Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Category: Biography

Mabel Normand – Pretty, but no Damsel

MabelNormand_with_round_mirrorThe 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.

Mabel Normand in 1915.

Mabel Normand in 1915.

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.

MabelnormandportraitMabel 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.

Mabel is shocked to find herself on a Keystone set.

Mabel is shocked to find herself on a Keystone set.

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.

Mabel_Normand1I 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.

Mabel_at_the_WheelInterestingly, 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.

Mabel's Strange PredicamentIt’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!


Birth of a Nation (1915) Part III


Before I get into the main part of my discussion for this post, I want to talk about a newer movie I watched recently, called “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorcese Through American Movies.” This was a documentary Scorcese produced with the British Film Institute in the late 1990s. He mostly focuses on the movies he grew up with, so the period of the 1940s ad 50s is strongly represented, but not that many Century Films show up. He does talk a bit about the early years of cinema, however, and he does something very interesting when he does. Like a lot of twentieth century film historians, he waxes poetic about the significance and importance of “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915, and he uses a number of clips from the movie to demonstrate its technical achievements. However, he says nothing about its controversial content. That’s fairly standard, but I had to watch the segment twice or three times to realize just how far he (or the BFI editor) had gone to “whitewash” the film. Not only are there no close-ups of Klansmen in sheets, nor do we see the lustful “Gus” chasing Mae Marsh off a cliff, but there are no images shown which give any insight into the racial content of the movie at all! No white men in blackface, no celebrations of harmonious slavery, nothing. We do get a glimpse of the Reconstruction-era Congress, with black men sitting at the Representatives desks, but it doesn’t hold long enough for us to see them drinking, taking off their shoes, eating fried chicken, etc. A person would come out of this documentary thinking that “The Birth of a Nation” was just another version of “Lincoln,” in that the longest sequence is the John Wilkes Booth assassination at the Ford theater. This is just one more example of how the racist nature of the movie is downplayed (or in this case suppressed) in order to play up the narrative of its originality and importance to film history, a narrative I find increasingly dubious, the more research I do.

 Birth of a Nation book

All that’s by way of a digression, what I really wanted to talk about this month is D.W. Griffith the man, who he was and how he came to make “The Birth of a Nation.” I recently read and reviewed the book The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War. I was a bit disappointed because it wasn’t really a work of film history, more of a dual biography and journalistic account of the clash between Griffith and Monroe Trotter, an African American journalist in Boston. But, in that sense, I learned a lot about Griffith, and that’s what I’d like to talk about here. D.W. Griffith was born in Kentucky, a slave state which never joined the Confederacy, whose citizens were divided among Pro-Union and Pro-Confederate sympathizers. His father was Jacob “roaring Jake” Griffith, a somewhat intemperate adventurer who volunteered for the South at a somewhat advanced age (he had been a forty-niner, searching for gold in the California Gold Rush). He became a colonel and was retired with honors. After the war, he was given to drinking late into the night and regaling listeners with tales of his exploits, liberally mixing fact with fiction. Apparently these drunken rants were basically the first “theater” his son experienced, and young David Wark Griffith drank it all in as a way of connecting with his otherwise distant father.


Let’s step back a bit more and talk about Kentucky. It was a strategically vital state in the war. Lincoln went so far as to say that if Kentucky was lost, the war would be also. But it was a state where slavery was a big part of the economy and way of life. Kentucky was formally neutral at the outbreak of the war, but eventually requested Union protection, after bloody battles and Confederate guerilla activities had begun to threaten stability. White pro-Union Kentuckians presumably hoped that their loyalty to the Union would mean that they would be permitted to retain their lifestyle, and they felt betrayed by the Emancipation Proclamation. As the military situation shifted toward Union supremacy, Kentucky sympathies shifted toward the Confederacy, but at that point Union troops controlled most of the state. The military commander ordered reprisals of four men shot for every Union soldier killed by guerilla action. Men like Jake Griffith came home defeated, more or less able to tell their neighbors, “I told you so” as the Reconstruction took place throughout the South. A branch of the KKK opened in Kentucky to join in solidarity with the movement against Reconstruction, even though Kentucky was never formally a Reconstruction state, never having been in the Confederacy. In fact, Kentuckians had it comparably good in this period, the military occupation was lifted and their congress was able to reinstate the citizenship of former Confederate soldiers. But, a sense of bitterness remained and grew.


