Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Mabel Normand

Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life (1915)

This two-reel Keystone parody of a farmer’s daughter’s elopement has similarities to a number of comedies I’ve discussed before, including “Leading Lizzie Astray,” “Fatty and Mabel Adrift,” and “A Jitney Elopement.” Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle demonstrate their considerable onscreen chemistry in the midst of slapstick mayhem.

FattyAndMabelsSimpl1915-01Mabel and Fatty live on neighboring farms and are shyly sweet on one another. The opening sequence involves a lot of cuteness with baby animals and Fatty tasting the animals’ food. Then Mabel settles down to milk a cow and the comedy ramps up. Fatty waves to her over a fence and peeks through a knothole, waving to her, and Mabel turns the cow’s udder to spray Fatty’s eye. After taking a couple of hits this way, Fatty goes to get the water hose. Unfortunately, Mabel’s dad (Josef Swickard) has seen what is going on and steps up to the knothole in the fence to see who his daughter is flirting with. Just as he puts his eye to the hole, Fatty lets loose and the dad gets drenched. Mabel and Fatty run away, and when the dad gets to the other side of the fence, a farmhand (Joe Bourdeaux) has picked up the hose to take a drink. The dad kicks him, and gets sprayed again when Joe turns around.

Fatty and Mabels Simple LifeThe plot thickens when the son of “the Squire” (Al St. John) shows up with a letter promising the old man free rent if his daughter marries the son. Of course, he goes for it, although Mabel is not at all happy about it. Dad calls the preacher to come over for a wedding. Fatty overhears the plan and springs into action, putting a ladder up to Mabel’s window and telling her to pack up so they can get married. She throws her heavy suitcase down, which breaks the ladder and pitches Fatty through the living room window and on top of her father. Now, Fatty resorts to force, kicking and pushing the dad and his rival into the kitchen and locking them in. He rushes upstairs and breaks down Mabel’s door, and the two of them run to an automobile and make a run for it. The dad and Al St. John pursue, stopping to pick up some rural Keystone Cops on bicycles. The car breaks down and goes in reverse, knocking over the pursuers and pursued in a sequence of silliness that ends with Mabel thrown by an engine explosion into a tree that happens to be perched on top of a well. The whole cast now tries to rescue her, Al St. John providing a rope (I want to point out that he was good for something), and in the process of getting her down several of the pursuers wind up in the well. Fatty tells the preacher to marry him and Mabel when he shows up, and presumably they live happily ever after.

Fatty and Mabels Simple Life1

What a knotty boy!

This is a pretty standard Keystone comedy with a chase, various gags, cops and a fight over a girl. Fatty is charming and sweet throughout, and one never gets the impression he means to initiate violence. Mabel demonstrates her ability to be the cute heroine and the physically active comedienne at the same time. The best sequence is that with the automobile running wild, which is what brings to mind comparisons with “A Jitney Elopement.” While the Chaplin film is better shot and edited, and the chase more thrilling, I found this sequence to be funnier. The car becomes a character, and a whimsically malicious one at that, as it alternately helps and hinders our heroes, sometimes running over their enemies, sometimes chasing them around a tree, sometimes exploding at the most inopportune moments. I quite enjoyed this movie, and it speaks well of the careers of all of its stars.

Man vs Machine

Man vs Machine

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Al St. John, Josef Swickard, Joe Bordeaux

Run Time: 24 Min

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

Mabel and Fatty’s Wash Day (1915)

This Keystone one-reeler features two of the company’s strongest talents in the wake of the then-still-recent departure of Charlie Chaplin for Essanay. Despite Keystone’s reputation for slapstick, much of the humor here is situational in nature, and even the cops seem subdued, compared to earlier outings.

Mabel and Fattys Wash Day2As the movie opens, Mabel Normand is hard at work over a wash basin, while her husband (Harry McCoy) sleeps in. She decides to go wake him and ask for some help with the washing up, but he demurs, so she tosses a basin of hot water on him. Meanwhile, he neighbor Roscoe Arbuckle is toiling across the wall similarly, to the constant nagging of his older wife (Alice Davenport, who I thought at first was meant to be his mother). The two apartments share a clothes line, and Mabel and Fatty meet in the process of hanging up some of their respective laundries and confusing some embarrassing items of clothing. Fatty offers to use his hand-cranked drying machine on some of Mabel’s clothes, and the two seem to be hitting it off, until her jealous husband spots Fatty “accidentally” catching a fold of the dress she’s wearing in the machine! Despite his much larger size, Fatty backs down immediately in front of his opponent’s wrath, and then gets nagged again by Alice.

