Mable Stark: Tiger by the Tail

DATELINE: Trainer Not Tamer

 Mabel & coworker.

For nearly 50 years, from the 1920s to the 1960s, one of the most fearless of tiger trainers was a woman out of the vaudeville, circus world. Her name was Mable Stark, and she was not the first woman to take on the task, but she revolutionized animal training.

This hidden gem of biography is called Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer. She was a patient humanist and used gentle techniquest to control the animals. Move over, Clyde Beatty.

Mabel was not shy flower. She took on Sumatran tigers, considered the most ferocious of all. They have an unpredictable temper—and she had enough claw marks in her life to prove it.

She always said she expected, and wanted to die at the claws of her tigers.

Nearly as ruthless and dangerous as her animals, Mabel came out of the dusty world of dirt farmers. Her father was alcoholic, and her mother married a bigamist child-molester. No wonder she felt no compunction to face wild beasts.

She married the best “lion tamer” in the business—and took his place, refusing to be the usual pretty assistant to the Clyde Beatty-style macho man.

She could put her head in a tiger’s mouth and win even more accolades.

This marvelous documentary by Leslie Zemekis, Though it also features interviews with those women who followed Mabel into the cage, she is a pioneer. She’d tell you that these creatures might be smart, but they were temperamental too. One deviation in word, step, or approach, set them off the script.

She had contact tigers that she raised from cubs, but those were even more dangerous because they never knew distance or understood their size.

With tons of footage and photos from the circus world—and early TV where she made guest appearances often, the film is a record of something lost—a world when kids ran off to the circus and learned a lifestyle singular and outside the norms of society.

This one is sheer entertainment and an education too.