Comedienne Mabel Normand still seems to get far less respect than her contributions warrant. Small, cute, energetic, and fearless, Normand was one of the first big stars at Mack Sennett’s studios, and perhaps the first female director in screen comedy. While her vision was borne of performance rather than technical achievement, her early films show amazing promise. Unfortunately, life was not good to Mabel. Heartbreak, scandal, substance abuse, and an early death have combined to make her name unrecognizable to all except those of us with a serious interest in screen comedy’s history.
Kino on Video has released to DVD, as part of their wonderful Slapstick Symposium series, one of the most interesting feature-length films of Mabel’s career. The Extra Girl was made in1923, during a time when Ms. Normand was seeking some level of redemption, after being implicated in the murders of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922, and millionaire Courtland Dines in 1923. During those less forgiving times, audiences who had once loved Mabel, now chose to boycott her films. A rampant problem with drug addiction made her unreliable to studios.
Normand had achieved some comeback mileage with Samuel Goldwyn productions after her initial success with Sennett had waned. But Sennett bought Mabel’s contract from Goldwyn, and it is he who produced The Extra Girl, which shows Mabel as Sue Graham, a character trying to make it in movies, only to find work as an extra. It was Sennett’s concept, his attempt to put his beloved Mabel back in the spotlight.
The Extra Girl is light, pleasant and amusing, with good performances by welcome veterans like Ralph Graves and Vernon Dent. Mabel works hard, but the weariness is evident, even without as much knowledge of her off screen backstory. What is most significant is her natural ability. After a decade in films, Mabel Normand was completely adept at performing physical comedy, but also was able to project the homespun appeal that his character calls for. Her weary look notwithstanding, Mabel Normand is delightful as Sue Graham, overcoming comic setbacks from her exploits in the studio’s wardrobe department, to her unwittingly unleashing a lion on the backlot
This movie’s importance to film history is significant in that it shows Mabel during the latter part of her career, overcoming light setbacks on film that parallel the very serious obstacles by which she was confronted in real life. It would be three years before Mabel would make another film –a handful of two-reelers for Hal Roach in the later 1920s, some co-written by Stan Laurel. The Extra Girl is her final screen triumph.
Kino’s print of The Extra Girl is from the 1969 Paul Killiam restoration with an Organ score by Jack Ward. It preserves the original color tints.
This DVD also contains the 1913 one-reeler The Gusher, featuring Mabel and the inimitable Keystone Cops, with music composed and performed by Ben Model. Showing Mabel at the outset of her screen career, with tremendous energy and spunky spirit; it unfortunately helps to emphasize the weariness evident in The Extra Girl.
This DVD is most highly recommended, offering important work from one of early screen comedy’s unfairly forgotten contributors.