Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Mabel Normand

Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913)

Barney Oldfields Race for Life3

One of the thinnest plotlines in history seems to have introduced one of the most lasting impressions about silent film. This Keystone short has been cited time and again to support a premise that drives silent movie fans up the wall.

Barney Oldfields Race for LifeThis movie begins with Mack Sennett in the same bumpkin costume that he later used in “Mabel’s Dramatic Career.” He gives Mabel Normand a flower and they shyly smooch under a tree. This all seems to make villainous Ford Sterling inexplicably mad, and as soon as he can get Mabel alone, he tries to steal a kiss, which is rebuffed. He only gets angrier, and calls in his two goons to grab Mabel and drag her off to the railroad tracks, where they find chain and fasten her to the tracks with a railroad spike. Then, they take the convenient handcar to the nearest station and commandeer an engine (apparently just waiting for a train to do the job for them wasn’t good enough).

Barney: No actor, but boy can he drive!

Barney: No actor, but boy can he drive!

Ford gets angry with one of his associates when he asks to be paid and knocks him out. When the goon wakes up, he tells the railroad workers what’s going on and they inform Mack. Then, world-renowned racecar driver Barney Oldfield drives up and Mack informs him of Mabel’s peril. And the race is on! The car and the train speed toward the same location, but Oldfield’s expert driving assures the Mack will be able to rescue the damsel just in time. Meanwhile, a group of five policemen have taken the handcar to try to apprehend Sterling. Sterling, foiled by his inability to kill Mabel, takes out his gun and shoots all five. He tries to kill himself, but he’s out of bullets, so resorts to strangling himself to death (!).

Barney Oldfields Race for Life1This movie is a patently thin veneer hung over a thrilling chase and a lot of silly satire. Ford Sterling takes his mustache-twirling villain role to unheard-of extremes, climaxing with his own bizarre suicide when thwarted. When he so easily kills the five policemen, the question is immediately raised why he didn’t just shoot Mabel in the first place when she refused him a kiss, but that wouldn’t make for a thrilling movie, just a psychotic act of violence. Trying to crush her with a steam engine is clearly more cinematic. The chase itself includes some impressive photography for 1913, including tracking shots from the hand car, the engine, and the car, as well as from other vehicles just in front of or beside them. The shot where Sennett pulls Mabel off the tracks just in the nick of time appears to have been a double-exposure, and on the print I’ve seen it looks very dark and high-contrast, suggesting that the cinematographers couldn’t manage it with the finesse of Georges Méliès. Oldfield seems to have no interest in even trying to act, his only job is to drive a fast car, and he does that fine, letting Sennett do all the emoting. I suppose the five guys who get shot are technically “Keystone Cops” (they’re men in police uniforms in a Keystone movie), but they don’t do any of the characteristic antics one associates with that name.

Barney Oldfields Race for Life2Although Fritzi at Movies Silently has already covered this in detail, I need to say a few words about the girl-tied-to-the-railroad-tracks thing. Yes, this is a silent movie in which it did happen. No, it wasn’t all that common of a theme. Apparently, it was a trope in Victorian Theater, because you could build suspense by having off-stage train whistles without having to actually show a train. Whatever the case, this example is clearly satire – the situation is outrageous on purpose and being played up as ridiculous, as Sterling’s performance emphasizes. It wasn’t something silent audiences wanted or thought of as serious drama. I found it sort of a disappointing role for Mabel Normand (after all I said about her NOT being a “damsel”), she sort of sits there and weeps instead of taking charge of the situation, but it was hardly representative of her career, either. I’d say this movie doesn’t hold up that well, and isn’t even of great historical interest, inasmuch as it seems to lead people to false conclusions.

Wikipedia calls this a "screen shot" from the movie. I think it's actually a publicity still, judging by the posed look of the actors.

Wikipedia calls this a “screen shot” from the movie. I think it’s actually a publicity still, judging by the posed look of the actors.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Lee Bartholomew and Walter Wright

Cast: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Ford Sterling, Barney Oldfield, Al St. John, Hank Mann

Run Time: 13 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913)

Mack Sennett combines several older comedic tropes in this film to produce a rollicking, and, I would say, unusually sophisticated comedy short for Keystone.

