Saturday, September 08, 2012

Anecdote of the Week: "The Girl in the Black Tights"

Some big parties going on for the past couple of weeks and the Siren's best hats were all being re-blocked, so she didn't go. Thursday night TCM, in the slyest bit of counter-programming the Siren has seen in some time, ran an entire evening of Mack Sennett shorts.

Now if this doesn't prove to one and all that Turner Classic Movies is the greatest damn channel in the history of channels, television, or people named Turner, the Siren doesn't know what will. The Siren's been seeing Sennett shorts mined for years for "quaint" clips meant to poke fun at the primitive nature of early cinema. And here he was, lovingly restored, respectfully introduced by Ben Mankiewicz, and being shown in prime time.

The Siren has been having one of those months where she's all, "Gosh, my movie viewing is feeling so, so, well--current" so this was perfect. And who should jump out at her during these shorts? Not Chester Conklin or Raymond Griffith or the Keystone Kops or Chaplin or Arbuckle, but Mabel Normand.

Normand was a known quantity; the Siren loves Mickey and He Did and He Didn't and Tillie's Punctured Romance and many others. Sitting down with the Sennett films that put her on the map was fascinating, though. Normand was utterly fresh and natural on camera. Through more than two hours of viewing the Siren never saw her mug.

John Barrymore told Mary Astor, "Think! the camera is a mind-reader." And what Sennett's camera saw in Normand was unaffected charm. It's a charm that, oddly, doesn't read much in stills at all. What a Normand photograph shows you is a pretty woman with a cute smile. You have to watch her in motion to understand why she bewitched so many, including Chaplin and of course Sennett himself.

The short that captivated the Siren was this one, for reasons that will become clear. The Water Nymph is cute, but not sidesplitting; it's famous mostly for Normand's bathing-suit scene, which according to Ben Mank inaugurated the immortal Sennett Bathing Beauties. But look at Normand earlier, laughing behind her hand at her pompous suitor. It could easily play as mean, even bitchy; Mabel's mockery seems to come from a place of pure joy, not a hint of malice in it.

It's hard to watch Normand without some small spot in the back of your mind cringing away from what fate had in store for her. (It's even harder when she's playing opposite frequent costar Roscoe Arbuckle.) The Siren has read, and mightily enjoyed, Sidney D. Kirkpatrick's A Cast of Killers, about the William Desmond Taylor murder that started Mabel's slide. For those who don't know the book, it is based on King Vidor's unpublished papers.

Toward the end of his life, Vidor became fascinated with this unsolved Hollywood killing, and he wanted to make a movie about it. The book casts Vidor, delightfully, as a sort of Hollywood Jessica Fletcher, running around talking to the silent stars and film people still alive and trying to piece the story together. In the end he comes up with a culprit, one that's revealed in a scene that plays as tragedy, although Vidor's solution absolutely hasn't convinced a lot of the case's devotees. All the Siren can say is that whether or not Vidor had the right perp, it plays. (The case has spawned a whole school of theorizing, Taylorology, which seems to be the perfect hobby for people who find Kennedy conspiracy research to be boringly uncomplicated.)

Normand's in A Cast of Killers, of course, as lovable in that book as she was everywhere else. When it was published in 1986 there was talk of making it into a movie, which still hasn't happened. Certain of the Siren's far-flung correspondents have told her they believe the movie will never happen; that even today, there are those who want to bury the story. The Siren isn't plugged-in enough to say, but the fact that the book has never been filmed is a pity. The Siren adores King Vidor, and the idea of raising his profile with the general public appeals enormously to her.

Vidor would be hard to cast. Normand would be harder.

As the Siren recalls, A Cast of Killers doesn't tell the following tale from Vidor's autobiography, A Tree Is a Tree. Kirkpatrick probably was wise enough to know he couldn't equal it.

In 1931, Vidor and Laurence Stallings were at Vidor's home, working on a screenplay about Billy the Kid. The two men were dressed in tennis whites and bright sweaters, but when they received a summons to meet with Irving Thalberg, they dropped everything and didn't bother to change into anything more sober. They joined Thalberg in his limousine, along with legendary MGM executive Eddie Mannix (whose fearsome reputation has its own school of conspiracy thought). The men discussed Billy's bloody career for a while, when Vidor realized that this wasn't an aimless joyride, they had a destination.

Suddenly the car made a turn to the right and came to an abrupt halt. Quite a crowd was gathered on the sidewalk, and a number of dark limousines, similar to ours, were parked ahead of us. The doorman who stepped up to our car wore white gloves and a dark suit. I realized that we had stopped at the main entrance of a funeral parlo. Apparently we were late for a funeral!

Whose funeral? I wondered.

I was obliged to step out to permit egress for Thalberg and Mannix.

