Archive for Mabel at the Wheel


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2020 by dcairns

THE KNOCKOUT is an unusual early Chaplin because he’s only a supporting player, and yet he’s in the Tramp costume (I hesitate to say “playing the Tramp character” because said character is still forming). As successful as Charlie already was, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was a big star too, in every sense. The director is Mack Sennett per the IMDb, but Wikipedia assigned the job to one Charles Avery, so it’s also an exception in that CC isn’t in charge.

Regrettably missing — the only only lost Chaplin short — is HER FRIEND THE BANDIT, made immediately before this, co-starring and co-directed by Chaplin and Mabel Normand, who evidently had a generous nature and had forgiven Chaplin for refusing to take direction back on the ironically-titled MABEL AT THE WHEEL.

Director Avery impresses at once as an incompetent, with mismatched shots of two hobos atop a freight train and a railyard bull yelling at them, but then Arbuckle enters in a fulsome medium shot, dog under one arm, and it’s quite smartly done. Luke the dog would later appear in Buster Keaton’s screen debut, THE BUTCHER BOY, and was directed by Buster in THE SCARECROW. He was a pro.

The hobos are Hank Mann (prizefighter in CITY LIGHTS), and Grover Ligon (cool science fiction name). It’s not immediately clear why the film spends so much time introducing them.

Some quirky flirtation with Minta Durfee (Roscoe’s real-life wife). Roscoe is getting screen time to develop character and display whimsical interactions which Chaplin had to fight for in his early roles. Then some roughhouse stuff with a local tough: Roscoe does that Three Stooges trick of grabbing the other fellow’s nose then slapping his own hand away. Looks painful for the nose’s owner. Did people ever really do that in street altercations?

When Roscoe turns his back, one of the ruffians starts flirting with Minta: her contemptuous reactions are quite enjoyable. Roscoe returns, and sees red: he advances into an actual close-up, which, owing to its sparse use, has tremendous force. Griffith had been doing this kind of thing in e.g. MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY (1912) and this feels like a parody of the effect.

Violence ensues. Bricks are thrown. With Fatty being so outnumbered, it feels a bit dramatic rather than merely being amusing roughhouse. Minta getting a brick in the face in closeup, no less, is actively unfunny. Seems to me Keystone films don’t always know how to integrate women into the slapstick without it seeming ugly. I mean, it’s already pretty ugly. But Fatty knocking over five men with one brick is pretty amusing.

The gang is led by Al St John and evinces skill and enthusiasm falling into a trough etc. My heart warms nostalgically at the thought of a time when men could earn an honest crust just by falling down flamboyantly and getting up again. Most of these guys had careers into the early thirties at least. Hank Mann would still be turning up as an extra in things like INHERIT THE WIND. James Cagney was blown away by his slapstick skill on THE MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES.

Having shown such pugilistic flair and killer instinct, Fatty is a natural to sign up for the boxing contest where the Act I hobos have just enlisted. St John, his recent rival, certainly thinks this is a swell idea. He no doubt has some cunning revenge in mind.

Fatty’s back to being an underdog, a big innocent kid tricked into the dangerous Dingville Athletic Club. Dingville must be close to Bangville, setting for BANGVILLE POLICE, the first Keystone Kop Komedy. You can tell how they got named.

Meanwhile, hearing that their prospective opponent is a large man, the two volunteer hobos head off to check out the competition. Even as Fatty is being beaten by the punchbag, prey as he is, like Chaplin, to any object that can swing to and fro. Keystone comedians are simply unable to deal with such moving parts, which always strike them (literally) as unpredictable and perhaps demonically possessed.

Fatty persuades the camera to tilt upwards coyly as he removes his overalls, an early version of the hand-over-the-lens gag in Keaton’s ONE WEEK. Then he performs feats of strength that make the hobos flee in terror, even as a real prizefighter shows up (played by Edgar Kennedy with good swagger) and gives them an added shove on their way. But what were the hobos in the film for at all?

Meanwhile, Minta Durfee has disguised herself as a boy. To what end? There was a bit where she seemed to be explaining a costume change to Fatty, but I couldn’t make out why. Just so she can sit in the audience? Or just sheer, exuberant gender-fluidity?

By the way, the IMDb has Chaplin down as the writer of this thing. For decades it was bandied about that Keystone never had scripts, but several of the pesky pamphlets eventually turned up, and it now seems they would generally have a sort of rough scriptment or description of the action made up, which would allow preparation of a few special props, casting, and so on.


The fight approaches, and so does Chaplin, but Sennett is falling prey to his usual compulsion to cram the frame with funnymen, all fighting for our attention to no particular effect. Enter Mack Swain, with his biggest, droopiest moustache yet. He mutters a few words to the camera, but how even the most observant lipreaders can make anything of this in the shadow of his hanging face-fungus is beyond me. He’s some kind of western desperado and gambler, adding suspense by threatening to shoot Fatty if he loses.

