Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand


Who was Elgin Lessley?


Marilyn Slater


He was a passenger on the train with Mabel

and Roscoe

on their way to New York to make movies for


December 1915.


Elgin Lessley (also known as Lesly, Lessly, Leslie but usually Lessley) became one the finest cinematographers that early movies created. The IMDb list his first film was The Waiter’s Ball (June 25, 1916).  There is plenty of documentation that he did in fact work with Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle on He Did and He Didn't (January 30, 1916).  In the Payroll Report from January 8, 1916, of the Triangle Production in Ft. Lee, it shows he was paid, a whopping $55 a week, to put that amount in perspective Mabel was making $500 and the head carpenter made $35.  


In "Behind the Scnes with Fatty and Mabel," from the April 1916 issue of The Picture Play, Wil Rex wrote that the Fort Lee, Triangle Studio was hectic and bristling with movie-making goings-on.  Roscoe Arbuckle had constructed a banister, which was rather costly, according to the financial papers of the production, over $1,000. Roscoe was planning to tumble down the stairs and the railing needed to support his weight. Roscoe supervised the construction of a set after all, it was his neck on the steps.  With the help of a dozen prop men plus Ferris Hartman, (yes he was on the payroll too, as Assistant Director at $75 per week) the banister was made and tested. 

Elgin Lessley was waiting on the sideline.  Lessley is described as an “intrepid cameraman, who has the reputation of turning out the clearest films of any Keystone crank turner, was loading his film magazines” as the banister was being tested.


Intrepid indeed, Elgin had traveled in the Far East, just 3 years earlier. In 1913, he was single, 27 years old and in Yokohama with just 2 suitcases. He returned to the States on a Toyo Kisen Kaisha steamer. It was a lovely steamliner and a grand way to travel.


The Toyo Kisen Kaisha had the fastest steamers on the Pacific route and was able to easily make 19 knots. It had accommodations for 275 first-class passengers (54 second-class and 800 steerage). The steamer was 440 feet long and 50 feet in breadth; powered by twin screws 17,000 horsepower turbine engines.


And here he was in Fort Lee, New Jersey in the middle of winter, having left sunny Los Angeles with his wife, Blanche; Ferris Hartman, the comic musical producer and his wife, Josie Hart, stage actress; Roscoe Arbuckle, director and star; Minta Durfee, film star and Mrs. Arbuckle; Mabel Normand, the greatest comedienne of the early 20th century (OK, just one person’s opinion); Joe Bordeau, also known as Boudreaux; and Al St. John, who made $60 a week. It was a train full of fun makers that made the trip to New York the day after Christmas 1915.


Roscoe Arbuckle "confessed” to Ray Frohman in 1919 that “Elgin Lessley was the only man who ever photographed Fatty for the screen (unless two or three cameras were being used at once).” Before he became the cinematographer on Buster Keaton’s most memorial films, he was with Mabel and Roscoe.  I think that perhaps Roscoe may have fibbed a little.


Back in 1916 at the Triangle East Coast Studios, Roscoe Arbuckle, and Mabel Normand arrived from California to make comedies in Fort Lee. Mabel made He Did and He Didn’t and Bright Light and Roscoe made 7 films, including The Waiters’ Ball. Without Mack Sennett to supervise, Roscoe created a new style of comedy at Fort Lee. According to Richard Koszarski, Roscoe was trying to add scenic beauty to comedy not just kicks and pies. Elgin was the right man to film these films.


Elgin Lessley was born June 10, 1883 in Monteau, Randolph County, Missouri, his father was Shelton and his mother was Orpha Brooks.  He had a large family, sisters; Nettie, Ora; and Elgin’s Uncles Herbert and Claude Brooks, his mother’s brothers plus as a little boy, Elgin’s grandfather Burton Brooks lived with the Lessleys.


In 1910, the family moved from Missouri to Colorado Springs, Colorado where the family opened a department store where all the members of the family worked.  Elgin was the window trimmer at the department store his father owned. 


