Friday, August 1, 2008

Magnificent Mabel: review of The Extra Girl

To continue the discussion of brilliant woman comedians/comic actresses (see below), I thought I should move back a bit from the Seventies. Actually quite a bit — let’s talk about the Twenties and the absolutely adorable comic pioneer Mabel Normand.

I do this on the occasion of the Kino release of one of her best features, The Extra Girl (1923). There is an excellent biography (Mabel by Betty Harper Fussell) and a really good tribute site that outlines her place in movie history, so I’ll just emphasize that she was a crucial part of Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio, directed some of her own movies (making her the first comedienne to do so, predating Mae West’s screenwriting by two decades), and had a completely winning presence on camera. She was an attractive woman who most likely could have “gone straight” at any time in her short career (1910-27) but wisely followed the example of her Keystone partner Charlie Chaplin, and continued to make comedies with strategically-placed bursts of pathos.

The plot of The Extra Girl offers just such melodramatic moments: Mabel is a small town girl who dreams of movie stardom, but is being forced by her parents to marry a drip. Through characteristically goofy circumstances, she wins a contest and winds up working in a Hollywood studio in the wardrobe dept (no matter the title — she never works as an extra), and is later “discovered.”

These days silent comedy is seen as a very rarified taste, fit for only two hours on TCM every few Sunday nights. I believe that there is something incredibly pure about silent comedy, and some of the purest silent comedies came from Mack Sennett and Keystone. Mack was the master of shooting on the spur of the moment and the early Keystones are an absolute joy (and remarkable slices of L.A. county history) for this very reason.

The bios of Sennett stress his complicated love for Mabel (and hers for him); it’s also noted that he financially undervalued his stars, and kept having them plucked from under his nose. In The Extra Girl he provides an excellent showcase for Mabel’s talents, preparing her for later features like Mickey and The Nickel Hopper, both of which deserve legal releases on DVD (especially the last-mentioned).

Mabel was a subtle comic actress who could camp it up when the scene required, as at the end of the Keystone short included as a bonus on this disc, The Gusher (1913). She also presents an array of “smaller” gestures to match the situation. In The Extra Girl the most famous sequence finds her dragging around a lion that she believes is a dog in a lion suit. The situation is ridiculous, but she keeps the deadpan for the duration and carries it off beautifully (she is actually together with the lion in just about two shots; the sequence is carefully edited so she wasn’t in too much danger).

Kino has been doing exemplary work in issuing silent cinema for many years now. The company’s supreme achievements have been the Art of Buster Keaton collection and their release of German Expressionist classics. Their “Slapstick Symposium” series of releases are proving to be as fascinating and indispensable as their “Slapstick Encyclopedia” releases were on VHS (that set is now available on DVD through Image). Separate “Symposium” releases are each devoted to the work of a silent comedian (Lloyd, Langdon, the underrated Charley Chase, solo Laurel, solo Hardy), and The Extra Girl now breaks the gender line and shows off to good advantage the funniest (and one of the cutest) ladies in the silent era.

No comments: