Saturday Night Spotlight #28: Mira Nair

Director Mira Nair (b. 1957) has been at the forefront of world cinema for the last thirty years, crafting dramas, comedies, romances, thrillers and everything in between set both in her native country of India and in her second homeland of America, where she has taught in Columbia University’s graduate film school in New York for many years. Nair’s films often question social values and expectations, particularly with regard to race and women’s sexuality. Nair once said in a 2002 interview with Bonnie Greer that “I want to question what the outside is and who defines it. I often find those that are considered to be on the outside extremely inspiring. They are the people who see through the double standards … what is really important to me is a sense of humor and a mischief about life. Life is just too boring otherwise.”

Salaam Bombay! (1988) – Recipient of the Audience Award and the Golden Camera at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988 and nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1989, Mira Nair’s debut fiction feature was written in collaboration with Sooni Taraporevala (who would later write the screenplays for Nair’s films Mississippi Masala in 1991 and The Namesake in 2006). It tells of the tragic roles that children and adults are forced to play in the slums of Bombay: a young boy (Shafiq Syed) abandoned by his family and by the traveling circus he worked in, his only option being to survive on the streets of a big city he doesn’t know; a virginal teenage girl (Chanda Sharma) sold into prostitution, forced to lose her innocence; the heartless pimp/drug lord (Nana Patekar) to whom the girl is sold; the pimp’s wife (Anita Kanwar), a prostitute who hates the way she makes her living but who cannot rise above her social position; the couple’s young daughter (Hansa Vithal), who learns greed and cruelty from her father and uses those traits to manipulate, cheat and steal from her mother and the street kids. Lives don’t change only in the scenarios of the film; on set, cinematographer Sandi Sissel grew to care so much for a young actor who played one of the many orphan characters that she adopted him and he is now known by the name Bernard Sissel.

Mississippi Masala (1991) – Sooni Taraporevala’s original screenplay looks at the difficulties faced by an Indian-born family compelled to flee their Ugandan home by order of Idi Amin, the family’s subsequent attempts to assimilate into American culture and how a romance between their strong-willed daughter (Sarita Choudhury) and a Southern black man (Denzel Washington) puts the lovers’ families on edge in their small Mississippi town. Racism between the groups causes a great deal of strife, threatening to tear the couple apart unless they can escape and find a better life on their own. The film was characterized by Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman as “charming and exuberant” and Washington Post writer Rita Kempley described the film as an “utterly infectious romance” that “measures the pull of roots against the tug of heartstrings.” Nair has continued to make films about the immigrant experience and interracial culture clashes in America, as in The Namesake (2006) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), as well as telling more stories of headstrong female protagonists like Reese Witherspoon’s Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair (2004) and Hilary Swank’s Amelia Earhart in Amelia (2009).

Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996) – Nair’s romantic drama set in 16th-century India was considered so scandalous by the country’s censorship board that the film was banned, but there is no denying that it is beautifully constructed, evocatively scored by Mychael Danna and exhibiting lush photography by Declan Quinn (who won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography) that “drowns the viewer in such richly sensual imagery that viewers may feel they’ve been drugged with beauty,” in the words of San Francisco Chronicle critic Edward Guthmann. (I also love the costumes designed by Eduardo Castro, including the pearl dress that took hours for Indira Varma to be sewn into.) While the many scenes of eroticism, nudity and sex may be the main draws for some viewers, at its core the film is a story of friendship and rivalry between a queen (Sarita Choudhury) and the commoner who is raised alongside her in the palace (Indira Varma). The girls grow into young women whose camaraderie is damaged by Choudhury’s marriage to a royal (Naveen Andrews) who only has eyes for Varma, an obsession that has dangerous consequences. The film was adapted by Mira Nair and Helena Kriel from the short story “Hand Me Downs” by Wajida Tabassum, one of India’s most well-known women writers in the 1960s because of her audacious narratives. Nair’s filmmaking does indeed take risks with its many explicitly sexual scenes, but more importantly it shows the emotional growth of its two female protagonists in addition to their sexual maturity and how they navigate the social codes associated either with arranged marriage (particularly in terms of virginity and “ladylike” behavior) or with being a court concubine. It’s interesting to see how differently Varma’s and Choudhury’s characters comport themselves when acting primarily to please men versus acting on behalf of their own bodies’ feelings.

