Michael Ventura (born
Mabel Normand was cinema’s first great clown—a rowdy, gentle genius who captivated Mack Sennett and inspired Chaplin’s Tramp
By Michael Ventura
Los Angeles magazine, June 2009
Few can measure the scope of their own achievement. Mabel Normand, who was not only the screen’s first major comedienne but also cinema’s first comic star, gave it a good shot when she said, “I had no one to tell me what to do....I had no precedent, nothing to imitate....I had to do something that nobody had ever done before.”
Mabel & Charlie
Mack & Mabel
Three men who knew the truth of those words were honorary pallbearers at her funeral in 1930: D.W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin, and Mack Sennett. When Mabel Normand worked on
down that long, lonesome road was in 1914’s Caught in a Cabaret, directed by Mabel Normand.
Now Mabel Normand can be seen, but it’s still a job to put together her achievement. I’ve needed four volumes of Chaplin’s Keystone productions on Delta; The Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle on Mackinac Media; Griffith Masterworks: Biograph Shorts on Kino; The Biograph Series—Mack Sennett Director, Vols. 1 & 2 on Grapevine; Keystone Tonight! on Kino; Tillie’s Punctured Romance on Image (others have issued it, but their prints stink); and Nickelodia 2 and Mabel’s few surviving features on Unknown Video. What Mabel deserves is a DVD box set showing her development, her spectrum, her range. Her place in film history then would be assured, for the proof is on the screen.
Were I to program the set I’d call it something gaudy like The Rowdy, Gentle Genius of Mabel Normand, Cinema’s First Great Clown. The set would open with a one-reeler absent from any Normand filmography: D.W. Griffith’s Fate’s Turning, released January 23, 1911, when she was probably 16 or 17. (Historians don’t agree on her birth date, except that it was in November, sometime between 1892 and 1896.) Fate’s Turning gives Mabel two brief scenes as an extra in a restaurant. We’re meant to be watching Dorothy Bernard and Charles West at a table on the right, but we can’t help but be drawn to elegantly dressed Mabel, who faces a man with his back to the camera at a table on the left. In the first scene a palm frond obscures Mabel’s face, yet you watch her because she skillfully places herself so her big eyes captivate you through the leaves. In the second scene she’s gotten rid of the pesky frond and converses animatedly with her date. Stealing the scene, she takes a rose from a vase, breaks the stem, and says something with a demurely wild expression—“demurely wild” sounds like a contradiction, but it would be Mabel’s screen signature, foreshadowing Chaplin’s signature “gentleman tramp.”
Griffith understood that his comedy was weak. He gave up trying in 1911, assigning Biograph’s comedies to his protégé, Mack Sennett, who recognized Mabel’s ability and made her his star. Their earliest Biograph efforts were drawing room comedies that didn’t work without dialogue. Sennett realized this. He began to feel his way into a comedy uniquely cinematic. We call it “slapstick,” but “absurd realism” would be a better tag. Absurd, because what we see onscreen could never happen; realistic, because it is happening without trickery—nearly all those death-defying stunts and hair-raising spills are done without special effects. Mabel could fall with the best of them. “Oh, it’s great to be a comedian,” she said, “if there’s a hospital nearby.”
Sennett and Normand quickly found the key to her appeal: Petite, dainty Mabel, five feet tall and 100 pounds, was not someone to be messed with. Hit her, she’d hit back. Kick her; she’d kick back and harder. In Oh, Those Eyes guys can’t resist her, but she ends up with a bear. The bear terrifies the guys—they run off—and Mabel sits down beside the beast, hugs it, cuddles it. The End. In 1912, that role reversal would have been more than just noticed. As her biographer, Betty Harper Fussell, writes, “audiences were shocked as well as amused.”
Unlike Mary Pickford, the Gish sisters, and Chaplin, Mabel Normand was the first significant film actor who didn’t learn her trade onstage. She learned in front of a camera—which may be why she almost never mugged. Whatever madness she was up to, she performed in a nonchalant, everyday way. She was the first to discover this basic cinematic law of comedy: The more absurd the gag, the bigger the laugh if you play it naturally. Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd were muggers in their early efforts. They quickly adopted and adapted Mabel.