As I started to get back into the car and sit out the funeral service with Stallings, a strong hand gripped my arm.

"Aren't you coming inside?" It was director Marshall Neilan.

"Marshall," I said, "look how we're dressed."

"That's not important. They'll be expecting you."

Who'll be expecting us? I wondered.

Stallings, with the inquisitive soul of a journalist, had started to work his way out of the car. We must have made a pretty picture, two men in white flannels and bright sweaters, as we entered the crowded chapel.

"Who's dead?" I asked Larry in a whisper.

"Let's find out," he replied.

Inside there was another sober-faced gentleman, Lew Cody. This famous actor was a convivial man-about town, and I had never seen him in any mood except a light-hearted one. But Lew showed no surprise at our inappropriate attire and soberly showed us to two seats next to Thalberg and Mannix. A flower-draped casket reposed impressively before us. An organ played gently in the proper mood.

I didn't dare speak. Finally I pantomimed to Mannix to give me pencil and paper. On the back of an envelope I wrote: "Who is it?"

Mannix took the pencil and answered: "Mabel Normand. Don't you read the papers?"

Mabel Normand! I was shocked. It is true that I hadn't read a newspaper in several days. Beautiful, lithe-figured Mabel Normand. When I had been a young ticket-taker in the Texas nickelodeon, Mabel Normand had been my dream girl. I remembered her, black tights covering her body, as she walked to the end of the board and dived gracefully to the water below. I had known her as the Biograph Girl and as the star of dozens of Mack Sennett comedies. Marshall Neilan had directed her first full-length film, Mickey. Lew Cody had been married to her.

Thalberg leaned toward me across Mannix.

"Too many murders," he whispered.

Had she been murdered? I was stunned.

"The public won't accept it," he added and I suddenly realized he was talking about Billy the Kid.

I nodded temporary agreement, but I was pursuing another line of thought. I had begun to recognize faces. There was Marie Dressler of the large, expressive visage. She was never one for subtlety in comedy, nor was she subtle in grief. Ben Turpin was weeping unashamedly. The big face of gigantic Mack Swain of Gold Rush fame was marked with tears. Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, Chester Conklin, Hank Mann, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon--all fellow workers of hers--were crying. I was fascinated by their faces. These funny faces had made people roar with laughter the world over. Now they were distroted by grief into another, yet equally ridiculous, grimace. These good people, who had not achieved fame by subtlety in facial expression, expressed sorrow in the same open manner; tears flowed plentifully over tragic countenances.

In due time good words were recited from a good book, and the service was over. We watched as the casket moved down the aisle toward the chapel entrance and the brutality of the sunlight beyond.

Presently the four of us were back in the limousine, whose windshield now bore a sticker with the word "Funeral" on it.

As the procession moved slowly along Figueroa Street, Thalberg instructed our driver to turn out at the intersection. With this quick maneuver we left the line of dark cars and headed back toward Culver City and the studio. When the driver stopped briefly to tear the telltale sticker from the windshield, Thalberg resumed our discussion of Billy the Kid.

"Was Sheriff Pat Garrett his friend during the time of the last five murders?" he asked. I couldn't answer. I was still thinking of the girl in the black tights on the end of the diving board...

The car passed again through the studio gates. As we stepped out on the narrow walk, Thalberg bounded up the steel steps to his office. At the top, he turned back. "I'll call you," he said.

The story conference was at an end.


David Cairns knows the story-conference anecdote, and has written about what the tale tells us about Thalberg. (And he also loves A Cast of Killers.)

There are some haunting photos of the dramatis personae of the Taylor case at the site Looking for Mabel, including a photo of a locket she gave Taylor.

Chris Edwards of Silent Volume has a fine tribute to Mabel's Busy Day here.

Further to Mae Clarke, who got a shout-out in my John Gilbert post, here is Robert Avrech with a tribute to Cagney and Clarke in Lady Killer.


Someone Said said...

Mabel was so captivating. Such a shame she is not given the status she deserves. Her stories and the drama that surrounded her need to be told.

Steve Shilstone said...

She leaped off the screen as a delightful, charming, sweet pixie.

Karen said...

That Vidor anecdote about the funeral is amazing. There's something about the mental image of all those silent-film legends overcome with weeping that is somehow gut-wrenching.

Thanks for this, Siren.

Carrie Rickey said...

Thank you for reminding me of the image of all those faces that made us laugh tear-streaked at Mabel's funeral.

Gloria said...

The funeral scene is so harrowing, all the more when you think of Normand's lively screen presence.

I hope these shorts eventually get a box-set release so they can be seen in this side of the ocean. (And as usual, I end reading a post of yours and adding a handful of items to my to-read list)

Kirk said...

