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When Movies Were Movies and Stars Were Stars: New Books On Mabel Normand and John Wayne

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"YOU MIGHT say everything that ever happened in pictures, good and bad, happened to Mabel first. She had the first ride, and she paid."

That is from the new book Mabel and Me: A Novel About The Movies by Jon Boorstin.

These two sentences, which appear in the little foreword to this fictionalization of the life of silent screen star Mabel Normand, put me instantly in the mind of Jerry Herman's greatest musical score -- in my humble opinion -- for Mack and Mabel. This told the tale of Mabel and her mentor/ director/lover Mack Sennett. The song, "Look What Happened to Mabel," was hard to get out of my head!

•JON BOORSTIN'S book, on the other hand, was a little hard to get into. I don't generally like books with a lot of vernacular -- slang of the time, or dialogue meant to convey ethnicity. At around page 20 of Mabel and Me, I was about to toss it. But I have an odd compunction to finish what I've begun -- a book, a movie, a play. (I never understand people who "walk out after the first act." I always say, "But the second act might be better!")

So with this motivating me, I pushed ahead. I got used to the way the characters talked, and halfway in I was hooked on the fiction that has many facts intertwined. It tells of a young man who becomes enamored of rising star Mabel, how he enters the movie biz to be near her, loves her, tries to make her love him, tries to save her from herself and a brutal business.

Aside from the poignant tale of Jack Smith and Mabel, I was fascinated by the details of movie-making back in those primitive times: The harsh chemicals, the intricate grueling work of piecing together of piecing together the film, the seemingly slap-dash, but actually precise manner in which stories were concocted for silent movies. At one point, a producer ponders what exactly Mack Sennett has in mind for the rest of the movie they are making? "So, we sort it out," Sennett replies nonchalantly. And he does!

Author Boorstin knows his cinema. His first novel was the acclaimed Pay or Play. He is widely regarded as one of the best writer/researchers/historians on what makes movies (and audiences) tick. In Mabel and Me, his often hapless hero, Jack, comments on the impact of D.W. Griffiths' Birth of a Nation: "For the first time ever, the whole country lives the same moment. You might say you can split America into before pictures and after pictures, and the line that runs through it is Birth of a Nation. Maybe that's what makes pictures art, how they crank up the country."

What isn't fiction are Mabel's struggles with her career and later, drugs. She worked with Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle, and at one point headed her own studio and production company, sometimes co-writing and co-directing! Her screen image was the consummate slapstick heroine, the reality was considerably more complex. (Normand's career also suffered from her involvement in one of Hollywood's first great scandals, the unsolved murder case of director William Desmond Taylor.)

•BUT, as Jon Boorstin notes: "For a life lived under klieg lights, remarkably little is known about Mabel Normand...she was a canny elusive interview subject, who knew how to flatter and confuse reporters...reminiscences by her contemporaries, written decades later by veteran self-promoters are rich in anecdote and profoundly unreliable."

Boorstin's fictional Mabel and her long-suffering Jack Smith, render the star and her times, a bit less elusive. It is, even in its make-believe, an accurate, poignant document of a time and place. And make-believe was all about that time and place.

Oh, this wasn't in the book, but it is Mabel Normand's most famous quote. She told a reporter: "Say anything you like, but don't say I love my work. That sounds like Mary Pickford, that prissy bitch. Just say I like to pinch babies and twist their legs. And get drunk."

•A SLIGHTLY less evocative movie read, though no less interesting, was Scott Eyman's big new one, John Wayne: The Life and Legend. Eyman, who co-wrote RJ Wagner's bestselling autobiography and the actor's recent history of Hollywood society, does terrific work on Wayne; how he languished in B-westerns for nine years after a remarkably strong start in 1930's The Big Trail. It took John Ford's Stagecoach to lift him to stardom. (Of course there's plenty on his relationship with the often abusive Ford, who directed him in a number of other classics.)

This book shows the machinery behind a star's image and how Wayne accepted his image, though it was at odds in quite a few ways from himself, and how he -- and his directors -- incorporated the "real" John Wayne into his films, and how Wayne himself, like most great stars, lose a part of themselves in the created image. Eyman, who met Wayne once, really knows his stuff when it comes to the actor's films.

Personally, though he was conservative politically, John Wayne seems to have been a very nice guy, of whom few negative words were ever uttered -- his backing of Sen. Joe McCarthy and the Communist witch hunts of which he approved, are the only real black marks on his reputation.

His first wife, Josie, to whom he was constantly unfaithful, said this after his death. "He was a good man. He was honest, he had a conscience, he had a good heart. He tried."

We should all end up with a similar epitaph. Some of us would also like this memory of Wayne's best one-night stand: "Dietrich. The Excelsior Hotel in Rome. I took her on the staircase." (Dietrich and Wayne had a warm three year affair, but there are hot nights to remember, even during an affair.)

I loved this book and couldn't stop reading!

•P.S. Speaking of Wayne, those divine people at Criterion DVD have just released a splendid digital restoration of Howard Hawks' great Western Red River with Wayne and a young, beautiful Montgomery Clift.