ago."
It was that training that has enabled that little company to hold its own, ever since, with the stars that have risen and set in the movie firmament. Great artists of the spoken stage have come in, new personalities have been discovered, but no one ever has been able to down the old Biograph company. They wouldn't stay down. They knew too much about the technique of motion picture acting. They knew what to do with their hands and feet, how to stand and sit and walk. They were, and they are, actors, trained in a school that began with the A, B, Cs, and extended into the higher reaches of technique, with frequent trips back to the primer class.
Consider for a moment the people that worked with Mr. Griffith during the two years I was his pupil. I believe I can remember most of them. Some of them are no longer living but the majority, if not retired, are still among the vivid personalities of the screen.
Among the women were Mary Pickford; Dorothy and Lillian Gish; Jeanie MacPherson, who is a famous scenarist; the late Florence LaBadie, a beautiful and talented actress who would have gone far but for the unfortunate accident that cut short her career; Blanche Sweet; Lottie Pickford; Bess Meredyth, another famous scenarist; Florence Lawrence; Claire MacDowell, Linda Griffith and Grace Henderson.
Among the men is an even greater percentage of famous names, such as: Bobbie Harron, Wilfred Lucas, Edwin August, Henry Walthall, Mack Sennett, Edward and Jack Dillon, Del Henderson, Pathe Lehrman, the late Joseph Graybill, James Kirkwood, Owen Moore, Frank Evans, Alfred Paget, Charles West, Frank Powell, Harry Hyde, Jack Pickford, Harry Carey, Christy Cabanne, Charles Mayo and George Nichols. John Waldron, who is now studio manager for Mack Sennett, was studio business manager for
My first parts were all in tragedies. Mr. Griffith never could see me as a comedienne. I was always playing dying mothers or something. I certainly did get sick of dying and my fondest wish was that I might play a role in which I went on to the end of the picture without becoming a casualty. During most of my first two years I never had a chance at comedy. But it was great training and I learned, from the heavier parts, many things that have been of inestimable value in comedy roles.
And so we continued, one day up and the next down again to extra, with no one but Mary Pickford sure of having a good part. It taught us never to lose our heads, to be kind to those less fortunate than ourselves. And our association with Mr. Griffith showed us what loyalty meant. When the big money began to be apparent in pictures and the influx of stage stars began,
I remember one picture in which I played shortly after I joined the company. The name of it has vanished from my recollection, but it was heavy, oh, very heavy, and I played a vampire part, with Bobby Harron and Grace Henderson. They dressed me all up for a “vamp” and they gave me a huge black velvet hat. Oh, how I loved that hat. It was a great, big one. It seemed to me it was yards wide. I never expected to have one like it, of my own, and I used to almost cry when I had to take that lovely hat off at night.
My chance in comedy really came as an accident. There was nothing for me to do, one week, and Mr. Griffith sent me down to Huntington, L. I., where the Biograph comedy unit was making a funny picture. Frank Powell was directing it. But when I got there I found there was nothing much for me to do in the comedy, either, so I went swimming, off the pier. In those days, you know, comedies were born, not made. By that I mean that there was no script. They made them up as they went along.
And as I was diving and swimming around, it occurred to Mr. Powell that it would make a good scene for the comedy if one of the characters watched me through a pair of binoculars. So they “shot” him as he peered through the glasses and then they came down to the pier and turned the camera on me for a dive or two. And that, I believe, was the origin of the bathing girl idea in comedies. It happened to be my one and only appearance as a bathing girl but it was the genesis of many miles of film, born of the idea that occurred to Mr. Powell that afternoon. Doubtless it would have come eventually, anyhow, but that picture was the forerunner of them all, as nearly as I can remember.
