There are many comedians I love. There are few, however, whom I truly admire. This lady is one of them.
I have so many things I could say about Mabel Normand’s pioneering role in film comedy, so I’ll do my best not to bore anybody on the subject of this amazing woman. I wasn’t even sure how I’d go about doing this at first because there’s just so many ways I could tackle this post.
In the end, however, I decided the best thing to do was talk about why Mabel was a little bit different than most of her contemporaries. Because believe me, she wasn’t like the others, and that’s why I gravitated to her so quickly. It was an era where many female leads were expected to be innocent angels; when you see how female characters were written in Birth of a Nation, you realize that Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh did a lot with the material they were given but at the same time notice that the girls were still expected to act stereotypically Victorian, and not just because the film was set in the 1860s-1871. Mary Pickford got roles that allowed her to go on more adventures, as did Pearl White, but for the most part women in film didn’t exactly get to have the swashbuckling escapades of their male colleagues.
Mabel went and bucked convention a year before Birth of a Nation by doing a comedy short in which she drove a racecar to victory, finishing three laps up on her competition.
That short, filmed and produced in 1914, is Mabel at the Wheel, one of my personal favorite works of hers. Most people remember it today for the fact that Charlie Chaplin appeared as the villain in his pre-Tramp stage, but a number of Keystone luminaries were in the cast, including Chester Conklin and Al St. John.
The plot is simple – Mabel has a little lover’s spat with a potential boyfriend (Harry McCoy), and Charlie takes her for a spin on his motorcycle. She falls off into a mud puddle, however, and Harry comes and picks her up. He lets her drive his Bentley V8 racecar home, and when Charlie returns the three of them have a showdown that involves throwing bricks. Come race day, Charlie and his cronies kidnap Harry and lock him away, and Mabel, being Mabel, throws on a duster, cap and goggles and hops behind the wheel of the Bentley. The rest, of course, is history.
Stuntman Billy Hauber, who rides shotgun for Mabel during the race, is portraying Mabel’s riding mechanic. Racing rules at the time required a riding mechanic to go with the driver and repairs would often be done mid-race on the side of the road. The ride-on mechanic was phased out of almost all motorsports in favor of the pit crew with the exception of rallying, where the role evolved into that of the co-driver. Despite the fact that there’s a stuntman in the car, it’s pretty clear that Mabel is actually driving the car herself, even in the stunt driving bits.
Because Mabel, you see, was a motorhead.
And that is what really draws me to her more than anything else – we’re strangely alike in our hobbies. Besides her notable library, Mabel also collected a number of amazing sports cars (notably her 1914 Stutz Bearcat) and very enthusiastically drove them as a pastime. We share a love of reading and driving. (Unlike her, however, I don’t also own a motorcycle, which she did. You can read about her Indian here.) I love that she loved cars as much as I do. It’s kind of cool to see what you might have been like if you were born in the 1890s, if that makes sense.
Of course, there’s something else worth mentioning about Mabel at the Wheel. Mabel actually wrote and directed the film. Most writers emphasize how she clashed with Chaplin on certain jokes in the film, but my favorite thing to point out is that her direction is pretty impressive for the time. Also, she was only 19 when this film was released. (Her birthday was November 9th, 1892; the film was released April 18th, 1914.) Think about that for a second. In 1914, a nineteen-year-old woman wrote, directed and starred in a film about auto racing in which she did all her own stunt driving.
Mabel was simply amazing.
Her direction for this film included the new development of mounting the camera on the car to film close-ups. The cameraman stood on a secure platform attached to the hood, and he turned the camera crank as Mabel floored it. This resulted in some extremely exciting shots, especially for 1914. (My favorite part, however, is that the close-ups reveal that during the race scenes Mabel is grinning ear to ear and having the time of her life driving that Bentley. Frankly, I’d have been, too.)
To sum this up: Mabel was a tiny woman (5’0″ ) who stood head and shoulders above her peers in a field dominated by men (comedy) and drove as well as a professional racer. I think that justifies my looking up to her, doesn’t it?
Even if it doesn’t, I still admire her deeply for plunging into fields I adore – fields that it’s still hard for a woman to break into – and succeeding so much. Rock on, Mabel. Rock on.