During the First World War, 1918, when he filled out his military resignation he was married to Blanche and they were living in Culver City, California. Blanche was born in Colorado. Elgin was employed by the Roscoe Arbuckle Film Co in Long Beach California as a cameraman.  The couple was living near First and Beverly Blvd., in Los Angeles and he had made a real name for himself as a cinematographer by 1920.


Buster Keaton had inherited Elgin from Roscoe Arbuckle; a very lucky pairing indeed, by 1923 Buster was the most popular comedian with the U.S. Navy as his film “The Three Ages”, his first feature-length Metro comedy was shown on ships.  “Our Hospitality” had been filmed by Elgin and was directed and starred Buster, it was going to soon follow.  This was a delightful film with the photography done by Elgin and direction by Buster. Its working title was "The Rocket," it was a family movie, Joseph Keaton, Buster’s father has the part of the engineer, Buster Keaton II, shows real promise as he cries beautifully and more beauty is found in the person of Natalie Talmadge, Buster’s wife. What a wonderful movie to have a copy of in any collection.


By 1924, there was no comedy film star making better pictures then the team of Keaton/Lessley.  Edward McPherson in BUSTER KEATON: Tempest in a Flat Hat, tells of an effect, which was indicative to the genius of this pairing.  McPherson explains a sequence effect of a split of the screen into nine fragments, "courtesy of a custom-designed shuttered light proof casing that fit over the camera. . . . To create the minstrels, the shutters simply were opened one at a time, with the film rewound in between. However, mechanical precision was not enough. It took the steady arm of cameraman Elgin Lessley -- the human metronome -- to crank each exposure at exactly the same speed. And then -- to achieve onscreen synchronicity -- Buster had to give nine flawless, identical performances.” This can be found in a film called “The Playhouse”; it is a real collaboration between Keaton and Lessley. The lens would have needed to be taped within ten-thousandth of an inch, Elgin said it couldn’t be done but they did it. A lightproof black box was built that fit over the camera; this was kept as a secret for years.


When The General was made the highly decorated war hero Glen Cavender, who played Captain Anderson, served as technical director for battle sequences on Ince pictures prior to The Coward.   There is a rumor that the general who gives the command for the engine to cross the burning bridge is Keaton’s former cameraman, Elgin Lessley. He was not Elgin Lessley.   


Although Elgin was on the train with Mabel in 1915, and filmed her in two films, he is remembered for his work with Buster Keaton.  What wonderful control of the camera he had!  He was only 60 when he died in Los Angeles on February 8, 1944. No obituary has been found, yet but how sad that he died so young.   

and a little more

There was a second chapter to the career of Elgin Lessley, in the first chapter we found him cranking for Mack Sennett in Edendale.  When Sennett joined Triangle, Elgin went with Mabel and Roscoe to Fort Lee.  In looking at the information at IMDb, there are a number of terrific films, which used his obvious talent.


He must have done his bit at Keystone to warrant the reputation he had acquired by the train trip.  “He Did and He Didn’t” (1916), “Bright Lights” (1916) are not listed but were filmed by him and what he did at Keystone in California is still unknown.  IMDb lists only some of his films.


The IMDb does list some magnificent movies that should not be overlooked (even if Mabel isn’t in them). Just in passing, I should mention that the IMDb gives Elgin Lessley’s birthplace as Higbee MO.  According to the silent film scholar, William M. Drew after Elgin’s stint with Buster Keaton, he found his services needed by the likes of Harry Langdon and the brilliant Frank Capra. 


Although it doesn’t seem that, the path of Mabel and Elgin cross in her later career.  Between Elgin’s employment at the Roscoe Arbuckle Studio and his work with Buster Keaton there is film worth pointing out called “You Can’t Believe Everything” (1918), with a young Gloria Swanson. Elgin was much in demand, when Keaton made “Go West” (1925), it was Elgin turning the crank.  Then he was off to become part of the new Langdon Feature Company making at lest a half-dozen features during 1926-1928.  It was Elgin that filmed “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” (with Joan Crawford) in 1926.  


