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  • David Parkinson

Parky at the Pictures (DVD & Download 14/11/2019)

While the world waits patiently for Mark Cousins's 16-hour opus, Women Making Films: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, the BFI attempts to plug the gap with Early Women Filmmakers, 1911-40, a four disc Blu-ray celebration of nine of the most significant female directors working in what was (and, of course, still is) a male-dominated industry. Admirable though this collection is, it isn't the only one of its kind on the market, as it's in competition with Flicker Alley's Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology and Kino Lober's Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers.

In truth, the latter is easily the best of the three, as it contains six discs and finds room for such occasional, but fascinating directors as Ida May Park, Ruth Ann Baldwin, Elsie Jane Wilson, Cleo Madison and Nell Shipman, who also worked variously as writers and actresses. The rival American selections also include contributions from the likes of Zora Neale Hurston, Madeline Brandeis, Claire Parker, Leni Riefenstahl and Maya Deren. Curiously missing from all three sets are names like Elvira Notari, Esfir Shub and Tazuko Sakane, while none pays adequate homage to Dorothy Arzner, who was the only woman director working with any frequency in Hollywood during the Golden Age of the studio system.

That said, a quick glance at the website of the exceptional Women Film Pioneers Project reveals just how many female film-makers have been consigned to the margins of screen history from a period that afforded women more creative latitude than any time since. The BFI can proudly point to two discs dedicated to German animator Lotte Reiniger, who worked in Britain from 1949. But it's deeply regrettable that this anthology has completely overlooked such home-based documentary talent as Mary Field, Marion and Ruby Grierson, Evelyn Spice, Budge Cooper and Kay Mander, as well as animator Joy Batchelor. As a result, it's fair to say that this falls some way behind the standards set by the 2016 release, Pioneers of African-American Cinema. Nevertheless, we should be grateful that the set gathers together 22 relatively forgotten films and offers over 10 hours of sometimes revelatory viewing.

There's only one place to start any survey of women film-makers and that's with Alice Guy (1873-1968), who was working as pioneer producer Léon Gaumont's secretary when she made her debut with the first story film with a written scenario. Sadly, La Fée aux Choux (1896) is now lost, but Guy went on to become the head of production at Gaumont, where she spent a decade refining narrative techniques in such pictures as Les Chiens Savants (1902), Une Histoire Roulante (1906) and La Barricade (1907). It's impossible to ascertain how many films Guy actually directed, but the estimate stands at over 500, as she emulated rival Georges Méliès in experimenting across the generic range. She also attempted longer stories like La Vie du Christ (1906), which was one of the many hand-painted projects she supervised, while also making around 150 sound films using the Chronophone system.

Having married colleague Herbert Blaché, she decamped to Cleveland, Ohio and thence to Flushing in Queens to help her husband set up Gaumont subsidiaries. When these failed to impact on the chaotic American market, the couple set up Solax Films in 1910 before relocating two years later to a purpose-built studio at Fort Lee, New Jersey. Starting out with short subjects (95 in all), Solax remained an independent concern outside the Motion Picture Patents Trust. However, a distribution deal with George Kleine's chain allowed it to move into medium and feature production in 1915, with Guy-Blaché directing 22 titles before the company folded and the marriage fell apart.

Owing much to O. Henry's short story. `The Last Leaf', Falling Leaves (1912) typifies Guy-Blaché's commitment to staging in depth and natural acting. When the fragile Winifred Thompson (Marian Swayne) collapses, her mother (Blanche Cornwall) is distraught when the family physician informs her that her daughter will succumb to tuberculosis before the last leaf falls in the autumn. Hearing the prognosis, Winifred's six year-old sister, Trixie (Magda Foy), wanders into the garden and is busy tying leaves with string to the bare branches when she is spotted by Earl Headley (Mace Greenleaf), who just happens to be a lung specialist with a life-saving serum in his bag.

Running around 12 minutes, this poignant saga could easily have lapsed into the kind of three-hankie melodrama that leading director DW Griffith was not averse to making. But Guy-Blaché places as much emphasis on the gravity of the condition and the advances being made in medical science as she does on Little Trixie's adorable act of faith. As screen actors had only been billed since Florence Lawrence became the first named star in 1910, Magda Foy was known as The Solax Kid. She didn't make many more movies, but lived into the next century before passing at the grand old age of 94. One wonders whether she saw the 1952 Fox anthology, O. Henry's Full House, in which Jean Peters and Anne Baxter played the devoted sisters for director Jean Negulesco.

