Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913) A Silent Film Review

The story is as old as they come: Boy meets girl, boy dumps girl, girl makes good, boy left to stew. The plot may be old but that made it ripe for the Keystone treatment in this mad bit of slapstick.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

The maid who made good.

The son of the family (Mack Sennett) is in love with the maid, Mabel (Mabel Normand). His mother (Alice Davenport) does not approve but Mack goes right ahead and proposes. But what’s this? A beauty (Virginia Kirtley) from the city arrives and Mack is smitten. He dumps Mabel, who attacks her rival with a stick but eventually leaves in tears.

Betrayed!
Betrayed!

Mack is rejected by the city beauty and he pines for Mabel but his remorse is too late. Mabel has gone to Hollywood where she gets a job at Keystone Studios. Fancy that!

Mack tries to forget his troubles at the movie theater. Imagine his surprise when he sees Mabel in the lead! And she is being attacked by the villainous Ford Sterling! No one can do that to Mabel and live! Mack arms himself and prepares to do away with the foul cur. (Sennett approaches the camera with a glower. A rib on the famous closeup in The Musketeers of Pig Alley?)

Mabel is in peril! Help! Help! Do something!
Mabel is in peril! Help! Help! Do something!

The punchline? (And here comes a spoiler.) Mabel and Ford are happily married with a couple of kids. A confused Mack finds himself alone.

This sounds like a rather serious affair when described but I can assure you that it has all the outrageous antics that we have come to expect from Mabel, Mack, Ford and the rest of the Keystone crew.

Mabel's audition
Mabel’s audition

Mack Sennett acted in many of his films until 1915, when he began to cut back his work before the camera. A producer since 1908 and a director since 1909, Sennett’s acting took a back seat. He continued making sporadic film and television appearances into the 1950’s but his heart was in the production side of things.

I think it’s safe to say that Mack Sennett’s real talent lay behind the camera. He mugs outrageously (even for a Keystone film) and generally overdoes his part. As a producer, though, he was a champ. His winning combination of girls + stunts + low budgets kept the money rolling in and earned him the moniker The King of Comedy. Add in trained dogs, fast automobiles and pop culture spoofs and you had the key to Sennett’s success.

A long way from the opera...
A long way from the opera…

Born in Richmond, Quebec, Sennett dreamed of being… an opera singer? Like many of his fellow film pioneers, the movies were a second choice. But, like any good pioneer, Sennett recognized the potential of the medium. He also knew how to organize and formulate the kinds of wild comedies that would leave 1910’s audiences howling.

Mabel Normand was pretty, popular and a comedic genius in her own right. The Sennett comedies were rough and rowdy affairs. Mabel was able to either glide above the fray or dive into it headfirst, whichever suited the story better. She had instinctive comedic timing and an elfin manner that made her the true star of any film she appeared in.

Yay Mabel!
Yay Mabel!

Mabel’s Dramatic Career plays to her strengths. Mabel is the poor girl thrown out into the cruel world. A predicament worthy of a D.W. Griffith (Sennet’s mentor) melodrama. But Mabel doesn’t leave without a fight. She grabs a stick and thwacks her rival before dissolving into tears and escaping. This combination of rowdiness and vulnerability would later make Charlie Chaplin a legend.

Mabel’s Dramatic Career is also notable for the way life imitated art. A few years after making this picture, Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand were to be married but they broke up instead. The story of the breakup is different depending on who you believe. Was Mack caught romancing Mae Busch? Some other Keystone lovely? Or, as he tells it, was he simply paying too much professional (but innocent!) attention to his Bathing Beauties for Mabel’s taste?

Movie Mabel makes a life with her co-star
Movie Mabel makes a life with her co-star

What everyone agrees on is that Mabel felt she could not trust Mack and their personal and (later) professional lives parted. Assuming I believed Mack’s side of things (and I do not necessarily), I would like to offer this advice as a Monday morning quarterback: Mr. Sennett, don’t tie your shoes in a melon patch. In other words, if you work professionally with beautiful women but do not wish to be seen as a cheating cad, refrain from dining alone with them.

The final irony of this story is that unlike her movie counterpart, Mabel did not have a happy ending. The talented comedienne was enmeshed in the scandal surrounding the murder of William Desmond Taylor and succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of thirty-four.

Lost love...
Lost love…

Mack Sennett’s autobiography was entitled The King of Comedy but it may as well have been called My Lost Love Mabel. Hardly a page goes by without him fondly mentioning the woman he lost nearly forty years before.

Mabel’s Dramatic Career is historically valuable for its self-referential humor. And knowing the real-life events surrounding the leading actors makes the story surprisingly poignant.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★

Where can I see it?

Mabel’s Dramatic Career was released as part of the Slapstick Encyclopedia box set.