The Sunday Intertitle: Mabel Gets the Push

MABEL AT THE WHEEL (still 1914!) marks an interesting, indeed key point in Chaplin’s career. He’d been at least somewhat quarrelsome with his directors up to this point. On this film, he simply refused to play a scene the way his director and lead actor Mabel Normand saw it, and production ground to a halt. Mack Sennett had to come out and see what was wrong, and finish the film himself.

Everybody liked Mabel and they were unconvinced if they liked Chaplin, and so he was likely going to get the sack, but the incident coincided exactly with reports coming in from exhibitors saying how popular the previous few months’ Chaplin shorts had been, and demanding more of the same. Suddenly Charlie, the little shit, was a valued commodity.

Chaplin defended his usurpation by saying that Mabel was awfully young to be directing. In fact, she had directed a bunch of shorts already, which was more than he had done, had been in movies for close to five years, and was only three years younger than CC. Nevertheless, the two worked together again, even co-directing on HER FRIEND THE BANDIT, which is annoyingly now a lost film, unless you have a print in your attic?

In MATW, Chaplin is back in frock coat and top hat, but has kept the cane and tiny ‘tache, augmented by two tiny satanic beardlets. He’s clearly a suave baddie again. After this point, his screen personality stabilizes somewhat, apart from the instances where he plays a woman — I’m guessing those cinema-owner reports had specified the kind of role Chaplin was more successful in. Nobody else has had time to figure that out, though Chaplin later wrote that he immediately felt comfortable as the Tramp, and not as this frock-coated heel.

It’s time I figured out who the short, stocky prostoogonist is in these things. Ah, yes, Harry McCoy. Declined into bit parts and died young. That’s showbiz, I guess.

Charlie steals the fickle Mabel away from Harry on his motorcycle. She falls off the back in a puddle, and Harry gets her back. Then a fight, in which Mabel slaps Charlie, Charlie slaps Mabel, Harry tries to slap Charlie but slaps Mabel. I presume Mabel directed all this stuff. She may have overestimated how much we like to see women get hit.

Charlie then gives Harry a puncture (in his tyre, I mean) and Mabel throws a rock which hits Charlie in the crotch. A general rock-throwing melee ensues, absorbing Mabel’s father, Chester Conklin. Why do they call this “knockabout” comedy, do you think?

This being a two-reel epic, we now relocated to the racetrack where Harry is going to participate in his sportscar. Charlie sticks a pin into various arses, which is good for a minute or so of action. Then some more slapping. Then a pin in Mabel’s leg. For the second film in a row, Chaplin bites Edgar Kennedy’s leg. Then sticks his pin in Harry’s arse. Two-reelers? Easy.

Going full Simon Legree, Chaplin summons into being two henchmen with a single whistle, and despatches them to abduct and duff up his hated rival. There’s a very interesting movement when he sidesteps from one shot into another, adjoining one, seeming to find the transition quite tricky, going boss-eyed and weird, as if he had not quite absorbed Henry “Pathe” Lehrman’s advice on screen direction and had to pass from one shot to another by osmosis, through some kind of semipermeable membrane or something.

With Harry tied to a post, getting his chin slapped at will by a triumphant Chaplin, there’s nothing for it but for Mabel to fulfil the film’s title AT THE WHEEL. She may have displayed brief fickleness or fickletude, but she’s a plucky gal when the chips are down or the boyfriend tied to a post. But first Chaplin tries the across-frame thing again, reaching forth blindly with clutching hand, and getting it bitten, and displaying his huge, spatulate tongue in a silent scream. I’ve never seen it observed that Chaplin had a tongue like a gammon steak, but here is the evidence thrust before our recoiling eyes in living monochrome.

Mabel now finds her motoring exploits spliced into documentary footage of a genuine race, even as Chaplin and his two desperately-moustachioed henchmen prepare acts of bomb-throwing sabotage. VG pratfall from CC at around 13:49.

And the winner is… Chaplin, by a mile. Seemingly filling in for Ford Sterling, who had just left Keystone in search of greener paychecks, cast as the villain and deprived of his Tramp get-up, Chaplin still gets the best material since he’s playing Coyote to Mabel’s literal road-runner. And he pulls as many dirty tricks to grab our attention as his character does to hamper Harry & Mabel. The film may fade out on a triumphant Mabel, but it’s Chaplin, apparently slain by explosion, who has made the bigger impression. There’s nothing fair about genius, as AMADEUS showed.

Oh, supposedly Charley Chase appears briefly, but I didn’t spot him.

One Response to “The Sunday Intertitle: Mabel Gets the Push”

  1. […] The Sunday Intertitle: Mabel Gets the Push […]

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