Over a century after it was made, Making an American Citizen (1912) has a message that retains its relevance in these Trumpist times. Back in the old country, Ivan Orloff (Lee Beggs) treats his wife (Blanche Cornwall) as badly as he does his horse. On emigrating to the United States, however, he is taught that polite society refuses to accept such boorish chauvinism. Initially, with the Statue of Liberty gazing down upon the scene, Ivan is reprimanded by a well-heeled gentleman, who insists that he not only ceases his brutality, but also carries the bags he had left to his spouse. Ultimately, it takes a prison term for the kopeck to drop, but Guy-Blaché closes this droll parable with the reformed Ivan working hard and giving thanks for his supper.

As a migrant herself, Guy-Blaché would have been aware of the pressure placed upon newcomers to the Land of the Free to conform to its social conventions. But, while the feminist message seems ahead of its time, the asides on assimilation might raise the odd eyebrow, especially when viewed alongside Charlie Chaplin's The Immigrant (1917). The broad playing may not be particularly subtle to modern eyes, but it should be remembered that Guy-Blaché would have been striving to reach a largely ill-educated audience, who might have needed a bit of a nudge to appreciate her intent.

Another morality tale that hits home without overtly preaching is The Girl in the Arm-Chair (1912), which shifts the scene into polite New York society to reveal how heiress Peggy Wilson (Blanche Cornwall) changes the opinion of her guardian's haughty son, Frank Watson (Mace Greenleaf). Disapproving of his father's suggestion that he should pay court to Peggy because she stands to inherit a small fortune, Frank goes about his business with a buttoned-up machismo. When he incurs a debt he is too ashamed to present to his father, however, Frank loses $500 at poker and Guy-Blaché uses a deft double exposure to show the cards swirling above his head, as he wonders how to extricate himself from his predicament. Fortunately, Peggy susses the situation from her chair in the parlour and uses her wealth and her wit to bail out Frank and win his heart without making him feel emasculated.

As someone who constantly had to prove herself in a male milieu, Guy-Blaché frequently returned to the theme of women competing on equal terms. A case in point is the gold rush drama, Greater Love Hath No Man (1911), which sees Florence (Vinnie Burns) toting a gun while standing up for herself at a prospectors' camp at Gatlach, New Mexico. She spurns all offers for protection from Jake (Romaine Fielding) and breaks his heart when she falls for the new claims supervisor. However, when the Mexican pan-handlers accuse the newcomer of swindling them, Jake sacrifices himself so that Florence and her beloved can be together and receives a grateful kiss, as he dies in his beloved's arms.

Recreating a rough-tough mining camp on a New Jersey backlot clearly appealed to Guy-Blaché, as she used the same setting for Algie, the Miner (1912), which she co-directed with Edward Warren and Harry Schenck. This hilarious comedy has been claimed as an early example of Queer Cinema. But this is very much a knockabout bromance, with a poignant seam running through it, as the foppish Algie (Billy Quirk) agrees to spend a year on the frontier in order to prove to his sweetheart's boorish father that he's a real man. He gets off to a shaky start, when he thanks the cowboy who gives him directions with a peck on the cheek and lands himself in further hot water when he does the same to the roughneck who saves him from a furious reprisal. However, gruff miner Big Jim has no qualms over Algie's eccentric ways and not only teaches him how to handle a six-shooter rather than his own pathetic little pistol, but also shares his gold strike after Algie helps him overcome his drinking problem.

Combining character comedy with social critique, this bruising bromance ends with Algie returning to convince his future father-in-law that he has the right stuff. But, while we learn little about what his new fiancée feels about his transformation, we are left in no doubt about about the intentions of Marian (Marian Swayne) in Matrimony's Speed Limit (1913). When betrothed swain Fraunie (Fraunie Fraunholz) loses his shirt on the stock market, he releases Marian from her bond. But she has no desire to be returned to the shelf and sends a telegram informing Fraunie that he will inherit a fortune if he marries before midday. Rather than rushing round to ask her to grab her bouquet, however, he embarks upon a madcap dash around town in the desperate hope of finding a bride before noon.

There's much merriment to be had from the reaction of some of the women Fraunie propositions, as Guy-Blaché puts an amusing spin on the scenario pitched in Sigmund Lubin's Meet Me At the Fountain (1904) and Buster Keaton's Seven Chances (1925), But, as always, she has a serious purpose, as Fraunie's last hope at 11:58 am turns out to be black beneath her white veil and the spectre of miscegenation hovers over the happy ending, as Marian speeds up in her jalopy with a preacher aboard in order to put Fraunie out of his misery. This gag seems audacious today, so one can only imagine how it would have gone down a century ago. But it typifies its makers willingness to press audience buttons and force them to reasses entrenched attitudes. Guy-Blaché sends them out with a smile, however, as Marian confesses to her ruse and steals Fraunie's hat so he can't storm out on her.

