Mack and Mabel Could Have Been Great, But at Least the Songs Are

Tom Frey in Stages Repertory Theatre's produc tion of Mack and Mabel .
Tom Frey in Stages Repertory Theatre's produc tion of Mack and Mabel .
Photo by Jon Shapley

The set-up:

Name: Mabel Normand
Occupation: Star

That was written at the top of Mabel Normand's bio at Goldwyn Studios in 1918. She had arrived. Big time. Little Mabel from Staten Island was about to be transformed into a glamorous movie star by Samuel Goldwyn, another mogul who had fallen for her considerable charms. She was already world famous, known as “Queen of Comedy” for her madcap two-reelers made at D.W. Griffith's Biograph Studios on 14th Street, Manhattan, and then at Brooklyn's Vitagraph Studios, where she had been dubbed “Vitagraph Betty.” Previous to this, her beautiful face and figure had been seen everywhere in magazine ads promoting Coca Cola, powder puffs, and cold cream. She had modeled for Charles Dana Gibson in a straw boater and mutton-sleeves as one of his “Gibson Girls,” but when caught by the movie camera, magic happened. Nobody moved liked Mabel. She was an enflamed physical presence, a little 5'1'' ball of fire who was born to move. She could run, swim, ride a horse, fly in a bi-plane, drive a car, kick a guy who made a pass, or, later, throw a pie. She was an all-American gal, the new woman, a real I-don't-care girl. And she was funny! A blast of fresh air, the camera ate her up. So did the audience.

Mack Sennett, actor and director for Griffith, saw her potential immediately, and their combo ignited the screen. Griffith didn't like the vulgarity of this new-fangled physical comedy, and left them alone to dream up plots and shoot their surreal stories, all fast-paced and frantic. When Sennett scrounged up producers willing to bankroll his profitable knockabouts, he set off for California and opened Keystone Pictures in 1912. Mabel went with him, and Hollywood was never the same, nor American screen comedy. She was a bathing beauty in The Water Nymph (1912), showing off athletic prowess and pulchritude – too much according to some matrons – the first Bathing Beauty of the screen. Gloria Swanson would be Sennett's second mermaid. Charlie Chaplin's first movies were made under Sennett tutelage during 1914, a few under Mabel's direction (she was now directing the movies she starred in), at which the novice film actor balked. Like Mabel, Chaplin couldn't be constrained and once he honed his own style and technique, he left Sennett for a pay raise. Sennett was always losing people because he was so cheap, but as he said, he found 'em, he can always discover 'em again. No one's irreplaceable. Except Mabel.

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Her pictures kept Keystone in the black, especially those with irrepressible Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, but Sennett, her possible lover, financially held her down. When she balked and walked out on him, after Keystone merged with Ince, Sennett gave in and built her a studio, The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company. It made one picture, Mickey (finally released in 1918), and went bust. By then a whole lot of things were going bust, including Mabel.

With her frantic work schedule and hard partying, Mabel fell right into the tenacious grasp of drugs and booze – to keep her alert, to keep her awake, to put her to sleep, to have a good time, to feel like she's having a good time. She wasn't alone. It was a new time, with new morals. All this overnight wealth and fame among the youth of a vibrant sexed-up Hollywood lured the drug men. The rubes – and rubes most of the film colony were – were easy picking. Women groups around the country had started protests against immoral Babylon on the Pacific and their immoral product, but Hollywood kept the Visigoths at bay — until 1921. That was the beginning of a tsunami of scandals that swept plenty of stars overboard, Mabel included.

First, beloved Fatty Arbuckle was indicted for raping and killing a second-tier actress and prostitute Virginia Rappe at a drunken, coke-filled party in San Francisco. Arbuckle was no satyr, but his screen image of sweet innocent cherub turned against him, especially when lurid rumors spread about how Rappe had died, crushed by his weight. None of this was true, as three trials proved, but Arbuckle as phenomenal movie star was destroyed, his films banned. His co-star, already hinted by the gossip papers to be a hop-head, was tainted by the ensuing storm, but nothing was to compare with the shocking murder of director William Desmond Taylor, on February 2, 1922.

Without question a father figure to Mabel, he was trying to get her off drugs. She was the last person to see him alive, when she with her chauffeur drove away from his bungalow after she had stopped off for a quick drink and to pick up some books he had bought for her. She waved goodbye and he walked back into his house on Alvarado Court, where the murderer waited. Taylor was shot once – heard by witnesses at the complex – died instantly, and the murderer calmly walked out the front door, passing Taylor's next door neighbor who had come out on the porch to see what the noise was, looked at her, and continued walking into the back alleyway. The neighbor said he was so matter-of-fact, that she thought nothing about it and went back inside.

Costarring with a rapist is one thing to fuel a scandal, but being intimate with a murdered man was something else entirely. Along with delusional young actress Mary Miles Minter, who was convinced Taylor had loved her, not Normand, the vigilante “family” civic groups went into overdrive, boycotted the two actresses' films and, in some cities, stormed the projection booth and ripped out the offensive movie. Taylor loved Mabel, but not that way. He was gay, and his partner at the time was young set designer George Hopkins (later an Academy Award-winner for his designs on My Fair Lady and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf), but Mabel was very much like his own daughter, whom he had abandoned many years earlier in NY, before he changed his name and his profession and wound up as one of Paramount's most esteemed, loyal directors. He was no pusher, no cad. His murder is the greatest unsolved mystery of Hollywood, still hotly debated to this day. All we really know is that Paramount executives covered up the scandal as best they could to limit the damage already inflicted. The damage was great.

