If you had been a fan of cinema some 100 years ago, it would have been difficult to catch a film that had not been influenced by Mabel Normand in some way. A talented actor who could be as funny as she was serious, she appeared in about 200 short- and feature-length films in the early 1900s before her death at age 37 in 1930.
But, Normand was also a writer, producer and Hollywood’s first female director, who is seen by film historians as a trailblazer in the era of silent films. At one point, she was running her own feature film company. In a way, her accomplishments were eclipsed by her fellow actors and directors at the time, such as Charlie Chaplain and Keystone Film Company’s Mack Sennett.
At least that is the way Rudy Cecera sees it. A writer and filmmaker from New Rochelle, N.Y., he has worked on a couple of projects during the past few years centered on Normand’s live. His latest endeavor, “Mabel’s Dressing Room,” is a short film that he wrote and directed that will screen at the Darien Library (as co-sponsored by the Darien Arts Center) on Sunday, June 8, at 2 p.m. One of Normand’s films, “Mabel’s Married Life,” is set to follow the screening of the short.
“She was very influential to Charlie Chaplain’s career … without Mabel there is no Charlie Chaplain,” Cecera said, noting that she was instrumental to signing him to Keystone, and co-starred in many movies with him. There were others, too, who she helped and influenced, but Cecera said she never quite got the respect and attention she deserved.
“The problem is nobody knows her,” he said. “She died so young.”
With his latest project, he hopes to fix that by situating the action on the set of the very first film she directed in 2014. The camera follows Normand, who is played by Kristina Thompson, after she yells cut, back to her dressing room, where a steady stream of famous faces wander in to enjoy some laughs, solicit advice, grab a drink and dine. Cecera believes that many of the long-standing comic gags were developed by Normand, right there in her dressing room, including the “pie-in-the-face” routine and pratfalls.
“This is a day in the life of Mabel,” said Cecera of the film. “We start with Mabel on the Keystone and follow her as she walks to the dressing room.”
Cecera shot the film, which he co-produced with Mike Damergis, on location in Darien at the home of Ron Heinbaugh, , a lifelong Darien resident and car collector who he met while working on a past production of “Mack and Mabel.” He also drew many of the extras on the film from around the area.
Cecera hopes to eventually generate enough buzz to get a feature-length film made about Normand. For now, he plans on getting his short out to festivals and other events. Copies of the film will be available at the June 8 screening.
He also is looking forward to a question-and-answer session that will follow his short and the silent film. “I think it is going to be a fun and interesting afternoon.”