Mabel Normand stars as a lively young lady who is dating a race car driver. Charlie Chaplin plays a caddish motorcyclist who decides to rain on the young couple’s parade by kidnapping the driver just before his big race. Well, you can probably guess what happens next based on the title of this film…
A brat on the set
One of the tragic aspects of Normand’s afterlife as a historical figure is that she passed away at such a young age that the telling of her tale has been undertaken but, shall we say, undependable narrators. We don’t really know for certain what led to her breakup with Mack Sennett but his memoirs are full of his attempts to absolve himself of all blame. Protesting a bit much, aren’t we, Mack?
And then there’s Charlie Chaplin. I love Chaplin’s films, they are among my favorite silent comedies, but his autobiography is, frankly, almost unreadable. Preening and pretentious, it includes nasty digs at people who were not around to defend themselves, the spreading of long-debunked rumors and the recounting of his seduction of the underage Mildred Harris in a manner better suited to Humbert Humbert.
The damage to Mabel Normand is significant (more on the exact content later), especially since the 1992 subjective biopic Chaplin ran with his portrayal of Normand as charming but lacking skill and then exaggerated for effect. Marissa Tomei plays Normand as broad and expendable as an actress, her character (naturally) getting tied to the railroad tracks. As a director, she is shrill and rude, using her status as Sennett’s sweetheart to bully others. “She actually thinks she can direct!” moans Mack. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
(In a deliciously ironic case of life imitating art, Tomei’s own talents have been unfairly maligned due to the rumor that she only won her Academy Award because a presenter had a senior moment and read the wrong name. I would rather this have happened to the screenwriters of Chaplin but I’ll take my karmic vengeance where I can get it.)
The Women Film Pioneers Project’s research indicates that Mabel Normand acted as director or co-director for twenty-six films between 1912 and 1915, though the credits are highly debatable. Chaplin, meanwhile, signed on with Keystone in late 1913 and would not be seen on the screen until early 1914.
Female directors were not unusual or rare in the 1910s, though there were definite challenges for any woman who wanted to succeed in this “man’s” job. Normand may have been granted her megaphone in order to retain her valuable (and underpaid) acting services. If this was the case, Normand was in the same boat as Lillian Gish, who was given a chance to direct a film in order to keep her happy and at work overseeing the construction of D.W. Griffith’s new studio in New York state while he gallivanted on an ocean voyage with Clarine Seymour and Carol Dempster. (He made movies with them on that voyage. Strange, strange movies.)
Mabel Normand was listed as the sole director of Mabel at the Wheel in internal Keystone documents and by Charlie Chaplin but she is credited as co-director with Mack Sennett in publicity materials and Sennett claimed he directed it solo but he’s a pretty unreliable narrator. Whether as the sole director or a collaborator, Normand’s presence certainly contributed to the droll zaniness of the picture.
By the way, there is a silly belief that this film was a spoof of The Perils of Pauline, which is nicely disproved here by little things like dates. (Pauline had not yet been released when Mabel at the Wheel was in production.) A popular comedic performer with a well-known love for fast cars and motorcycles makes a film about fast cars and motorcycles? Shocking! There must be something more to the story.
The plot is pretty standard fare for a comedy. Mabel Normand plays a woman with a wacky dad (Chester Conklin) and a racecar driver boyfriend (Harry McCoy). After she has a tiff with Harry, Mabel decides to take a ride with a local cad (Charlie Chaplin) on his motorcycle. The flirtation is short-lived as Charlie rides through a puddle and accidentally drops Mabel in the mud. Enraged that Mabel has gotten back together with Harry, Charlie arms himself with a straight pin and puncture’s Harry’s tire. Mabel and Harry respond by pelting him with bricks.
The day of the big race arrives (filmed, as many Sennett comedies were, at an actual event) and Charlie is plotting revenge. Thwarted in the use of his trusty pin, Charlie summons his goons and kidnaps Harry. With the driver securely tied up in a shed, he attempts to grab Mabel as well but she bites his hand and escapes. The race is starting and Harry’s car has no one to drive it! It’s time for Mabel to take the wheel but Charlie is not ready to give up. He throws smoke bombs and hoses down the racetrack so that the cars skid and spin. Will Mabel survive his machinations and win the day?
