Quick: Name America’s most popular silent film.

No, it’s not anything by Charlie Chaplin. Not Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd either. Film students might answer The Birth of a Nation, but if we judge by ticket sales, that’s wrong too.

Mickey, a film starring comedian Mabel Normand, was by far the most-seen and most popular movie in America for decades.

Mabel Normand, Comedienne

During the 1910s, Mabel Normand was a comedy queen. She combined solid acting chops with incredible comedic timing and instinct. Normand was one of the first people to take a pie in the face on film and helped transition comedies from one-reel shorts to longer-form stories.

She wasn’t just an actress either. She spent time behind the camera, directing Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin, sometimes in films she also starred in. Chaplin once said she was born “knowing more about comedy and comedy routine than any of the rest of us ever learn.”

Chaplin owed Normand his career. He was a natural clown but initially struggled through the dramatic parts of the films the studio put him in. Producer Mack Sennett was ready to fire him, but Normand convinced him to give The Tramp a second chance. Normand’s tutelage paid off, and Chaplin used the lessons she taught him through the rest of his career.

Mickey

Mabel Normand used her skills in drama, comedy, and stunt work during the 1916 filming of the film Mickey.

The story is a bit complicated — Mickey lives with her step-father a gold mine before she is sent back east to be turned into a proper lady. Some fish-out-of-water comedy ensues, and Mickey soon has two suitors. The movie climaxes in an exciting, hilarious horse race with Mickey as a surprise jockey.

Mickey was not a success initially. Distributors didn’t know what to do with the action/comedy/romance/melodrama. It was essentially shelved for about a year.

Then, a miracle happened.

Mack Sennett was working in his Long Island office when a knock came at the door. The owner of a small movie theater had a problem. A logistical mix-up had left him without a film to show the next night. Unless he found another movie soon, his theater would sit empty.

Sennett suggested Mickey, and the theater owner agreed.

Audiences loved it. Sennett excitedly phoned Normand, informing her she had a hit on her hands.

But he had no idea just how big Mickey was about to become.

Mabelescence

As word spread about the film, critics raved. “No photoplay yet produced is so filled with adventure, thrills and human emotions as Mickey,” said an article in The Tattler. A review in Moving Picture World went further. “Mickey is a digest of the science of producing motion pictures. It has everything imaginable that might be conceived by the most inventive producer, past or present.”

Audiences lined up to buy tickets in the middle of a flu epidemic that shut down most large public gatherings. (Normand herself caught the flu, but survived) “America was not flocking to see movies. They were flocking to see Mickey. Theater owners begged Triangle to send them prints of the film,” author Timothy Dean Lefler wrote.

Mickey helped Hollywood discover a new way to make money: merchandising.

Memorabilia included Mickey hats, dresses, lantern slides, and socks. A theme song was written and released. In the first four days, Americans bought 500,000 gramophone records.

The film’s popularity grew and grew. It was re-released in 1918, 1919, 1920, and 1921. According to The Tattler, “Next to our President there is no better known character in the country today than Mickey.”

The word “Mabelescence” gained circulation. A 1919 magazine explained the term meant “anything peculiarly like Mabel Normand, which means merry and madcappish and warm-hearted and tender.”

Box Office Records

Mickey grossed about $8 million at the box office, according to producer Mark Sennett. (He is sometimes quoted as saying $18 million, but that is almost certainly typo.)

When you take into account average ticket prices during the releases, Americans bought about 40.9 million tickets to Mickey between 1918 and 1921.

That’s more than twice as many admissions as the widely-remembered blockbuster The Birth of a Nation had sold up to that point. The only film that had sold near as many tickets was the 1914 Western The Spoilers, at an estimated 30.8 million.

Mickey held the record for the best-selling movie from 1919 to 1938, when it was passed by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As of December 2019, Mickey is #172 on the all-time chart. That’s a fantastic feat when you realize there are three times as many people alive today as there were when Mickey was in theaters.

The Star Forgotten

Mabel Normand’s career was at its highest in 1918. It plummeted quickly.

Normand ended a romantic relationship with Sennett and left his production company this same year. She fell ill with the flu and struggled to match her previous output.

Her longtime friend and collaborator, Fatty Arbuckle, was accused of murdering actress Virginia Rappe in 1921. The next year, Normand was interrogated in the murder of her friend, director William Desmond Taylor. Then in 1924, Normand’s chauffeur used her pistol to shoot and injure a millionaire oil broker.

Normand was not implicated in any of these incidents, but her association with the scandals changed her public image when she could least afford it.

In 1926 she married Lew Cody, who had played the villain opposite her in Mickey. She developed tuberculosis, was sent to a sanatorium, and died in 1930 at the age of 37.

In 1919, an article in The Tattler proclaimed, “Next to our President there is no better known character in the country today than Mickey.”

A century later, Mickey is entirely unknown to the general public. The film doesn’t show up in the Top 200 Favorite Silent Films on Flickchart or the Top 200 Most Popular Films of the 1910s on Letterboxd

Mabel Normand is not the only early female filmmaker to be neglected by 20th Century historians. Her masterpiece deserves more attention from movie buffs and scholars than they have given it so far.

SOURCES:
“Box Office Mojo by IMDbPro FAQ.” IMDb. IMDb.com. Accessed December 11, 2019. https://help.imdb.com/article/imdbpro/industry-research/box-office-mojo-by-imdbpro-faq/GCWTV4MQKGWRAUAP#inflation.

Coons, Robbin. “Hollywood Chatter.” Daytona Beach Morning Journal, June 30, 1939. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=eHIoAAAAIBAJ&sjid=C8cEAAAAIBAJ&pg=4926,5479066.

King, Rob. The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

“‘Mickey’ Breaks Record.” Dramatic Mirror, June 24, 1919. https://fultonhistory.com/Newspaper 10/New York NY Dramatic Mirror/New York NY Dramatic Mirror 1919 Mar-Mar 1920 Grayscale/New York NY Dramatic Mirror 1919 Mar-Mar 1920 Grayscale – 0686.pdf.

Motography, Volume 19, Issues 1-26. New York, NY: New York Public Library, 2015. https://books.google.com/books?id=gwxKAQAAMAAJ.

Sennett, Mack, and Cameron Shipp. King of Comedy. iUniverse, 2000.

Sherman, William Thomas. Mabel Normand: A Source Book to Her Life and Films. Seattle, WA: William Thomas Sherman, 2000.

Walker, Brent E. Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of His Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies, with Biographies of Players and Personnel. MCFARLAND, 2013.

Weissberg, Jay. “Explaining Mabelescence: The 3rd Amsterdam Filmmuseum Biennale.” Senses of Cinema, June 1, 2010. http://sensesofcinema.com/2007/festival-reports/amsterdam-filmmuseum-biennale-2007/.

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