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MABEL, MABEL, TIGER TRAINER (2018) review

March 26, 2018

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written by: Leslie Zemeckis
produced by: Sheri Hellard, Jackie Levine and Leslie Zemeckis
directed by: Leslie Zemeckis
rated: not rated
runtime: 93 min.
U.S. release date: March 8, 2018 (Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills, CA), March 25, 2018 (Chicago History Museum, Chicago, IL), March 27, 2018 (MoMa, NYC) & April 10, 2018 (DVD/VOD/digital)

 

We all complain about our jobs to some level, but it’s easy to lose sight that there are many professions where any day could be your last. But, what kind of person puts themselves into such very real life-threatening risks, day after day? “Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer” touches on that, delving into what kind of person Mabel Stark was, where she was from and how she came to raise and train tigers.The in-depth film does a fine job enlightening those viewers (like myself) who’ve never heard of Stark, while also focusing on the history of training wild cats, how the profession has changed over the years and the obvious considerable risks of such a job. 

Just as Alexandra Dean’s recent documentary, “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story”, focused on a talented, yet sadly marginalized woman, “Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer”, the latest documentary from Leslie Zemeckis (“Behind the Burly Q” and “Bound by Flesh”) tells the story of Mable Stark, the world’s first female tiger trainer. One of many women who managed to pave a path for herself in a career she was told was only for men, eventually earning the respect of many and making it possible for other women to pursue careers in animal training.

 

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Stark was one of seven children born to farmers in Princeton, Kentucky in 1889, but after she and her siblings were orphaned, Stark set out on her own at the age of 17. She spent some time as a nurse and eventually wound up on the west coast in 1911 where she met animal trainer Al Sands at the Al G. Barnes Circus based out of Culver City, California. She started working with tigers, met famous “cat man” Louis Roth (one of five husbands in her lifetime), who she would later marry and would go on to headline the show’s major tiger act by 1916, and after a career of fifty-seven years, she would handle up to twenty-two tigers at once.

Throughout the documentary, Zemeckis touches on details that inform viewer’s of Stark’s experiences in and out of the cage where she worked with tigers. Despite multiple maulings and injuries from her wild cats, many of which left her seriously injured and disfigured, Stark continued to raise and adopt tiger cubs. Nothing seemed to phase her from continuing to do what she was passionate about. Along with training tigers, Stark also dabbled in Hollywood, taking on a couple specific roles on the silver screen, where she made her debut in the 1922 jungle adventure “A Dangerous Adventure” and went on to double for Mae West during the big top scenes in 1933’s “I’m No Angel”, putting her expertise in working with wild cats to use in another entertainment medium.

After a while, when the circuses strayed away from the big cat acts in the 40s, Stark toured in Europe and Japan before landing at Jungleland, a wild animal theme park in Thousand Oaks, California, where she performed daily, well into her later years until her death in 1968 at age 78.

“Mabel, Mabel” uses archival black-and-white footage of Stark, historical footage, talking head shots of animal trainers past and present, adding more insight to Stark’s life and the career she became known for, as well as the female trainers she inspired. Animal trainers such as Kay Rosaire, Trudy Stong, Patricia White, Jeanette Williams, Roger Smith are interviewed, and circus historian Janet M. Davis, PhD, Clyde Beatty, Jr. (son of the famous tiger trainer, Clyde Beatty) and Zoltan Hargitay (the son of Jayne Mansfield) who was mauled by a lion at Jungleland. Although we never hear Stark’s voice, we do hear Oscar-winning actor Melissa Leo recite quotes and lines from Hold That Tiger, Stark’s memoir released in 1938, something that places a personal stamp on the documentary.

While informative and enlightening, offering a look at a trailblazing individual in an occupation that is rarely covered in documentaries, the look of Zemeckis’ (wife of director Robert Zemeckis, known for “Back to the Future” and “Cast Away”, who executive produces here) film doesn’t quite feel like it’s ready for the big screen. The film’s aesthetic style and score comes across like something you’d find on The History Channel. With this being the director’s third documentary focusing on unique women working in what is typically a man’s occupation, it would’ve been good to see something a little more polished with production values that stand out and stand alongside the amount of stellar documentaries out there nowadays.

After its premiere last year at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, it is now getting a gradual release after a series of recent screenings during Women’s History Month in March. “Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer” played at the Chicago History Museum recently, but the award-winning film from Cinema Libre Studio will be available on DVD & VOD/digital on April 10th.

 

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RATING: **1/2

 

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