Some big parties going on for the past couple of weeks and the Siren's best hats were all being re-blocked, so she didn't go. Thursday night TCM, in the slyest bit of counter-programming the Siren has seen in some time, ran an entire evening of Mack Sennett shorts.
Now if this doesn't prove to one and all that Turner Classic Movies is the greatest damn channel in the history of channels, television, or people named Turner, the Siren doesn't know what will. The Siren's been seeing Sennett shorts mined for years for "quaint" clips meant to poke fun at the primitive nature of early cinema. And here he was, lovingly restored, respectfully introduced by Ben Mankiewicz, and being shown in prime time.
The Siren has been having one of those months where she's all, "Gosh, my movie viewing is feeling so, so, well--current" so this was perfect. And who should jump out at her during these shorts? Not Chester Conklin or Raymond Griffith or the Keystone Kops or Chaplin or Arbuckle, but Mabel Normand.
Normand was a known quantity; the Siren loves Mickey and He Did and He Didn't and Tillie's Punctured Romance and many others. Sitting down with the Sennett films that put her on the map was fascinating, though. Normand was utterly fresh and natural on camera. Through more than two hours of viewing the Siren never saw her mug.
John Barrymore told Mary Astor, "Think! the camera is a mind-reader." And what Sennett's camera saw in Normand was unaffected charm. It's a charm that, oddly, doesn't read much in stills at all. What a Normand photograph shows you is a pretty woman with a cute smile. You have to watch her in motion to understand why she bewitched so many, including Chaplin and of course Sennett himself.
The short that captivated the Siren was this one, for reasons that will become clear. The Water Nymph is cute, but not sidesplitting; it's famous mostly for Normand's bathing-suit scene, which according to Ben Mank inaugurated the immortal Sennett Bathing Beauties. But look at Normand earlier, laughing behind her hand at her pompous suitor. It could easily play as mean, even bitchy; Mabel's mockery seems to come from a place of pure joy, not a hint of malice in it.
It's hard to watch Normand without some small spot in the back of your mind cringing away from what fate had in store for her. (It's even harder when she's playing opposite frequent costar Roscoe Arbuckle.) The Siren has read, and mightily enjoyed, Sidney D. Kirkpatrick's A Cast of Killers, about the William Desmond Taylor murder that started Mabel's slide. For those who don't know the book, it is based on King Vidor's unpublished papers.
Toward the end of his life, Vidor became fascinated with this unsolved Hollywood killing, and he wanted to make a movie about it. The book casts Vidor, delightfully, as a sort of Hollywood Jessica Fletcher, running around talking to the silent stars and film people still alive and trying to piece the story together. In the end he comes up with a culprit, one that's revealed in a scene that plays as tragedy, although Vidor's solution absolutely hasn't convinced a lot of the case's devotees. All the Siren can say is that whether or not Vidor had the right perp, it plays. (The case has spawned a whole school of theorizing, Taylorology, which seems to be the perfect hobby for people who find Kennedy conspiracy research to be boringly uncomplicated.)
Normand's in A Cast of Killers, of course, as lovable in that book as she was everywhere else. When it was published in 1986 there was talk of making it into a movie, which still hasn't happened. Certain of the Siren's far-flung correspondents have told her they believe the movie will never happen; that even today, there are those who want to bury the story. The Siren isn't plugged-in enough to say, but the fact that the book has never been filmed is a pity. The Siren adores King Vidor, and the idea of raising his profile with the general public appeals enormously to her.
Vidor would be hard to cast. Normand would be harder.
As the Siren recalls, A Cast of Killers doesn't tell the following tale from Vidor's autobiography, A Tree Is a Tree. Kirkpatrick probably was wise enough to know he couldn't equal it.
In 1931, Vidor and Laurence Stallings were at Vidor's home, working on a screenplay about Billy the Kid. The two men were dressed in tennis whites and bright sweaters, but when they received a summons to meet with Irving Thalberg, they dropped everything and didn't bother to change into anything more sober. They joined Thalberg in his limousine, along with legendary MGM executive Eddie Mannix (whose fearsome reputation has its own school of conspiracy thought). The men discussed Billy's bloody career for a while, when Vidor realized that this wasn't an aimless joyride, they had a destination.
