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Selected Short Subject: “ The Water Nymph” (1912)

Mabel Normand on the cover of Photoplay
public domain image

"The Water Nymph" is the fourth film on the Mack Sennett Collection

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“The Water Nymph”
Directed by Mack Sennett
Cast: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, and Ford Sterling
Released September 23, 1912. Running Time: 8:20

Mack Sennett’s very first Keystone releases were two split-reel comedies. This is one of them. Sennett knew early on that putting a pretty girl in a bathing suit would increase interest in his films, and he also realized the comic talent he was working with at Biograph. So when he started producing films for his own studio, two of the talents he brought with him were actress Mabel Normand and actor Ford Sterling. Each is shown to good advantage in this very early Keystone release, which is the fourth film on the new Mack Sennett Collection on blu ray.

Mack and Mabel are a couple. Mabel has not yet met Mack’s parents. His father (Sterling) has a roving eye. So Mack decides to have some fun. He points out his father to Mabel and asks her to flirt with him. The idea works. Just some minor notice from Mabel, and Mack’s father is completely smitten. He finds excuses to leave his wife so he can sneak off to the beach and meet Mabel, who never rebuffs him, but also doesn’t show more than casual interest. But that marginal attention is all that is needed to keep the old guy coming around. Finally, the dad takes Mabel to a café, on her suggestion, where Mack and his mother show up. Mack happily introduces Mabel as his girl, delighting the mother, who remains none the wiser. Dad, however, reacts big, as Mack laughs heartily at the success of his practical joke.

“The Water Nymph” is a great start for Keystone productions. It has cute, vivacious Mabel Normand exhibiting the sort of charisma that would continue to define her on-screen personality. It has the bombastic comedy of Ford Sterling, who carefully choreographed each of his mannerisms to fit within his comic profile. And Mack Sennett himself, in a straight role as the boyfriend, is the anchor.

Breaking way from Biograph allowed Sennett’s vision to flourish more freely. He understood the necessity for establishing a situation as per the Biograph method for narrative film, but also wanted movement to be constant. As the central comic character, Ford Sterling responds perfectly to Sennett’s direction. When suggesting going to the beach, he makes swimming motions with his arms. He shakes his fist when angry. He shoves other men who also exhibit an interest in pretty Mabel. He is a comic powerhouse busting through each scene with gusto, while at the same time allowing some nuance in his facial expressions to convey expression. It is all quite primitive now, but in context, Sterling’s performance contains the rudiments of physical comedy’s raw basics. It is a fascinating thing to see, especially as done by such a talented pioneer.

In the realm of Sterling’s broader slapstick approach, it is the subtler moments that captivate. When Ford first sees Mabel he is with his wife. He points something out to his wife, who turns her head, allowing Ford to flirt with Mabel. When she turns back, Ford’s expression changes, all of this done in a consistent comic manner. Often the earlier Keystone comedies of Ford Sterling that do survive are not clear enough to allow our noticing the subtler nuance he incorporated into his more bombastic approach. CineMuseum’s restoration on the Mack Sennett Collection allows us to appreciate another level of his talent.

Mabel Normand’s charisma is captivating. In the more staid post-Victorian era, Mabel represented the dynamic, fun-loving youthful type of woman who dared to engage in activities with a playful, edgy nature that easily enticed men of that period. As her Keystone work continued, Mabel Normand displayed greater talent as an actress, with more layered characters and an understanding of the filmmaking process as one of cinema’s earliest female directors. In “The Water Nymph,” she engages in a series of trick dives into the water, from backwards somersaults off the diving board, to jumping up and bouncing off the board with her rear end! This is in comic contrast to Ford Sterling climbing onto the board and, with jittery trepidation, holding his nose and plunging into the water feet first.

Although playing essentially a straight role here, “The Water Nymph” is Mack Sennett’s vision as director (and possibly writer, as there are no existing records confirming this). The film established the studio’s style, and was quite popular with audiences. Sennett would continue to expound on his slapstick ideas, as his performers continued to investigate ways to best convey them.

For more information, please see Brent Walker’s brilliant book “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory,” now in affordable softcover.