The Film Comedy of Mabel Normand: 1911-1916

by William Thomas Sherman

(Part 2)

A Leading Star and Director

While it is not true to say that all Keystone films were made without any written scenario or script, it is correct to say they were often as impromptu as planned out in nature. When written scenarios were used, stories would frequently be significantly modified during the course of shooting, as well as in editing. Scripts for films would seem to have been more closely adhered to during Sennett's years at Biograph. However, as time went on production grew to be more ad hoc, until around 1916 when production once more emphasized planning for individual films.

The Biograph and Keystone films were practically all ensemble films. While Mabel was a leading star in her Biograph and Keystone comedies neither she nor any of Keystone's other players ever enjoyed much production control or screen autonomy.. One reason for this, aside from money, was that due to the length of the films and simplicity of the plots there was little room for character development. This in turn was the result of the kind of tight fisted management Sennett exercised over production, a factor which finally led to Chaplin and Arbuckle's, not to mention Mabel's, departure from Keystone. These are comedies with a few relatively big name stars, but no main star -- or even director -- who had an independent say about how the films were to be put together. While it is true that around 1915 and 1916 that Arbuckle, both as star and director, was granted a certain management over his work - mostly during shooting -- having to finally deal with Sennett had a constricting impact on his being ablele to make best use of his creative abilities.

At Keystone, Mabel did direct a few short films herself, and did so capably. Yet she never made pretensions to being some kind of film making genius. Nevertheless, she often did markedly influence those she worked with, and was quite inventive and resourceful. In an article for Picture-Play, April, 1916, Arbuckle, in answering how his films were put together, was quoted as saying, "As we go along, fresh ideas pop out, and we all talk it over. I certainly have a clever crowd working with me. Mabel alone, is good for a dozen new suggestions in every picture." (7)

This said, Mabel Normand's talent lay in her being a prolific and original actress, not a cinematic visionary as such. While one could cite other possible reasons as well, perhaps the best single explanation for her limiting herself is that she simply didn't possess the pride of grand ambition to do more. Although she was naturally intelligent to the point of manifesting a kind of spontaneous and intuitive genius, her formal education was very limited. In consequence of which, she apppears to have been usually inclined to let others who she felt knew more take the lead when it came to larger matters of production. On the other hand, however, it may very well have been, knowing what else we do know about her, that she did aspire to do more production-wise, but that the politics of business forbade it.

Her initial main co-stars, both at Biograph and Keystone, were Dell Henderson, Sennett, Fred Mace and Ford Sterling. Though Henderson was not part of the Keystone troupe, he did figure prominently in Mabel's early Biograph comedies. (8) He usually played a husky, mild mannered, gentlemanly fellow, without much deviation. Sterling was featured more in her Keystone films, than the ones made with Biograph. Mace and Sennett, on the other hand, were regulars in both the Biograph and early Keystone comedies. Following these, it was later Chaplin and Arbuckle who shared center stage with her. Other Biograph and Keystone stars as well appeared prominently with her, such as Nick Cogley, Alice Davenport, Charles Avery, Al St. John and later Owen Moore. But it was the six mentioned here -- Dell Henderson, Fred Mace, Mack Sennett, Ford Sterling, Roscoe Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin who most often shared center screen with her.

The Roles

"Try to burlesque somebody. You'll notice that you probably do it with the sort of a brush that the bill-board posters use while small boys admiringly surround them. But you won't appear as clever to grown-ups as the poster-pasters do to the younger generation. Your brush is too thick, too wide, too everything. Burlesque is a delicate art, believe me. I'm no highbrow, as I said before, but I know that. And I know too, that when you make fun of people you have to mimic them with just the slightest exaggeration in order to be really funny. If you overdo it, you ruin, you ruin your performance, and it's pretty hard not to overdo your act. You have to watch every gesture, every action, no matter how small. A careless lifting of eye-brows may spoil a perfectly good hand-gesture. Watch your step all the time, and watch everything else you have about you, too. If you seem to have any idea that you're playing at something, you won't get across." (9)

In the period from 1911 to 1916, Mabel played a broad range of roles in her comic movies. To illustrate, the following is a listing of some of the kinds of roles, or characterizations, she acted -- along with the names of a token few of the films in which those roles appeared. Not surprisingly, also, it wasn't unusual to combine a few of these roles in one film: for example, the spoiled daughter and the flirt in "What the Doctor Ordered" and "The Speed Kings."

