Mack Sennett enters his studios for one last time. He is an old man, reminiscing about “my Mabel” and his golden days, when “Movies Were Movies”.
Flashback to 1911: as he is shooting one of his silent movies, a young waitress comes blundering onto the set in the middle of filming to deliver a sandwich. As Lottie, Mack’s current star, grabs the sandwich and the delivery girl insists on her 15 cents for it, a fight unfolds. Mack keeps filming and ends up with an additional movie for free. Once the fight finishes Mack orders her to tell him who she is. She starts “Mabel A. Normand, A for Agnes as in Saint Agnes” and goes on babbling, he freezes the moment, silence, and circles her. To the audience he observes: “Whatever she felt just popped right out for the eye to see and what the eye could see the camera could see ten times better.” He sees his new star in her and tells her to come back tomorrow morning at 6am to see the finished product of the material he shot of her and hands her two dimes for the sandwich. She now owes him a Nickel.
Mabel is too stunned to answer him directly but once he has left she starts an outraged monologue about being quite happy with her job and how she certainly will not leave it to become an actress “You can keep your movies!” and she will definitely not get up at 6am for anything but early mass – until a projector starts and she suddenly sees her movie. She cannot believe the transformation, on screen this plain little waitress is funny and beautiful (“Look What Happened To Mabel”) and moments later, we see her working as a movie star, producing one short movie or “2-reeler” after another. Everyone is in love with Mabel, even our narrator. Resigned he admits: “To hell with what happened to Mabel; look what was happening to Mack…”
In the next scene Mack argues with his last remaining writer over the most recent script and it ends with Mack firing the ambitious young man: “Writers and scripts, they will kill this industry yet”. Lottie enters and is furious with Mack for firing the writer today of all days. They expect two potential backers (Bauman and Kessel), who are supposed to finance the studios’ move to California. Mack does not believe the writing department is really important, but it turns out it is. Quick-witted Mack introduces paper delivery boy Frank as head of their writing department.
Kessel and Bauman are convinced and the big move to Hollywoodland happens (“Big Time”). They all drive cross-country by train and we see Lottie and Mabel who are talking on the observation platform of the train. Lottie teases Mabel with her apparent affection for Mack. Lottie goes back inside and leaves Mabel alone. She starts compose a dramatic poem about the sweeping landscape and Mack, walking past the stationary train to get some fresh air, sees her reciting it with vigour. She does not see him there and Mack tells us how beautiful and young she looked and that in each love story, there is that one moment, when you fall in love. He did not know back then, but this was his moment. He silently climbs back in the car behind her and startles her in the midst of her “Oh desert” poem.
They chat about his childhood, and his life ambitions and it becomes clear that his whole being centres on making movies that will make people laugh. They agree: the best sound there is. They flirt a bit and get to know each other better until she finally invites him to have veal and peppers with her in her compartment. There is a spark between them but Mack knows and tells her plainly that he is not what she deserves (“I Won’t Send Roses”). She insists she wants him anyways and does not care about flowers and gushing valentines, but she will ask one thing from him: even if they are married just for one night, she wants a ring. So she takes a (stolen) napkin ring as stand-in for a real wedding ring and makes him putting it on her finger. Once they are thus “married” she goes for the clinch.
Next morning they arrive in California and Mack leaves her car and they start their new life in Hollywood(land).
Once there, Mack gets into a debate with Bauman and Kessel. They want him to make huge epics on the human condition but he convinces them that this should be left to other directors. He will only ever do funny movies (“I Wanna Make The World Laugh”). They accept that this is what he is best at.
From this happy moment things start to decline. Frank, the writer, tells Mabel about his latest script “Molly” and he sincerely wants her to play the lead. Mabel loves the book, but thinks it is far too good to waste on her and apart from that Mack would not let her anyway. Frank tells her that Mack has no regard for her “integrity as an artist” and he, Frank, believes her to be the best actress in town. While she is touched by his compliments she still refuses and rushes to the shooting of her next 2-reeler.
