Thursday, November 16, 2006


This is a very special time of year for someone like me, namely someone obsessed with silent films stars. Three extraordinary women who worked in Hollywood during the silent era have their birthdays within days of one another, so I want to celebrate them here. Mabel Normand, variously cited as being born Nov. 9, 10 or 16th, Marie Dressler, born November 9, and Frances Marion, born November 18th. (I know this is not actually on any of their actual confirmed birthdays, but you get the general idea.)

Here’s why I love these women: they were smart, funny, and worked hard to make motion pictures that would go down in history. They worked in Hollywood at a time when women’s contributions as writers and comediennes were valued (hurray! We need that back … I’m looking at you Reese Witherspoon and Tina Fey. Bring back Katharine Hepburns and Carole Lombards while you’re at it too).

Frances Marion has a special place in my heart because she’s a trailblazing writer, the first woman to win an Academy Award, and her friendship with actress Mary Pickford (who we’ll celebrate in April) was one of the most fruitful professional unions of the day.

I love Mabel Normand because she was just nuts. She acted in some hilarious movies with Fatty Arbuckle, then later got hooked on booze, coke and morphine-laced cough syrup and then reputedly ate nothing but ice cream (after she contracted TB). Not only did she live it up and get involved in one scandal after another, she was even involved in not one but two murder scandals, including the William Desmond Taylor murder in 1922. Plus, she’s from Staten Island, a borough I once called home.

Finally, Marie Dressler is another incredible comedienne, who actually worked with Normand. She was a great big girl with what they used to call a "raw-boned" face, who was a breakout Vaudeville star before she got into pictures. I love her for being big and funny, and for being born in Ontario, Canada, the very province where I was born and raised (you can see I get around, for an old spinster).

To learn more about these great women, read American Silent Film by William K. Everson, Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger, and Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood by Cari Beauchamp. Without Lying Down is also available on DVD as a documentary, but first watch the stars in action – The Love Light and Stella Maris, both written by Frances Marion, are available on DVD via Amazon, as is Tillie’s Punctured Romance, which features Mabel and Marie in action (with Charlie Chaplin).

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