I had been told to do a few comedy stunts while the camera was focused on me and they appeared to like me in the role. So they asked Mr. Griffith, in the next picture, if they could borrow me again. At first he demurred. In his opinion, I was a total loss as a comedienne, and besides, he had a part for me in another picture. I've forgotten what it was now, but I suppose I would have been completely extinct, as usual, before the end of the last reel. I wasn't so crazy about comedy, either. I had an ambition to become a g-r-r-reat tragedienne. I suppose I thought I was destined to become a second Duse. But
What I didn't know about comedy then would have filled the Congressional Library. Tears had been my role. I could cry like a 40,000 barrel gusher, and at a minute's notice. But I couldn't smile. I had been a patient and beautiful corpse too often. So when they told me to smile I would grin, momentarily, and then let my face slip back into my very best funereal expression. It was awful. They told me to hold the smile and I would assume a “smile or bust” expression that had about as much mirth in it as Lucrezia Borgia's company manners. My idea of smiling was to let the smile freeze, with the result that I resembled a Cheshire cat during many hundred feet of film.
I was furious. I thought it was terrible of Mr. Griffith to farm me out to the comedy company. Gone were all my dreams of tragedy, of stalking across the set, with the spectators sighing and shuddering at my art. But again I didn't know my luck.
Next week I want to tell you how I became a determined and unrepentant comedienne, how I left the Biograph and went to work for another company at a salary that I thought was affluence itself. The break-up of the Biograph had commenced, and we were scattered, gradually, all over filmdom, leaving the home nest with much regret and taking with us memories that never have been effaced.
Mabel Normand's Own Life Story
First Salary as Star was $125 a Week!
I suppose every woman can remember the times in her life when she was speechless. It happens so seldom. And if that temporary paralysis meant as much to any one as it did to me, on one occasion, it is certain she would never forget it. It was there and then that I learned the value of a closed mouth and a quiet smile and although I haven't always profited by the lesson, it made an ineffaceable impression.
It began at Luchow's, a famous little place where the members of the Biograph Company used to go for luncheon. I was still with the Biograph, getting $35 per week. But several members of the company had received offers from the New York Motion Picture Company, which was just starting.
Mr. Sennett was going to direct comedies for them and he told me, at Luchow's that he thought I might be able to get a position with them. He thought they might give me as much as $50 per week and he suggested that I go with him to their offices and find out what they would offer. So I went.
The company had elaborate offices in a big building at
At that time, as you will remember, the names of motion picture players were virtually unknown. It was the company that was featured. Mary Pickford was known as the “Biograph Blonde”--can you imagine it? If any one ever spoke of me it was as “the dark-haired girl of the Biograph” or something like that. The company considered it bad policy to play up the names of the actors. But Bauman and Kessel were going to depart from that policy. And they offered me $60 per week!
Right there is where the silence occurred. I thought it was wonderful, but I didn't say anything for a minute and Mr. Bauman raised the offer to $75 per week. And while I sat there trying to find words to thank them and exercising my fingers so they would be ready to grab a pen, they excused themselves and went into the next room for a conference. “Oh, oh,” I said to myself, “they're going to have an argument. He offered me too much and the rest of them won't pay it.” And I sat there ready to weep at having this chance to make real money snatched away from me. But when they came back, before I could tell them that I would take $60, Mr. Bauman announced that they had decided to offer me $100 provided I would sign a contract before I left the office.
This time I got my mouth open, all right, but nothing came out of it. Absolutely nothing. Not even a gurgle. I thought if I could make $100 a week for one year I would have all the money I would need for the rest of my life. I just couldn't talk, so I finally closed my lips to wait until my tongue felt less than a foot think. And the next thing I heard was Mr. Bauman saying:
“I don't think Miss Normand is satisfied. I guess we had better make it $125 per week.”
This time I managed to make motions for them to bring on the contract. I was afraid the building would burn down before I could sign it. Or they might have offered me $150 and then they would have had to phone for an ambulance. Anyhow I signed for it, somehow. And I started to work.
The company had no studio. All our pictures were exteriors and were made at
The lack of equipment and of a studio worried us a great deal and most of the members of the company were very discouraged over the first few pictures. But they proved a great hit and made a considerable amount of money, for those days. That summer was terribly hot and we had been working so hard that the company decided to sent us all to
A good bit of our stuff we used to “steal.” Thomas H. Ince, for instance, was making war pictures at that time. I think he was filming "Civilization" and several others that called for a lot of gunpowder and dynamite. And we used it all, never fear.
