Mabel Normand and the forgotten funny women of silent film

Pamela Hutchinson

Pamela Hutchinson on the pioneering comediennes whose recognition is long-overdue

23 November 2018 15:33

The career of Mabel Normand represents one of the biggest gaps in popular film history. Why isn’t this uproariously funny comic, who starred in more than 167 shorts and 23 features, remembered as one of the greats of silent comedy? Instead, there is a long-established male hierarchy in slapstick: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton at the top, vying for the number one slot, with Laurel & Hardy and Harold Lloyd snapping at their heels. Then there’s Roscoe Arbuckle, Charlie Chase, Raymond Griffith and many more, cramming in to the picture like a cohort of bungling Keystone Cops. For years the top ranks have been pictured this way, as a boys-only club, with room only for comedians, not comediennes. In his 1975 slapstick bible The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr even declared: ‘No comedienne ever became a truly important silent film clown.’ The reason being, he argued, the beauty standards required of women in the film industry. ‘Comediennes, from Mabel Normand all the way to Marion Davies, laboured under an instant handicap: they had to be pretty… The girl was expected to function as a girl, no matter what incidental nonsense she might be capable of; grotesques need not apply, except for supporting roles.’

It’s a misperception that is finally shifting. A hundred years after the fact, it seems we are finally appreciating the contribution of women to the art of silent comedy, including many more great comediennes besides Normand and Davies. Recent books such as Steve Massa’s Slapstick Divas (2017) and Maggie Hennefeld’s Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes (2018) are changing our idea of the comedy canon, and in the UK, screenings as part of the nationwide BFI Comedy Genius season and at the annual Slapstick Festival in Bristol should help to get the word out further. For the record, Marion Davies was deathlessly hilarious, squeezing acclaimed comic set pieces into the action of hit comedies including Show People (1928) and The Patsy (1964), and I would add to that list Marie Dressler, Beatrice Lillie, Colleen Moore, Alice Howell, Laura La Plante, Zasu Pitts and Mary Pickford, just for starters. If we go back further in time, a phalanx of rambunctious women were making boisterous comedies in the pre-Hollywood years: Cunégonde and Rosalie in France, Florence Turner, Laura Bayley and the ‘Tilly Girls’ in Britain. If you’ve been led to believe that women took only dramatic roles in silent cinema, take a second look at these comics, who were as comfortable falling, fighting and making a mess as any of their male counterparts.

Mabel Normand is the woman who came closest to smashing the custard ceiling and becoming celebrated for her comic talent first and foremost, so it’s worth taking a look at her career in more detail. It’s a story that begins with great promise and ends in mystery and scandal. Normand had no stage training, entering the film industry after working as a model for Charles Dana Gibson. As a result, she was natural and unselfconscious on camera, loose of limb and equally comfortable as a glamour girl in fussy gowns or as a tomboy in dungarees. As a performer and director, she was a stalwart of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios and worked with greats including Chaplin, Arbuckle, Dressler, Laurel and Hardy (separately). She would be romantically entangled with Sennett on and off for years (and chronically underpaid by him too), a fact which has combined with other salacious Hollywood tales to detract from Normand’s talent.

‘What Happened to Rosa’ (Victor Schertzinger, 1920)

As well as the rough-and-tumble of Sennett’s slapstick short films, she starred in a handful of popular feature-length comedies in the 1920s for other studios. Normand was also instrumental in Chaplin’s career, directing his first appearance as the ‘little tramp’ and even throwing the first cream pie to land on his face. She acted as not just his leading lady, but his mentor on occasion, and even persuaded producer Sennett to give him another chance when he felt like dropping him. Sadly, Chaplin felt the need to write in his autobiography that he rejected her direction: ‘charming as she was, I doubted her competence’. Normand was a star in her own right, though, leading a series of films featuring her name in the title, from Mabel’s Lovers (Mack Sennett) in 1912 to Mabel Lost and Won (Mabel Normand) in 1915, including a long-running partnership with Arbuckle.

