The misogyny of a Hollywood murder: Part One
One hundred years ago this week, director William Desmond Taylor was murdered in his home. To this day, the killer has never been identified.
Mabel Normand was the reigning queen of comedy, blending slapstick with bittersweet poignancy long before that wee arrogant nonce showed up from London.
Despite the fact that she was no longer the major star she was in the teens, Mabel continued to work, right up until her death in 1928 at the age of thirty-eight. Frances Marion and Adela Rogers St Johns threw her bridal shower when she married in 1926. Pallbearers at her funeral included Louis B Mayer, Sam Goldwyn, DW Griffin, Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks.
It is quite clear, therefore, that she still rated as Hollywood royalty long after the scandals that supposedly destroyed her.
I bring this up partly because all too many articles today dismiss her as a ‘troubled actress’, a footnote to the scandals of the twenties. Take this, pulled from an article I found just this morning:
Comedian Mabel Normand had been linked romantically with Taylor, but was sent to a sanatarium to recover from tuberculosis, and later died.
The only part of that definitively true is that she was a comedian. And that she died, to be fair -- almost seven years later, having worked non stop since then.
Mabel had quit Keystone to start her own production company in 1917.
She gave as her reason that she wanted to make more substantial films. “I wanted better pictures,” she said. “I was getting tired of grinding out short comedies to bolster up programmes in which other stars in other companies, as well as our own, were featured in pretentious films and were paid far more than I was.”
This brings me to a (slightly off topic, but important!) point that applies to all the female filmmakers of the period - I love how seriously they took themselves.
One of the messages we hear again and again about the Hollywood pay gap is that female stars don’t negotiate as hard as men do. Supposedly they’re just happy to be cast, and conscious of how much more they earn than the average person, so they don’t quibble about another million dollars -- even though their male co stars do. Jennifer Lawrence said in an essay in Lena Durham’s newsletter:
... if I'm honest with myself, I would be lying if I didn't say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn't want to seem "difficult" or "spoiled."
But in the teens and twenties, female filmmakers had no such compunctions.
Mabel Normand eventually earned $4000/week at a time when most Americans didn’t make that in a year. The very first actor to sign a contract to a studio worth a million dollars was Mary Pickford, and even in the late twenties, after this golden age for women in Hollywood was over, Greta Garbo was famous for going on strike whenever she didn’t think she was getting paid enough. (Which, by the way, worked. She eventually signed a contract to in 1929 that made her the highest paid woman in America.)
So it’s interesting, that this so-called innate female quality of not demanding raises or negotiating the best deal possible was established decades after women started working in the industry.
Under the ‘Mabel Normand Film Production Company’, Normand produced just one film, 1918’s Mickey.
The story of Mickey’s production is one of those maddening ones in which almost every film historian describes it as a disaster. It’s true that the budget grew during production (not exactly a unique situation!) and there was some mad story in which one of the directors kidnapped the footage, allegedly for non-payment.
But ultimately, Mickey grossed $18 million dollars, making it one of the highest grossing films not only of the year, but of the entire era.
The Journal and Republican called it “the greatest picture ever seen” and it was such a hit that it inspired fashion. In the mid twenties, Moving Picture World wrote that “Mickey became an epidemic. Mickey hats, dresses, clothes and pretty nearly everything else” filled thirty-seven storefront windows in one town alone.”
So yeah. An unmitigated disaster.
Normand later went to work for Samuel Goldwyn, releasing a string of hits between 1918 and 1920. Around this time, Goldwyn ran into some money troubles (amongst other things, the post-war recession hit Hollywood hard). One day, he was in his office worrying over how he was going to pay his wage bill, when in walked Mabel Normand and handed over a bond for $50,000 from her personal saving, which saved the company. If she hadn’t, there quite conceivably might not be an MGM today.
Despite all this, if anyone has heard of Mabel Normand any more these days, it’s probably as a cocaine addict, as the woman who allegedly threw herself from Santa Monica pier having discovered Mack Sennett in bed with another actress, or most famously, as the woman implicated in the murder of her close friend, director William Desmond Taylor.
As the Women Film Pioneers project at Columbia University puts it: “scholars would do well to refocus attention on Normand’s distinctive contribution to early cinema and slapstick comedy, as well as the nature of her directorial work for Keystone.”
It is true that Mabel was friends with William Desmond Taylor. And yes, there were the inevitable rumours of romance (or at least of unrequited crushes both ways), but as far as I know, there’s not definitive proof of anything other than friendship. Mabel, like most people of her generation and class, left school early, but she seems to have had a lifelong appetite for learning. She told the Los Angeles Record two days after his death:
I loved Mr. Taylor as a good comrade – a pal with whom I could discuss subjects in which we were both mutually interested. For instance, I had been studying French and Mr, Taylor, who spoke French fluently, helped me tremendously. And too, I have been somewhat interested in philosophy and metaphysics, and in those subjects he was again a valuable teacher…
Minta Durfee Arbuckle (Roscoe’s ex wife — you may recall that we take some of her claims with a pinch of salt, but this one seems reasonable to me) said later:
Bill was like a father to her. He was probably the only man in her whole life – and that includes Mack Sennett, who was supposed to be so in love with her – who never took advantage of her, who really cared for her as herself and not as the movie star Mabel Normand.
It was because of these shared passions that Mabel was the last person to see Taylor alive. We’ll get into that, next week!