Thursday, November 09, 2017

This Weekend: Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum Pays Tribute To Mabel Normand

"Scholars would do well to refocus attention on Normand’s distinctive contribution to early cinema and slapstick comedy, as well as the nature of her directorial work for Keystone." The Women Film Pioneers Project

Tomorrow is the 125th natal anniversary of one of the greatest comediennes in the history of motion pictures, the winsome and very funny Mabel Normand (1892-1930). Fittingly, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum shall present a tribute to Mabel this Saturday and Sunday, November 11-12, 2017.

Recent books about the silent movie great include Timothy Dean Lefler's biography and Steve Massa's comprehensive and superb book on the numerous women of silent film comedy, Slapstick Divas, which devotes an entire chapter to her.

Recognition for Mabel Normand - an actress, comedienne, writer, director and an aviator who did her own stunts - is long overdue. Timothy Lefler will be on hand to sign copies of his book, Mabel Normand, The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap, as part of the weekend tribute at Niles.

Mabel preceded Charlie Chaplin as a movie star and appeared in 220 films. She started working in movies for Vitagraph, where she began headlining the studio's "Betty" comedies in 1910. Her recurring character even supported top comedian and king of the lot John Bunny.

This would be followed by her starring roles in a slew of short subjects produced by Mack Sennett at Biograph in 1912. She demonstrated exceptional talent and versatility - acting, writing, directing and performing death-defying stunts - including, in the preparation for her action-adventure-comedy A Dash Through the Clouds, flying an airplane.

When Sennett left Biograph to form his own studio, Keystone, later that year, Mabel would be key among the stock company, (along with Sennett, Ford Sterling and Fred Mace), starring in one of the studio's first releases, The Water Nymph. Along with Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle, she would be among the breakout stars of Mack Sennett's Keystone in the World War I years.

Her style was often subtle, underplayed and naturalistic, looking forward to the likes of Myrna Loy and Claudette Colbert while simultaneously demonstrating a flair for 1916 style visual comedy. She could take pratfalls with the best of them but also shine in dramatic roles, such as the part in Roscoe Arbuckle's brilliant 1916 film He Did & He Didn't. In this respect, for the most part, Mabel's performances differed from such talented, funny and likable "baggy pants comediennes" as Louise Fazenda, Alice Howell and Gale Henry, her sisters in slapstick who were the silent era predecessors of Lucille Ball and Joan Davis.

One could argue that the greatest comedienne to ever appear in motion pictures was not Lucille Ball, Martha Raye, the larger-than-life Marie Dressler or even the amazing Carole Lombard, but that bright star of the teens and 1920's, Madcap Mabel.

Dubbed "the female Chaplin," she was the top comedienne in silents.

Mabel co-stars with Charlie in some 1914 Keystones, and they work beautifully off each other.

The museum's Mabel Normand Birthday Weekend program begins on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with three films she starred in for Mack Sennett.

In the feature presentation, The Extra Girl (1923) Mabel plays a small town girl who comes to Hollywood with aspirations to be a movie star; let's just say things do not work out quite as planned. It will be preceded by two short subjects, the aforementioned A Dash Through the Clouds (1912), in which ever-intrepid Mabel takes a spin in a marginally more modern version of those contraptions flown by Orville and Wilbur Wright, and a 35mm print of the Keystone classic Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916), a wild and melodramatic action comedy with sweet, romantic undertones; Mabel shares the spotlight with frequent co-star Roscoe Arbuckle and, portraying the crazed raving psycho villain (with about 8 pounds of relish), rubber-legged Al St. John.

At 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 12, there will be free screenings of two short films about Mabel Normand by Rudy Cecera, Madcap Mabel (2010) and Mabel’s Dressing Room (2013). As part of the Laurel & Hardy Talkie Matinee show at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, there shall be a screening of Mabel's 1926 Hal Roach Studio vehicle The Nickel-Hopper, which features Oliver Hardy and Boris Karloff in supporting roles.

This represents Miss Normand's last film series, some of which were written and directed by Stan Laurel. Also on the bill: Beau Hunks (1931), starring Laurel & Hardy, and the Our Gang short Shrimps for a Day (1935).

For more: there is a Mabel Normand YouTube channel

Also highly recommend the very good entry on Mabel posted as part of the Women Film Pioneers Project website.

As previously mentioned, read Timothy Dean Lefler's Mabel Normand, The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap and Steve Massa's Slapstick Divas.

In the latter, Mabel and many more groundbreaking grand dames of motion pictures finally get their proper due.

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