The critic's remarks are humorous because, aside from "Mickey," they are so true of most of Mabel Normand's later films. Generally speaking, if one took a Mabel Normand feature and left out Mabel Normand, one could usually only imagine such a film as being merely amusement, or interesting as a historical curiosity. However, with Mabel in the film a comic spirit and warm affection are breathed into the cast and story that take them to greater heights of meaning and expression. And whether intended or not in a given film, the real life drama of Mabel Normand's life, now as then, also lends her "pictures" an added fascination. While its mete to lament "what might have been," there is, nevertheless, a fruitful legacy in Mabel's later films, which one can go back to time and again and be richly rewarded by. There are on frequent occasion in these feature films demonstrations of true artistic genius, deserving of closer examination, both in their profound and humorous character. At her best, which admittedly is not always, Mabel achieves a perfect synthesis of witty thought (say, for example, about human behavior) and deep felt human emotions that resonates vibrantly to us despite the passage of many years.
Just recently of this being written, appreciation of Mabel's post Keystone films, has been tremendously advanced by very fortuitous resurfacing of her Sennett features "Molly O'" and "Suzanna." If film 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 more accurate light.
As far as plots go, Mabel's Goldwyn and Sennett features are not only formulaic, but often unabashedly so, particularly the latter. They say, in effect, "let's have fun with this same familiar story or routine." Surprisingly, it works sometimes. At other times, it will be asking too much of some audiences. Like many "star" films, Mabel herself really is the show, and this itself distracts us from taking the story seriously. There is little focus on plot in these films, and really they are simply an opportunity for Mabel and her cast to go through given scenes especially designed to bring out something in them, or give them an opportunity to do some gag, stunt, or routine. "Mickey" has probably the most interesting story of her later features, but even here the story often casually takes a back seat to some gag, stunt, thrill or comic routine -- usually involving Mabel.
Cinderella is the common origin for many of the plots used. 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. To miss this would be to overlook one of the most ever present elements of Mabel's later films. More than casual concern for poor and ordinary people was a sentiment which Mabel herself expressed off screen as well. When she played the slavey, she was not merely re-doing Cinderella before the ball, but as well she took the opportunity 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 not be so sophisticated to please some tastes, nevertheless, the sincerity of her compassion and affection cannot be denied.
Prior to Mabel, comediennes who were pretty,
were almost unknown in films. Most "comic" actresses
of the time were really serious actresses who sometimes did comedy.
Attractive girls might do comedic roles, but classing them primarily
as comediennes was rare if not unheard of. Louise Fazenda, for
example, was an attractive woman, but in order for her to be playing
comic roles regularly she had to be made up to be ungainly. Among
beautiful actresses then, Mabel was a pioneer of sorts in that
her fame rested entirely on her comedy work. When she went to
work for Goldwyn, she wanted to take a more dramatic course in
her work. However, her audience simply would not have it and from
thereon if there was going to be any serious drama in her films
it would have to be balanced with at least an equal amount of
There is usually not much continuity in a given performance. Rather Mabel shines or doesn't shine in individual scenes -- more so as herself really, rather than the character she's playing. While she could indeed be a superb actress, we can never get around the fact that we are watching Mabel Normand the film star. There is her own special and engaging personality regardless of the character she is playing, such that the stories almost never take their full prominence amid such a distraction. Even so, while we might not be persuaded, over all, of the believability of a given character she plays, Mabel will often bring out some insightful truth about people which both surprises and makes us laugh.
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 what she was doing earlier. This change was prompted both because of a different kind of direction she wanted her to take in her own life and career, and external factors. With respect to the latter are the real life events which were going on when these films were made. Health problems, drug use, a miscarriage, two major scandals, extreme castigation at times in the press, these make their presence felt quite frequently. The later Mabel, her cheeks drawn, is clearly more pale, and stiff in her movements compared to Biograph and Keystone Mabel. At other times, she obviously looks to be in great emotional distress unrelated to the film story. Caught in those moments where she does not look well, we sometimes then find ourselves in the odd circumstance of waiting for her to "be on." Fortunately, our hope is usually awarded soon enough, though sometimes not as much 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 a given moment. She is hard to describe 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 pale and worn. Yet in her joking or passion she retains a vibrancy and freshness. No wonder then, in his autobiography, Sennett confessed difficulty in trying to describe her.
Audiences will love a film star, and love that film star greatly. But it is something even more when they actually "fall in love" with them. To adequately comprehend Mabel Normand the film star, it is absolutely necessary to understand that much of her male audience actually "fell in love" with her, literally, just as they might fall in love with a sweet heart. 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 Normand 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 love and strong liking for her, which go well beyond mere fan enthusiasm. When Mabel in "Molly O'" gives a big smack to Albert Hackett, playing her brother, it was also a kiss to thousands of her audience who were to some degree or other actually in love with her. Young women as well were very taken by her, though in a different way, often seeing in her a model of feminine beauty and emancipation deserving of emulation.
The ensuing scandals and changing tempers of
the times, however, complicated and confused this state of things
considerably. And many who had earlier adored her later very callously
turned their backs on her when the storms came.
"Mickey" is, without a doubt, the best of Mabel's feature films, both with respect to her performance and the film overall itself. This is in large measure due to the fact that it was made prior to many of the heartaches and sorrows she would under go in subsequent years, but not all of them. The exception, of course, is her break up with Sennett in 1915, and injuries reportedly stemming from. The strains from these, as well as whooping cough she suffered from during the film's making, 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 fully enjoy the story and relate to its characters on their own level."Mickey," also, is Mabel's best feature film portrayal, and certainly the most believable one within the context of the story. (22)
Watching "Mickey" over the passing years, one comes to properly appreciate what a very unique, charming and uplifting film it truly is. It is an overflowing and ecstatic (if a bit rough on the edges) shout of joy. The plot at times does wander (23), but it is nevertheless consistently emphatic in its Rousseauean sentiments of natural over artificial, generosity over greed, humility over false pride, youth over age, and heart over calculation -- with a bit of Puck thrown in.