Whenever we heard there was to be an explosion of some sort at “Inceville,” down we would go, cops and all, and we would be somewhere around, out of range of Mr. Ince's cameras when the “shot” went off. We were plenty close, too. Rocks and cinders dropped all around us, but Ford Sterling and I kept right on working. We really didn't feel natural if we weren't dodging boulders or running down a hill with the top of the hill slipping after us. And the cops became so agile I believe they could have dodged all the raindrops in a cloudburst.
But we enjoyed it. It was great fun. “Stealing” our stuff was lots more exciting than just “shooting” it on our own. Mr. Sterling and I became quite adept at it. I remember a baby show that was held on the roof of a big department store. We wanted to work this into a picture, but some other company had bought the rights to have their cameras on the roof. So we just butted in, as usual. We were escorted off that roof thirteen separate and distinct times, but we weren't a bit discouraged. Being thrown out didn't mean a thing. Back we would come and the camera man would get a lot of people around him to conceal the camera until the right minute, then they would step aside and I would leap off the platform where the babies were being judged and rush madly toward the camera with Ford in close pursuit.
The other company would make a fuss and some real “cops” would lead us gently but firmly to the stairway.
We had more fun than a circus that afternoon. We substituted a child of slightly darker hue for one that a fond mother had left in a perambulator and the baby show almost broke up in a riot when she came back a little too soon. Meanwhile Mr. Sennett was looking for an additional comedian and the
But reaching Chaplin proved difficult. He was on tour and Sennett wired him at several different places with no result. Charlie didn't realize what was being shaken in his face and it wasn't until he came to the old Pantages Theater in
I remember the night we all went down to see Chaplin. We liked his performance and Mr. Sennett went back-stage to talk with him. He brought him out and my first meeting with Charlie was on the sidewalk in front of Pantages. I can see him now. He had on a checked suit, a black bow tie and a derby hat, and, at that time, he had a very pronounced English accent. At first he didn't seem to care much about talking business with Mr. Sennett. He had an idea of going back to
For a while Charlie and I played together but he soon became so popular that he was featured in separate pictures. We worked hard and fast in those days. We used to make a picture and have it ready to send to
Charlie told me about it at the time and we were both thrilled. But he didn't want to go to
Well! Neither of us said a word. We just put our hands on our hips and stood and looked at each other. Again I was speechless. And so was Charlie.
"Do you think they mean it?" he asked me. "Do you really believe they can be serious? Is there that much money?"
It was so amazing that he should jump, overnight, from $100 to $1000 per week that we couldn't believe it. We thought Essanay were just talking for exercise. But it was all true and Charlie signed the contract and went to
It was shortly after this that Mr. Griffith, Mr. Ince and Mr. Sennett united in forming the Triangle Motion Picture Company and that was where I got my first real chance. I was still making two-reelers almost exclusively but it was decided to let me graduate. I had made, I believe, only two five-reelers up to that time. One was "Tillie's Punctured Romance," with Chaplin and Marie Dressler, and the other was a picture with Owen Moore.
So they built a studio on Sunset boulevard, called it the Mabel Normand studio and began to make “Mickey.” F. Richard Jones was the director and the picture proved to be the first real big comedy hit of the industry. By virtue of having been the star of that picture I became a very valuable young lady and I too began to get $1000 per week.
It was at about this time that I received a long distance phone call from Samuel Goldwyn, in
Next week I will tell you of my return to the Sennett company and of my more recent days in pictures.
 I.e. Dodging a Million
Mabel Normand's Own Life Story
Lack of punctuality is said to be an indication of poor breeding. If that is true, I must be the most ill-bred person in the world. I'm always late, somehow or other, no matter how hard I try to be on time. And when I was working for the Goldwyn Company I used to get a daily scolding either from Mr. Goldwyn or from Abraham Lehr, his associated, for this very bad fault. But I escaped once, thanks to a happy thought. I was reminded of it yesterday by glancing over Mr. Goldwyn's book on the screen in which he relates the incident.
