The Film Comedy of Mabel Normand: 1916-1927

by William Thomas Sherman

(Part 2)

"What Happened to Rosa"6

By 1916 -1917, the raucous Keystone brand of slapstick was deemed in to have passed its nadir, and was generally falling out of favor -- at least in many circles of the industry if not the public. Mabel herself had grown quite weary of it. When she came to the Goldwyn from Sennett, the original concept Goldwyn had was to create a more refined, genteel kind of comedy for Mabel. This was what both Goldwyn and Mabel wanted. However, during the course of her working with him, in films like Peck's Bad Girl, The Jinx, Pinto, this policy was relaxed or purposely disregarded, in light of the public's great enthusiasm for the lovable mischief-maker they saw in Mickey.
The following are the films Mabel made for the Goldwyn Corporation, grouped according to site of production, and listed with release date and director.

Ft. Lee, New Jersey:
Dodging a Million (Jan.1918, director: George Loane Tucker), The Floor Below (Mar. 1918, dir: Clarence Badger7), Joan of Plattsburg (May 1918, dir: Tucker), The Venus Model (June 1918, dir: Badger), Back to the Woods (July 1918, dir: George Irving), Peck's Bad Girl (Sept. 1918, dir: Charles Giblyn), A Perfect 36 (Oct. 1918, dir: Giblyn)

Culver City, California:
Sis Hopkins (Feb. 1919, dir: Badger), The Pest (Apr. 1919, dir: Christy Cabanne), When Doctors Disagree (May 1919, dir: Victor Schertzinger), Upstairs (Aug. 1919, dir: Schertzinger), The Jinx (Sept. 1919, dir: Schertzinger), Pinto (Feb. 1920, dir: Schertzinger), The Slim Princess (July 1920, dir: Schertzinger), What Happened to Rosa (Apr. 1921, dir: Schertzinger), Head Over Heels (April 1922, dir: Schertzinger)

Both with Mickey and Goldwyn, Mabel was becoming more conscientious of herself as an artist, and in articles and interviews of the time expressed herself very intelligently on her work. Much of the most best writing about Mabel, and her art, both written by herself as well as by others, comes from this period, some of which can be found in the Source Book section. As well, she continued to collaborate with her directors in coming up with gags, just as she had done at Keystone.

Nevertheless, it was also during this period of the late teens, that Mabel was having serious health problems. To what extent this was the result of regular illness or drugs, her on occasion emaciated appearance in some stills of this period sometimes makes sadly plain. It is casually taken as given by historians that her main problem was drugs. Yet assuming there was a problem, it is at all necessarily the reason why she does not look well in a particular still. As mentioned previously, during production of Mickey, she had come down with serious whooping cough. Sometime, probably late 1919, she reportedly had an affair with Samuel Goldwyn followed by a very sad, miscarried pregnancy, which could not have helped her health. To all of which could be added what might be termed the general dissipation that afflicted many of the newly rich film stars, including, at least for a time, Mabel. The country itself, from 1918-1919, was sick with an influenza epidemic, and the war itself had rocked the country psychologically. One should be cautious then in jumping to conclusions about what Mabel was or was not ill with at a given time. The available evidence on the subject of drugs and her illness is scanty, often times of a dubious origin, highly conjectural and rarely specific. This is not to deny there was a drug problem, only that we are in no position to know its true character.
But that she was not well at most any given time during this period with something is certainly not in question.

Yet despite her frequently appearing pallid and not all that well, perhaps on occasion even looking rather strangely in her expression, we are left with the seemingly conflicting fact that Mabel's Goldwyn films were extremely well-received and got good box office -- indeed more so than just about anything else the Goldwyn company was issuing at that time. Much of the answer to this apparent anomaly could no doubt be found in the films themselves. Those, unfortunately are just not available to us -- except for Rosa. It might very well be possible to reconstruct a good deal of what Mabel was doing and what was going on in the lost Goldwyn films based on numerous stills, comparisons with her other features, and contemporary write-ups. Indeed such an inquiry would be an extremely interesting kind of study and detective work. However, for practical expediency's sake, we will have to relegate this survey to the one surviving film.

