"Molly O' ~ I Love You,"

The Film Comedy and Drama of Mabel Normand: 1917-1927

By William Thomas Sherman

"There is only one Mabel Normand. Consequently, there is nothing to compare her with. If you like her you like her, and if you don't, you don't. In the latter taste, you are indeed to be pitied if you find yourself compelled to sit through a Mabel Normand picture. Luckily there are few members of the screen loving public who don't like Mabel, and their number is becoming less all the time. Anyone who can sit through 'Jinx' and come away without profound respect for Miss Normand's comedy ability, is indeed exceptional...Obviously such a story as this is not sufficient to entertain even the most simple minded audience without mammoth assistance from the cast. In this case the cast is ninety-nine per cent Mabel Normand."[Dramatic Mirror, February 7, 1920]

Normally speaking -- though not perhaps in all instances -- if one took a Mabel Normand feature and left out Mabel Normand, one would be hard pressed to imagine such a film as anything more than, at best, entertaining amusement, or else a historical curiosity. However, with her in it a special spirit and warmth are breathed into the cast and story, and which sometimes even takes the film to greater heights of purpose and meaning. Moreover, and whether intended or not, the real life drama of Mabel Normand's life, now as then, also lends her pictures an added dimension of interest. While it is mete to lament what might have been, there is, nevertheless, a fruitful legacy in her later films; that one can go back to time and again and be rewarded by; for there are not infrequent demonstrations in these feature films of natural and unaffected genius. At her best, which admittedly is not always, Mabel achieves an eloquent synthesis of witty thought (say, for example, about human behavior) and deeper emotion that still resonates clearly despite the lapse of many decades.

Just recently of this writing, appreciation of Mabel’s post-Keystone films, has been signally advanced by the fortuitous resurfacing of the Sennett features Molly O’ and Suzanna. If scholars could not previously make proper sense of Mabel's later work, it was understandable, given the absence of these crucial films. Now that Molly O' and Suzanna are available again, however, it is possible to finally view the later Mabel Normand and her work in a much better informed and more accurate light.

As far as plots go, Mabel’s Goldwyn and Sennett features are not only formulaic, but even unabashedly so; particularly the Sennett films where it could be fairly said the story ideas are recycled with frugal conscientiousness. These films say, in effect, "let's have fun with this same old plot line or routine." Somewhat surprisingly, at times this approach works. At other times, it asks too much of audiences already familiar with it. In any case, and as with many “star” vehicles, Mabel herself really is the show, and this itself distracts us from taking the story of itself very seriously. There is relatively little focus on plot in these films, and really they are usually an opportunity for Mabel and the cast to go through given scenes especially designed to best bring out their talents, and or else give them an opportunity to run though some odd gag, stunt, or routine. Mickey has probably the most interesting story of her later features. But even there the story not infrequently takes a back seat to some tenuously related action sequence or risible antics.

Cinderella is a common thread among the different story lines utilized. Yet these films will often arise above the mere fairy tale in that there is frequently a real, down-to-earth sympathy for the working girl, and common people in general, a concern Mabel showed both on screen and off. To miss this would be to overlook one of the most very important aspects of Mabel's later films (both features and shorts.) So when she played the slavey, she was not merely re-doing Cinderella before the ball, but, as well, she took the occasion to bring attention to some of society's voiceless and ignored. She empathizes with and celebrates their struggles, hopes, and dreams of happiness. While her approach might perhaps not be so sophisticated to please all tastes, the sincerity of that compassion is itself not a question.

Until Mabel appeared on the scene, a female performer who regularly acted as comedienne and who was also pretty was something rarely as yet known. Most “comic” actresses of the time were really serious actresses who sometimes did comedy – Mary Pickford being a perfect example. Attractive girls certainly might do comedic roles, but classing them primarily as comediennes was relatively unknown. Louise Fazenda, for example, was one very pretty female who worked at Keystone. Yet in order for her to be playing comic roles frequently it was decided that she needed to be made up to look like an ungainly hick. While Mabel herself was sometimes similarly made up to look unappealing, this was the exception, and most the time it was her prettiness that was capitalized on. Among beautiful actresses then, she was a pioneer of sorts in that her fame rested almost entirely on her comedy work. When hired by Goldwyn, she wanted at that time to take on more dramatic roles. However, her audience, in reaction to tentative efforts in this direction on her and Goldwyn’s part, simply would not have it, and from thereon if there was going to be any serious drama in her films this would have to be offset by an even greater amount of comedy.

