Mabel Normand is one of those names. Fans of early cinema know it well and are aware of its significance to both film history and women’s history. To casual film fans it might ring a bell but probably mostly in relation to Charlie Chaplin or to scandal. To the majority of people, (let’s face it, us early film fans aren’t as common as we wish) it is a name that doesn’t ring any bell at all. And isn’t that the awful truth for countless names of great women in history? This is my attempt to share with the world one of those great women who are all too often forgotten.
Mabel Normand was a lot of things. She was beautiful, talented, funny, smart, and strong-willed. She appeared to have an unquenchable zest for life. After a modeling career that found her face on numerous advertisements and products, Mabel entered the film industry. She began her acting career at Kalem Company in New York City before quickly moving onto Biograph with D.W. Griffith. Mabel was no fit for Griffith, and vice versa, but she did meet the man who would help her in reaching much greater heights: Mack Sennett. When Biograph moved out west to California, Mabel joined Vitagraph where she starred in comedy shorts alongside comedian John Bunny. It wasn’t long before Mack Sennett created his own film company, better known as Keystone Studios, and convinced Mabel to join him. Mabel showed to have a true knack for comedy and soon found herself cast in Sennett’s comedy shorts. But Mabel wasn’t just acting in these films. She was directing and writing them as well. IMDb credits Mabel with directing 10 films, writing 6 films, and producing 1, but there is no telling how many times she performed those jobs without credit. By 1916, she created her own company as a subsidiary of the Triangle Film Corporation with Mack Sennett as a partner. Unfortunately, it folded along with many others a couple of years later when Triangle could no longer support it. However, it goes to show just how much power Mabel had in those early days of Hollywood.
But we’re here specifically to look at Mabel’s comedy short Mabel at the Wheel from 1914. The film is one of the ten films that credit Mabel with being director. According to IMDb, Mabel and Mack co-directed the picture. I do however wonder if Mack is listed as co-director in name only since Mabel had an undeniable power over him at times. The film stars Mabel alongside Harry McCoy, Charlie Chaplin, Chester Conklin, and Mack Sennett, to name a few. It features Mabel as the lover of a race car driver who is set to take part in a big race. Chaplin plays the villain who wants to sabotage the race by ensuring that Mabel’s beau does not win. Chaplin and his accomplices abduct Mabel’s boyfriend and tie him up to prevent him from racing. Fortunately for him, Mabel is more than willing to get behind the wheel and take matters into her own hands. She makes the rounds on the race track as Chaplin attempts to throw her off but Mabel successfully swerves around and dodges all roadblocks. In the end, Mabel triumphs by winning the race. Overall, Mabel at the Wheel is standard Keystone fare with lots of brick-throwing and pratfalls. But it is certainly entertaining and Mabel shines from start to finish.
Mabel was the star of several comedy shorts in 1914, beginning a series of films that featured her name in the title. She also began working with Charlie Chaplin, who at the time was a newcomer to the movie industry. Initially, Chaplin wasn’t too keen on being bossed around by Mabel. It became enough of an issue that Sennett had to give them both the title of director, making them co-directors, in several of their films together. Mabel remembered, “We reciprocated. I would direct Charlie in his scenes, and he would direct me in mine. We worked together in developing the comedy action, taking a basic idea and constantly adding new gags. Each day Charlie would come to the set brimming with new ideas, which he would act out for me. I would add my suggestions, and soon we were ready for a take.”1
Despite a rocky start, Mabel and Chaplin maintained a decent relationship throughout the rest of her life. He owed a lot to her for her advice and aid in his transition into film. Mabel taught Chaplin gags and the tricks of the trade which undoubtedly served him well. For example, Chaplin’s performance in Mabel at the Wheel is not quite on par with his later performances. He had not yet mastered the comedic style that would establish him as a comedy legend but he began to hone his skills as he continued to appear on-screen with Mabel. That is not to say that Mabel gained nothing from him or that Chaplin did not have ideas or talent of his own. Just that Mabel hasn’t always been given due credit for the role she played in Chaplin’s film career.
In fact, Mabel deserves a lot more credit and recognition for her role in early cinema in general. She was a pioneering woman in the areas of directing, writing, producing, and in comedy. Her surviving films are timeless and entertaining and prove that women were out there performing jobs in male-driven careers. Mabel is just one of many women in early film who have been forgotten or brushed aside by history. Fortunately, the tides are turning and these women are being recognized more and more. And I certainly believe that Mabel would be proud to know that her legacy has not been forgotten or over-shadowed by scandal.
In many ways, Mabel at the Wheel is representative of the real Mabel Normand. The film provides a glimpse at the star that Mabel was in the 1910s and it is easy to see why she was so loved. There’s something so magnetic, so charming about her on-screen performances that you can’t help but want more. Her beauty and zest for life, her love of fast cars, and her comedic skills are all on display here. At the same time, Mabel was not someone who could be taken advantage of or easily pushed around. She proves this to us as she triumphantly saves the day by winning the race against all odds. And as the title suggests, Mabel certainly wasn’t afraid to take the wheel when things weren’t quite going her way both on and off screen.
You simply can’t help but fall in love with and be greatly inspired by Mabel Normand.
***This piece was written for the Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon hosted by the lovely Fritzi at Movies Silently and sponsored by the Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology Blu-ray/DVD from Flicker Alley which you can find HERE.
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- Lefler, Timothy Dean. Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap. (McFarland, 2016), Location 774.
The Official Website of the Mabel Normand Estate (http://mabelenormand.com/legend/)