Monsoon Wedding (2001) – Written by Sabrina Dhawan, my favorite Nair film is a combination of romantic comedy and family melodrama, weaving together strands of stories concerning many family members and friends of the Verma and Chadha clans as they prepare an arranged marriage for their children, as well focusing on a blossoming romance between the Verma household’s maid and the Verma-Chadha wedding planner. Declan Quinn’s cinematography paints the film in bright, radiant colors, while Mychael Danna’s score can be loud and joyous or soft and tender depending on the scene. As film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 2002: “The hope for Monsoon Wedding is that those who like it will drag their friends into the theater … Monsoon Wedding, which won the Golden Lion as the best film at Venice 2001, is the kind of film where you meet characters you have never been within 10,000 miles of, and feel like you know them at once.”

Saturday Night Spotlight #27: Sólveig Anspach

Iceland-born, France-bred director Sólveig Anspach (1960-2015) was an internationally recognized director, the films either winners or nominees of awards given at the Cannes Film Festival, the César Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars) and the Venice Film Festival, among others. Anspach passed away recently at the tragically young age of 54, having fought her battle with breast cancer for many years, but the legacy of her filmography lives on in her nuanced portraits of women who face all manner of personal and professional challenges.

Haut les coeurs! (aka Chin Up!) (1999) – This drama co-written by Anspach and Pierre-Erwan Guillaume tells a story of a woman (played by Karin Viard) who is diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after learning she is pregnant. Inspired by real events from Anspach’s own life. Two of the film’s three cinematographers were women, Mathilde Jaffre and Isabelle Razavet (the other DP being Lorenzo Weiss); Razavet also shot Queen of Montreuil (2012) and Lulu in the Nude (2013) for Anspach. Anne Riegel, who edited the film alongside Mathieu Blanc, later returned to work with Anspach on Made in the USA (2001), Stormy Weather (2003), Back Soon (2008) and Queen of Montreuil (2012). Both Razavet and Riegel were also employed for TV work that Anspach did in the 1990s and 2000s, as well as on Anspach’s final film, L’effet aquatique (2016), which was in the process of post-production when Anspach died. Haut les coeurs! was a success when it was released in France; Karin Viard won the César Award for Best Actress, Laurent Lucas was nominated for Most Promising Actor and Sólveig Anspach was nominated for Best First Work. The film also earned awards and nominations at the Chicago International Film Festival (New Directors Competition), the Ghent International Film Festival, the Lumiere Awards, the Molodist International Film Festival and the Valladolid International Film Festival.

Stormy Weather (2003) – Possibly Anspach’s most emotional film, this drama relates the story of a middle-aged, mentally ill wife and mother (played by Icelandic actress Didda Jónsdóttir) who is studied by a young, inexperienced psychiatrist (French actress Élodie Bouchez). By turns humorous and unsettling, depending on the mood Anspach goes for in the scene, the film is accompanied by a score composed by Alexandre Desplat.

Queen of Montreuil (2012) – Recipient of the Lina Mangiacapre Award at the Venice Film Festival, Anspach’s comedy stars Florence Loiret Caille as Agathe, a director whose husband has recently passed away, an event which has (understandably) put her life and career on hold. As Agathe tries to get herself back to normal, she runs into a series of bizarre obstacles, including a surprise encounter with some Icelandic tourists who have a sea lion in tow. Colorful cinematography by Isabelle Razavet gives the film a warm glow.