Mabels Dramatic Career1Mack himself plays the bumpkin star of the movie. He is in love with the maid (Mabel Normand) his mother (Alice Davenport) has hired as help in their rural homestead, and he gives her a ring. Mother does not approve, and lets him know when she catches them together, and she chases Mabel off to her work in the kitchen. Then, a classy “girl from the city” (Virginia Kirtley) comes to visit (it’s never clear what relationship she has to the family, or why she’s staying with them). Mack suddenly shows more interest in her, to mother’s approval and Mabel’s horror. Mack asks for his ring back and Mabel takes out her anger on the interloper, resulting in her being fired. She heads for the city, to begin her life anew. Once that’s all settled, Mack asks the girl from the city for her hand, and she laughs at him. He looks longingly at a picture of Mabel, finally aware of what he’s lost.

Mabels Dramatic Career2In the city, Mabel happens upon a “Kinome-tograph” studio, where Ford Sterling is strangling a girl on a bed for the camera. Mabel tries to get a job. The producer and director don’t think much of her pantomime skills, but Ford seems interested. He convinces them to hire her. Now, an intertitle tells us that some years have passed, and Mack’s bumpkin character is paying a visit to the city. He passes by a Nickelodeon, and sees Mabel’s picture on a poster. He decides to pay a nickel and go inside. He watches the movie, and becomes increasingly excited when Mabel appears on the screen! The man sitting next to him (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle), tries to calm him down, but he doesn’t quite seem to understand the difference between film and reality. This becomes critical when Ford Sterling, in the role of a bad guy, threatens Mabel and does begins to strangle her. Mack pull out his gun and starts shooting at the screen, dispersing the audience, as well as the projectionist and piano player.

Mabels Dramatic Career3Now, Mack is out for revenge: “That villain must die.” He goes in search of the man he saw on the screen, and happens to peek in a window and find his apartment. But, there are three small children there! Then, Mabel comes out and kisses Ford. Evidently they are married and happy together. Mack, unsure what to do, points his gun anyway, but an upstairs neighbor prevents tragedy by dumping out the dirty dishwater on his head.

Mabels Dramatic Career4I love any movie from this period that shows us the interior of a Nickelodeon. This one has a lot in common, visually, with “Those Awful Hats,” which Mack Sennett appeared in for Biograph a few years earlier. But, the bumpkin-in-a-theater trope goes back further, to Edison films from the early twentieth century. By 1902, we had “Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show,” in which a yokel from the sticks confuses images on the screen with reality, and that is what Sennett is playing on here, only with a much more complex storyline and better characterization. It also resembles the 1913 film by  Louis FeuilladeTragic Error,” only with the tragedy averted. This Nickelodeon includes a projector’s booth, a relatively new innovation at the time (often required to be fireproof by newer fire codes that were trying to prevent deadly nitrate fires), and a female pianist at the front of the house. I thought it was also interesting that Mabel first signs up for a “Kinome-tograph” job, suggesting that the first part of the movie takes place before the Nickelodeon era.

Mabels Dramatic CareerThis movie actually makes better use of close-ups than most Keystones of the next couple of years, making me wonder if Sennett was trying for a more upscale production. Arbuckle is sort of wasted here, just playing off Sennett’s outrageous behavior, but you can already see his potential (he would be paired with Mabel many times in the future), and Sterling is surprisingly understated, especially in the final scene with Mabel. During the hiring sequence, we got the impression that his intentions were less than noble, but I was surprised that Sterling and Mabel are shown married with children as well – rarely do slapstick comedies allow their characters to progress in a relationship. I did feel that the first part of the movie dragged a bit, in comparison to the sequence in the city, but it sets the stage and gives us a chance to know the characters, which is part of what makes the second part work. This is one of my favorite Sennett-directed pictures so far.

Mabel's_Dramatic_Career_1913Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: unknown

Cast: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Virginia Kirtley, Alice Davenport, Ford Sterling, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with somewhat odd music).

