Ice Cream for Breakfast
1915, Brooklyn, New York. Silent movies (called the “flickers”) are the hottest ticket in entertainment, so D.W. Griffith, over at the Biograph Studio, is supplying the nation with film drama after film drama…an assembly line of gloom and doom.
To a girl of seventeen from Staten Island this new kind of show business ignites her lively imagination. 5’ 1”, chestnutty hair, eyes swimming with mischief, Mabel Normand has already made her mark in Manhattan as an advertising model for illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. She is “The Gibson Girl,” an icon of female beauty and the face of a brand new soft drink called Coca Cola.
But that’s the past.
Today is the first day of Mabel’s phenomenal future.
* * *
The office door reads —
Assistant to Mr. Griffith
Mabel sucks in a deep breath, makes the sign of the cross, swings open the door and charges smack dab into the back of a sofa, knocking her on her butt! She bounces to her feet, dives over the sofa, lands a trio of somersaults, then springs up and perches on the edge of Mack’s desk where she announces, “I’m Mabel Normand and I’m here to make movies!”
Mack breaks into a deeply-felt laugh. There’s nothing he likes more than rough and tumble humor. 6’ 2”, heavyset, this lumbering twenty-nine-year-old Canadian ironworker came to New York seeking a career in show business.
While appearing onstage as the back end of a horse Mack heard that a fella could make as much as five dollars a day in the movies. He applied at Biograph and was instantly hired. D.W. Griffith had a nose for talent.
“Your entrance certainly caught my eye,” Mack tells Mabel in his resounding bass voice. “A dive, triple roll and leap, very funny…Unfortunately, funny doesn’t fly with the kinds of pictures Griffith makes. I try to tell him to put some fun in his intense dramas, but he thinks comedy is frivolous. Frivolous? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Mabel tells him, “Harebrained, empty-headed, pointless, shallow…”
Mack holds up his hand. “I’ve heard enough.”
He dunks a cigar in his coffee, sucks on it and continues, “All I have to say is this world of ours needs more comedy. There is far too much seriousness. It creeps into our pores and takes the life out of life. People need laughter. Laughs are nature’s magic…And, Miss Normand, I felt your magic the moment you landed on your ass.”
“My pleasure,” she giggles.
“Stick around,” Mack suggests, “I’ll work with you, show you the ropes. Standard contract, won’t pay half your rent, but it’s a doorway to untold riches…You thinking about changing your name?”
“I was going to be Theda Bara, but some bitch got there before me.”
Mack chuckles. “That’s rich. Now if you don’t mind there’s something I’d like to try out on you. It’s in the nature of a scientific experiment. Okay with you?”
“I’m always willing to do my part for science.”
Mack goes over to a small icebox, takes out a pie, crosses back to Mabel and pushes it in her face.
He steps back, studies the gooey mess and mutters to himself…“Yeah, forget custard, blackberries look funnier.”
“Funny,” Mabel calmly observes. “You know what’s even funnier?” She picks up Mack’s coffee, pours it down his pants.
Mack hoots out a laugh. “You and me, kid, we’ll knock ‘em dead!”
If Mack has to pitch his comedy discovery to a grim individual like Griffith he figures he should sell Mabel as a serious actress.
David Wark Griffith’s office is on the ground floor of the studio. A large window looks out to a street. Occasional passers-by peer in to see Griffith working at his desk and he seems to enjoy this.
He rises with his usual aristocratic bearing and gestures for Mack to have a seat.
“Thanks, I’ll stand,” Mack says as he starts to pace the room. “See, what I came tell you about is I’ve made the discovery of a lifetime. Her name is Mabel Normand. She’s beautiful. Sexy. Serious. A very serious actress.”
Unbeknownst to Griffith, Mack sees Mabel outside the window making goofy faces.
Mack stifles a laugh and struggles to keep pitching. “This girl is a natural. Her expressions absorb you.”
Outside, Mabel is bouncing back and forth on a pogo stick.
Mack can’t help it, he breaks up!
Griffith wants to know, “What’s so funny?”
”Nothing, nothing,” Mack says, struggling to compose himself. “It’s just that I believe in this sexy serious actress and I could never stand by and see you pass up this stroke of luck. So I think you should give the kid a chance. You won’t be sorry.”
“Very well, Mack,” Griffith responds in his rigid Southern way. “if this sexy serious actress makes you so deliriously happy I’ll give her a try.”
At the window, Mabel is “mooning” Mack who explodes in laughter and flees from the room.
Griffith turns to the window and there is Mabel in a sudden dramatic pose. She gives him a little wave. He sort of waves back.
* * *
There’s one final obstacle in Mabel’s path to stardom. At age seventeen she has to get permission from her mother to accept the Biograph contract.
Mom has no misgivings. “Those show people seem like a rather peculiar bunch, but I know my little girl is a star and we do need new furniture for the living room.”
* * *
The Abandoned Vixen of Babylon is Mabel’s first picture. She’s not the Vixen, she’s the Vixen’s loyal servant, Marushka.
Relishing her big break into show business, Mabel skips into the dressing room to get into costume.
A large, imperious woman is seated at the mirror applying her make-up. The woman turns to confront Mabel, saying, “Who are you and what are you doing in my dressing room?”
“I’m Mabel Normand and we’re sharing.”
“And I am a star and a star does not share!”
“Oh, don’t be such a drip.”
“Drip? Drip? Do you know who I am?”
“Sure, a drip.”
All six feet of the woman rises, her ample bosom on parade. “How dare you insult me,” she says, pointing to the door, “Begone with you!”
“I’m not begoning anywhere, sister. Now move your fat ass so I can get into costume.”