There is usually not much continuity in a given performance. Rather Mabel shines or doesn’t shine in individual scenes – speaking more with respect to herself really rather than the character she's supposed to be playing. While she could indeed be fine actress when drama was called for, we can never get around the fact that we are watching Mabel Normand the film star. There is ever present her own special and engaging personality regardless of the character; such that the story being played not infrequently takes on secondary importance amid such a distraction. Even so, while we might not be won over to the believability of a given character she plays, there will often be times when we will be illuminated and or made to laugh with respect to some insightful truth about individual people or the human condition generally.

Unlike Mabel of the early years, Mabel Normand of the Goldwyn, Sennett features, and Roach shorts usually thinks carefully before she acts. This makes for a quite different kind of comedy than at Keystone. This change was prompted by a desire to take both her life and career in a new direction reinforced by more or less involuntary external factors. With respect to the latter are the trying, real life events which were going on when these films were made. Health problems, drug use, a purported miscarriage, two major scandals, antipathy of some of the press, all, in some measure, make themselves often felt in these films (and including stills of films lost.) The later Mabel, her cheeks drawn, is clearly more wan and stiff in her movements than Biograph and Keystone Mabel. There are even occasions when she obviously looks to be in great emotional distress that bears little or no relation to what is going on in a given scene. Caught in those moments where she does not look well, we sometimes find ourselves in the odd circumstance of waiting for her to “be on.” Fortunately, our hope is (usually) rewarded soon enough; though sometimes not as soon as we would like. To complicate things further it would often be a mistake to say Mabel is one way or the other in her appearance even in an isolated series of moments. It is challenging for a historian or reviewer to depict with words her because sometimes she can both be a certain way, while at the same time its opposite. For example, her health might not be well, and she looks pallid and worn. Yet in her joking or passion she still manages to retain a certain piquancy and freshness. No wonder then, in his autobiography, and with respect to this period of her career, Sennett confessed some difficulty in describing her.

Audiences, as we all know, will often love a film star, and love that film star greatly. Yet it is something even more when they actually fall in love with them. To understand Mabel Normand the film star, it is necessary to understand that much of her male audience actually did fall in love with her, just as they might fall in love with a childhood sweetheart. According to their respective memoirs, both Charlie Chaplin and King Vidor only seriously considered going into films after first seeing and being infatuated with Mabel on screen. And for every Chaplin and Vidor, how many lesser-knowns, and unknowns -- including the likes of Horace Greer -- were there? Time and again, in popular movie journalism and the films themselves, there are expressions of pronounced and strong liking for her; which bespeak more than mere or ordinary fan enthusiasm. When Mabel in Molly O' gives a big smack to Albert Hackett, playing her brother, it ostensibly is also a kiss to thousands of her audience who were to some degree or other actually felt this way toward her. Young women, as well, were taken by her, though in a different way; seeing in her a model of feminine beauty and emancipation worthy of emulating. Sadly, however, the ensuing scandals and changing tempers of the times considerably complicated and confused this state of things; so that later, many who had originally adored or were infatuated with her callously turned their backs when the storms of doubt and controversy blew.

But not all.

Mickey

Aside from Tillie’s Punctured Romance, Mickey is arguably the most memorable and enduring of Mabel’s feature films, both with respect to her performance and the film overall itself, and over the passing years, one grows to better appreciate what a unique and uplifting work it is. This is due to its being made, for the most part, prior to the severe heartaches and travails, both personal and public, that ultimately undid her. The exception, of course, is her break up with Sennett in 1915, and injuries reportedly stemming from that event. The strains from these, as well as whooping cough she suffered from during the making of Mickey, do at times show. Yet unlike the other later features, the effects of these misfortunes and ailments is not so great that they markedly detract from our being able to enjoy the story and relate to its characters on their own level. Mickey, as the film’s main character is arguably Mabel’s best feature film portrayal, and certainly the most believable one within the context of the story presented. Though the plot at times does wander, the film nevertheless is consistently emphatic in its sentiments of natural over artificial; of generosity over greed; of humility over (false) pride; of youth over age, and heart over calculation -- with a bit of Puck thrown in.

