Eavesdropping at the Movies: 116 – The Marvellous Mabel Normand

Flatpack’s Silent Night series continues with a screening, at Birmingham Cathedral, of The Marvellous Mabel Normand, a programme of four silent comedy shorts from the BFI National Archive. Normand was the leading silent comedienne of her day but neither Mike nor José was familiar with her, and the programme provides a great introduction to her work, as not just a star but also a director.

We saw Mabel’s Blunder (1914), which she directed, Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913), His Trysting Place (1914) and Should Men Walk Home? (1927). Each stars Normand, and alongside her are such names as Mack Sennett, Oliver Hardy, Eugene Pallette and one Charlie Chaplin.

José finds himself in thrall to Normand’s magnetism and emotional openness, finding her incandescent with screen presence. The nuances she brings to her physical and facial performances, the way she types or jumps out of the way of an onrushing car, light up the screen and make her memorable.

Mike, it must be said, is less impressed, suggesting that she doesn’t elevate some weak material as a better actor might, though that’s not to say he sees nothing to appreciate about her performances. But what he takes away above all else is how seeing one Chaplin film amongst other silent shorts provides incontrovertible proof of his comedic genius, His Trysting Place a geyser of creativity and comic charm.

We also consider how key figures of silent comedy are remembered or not, particularly thinking of the disparity between Mack Sennett’s importance and name recognition, and how Chaplin remains a worldwide icon perhaps to an extent comparable only to religious figures. José holds forth on the talents and career of Leo McCarey, director of Should Men Walk Home?, and we discuss the programme’s newly commissioned score by The Meg Morley Trio, who performed it live during the screening.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

 

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