The Film Comedy of Mabel Normand: 1916-1927

by William Thomas Sherman

(Part 3)


"Suzanna" is a very odd film in a number of respects. Unlike any of Mabel's other features, it is a historical costume drama, prompted and inspired in its settings and style by "The Mark of Zorro" and "The Sheik" (the wild horse rides through the desert with wide skyline, for example) -- though we would never mistake the hero, Walter McGrail, likable as he is, with either Fairbanks or Valentino. But, of course, this is not intended. Suzanna is , after all, Mabel's picture -- not the leading man's. Also in doing a film with an early Californian/Mexican theme, there is good reason to suspect that Sennett was trying to remind Mabel of those merry days together, when they made films like "A Spanish Dilemma," (40) and "The Fickle Spaniard."

We are at even more of a disadvantage with "Suzanna" then with "Molly O'" in assessing its merits, as the present and only known available version of the film is missing at least two whole reels. And it may well be that these lost reels contain some of the best sequences, as some of the stills would seem to indicate. As is typical of F. Richard Jones' work, it is usually a pleasurable film. Yet because of Mabel's real life problems, it at times takes on a seriousness which was not at all contained in the film's original idea. This will continue to be the case with a number of Mabel's subsequent films. While it is intended as a comedy/drama, "Suzanna" doesn't fully succeed at being either -- at least in the conventional sense of these terms. Filmed at the time Taylor scandal broke, it was obviously made under a lot of strain. In viewing it, one senses that there were moments, such as the chaotic bride rescue and horse back chases, when Jones was even as distressed during its production as Mabel. (41)

On the incidental side, the film suffers from some poor make-up. The wigs and beards of the male actors, particularly George Nichols' eyebrows in close up, are often embarrassingly bad. Similarly, in the horse chase scene at the end of film Mabel is seen riding on a concealed auto (or trailer to a vehicle), which does not look at all as if she were riding on a horse as she is supposed to be doing. These production defects, while worth mentioning, fortunately only pop up in a few spots. Nevertheless, it is puzzling why things so obvious were not corrected. Another problem with a film, in this case relating to its Spanish setting, is that there are no Latins in any of the main roles. This is all the more strange given the then rising popularity of the likes of Ramon Navarro, Anotonio Moreno, and Valentino as leads. On the plus side though, the photography of Homer Scott, whom William Desmond Taylor himself had recommended to Mabel, is resolute and clear.

With the exception of "Molly O'," wild animals, both small and large, feature prominently in all of Mabel's Sennett features. Animals in film early silent films were always popular. Yet another apparent reason for Sennett's bringing them in is to add a certain earthy realism to the films, necessary, as was deemed, to give balance to the fairy-tale like plots (in "Molly O'" it is the poverty of the O'Dair's which serves this function). "Suzanna" has more animals in it than any of her pictures, with cocks, donkeys, bears, bulls, as well as horses. In addition to their simple color and charm, the animals are also used as symbols of the action and characters -- such as cocks fighting and bulls locking horns. This invoking of brutish violence, while is not always the most pleasant imagery, is exactly the effect Sennett apparently wanted to achieve, again, to offset the story's too flighty romance. (42)

Mabel in "Suzanna" looks even less well than in her earlier films, yet the Taylor murder did not happen until at least half way through shooting. What had caused this further decline in her happiness and vigor, we simply do not know. The Arbuckle scandal, continuing to live under the pressure of living with and keeping the miscarriage a secret, other physical health problems, are some obvious possible considerations. After the murder did occur, there followed a two week break in the shooting of the film in order so that Mabel could absorb and recover the shock. Given all the enormous pressures she was already under, her success in doing so was understandably indifferent. Robert E. Sherwood, later a Pulitzer Prize winner, named Mabel's performance in "Suzanna" as one of the best of 1922. Yet he could not have awarded this for Mabel's performance as Suzanna, so much as he awarded it for Mabel's effort to try to put on a good show, indeed make others laugh, though the world was crashing in on her. As Suzanna the cheerful orphan, Mabel is obviously too unhappy underneath to be at all convincing in the part. However, despite the heavy weights she was under she gives it her best. She is a "trouper." In place then of Suzanna of the story, we get instead a more meaningful performance of real life courage under excruciating duress. It is this, not so much Mabel's portrayal of the story's fictional /character, which Sherwood was admiring and praising.