The conceptual origin for the character of Mickey arguably stems from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, with the significance difference, of course, that this is a female Huck. As well, the character of Mickey may also have been inspired by the kind of urchin roles Mary Pickford and Marguerite Clark were playing – certainly Mabel had Pickford in mind while performing much of the role as, for example, we see in Mickey’s sunny and affectionate disposition. Although Anita Loos wrote the original working scenario, director F. Richard Jones, with perhaps input from Mabel, heavily modified it during production, and shaped Mickey to be just as they wanted her.

Although with whom exactly the idea originated with is not entirely clear, Mabel, in the early part of the picture, very noticeably wears a long-curled hairstyle like Pickford’s and oversized shoes like Chaplin’s. Clearly something of a tribute to them is intended by this; which is appropriate because, again, the character of Mickey, in certain ways, is something of a take off on the kind of spunky tomboy Pickford played in films like Tess of the Storm Country, and Chaplin’s antic loving tramp. At the same time, the pathos she strives for and achieves is to some extent presumably influenced by Chaplin’s work; though Mickey was completed four years before Chaplin began making his first solo starring feature, The Kid.

Mickey is nature’s wild, untamed beauty. She swims naked in a forest lake, but is modest, even somewhat bashful, when it comes to things romantic. At one point, Thornhill, a handsome mine-owner and surveyor (played by Wheeler Oakman), visits the wooded mining hills where she resides. In the course of getting to know her, he tries to kiss her lips. Mickey, although clearly enamored of him, turns away embarrassed. He then, very tenderly, kisses her on the wrist instead. Later and after he’s left, Mickey, with a smile almost as wide as her face, sits on a fence alongside Minnie, her old Indian step-mother, and carefully relates to Minnie how he had kissed her wrist. She expresses how her own her heart beats madly -- making a gesture conveying idea this by clapping her wrists together -- because she is in love with him. Minnie’s look of thoughtful gravity, as she listens puffing on her corn-cob pipe, makes for a humorous contrast. Mickey, evidently amused by her quiet reaction, in an outburst of laughter then throws her arms around Minnie in a great hug.

In sequences like this, great advantage is taken of the slightest movements; which is an approach Chaplin himself, of course, utilized. In one scene, Mickey feeling the wrath of her good hearted but brutal step-father, goes to steal the belt he, ostensibly and by inference, sometimes beats hits her with. What we see is the belt hanging on the wall; when suddenly a hand followed by an arms comes out from behind the window curtain, and with a personality all its own surreptitiously dances up to the belt, grabs and absconds with it. The scene is otherwise very simple: a hand, followed by a full-length arm, comes through a window and grabs a belt hanging off the wall. Yet because of the way it is done, the action helps to impart the character of Mickey in a way that goes beyond the mere insertion of the incident for plot reasons. In watching and re-watching the film, one is struck time and again how by Mabel’s small gestures and mannerisms brings extra life to what is otherwise a fairly routine scene. She can, for instance, be eloquent even in just the way she stands.

Mickey’s arrival from the west and her being ushered in at the mansion of her relatives is one particularly funny, yet touching sequence in this respect. We are at first amused by her and her step-father’s (played by George Nichols) awkwardness in the new surroundings. Yet this jocund atmosphere subsides into a believable sadness when they say their farewells; realizing that in future they will be far away from each other; with the suggestion that Mickey's days of wild innocence will perhaps be lost by her contact with “civilized” society. It a picture of innocence on the threshold of experience movingly realized by the two performers. Nichols, by the way, who had directed for both Griffith and Sennett, would continue to appear as the stern, husky father figure in all of Mabel’s subsequent Sennett features.

