Tea with Mabel Normand: June 1-15, 1922

Mabel Normand, 1922

One hundred years ago this month, the L.A. Times ran an interview Grace Kingsley had done with Mabel Normand on the set of her forthcoming film, Suzanna, which had finished shooting in late April. Not one word about the scandal around William Desmond Taylor’s murder appeared in the article (Normand had been one of the last people to see Taylor before his death), and it shows what a good job she, with help from the staff at the Sennett Studio, did to keep her career going. Instead of that, as they sipped their tea, Normand did her absolute best to make her upcoming movie relevant to contemporary audiences. She said:

“I’ve learned all about the 1849 flapper from Suzanna. There were really flappers in those days, you know—always have been since the days of Eve.”

“And Suzanna was the prize flapper of her day! How she did stir up the simple village folk, to be sure. My, what scandalous goings on there were! Why, she set the whole village a-flutter when she decided to play croquet all alone with a young man!”

Mabel Normand as Suzanna

She pointed out that there were some advantages to the slower pace of life in olden times, because “what the flapper lost in speed those days, she made up in romance. Bill simply had to call. He couldn’t just alibi by talking over an unromantic telephone with a fresh telephone girl butting in on the conversation.” Furthermore, when he took you out “he didn’t hop into his racer ahead of you, cautioning you ‘Get a move on, kid!’ while he started, stepped on it, and nearly killed you 500 times in a breathless race. Instead, you went properly riding with him in one of those things found only in museums and Chamber of Commerce collections nowadays, known as buggies. And one arm was plenty enough to drive with. And when you went walking with Bill, you didn’t hike. You strolled…Oh, that little flapper of 1849 knew a thing or two!”

Suzanna tells the story of a maid to a Spanish California rancher’s daughter who falls in love with Ramon, the son of another prosperous rancher. Eventually they learn that Suzanna was switched at birth with the rancher’s daughter (Dolores), and she and Ramon live happily etc. Don’t worry about Dolores — she gets a nice toreador named Pancho.

Interviews with friendly writers like Kingsley were only part of the strategy to rescue Normand’s career from the scandal. She also took a break from the public eye and traveled. On June 7th, a reporter saw her in Chicago and in contrast to Kingsley, asked her about the Taylor murder. He or she wrote that she said “I do want to appeal to the public—once upon a time I called them ‘my’ public—and a forlorn little smile flitted across the tired looking face that was once one of the most beloved that flashed across the movie screen. “I want to ask them to give me a square deal. They were very kind to me once—when I was working hard to accomplish something worthwhile. Then when my biggest picture was released—this horrible thing came and the newspapers were full of stories about us out there—and my public believed them.”

The studio delayed releasing Suzanna until late December. The world premier was in Los Angeles, and the L.A. Times didn’t review it – possibly because there was a crush of Christmas and New Years releases. However, the weekly “what’s playing” article described it as being:

 filled with old-world charm, the loves and hates of the early Spaniards who settled in the Bear State are picturized…Spectacular and picturesque to a fine degree, and filled with comedy, pathos, adventure and romance, the production had made a sensational entry into the ranks of film masterpieces.

Suzanna played for eight weeks, so their tactic worked: the ticket buying public didn’t turn away from Mabel Normand.

After the successful run in Los Angeles, it opened in New York City in late March, and the trade paper critics were remarkably enthusiastic. Nobody mentioned the scandal—it seems like her connection to it was forgotten. Exhibitors’ Trade Review called the film “A happy mixture of comedy and romance, farcical situations and sentiment—Suzanna affords bright and snappy entertainment… Not a dull moment.”

Even better for her career, they just loved Normand. W.E. Keefe in Moving Picture World said, “Mabel Normand never before appeared so beautiful nor gave us such splendid dramatic work. Her work probably surpasses everything she has ever done.”

Robert E. Sherwood in the New York Herald agreed, and his only complaint was that the world needed more films from her: “Mabel Normand’s appearances on the screen are regrettably infrequent. Once a year, perhaps, she steps forth to remind us that she is still the first comedienne of the silent drama—but this annual visit isn’t nearly enough.”

Screenland magazine even named it their picture of the month for March 1923.

The New York audiences were just as ready to forgive or ignore what they’d heard a year earlier: it played to a capacity crowd at the Capitol Theater.

So Mabel Normand’s career was far from over with after the Taylor murder. Too many short biographies about her say scandals ended it. She, and the team at Sennett, did a good job of keeping it going. Her next film, The Extra Girl, also got great reviews and did well at the box office. Her later films were less successful, plus her health problems kept her from working. She died of tuberculosis on February 22, 1930.

Mildred Harris

This month, it also appeared that Mildred Harris was a better person than her former husband. Kingsley reported:

Comments by Mildred in an interview on matrimony published in New York a day or two ago, particularly her reference to Chaplin, are causing considerable wonderment, according to work just received from that center of art and culture. The remarks were occasioned by the recent report that she was engaged to wed an eastern actor.

“When I finish this vaudeville tour,” said Miss Harris, “and you know it is to carry me to the Coast and back—there is a stellar role in a play on Broadway awaiting me. Why should a girl with such prospects marry? I was the wife of one of the most wonderful men on earth. I learned a great deal from him. Charlie has a splendid, a brilliant mind. He is the ideal mental companion.”  

Chaplin had a very bad habit of saying in interviews that Harris wasn’t his “intellectual equal.” He really could have learned from her about not badmouthing an ex in the press!

“Begs for a Square Deal,” Los Angeles Times, June 8, 1922.

W.E. Keefe, “Suzanna,” Moving Picture World, March 3, 1923, p.69.

Grace Kingsley, “Flashes,” Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1922.

“New Years Opens with Six Films,” Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1922.

“Picture of the Month,” Screenland, March 1923, p. 85.

“The Screen,” New York Times, March 26, 1923.

Suzanna,” Exhibitors’ Herald, April 14, 1923, p. 54.

Suzanna,” Exhibitor’s Trade Review, March 31, 1923, p. 917.

Suzanna Makes a Hit at the Capitol,” Moving Picture World, April 7, 1923, p. 664.

One thought on “Tea with Mabel Normand: June 1-15, 1922”

  1. Mildred Harris was indeed very gracious toward Charlie Chaplin.

    Interesting about Grace Kingsley’s interview with Mabel Normand. I adore Mabel N.’s films and admire her career, and often wonder how she was able to sidestep the murder connotations so effectively.

    Liked by 1 person

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