Her comedy could be every bit as physical as that of her male co-stars – and daring too. Just like them, she ran, jumped, shot guns, flew airplanes and rode horses in the line of slapstick duty. She told the Los Angeles Times in 1916 that she had ‘fought with bears, fallen out of a rapidly moving automobile, jumped off a second storey roof into a flower bed and risked life, limb and peace of mind in innumerable ways’. However, she had the dramatic talent to make her comedy character-driven as well. In this perhaps, it helped that she was attractive too ­– she incorporated her comedy into the role of a leading lady, or more often, a young and adventurous heroine. In fact, it was part of Normand’s appeal that she was funny and beautiful at the same time, with studio publicity referring to her as the ‘sugar on the Keystone grapefruit’. She shared her secret with the New York Morning Telegraph in 1916: ‘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 makeup.’ Silent era critics seemed to revel in the idea of a beautiful comedienne, with Julian Johnson of Photoplay describing Normand as ‘a kiss that explodes in a laugh; cherry bon-bons in a clown’s cap; sharing a cream puff from your best girl; a slap from a perfumed hand’.

Just as a little salt makes a cake taste sweeter, it’s this tension between sweet and silly, sentiment and humour that makes silent comedy such a success. Kerr looks back on a Normand feature such as Mickey (F. Richard Jones, James Young, 1918), for example, as a ‘stylistic muddle’ that was miraculously such a hit with audiences that cinema owners dubbed it ‘the mortgage-lifter’. While it may not conform to Kerr’s idea of a comedy, this whimsical caper in which Normand plays a fish-out-of-water hick from mining country mingling in high New York society is undoubtedly funny. In fact, it’s a hoot, even if it does seem to be three separate films stitched into one. The comedy is boisterous too: Normand causes havoc and what should be several thousand dollars’ worth of damage attempting to play housemaid with an antique grandfather clock, crams several sweets from the top of a cake into her mouth at the same time, and leaps on to a moving horse to take part in a race. Audiences of the time recognized Mickey as delicious way to pass an afternoon in the cinema (it was the year’s biggest hit), and Normand considered it her best work.

‘The Extra Girl’ (F. Richard Jones, 1923)

Just as Chaplin introduced serious and sentimental themes into his classic films, some of the best female-led comedies of the silent era mix tones and styles too. Mary Pickford made straightforwardly lighthearted romantic comedies such as My Best Girl (Sam Taylor, 1926) as well as weaving comic elements into her gothic-tinged drama Sparrows (William Beaudine, 1926) about abused orphans. Exit Smiling (Sam Taylor, 1926), starring revue star Beatrice Lillie, is a feel-bad comedy about a wannabe actress in a down-at-heel repertory troupe, which teeters on the brink of melancholy and hilarity at all times, as we wait for our starry-eyed heroine to have her dreams shattered. And yes, it’s still laugh-out-loud silly at times, too.

After such a promising start as an actor-director, Normand’s career came to a messy and slightly mysterious finish. She never really had the chance to command her own production company or studio as Lloyd or Chaplin did, and we can only imagine what she would have done given the chance. While she was one of the first comic performers to direct herself, those films were made rapidly and in accordance with the raucous Keystone house style – it’s more or less impossible to discern Normand’s work from her colleagues. Surprise hit Mickey was the first film made by her own studio Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, founded in conjunction with her old boss Sennett, and the last one too. She continued starring films for other studios, including 1923’s The Extra Girl (F. Richard Jones), about the experiences of a young woman coming to Hollywood to find fame, but she was linked to a series of scandals, albeit at one or two removes, and her health began to deteriorate too. There have been suggestions that she was taking opiates to cope with injuries she received on set, which might explain her increasingly erratic behaviour throughout the 1920s. She remained capable of achieving great comic heights though, as in the gleeful criminal caper Should Men Walk Home? (Leo McCarey, 1927), but she died in 1930 of TB, aged only 37.

Mabel Normand’s story has a sad end, but she was just one of a number of talented comediennes working in silent Hollywood. These pioneering women could be every bit as raucous, cerebral or even sentimental as the male clowns, and they have been making people laugh for generations. Their recognition may be well overdue, but their comedy never goes out of date. It’s just that now, we are finally taking funny women seriously.

 

A selection of Mabel Normand’s short films are screening with a new score by Meg Morely as part of BFI Comedy season at BFI Southbank, on BFI Player and at venues across the UK. On 29 November at BFI Southbank, Bryony Dixon and Pamela Hutchinson will discuss women in silent film comedy as part of a panel discussion. This event will be followed by screenings of Mickey and Exit Smiling.

In January, the Slapstick Festival in Bristol celebrates the women of silent comedy, with events devoted to the comic work of  Alice Howell, Mary Pickford, Cunégonde and Louise Brooks. Read more here.