Ironically enough, the subsequent scenes with Mabel as one of the mansion’s house servant shows her for the first time not looking very well -- as if moving into society had made her unwell. But, of course, Mabel herself was actually ill with whooping cough at the time these sequences were being shot, and the change in her appearance his quite overt. Comparing Mabel in her maid outfit in Mickey (while attending on Minta Durfee and Laura LaVarnie’s characters) to Mabel as maid in Tillie's Punctured Romance, made only 2 years before, she almost looks like a different person. Although still attractive, her giddy radiance is observably less. This said, most of film she does look well enough. Yet even when she doesn’t, this perhaps gains for her a little extra sympathy from the viewer.

Although green in the ways of the world, Mickey’s rusticity and innocence are not of a naïve sort. As we might expect with many young people, there is a carefree sense of frolic, and even mischief, about her. Indeed, she is rebellious. While she is not so much malicious, her reactions to situations, nevertheless, sometime surprise us by their brashness. After being scolded for picking cherries off a cake sitting on a kitchen table, she quite defiantly smashes the cake with her fist. Likewise, after her rich relatives find out her stepfather’s “Tomboy mine” has struck gold, they run to drag her off the leaving train to take her back to the mansion. As they finally are able force her to get into a car, Mickey sticks her tongue out at them: an act in remarkable contrast to, say, how young women were later portrayed on screen in the thirties.

No doubt the most exciting, and famous scene in Mickey is the race-track segment. Learning that Reggie Drake (Lew Cody) is going to fix a horse race in order that, Thornhill (Drake’s rival for Mickey's affections) will lose on a bet, Mickey secretly takes the place of the jockey and enters the equestrian event. So rather than the race being thrown, as Reggie Drake had secretly expected, Mickey rides the horse so well that she overtakes and leads the pack, much to the joy of onlookers, and to the dismay of Drake and his confidante. It is a rousing sequence, made all the more thrilling by seeing Mabel herself intently ride the speeding mount to seeming victory. Seeming because her horse ultimately stumbles just before the finish line, and throws her to the ground. It is a puzzling moment because we otherwise naturally expected that she would have won, but evidently she doesn’t. Yet while she fails to extricate Thornhill from his regrettable wager, the opportunity provides her with an occasion to demonstrate both her courage and devotion to him.

More confusing in terms of ordinary plot, but perhaps more credible in terms of ordinary life, we next see Mickey off on a friendly ride with Drake; “Much against her better judgment” as the title card states. From here, Drake lures her to a house where the intent of ravishing her is clearly implied. Notwithstanding, Thornhill who happens to be in the neighborhood sees Mickey crying for help and goes to rescue her. The fight and what follows is fairly predictable except that here the villain gets the last best “smash” (using a chair) on his adversary. Even so, the hero is still able to retrieve the imperiled girl; and once again, as at the race-track, the villain is left with an otherwise hollow victory.

The final message of Mickey? For all its inexperience and recklessness, spirited Youth has its own natural virtue; that at times can rise superior to the artificiality and hypocrisy of seemingly more wise adults. Typically and understandably, we think of Age instructing Youth about virtue. Yet here, as the film attempts to convey, it is possible for the reverse to be the case. As well, we have the also familiar theme of all that glitters is not gold; and sometimes that which doesn’t glitter (i.e. to the unfeeling, conventional eye) actually is gold. These, of course, are not new messages, but the way, Mabel, Jones and cast are able to impart them is new, and beautifully expressed as well. Viewed in retrospect, the film might be reasonably characterized as folk art or in this case a sort of techno-folk art. Such works may seem formally crude and primitive, yet there is nonetheless something in them decidedly delightful and engaging. What the folk-artist might lack in formal schooling and more highly trained technical skill is more than compensated for by their enthusiasm, sincerity, and love -- much like Mickey herself.

