10 February 2005 | wmorrow59
Reaching the end of her tether, Mabel makes an appeal for sympathy
Mabel Normand is remembered primarily for the short films she made for Mack Sennett's Keystone Studio between 1912 and 1916, dozens of simple, frenetic, freewheeling slapstick comedies that made her the most popular comedienne on the screen. Her costars included Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle, and Ford Sterling, and she also directed many of her own vehicles. Even today, just about everyone interested in film comedy has seen at least clips of Mabel's work. Film buffs who have read about her also know that Mabel's life was a deeply troubled one. Her romance with Sennett went sour, and by the early 1920s she was mired in scandal and plagued with health problems. She was drinking heavily and, by most accounts, abusing other substances as well.
Mabel left Hollywood in 1924 to try her luck on the Broadway stage, but when her show flopped she returned to California and attempted a comeback in the movies, this time at the studio of Sennett's number one rival, Hal Roach. Raggedy Rose was the first of Mabel's new comedies for Roach. The surviving version is a featurette running just under an hour, although it was planned as a somewhat longer film. It was co-scripted by Stan Laurel, who also served as assistant director, and features two supporting players who would soon become familiar faces in Laurel & Hardy comedies, James Finlayson and Anita Garvin. (It's said that Oliver Hardy was originally slated to appear as well, but had to drop out of the cast as the result of a household injury.) Mabel's longtime colleague Richard Jones, director of her biggest success, the 1918 feature Mickey, was also involved in the project as a supervisor. All the ingredients were in place for a triumphant comeback.
On my first look I hoped that Raggedy Rose would be a smashing success, an unjustly forgotten gem of silent comedy, but while it's pleasant and moderately engaging, I have to say I was disappointed. Viewers unfamiliar with Mabel's Keystone work might well wonder what her reputation was based on, given the evidence here. To be fair, it seems as though the filmmakers were attempting something a little different from the raucous farces of earlier days, playing the leading lady for audience sympathy in a way that her Sennett films never had. (Perhaps this was a strategic response to the ugly publicity that had dogged Mabel for years; there may have been genuine concern that audiences had turned against her.) Our introduction to Rose herself kicks things off on a rather sticky note when we're told that "Everything in her life had been second hand -- Even the sunshine." There is much emphasis on Rose's lowly state despite her hard work and unfailing cheer. Rose is employed by a penny-pinching junk dealer who works her like a mule. Her outfits, befitting her nickname, are raggedy, and we're given scene after scene of Rose sorting enormous piles of second-hand clothing while dreaming of a better life. Rose's poverty is underlined by the joy she displays when she finds a forgotten dime in a pair of pants -- although the dime is quickly seized by her grasping employer.
In short, it seems that Mabel is going for pathos in a big way, and while there's nothing exactly wrong with that, real comedy is in short supply in her scenes. Her best moment is a brief, poignant fantasy sequence in which she imagines herself in a beautiful dress, dancing with a handsome suitor. Meanwhile, most of the laughs in Raggedy Rose are supplied by Jimmy Finlayson's characteristic mugging, and by Anita Garvin's enjoyably bitchy turn as Rose's rival. It's Garvin who, rather surprisingly, is given the film's closing gag, the biggest laugh in the entire movie. Perhaps Mabel was no longer capable of handling the more demanding physical comedy. She looks puffy-faced and heavily powdered here, almost resembling Harry Langdon at times. It's been reported that during much of Mabel's stay at the Roach Studio she was seriously ill with pneumonia. (She would die of tuberculosis less than four years later.) Thus it's sadly ironic that she spends the last portion of this film in bed wearing pajamas, faking illness.
On the surface anyway, Raggedy Rose is a fairly pleasant, interesting comedy, certainly worth the time of any silent film buff, but unfortunately it is a movie haunted by the ongoing tragedy of its star performer. Mabel Normand is sympathetic and appealing in Raggedy Rose, but when the film is over we're forced to conclude that her best work was already behind her.