Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Raggedy Rose - 1926

Country: United States
Language: English (intertitles)
Director: Richard Wallace
Writers: Carl Harbaugh, Stan Laurel, Leroy Scott, Jerome Storm, Beatrice Van, H.M. Walker (titles), Hal Yates
Stars: Mabel Normand, Carl Miller and Max Davidson
Release Date: 7 November 1926 (USA)
Production Co: Hal Roach Studios
Sound Mix: Silent
Color: Black and White
Genres: Short | Comedy
Rose, who works for a penny-pinching junk dealer, dreams of romance with wealthy bachelor Ted Tudor.
Mabel Normand is remembered primarily for the short films she made for Mack Sennett's Keystone Studio between 1912 and 1916, dozens of simple, frenetic, freewheeling slapstick comedies that made her the most popular comedienne on the screen. Her costars included Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle, and Ford Sterling, and even today it seems that practically everyone interested in film comedy has seen at least excerpts of Mabel's work. Film buffs may also know that Mabel's life was a deeply troubled one. Her romance with Sennett went sour, and by the early 1920s she was mired in scandal and plagued with health problems. She was drinking heavily and, according to some accounts, abusing narcotics also.
Mabel left Hollywood in 1924 to try her luck on the Broadway stage, but when her show flopped she returned to California and attempted a comeback in the movies at the studio of Sennett's number one rival, Hal Roach. RAGGEDY ROSE was the first of Mabel's new comedies for Roach, a featurette running a little under an hour. The film was co-scripted by Stan Laurel, who also served as assistant director, and features two supporting players who would soon become familiar faces in Laurel & Hardy comedies, James Finlayson and Anita Garvin. (I gather Oliver Hardy was originally slated to appear as well, but had to drop out of the cast as the result of a household injury.) Mabel's longtime colleague Richard Jones, director of her biggest success, MICKEY, was also involved in the project as a supervisor. All the ingredients were in place for a triumphant comeback.
I wish I could say that RAGGEDY ROSE is a smashing success, an unjustly forgotten gem of silent comedy, but while the film is pleasant and moderately engaging it somehow fails to take off. Based on the evidence here a viewer unfamiliar with Mabel's Keystone work might wonder what her reputation as a great comic talent was based on. To be fair, it seems as though the filmmakers were attempting something a little different from the raucous farces of earlier days, playing Mabel's character for audience sympathy to a greater extent than her Sennett films ever had. (Perhaps too this was a response to the ugly publicity that had dogged Mabel for years; there may have been genuine concern that audiences had turned against her.) Our introduction to Raggedy Rose kicks things off on a rather sticky note when we're told that "Everything in her life had been second hand-- Even the sunshine." There is much emphasis on Rose's lowly state despite her hard work and unfailing cheer. Rose is employed by a penny-pinching junk dealer who works her like a mule. Her outfits, befitting her nickname, are raggedy, and we're given scene after scene of Rose sorting enormous piles of second-hand clothing while dreaming of a better life. Rose's poverty is underlined by the joy she displays when she finds a forgotten dime in a pair of pants-- although the dime is quickly seized by her grasping employer.
In short, it seems that Mabel is trying to be Mary Pickford in this film, and while there's nothing exactly wrong with that, real comedy is in short supply in her scenes. Her best moment is a brief, poignant fantasy sequence in which she imagines herself in a beautiful dress, dancing with a handsome suitor. Meanwhile, most of the laughs in RAGGEDY ROSE are supplied by Jimmy Finlayson's characteristic mugging, and by Anita Garvin's enjoyably bitchy turn as Rose's rival. It's Garvin who, rather surprisingly, is given the film's closing gag, the biggest laugh in the entire movie. Perhaps Mabel was no longer capable of handling the more demanding physical comedy. She looks puffy-faced and heavily powdered here, almost resembling Harry Langdon at times. It's said that during much of Mabel's stay at the Roach Studio she was seriously ill with pneumonia (she would die of tuberculosis less than four years later), so it's sadly ironic that she spends the latter portion of this film in bed wearing pajamas, faking illness.
On the surface RAGGEDY ROSE is a fairly pleasant, interesting film, certainly worth the time of any silent comedy buff, but unfortunately it is a movie that is haunted by the legend of its tragic star. Mabel Normand comes off as sympathetic and appealing, but clearly her best work was already behind her.
Oliver Hardy was originally part of the cast, but was forced to withdraw during the filming after injuring himself in a kitchen accident. While cooking a leg of lamb, Hardy spilled a pan of hot grease on himself, badly burning his hand and wrist. In his gyrations of pain that followed, he managed to fall out the back door of his house and twisted one leg. 

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