The second to last of her Goldwyn films, released in Apr. 1921, What Happened to Rosa is an entertaining, light comedy. In its time, it probably passed for something like what we would today think of as a "sit-com."8 Though fairly frivolous fun without pretension, it is not without its elegant Goldwyn touches. Directed by Victor Schertzinger, who directed all of her later Goldwyn films,9 the film concerns a hum-drum department store employee, Mayme Ladd, who after visiting a crank clairvoyant, secretly imagines herself a mysterious Spanish beauty named Rosa Alvero. Mabel, consequently, is given the interesting opportunity in this film to play two roles at once. In some ways, What Happened to Rosa is a more pleasant and enjoyable than her later Sennett features because Mabel is emotionally more "light on her feet," and while noticeably more slow than before, she is still natural in her movements, and does not seem to be suffering from the off-screen distress that is so sorely apparent in much of the later films. Curiously, given what we know about these years, there is no obvious suggestion of any health problems -- other than an overly glazed expression in one brief store-counter scene.

For first time in her features -- though not the last -- she comes across as too old for the main part. Far from being convincing as a silly shop girl, she more often looks like the worldly-sophisticated and intelligent woman she actually was. Hence Rosa Alvero is considerably more convincing than Mayme Ladd. Mayme as a character is somewhat incoherent -- again largely because Mabel just seems too mature and experienced to be taken for a naïve girl -- a problem which was to mar most of her later films. Rosa is much more engaging. Furthermore, the charm of her portrayal of Rosa is that she is not merely Rosa Alvero, but, more precisely -- and here's the nice distinction -- she is playing Mayme Ladd as Mayme, day-dreaming, plays Rosa Alvero to be.

We get some idea of how Mabel approached such roles and tried to become her character from in contemporary articles she reputedly authored:

"And here again we come to the root of humor that I mentioned before: being human. That's being natural. When I played the part of a poor little hoyden in one of my pictures "Jinx" I tried to remember during the entire making of the production that I was a homeless little wretch grateful for kindness from anyone. In another picture I played the part of a little slavey who longed from the kitchen to reach the bliss of the grand ball-room upstairs. And when I reached there and played the part of a lady I tried not to forget that I had been a slavey a few moments before. Things puzzled me a little; I wasn't quite sure that what I did was the correct thing, but I was as good as the rest in my heart and proud of my clothes; oh, so very, very proud of my new, fashionable clothes!"10

Similarly, two years later she wrote:

"Naturalness is the most important element in acting. To develop naturalness you must develop understanding of human nature. You must be able to determine just what a certain type of person would do in a certain situation.

In "Molly-O," for instance, I was given the situation of a girl from the slums entering a beautiful and luxurious mansion. What would my feelings be as a washerwoman's daughter coming into a beautiful kitchen? I would be curious, of course, and very intent upon the surroundings. I must not affect curiosity, I must feel curious. Then I saw the serving man taking cakes from a box and placing them on a plate. They were very good looking cakes, and naturally I developed interest in them. I wanted one terribly. For a moment my conscience argued with my appetite. I argued the thing over to myself. Then, suddenly, my hand shot into the jar and I took one and stuffed it into my mouth as though doing it while my conscience wasn't looking. After the first cookie, the process was easier. I couldn't get enough of them. There were several emotions in conflict even in such a little scene.

The conflict of conscience and appetite, the fear of being apprehended, the delight at the first taste of a delicious cake such as I never tasted before, and the feverish haste with which I secured more of them and secreted them about myself.

It is very easy to do such things after the business has been thought out by the star and the director, but the important thing is to feel the impulses that prompt the action. You must place yourself entirely in the character's place and feel exactly what she would feel in such a situation, otherwise your expression would fall short of realism and be nothing but "mugging." While watching an actress going through a scene on the screen, ask yourself whether or not you would do the things she does. If not, what would you do? How would you improve on her work? Wherein does her work ring false and why?"11

Unlike Mabel of earlier films, Mabel in Rosa, and for that matter most all of her subsequent films, is decidedly more slow to react to things and people. She is as pretty as ever, but her reactions to some situations is decidedly toned down and hesitant compared to "Keystone Mabel." At times she looks simply bored. And while she still imparts a warm sympathy to her role, the bubbly, ever laughing Mabel of the Biograph and Keystone is mostly gone.
Even so, the new Mabel is not without great charms of her own. Again, the part of playing Mayme imagining she's Rosa Alvero, gives her a superb opportunity to shine, in scenes that are often quite both lyrically charming and at the same time wryly amusing; in particular the sequence, alone in her bedroom in which she imagines herself with Dr. Drew, played by Hugh Thompson, and the masquerade ball sequences.
Masked Rosa, appearing with fan in hand, descending the staircase is arguably as stunning and exotic a grand entrance shot, as ever to appear in a film. The only fault of the sequence is its brevity. The wonderful lighting, by the way, does much to help achieve the entrancing effect, but it is Mabel who brings together the magic.