Lulu femme nue (aka Lulu in the Nude) (2013) – Playing like a Gallic version of the Italian comedy Bread and Tulips (2000), Lulu tells the tale of a wife and mother (Karin Viard) who makes a spur-of-the-moment decision not to return home to her husband after she takes a trip out of town for a job interview. Lulu’s ensuing odyssey gives her the opportunities to make new friends and rediscover her own identity and sense of self. Nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Claude Gensac) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Sólveig Anspach and Jean-Luc Gaget) at the 2015 César Awards, Lulu marks another collaboration between Anspach, lead actress Viard and cinematographer Isabelle Razavet.

Saturday Night Spotlight #26: Randa Haines

Randa Haines (b. 1945) has the distinction of being the first American woman director to have been nominated for “Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures” by the Directors Guild of America. The nomination was for her work on the film Children of a Lesser God (1986), her feature film debut after having worked for years in television. Haines directed TV movies and also episodes of shows including “Knots Landing,” “Hill Street Blues” and the pilot of the 1980s reboot of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Her first big break was the TV movie Something About Amelia (1984), a drama starring Ted Danson and Glenn Close that won two Golden Globes, three Emmys and received many other nominations, including Emmy and DGA nods for Haines’ direction. This success led to Haines’ Hollywood career. She directed four feature-length films between 1986 and 1998, and nothing else for the big screen since then, but the impact of her body of work continues to be felt by film fans everywhere. As Haines said about her DGA nomination for Children of a Lesser God in a 1991 interview with Movieline, “I was really happy to be nominated and to have the film and my work recognized. As far as the first woman, yeah, it’s sad but it’s true. It’s sad that it’s still such a big deal that we’re still having these women in film articles. I’m so sick of these articles, already! But it’s fun to be a milestone, though I really look forward to the day of getting past that, when it’s just individual achievement.”

Children of a Lesser God (1986) – One of the noteworthy films of the award season when it was released, this romantic drama was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (William Hurt), Best Supporting Actress (Piper Laurie), Best Adapted Screenplay (Hesper Anderson and Mark Medoff) and the prize which was won, Best Actress (Marlee Matlin). Matlin made her film debut here, playing Sarah Norman, a deaf woman who works at a school for the hearing-impaired. Her relationship with a hearing man who teaches there (Hurt) is fraught with difficulty, but each learns to understand and respect the other, finding a place to meet in between that is “not in silence and not in sound.” The film’s beautiful cinematography by John Seale and the lush score by Michael Convertino (conducted and co-orchestrated by Shirley Walker) create much of the wonderful atmosphere, but it should also be noted that many women worked behind the scenes besides Randa Haines and co-scripter Hesper Anderson: to name just a few, Candace Koethe (associate producer), Gretchen Rennell (casting director), Lisa Fruchtman (editor), Mary Bauer (associate editor), Barbara Matis (art direction), Rose Marie McSherry (set decoration), Renée April (costume design), Pauline Heaton (underwater cinematographer), Dody Dorn (one of the sound editors), Ruth Bird and Stephanie Lowry (two assistant sound editors). In addition to success at the Oscars, Children won the Silver Berlin Bear at the 1987 Berlin International Film Festival, cited for being “a movie which brings an extraordinary theme to public attention in a sensible way.”

