The Film Comedy of Mabel Normand: 1916-1927

by William Thomas Sherman

(Part 4)

The Hal Roach Films

One of the common features of Mabel's later films is that she is almost always playing a little girl character. This was not always the most imaginative use of her, but this was dictated by the wants of her audience and producers. Was this kind of type-casting against her wishes? It is hard to say, but the simple answer seems to be"no." While she had told William Desmond Taylor she regretted not being able to make films like The Little Minister or The Morals of Marcus (Taylor's version was called "Morals," she does not seem outwardly to have been unhappy about her own screen roles. While Gene Fowler, in "Father Goose," does present Mabel as telling Sennett she was weary of Cinderella,46 she was probably more traditional in her tastes then we might be lead to suspect. That she was as sentimental and old-fashioned minded as Sennett, however, would, of course, be over-stating the point.

Depending on how one looks at them, Mabel's Roach films are either too little too late, or else fitting farewells of an unpretentious genius and a great heart. The latter, however, seems the more just assessment.

In doing the films for Hal Roach in 1926 and 1927, Mabel was overtly taking a step down from her former prominence. Where as before she was always the main star, now she was one among dozens of the Hal Roach "All-Stars." Clearly, she wanted to show some humility of her part, even to the extent of starring in a short with the not so flattering title Raggedy Rose. In the Nickel Hopper her character, a poor working girl, says to the beau: "I don't live on Park St. I live on Lark St." In other words, she is relinquishing all claim to false nobility or title, and is saying, in effect, that when it gets right down to it, she is just an ordinary person like the rest of us.

The two and three reel shorts Mabel made for Hal Roach are actually very good taken as the light, upbeat comedies they were intended to be. They are not by any means masterpieces of film comedy, yet they are amusing enough, and suggest what Mabel might have done outside Sennett. In light of her previous real life ordeals, there is an obvious and understandable effort in these films to create some sympathy for Mabel. She is still mostly playing the little working girl, in Cinderella situations, yet, except for portions of "Raggedy Rose," she seems more confident, and her general look has improved since either "Suzanna" or "The Extra Girl." It is intriguing for us to see, as it no doubt was then, to see where Mabel has come to in the wake of the previous scandals and health problems. Under the circumstances, she seems to have weathered them relatively well -- though by no means completely. In the "Nickel Hopper" she breaks down crying in such a way that quite unsuited to the situation, such that we are reminded in a very unsubtle way of the great sadness still plaguing her. (47) As well, she looks a little confused and disoriented in some of "Raggedy Rose." Anita Garvin, who appeared with Mabel in "Raggedy Rose," told me that during its making Mabel had trouble finding her spot in front of the camera. Other than these particular exceptions, Mabel comes off rather well in the Roach comedies -- again, given the challenging circumstances.

"Raggedy Rose," the first of these films, was directed by F. Richard Jones. (48) This reminds us that Mabel was the one who selected Jones for Mickey, that he owed his loyalty more to Mabel than to Sennett. Raggedy Rose is actually less of a film than it might have been. Though it recycles some of the gags from "What Happened to Rosa," the premise for Mabel's character is interesting. "Raggedy Rose" is the one "who gets everything second hand -- even the sunshine." Mabel and Max Davidson make a good comedy team, and it's a real shame their pairing was not further pursued. Nevertheless, off set stresses, such as the revival of the Taylor case by District Attorney Asa Keyes, brought a tension to the making of the film that were too much for Mabel. This in turn must have effected Jones, so that much of "Raggedy Rose" particularly the latter part, is rather careless and sloppy. It is in this film, by the way, that the gag of an auto completely falling apart on slightest impact -- a gag famously used later in the Roach Laurel and Hardy comedies -- saw its debut. Who came up with it is unknown, but Jones is as likely a candidate as any. (49)

In "Nickel Hopper" -- for the first time -- Mabel is placed in a setting that makes reference to the 20's Jazz Age. While Clara Bow was able to take full advantage of this, Mabel was prevented previously from doing so largely because it clashed too much with the image of her prior films. In addition, it might have been thought unnecessarily provocative, given the Taylor scandal, for Mabel to be cast in the role of morally frivolous flapper -- simple "silly girl" or "sweetheart" being much safer public relations-wise. Here she is still a poor working girl, but here, in her spare time, she kicks up her heals to Jazz music at a local dance hall. Also more in temper of the times, the father rather than being the respectable, if silly figure, of previous films is here an outright good-for-nothing buffoon -- with humor, and admirably played in support of Mabel by Michael Visaroff. As well as Visaroff, there are amusing, but in their case, brief appearances by Oliver Hardy and the then not-so-famous Boris Karloff. There hasn't been much improvement on the gags in "Nickel Hopper." Some of those in "Rose" being decidedly better. Yet the film moves more smoothly, and aside from a scene where she breaks down crying (rather inexplicably so), Mabel looks more refreshed and better up to form. It ends with an amusing, if odd sequence, in which the Nickel Hopper's wedding dress becomes a parachute for herself and the groom. Whether this is possibly some kind of off hand comment on the parachute scene in "Molly O'," or an "inside" joke on sex and marriage, one is left to speculate.