On the regrettable side are a bizarre brawl with a street urchin, who understandably will not give up to her his clothes so she can disguise herself as a street waif. Its absurd without being at all humorous, and merely reminds us that "crazy" does not always mean funny. Also Mayme's fawning on Doctor Drew -- to the bizarre extreme of attempting to get an in jury in an auto accident in order to see him(!)12 -- is rather distasteful and demeaning -- again without being all that funny. As always Mabel is interesting to watch, but these last 15 minutes of the film, though as likable as the rest of the film in their they way, are just too devoid of real comic substance to be taken seriously. Rather than the story being resolved, it fairly evaporates on us, to meager or no dramatic purpose.

Fortunately, though, the film's weaknesses are effectively offset by it strengths, and Rosa, unabashedly light fluff that it is, holds up well and remains a very entertaining film.

"Molly O'"

"What Sam (Goldwyn) knew then, and what I didn't know, was that Mabel's cheeks were no longer as round as apples. She was thin. She photographed without her old time sparkle and bounce in recent pictures, not yet released which I had not seen. She was unhappy and ill, and she looked it. We were amazed and upset when she reported for wardrobe tests. All those years of neglecting herself, of fun for fun's sake, had left a mark on a girl who was after all was very small. She was still beautiful. Her eyes still laughed. Mabel was happy with the cast of 'Molly O',' especially happy with Dick Jones. Both Dick and I had long talks about Mabel late at night in the tower office. Mabel wasn't the same. She was ill."

The "she was still beautiful" might sound like merely a formal politeness, but, strange as it may seem, she still was beautiful in spite of her being "unhappy and ill" -- which was also true. But she is beautiful in a different way. She is less athletic, much more subdued, more hesitating, generally tending toward a more quiet humor and manner. She is as sympathetic as ever, however, in "Molly O''' we see for the first time (at least based on films extent), the sad Mabel Normand. This is all the more interesting because it occurs, before both the Arbuckle and Taylor cases had ever occurred.

Naturally, it would seem to make sense to conclude that it was the alleged miscarriage referred to in Betty Fussell's book that brought about this despondency. How painful it must have been to have borne such a secret most of us can hardly guess. Perhaps her going back to Sennett was an act of contrition of sorts. As for Sennett, uninformed as he was as to the "real" cause of her unhappiness, there is a certain sense in "Molly O''' that he is welcoming Mabel back as the prodigal. It is a respectfully affectionate and not at all condescending, nevertheless, it is the welcome back of the prodigal. "Molly O' ~ I Love You," reads the title of the sheet music promoting the film. One gets the strong impression of the rejected lover elatedly taking back into his arms his sweetheart whom "fast living" had wrought havoc with.

"Molly O'" was clearly intended to be a major effort by Sennett, and since it was the single film which in later years he wanted to re-do again, perhaps he thought of "Molly O'" as (or had hoped it would be) his magnum opus.

Its plot is less emotionally coherent than "Mickey," yet in its parts, "Molly O'" is often both very touching and amusing. It has variety: light comedy, thrills, very serious drama -- everything but slapstick. Though the transition from the light comedy to serious drama is often handled awkwardly, and, much of story fairly unbelievable, "Molly O'," overall, is a very rewarding, and at times dramatically powerful, film. While its weaknesses are often obvious, it, nevertheless, is a great film of lasting merit. Director F. Richard Jones' use of camera angles, lighting, and close-ups, at the time, are usually uninspired. Yet he does have a knack for getting the most out of his players, and his orchestrating of scenes is often artful and imaginative. The very positive influence of D. W. Griffith, under whom he had only recently worked, is unmistakable.

Although she is more pale and obviously lacks much of her earlier "pep," Mabel and all the cast are as much as one could ask. There was never a more suave screen villain than Lowell Sherman's Fred Manchester. George Nichols, back from Mickey, and who years earlier had also directed for Griffith (including screen versions of Ibsen and other notable authors), brings an intensity to his role bespeaking the consummate professional. Jack Mulhall, Eddie Gribbon, Jacqueline Logan, Albert Hackett, Anna Hernandez, Ben Deely are also all sparkle wonderfully and give excellent support.

