Charlie and Mabel

In September 1913, a new player was signed onto Keystone in the person of English music hall comedian Charles Chaplin. Whether it was Adam Kessel and Charles Baumann, or Keystone stock holder Harry Aitken, or Mack and Mabel or just Mabel alone who discovered him for films, it’s not so easy to say since sources again conflict. In his pictorial autobiography My Life in Pictures, Chaplin states that Sennett came backstage after a performance of the Karno Company at the Empress theater in Los Angeles and casually offered him a job with Keystone. Whatever of the particulars of his being spotted, Keystone came to a major turning point with his arrival in January 1914. Because the stage comic had no previous experience with movies, Sennett didn't let him perform before the camera until February; which is to say until after he thought Chaplin had enough time to get acquainted with Keystone's production methods. Then at last he was starred in Making a Living, under the supervision of Henry Lehrman, one of Sennett’s more able and innovative, if less than loyal and devoted, directors.

After seeing the results of Chaplin’s first endeavor, or so the story goes, Sennett was not pleased. Perhaps beginning to sense Chaplin’s highly independent nature, he felt as if he'd made a big mistake and was all but ready to get rid of him. Mabel saw things differently, however, arguing in Chaplin’s behalf that he should be kept on; to which Sennett reluctantly agreed.

Yet problems continued to arise. With each passing day, things seemed to only get worse between Sennett and his would-be star hopeful. Being new to films, and a social outsider to his Keystone peers. Chaplin’s authoritative and (for them) alien manners made it difficult to accept him as just one of the boys. Further, some were perhaps jealous of his talent and uncomfortable with the competition he posed. Though Chaplin does specifically mention kindnesses from Ford Sterling, of all the people at the studio, Mabel was the only one then who would befriend, and joke around with him off the set. Nor was Chaplin the only one at Keystone to benefit from her moral and material support in the face of Sennett’s discouragement or intimidation; and Roscoe Arbuckle, about a year previous to this, had benefited similarly.

It is regrettable, yet perhaps understandable, that the more experienced filmmakers and actors on the lot were reluctant to listen to suggestions from such an obvious novice to the medium. This was, of course, very frustrating to Charlie because even then he had some good, even brilliant, ideas. Yet his unique personal vision and individualistic approach could not help but conflict with Sennett’s dictatorial methods and ensemble style.

Each director assigned to Chaplin wound up having some problem with him or else he with them. Fed up, Sennett decided to have Mabel direct his next film, Mabel at the Wheel. At this, Chaplin felt much insulted. For as much as he, like all the rest, felt favorably toward her, he could not, or so he later claimed, countenance this girl, years younger than himself, directing him in his films, and sure enough disagreements subsequently ensued during filming and tempers flared on the set. Yet rather then Mabel herself, Chaplin no doubt resented what he thought was Sennett’s humiliating him this way. After the first day's shooting of Mabel at the Wheel, he and Sennett met up in his dressing room. According to Chaplin’s version, Sennett told him, in no uncertain terms, that he was to do as he was told or leave. The undaunted star replied that he had earned his living before and could do so again if he had to; that all he wanted to do was to make films to a higher standard. Sennett, in response, said nothing, and upon leaving the room slammed the door behind him.

Not long after, word came to Sennett from his employers back East of the growing demand for Chaplin’s films. As a result, Sennett forthwith abandoned his antipathy toward him, even to the point of becoming friendly. Soon Chaplin was being allowed to direct himself, try out some his new ideas, and more freely devote himself to what professionally he most came to care about. Although he was not then aware of the reason for Sennett's about face, the two, at any rate, mended their differences, and work at the studio proceeded at a much smoother pace than before.

In the months following these occurrences, Chaplin and Mabel were once more reconciled and together they co-starred and directed each other in a series of one and two reelers. To be candid, some of these comedies are rather poor, Keystone assembly-line product. On the other hand, a few, and allowing for the usual shortcomings of a Keystone production, are among the best things that Charlie and Mabel ever did. Of the at least ten shorts the two made together, Caught in a Cabaret, A Gentleman of Nerve, Mabel's Married Life and His Trysting Place are the most memorable. Reportedly conceived and directed by Mabel herself, Mabel’s Busy Day, though not as satisfying as these others, is interesting for other reasons. Behind the silly vignette about a little hot-dog vendor who is constantly stolen from and taken advantage by fans at a sporting event is perhaps a portrayal (intended or not) of something going on in Mabel's real life. Be that as it may, Mabel's Busy Day was uncannily prophetic of things to come.

Charlie and Mabel make a funny and elf-like pair, when playing struggling spouses, masher and maid, or suitor and coquette. Though the comedies frequently found them in many a wild slapstick situation, there are occasions where the two are actually quite tender and sweet together. This is especially true when seated side by side, as called for by the story; since it was these instances which gave them the best opportunity of making use of more sensitive facial expressions; with Caught in a Cabaret and A Gentleman of Nerve being good illustrations of this. In the latter, the two sit together in the stands of an auto-racing track. Having defended her from an obnoxious cad in the grandstand, Charlie tries then to steal a kiss after re-seating themselves. She shakes her head, as if to say it wouldn't be right. He then glumly takes her hand and wistfully kisses it instead. Mabel, gazing sympathetically at him, then starts playfully tweaking his nose with the hand he's kissing.

