#306) Mabel’s Blunder (1914)

mabel-normand_02

#306) Mabel’s Blunder (1914)

OR “Ready, Willing, and Mabel”

Directed & Written by Mabel Normand

Class of 2009

The Plot: Mabel (Mabel Normand) is a stenographer whose boss (Charles Bennett) has a thing for her. What the boss doesn’t know is that Mabel is secretly engaged to his son Harry (Harry McCoy). When a mysterious woman (Eva Nelson) catches Harry’s eye, Mabel becomes jealous. She switches clothes with her brother (Al St. John) and poses as Harry’s chauffeur. There’s mistaken identities and hilarious misunderstandings when Mabel Normand takes the wheel and directs her own Keystone comedy.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Normand’s “spontaneous and intuitive playfulness” as well as her ability to be “romantically appealing and boisterously funny”. An essay by Mack Sennett expert Brent E. Walker puts the film and Normand into their historical context.

But Does It Really?:This film is definitely on the list for what it represents rather than for what it is. On its own “Mabel’s Blunder” is a decently paced comedy whose jokes are very tame by today’s standards, but it’s directed and written by silent film legend Mabel Normand, and that’s all you really need. As we in the Time’s Up/Me Too era are finally starting to let women hold the reins again, it’s nice to look back over 100 years ago and see a woman who had creative control over a movie because she was, ya know, funny and talented. The NFR wouldn’t be complete without Mabel Normand, and “Mabel’s Blunder” is an excellent choice to represent her.

Everybody Gets One: After a brief stint as a Gibson Girl model, Mabel Normand found herself acting in films for the likes of D.W. Griffith. One of these early film appearances caught the eye of producer-director Mack Sennett, who persuaded Mabel to make the move with him from New York to Hollywood. Sennett founded Keystone Studios, the two started their professional and personal relationship, and Hollywood lore was made. When Keystone became a runaway success, Sennett added extra film units to the roster, and gave one to Mabel. She directed 14 shorts for Keystone, as well as co-writing several of them.

Wow, That’s Dated: I want to say the plot is dated, but then again, maybe it’s not? One thing I will ask: when did cars start getting roofs? All of these silent films have open-air cars, but convertibles existed back then. Was it still considered a bonus feature for a car to be protected from the elements? Or was this a coalition with the scarf-cap-and-goggles people?

Other notes

  • As with many a silent comedy, I suspect this plot line was recycled as an episode of “Three’s Company”. It may even be one of those plots that they did once in the Roper-era and again in the Furley-era.
  • I applaud this film’s very limited use of intertitles. It’s still mostly people talking and gesturing, but Mabel and the other performers get the story across with their performances.
  • The majority of “Mabel’s Blunder” hinges on your belief that the mere concept of cross-dressing is hilarious. “Some Like It Hot” this ain’t.
  • Side note: Mabel Normand is allegedly the first movie star to take a pie to the face. That’s still up for debate, but hey, someone had to be, so why not Mabel?

Legacy

  • Mabel Normand’s directing career was sadly short-lived. Mack Sennett agreed she was talented, but unfortunately some of her male co-workers refused to take orders from her. And there’s the start of your inherently sexist studio system.
  • Normand and Sennett created their own studio company for Mabel in 1916. The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company folded in 1918 along with Keystone after their parent studio Triangle Film started faltering. With their personal relationship also ending, Mack and Mabel went their separate ways.
  • Mabel’s life post-Sennett has a few grey areas (her Wikipedia page has a lot of “Citation Needed” caveats), but we know that her career started to wane in the early ‘20s while working with Samuel Goldwyn. Her association with the murder of director William Desmond Taylor further damaged her reputation – Normand was the last person to see Taylor alive, but was quickly ruled out as a suspect by the LAPD. Mabel worked with Hal Roach Studios, and married her old co-star Lew Cody, before her death in 1930 of tuberculosis at 37 years old.
  • Among the up-and-coming talent Mabel worked with were Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin. In fact, it was in one of Mabel Normand’s other 1914 films, “Mabel’s Strange Predicament”, that Chaplin first played his iconic Tramp character. The Tramp’s creation is re-enacted in the 1992 film “Chaplin”, with Robert Downey Jr. as Chaplin and Marisa Tomei as Normand.
  • Mabel Normand (and her association with Mack Sennett) has been immortalized many times over the years, most famously in the cult Broadway musical “Mack & Mabel”. Despite the pedigree of Jerry Herman, Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters, the show didn’t run long, but man alive what a score that is.

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