What Happened to Rosa

By 1916-1917, the raucous Keystone brand of slapstick was deemed in to have passed its nadir, and was generally falling out of favor -- at least in certain circles of the industry if not with the public at large. Mabel herself reportedly had simply grown quite weary of it and was in search of something more slowed down I tempo. When she came to Samuel Goldwyn’s company from Sennett, the original concept Goldwyn had in mind was to create a more elegant, genteel kind of comedy for her. And, this was the sort of thing Mabel also wanted. However, while working for him, and as reflected in films like Peck's Bad Girl, The Jinx, Pinto, this policy was relaxed or purposely disregarded, in light of the public’s continued enthusiasm for the amiable hoyden they saw in Mickey. And of course while slapstick films may have suffered a certain lapse in interest at that time, they ended up being revived with an even greater vigor in the ensuing 20’s.

The following are the films Mabel made for the Goldwyn Corporation, grouped according to site of production (that is either Fort Lee, New Jersey or else Culver City, California), and listed with release date and director:

Ft. Lee, New Jersey:
Dodging a Million (Jan.1918, director: George Loane Tucker), The Floor Below (Mar. 1918, dir: Clarence Badger ), Joan of Plattsburg (May 1918, dir: Tucker), The Venus Model (June 1918, dir: Badger), Back to the Woods (July 1918, dir: George Irving), Peck's Bad Girl (Sept. 1918, dir: Charles Giblyn), A Perfect 36 (Oct. 1918, dir: Giblyn)

Culver City, California:
Sis Hopkins (Feb. 1919, dir: Badger), The Pest (Apr. 1919, dir: Christy Cabanne), When Doctors Disagree (May 1919, dir: Victor Schertzinger), Upstairs (Aug. 1919, dir: Schertzinger), The Jinx (Sept. 1919, dir: Schertzinger), Pinto (Feb. 1920, dir: Schertzinger), The Slim Princess (July 1920, dir: Schertzinger), What Happened to Rosa (Apr. 1921, dir: Schertzinger), Head Over Heels (April 1922, dir: Schertzinger)

Since leaving Sennett, Mabel had and was becoming more conscientious of herself as a formal artist, and in articles and interviews of the time she provides some intelligent observations on her work and film performance generally. Much of the best writing about Mabel and her art, both written by herself as well as by others writing on her behalf, comes from this period. As well, she continued to collaborate with her directors in coming up with gags and filming ideas, just as she had done at Keystone.

It was as well during this time of the late teens, unfortunately, that Mabel continued to have acute health concerns. To what extent this was the result of regular illness, drugs or something else is not entirely clear. In any event, her occasionally emaciated appearance bespeaks something clearly wrong with her. It is typically taken as given by some historians and casual scholars that her main problem was with narcotics. Yet assuming there was a drug problem, it is not at all necessarily the reason why she does not look well in a particular still. As mentioned previously, during production of Mickey, she had come down with serious whooping cough. Sometime, probably late 1919, she reportedly had an affair with Samuel Goldwyn and which was followed by a traumatizing, miscarried pregnancy. To all of this could be added what might be termed the general dissipation that it has been popularly reported afflicted many of the newly rich film stars, including, at least for a time, Mabel. The country itself, from 1918-1919, was sick with an influenza epidemic, with the war having rocked it psychologically as well. One should be cautious then in jumping to conclusions about what did or did not ail her at a given time. The available evidence on the subject of drugs and her illness is scanty, and is often times of dubious origin, little better than gossip, and or rarely specific. This is not to deny there was or might have been some point some drug problem; only we are not much now in a position to know its true character or what other factors may have been present to have caused Mabel’s health to fail.

But that she was not well at most any given point during this period with something is itself not in question.

Yet despite her not infrequently coming across in photographs as being unwell, and perhaps on occasion even looking rather strangely or confused in her expression, we are left with the seemingly conflicting fact that Mabel’s Goldwyn films were usually well-received and got good box office -- indeed reportedly more so than just about anything else the Goldwyn company was issuing to it distributors. Much of the answer to this apparent anomaly could no doubt be found in the films themselves. Those unfortunately are just not available to us -- except for Rosa. It might very well be possible to reconstruct a good deal of what Mabel was doing and what was going on in the lost Goldwyn films based on numerous stills, surviving scripts, and contemporary write-ups. Certainly such an inquiry would be an interesting kind of study and detective work. However, for present expediency's sake, we will have to relegate this survey to the one surviving film.

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