How much Chaplin actually cared for her at the time is related by way of a little anecdote included in his autobiography. During a charity benefit being held at a San Francisco theater, the two were alone in a dressing room. Finding her “radiantly beautiful,” he placed her wrap over her shoulders and kissed her; she then kissed him back. ‘We might have gone further,” he writes, “but people were waiting.” When he attempted to pursue the matter later, she told him she wasn't his type, nor he hers, thus ending what might have proved a very provocative romance. Despite the rejection, he in later years retained his fondness saying: “She was light hearted and gay, a good fellow, kind and generous; and everyone adored her.”

December 1914 saw the release of Tillie’s Punctured Romance. While the film is overly long, certain of its episodes, such as the scene with Charlie and Mabel in the movie house, the party scene, and the no-holds-barred finale, contribute to making this film classic viewing. This is true aside from its star studded cast and distinction of being the first feature length comedy ever produced. While Marie Dressler, in this her very first screen appearance, was cast in the title role, it was Chaplin and Mabel, as the city slicker and his girlfriend, who probably give the film its most personable appeal -- though Marie, as a butt of most of the humor, is obviously a likable, good sport as well. The film's phenomenal box-office impacted Chaplin's career most, however; and not counting the short Dough and Dynamite, it was Tillie that first procured for him the wide spread acclaim he deserved.

Following Tillie, Chaplin began demanding raises in pay and greater independent control over his work. Finding his terms outrageous (as was to be expected), the reaction of Sennett, Kessel and Baumann was to let him walk. Only later when Broncho Billy Anderson's Essanay signed Chaplin at a record amount did the latter realize the enormity of their mistake. Everyone on the lot then became sad at losing him recalled Keystone comedienne Minta Durfee many years later, but Mabel most of all.

Fatty and Mabel

In light of Chaplin’s absence, Sennett paired Mabel and Roscoe Arbuckle for a new series of “Fatty and Mabel” comedies. Though the two had appeared together previously in several of Keystones (some of them, like Mabel’s New Hero and Those Country Kids being quite good), the “Fatty and Mabel” series proper began shooting in January 1915.

As with Chaplin, Sennett, it is said, had had misgivings about Arbuckle’s future in films when the hefty, yet light on his feet, newcomer (who just prior been singing in traveling stage shows) appeared at Keystone in early 1913. As well again also, it was only when Mabel persuaded him differently that Sennett changed his attitude. Whether this kind of intervention on her part was actually so decisive as to save Chaplin’s and Arbuckle’s careers at Keystone as asserted may perhaps be open to question. Yet it was, nevertheless, certainly significant in providing them more latitude and encouragement than they otherwise would have had received from Sennett. Arbuckle was then given a lead part in one of the Keystones and, in no time, went on to become one of the most instantly recognizable, if also ill-fated, of silent film directors and comedians.

The “Fatty and Mabel” comedies are whimsical and charming, if zany little films; which in many ways are among the very best Keystone shorts. By 1915, the production quality of the Keystone films had improved considerably. While the slapstick and satirical edge were made use of in all their riotous glory, the general pace and tenor of the shorts, even so, was less chaotic and rowdy, and instead became somewhat more structured and sentimental. More frames were devoted to facial improvisation and character development: just what was needed to do proper justice to Mabel and Arbuckle’s screen personalities. Perhaps best of all, it was now Arbuckle who was overseeing production rather then Sennett.

Having become celebrated stars by this time, Roscoe and Mabel seem more self-confident and assured, generally speaking, than in their earlier films. Together, they poke fun at the fortunes and foibles of a comically absurd couple: the petite pretty girl and her rotund, rumbustious boyfriend. Whether as innocent sweethearts, a confounded couple, or “spooning” spouses, Roscoe and Mabel made for a perfect comedic pair.

In Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life, a melodrama parody, the two play a couple of country kids whose childhood love is threatened by the greed of “Mabel’s” father. One especially good moment worth noting here occurs when, in the course of eloping, she lets fall an enormous trunk filled with her belongings. It comes tumbling down on Arbuckle, who, ascending the ladder to her room, is sent crashing through a living room window.

Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition, another short deserving particular note, is one of those comedies where Sennett took his players and crew to a public event, in this case the San Diego Exposition of 1915, and improvised a comedy. What little of a scenario there is involves “Fatty's” flirting with Minta Durfee and some chubby Hawaiian hula-girls, while “Mabel,” jealously enraged, pursues him about the exposition grounds. The film is perhaps most remarkable for its overlapping of reality and fiction. On the one hand, the short is a vehicle to promote the exposition, and on the other a set piece Keystone comedy. She plays both her actual self and her character “Mabel,” while similarly Arbuckle plays both himself and “Fatty” – both interacting with the live crowd while portraying the otherwise usual characters in a typical Keystone farce.