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!

anti-damsel-bara

Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco (1915)

Mabel and Fatty Worlds Fair SF1I completely understand if you thought this was a repetition of yesterday’s post. It took me a minute to sort out the difference between these two movies, as well. Although they’re playing on the same theme, however, they are actually very different films. This is signaled by the opening title card where the typical Keystone words “farce comedy” have been replaced by “educational.” Audiences were warned – this is not the funny romp we got in San Diego.

Mabel and Fatty Worlds Fair SF

Instead, what we see is Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand very much out-of-character, behaving like two V.I.P.’s giving live coverage to a public event. In fact, they remind me of the hosts of the annual Macy’s “Thanksgiving Day Parade” television coverage. They clown a bit, but just enough to give a bit of relief to the pageantry of the World’s Fair. First, we see the Battleship Oregon, which had served during the Spanish-American War and had not yet become a floating museum in Portland. During the Second World War, the navy would reclaim her for scrap, but at this time she was still known as the “Bulldog of the Navy.” Next, we get various Bay-view panaromas of the pavilions and buildings constructed for the fair. Now Fatty meets Madame Ernestine Schumann-Henk aboard ship; she is a famous opera singer, and she rapidly claps her hand over Fatty’s mouth when he “warbles” for her. More footage of the sights of the Fair and San Francisco is followed by a meeting with the Mayor, James Rolph, Jr. He magnanimously writes them a card giving permission to “take pictures anywhere in the fair.” Then they proceed to the “Prison ship” Success, where various instruments of torture are on display, including an iron maiden, which seems an unlikely thing to take on a sea voyage. Mabel gets into the maiden, to try it out, and Fatty almost closes the door on her. Finally, we are treated to a very nice shot of the fairgrounds lit up at night, with a “captive aeroplane” ride dominating the landscape.

Mabel and Fatty Worlds Fair2

While this movie is far less entertaining than the comedy in San Diego, it is interesting historically. Obviously, Keystone felt that their two biggest stars, plus the extravagance of the fair itself, could carry the film without a comedy plotline. The scene with the mayor may offer a hint as to why this happened – getting permission to shoot just might not have been as simple as it was at the earlier fair. Or, someone at Keystone may have felt that sending a camera crew 400 miles to San Francisco (as opposed to 100 miles to San Diego), warranted a less risky approach. What will interest people is the footage of post-Earthquake-recovery SF. Some of the buildings of the World’s Fair still stand and even serve as tourist attractions, including the “new” City Hall we see under construction on Market Street. Various views will be familiar to San Franciscans today, although the sheer size and elaborateness of the event outdoes the current waterfront. The early jitney cabs may be of interest to aficionados of classic cars, and the ships to naval historians. All in all, this is a more “interesting,” less exciting movie.

Director: Mabel Normand

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand

Run Time: 15 Min 30 seconds

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition (1915)

Fatty and Mabel at San DiegoThis Keystone short came early in 1915, just after Charlie Chaplin left the company to join Essanay. Interestingly, it resembles a more ambitious version of “Kid Auto Races at Venice,” his first “Little Tramp” release, in that it is a slapstick comedy shot on location at a major public event, using the backdrop of crowds and spectacle to boost the apparent production costs. It is both more and less successful than its predecessor, inasmuch as the comedy storyline is much better developed, but it lacks the innate charm of Chaplin simply doing his routines in front of a camera and a crowd.

