Directors: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett
Writer: Mabel Normand
Duration: approx. 12 mins
With: Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin, Slim Summerville, Billie Bennett, Harry McCoy
Story: Mabel is a hot dog vendor at a race track who has to deal with a drunken nuisance…
Production: This is another of Mack Sennett’s rather slight ‘event’ films, this one filmed at the Los Angeles Ascot Park Speedway during a special exhibition race in mid-May 1914. Again, we get to see some real life audiences as they take in Chaplin and company’s antics, suggesting in their reactions that many in the crowd now recognised the screen’s newest comic talent. As the nominal star, Mabel Normand has the prime role as the inefficient hot dog seller, but the film really only comes to life when Chaplin arrives (billed as a ‘tipsy nuisance’) to cause her trouble.
Is the character Chaplin plays in Mabel’s Busy Day the little Tramp we’ve come to know a little better over recent films? He certainly looks the same, and broadly acts the same, but there are differences in the costume here that might subtly suggest that Chaplin wasn’t fully on board with playing the fool in Mabel’s latest trifle. He’s wearing a slightly smarter frock coat than usual, and on his head is a very different hat, a lighter-than-usual derby. Perhaps he’s dressed up for his day out at the races? As part of his deal at Keystone, Chaplin had to appear in supporting roles in standard fare like Mabel’s Busy Day, when he’d much rather be coming up with his own scenarios and creating films where he could control the material.
As always with these Sennett shorts, the race is not the film’s main concern, merely a scenic backdrop. Its just another event that has attracted a crowd into which Mack and Mabel can send their characters and their cameras to provoke some form of hopefully amusing carnage. Mabel is quickly out-of-her depth, attempting to sell her wares to a rowdy, possibly drunken crowd, who are more interested in messing her about than buying her sausages, and that includes Chaplin’s antagonist.
Despite it not being his film, Chaplin can’t help but bring much of himself to his performance. To describe his movements as ‘balletic’ is something of a cliché, a century later. Also, it’s early days and he hasn’t quite fine-tuned what he can do, but there is no other word that adequately describes the way he moves through this film. His encounters with the various cops, the way he dodges them and moves around them, can only be described as balletic. Chaplin moves completely differently from anyone else in the film. The jump in the air, faux wrestling moves, and spinning on the spot like a whirling dervish when Chaplin meets the first cop at the track are odd moments. It’s supposed to be a fight, but it is much more like a dance off. Not for Chaplin the standard Keystone slapstick of face-shoves and pratfalls—this film appears to be the first time we see Chaplin rolling his hat down the length of his arm, another little quirk (like sliding around corners on one foot) that would become a defining characteristic of the fully-evolved Tramp figure.
Watch carefully the faces of the crowd as Chaplin finds a hot dog on the ground and mistakes it for a cigar—this is clearly an audience for some of whom at least, the little Tramp (although he’s dressed slightly differently) is a recognisable figure. It’s all a long way away from the Kid Auto Races in Venice days, when he was just a genuine nuisance. Those who don’t know him probably find his antics strange, although it is unlikely they weren’t aware of the cameras, so would have known a film was being shot. Half the fun for us, 100 years later, from these Keystone ‘event’ films is to crowd watch, to see real people in a real environment reacting to Chaplin’s increasingly unreal antics. By this point, the assembled crowds are more interested in watching Chaplin in action than the races they presumably originally came to see.
While Mabel isn’t having much luck flogging her dogs, Charlie is having an equally tough time with the ladies. He tries to attach himself to a trio of racegoers, but stealing from one of their handbags might not be the right approach. Finally, over half way through, the film brings Mabel and Chaplin together, first as antagonists, then as partners against the rowdy crowd. He does a roaring trade in shifting his stolen sausages, but has trouble getting paid for his wares. The last minute or so sees the usual Keystone ruck bring things to an unsatisfactory conclusion.
Slapstick: No sooner has Mabel made it into the racetrack than she’s knocking people down when they dare to touch her sausages. Chaplin’s dance off with the Kops rapidly follows. Chaplin’s besting of a ruffian makes him a short-lived hero.
Verdict: Chaplin biographer David Robinson called Mabel’s Busy Day a ‘rough and rowdy little piece’, and that about sums it up, 2/5
Next: Mabel’s Married Life (20 June 1914)