Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin in “Mabel at the Wheel”


Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Keystone comedy Mabel at the Wheel.

There are all sorts of reasons this film is noteworthy.

* This is one of the early films in which Charlie Chaplin does not appear in his famous tramp costume, but in another character he seemed to be developing, the top hatted melodrama character he had played in Making a Living and Cruel, Cruel Love. This character seems like he is literally being asked to fill in for Ford Sterling, who had recently left the studio. That feeling is accentuated in this film by Chaplin’s Sterlingesque chin whiskers

* This is another of those interesting Keystone films we have written about, that were semi-improvised at a live event, in this case an auto race. There were many of those

* This film contains the first known on-camera appearance by Charley Chase (Charles Parrott)

* This is the film on which Chaplin’s tension with his fellow Keystone players boiled to a head. He was having difficulty taking direction from Mabel Normand (the director and star of the picture) and so he sat down and went on strike. He considered Normand a “young girl”, with far less professional experience than he had. Yet she wouldn’t take any of his suggestions. Mack Sennett stepped in and talked him back (rather than firing him, which would have been Mabel’s preferred solution). Sennett did so because he’d recently learned that the comedies in which Chaplin appeared were starting to pull in big box office. Not long after this, Chaplin would begin directing his own pictures. Problem solved.

The plot of the film? A gossamer thing. Motorcycle-riding Charlie and his henchmen compete for Mabel’s affections with race car driving Harry McCoy. When they tie up Harry to keep him out of the race, Mabel takes his place at the wheel. Despite Chaplin’s dirty tricks (including a spectacular stunt involving an oil slick) Mabel wins the race anyway. Chester Conklin appears in the film as Mabel’s father. Mack Sennett plays a newsreel reporter. Now through the following year, appearances by Sennett in his own films grew increasingly rare and small.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy, including the comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand, such as “Mabel at the Wheel”, please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube


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