The story is essentially a Cinderella formula that is repeated in her subsequent Sennett films, namely: Upper Class people (in a given instance rightly or wrongly) look down on poor Molly (Suzanna, or Sue Graham). Molly is in love with young man, who is someone of virtue, honor and courage. There are the usual stock characters, like the comic, tender-hearted mother figure, and the "other woman" with designs on the handsome young man. The villain pursues Molly (in this case amorously), and the well meaning but misguided, frowning father also threatens to ruin her perfect romance with the young man. But there is a fight and all ends happily.

All this, and Carl Stockdale as fairy godmother to boot!

True, "Molly O'" is intentionally very different from the traditional tale in that it attempts to give some presentation of ordinary life in its harsh and unglamorous aspects. From the outset of the film the poverty stricken tenement area and tension filled home in which the O'Dair's live is realistically portrayed. Not only does Molly come from a poor family, but she is the daughter of a washer-woman no less. The father, Tim O'Dair, is a coarse and violent-tempered manual laborer, without the least bit of sentimentality about him. His junior work partner, Jimmy Smith, here humorously played by Eddie Gribbon, is a cynical oaf he hopes to make his son-in-law, without feeling it necessary to consult Molly much on the subject. To cap off the family portrait off, Molly's supportive younger brother, for all his good intentions, has a gambling addiction.

The villains are meaner and more callous than in "Mickey." Though serving-maid Mickey is slapped by her cousin, Elsie Drake, for her disobedience, here Molly gets slapped by her father's friend, Jimmy Smith, even though he had intended to marry her. By the same token, "Mickey's" fun loving Reggie Drake is almost a "nice guy" compared to the cruel and methodical Fred Manchester. This heightened atmosphere flavored with violence disturbingly reflects both the tension left over from the War and the onset of the Prohibition era.

Yet for all the realistic touches, the story is still basically that of Brother's Grimm, mixed with some Griffith.

Although "Mickey" and the Goldwyn film "Joan of Plattsburg" did allow her room to do something a little serious, in "Molly O'," more than ever before, Mabel has the opportunity to get into a role and situations with some real tragic range. And but for her sometimes not looking well, she usually arises to the occasion wonderfully.

But coming into the role, there are some unavoidable difficulties. We mentioned previously her not looking well or happy. In addition to this she is world famous Mabel Normand 29 years old playing a laundry maid in her late teens or early twenties. Like with "Rosa," it is simply asking too much of the audiences to believe her in such a part. One interesting way, and with a certain amount of success, Mabel and Jones gets around this is that there is a bit of caricature about Molly. She is somewhat surreal the way Chaplin and some of the Keystone creations were surreal: absurd, exaggerated characters in a nevertheless very down to earth world -- though, here, without the slapstick. In the opening sequences of the film, one is perhaps at first disappointed because Mabel is not convincing, that is, if we expect her portrayal to be realistic. If, though, we see Molly, with her wide dark eyes, wide floppy hat, and long Pickford girls (like Mickey), as something of a comic caricature, then we are able to accept her within the story, and the rest of the film goes smoothly on this basis.

Early on, Mabel has some nice quiet scenes, such as the one on the park bench "philosophizing" with the "silhouette man," Carl Stockdale. Here, where the message "dreams come true for those who believe in them" is directly stated, Mabel charms. However, other than this particular scene, most of the first half of "Molly O'" (of what remains of it at least) is all, rather routine and serves mostly to set up the remainder of the story. It is not nearly so effective as that part running from the masquerade ball sequences to the end of the picture.

A public masquerade ball (which in those days was not so unusual) is held for charity, in which members of the different social classes come together. Against her father's stern wishes, Molly sneaks off to attend the event dressed in a magnificent 18th century French-style court gown and wig. Interestingly, the villain Manchester's costume is of that of an effete dandy of the same period, while the hero, Dr. Bryant, by contrast, wears something more in the way of a medieval prince. At one point, Molly, stumbling in what she thinks is a back lobby, suddenly finds herself on center stage. A curtain suddenly opens up from behind, revealing her to the joy and laughter of the entire throng. There follows a resounding outpouring of affectionate applause and cheers, not so much for Molly, the story character, but for Mabel herself. One feels quite palpably their great warmth and love of her. This is no doubt the most magic scene in the film. What makes these sequences especially interesting, and perhaps may be considered the real theme of "Molly O'" as a film is: Mabel from her heart loves and cares for all, and, all, (i.e. those in the cast and production generally), in turn, love Mabel. It is truly very sweet, and not mawkish as it might sound, because the feelings of both are obviously genuine.

