Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand

February 28, 2010

Marilyn Slater

Looking for Mabel

Rob King is the author of the very prestigious and beautifully written book The Fun Factory, the Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture and yes a friend of mine.  I received an email from him on his return from Belgium and a visit to CINEMATEK in Brussels.  He was there partly on a mission for us. As you might remember in September 2009, I was so excited when my dear sweet friend, William M. Drew wrote me about a post from November 25, 2001 by Jon Mirsalis on alt.movie.silent that reported that “When Doctors Disagree”, existed, which made the total Samuel Goldwyn - Mabel Normand films known to exist 4:

  • The Floor Below (Goldwyn - March 1918; dir. Clarence Badger)
  • When Doctors Disagree (Goldwyn – May 1919; dir. Victor L. Schertzinger)
  • What Happened to Rosa (Goldwyn – April 1921; dir. Victor L. Schertzinger)
  • Head Over Heels (Goldwyn – April 1922; dir. Victor L. Schertzinger)

 In the 2002 book, "Those Magnificent Mountain Movies" by W. Lee Cozad there was a reference to a copy of "When Doctors Disagree" at CINEMATEK in Brussels but the book stated it could not be viewed due to its extremely fragile condition and the FIAF’s Treasures Film Archives database, listed When Doctors Disagree in Brussels.


So now we have an answer to how fragile the 90 year old film is; Rob has seen it and has both good and bad news. The film survives in very good condition and appears to be complete.  It may however be difficult to get CINEMATEK to allow public circulation.

CINEMATEK has a policy of not allowing a film that when only one print exists to be viewed outside of the archive. To create a second print would mean making a negative out of the existing positive, and then creating a new positive off the dupe negative. The archivists told Rob that the quality would be low and they wouldn’t want their name associated with the end product.  Like many archives CINEMATEK is said to be in the process of reorganization so I hold out hope that a safety copy will be created and the film might be made public, and wait, the print that survives was only struck about 25 years ago from a copy in Denmark – Rob doesn’t know if the Danish original survives but if it did that would mean there are 2 copies of When Doctors Disagree! 

Rob sent along some stats:

• the positive print was struck from five approximately 1,000-ft reels in Denmark;
• the total length is 4,557 ft (with Danish intertitles), 3,648 ft (without titles);
• there are no opening titles or credits;
• the film includes the sequences and title card that were reportedly censored for Kansas (I guess the Danes were more broad-minded!);
• you can add Nick Cogley to the cast list (he appears early on as a bandleader).

The plot was published when the original film was released and is basically as described, which I have added the information I posted back in September 8, 2009 at Looking for Mabel at the bottom, Rob had some wonderful insights:

“First, plot-wise, this is a rather slight film, lacking the taut interplay of comedy, sentiment, and melodrama found in Mickey.

The film begins with a number of scenes featuring Mabel in a kind of “child of nature” role not dissimilar to Mickey; and, again like Mickey, her father (George Nichols, of course) sends her out on a rain journey (to the big city? - if I understood Danish I could tell you where she’s going, but I don’t so I can’t!). But then, a couple of reels in, the film moves in a very different direction when Walter Hiers and Normand meet on the train and begin coyly flirting, ultimately resulting in a comedy of identity confusion: Hiers mistakenly believes that he’s killed a man and is trying to flee the police; he’s pretending to be a doctor; and, later, he mistakenly assumes that Mabel has just given birth, etc. Eventually, all misperceptions are righted and Mabel and Walter embrace next to a stream (as you can see in the attached images from the conclusion of the film).

The romantic pairing of (a very boyish looking) Hiers with Mabel is somewhat unexpected, probably an attempt to replicate her earlier films with Arbuckle. But Hiers is no Arbuckle and, in this film, is required only to look flustered – flustered when he believes he’s killed man; flustered when he tries to make his getaway on a train;  flustered when he pretends to be a doctor at a hospital; flustered pretty much in every scene in the film. He shows stronger comic abilities in his later Christie comedies.

The merit of this film lies firmly with Normand’s performance. This, as you know, was her first film with director Victor Schertzinger; and it’s a film that gives lots of scope for Normand to develop her facial pantomime. A very liberal use of close-ups allows Normand to elaborate a very nuanced kind of facial performance, much more so than in her previous films. (Arbuckle, of course, gave Normand lots of close-up time in the Mabel and Fatty series; but, in When Doctors Disagree, this becomes the basis for something much more Chaplinesque in its delicacy – and perhaps the influence of Pickford can be detected here, too.”
”Let me end with an unintentional laugh in the existing print. At the end, Walter and Mabel are seen in a bucolic setting, holding hands next to a country stream. They kiss. And at this point, the following title card pops up: “SLUT” and the film ends. I’m guessing that “Slut” means “The End” in Danish; but, in the context of the film, it also seemed like an inappropriately moralizing comment on Mabel’s behavior!”






