Women in Film: Mabel Normand

The period drama Mad Men is ending this Sunday. I’m a big fan. And the past few episodes have dealt with the rank sexism in 1970. TV critics and liberal writers have pointed out the sadly obvious truth: what’s happening to the women on a show currently set in 1970 isn’t far removed from what’s going on now in 2015.

Women still have every choice questioned and critiqued. We are still held back. It never ends. And if you’re not a woman, you may not be “getting” it.

Women can’t crack 15% of heading films today; most TV and film studios haven’t had more than a handful of women direct feature films or television shows in the past few years (NBC wins with five amongst its affiliates). White men are in charge of painting a cultural picture, a “look,” for more white men, so nothing ever changes. Recently, LA Weekly published a haunting piece discussing how women producers and directors are given dirty looks for even speaking at meetings about their own films. (Did you know that a woman produced and co-wrote Brokeback Mountain? I didn’t, and I love that movie.)

If it’s that bad today in 2015, take a guess how good it is in film history studies. One need only look at the lineup of Cinecon, Hollywood’s 50 year old vintage film festival, to get the picture. In 2009, when they premiered a newly found Mary Pickford film, they couldn’t even spell check the flyer. Only about two films out of 20 or so in the lineup had anything to do with women.

A favorite excuse here is “women aren’t as funny/talented/interesting,” depending what is being discussed. That is…pardon my French…fucking bullshit. Mary Pickford is the only star who ever rivaled Charlie Chaplin in popularity (money and fame-wise…and if you want to be really pedantic, rivaled Harold Lloyd money-wise). “Well she was a creepy little girl crying Pollyanna…Victorians ya know?” Um. There aren’t enough curse words in my vocabulary to explain how angry that idea makes me. Sure, Mary did have some sappy films, and she did play the little girl in the curls … but she also did comedy. And she did it well. Pickford was equally skilled at drama and comedy, and was sometimes required to do both in one film, much like Chaplin.

And that’s the thing: Mary wasn’t the only female comedian during the silent era. And Mabel Normand wasn’t the only other one either. Marie Prevost, Dot Farley, Louise Fazenda, (and even Thelma Todd) were comedians. But for some reason, women only count if they have something to do with the big male line up: Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Larry awful Semon, and hell, don’t forget Harry Iowan Langdon (If you have to throw in Semon or Langdon before Fazenda or Normand, then you’re really reaching).

Recently, TCM programmed a comedy day, ending at night with several short comedies. Sennett, Chaplin, Arbuckle, Lloyd and the great Mabel Normand. As TCM so rarely runs silent shorts outside of the occasional birthday nod this was quite a treat. And it seems to have been a hit, given the social media aglow about it. My entire 2015 so far has been everything Mabel Normand, so it was nice to sit and watch these shorts on something besides YouTube. But boy did it get me thinking.

The fact they didn’t have much to say about the only female comic featured that night is kinda sad. Mabel should get an entire introduction–whether on TCM or elsewhere–without once using the word “scandals” or “cocaine.” Although she was loosely affiliated with a few scandals, she never did cocaine; Stevie Nicks has solidified that rumor in pop culture’s mind.

I recently mentioned on tumblr the issues with Keystones (they’re stilted because they are so young and therefore have their own language that some in 2015 don’t get, etc.). While everyone thinks of them as exaggerated, they are clearly missing out on all the elements at play.

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Take Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913). Ford Sterling plays the honest-to-God mustache twisting villain. He might as well be a cartoon it’s so broad. Mabel rebuffs his advances and he ties her to a train track in retaliation. (Man, if only the phrase “nobody cares about your boner” had been invented in 1913!) On the same note: Mabel was one of the rare comedians allowed to play pretty…as if pretty girls couldn’t be funny.

For every one of Sterling’s eyebrow raises and mustache twirls, Mabel is cute and natural. Nothing is broad in her actions. Even flailing on the railroad tracks feels like what you’d probably really do if you were in such a scenario.

She doesn’t Gish her way into lightness either: when Sterling ties her down she hits his foot with a hammer he forgot to pick up. She’s only in the scenario because at least 4 guys tied her down and she kicked and screamed the whole time. Women were fainting on screen well into 1922 when the drama picked up and things got “too intense.” Mabel doesn’t faint when ganged up on–she’s got no time for that.

In His Wedding Day (1913), Mabel is basically making a small cameo. The A plot has Ford Sterling trying to marry Dot Farley (who is excellent), but sneezing powder puts them out. In the B plot, a dorky Mack Sennett is trying to flirt with the uninterested Mabel who has little time for this. In Keystone antics, Sterling eventually sees the two and declares Mabel an upgrade and tries to hit on her. She slaps him a bit and puts up a fight until there’s a faint off (which isn’t Gish like, its actually quite funny). In the end, Mack pays some big guys to beat Ford up and it ends well enough.