The last offering from this remarkale film-maker is The Ocean Waif (1916), a romantic dramedy that based on a story by Frederick Chapin that runs for 41 minues and allows Guy-Blaché to showcase her storytelling skills. However, this was not a Solax production, as Guy-Blaché made the picture for the International Film Service, which was owned by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, whose affair with silent star Marion Davies would provide Orson Welles with one of the subplots for Citizen Kane (1941).

When Hy Jessop (William Morris) starts beating tomboy daughter Millie (Doris Kenyon) because he can't stand her cooking, disabled neighbour Sem (Fraunie Frauholz) intervenes. But Millie is too afraid to stay and seeks sanctuary in the abandoned house to which novelist Ronald Roberts (Carlyle Blackwell) has repaired for a little peace and quiet. He has no idea he is sharing the premises and chides valet Hawkins (Edgar Norton) when he suggests they are haunted.

On hearing a noise in the night, Ronald finds Millie, who tells him that she was washed ashore from a shipwreck as a young girl and that Jessop has been her guardian. Recognising a good yarn when he hears one, Ronald sets to work on a new book. But he is distracted by Millie's beauty and he is in the middle of trying to steal a kiss when fiancée Ruth (Dyne Donaldson) arrives with her disapproving mother.

Feeling guilty, Millie returns home, only for Jessop to announce his intention to marry her. Seeing the girl of his dreams in distress, Sem shoots Jessop. However, Ronald happens past the shack with a hunting rifle and he is charged with murder. Realising how much Millie loves the writer, Sem gives Millie a signed confession, which she uses to secure Ronald's freedom, as Sem kills himself.

Although this could hardly be called a happy ending, Guy-Blaché leaves the audience in little doubt that the waif from the woods and the city sophisticate are soulmates. But this is far from a conventional romcom, as Guy-Blaché explores domestic abuse, the class divide and the status of women in a bustling scenario that allows Frauholz to show his dramatic mettle, while also teasing out the charming chemistry between newcomer Doris Kenyon (a singer who would co-star with Rudolph Valentino, George Arliss and John Barrymore in her 25-year screen career) and Carlyle Blackwell, who had become one of American cinema's first matinee idols at Kalem before winding up in Britain to make Géza von Bolváry's co-produced talkie, The Wrecker (1928).

As for Guy-Blaché, her fortunes dipped after a quartet of pictures that she and Blaché made with Catherine Calvert in 1917 failed to find favour. She bounced back with The Great Adventure (1918), but bowed out with the unfortunately titled Tarnished Reputations (1920), which she made for Perret Pictures. In 1922, she returned to France with her children, where she lectured on film when not writing novelisations of screenplays. She was awarded the Legion of Honour in 1955 and Henri Langlois staged a retrospective of her work at the Cinémathèque Française two years later. However, she spent her later years in New Jersey, where she died at the age of 94 in 1968. Her memoir, Autobiographe d'une Pionniere du Cinéma, was published posthumously and proudly reaffirmed her long-held contention that `There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man and there is no reason why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art.'

By taking her under her wing, Guy-Blaché also launched the career of Lois Weber (1879-1939), a former concert pianist and street missionary who had begun acting in a 1905 touring production of Why Girls Leave Home that was managed by her future husband, Phillips Smalley. The pair signed to American Gaumont in 1908 and worked at Reliance and Rex, where they benefited from the experience of Edwin S. Porter, who had helped refine the techniques of screen storytelling in pictures like The Great American Train Robbery (1903). With Smalley as her production partner, Weber began to direct with A Heroine of `76 (1911).

When Rex was acquired by Universal Film Manufacturing, Weber was given her own studio and allowed to pursue her own interests in her own style. With Smalley serving as her co-producer, she wrote, directed and edited her own films, as well as taking the odd acting role, notably appearing opposite Wallace Reid in her own adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1913), which was directed by Smalley. She also forged one of the first all-female production partnerships with Julia Crawford Ivers, who was the first woman to manage a Hollywood studio.

In 1915, Weber built her own studio on Santa Monica Boulevard and signed a deal with Famous Players-Lasky that not only gave her full creative control, but also rewarded her with $50,000 per picture and a cut of the profits. Only DW Griffith could rival her as an auteur, while she challenged Cecil B. DeMille as the master of marital dramedy with For Husbands Only (1917), To Please One Woman (1920), What's Worth While?, What Do Men Want?and Too Wise Wives (all 1921).

