CAPSULE: This documentary, written and directed by Leslie Zemekis--wife of Robert Zemeckis--is the story of Mary Haynie, better known as Mabel Stark, who was the world's first female tiger trainer, and who returned to the circus ring time and again, many times after being attacked and mauled by her tigers. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
The documentary MABEL, MABEL, TIGER TRAINER tells the story of the daughter of a tenant farmer who came to be known all over the circus world as the mistress of the tigers. Mabel Stark was born into poverty in 1889. Orphaned at age 17 she mostly had to fend for herself. She nursed for a while at a hospital in Louisville. She later joined a circus as a hoochie-coochie dancer for men-only attractions and did some animal riding. Then she saw the big cats of the circus and decided that working with the cats and playing with them was all she wanted to do. She was to become internationally known for being the first female tiger trainer. She loved the big cats, but that did not stop them from mauling her very badly and repeatedly.
Many times the dangerous animals found their way to Stark. Much of her act was performed in tight, round cages that put several tigers close enough to pounce on her. In the time it takes for a tiger to spring it could be on her and tearing a piece from a leg or an arm.
Mabel's courage came to the attention of the most famous circus, The Ringling Brothers. In 1922 she joined that circus. But in 1925 Ringling banned wild animal acts. It would be easy to say that this action was taken for the good of the animals and that was no doubt partially true. An animal who was born or has lived in the wild will probably not be satisfied living in captivity. But it is simply true that it is impossible to know what a wild animal is thinking now or will be thinking in five minutes. A tiger can switch from contented to attack mode in less than a second. Stark could never be safe from tiger attacks. She said, "There is no such thing as a tamed wild animal." So what was the secret that allowed her to get in a cage with a possibly lethal tiger awaiting her? Her secret was in accepting that being mauled within an inch of her life was just one of the drawbacks of her profession. She just seemed to not mind being ripped at by a tiger. Her body was a record of eighteen separate maulings and numerous other attacks. Mabel identified with her big cats and seemed to want to be one of them. She is quoted as saying, "My wiah is to be killed by my animals."
Writer-director Leslie Zemeckis fills the film with stories of various people's near-fatal accidents and a few that were fatal. But she also gives the viewer a feel for the texture of life living in the circus. We see newspaper clippings and newsreel footage. We see excerpts of Mabel's appearance on "This Is Your Life." There must be thousands of news photographs and film clips of circus pictures. Clyde Beatty is brought into the story and we see some of his serial, DARKEST AFRICA. Mabel's life is covered from birth to death. That is sixty years of unpredictable circus life.
Zamekis is an entertaining if not particularly innovative documentary maker. I rate her MABEL, MABEL, TIGER TRAINER a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6010216/combined
What others are saying: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/mabel_mabel_tiger_trainer
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2018 Mark R. Leeper