It's ironic that the athletic Mabel, always an excellent swimmer, suffered from pleurisy all her life, but the seductive drug combo of morphine and cocaine worsened her condition. Small scandals were to follow – another shooting, nonfatal this time, in 1924; an attempt on Broadway; a hasty marriage; and a nondescript little fade-out. She succumbed to tuberculosis in 1930, age 38. She had had it all – fortune and fame – and her picture on the screen the world over. Everybody loved Mabel.

The execution:
I go into great detail because of what Jerry Herman's musical Mack and Mabel (1972) might have been. There's so much drama and excitement in Mabel's short life and Sennett's abortive career, so much animation and creativity about their exemplary work in the movies, to say nothing about the story of Hollywood itself – its very beginning, its archaeology. What times these were!

Mack and Mabel, via librettist Michael Steward, is a dusty affair, short on punch, loud of breath. If we can't laugh at the antics of the Keystone Kops and pies in the kisser, what's the point? Which may very well be the point. How can those delectable two-reelers ever be put on stage? Their anarchy and nervous cutting and anti-social behavior is made for the screen. Careening cars on stage? Nah! A lion loose on a sound stage? Nope! Only choreographer Jerome Robbins ever caught the glorious cartoon spirit in his “Keystone Kops Ballet” for Jule Styne's High Button Shoes (1947).

It's too much to ask. Bio musicals are never true, but usually there's at least an attempt to be factual. M&M doesn't try, jumbling real facts, skipping others, completely ignoring the rest. This is history filtered through routine musical comedy, it might as well be set in Ruritania.

But the biggest problem with this show – a fabled Broadway flop that played only 66 performances – is the strange split between plot and music. Herman's dazzling score is so upbeat and beguiling (even his delicious torch numbers, “I Won't Send Flowers” and “Time Heals Everything” seem written with quotes around the melodies), it can't make sense of the down, down, down story line. Narrative fog surrounds us like O'Neill. Herman's jaunty bounce can't redeem the gloom; it tries its Broadway best to cover it up. His numbers cover it magnificently. The “Overture” actually sounds like something you'd have heard at a silent movie house, though musical director Steven Jones's tinny orchestra overpowers the singers and can't play in tune, which seems almost too lifelike.

This show can't win. Sennett (Tom Frey) is gruff, bossy, an obstinate despot. I can't admit I love you, Mabel, he states from the beginning, I'm too preoccupied with me. She (Bridget Beirne), all waif-like and fluttering lashes: that's OK, I'll ask again next scene. And that's the way it goes. The show moves sideways, not forward, but director Kenn McLaughlin, in his best Broadway Baby mode, distracts us with spangly action and very neat theatrical sleight-of-hand.

The best trick of all is pre-show where snippets of Mabel and Mack's movies are shown on sheer curtains drawn across the three sides of the stage. These truncated “flickers” have more oomph than everything that follows. See Mabel tied to the railroad tracks; watch Mabel and Fatty float away in Fatty and Mabel Adrift; laugh as Duke the lion chases poor Mabel in The Extra Girl. Then laugh as the backstage managers ask us – with titles, of course – to turn off our phones! Now this is true showbiz tribute and a lot more fun then what we have to sit through.

Frey and Beirne have no spark together at all. Appropriately bluff and blustery, Frey storms through his scenes, giving us a glimpse of director as tyrant, but that's it. Granted there's not much else to do with Stewart's hieroglyphic script, so then you'd better bring some stage pizzazz. Frey huffs and puffs. He sings that way, too, going flat on his high notes, and finding no level ground to warm him up. We never like him, and don't applaud Mabel falling for him either.

Beirne doesn't even look like Normand, too angled and solid for untested Mabel, who had life force in spades. She makes it through her explosive “Wherever He Ain't,” spitting out her contempt for Sennett and his abuse of her talents, and does nicely with the torcher “Time Heals Everything,” but she never conveys Mabel's softness and breaking heart, according to Stewart. Instead of socking Mack when he humiliates her in front of the company for her artistic aspirations, Mabel melts like Lillian Gish. Neither of these two archetypal Hollywood icons gets our sympathy, not in this fairy tale version.

The supporting cast does better, but their roles are as hazy as the leads. Kristen Warren, as hard-boiled Lottie who will survive into the talkies, has real moxie. Her 11th-hour number, the vulgar and exuberant “Tap Your Troubles Away,” in counterpoint to headlines of Mabel's fall, is grand Busby Berkeley territory, if sparsely populated. Ms. Warren is responsible for the spirited choreography throughout, hitting a high with the cakewalk anthem “When Mabel Comes in the Room,” the “Leading Lady Song” that every Jerry Herman musical is known for – think “Hello, Dolly,” “Mame,” or “I Am What I Am” from La Cage aux Folles. The best voice of the evening belongs to Brandon Whitley, as screenwriter Frank (a.k.a. Frank Capra, who did work for Sennett but much later than the early Mabel days). His character, too, pines for Mabel, and his clarion tenor starts the rousing Act II “Mabel” number. Unfortunately his character, like everyone else's, is ill-used, cloudy, and only occasionally sketched in.

The verdict:
If you want Hollywood on rye, Mack and Mabel is good enough. We applaud Stages for bringing this rarity, with all its faults, to the stage. After its tryout runs on the west coast and a disastrous St. Louis premiere where the incessant tinkering backstage created more problems than it solved, it's instructive to see why this show made such a terrible impression when it opened on Broadway, even with the stellar talents of Robert Preston and soon-to-be diva Bernadette Peters. Nominated for everything except Herman's score, it's an epic flop, now beloved for the one thing everyone at the time hated, Jerry Herman's glitzy, strutting music. Maybe a concert version of the show next time – with only the songs?

Mack and Mabel. Through June 28. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. Purchase tickets online at www.stagestheatre.com or call 713-527-0123. $19-$65.


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