16 August 2009 | wmorrow59
Mabel, that modern gal
American Biograph is primarily remembered as the place where D.W. Griffith learned how to make dramatic films, but the company also served as the birthplace of Keystone. It was at Biograph that Mack Sennett began directing short comedies starring Mabel Normand, whose life and career would be so closely entwined with his own. Under the tutelage of Griffith, who had little interest in comedy, Sennett directed many one-reel shorts during what amounted to a cinematic apprenticeship. A Dash Through the Clouds was produced in the spring of 1912, a few months before the director and his crew left to set up their own comedy factory.
This short is very much like the early Keystone product. The plot is rudimentary and there aren't any gags as such, at least not the kind of gags found in the later Sennett efforts. Humor is found in the situation, the actors' expressions and gestures, and the frantic action of the finale. This particular film was devised largely to showcase that amazing new invention, the flying machine. It's strange to think that aviation itself was less than ten years old when this film was made, but easy to believe when you see the aircraft the actors ride in: the planes look like kites! They appear to be made of canvas, wire, and a few metal pipes. (Perhaps they were.) And yet an introductory title proudly informs the viewer that these planes represent technical perfection, and are "a far cry from the invention of Wilbur and Orville Wright." And perhaps they were!
At any rate, the story is a simple one. Mabel is being courted by an awkward fellow nicknamed 'Chubby.' He's played by Fred Mace, one of Sennett's early stars, in the sort of role Roscoe Arbuckle would take later on. (And Arbuckle, in my opinion, was a lot funnier and more charismatic than Mace.) Mabel obviously doesn't much care for Chubby, however, as she prefers Slim, the handsome young aviator. When Slim offers to take the couple up in his plane Mabel accepts the offer with enthusiasm, but Chubby refuses to go. Slim and Mabel happily take to the sky. As it turns out Chubby is a chewing-gum salesman, of all things. He goes to a Latino neighborhood to hand out free samples, and there he flirts with a young woman of the neighborhood. Her kinsmen are unhappy about this and a near-riot ensues, but Chubby is saved by that newfangled invention when Slim and Mabel land the plane nearby and rescue him from the angry mob.
The strongest impression a modern viewer takes from this short is the excitement people felt about flying in 1912. It's also clear that Mabel Normand, who was still young and fresh at this early stage of her career, was very much a live wire, a modern woman who embraced all that was new. She appears to be genuinely thrilled at the prospect of going up in one of those rickety planes, and it's clear from the way the take-off sequences were filmed that she really did so. Audiences of the time must have been thrilled, too. The racial clash that provides the film's climax is disconcerting, but our potential discomfort is somewhat undercut by the fact that the "Mexican" characters are plainly the familiar actors who appear in other Biograph shorts, wearing sombreros but otherwise making no effort at ethnic characterizations.
A Dash Through the Clouds is not especially funny, but it does provide vivid examples of the attitudes and interests prevalent in the period when it was made. The early planes are certainly fascinating to see, but there's a sad footnote to this short's production history that puts their touted "technical perfection" into perspective. Slim the aviator was played by a real-life pilot named Philip Parmalee. This movie marked Parmalee's only film appearance, for he was killed in a plane crash about three weeks before it premiered.