Mabel's opening shots are not terribly auspicious. A rather vapid comic scene in which she tries to sneakily "snap" at a ranch co-worker's lunch (the idea of which, by the way, reminds us of something from Chaplin.) Then follows a cock-fighting scene -- Suzanna's plucky midget bantam successfully takes on a grand rooster. It is rather tasteless bit of would-be comedy, though this is no fault of Mabel's. No less silly, yet much, much better is the scene in which Suzanna tells the Indian Black Hawk that she wants to do the "tomahawk dance." Here she dons a great Indian chiefs headdress, and does a war dance, much the way a child might do it -- indeed exactly like a child would do it. She looks like a toddler, palming her mouth repeatedly as she gives the war whoop, stomping back and forth. Meanwhile, Black Hawk, kicks up a very authentic Indian dance (as if to show her how it is done), while Minnie Ha Ha (Minnie Devereaux) and another in the background join in. Black Hawk's dance, taken in and of itself, is valuable as a record of native American culture. And while it is all pretty pointless as far as the story goes, Mabel's antics are cute and funny in their way, intended, as they no doubt were, for the audience's children.

We come to something with more substance when, in order to keep her away from his son, Francisco, Don Frenando sends Suzanna to a convent. She will have to walk a long trek through the grim and arid desert to attain her destination. Here real life and story merge nicely, which is evidently Jones' purpose. The harsh journey symbolizes the tribulations in Mabel's real life as film star, most particularly the cruel grilling by much of the press and public with respect to the Taylor case. At the same time sinner and innocent,43 hers is a hard road of penance as she faces the inhospitable and barren wastes. Her attitude is one of don't dwell on the obstacles, put them behind you. This is reflected in a little walk she uses. It appeared earlier in Molly O', and would be used again in "The Extra Girl." What she does is walk with determined stride, her arms perhaps swinging at her side, but otherwise her body almost completely rigid. She looks straight ahead as she goes, without once moving her focuses from "forward." The way she does it in "Suzanna," she almost looks like a mechanical doll.

Along her hot, weary way Suzanna spots a "good luck" horseshoe. She picks it up. After looking wryly and suspiciously at it, she flings it away. This is clearly a bit of joke to the audience about Mabel's own troubles (including her numerous reported accidents and illnesses, as well as her connection to the Taylor case.) Finally after a long, pitiless trail, Suzanna reaches a pond-size puddle. Nearby, lie the bones of a cow who had not made it so far. Suzanna sighs both in wary foreboding of the bones, and relief from the puddle. From the puddle she drinks, and at the same time is refreshed in a new baptism. With the worst of her trail past, onward she goes confident and renewed. It is a humorous as well as moving statement of repentance and courage -- all the more powerful as film because it reflects something going on in real life.

The last of the surviving of Mabel's scenes in "Suzanna" worth specific mention is a surprisingly delightful hat dance with Walter McGrail. One bursts out laughing to see it. The wit and grace of Mabel's dancing are quite marvelous. It is worth pointing out, that, except for "The Nickel Hopper," there is no other extended dance sequence like this in any of her other extent feature films. True, the film's having been sped up is partly what makes it funny. However, there's no denying the breathless high spirits of both Mabel and McGrail, and the magic of their feet and movement. A comparison to a capering elf is appropriate. Contemporaries sometimes spoke of Mabel as being quite a dancer. Here is the fact demonstrated on screen for all to see, and what a delight she is.
Of what follows thereafter in "Suzanna," there isn't all that much for Mabel to do, and, is essentially tossed about by the men as a helpless protagonist, with her inevitable happy marriage to the hero as conclusion.

All in all, "Suzanna," while winning in moments, is a disappointing film. The problem is simple. Mabel was suffering from too much personal unhappiness to consistently be the chipper, Mickey-like girl called for by the tale.

Yet if we see Mabel's performance as Sherwood did, namely, a real life portrayal of courage and heart trying to shine amid great darkness, it is something of a success. As inspiration and example, it gives the film a value immeasurably beyond what it might have been as conventional entertainment. Instead of Mark Twain we inadvertently get Epictetus. Instead of Mickey we get Magdalene. Instead of laughter, tears -- but tears, yet with hope.

That things only became worse for Mabel just makes her effort here all the more poignant.

