Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand




Willis Goldbeck

(Motion Picture Magazine, September 1921)



Transcribed by Marilyn Slater

Looking for Mabel

March 22, 2013


Scarlet tanagers . . . Coney Island . . . That is, in part the way Louise Fazenda, in her Impressions in the Classic magazine[1], described Mabel Normand.  I have often questioned those impressions – and then, meeting the subjects, have invariably found them correct.  In outlining her fellow comedienne, Louise didn’t fail.

          There is something of the tanager[2] about Mabel.  She is flashing, impetuous, starting.  There is in her moods something of the bird’s vivid scarlet flight.


 Of Coney Island[3]? Yes, you can readily imagine her in its gaudy parks, shooting the chutes or screaming down a perpendicular drop on a roller-coaster.  I don’t say that she does these things, but you can easily picture her doing them.  The true probability is that you’d find her more frequently in the sophisticated setting of a New York restaurant, or at the theater.


          “I go to New York after every picture,” she said. I cannot stand it out here in California for very long.  And when I’m there I go twice a day to the theaters.”

          Experience has not jaded Mabel’s enthusiasms.  She is worldly without being weary.



We had only a brief chat at the Sennett studio in Edendale, a section of Los Angeles.  There, between scenes, she lured me on to talk of books.  I had heard of her mad passion for Stephen Leacock[4] – for his writings, I mean!  She plunged at once into a eulogy of his Literary Lapses, was pained that had not read it, that I presumed to quality the virtues of Leacock’s humor.  And then she was called away to make her final scene for the day.

           “Meet me at the gate,” she said, “and drive home with me.  I’ll have to take off my make-up.  My dressing-room’s a bungalow over there across the lot.”


          She ran off.

          Everyone who is interested at all in pictures is watching the Sennett studio with speculative eyes.  Mabel’s new starring vehicle “Molly-O[5]” is the subject of many prophecies and predictions.  It is revealing no secret to say that Mabel’s last big hit, “Mickey[6],” was not a Goldwyn picture, that Goldwyn was deplorably wanting in the ability to furnish her with a suitable, or direction – I shan’t presume to say which, “Mickey” was made by Mack Sennett.  It was his first radical departure toward the furtherance of his announced intention to make big comedy dramas.  And “Molly-O” is even more ambitious. 

       The seriousness with which he is going about it is evident in the fact that he has secured Lowell Sherman, of “Way Down East” fame, to play the heavy, and Jack Mulhall as leading man.








From the most disinterested source I could find, I learned that Mabel is photographing as she never photographed before.  And certainly her appearance would seem to justify that.

 In her big limousine, as we rolled across the city, she was delightful.  She is small, almost plump now, with large brown eyes where wisdom lurks behind half closed lids and heavy lashes – wisdom and good humor.  Her hair is dark and thick.  I had noticed in the studio that she moved easily, lightly, with the careless grace that bespeaks the strong body.  She has a way, when speaking, of leaning toward you, so that her eyes are disturbingly near to yours, immensely wide.  And her mouth quirks occasionally, as tho inside she was laughing at you and for the life of her couldn’t keep it in.  She has a comfortable way of resting her hand on yours when she laughs.  Altogether, the ride was extremely pleasant.


          “How does it seem to be back at the Sennett studio[7]?  Well, it is so different!  It is not like coming back to a familiar place.  It is more like starting in at a new one.  When I left, there was only one stage.  Now there are at least six.  But I am quite happy.  I have all the faith in the world in the story and in Richard Jones[8], the director.”




          “Have you any definite idea of the length of your stay with Sennett?[9] I asked. 

          “Oh, it is just understood that I shall be there for a number of productions.  I don’t know exactly how many.”

          She doesn’t live in Hollywood.  She has a small bungalow[10] in a residential section of the city, rarely frequented by picture people, where she lives with her secretary, her Chow dog[11], and her books, in luxurious content.



           Once we were there, she plunged again into thought of Leacock.  She tried me on several of his Lapses, and then, finding me quite hopeless, brought out Dreiser’s The Hand of The Potter[12].  I read the cover blurb a little dubiously. “A Tragedy.  Naked.  Unashamed.”


          “Is this what comes of your return to Sennett’s? I ventured.  I don’t remember her reply.  She was busy, by that time, giving me a copy of Deburau[13].

           She had some very beautiful portraits, photographs, of Olive Thomas[14], on the table, carefully bound.  She turned them over for me slowly.





“Ollie, never saw these,” she said.

On the baby grand piano was a striking figure in silvered metal, that of an Hawaiian surf rider tearing in on a silver wave.

            “Tom, Tom Moore[15] and Renee Adoree[16] brought that for me from their honeymoon,” said Mabel.  “They want me to put it on the radiator cap of my Stutz.  They have one on their car.”




