“Will you please not give the end of the story away?” director Leslie Zemeckis asks at the end of our phone call. It’s an important request. While enough is known about Mable Stark’s life to fill a modest Wikipedia page, Zemeckis’ film Mabel, Mabel Tiger Trainer fills in gaps that have long existed.
Born in 1889, Stark was an orphan by 17, and began traveling with the circus. She began as a “cooch dancer” before working her way into tiger training, and by 1916, she was the show’s featured act. A local Thousand Oaks woman that during her 57-year-run as a tiger trainer, she’d survive multiple maulings and marriages, handle up to 22 tigers at once by forming intimate relationships instead of using a whip, and even worked as an acting double for a film starring Mae West. But it was her unique female presence in a male-dominated industry that struck Zemeckis.
“Everyone knew who she was,” Zemeckis says. “She was huge, did all the movies, doubled for everybody. But what really is her story?”
It’s her third documentary to focus on female performers from a bygone era, initially with 2010’s Behind the Burly Q, which focused on the origins of burlesque in America, and then 2012’s Bound by Flesh, about Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who worked in circus “freak shows.” While delving through material for those documentaries, she kept on coming across Stark’s name, and decided to pull on that thread for a bit, not knowing what she’d find.
“I don’t go in with a preconceived notion of the story,” Zemeckis says. “I really want to discover that. And I really try to get the facts from her point-of-view, in words she actually said and wrote.”
The end result was a film that didn’t quite always fulfill the expectations Zemeckis had.
“I thought it was going to be a story of courage, but it was really a story about love,” she says. “How much she loved those tigers really was a surprise to me.”
This pure love that trainers feel for their tigers is one of the main themes of the film, highlighting this bond not only in a number of past interviews that Stark gave to reporters throughout her life, but through new interviews with current animal trainers. This connection was one that Zemeckis had always heard about, but it wasn’t one she understood until she stepped in the ring herself.
“I didn’t get it, like, what’s the difference between tiger, lion, blah blah blah?” she says. “But the tiger is mesmerizing. They are just gorgeous creatures. Being inches from them, you understand why the women and men who fall in love with them do so.”
The ferocity of the animals is also ever-present when you’re that close, and it’s the presence of this danger that so many audience members fall in love with, too. “[Audiences] don’t want to see [violence], but the idea that it actually could happen...” she trails off. “That’s one of the things we don’t really have anymore anyway.”
Watching the film, it’s hard not to get a sense that it’s not only telling the story of Stark, but of a culture that is ending as well. In May of 2017, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus finally came to an end after a 147-year run, only a year after they ceased performances with elephants. While animal rights-focused progressives may cheer on this end—and for many, many, many good reasons—it doesn’t mean that their erasure doesn’t also mark the end of something special.
“We will see the end of animals in the circus,” says Zemeckis. “And the people I’ve followed for this film, they really treat these animals with love. They devote their lives to these animals. I think we’re going to lose the understanding that these trainers have with their animals.”
Stark’s voice is narrated from her memoir Hold That Tiger by Oscar winner Melissa Leo.
Leslie Zemeckis will be in Beverly Hills on International Women’s Day, Thursday March 8, 2018, for a special screening of MABEL, MABEL, TIGER TRAINER moderated by Deadline’s Pete Hammond.
Malibu Arts Journal readers can RSVP for the film screening here: https://mabelandmaj.eventbrite.com/