To cross genres and eras a bit, imagine the impish, doe-eyed beauty of Audrey Tautou in Amélie, mixed with the strong-willed zaniness of Lucille Ball, that constant catalyst for chaos. Add in the flirty sex appeal of, say, Goldie Hawn, and heap in a heavy dosage of action hero—this star did, after all, perform most of her own stunts—and you get Mabel Normand. Almost.
The truth is, before Normand these qualities hadn't come together in one actress, and I'd venture to say, they haven't since. While the few who are familiar with Normand's work like to think of her as "the mother of all film comediennes" or "the female Chaplin," neither of these titles do justice to her originality. While Normand may have been one of the pioneer comediennes in the days of silent film, she doesn't have many direct artistic imitators. After a few dramas under D.W. Griffith, Normand gained her fame in Mack Sennett's fast-paced Keystone comedies, where she was one of the first comediennes allowed to appear both pin-up-girl beautiful and funny; comediennes before her were often made to appear somewhat homely. She was also one of the first female comedy directors.
Comparing her to Chaplin is only useful in the respect that, like Chaplin, as one of Sennett's stable of madcap clowns she did create her own unique character: "Mabel," often paired opposite Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and occasionally Chaplin himself.
She began forming this character early on. After a brief career as a model for illustrators, Normand went to work for the Biograph company as a bit player in 1910, then at Vitagraph, where she appeared in several films as "Betty" (Troublesome Secretaries is the only remaining film). A sweet and playful prankster able to capture men's hearts in an instant, Betty is still somewhat reserved—she would never be found clobbering someone or throwing bricks, like the later "Mabel."
After Normand came west to work with Sennett's Keystone Company in 1912, the outlines of her character darken. This "Mabel" is a bolder, more carefree woman. Her effervescent high spirits combined with her innocent, girlish beauty allowed her to be surprisingly rambunctious and unladylike without us faulting her. She may pout, throw tantrums, and cause trouble, but her heart is never in the wrong place. A kind of ageless quality aided by ambiguous costuming allow her to appear part girl, part woman, sometimes in the same film.
In Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition, we see her posing hilariously as a Royal Hawaiian Dancer to catch her roving-eyed husband, Fatty. Other films highlight her flirtatious side, such as Mabel, Fatty and the Law, a surprising little comedy about couple-swapping. In many a film, we see her planting a firm and surprising kiss on Fatty's lips at the least expected moments, often in full view of her parents.
Her brazenness extended to the physical risks she took with her stunts. An accomplished horsewoman, champion swimmer, and high diver, Normand frequently put her own safety on the line in the interest of a good sight gag. In The Squaw's Love we see her thrown off a high cliff into a stream. In A Dash Through the Clouds Mabel takes to the skies, flying over rural L.A. In a career that spanned 1911 to 1927, Normand made 176 shorts and 22 features. She died in 1930 at age of 37, having contracted tuberculosis—a tragic end to what was already an unforgettable, distinguished career.