Mabel Normand scored a smash hit with this feature-length comedy about a mining camp brat who goes to live in the big city. Chaos ensues but you knew that already.
Slip me a Mickey
By 1918, many of Keystone’s comedy stars had found greater success elsewhere. Charlie Chaplin was, of course, making movie history; Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was enjoying great popularity with his own Comique line co-starring Al St. John and Buster Keaton; Gloria Swanson had successfully made the jump to dramatic features and was about to embark on a successful collaboration with Cecil B. DeMille. Mabel Normand was ready to leave the nest (of vipers) herself and she had a fat contract with Goldwyn but there was also a movie she made under her own banner that had been held up for release: Mickey.
Whenever we talk about business and Mack Sennett, my eyes kind of cross. I have a lot of affection for his early comedy productions but little use for the man himself and so you will forgive me if I simply skim over the story of Mickey’s release woes. Mack was playing hanky-panky with his distribution contracts, the distributors didn’t like it, blah blah blah. What with one thing and another, months and months passed with the film on the shelf but it turned out okay because when it was released, it was a blockbuster.
Okay, now for the fun stuff. And by fun stuff, I mean Mabel Normand’s performance.
Mickey (Normand) has grown up in a mining camp with her father, Joe (George Nichols), and his housekeeper, Minnie (Minnie Devereaux), who has acted as a mother to the girl. Mickey is always getting into mischief, usually related to one of her pets, and Joe despairs of her ever growing up to be a lady. He’s not her real father, you see. Her parents had been his business partners and they named him Mickey’s legal guardian in the event of their deaths.
Mickey’s closest living relatives are her aunt, Mrs. Drake (Laura La Varnie), and cousins Reggie Drake (Lew Cody) and Elsie Drake (Minta Durfee). The Drakes haven’t a bean but want to keep that 1% lifestyle and so Elsie has been in hot pursuit of Herbert Thornhill (Wheeler Oakman), a mine owner who seems to be on the verge of striking it rich.
Before Elsie can get Herbert to put a ring on it, he is called away on business. And does this business take him near Mickey’s mine? You know it! And one look at Mabel diving in the altogether (likely aided by a body stocking) seals the deal: Herbert is in love!
Unfortunately, Joe has already arranged to send Mickey to live with the Drakes and learn how to be a lady. Once the family discovers that she has no money, though, they force her to become a scullery maid. Worse, Herbert thinks he has lost Mickey forever and so he agrees to marry the awful Elsie. Worser and worser, Reggie has taken to trying to paw our plucky heroine.
Will Mickey escape the clutches of the Drakes? Will she get Herbert back? Will she finally get that lace dress she wants? See Mickey to find out!
Mickey is constructed very much along the lines of a Mary Pickford vehicle. While she is famous for her golden curls and many stills of her feature lace and ribbons, Pickford was an accomplished physical comedian and she enjoyed playing brash heroines from poor rural backgrounds. Films like Tess of the Storm Country (1914) and Rags (1915) would have helped provide a blueprint for Mickey from costumes to body language. Pickford was not the only star making rural films but she was one of the most successful.
That’s not to say that Normand was a copycat as her performance in Mickey is all her own. Rather, the filmmakers understood that a popular style of film character would suit her well and decided to adapt it to her needs. Normand was an experienced comedy director in her own right and that likely accounts for her clever adaptation of her madcap persona into something a little more nuanced. (Normand had been getting better every year and her collaboration with Arbuckle had been especially artistically fruitful.)
Reviews of the time were enthusiastic and Moving Picture World raved that Mickey was everything they could have wanted in a Mabel Normand vehicle and more. Certainly, Normand is game for whatever comes her way, from climbing across rooftops to leading a mob on a wild chase. Through it all, though, she remains Mabel, lovely and fair, the sugar on the Keystone grapefruit. While some comedy performers discovered that their characters could not carry an entire feature, Mabel proves herself more than up to the task. The film wisely slows down at certain passages to show off the sweet relationship Mickey has with Joe and Minnie, deepening the character and turning a comedy into a family affair.
The supporting cast of Mickey, for the most part, matches Normand’s skill. George Nichols is suitably befuddled as Mickey’s adopted dad and Native American actress Minnie Devereaux brings a warm, maternal presence to the film. (She was actually still in her twenties at the time.) A Native American playing a Native American role? Is this done? (Devereaux had a lot of interesting things to say about stereotypes and representation but that’s another post for another time.)
Old Normand pal Minta Durfee seems to be enjoying herself as the insufferable Elsie. (Durfee was married to Roscoe Arbuckle and appeared in her share of comedies with her husband and Normand.) Finally, Wheeler Oakman is fine as Mickey’s love interest. Oakman was a steady, reliable performer who could play most any role and he is smart enough to realize that he is the straight man in this picture. His character is there to be a nice guy and to provide a little bit of romance or muscle. Oakman returned to the wilderness again in Back to God’s Country when he was cast as the leading man at the last minute. (The location shoot’s harsh conditions had led to his predecessor’s death from pneumonia. The good old days.)
Alas, Normand’s talent and that of the supporting players is not matched by the story. Actually, the plot of Mickey is best described as a crazy quilt of borrowed influences. A touch of Rags! A dab of Cinderella! A dollop of Polly of the Circus! The problem is that none of these pieces really fit together as a cohesive whole and we end up with a plot that happens because the characters have to get from Point A to Point B. The story requires Mickey to be imperiled by a Fate Worse Than Death? Have her go riding with the guy who tried to attack her a few weeks ago! Why? We don’t know!
This is not helped by the fact that Lew Cody, then well into his “male vampire” period, mugs almost as shamelessly as Ford Sterling, Normand’s old Keystone nemesis. But this ain’t 1912 and the “I have you now, me pretty!” business is so incredibly tired. Plus, I object to a scene of danger that is brought about entirely because a character picks up the idiot ball. (And don’t get me started about the trick played by Wheeler Oakman’s BFF in the film.)
I suppose I should mention that Cody later became Mr. Mabel Normand before I get the inevitable “you forgot…” comment. Also, Wheeler Oakman was Mr. Priscilla Dean for a while.
There are some attempts to paper over the jerkiness of the plot with title cards that say things like “Some time later…” but this is still a very uneven film. I should also note that there are two cuts of the thing, original and re-release. (Sequences cut from the 1918 release are available for viewing online.) The re-release version runs longer than the original but neither cut is what I would call smooth. Many silent movie fans are optimistic about lost footage, believing any cut material MUST be what will save a so-so film. I confess that I lack this cheery view.
(By the way, there are some people who claim that the tie-in music to Mickey was the very first in the history of films. Y’all know how I feel about claiming firsties and, anyway, I already discussed tie-in music in relation to Dream of the Rarebit Fiend from back in 1906. So there.)
Mickey succeeds in proving that Normand could not only carry a big budget feature but that her comic persona could also be stretched and molded beyond its pratfall-heavy origins. Normand is a treat as the eccentric heroine of the film but she would have been even better if the story had been up to snuff. The fact that the film succeeds as well as it does is a testament to Normand’s charisma and star power.
Where can I see it?
Mickey has been released on DVD by Grapevine (which includes two cuts of the film) and assorted budget companies.
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