Mabel Normand – Pretty, but no Damsel
The years 1895-1915, which coincide with the emergence of cinema as a serious industry, were a mixed period in the history of women. Women in most countries did not have the vote. Women of certain classes were expected to squeeze themselves into tortuous corsets. Working women (and there were many) were paid a pittance compared to men. Very few women held positions of traditional authority – politicians, business owners, financiers, police enforcers, priests, doctors, lawyers, University professors – all these professions were overwhelmingly male and in some cases restricted to men. On the other hand, women were beginning to raise their voices – and to be heard – in regard to some of these very problems. Movements for women’s suffrage existed in nearly every Western nation, and, beginning with New Zealand in 1894, were beginning to win that right. Women were becoming prominent leaders in middle class political and religious social reform movements, such as temperance and progressivism, as well. Women in many countries now had the right to own property and businesses separate from their husbands, and women’s education was expanding as well. Some women were finding niches in society where they could express themselves, even though creativity was still perceived as primarily a “male” privilege.
The new industry of film making was a niche that offered opportunities to non-traditional groups, in part because the traditions prevalent in more established industries were not already set in place. The engineers who originally experimented on moving pictures at Edison and Lumière were primarily white and male, although in the US there was more class mobility in this field, however it wasn’t long before the movies started to be more inclusive. In France, Alice Guy-Blaché became one of the first directors as early as 1896. In the United States, movie production became a reliable source of income for many newer immigrant groups, especially Jews, who had less interest in preserving traditional hierarchies. Some women were able to find positions of creative expression and authority within this niche.
Mabel Normand was one of these women. Born in the 1890s, she had grown up with the growth of media’s importance in American society. She was at first a professional model, and her remarkable looks could well have netted her a profitable career in that arena had she so chosen. But, she found herself working at Biograph studios under D.W. Griffith in 1911, and, while there, she met a handsome young actor with a pronounced sense of humor: Mack Sennett, who within a year would be running his own studio, and making a name for himself as “the king of comedy.” He took most of Biograph’s funniest comedians with him, and he also took Mabel Normand. Sennett and Normand had an on-again-off-again romance throughout the rest of her lifetime, though they never married. At Keystone, the still-teenage Normand began to hone her comedic talents and her athletic abilities (vital to slapstick). Her good looks made her popular with audiences and it wasn’t long before “Mabel” movies were a staple of the studio. By the time she was twenty, she was either directing or co-directing movies.
I have to say “either or” because for every single movie I can find that one source says Normand was the director, I can find at least one source that claims it was co-directed by a man, usually Sennett or Charlie Chaplin, sometimes another Keystone star like Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. There is no one Century Film I can point to and say with certainty, “this is a Mabel Normand movie.” As a critic of the Auteur Theory, I suppose that shouldn’t bother me, but in this case I’d like to be able to find an example. In general, the movies she made can be described as “standard Keystones.” They have fast-paced movement, irreverence, farcical situations and violence and outrageous characters. They also lack camera movement, innovative editing techniques, believable plots and character development. Some people love Keystone movies, others (a lot of others, nowadays) hate them. I can’t say that Mabel’s movies will change anyone’s mind one way or the other.
I can say how much I enjoy watching her work as a comedienne. I was fortunate, quite early in this project, to discover the work of Mabel Normand, in “Mabel at the Wheel,” a movie mostly remembered today for having Charlie Chaplin in it, but one which Normand directed (possibly with help from Sennett) and also starred in. I hadn’t really heard of Normand at that time, although I’d come across her name once or twice, and I delighted with this film. Chaplin is good as the villain, but in this case Mabel really carries the film. She is pretty, spunky, determined, competent and, most of all, funny. I started to take notice of her from that moment, and I’ve reviewed quite a number of her movies since then. Some are better than others, but I’ve always enjoyed seeing Mabel again.
Interestingly, Charlie Chaplin wrote about the production of “Mabel at the Wheel” in his autobiography. He says he resented being asked to be directed by Normand, emphasizing her youth. Well, Charlie himself was only 24, and had about three years less experience in movies at the time, so this seems pretty diva-ish of him in retrospect, or else sexist. I think he was aware of this when he wrote this in seventies, and he tries to be very generous to Normand in the rest of the book. He talks about their close friendship and future collaborations, and suggests that they “should” have been lovers, although it never happened. All of this was unfortunately lost when the book was turned into the movie “Chaplin” starring Robert Downey, Jr. When the making of “Mabel at the Wheel” is shown, Marisa Tomei plays Normand as shrewish ditz, obviously only directing because her boyfriend is the producer, one of the oldest stereotypes in Hollywood. The scene goes so far as to recreate “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” with Tomei/Normand as the victim, showing that she understood so little about movies as to be taken in by the oldest slapstick joke in the medium. The scene is insulting to one of cinema’s female pioneers, and isn’t even true to Charlie’s generally positive portrayal of her.
It’s too bad, because most of the people who saw that movie probably never saw the “real” Mabel Normand in a movie (I’ll bet Tomei never had, either). I think she was one of the best assets Keystone Studios ever had, and she was certainly Sennett’s loyalest headliner. Most of the others, from Arbuckle to Chaplin to Lloyd, went elsewhere in search of more creative freedom, and, in most cases, more money. Sennett eventually gave Normand her own production company to oversee, in spite of their rocky relationship, and she went right on making movies until her career was destroyed by scandal a few years before her early death in 1930. This blog only covers up to 1915 (for now), however, so I’m going to avoid describing those tragedies. Mabel may have occasionally played the part of a damsel in distress for laughs, but as a director and comedienne she was beyond rescuing. This essay has been my contribution to the Anti-Damsel Blogathon, held by Movies Silently and The Last Drive In. Be sure to check out the other excellent entries and the other empowered ladies of the event!