Mabel Normand

During the early part of the 20th century, Mabel Normand was one of the most popular and accomplished silent screen actresses in the world.

A peerless comedienne who exuded charm and sex appeal, Normand also blazed a trail for future Hollywood actresses as a screenwriter, director and producer. A frequent co-star of Fatty Arbuckle, she even mentored Charlie Chaplin and directed his earliest appearances as the legendary “Little Tramp” character.

So why isn’t Normand better remembered today?

While she definitely has a following among ardent film historians, Normand fell prey to cocaine addiction by the 1920s and found her name linked to both a murder and an infamous shooting incident. Although she wasn’t a suspect in either crime, the scandals combined with the public revelation of her drug dependancy irreparably damaged Normand’s career and reputation.

Her health began to fail as well, and Normand died in 1930 from tuberculosis after an extended stay in a sanitarium. She was only 37.

I first became aware of Normand through the 1992 Robert Downey Jr. movie Chaplin, solely because she was portrayed by one of my favorite modern-day actresses: Marisa Tomei.

Tomei and Robert Downey Jr.

I was later fortunate enough to see several of Normand’s shorts from her Mack Sennett heyday thanks to such Web sites as the Internet Archive and YouTube. Turning to more traditional media, I’ve also enjoyed the Sennett/Normand shorts and featured that have been broadcast this past month on TCM.

The video at the bottom of this post is a strong example of her work, as it was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in December 2009 for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant.

Premiering in Oct. 14, 1914, “Mabel’s Blunder” was written and directed by Normand – who also, of course, portrayed the the heroine.

The video, unfortunately, is truly silent as YouTube flagged just about every piece of ancient and obscure music I could find. The Public Domain just isn’t what it used to be anymore…


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