Has Mabel Normand ever been cuter? I don’t think so! Her tomboy antics are completely arresting and her obvious love of all things motorized and speedy is a joy to behold. It’s also fun to see Normand have a chance to be the heroine and not a damsel, however comedic. (Normand’s role in the melodrama spoof Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life is often used to “prove” that silent movies regularly featured women tied to tracks. I fully intend to use this film to prove that silent regularly featured men tied to poles by Charlie Chaplin.)
Chaplin is clearly channeling Ford Sterling, complete with grimaces, scowls, biting and general twitchy behavior. The famous Tramp character had already made its debut but everything was still in the experimental phase.
The direction is very much in the Keystone house style but there is a nice tracking shot of Chaplin on his motorcycle. The movie zips along at a furious pace, though a few of the jokes on the racetrack go on for a bit. Mabel Normand’s empowered character is the icing on the cake. All in all, quite fun.
Where do Chaplin’s memoirs come into this? Glad you asked! You see, he claimed there was a battle on the set and it resulted in a victory that gave him the creative control he had been seeking since he had entered motion pictures.
Chaplin’s version of the kerfuffle is as follows: He had bickered director Henry Lehrman and entertained ambitions of directing his own pictures. Instead, Sennett assigned him to work under Mabel Normand. Chaplin felt Normand was too inexperienced to direct and resentment boiled over on the very first day of filming. He was annoyed when she failed to take his suggestions for gags and so he refused to continue shooting and only agreed to go back to work when Sennett promised him his own chance to direct. (The fact that Chaplin pictures were making a mint helped his case.) Hurrah! A director-star was born! This narrative has been uncritically repeated ad nauseam– Chaplin’s memoirs are always the cited source– but it’s high time for someone to take the wind out of Charlie’s sails. Cracks knuckles.
I have my suspicions. In the first place, the gag he claims to have suggested involved stepping on a hose and then accidentally dousing himself. This was considered a real thigh-slapper back in 1895 when the Lumiere brothers released L’Arroseur Arrose. 1895? And this was 1914? His brilliant idea was a gag that had been stale for two decades. “Hey, director, I have a great new idea for a comedy! A kid gets accidentally left home alone and has the fend off burglars! Hey, where are you going?”
Now Keystone was certainly not above using old jokes but stamping his little feet and refusing to work until Normand agreed to include that hoary gag? Oh please. Some reviewers act as though the gag is mana from the gods while others have suggested that Chaplin may have actually objected to the danger posed to the stuntmen by the slippery car gag. Chaplin himself makes no such suggestion in his memoirs. It was all “me, me, ME, MEEEEEE!”
Outtakes from Chaplin’s Mutual days show that he rehearsed on film and kept throwing gags at the wall until something stuck, a rather costly technique. It seems that he was trying an early version of this method.
Second, he talks a lot about Normand’s youth and inexperience but she had been acting since 1910, possibly directing since 1912 and was only three years younger than Chaplin, whose debut picture had been out for all of twenty-four days when Mabel at the Wheel started shooting. The whole thing has the flavor of a kindergartener telling a pre-schooler that she is too much of a little kid to play his big boy games.
As we can see, the story hinges on the notion that Normand had barely picked up a megaphone in 1914. Her 1912 credits are not comprehensively confirmed but the possibility is not even explored by Chaplin defenders. In any case, there is no doubt that Normand had a significant head start as a film performer. Chaplin had stage experience but stage stars with bigger names than his were failing to make a hit at the movies and the Keystone crew would surely have been aware of this. (Some historians snark that Normand lasted only a year as a director. While her last credit was in 1915, we must remember that her personal and professional affairs were in a tangle around that time. No new Normand films were released between early 1916 and January of 1918 when Dodging a Million was put out by Goldwyn.)
Third, Chaplin had been whining about people not taking him seriously due to his youth and inexperience just a few paragraphs before! Good lord, Charlie, did you not re-read your own manuscript?
