My Brain Can’t Find the Way to My Mouth

By David ThomsonMay 8, 2014

My Brain Can’t Find the Way to My Mouth

Mabel and Me by Jon Boorstin

THERE ARE LAWS against addictive substances, and pushing them: and so there should be. Since I have no wish to get on the wrong side of the law, the first thing I must tell you is that you don’t want to go anywhere near Jon Boorstin’s new novel, Mabel and Me. You shouldn’t pick it up, even with that cute Mabel Normand on the cover, or just because the smarmy blurbs tell you that Boorstin’s done this before with Pay or Play and The Newsboys’ Lodging-House. Forget about that. Why should repeat offenders get credit? On no account (it is tantamount to handling a mamba) should you open this book and start to read. There’s hardly anything more likely to gum up your eyes and rot your mind than stuff like this, at the outset, when Jack Smith bumps into Mabel on the street, when he’s holding a sack of live chickens, and she’s just tempted a guy out of a fake street accident with a donut:

I’m fourteen. You remember fourteen? Maybe you had other ideas, me, I’m a stew pot of desire. Just a big vessel crammed with boobs and asses bubbling away. Back then, of course, you have to work damn hard to see any piece of female anatomy. A frill on a white sock sets me off. Even a mean look. That’s all I get is mean looks, anyhow. The girls at school don’t even bother to make fun of me. And here’s the most beautiful woman I ever seen, and she talks to me like I’m a person. My brain can’t find the way to my mouth.’

Mr. Boorstin, as near as I can discover, is over 60, so it’s a disgrace that he can do this 14-year-old imitation. (Thank heaven Mickey Rooney isn’t still here — then it would be a movie). It should not be allowed, let alone published, and I am earnest in my civic duty to warn you off this hellacious voice of a book. Don’t read it. Especially, don’t read it aloud. I have been down that noisy path. Several people in my life edged away from the giddy chant, and I ended up reading it to the dog, who looked at me with that woeful, sawney look of his, as if to say, “Are you kidding?”

I am not kidding. This book should be banned. Mr. Boorstin and the Angel City Press (whatever that is) should be run out of town. A committee should be established for that purpose. You may, if you can form such a committee, put me down for a contribution just to get that Jack Smith voice out of my head, the incessant nagging rant of it all, the snarly cracking of so much wise, the speed, the rhythm, the nerve of it. It’s just as pert and provocative as Mabel herself, there on page one if you want early warning: “Her black curls bounce, her step has pop.” And she’s pushing donuts.

Just consider that insolent sentence, say it over a few times. This is the devil’s work, this is an octet monosyllabic assault like Harry Greb punching you — and if you don’t know who Harry Greb was, look him up. What the hell do you think we have an “up” for?

So, just in order that you can warn other children and dogs, I’ll tell you that Mabel and Me is the raucous, rowdy, randy, ribald, rat-tat-tat prospect of early Hollywood as seen in the meeting of Mabel Normand, little miss marvelous and mysterious, and Jack Smith, who is a cross-section of the American id. When she was buried, she was so famous she had Sennett, Chaplin, Griffith, Arbuckle, and Goldwyn hauling her hearse. (This scoundrel will surrender all hope of good taste for a line!) And Jack says his should have been the sixth hand on the coffin. Looking down at the dreamboat: “Open casket, soft curls and pink chiffon, like she’s going to a party.”

What kind of an idea is this? — a wild young man meets a movie star! In your dreams, buster! Those things never happen. We know that the law-abiding, decent, church-going, hard-working young people of this land will have nothing to do with sensation, celebrity, sexual excitement, or cinema. So what do Angel City Press think they are doing in encouraging this garbage? Do they have a grant?

As you may gather, I have a pain in my head (as well as a very loud amusement park in front of my present lodgings), an itch, a raw nerve, and I’ll tell you what it is because I will move heaven and earth and my sleeping dog to warn you, don’t let this book and its delirious voice in your head. How does a man not yet 70 know? He wasn’t there. He couldn’t have been. Maybe he’s seen movies from a later age and young women in pictures with a bounce that was ready for pink chiffon. Does he have no responsibility? Let’s be quite clear about this. Those silent movie days are gone, and they have been covered in concrete and plastic in the respectable Los Angeles we cherish. Mabel Normand is history, and there are by now close to a million pretty girls in the city who have the capacity to give you an amusing half-hour. So get yourself to see Transcendence or some such modern masterpiece and regard this “recollection” of how D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance played in 1916 with the contempt it deserves:

Gish rocks a cradle. Tycoons of Industry stand around a swell party, so big the orchestra sounds small. Poor workers leave the factory, more happy than tycoons. The working girl pets her ducks. A camel, and Jew priests in Bible robes. Throne room, unicorn carpet on the wall, fancy Dans attend in tights, collars like dinner plates, balloon shorts. Elephants pass like ladybugs through the highest, widest wall I ever seen. Tycoon answers telephone in vast empty room. Thousands on strike. Soldiers shoot workers, kill Handsome Boy’s dad. Duck Girl leaves mill town, happy no more. Spunky Rags Girl, on the slave block, chomps onions, makes her hands into claws —

What? $27 at a bookstore … Well, take your dog and go to hell.


David Thomson is a British film critic and historian based in the United States and the author of more than 20 books.

LARB Contributor

David Thomson is a British film critic and historian based in the U.S. and the author of more than 20 books.


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