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My Favorite Hollywood Saga—Reinvented

My Favorite Hollywood Saga—Reinvented

Book review: Mabel and Me: a novel about the Movies 
by Jon
Boorstin (Angel City Press)

The first
movie book I ever read—borrowed from my local public library—was Mack Sennett’s
autobiography, King of Comedy. I returned
to it over and over again, mesmerized by the producer’s stories about the early
days of moviemaking and his love for the beguiling comedienne Mabel Normand.
Some years later, I came to realize that many of Sennett’s tales were fanciful
and not to be trusted, but the broad outlines were true, as was his devotion to
Mabel—in spite of his infidelities. My abiding fondness for this book, and the
period it evokes, made it difficult to enjoy Jerry Herman’s Broadway musical Mack & Mabel (despite a great score),
because it ignored the truth and didn’t do justice to the people it depicted.

Novelist and
filmmaker Jon Boorstin has taken a different, and much more successful,
approach: Mabel and Me is a novel
with a fictitious main character: a scrappy, 14-year-old boy who chances to
meet Mack, Mabel and their freewheeling Keystone comedy crew in 1912 and falls
in with the troupe. He’s smitten with Mabel, who nicknames him Flicker, but
he’s also entranced with the mechanics of moviemaking. Before long he discovers
that he has an aptitude for storytelling through this new and mysterious
medium.

Boorstin
transports us to a time when the movies, and Hollywood itself, were in their
infancy. He has clearly done his homework; the book, written in a slangy vernacular,
always feels authentic, whether he’s describing the hardscrabble life of a
boarding house where our hero lives with his mother or the particulars of
developing film in the suffocating Keystone laboratory. He also captures the
sense of awe and wonder that D.W. Griffith inspired when he unveiled his first
epic feature films and inspired everyone working in the nascent movie business.

Most of all,
the author paints a vivid portrait of Mabel Normand, a lovable, impulsive,
unpredictable woman who followed her heart. In Boorstin’s story she comes to
trust young Flicker because she knows that he truly cares about her, personally
and professionally.

Mabel and Me may be a work of fiction
but it is impressively detailed in its portrayal of early 20th
century Los Angeles, along with the birth and development of moviemaking in
Hollywood. The language is often crude, as I imagine it must have been among
the uneducated, rough-and-tumble characters he describes. But like Mack
Sennett, and an impressionable boy who read his memoirs years ago, he has an
abiding love for Mabel Normand. That clinches the deal. Mabel and Me is a wonderful book.

         



 

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