We live in an age where there’s little wiggle room for transgression, even if you unknowingly commit an Offence.
However, to be fair, every era enforces its societal standards, along with punishments for those who do not Play By The Rules.
Some people have immunity from these consequences, and some do not, while others are exiled for a time, but have the charisma to override societal objections.
We’re thinking, specifically, of Mabel Normand, actress, filmmaker, and one-time mentor of Charlie Chaplin. She lived a scandalous life by the standards of any era: She was a Person of Interest in the murder of director William Desmond Taylor, and she was a friend of disgraced film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle – among other things.
It was thought she kept Poor Company, and her films were kept out of circulation for a spell. But that would come later in her career, in the 1920s, when scandal and illness would making working difficult.
Even so, her death in 1930 was regarded as the end of the silent era, and some of the Biggest Hollywood Names were pallbearers at her funeral. No matter what did (or didn’t) happen in her short and prolific life, audiences loved Mabel Normand.
In the mid 1910s, Mabel had her own production company, which made the highest-grossing movie of 1918: Mickey.
Mabel stars as the tomboy-ish, free-ranging daughter of an unsuccessful gold miner (George Nichols), who sends her to live with an aunt in New York City where she can learn to be a Lady.
Alas, this greedy aunt (Laura La Varnie) thinks Mabel is wealthy, and she’s severely disappointed to learn Otherwise. So she makes Mabel the household servant, and becomes further distressed when Mabel catches the eye of her daughter’s Very Rich boyfriend.
It’s an amusing story, with scenes that pull at your heart. On the surface, the film appears very much to be a Product of Its Time, e.g. the clothes and technology, but it’s surprisingly modern.
For example, look at the relationship between Nichols and his “housekeeper” (Minnie Devereaux), a pipe-smoking indigenous woman. Devereaux is a clever supporting player; in her brief scenes, she shows us she loves this crazy family, but also regards them as morons. (Which they sometimes are, let’s face it.)
What really makes this film feel fresh, we think, is Mabel herself, playing a woman who’s unconventional as her real self. Watch her, and see how natural she is. She’s playing for the camera and through it, simultaneously winking at us and giving us a professional Hollywood performance.
It’s quite a trick. For example, when she pokes another character in jest, her actions almost seem to break the fourth wall. It’s us she’s teasing, letting us in on the joke.
Suddenly, she’s no longer a two-dimensional figure on a screen; she’s a fascinating young woman speaking directly to us from over a century ago. She – unintentionally or not – makes the other characters seem Very Conscious they’re actors in a movie.
It would be difficult to be a cast member in a Mabel Normand film, because she doesn’t steal the scene; she is the scene.
Mickey was the only film produced by the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, and you can read more about the film’s production and delayed release HERE, along with the company’s ill-fated financial structure.
It’s hard to imagine, but Mickey was a slow-starter in terms of box office sales. Wikipedia says it wasn’t widely distributed for almost a year, but when it Took Hold, audiences couldn’t Get Enough. It saw, apparently, an annual re-release until 1921. According to Wikipedia, almost 41 million tickets were sold for the film, a record that wasn’t beaten until 1938.
It makes you wonder, What If? What if Mabel didn’t battle tuberculosis for most of her life? What if her production company had made more films?
What if she didn’t die Too Soon at the age of 36?
Mabel was one of the most prolific filmmakers of her day. On Silent Movie Day, we encourage you to seek out one of her films, especially the 1918 smash, Mickey.
Mickey: starring Mabel Normand, George Nichols, Laura La Varnie. Directed by F. Richard Jones & James Young. Written by J.G. Hawkes. Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, 1918, B&W, 73 mins.