The Doctor (1991) – Haines’ second film is another collaboration with actor William Hurt, who plays a surgeon diagnosed with throat cancer, a turn of events that forces him to reevaluate the important things in life. He realizes that there is more to his profession than keeping appointments; thoughtfulness and empathy are crucial when Hurt experiences medical care from the patient’s viewpoint. Besides Hurt, the talented cast includes Christine Lahti, Elizabeth Perkins (pictured above), Mandy Patinkin, Adam Arkin, Wendy Crewson, Bill Macy, Kyle Secor and child actor Charlie Korsmo. The film, which was produced by Laura Ziskin (who later became the first-ever solo woman producer of an Academy Awards telecast in 2002), also marks renewed collaborations with cinematographer John Seale, composer Michael Convertino and editor Lisa Fruchtman (who co-edited with Bruce Green). As film critic Kenneth Turan wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1991: “Believability is… the keynote of the work of Randa Haines. In her hands The Doctor (rated PG-13) becomes a study in even-handed assurance, largely because by all appearances she has not only insisted on but achieved a high standard of believability from all her actors, not just Hurt. Scenes that would have come off as saccharine or pretentious in the hands of another director have a welcome integrity. There is a lot to forgive about The Doctor, but acting and directing make it easy to do.”

Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993) – Haines assembled a great cast for this romantic drama about lonely people in a seaside Florida town who find love and friendship amongst themselves: Robert Duvall, Richard Harris, Shirley MacLaine, Sandra Bullock, Micole Mercurio, Marty Belafsky, Harold Bergman and Piper Laurie (who had earlier played Marlee Matlin’s mother in an Oscar-nominated role in Children of a Lesser God). Of the colleagues from Haines’ previous two films, only composer Michael Convertino returned to write Wrestling’s score, but the film also features the efforts of skilled women like Danna Blesser (associate producer), Lora Kennedy (casting director), Florence Fellman (set decoration), Princess Stabile (second assistant director), Alisa Statman (second second assistant director) and Karen Baker Landers (assistant sound editor), Donah Bassett (negative cutter) and Mellissa Bretherton (first assistant editor).

Dance with Me (1998) – The art of Cuban dancing is brought to life in this opposites-attract romantic drama starring Vanessa Williams and Chayanne as partners hoping to win a dance competition à la Strictly Ballroom. The supporting cast features such veterans as Kris Kristofferson, Joan Plowright and Beth Grant, as well as relative youngster Jane Krakowski (who found fame with the shows “Ally McBeal” and “30 Rock”). For a fourth time Michael Convertino composed a score for Haines, as well as Lisa Fruchtman returning as editor (working with William S. Scharf), Lora Kennedy casting the film and Florence Fellman contributing as set decorator. Other ladies worked on the film too: Haines herself was one of the producers, along with Lauren Weissman; set dresser Beth Emerson; negative cutter Theresa Repola Mohammed; associate editor Marta Evry; additional editor Fabienne Rawley; assistant music editor Christine Cholvin; sound effects designer Kyrsten Mate; ADR mixer Charleen Richards. Although the film received mixed reviews upon its reviews, Variety film critic Leonard Klady observed that “the strength of the piece largely comes from the adroit direction of Randa Haines, a professed off-camera dance freak. She uses the serviceable script to move the picture from one dance sequence to the next, creating inventive ways of capturing the elegant and sexually charged movements.” Since Dance with Me, Haines’ only other works have been two TV movies, The Outsider (2002) and The Ron Clark Story (2006). I don’t know if this means that Haines, who is now 70 years old, has retired from the industry, but perhaps her inactivity is indicative of Hollywood’s overwhelming attitude towards women directors, especially those of a certain age.

Saturday Night Spotlight #25: Lois Weber

Lois Weber (1879 or 1881-1939), arguably the most important American woman filmmaker of the silent era, was more than a director. She was also a screenwriter, actress and producer, in addition to being the first woman director to have her own studio, Lois Weber Productions. Weber made the first feature film ever directed by an American woman (or perhaps any woman anywhere), The Merchant of Venice (1914, co-directed with then-husband Phillips Smalley) and her early short films include Suspense (1913), which deploys cinema’s first use of a split-screen technique, and How Men Propose (1913), a comedy about the social conventions surrounding courtship. Although her career eventually fell apart, somewhat due to problems with Paramount, with whom she had agreed to work in order to distribute her films, Weber’s contributions to early cinema from the 1910s and early 1920s have not been forgotten. In 1996 Weber was the subject of a biography by noted film scholar Anthony Slide, Lois Weber: The Director Who Lost Her Way in History. Soon another biography will be published, Lois Weber in Early Hollywood by Shelley Stamp, proving that Weber’s name still resonates.

