The earliest surviving film directed (and possibly also written) by Mabel Normand, Won in a Cupboard was thought lost for decades. The plot, and I use the word loosely, involves a pair of young lovers, their parents, a case of mistaken identity… and a cupboard. There are also plenty of eccentric characters and slapstick to be had.
The perils of Mabel
On the whole, we tend to like our clowns on the tragic side. Talented comics who could create happiness for everyone but themselves… The problem with this narrative is twofold. Sometimes, as in the case of Buster Keaton, we are so eager for this narrative that we create tragedy where comparatively little existed. Other times, as in the case of Mabel Normand, we have a genuinely tragic life that sometimes overshadows her pioneering role in the field of comedy.
Mabel Normand is famous for her role as the lovely face of early Keystone. Her talents are director are often mentioned as a footnote. In the freewheeling world of ‘teens movie making, there were a few notable female directors. Alice Guy and Lois Weber are the most famous but DeMille writer Jeanie Macpherson also tried her hand at the job, as did Lillian Gish and Frances Marion would take a few stabs at the job in the twenties.
Mabel Normand was dismissed as too young for the job in Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography. This is highly ironic as Normand was twenty-one at the time and Chaplin had just spent several pages complaining that no one took him seriously because he was twenty-five.
Worse, the 1992 film adaptation of Chaplin’s book portrays Normand as a talentless trollop who whines for her smitten lover, Mack Sennett, to give her the director’s chair.
The truth? Normand was easily the most popular member of the Keystone family. She could take pratfalls just like the boys, only while wearing a corset, an ankle-length skirt and high heels. She was a box office draw who enjoyed the enormous popularity that she had earned through hard work. She directed at a time when women did not have the vote and needed their husband’s permission to open a line of credit. I think she deserves kudos for even trying.
(Before we pat ourselves on the back too much, remember that women only made up 6% of the directors and 10% of the writers of top grossing films in 2013.)
Enough of the preamble, how is the movie?
The rather thin plot concerns the burgeoning romance between Mabel and Charles Avery. Her father (Charles Inslee) is also courting his mother (Alice Davenport). What with one thing and another, the parents find themselves hidden in a closet. Mabel and Charles think that a tramp is inside and run to get help. Chaos ensues.
Some people have found the assumption of a tramp invasion to be a bizarre leap in logic. However, we must remember that the violent tramp was an extremely popular villain in films of this period. It would be like the heroes of a Cold War comedy becoming convinced that their neighbor is a Russian spy. When we modern viewers think of silent movie tramps, Chaplin is probably the first thing to come to mind but in 1914, homeless men were treated as a terrifying other.
The entire cast of Won in a Cupboard mugs shamelessly but that was pretty much par for the course at Keystone. Normand is utterly charming as the mad heroine. She was screwball before screwball was screwball. The film is hardly a masterpiece but it is a good solid one-reeler. Normand has all the movie mechanics down and even plays a bit with double exposure for comedic effect.
Won in a Cupboard was thought lost for decades before turning up in New Zealand. There is some missing footage and nitrate decay that shows it was rediscovered in the nick of time.
While it is not a masterpiece, Won in a Cupboard is pretty impressive as the second film of a twenty-one-year-old regardless of gender. The double exposure scene is cute, the pace never lets up and it is generally a fun way to spend 13 minutes.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
Won in a Cupboard was rediscovered in New Zealand and released in the compilation Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive. The short has an enthusiastic score by Michael Mortilla. I highly recommend the disc, which is stuffed to the gills with goodies like John Ford’s Upstream and Alfred Hitchcock’s The White Shadow.