Friday 19 January 2018

Stage: No happy ending for first funny girl Mabel

Love affair: Michael Ball takes the lead in Mack And Mabel which starts its run in Dublin on Tuesday.
Love affair: Michael Ball takes the lead in Mack And Mabel which starts its run in Dublin on Tuesday.
Mabel Normand

Maggie Armstrong

For most film stars, the stage is a rite of passage. An academy where you learn to project your lines, maximise your gestures, and court fans in the flesh. Mabel Normand skipped the stage part. This was one of many mishaps in the life of the silent screen superstar, the study of an interesting new musical in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.

Jerry Herman's failed, rewritten and revived Mack & Mabel considers the infamous love affair between the bullish Hollywood director Mack Sennett and the spitfire slapstick Mabel.

It must be the only musical where frivolous, fabulous love has no happy ending. As Michael Ball, who plays Mack, told me backstage at the Chichester Festival Theatre, it is the only musical where the leading couple never sing together. Where the signature romantic song, 'I Won't Send Roses' is, underneath its frothy sentimentality, an insult to romance: "Forget my shoulder, when you're in need. Forgetting birthdays, is guaranteed."

If you go to Misery Hill - the BGE Theatre's street name is appropriate, don't you find? - you might want to know a bit about Mabel. 'Bad-luck Mabel', as she called herself. 'Madcap Mabel' to friends. The comedienne was born November 9, 1892 on Staten Island to an Irish immigrant mother from Kerry, Mary Drury, and a French immigrant father, Claude Normand. Lucky for her she inherited her father's French looks - sallow skin and deep dark eyes under improbably long lashes.

A chocolate-box face found her work as an artist's model, but her practical mother sent her to New York city to apply for a job in a knitting magazine. There, she modelled patterns. Despite Mary Drury's disapproval of films, her daughter wandered downtown to make a few dollars in the Biograph studios as an extra.

She was 16 when she met Mack Sennett on set, the "stocky, red-faced Irishman" (her words), 20 years her senior, who scooped her off to a desert better known as Hollywood to become his leading lady at Keystone.

Mabel was athletic, fast and fearless, with the comic touch. She was the first 'diving girl', perfecting a backwards flip into a murky sea, a 'bathing beauty' when curves were the thing, and a daredevil, happy to be strapped to train tracks, jump cliffs, and drown in lakes.

She could "take a fall wonderfully", said one producer. Mack & Mabel demonstrates how she invented the pie-in-the-face joke. On set in 1913 she socked a studio hand in the face with a fresh raspberry pie because she was annoyed.

It is a shame some call her 'the female Chaplin'. He was her inferior. When Chaplin came to work at Keystone and lacked promise, Mabel encouraged Mack to keep him on.

Then Chaplin fell in love with her. She didn't reciprocate. And although he didn't like to admit it afterwards, Mabel directed Chaplin. From 1914 it was agreed she would direct all her own films for Keystone. This was before she established her own (short-lived) production company. And before her relationship with Mack ended in a catastrophic engagement party - not sending roses was only one of this man's failures.

Described by a contemporary as "reckless, spectacular, unorthadox", Mabel was everything we wish and dream a star could be, from Marilyn Monroe to Amy Winehouse. She was worshipped and respected until 1922. Then, her life became a kind of motion picture in the press.

Not one but two high-profile murder cases within her circle saw her reputation questioned, and nearly destroyed.

In 1925 when she returned to New York City to try to make it on stage, everything depended on it. All her life she had feared live performance. Months of voice training deserted her when she made her debut as a wife in a bad play, The Little Mouse. The critics roasted her, the play closed early.

Five years later, she died. A cocaine addiction and heavy smoking didn't help the tuberculosis that would cut her life short at 38.

Silent films have one thing in common with theatre shows - blink and you miss them. The moment disappears except in memory. Of the 167 comic shorts and 23 full-length features Mabel Normand made between 1909 and 1926, 66 shorts and four features survive. Nitrate film decayed the rest.

But her life is like a parable. Her start coincided with the birth of Hollywood, her demise with the end of silent movies. She represents an innocence despoiled by celebrity, debauchery and crime begot by arrogance. This production is brave to take her on. Go see it for yourself. It's fabulously miserable.

Mack & Mabel plays October 27 to November 7 at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.

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