* Frivolous coquette or baby vamp: "Oh, Those Eyes," "A Dash Through the Clouds," "The Ragtime Band," "Caught in a Cabaret," "Mabel and Fatty's Wash Day."
* Spoiled girl: "Hot Stuff," "The Furs," "The Ragtime Band"
* Favorite daughter: "Troublesome Secretaries," "Tomboy Bessie," "Hide and Seek"
* Motherly sister: "Hide and Seek," "The Fatal Mallet," "Mabel's Blunder"
* Restless, attractive tomboy: "The Brave Hunter," "What The Doctor Ordered," "The Speed Kings," "A Muddy Romance," "Mabel at the Wheel"
* Teasing jokester: "Troublesome Secretaries," "Hide and Seek"
* Termagant or silly housewife: "His Trysting Place," "Mabel and Fatty's Wash Day"
* Jealous girl friend or wife: "The Fickle Spaniard," "His Trysting Place," "Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition"
* Newly wed bride: "That Little Band of Gold," "Fatty and Mabel Adrift"
* School teacher: "The Little Teacher"
* Somebody's playful, hard to control daughter: "Tomboy Bessie," "Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life," "Mabel's Wilful Way"
* Male impersonator: "Katchem Kate," "Mabel's Strategem," "Mabel's Blunder"
* Secretary: "Mabel's Strategem," "Mabel's Blunder"
* Scheming bad girl: "The Furs," "Tillie's Punctured Romance"
* Society girl or debutante: "Caught in a Cabaret," "Their Social Splash," "Mabel Lost and Won"
* Bathing beauty: "The Diving Girl," "The Water Nymph," "Mabel's New Hero"
* Flirtatious spouse: "Getting Acquainted," "Mabel and Fatty's Wash Day," "Mabel, Fatty and the Law"
* Farm or country girl: "The Bangville Police," "Those Country Kids," "Fatty and Mabel Adrift"
* Serving maid or working girl: "The Fickle Spaniard," " Mabel's Dramatic Career," "Mabel's Busy Day"
* Alternately tender and irresponsible mother: "His Trysting Place"
* Damsel or comic heroine: "Barney Oldfield's Race for A Life," "Cohen Saves the Flag," "Mabel At the Wheel," "Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life"

Given all these roles, who then was "Keystone Mabel?" The first film in which "Mabel" is used in the title is "Mabel's Lovers," released November 4, 1912. This was followed by a good many more such films lasting up into 1916. Because Mabel played different roles, "Mabel," as such was the character who took on these roles: "Mabel" as girlfriend, "Mabel" as race car driver, as spouse, as daughter, etc. In other words, she was, generally speaking, essentially the same character, "Mabel," in different roles. She was a combination of Mabel Normand the real person and the comic creation "Mabel." There was sensuality about her, often played upon in comic situations, such as bathing beauty settings. But more significantly, she had fire and gumption.

Rather than flee from a dangerous situation, her character will sometimes, out of naiveté or innocence, turn about to face it. In The Brave Hunter, she encounters a large circus bear on the loose. Though at first startled, rather than run from it she looks into its eyes and starts playing roughly with it. This intrepidity displayed itself in her real life as well, as related by Minta Durfee, to interviewer Don Schneider:
...she (Mabel) came down every Sunday and she and Roscoe would swim from in front of our house, to the Venice pier and back again, at 11 o'clock every Sunday morning.

"So one Sunday morning they came back, and instead of the two of them getting out of the water immediately and coming up on the sand, there was something going on, you couldn't make up your mind just exactly what it was, but I could see her arm over something, and I don't know what it was over, and nobody else did. Some people were standing, and of course all the strolling people on the strand, naturally came every day -- it became a regular excitement on Sunday, to see these people dining, all these stars, and people from the theater, and they were all standing there, and nobody could make up his mind what it was that was going on out there.

"Well, what it was, as they were swimming back, from the Venice pier, up came a dolphin, and instead of Mabel being frightened like anybody would, because none of us knew anything about dolphins in those days, -- she just put her arm over the neck of this dolphin and he swam right along with them.

"And do you know, every Sunday, for nearly a year, he came and swam with them, down and back, until one day they came back and then he disappeared, and they never saw him again. Isn't that interesting? Isn't that wonderful?" (10)

Occasionally, Mabel's film character will be acting within the story. In a film like "Oh, Those Eyes" and "Tomboy Bessie," for example, she plays someone who is play acting or putting it over on other characters, usually some foolish suitors. In such instances her character is essentially a silly, naive coquette seemingly sure of herself. Yet when thwarted, vexed or exposed, as called for by turn of events, her confident facade will at times drop off into laughter, tears or dismay.
Her Art

"I loved Florence Turner and Mary Fuller, but every fiber in my body responded to Flora Finch's celebrated comedies; and though I was quite unconscious of it, I can see now that I was always wondering how I would do the funny little stunts she did in her pictures. And, quite likely, figuring my way would be better!

