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Happy Birthday, Mabel Normand!

Today is my hero’s birthday, so you can be sure I’m celebrating as soon as I’m home from work tonight.

with a Bugatti - sepia

Mabel was a pioneer in every sense of the word. She was a young woman who succeeded admirably in the field of screen comedy. Besides being brilliantly funny, she also loved cars and owned several (and starred in at least one comedy short that allowed her to race a Bentley). She had a massive personal library. She was kind and charitable and did her best to help everyone she could. She broke ground in so many ways and paved the way for countless comediennes to follow.

Here’s a post I wrote on her back in late June, just so you can get a look at her work for yourself and see how phenomenal she was (I’ve embedded video in there so you can watch her yourself).

Thanks for inspiring me, Mabel – you’re just the best!

Demon on Wheels: Mabel and Motoring

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Mabel and her ‘trusty Indian.’ Appeared in Motion Picture Classic in 1920; click through for image source.

There are many comedians I love. There are few, however, whom I truly admire. This lady is one of them.

I have so many things I could say about Mabel Normand’s pioneering role in film comedy, so I’ll do my best not to bore anybody on the subject of this amazing woman. I wasn’t even sure how I’d go about doing this at first because there’s just so many ways I could tackle this post.

In the end, however, I decided the best thing to do was talk about why Mabel was a little bit different than most of her contemporaries. Because believe me, she wasn’t like the others, and that’s why I gravitated to her so quickly. It was an era where many female leads were expected to be innocent angels; when you see how female characters were written in Birth of a Nation, you realize that Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh did a lot with the material they were given but at the same time notice that the girls were still expected to act stereotypically Victorian, and not just because the film was set in the 1860s-1871. Mary Pickford got roles that allowed her to go on more adventures, as did Pearl White, but for the most part women in film didn’t exactly get to have the swashbuckling escapades of their male colleagues.

Mabel went and bucked convention a year before Birth of a Nation by doing a comedy short in which she drove a racecar to victory, finishing three laps up on her competition.

That short, filmed and produced in 1914, is Mabel at the Wheel, one of my personal favorite works of hers. Most people remember it today for the fact that Charlie Chaplin appeared as the villain in his pre-Tramp stage, but a number of Keystone luminaries were in the cast, including Chester Conklin and Al St. John.

The plot is simple – Mabel has a little lover’s spat with a potential boyfriend (Harry McCoy), and Charlie takes her for a spin on his motorcycle. She falls off into a mud puddle, however, and Harry comes and picks her up. He lets her drive his Bentley V8 racecar home, and when Charlie returns the three of them have a showdown that involves throwing bricks. Come race day, Charlie and his cronies kidnap Harry and lock him away, and Mabel, being Mabel, throws on a duster, cap and goggles and hops behind the wheel of the Bentley. The rest, of course, is history.

Stuntman Billy Hauber, who rides shotgun for Mabel during the race, is portraying Mabel’s riding mechanic. Racing rules at the time required a riding mechanic to go with the driver and repairs would often be done mid-race on the side of the road. The ride-on mechanic was phased out of almost all motorsports in favor of the pit crew with the exception of rallying, where the role evolved into that of the co-driver. Despite the fact that there’s a stuntman in the car, it’s pretty clear that Mabel is actually driving the car herself, even in the stunt driving bits.

I'm so in love with Mabel's driving that I draw her in her driving clothes a lot.

I’m so in love with Mabel’s driving that I draw her in her driving clothes a lot.

Because Mabel, you see, was a motorhead.

And that is what really draws me to her more than anything else – we’re strangely alike in our hobbies. Besides her notable library, Mabel also collected a number of amazing sports cars (notably her 1914 Stutz Bearcat) and very enthusiastically drove them as a pastime. We share a love of reading and driving. (Unlike her, however, I don’t also own a motorcycle, which she did. You can read about her Indian here.) I love that she loved cars as much as I do. It’s kind of cool to see what you might have been like if you were born in the 1890s, if that makes sense.

Of course, there’s something else worth mentioning about Mabel at the Wheel. Mabel actually wrote and directed the film. Most writers emphasize how she clashed with Chaplin on certain jokes in the film, but my favorite thing to point out is that her direction is pretty impressive for the time. Also, she was only 19 when this film was released. (Her birthday was November 9th, 1892; the film was released April 18th, 1914.) Think about that for a second. In 1914, a nineteen-year-old woman wrote, directed and starred in a film about auto racing in which she did all her own stunt driving.

Mabel was simply amazing.

Her direction for this film included the new development of mounting the camera on the car to film close-ups. The cameraman stood on a secure platform attached to the hood, and he turned the camera crank as Mabel floored it. This resulted in some extremely exciting shots, especially for 1914. (My favorite part, however, is that the close-ups reveal that during the race scenes Mabel is grinning ear to ear and having the time of her life driving that Bentley. Frankly, I’d have been, too.)

To sum this up: Mabel was a tiny woman (5’0″ ) who stood head and shoulders above her peers in a field dominated by men (comedy) and drove as well as a professional racer. I think that justifies my looking up to her, doesn’t it?