The next of Mabel’s appearances in the TCM lineup was The Speed Kings (1913). Ford Sterling plays Mabel’s daddy; he wants her to marry Earl Cooper, but she wants Teddy Tetzlaff. A race is held and as her dad tries to make her sit and stay put Mabel slaps him, runs off whenever she has a chance, and keeps encouraging Teddy to win. Fatty Arbuckle appears at one point as a masher, and he and Mabel have quite the tiff (which is hilarious), and then he and Sterling fight. In the end all is well, but Mabel at no point does anything she doesn’t want to do.

In fact, the fight with Arbuckle was rough and tumble (Again, a rare time that a pretty girl was allowed to duke it out).  In the next film, Rounders,  Arbuckle and Chaplin are beat by hen pecking wives.  While Mary Pickford and Mabel Normand’s characters rarely put up with bullshit, they were almost universally the only ones who could go punch for punch with a man on screen.

Compare this with The Rounders (1914), which has Chaplin and Arbuckle playing wealthy drunks married to shrews who try to keep them in line (Minta Durfee plays Arbuckle’s wife). Its actually one of my favorite early shorts and Chaplin and Arbuckle are excellent together as literal fall down drunks. There’s not a ton of plot (after being henpecked they pick their wives purses and go to a club where they proceed to fall asleep in the middle of things, then leave and go to sleep in a canoe with the wives in pursuit), but all the bits of “business” are great.

I wouldn’t call it “broad” as in Keystone broad acting, but both are much more stagy than their later work (It is 1914 after all, Chaplin’s 26th film). It’s no Sterling mustache twirl, but it’s not as natural as Mabel’s appearances: Mabel was more seasoned than either legend was at this particular moment in time.

Arbuckle, Chaplin, and Pickford all had vaudeville careers, but Mabel didn’t. In fact, in 1923 when she starred in a production of The Little Mouse, the play got pretty timid reviews. It was roundly agreed she didn’t have the voice for stage (pre-microphones) or the acting skills for it, as stage and film acting are very different. On stage, especially in 1923, you had to be broad enough for both the boxes and the balcony to see your every emotion. This greatly contrasted with film, where that sort of theatricality looked cartoonish and one had to act naturally.

Mabel, similar to a future comedic beauty named Marilyn Monroe, seemed born for film. Before Lee Strasberg, Monroe trained with an acting teacher named Constance Collier. She trained many film actors and died soon after working with Monroe. Of Marilyn she stated: “She has a flickering intelligence….it’s so fragile and subtle it can only be caught on camera.” She also stated on film acting: “What really counts in film acting is that rare moment – just a flickering when through the eyes you get a glimpse of the real meaning of the character. It is not technique or professionalism, just truth. Garbo had it. Monroe had it.”

Obviously I’m not saying there was a planned exploration of character depth to some character in a 1913 Keystone that was so unnamed the character usually just went by “Mabel.” But in and of itself, Constance Collier’s comment really does speak of Mabel’s acting style as well. There was no great character written, usually the Keystone cast was let loose with vague casting and plot. The fact Mabel could turn that into something so touching says quite a lot…and she did it at a time when film was still in its infancy.

There are some considerable hurdles to introducing people to Mabel Normand. There’s really not a decent biography of her; the few available shorts on YouTube are scratchy and not always presented the way they looked in 1913, and a lot of her features have been lost to time. Of the features that have been discovered, only three have found their way out of the vaults…and they aren’t always complete or restored (The only one so far to be restored: The Extra Girl [1923]). Mabel had a lot of hindrances by the time these features were made, and they simply can’t outrank any Chaplin or Pickford from the same era (Mickey [1918] might, but its waiting for restoration). And who knows, maybe she does have a film that could rival theirs, but it’s either lost or locked in the vault.


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So to get to understand the genius of Mabel Normand we’re asking people to jump through a lot of hurdles. The younger, hipper film bloggers rarely venture deep into silents, let alone want to wade through ten hurdles in order to see the film correctly. Then again, these same people seem to understand that Mabel was special: an incredible actress and comedian, even if her work is harder to access.

Mabel was such a cool woman. She fought against her TB, was absurdly pretty, supposedly had the mouth of a sailor, and was very sincere and kind. I don’t think I’ve ever found one person who said she was mean or even cruel at any point. The anecdotes about Mabel are usually about how she went out of her way to be kind, like helping Miriam Cooper on her first day of acting after someone tricked her into overdoing her makeup.

That “flicker”, that “fragile”…man that was so her.

Of silent stars, it’s rare to imagine them as being modern. I don’t mean in acting or making them over (I’m convinced Mary would be popular today if the world went that way). I mean in looking modern even though it was 1910, 1920, etc. To me it’s a short list: Miriam Cooper, Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Rudolph Valentino, and of course Mabel Normand. There she is in Edwardian clothes with the ringlet style a la Mary Pickford/Lillian Gish…but she’s stunning and fresh. She’s honestly one of the few women I think a slight tweak to the clothes would make her look as fashionable now as then (I want her dress from Speed Kings now).

Bitch Flicks recently released an article echoing a lot of what I’ve been saying lately, and I’m glad. Maybe those of us in film and pop culture history, finally, will start talking little more about the incredible Mabel Normand.

Hala Pickford blogs about silent film history at her blog Forget the Talkies.

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