Chapter 3

When Mabel returned in triumph to Hollywood later that year as head of her own company to produce her classic feature-length comedy, Mickey, one of her proudest new acquisitions was a custom-built Mercer Runabout with a "dressing table and makeup mirror that folded into her car door." (24) The car long survived its owner and was at one time a prominent exhibit at the Hollywood Museum of Autos. (25)

Given her interest, it was probably inevitable that Mabel would make an auto racing comedy. The plot of Mabel at the Wheel involves a love triangle between Mabel, her race driver boy friend (Harry McCoy) and the villain, a jealous rival played by Charlie Chaplin with top hat and long frock coat. On the day he is scheduled to race, Harry is kidnapped by Chaplin and his henchmen. Mabel takes her boyfriend's place at the wheel and, surviving attempts by the villain to sabotage her, drives the racing car to victory.

Although Mabel at the Wheel is the earliest extant film personally directed by Normand--she had preceded it with three one-reelers--its importance in cinema comedy has tended to be overlooked. Not only did later reissues give it the meaningless title, Hot Finish, but accounts in books have focused on Chaplin's unwillingness to be directed by Mabel following a dispute over a gag in which Chaplin was to water the track with a hose, causing her car to skid. Mack Sennett supposedly then took over the rest of the direction to placate Charlie. While Sennett doubtless did direct the remaining bits of business with Chaplin mugging and reacting, by then the production was too far along for its style to be significantly changed. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that Mabel continued to direct her own scenes. Indeed, the entire construction of the film is shaped by her spirit and personality.

Chaplin's insecurity involved more than resistance to an allegedly inexperienced woman director. At the time, Chaplin had not yet learned to drive a car. In Mabel at the Wheel, he drives a motorcycle but he was so inept at handling it that it became a source of comedy in the film. There were no detailed written scripts for the spontaneous Sennett comedies so it was apparently unplanned that Mabel would take a fall as she rode behind Charlie on the motorcycle. (26) Mabel then tries out her boyfriend's racing car and her skill at the wheel is directly contrasted with Chaplin's incompetence on the motorcycle. In the films Chaplin would go on to direct, he was naturally the center of his comic universe in works stressing his genius for allusions and balletic grace more than athletic feats. But in Mabel at the Wheel, he found himself cast as a scheming albeit ineffectual obstacle to a woman's achievement. As Rob Edelman points out: "The spunky Normand is the hero of the piece; despite her sex, she has no inhibitions about racing a car--a rather unfeminine act for 1914." (27) In fact, one can view Mabel at the Wheel as a kind of feminist parable with the heroine defeating the male competitors on the race course as well as the villainous Chaplin.

But Mabel at the Wheel also marks an evolution from the usual Keystone knockabout (which is plentiful in the film) to a deeper brand of humor. By blending the basic plot of Vitagraph's An Auto Heroine with farcical elements, Mabel was creating a new form of heroic comedy in which the comic protagonist's actions reveal epic qualities of courage and resourcefulness. She prepared the way not only for the auto racing comedies of the twenties with stars like Wallace Reid, Bebe Daniels, Reginald Denny, Agnes Ayres, Richard Dix, Madge Bellamy and Johnny Hines but also her own feature, Mickey, and the later mature works of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.

As a director, Mabel shows considerable skill in staging action scenes. Griffith had shot the car chase in A Beast at Bay from a camera car preceding Mary Pickford's touring car. But Mabel boldly mounted the camera on the racing car itself to film the close-ups of her driving with the mechanic seated beside her, scenes which are intercut with long-shots of the speeding cars on the track. For one close-up shot, the camera was even turned sharply to the side to give the impression of the car being upset. Shooting directly on the front of a moving car was a comparatively new technique in 1914. In the beginning, it could also be hazardous like the incident Pearl White described to an interviewer at the time:
  "I ran over a man once, and it 'got' my nerve, as far as autoing was concerned.

It wasn't my fault but it was an awful experience to have.

It happened while I was with the Crystal Company. We were making a picture and the camera-man wanted a close-up of me driving, so he took his camera and sat out on the front of the car and fell off right under it.

Fortunately, he didn't die but was in the hospital for weeks."(28)
No such mishap is known to have occurred during the shooting of Mabel at the Wheel. Mabel had the camera placed securely on a platform built on the front of her car, a method which became standard practice for filming close-ups of drivers in the silent era. Then she gave her instructions to the cameraman and pressed down on the accelerator as he turned the crank.

The numerous close-ups of Mabel behind the wheel and her mechanic-assistant seated next to her serve to underscore the film's theme of a young woman's daring. Responding to the speed and excitement of actually driving the racing car, Mabel is at her best, her beauty dazzling as again and again she rounds the track. There is an intriguing similarity to Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka's Autoportrait, the famous self-portrait of a woman at the wheel of her car which she painted for Die Dame, a German magazine in the twenties. Both are classic expressions of female artists inspired by the dynamism of the modern age represented by the automobile. But whereas de Lempicka's painting is that of a cool and elegant European goddess controlling a powerful machine in the post-war era, Mabel's kinetic self-portrait, besides being an actual series of moving images, is sprightly and playful with a bright smile, conveying the all-American optimism of the pre-war years when women were beginning to discover their own capabilities.

