Friday, January 13, 2017

The NFR Project #39: 'Mabel's Blunder'

Mabel Normand, an early Hollywood hyphenate.
Mabel’s Blunder
Dir: Mabel Normand
Prod: Mack Sennett
Scr: Mabel Normand
Phot: unknown
Premiere: Sept. 12, 1914

She was the first female comedy star. She was funny without playing an eccentric type; she was no Dumb Dora or crazy old maid. She was a recognizably contemporary woman, normal except for the situations she found herself in. She was lovely, but could make funny faces. She could do slapstick; she was the first heroine to be tied to the railroad tracks in film, and is held to be the first person to throw a custard pie. She was the life of the party until it all caught up with her.

She came from the prosaic confines of Staten Island, and soon grabbed the attention of comedy kingpin Mack Sennett, both professionally and personally. She thrived as a comedy draw, and was key in encouraging and teaching Chaplin about how to work on film. After he left Keystone, she paired up with Fatty Arbuckle for a string of successful films.

At the height of her popularity, throughout 1914, she wrote and/or directed some one-quarter of her own films. The results, as in Mabel’s Blunder, are not significant stylistically – they look like any other Keystone comedies. Here, she’s an “office girl” with a horny boss, who’s in love with the boss’s son. She misapprehends that he’s cheating on her (it’s his sister; oddly, she must have never come up in conversation before). She changes clothes with her brother, conveniently his chauffeur, and tracks them. Complications multiply. 

There’s an early sighting of future comedy great Charley Chase, and Keystone stalwart Al St. John is in the cast, as is the future prolific director and Buster Keaton collaborator Eddie Cline.

Other early female directors such as Guy-Blache, Azner, and Dulac are far more watchable. Still, it’s fun to see Normand’s winsome charm at work – and it certainly shows that the gender of the person behind the camera didn’t matter.

Normand is better known now for her involvement in scandals of the era. She lived hard, had many disappointments and died young. But she’s till funny.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘Tess of the Storm Country.’

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