"Anything Once" (and also "Should Men Walk Home?") is noteworthy because it is such light fluff and, other than a little paleness and a slight rigidity in her movements, there seems to be hardly a sign of Mabel's problem's, unlike the rest of her later films. There are funny spots, such as Mabel at the ironing board, but the comedy is not otherwise exceptional. Later in the film, she is dressed in an 18th century tall wig, and ballroom gown similar to the one in "Molly O'." Although a two reel short, like "Molly O'," it is a Cinderella story. But a Cinderella story which ends on the note that Mabel "must be wooed to be won"

"One Hour Married" while it is rumored to exist, has not (to my knowledge) been yet found. A comedy set amid the trenches of World War One, it looks to have been a clever and imaginative film. One of its interesting features is Mabel's character at one point disguising herself with a mustache -- a witty touch reminiscent of the old Biograph short Katchem Kate.

Mabel's final film, "Should Men Walk Home?" Is a most very unusual among all of Mabel's films. One has to go as far back as "Tillie's Punctured Romance" to find Mabel playing the "bad girl." Here she is a gun robber holding up vehicles, and later a jewel thief! Needless to say, it really is quite out of character from what we are used to seeing her play. Even though it is all in fun, it is obviously quite a departure from Sue Graham and Raggedy Rose. Directed by Leo McCarey, its story essentially consists of two crooks, played by Mabel and Creighton Hale, at a fancy mansion, who are trying to make off with a stolen jewel. Meanwhile a suspicious house detective, Eugene Pallette, follows them about attempting to catch them with the goods. Hale is a both appealing and funny lead, and Mabel carries herself well. Certainly, it is enjoyable to see her doing something so different. Nevertheless, outside its value in this way, there is no great merit to this film, other than to suggest what other kind of roles and films Mabel might otherwise have expanded into. It is like a test film the ideas of which were never later to be properly followed up or realized. We can say that it showed promise, but that is about it. A firm conclusion is impossible, there just isn't enough to go on. So it is then, that not only the film's title, but Mabel's career itself ends on a question mark.

The woes of life ultimately crashed in with ruinous fury on Mabel Normand's film career, there is no getting around the fact. These troubles significantly interfered with and impaired the quality of her work such that after the triumph of her Biograph and Keystone Days -- with the notable exception of "Mickey" -- we cannot help but be often disappointed with the later films by comparison. They are good enough films in and of themselves -- after all Mabel almost never bores -- yet they fall significantly short of what she was doing previously.

But this is true only if we insist on seeing those later films only as comedy and entertainment. If, on the other hand, we step back and view Mabel in these successive films as an exuberant heart fatally disappointed, passing through the tumultuous trials and turmoils of real life, we get a moving and often heroic portrait of a genuinely loving soul enduring and holding up under unfathomable suffering. Though tragic blow follows tragic blow, she keeps looking forward and does her best to still make others laugh and be happy. She does not always succeed, but this only reminds of the severe and tremendous odds she was up against. In retrospect then, Mabel's is a beautiful, yet sad, drama which teach a deeper wisdom about life that few at the time, even those involved in making these films, could hardly have been aware of. The mystery and intrigue accompanying it all only adds to this drama's fascination.

As well as a real-life portrait of Mabel in these later films, we also get indirect portraits of those who steadfastly loved and stood up for Mabel: Richard Jones and many others -- under no little pressure themselves -- who were involved in the production of her films.
Their wit, courage and noble effort in support of her are also an inspiration ever worth cherishing.

