The Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon is finally here! Hooray!
I’m excited to spotlight Mabel Normand. This will be more of an overall look at her career and a selection of my favorite films of hers. Here we go!
Mabel Normand is a remarkable and popular figure of the silent era. She combined her beauty with expert comic timing to act in some delightfully funny films, and could hold her own against many of her male co-stars like Charlie Chaplin. What many do not realize is that Mabel also was behind the camera for a handful of her films!
Starting her career as an actress with director D.W. Griffith at Biograph Studios (and Vitagraph a bit later), Mabel found her footing working at Keystone Studios with comedy producer Mack Sennett. It is disputed exactly how many films she came to direct (the IMDb lists ten), but there are a few titles agreed upon by most as being directed by Miss Normand.
At Keystone, she proved her talent quickly and became a very popular star. By 1914 she began to direct some of the films she also starred in. Around this time, Charlie Chaplin signed on with the studio. Mabel actually directed several of Chaplin’s early performances, including the short film Mabel’s Strange Predicament, the first film shot featuring Chaplin’s iconic little tramp character. She became one of Keystone’s top stars throughout the 1910s.
In preparation for this spotlight on Mabel, I took it upon myself to watch or re-watch many of her films, both ones she directed and ones she did not direct. What is especially evident is her charm!
Mabel was a gifted actress and her beauty, inside and out, shines on the screen. Her smile must have lit up any room she entered (it certainly lights up my TV screen)! No matter what she did on screen, whether being wooed by a potential suitor (or rejecting him), pelting a villain with bricks, or even driving a race car, Mabel gave her all in any role. She is still very entertaining and charming to watch!
Behind the camera, Mabel proved to be just as effective. As a director she demonstrated her ability to helm the knockabout style of comedy Keystone specialized in, just as well as any male director could. If there was one thing Mabel knew, it was comedy, and that no doubt gave her the edge in directing some over-the-top short films.
Let’s take a brief look at several Mabel Normand comedies that I found to be the best showcase of her talents (of the ones I have seen). I’ve chosen three films she directed, and an additional two that she did not direct.
Won in a Cupboard (1914)
Long thought lost (but rediscovered in 2010), this is the earliest surviving film Normand directed. The film has two distinct tones, the first half being more romantic and the second half featuring heavy slapstick and mayhem. Mabel’s character is the daughter of the local sheriff and falls in love with a country boy. One thing leads to another and Mabel and her boyfriend rally the townspeople (and the Keystone Cops) to apprehend a supposed vagrant hiding in Mabel’s closet. Mabel is at her most charming in this film, and it’s an excellent example of her winning combo of beauty and humor. It had me in stitches!
You can find this film on the DVD Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive. It features a slew of films whose only surviving prints were found in New Zealand, like this one. (Also known as Won in a Closet)
Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914)
This film was, as mentioned earlier, the first Chaplin film featuring his little tramp character (but the second one released). Mabel directs this film in which she plays a woman at a hotel that is routinely annoyed by a drunk man (Chaplin). All sorts of trouble ensue, the funniest of which results in Mabel being locked out of her hotel room in her pajamas. Definitely funny and worth a watch!
It’s fascinating to discover that Mabel was behind the first film to feature Chaplin’s iconic persona, which he would continue playing for the next twenty years or so.
Mabel at the Wheel (1914)
Again costarring with Chaplin, this film again had Mabel both behind and in front of the camera. After falling off Chaplin’s motorcycle into a puddle, Mabel decides to ride with another man (Harry McCoy) in his race car. Chaplin, playing a Ford Sterling-like villain, kidnaps McCoy at the local auto race, forcing Mabel to race in his absence despite Chaplin’s continued attempts at sabotage.
You can tell that Mabel clearly was having a good time driving the race car. Films like this one show Mabel’s knack for directing comedy. The race sequence is among the highlights and is well-executed. Mabel truly was one of the greats in the world of silent comedies!
Available in the Chaplin at Keystone set.
Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916)
After Chaplin left Keystone to pursue other ventures, Mabel was paired with comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in a series of shorts. This one is my favorite of those films. It begins with one of the most delightful openings in any film (the scene with the hearts)! After getting married, Mabel and Roscoe stay in a little seaside cottage. Jealous Al St. John (Arbuckle’s nephew in real life) takes matters into his own hands and sets the house adrift during a bad storm. The chemistry the two stars have in their films is impeccable and fun to watch!
My favorite scene in the film is when Mabel bakes some biscuits for her and Arbuckle, which turn out to be as hard as a rock. Funny stuff!
This film is available in The Mack Sennett Collection, Vol. 1 by Flicker Alley.
The Extra Girl (1923)
This feature film was the final one Mabel made for Mack Sennett. She plays the role of an aspiring actress growing up in the midwest. Her parents are very restrictive and arrange for her to be married to a mean businessman (played by Vernon Dent, later of Three Stooges fame). With the support of her actual lover Ralph (Dave Giddings), she mails a letter to a movie studio with a photograph of her inserted (which is switched out with another girl by a jealous woman desiring Ralph’s attention). Because of this, she is only able to land a job in the studio wardrobe department. I’ll leave the rest of the film a mystery; go see it yourself! It’s quite a good story.
The rest of the film shifts tones a bit here and there but it gives Mabel a chance to show her versatility as an actress. Feature films gave her a chance to act more broadly and she does a remarkable job. You’ll be laughing with her and rooting for her all the way!
This film is also available in The Mack Sennett Collection, Vol. 1 by Flicker Alley (seven of Mabel’s films are included in the set).
A combination of several scandals and personal illnesses was what slowly brought Mabel Normand’s career to a stop. She made her final few films at the Hal Roach Studios, the last being One Hour Married (1927). Mabel died of tuberculosis in 1930; she was only 37.
Also worth checking out:
The Water Nymph (1912), the very first Keystone comedy
Bangville Police (1913), the first appearance of the Keystone Cops
Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), the first ever feature-length comedy film
Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition (1915), costarring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
He Did and He Didn’t (1916), also costarring Arbuckle
Heck, watch any of her films if you want to! These are, out of the ones I have seen, my favorites.
I hope this look at Mabel’s films gives you some insight at the versatility of this woman as an actress and director. But the real evidence is found in the films themselves! Go give them a watch. She was a part of some of early cinema’s most entertaining films and was truly a pioneer. Mabel is one of my absolute favorites!
Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914) will be available on Flicker Alley’s upcoming set Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology. Pre-orders are currently open (the official release date is May 9th).
Thank you for checking out my spotlight on Mabel Normand, written for the Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently. This is my first official post on Peyton’s Classics and I hope you stick around for more!
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