Saturday, 21 December 2013

Oh Mabel, you’re so fine, hey… Mickey (1918)

This was amongst the biggest grossing films of 1918 along with Stella Maris, yet the world knows a lot more of Mary Pickford than it does of Mabel Normand.

This may be due to her early passing, the loss of many of her feature films and certainly her unexplained involvement in the murder of William Desmond Taylor but this woman was one of the greatest stars of the silent era from the 1910’s up until the mid-twenties. She played a major role in the development of screen comedy, starred ahead of Chaplin and Arbuckle, directed her own features aged just 20 and was an almost unique* screen presence.

Our Mabs and a moggie
Mickey is ostensibly a straight-ahead comedy about a hillbilly orphan made good but there’s plenty of subversive invention from Normand who creates a feel-good cohesion that must have been worth its weight in gold at the time: Mickey’s a girl who defies convention and makes good against all odds.

Mickey is first seen extending an arm to surreptitiously steal her adopted father’s hat. She is followed outside by the family mutt and, amidst some confusion kicks off a rescue attempt at their mine as she is believed to have fallen down the shaft. She emerges from a hole carrying their over-inquisitive cat.

George Nichols and Minnie Devereaux
Fearing a beating from her step-dad, Joe Meadows (George Nichols), she tries to hide his belt and makes their donkey eat it, much to her “mother’s” delight – Joe’s housekeeper  Minnie played by the stern-looking Minnie Devereaux (who also has a belting smile to go with her bruiser arms).

Mickey’s too much for the old man and he wonders if he should send her to her aunt in New York to learn some manners “around female company”. Mickey’s father died and left her in the hands of his business partner in the hope that one day their Tomboy Mine (see what they did there?) would make good… many years on it still hasn’t and he’s at his wit’s end.

Laura La Varnie, Minta Durfee and Lew Cody (the future Mr Normand!)
We are shown a glimpse of Mickey’s fancy relations: money-grabbing Aunt, Mrs Drake  (Laura La Varnie)  aiming to marry off her shrill daughter Elsie (Minta Durfee) as profitably and as quickly as possible and her lush of a brother (Lew Cody) who spends more on horses than his family.

Aunt Evil’s main hope is, co-incidentally, a mine-owner as well, only a rich one… the answer to all the family’s prayers as they struggle in their upper middle class poverty trap.

Wheeler Oakman and Mabel
Before he can pledge his troth, the moneyed miner, Herbert Thornhill (Wheeler Oakman), has to go and sort out some border disputes on his mine and as luck would have it, he discovers Mickey hiding under the bed in his hotel room. She is on the run with her pooch who has just mauled the local store-keeper’s legs and leaves an immediate impression on the city guy.

She rides off to save her dog from the baying mob but Herbert follows, intrigued by her strange exuberance… Rebuffed by her step-dad’s caution, Herbert never-the-less pursues his interest in Mickey especially after he spies her skinny dipping within sight of his theodolite… (a throwback to her days as a Sennett bathing beauty: The Diving Girl returns!).

Herbert spots the diving belle...
But, before things can really develop, Joe sends her off to her aunt. Unfortunately Auntie is not so welcoming once she discovers that Mickey’s mine is worthless and sets her to work.

Normand makes merry with this city Cinderella situation, stealing a mouth full of cherries from cakes, cleaning up in her own hap-hazard way and bounding up the stairs to slide down the bannisters. She has the same energies as Pickford and, in place of the latter’s looks has an open honest charm that makes her an automatic ally for the watching audience. She knows we’re watching but doesn’t let on aside from unselfconscious face-pulling occasionally reminiscent of Stan Laurel (or the other way round as previously noted…).

Lobby card showing Mickey's chaotic cleaning
Herbert, thinking that he’s lost her for good, agrees to marry cousin Elsie but he is reunited with Mickey as she gate-crashes the engagement party. He’s made a mistake and turns to his close friend and attorney, Tom Rawlings (Tom Kennedy), for help… he wants the one he can’t have and not the one he’s contractually obliged too.

Two reversals of fortune spice things up as Herbert’s ownership of his mine comes under threat, leaving him potentially penniless and imprisoned whilst Mickey’s mine finally strikes gold. The girl is unaware though as she has already been jettisoned by her Evil Aunt just moments before she sneakily read the telegraph intended for her niece… A desperate chase ensues in which the family tries to over-take her train and secure the return of their new meal ticket… Mickey features not one but two near miss automobile rail crossings: stunt drivers must have had this trick of pat by 1917…

Californian crossings must have been littered with crushed cars...
Can you guess how this is all going to pan out? Even if you can, it’s worth seeing it through, there are a few twists and turns and a marvelous horse race as Reggie is revealed as the most malevolent member of the clan…

Mickey proceeds at quite a pace and is an enjoyable light-hearted romp on a par with Mary Pickford’s comedies of the time. Mabel acts well and shows she had more to her range than just the Sennett shorts she was famous for.

I watched a so-so copy that is available freely from the Internet Archive whilst it’s also on fuzzy YouTube and you can’t help feeling that Normand must be one of the worst catered for stars of the period in terms of restoration and digitization .  She’s in the magnificently-restored Tillie’s Punctured Romance of course and features alongside Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle in their Keystone compilation DVDs, but you wish there was more…

Mabel in Won in a Cupboard (1914)
Thankfully a couple of shorts have also featured on the “Treasures” series from the National Film Preservation Council  - available here.

The latest includes Won in a Cupboard (aka Won in a Closet) from 1914, directed by Mabel when she was all of 21. It’s typical Sennett fare, featuring Mabel as a young country girl prevented from pursuing her rather goofy-looking “ideal” man by her stern Sheriff of a father. The old man is, however, also pursuing the young man’s mother and hilarity ensues when the two become trapped in the titular closet/cupboard, mistaken for a “dangerous” old tramp.

There are pratfalls aplenty as the locals nervously try to catch the miscreant only to uncover more than they bargained for.  An enjoyable tale and one of hundreds Normand featured in before progressing to features like Mickey.

Sadly for Mabel she was in the early stages of tuberculosis and this gradually led to her becoming addicted to her medication as well as having an increasingly direct effect on her health. But we should remember her for the sheer joy and exuberance she bought to these films. A talent that enabled Mickey to become the blockbuster it was even if its star was less than convinced of its quality. Now, that’s a true professional at work: no second best.

There’s a lot more about Mabel Normand on William Thomas Sherman’s excellent site dedicated to the star. He’s also written a huge 450 page source book - now in its 6th edition -  that covers her life and films. It’s available for download off Sherman’s site and contains an amazing amount of detailed research: exactly what Mabel deserves.

Changing faces: Mabel in The Nickel Hopper (1926) and Won in a Cupboard
 *She may not have been – actually – unique as there is a theory that there were two Mabels… the original and another, slightly more toothsome, version who was originally a stunt double but was used to increase the output of Mabel product. Now, this all sounds quite improbable but Sherman for one does not discount it.

For me, whilst this doubling up might be conceivable for the earlier short comedies, the development of technique and increased use of close-ups must render it unlikely that the performer on show in Mickey was anything other than who she claimed to be.

The truth may be more down to the impact of Mabel’s fluctuating health on her physiology… in parts of Mickey she looks tired and fuller of face especially when compared with the hyper-active sprite on show in Tillie. But she still demonstrates the same energy here… perhaps with more effort and more than a little “help”.

“We had faces…” and they never really looked that alike when they were twenty feet high on screen?

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