Other films of the 1915 Fatty and Mabel series that merit mention include: Mabel, Fatty and the Law, Mabel’s Wilful Way, Wished on Mabel, and Fatty and Mabel’s Married Life. Lastly, we should note, is That Little Band of Gold. In it, there is a very brief, yet touching scene where “Fatty” and “Mabel” embrace at their wedding. Besides being sensitively played, the scene has a particularly sad and poignant quality when one reflects on the tragedies which were to later separately befall them.

In September of 1915, Mabel fell victim to a concussion that laid her up for weeks. Sennett's publicity reported that the injury was the result of a thrown shoe (Mabel, in a magazine interview said Roscoe accidentally sat on her head) that during filming accidentally struck her. Adela Rogers St. Johns asserts that the injury was the result of a failed suicide attempt that involved her jumping off a pier. She attributes this desperate act to Mabel’s disillusionment and despair over the break up of her engagement to Sennett and whom Mabel had found in bed with Mae Busch, purportedly one of Sennett’s “finds.” Minta Durfee, on the other hand and probably the more trustworthy on this point, asserts that what actually happened was that when Mabel walked in on Sennett unannounced, Mae blindly hurled a vase at an unknown, unwelcome visitor who turned out to be Mabel. The vase struck her in the head and caused her to bleed profusely. Regardless of what actually took place, something very serious transpired which forever shattered her trust in Sennett -- at least as far as courtship and marriage were concerned. Much worse than this, of course, was Mabel’s receiving an injury that may have done permanent damage to her health.

Thereafter, all pleas for forgiveness on Sennett’s part fell on deaf ears. Though the incident was decisive in ending any hope of the two ever marrying, it would be unduly simplistic to view it as the sole reason for Mabel’s implacable disenchantment with him. Over time, other relevant factors became apparent, if not obvious. After all, he was almost twice her own age and the kind of activities they enjoyed and interests they pursued were often so noticeably dissimilar, indeed diverging, that Mabel’s subsequent refusals to reconcile and settle down with him seem only practical and sensible. And while much has been written about their romance, it is open to question how deeply Mabel actually felt toward him; for as much as has been said by contemporaries regarding their relationship, we have relatively little or no record of her own views on the subject.

Later that same year, in early December, it was reported again that she had suffered yet another accident, this time in an actual mishap on the set. Since the source of this information is Sennett publicity, it is hard to say whether the accident actually occurred or was simply a yarn concocted to explain the change that had taken place in Mabel. Whatever the case, the story stated that during the filming of a comedy with Chester Conklin, the airplane that she and Conklin were to fly in started taking off after Conklin inadvertently released the throttle. It crashed and exploded in flames. Fortunately, neither of the two comedians were seriously hurt; though both were laid up for several days.

Having suffered the break-up of her engagement, the concussion, and now this purported airplane misadventure, a drastic change came over Mabel; with the result that emotionally and physically she was never quite the same. Yet ironically and more tragically, these incidents were just the beginning of her troubles.

In a move to increase distribution and become more respectable, in July 1915 Keystone (as part of the New York Motion Picture Company and which also included Reliance Motion Picture Corporation, and Majestic Motion Picture Company), and along with D.W. Griffith and Thomas Ince, joined the newly formed Triangle Picture Corporation headed by Harry E. and Roy Aitken. Two of the first films to be produced by the company were My Valet, and Stolen Magic, a three and two reel comedy respectively which starred casual yet debonair stage actor and comedian Raymond Hitchcock, Sennett (who also directed) and Mabel. Released in Oct. and Nov. 1915, My Valet and Stolen Magic turned out to be small hits. Though Hitchcock was the intended main bill, movie audiences also came away pleased with Mabel, and public interest in her increased. That same year, Motion Picture Magazine took a poll and she was voted best Female Comedian, along with Chaplin, chosen as best Male Comedian, and Mary Pickford best Leading Woman. Probably at no other time did her career look so very promising in public eyes than it did at this time.

Before leaving Sennett, as she eventually did, Mabel made a few more two and three reelers with and directed by Arbuckle. Filming in Santa Monica and then later Fort Lee, New Jersey where they could be away from Sennett’s stultifying supervision, Roscoe and Mabel evinced how much even more effective as performers they could be if left to their own devices. Fatty and Mabel Adrift, He Did and He Didn’t, and The Bright Lights are unlike any of their previous efforts together in that these shorts are very well thought-out and carefully conceived, with more elaborate camera work and costlier production values than at any time earlier. In Fatty and Mabel Adrift as newlyweds spending their first night together, the two suffer the watery wrath of a jealous and vengeful Al St. John. With the help of some criminal associates and in the midst of a violent storm, he pushes their home -- with them in it -- into the sea! Once adrift, it’s up to Luke the dog and the Keystone water police to come to their rescue. Mabel is herself is not a little delightful as the simple minded bride whose home-made biscuits are hard as rock -- a gag repeated to good effect in films and television shows decades later.

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