I was supposed to be on the set, made up, at . But I wasn't there, and as I was hurriedly donning the make-up in my dressing room I cudgeled my brain for some excuse which would let me out of the scolding I knew I deserved. I had just had some new photographs taken which were very good, so I seized one of them, autographed it to Mr. Lehr and dashed out on the set.
“Here's what made me late,” I declared to Mr. Lehr, who was standing there with a face like a thundercloud. “It took me a terribly long time to make up my mind what to write on your picture.”
Mr. Lehr took the photograph and read:
Roses are read
And violets blue.
When I'm late
I think of you.
That saved my life. The storm clouds lifted, and I went to work, thankful for the inspiration.
But my pictures with the Goldwyn Company were not particularly good, in my opinion. The stories were more suitable, in some instances, for the stage than the screen, which made it very difficult for the director and the star to turn out creditable work. I felt I was standing still, and I wanted to progress. Three years I worked for Goldwyn, two of them at
It was "Molly-O." He told me Mr. Sennett had suggested if I liked it and thought I would like to do it, I might come back to the Sennett fold. I did like it and talked the matter over with Mr. Goldwyn and Mr. Lehr, both of whom I found most fair, as they had always been. While we were discussing the matter I did "Head Over Heels" for the Goldwyn Company and after that they released me from my contract and I signed with Mr. Sennett to do "Molly-O."
This was followed by "Suzanna," and it was during the filming of that picture that the death of William Taylor occurred. Mentioning this matter is very unpleasant. I don't like it. Who would? Who would like to discuss, publicly, the tragic death of a friend? Not only is it personally painful, but, to my mind, it smacks of bad taste. However, Mr. Taylor's death and the tremendous public interest it aroused brought all of us who knew him well so much into the limelight that it seems silly to write my life story without mentioning it.
I had known Bill Taylor casually for years. I believe I first met him when he was directing Carlyle Blackwell across the street from the Sennett studio, but I saw him very seldom, and it was not until about a year before his death that I began to know him at all well. We were at a dinner party one night and sat beside each other. The party wasn't particularly interesting and we began to talk about various things, the screen, books, life in general. I found him extremely well informed and I liked his viewpoint of things. He was a brilliant man, a man of remarkable intelligence. We got into an animated discussion on several books we had read and the evening passed so pleasantly that we both remarked on it when the party broke up.
I did not see him again for about two weeks, when he called me on the phone and asked me to go to the opening of a picture at a downtown theater. After that I saw him rather frequently until he went abroad. And when he came back it happened that I was starting East on a vacation and our trains passed each other. When I returned in October and started to make “Suzanna” our friendship was revived. He had brought me some beautiful books from
During November I saw him seldom, as I was working very hard. We were trying to finish “Suzanna” on time and I was too tired at night to go out. I remember the studio gave me a birthday party on the tenth of November. It was at Mr. Sennett's home and nearly every one connected with “Suzanna” was there. I invited Mr. Taylor to go and I don't remember seeing him very much after that until the middle of December. He passed my house in the morning on the way to the studio and sometimes he would stop. Usually I was getting ready to go to the studio and if I had not finished making up I would wave to him from the window and he would go on. If I was ready he would come in for a minute, leave a book and talk about what he was doing or discuss my progress on “Suzanna.”
On Christmas Day he called on me and gave me a beautiful set of Browning for a Christmas gift. Please don't think I'm trying to picture myself as a high-brow. I realize that a movie actress who reads Browning sounds like an anomaly, but I've read him, just the same. I'm not prepared to say, however, that I'm absolutely crazy about him.
Mr. Taylor asked me where I was dining Christmas night. When I told him he said he had been invited there, too, but would come late. We had a long talk that night and during the holidays I saw him more frequently. New Year's Eve I dined with him and some of his friends at the Alexandria Hotel.