Screen captures from 2010 of When Doctors Disagree




Production Company:               Samuel Goldwyn A Star Series
Distribution Company:  Goldwyn Distributing Corp.

Release Date:                           May 25, 1919

Duration:                                  5 reels. (50 minuets)

Genre:                                      Comedy

Locations:                               -Big Bear Valley, San Bernardino National Forest,

                                                -California -San Bernardino Mountains, California

                                                -Whittier State Reform School - 11850 Whittier Blvd.,

                                                  Whittier, California

Black & White


Catalogue of copyright entries, Volume 16, page 1575, #13301

Copy of  full 5 reels at CINEMATEK, Brussels, Belgium


Director:                                  Victor L. Schertzinger

Writer:                                     Anna F. Brand & Melville W. Brown

Cinematographer:                     Percy Hilburn 

Production Assistant:                Ray Moore


Mabel Normand                                                                       (Millie Martin)

Walter Hiers                                                                             (John Turner)

George Nichols                                                                        (David Martin)

Fritzie Ridgeway                                                                       (Violet Henny)

Alec B. Francis                                                                         (Dr. Harris, Sr)

William Buckley or Pomeroy Cannon                            (Dr. Harris, Jr)

James Gordon                                                                          (Dr. Turner, the uncle?)

Nick Cogley                                                          (Bandleader).

 In “When Doctors Disagree” Millie Martin (Mabel Normand), the village gawky hoyden of Ferryville incurs the enmity of the whole town when during the May Day celebration at Ferryville, She pulls up the Maypole and drags it through the woods and gets tangled in its gaudy ribbons. Millie Martin, whose skin flint of a father (George Nichols) will not buy her appropriate clothes, watches as Violet Henry (Fritzie Ridgeway), the daughter of the town's richest man, being pushed into a stagnant pool by the village “bolsheviks”.  Millie pulls her out. 

According to another article, she swings onto a branch dangling her feet and swinging herself by her hands, hanging opossum like and at length “shinnying” up the barky trunk at the expense of the skin on both her hands until she reaches the topmost branches.  Millie jumps over a picket fence rather than going through the gate to enter the farmhouse yard (It is just her style.)  Millie’s father was amused with the story of the Maypole.  He gave her a dollar; Mattie buys beauty cream in getting ready for her first railway journey.

On the train, Millie meets a fat young man, John Turner (Walter Hiers), a carpet layer disguised as a doctor. Earlier, John fought with a man caught cheating at poker, he thought the cheater was killed. He gripped his uncle doctor’s bag and  his uncle's railway ticket. After Millie feigns a toothache to get John's attention, her father, to avoid a doctor's bill, gives her chewing tobacco as a remedy.

When she swallows a plentiful quid of it, and not knowing what to do John orders an operation, the train stops at a nearby sanitarium. Millie panics and gets entangled in the capacious folds of her hospital nightgown, slides down a rope made of twisted bedclothes from the third story of the hospital and escapes into the maternity ward where John finds her in a room with a baby and mistakenly thinks she has just given birth.  Millie and John, her plump idol, steal a Ford automobile and Millie drives it through puddles of water and at length gets stalled in the middle of a creek, through which she coaxes the Ford with comic results.  John is mistaken for a burglar but after his uncle (James Gordon?) arrives to straighten matters out, John and Millie explained and they war free to pursue their romance and the two fade out hand in hand. 

When the Goldwyn Production Company moved from Fort Lee, NJ to Culver City, CA, in the spring of 1919, Victor Schertzinger began to direct Mabel Normand, “When Doctors Disagree” was the first film they made together, it was followed in quick succession by 6 more, released on the following dates:  Upstairs - Aug. 1919, The Jinx - Sept. 1919, Pinto - Feb. 1920, The Slim Princess - July 1920,  What Happened to Rosa - Apr. 1921,  Head Over Heels - April 1922.  

One review descript her work in “When Doctors Disagree” as showing cleverness as a pantomimist. She cold creamed her face -- giving it a clown like effect and makes her shapely arms look long and badly proportioned. She played an awkward country girl and she wears her clothes without grace and then transformed into a society butterfly.  The reviews reported that there were moments of pathos in the picture and she switches from fun to sadness in the twinkle of an eye. Mabel’s personality dominates every scene.