He filmed the first feature directed by Frank Capra, “The Strong Man” (1926). It was one of the films selected by the National Film Registry in December of 2007, (just a couple of days ago).  This naming to the Registry assures that Elgin Lessley work will not be forgotten, even if he is uncredited.  The Langdon/Capra/Lessley team went on to create the superb “Long Pants” (1927), “Three’s a Crowd” (1927) and "The Chaser" (1928), and oh yes, “Heart Trouble” (1928), another lost comedy.


The cinematographer doesn’t seem to receive much credit, even one as gifted as Elgin.  He is known to have filmed “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp,” and “The Strong Man,” but there are so many more whose names are not known. 


By 1928 when MGM became the home for Buster Keaton, it was time for Buster’s cameraman to rejoin him in the making his first film at the studio, the astonishing “The Cameraman.”  It is hoped that this gem will be honored for the valuable treasure it is.


There is no film listed in the IMDb after “The Cameraman” (1928) for Elgin Lessley.  The contraptions for taking “flickers” were rapidly changing and with the advent of sound, perhaps, his particular skills were not in demand but for whatever reason he stopped cranking his magnificent camera, we have him to thank for some wonderful, joyful film images. 


Some of Elgin Lessley films were:



          Waiters’ Ball, The


          Laundry Clean-Up, A

          Royal Roque, A

          Dangers of a Bride

          Clever Dummy, A

          Phantom Husband, A (as Elgin Lesly)

          Framing Framers


          Bell Boy, The

          Her Decision

          High Stakes

          You Can’t Believe Everything

          Marker Cards (as Elgin Leslie)

          Alias Mary Brown (as Elgin Leslie)

          Daughter Angele (as Elgin Lessly)

          Atom. The

          Irish Eyes (as Elgin Leslie)


          Back Stage

          Hayseed, The

          Garage, The


          One Week

          Convict 13

          Scarecrow, The



          Haunted House, The

          Servant in the House, The

          Hard Luck

          High Sign, The (uncredited)

          Goat, The

          Play House, The (uncredited)

          Boat, The (uncredited)


          Paleface, The (uncredited)


          My Wife’s Relations (uncredited)

          Blacksmith, The

          Frozen North, The

          Electric House, The (uncredited)

          Daydreams (uncredited)


          Balloonatic, The

          Love Nest, The

          Three Ages (uncredited)

          Our Hospitality


          Sherlock Jr

          Navigator, The


          Go West


          Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (uncredited)

          Strong Man


          Long Pants

          Three’s a Crowd


          Chaser, The

          Cameraman, The





Lisle Foote information

 There is a Yahoo Group that I belong to and there is another member of the group, the writer and silent film historian, Lisle Foote.  Lisle posted a response to the piece I did on Elgin Lessley at the group and said that I could include it on Looking-for-Mabel.

Now, I was thinking of adding another chapter to the piece of Elgin as it is wonderful to understand that it was with the Méliès-Star Company (American Wildwest) the American branch of the French Méliès Company, headed by Gaston Méliès, the brother of the celebrated Georges Méliès that taught Elgin camera techniques.  The Company made films in Fort Lee, New Jersey in around 1909 but moved to San Antonio, Texas by May 1911, Méliès had changed its name to American Wildwest and relocated to Santa Paula, California where it took on a young cameraman, named Elgin Lessley. In 1912, it appears that Gaston and Elgin toured Asia and the South Seas.  Sadly, the Méliès’ company was bankrupt by 1913 and Elgin moved to Los Angeles. Perhaps, to Keystone and perhaps with the skills of the use of the camera pioneered by Méliès.


“…I wrote one (article) about him (Elgin Lessley) for the Keaton Chronicle, but you found stuff that I didn't. I didn't know his family owned a department store in CO. Now it makes more sense that his first job when he arrived in Los Angeles was as a clerk for Bullock's Department Store.

I have a few things that aren't in your article. The reason he was in the Far East was because he was shooting films for Gaston Méliès, Georges brother. He got his start in film with the Méliès-Star company in Santa Paula, CA.


