Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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"Not Even a Word of Farewell - Only a Smile”: Melancholic Endings and Wistful Musings on the Demise of Mabel Normand and the New Woman
Vicki Callahan

Last modified: 2010-05-28


Reading the obituaries for Mabel Normand, one is struck by a wistful and almost whimsical tone to the writings on the star’s passing.   Indeed, Ms. Normand’s long fade out from press accounts--starting in early 1920s to her death in 1930--coincided with numerous health, legal, and publicity problems for the actress and parallels an attendant demise of the New Woman as a political force and feminist presence, in popular and historical accounts of the era.  As Estelle B. Freedman notes, most historians diminish the New Woman’s political interest in the immediate post suffrage era; supposedly she faces no discrimination and is more interested in shopping--a “truism” rarely questioned until the 1960s.  Press accounts of the era also paint Normand as one who moves from being an explicit suffrage proponent and autonomous business-woman to an unrepentant party girl and fashion plate.  

What is interesting about the discourse surrounding Normand, and which may be instructive for commentary on the New Woman during this time, is that despite the seemingly ongoing moral directive accompanying the description of her tragic decline from Hollywood (i.e., her wild lifestyle as culprit), Normand is resolutely an attractive and compelling character.   Press accounts, during her lengthy illness(es) and then death, are rife with regret, but often the loss is more about ourselves (the readers/contemporaries) than Normand.  There is a sense that while the rebellious spirit of the New Woman of the era was transformed or rather contained, Normand resolutely maintained her “wayward, rebellious Irish heart,” as Photoplay noted.  Diane Negra’s work on Colleen Moore is crucial here as she maps out the star’s transformation of Irish femininity from flapper to domesticity, a woman who is disguised as “modern” and produced by a process that parallels immigrant assimilation.   Normand is, in turn, the “unsuccessful” Irish woman immigrant–and most of the nostalgic musings on Normand are centered on or revel in her lack of class, ethnic, and sexual decorum.   When she dies with, as one obit claims, “not even a word of farewell, but a smile,” you feel Mabel Normand surely had the last laugh.

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