The Tragic Clowns...
                        ...laughing on the outside,
                         crying on the inside.

Mabel Normand
1894 – 1930 

She was the most gifted comedienne of the era and, according to Mack Sennett, “as beautiful as a spring morning.” In the right place at the right time and quick to learn, she was soon co-writing, directing and co-starring with some of the silent screen's most illustrious stars....Fatty Arbuckle, Mack Sennett, John Bunny and Charlie Chaplin. But her star burned out too early and she died at 36, her body ravaged by alcohol, cocaine and tuberculosis.

The youngest of three children born to an itinerant vaudeville pianist and his wife, Mabel Ethelreid Normand made her entrance on November 10, 1894* in Boston, Massachusetts and was educated at a convent school until 1908 when the family moved to New York City. Now living in the cradle of early motion picture production and working as an artist's model for the likes of Charles Dana Gibson and James Montgomery Flagg, she was barely 16 when Biograph  and Vitagraph studios came calling. Mabel made 25 films that first year, mostly one-reelers, the short films in vogue at the time. Biograph didn't give name recognition to their players but distributors often invented their own and Mabel suddenly became Muriel Fortescue. 

Mabel as “Mickey”

Mabel left Biograph briefly in 1910 but returned in late 1911 to work with Mack Sennett. When Sennett left a year later for Los Angeles, she went with him. That year she made 50 films and audiences loved her in all of them. She portrayed strong women who loved adventure unlike the reticent lovelorn roles that were given to women at that time. Sennett adored her but their wedding plans never materialized. In 1914 Mabel made a six-reeler with Charles Chaplin called “Tillie's Punctured Romance” that was a tremendous hit and fueled her desire to do more feature films. In 1916 Sennett and his backers set up the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company for just that purpose. Their first film was “Mickey”, a heartwarming comedy about an orphan girl from a gold-mining camp and her adventures in the big city. The film was shelved until 1918 when it became a big hit. But a disillusioned Mabel had already left Sennett for a 5-year Goldwyn contract.


Mabel and Mack Sennett

Separated from Sennett and the end of their romantic relationship, Mabel was soon caught up in the swirl of Hollywood all-night parties, alcohol and drugs. She was showing up late for work or not showing up at all for days at a time. In 1922 a romantic involvement with director William Desmond Taylor put her in the middle of a murder investigation (See Issue #29). Before that scandal had a chance to simmer down, another one popped up. On New Year's Eve, 1924 Mabel had joined gal pal Edna Purviance and Edna's beau millionaire Courtland S. Hines for drinks. When her chauffeur came to pick her up, an argument began and the chauffeur shot Hines...with Mabel's gun. Not fatally wounded, Hines didn't press charges but the scandal lived on. Mabel never recovered from the double troubles and neither did her career.
In 1923 Mabel left features and went back to two-reelers for Hal Roach. In 1926 she married actor Lew Cody, a cast member from “Mickey” but they never lived together. Ironically, while the marriage was to give them some semblance of a normal life, it happened too late. They were both ill. Mabel was dying from tuberculosis and Lew from heart disease. On February 23, 1930 Mabel died in a sanitarium of pneumonia and tuberculosis. She is buried in Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Los Angeles. The headstone reads “Mabel Normand Cody” but it is probable the birth date is wrong.

 In 1974 the role of Mabel Normand in the Broadway musical “Mack and Mabel” was played by Bernadette Peters.

*The date and birthplace of Mabel Normand were taken from The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz because I believe that to be the most reliable source.

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
   1887 – 1933

Life rarely gave Roscoe Arbuckle an even break from the day he was born until the day he died. His mother never completely recovered from his birth and his father denied him. He was given a name his father hated and had to live with a nickname he found abominable.  His greatest talent, a marvelous singing voice, was completely overshadowed by his size and when his career in films was at its peak, a ludicrous scandal ripped it all away.

The last of nine children born to Molly and William Goodrich Arbuckle in Smith Center, Kansas, Roscoe weighed over 13 pounds  at birth and, both parents being of average size, his father denied paternity. In a fit of anger, he had the boy named after a New York Senator he despised. When Roscoe's mother died in 1899, he turned the boy out. Young Roscoe was just 12 years old but he had been singing in theaters before his mother died and, without her, he had to find odd jobs in hotels or as a plumber's helper to keep body and soul together. That eventually led to comedy routines in vaudeville and carnivals where it was his size, surprising agility and flair for comedy that resonated, not his voice.
In 1904 he did sing for Sid Graumann at Graumann's Unique theater in Minneapolis and that led him to the Pantages Theater Group in 1905 and the Orpheum Players in 1906 where he became the main act. In 1908 he took time out to marry comedienne Minta Durfee, a petite brunette. But his workloads and long absences on tour were a constant strain on his home life.

