Tag Archives: mabel normand

The Tramp’s Lady

Chaplin's favorite leading lady, Edna Purviance.

In 1915, when Charlie Chaplin went searching for a leading lady to co-star in his film A Night Out, he reviewed all the available actresses he could find in San Francisco but couldn’t settle on one.

A colleague at Essanay Studios in nearby Niles, California, where Chaplin was filming at the time, told him about an uncommonly pretty girl he had seen in a café in the city. After tracking her down, Chaplin found that his colleague was correct. He later wrote that the woman he discovered was “more than pretty. She was beautiful.”

The woman was Edna Purviance, a 20-year-old who had recently moved to San Francisco from her native Nevada. She was working as a stenographer and had no prior acting experience. In spite of this, Chaplin chose to put her on-screen where he felt her presence would prove “decorative.”

More than simply eye-candy, Purviance proved to possess impeccable comic timing, and would become Chaplin’s leading lady on-screen and off for the next eight years. They would make a handful of films together in Niles over the next year before the pair headed to Hollywood where they made another 30 films together.

By 1923, Purviance’s relationship with Chaplin had cooled and Edna had become a steady drinker. She began gaining weight which made her look matronly, ending her status as a leading lady.

The final nail on the coffin of her film career was hammered that same year when she was involved in a Hollywood scandal involving Mabel Normand, another former Chaplin co-star. The two were attending a New Year’s Eve party in the company of a rich oilman when the millionaire’s chauffeur shot his employer with a gun. Although the women were never charged, the scandal made the two unemployable.

After her retirement from the screen, Purviance met and married Jack Squire, an airline pilot, and lived happily with him until his death in 1945.

Purviance would live for another 13 years, dying from cancer during this week in 1958 at age 62.

Chaplin and Purviance remained close throughout her life, and as a show of gratitude to his favorite leading lady, he kept her on his studio’s payroll until her death.

We will be showing the Chaplin-Purviance film The Pilgrim at ChaplinFest in Newhall on February 5, 2011.

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Long Live the King! – Part Two

November, 1960 was a tough month for Hollywood’s “kings.”

Yesterday, I wrote about the 50th anniversary of the passing of Clark Gable, the “King of Hollywood,” who died on November 16, 1960. His death came just eleven days after the passing of Mack Sennett, Hollywood’s “King of Comedy,” at age 80.

Mack Sennett, the ribald silent comedy producer who brought the “pie fight” and the wild car chase to the masses, was born in Canada in 1880. After his family relocated to New England when Sennett was a teenager, young Mack decided to go into vaudeville. He later claimed that his mother and some of her friends, including future U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, tried to talk him out of his decision.

Sennett migrated to New York where he got work at Biograph Studios as an actor and director. By 1912, he was on the move again, this time to the West Coast, where he founded Keystone Studios near Echo Park. This hyper-manic lot became the birthplace of the entire genre of silent film slapstick comedy, launching the careers of such stars as Fatty Arbuckle, Ben Turpin, Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, the Keystone Cops, and a young English music hall veteran named Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin arrived at Keystone in 1914 and by the end of that year he had made 35 films for Sennett, becoming the world’s biggest box office star in the process.

The Keystone Cops, with Ford Sterling on the phone, and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle at the far right.

Chaplin left Keystone in 1915 and Sennett eventually moved his operations to a new complex in Studio City. He continued cranking out comedies at a furious rate at his new laugh factory, launching several more notable careers.

Sennett’s fortune, along with his studio, was lost in the Great Depression. He retired from filmmaking at the age of 55 after having produced a roster of over 1000 silent and talkie films over a 25-year career.

Like yesterday’s fallen king Clark Gable, Sennett was quite a philanderer in his time and is sometimes credited with the creation of the “casting couch.”

Sennett’s old stomping grounds in Studio City was for a time the home of Republic Pictures, and is now known as the CBS Studio Center. This is the home of several long-running television series, including Gilligan’s Island, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, Leave It To Beaver, CSI: NY, Boston Common, and Seinfeld.

The site of Sennett’s Keystone Studio is today a storage facility.