"And to give you a sidelight on another angle of our early history: I had nobody to tell me what to do. Dramatic actresses had the stage to fall back on, the sure-fire hits of theatrical history in pose and facial expression; but I had to do something that nobody had ever done before.
"I had no precedent, nothing to imitate, for Flora Finch's art, based as it was on her angularity and candidly exploited homeliness, never would have fitted me. Other comediennes with equal frankness got their laughs with their fat bodies or their somewhat ghastly grotesquery of gesture.
"Since all previous laughs had been achieved through the spoken word and, in our early days, through slapstick hokey, I had to cleave a new path to laughter through the wilderness of the industry's ignorance and inexperience. I created my own standard of fun, simply letting spontaneity and my inborn sense of what is mirth-provoking guide me, for no director ever taught me a thing." (11)

Mabel's Screen Art

There are two key elements to Mabel Normand's screen art and the first of these, is her ability to be both beautiful and funny at the same time. Traditionally (though with some exception) the funny women in stage dramas and vaudeville were of ungainly appearance, their grotesque features and manners being what usually made them amusing. Flora Finch, the then popular Vitagraph comedienne with whom Mabel made at least one film, was noticeably tall and thin.

Mabel on the other hand showed, through film, that it was possible for someone to be both very attractive and very amusing. The humor here is of a paradoxical kind, arising out of the contrast between her demure prettiness, and her willful and some times rowdy behavior. Being beautiful and acting funny seems simple enough in theory, but pulling it off on screen is rarer and more difficult than might seem to be the case. It requires an actress to do nothing less than reconcile the ridiculous and the sublime. This in turn requires a more than normal perceptivity of self and persons of their immediate surroundings. It is an intelligence partly of a natural kind, based on an understanding of human feelings and nature, as opposed to something learned or intellectual. Mabel was successful because she avoided trying to upstage other players, and was empathetic of them. For this the players, and finally the audience, indulged her more, so that she was able to get away with more when it came to clowning.
A newspaper reporter once asked Mabel about whether it was hard for a pretty woman to be a success in film comedy:

"'Yes,' she answered. 'Most pretty girls who go into comedy work are content to be merely pretty. The great difference is to put character into acting without either distorting your face or using comedy make-up. Anyone who photographs well can walk on a scene and flirt with the comedian which is all that most good-looking girls are required to do in comedies. It takes very little ability on their part for all they have to do is follow direction. (And here Miss Normand gave an imitation of a comedy coquette flirting according to the commands of her director). But to make a farce heroine more than a mere doll, you must think out the situation yourself and above all you must pay great attention to every little detail in the scene. The little bits of business that seem insignificant are what make good comedy.'" (12)

The second key element to Mabel Normand's film art is her emotional fluidity, that is her remarkable ability to go from one emotion to another in a convincing manner. The range of feeling she could express was by any standard phenomenal. This range, as observed earlier, is no doubt in large part due to her training and experience as an artist's model. And despite the frequent changing of them, the emotions are authentic and ring true. She even looks believable when we know her character in the story is pretending the emotion.

A nominal instance, of which there really are countless, of Mabel's ability to go one emotion to another with rapid ease is in the Keystone short "Those Country Kids." She is sitting at the edge of a well; Roscoe Arbuckle standing beside her. The two are cheerfully talking and laughing together when Roscoe, with his big frame, accidentally knocks into her into the well. She falls backward, almost falling into the well, her legs holding to the edge keep her from going down entirely. Roscoe, aghast, and apologizes as he helps her back up. When she is reestablished to her seating position she vehemently gives him a good whack in the face with her hand, to which he responds by bawling. Seeing that she's made him sad, Mabel immediately attempts to console him, and the two make up. This approximately minute long sequence ends with her putting her arms around the distraught Roscoe and saying (in effect) "There, there, it's o.k."

Mabel's father, Claude Normand, at one time was a small theater and club pianist, and all her life Mabel showed a love and devotion to music.13 This is reflected overtly in a number of her films. In "Hot Stuff," "A Strong Revenge" and "Mabel Lost and Won" we see her dancing; playing piano in "Troublesome Secretaries," or singing "Caught in A Cabaret." Like Chaplin, the changeability of her gestures and emotions have a recognizably musical quality. A comparison might be to dancing in which a dancer's physical movements change to the movement and beat of the melody and rhythm. So Mabel's exaggerated comical gestures and movements on screen are synchronized with the real emotions she feels or portrays, to which gestures she adds a certain imaginative flair and whimsy. There is a certain rhythm to her movements almost as if she were "dancing" to the action in a story. This is easier to understand also when we realize that occasionally there might be musicians, for example violinists, banjo players, pianists, etc., playing while a film was being shot. Music accompanying shooting, however, was only made fairly standard by the time of the later Goldwyn and Sennett features, and could not always be had at Keystone.