21 Dramatic Mirror, February 7, 1920
22 By contrast, in most of the later films we tend more to see "Mabel Normand" rather than the character she is playing.
23 The present version of Mickey that is availble was reportedly given its final editing by a states rights film distributor in New York.
24 Whose origin in turn can be traced back to Yan Yost Vanderscamp in Washington Irvings "Guests from Gibbet Island."
25 Chaplin's first feature film The Kid was not made till 1921, though a number of his shorts, of course, did often contain similar refinements of gesture.
26 Incidentally, the title of the film is "What Happened to Rosa," not "What Happened to Rosa?" As it is sometimes erroneously given.
27 Clarence Badger would later direct Clara Bow in three of her most popular films: It, Red Hair, and Three Weekends. After first working for Lubin and Universal, Badger became director for Keystone in October, 1915, later going to Sennett-Paramount, then Goldwyn.
28 The script-synopses for most of Mabel's Goldwyn films still exist, and can be found in the MGM Archives of the University of Southern California's Film Library, Special Collections.

29 Although Mabel was initially was making 6 reels films for Goldwyn,. However, aftermaking two them this was reduced to a standard 5 reels, with the exception of The Pest and The Slim Princess which were 6 reels. The Sennett pictures by contrast always ran from 6-7 + reels, though of course in terms of overall quanity of feature film footage, Mabel put out considerably more under her years working for Goldwyn, than with Sennett.
30 Schertzinger had started out as a concert violinist, and originally came to films to write music scores for Thomas Ince. As a director, he incorporated his feel for music in his work, and it is this, no doubt more than anything else, which prompted Mabel to choose Schertznger for her films.
31 Dramatic Mirror, June 19, 1920
32 Movie Weekly, March 18, 1922
33 This plot device is repeated in the later Roach film Raggedy Rose with no better success.
34 Mack Sennett in King of Comedy, pp. 221-22.
35 "Molly O" at the time was a then familiar a nickname for a common Irish working girl. The popular World War 1 song, "It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary," for example, has these lines:
Paddy wrote a letter to his Irish Molly O,
Saying, if you should not recive it,
Write and let me know.
If I make mistakes in spelling,
Molly dear, said he,
Remember it's the pen that's bad,
Don't blame the blame on me.
36 Sherman as well had played the seducing villain D.W. Griffith's big box -office success Way Down East earlier that same year.
37 A title card in the film actually has Molly making a joking reference to this:"I feel like Cinderella only my fairy-godmother is a man."
38 This maybe too hasty a generalization as 1 reel of the extent film is missing, and it comes from this earlier part of the film.
39 This scene and O'Dair's stealthy entrance, incidentally, bear an eerie resemblance to what would occur in the Taylor murder only a few months later.
40 It is very possible that it was at the time this film was made that Mabel and Sennett first mutually fell in love. Also, among some of the fooage missing from Suzanna is Mabel playing with a bear cub, which gag/plot device harks back to Biograph shorts like Oh Those Eyes and The Brave Hunter.
41 Similarly he seemed to lose his director's sense during the making of the disorganized final scenes of Raggedy Rose -- another time when Mabel was not at all well . It is then conceivble that these lapses stemmed from Jones' being too distraught at Mabel's condition and circumstances, to do his job properly.
42 In the finale of Molly O, the villain tries to take Molly "aloft" (in a hot air ballnon), while the hero brings her back "down to earth" (i.e. they parachute into the sea).
43 Suzanna had been a bit mischievous on the rancho.
44 In a much later scene Sue surreptitiooulsy climbs through villain Hackett's window with a gun in her hand This was probably included and allowed to show how silly and ridiculous it would be to think of Mabel as a gun-woman. Ironically - and no doubt bitterly so -- this effect was largely ruined by the Dines' incident, which gave the sequence a confused (if not opposite) meaning.

45 New York Times, Jan. 21, 1924
46 "I've got a dandy picture, Mabel. Nobody but you can play it."
"Cinderella once again, eh? What would happen, Mike, if you made Cinderella tough girl?"
"There's nothing wrong with Cinderella," said Sennett.
"She and Camille are the best plots there are."
"You're telling me!" said Mabel. "The best plots? They're the only plots Hollywood ever had. In fact, Cinderella and the Camille kid crossed the plains in Forty-nine. They're pioneers. How's your health, Mike?"
"It's fine. Now stop kidding and come back to work."
"Thumbs down. I won't do any more shorts. I'm tired of being Cinderella. In fact, I'm tired of being Mabel Normand..."
-- Father Goose, page 32.

47 A similar occurence takes place in "The Extra Girl."
48 A fair amnount of promotion and publicty came out in accompaniment of this film, including a photo-comic strip of Raggedy Rose which appeared, among oither publications, in the New York Evening Graphic, November 8-13, 1926.
49 Stan Laurel, in fact, collaborated in the direction of Rose, and years later he later openly credited Jones with being the one who taught him how to make films. James Finlayson, a Laurel and Hardy regular, incidentaly, is among the film's cast.

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

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