Hypocrites (1915) – Thanks to Kino, this early feature film is available on DVD. Described on the packaging as “A Powerful Indictment of Moral Treachery from America’s First Great Woman Filmmaker,” the film is indeed a product of Weber’s combined talents behind the camera, including writing the screenplay and co-producing the film with Phillips Smalley. The dramatic story is led by Courtenay Foote, who portrays a misunderstood monk, Gabriel the Ascetic. Throughout the film the image of “the Naked Truth” is represented by Margaret Edwards (seen above on the left), who appeared onscreen in the first example of full-frontal female nudity. Because of this scandalous content Hypocrites faced opposition in many U.S. states and overseas, involving issues of censorship and banning the film outright. Today the film is lauded for its impressive cinematography by Dal Clawson and George W. Hill, including double exposures and innovative shots with mirror reflections.

Shoes (1916) – Some of Weber’s most famous films were co-directed with Phillips Smalley, including Where Are My Children? (1916), a drama about the aftereffects of abortion on both women and men. That film was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1993, but years later, in 2014, the Library of Congress added another Weber film to their collection, this time a feature that Weber directed herself: Shoes. Adapted by Weber and Stella Wynne Heron from a novel by Hull House founder Jane Addams, as well as being co-produced by Weber and Phillips Smalley, the film stars Mary MacLaren (whose IMDb biography and Los Angeles Times obituary are fascinating) as a young woman struggling to support her parents and younger siblings as the sole breadwinner of the family. Eventually (and heartbreakingly), MacLaren is forced to prostitute herself in order to obtain a pair of shoes.

Too Wise Wives (1921) – Weber’s best-known solo-directed feature film, The Blot (starring a young Louis Calhern), was released in 1921, but that same year Weber also made a film specifically about the female experience, Too Wise Wives. Produced by Weber and co-written by her and Marion Orth (based on a scenario by Weber), this drama explores the compared and contrasted lives of two couples played by Louis Calhern/Claire Windsor and Phillips Smalley/Mona Lisa. Wifely concerns about husband-stealing is juxtaposed with the lavish nature of the couples’ affluent but ultimately vapid milieu.

Sensation Seekers (1927) – At the tail end of her career Weber’s number of assignments dwindled and some of those projects, including her final film, White Heat (1934), are lost. One of the extant films is the silent drama Sensation Seekers, adapted for the screen by Weber from Ernest Pascal’s short story “Egypt.” Billie Dove plays a rich and shallow young woman whose hard-partying ways catch up to her and she finds herself torn between her love for a kind minister and her former flame, a wealthy boyfriend. The film’s climax includes an action-packed tempest that reportedly required tons of gallons of water to be poured on Dove and the other actors, predating the treacherous floods of Michael Curtiz’s Noah’s Ark (1928) by a year.

Saturday Night Spotlight #24: Roberta Findlay

In earlier posts I took a look at the careers of Doris Wishman, Stephanie Rothman and Jackie Kong, women who incorporated sexuality and horror into their films during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. One of their contemporaries was Roberta Findlay, who worked not only as a director but also in the capacities of actress, camera operator, cinematographer, composer, editor, lighting technician, producer, screenwriter and sound crew. Findlay began her career photographing and co-directing films with her husband, Michael Findlay, including such titles as Take Me Naked (1966), The Touch of Her Flesh (1967) and The Ultimate Degenerate (1969). After splitting from her husband both professionally and personally, Roberta Findlay embarked on a truly independent career, taking on all of the previously listed technical roles in a filmography built on graphic sex and bloody violence. Although she stopped working a quarter-century ago, the “Queen of Snuff” responds to interviews every so often, like in this New York Press write-up from 2005. Her low-budget oeuvre may be considered the trashiest of the trashy, but the films are as identifiable as New York products as the repertoires of Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese.