 Fatty and Mabel at San Diego1

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand are visiting the Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park, in San Diego, California. They are apparently a couple, and do not behave like celebrities in this movie. At the opening parade, they fail to keep behind the lines erected to keep spectators out of the street, resulting in a Keystone Cop’s chasing them and battling them, which only causes more chaos. Then, they go for a ride on what seems to be a self-driven roller-coaster car with no roller coaster. They stop at an exhibit that promises to show “how movies are made” and Mabel gets off to gawk at some footage of the Keystone Labs. Fatty, meanwhile runs into another young woman (Minta Durfee, his real-life wife), and pursues her with his kiddy-car, which leads to more pratfalls. Mabel is annoyed when she can’t find him and gives him what-for, when he tries to pretend he was innocently watching the Hula dancers at the Hawaiian exhibit. After that, Fatty decides that he will go see the Hula dancers, and we see him whooping it up in the audience. Mabel decides to sneak in the other way and “catch him in the act,” but winds up at the stage door. Then she gets the clever idea of wearing a veil and going out to do a truly hilarious dance looking sort of like a shapeless sack wearing a veil. Fatty is aroused and joins her on stage, but when he removes the veil, she knocks him over again. He runs out, finding Minta has brought her husband along to get back at him, and more chaos ensues. Ultimately, the Keystone Cops are called in and several people are knocked into a very showy fountain.

Mabel is shocked to find herself on a Keystone set.

Mabel is shocked to find herself on a Keystone set.

It should be obvious that this was a much less improvised movie than “Kid Auto Races” was, and in fact some parts (for example the whole sequence in the Hawaiian pavillion) were almost certainly shot at the studio and edited in. Nevertheless, it is an effective example of a Keystone comedy and it is more visually interesting by virtue of the location. When Fatty and Mabel are in front of crowds, those crowds are paying attention to them, and obviously enjoying themselves, although they don’t appear to look at the camera. For the fountain sequence, we can see large crowds that are being kept at a distance from the main action, showing that Keystone had the ability to shut down parts of the event for filming. No doubt this was very short and impromptu, not a question of getting a license and city police cooperation as is done today. Both Normand and Arbuckle are at the top of their game, and the other Keystone players also acquit themselves well. Towards the end, for no apparent reason, a fellow dressed as Chaplin suddenly shows up – probably because audiences were still clamoring for him even though he’d moved on.

Wait, who's this guy?

Wait, who’s this guy?

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, Joe Bordeaux

Run Time: 10 Min, 20 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Bangville Police (1913)

I hope Lea, over at Silentology, will forgive me from piggy-backing on her review, but she inspired me to watch the movie and now I have to write about it! You should all go check out her blog, either before or after you read my article tonight. Bangville Police

First, for those of you too lazy to read her summary, here’s the basics: Mabel Normand is a young girl living on a farm with her hayseed father and salt-of-the-earth mother. She longs for a newborn calf to make the place more homey. When she hears strange noises in the barn, she sees two men lurking in the shadows and panics. She runs back to the house and calls the sheriff, who’s sound asleep in bed. He fires off some rounds to attract the attention of the local volunteer deputies and sends them off to investigate. Meanwhile, Mabel’s mom has tried to enter the house, but Mabel thinks she’s a burglar and keeps her out. Mom thinks Mabel must be held hostage by burglars and goes off to get dad, all the while Mabel keeps screaming into the phone and the sheriff thinks it must be an Indian attack or a serial killer or something. So, he rounds up every able-bodied man and the police force’s one vehicle (an old roadster like something out of the “Wacky Races”) and rushes to the rescue. Sort of. Actually, the car is much slower than the men running and it ultimately breaks down in a cloud of smoke. Meanwhile, mom and pop have so terrified Mabel that she takes the phone and hides in a closet, after barricading the door. They manage to break through and find Mabel, apparently unharmed. The police show up and appear ready to arrest pop for open-carrying his pistol, but then everyone is charmed by the newborn calf in the barn. The end. All of this, by the way, is communicated in pantomime and just two short Intertitles.

Bangville Police2 Now, this movie gets a lot of attention because of its early use of the “Keystone Kops” (or “Cops”), but that’s only incidental. Only a couple of the volunteers and the sheriff himself have any traditional accoutrements of office, the rest are just yokels with shovels, pitchforks, and rifles. The more “traditional” Keystone Kops movies, like “Fatty Joins the Force,” always take place in urban environments, and they exploit the police-as-authority-figure trope to humorous effect. This one barely scratches that surface. Forgive me, but I think something else is at work here.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

