In this exclusive essay for The Archives blog, author and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Jon Boorstin discusses Mabel Normand, the enigmatic silent era star who plays the lead role in his new fiction novel, Mabel and Me, now available from Angel City Press.
You can meet Jon in person at Larry Edmunds Bookshop, where he and Brent Walker (producer of THE MACK SENNETT COLLECTION, VOL. ONE and author of Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory) will discuss and sign their books and view silent film shorts. Wednesday, August 27, 7:30 pm in Hollywood, CA.
Though I have a long and intimate connection with the movies, doing all the jobs my narrator Jack does in my novel, Mabel and Me, except swab out the lab vats, silent pictures and slapstick in particular held no attraction for me. Then, a few years ago, I was drafted to tell the history of the movies, as a first pass for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’s nascent movie museum. I went in search of lives that told the story of the movies. The lives that leapt out were the pioneers, the ones who made something from nothing. Our Era of the Image began with the movies, and movies began in Echo Park with Mabel Normand and a ladder, as Charlie Chaplin said.
When I read a biography of Mabel Normand, I fell in love with her. She was a pioneer woman, in a tough man’s world. She had courage. She was honest. Charlie Chaplin called her and the slapstick boys “Beauty and the Beasts.” She didn’t rest on her beauty, though, she inhabited it. I also saw that her brief, tumultuous life contained the whole story of the movies in America. Not just metaphorically. Movie years were dog years back then. Mabel lived the first turn of the wheel that’s been turning ever since. Seeing her life, I could see things to come. She brought to life the magic, the mystery, and the unfulfilled promises of the silver screen.
To tell a larger truth, a novelist needs space for invention. For a life lived under Klieg lights, we know remarkably little about Mabel Normand. Betty Fussell, her principal biographer, makes much of this. So Mabel was an ideal lens onto that vanished world. We don’t know precisely what ended her engagement to Mack, or exactly what transpired with Sam Goldwyn. We don’t even know who threw the first pie in pictures. But Mabel is the odds-on favorite. She was a canny, elusive interview subject, who knew how to flatter and confuse reporters, spicing banalities with the absurd. Her Variety obituary has her three years too young (or as Mabel once put it, “three years younger than Mary Pickford”).
Reminiscences by her contemporaries, written decades later by veteran self-promoters who made up stories for a living, are rich with anecdote and profoundly unreliable. These include Mack Sennett of course, and Anita Loos, Sam Goldwyn, Adela Rogers St. Johns, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille. For the Mabel interludes, their biographers tend to rely on the autobiographical accounts. Few of the spear-carriers are heard. Cameramen Fred Balshofer and Arthur Miller come to life in One Reel a Week. The Director’s Guild of America has a valuable Oral History Project, where lesser knowns reminisce. Their voices helped bring my narrator to life. My narrator, Jack, a composite of so many of the real people I came to know through my research, told the story he remembered, the story he lived.
Few of Mabel’s movies remain; her later pictures, including Joan of Plattsburg, are mostly gone. Now, thanks to Flicker Alley, we have a better view of many of them. The Mack Sennett Archives at the Motion Picture Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library provide a tantalizing window into their creation. It includes the earliest Sennett scripts, before there were writers. They were transcribed after shooting, as a guide for the editor.
About Jon Boorstin: His first novel, Pay or Play, was called “the definitive send up of Hollywood” by Publishers Weekly in a coveted starred review. His second, The Newsboys’ Lodging-House, won the New York Society Library Award for Historical Fiction. Boorstin has also written a book of practical film theory, Making Movies Work, which is used in film schools all over the world. The work of an Oscar® nominated documentary filmmaker and longtime screenwriter and producer, Mabel and Me is the culmination of Boorstin’s lifelong affair with the Movies.