‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’ is both funny and foundational in the making of the modern sitcom

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Poster for Mabel’s Strange Predicament

Mabel Normand directs, writes, and stars in this silent short film alongside the always charming Charlie Chaplin. Mabel’s relationship with her sweetheart is threatened at a fancy hotel when a staggering drunk (Chaplin) starts meddling in her affairs. The small cast of characters soon finds itself in several sticky situations. Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914) entertains while laying the foundations for the modern sitcom. (RMM: 4/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Roza M. Melkumyan

In this 12-minute silent film, hilariously unfortunate circumstances lead to misunderstandings. In a lavishly-decorated hotel lobby, “Mabel” (Mabel Normand) and her pet dog rendezvous with her handsome sweetheart (Harry McCoy) before heading out on a date. Enter the “Drunk” (Charlie Chaplin), who masquerades as a gentleman with his suit, cane, and bowler hat. This on-screen character is more popularly known as “The Tramp” – an icon of the silent film era –  and makes appearances in several films of the time. Already inebriated, the drunk takes a swig of alcohol before hiding it away in his jacket pocket. 

As the drunk stumbles about the lobby, disrupting the guests, Mabel heads back to her bedroom, dog in tow, and changes into pajamas. Across the hall, a husband (Chester Conklin) and wife (Alice Davenport) can hear the dog’s barking from their room, so the wife heads to the lobby to complain. When Mabel accidentally locks herself out of her room, the situation begins to snowball out of control. The drunk wanders into the hall and tries to woo Mabel, who embarrassedly runs into the husband and wife’s room and hides under the bed. 

Meanwhile, the sweetheart brings flowers for Mabel. When she does not answer the door, he enlists a bellhop to open the door. He decides to stay with a friend until she returns, but the friend is none other than the husband! The sweetheart finds Mabel under the husband’s bed and becomes furious. A fight breaks out between the two men, and the sweetheart storms off. Under the bed again, Mabel is soon met with the shocked, jealous gaze of the wife, who has returned from the lobby. Commotion ensues. And all this time, the drunk only exacerbates the characters’ problems with his meddling.

The drunk finds Mabel locked outside her room.

In an industry even more strongly dominated by men than it is today, Mabel Normand was an anomaly. She not only starred in many popular films of her time, but she also directed, wrote, and produced. At the height of her career, she even had her own movie studio and production company. Released in 1914, Mabel’s Strange Predicament was one of 12 films that she starred in alongside Chaplin, with whom she favored working. In fact, it was Normand who launched Chaplin’s film career, in which he would find great success and fame. Today, Charlie Chaplin is a household name. But in learning about Normand and her role in shaping the fame of that name, I remember that no matter what a person achieves in life, they cannot do so alone. 

As somebody watching today, I find it is dangerously easy to dismiss this film as old and dusty. The situations that these characters find themselves in are, of course, nothing new to us. Situational humor like this has been used in movies and television for decades. I’m thinking of sitcoms like I Love Lucy, and more recently, Seinfeld and Friends and today, The Big Bang Theory, where the plot develops around a misunderstanding that begets even misunderstanding, making for hilarious predicaments that the characters must wiggle their way out of. 

But then, we must remember that this film – or at least, the films of this era – is what laid the foundation for such plot devices and the laughs they bring us. We don’t recognize its significance or novelty precisely because it has done its job in establishing a comedic formula that has become timeless. So Mabel’s predicament, so to speak, is one that any character in today’s comedy could easily find themselves in. Some things have changed, of course. The characters are scandalized by seeing Mabel in only pajamas, even though they don’t reveal anything. The fashion is different, and the gestures are rather dramatic (lack of audio generates a need for clearer visual communication and expression). But the wife’s jealousy and anger at discovering a supposed affair is an expected reaction, even today. We understand the reactions and feelings of the characters because they do not change throughout time. 

As the years go by, fashion changes, technology changes, and speech changes. But aspects of our shared humanity like emotions do not. Watching a film like this clarifies the ever-growing gap of culture between its era and my own, yet also makes me feel connected through a heartstring, to the past, to 1914, and to every time in between.

© Roza M. Melkumyan (10/20/20) FF2 Media

Commotion!

Featured Photo: The wife is outraged to find Mabel with her husband.

Photo Credits: Mutual Film

Q: Does Mabel’s Strange Predicament pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test? 

No.

There is no audible dialogue, and the little written dialogue is either spoken by or to a man. 

Tags: FF2 Media, Mabel Normand, Mabel's Strange Predicament, Roza Melkumyan, TCM, Turner Classic Movies, WomenMakeFilm

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As a member of the FF2 Media team, Roza writes features and reviews and coaches other associates and interns. She joined the team as an intern herself during her third year of study at New York University. There she individualized her major and studied narrative through a cultural lens and in the mediums of literature, theatre, and film. At school, Roza studied abroad in Florence and London, worked as a Resident Assistant, and workshopped a play she wrote and co-directed. Since graduating, she spent six months in Spain teaching English and practicing her Spanish. Most recently, she spent a year in Armenia teaching university English as a Fulbright scholar. Her love of film has only grown over the years, and she is dedicated to providing the space necessary for female filmmakers to prosper.
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