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.