Good Golly, Miss Mabel!

mabel

On Saturday April 6th, I attended “1000 Laffs: When Stan Met Ollie”at the Revue theater, as part of the Toronto Silent Film Festival. The event, with wonderful live accompaniment by Jordan Klapman, showcased five silent comedies featuring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in the years before they became the beloved duo “Laurel and Hardy”.

The theater was jam packed (so much so that my partner and I had to take the “rubberneck” seats at the front) and I was pleasantly surprised to see many children in attendance. Today’s filmmakers have such little faith in children that they bombard modern “family” flicks with adult music, crude humor and eyeball blasting CGI. The obvious delight that the kids in attendance on Saturday had for these classic silent comedies (one of which was over a hundred years old) speaks to the timeless appeal of a more simplistic and human approach to storytelling.

With all due respect to the great Laurel and Hardy, the real star of the afternoon was Mabel Normand who got the biggest laughs as a sassy con-artist in Should Men Walk Home? (1927). Her charming performance is made all the more impressive by the fact that she was suffering from tuberculosis at the time (sadly, this would be one of her last screen appearances as she would succumb to the disease in early 1930). It is a shame that today Normand is best remembered for her doomed relationships with Mack Sennett and William Desmond Taylor, for in addition to being a captivating comedian, Normand was also an accomplished screenwriter, producer and director.

In the excellent 1979 book Hollywood: The Pioneers, author Kevin Brownlow writes of an incident on the Keystone Studios lot which gives us a taste of the misogyny that Normand was up against:

While working at Keystone, Normand was assigned to direct Charlie Chaplin who, according to Brownlow, was physically attracted to Mabel but “refused to acknowledge her competence.” When Normand rejected one of Chaplin’s gag ideas due to time constraints, Chaplin, Brownlow writes “refused to play the scene, and sat on the curb in a sulk.” (Source: Hollywood: The Pioneers (1979) by Kevin Brownlow and John Kobal, p. 143, Chapter 14).

The 1992 biopic Chaplin recreates this event but further disrespects Mabel by portraying her as a humorless nag instead of the professional that she was.

One of the true pioneers of the film industry, Mabel Normand deserves to be remembered for much more than her romantic relationships. And that’s no laughing matter.

By Heather Babcock, 2019