As one of the highest-paid directors in Hollywood, Weber became the first and only woman to be elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association. In additon to becoming the first woman to direct a feature-length drama with The Merchant of Venice (1914), she also became American cinema's foremost social commentator. She examined drug abuse in The Dragon's Breath (1913) and Hop, the Devil's Brew (1916), mixed marriage and cultural assimilation in The Jew's Christmas (1913), Christian Science in Jewel (1915) and A Chapter in Her Life (1923), capital punishment in The People vs John Doe (1916), birth control in Where Are My Children? (1916) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917) and poverty in Shoes (1917).

Weber was as stylistically innovative as she was outspoken, as she made use of split screens, mirror images and multiple exposures. She also proposed making films in colour and three dimensions. But her readiness to push boundaries led to clashes with the forces of conservative authority. Having exposing religious double standards in Hypocrites (1915), Weber was accused of being anti-clerical, while the censors bridled at her use of full-frontal female nudity.

It wasn't all social realism, however, as Weber and Smalley made a handsome job of adapting Daniel Auber's 1828 opera, The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), which boasted the sole screen appearance of ballerina Anna Pavlova. Moreover, Weber was the first to bring Edgar Rice Burrough's hero to the screen in Tarzan of the Apes (1918). The same year also saw her being recruited by Fox to direct Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman in Queen of the Sea, a fantasy that contained nude aquatic scenes. But Weber was replaced by John G. Adolphi and her fortunes slowly started to decline.

Back in Weber's heyday, she and Smalley made Suspense (1913), a 10-minute thriller that refined the techniques that had previously been employed by Porter and Griffith. The simple story starts with Mamie the maid (Lule Warrenton) quitting her job and leaving her key under the doormat. A passing tramp (Sam Kaufman) sees her pass and creeps towards the remote homestead where a mother (Weber) is nursing her baby. Having been informed by her husband (Valentine Paul) that he will be working late, the wife closes the windows and locks the doors. But the hobo finds the key and, having scoffed the food he finds in the kitchen, he begins to explore with a knife in his hand.

The screen splits to a triangular triptych to show the intruder and the wife in the outer panels, as she calls her spouse and urges him to get home as quickly as he can. Stealing a car from outside his office, the husband barrels along with the vehicle's owner (Douglas Gerrard) pursuing with the police. All ends well, of course, with the husband overpowering and disarming the hobo and the car owner patting him on the back for his quick-thinking heroism. As for the wife, she swoons on the bed and is consoled by the spouse who has rescued her.

Cross-cutting to build tension, Weber and Smalley make innovative use of camera angles to show the wife peering down on the stranger as he prowls outside and the husband looking into his rearview mirror to see the jalopy spedding behind him. They even include a couple of moments of violence, as the husband accidentally knocks down a pedestrian (who is claimed by some sources to be Lon Chaney), while the tramp punches a hole in the bedroom door to menace the cowering wife (in anticipation of Jack Nicholson's similar action in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, 1980).

Another unwelcome guest crops up in Discontent (1916), which Weber co-directed with Allen G Siegler. However, this is a much lighter vignette that questions whether the grass is always greener on the other side. Civil War veteran Pearson (J. Edwin Brown) lives in an old soldier's home. He is forever telling his friends about his wealthy nephew (Charles Hammond), but grumbles when he visits with his wife (Katherine Griffith) and gives him a handout, as well as a box of cigars.

Realising that the old boy is unhappy, the wife suggests inviting him to move into the family mansion. Her son (Alva D. Blake) and daughter (Marie Walcamp) seem delighted by the prospect and Pearson makes a big show of packing his belongings when his nephew comes to collect him. No sooner has he settled into his room, however, than Pearson begins to get indigestion from the rich food. He also resents having to dress for dinner when he would rather wear his uniform.

Moreover, he starts to interfere in family life, by asking the wife why she puts up with her husband going to the club every night after supper. He also tells the son that he lacks the life experience and moral fibre to become a minister and suggests that the daughter can never be happy with a beau (Juan de la Cruz) who is less physically strapping than she is. One night, the wife chides the nephew for swanning off after supper, while the daughter tries to flirt with her brother's tall friend (John R Hope). However, he's a religious prude and criticises the girl for her blonde her and short skirt.

The daughter realises that she's better off with a man she genuinely cares for, while her mother calls the club to tell her husband that she doesn't really mind him enjoying himself. He feels bad for waltzing off when she was feeling blue and he hurries home to discover that his uncle has returned to the home because he misses his comrades. So, as the family laugh together at the terse tone of the note that Pearson has left on his pillow, he tiptoes back into his dormitory and settles down to sleep in his old bed.