The basic conceptual origin for the actual character of Mickey arguably stems from Mark Twain's "Huck Finn," (24) with the significance difference, of course, that this is a female Huck Finn. As well, the character of Mickey may also have been inspired by the kind of urchin roles Mary Pickford and Marguerite Clark were playing. Although Anita Loos wrote the original working scenario, director F. Richard Jones, with perhaps input from Mabel, heavily modified it during the course of production, and shaped Mickey to be just as they wanted her.
Whether it was Mabel's idea or Sennett's or director Richard Jones', Mabel, in the early part of the picture, very noticeably wears Mary Pickford's long-curls hair style, and Chaplin's oversized shoes. 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." Similarly, Mabel's pathos in her comic role, was probably to no little extent influenced by Chaplin's work.
Mickey is nature's wild, untamed beauty. She swims naked in a forest lake, but has a natural modesty. At one point, Thornhill, played by Wheeler Oakman, a handsome mine-owner and surveyor visiting the wooded hills and mountain back-country where she lives, tries to kiss her lips. Mickey, although obviously enamored of him, turns away quite bashfully. He then kisses her very tenderly on the wrist instead. Later, Mickey, with a smile almost as wide as her face, is sitting on a fence with Minnie, her old Indian step-mother and carefully telling Minnie how Thornhill kissed her wrist, and how her heart beats madly (making a gesture 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 quite a humorous contrast. Mickey then in an outburst of laughter finally throws her arms around Minnie in a great hug.
In sequences like this, great advantage is taken of the slightest gestures, which is something Chaplin, of course, did some famous things with in his own later features.25 In one scene, Mickey feeling the wrath of her good hearted but brutal step-father, goes to steal the belt he 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, an arm comes through a window and grabs a belt hanging off the wall. Yet because of the way it is done, the actions of Mabel's and arm expresses the character of Mickey in a way that goes well 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 little gestures and subtle mannerism brings extra life to what is usually otherwise a fairly routine scene. She can be eloquent at times even (for instance) in just the way she stands.
Mickey's arrival from the west and arriving at the mansion of her relatives is one particularly hilarious, yet touching scene. We are amused by her and her step-father's, acted by George Nichols, awkwardness in the new surroundings. Yet this jocund atmosphere subsides into a kind of sadness when they say their farewells, realizing that they will be far away from each other for a long time to come, with the suggestion that Mickey's days of wild innocence will perhaps be lost by her future contact with "civilized" society. It is a picture of innocence on the threshold of experience that is movingly played and realized by both Mabel and Nichols. 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 ensuing scenes with Mabel as the mansion's house servant shows her on screen for the first time not looking very well -- as if moving into "civilization" had made her ill. 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 is very overt. Comparing Mabel in her maid outfit in "Mickey" (while attending on Minta Durfee and Laura LaVarnie) to Mabel as maid in "Tillie's Punctured Romance," made only two years before, she almost looks like a different person. She is still very attractive, but the radiancy observably less. Yet most of film she does looks well enough. Yet even when she doesn't, this perhaps gains her a little extra sympathy.
Mickey's innocence is not a naïve sort. Like many children there is a carefree mischief about her. Indeed, she is rebellious. While she is not so much malicious, her reaction to situations, nevertheless, sometimes surprises us with its 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. As they finally are able to do so, forcing her to get into a car and come back with them, Mickey sticks her tongue out at them.
Probably the most exciting, and most famous scene in "Mickey" is the race track sequence. Finding out that Reggie Drake, Lew Cody, is going to fix race, in order so 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 horse race. So rather than the race being thrown as Reggie Drake had surreptitiously intended, Mickey rides the horse so well that she overtakes and leads the pack, much to the joy of onlookers, and to the great dismay of Drake and his confidante. It a rousing kind of sequence, made all the more thrilling by seeing Mabel herself very intently and boldly -- yet genuinely cute all the same --- riding the fast horse 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 she doesn't. Yet while she fails in saving Thornhill from his bad bet, she is given an opportunity through this experience to show both her personal courage and devotion to him.
More confusing in terms of ordinary plot, but perhaps more believable in terms of real life, we 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 an interest in ravishing her is clearly implied. However, Thornhill who happens to be in the neighborhood sees Mickey crying for help and goes to rescue her. The fight and what ensues 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 rescue the girl, and once again (as at the race track) the villain is left with a hollow victory.
The final message of "Mickey"? For
all its inexperience and recklessness, untainted Youth has its
own, natural virtues, which at times can often rise superior to
the artificial and conventional morals and character of those
with more age and experience. Typically, we think of Age instructing
Youth about virtue. But here it turns out to be the other way
around. As well, we have the also familiar theme, of all that
glitters is not gold; and sometimes that which doesn't to the
unfeeling, conventional eye is gold. These, of course, are not
new messages, but the way, Mabel, Jones and cast are able to express
them is new, and beautifully done. Viewed in retrospect, the film
can be well likened to a wonderful piece of folk art. Such works
may seem technically crude and primitive, yet there is something
in them which is decidedly engaging and instills joy in us. What
the folk-artist might lack in formal schooling, is more than compensated
for by their enthusiasm, sincerity, and love -- much like Mickey
Copyright 2000 William Thomas Sherman. All rights reserved. Used with permission of the author
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