The Film Comedy of Mabel Normand: 1911-1916

"None Was More Talented and Touching, More Innovative and Funny . . ."

by William Thomas Sherman

(Part 1)

webmaster of The Mabel Normand Homepage

and author of "Mabel Normand: A Source Book To Her Life and Films"

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No One Was More Talented, Touching or Innovative

"Just take Miss Normand at her screen value, and you know her."
James Quirk in Photoplay, August 1915

Of all the comediennes of the silent film era, none was more talented and touching, more original and funny than Mabel Normand. As well as being one of early film comedy's most notable stars, she was also one of its most innovative and creative pioneers.

In many ways she equaled, and in some cases outdid, the work of her more famous male counterparts. Unfortunately, the subtlety, range and freshness of her work has too often been ignorantly made light of. The reason for this is, not surprisingly, ascribed to the scandals which abruptly ended her career. True as this is, a persuasive case could be made as well, for gender bias, since it was not considered possible to take a very pretty girl's intelligence, let alone artistic genius, seriously. Yet as crucial as this, as well, is the fact that the wide scope of her accomplishment simply cannot be ascertained by screening a mere few of her films. In a career which spanned from 1911 to 1927 she made at least 198 films: 176 shorts and 22 features (four reels or more). During this period she went through many changes, both negative and positive, some insignificant, some considerable. Often time the negative changes were a result of personal, as well as public, misfortunes in her life.

On the positive side she improved and developed as one would expect a hard working artist to. The problem, however, was that the negative factors could at times seriously set back the progress she did make. For example, in the natural course of maturing, she at times seems to have lost much of that florid innocence and youthful naiveté which contributed to making her earliest films exceptionally charming. The younger Mabel is, generally speaking, more noticeably exuberant than the later one -- to say the least. So even though Mabel advanced in her work in one way, there was simultaneously a gradual loss to her well-being stemming from external events. It is the incidental life-affecting factors like these, some of them normal, some of them unusual, which have served to deprive film historians and scholars of a clear summary of her merit. Since so much is varied in Mabel Normand's story, brief assessments about her overall ability as an artist rarely do her justice, and often need to be qualified. There's simply so much that would seem to require explanation. To attempt now, years later, to properly value and fairly appreciate Mabel Normand's greatness then requires much more than the casual eye and analysis which most silent film comedy is wont to receive.

It is the intent of this essay to survey aspects of her art and screen technique in that part of her career spanning from her first Vitagraph films in 1911, to her time at Biograph and Keystone, up until her last films made for Triangle-Keystone in 1916. A very good argument could be made that this period from 1911 through 1916 was the high-point of her artistic energy and creativity. Be this as it may, this period does serve as a convenient span of years with which to demonstrate some of the many sides of her comic acting technique. While she did direct and write a few scripts for some of her own short comedies, it is as a performer that she stands out, and it is in this light that she is best evaluated and considered. (12)

The Normand Beauty

A native of Staten Island, New York, Mabel at her tallest was five foot in height with luxuriously thick dark brown hair and beautifully expressive dark brown eyes. In all, she was, as seen in photographs and attested by her contemporaries, an adorable and attractive young girl. This is particularly necessary to note because being very small and pretty gave her room to behave in ways that otherwise might not be so amusing if someone less attractive did those same things. In the way we might indulge a young child, a pup or kitten for their somewhat unruly behavior because they are so naturally lovable, so "Mabel" could get away with things others couldn't. The same behavior coming from someone else less delightful, less attractive, more physically powerful, on the other hand, would be much less funny, if not outright offensive.

It needs also be mentioned that "Mabel," while mischievous, and in rarer instances even obnoxious (as in "Mabel's Wilful Way") was never callous or mean spirited. She would, often as not, tenderly apologize to a fellow character after having pulled a prank on them, and with sincerity meant it. If she acts up or misbehaves, we know it is never because her heart is in the wrong place. Minor touches like these are worth noting as they help explain the warmth and allure of her brand of humor.

Since her father often worked in theaters, it is more than likely Mabel, growing up, picked up much of her dramatic education from shows she saw or heard about. Before entering films she worked as an artist's model in New York City, posing for such notable advertising illustrators as Charles Dana Gibson, James Montgomery Flagg, the Leydendecker brothers, and C. Coles Phillips, and a number of studio photographers as well. This kind of background certainly had a most important impact on her film acting, since modeling required her to assume all kinds of emotional dispositions, attitudes, and postures. When an illustrator asked her to show longing, sadness, delight or gaiety, that was just what she had to learn and give herself to do. It was through the resultant training of these modeling sessions then that Mabel developed a quick-reference repertoire of ways to successfully impart different feelings and emotions.