And, I think I know what it is. Longtime readers who were paying attention might have thought the plot outline sounded…familiar. To spell it out: It’s a very close parody of “The Unseen Enemy” by D.W. Griffith. Mabel Normand even mocks Dorothy Gish’s facial expressions in some shots, and camera set-ups are clear parallels. It should be noted that “The Unseen Enemy” triggered a series of imitations, some even by Griffith himself, including “Death’s Marathon.” Even audiences who hadn’t seen Griffith’s 1912 movie would be familiar by now with the story: a young girl, trapped alone in a house, uses the telephone to summon help, while a race to rescue her is intercut with her increasing peril. Director Henry Lehrman (mostly remembered today for not appreciating Charlie Chaplin’s talents) brilliantly turned that whole concept on its head, and used very different camera- and editing-styles from normal to make the satire work. The close-up was generally reserved for opening and closing shots at Keystone, but he needed it in the middle here. Cross-cutting rarely interrupted the story for more than a few seconds, but he needed to draw out the humorous tension of Mabel trapped by her parents while establishing the characters of the titular law enforcers. Even the car, which is now seen as the most traditionally “Keystone Kop” element in the picture, is there because it is part of the parody; unlike the original, it is slow and unreliable. Note that Lehrman, as well as Mack Sennett the producer, had gotten their start working as actors for Griffith at Biograph.

How about now?

How about now?

An_Unseen_Enemy

The one thing I can’t explain is the whole bit with the calf. Wouldn’t a farm girl know if her cow is pregnant? And who are those two guys in the barn? They didn’t look like vets to me, and I certainly didn’t see them deliver the calf. None of this seems to have anything to do with Griffith, I guess it’s just there because they needed an ending.

Director: Henry Lerhman

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mabel Normand, Fred Mace, Raymond Hatton, Edgar Kennedy, Ford Sterling, Al St. John, Nick Cogley

Run Time: 8 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Water Nymph (1912)

Water Nymph

This was one of the two first movies ever released by Keystone studios – it was released along with “Cohen Collects a Debt” as a split-reel, or a type of early double-feature. It was directed by Mack Sennett and prefigures the Sennett Bathing Beauties that he would later feature to save the studio after Charlie Chaplin and other major talents had left. Mabel Normand has the title role as a young woman who is dating Sennett and wants to get in good with his parents. Mack’s advice is that she go to the beach and “vamp” his dad, who is apparently something of a wolf. Dad is Ford Sterling, who actually carries pretty much all of the comedy in this short. True to form, he flirts outrageously with Mabel, all the while being annoyed by some young guy who won’t leave either of them alone. Mabel gets into a very 1912 swimsuit – absolutely no flesh revealed, apart from forearms, but it does outline her figure, and Ford gets into something utterly ridiculous. There are a couple of dives off a pier, and then they return to the club where Ford discovers his wife got tired of waiting and left. All the better, he thinks, until Mack and mom come up and introduce Mabel as his girl. Ford does his patented “curses, foiled again” bit.

 Water Nymph1

The film is light on slapstick and heavy on situational comedy. The print I was able to see didn’t make faces very clear, but you can tell that Ford’s expressions are key to a lot of the humor. Mack plays everything very broadly, but doesn’t have the natural comedic body language of Sterling. Mabel, on the other hand, is mostly there to look pretty, which she does, but we only see minor flashes of her talent as a comedienne. Her best bits come when scheming with Mack how to fool his dad. Sennett, or his cameraman, economize on setups and editing. Mostly we see everything in a limited number of shots, with the actors generally framed from the waist up. I don’t think we ever cut between two simultaneous events – each shot follows the last one sequentially – except at the very end we see Mack laughing at his father from just out of view at the club.

Alternate Title: “The Beach Flirt”

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Ford Sterling, Gus Pixley

Run Time: 7 Min, 30 seconds

You can watch it for free: here or here.

