Directors: Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand
Writers: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett
Duration: Approx. 23 mins
With: Mabel Normand, Harry McCoy, Chester Conkiln, Mack Sennett, Al St. John
Story: Mabel takes the wheel in a car race after her racing driver boyfriend is kidnapped, and has to contend with the attempts of the villain to thwart her winning style…
Production: Mabel at the Wheel is an odd throwback production, in so many ways, and very oddly timed just before Chaplin began to seize the reins and start to control his own material. Not only is this not really a ‘Chaplin’ film—it’s one of many in the Keystone Mabel Normand series—but it doesn’t even feature Chaplin as a variation of his by-now rather well established Tramp character. Having been hired as a replacement for Ford Sterling, it is the stereotypical, moustache-twirling Sterling-style villain that Chaplin is playing here.
It’s the first two-reeler that Chaplin appeared in, so its all the more annoying that he’s so out-of-character. Top-hatted and in a light frock coat Chaplin even has a goatee, so clearly marking out this character from his Tramp. He enters the picture on a motorised bike, only the first of several vehicles featured. It is so odd to see him delivering such an exaggerated performance in the style of Sterling, as for the past few pictures it had been something he’d been reacting against, succeeding in delivering a performance in a more subtle style. Partly this diversion was down to the fact that this was a Mabel Normand picture. Having squabbled with his two previous directors, head of Keystone Mack Sennett thought it would be good to team Chaplin up with the star of the studio, who had creative control over her own pictures.
In the style of a Pearl White melodrama, Mabel is cast as the ingenue who drives her boyfriend’s car to victory in a race after he is kidnapped by the evil villain, played in over-the-top fashion by Chaplin, and his two henchmen (notably, one of these henchmen is William A. Seiter, later a director of features for Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers). If teaming Chaplin with Normand was supposed to satisfy Chaplin’s cravings to innovate in motion pictures, it failed. He rapidly fell out with Normand as director, just as he had done with George Nichols and Henry Lehrman previously. The fact that Normand was a woman several years younger than Chaplin didn’t help.
About six minutes into this so-so slapstick farce comes the footage that makes this film of slightly more historical interest. In the usual Keystone way, Mabel at the Wheel appears to have been built around film of a specific event, the Vanderbilt Cup road race that took place in Santa Monica towards the end of February 1914. It’s a great backdrop for the action (such as it is), definitely a step up from Kid Auto Races. It was also the location where Chaplin reportedly threw a sulk when Mabel wouldn’t let him include a joke in which he stands on a hose, then peers into the dry nozzle, just as he steps off the hose, so soaking himself.
It’s odd that Chaplin should have taken a stand over this piece of unoriginal business (it’s the archetypal early film joke, first used by the Lumiere Brothers almost 20 years before), but he did, and shooting was abandoned for the day. Perhaps the frustrations of having to imitate Sterling and being forced into such a cliched role as the villain in this picture had pushed Chaplin to breaking point, and his stubbornness over this trivial bit of business was staged to make a point?
He and those around him assumed that Chaplin’s days at Keystone were numbered, as he’d caused trouble for the boss’s girlfriend and star of the studio. However, Chaplin was as surprised as anyone when Mack Sennett and Normand forgave him the following day—actions that may have been connected to the huge numbers Chaplin’s films were producing at the box office. The orders from the head office in New York were clear: make more Chaplin! Sennett took over from Normand as director, in order to placate Chaplin, who began making representations about wanting to direct himself.
Shooting at the Santa Monica races put Chaplin and the rest in the middle of some wonderful backgrounds, from the crowds sitting on the bleachers to Chaplin hanging out in the pit stop area, with the car engineers. Watching closely the faces of some in the crowd, it has to be asked how many may have recognised Chaplin, despite his non-Tramp appearance? The shots of the cars lining up for the race really add great atmosphere to what is otherwise a standard Keystone runaround.
Mabel at the Wheel is 1914’s Need For Speed, built around the fad for racing cars and a variety of vehicles and car races. With her driver missing, Mabel herself takes the wheel and wins the race, despite Chaplin’s interference. The race footage stretches out and makes more interesting what is otherwise a rather slight film, certainly in terms of plot or character. The high point comes when Mabel’s car crashes—a scene that looks all too real. As a result of following the Sennett/Normand line on Mabel at the Wheel, Charlie Chaplin won the right to begin directing his own films, truly the start of something big.
Slapstick: Mabel falls off the back of the villain’s motorised bike, right into a huge puddle—the roads of Los Angeles left a lot to be desired back then. That’s followed by Chaplin falling off the bike a couple of times. A brick-throwing fight results in much falling over. Mabel bites Chaplin’s hand to escape a kidnapping attempt. Tangled up in a hose, Chaplin takes a tumble at the side of the race track. As Chaplin’s henchmen turn on him, a final bomb knocks the trio for six.
Verdict: Mabel at the Wheel may have been a good enough star vehicle for Mabel Normand, but it wasn’t for the ambitious Chaplin who’d begin to show his true colours in his next short, 3/5
Next: Twenty Minutes of Love (20 April 1914)
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.