Fourth, he took an entire production hostage because he was in a snit and now he’s trying to make himself sound like the reasonable one? His condescending way of referring to Normand gives away his game: pretty young ladies are wanted for their bodies, not their minds. How dare this slip of a girl try to direct him, the great Chaplin? I have read that Chaplin “wrote warmly” of Normand in his memoirs. With friends like Charlie… Portraying Normand as in over her head and unworthy of her job is “warm”?
In fact, Chaplin accidentally proves the opposite. The Normand of Chaplin’s account comes off as highly professional in dealing with his diva antics. She attempted to persuade Chaplin to continue working, calmed down an angry crew, refused to continue a circular argument with an egotistical co-star, pulled the plug on the day’s filming and went to work things out with her producer, who was able to come up with a deal to get the movie finished. This lends credence to the idea that Normand had experience as a director prior to 1914.
It’s odd that even people who agree that Chaplin’s memoirs are not to be trusted still parrot this version of the story. Some retellings of the tale have Normand in tears. Chaplin does not mention this in his memoirs. Other retellings say that Normand “snapped” at Chaplin. He does not mention this either. Other biographers claim that Chaplin’s power play against Normand had nothing to do with gender and he just wanted creative control. Chaplin contradicts this by emphatically stating that he objected to being ordered around by a “girl”. Stop painting the lily and stop making stuff up, Chaplin biographers, please and thank you.
The equally unreliable Mack Sennett claimed that Chaplin actually learned the backstage ropes from Normand and some modern film historians believe he picked up quite a bit about comedic film acting and pantomime from her as well. It’s an argument well worth exploring. Normand herself said she directed Chaplin in an interview later in her life. I do wonder if Chaplin’s attack on her was a passive-aggressive response to the intolerable notion that he might have (gasp!) learned something about filmmaking from a young, pretty woman. I am also, frankly, shocked that so many respected historians never bothered to look at the incident from Normand’s point of view.
(Oh, and I actually don’t want to hear about why this is the reason you prefer Keeeeeeeaton. Chaplin was a pill and I would never wish to meet him but I still love him work on the screen. Plenty of talented people are jerks. That’s just how it goes.)
Chaplin was absolutely ill-suited to the factory conditions at Sennett’s studio and his style of comedy matured and blossomed with more creative control and a longer production schedule. However, Mabel at the Wheel is excellent for what it is: a Keystone comedy. Was it a rougher style than what Chaplin would finally embrace? Yes, of course. Does that make it inherently bad? Not at all. Keystone comedies were popular entertainment and not critical darlings. Everyday moviegoers loved them for their raucous, violent humor and complaining about these qualities is like ordering a hamburger and being shocked that it isn’t steak. If you don’t like the rough stuff, don’t watch Keystone.
Chaplin’s comedies are the fine aged beef of silent cinema but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with enjoying the occasional hamburger. Keystone comedies were churned out at a dizzying rate, good, bad and indifferent. I don’t like all of them but Mabel at the Wheel hits the spot.
So, the film fails as a Chaplin vehicle but it richly succeeds as a showcase for Mabel Normand and that’s just fine by me. It’s high time her work behind the camera was recognized and this picture does the job extremely well. Sadly, (mostly male) film historians have fallen over themselves in their rush to defend Chaplin by dismissing both the film and Normand’s skills as a director. Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to condemn Keystone now but bashing Normand and her talents smacks of petty cruelty. Mabel at the Wheel is a peppy rush of fun and you’d have to be pretty dull not to find it at least somewhat entertaining.
As the Women Film Pioneers Project puts it:
Even after her death, scholars have been more interested in the gossip surrounding Normand’s life and romances (including an announced marriage to Sennett in 1915 that never materialized) than her work… Scholars would do well to refocus attention on Normand’s distinctive contribution to early cinema and slapstick comedy, as well as the nature of her directorial work for Keystone.
Hear, hear! And I would add that scholars would also do well to pull Chaplin’s memoirs off their pedestal and look at Mabel at the Wheel with an open mind.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
The best version on the market is included in the Chaplin at Keystone box set from Flicker Alley, a splendid addition to any silent film library and a fascinating look at Chaplin becoming Chaplin. But come for Mabel too!