A Little Hero (1913)

Little HeroCould this Keystone short have been the inspiration for Sylvester and Tweety Bird cartoons? Mabel Normand is a young woman with lots of pets: a cat, a dog, and a bird in the cage. She’s very affectionate with her dog, and also pays a lot of attention to the bird, while the cat sits quietly on the couch, apparently happy to sleep undisturbed. Then she goes out, and the cat soon starts stalking the caged creature. The dog, seeing what’s coming, runs off to get some “friends” – a trio of much larger dogs – to chase the cat away from the bird’s cage. Mabel comes home to find the cage knocked over, the dog on the table, and the cat nowhere around. Somehow, she puts it together (I’d have scolded the dog for knocking over the birdcage, but never mind), and hugs her little hero.

I Tot I Taw a Puddy Tat!

I Tot I Taw a Puddy Tat!

What’s remarkable in this film is their ability to use the animal actors so effectively to tell a story, when it’s clear that none of them are the kind of trained “stage animal” we’re used to seeing on screen (Lassie, Rusty, Boomer, etc). The cat, in particular, is being completely natural in its behavior, and the bird is genuinely terrified. The dogs don’t have much to do but run around, but they stay in shot and look determined (probably to get a tasty treat offscreen!). Given Mack Sennett’s frugal shooting ratios, we have to assume that there weren’t many “bad takes” and that someone had simply figured out how best to use the resources at hand.

A natural star.

A natural star.

The Internet has some conflicting credits for this film, Some sources say Mack Sennett directed, some say George Nichols, who made some of Chaplin’s Keystone movies. The Silent Era splits the difference and says it could have been either. More perplexingly, some sources give additional human cast members, including Harold Lloyd. The only way this is possible is if there’s lost footage on the version I saw, because Mabel is definitely the only human I saw. It seems unlikely, because the story itself is complete, anything added would be superfluous. Still,I could imagine an opening scene where Harold gives Mabel the bird and tells her to take care of it for the weekend or something. Until I find another version, I’m sticking with the story that Mabel did a solo here.

Director: Mack Sennett or George Nichols (or both)

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mabel Normand, Pepper the cat, Teddy the dog

Run Time: 4 Min, 30 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Mabel’s Married Life (1914)

Mabels Married Life

With this Keystone comedy, we get to see how Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand worked together under Charlie’s direction, so this may be a good movie to compare to “Caught in a Cabaret” and some of the other early Chaplins I’ve discussed this week. I’ll admit, the plot holds together better and both characters seem better defined, but this may not be a result of better direction, just the fact that Charlie had come to know “the Little Tramp” better by this point in the year. At any rate, there don’t seem to be “corrected” versions floating around, so the original edit must have satisfied Charlie, or whoever was responsible for the alternate “Caught in a Cabaret.”

 Mabel's_Married_Life_(1914)

Here, Mabel and Charlie are a married couple, and his frequent film-rival Mack Swain is married to one Eva Nelson, who I don’t believe I’ve seen before. They meet in a park that is conveniently near to a saloon. Charlie goes into the saloon and tries to scam some drinks. Meanwhile Mack tries picking up on Mabel. When Charlie returns and sees this, he is unable to deter Mack, even with attempted physical force (Mack just shrugs it off). So, Charlie gets Eva, who has more influence. Mabel and Eva get into a fight, however, and Charlie takes the worst of it. She and Mack leave, Charlie returns to the bar, and Mabel goes shopping. She decides to buy a large mannequin (or punching bag) and dresses it like Mack Swain (OK, that’s weird. Maybe she is into him after all). Mack enters the bar where Charlie is and encourages the other patrons in mocking him. Charlie fights back, knocking pretty much everyone over. Then Charlie, doing his full-on “funny drunk” makes his way home to be confronted by the mannequin. Of course, he thinks it’s Swain and picks a fight. Of course, it’s weighted, so it just bounces back and hits him just as hard every time he hits it. Mabel watches him and laughs. Eventually she goes out and tries to show him he’s fighting a dummy, and winds up getting hit herself. She and Charlie end up on the floor together.