Closing with a caption asking, `Are you discontented?', this is an amusing morality play. But, while it demonstrates Weber had a sense of humour, it's rather unrepresentative of her oeuvre. Moreover, it's a far from one of her better works and the slot might have been more profitably used by a more provocative piece like Hypocrites or Shoes. Nevertheless, J. Edwin Brown gives a fine rendition of the kind of grumpy old man character that would become Lionel Barrymore's speciality.

By far the best known of Weber's later films, The Blot (1921), which was filmed on location to ensure the authenticity of the mise-en-scène. At a time when `street realism' was being recreated in German studios to allow the director to control every aspect of the setting, Weber sought actual houses to convey the conditions in which those following poorly paid vocational professions had to live. The plot might not be particularly sophisticated, but the performances are admirably restrained, while Weber's attention to detail gives proceedings a documentary feel.

Professor Andrew Griggs (Philip Hubbard) tries to keep control over a class that has little respect for his status or knowledge. Among the least attentive students is Phil West (Louis Calhern), the son of one of the college trustees who is best friends with congressman's son Bert Garrett and Walt Lucas, who needs to get his grades to inherit a fortune. Griggs lives with his wife (Margaret McWade) and daughter Amerlia (Claire Windsor) in a comfortable, but shabby home near the campus. Their next door neighbours, the Olsens, are Swedish migrants who rather look down on the Griggs, even though Hans makes his money from selling second-rate shoes at inflated prices.

Peter Olsen has a crush on Amelia, as does the Reverend Gates and Phil, who goes to the library where she works to borrow books solely in the hope of bumping into her. He is dating Juanita Claredon (Marie Walcamp), who shares his privileged background and has noticed that he has started behaving a lot less brattishly since becoming obsessed with Amelia.

Aware that Amelia has a hole in her shoe, for example, he offers her a lift home one rainy afternoon and she gratefully accepts. Keen to make a good impression, Mrs Griggs spends money she can't really spare on a fancy tea, only for Phil to leave before it's ready and it's guzzled down by the visiting Gates instead. When Amelia falls ill, the doctor recommends feeding her up on chicken and, having been unable to procure one on credit, Mrs Griggs succumbs to temptation and steals a bird off Mrs Olsen's kitchen window ledge.

Both Amelia and Peter witness the crime, but Mrs Griggs's conscience gets the better of her and she returns the dish before her neighbour notices. Hearing his beloved is unwell, Phil has a hamper delivered anonymously. But Amelia thinks the chicken is the one her mother stole and she refuses to eat it. When Mrs Olsen hears about the aborted theft, she threatens to call in the police. But Peter swears he will leave home if she does anything to embarrass Amelia's family.

Leaving her sickbed to get into work on payday, Amelia offers Mrs Olsen money for her loss. But she insists nothing was taken and Amelia faints in her confusion. Phil carries her home and explains that he sent the provisions and Amelia realises there is more to him than his cocky exterior. Indeed, he writes to his father to urge him to do something about staff wages (which he considers to be a blot on contemporary civilisation) and persuades his classmates to ask Griggs for private tuition to supplement his meagre income. When they see Phil and Amelia together, Peter and Gates admit that the better man has won and they give the sweethearts their blessing.

Ninety-eight years after this landmark drama was released, the storyline has a distinctly penny dreadful feel about it. But what makes this so poignant is the way Weber instructs Philip Du Bois and Gordon Jennings to train their camera on telltale details like the professor's air of dejection, Mrs Griggs's calloused hands, the threadbare patches in her carpet and the need for Griggs cat to scavenge in the Olsen dustbin for scraps. But she isn't content with highlighting the family's genteel penury, as Weber also lingers on the frivolous luxuries available at the country club soirée and confronts Phil with the fecklessness of his existence by having him watch Gates give the little he has to someone worse off than himself.

Anyone who knows Louis Calhern from pictures like John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) will be struck by how dashing he was in his youth. But Claire Windsor (whose real name was Clara Cronk) failed to make the transition to talkies after briefly dazzing after being named a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1922. But the acting honours go to Margaret McWade (née Fish), who had started out with Margaret Seddon in a vaudeville act known as `The Pixillated Sisters'. They would be reunited in Frank Capra's Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and McWade would continue to take small parts for the next two decades.