Two men dressed in tennis whites at a funeral get their screenplay critiqued by a Hollywood producer? Despite the solemnity of the occasion, I couldn't help but smile. Maybe Vidor didn't mean it that way, but I found the whole thing darkly humorous. But then, I also found THE CROWD darkly humorous.

I'm familiar with Mabel Normand mostly through the Fatty Arbuckle comedies, and I've always liked her in those.

The Siren said...

Yes, wasn't Mabel a joy? Miriam Bale on Twitter posted this Youtube clip of a Normand biographer discussing her and it's very interesting, especially the mention of Normand's own directing. (Note too the way Betty Harper Russell pronounces Vidor: "Veeder." Is that right?)

Kirk, Vidor could have filmed that scene either way, heartbreaking and horrifying, or cynically amusing.

Vanwall said...

When I was a kid, I watched a lot of silent comedies on TV, back when they still had room for them, even as left-handed compliments for dead ratings periods on local stations they could stuff into a half-hour. Saw some of TCM's choices, too, and I associated Mabel Normand with silent comedy as much as with any of the other silent comedy greats - she was the female of the species, and a lot of comedies were way better for her presence. A pity about her life offscreen, a real tragedy, but we've got her screen self to remember her by.

Unknown said...

100 restored Sennett shorts, more than what is showing on TCM, will be released on DVD later this year by Paul Gierucki and CineMuseum.

Marilyn Slater runs the excellent Looking for Mabel site.

Operator_99 said...

Love Mabel, and your post will hopefully earn her some more fans. I also have to say that I had about two years of Taylorology mania, what a trip that was. So much documentation, no definitive conclusions, but fascinating just the same.

gmoke said...

No _Cast of Killers_ movie but there is Bogdanovich's "The Cat's Meow."

I remember how blown away I was by the grace and lightness of Fatty Arbuckle when I finally saw his work, a result of my obsessive interest in Buster Keaton. There are a lot of great and subtle artists waiting to be discovered by new generations in the silence of the silents.

Thanks for pointing me to Ms Normand,

Dave said...

I've always been a fan of Normand and Arbuckle, but what surprised me in watching these was how much I liked Chaplin. I've never found him funny, but there's something fresh and uncalcified in these pictures that is quite appealing -- especially "Tillie."

But returning to the subject at hand, the thing I love about Mabel and Roscoe is the same thing I love about Stan and Babe: there's a palpable sense of affection between them. Whatever demons were waiting for them seem far in abeyance.

Lemora said...

I still need to see Mack Sennett's shorts. I read "A Cast Of Killers" almost 20 years ago and found it compelling. However, current critical consensus seems to be that it is also riddled with inaccuracies: Those hearings where the accountant used charts to compare the ebb and flow of Charlotte Shelby's finances with waxing/waning District Attorney interest in re-opening the case, were initiated by Shelby herself, not the D.A. A recent book posits the theory that drug kingpins had Taylor murdered, and that one is considered the go-to book for Taylorologists, the best so far. I will read it with interest. I think that to this day, the powers that be in Los Angeles don't want it broadcast that three successive D.A.'s, Thomas Woolwine, Asa Keyes, and Buron Fitts, shook down Charlotte and daughter Mary Miles Minter for about $3,000,000 back in the day, with the studio keeping up the pressure to keep it all buried.

The Siren said...

Lemora, I like the Charlotte Shelby theory largely because it seems to be the one almost universally believed by the people who were in Hollywood at the time. Shadowy drug kingpins aren't nearly as dramatically compelling in terms of a possible movie, either.

Gmoke, I wonder if the poor box office for The Cat's Meow is part of the reason we have no Taylor film, and no one (so far as I know) has ever made good on an Arbuckle film either. Although unlike Ince, the Taylor and (especially) Arbuckle cases are relentless downers, if filmed straightforward with no peripheral characters. Another reason to like the King Vidor angle.

Mary, thanks so much for the good news, and the shout-out to the woman running Looking for Mabel, which really is wonderful.

Also, it's Betty Harper FUSSELL (as in Paul's ex-wife) not Russell. The interviewer calls her Russell at the end and I must have imprinted that on my brain!

Yojimboen said...

First, welcome back, M’Lady, missed you much.

Second, there’s a long and shaggy dog story regarding the first (and somewhat cascading) decision not to film “A Cast of Killers”; which I know you know, I’ll try to get to it later in the week.

Third, my favourite Portrait of Mabel; no make-up, sunny, natural, joyful.

Fourth, links to four Mabel Normand Comedies:

(Public Domain – dowload and keep, or just view.)

The Bangville Police

Tillie’s Punctured Romance

Fatty’s Spooning Days


La Faustin said...

Yes, welcome back! Hope you are in the pink once more. This is yet another reason to love autumn.

