Monday, 7 January 2019

REVIEW: The Marvellous Mabel Normand, Leading Lady Of Film Comedy (film) - HOME, Manchester


My admiration for HOME’s film programming continues unabated with yet another excellently chosen screening of obscure, but highly accessible films. Scheduled to conclude HOME’s Slapstick Festival, which has in turn supported the BFI’s nationwide ‘Comedy Genius’ programme of films and also conveniently launching HOME’s next series ‘Celebrating Women In Global Cinema’, ‘The Marvellous Mabel Normand: Leading Lady of Film Comedy’ was a delightful way to spend a gloomy January afternoon.

Lasting 78 minutes in total, the screening comprised four silent comedy shorts that spanned Mabel’s career as a leading lady from 1913 to 1927, which were fabulously restored by the BFI and accompanied by live music from The Meg Morley Trio.

I was unfamiliar with the name Mabel Normand as my knowledge of silent comedy only really extends to the three major stars of the 20s; Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd. (I know: what a philistine!) So this screening worked as a wonderful introduction to her onscreen talent, but perhaps missed an opportunity to really contextualise her significance to the film industry. When Chaplin arrived at Keystone Pictures in 1913, Mabel Normand, although younger than Chaplin, mentored Charlie in performing on film. She was not only more experienced in front of the camera but had considerable experience behind it, writing her own film shorts and by 1913, was directing. A hundred years later we find ourselves still bemoaning the under representation of women in the director’s chair and certainly the lack of critical recognition come awards seasons, so Normand was not just an inspirational onscreen figure, but a pioneering spirit within Hollywood’s directorial patriarchy. Mabel Normand was a darling of Hollywood in the days of the nickelodeons and movie palaces, with 167 shorts and 23 features under her belt, she is credited with helping Chaplin hone his ‘Little Tramp’ persona and bringing custard pie throwing to the silver screen,

The shorts we were treated to on Sunday were Mabel’s Blunder (Dir: Normand, M. 1914), Mabel’s Dramatic Career (Dir: Normand, M. 1913), His Trysting Place (Dir; Chaplin, C. 1914) and Should Men Walk Home (Dir: McCarey, L. 1927). These were all accompanied by The Meg Morley Trio (Meg on Piano, Richard Sadler on Bass and Emiliano Caroselli on Drums), whose music lifted these films wonderfully. The score was unobtrusive and perfectly captured the spirit of watching silent films in that era, whilst moments of creative interpretation (exaggerated footsteps mimicked by bass notes or the percussive rendering of cutlery crashing to the floor) were sparingly used but perfectly pitched.

'Mabel’s Blunder' is a rather primitive short, about Mabel mistaking her betrothed’s affection for another woman as infidelity and disguising herself to get to the bottom of it. It was wholly lacking in physical or narrative gags and was quite a pedestrian affair, which filled me with dread that myself and my 13 year old daughter were in for a long afternoon. Things picked up only slightly afterwards with 'Mabel’s Dramatic Career', which had a decent final sequence in which a suitor to Mabel is watching her starring in a movie, but having never seen film before, cannot differentiate between the screen and the real world. Notably Mabel plays second fiddle to Mack Sennett (yes, the studio head at Keystone) and Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle, whose comic performances outshine Normand considerably. My daughter and I agreed that this was an improvement and that Sennett’s portrayal of a country hick “was creepy”. The last two shorts however, are an absolute joy. By placing ‘His Trysting Place’ third, after Mabel Normand’s directorial efforts, the BFI score a bit of an own goal when celebrating Normand as a director. Chaplin’s offering is typical of his output, chock full of gags and narrative complexity, which are funny and engaging throughout and made at the same time as the previous two films, show just how much more sophisticated Chaplin was than any of his contemporaries. Mabel is outshone as a performer because there is no doubt that this is Chaplin’s film, with familiar antics of sitting on hot stoves, caring for a baby with varying degrees of imagination and scrapping gleefully with an upper-class buffoon (played by the wild-eyed Mack Swain, who inexplicably didn’t have a bigger career, because he was great.)

Mabel Normand’s charm was never in doubt in any of the first three shorts, but it is in ‘Should Men Walk Home?’ that we really see her comic potential fully realised, she is an excellent physical comic, with facial expressions that regularly tease laughs from the full house at HOME. Paired with co-stars that include a young Oliver Hardy, she is the undisputed star in this tale of jewel thieves infiltrating a soiree.

HOME and indeed the BFI really could have afforded some crib notes for the audience and/or a pre-screening introduction, because Mable Normand’s career and significance is worthy of more attention, but this collection of her films is at least a fitting celebration of contribution to film and comedy. Her work, restored for the big screen and accompanied perfectly, showed that her comedic skill can transcend a century and illicit hearty laughs from an audience of all ages.

The Marvellous Mabel Normand: Leading Lady of Film Comedy is screening across the country.


Reviewer - Ben Hassouns-Smith
on - 6/1/19

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