Q & A With Sean Crose, Author of Catholic Girl: The Life and Times of Mabel Normand

mabel normal q&a sean crose

Q & A With Sean Crose, Author of Catholic Girl: The Life and Times of Mabel Normand

How did you come about the idea to write Catholic Girl?
Believe it or not my original intention was to write about Charlie Chaplin, who Mabel was a -co-star, mentor, and director of – even though she was younger than he was. As time moved on during my research, however, I became more interested in Mabel than Charlie. Finally, I reached out to Mabel’s estate for information and her nephew Stephen (who operates the estate) put the idea in my head to write a biography of his aunt focusing on her Catholicism, which isn’t brought up too frequently.

What was it that drew you to Mabel?
I think it was the fact I saw something about her that was unlike the image I had originally been presented with. Here was an insanely successful and influential woman who, in contrast to the accusations and inuendo lodged against her, was actually a decent person. I realized that rumors, had led to a false image of Mabel as an attractive, but self-destructive wreck of a film star.

Yet you bring up some of Mabel’s shortcomings in the book yourself.
Well, sadly Mabel eventually slipped into alcoholism, which led her to making some less than wise decisions. While it was important for me to point out where her critics were wrong, I also had to be fair about critiques of Mabel that were legitimate. Otherwise, how could the correct image of Mabel be presented? We’re all human, after all, which means we all have our shortcomings that nonetheless shouldn’t define us. To paraphrase Shakespeare, Mabel was ultimately far more sinned against than she was sinning.

What were some of the unfair stories and accusations lodged against her?
Sadly, they’re still in play in some quarters. One was that she was a druggie. That’s probably done the most harm to her reputation. Then there’s the nasty charges of her being an intellectual pretender, or of her being promiscuous, or of her being somehow involved in a murder even though she had been easily cleared by the police. It’s okay to suggest or outright accuse people of something unsavory, but you at least need solid evidence to back those accusations up with.

Why do you feel Mabel was, and still is, smeared?
The oldest reason in the world: success. Mabel was more successful than people could possibly imagine. She helped redefine film comedy, she ran a studio when women weren’t allowed to vote, she was ubiquitous in pop culture, and she even hobnobbed with royalty – all while having come from a humble background with virtually no education to speak of.

What do you think it was that made Mabel so successful?
I think there were two reasons for her success. First, she was appealing to watch on screen. Also – perhaps even more importantly – she was funny. Watch some of her early films with Ford Sterling. She was more than willing to throw away the decorum of her time to get a laugh. Attractive women simply weren’t supposed to do such things back then. Mabel didn’t care – and modern comedy is all the better for it.

Can her legacy still be found in comedy today?
Whenever you see an “off the wall” female comedian, you can thank Mabel. Carol Burnett. Luciele Ball, Gilda Radner, Kirsten Wiig, and others all owe (or owed) a debt to Mabel. She made it okay to be as outrageous as the guys were.

Why do you think Mabel isn’t more well known?
She certainly should be as popular and well known as her very loyal friend, Mary Pickford. Mabel died early, however, and so she was unable to redeem her reputation or maintain her film legacy over the years. Such things make a difference.

What do you think modern comedians can learn from Mabel’s story?
I think they can learn to dare. No one did what Mabel did before Mabel did it in such a high-profile manner. Such things require courage. Modern comedians can obviously also learn from Mabel how to bring some nuance to a performance while still being zany. Her facial expressions, for instance, could let an audience get inside a character she was playing while still getting laughs. Also, Mabel’s story shows that one’s background doesn’t have to limit one’s potential.

What about those of us who aren’t comedians. Is there anything we can learn from Mabel?
One of the great things about Mabel is that she never abandoned who she was. Mabel was raised Catholic, for instance, and remained a Catholic her whole life. And while she wasn’t always the best Catholic, she never ceased taking her faith seriously. Success certainly changed Mabel’s lifestyle, but it ultimately didn’t change Mabel. Hence the title, Catholic Girl.

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