Rudy Cecera’s Film on Silent Film Star “Madcap Mabel” Normand

Writer/producer Rudy Cecera films the story of the scandal-plagued “Queen of Comedy” in New Rochelle.

Well, technically, back in the day, he was known as ’the male Mabel’. But his fame eclipsed hers and more people today know who he is, so it was easier to link her to him than him to her. They were both very excellent slapstick performers. She was as popular as Chaplin was in those days. She discovered him. Mack Sennett didn’t want to hire him and Mabel said, 'I think this guy has something.'

Wasn’t it unusual at the time for a woman to do slapstick comedy?

Oh, yeah. People always think of the 'Queen of Comedy' as Lucille Ball, Carol Burnettt, or some say Roseanne Barr. It depends on which generation you’re from. But Mabel started it all. It’s unusual, even today, for a woman to do comedy—especially a pretty woman.

Mabel was also Hollywood’s first female action star and first female director, yes?

She was the first who was well known. The first female director, definitely. Mack Sennett trusted her to direct.

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The catchphrase for your movie is 'Hollywood’s first party girl.' Was Mabel Normand the Lindsay Lohan of her day?

Yes. That was in my film’s trailer. I reference Lindsay Lohan. Mabel drank, did drugs, danced. But back then drugs were more acceptable than they are now. They’d have cocaine in snuff boxes. It was very available. Very accepted. It was like, 'Would you like snuff?' She was also addicted to cough medicine. She’d drink it like you’d drink coffee…But in fairness, she had TB, so she coughed a lot.

I understand that you based your script in part on Mabel Normand’s unpublished writings. How did you get access to them?

Through a very amazing woman out in Los Angeles, Marilyn Slater. Marilyn was raised by Mabel’s nurse, Julia Benson, who is also depicted in my film. Mabel died in Julia’s arms.

In doing your research about Mabel, what surprised you to learn about her?

She liked to gamble—she loved the dog races and the horse races. She had the trifecta: She drank, she smoked, she gambled. I don’t know how true it is, but they say she liked to shoot craps.

Today, we think of the movie business as being based in Hollywood. But during the early days, New York played a big role. Was Mabel part of the New York film scene?

Oh, yeah. She is from Staten Island. So she got her start at D.W. Griffith’s studio, which was on l4th Street. That’s where she met Mack Sennett; Sennett did the comedies. The films became so popular that they moved to California and started Sennett’s Keystone Studios. In California the weather was warmer and they could shoot longer.

Why did you choose New Rochelle for shooting Madcap Mabel?

The easy answer is because I live there. I knew what would work and what wouldn’t. We recreated 1920 Hollywood—a lot of beach and ocean. A good backdrop for the bathing beauties. Most of the outdoors stuff was shot in New Rochelle. We shot very much like Mack Sennett shot then. We’d go into the park with a crew and shout, ’Action!’

Did you show any scenes from Mabel’s films in Madcap Mabel?

Basically we recreated scenes from her movies via flashback. We had her in costume, we used the ragtime music. We were able to recreate three scenes: Her dangling from a tree, her tied to the railroad tracks, and her getting hit with a pie.

 

 

By the way, did Mabel Normand invent the idea of throwing 'a pie in the face' for a laugh in the movies?

Well, my understanding based on my research is this: Mabel was a practical joker. They were on the set of a movie she was shooting with Fatty Arbuckle. One of the crewmen was having his lunch, and he had a berry pie. The scene wasn’t working, it needed something. So while they were discussing what the scene needs, Mabel was off-camera, grabbed the pie and threw it at Fatty Arbuckle. And they thought that would work on film very visually. Of course, it could have been Ben Turpin or any of the Keystone performers. But she performed with Fatty more than anyone, so more than likely it was him. But something that happened l00 years ago—how could you really say?

Was it mainly Mabel’s film work or her colorful personal life that inspired you to write and produce this movie?

Both, actually. But her professional career obviously was what caught my eye and made me want to delve into her personal life.

And what a personal life it was! Wasn’t Mabel Normand indirectly involved in a notorious, unsolved Hollywood murder?

The murder was of William Desmond Taylor, a famous director back in those days. He was a very learned man. And he was Mabel’s 'intellectual friend.' He exposed Mabel to a lot of culture that she wasn’t going to get from Mack Sennett. And one night she went to Taylor’s house to get a book. They probably chatted, had a few drinks. And half an hour after Mabel left, he was shot, making her the last known person to see him alive. So, wrong place, wrong time.

Did this tragedy affect her career?

It dragged her name through the scandal. She was never really a suspect, she was never charged. She was questioned. She still worked for Mack Sennett all the time. He stuck by her. But her films were affected by it. People who thought she killed Taylor wouldn’t go see her films.

Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand were also lovers. What was their personal relationship like?

Very tumultuous. Like most relationships, they had their good times and their bad times. Very few original photos of Mack Sennett exist today. When I asked why, it was because Mabel was a 'ripper.' When she’d get mad at him she’d rip up his photos. Photos of Sennett go for a lot on eBay.

What did they fight about?

Mack Sennett, they say, invented the casting couch. She’d get a little peeved at that. But she was very naïve. That was her biggest fault. As the story goes, she caught Mack in bed with Mae Busch, an actress. Mabel broke off her engagement with Mack but they continued to work together because it was business. And that’s when she started to expand her horizons. Later, Mabel’s chauffeur was secretly in love with Mabel, while her friend was dating an oil tycoon, Courtland Dines. When Mabel flirted with Dines, out of jealousy the chauffeur shot Dines with Mabel’s gun. The guy didn’t die but the public thought this woman is now involved in two shootings. It seemed like too much of a coincidence. Theaters banned her films. Mack Sennett was losing money. So that’s when they ended their professional relationship.

The director of Madcap Mabel is Dena Schumacher. In addition to her directing talent, did you choose her for this project partly because of her ability to relate to the story of a female director?

I definitely liked that concept, yes. And, of course, my leading lady being female, I thought that if I had a female director, my director and leading lady could bond the way they should. I definitely thought it was an advantage.

How did you find Penelope Lagos, who plays Mabel in your movie?

Ms. Lagos is the reason I wrote the movie. I found her because I had worked with her on a TV sitcom pilot I produced, Muse, where she had played Thalia, the muse of comedy—which Mabel was dubbed back in the day. And after watching her performance, which included broad physical comedy, I thought she was Mabel reincarnated. The proof: I watched it with the sound turned off, and she was still funny. And of course it didn’t hurt that she looked like Mabel. I knew it would be a good vehicle for her. A good match. Immediately after we wrapped the pilot, the writer’s strike of 2007 hit so I found myself with time to write a screenplay. After which I filmed a trailer for it starring Penelope. Her interest and help in the project literally made her my real-life muse for the film.

Did Ms. Lagos study the films of Mabel Normand before playing the role?

Penelope was a stickler for detail. She watched Mabel’s films and mannerisms. She also spoke with my technical advisor.

How would you sum up your experience of making Madcap Mabel?

We had a few rough patches here and there. Now, we look back and we laugh. I will say this. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I rewrote the screenplay seventeen times.

What are your plans for the film now that it is ’in the can?’

Well, we’re hoping to get local screenings, and hopefully industry screenings. And of course the festival circuit and possible DVD distribution. I have a web site, and anyone who wants to see the film, all they have to do is e-mail me and I’ll send them a copy.

To find out more about “Madcap Mabel,” visit Cecera’s website at rudy-cecera.webs.com

 

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