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.
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The real Mabel Normand (left) and Penelope Lagos as Mabel in “Madcap Mabel.”
Even Rudy Cecera, the New Rochelle native and mastermind behind a new film based on the life of movie comedienne Mabel Normand, acknowledges that nobody really knows what she sounded like. Her last movie was made in 1927, at the tail end of the silent-film era, so she never uttered any recorded dialogue. But Normand was a motion-picture star of the first magnitude and a veritable one-woman movie industry. Before her death from TB at the age of 37, she had appeared in 226 films, directed 16, and written five.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Mabel Normand’s debut in movies, and the 80th anniversary of her death. Over the past two years, Cecera, an actor and writer who has penned plays, TV comedy pilots, and jokes for stars like Leno and Letterman, wrote and produced a short (35-minute) film about “Madcap Mabel” as a “calling card” for his feature-film project. Forty percent of this self-financed movie was shot in Westchester, with fellow local resident Dena Schumacher in the director’s chair. And judging by what Cecera told us about Normand’s adventurous personal life, “Madcap Mabel” could have given even the “Tabloid Tessies” of today a run for their money.
There aren’t a lot of female movie stars from the silent era that we still remember today. Mary Pickford, the Gish sisters, and Gloria Swanson are some of them. Why do you think Mabel Normand deserves to be on that list?
Well, I think she was more talented than all of them. I believe comedy is harder than drama; to me, that made Mabel a better actress. Mabel knew how to connect to an audience through a camera better than any other actress at the time. She was underrated. Mary Pickford lived to be 87. She got to tell her story in interviews. But Mabel died so young that her story didn’t get to be told. Her generosity was well documented. She was the first actress to make a million dollars a year. She made more money than Chaplin did when he was at Keystone.
Why is Mabel Normand known as ’the female Chaplin’?
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.
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.