Making the Short Films

From modeling, Mabel, on the recommendation of some modeling friends and associates, went into the burgeoning business of movie making. It was 1911 and she was about eighteen years old. She first worked briefly at D. W. Griffith's Biograph Company located in New York's lower east side, then for a few months at Vitagraph in Flatbush, then once again for Biograph. She made films at Biograph first for Griffith and subsequently for Mack Sennett. Then in the Spring of 1912, Mabel left Biograph with Sennett, Ford Sterling, Fred Mace and Henry Lehrman to become part of the original Keystone company, where comedies were to be the sole specialty.

Only one of her Vitagraph films is known to survive. Based on what we do know from existing films and still photographs, they have drawing room quality about them, and are amusing today for their quaint innocence. One charming example of this appeal might be a shot from "Troublesome Secretaries" where "Betty," played by Mabel, is walked home along a residential lane by her boyfriend, Ralph Ince. As they stop their stroll, he warily looks about him before kissing her on the forehead. Mabel, all this while, coyly giggles at his respectful caution and their audacity. After waving good-bye to each other, she walks the rest of her way home with this curious look of concern on her face, like someone who, out of bashful modesty, is not quite sure whether her romantic inclinations not might get her into trouble. One noteworthy thing here is that Mabel, in acting this part, is so unusually bubbly, and at the same time so demure in expressing herself, that viewing this sequence simply makes one smile.

"Betty," a character Mabel often played as in her Vitagraph comedies, was a young and lovely foil to John Bunny's bumbling elder. She was in some ways the precursor to "Keystone Mabel." Though different, these characterizations do share significant similarities. Both "Betty" and "Mabel" are inclined to play and mischief. Both drive men's hearts to distraction. The difference is that "Betty" is generally more submissive and subdued than "Mabel." Not that "Betty" is timid, only "Mabel" is more wild and free spirited. Unlike "Mabel," "Betty," for example, would never be found kicking someone or hurling bricks. (3)

While she is overflowingly lively in practically all her early films, she appears more circumspect in those made in the East. When in the winter of 1911 she first went with the Biograph company on its annual trip West, Southern California, with its sunshine and orange groves, seems to have made her personality blossom forth. The change of locale to a novel, relatively freer area, allowed her to shed artificial apprehensions, and look at life in a new light. While still "girlish," her demeanor is of someone more bold and self-willed; a person less restrained by stringent societal conventions, and nineteenth century models of proper female deportment.

In her earliest films made in the East, like "Troublesome Secretaries," "The Squaw's Love," and "Saved From Himself," Mabel seems to make an effort to suppress laughter, and occasionally has a hard time of it. While it is the laughter of youthfulness and girlishness, still there is a wry quality about it, which expresses more intelligence than one would associate with an ordinary adolescent girl. It is as if she sees something about her that is amusing which those about her can't see.

A handful of her Biograph films are dramas directed by Griffith. The Griffith dramas, "A Squaw's Love," "The Mender of Nets," "The Eternal Mother," "Saved From Himself," are gems, and Mabel infuses herself expressively in the various roles. It is interesting to see what Griffith was able to evoke out of her, which is something often quite unlike anything she did later. Yet this said, most of the films Mabel made at Biograph were not dramas, but comedies directed by Mack Sennett.

Split Reels and One-Reelers

The short films she appeared in during the period from 1911 to 1916, were mostly "split" (half reel) or else one reel films, lasting from about five to ten minutes respectively, though in the latter part of this period she expanded to two and an occasional three reel films. Also it should be noted, these early comedies, both Biograph and Keystone, made no pretension to being great art. Indeed, the primary concern originally, as admitted by Sennett, was to make money. The films were put together and rolled off like products on an assembly line. This excessive tendency to cut costs on individual films is especially evident when we compare the Keystone films to carefully edited and orchestrated shorts such as Chaplin made at Mutual. (4)

In a interview she did in the late twenties, Mabel described Keystone's film production methods this way:

"So we, like other companies, would stop in the middle of one (film) and start another, simply rearranging the props, pulling a pair of overalls on over my frock, putting a cop's cap on Fatty Arbuckle, and having Ford Sterling or Charlie Chaplin chase us around in front of the camera.

"There'd be no script, no plot, no idea of what we'd do when we started -- and no title. All we needed was 600 or 700 feet of film showing us doing something and 300 or 400 feet of educational film to tack on it, such as how sheep are sheared or olives canned." (5)

For all their end result silliness, making these comedies took a considerable amount of toil and effort. When Chaplin returned to Hollywood to get his special Oscar in the seventies he visited with Minta Durfee and recalled, in speaking with her, what hard and regular work it was making those early films. (6) How vigorous in health and disciplined in her work must she have been when we realize (as was acknowledged by all) no performer worked harder at Keystone than Mabel Normand.

The Biograph and Keystone comedies, as others have pointed out, had their conceptual origin in conventional stage comedy, stage burlesque, and newspaper comic strips. The players in these humorous situations then were more absurd caricatures than real life characters.

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