Molly being mistaken for Dr. Bryant's fiancee (who is presently absent with her secret lover, played by Ben Deely), she and Dr. Bryant are awarded the most beautiful couple of the ball. All then are asked to unmask. In her unmasking at ball Mabel is splendid -- there is clearly such a grand stir of affection by all towards here -- again you feel it -- and Mabel responds radiantly. It is a strange thing to try to describe, but a good analogy would be to a folded rose bud which, in a matter of moments, suddenly and wondrously bursts forth in it beauty (such as might be seen with time-lapse photograph). In this case, it is Mabel's femininity and charm which blossom in glory. The camera work is unfortunately rather flat, otherwise it is one of the most enthralling and memorable moments in all of Mabel's films. The wonder, elation beaming from Mulhall's eyes, almost to tears, in reaction to her, is evidently more than mere acting.

Molly is in many ways a spirited Pickford innocent -- at one point Sennett offered the script of "Molly O'" to Pickford herself, who turned it down. Unlike the kind of young girl roles the early Mary Pickford is usually remembered for, Molly is to some extent allowed her sexuality. Here though the sexuality is suggested, without being graphic or overtly stated. It comes in the form of a charming scene in which Dr. Bryant, after amorously strolling with her home from the masquerade ball, is about to depart as she enters her doorstep. As he is about to leave, she stands with her back against the door. He instantly returns and very tenderly kisses her forearm which is bent outward upon the doorway; she in a sigh filled trance permitting,: her womanhood having been woken within. Just as Bryant departs, she turns aside and opens up her eyes to see her father glaring furiously at her. O'Dair unleashes a violent tirade of anger and disgust. Nichols as O'Dair is more than convincing in the violence of his temper. So much so that one is tempted to wonder if his rage almost to tears may not, to some extent, have been inflamed by his (along with other people's) real life displeasure with Mabel; or more specifically, disapproval of Mabel's earlier "life of abandon" away from Sennett. Incurring the wrath of her father in this way, Molly packs her things and leaves home.

Next morning Tim O'Dair starts off hot after Molly, correctly surmising he will find her at Bryant's. He is let in by the butler into Bryant's wealthy home. With a gun in his pants pocket, without giving notice of his presence he finds Bryant shaving in the bathroom, and Molly, dressed in bathrobe and pajamas, kicking up her legs on a nearby bed. He approaches Bryant from behind as if to sneak up on him, but Bryant sees him in this shaving mirror, and is able to surprise him before the other can shoot. A fist fight ensues, with Mabel as onlooker doing a Lillian Gish in distress performance, her eyes rolling up into her head in agony. Bryant finally knocks O'Dair flat, and it is revealed to the angry father that Molly and Bryant had already been married after the ball. The father, realizing that he almost just killed his son-in-law, breaks down ashamed and weeps. Molly caringly comforts him.

This is a bare and sketchy description of what are some momentously tense, exciting and touching scenes. All are superb here, particularly George Nichols who gives an heart-wrenching performance, and director Jones, orchestrating the trio. The drama of a daughter's rebellion against her father in the name of love reminds one of the kind of moralistic and poetic "photo-plays" done at Biograph years earlier. But waitthe film is not yet over. From the reconciliation of father, daughter and son-in-law, we taken into a mini-serial episode, or perhaps more appropriately the updated 1921 version of "Barney Oldfield!" If it is relevant to the main story it is relevant in either a very tangential or abstract way, otherwise it is quite out-of-the-blue, and is best taken as a kind of dessert to the main course. While these scenes with the blimp, and settling the gambling debt of Molly's brother, are not what we would call high-art, they are, nevertheless, exciting and laugh provoking. Jones here shows his talented flair for thrilling adventure sequences as he would so well later do in films like "The Gaucho" (1927), with Douglas Fairbanks, and "Bulldog Drummond" (1929), with Ronald Colman. Though all -- including Mabel -- play their parts very nicely, Lowell Sherman, in particular, is a real treat as the stylish and calculating scoundrel.

In sum, "Molly O'," while certainly flawed, is an outstanding and unique film. We are most very blessed that it was not completely lost to us as had for many years been thought.

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Copyright 2000 William Thomas Sherman. All rights reserved. Used with permission of the author

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