I told her of an interview I had had with Renee, and how Tom Moore had driven me off with strong expressions of malignancy towards interviews and interviewers, and how, later, when I had tried to get another story from him on marriage he would have nothing to do with me.

          Mabel laughed.





          “Yes,” she said, “Tom’s funny that way, but all the same he’s a wonderful boy.”

          Perhaps that’s why it’s impossible to find anyone who knows her who’ll say a word against her – because she always has a good word for the fellow.

          I think I have never met a person with more instant charm, less affectation, or more generous impulse.  Mabel has as much right to ennui and egotism as the best of us, yet she remains irrepressible and without pose.  I can think of no better way to illustrate than by an incident:

          She took me downtown with her, as far as Figueroa.  As we stopped there at the corner, and the chauffeur swung open the door for me, an urchin, a newsboy, stuck his head in and said, “Hello, Mabel!”  There wasn’t a hint of annoyance in Mabel’s reply.  She knew him!

          “Hello there!”  she answered.  “How’s the other boy, the lame one?”

          “Oh, he’s carryin’ one o’ them leather things out on the golf course, what they put their sticks in.  Makin’ two dollars a day.  He’s all right.”



          Mabel gave him a dollar.

          I learned later, from someone else, that Mabel had taken him to the auto races out at the Speedway[17].  Sitting there, munching peanuts, the kid had spied Wally Reid and a couple of other familiar faces.




          “Gee!”  he cried.  “Lookut all the movie stars!”

          “Yea,” said Mabel, in return.  “Ain’t they funny!” – and went right on eating peanuts!

          I fear I have resorted to wild tactics to describe Mabel accurately, as she appeared to me.  Scarlet tanager . . . Coney Island . . . Lame Newsboys . . . . Theodore Dreiser.  It’s a strange mélange.  But if you have understood that Mabel is some girl, it’ll do!




[1] MOTION PICTURE CLASSIC: column by Louise Fazenda titled “Impressions of Screen Folk”, short descriptions using just a couple of words…Nazimova – “A knife in a satin sheath”; Norma Talmadge – “Poppies in wheat fields, dinner by candle light.”

[2] TANAGER: Ohio Ornithological Society: “The Scarlet Tanager is a member of the cardinal family – bright red with black wings and tail living deep in the forest.”

[3] CONEY ISLAND: a popular vacation spot, the first quarter of the 20th century was the busiest era of the amusement park just south of Brooklyn, NY.  It was used to escape the city heat and was a place for short vacations for the people in the city.  It was also the location of some early silent comedies. 

[4] LEACOCK, STEPHEN: (1869-1944) the most popular humorist in the English language, between 1915-1925, and he was Canadian, everyone quoted him, and e.g.There are two things in ordinary conversation which ordinary people dislike - information and wit.” His book “LITERARY LAPSES” was published in 1910 and was a compilation of short stories. http://www.gutenberg.ca/ebooks/leacock-literary/leacock-literary-00-h-dir/leacock-literary-00-h.html 

[5] MOLLY-O: (1921 Sennett) first full length feature drama, marks Mabel’s return to Sennett’s fold; directed by F. Richard Jones staring Mabel Normand and Jack Mulhall.  Molly O’Dair is the daughter of a ditch digger and washerwoman, who falls in love ‘above her station.’

[6] MICKEY: (1918 MMFFCo) the only film made at Mabel Normand’s Studio on Bates in Silverlake; first feature directed by F. Richard Jones for Mabel.  Mabel works with Wheeler Oakman, Lew Cody, George Nichols, Minta Durfee, Laura Lavarnie, Tom Kennedy, and Minnie HaHa.  Young girls from a western mining-town goes East to become refined and get her away from the mining engineer she has fallen in love with but in the East is misused by her snobby relatives, find her true love again, rides a wild race, fights off a masher, and at the end her mine hits the mother-load and her and her engineer take a train West to live happily ever after. 

 [7] SENNETT STUDIO: (formally Keystone) at 1712 Alessandro (now Glendale), Edendale (now Silverlake) California The warehouse is all that is left of the Sennett studios (look behind the Jack in the Box).  In 1982 it was declared Historic-Cultural Monument #256. It was the home of the “King of Comedy” from 1912 to around 1928 when sound stages were needed and Sennett moved to the San Fernando Valley.