His death certificate says he was born in Higbee, and the informant was his sister Nettie. He died of  "chronic myocarditits," which at the time was a catch-all term for heart trouble. He'd been diagnosed with it 10 years earlier, so it probably contributed to him dropping out of film. But Eleanor Keaton said he quit to take care of his wife. Blanche Olmsted Lessley died on 9/28/1931 of Wernicke's Syndrome, which is caused by chronic alcoholism…”


Death Certificates

Elgin Lessley, is buried at Forest Lawn at Gendale, California in the Eventide section lot number 1247 in space 3.


(courtesy of Lisle Foote)





Keaton’s Bill for Expenses Rouses Anger

 Here’s real studio economy!


Buster Keaton and his entire production staff left this week for Sonora, Cal.  The staff consisted of one movie cameraman.  Buster claims that this is the smallest studio staff that ever went on location.


On the way up to Sonora Buster played pinochle with his cameraman.  When they tired of that the cameraman brought out a pocket checkerboard with stick-in pawns.  Then they reminisced for a while. Bought oranges from the train butcher and finally went to sleep on each other’s shoulders.


Upon arriving on location Buster stood while the cameraman shot him.  After this was done they came back to Los Angeles.  Upon his return Buster said: “We had a great time.”


Lou Anger, general manager of the Keaton Studio, nearly collapsed when Buster and the cameraman put in a joint expenses account of $7.84.


“Save it, Buster,” advised Anger, “and show it to von Stroheim and Mr. De Mille.”

Los Angeles Times, November 25, 1923 pg H 33







In an opening scene in “Long Pants”, the audience will get the photographic effect of looking for a book in a big library.  They will swing from the bottom shelf to the top row before they will pick out a well-known romantic tale.

This effect Elgin Lessley, Harry Langdon’s chief camera-man, obtained by laying out a track some fourteen feet long in front of the library set in “Long Pants.”  Upon this track he placed a movable platform where he perched his camera.  From this position Lessley could scene the thousand and one angles for this unique shot which could not have been obtained had his photographing apparatus remained stationary on the studio floor.

Lessley has been a camera-man since 1911, getting his initial experience with the old Méliès Star Film Company.  He has been with Langdon slightly over one year during which he has photographed all of the comedian’s feature productions.  Prior to then Lessley spent five years with Roscoe Arbuckle and about five years with Buster Keaton.

Camera work on “Long Pants” had occupied nineteen weeks on the day this week when we saw Lessley in the First National Studios.  He told us then that “Long Pants” had then used 300,000 feet of film negative and that he expected another 100,000 feet would be exposed before work was completed.

This footage has passed and is passing through not only Lessley’s camera but that of his assistant.

January 22, 1927 Moving Picture World Long Pants




Reference Information



1900 Census, Missouri

1909 March 14, New York Times, Japan’s New Ship Subsidy

1910 Census, Colorado

1913 Passenger List, Toyo Kisen Kaisha, saloon passenger, line 76 (line 80 John MacCulloch)

1916 January Triangle Financial Reports

1916 April The Picture Play, Wil Rex, Behind The Scenes With Fatty And Mabel

1918 Draft Card

1920 Census, California

1923 November 3, Hamilton Evening Journal, Our Gobs Like Keaton Antics

1923 December 23, Ogden Standard-Examiner, Jack Jungmeyer, Keaton Comedy Best of Season

1924 January 13, Theater, Here’s Story Made Buster Keaton Smile

1930 Census, California

1944 California Death Index, 1940-1997, Elgin Lessley

1995 April, Taylorology #28

2004 Fort Lee: The Film Town, Richard Koszarski

2005 May 15, Dennis Drabelle, A Genius for Comedy

Edward McPherson in BUSTER KEATON: Tempest in a Flat Hat,


Lisle Foote, Silent Film Historian

Oriental Steamship Company brochure

With a little help from my friends

Delores Hanney

William M Drew

Lisle Foote

and Mabel's "funny" friends . . .  

thanks for the help and encouragement