Did you ever see (or hear the score of) the Jerry Herman musical MACK&MABEL, with Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters? Spinning centrifugally ever farther off course, what did you think of the latter's PENNIES FROM HEAVEN?

The Siren said...

La Faustin, on Twitter someone was saying every time someone brought up Mack Sennett he heard Robert Preston singing "I Won't Send Roses" and I responded that *I* hear Bernadette Peters singing "Time Heals Everything." Love that score. "Pennies From Heaven" I simply didn't get, at all, not even a little bit, but I was so young when I tried to watch it. I won't say it's high on my "give it another try" list but it's a maybe.

Yojimboen, thanks as always for the links! It will be interesting to see how your Cast of Killers lowdown aligns with my Mystery Correspondent.

Dave said...

The BBC version of "Pennies From Heaven" is still my all-time #1 television program -- even more than "The Singing Detective."

Where the movie fails for me is its fundamental misunderstanding of the characters and the conceit. When the orchestrations are beefed up to make them more Hollywood or (most egregiously) Steve Martin/Arthur sings in his own voice, it all goes out the window. Arthur cannot sing; it's his tragic flaw.

And I realize that things had to be compressed, but not showing us Arthur in his jail cell, desperately trying to conjure the alternate world of cheap music while awaiting his execution, is a major loss.

gmoke said...

As of 2011, HBO was going to do an Arbuckle biopic with Eric Stonestreet of "Modern Family" signed to play the lead. Whether that is still on I leave to the secret informants.

Yojimboen said...

Compared to the pitch-at-a-funeral tale, the ‘Cast of Killers’ pitch was dull and pedestrian indeed.

Scene: West side of L.A. – Year: 1987
Dramatis personae: a writer and a producer.

The producer was a major player; up to that time, probably the most prolific producer of TV Movies in the biz – a man with decades of experience.

The writer was… just a writer, which means in H’Wood someone of little consequence, whose social standing is slightly lower than that of a butler (Ben Hecht).

The producer had taken an option on the book in question and had asked the writer to come up with a treatment. The writer opined it was not an easy literary work to translate, but “it was an exciting challenge” (or some such twaddle). The joy of the book was the construction of three parallel story-lines in three different periods:

1) A character representing the author Kirkpatrick (crucial to the story) discovering Vidor’s cache of research…

2) Vidor’s private quest to solve the murder, and

3) The nefarious events at 404-B South Alvarado in the wee hours of 02/02/22.

Simply put the writer tried to convince the producer to ‘think theatrical’ (the producer also had many major theatrical movies to his credit), but to no avail; it was TV Movie or nothing.

The problem with TV Movies, then as now, is they come at you in chunks; carved in stone at 96 minutes/7 segments (it’s accepted lore that TV Movies only really exist to keep commercials from bumping into each other); to dance around in three time periods would be busy at best and dicey at worst; does one go to commercial in one period then come out in another? Plus each act must end with some sort of mini cliffhanger. No, we’re not talking Pearl White here, just something to keep the viewer from reaching for the remote.
Added to the mix was the demographic reality that a TV audience might be a) confused by the intricacies of the construction and b) utterly disinterested in a story of murder of involving people they’d never heard of. [viz Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow]

Suddenly the producer said "You're right, you’ve talked me out of it, I'm not going to do it." (cleverly unloading his decision on to the writer insubstantial shoulders.)

In the parking lot the writer kicked himself for being so stupid (a gig is a gig).
The coda was that the producer was enough of a player that when word traveled he had considered the book then decided not to, well, kibosh-city.

Samuel Wilson said...

Arbuckle may be a cursed subject. Read somewhere that Chris Farley was working with David Mamet on a biopic script at the time of his death. The alarming thought I had after reading that was that David Spade could have worked as Keaton -- with a stuntman, of course.

D Cairns said...

Thanks for the hat-tip!

A movie version of A Cast of Killers, now that the public has forgotten all the principles in the case and even Vidor himself, seems unlikely, alas. Unless TCM start making movies of their own.

Yojimboen said...

Lew Cody and Mabel on their wedding day (1926):

# 1 # 2 # 3

Mabel died in 1930.
He followed her six years later.

More pix here:

The Siren said...

Y., your story is not so far from what I was told by my Mystery Interlocutor. As David Cairns (tip of the hat, sir, as ever) remarks, a film doesn't seem likely. Ah, those pictures are so sad...

Gmoke and Samuel Wilson, I had heard vague things about people wanting to film the novel "I, Fatty" and it never came off. If I had to make a bet based on my deep understanding of how the present-day business works (<---heavy sarcasm) I'd guess that the best chance for an Arbuckle film would be a heavyset actor dying for a big part that shows range from comedy to tragedy. Oscar bait, in other words, although I am not fond of that overused and frequently unfair term.