So far as I know, Jake Griffith never joined the original Klan, and David quite probably lived his whole life without meeting anyone who had been involved in it. He was born in 1875, one year after the disbandment of the movement, and the stories he heard about the Reconstruction period in Kentucky were distorted by his father’s emotions, sympathies, and propensity for exaggeration. The story of the “lost cause” spread among the old South and began to find acceptance in the North as well. The dominant myth that the nation came to use for reconciliation was that the Civil War had been a great tragedy for the whole nation, and what both North and South had in common was their white heritage, whether with or without slavery. The legacy of emancipation became less important than preserving white supremacy in the reunified nation.

Back to young D.W. Griffith. His father died while he was ten years old, making it impossible for the boyhood adulation to be checked by adolescent conflicts. After his death, the family entered a period of difficulty, and had to move from its rural homestead to the “big city” of Louisville, where Griffith stood out as a country bumpkin. He had all the usual problems adjusting to the pace of life there, but no doubt also associated it all with the multiculturalism and liberalism of modern society, as against the pastoral dream of his childhood. Meanwhile, he also discovered the theater, and finally knew what he wanted to do with his life. By his mid-teens, he started working in theaters, taking any job he could get, all the while trying to start a career either as a writer or an actor.


He never found great success at either, although he made a living, sometimes precariously, working for touring shows as an extra or a stage hand, moving about the country freely and never settling for long in one place. He was over thirty when he finally signed to Biograph Studios as an actor, finally starting him on the path that would lead to his greatest successes. According to Billy Bitzer, his future cameraman, Griffith was a terrible actor, given to waving his arms around dramatically and hamming in every scene. Bitzer could not believe that such a performer had much potential as an director, but in fact Griffith had an excellent eye and ability to get what he wanted – so long as he didn’t have to do it himself. He picked talented actors and gave them the right amount of direction. He would leave the confident, experienced actors alone, giving them just simple directions as the camera rolled, while he would rehearse and give attention to those who needed the guidance.


The story of Griffith’s film work has been told many times, and I don’t want to extend this post unnecessarily, but all the elements giving rise to “The Birth of a Nation” were in place before he even started. He believed in his father’s distorted Kentucky-centric view of the Civil War. He had been raised in a culture that celebrated white supremacy, and nothing in his adult experience had challenged this. He had an epic vision of recent history before his birth, and he honed the talents and skills to create a vision he could share with others of his time and place. He was a skillful showman, and had learned from his father how to hold an audience and how to exaggerate, something he did in nearly every interview and press release he ever gave. And Griffith was connected to the dominant cultural perceptions of his time – “The Birth of a Nation” was a powerful experience for so many because Griffith, and his white audiences, really did believe what he had to say about Reconstruction and the KKK.

For the earlier posts in this essay series, see links below:

In Part One, I discussed the racist content of “Birth of a Nation.”

In Part Two, I talked about its technical accomplishments.

Evgeni Bauer – A Russian Artiste

Welcome to a couple of firsts for my blog: this is both the first time I’ve participated in a blogathon and also the first time I’ve tried to write about the career of a specific filmmaker, rather than examining their films one at a time in capsulized reviews. Perhaps even more exciting: this post falls on my blog-birthday: The Century Film Project has now been in the blogosphere for exactly 1% of a century!


The Story According to Wikipedia

When I heard about the “Russia in Classic Film” blogathon being held by Movies Silently, I knew I wanted to see what I could come up with on Evgeni Bauer.* I had only just discovered him, and have since written three reviews of his films, but I knew I had found someone special. His movies are so advanced by the standards of the teens that it’s hard to believe they aren’t ten years later than the dates they show. Although he seems to have worked with more than one photographer, the use of composition and lighting is always remarkably deliberate, and one suspects that he worked very closely with his cameramen to get the effect he wanted. No surprise that he was a production designer, because the sets are always carefully and artistically planned, and he gives actors and camera space to move around within the set as well. Finally, he was one of very few directors at the time who worked in three dimensions – what happens in the foreground and background can be more important than center stage, and performers move in all directions in his movies.

A still from Yevgeni Bauer's 1917 film Za schastem with Lev Kuleshov and Tasya Borman.

A still from Yevgeni Bauer’s 1917 film Za schastem with Lev Kuleshov and Tasya Borman.