So by the time Charlie prances in, we don’t really need him, but it’s interesting to see him try to hold our attention in this madhouse. He’s wearing the Tramp moustache and suit minus jacket, hat and cane, and he’s not playing drunk. His very energetic entrance suggests he’s been looking at some real-life referees as models for this schtick. So it’s outward bits of Tramp costume and a different character inside, maybe. Still, this may lead to some development of the Tramp…

My hopes seem dashed when he’s immediately punched unconscious. But he’s up again, just as I notice the foreshadowing of CITY LIGHTS’ boxing match. This isn’t AS choreographed, but there are certainly moments where both boxers and ref seem to be moving in sync.

Sennett can’t even give us a decent view of the ring, he insists on broadening the frame to squeeze Swain in, a character who has his own cutaways anyway where he rightly belongs. And the boxers’ teams crowd round the outskirts, dancing about. It’s lively, but it isn’t “a good clean fight” — it’s all distraction, no focus. Chaplin manages some clever moments, dragging himself along by the ropes on his backside, but he’s fighting against a sea of chaotic movement all the time.

His entire performance is delivered in a single camera set-up.

This is a longer than usual “farce comedy” so the ending gets to be bigger than usual, with Fatty stealing Mack’s six shooters and terrorizing everyone. The kops are kalled. The six shooters apparently never need reloading, a handy thing since have you ever tried reloading a pistol in boxing gloves? Come to that, ever tried firing one? You can’t, you know, with your trigger fingers tucked inside.

Skegness is so bracing.

Charlie disappears from the picture forever (a relatively light day’s work for him, excluding the “writing” which I don’t believe he had any hand in apart from devising his own moves). There’s a long, involved chase with Fatty, Kennedy and the Kops, in which it’s hard to imagine any satisfactory outcome, then Fatty and the Kops fall off a pier into the sea, the end.

What would have made this better?

Having Chaplin appear on the pier, counting Fatty out as he splashes and splutters in the brine.

Doobugle of Greenland

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2020 by dcairns

Charlie with Mabel again, directed by Mabel again — or maybe co-directing WITH Mabel — this was released nine days after MABEL AT THE WHEEL, with TWENTY MINUTES OF LOVE slotted in between. Keystone are really churning them out — and remember, they have other stars working at the same time, Arbuckle and so on. I reckon these films were mostly shot in a day, maybe two days for a two-reeler like this. And “written” in an hour. And the editing is largely a matter of selecting the preferred takes from a small number filmed, cutting off the slates, and doing the titles. So you could “easily” make two a week.

Despite the fact that Chaplin had earlier refused to work for Mabel as director, she was the most talented director he’d had — see her WON IN A CUPBOARD for bits of visual experimentation otherwise unheard-of at Sennett’s studio. And this is in many ways his best film yet.

We meet Charlie, the world’s worst waiter, working in a rowdy dive. He spills the food he’s serving all over the floor, quite carelessly, then slips in it, then serves the empty plate and gets stroppy when the patron complains. He also “tidies up” by emptying shot glasses into a stray pint, then drinking the resulting grog-melange. There’s no indication yet that he’s above his station. He seems to be beneath it. He’s not even nice. Still, we get further iterations of Man’s Eternal Struggle with the Swing Doors.

Give him a dog, do I hear you suggest? OK, here’s a nameless dachshund which he keeps in a cupboard and walks on his lunch hour. Long before A DOG’S LIFE. Some good mischief comes of this: his cuff comes off and slides down the leash. An anticipation of MODERN TIMES.

The dog doesn’t seem to be making Charlie more sympathetic. He trips over it. Then loses it. Fights a small boy for it. (Tiny Tarzan again: kid does a good fall.)

Meanwhile, Mabel is a posh girl. More trouble than usual is taken to delineate her world of awnings and parasols, versus Charlie’s skid row planks and beggary. There’s a distinct lack of irony in Charlie coming to Mabel’s rescue — better if he got caught up in the struggle by accident, rather than suddenly showing out-of-character heroism. But then there’s some good dirty fighting. His opponent is William Hauber, whose sour, pinched, aggrieved face suits this story better than his previous Chaplin roles.

Charlie now starts flirting with Mabel, who’s impressed by his violence. Previous beau, the inevitable Harry McCoy, has disgraced himself by cowering before the ruffian. Chaplin undergoes a remarkable transformation, and so do his props. He picks his tooth with his cane, just about the first instance of him making the physical world repurpose itself for his benefit, a major Chaplin trope. He presents a card, which he somehow has on his person, giving his identity as Baron Doobugle, Prime Minister of Greenland. (Other prints make him “O.T. Axle, Ambassador for Greece” — even The Chaplin Encyclopedia is unsure which version is authentic.) Mabel is even more impressed, and who can blame her? I would be too. Additionally, his display of upper-crust simpering is quite deserving of our awe.

