Errors of Fact
The film Chaplin brought deep groans from aficionados of Mabel Normand and Keystone who were expecting something reasonably close to the truth. Instead the film turned out to be a travesty of the truth, in relation to Chaplin’s association with Mabel at Keystone studios. As well as this, producer Attenborough makes numerous factual errors in the film, some of which might be put down to producer’s license. Examples of this are the substitution of Butte, Montana for Philadelphia where Chaplin received word from Kessell and Baumann that they wished to sign him up for Keystone. Of course, a muddy cowboy town is a much better setting than a civilized eastern town, at least as far as a movie-maker is concerned. In reality, Chaplin was plucked from civilization and dumped into a lumber yard in a dusty wild west village called Edendale. For some reason Attenborough thought there was a railway running past the Keystone studio. He was thinking of the Essanay studio at Niles, which certainly had a rail-track alongside. On Allesandro Street, running past Keystone, there was only an electric trolley. The mission frontage of the studio was not in existence at the time, and Chaplin is quite clear that the place was surrounded by a green wooden fence, and the entrance was up a garden path, and through a bungalow.
Charlie and Mabel
What really destroys the film’s credibility is the complete misrepresentation of the relationship between Chaplin, Mabel Normand, and Mack Sennett. This studio was responsible for getting Chaplin into movies, and giving him exposure to stardom. However, Attenborough implies that Sennett was a compete nincompoop, who did not understand how to make films, or how to present his actors in an appropriate way. This is total nonsense, and, as Chaplin explained in his book, Sennett was a brilliant judge of acting ability, and knew instinctively how to present an actor in a way that would bring the best out of them. As for Syd Chaplin confronting Mack, and pushing for $1,000 a week for Charlie this is a complete fabrication. Syd had just started at Keystone, when Charlie was on his way out, and there was no way he was going to risk his job by antagonizing Sennett. It is clear that Chaplin wished to stay on at Keystone for the $750 a week he was offered – not by Sennett, but by his partners Kessell and Baumann. In reality Chaplin had got a little too close to Mack’s meal ticket and Keystone Girl, Mabel Normand. We might suspect that Chaplin left on the wrong end of a gun barrel, rather than for a fistful of dollars.
Now we come to Mabel herself. Mabel, in the film is a mere side show, just someone with a screechy ‘Lucille Ball’ voice, who couldn’t act or direct a film. Attenborough has really slipped up here, for it was around this time that Mabel was voted the top comedienne of the silver screen. She was also, at $500 a week, the highest paid movie actress in America – outdoing Chaplin by $300 p.w. A no-good actress? Save me – this girl was no also-ran, she was pantomime comedy personified. The scene where Chaplin goes on strike during Mabel At The Wheel, and sprays the screeching Mabel with a hose is completely erroneous. Firstly, Mabel never screeched, her voice was soft and just a little hoarse, probably as a result of tuberculosis. When Chaplin refused to work, Mabel said few words, and did not raise her voice. If Chaplin had hosed Mabel down, he would have immediately been beaten to death by the rest of the cast. Mabel was their queen, and, more to the point, their bread and butter too. As I have related elsewhere, problems between Mabel and Charlie did not first arise in this film, but in a film made two months earlier called Mabel’s Strange Predicament, during which Chaplin stole the opening scene. In order to avoid this occurring again, Mabel had herself designated director, and insisted Chaplin did not wear the tramp’s costume.
In the aftermath of this unpleasantness, there is no indication that Mabel wanted Chas fired. On the contrary, Mabel, like most women, was attracted to the little limey. His adherents included Mary Pickford (early on), Louise Brooks, and Claire Windsor. Although Chaplin could bring something to Mabel’s films, she wanted to put him in a position where he would not be able to take over or steal scenes. In other words she wanted him neutralized. Mabel undoubtedly spoke to Mack about this, but not in the way that Attenborough portrayed it. She would also have avoided a direct confrontion with Chaplin, so the scene where Mabel is shown saying to Chaplin “Does Mack ever want to see you” could never have happened. She would never have revealed that she’d been organizing a coup against Chaplin. In fact Mabel hated Mack more than Chaplin at this point, so there was no attempted coup. As in later years, at Goldwyn’s, Mabel did fall out with female stars, who after all, were her direct competitors. However, all the direct confrontations alleged to have occurred were invented by the studios, as was Mabel’s falling out with Marie Dressler.
Is the film a true representation of Chaplin’s Life?
This is not an accurate picture of Chaplin’s life, and it does not do justice to those that gave him a start in pictures. One of the faults in Chaplin’s character was his inability, in the early days, to get along with people, and he made several enemies at the Karno company, for which he worked prior to Keystone. Along with this failing, Chaplin had a massive ego, which led him to dismiss everyone as incompetent. He was also a complete introvert, and it was this introversion, which prevented him from getting along with people in a normal way – he could remain silent for long periods, then explode in a complete rage. This all began to change about three months into his stint at Keystone, so we have to look at how this change came about. In around March 1914, following Mabel At The Wheel, Charlie fell in big time with Mabel Normand. They began to spend a lot of time together on the lot, and in Mabel’s bungalow dressing room, which Mack had made out of bounds to most of the company. Mack was apparently furious when he found they were getting together in the bungalow after hours. In the daytime when the pair got bored of working, they would ‘steal’ a company car and head off to town for a few laughs.
Mabel further insisted on bringing Charlie along to the regular night time dinners she had with Mack at the Athletic Club, and, when old man Mack dozed off, the younger pair would skip off to watch a movie, or a show. All of this gave Charlie a lift in confidence, which enabled him to achieve great things in the future. So how did Mabel instill so much confidence in Chaplin? Mabel herself had been an introvert in her early years, and only attended school briefly. Like Chaplin, she was prone to sudden, short-lasting crazy episodes. Mary Pickford was adamant that Mabel was reserved and shy, when she first arrived at Biograph, but she then gradually became the ebullient, maniacal, but lovable Mabel we all know. One can only imagine that someone had instilled a huge confidence in her, and that someone was probably Mack Sennett, who got to work on the coming Keystone Girl the minute she arrived at the studio. Mabel became equally as egotistical as Chaplin, and a schemer to boot, but was able convince people she was a bubbly, babbling, party animal. She lent an ear to everybody, including the studio carpenter, his wife, and the wardrobe lady’s daughter. This she imparted to Chaplin, who went from party-pooper to the life and soul of, in one smooth movement. In terms of sheer ability Chaplin told Adela Rogers St. John, “She was born with the gift of laughter, knowing more about comedy and comedy routine than any of the rest of us will ever learn.” The implication is that Chaplin never thought himself superior in comedy technique to Mabel (Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns, 1978 p28). Finally, someone should have told Mr. Attenborough that Mabel did not give up acting in 1922. In fact she made The Extra Girl for Mack Sennett, starred in a stage play called The Little Mouse, and made a number of pictures for Hal Roach. During the period in which Attenborough says Mabel didn’t work, she somehow earned around 2-million dollars.
Attenborough need not have bothered making this film. He could have stuck to Chaplin’s period at Keystone – that would have been enough to sum the tramp up. If he had read Chaplin’s book properly, he’d have realized that Chaplin never said that Mabel was a complete bimbo. He accuses her of being unable to direct which is a different thing entirely. Further on in the book he reveals his true feelings for her, and remember, nobody in movies was more cut up over Mabel’s death than Chaplin, excepting, perhaps, Roscoe Arbuckle. Chaplin was a movie genius, but he would have got nowhere in pictures if he hadn’t hadn’t been helped by a certain girl from Staten Island.