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Sunday, January 21, 2018

Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap (2016) by Timothy Dean Lefler

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Mabel Normand was a silent era films star, famous for her performances in Mack Sennet's early comedies. 
Book Review
Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap
by Timothy Dean Lefler
Published 2016 by McFarland

  What happens to art and artists after the art or artist ceases to maintain an audience?  It’s a very valid question when it comes to the level of interest in the stars and films of the silent film era.  If I had to pick a single example of an art form that had an absolutely huge fan base in its heyday, and now has literally no popular audience, it would be the silent film.  Based on my formulation of the question, the first necessary observation is that the popular artists and films are no longer written about or discussed.   They pass into a shadowy second life, often rich with the proceeds of their work but no longer famous. 

  Today, in 2018, the figure who best represents this scenario is the character of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder. Desmond was at least partially based on Mabel Normand, a comedienne/actress who starred in many early comedies from the Mack Sennett studios and went on to develop an incredible reputations as a cocaine addict, be implicated in one murder and another shooting and died of tuberculosis in her 30’s.

  She also cultivated a reputation for bookishness.  It’s impossible to read a single page about Desmond without someone (often herself) mentioning Freud and Nietzsche, and that she had read both authors. Timothy Lefler, the author of Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap seems like a capable “super fan” type, he acknowledges some of the darkness surrounding Normand (because how can you not) but steers away from speculation, let alone any independent research.

  Cocaine was actually legal in the United States until 1915, meaning that Normand would have enjoyed a legal habit until well after she became famous.  If you read widely about silent-era Hollywood, the depiction of the drug culture is muted.  I’m not sure if there is any deep work about the nuts and bolts of it, but it seems clear that Normand was in the middle of it.

  She was exonerated in her most famous escapade, as the last person to see famous Hollywood film director William Desmond Taylor before he was murdered.  Taylor was well known for trying to help Normand kick her habit, but the sources there are as self-serving and unreliable as any about Old Hollywood.   There is no doubt in my mind that the secret history of silent-era Hollywood is a creative gold mine.  You’ve got sex, drugs, historical fiction and the culture of celebrity. 

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