We move onto 1918 in our series of reviewing the highest-grossing film of each year. Last week we looked at Cecil B DeMille’s and Mary Pickford’s A Romance of the Redwoods. This week we move onto Mickey starring Mabel Normand.
Due to only just watching more silent films this is the first time I have come across Mabel Normand. After viewing Mickey, I will endeavour to fix that mistake and catch up on her still existing filmography sharpish!
Much like Pickford but with her hair down, Normand was able to have a lot of creative control in her films and helped mentor Charlie Chaplin when he came to Hollywood. A lot of her best work was with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, but due to his scandals, his work was banned from viewing.
In fact, George Nichols who plays Mickey’s uncle directed four of Chaplin’s earliest works while he was at Keystone Studios with Mabel mentoring and directing a few more. So the lost importance of Mabel Normand to the history of cinema is a sad one and again not one I will forget (expect a solo piece on her soon.)
Interestingly Mickey was Normand’s 8th film release of 1918… Quite prolific!
Mickey tells the tale of an orphaned girl raised by her uncle at a rundown mine. She is boisterous wild, free-spirited and to her uncle, utterly uncontrollable. They send her to another family who they thing are well off in the hope of never having to deal with her again. But, much to Mickey’s dismay, they are just as poor and think the mine still has gold.
Mickey takes a fair few twists and turns during its runtime that allows Mabel Normand to be the star she is truly meant to be. The runtime is only around 70 minutes and could do with running a tad longer as we get a great amount of setting up in the opening half an hour for the film to then run as fast as a racehorse in the latter half. Having someone as strong and confident in her abilities as an actress as Normand helps the film from falling apart as without her and her hijinks this would have been a run of the mill melodrama and it is fairly certain she had the leverage over directors Richard Jones and James Young due to the studio being hers.
Normand’s mannerisms and facial expressions are so on point here. You can see the cheeky side of her character, the quick wink and pretence of innocence for eating all the cherries of a cake. It is a very confident performance with a lot of chaos throughout.
Comedy in feature-length films was not the norm as of yet so for this wide scoping and female lead one to do so well at the box office is all you need to know of its quality. The film works best when Normand is front and centre carrying out one of her trademark comedy bits. Her sequences being a maid to her family are truly laugh out loud funny and seeing the old sweep the dirt under the rug (or in this case animal fur) shows how clever it was. Normand was willing to risk a lot in her scenes to get laughs. Climbing down pipes for a quick laugh, she was a true comedic actress.
In earlier work, it appeared as if Normand would ham it up to the camera to make sure it was evident we knew she was there. In Mickey, she knows to never look at towards the camera, plays it as if she is the character and would be the character for a while (it is worth noting that the film was filmed in 1916 and not released for two years, at which point Normand had already signed with another studio so the likelihood of her reprising this role was sadly lost). This is a rarity due to most comedic actors of the era known for playing one character and keeping at it, much like the aforementioned Chaplin and Arbuckle.
Her strength in the role is that not only does she command the screen, but she seems to have great chemistry with every other character she interacts with. Most notably her comedic chemistry with Reggie (Lew Cody who Normand would later marry, thus the great chemistry I guess…) is more than noticeable in their scenes together. Mabel Normand appeared to be a spunkier version of what Mary Pickford ended up being. It could be the confidence and ability not to be held down by a studio too tight. lt that enabled Normand to be as creative as she was in shorts and in features. Whereas Pickford, sadly got lost and forced into having to please everyone. If Normand had more luck she could and would have been just as big a star.
The film loses steam when she isn’t on screen as it tries to figure out the convoluted plan to have Mickey get into a new scrape. The expected love triangle was also added in. Though they did in truth expertly seed that through in the first half of the picture. So it is not as if Mickey just comes in and takes Herbert (Wheeler Oakman) away from her cousin with the love triangle of a poor girl, a richer cousin and a dashing millionaire gentleman. It is the standard Cinderella story with a load of comedy thrown in for good measure.
Despite this, the film never becomes boring, you want to know what goes on with the adventures or misadventures of Mickey. We have car chases, action and fight scenes to help keep the audience entertained, all the trappings of a Mack Sennett picture. However, he knew how to properly utilise or maybe Normand made him utilise her more for as she simply knew her capabilities.
With a gross of $8 million ($150 million today), she was a bonafide star and this is one that should be caught, just make sure you watch the 88-minute version with a proper score to it as there are some versions out there that are actually silent…
Rating – ★★★★