Her Technique

Mabel Normand's screen technique incorporated three main aspects;
1. Physical gestures
2. Facial expressions
3. Ocular expressions
Rather than analyze them, a simple general listing suffices to give us a good idea of the kind of comic mime technique she had at her disposal. Keep in mind that these each of these gestures or expressions is often used in combination with another.
1. Physical gestures:
* Leaning forward and shaking her fist or pointing her finger (as if threatening vengeance)
* Clapping her hands together (to say "oh my")
* In "Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition," in a fit of vengeful rage, she spits into her hands and rubs them together as if to show that she's going to "give it" to Roscoe when she gets her hands on him. See also "Mabel's Busy Day."
* Putting her hand into her hair, throwing her head back in utter consternation
* Fluttering her hat in quick, rhythmic palpitation out of excitement or unfounded dread. See "Fatty and Mabel's Married Life," and "Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life"
2. Facial Expressions:
* Disdainful pouting
* Crying, with accompanying heaving chest
* Smiling, exuberant glee
* Mimicking (in an exaggerated or ridiculous way) someone else's anger or fuddy-duddy disposition.
* Receiving a blackberry pie in the face and crossing her eyes as she looks up
* Making a small circle with her mouth, like Betty Boop, in a moment of surprise, shock or dismay
* Winking her eye knowingly (as if to say "exactly!" or "you get it?")
3. Ocular Expressions:
* Looking coyly or skeptically off to the side
* Wide eyed for shock or surprise
* Eyes looking up to heaven when crying (as if to express in a silly way, "Why me, God?"

And, of course, Mabel's eyes alone are capable of wonders, which one can hardly begin to hint at.

One technique Mabel used, as pointed out by Sam Peebles, in Classic Film Collector, Aug. 1970, is the screen aside. With this, Mabel would look into the camera and make some kind of facial comment about the action taking place, similar to the way an actor making a stage aside would. Films where this device was used include "Tomboy Bessie," "Mabel's Married Life," "Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life" and "Wished on Mabel."

Mabel took what she did seriously and with great enthusiasm. On screen she is wonderfully energetic, and this energy typically, and with pleasing effect, imparts itself to those around her. She often acts in such a way, usually on films made on a set, that one could easily imagine an lively audience cheering her on. At the same time, she is often like a child at play. In "Katchem Kate," for instance, she plays a detective who disguises herself, and the effect is one such as might see in an imaginative child playing "cops and robbers" or "cowboys and Indians."

A Word About Stunts

"I have had to dive and swim in rough ocean scenes. I have fought with bears, fallen out of a rapidly moving automobile, jumped off a second story roof into a flower bed and risked life, limb and peace of mind in innumerable ways -- and all to make people laugh. Some work days I have gone home and cried with ache in body and heart and at the very moment of my misery thousands of theater-goers were rocking in their seats with laughter at some few scenes in which I had worked a few weeks before.

"But the heart-breaking scenes are not everyday occurrences. In many of the pictures the parts we play we love just as much as the audiences that see the finished product exhibited. There is the sweet and the bitter, much the same as in any other profession or business in which a girl makes her living." (14)

There is some controversy about which, if any, of her stunts Mabel used a double for. Given Mabel's dedication to work, and Sennett's penchant for penny pinching, there's little doubt that she did most, if not absolutely all, of the pre-1916 stunts (1912-1916) herself. So at least says tradition, and so seems to say most of the extent films. The following is a list of just some of these stunts.

*Dives off rock cliff into a river -- "The Squaw's Love"
*Flies aloft in a Curtiss-Pusher 1913 vintage aircraft -- "A Dash Through the Clouds"
*Dives off pier -- "The Diving Girl," "The Water Nymph"
*Rides a fast horse -- "Cohen Saves the Flag"
*Is tied to railroad track with oncoming locomotive approaching -- "Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life"
*Engages in brick-throwing fights -- "A Muddy Romance," "Mabel at the Wheel"
*Is dragged through the mud while hanging onto a rope -- "A Muddy Romance"
*Goes up alone in a hot air balloon -- "Mabel's New Hero"
*Rides tandem with Chaplin on motorcycle -- "Mabel at the Wheel"
*Drives an auto racing car -- "Mabel at the Wheel"
*Flies up in the air after her auto mobile explodes, then lands hanging by her hands from a tree limb -- "Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life"
*Dives off bridge -- "The Little Teacher"
*Is tied to a rock in the ocean -- "My Valet"
*Rests atop a house floating at sea -- "Fatty and Mabel Adrift"

Go to to part 3

Return to part 1

Return to Articles and Essays page