The best of the available Sennett-Normand Biographs is A Dash Through the Clouds (1912). Sennett found something that couldn’t be seen on a stage: not only an airplane but a woman in an airplane—in this case, a biplane without cockpits, requiring passenger and pilot to sit on the lower wing. Close shots were filmed on the ground, but we clearly see Mabel on the wing as the plane takes off, flies, lands. Mabel rescues a hapless boyfriend from a situation he can’t handle, and she does it from the air. (The aviator crashed and died in the plane not long after.)
In 1912, Sennett founded his Keystone studio on what is now Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park, where he and Mabel perfected slapstick. Sennett never went beyond the form, and Normand never conformed to it. Among the best Keystones were those Mabel directed and/or wrote, as she did occasionally by age 18 or 20, incorporating swift, intimate facial asides to the audience—not the goofy grimaces of other Keystone players. Yet another device Chaplin learned from Normand.
There are many gems among the Keystones, and many misfires, but the most important is a daring venture by Sennett: Tillie’s Punctured Romance, the world’s first feature-length comedy. Read that twice. There were many dramatic, epic features before Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1915. There were no comedy features before Tillie. Released in December 1914, it costarred the stage comedienne Marie Dressler with Normand and Chaplin. Mabel and Charlie share scenes throughout the film. If you have doubts about the greatness of Mabel Normand, watch her go toe-to-toe and chin-to-chin with Charlie Chaplin. After having worked together for months, they know each other’s tricks; they anticipate each other’s moves. She upstages him, he upstages her. It’s a battle of equals—with a now-typical Normandesque role reversal ending. Criticism favors drama over comedy, so Tillie is undervalued and Birth of a Nation is overpraised. Watch both films and Tillie does not suffer by comparison in camera technique, staging, or acting—and Tillie didn’t inspire a revival of the Ku Klux Klan.
In What Happened to Rosa? (1920), Normand does what Harry Langdon would become famous for several years later: She slows comedy way down, getting her effects from tension instead of surprise. More exceptionally, without cuts or dissolves or changes in makeup, standing before her reflection in the mirror she transforms humdrum, bewildered Mayme into glamorous, sexy Rosa. Always more beautiful in motion than in stills, Mabel manages to be both at once. The tour de force is toward the film’s end. If you saw only that passage, you’d swear you were watching a gawky, funny 16-year-old boy. You’d be more than surprised to find, ten minutes or so later, that the awkward boy was a woman in her late twenties, one Mabel Normand of many Mabels.
Mabel played “Mabel” offscreen, too, and played hard. It did not help that she was the last to see director William Desmond Taylor alive, involving her inextricably in the scandal of the still-unsolved murder and almost ending her career. Mabel’s strange predicament is that her legend all but buries the achievement and importance of Mabel Normand, artist. Silent film enthusiasts tend to discuss her pictures like gossips. She’s sad not because she’s playing a sad character but because she and Mack had finally fallen out for keeps. She looks wan early in Rosa because of drugs or booze or illness, not because the audience must feel the difference between a dull, frightened shop girl and that girl’s fantasy of a gorgeous Spanish dancer.
Hard living and scandals played their part, no doubt. So did tuberculosis. But most people underestimate—hardly estimate at all—what it takes to do something first. Self-doubt must be endured. Resistance must be overcome. Criticism and rejection must be dared. A tall order for a person without education, on her own from the age of about 13—a woman in a crude male-dominated industry. Even the career of the supposedly indomitable Mary Pickford was pretty much spent by 1927, when Mabel made her last film. Pickford lived unhappily for decades longer.
Mabel Normand was no victim. She toughed it out to the end. We meet her most directly in a diary entry from one of her lingering hospital stays: “Dr. came in. He has wonderful hands, not beautiful yet full of a strange singular expressiveness. Probably Leonardo da Vinci had hands like that…. Sometimes when he’s talking, he will gradually close his fingers into a fist, then suddenly open with a gesture of silent good.”
That is the observation of a master mime. I like to imagine Mabel practicing her doctor’s “gesture of silent good” in her hospital bed until she got it just right.