Pick and Sledge

Curious Stories from the American West

100 Years Ago Today: Mabel Normand, Silent Film Comedy Star

Fort Collins Courier, February 12, 1919
The old Lyric Theater in Fort Collins, 1915

Last night I was watching an episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel where a male booking agent meets the comedian he hired, Midge Maisel, for the first time. She’s wearing a black evening dress. Her hair is fabulous. She looks gorgeous. He immediately dismisses her, saying she doesn’t look funny. He’d only booked her because he saw a fake picture of her that was actually Mamie Eisenhower. The President’s wife, apparently, looks like she’s funny.

Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), left. Mamie Eisenhower, right

Today’s article is basically selling silent film comedy legend, Mabel Normand, as Mamie Eisenhower. The article seems to say, “Isn’t she funny? She has funny socks! Many kinds of funny socks!” The author posits that that Normand herself thinks the “eccentric stockings” will be “responsible for the success everyone feels she will achieve” in her title role as Sis Hopkins. I don’t buy it.

Sis Hopkins movie poster featuring those eccentric stockings

Mabel Normand did not need a “mascot” to make her successful and funny. Normand starred in at least 190 films in her lifetime between shorts and feature lengths. She wrote for and directed Charlie Chaplin, who was notoriously hard to manage. She was a writer and a film producer who started her own production company. Heck, she may have been the first actor to perform the classic pie-in-the-face gag, hitting Roscoe Arbuckle in the mug. In 1918, she starred in the largest grossing film of the year, Mickey, which made $8 million.

In 1919, Mabel Normand was one of the most popular movie stars in the world. In addition to working with Chaplin and Arbuckle, she worked with Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Harold Lloyd, and director D. W. Griffith. She had just left her long-time professional and romantic partner, Mack Sennett, and started working with Samuel Goldwyn, with whom she would have a rocky personal relationship but successful professional career for the next few years.

Advertisement in Moving Picture World for the film Sis Hopkins (1919) with Mabel Normand

Sadly, Mabel Normand’s life would soon be complicated by numerous scandals and declining health due to tuberculosis and alcohol abuse. Between 1921-1922, her costar, Roscoe Arbuckle, was tried three times for the rape and murder of actress Virginia Rappe. He was finally found not guilty, but his films were blacklisted, which means many of her films were blacklisted, since she was his co-star.

Then, her close friend, director William Desmond Taylor, was murdered on Feb 1st, 1922, and she was the last person to see him alive. She was questioned and ruled out as a suspect, but the scandal tarnished her reputation. Two years later, Normand’s chauffeur, Joe Kelly, shot and wounded millionaire oil broker, Courtland Dines, with her gun. She starred in a few more films in the 1920s, but her popularity faded quickly due to these scandals.

Normand was known as a heavy drinker and there were rumors that she had a cocaine addiction, though the latter has been rebutted by her family. She contracted tuberculosis as a child, but it wasn’t until her 30s that her health seriously declined because of it. On Feb 23rd, 1930, she died of pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 37.

Mabel Normand

Sis Hopkins plot synopsis from Turner Classic Movies:

Coarse country girl Sis Hopkins and general store clerk Ridy Scarboro are so engrossed in their dalliance that a basket is overturned and a large can of oil spills into a pool, creating a slow leak. Wealthy villager Vibert thus becomes convinced that Sis’s farm is located on a pocket of oil, and he schemes to gain control of the property by marrying Sis. Vibert sends her to a young woman’s seminary for refinement. Sis creates chaos in the school and is a problem for principal Miss Peckover. Vibert eventually realizes Sis will never measure up to his standards for a wife. Ridy, who has been jealous, is overjoyed when Sis returns home. Vibert entices Pa Hopkins into selling the property for a small amount, but Sis shrewdly succeeds in tripling the price. Finally Vibert discovers the can in which he has invested so heavily.

Turner Classic Movies

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