Mabel’s Dramatic Career




The silent movie Mabel’s Dramatic Career, directed by Mack Sennett, appeared in 1913. The genre of the film is a slapstick comedy “characterized by broad humor, absurd situations, and vigorous, usually violent action” with some elements of romanticism. The genre is expressed through that the characters often beat and slap each other, the female protagonist falls several times, and the male hero is very aggressive. The director played the role of the main male character, Mack. His partner was Mabel Normand featuring a kitchen maid Mabel. Today, it seems strange that the actors did not change their names for the film. However, the movie is silent, and there is no need to give the names to the actors since they do not speak. The audience would remember the plot and the events but not the names.

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At the same time, the film director applied expository intertitles, i.e. black screen pictures with white text, “which provided supplemental narrative material” helping to understand the events better. The length of the film is only fourteen minutes, but it is enough to comprehend the meaning and sense of the screenplay and derive pleasure from watching it. Although the plots of the silent movies may seem too simple and meaningless, such films are deep and fascinating without any special effects.

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The plot of the movie seems to be trite: a simple love story between a rural man and a kitchen maid. However, the director made it so comical that one forgets about the banality and enjoys watching the picture. The story begins with a scene where Mack proposes to Mabel to marry him and gives her a wedding ring. The actors artificially play their roles since their facial expressions look unnaturally. Nevertheless, it might be a part of a screenplay requiring that the heroes would look funny and ridiculous. Moreover, it is interesting to observe their actions and wait for the continuation. The next scene involves Mack’s mother who objects to her son’s marriage with Mabel. The older woman seems strict and masterful, and both Mack and Mabel are afraid of her. The maid falls and, in the next scene, she throws a plate in a basin with soapy water when Mrs. Normand comes to her.

At this moment, the viewers see the words “But ‘neath his soiled shirt there beats a true heart.” Mack seemingly loves Mabel given the episode when he kisses her photo. However, everything changes when another woman arrives from the city. Suddenly, Mack begins to preen himself, pulling up his trousers and looking even funnier than earlier. While his mother is quarreling with Mabel, Mack is flirting with another young woman. Mrs. Normand is pleased and she joins young people. Mabel is eavesdropping on their chatting, putting her hand to her ear. This moment emphasizes the desire of the female protagonist to know the things she does not need to know. The moment repeats later when she comes to apply for a job and overhears the employers. This situation makes Mabel look inquisitively, while some of her motions look funny and absurdly, which is typical for a slapstick comedy.

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The mise-en-scene of the first episodes is quite simple, but it does not impede revealing the complication of the situation. Actions take place in a room which looks like a usual living room in a country house. Mabel washes dishes in the kitchen of the same house, which means that she is working there as a kitchen maid. There are no special details in the interior except for two pictures on the walls of the living room. However, the movie is black-and-white; for this reason, one cannot distinguish the sketches. Another important moment is the immobility of the camera: it does not move, as the audience used to see in modern films, showing only one scene without any close-ups.

The quality of the display is bad, but this factor can be explained by the datedness of the picture. Moreover, viewers can notice the transitions from one scene to another. This fact may enable people to think about the history of cinematography. A hundred years ago, it was not so easy to edit the movie and splice all the scenes together. Thus, viewers may observe several defects in editing. However, this issue does not hinder the audience from enjoying the actors’ play.

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The movie goes further and shows the scene of quarreling – another typical scene for a slapstick comedy. Mabel beats her rival with a stick; the last one runs away, and Mabel is constantly falling. The director depicted her as a clumsy and awkward woman who used to solve the problems by fighting and crying. Such a circumstance makes her personage special since she tries to protect her values rather than concede to an opponent.

However, her actions are worthless, and Mack forces her to leave the house. The following intertitle appears: “Driven out into the cruel world.” After that, the viewers observe some changes in Mabel’s character. She changes her clothes, and now she looks sad, waiting for a bus to the city. When Mack appears, she smiles and embraces him, demonstrating that she still loves him. Mack takes away his wedding ring and shows her the way out. Although the scene takes place outside, it is, probably, Mack’s yard because he does not want Mabel to be here.

The episode ends when Mabel slaps Mack in the face and goes away. The slap is quick, short, and looks comic. Then, Mack offers his hand and fortune to another woman. This episode arouses a burst of laugh and compassion in the man simultaneously. The characters begin fighting and beating when the woman refuses to marry Mack. The viewers feel sorry for him since he does not know the sense of true love. The following saying comes to mind: “If you run after two hares, you will catch neither.” The movie proves that it is true and teaches that every person should value personal relations and do not neglect them.

The second half of the film continues revealing the meaning of relations, especially in light of Mabel’s career as an actress. The protagonist is depicted as a cheerful and lively woman. Looking at decorations, one can understand that she comes to the film studio: the actors play their roles, and the camera shoots the episode. Mabel performs her role emotionally, changing her facial expression, and it looks so funny as if she is a mimic. Contemporary viewers enjoy the scenes since such a genre is not popular today. The last scenes depict Mack as a nervous and agitated man. He shoots in the screen when he observes Mabel’s villain, Ford Sterling.

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Afterward, he wants to kill him in reality. The scene shows that Mack does not see the difference between the real and imaginary world. Even when he sees that Ford is a good husband and father, it does not stop him. Fortunately, his attempts to kill Ford end with a failure; moreover, someone pours out a bucket of water on him. The final scene is comic and dramatic simultaneously. The episode is comic because Mack is punished for his behavior and dramatic because life did not teach him to live properly and love truly. Although the film may seem meaningless at the beginning, watching it to the end, one comprehends its deep sense and importance.

Modern movies differ from the old ones because they use too many special effects, decorations, actions, and intimate scenes to attract viewers. Silent films, such as Mabel’s Dramatic Career, were black-and-white and could not attract the audience with additional effects. For this reason, the actors had to use all their skills to amaze the people who watched their plays. Moreover, first, silent films did not use music, but only later, they were accompanied with instrumental music. In the discussed movie, viewers can observe musical accompaniment in the episode of Mack’s coming to the cinema. The film shows the old cinematograph projector with a man whirling it by hands. This technical moment gives a possibility to compare contemporary projectors with ancient ones and see the difference from a historic perspective.


Regardless of that for many individuals, early films may seem too simple, their simplicity can be a stance showing that they are meaningful, interesting, and fascinating without any additional effects. The silent film Mabel’s Dramatic Career belongs to the time when cinema just started its development pace and, as a new form of entertaining people, allowed them an opportunity to enjoy watching every new short movie. Early films had simple plots. Today, there are so many film genres and themes that it is often difficult to choose a good one. Contemporary viewers are no more interested in simple life stories; they need more actions and special effects.

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However, such films often have no sense. The reviewed movie is short and silent, but it is meaningful. The picture reveals the themes of people’s relations, love, career path, unfulfilled plans, and misfortune. The director managed to show all these topical and eternal issues in only fourteen minutes. Many modern long-lasting films cannot do the same within larger time frames. Thus, Mabel’s Dramatic Career is a slapstick comedy that teaches viewers to appreciate people’s relations and distinguish between reality and fantasy.

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