By contrast, Lois Weber's career took a downturn, as The Blot failed to make money and was almost forgotten by the time it was restored in the mid-1970s. Following a sabbatical taken in the hope of saving her marriage to Smalley, Weber found Hollywood a much-changed on her return, as the Hays Code had started to clamp down on contentious material. Unable to find a directing project, she took a job in the story department at Universal and was corralled into re-editing Rupert Julian's Lon Chaney classic, The Phantom of the Opera (1925).

When she did resume the director's chair, the Billie Dove vehicles, The Marriage Clause and Sensation Seekers (both 1926), were poorly received and The Angel of Broadway (1927) proved to be her last silent feature. Having remarried, Weber quit Hollywood before screenwriter friend Frances Marion found her work as a script doctor at United Artists in 1932. The following year, Universal hired her to adapt Edna Feber's Glamour, but she was replaced by William Wyler and bowed out of film-making after making an unremarkable sound debut with White Heat (1934), which appears to have been lost. She died in poverty five years later, with Marion paying for her funeral. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper ran a piece reminding Hollywood of the debt it owed Weber, but she has yet to receive her full due.

Another name to have slipped out of the public consciousness is Mabel Normand. Once the biggest female comedy star in Hollywood, she was the Queen of Keystone and her relationship with Canadian producer Mack Sennett was so chequered that it formed the basis of the 1974 Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman musical, Mack and Mabel.

Born in New Brighton on Staten Island on 10 November 1892, Normand started out modelling for postcards illustrated by style-setter Charles Dana Gibson before Sennett spotted her in Biograph colleague DW Griffith's Her Awakening (1911). When he opened his own studio in 1912, he hired invited Normand to join Keystone's troupe of Bathing Beauties. However, she quickly revealed a gift for knockabout and she went on to make 17 comic shorts with Roscoe `Fatty' Arbuckle and 12 more with Charlie Chaplin.

Indeed, it was in one of Mabel and Fatty's outings, A Noise From the Deep (1913), that she threw cinema's first custard pie, while Chaplin made his first appearance as The Tramp opposite Normand in Mabel's Strange Predicament. Many sources give the honour to Kid Auto Races at Venice. But, while this hit screens two days earlier in February 1914, it was was Normand's 12-minute opus that prompted Chaplin to rifle through the Keystone prop box for Fatty Arbuckle's trousers, Ford Sterling's shoes, Charles Avery's jacket, Mack Swain's moustache and a bowler hat belonging to Minta Durfee's father.

Chaplin's tramp bumps into Normand while she waits for beau Harry McCoy in the lobby of a swanky hotel. Too tipsy to sit in a chair without sliding off, Chaplin annoys staff and guests alike before having a contretemps with Mabel's dog. When she goes back to her room, she incurs the disapproval of the prim and proper Alice Davenport, who is staying across the corridor with her husband, Chester Conklin.

Outraged by the noise Mabel makes while throwing a ball for her dog, Davenport goes to reception to complain to manager Frank Cooley. Somehow, the ball ends up in the corridor and the pooch locks Mabel out of the room in her pyjamas. Catching the tramp's lecherous eye, she has to flee along the corridor and hide behind a bench, causing her pursuer to kiss a male guest unlocking his door in his PJs. Needing somewhere to hide, Mabel dips into Davenport's room and scuttles under the bed to avoid detection. Chaplin bursts in after her, but leaves after staggering around the room and gurning at the bemused occupant.

When McCoy comes to call on Mabel and bellboy Al St John can't get an answer from her room, he decides to wait with his friend, who just happens to be staying in the room opposite. While they chat, the dog romps in and makes a beeline for Mabel. Spotting his beloved peering out from under the bed, the green-eyed McCoy accuses Conklin of stealing his girl and they are still squaring up to each other when Davenport returns after finding Mabel's room empty. She soon discovers why, however, and mayhem breaks out in the corridor, as the foursome and Chaplin become embroiled in a fracas. Luckily for Mabel, her suitor sees the funny side and they kiss and make up, as the tramp weaves his way downstairs and the hapless husband prepares to face some shrewish wrath.

Completing Normand's catalogue of famous firsts, she also became the first movie heroine to be tied to the railway tracks in Sennett's serial spoof, Barney Oldfield's Race for Life (1913), and teamed with Chaplin and Marie Dressler in the first feature-length comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914). She's next seen here, however, in Mabel's Dramatic Career (1913), in which romance seems on the cards with Sennett's hayseed before his disapproving mother, Alice Davenport intervenes. She has brought city girl Virginia Kirtley to the farm to meet her son and shows Mabel the door. To add insult to injury, Sennett takes back the engagement ring he had just given Mabel and she is forced to look for a job in moving pictures.