 Mabel's_Married_Life_(1914)1

This movie is paced better than a lot of the early Keystones I’ve been reviewing, and Charlie was smart to make use of Mabel’s reaction shots during the fight with the dummy; they often elevate the humor of his pratfalls. He also clearly respects her as a comedienne (whatever he later said of her as a director) because he gives her several scenes to do funny bits of her own, and plays off her well in their scenes together. Typically, a Keystone ends with a chase or just a degeneration into a scene of crowd-chaos, but here, the ending is actually somewhat understated. The biggest scenes of violence we get are those with Charlie and the patrons at the bar, but the dummy isn’t at all anticlimactic, because Charlie keeps upping the ante and getting hit back twice as hard each time. Still a very simple film, but it works.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Eva Nelson, Harry McCoy, Al St. John

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music)

Caught in a Cabaret (1914)

Caught_in_a_Cabaret_(poster)

For this Charlie Chaplin Keystone comedy, I had to look a bit to find the most “authentic” 1914 version. Charlie, you see, bought the rights to most of his early films and re-released them in the sound era, often re-editing them to “improve” them for sound audiences. You can read a good analysis of the two versions of “The Gold Rush” over at Movies Silently. For this one, the first version I came across (and you can find this one several places on the Internet) had a suspiciously large number of Intertitles, which got me wondering. Movies from 1914 were generally pretty light in Intertitles, and Keystone shorts in particular. Sure enough, it’s the re-edit, which lacks several critical scenes and is actually less funny (to me, at least) because the Intertitles try to put verbal spins on the physical action, but just wind up interrupting it. Since this is a historical project, I’m going to focus on what seems to be the older version, without getting into debates about who has the right to re-edit movies.

 Caught in a Cabaret

Here, Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” is a waiter in a low-class tavern establishment with dancing and a floor show, which I guess qualified it as a “cabaret” by California standards of the day. Minta Durfee is present as a singer and dancer and Chester Conklin is one of Charlie’s fellow employees (he dances a bit as well, possibly off the clock). He takes his dog for a walk on his lunch break and meets Mabel Normand, a wealthy but clueless society girl, while she’s in the process of getting robbed in a park. She takes to him and he poses as someone above his station (the re-edit calls him “Ambassador from Greece,” the older one says “Prime Minister of Greenland;” possibly in a truly original print there’d be no on-screen title for his calling card at all), so she invites him over to meet the folks. They ask him to return for a party later, but a wealthy suitor has been watching it all and follows him back to his dive-y restaurant. Charlie makes up with the boss for being late by conking a large trouble-maker on the head with a mallet, and then dresses “up” and goes off to the party. He flirts with Mabel, getting extremely drunk in the process, then goes back to work again (sheesh!). Now the suitor sees his chance, and suggests to the garden party that they go slumming in town. They pile into the car and head to Chaplin’s place of employment, where he comes out to serve them and does a very funny bit pretending that he just happened to wander in there, which is completely ruined by the Intertitles in the newer version, but of course he is found out, and a fight breaks out between him, his boss, and the rich folks, which rapidly descends into complete chaos. Yes, a pie is thrown in someone’s face (but only one), but that’s only the start of the troubles…

 Caught_in_a_Cabaret_(1914)1

Like a number of Chaplin’s early films, this was directed by Mabel Normand, who, he would insist years later in his autobiography, Chaplin did not regard as a competent director (she was only 22 at the time). He also made it sound like it only happened once or twice, but as this project has demonstrated, there were a few instances. Still, Charlie may have felt more at liberty in his re-edits after the fact since he didn’t think she was a good director. The story is somewhat more complex than is usual for a Keystone short, with Charlie bouncing back and forth between two locations and identities, and the climactic scene of pandemonium takes longer to get to (and is somewhat less satisfying) than in many of the simpler ones. Unfortunately, by cutting out necessary explanatory scenes, Charlie’s later attempt to “fix” the movie only made it less coherent, and, oddly, he cuts down the climax as well (including the pie-in-the-face). Where I chuckled a few times at his version, hers got belly laughs from me.

How many Keystone regulars can you name in this shot?

How many Keystone regulars can you name in this shot?

Director: Mabel Normand

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Minta Durfee, Chester Conklin, Edgar Kennedy, Harry McCoy

Run Time: 19 Min (longest version)

You can watch it for free: here. Or take your chances with the re-edit: here.