Suddenly the car made a turn to the right and came to an abrupt halt. Quite a crowd was gathered on the sidewalk, and a number of dark limousines, similar to ours, were parked ahead of us. The doorman who stepped up to our car wore white gloves and a dark suit. I realized that we had stopped at the main entrance of a funeral parlo. Apparently we were late for a funeral!
Whose funeral? I wondered.
I was obliged to step out to permit egress for Thalberg and Mannix.
As I started to get back into the car and sit out the funeral service with Stallings, a strong hand gripped my arm.
"Aren't you coming inside?" It was director Marshall Neilan.
"Marshall," I said, "look how we're dressed."
"That's not important. They'll be expecting you."
Who'll be expecting us? I wondered.
Stallings, with the inquisitive soul of a journalist, had started to work his way out of the car. We must have made a pretty picture, two men in white flannels and bright sweaters, as we entered the crowded chapel.
"Who's dead?" I asked Larry in a whisper.
"Let's find out," he replied.
Inside there was another sober-faced gentleman, Lew Cody. This famous actor was a convivial man-about town, and I had never seen him in any mood except a light-hearted one. But Lew showed no surprise at our inappropriate attire and soberly showed us to two seats next to Thalberg and Mannix. A flower-draped casket reposed impressively before us. An organ played gently in the proper mood.
I didn't dare speak. Finally I pantomimed to Mannix to give me pencil and paper. On the back of an envelope I wrote: "Who is it?"
Mannix took the pencil and answered: "Mabel Normand. Don't you read the papers?"
Mabel Normand! I was shocked. It is true that I hadn't read a newspaper in several days. Beautiful, lithe-figured Mabel Normand. When I had been a young ticket-taker in the Texas nickelodeon, Mabel Normand had been my dream girl. I remembered her, black tights covering her body, as she walked to the end of the board and dived gracefully to the water below. I had known her as the Biograph Girl and as the star of dozens of Mack Sennett comedies. Marshall Neilan had directed her first full-length film, Mickey. Lew Cody had been married to her.
Thalberg leaned toward me across Mannix.
"Too many murders," he whispered.
Had she been murdered? I was stunned.
"The public won't accept it," he added and I suddenly realized he was talking about Billy the Kid.
I nodded temporary agreement, but I was pursuing another line of thought. I had begun to recognize faces. There was Marie Dressler of the large, expressive visage. She was never one for subtlety in comedy, nor was she subtle in grief. Ben Turpin was weeping unashamedly. The big face of gigantic Mack Swain of Gold Rush fame was marked with tears. Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, Chester Conklin, Hank Mann, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon--all fellow workers of hers--were crying. I was fascinated by their faces. These funny faces had made people roar with laughter the world over. Now they were distroted by grief into another, yet equally ridiculous, grimace. These good people, who had not achieved fame by subtlety in facial expression, expressed sorrow in the same open manner; tears flowed plentifully over tragic countenances.
In due time good words were recited from a good book, and the service was over. We watched as the casket moved down the aisle toward the chapel entrance and the brutality of the sunlight beyond.
Presently the four of us were back in the limousine, whose windshield now bore a sticker with the word "Funeral" on it.
As the procession moved slowly along Figueroa Street, Thalberg instructed our driver to turn out at the intersection. With this quick maneuver we left the line of dark cars and headed back toward Culver City and the studio. When the driver stopped briefly to tear the telltale sticker from the windshield, Thalberg resumed our discussion of Billy the Kid.
"Was Sheriff Pat Garrett his friend during the time of the last five murders?" he asked. I couldn't answer. I was still thinking of the girl in the black tights on the end of the diving board...
The car passed again through the studio gates. As we stepped out on the narrow walk, Thalberg bounded up the steel steps to his office. At the top, he turned back. "I'll call you," he said.
The story conference was at an end.
David Cairns knows the story-conference anecdote, and has written about what the tale tells us about Thalberg. (And he also loves A Cast of Killers.)
There are some haunting photos of the dramatis personae of the Taylor case at the site Looking for Mabel, including a photo of a locket she gave Taylor.
Chris Edwards of Silent Volume has a fine tribute to Mabel's Busy Day here.
Further to Mae Clarke, who got a shout-out in my John Gilbert post, here is Robert Avrech with a tribute to Cagney and Clarke in Lady Killer.