During January I saw him several times a week, if I remember rightly. He would stop by my house and several times, on my way back from downtown I would stop at his home to return a book, to borrow one or to talk over scenes in "Suzanna" with him. I had great respect for his judgment and asked his advice frequently.
On the afternoon of the night he was killed, I went downtown very late, to have some silverware monogrammed. Some of it had been given me for Christmas and some of it I had given other people and asked them to let me have it monogrammed for them. I went to two different jewelry stores and had difficulty getting in as it was the closing hour. But I finished my business, finally, went to a safe deposit box and left some things there and then telephoned to my house. I told my maid I thought I would stay downtown for dinner and see a picture. But she said Mr. Taylor had phoned several times and said he had a book for me that I had been trying to get. It had been a cloudy day and no one was working on location or on "outside sets."
I think the book was something by Ethel M. Dell. My maid also told me I had a call from the studio to report for work at .
“Why don't you come home for dinner?” she said. “Stop at Mr. Taylor's and get the book and come home and go to bed. You will need the rest if you have to get up early.”
So I said I would not stay down and I told my driver to go to Mr. Taylor's. His butler answered my ring and said Mr. Taylor was talking over the phone. I went in and I could hear him talking. But his answers consisted of “yes” and “no,” and in thinking of it afterward I got no clue to the person on the other end of the wire.
“Oh, I know what you've come for,” he said when he hung up the receiver. “Mamie [Owens] (my maid) told you I had that book for you.”
He was having dinner and I sat at the table with him for a few minutes and then told him I was going home as I had to rise early. He said he would go to the car with me, and as we were walking he said he had a lot of work to do, but might call me about to see how I liked the book. But he never called. The last I saw of Bill Taylor was when he waved “good-by” to me as my car pulled away from the curb. I turned and waved to him through the glass in the back. But I didn't think it was going to be such a long good-by.
In the morning, while I was making up to go on location for "Suzanna," my telephone rang. It was a friend who lived in the same court with
“Yes, it's true,” she said.
It was a terrible shock. I liked and admired him so much. And I had talked with him only twelve hours before. I phoned the studio that I could not work that day and took off that remnant of my make-up that had not already been ruined by tears. As a matter of fact it was three weeks before I returned to work. Those of you who followed the
And that is why I want to say right here that there is no person in the world who will be as glad as Mabel Normand when the murderers of Bill Taylor are brought to justice. Not only because he was my friend, but because I have a peculiarly feminine desire to have a lot of people feel sorry for the way they treated me during those hectic days. I believe implicitly that
There, that's done. If you knew how I've been dreading this part of my story, how I hated to discuss this most poignant episode of my life, you would realize how glad I am that its finished. But there's still a fly in the ointment. Next week, in the last installment of my story, I suppose I've got to discuss the Dines matter. It, too, aroused a lot of public comment and I'm not going to dodge it. But it was very different from the
I have brought my story now up to the point of “The Extra Girl,” my most recent picture. Next week I will finish and say “Good-by,” or at least “Aurevoir.”
Mabel Normand's Own Life Story
Tragic Dines Affair
There is one locality in which I have no desire to travel. It is the interior of
I got through without mishap, despite the fact that I felt most of the time like a jungle cafeteria. But ever since I have had a great respect for Daniel.
It was after “The Extra Girl” was finished that Courtland Dines was shot by my chauffeur, Horace Greer. And once again my name was headlined throughout the country. What a futile, unnecessary mess it all was! It makes me fairly writhe, even now, in impotent anger, to think about it or to discuss it. It was so recent and the circumstances were blazoned so completely all over the
And as a matter of fact, I am unable, anyhow, to tell you just what occasioned the shooting. For I didn't see it. I supposed I was making a New Year's call, which I had intended to be brief. But I would have been better off if I had gone to the beach and spent a nice, quiet day in a shooting gallery.
I had remained at home all that afternoon answering Christmas and New Year cards, and it was after when I stopped at Mr. Dines' house after leaving word at home to call me and remind me of a fictitious engagement, so that I would have an excuse for leaving early.
