MABEL: Hollywood's First I-Don't-Care Girl by Betty Harper Fussell

MABEL: Hollywood's First I-Don't-Care Girl

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Silent star Mabel Normand as a feminist victim/hero--in a jumpy, shrill, shallow quasi-biography that mixes Fussell's hyped-up research experiences (""my three-year-search for Mabel in the Hollywood smog of fake and real"") with the story itself. Liberated from her ""sexist past,"" needing to ""define the American girl and my own tomboy rebellion,"" Fussell found Mabel: ""Where had she been all my life?"" So, communing with Mabel's pathetic nephew and old, dying nurse, Fussell salutes Mabel's dainty/coarse, tomboy/down/sexpot persona, which ""upset the stereotypes of boy and girl""; she sketches in the career, from Vitagraph to D. W. Griffith melodramas to Biograph and Mack Sennett and Fatty Arbuckle; she corrects the record on the stormy Mack/Mabel collaboration (""Where it mattered, Mack lied""); she blames Mabel's unfulfilled directing career on the sexism of Chaplin and others; she laments Mabel's compromises, her role-playing (""a form of double-dealing that. . . betrayed one's self""), her surrender to ""the shams stardom enforced."" And Fussell gets nearly hysterical in the postwar, post-Arbuckle period, when, ""as a bad little girl, Mabel had no place to go. . . the untouchables of comedy were now universally UNCLEAN."" So things only got worse when Mabel was suspected of murdering director W. D. Taylor (""a mystery that could not be solved""), when drugs were followed by alcoholism and then early death from tuberculosis. Fussell touches on some real issues here, and her appreciation of Mabel's film-work is occasionally shrewd. Unfortunately, however, the noisy sociology isn't balanced by any real psychological insight; the self-indulgent tone lowers credibility; and, despite bits of intriguing research, this violently uneven, often gushy tribute/critique/tirade is unlikely to please many film devotees, though there's material here of interest to students of feminism/culture interplay.

Pub Date: May 27th, 1982
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin