Even though it’s completely uncharacteristic (Chaplin is a top hatted, goateed villain who goes around pricking people with a pin), Mabel at the Wheel may very well be one of the sheer funniest films Chaplin appeared in during his tenure at Keystone, and is by far the most elaborately mounted production he’d appeared in up to this point. In a role clearly meant for Ford Sterling, Chaplin hams it up as a cartoonish villain that almost seems like a forerunner of Jack Lemmon’s Professor Fate in The Great Race. At two reels, this must have seemed like a veritable comic epic at the time, especially given the scale of the racetrack scenes, and the talent involved in the film (in addition to Chaplin and Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin and Mack Swain put in appearances, along with a cameo by Mack Sennett himself as a rube spectator).
Mabel Normand is the nominal star of the film, but it’s unquestionably Chaplin’s film all the way. It’s as if he just decided to go for broke, saying, “You want me to play Ford Sterling? Fine. Then I’ll out-Sterling Sterling!” He plays the entire performance at full energy, never missing an opportunity to mug into the camera, sticking out his tongue, crossing his eyes, and gesticulating wildly. There’s a fun scene in the beginning when Chaplin, attempting to steal Mabel away from her racecar driver boyfriend, takes her out for a spin on his motorcycle, and not even noticing when she bounces off the back into a mud puddle. This one also includes a great brick-throwing scene that gets really violent, sort of a brick-throwing battle to out-do all brick-throwing battles. The second reel of the film takes place at the racetrack, where villainous Chaplin orders his two henchmen to kidnap Mabel’s boyfriend. She takes over at the wheel, though, and saves the day by winning the big race. It’s here where Chaplin really amps up the performance, stealing the show from every single performer who happens into the same frame as him.
If it sounds as if I'm praising Chaplin for the exact qualities that I have criticized Ford Sterling for in previous reviews, it is worth noting that here, the strong elements of parody in the plot call for this kind of over-the-top take on the character. Sterling was a gifted comedian with a flair for exaggerating mugging, but his performance style rarely varied, at least during his time at Keystone. In some films his performance style worked fine; in others, less so. Chaplin's ability to vary between subtle character humor and this sort of exaggerated parody demonstrate the range he brought with him when he came to the movies from the stage.
Mabel at the Wheel may not be characteristic Chaplin (quite an understatement), but it remains one of his best non-“Tramp” performances, and a good example of what the Keystone crew was capable of when everyone was firing on all cylinders.