The Arbuckles

Roscoe hated the nickname “Fatty” and constantly reminded people that it was not his name, just a character he played on the screen. He also refrained from using “fat”  jokes or routines like getting stuck in small places. Another name he hated was the fan-inspired “The Prince of Whales”. In other matters he remained good-humored and loved practical jokes even on himself. On September 5, 1921,  it was fate that played a cruel joke. Unwinding after a heavy film schedule, Arbuckle and a few friends decided to have a party at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Among the guests was  30-year-old starlet  Virginia Rappe. Rappe was found seriously ill in one of the bedrooms and the house doctor was called to treat her. The physician concluded her problems were alcohol-related and gave her morphine to calm her down. Two days later she was admitted to a hospital where she died of peritonitis from a ruptured bladder but not before convincing her friends that Arbuckle had tried to rape her. 


The mug shots!

Minta Durfee, although estranged from Roscoe by that time, stood by her husband. Legions of his friends had also attended the hearings many of them stars in their own right but forbidden by the studios to speak out in his defense. Outside the press stirred the public into a frenzy, many asking that Roscoe Arbuckle be hung for his crime. Three trials* lasted over six months and resulted in two mistrials (10-2 not guilty, 9-3 guilty). Then, finally on April 12, 1922, the jury unanimously found Roscoe Arbuckle not guilty and the court publicly apologized to him, something unheard of in American courts.

Arbuckle and Minta were formally divorced in 1922 after a long separation but remained friends. Roscoe tried marriage again in 1925 when he wed Doris Deane but that only lasted four years. Hollywood had shut its doors to him but he finally found some directing jobs under the name William Goodrich, ironically his father's name. In 1931 he married Addie McPhail. He also got a commitment from Warner Brothers to do several two-reelers and possibly a feature film. But, on June 29,1933, the night before he was to start that feature movie, Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle died in his sleep of a massive heart attack. He was just 46 years old.
*for more details on the court trials see


Karl Dane
1886 – 1934 

Most remembered for his role as Slim in the 1919 movie “The Big Parade”, Karl Dane became the poster boy for the silent film stars who found their careers disintegrate during the silent-to-sound surge in the 1930s. He was no longer a viable choice for “talking pictures” because of his heavy accent.  It cost him his health and finally his life.

Born Rasmus Karl Therkelson Gottlieb on October 12, 1886 in Copenhagen, Denmark, he was one of three sons in a dysfunctional family.  The parents divorced in 1903 because of their father's alcoholism and the boys were left in the custody of their mother . But Karl got his first taste of theater going to work with his father who had a second job as a stagehand.   Karl and his brother, Reinald apprenticed as machinists but, in 1907 Karl was drafted into the first Artillery Battalion where he was promoted to Lance Corporal. After his discharge in 1910 , he married Carla Hagen and settled down to raise a family. They had two children before the winds of war threatened again and Karl was recalled. Discharged again in 1915, Karl left  Denmark for the United States where he felt work was more plentiful. He also wanted to avoid another recall. He hoped to bring his family later.  But Carla became ill and when it was diagnosed as syphilis, she accused Karl of infecting her before he left. They were divorced in 1924

“The Big Parade”

Dane was in New York in 1917, working as a machinist for $3 a week when he got the chance at a bit part at Vitagraph Studios at $3 a day. Even though all his efforts in this film ended up on the cutting room floor, Dane knew he had found a career that excited him. Warner Brothers cast him as Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg in the anti-German film “My Four Years in Germany” and it was a box-office bonanza. He made three more films in 1919 all in the same vein.

Dane quit films in 1921, married a Swedish immigrant, Helen Benson and retired to a chicken farm in Van Nuys, California until tragedy ended that idyllic life. On August 9, 1923 Helen died in childbirth taking their baby daughter with her. Depressed, he married again in 1924 to Emma Sawyer, but it lasted only six months.

Studio publicity photo

Karl Dane went back to work and, in December, 1924, was cast by MGM in King Vidor's “The Big Parade” with John Gilbert and Renee Adoree. Things were looking up.  He worked with Rudolph Valentino in “Son of the Sheik” and with Lillian Gish in “The Scarlet Letter”.  Then MGM signed Dane to a long term contract, teamed him with George K. Arthur and starred them as a comedic team in a series of films together. In 1928 while filming “Circus Rookies”  Dane broke his shoulder on the set followed by bronchial pneumonia and didn't get back to work until weeks later.  There was also discord in his personal life. He was living with model/actress Thais Valdemar and hiding it from his MGM bosses because of a morality clause in his contract. She moved out and threatened to sue him for breach of promise when he wouldn't marry her but nothing ever came of her suit.




