Friday 13 June 2014

Mabel's Busy Day (1914)

Director: Mack Sennett
Stars: Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin
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.
The title of this picture refers to Mabel, the regular character played by Keystone star Mabel Normand, but if she was having a busy day, Charlie Chaplin was having a busy month. This was the fourth of his films to reach cinema screens in June 1914 and the month wasn't even half over yet. In fact, it had only been two days since audiences had seen his guest appearance in the Roscoe Arbuckle two reeler, The Knockout, but he was back to torment Mabel in another one reeler. Unfortunately it's a weak film, partly because there's very little in the way of story and next to nothing to elevate it from the other Keystone pictures around it but mostly because of its notably disagreeable tone. It's a particularly mean spirited comedy, if its even worthy of being called a comedy, with Chaplin's usually cheeky and sympathetic shots at authority figures aimed instead at Mabel, in financial straits and trying to eke out a living selling hot dogs. She emphatically plays the sympathy card like her life depends on it but, with Chaplin so mean, she had our sympathy from the outset without trying.

At least he's not playing the Little Tramp this time out, at least I don't think he is, though he's much closer to him than any of the other characters he'd played thus far. His toothbrush moustache remains intact but his outfit is much neater and his outlook on life much more ruthless; he's what Jeffrey Vance ably describes as 'a shabby scoundrel', a fair description of him, given that there are apparently no lows to which he won't stoop. Initially his target is that old Keystone faithful, a policeman, but unlike the usual scenario where we're on his side, we're firmly on the side of the cops in this one. They're merely attempting to stop this shabby scoundrel from jumping a line at a racetrack and sneaking in without paying. His response to being noticed is to get immediately violent, a tone which he keeps for a while, beating up the first truly sympathetic cops I've seen working in a Keystone film. If I'd have been in that line, I'd be knocking him down rather than them, an odd feeling indeed. Maybe it's the Little Tramp dressed up to go out, but I'm seeing him as a different character.

Mabel is far more the sort of character we might expect with hindsight to be in a Chaplin movie, though she does plead outrageously for our feelings rather than let her situation speak to us. She's clearly down on her luck, hawking hot dogs from a tray strung around her neck and her face ably displays how desperately she needs to sell the lot. A few years later we'd have seen a half dozen scrawny kids waiting at home for mom to bring food, but here we just get Mabel. She's already sneaked into the racetrack too, not to watch the races but to sell her wares, and she made it in through a back gate with the deliberate knowledge of the cop who's on duty guarding the thing, yet again highlighting how far the police are staying on the side of Everyman in this picture, even if it's for selfish reasons. He does get a free hot dog as a makeshift ticket price. How's that for rampant corruption in the hierarchy of authority? He doesn't even get a promise of something else later, you know, the sort of thing that they couldn't show in 1914 comedies but could hint at with a wink.
We do feel for Mabel, however much we wish she'd stop overacting. We might find ourselves immune to her charms because we can see how much she's trying, but we feel for her anyway because of how consistently badly everyone treats her. Everyone seems to want something for nothing and they aren't even nice about it. The first potential customer thinks it would be a laugh to stick one of her hot dogs in her nose, just to show off to the pair of ladies he's with. She knocks him down for his troubles and sends him packing. The next few just move her on, as if they're offended by her presence, but then, almost in tears at how badly she's doing and possibly losing her voice to boot, finds some customers. The first initially walks away without paying her, though he does come back to tickle her chin and leave her a coin. The second has a whole wad of cash, but throws his purchase back in her tray when he realises she can't make change. Later in Chaplin's career, we might expect this to be social commentary on class, but here it's just men behaving badly.

Behaving the worst of all, of course, is Chaplin's character. He hones in on a trio of young ladies engrossed in the racing, first walking in front of them, then using one as an armrest and finally opening another's purse in a rather blatant fashion, hauling out what appears to be a wig and using it as a fan. What's most amazing is that, when he's discovered, inevitably because he isn't remotely hiding anything he's doing, he simply turns on the charm and all three of them start grinning like lunatics. I wonder if this is supposed to be just another extension to the mischief Chaplin's characters often get up to, the charm suggesting that it's all in good fun, however mean spirited it might seem. Alternatively, it could be read as Chaplin coming to a realisation that he could do anything on screen and audiences would still laugh, so he was testing his boundaries to see how far he could go without losing us. I don't buy that in the slightest, thinking more that humour was merely far less sophisticated in 1914, but the thought resonates as he was certainly exploring sympathy on screen.