Mabel and Fattys Wash DayAction now shifts to a park, where the two couples are each taking a walk. McCoy settles down to read his newspaper and refuses to share it with Mabel, who gets mad and leaves him, while Fatty is forced to read to Alice until she dozes off on another bench and Fatty leaves her alone as well. The two likeable characters meet again and decide to go for a drink together, Fatty grabbing his wife’s purse to he can be a gentleman and pay. The missing purse causes confusion when McCoy and Alice meet, and she accuses him of stealing it, bringing two policemen into the case. McCoy finds Mabel and Fatty, but at this point confusion over whose purse is whose and who was cheating on whom gets lost in a fray of chaos. Both women wind up dragging their respective men home by the ear.

A cute couple.

A cute couple.

I was a bit confused at the beginning of the movie, because I assumed that Arbuckle would be Mabel’s sleeping husband. The title seems to imply that they would be together, and they were a couple in a number of other Keystone comedies. When he was introduced, I was relieved to see that I hadn’t forgotten what he looks like. This movie wasn’t quite a laugh-riot for me, and I was surprised by its low-key approach. It does end with a fairly classic Keystone chase (a short one) and it has some physical gags in it, but a lot of the comedy depends on gender stereotypes and the audience’s recognizing the situation. In that sense, it’s also less violent than a lot of Keystones, and less fast moving. Perhaps it can be seen as a good breather for anyone doing a Keystone marathon.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Mabel Normand, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Harry McCoy, Alice Davenport, Joe Bourdeaux, Edgar Kennedy

Run Time: 13 Min

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

Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916)

Fatty_and_Mabel_Adrift_1916We get a lot of recognizable farm humor and newlywed jokes as well as a typical jilted lover out for revenge in this Mack Sennett slapstick movie starring Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and Al St. John.

Careful Mabel, don't cut yourself on that thing!

Careful Mabel, don’t cut yourself on that thing!

The simple love-triangle premise of this movie is established in a credits-sequence in which we see our principals outlined by jagged (and rather dangerous-looking) hearts. Fatty and Mabel move their hearts together and then join inside of one big heart. St. John watches this and then begins crying so hard his heart falls apart. This is then played out again as we watch Mabel and Fatty doing their chores together on Mabel’s father’s farm while St John shows up with a letter from his father (a neighboring farmer) suggesting that he turn over Mabel’s hand in marriage. When he’s refused, again he begins bawling so loud that they kick him into a haystack, from where he observes Mabel and Fatty together. Fatty shows off his great strength when he helps some city slickers fix their car and runs St. John off when he tries to put a move on Mabel in his absence.

Fatty and Mabel AdriftThose city slickers just happen to be renting beach cottages for vacations, and after the wedding, Fatty and Mabel head for one for their honeymoon. Mabel makes biscuits that come out like rocks and Fatty spends his days fishing with the dog – you should have seen the one that got away. Now St. John goes into full-on Ford Sterling mode and hatches an evil plan. After finding which cabin is theirs, he get into a fight with Fatty and runs into a gang of evil doers in a cave. Their boss eats dynamite and drinks gasoline. St. John hires a couple of the goons to help him undermine the posts holding up the cabin by during a storm, allowing it to slide down the beach at high tide and be swept off to sea. They wake up as their beds begin floating about the room. The house is far from land, and sinking! Meanwhile St. John and the goons get into a card game – they’ve seen how much money he’s got and plan to take him for all he’s worth. Fatty and Mabel send the dog to get help and climb to the top of the house. The dog goes to Mabel’s father and mother, who alert the coast guard that there’s a free-floating house, and there’s a multi-vehicle race to the rescue, including Mabel’s mom and dad diving into the drink on their bicycle before the coast guard speedboat finds them and pulls them in. The bad guys blow themselves up in the cave, and Fatty and Mabel kiss inside their jagged heart.