Angel on Fire (aka Angel Number 9) (1974) – Billed as “the first erotically explicit film ever made by a woman” (which was not actually true since Findlay had been directing adult films for years), this pornographic film has the more markedly cinematic touches of Findlay’s accomplished cinematography. Findlay also wrote, edited and produced the film. It is a gender-bending tale of a male chauvinist who impregnates his girlfriend (played by Judy Craven, seen above); shortly afterward, our protagonist is killed by a van and he is subsequently reincarnated as a beautiful blonde woman who must navigate a new life and sexual experiences. If “feminist porn” can exist with these representations of the female body (and seen through Findlay’s “female gaze,” as opposed to the viewpoints of male directors), then perhaps this narrative of shifting identities is a prime example.

The Oracle (1985) – A young woman (played by Caroline Capers Powers) moves into an apartment and her body is soon possessed by the ghost of the previous occupant, who was murdered. Sounding like a reversed-sex version of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant – although it is possibly more inspired by what Findlay has described as the only good horror movie she knows, Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby – Findlay’s film was also photographed and edited by her. The Oracle may be “jam-packed with bad performances, goofy attempts at spook horror, lousy gore effects and a lethargic pace,” as described in a DVD Drive-In review, but it’s also probably a lot of fun.

Blood Sisters (1987) – This gory horror-thriller is an oversexed haunted-house story in which young women have to spend the night in a former brothel in order to earn entry into a sorority. Findlay directed, wrote, photographed and co-edited (with Walter E. Sear) the film, which was also released under the title Slash.

Lurkers (1988) – Another New York horror story involving a woman and spiritual possession, here the leading lady (Christine Moore, who also starred in Findlay’s Prime Evil the same year) is visited by the specter of her murdered mother, as well as by zombified individuals called “lurkers.” As in Blood Sisters, Findlay photographed Lurkers and co-edited it with Walter E. Sear. One IMDb reviewer describes the movie as “without doubt, the worst film ever made,” but another reviewer considers it a “nicely quirky fright flick,” so there may be some merit after all.

Saturday Night Spotlight #23: Nell Shipman

One of the pioneering women of both Canadian film history and world cinema, Nell Shipman (1892-1970) wore many hats in her career: actress, screenwriter, director, producer and even an editor. All melodramas with action-driven plots set in the great outdoors, her features and shorts were always co-directed by Bert Van Tuyle, whom she married in the 1920s. Together they founded a film company, Nell Shipman Productions Inc., in 1920. Before and after being a filmmaker Shipman had an active career as a writer, publishing many novels, short stories and plays and co-writing a screen story, “Eyes of the Eagle,” that was adapted into a Myrna Loy-Cary Grant vehicle, Wings in the Dark (1935). Shipman’s autobiography, The Silent Screen & My Talking Heart, was published in 1987 and another collection, Letters from God’s Country – Nell Shipman: Selected Correspondence & Writings, 1912-1970, was published in 2003. The same year that the letters were published, Kay Armatage’s biography of Shipman, The Girl from God’s Country: Nell Shipman and the Silent Cinema, was also released. More information on Nell Shipman’s papers, which now belong to the Boise State University Library in Idaho, can be found here.

Something New (1920) – Shipman and Van Tuyle not only co-direct but also co-star in this feature film, an adventure story that runs about 57 minutes in its current restored version. A Western tale of a heroine kidnapped by Mexican bandits, it remains one of Shipman’s best-remembered movies. (It has been released on DVD along with another Shipman-starring feature, the 1919 film Back to God’s Country, which was notorious for showing its leading lady doing full-frontal nudity, prompting the question “Is the Nude Rude?”) The husband and wife team also wrote the screenplay and Shipman produced the film. Cinematography was done by Joseph Walker, who would go on to have a very distinguished career photographing such classics as It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), His Girl Friday (1940) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). (You can watch Something New in its entirety here.)

