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Through Mack Sennett Comedies Corporation, the company he had formed in 1917 after giving up his "Keystone" trademark, Sennett produced the feature-length silent The Extra Girl (1923) to showcase the comedic and dramatic talents of his brightest female star and sometime-lover, Mabel Normand.
The movie opens with the title card, "Between the Rocky Mountains and Pittsburgh, but a long way from Hollywood, lies River Bend (Illinois), where the Graham family lives." Normand plays Sue Graham, a plucky River Bend native who dreams of movie stardom in lieu of an arranged marriage with an unsuitable beau (Vernon Dent, later to gain fame as a foil for The Three Stooges). Through a deception in which she plays no part, Sue lands a contract with the "Golden Gate Film Company" after submission of a photograph of another, and prettier, young woman.
After Sue arrives in Hollywood and the misunderstanding is cleared up, she is assigned to work in the studio wardrobe department instead of appearing before the cameras. She eventually wins a screen test, though it turns out to be a disaster thanks to her costume, which involves a bothersome hoop skirt. Meanwhile her parents (George Nichols and Anna Hernandez) and childhood sweetheart Dave (Ralph Graves) have arrived in Los Angeles and become involved in misadventures of their own.
In addition to producing, Sennett provided the film's story. As was his wont with Normand, he takes a relatively realistic approach and keeps the comedy on the gentle side, eschewing frantic cops and careening car chases. Perhaps the most famous sequence is the one in which Normand mistakes a man-eating lion for a dog disguised as one and drags the animal around the studio lot on a rope before realizing her mistake.
The film, directed by F. Richard Jones, is interesting today from a documentary standpoint, with views of Southern California in the early 1920s, including the Edendale area where Sennett's studio was located, and glimpses of a film production company at work. One high-angle shot shows actors and camera operators in action, complete with a small orchestra to keep the performers in the proper mood. Sennett himself, wearing a straw hat, appears briefly in the screen test sequence. At this early date in the history of the movies, the film industry itself was an unusual subject for filmmakers, so such footage is rare in a movie of the period.
When The Extra Girl was released in early 1923, Normand was nearing the end of her career as one of the silent era's most popular comediennes. In addition to ill health, she was plagued by a series of scandals in which she was implicated but never charged, including the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922. Drug and alcohol addiction evidently aggravated her affliction with tuberculosis, and she was only 34 when she died in 1930.
Producer: Mack Sennett
Director: F. Richard Jones
Screenplay: Bernard McConville (writer); Mack Sennett (story)Cinematography: Eric Crockett, Homer ScottCast: Mabel Normand (Sue Graham), Ralph Graves (Dave Giddings), George Nichols (Zachariah 'Pa' Graham), Anna Hernandez (Mary 'Ma' Graham), Vernon Dent (Aaron Applejohn), Ramsey Wallace (T. Phillip Hackett), Charlotte Mineau (Belle Brown), Mary Mason (Actress), Max Davidson (Tailor), Louise Carver (Madame McCarthy - Wardrobe Mistress).
by Roger Fristoe