This pleasant two-reel comedy marked one of the last screen appearances of Mabel Normand, the legendary screen comedienne who established her reputation at Keystone during that studio's glory days. Mabel was a founding member of the company back in 1912, and her fortunes were closely tied (off-screen and on) with those of producer Mack Sennett, but once she left Keystone and went to work for other filmmakers her career began to teeter while her private life grew increasingly rocky. Mabel's behavior was erratic, and scandals seemed to erupt all around her. There were rumors of substance abuse problems, and her health declined. Long before Britney Spears or Michael Jackson there was Mabel, and sadly it was she who established the template for Celebrity Meltdown Syndrome.
By the time she signed with producer Hal Roach for a series of films in the mid-1920s Mabel was in precarious shape. She was still in her early 30s but the years of difficulty had taken a toll: she could no longer handle the reckless knockabout comedy of Keystone days, and the fresh beauty of her early film appearances had faded. The Mabel Normand of the Roach series often looks frail and heavily powdered: sometimes gaunt, sometimes puffy. Expert assistance was on hand, however, as she was surrounded with top comedy professionals both behind the scenes and in her supporting casts. As it happens Mabel's four surviving Roach comedies (out of five produced) are generally enjoyable, surprisingly so considering the circumstances under which they were made.
ANYTHING ONCE! is a Cinderella story. Mabel works in a tailor shop, pressing clothes and dreaming of a better life. We're told that she's taken a lot of bumps in life and doesn't know where the next bump is coming from, which sounds uncomfortably close to the leading lady's real-life situation. Her boss is Jimmy Finlayson, but instead of playing the expected sourpuss Finn is quite benign here, and doesn't even punish Mabel when she accidentally sets his toupee on fire. Mabel (oddly identified only as "the Little Girl") struggles to prepare a gown for a haughty society lady named Mrs. De Puyster, who plans to wear it to a costume ball where she hopes to impress Prince Chevalier, a highly eligible bachelor of royal pedigree. Mabel has to carry the gown to its owner via mass transiti.e., on a streetcarwhich means of course that she must deal with the hoards of stampeding commuters so familiar from silent comedies. The streetcar sequences are lively and amusing, and demonstrate that Mabel could still summon up the energy for a fair amount of slapstick when the occasion demanded. After a few plot twists Mabel winds up going to the ball in Mrs. De Puyster's costume, complete with a towering Marie Antoinette-style wig, and of course she charms the Prince and dances with him in her rival's place. There's a nice comic moment when the real De Puyster shows up and charges across the dance floor to confront the impostor, while Mabel tries to escape by dancing away with the Prince at an ever-increasing tempo. Eventually, the high-born lady is married off to the prince's imposing chancellor (played by that imposing character actor with the unforgettable name, Gustav Von Seyffertitz) and Mabel winds up with her handsome royal beau. The fade-out gag is a bit anti-climactic, but the film leaves a pleasant aftertaste; pleasant, that is, until we recall that behind the scenes its leading lady was in such fragile condition.
ANYTHING ONCE! provides a nice quota of laughs, and features a running gag about Mrs. De Puyster's recent face-lift that still feels topical. The lady's surgeon tells her that she must avoid high emotion or else her new face will fall. The actress playing this role, Nora Hayden, managed to simulate the weird, stretched look of a woman who has "had work done" that looks eerily genuine. I'd never heard of Ms. Hayden before seeing her here, but, while this is Mabel's show, her co-star makes a strong impression in her scenes.
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