Looking Deeper: Tsarist Russian Cinema

The one book I could find in English that provided any insight into Bauer was Silent Witnesses: Russian Films, 1908-1919. It’s a fairly rare book, I had to have my library order it from a University in Orange County, CA, and it’s rather odd as well. It’s dual-language, with English on the left side and Italian on the right, and sometimes the English reads is if translated by someone with only second-language skills. It refers to itself at several points as a “catalog,” and seems to have been intended to serve as companion to some kind of film festival or showing, in spite of its immensity (600+ pages). A lot of the text is apparently made up of comments from Russian film magazines, translated for current readers, with additional comments on each film by the editors.

What I did get from this was an interesting view of the Russian film culture of the period. Judging by these magazines, there was quite a thriving film industry and film-going public in Russia at the time, one which seems to compare to the United States. Now, I have to imagine, given what I know of Russian society, that this would have been a largely urban phenomenon, and that it would have been restricted to population centers like Moscow and Petrograd, excluding much of the rural population and presumably the lower classes, who wouldn’t have money or leisure for something like movies most of the time. But, that may itself give us some insight. These journals take film very seriously: it is clearly regarded as an art form already, not just a cheap way to make money, as it often was in the US. The critics writing for these magazines had very high expectations of the literary and visual quality of the films they talked about. Presumably, Russian audiences had similarly high standards.

What I Can Say (or Guess) about Bauer’s Career

In that sense, the emergence someone like Bauer begins to make sense. D.W. Griffith had to fight tooth and nail with Biograph in the United States to try to make anything “artistic.” He took too long, spent too much; all that was wanted was lots of content produced quickly so that the distributors could buy it up by the foot and fill up the nickelodeons with eager viewers. Bauer’s bosses at Khanzhonkov probably had a different approach (though I wouldn’t be surprised if there were arguments about budgets there too). They wanted to beat the competition in terms of producing works that would impress people that could be spending their time and money on live theater, and so were more willing to innovate to get an advantage. I don’t have numbers to prove it, but I’d bet there were fewer venues for film in Russia, so less reason to try to make lots and lots of movies, since a lot of them would have nowhere to be shown. They let Bauer work in longer formats, take more time with set ups and rehearsals, and in general they wanted to see quality at least as much as, if not more than, quantity, because that’s what they could sell.

Bauer himself came from an artistic background. His father had been a famous zither player and composer, his sisters acted on stage, and he went to the Moscow School for Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. No doubt it was there that he learned about composition and lighting, and he may well have brought painting techniques with him into film. After moving through several careers, he became a set designer, and was praised for the intricacy and style of his work. By the time he started making sets for the movies in 1912, he would have been forty five or forty six years old, was married, and had worked in various communications media, including the theater, newspapers, and magazines. He made 82 movies for Drankov, Pathé, and Khanzhonkov, had the highest salary of any Russian director, and became part-owner of the latter company through ownership of shares. He worked as a director only from 1913 to 1917, when he died due to pneumonia contracted after a fall while rehearsing walking with a limp for one of his movies.

Another still from Za schastem

Another still from Za schastem

Critical Reception

Now, back to those reviews for a moment. Considering how good his movies look today, I was surprised how harsh the criticism was, especially of my favorite Bauer so far, “After Death.” That one wasn’t about the film’s quality in itself, it was because he had dared to tamper with the sacred Ivan Turgenev, changing characters names and details for the movie. He actually wrote a sort of apology, admitting that “Turgenev should be approached in a different spirit and with different habits” than most film scenarios. Again, evidence of the high standards of Russian moviegoers!

A Tragic Loss, But…

It’s hard for me not to speculate about what would have happened if he had survived into the Soviet period. Many of his actors continued in the Soviet silent period, and certainly good movies continued to be made, but I wonder about the politics of some of his films. He got his start in the business building sets for “The Tercentenary of the Rule of the House of Romanov,” not a subject the Bolsheviks would be likely to approve, though I note that its two directors continued working through the twenties. The portrayal of the proletarian in “Twilight of a Woman’s Soul” would also have been potentially embarrassing, certainly by the time of Stalin’s ascendency, but it’s possible that, had he lived, we’d have gotten a lot more great work from Evgeni Bauer.

Of his movies, 26 supposedly remain, but for an American with limited resources, it’s hard to even see a dozen of them. The Wikipedia page for Bauer has links to watch seven of them, and I’d recommend them wholeheartedly to any fan of silent movies.



*Of course, there are several ways of transcribing his name from Cyrillic. I’m opting for “Evgeni,” because that’s how it appears in “Mad Love: The Films of Evgeni Bauer,” the most accessible DVD collection of his work. Wikipedia prefers “Yevgeni,” and you’ll also find “Evgenii” and “Yevgenii” as well in other sources.