The one kindly act he performs here arrives when an obnoxious customer starts hassling Mabel physically. I say kindly rather than altruistic because he has hidden motives. He isn't doing it to help Mabel, he's doing it to show off to those three ladies; and his next action underlines his morality. Initially he plays it just like any Chaplin character. He saves the girl by preventing a man from stealing one of her hot dogs, taking him down and sending him packing, then consoles her, telling her that it's all right. Here, the unexpected coda is that he then promptly steals one himself and hightails it out of there. Because of the way it's played, how he sets up the contrast, it's the one truly funny moment in the film. Again, I come back to that thought about whether he was manipulating our emotions to see what he could get away with. Just as Catholics believe that sins can be wiped out through confession, does one kindly act in a Chaplin movie cancel out in our minds all the horrible actions he's got away with prior to it? If charm doesn't, maybe kindness does? Perhaps he was finding out.
If that was the extent of it, we might buy into his thinking, but it escalates, as Keystone pictures have a habit of doing. Mabel chases him and elicits the assistance of the cop who let her in, so Charlie does a runner. That makes sense, but here he goes a step beyond, stealing not just another hot dog in the process but her entire tray of them, promptly giving them all away to the first crowd he stops in. Clearly Mabel had pitched her tent in the wrong part of the racetrack, because here she'd have sold out in no time but, by the time she gets the chance, her stock is completely depleted, except for what he's stolen back from the people who stole from him what he stole from her. Are you following? As with the three ladies earlier, the fix to this disconcerting state of affairs is to turn on the charm because that's all that's needed in this picture to make everything OK. It's like Chaplin's working on the level of three year olds with boo boos. Let mommy smile for you and it'll all be better, right? That doesn't quite work with 'a shabby scoundrel' destroying a young lady's livelihood.

Unfortunately what might be the picture's only mitigating factor isn't there for us today. There is a suggestion that the heart of this shabby scoundrel might be touched by Mabel's tears during the finalé, thus leaving us a positive outcome, but this would need an intertitle to back it up and the intertitles are believed lost. If this is the case, they certainly left it late to turn it around, as even Chaplin can't grab our sympathies that quickly. Given all that's gone before, we can't help but see it as another con. So, with that possible saving grace lost to us, at least at the moment, we have to look elsewhere and we don't find much. Perhaps the most notable aspect to the film today is how the crowds, who are generally kept away from the actors, receive their antics. The restored version of Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal shows us how the public first saw Chaplin, but there's a progression to that apparent in some of his later Keystone films shot on location, like this one. The audience are clearly laughing at everything Chaplin's doing in scenes like the one where he gets into the racetrack.

In other Chaplin films, the races themselves might be something of a draw. Even in something as primitive as Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal, there's an interplay with the location as Charlie nearly gets knocked down by a couple of vehicles. Here, there's nothing of the sort. We're at the Ascot Park Speedway in Los Angeles for an exhibition race that ran on 17th May, 1914, but it's only shot by a static camera positioned on a bend, thus capturing little but great clouds of dust hurled towards it as cars chase around that corner as Ascot Park was a dirt track. We never see moving cars in the same shot as people, let alone with Charlie or Mabel. If it wasn't for the reactions of the audience to their antics, this is yet another location shoot that could have been made back at the studio without travel costs. Surprisingly close to the city, apparently it was a popular venue not just for racing but for movie shoots, hosting the original Gone in 60 Seconds, A Very Brady Christmas and a few of the Frankie and Annette movies. Sadly we'd be better off watching them than Mabel's Busy Day.

Important Sources:
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Mabel's Busy Day can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory, it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone. It omits only Her Friend the Bandit, which is considered a lost film, and half of A Thief Catcher, which was previously thought lost but now recovered. The full version will debut in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1 in July.

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