"The Extra Girl"

As is well known, the murder of director William Desmond Taylor and its aftermath, had a devastating effect on Mabel, both in her life and work. Although she does not look well in Suzanna, her unhappiness and ill health appear even worse in "The Extra Girl." While she could get by to some extent as Molly and Suzanna by being sort of a caricature, by the time of "The Extra Girl" this cannot work nearly so well. A casual (though not very sensitive or feeling) viewer of the film can rightly complain that she is not only unsuitable for small town girl role here, but that worn out as she appears to be at times, she is discomforting in it. She is sometimes so dissatisfying in the part, they can understandably wonder why someone so frequently looking unhappy could be cast in what is supposed to be a cheery film. While her eyes do retain much of the liveliness and expression., some shots are done medium rather than close-up in order to avoid too much detail of her face which is so often pale and drawn.

"The Extra Girl" was originally meant for Phyllis Haver, not Mabel, which Mabel, albeit in a friendly way, resented. However, given what a change that had befallen her, it is not hard to see why Sennett, at this juncture, should have a difficult time finding the right part for her. No doubt what Sennett really wanted is reflected in David's, Sue Graham's boyfriend's, remark to her:
"Give up this idea of a career and let's get married."

This message occurs on a number of occasions of the film, most especially in the conclusion.

Yet while Mabel leaves something to be desired for the part, the story is better, and "The Extra Girl" is, overall, a more likable, satisfying film than "Suzanna." It moves better, is more amusing, and the coarseness of the earlier Sennett features is largely removed. Mabel does generally less well then in "Suzanna," but Jones exceeds himself in his emotional robustness. It's a story about a very silly, yet spirited small town girl, who goes to Hollywood to seek her fame and fortune -- only to be sourly disappointed. As is usual of the Sennett features, Mabel is not wanting for a superb cast. George Nichols (of course) is back as the father figure, as is Anna Hernandez from "Molly O'" in the mother role. Vernon Dent, who would be come better known in later years appearing in a many of the Three Stooges shorts, is humorous as a bumptious lout very similar to that of Eddie Gribbon's in "Molly O'" Ralph Graves, as the boy friend, David, is a perfect embodiment of the undaunted supporters Mabel had in Richard Jones, and the rest of the production company, cast and crew.

Appropriately, one of the very opening shots of the film is a kitten coming to attack a ball of yarn. Next we see her all tangled up in the strings in a hopeless way -- a clear jibe at Mabel and her troubles.

On a personal note, "The Extra Girl" was the first Mabel Normand film I ever saw. This was at around nine years of age. I mention this, because it gave me a unique opportunity to view Mabel without any pre-conceived notions. What I recall was that she made an immediate, and successful, appeal to my sympathy. I instinctively felt genuine pity for her. I could see, even as young as I was, that she was obviously "not quite right" for the part -- there is too much knowing, too much wisdom, in her eyes. She is too wan to be taken as a fresh young girl the story suggests. Yet despite all this, there was something still entrancingly charming and lovely about her, so that the blend of strange sadness and affection for her made an indelible impression on me. Even so, I only really felt this in the early part of the film. As it went on, my interest went less to Mabel as such and was directed more to the main story and action.

Looking back on that experience, those juvenile impressions were essentially correct. Mabel's best, artistically speaking, occurs in "The Extra Girl's" earliest scenes. As Sue Graham, "practicing" her acting for the benefit of her boyfriend and her mother, she gives an dazzling array of impersonations, expressions and faces: seductress, saint, clown (she does a wonderful little gag with her eyes), and damsel in distress. Snippets of these little sequences have sometimes been used as comic spots on television programs many years later, testifying to their merit as enduring comedy.

Unfortunately, Mabel shines much less brightly for most of the rest of the film. Among the interesting things attempted with Mabel, she rides a speeding buck-board pulled by racing horses whipped on by her boyfriend (in order to escape her father and Applejohn.) Here she has only to sit in the wagon, while the boyfriend drives the team. Following this is a shot where she runs, and, with help of the boyfriend, climbs up aboard the back of a moving train. It is not as natural as the athletic antics of "Keystone Mabel." But she gives it her best, and we can't help but admire the effort.

