Mabel’s First

There is currently a movie about Mary Pickford in the works called ‘The First’. While Mary did accomplish many firsts, a lot of people overlook there were others before her or at the same time (ex: Clara Kimball Young, Helen Gardner, etc.)

*Director, Producer and Writer

While Mabel was by far not the first female director or producer (Alice Guy Blache is probably the first), she was one of the first female directors and producers. While stars like Pickford were quiet about producing or directing less it detract from their image (Pickford likely directed a small percentage of her films on her own, but never took credit. A few early films she was credited where due), Mabel appears to have always been credited for any contribution she made. Women comedy writers were extremely rare, because as some notable female screenwriters put it: many comedians would plan out a film with military procession, and also focused heavily on fitting gags neatly in the plot. While Mabel’s current style is unknown, it is undeniable she seems to have contributed heavily to her material.

*Keystone and many firsts

Mack Sennett was given control of the Biograph comedies (D.W. Griffith wasn’t big on comedies) and this eventually became Keystone. Mabel was essentially Mack’s muse and as such she was the center of many comedic firsts. She was the first star and performer in a Keystone Film (Water Nymph), was the subject of the first Keystone Kops episode (The Bangville police). She also was probably one of the few people to co-star or work with Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Ford Sterling and Ford Mace and Olive and Hardy (though not as a pair, Stan wrote, Babe acted.) Had she acted with Buster Keaton at any point that would be the entire roll call.

Mabel was ‘the girl tied to the train tracks’, an image that frequently comes to mind when mentioning silent film. The clip from Barney Oldsfield’s Race for Life (1913) is so popular it frequently pops up in modern pop culture to make a joke or a point, such as on the Daily Show in the summer of 2013.

Mabel with Fatty Arbuckle was credited as the perpetrators of the first ‘pie in the face’ gag (pie thrown in face, not landing your face in a pie, that was Ben Turpin). It debuted in “A noise from the deep” (1913) with Arbuckle throwing and Mabel receiving, thus making her the first person to get a pie thrown in their face, as well known now as the girl on the tracks.

Mabel and Arbuckle also made a well used visual in “Fatty and Mabel Adrift” (1915): their heads in separate screens pop out of big hearts. This image was recently used in an American insurance commercial in 2012.

While many rarely credit women with comedy or being capable of comedy at all (a sin of its own), Mabel is usually included in any comedic history work from murals to documentaries to books…often being the only women cited or used.

While Mack Sennett’s claim that the sheet music to “Mickey” was the first and best selling film song ever at the time…is questionable (the theme from Birth of a Nation was well known and sold well in sheet music 4 years earlier), it is definitely a notable event in film soundtracks. While not the first, it indeed proved Griffith’s theory of theme music was not a fluke and a film ‘single’ became the stable of almost every major feature after Mickey (while stars faces were used on sheet music, sometimes without their consent, long before Mickey, these songs were not considered singles to a film, or related to a film.)

The Sitcom. To say Mabel made a sitcom would be silly, as the term took quite awhile to take hold and ‘sitcoms’ even on radio weren’t til she had passed away. However Mabel’s style of feature film is interesting in that many of her Goldwyn projects are comparable to ‘sitcoms’. The idea didn’t exist of course, radio was new, you had no TV, you had to go to a theatre to see film or vaudeville. Mabel indeed made shorts (which some modern kids think are ‘episodes’, I find that cute) and full feature films (Mickey, Molly O, The Extra Girl, etc). But films like “What Happened to Rosa?” are very comparable to something like a TV show these days in formatting and intent. They were too short to be features, too long to be shorts. And the plots of some of these films are easily comparable to the screwball comedy of people like Lucille Ball. A similar comparison could be made to both Carole Lombard and Thelma Todd’s comedic work in the late 20s/early 30s.

During short films actors were prized for their stunt abilities and very rarely offered a double. But as the actors became more valuable they rarely chose to do their own stunts. While again Mabel wasn’t the first or only woman to do her own stunts, she is probably the one most insistent on it.

*Charlie Chaplin

Almost everyone credits Mabel with persuading Sennett to sign Chaplin, though the story varies. Chaplin’s tramp first debuted in her film “Mabel’s Strange Predicament” (1914), though another film (Kid at the autoraces) was released first, but filmed after. Mabel either wrote, directed or co-wrote/directed several of Chaplin’s early shorts (in fact they co-wrote a few shorts together, while Mabel ). While he stated they butted heads at first (many believe this was because a Victorian man wasn’t happy taking orders from a woman) but they became best pals by all accounts. Charlie thought kindly of her til the end of his life. While he never really acknowledged her effect on him, it is beyond obvious. Mabel was in film 4 years before Charlie, which in those days was a lifetime. Many people (including Sennett) noted Mabel was the only co-star of Charlie’s who could match him kick for kick, wit for wit. Once he became a sensation she was sometimes called ‘a female Chaplin’ though it seems more apt to say Charlie was a ‘male Normand’ (but that would never happen in the 1910s.)

She was one of the first women Chaplin directed (they shared the credit) and she also has the odd distinction of being in the only lost released Chaplin film: “Her Friend the Bandit” (The Seahawk and The Freak are also ‘missing’ but were never released/completed.)