Even if it doesn’t, I still admire her deeply for plunging into fields I adore – fields that it’s still hard for a woman to break into – and succeeding so much. Rock on, Mabel. Rock on.

This post was written for the Funny Ladies Blogathon over at Movies, Silently. Go read everyone else’s posts; they’re wonderful!

Pie-Throwing In Comedy: A Brief History

Any excuse for me to draw Mabel Normand is a good one.

Any excuse for me to draw Mabel Normand is a good one.

I really can’t think of a better day to discuss this than Pi Day, so here we go.

Pies in the face generally didn’t  happen on screen before Keystone came along. Actually, they flat-out didn’t. There are many anecdotes and theories about who threw the first pie and who took the first one in the face on camera, but the most common story is that the pie was thrown by Mabel Normand, with the recipient either being Ben Turpin or her good friend Roscoe Arbuckle.

Pie Throwing 101 – A Master Class:

The first thrown pie caught on film has been attributed to comedienne Mabel Normand at Keystone. One day in 1913 Mabel Normand, attempting to get the famously cross-eyed Ben Turpin to laugh, picked up a lemon meringue pie which some workmen had brought to lunch with them and suddenly smashed it into Turpin’s face. Turpin laughed good-heartedly and wiped the pie from his face. When Keystone Studios founder Mack Sennett saw the scene in the projection room, pie throwing promptly joined pratfalls and mad chases as staples of Keystone comedies. Indeed, the studio was soon buying so many pies from a nearby grocery store that the owner began to specialize in custard pies. “They were a special kind of pie,” Sennett once recalled. “They were full of a sort of paste and sticky stuff so that when they hit they didn’t splatter too much, but dripped nice and gooey.”

Comedy Films:

The major hallmark of Sennett’s career work was inventive, visual, improvised comedy displayed in short silent films that moved frantically. His early short comedies featured wild slapstick chase finales, visual gags and stunts, and speedy, zany action. The action appeared all the more frantic and frenzied by his use of a filming technique whereby he shot the pictures at a slow camera speed, and then accelerated the frames in the projector during playback. He often cast vaudevillian, burlesque, and circus performers in his films. Those with exaggerated or grotesque looks (obese, cross-eyed, lanky, leering, pop-eyed, etc.) were chosen to add to the unreality of the situations. His most popular pictures involved his bumbling comedy policemen, the Keystone Cops. There would be flying pies, bricks, careening vehicles with people hanging off, crashes, and other dangerous-looking stunts. Cinema’s first custard-pie-in-the-face was in Sennett’s silent film comedy A Noise From the Deep (1913), in which comedian Mabel Normand, a farmgirl threw a pie into the kisser of obese farmhand Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

So there we go. Since most anecdotes cite Mabel as being the one to throw the first pie on film, history will generally give the credit to her. (Actually, Mabel deserves credit for a lot of things and doesn’t get it generally, so she’ll probably be pleased to at least have this. I’ll give her a post of her own at some point because she should have one.) Whether the first pie on film hit Roscoe or Turpin, though, is still up for debate. What isn’t up for debate, however, is what happened after this: Mack Sennett realized what a delightfully anarchic gag pie-throwing was and started using it everywhere, usually as the start to his wild chase scenes.

Of course, it took Charlie Chaplin to raise it to the next level. He staged an actual pie fight in Behind The Screen in 1916, which ended up being the first proper pie fight on film:

By the mid-1920s, things got more sophisticated, and so pie jokes started to fall by the wayside, as they were viewed as a cheap way to get a laugh. Except then in 1927 Charlie’s 1916 effort got one-upped – or rather two-upped, since a rising double act managed to go through literally over 4,000 pies in one scene.

Stan and Ollie haven’t fully evolved into the characters we know them as today here, but you get the idea. (I still die every time I see Stan actually charging people to take pies out of the truck and handing them out. He’s adorable.)

This one didn’t get topped until the 1960s, when The Great Race finally pulled it off by doing this.

I can’t think of a major pie fight that’s happened since the one featured in The Great Race, but I’m sure Mack Sennett would love knowing that one of his pet gags has evolved since into a way for sports teams to celebrate great plays and protestors to make statements. It’s still a symbol of wild anarchy, which is just the way Sennett liked it.

Now go eat some pie and do some arithmetic involving circles.

Comedy Travels In Cycles

I rewatched It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for the first time in years last night. (A large portion of the cast of that comic I’m doing appears in this thing, amongst other reasons.) Besides possibly disturbing my parents a little bit by recognizing the way Buster Keaton (who cameos) walked, I did a little bit of thinking last night – and it’s true, comedy really does travel in cycles stylistically.

When comedy films first started appearing, Mack Sennett more or less ran the show. Sennett films relied on heavy slapstick – watch anything featuring the Keystone Kops and you’ll see what I mean. Watching Sennett’s Chaplin, Arbuckle and Normand films reveals…basically the same thing. There were no scripts back then – the actors would just go out with the director and a cameraman, find a scene somewhere, and improvise a little story. They’d then add title cards later after the film was edited and cut.

Then one day, Charlie Chaplin decided to believe all the critics calling him an artist, and things changed drastically. Films became longer, with proper plots carried throughout them. There weren’t scripts, because there was still no dialogue, but by the middle of the 1920s, the Big Three – Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd – were well-established, with Harry Langdon more or less keeping up with them (until he decided he was an artist, too, but let’s not get into that now). These films moved away from slapstick and became more situational, with the characters spending most of their time on film trying to get out of bizarre – yet realistic – situations.

And then sound came.

Now, you don’t need sound to make a comedy, but when sound arrived, everyone decided that now was the time for snappy scripts and puns. There was an over-reliance on dialogue, which naturally ruined quite a few potentially good films. By the time films and moviegoers had gotten used to sound, quite a few of the great comedians of the 1920s had fallen off the wagon. (The Big Three continued to make and appear in films, but their work during this period isn’t considered their best output, and Harry Langdon did quite a few talkies, as well, but eventually joined the writing team at Hal Roach Studios.)

If we look at the sort of comedy that was popular during the 1930s, we see two or three distinct branches. The first branch, which involves scripts heavily reliant on wordplay and puns, is primarily dominated by the Marx Brothers, but there were quite a few other acts falling under this umbrella, as well. Remember Wheeler and Woolsey? No? Anyway, they were here, too.

The second branch involves a return to slapstick. Columbia decided that at the height of the Great Depression what people really wanted to see was three idiots beating each other up for twenty minutes, so they signed these three and set them to work. Apparently Columbia was right, since they turned out to be a massive draw at the box office.

The third branch – my favorite – is probably the best-remembered of the three because they seem to be involved in almost everyone’s childhoods, even now. To be fair, the thing that makes Laurel and Hardy so special to me is that the two of them ended up becoming best friends over the course of their careers, which is the most adorable thing ever. From a comedy standpoint, they’re very different from the other two branches because of their pacing. Whilst the other acts relied on quick, snappy dialogue and non-stop cartoon violence, Stan and Ollie took things very, very slowly. They reacted to what happened to them – slowly – and stretched sequences that would have taken other comedians thirty seconds to do out over several minutes. It worked brilliantly.

By the 1940s, things needed to be freshened up some, and although the Stooges and Stan and Ollie were still around, it was Abbott and Costello who popped up and grew in popularity during the war years. (This may have reflected the general culture in America at the time, as Bud and Lou’s comedy style was more aggressive.) They hung around in the ’50s for a little while, but Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis picked up the baton from there and brought comedy into more of a screwball direction. At the same time, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s Road To… movies were further solidifying the genre. Television comedy also began its rise, with many radio stars eventually making the jump and bringing sketch comedy and sitcoms to the small screen.

Which brings us to It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which came out in 1963. There are elements of several styles of comedy in this movie – which makes sense, because there are several styles of comedians in it. If we take a closer look at it, we can dissect it a little bit:

  • Mack Sennett would have loved this movie. There’s plenty of slapstick violence in here – the film even ends on a banana peel gag, a staple of the Sennett era. Although there isn’t a pie fight, there’s a bit where an entire gas station is systematically dismantled and destroyed by Jonathan Winters, which is close enough.
  • There’s a ton of situational comedy, too. The entire movie is fueled by one situation – Jimmy Durante’s character hid money somewhere in Southern California under something called a ‘big W,’ and everyone’s attempts to get there first place them into precarious situations: hitchhiking with strangers and ‘borrowing’ their cars, flying an airplane after the pilot passes out drunk, locked in a hardware store basement, and so on.
  • The script is phenomenal. It allows all the comedians making cameos to get their trademark lines in (ZaSu Pitts gets to show off her Midwestern accent as the switchboard operator, Jack Benny gets to deliver a “…Well!” and Joe E. Brown gets to scream “HEEEEEEEEY!” near the end). It also lets the feature players shine (Buddy Hackett’s delivery of “What are you, the hostess?” to Mickey Rooney as they’re trying to land a plane is my dad’s favorite line in the entire film). The script is snappy and rapid-fire where it needs to be and quiet when all the audience needs to follow the plot is the action.
  • For a three-hour movie, the pacing is incredible – you never get bored because the plot never drags for a second, even when the scene cuts to the police station for a breather.

You watch this film, and cameos aside, the films of the 1910s and 1920s are back – in color and in a much longer format, but there you go. Styles of comedy tend to cycle around. In the early 1960s, there was a satire boom which started in the UK and made its way to the US. Although Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, who were at the forefront of the movement by being in Beyond the Fringe, lasted as a double act for twenty some-odd years afterwards by moving into sketch comedy, satire itself faded quickly out of vogue, only to return with a vengeance in the 2000s. My brother loves films like Dodgeball. Dodgeball is pure slapstick.

Think for a moment about what you like watching. There might just be some older – or newer – films in the ilk of what you’re into. Why don’t you go and check those out for a change and see what you think?