Throughout much the film we see familiar Mabel mannerisms. These are not so easy to describe, and are, understandably, necessary to be seen to be appreciated. We can though mention a couple at least to suggest some idea of them. In one instance, Mabel will be talking to character A about B, with all three present in the same room. With one hand covering the side of her face - thus facetiously "concealing" her from B (and also at the same time perhaps winking) -- she speaks to A about B as if B isn't present. Another has her with wide smile on her face, her eyes all but closed: very similar to the kind of face we associate with Stan Laurel.

At the studio, Sue Graham shows a certain rebelliousness -- she kicks hats and goofs off as a worker -- as a girl in the studio prop department. This "devil-may-care" attitude the passing years had not significantly diminished, and is one of her attributes which she shows as having retained with some of her original freshness.

At one point, Sue has a screen test done before an old-fashioned (circa 1910) Garden scene. Sennett here, again, seems to want to bring back the "good old days." It is a sweet and memorable scene, even if the main gag isn't used isn't especially brilliant. Cast in this same spot is the "Actor" is William Desmond, a veteran lead who had been prominent in the teens. It is odd that given the similarity of his name to William Desmond Taylor's (whose original name was actually William Deane Tanner) he should be in the film. One would think it might be making too light of something very serious. Indeed, is Sennett perhaps mocking Taylor by pointing out his false identity? Though we don't have the answers ready to us, certainly the casting of Desmond is very odd., and, in this case, is not likely a mere coincidence. The motive for it, however, is not entirely apparent. But be it what it was, it would be safe to guess that while she tolerated it , Mabel probably did not care for the joke. (44)

"The Extra Girl's" most famous sequence is the scene where Mabel walks a real lion around the studio set thinking it is Teddy the dog dressed up. This is followed by Sue's and the studio people's discovery and reaction to her error. It is Jones' masterly direction that makes this episode so successful, which is simultaneously very exciting and funny. Perhaps it was thought a little "shock" therapy would help Mabel. She herself is really only incidental. She seems to be giving it her best, but the fact is, she simply does not look at all well. Mabel is too unhappy to be really funny. Much of the time, even when she is smiling, she looks as though she's having a hard time trying to keep from crying.

Why didn't Mabel just retire, get married, and have children? This is what the ending scene of "The Extra Girl" seems to ask and suggest. Initially, we might think this might be seen as Male patronization, but in Mabel's case it arguably made good sense. For most of the picture, and for that matter her last few pictures, her get up and go seemed to be keep giving out. Her health, by and large -- though Mabel always did have her moments -- does not seem adequate or fully up to the task of film performance. One could speculate at length Mabel's reasons for not settling down in some fashion. No doubt one was a desire to not seem to be chased from her career by people unjustly persecuting her with scandal. Another is that she didn't want to have to give up what had otherwise brought her so much happiness. Unfortunately, times had changed, Mabel had changed, and things were far from what they used to be.

"This lion is the whole show, far more amusing than Miss Normand." (45)

The critic here is not really being so harsh as he is being truthful. More significantly, though perhaps not consciously, he hits on something more than he seems to say. The lion in this case is not Duke the lion so much, as director Dick Jones and cast. They are all pulling for her, giving their all for her. Given all that Mabel was up against -- they are veritable "lions" in their doing so.

Yet because we are dealing with comedy, they are also "clowns." One is reminded of the ballet sequence in "Limelight." In a way Mabel is like the dying girl, who the poor clowns are trying to cheer up and revive. These, however, are no simpleton clowns, but heroic and clever ones. And in the case of "The Extra Girl," this is no fairy tale, but real life. Though her case is hopeless, she tries, without much success, to pretend it isn't. The "clowns ," even so, love her too much to give up hope, and so they go all out, as best they can, for her. The courage and heart of both Mabel and her would-be rescuers is what ultimately makes "The Extra Girl" an excellent, albeit flawed, film. Again, as in the case of "Suzanna," its success lies not in the optimal realization of the original idea and characters of the story. In that department it largely fails. Yet it is in its unintended portrayal of brave hearts in real life -- not fiction -- struggling against crushing and insurmountable circumstances, that "The Extra Girl's" greatest and most lasting worth is to be found.

Mabel never lacked for a good crew in Jones and the given Sennett cast, and in what would turn out to be their final last go together, they acquit themselves most admirably

Go to to part 4

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

Return to part 1

Return to part 2

Return to Articles and Essays page