A Muchness of Mabel’s Movies at Midnight

Tonight at Midnight (Eastern) TCM will be screening several silent comedy shorts featuring the incomparable Mabel Normand:

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The Bangville Police (1913) 

The Bangville Police is the comedy short containing what is considered by many to be the first appearance of The Keystone Kops (others consider the first to have been  1912′ Hoffmeyer’s Legacy). To muddy the water some, the kops aren’t uniformed in this one, they’re an all-volunteer force in a rural community called Bangville, quite different from the urban Los Angeles settings we’re accustomed to seeing the Kops run amok in. (One wonders if it isn’t a riff on Essanay’s “Snakeville” series).

At any rate Fred Mace plays the head Kop in this one. Ford Sterling, who normally plays the Kops’ Chief is in it, but just as a regular officer. Other Kops in this film include Edgar Kennedy, Hank Mann and Al St. John. Mack Sennett directed. Mabel Normand plays a young farm girl who thinks she hears robbers in the barn and calls the police in. After much brouhaha and fol-de-rol, the Kops arrive and break into the barn, only to find that all the commotion has been caused by — oh but wait! Why should I tell you? Watch for yourself!

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Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913) 

Directed by Mack Sennett, starring Sennett, Normand, and Alice Davenport. It’s a great little film: mama’s boy Mack disses his girlfriend, the housemaid (Mabel) who runs off to the big city and becomes a star. The coolest part of this film is the scene in the theatre, giving us an invaluable glimpse at what attending the cinema was like in the days of nickelodeons.

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Mabel’s Married Life (1914)

Directed by Sennett and co-starring Mabel and Charlie Chaplin In this film Chaplin plays a character somewhat unlike his more recognized Little Fellow. Here he is a middle class husband in a top hat. And Normand, not Chaplin, is still the above-the-title star at this early stage. There are several ironclad laws in the Keystone universe. One of them is, if you are in the park with your wife NEVER LEAVE HER ALONE ON A PARK BENCH. Mabel plays Charlie’s wife in this one, and the instant he steps away, masher Mack Swain shows up to harass her. When he gets back, Charlie doesn’t do much to punish the man. Later, Mabel brings home a dressmaker’s dummy for Charlie to practice punching on. That night, he comes home three sheets to the wind, mistakes the dummy for a prowler, and has a hilarious fight with it.

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Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916)

Directed by and co-starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Normand. In the two years following Chaplin’s departure from Keystone (1915-1916) Arbuckle-Normand team-ups were Mack Sennett’s most formidable box office combination. The pair appeared in dozens of films together, most frequently as a domestic couple. It’s especially exciting and instructive to watch the ones towards the end of this period, when the confidence that comes with prolonged stardom informs their performances, and when Arbuckle’s skills as a director blossom. Shortly after this, Arbuckle went on to his own starring series for his own company Comique, and Normand went on to her own starring series of features for Sam Goldwyn. These 1916 Fatty-Mabel shorts are kind of like Beatles records from 1968 or 1969. You’re experiencing artists who are about to be big solo stars, but still interacting in a format they’re beginning to outgrow, in this case the ensemble comedy short. The product of that tension can be very rich.

The plot of Fatty and Mabel Adrfit is very simple. Sweethearts Fatty and Mabel get married and take their honeymoon at a seaside cottage, along with another of Arbuckle’s frequent Keystone co-stars, Luke the Dog. Unfortunately, Fatty’s rival for Mabel’s hand (played as usual by Al St. John) is not through fighting. He and his several henchmen put the little house out to sea. Fatty and Mabel wake up the next day to find themselves far away from shore in a house full of water. The climactic scenes of this comedy are spectacular, on a scale we usually associate with Larry Semon or with Arbuckle’s protege Buster Keaton. Sennett rarely shelled out for such big budget extravagances, but at this stage he was trying to keep both co-stars happy so they wouldn’t “pull a Chaplin” by leaving him. (As we said, they both soon did anyway). How can Fatty and Mabel escape their dire predicament? Perhaps their heroic pooch will be of some help…

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He Did and He Didn’t (1916)

One of Arbuckle’s and Norman’s last movies for Sennett. Quite a good little movie — maybe even Arbuckle’s best film, as it has a bit of emotional depth to it, while still being funny. Fatty and Mabel are a rich married couple. He’s a doctor (although that part of the exposition doesn’t emerge very clearly). They live in a mansion with servants. It opens with them dressing for dinner and bickering.  The dinner guest is her childhood sweetheart (William Jefferson). Fatty is very jealous of their little endearments. Later he is called away to a housecall (a false alarm), then returns to confront his rival — and a pair of burglars led by Al St. John (who does a spectacular stunt on the chandelier). We can hardly believe our eyes when our heroes shoot each other…until it turns out to be a bad dream, spurred on by the lobster they had for dinner.

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Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life (1915) 

In this one, Fatty and Mabel are in rural mode, with Mabel as a farmer’s daughter and Fatty as the farmhand who loves her. Lots of fun at the expense of cows and calves is had during their flirtation. But there is trouble in this bucolic paradise. In parody of the old stage melodramas, Al St. John arrives as the son who holds the mortgage on the farm. The farmer (Josef Swickard) is behind in his payments. Mabel must marry St. John or the farm will be seized! Fatty and Mabel flee, pursued by St. John, the father and cops. The climax is most enjoyable. People fly through the air and fall down wells! And of course Fatty and Mabel succeed in their escape and get married.

The Water Nymph (1912) 

An early one starring Normand, Sennett, Sterling, et al.  In The Water Nymph Mabel basically reprises a role she first played for Sennett in her very first movie for him The Diving Girl (Biograph, 1911). Her scandalous appearance in her bathing suit made her something of a sensation, and she was known as “The Diving Girl” for some time after. The buzz helped put Sennett on the map, and epitomized the sort of outrageousness Keystone became known for. In time, he would develop an entire stable of Bathing Beauties.

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