Mabel's comedic genius in this and succeeding films advanced the art of screen comedy with her courageous, fun-loving persona giving comic characterizations a subtlety that transcended and transformed the Keystone slapstick in which she appeared. But after Mickey, increasingly plagued by ill-health and personal insecurities, she no longer produced or directed her own films. Curiously, her relation to automobiles also seemed to reflect her loss of confidence. The actress who had delighted in driving racing cars in the teens by the early twenties was opting more and more for chauffeur-driven limousines. Ultimately, her later preference led to scandal when, in 1924, her chauffeur shot and wounded a friend of hers at a party. Yet whatever defeats she faced both personally and professionally in later years, nothing can alter the triumphant images of the young, beautiful, confident Mabel, the comedic goddess who drives the racing car to victory in Mabel at the Wheel and, in the final shot, is hoisted on the shoulders of a crowd cheering the heroic woman who had invaded male territory--and won.

The silent screen also created a new breed of daredevil heroines who were expert at using the auto to stage rescues of those facing dangers resulting from either the incompetence or malevolence of males. A noteworthy example of the plot device is the 1914 Edison two-reel drama, The President's Special, one of Charles Brabin's early directorial efforts with Gertrude McCoy and Charles Ogle in the leads. In a narrative which The New York Dramatic Mirror's critic wrote contains "the greatest amount of suspense," (29) an overworked telegrapher (Charles Ogle) falls asleep before he can flag an excursion train filled with children and prevent it from colliding with a speeding limited, the President's Special, that has the right of way. When he awakes, he agonizes over the fearful expectation that his negligence will lead to tragedy. Meanwhile, his wife (Gertrude McCoy), realizing the imminent danger, has cranked up her trusty Model T Ford touring car and sped after the train in an effort to stop it. Brabin intercuts shots of the train with Gertrude roaring down the road at full speed, clouds of dust trailing behind her car. In the nick of time, the resourceful woman catches up with the excursion train and stops it before the President's special whizzes through.

This type of action melodrama soon became a regular feature of the serials, particularly in the memorable railroad series produced by Kalem in 1914-17, The Hazards of Helen, which initially starred Helen Holmes and was directed by her husband, J. P. McGowan. Off-screen, Helen "was an avid race-car fanatic, and very often barred from participating in contests because women were not allowed to compete." (30) The series that began with The Hazards of Helen enabled her to show off her driving skills in scenes in which she "drives a car at high speed around mountain curves, outraces a speeding train, leaps from her moving car to the locomotive and brakes it to a halt." (31) In the car chases in the 1915 Mutual serial she co-authored, The Girl and the Game, "Helen controls the wheel, while her three brawny male buddies are relegated to mere passengers." (32) It was a continual challenge to come up with even more spine-tingling stunts and for a 1917 serial, Helen managed to set a new record in thrills as The New York Dramatic Mirror noted:
  "Helen Holmes, daring motion picture actress, drove an automobile at top speed off the dock at San Pedro, Cal., four times in an attempt to make a thirty-foot leap onto a barge and the fourth time she did it.

The "stunt" was staged for the ninth chapter of The Railroad Raiders, Mutual- Signal photonovel. Her hair-raising ride is easily the most sensational performance of the year in motion picture adventure drama."(33)
After 49 episodes, Helen Holmes left The Hazards of Helen in 1915 to be replaced by Helen Gibson who continued to play the title role in the 119-chapter serial until the series came to an end in early 1917. Like Miss Holmes, Miss Gibson was an expert driver who performed the most breathtaking stunts in cars. In one scene excerpted in the Silents Please documentary on serial queens, Helen Gibson, in pursuit of the villains, jumps from her galloping horse to a car, taking over the driving from the startled owner. In the episode from The Hazards of Helen entitled The Open Track, Helen is driving one of the heavies in her touring car when he tries to sexually harass her. She puts up a fight and is able to push him out of the car before it goes out of control. Racing first in her car and then on a motorcycle, Helen once again saves the day and prevents sabotage of the railroad by a gang of counterfeiters.

The electrifying stunts performed by the attractive stars of these action-adventure films was the most striking challenge to the traditional mythology that women were "the weaker sex," unable to respond rationally to dangerous or frightening situations. The cool, determined resolve of the serial queens--the two Helens, Pearl White, Ruth Roland, Grace Cunard, Marie Walcamp, Juanita Hansen--provided women (and men) week after week with overwhelming images of powerful women, females who often demonstrated their bravery through their skill at handling motorcars under the most hazardous of circumstances.

Copyright 1997 William M. Drew

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Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11

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