Set in Ancient Rome, Mabel is supposed to be a servant to the emperor and on her first day in the job, she shall stumble with a bowl of soup and throw it accidentally all over the emperor. Mabel is not happy with Mack’s way of directing and stops mid-scene. She tells him it’s just not plausible, the way he wants it done. Mack is not having any of it and tells her to go ahead, and he will count for her. This has always been his way to ensure he gets what he wants from a scene. He counts and she acts, a proper choreography. But she simply won’t do it, as “it offends my integrity as an artist!” Mack is speechless, or rather, you wish he were speechless as for what ensues is a cruel dressing down of his biggest star and, let’s not forget, lover in front of the whole crew:
“Now I've heard it all! Look, Miss Normand, you make a lot of money. People all over the world know your name. You've got a car, nice clothes, a beautiful home, and you didn't get any of them because you remotely resemble anything you might call an ‘artist’. You got them, because I counted for you! One: you walk; two, three: you turn; four, five, six: you smile; seven: you cry, eight: you laugh! Norma Talmadge is an artist, Lillian Gish is an artist. You, Miss Normand, can count to eight and if I hadn't taught you that you'd still be back in that bean wagon asking for your fifteen cents! Now I am going to count once again and you are going to do what passes for acting. Are you ready? Count of one: you turn, count of two: reach for the bowl, count of three, four, five...”
Mabel angrily follows his instructions, but she does not reach for the bowl, but for a pie and throws it in Mack’s face. Everyone gasps. Silence. And then Fatty (Arbuckle, Mack’s other big star) laughs. Mack reaches for a pie himself aiming at Mabel and accidentally hitting Lottie... What ensues is a hilarious pie-throwing scene that ends with everyone being covered in pie.
Sometime later: Mack is being shaved, Mabel returns, invites Mack for some veal and pepper and says she is sorry for throwing that pie at him. He just smiles and says he isn’t. They kiss briefly and she leaves, relieved. Mack orders two dozen pies for his next film: the birth of a silent movie classic. Frank then reminds Mack of the Screen Actor Awards Lunch he has to attend with Mabel.
At the luncheon we meet Mr. William Desmond Taylor, famous director of feature films. It becomes clear soon that no love is lost between Mack and Taylor. He calls Taylor a phony bozo and claims everyone can see that but Mabel, who is all in love with Taylor’s dramatic movies. While dancing with Taylor she tells him, he is her favourite Hollywood director. This does not bode well for Mack, who finally interferes, when Taylor invites her for a romantic dinner on Tuesday. Mack claims she is busy that day. Taylor is not impressed and hands her his card, asking her to call him whenever she is free.
Once he leaves a big row ensues between Mack and Mabel. In the middle of it old Mack beseeches his younger self to “stop you idiot, apologize, make a joke, take her in your arms”, but of course his younger self does no such thing. Instead he yells in her face that with her or without her, he will start shooting his next movie later that day and she’d better be there at 2pm.
Mack leaves an angry Mabel behind. She does not want to be his puppet any longer. Oh no, paradise from now on will be “Wherever He Ain’t”. She finally gets to their meeting point and is frantically searching for the only thing that is hers (the napkin ring of their first night together), but she cannot find it. When Mack arrives and orders her to get in her car, the fight continues and finally Mabel leaves the studio (and Mack) to have dinner with Taylor.
Everyone pleads with Mack to get Mabel back, but he is not having any of it. He can find them a hundred Mabels, there are enough girls out there he can make a star(“Hundreds Of Girls”). And as usual he is successful. His Bathing Beauties (a large group of pretty young women in bathing costumes) are a big hit and everyone wants to see them in the cinema. They regularly hit the headlines, whilst speeches of the president end up in the back pages of the newspapers. However, Mack is not happy. You can tell something is missing. He exits the stage getting the napkin ring out of his jacket pocket: “I won’t send Roses”, just one line, but very longingly. Mabel is always on his mind.
to follow shortly