Mabel snatches her costume off a hook. The woman grabs Mabel, drags her across the floor, dumps her outside and bolts the door.
Mabel yells, “You’ll be hearing from my lawyer!”
* * *
Mabel arrives on the set dressed in flowing Babylonian duds. She walks up to D.W. Griffith, saying, “Some bag of wind tossed me out of the dressing room. I had to change in the alley. Drew quite a crowd.”
Griffith chooses to ignore that and explains the scene they are about to film. “The Vixen has just learned that Prince Ronald loves another. She is rejected, abandoned, her vixenish heart is broken. Enter you, her loyal servant, come to give comfort. To uplift her spirits. You carry a gaily decorated gift basket filled with food and wine.”
With that, Griffith lifts his megaphone, “Places for the heartache scene!”
Places taken, Griffith shouts—“Action!”
The cameraman cranks.
The Abandoned Vixen is reclined on an ancient chaise lounge. Mabel scurries in with her gift basket. She reacts in surprise when she sees it’s the snooty bitch from the dressing room.
Mabel watches as the woman breaks down in tears. Overacts. Way over the top.
Mabel holds her nose and whispers to her…“You’re stinking up this scene.”
The woman points to Mabel—“You!”
“Yes, me!” Mabel joyously acknowledges. “A little wine perhaps?” Mabel pours an entire carafe of wine down the woman’s bosom, and when the woman reacts with open-mouthed shock Mabel shoots a volley of grapes into her mouth.
Off-camera Griffith bellows—“Cut!! Cut!”
But Mabel doesn’t cut. Once you start a comedy bit you have to build on it. She takes a small cake from her basket, carefully places it in the woman’s hand then jerks the woman’s arm up so she smacks the cake in her own face!
Griffith lurches forward. “That’s enough!” he thunders. “I will not tolerate this kind of foolishness on my set!”
“What kind of foolishness will you tolerate?” Mabel cracks with a playful snicker.
Griffith stares her down. “Don’t you get funny with me, child. Explain your ridiculous behavior.”
“I was just reacting,” Mabel points out. “My instinctive nature kicked in. If this snooty bitch can tear up the scenery so can I.”
The snooty bitch, cake cascading down her face, blares out—“I am Madame Bathsheba Pampanelli! A STAR! And never have I been treated in such a crude and degrading manner! You people are insane! These “flickers” are a nothing more than a fad! Quite beneath me! I shall return to the theatre!”
Madame Pampanelli storms off.
Mabel yells after her, “Take an acting lesson!”
Griffith gives Mabel a steely look. “Young lady, I find nothing whatsoever humorous in your behavior.”
Mabel is defensive. “How can you say that? I saved the whole drippy scene. Now you can make a comedy.”
Griffith has had enough. “Miss Normand, kindly gather your things and leave my studio at once!”
Mabel steps forward, tilts her head up at his and says, “Mister Griffith, you are very easy not to like.”
“FIRED?” Mack exclaims. “How the devil did that happen?”
“Artistic differences,” Mabel shrugs. “I’m an artist and he’s an old poop.”
“Oh, no,” Mack asserts, “we can’t let this happen. What about our plans? Our future together. We’ve got to keep you on the payroll. I’ve learned a helluva lot about making pictures from Griffith and so can you. So, go apologize to him. Appeal to his enormous ego. Tell him you were wrong.”
“I’m not wrong.”
“I know, but a lie can make things right.”
* * *
Outside Griffith’s office Mack gives Mabel some last minute advice. “Don’t smile, look humble.”
Mack leads Mabel into the office.
“What is it, Sennett?” snaps Griffith. “I’m a busy man.”
“Miss Normand has something to say.”
Mabel bows her head and whimpers, “Mr. Griffith, your excellency, sir, I know I misbehaved, but if you’d loosen up a bit and stop being such a stuffed shirt…”
Mack interrupts, “What she’s trying to say is she apologizes and it won’t happen again.”
Griffith holds up a cautionary hand. “Quiet, Mack, let Miss Normand speak for herself.”
Griffith studies Mabel for a moment and asks, “You’re not impressed by me, are you?”
“Not as impressed as you are with yourself,” she replies.
Mack pipes up. “She didn’t mean that.”
“Miss Normand,” Griffith commands, “I expect my employees to show me respect.”
“Well, that’s the problem right there,” Mabel points out. “You don’t earn respect, you demand respect, and that scares the shit out of people, so they pretend to respect you…If, however, you treat your employees like human beings, some of them might actually like you.”
Griffith points a long bony finger at Mabel. “Young lady, I am losing my patience with your antics. Give me one good reason why I should hire you back.”
“Because I’m a talented, big-eyed beauty who can out-act the best of them.”
Griffith is unmoved, so Mabel falls to her knees and begins a very convincing performance. “Please, Mister Griffith, don’t throw me out on the streets where I will live in filth and squalor. All I’m asking for is one more chance because what I did was, well, I guess it was very…uh, wrong?”
Mabel throws her arms around Griffith’s legs and pleads, “Please your honor, don’t deny me your wisdom. There is so much I can learn under the wings of a genius like you.”
Griffith caves. “Yes, yes, of course, but no more of these shenanigans.”
“Right,” Mabel smirks, “whatever they are.”
“Now stop groveling and get off your knees,” orders Griffith, “There is no doubt that you have talent, it only requires refinement, the Griffith touch. Tomorrow I re-shoot The Abandoned Vixen of Babylon. Your first starring role. A serious drama. No jokes.”
* * *
Unfortunately, prints of The Abandoned Vixen of Babylon have disappeared, but history tells us Biograph had a hit.
Critics noted the exceptional dramatic performance by a rising young star, Miss Mabel Normand.