Mabel Normand was a movie star before that term even existed. A pioneer in silent films in front of and behind the camera, she captured the hearts of the very first movie-going public at the dawn of the celluloid era.
And yet, she’s all but forgotten today. Except among film historians like writer Jon Boorstin, who found the true story of Normand’s life so inspirational he wrote a novel about her. It’s called “Mabel and Me: A Novel about the Movies,” and it’s just out from Angel City Press.
“She gets credit for throwing the first custard pie in movies,” he told me when I caught up with him at a recent book talk he gave at the Los Angeles Athletic Club downtown, where Charlie Chaplin once lived (after Normand and Mack Sennett discovered him) and just up the road from their studios on what’s now called Glendale Boulevard.
Normand was also quite likely the first screen damsel in distress, tied to the train tracks by a villain and saved by the pioneering race car star, Barney Oldfield. Antics aside, and never mind that so much of that film history is lost to the ages, Boorstin says the period is an important one for understanding modern culture — and the parallels with the transformational digital revolution today are uncanny.
A hundred years ago, instead of cell phones, drones, and of course the Web, the world was learning to love not just moving pictures, but other mind-blowing conveniences like cars and telephones and electricity. Boorstin says there was a “whole sense that everything was coming together and being expressed in this new medium.”
The harsh reality of Normand’s life was a precursor to modern times in another way: Burnt out from the frantic pace of filming, she became addicted to cocaine, embroiled by scandal, and mistrustful of the movie executives who clearly used her to make a buck.