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Friday, 18 April 2014

Mabel at the Wheel (1914)

Directors: Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett
Stars: Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin and Harry McCoy
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
Charlie Chaplin made 36 films in his debut year of 1914, steadily building towards a status of the most recognised man in the world. If the legend is to be believed, though, his career almost ended after his eleventh picture, Mabel at the Wheel. He was still young, having reached his quarter of a century only two days before this film reached theatres, and he was still inexperienced, having arrived at Keystone just over four months earlier, even if he had already churned out ten movies in that time. However he had firm ideas about the directions he wanted his screen character to take and he was finding that his ideas rarely matched those of his directors. In fact he'd learned this before ever making a movie, just watching them be made on the Keystone set. The studio's standard methodology was to build gag on gag until they reached the point where they became a chase. Chaplin mentions in his autobiography that, 'little as I knew about movies, I knew that nothing transcended personality.'

He famously failed to get on with his first director at Keystone, Henry Lehrman, who 'used to say that he didn't need personalities' and he failed to get on with his second regular one too, even though his four films for George Nichols proved to be a burst of creative experimentation. 'He had but one gag,' Chaplin later wrote, 'which was to take the comedian by the neck and bounce him from one scene to another.' Compared to these two though, he really butted heads with Mabel Normand, not merely the biggest star at Keystone (and the lover of studio head, Mack Sennett), but one of the earliest female directors. Her technique on Mabel at the Wheel depressed Chaplin immediately and her disregard of his comedic suggestions prompted 'the inevitable blow-up.' While he claims to have 'secretly had a soft spot in my heart for her,' he emphatically refused to continue on. 'I'm sorry, Miss Normand,' he explained. 'I will not do what I'm told. I don't think you are competent to tell me what to do.'

That clearly wasn't going to help him. Extras apparently wanted to slug him, but Normand kept them at bay. They retreated to the studio where Sennett blistered at him. 'You'll do what you're told,' he told Chaplin, 'or get out, contract or no contract.' Chaplin wondered if he'd been fired, but the next day, it was completely different. Now Normand and Sennett were calm and composed, eager to hear his gag ideas. Mabel at the Wheel was a go. What prompted the change? Chaplin didn't have a clue but later he claims to have discovered the reason and he outlines it in his autobiography. He was indeed about to be fired, he explained, but the next morning, Sennett 'received a telegram from the New York office telling him to hurry up with more Chaplin pictures as there was a terrific demand for them.' Sennett was above all a businessman and he knew what sort of money his new star was starting to generate. His average picture warranted twenty prints, while Chaplin's were reaching forty and growing.
Whatever the reason for the bust up and the reconcilement, it's clear that this is far from the pictures Chaplin wanted to make. He may not have got on with Nichols, but he was able to play a varied set of characters and explore a number of possibilities in the four films they made together. This must have felt like a backward step, even though it was his first two reel film. He plays what can only be termed a serial villain or a proto-Dick Dastardly. He's not the Little Tramp, of course, dressed instead in a top hat and an odd goatee that resembles a pair of demonic horns sprouting from his chin. The character was clearly based on Ford Sterling, but there's much taken from the sharper he played in Making a Living too. Chaplin dominated both Mabel's Strange Predicament and Mabel at the Wheel, regardless of the supposed star announced in their titles. We can hardly believe these are Normand films in hindsight; the former saw her flail around as if pleading for laughs; here she doesn't really aim for them at all.

She's less a comic lead in this picture and more of a heroic one, as well as being the love interest who drives (pun not intended) the plot along. You see, Mabel has two admirers. One is her boyfriend, in the form of Harry McCoy, moving up from being merely her admirer in Mabel's Strange Predicament. He's not just her boyfriend in this picture, he's also a race car driver and with 1914 vehicles that means a true daredevil indeed. He plays a decent, all-American, nice guy, daredevil race car driver here, which may have led to further roles as her sweetheart in both Mabel's Nerve and Hello, Mabel. However, he soon descended to bit parts in later Mabel pictures like a hot dog thief, a man in a bar or even, in the following year's Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition, a Charlie Chaplin impersonator. That's ironic because here this atypical Chaplin is his competition for Mabel's attention and he's a dastardly competitor who will stop at nothing to wreck McCoy's chances.

In fact, he'll stop at nothing to wreck McCoy. This is an odd Keystone comedy in that it seems to forget that it's a comedy for the majority of its running time and seems content to play up the villainy angle against the backdrop of a real event, a common setting for Keystone pictures. Here it's the Vanderbilt Cup road race in Santa Monica, the adult version of the soap box derby event at which Chaplin's Little Tramp debuted in Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. Documenting the race constituted the first day of the shoot, on 26th February, but they continued on until 16th March to add in all the dastardly deeds that Chaplin's villain could do. He starts with a pin to flatten one of his rival's tyres outside Mabel's house, all to guarantee that she'll ride to the track on his motorbike instead, and that pin finds its way into a substantial proportion of the backsides that present themselves during the film. He escalates quickly though, to the degree of kidnapping the poor lad and prompting Mabel to take his place in the race.
Chaplin is a very deliberate villain here, confident enough that he wears his villainy on his sleeve. He gesticulates, glowers and gibbers his way through the first half of the picture, posing outrageously at each opportunity as if we might forget how emphatically he can't be trusted. As if that wasn't enough, he has a dubious pair of henchmen with outrageous walrus moustaches. Fortunately, the evil edge is tempered a little by his general lack of success. He may succeed in kidnapping his rival but he has a hard enough time taming his heavy 1914 motorcycle. After he falls off the thing, he even needs help from a passerby to just get back on. He's also outnumbered in a rock fight, which looks very painful indeed. That great invention of Mack Sennett, the pie fight, wouldn't have fit in the scene, so they go at it with rocks instead. I'm sure they were really beanbags or some such but these actors really knew how to aim and hit square in the face more often than not.

If the early scenes play up the pain, Normand getting in on the act too with a tumble off the back of Chaplin's bike into a puddle, the later ones play up the comedy. The catch is that these scenes aren't particularly funny, with the height of sophistication here revolving around the villain spraying oil onto the track so that Mabel spins out and drives a lap in reverse, only to spin out again at the very same spot and, in doing so, restore her car to the right direction. While Dick Dastardly was clearly based on Terry-Thomas with a side of Jack Lemmon's character in The Great Race, that role was just as clearly based on the sort of villains in silent movie serials who tied damsels in distress to railway lines. What might be surprising and worthy of note here is that famous serials like The Perils of Pauline, also shot in 1914, didn't have such scenes; one of the earliest that did was Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life, a 1913 picture made at Keystone with Mabel Normand as the damsel and Ford Sterling as the villain.

Rewatching these early Chaplins, this sort of quandary keeps on showing up. On one side, the comedy on show is hardly sophisticated, Mack Sennett and his directors content to recycle both old stories and the gags that populated them again and again. Yet on the other, they were by far the most successful comedy studio in the business, churning out films that made audiences split their sides, in the process inventing so much that would come to be taken as routine. This one doesn't feel like it's either original or funny, so Chaplin was presumably right when he suggested that the 22 year old Normand wasn't a competent director but, at only three years older, he was about to get his own chances. That was the deal he struck with Sennett; if he completed this film how Normand wanted, he'd be able to helm his own. He'd dabble in direction on his next film, Twenty Minutes of Love, and go solo on Caught in the Rain, two pictures after that. By July, he'd direct every short film he appeared in at Keystone.

Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Mabel at the Wheel can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats (though each much abridged) from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of all 36 of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory (if we count the first half of A Thief Catcher, previously thought lost), it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone.

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