Having instantly fallen out with Kirtley, Sennett comes to rue his haste, especially when he sees Mabel on a poster advertising her new film, At Twelve O'Clock. Venturing into the nickelodeon, Sennett has to be restrained by fellow patron Roscoe Arbuckle because he is such a rube that he doesn't understand that the action is fictional and that Mabel isn't really being imperilled by the villainous Ford Sterling. When the Keystone Kops fail to save her, however, Sennett clears the auditorium when he begins shooting at the screen. Moreover, he tracks Sterling down to his home and he is about to plug him when he realises that he and Mabel have three children together and his fury is cooled by two buckets of water being emptied from an upstairs window.

Full of self-reflexive references to Sennett's own studio, this is primarily notable for the ambitious presentation of action on two planes within the frame. While watching Mabel's travails on screen, the audience also has to keep tabs on Sennett's dyspeptic reaction and Arbuckle's attempts to calm him down. This was hardly new in 1913, but it didn't happen often in quickie comedies and confirms that there was much more to Sennett's cinema than pratfalls and pies.

By the time Normand made Mabel's Blunder (1914), Sennett trusted her sufficiently to let her share the directorial duties. Completed in five days, this one-reel comedy of errors sees Mabel playing a stenographer at the company run by father Charles Bennett and son Harry McCoy. The latter is eager to propose, but Bennett also flirts shamelessly with Normand, who puts up with his advances because she needs the job.

When Bennett goes to lunch, however, Normand is dismayed to discover McCoy cosying up to pretty stranger, Eva Nelson. She persuades visiting cabby brother Al St John to switch clothes so that she can drive McCoy and Nelson to a party being thrown at chic eaterie La Ramada by his pal Charles Parrott (who would later find fame as Charley Chase). However, as St John has covered his face with a veil, Bennett mistakes him for Normand and sweeps him off to the restaurant, where Normand has worked herself into a right tizzy before the truth emerges that Nelson is McCoy's kid sister.

Keeping intertitles to a minimum and switching between studio sets and authentic Glendale locations, Normand and Sennett keep the action moving to ensure nobody dwells too long on its improbabilities. The episode in which Wallace MacDonald pops in to touch McCoy for a loan seems a little extraneous, but silent aficionados will appreciate the wonderful keyhole-shaped mask used for the shot in which Mabel snoops on her beau in his father's office.

Confusion also reigns in Charlie Chaplin's His Trysting Places (1914), which is one of the longest films that he made during his at Keystone. For once placing The Tramp (who is here called Clarence) in a domestic situation, this two-reeler reminds audiences that the character often displayed an edgy side in his earliest incarnations. Indeed, he could often be callous and abrasive, as his infant son and the hulking Mack Swain soon discover in this two-part farce. But Chaplin might not have been around to refine his iconic hobo had Normand not intervened to persuade Sennett into giving him a second chance after he had failed to impress in Making a Living (1914). Indeed, she taught him to how work with the camera and slow down the pace of his often frenetic comedy.

Stuck in a cramped kitchen trying to read a magazine while wife Mabel tries to cook and take care of Baby Peter, Chaplin keeps burning himself on the stove. Despairing of her feckless husband, Mabel dispatches him to the sitting room and ticks him off for carrying their son by the scruff of his neck as though he were a Gladstone Bag. When she finds Chaplin sitting in the crib and the baby playing with items in the fireplace, she sends him packing, although she does give him a peck on the lips when he promises to buy the child a present.

Nearby, Mack Swain bids farewell to wife Phyllis Allen before setting off on his morning constitutional. He agrees to post a letter for neighbour Peggy Page, who has written to her sweetheart to arrange a tryst in the park. However, the missive remains in his overcoat pocket, as Swain takes a detour into a corner diner. Hanging his belongings on a hatstand, Swain props up the counter, where he is soon joined by Chaplin, who has bought Peter a new feeding bottle. This is in the pocket of his own coat, which he hangs on the same stand. However, Swain takes Chaplin's coat after they get into an argument over some slurped soup and a ham bone and they each march off in a state of high dudgeon.

While Swain meets Allen on a park bench and pours out his woes, Chaplin gets home to find Mabel pressing a pair of trousers. He manages to sit on the iron before she discovers the billet doux in his pocket and breaks the ironing board over his head. As he flees, Mabel scoops up Peter and follows him to the park. She entrusts the boy to a passing policeman and struts on to find Chaplin telling Allen that his wife has gone crazy. Mistaking Allen for Page, Mabel accuses her of being a jezebel and she pushes her erring spouse into a convenient dustbin.