“The Whispering Shadow”

Sound was on the horizon by then and MGM canceled his contract in 1930. His last role was Sparks in the serial “The Whispering Shadow” for Mascot in 1933 and then nothing. Out of a job and seriously depressed,, Dane turned to mining but lost his shirt to a cheating partner. He tried relying on his old skills as a mechanic, a carpenter even a waiter but was unable to keep any job long. Finally, in 1933 he bought a hot dog stand supposedly near the MGM Studio but even his old friends never came.  He went to the studio begging for any job at all. They sent him away.

On April 13, 1933 sitting in his shabby apartment, Karl Dane put a gun to his head and killed himself.  He was 47 years old. After showing him the door when he needed work, MGM picked up the tab for his funeral and burial possibly to avoid bad press. Ironically, Karl Dane was worth more dead than alive.

Charley Chase
1893 – 1940

Charley had a lot going for him. As a teenager, he began carving a career in vaudeville before taking on the theater, burlesque and finally film. With Mack Sennett at Keystone Studios he worked with film comedy greats Charles Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and then went on to write, act and direct comedy shorts for Hal Roach. Then somewhere along the way, things went wrong and Charley's life suddenly came crashing down.

“Movie Night”

Chase's given name was Charles Joseph Parrott and when he directed films, he used it. But when he was on screen, he was actor Charley Chase. One of two sons, he was born on October 20, 1893 to Charles and Blanche Parrott in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1903 his father died of a sudden heart attack leaving the family destitute and living with relatives. At 26, Charley left school and went on the road with a vaudeville troupe as a singer and comedian to make enough money to send home.

Mack Sennett put Charley to work behind the camera directing Arbuckle's short films. When he left Keystone in 1917, it was as Charles Parrott the director who went on directing short films for other studios (Fox, Paramount, Universal). Then Charley heard that his brother had also left home and was involved with a street gang in Baltimore.  he found James a job in the industry and was pleasantly surprised to find that little brother had a real aptitude for film making. As “Jimmie Parrott” James became very successful at the Hal Roach Studio.

James Parrott

Charley came into his own when he became a director for Hal Roach in 1921. Turnabout is fair play, they say and brother James was there to put a good word in for him. Hal asked Charley to go before the camera again, this time in his own series.  By 1929 two-reelers had added sound. One of Charley's best was “The Pip from Pittsburgh” with Thelma Todd. Then, in 1936, Hal decided to dump two-reelers and Chase was out of a job. But even more trouble was looming on Charley's horizon. James had become addicted to his diet pills (amphetamines) and was now washing them down with alcohol. Chase, a heavy drinker himself, saw the drugs as the only problem and tried repeatedly to keep James away from them but to no avail.

Charley accepted an offer from Columbia as actor-writer-director of his own two-reel comedy series as well as working on the comedies of their established stars Andy Clyde and the Three Stooges. He not only sang in many of them, but he also did more  slapstick than usual. Some of his best work was done at Columbia.

Charley's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

But the harder he worked the harder he drank. He never fully comprehended the trouble ahead for both himself and his little brother. Then, on May 10, 1939, James Parrott died of heart failure  brought on by his addictions. Charley was devastated. He felt he had failed his brother. Unfortunately, in his grief, he worked even longer hours and drank more. Charley Chase died exactly 13 months later on June 20, 1940 of a heart attack. He was 46 years old.



Herman Bing
1889 – 1947  

Herman knew how to make the most of his assets. He took his heavy German accent, added his own comedic touches and parlayed it into a bonanza of wonderful characters. His voice alone as the ringmaster in “Dumbo” put it on the list of Disney's most unforgettable villains. But movies and audiences change and the time came when studios no longer could find work for Bing and his characters. The doors closed and suddenly Herman Bing was a man with no place to go.

The Ringmaster

He was born on March 30, 1889 in Frankfurt, Germany and educated in music. At 16 he left home, joined a stock company, went into vaudeville and then joined a circus as a clown. But after he met film director F.W. Murnau, he turned his attention to film. He became Murnau's assistant in Germany and then followed him to Hollywood. Herman made his American debut in “A Song of Kentucky” (much of it actually filmed on location at Churchill Downs) in 1929. But his most memorable roles came in the MGM musicals....”The Merry Widow” (1954)...”The Great Ziegfeld” (1936)...”Rose Marie” (1936)....”Maytime” (1937) and “Sweethearts” (1938).


As Archipenko in “Maytime”

But, by 1944, the studio calls came less often and finally stopped. “Night and Day” in 1945 was his last appearance and it was uncredited.  Herman's characters no longer fit in with the new storylines and doors were closing all over town. On January 9, 1949, severely depressed, Herman Bing shot and killed himself. A widower, he left a brother, Gus, a daughter, Ellen and a vast treasury of memorable characters.