Mabel Normand was the first great comedienne of American cinema and one the most important -- and popular -- American silent film actresses. By the time she first showed up at the Biograph studio in 1910, Normand was already a "Gibson Girl" (a model for illustrator Charles Dana Gibson) and a champion swimmer, and she was not yet 18. Biograph published a photo of Normand with the phony name "Muriel Fortescue," leading some sources to believe this her real name, but nevertheless it was Mabel Normand. She was from a French Canadian family and born on Staten Island on November 9, 1892. Normand worked for Biograph only a few months, then joined Vitagraph for about a year while the Biograph Company wintered out West. After they returned, so did she, working under the direction of D.W. Griffith. Griffith cast Normand as the "second girl" in melodramas and in tomboy roles; Griffith's protégé, Mack Sennett, primarily made comedies and would exploit Normand's natural comic abilities and athleticism through casting her in the lead. A Dash Through the Clouds (1912) featured Normand escaping with her beau in a new gadget, a Wright Brothers-styled airplane. This, and other, short comedies made by Sennett helped establish Mabel Normand as a girl who could take care of herself -- willful, powerful, and seemingly without fear.
Sennett broke with Biograph to found Keystone Comedies, and Normand joined him in California; she starred in the first Keystone, The Water Nymph, released in September 1912. Apparently, a personal relationship between Sennett and Normand blossomed about this time as well, and though it was once the source of a popular musical, Mack and Mabel, the true nature of their relationship remains unclear. Normand was the Sennett studio's most significant female star, and as Sennett also discovered and introduced Gloria Swanson, Phyllis Haver, Betty Compson, and Carole Lombard, that's saying a lot. Normand also began to direct in 1914, although more out of necessity than any artistic need. One reason Charlie Chaplin was allowed to direct so early in his Keystone career was that he objected to taking direction from Normand, complaining about it to Sennett.
Normand entered into an immensely popular series of films co-starring Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle as sidekick, with titles such as Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916) and Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition (1915) being among the best remembered. It is said that the relationship, such as it was, between Sennett and Normand foundered in the summer of 1915, nevertheless, Sennett decided to produce a feature starring Normand and built the Mabel Normand Studio next door to Keystone; it was a necessary move, as the Keystone studio didn't have the right infrastructure to make such a film. Normand was 24 years old at the time; the studio with her name above the gate made only one film, Mickey (1918), a sentimental melodrama in the style of Griffith, spiced with comic touches. Mickey was tied up in post-production so long that by the time it was released, Normand had already left Sennett for the Goldwyn Studio and had been working there a year. Mickey, aided by a hit song and a successful merchandising campaign, proved Normand's most successful film, but Sennett had lost legal control of it, and neither shared in its profits.
Normand's sojourn to Goldwyn resulted in disappointing returns, and in 1920, Sam Goldwyn was happy to sell Sennett back her contract. During this time, Normand had become dependant on cocaine and began to suffer months-long periods of illness where she could not work. Once back at Sennett, she made Molly O' (1921), a property more or less modeled right after Mickey; it was enormously successful. However, on February 1, 1922, director William Desmond Taylor was shot in the back and killed, and Normand was unfortunate enough to be the last person to see him alive. Although she had nothing to do with Taylor's murder, her name was added early on to a long list of suspects in the still unsolved case. Although her reputation was sullied, Normand made one more feature with Sennett, The Extra Girl (1923), which remains the most frequently seen of her films, and one of her best. Although it opened to enthusiastic crowds and good reviews, at a New Year's Eve party in 1923, Normand was witness to yet another shooting, this time of playboy Courtland S. Dines, by Normand's chauffeur, with her gun. Dines survived, but Normand's reputation was mortally wounded.
Although publicly Sennett declared that he planned to continue making films with Normand, in private they agreed to end their association. In 1926, Normand married actor Lew Cody and made five films with Hal Roach. These were her last, for in February 1927 Normand fell prey to her final bout with illness, which claimed her at the age of 37 after three years of slowly declining health. Though tuberculosis was given as cause, research in the late 20th century revealed that Normand may have died from a disease that was carried congenitally through her family line. Altogether Mabel Normand appeared in about 230 films and directed 16 of them; roughly 45 percent of her titles survive. It is not as generous a bequest as it sounds; a third of that total consists of 1914 films in which she co-starred with Chaplin, and the remainder includes only two of her Goldwyn features and one Vitagraph. At her peak, Normand was worshipped by scores of women who admired her for being wealthy, independent, fashionable, and flamboyant -- not to mention well read and eloquent in interviews. She remains one of the most captivating and unique figures among American silent-screen stars.