 [8] DICK JONES: F. Richard Jones but Mabel Normand called him, Dick, was from St. Louis, Missouri. he was born the same year as our Mabel, 1892 and by just 22 years old, he was working in California for Mack Sennett at Keystone.  He directed Mickey in 1917 at MNFFCo (released in 1918) Dick met Irene Lentz (who became the award winning costume designer) during his period at Keystone but only married late in their relationship.  Part of the incentive that Mack used to draw Mabel back from the Sam Goldwyn Studios was that the dramatic full-length feature, Molly O’ (1921) would be directed by Dick Jones. He went on the work with her on her next two Sennett features, Suzanna (1922) and The Extra Girl (1923). http://looking-for-mabel.webs.com/jones.htm 

[9] MACK SENNETT: Michael Sinnott (January 17, 1880 – November 5, 1960) the KING OF COMEDY was a Canadian-born American director and actor and was known as the innovator of slapstick comedy in film. He ran KEYSTONE and MACK SENNETT COMEDIES. His Special Oscar was awarded to him as the “master of fun, discoverer of  stars ... for his lasting contribution to the comedy technique of the screen." …yes, he loved Mabel Normand. He was also one of the investors that bought a mountain and placed the HOLLYWOOD(LAND) sign on it.

[10] Mabel Normand’s BUNGALOW: was at 3089 7th Street Los Angeles California very near the Ambassador Hotel, the home of the Coconut Grove.  http://looking-for-mabel.webs.com/thegirlson7thstreet.htm

[11] CHOW DOG  in the above link are photos of Mabel’s chow “Ojai” on the sidewalk outside her bungalow

[12] HAND OF THE POTTER  author was Theodore Dreiser (August 27, 1871 – December 28, 1945) an American novelist and journalist, whose literary situations were studies of nature more than tales of choice. His novels often featured main characters who succeeded at their objectives despite a lack of a firm moral code, and Dreiser's best known novels include Sister Carrie.  The Hand of the Potter is a tragedy in four acts.

[13] DEBURAU Jean-Gaspard (July 31, 1796 – June 17, 1846) was a celebrated Bohemian-French mime, famous for the character of Pierrot.  His son formed the Deburau School of Pantomime. Sacha Guitry wrote his play Deburau in 1918. Sacha Guitry (1885 – 1957) was a French actor, dramatist and director.  Wrote his first play at age 17. Directed his first film at 30. He wrote over 120 plays in his lifetime.Buried in the cemetery of Montmatre in Paris, France. 

[14] OLIVE THOMAS: (1894-1920) was a friend of Mabel Normand although they didn’t work together, Mabel did make films with Ollie’s second husband, Jack Pickford.  A picture held in Mabel’s personal photo album was inscribed; “To Mabel, Just lots of love from the bottom of my heart – Ollie (Olive Thomas)” http://looking-for-mabel.webs.com/mabelsalbumoffriends.htm 

[15] TOM MOORE: Thomas J. Moore (1883 – 1955) worked with Mabel at Sam Goldwyn Studios: “The Floor Below”(1918); “Dogding a Million” (1918); and two poporgana films, “United States Fourth Liberty Loan Drive” (1918); “Stake Uncle Sam To Play Your Hand” (1918).  He was an Irish-born American actor and director.  His brother Owen and Matt also made movies.  Owen was married to Mabel’s friend, Mary Pickford and Tom had been married to Mabel’s friend, Alice Joyce before the marriage to the French actress, Renee Adoree.  Owen made “Stolen Magic” (1915); “Oh Mabel Behave” (1922 – made in 1915) “Mabel Lost and Won” (1915); “The Little Teacher” (1915) for Mack Sennett.  Mabel made just “Stake Uncle Sam To Play Your Hand” (1918) with Matt Moore.

[16] RENEE ADOREE: was born Jeanne de la Fonte, 1898, France -  renamed in French  “reborn" when she entered films. While in New York City on New Year's Eve 1921 she met Tom Moore. Six weeks after their meeting, on February 12, 1921, Renee married Tom at his home in Beverly Hills, California. Mabel was present. The marriage did not last, and in 1925, Renee made the war epic “The Big Parade” with John Gilbert.: 

[17] SPEEDWAY: The Los Angeles Motor Speedway was located in Beverly Hills, it was a 1.25 mile board oval, the wooden track was called a “toothpick track”. The Speedway covered some 275 acres, today it is the site of the Beverly Hills High School, and with the northern curve currently is the location of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, http://www.freewebs.com/looking-for-mabel/cars.htm 



A Word about Willis Goldbeck

WILLIS GOLDBECK was just 23 years old when he interviewed Mabel Normand for the Motion Picture Magazine.  Willis was born in New York on October 24, 1898. He had gone to Worcester Academy. After doing a turn as a journalist, he was writing scripts for the movies.  The Time-Enterprise of Thomasville, GA, July 14, 1923, ran a story that the mod scenes were being filmed for “Scaramouche” that Willis Goldbeck had adapted from the Rafael Sabatini novel. 

Not only was Willis a screenwriter of over 40 films but he went on to direct 10 of them among them several of the “Dr. Kildare” series, which he had written.  He retired in 1962 dieing in 1979 just before he turned 81at Sag Harbor NY.