Seeing Chaplin put on airs is exciting, as if he’s discovering what his Tramp outfit is for. Contrast. It’s perhaps not quite there yet, since this is an act, and the future Tramp’s pretensions are quite sincere ones. Moments before, he was stumbling about half asleep, his fag-ash dropping heedlessly down his front, visible even in long shot in a 100 year-old print found on a tip. Now he’s a slicker, a swell. It’s visible in the way he thrusts his tiny butt in a manner both pugilistic and aloof. The walk is coming together more and more. He needs to fuse hobo walk with posh walk. (When a music hall rival said, “I have more talent in my arse than you have in your whole body,” Chaplin replied on the spot, “That’s where your talent lies.” Wrong. Chaplin’s arse speaks volumes. The most expressive rear end since the days of Le Petomane.)

But THE STRAIN… Charlie must keep up this posh act. He meets Mabel’s parents, his cane slung nonchalantly in his jacket pocket. Can they see through me? The comedy of social anxiety — it feels like Mabel has a good handle on the kind of stuff Chaplin can instinctively immerse himself in and get comedy out of. And there is, buried in this idea, pathos. For the first time.

Charlie returns to the wretched honky tonk where he earns his pittance — he’s completely forgotten he owns a dog — and has — what was I just telling you? — a profound emotional response to music. And Normand, always alert to the romantic touch, fades not-quite-out and then in on herself, the object of his reverie. The way the fades don’t dip all the way down to black is a lovely little grace note and another moment of experimental Mabel. You won’t see this anywhere else except 70s Fellini.

The dream over, Charlie is then kicked up the arse multiple times by his boss, Edgar Kennedy, wearing another florid moustache selected from his brimming coterie. Then more swing door vicissitudes and a brief but good and vicious skirmish with Chester Conklin.

Unlike in most of Chaplin’s previous films, we’re getting to see situations played out properly, give and take between performers unbutchered by the editor’s shears.

An interlude in which Charlie is challenged by the hulking Mack Swain (his GOLD RUSH co-star, “Big Jim”) seems to exist mainly to further elucidate the theme that women love a brute. Charlie soon has the dolls flocking to him after braining Mack with an outsize mallet (were these really kept behind the bar for such occasions? The hammersklavier interlude during The Trail of the Lonesome Pine persuades me this is so.)

PART 2: Charlie is now a big man on skid row, and is off to Mabel’s party in his slick new duds, featuring the silk hat and big coat that become a true prime minister of Greenland. Harry McCoy, demoted from bland leading man in previous films, is now the jealous rival scheming to sabotage him: Chaplin’s role in MABEL AT THE WHEEL. The humiliation! Chaplin blew him away in the villain role, and now the tables are turned, he’s still blowing him away as hero or anti-hero or whatever he is here.

We keep seeing from Mabel’s garden gate that she lives at number 666 but I refuse to attribute any demoniac significance to this.

The party. Mabel can overlook Charlie wiping his mouth with his coat-tails after a drink, but she looks aghast at his big, decaying shoes. Several sizes too big, of course, and worn on the wrong feet. Still, she’s enchanted by his heavy drinking and his loud belching is, it seems hilarious to her. Where has she been all our lives? I confess I relate somewhat to Charlie’s response to being at a party: free booze! It makes purely economic sense to down as much of it as possible, save you paying for it later in the week.

Nice little idyll with the band playing and Charlie singing and burping along to it, and Mabel reacting. Nice to see the people a bit closer to the camera. We’re sure to go wide again for the inevitably brawl. We have arrived at the inevitable drunk scene, with added dyspepsia. Can fisticuffs be far away?

Not sure how this one’s going to end (well, yes, with a fight, obviously). Charlie’s position seems untenable, but McCoy, shaking his fist in a variety of single medium shots, is a sneak and a yellow-bellied lizard and does not deserve fair lady’s hand.

Of course! The swine McCoy takes the party slumming to Charlie’s workplace, a dastardly ploy to expose his lowly origins. Is it really plausible, he will ask, that the prime minster of Greenland should be moonlighting in this filthy hole? Possible, perhaps, but far from likely.

Ensconced in the nameless gin-joint, Mabel, who could smile and wink as a gentleman eructated in her face, is scandalised by Minta Durfee’s sexy dance, and then Charlie, finally getting the better of the swing doors, passes flawlessly through to exposure and shame. Some good suspense first, though, as he cunningly disguises his apron in a variety of coy postures. But his boss, Edgar Kennedy, unreasonably expects him to do some work, and thus a scuffle breaks out. Mabel, recipient of cinema’s first face-pie, gets it splurch in the kisser once more.

All hell breaks loose. Various parties hit with various objects. Mabel crouches bottom left of frame clapping her hands like a clockwork monkey as Kennedy runs amuck with twin pistols. Charlie renders him comatose with multiple bricks to the brow — the set wall buckles notably as the big man slumps against it — there is an attempted reconciliation — but Mabel isn’t going to solve the problems of class and economic disparity in a single two-reel farce comedy, is she? You can’t expect it.

The Sunday Intertitle: Mabel Gets the Push

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2020 by dcairns

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.