In this feature, I’ll be taking a look at the films of Charlie Chaplin. I’ll be including the shorts (where possible) and will hopefully delve into what makes him such an indomitable social and cultural figure to this very day. As with my Hitchmania feature, my approach will be somewhat haphazard. Things will run chronologically and there may be an essay or two to further discuss a particular period (for example, the Keystone period and so forth). I hope you’ll join me for what should be a lot of fun.
Mabel Norman and Mack Sennett direct Charlie Chaplin as a villain in the 1914 film Mabel at the Wheel. This silent picture is one of the many Mabel outings to come out of Keystone Studios and it packs a rather unusual vision of Chaplin, with the comic actor employed to replace Ford Sterling and relying on a number of broad and iniquitous stereotypes.
Word around the campfire is that Chaplin clashed with Normand behind the scenes of this two-reeler and the tumult was nearly enough to have him canned from Keystone. Sennett kept him in the fold, however, when his star’s popularity proved too significant to ignore.
Normand stars as Mabel and Harry McCoy is her boyfriend. Chaplin’s villain comes across the couple and takes the lady out for a spin on his bike. She falls off, he barely notices, hijinks ensue. The action eventually cuts to the automobile races, where Mabel’s boyfriend is supposed to be racing his sweet ride. Chaplin and his henchmen kidnap him before the race starts.
Mabel steps into the driver’s seat in her boyfriend’s stead, with William Hauber as her co-pilot. The villain tries to sabotage the race, with bombs and oil creating all sorts of havoc. Mabel is too clever for their schemes and she steers the Bentley V8 right and true.
Mabel at the Wheel clocks in at around 20 minutes and that makes it a little long considering the subject matter. Once the race really gets underway, the gags are repetitive and there’s a lot of typical Keystone zaniness. There are plenty of falls, explosions and smoke displays. Cars spin around and steer out of the muck over and over again.
This isn’t Chaplin’s first picture pertaining to auto races, with Kid Auto Races at Venice doing a lot more in a shorter period of time. Mabel at the Wheel is presumably built around the Vanderbilt Cup, one of the first major automobile racing events in America, and that gives the backgrounds a certain sense of life.
But it’s hard to justify the action in the foreground. Chaplin looks to be going through the motions and his clashes with Normand and the usual Keystone Studios suspects shows through. His comedy is of the more embellished variety, which is owing in large part to the fact that he’s filling Sterling’s shoes.
While Mabel is technically the star of the piece, Chaplin factors in more scenes and is the real point of interest. Normand gives as good as she gets, though, and she plays to the physical comedy well. She endures a few light slams from the co-stars and has a neat fall off Chaplin’s motorized bicycle, plus there’s a good car crash.
House cinematographer Frank D. Williams captures the action with a decent mix of shots. Some of the wide looks at the automobile race showcase a broad and excited crowd and that gives Mabel at the Wheel some much-needed texture.
Unfortunately, Mabel at the Wheel is too snarled. The action is monotonous and the plot, such as it is, roves through its paces. While many of Chaplin’s early silent features were meagre setups for slapstick comedy, this two-reel picture doesn’t do much to excuse its added padding. As such, this race is a disappointment.