And when my driver came back for me, and Mr. Dines admitted him, I stepped to the door of another room to talk for a minute with Edna Purviance, who was standing before the mirror there.
It was then that the shooting occurred, and just what occasioned it I still am at a loss to understand. Greer, who is a well-meaning boy, declares Dines attempted to hit him, and claims he shot in self-defense. Perhaps that is true. I don't know.
But whether it is nor not, this fact remains, after the smoke has cleared away: Greer may have aimed at Dines, but he hit me, figuratively speaking. Dines was dangerously wounded, and Miss Purviance and I were escorted to the police station, where they took our statements while an enthusiastic crowd of newspaper men wrote furiously. Out over the country went the story and the censors began to sit up and sharpen their official shears.
No waiting for an official inquiry. No calm sifting of the facts. I had been mentioned in headlines in a sensational story. And it was my second offense, since I had been “featured” also in the
But before the movement to ban my films gained any real headway the common sense of the country began to assert itself. Anyone who doubts that our nation still has many a champion of fair play should have read my mail during the next few weeks. I used to sit and read those letters with tears of gratitude in my eyes. Most of them were from women.
Anyone who ever tries to make me believe, after this, the old aphorism about woman's unfairness to other women will have an impossible task. I shall never forget the sense of justice that American women manifested toward me. In those thousands of letters the sentiment was almost identical.
“We are not going to sit by and watch this happen. We women have something to say about things, nowadays, and we're going to see that you get a square deal.”
It was this storm of protest from fair-minded persons that slowed-up the censors and saved me from being thrown to the lions. As I write Greer's preliminary hearing has been held and he is bound over to the Superior Court to answer the charge of shooting Dines. It may be months before a decision is reached, and meanwhile newspaper stories will appear from time to time dealing with the “Normand Case,” as some of them call it. Such are the penalties of earning one's living by appearing before the public.
My pictures have been clean and wholesome always. I suppose even my most bitter critic will admit that. And to carry out the analogy of the censors if a prominent manufacturer of soups should be mentioned in a sensational newspaper story, would it not be consistent to advise every one immediately to refrain from partaking of his soup?
But I don't want to seem to argue the matter. The facts in the case have been printed, voluminously. The public must judge for itself. After all, they are the final arbiters.
But I've made a couple of resolutions. One is to always engage a chauffeur after this who has no “chivalry complex” and who is so scared of all kinds of "shooting-irons" that he will run a mile if any one shows him one. The other is to depart quickly wherever I hear a loud noise.
And now I have finished. This story has been brief, necessarily. Newspapers have not the space to print a really detailed life story. Only the high spots can be touched. But I've enjoyed telling it. And if it has been of interest, I'm glad. If it has bored you, in spots, I'm sorry. And I wonder, really, whether or not you have enjoyed it.
Nothing is so interesting, so worthy of study as the complex mind of the public. Especially is it interesting to an actress. Not only because it means dollars and cents to her, if the public happens to like her, but because it is so variable, so dependent upon trifles and unconsidered details. It's a marvelous thing, the public mind. Politicians and showmen have been trying to anticipate it for a good many years. Most of them guess wrong. But it's a lot of fun guessing, anyhow.
So now I make my exit from The Examiner columns. Or, perhaps it would be better to say my exit as far as my autobiography is concerned. It would be rather too much to expect a permanent vacation. Reportorial friends tell me I have become what they call “good copy.” Whatever that it, I don't like it. But that doesn't seem to matter much. They make you like it.
So here's hoping the next time I occupy the front page it will be something nice, something wholesome.
In conclusion, may I say a word, a serious word, not only for myself, but for any other person in screen or stage circles who may by virtue of unkind circumstances, attain a measure of unpleasant notoriety. Be fair to them. Remember that since they are semi-public persons, an importance will be lent to their every action that may be entirely out of proportion to its true value.
“Judge not” is a good maxim for all of us. To criticize is easy. But to view the errors of our fellow-beings with human tolerance and a kindly heart is more difficult--and much more wonderful.