Fatty_and_Mabel_AdriftThis movie is directed by Arbuckle, and it’s one of the best things I’ve seen him in. It has a much more complex story than the simple Keystones of earlier years, and time is taken to set up each gag and play it out, while the story often sits on the back-burner for a while. The image of the floating house is wonderfully surreal, and it clearly required a decent budget to make this happen. There are also some interesting lighting effects, as when Fatty leans over Mabel in bed, so that his shadow kisses her on the lips – although he’s still in the next room. I laughed particularly at the scenes involving getting wet or falling into water, which there are plenty of. Al St John makes sort of an odd villain – he comes off mostly as spoiled and clueless, rather than evil, although he does conceive the idea of drowning Mabel and Fatty in this odd manner.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Al St. John, Joe Bordeaux

Run Time: 34 Min

You can watch it for free: here

A Muddy Romance (1913)

Muddy Romance4

One off the most famous Keystone romps includes Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling, a whole bunch of Keystone Cops, and a curiously muddy dry lake. This may not be high art, but it brought butts into seats at the Nickelodeons, and remains a great example of the comedy factory’s style and initiative.

Muddy RomanceThe movie begins with Ford and Mabel as next door neighbors with a friendly flirtation going on. All seems well until rival Charles Inslee shows up and charms, first, Mabel’s mother (Minta Durfee) and then Mabel herself. Inslee gets the better of Sterling, first by pouring milk over him and then tricking him into hitting Mabel in the face with a pie. Now, the couple take up arms (er, bricks, anyway), and begin pelting Ford wildly. Sterling puts on a brave defense, but ultimately he’s overwhelmed by their superior numbers and runs back into his house. Mabel and Charles hijack a passing preacher so they can elope, but Sterling pursues them and fires a gun at the rowboat they take out onto the lake to escape him. Unable to hit at that range, Ford comes up with another plan – he’ll turn the convenient crank that drains the lake! He does, and suddenly the rowboat, plus a boat full of Keystone Cops who had heard the shooting and were coming to arrest him, are stuck in the mud. Now someone calls in a squad of “water police” (more Keystone Cops), who are able to drag the stranded unfortunates back to land by use of a javelin-throwing cannon. Sterling is discovered by the parks attendant and dragged away from the crank before he can cause any more mischief. That’s where the “Slapstick Encyclopedia” version ends, but rumor has it an alternate ending exists with Sterling committing comic suicide.

Muddy Romance1The “story” behind this production is that Mack Sennett found out that the lake in Echo Park was due to be drained, and piled a cast and crew into cars to run down there without any kind of script, but with plenty of cop costumes on hand. It’s used as an example both of the lack of planning and arbitrariness of filmmaking at Keystone Studios, but also of the genius Sennett had for improvising with whatever was at hand and saving money by shooting around real-world events. See “Kid Auto Races” and “The Gusher” for similar examples. However you see it, it is both fun and unpredictably goofy, but probably not to everyone’s taste.

Muddy Romance2The same can probably be said about the comedic star/villain, Ford Sterling. According to Charlie Chaplin, when he first arrived on the set at Keystone, he was struck by the fact that all through shooting, Ford Sterling would keep the cast and crew in stitches with a running dialogue in his fake Dutch accent. What was the point, when the audience would never hear it? This is a movie where you can sort of see that happening. Sterling’s lips are in constant motion, and he seems to be rolling his r’s and otherwise being funny with his speech, although I’m no lip reader, so I won’t claim to know for sure. He doesn’t forget the movie audience, though. When he needs to communicate what he’s saying, he pantomimes with his hands or makes appropriate facial expressions so that you can follow his meaning. I suspect that he kept his line of jokes going because he felt it lightened the atmosphere on set (making a movie can be a lot of hard work, especially when so little is planned in advance) and in the hopes of inspiring his fellow comedians to “think funny.” It’s shame we can’t hear them, though, because I bet he’s as funny with his voice as without it.

Muddy Romance3Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, Charles Inslee, Minta Durfee, Mack Swain

Run Time: 11 Min

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

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.