Spotting the commotion from the snack bar, Swain quickly becomes embroiled and finds himself holding the baby after the cop comes over to investigate. Naturally, having found the bottle in what she takes to be Swain's coat, Allen draws the conclusion he has a secret love child and sets about him with cockquean ferocity. Initially perplexed, Swain realises what must have happened and returns Chaplin's coat and child with a manly handshake. Before heading home, however, Chaplin hands the letter to Allen, who lays into her bemused spouse with renewed vigour.

The pace and pugnacity of the knockabout during the park sequence is a joy to behold, with Normand and Allen setting about their menfolk with relish. Allen's expressions as Chaplin tells her his sob story and blows his nose on her handkerchief are also priceless. But, in truth, Normand plays third fiddle here and it might have been more interesting to have included something like Mabel's Married Life (1914), on which she was credited as Chaplin's co-writer. This would also have spared us the dubious encounter between Chaplin and a nosy black youth outside the shop where he bought the bottle.

Much had happened to Normand by the time she made the last offering in this quartet, Leo McCarey's Should Men Walk Home? (1927). She had parted and reconciled with Sennett, who had helped her set up her own studio in 1916. But, while she had impressed the critics with its first and only production, F. Richard Jones and James Young's Mickey (1918), her decision to sign a contract with independent producer Samuel Goldwyn backfired and her Sennett comeback, Molly O' (1921), was lost in the furore when Roscoe Arbuckle was accused of killing starlet Virginia Rappe.

Further scandal followed when Normand became a key witness when Irish director William Desmond Taylor was murdered in his bungalow on 1 February 1922. Two years later, chauffeur Joe Kelly used her gun to shoot oil baron Courtland S. Dines. Moreover, she had started to struggle with tuberculosis and would die at the age of 37 in 1930. Rumours circulating around Hollywood at the time, however, suggested she had alcohol and cocaine problems. Such gossip has never been substantiated, but it contributes to making Normand's penultimate picture such a bittersweet experience.

Produced by Hal Roach and boosted in the press by Normand's friend, Mary Pickford, the action dispensed with the mawkish humour that had characterised Richard Wallace's Raggedy Rose (1926), which had been co-scripted by Stan Laurel. Instead, Mabel plays a `girl bandit', who hooks up with gentleman thief Creighton Hale after prevents her from stealing his wallet at gunpoint after she hitches a ride. Gatecrashing a swanky party, they set their sights on an expensive brooch that the host plans to give to his wife. But he has hired detective Eugene Pallette to keep an eye on the guests and Mabel and Hale struggle to give him the slip.

Mabel distracts Pallette while Hale cracks the safe, but he spots the open door and tries to nab Mabel while she has her hand stuck in the vase in which her partner in crime had hidden the jewellery. Doggedly pursuing the pair downstairs, Pallette lingers by the fountain in which Hale is submerged after dropping the brooch in the water. But he fails to catch the cracksman red handed because Hale has slipped the priceless item into a punch bowl and Mabel devotes herself to preventing an increasingly frustrated Oliver Hardy from taking a drink in case he's been served a special ingredient.

No sooner has she retrieved the brooch from the host's glass, Mabel is chased upstairs by Pallette and she's forced to pop it down the front of her dress. A watching maid prevents him from frisking her, but the clip falls to the floor, where it is found by a toddler wearing nothing but a nappy and a smile. She picks it up and tootles down the staircase to present it to her father in time for him to give it to his wife. Shrugging in resignation, Mabel and Hale get their coats. They vow to go straight (starting tomorrow), but Pallette catches Hale with his pockets full of cutlery and Mabel rolls her eyes in despair.

Greatly aided by the fleet playing of the Meg Morley Trio on the newly commissioned soundtrack, this is a spirited caper that allows Normand to show off both her gift for physical comedy, but also her talent for mumming. Her expressions as she watches the punch being ladled out are matched only by Hale's failing efforts not to corpse while posing as a water-spouting cherub under Pallette's challenging gaze. But credit should also be given to McCarey - who would go on to win the Oscar for directing the screwball classic, The Awful Truth (1937), and the religious saga, Going My Way (1944) - for timing the gags to perfection and it's no accident that several would be recycled by, among others, Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers.

As for Normand, she racked up 167 shorts and 23 features during a career that saw her achieve greater autonomy than any female comedy performer before Lucille Ball. Events off screen conspired against her, however, and it's a shame that her name has slowly slipped into obscurity. This compilation should help restore its lustre and there are copious opportunities to enjoy more of her peerless merry-making online.

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