The Grub Stake: A Tale of the Klondike (1923) – Shipman wrote the story for this Alaska-set Western, again photographed by Joseph Walker and co-produced by Nell Shipman with her first husband, Ernest Shipman (they were married from 1910 to 1920). The film is a full-length feature lasting about 100 minutes, an impressive running time for the silent era – pre-Greed, anyway. (You can watch the entire film here.)

Trail of the North Wind (1924) – Shipman wrote the scenario for this short film that shows her battling snowy terrain; she also produced the film and possibly (though it’s not confirmed by records) co-edited it too. (You can watch a six-minute clip here.)

White Water (1926) – Although only Bert Van Tuyle received onscreen credit for directing this short film, which runs about 27 minutes, Shipman received billing for her roles as lead actress, screenwriter and co-producer (with Walter Greene). The race to save someone caught in a dangerous river current gives Shipman the chance to show off her canoeing skills as she rushes to the rescue, even swimming against the strong tide when the boat turns over. (You can watch the film here.)

Saturday Night Spotlight #22: Mabel Normand

Mabel Normand (1892 or 1895-1930) is best remembered as a popular comedienne of the silent screen, but in 1914 and 1915 she directed a number of comedic shorts as well, some of them being the earliest examples of Charlie Chaplin in his “Tramp” character. Normand’s directorial efforts are also overshadowed by the scandals in her life, most notably the murder of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922 (Normand was interrogated since she knew him well), the fatal shooting of millionaire Courtland S. Dines by Normand’s chauffeur in 1924, and finally Normand’s death from tuberculosis in 1930 after years of struggling with alcoholism. Although Normand did not direct any feature films, she was an important contributor to early silent film comedy both behind and in front of the camera. I was disappointed to find that her work was not mentioned in a book I recently started reading, Go West, Young Women!: The Rise of Early Hollywood by Hilary A. Hallett, so this post should serve as a good reminder of – or introduction to – Normand’s place in film history.

Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914) – Here we have the first ever instance of Chaplin’s Tramp, co-starring with Normand in a story written by Chaplin and Henry Lehrman (who also has a small role in the film) about misadventures in a hotel. Some actors who were well-known in both the silent and sound eras appear in the film: Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport (wife of actor Harry Davenport and mother of actress/producer/director Dorothy Davenport) and Al St. John. (You can watch the film here.)

Caught in a Cabaret (1914) – Another short starring both Normand and Chaplin, who collaborated on the screen story, even more character actors are present here: Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport, Minta Durfee (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s wife at the time), Edgar Kennedy, Hank Mann (the boxer in City Lights), Al St. John, Mack Swain (the other prospector in The Gold Rush) and Josef Swickard. (You can see the film here.)

Mabel’s Blunder (1914) – Written and directed by Normand, this short about the romantic entanglements between a woman, her boss, the boss’s son (to whom Normand is engaged, unbeknownst to the father) and the boss’s daughter (whom Normand mistakes for a rival sweetheart) was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2009. There’s a great point-of-view shot when Normand watches the pair through a keyhole, demonstrated by the shape of the frame (as seen above). The short also involves a bit of gender-bending when Normand, spying on the brother and sister, disguises herself as a man and pretends to be the family chauffeur. You might recognize Charley Chase, another famous comedian, playing a friend of the boss’s son, as well as Al St. John as Normand’s brother. (You can see the film here.)

Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco (1915) – Co-directed by Normand and her frequent onscreen partner, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, the short serves as both a fun outing for them and also a documentary-like snapshot of a historical moment. A sad footnote: one of the sites seen in the film, the St. Francis Hotel, was the location where Arbuckle’s career would be destroyed when Virginia Rappe met her end there in 1921. (You can see the film here.)