Another Keystone using the “racetrack” as a backdrop for their antics, MABEL’S BUSY DAY is nominally centered around Mabel Normand. Even at this point, 18 films in to his Keystone output, Chaplin was still seen as a supporting clown, as evidenced by the prominence of Normand’s name in this film’s title.
Mabel Normand was one of the greatest assets to the Keystone studio during this time; perhaps its biggest star, her natural charm and brilliant comic timing made her a favorite with audiences. She was also a highly skilled comedy director; she both wrote and directed this film. Her career was unfortunately later tainted by scandal (she was close to film director William Desmond Taylor, whose murder, along with a number of other high-profile scandals, would rock the industry in the early 20s). But to see even a relatively minor film like MABEL’S BUSY DAY is to see the charm, vitality and comic skill that made her a major star.
Here, she plays a hot dog vendor, who bribes policeman Chester Conklin to let her onto the racetrack grounds in order to sell her wares. Into this setting wanders Chaplin as a racetrack tout, cutting in line, entering the grounds without paying, and kicking a policeman to the ground when he tries to stop him. Meanwhile, Mabel’s customers are stealing hot dogs left and right, so Charlie intervenes, offering to protect her business, and promptly makes off with the entire tray of sausages, giving away free samples to the entire crowd! Confronted by Mabel and cop Chester Conklin, Charlie tries to explain everything, but a fight breaks out with Charlie and Mabel duking it out, as officer Conklin is repeatedly knocked down into the crowd of bystanders every time he tries to intervene. Finally, her entire business destroyed, the exhausted Mabel breaks down in tears as Charlie, exasperated from fighting, embraces and consoles her.
The film is interesting as an example of Chaplin playing a character other than his “tramp” persona. The costume is slightly fancier than usual, and he sports a boutonniere that suggests an air of false sophistication. At no point in the film does Chaplin work toward audience sympathy, instead playing a completely selfish (but hilarious) scoundrel, never thinking twice about kicking a policeman or stealing a hot dog. It’s fun to watch him interact with the various characters around the race track, too: early on, he annoys a trio of women watching the races, thoughtlessly blocking their view, then leaning on one woman’s shoulder before casually picking her purse. Chaplin’s skill at finding the humor in such bits of business is crucial to getting laughs from this kind of material. It certainly differs from his later interaction with the baby in THE CIRCUS, to give just one example, where we can sympathize with his character for stealing bites of the baby’s hot dog because we know he is a hungry tramp. Here, though, his actions are so thoroughly self-serving that they take on a kind of absurd quality that is quite funny in the universe of Keystone.
It’s interesting to speculate how much of the appeal of these “on location” comedies derived from the fun of watching the Keystone clowns interacting in recognizable, every day settings. Although of course many of the Keystone comedies, not to mention comedies from other studios during this period, utilized extensive location shooting around the Los Angeles area, the use of actual public events as a backdrop for the proceedings does make for a bit of interesting contrast, and serves to emphasize the craziness of the goings-on within the environment. There’s a moment in MABEL’S BUSY DAY, for instance, where Charlie mercilessly kicks and pummels a policeman as the crowd of actual bystanders looks on from the distance.
While MABEL’S BUSY DAY is a minor effort, it still contains the charm and verve that makes the work of master clowns like Chaplin and Mabel Normand so appealing almost a century later.